Before the election, TAC’s editor in chief, Daniel McCarthy, argued, in a piece explaining his support for Trump, that while it was possible that Trump would live down to the worst fears of observers like Ross Douthat, “he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.”
That’s as may be — but what I remember from the Bush years was not the success but the utter impotency of that left to affect the course of the Bush administration. And one major reason for that failure was that those on the right who might have shared their apprehensions or alarm feared breaking ranks.
The stakes are even higher this time, both because of Trump’s particular temperament and because of the considerably weaker institutional state of the Democratic Party. So while I expect McCarthy is right about how quickly that opposition will organize, I have little confidence in its efficacy.
That’s why I’m going to be watching particularly for resistance from the right — most especially from those segments of the right that have been supportive of Trump — to any evidence that Trump plans to disappoint their hopes for a more restrained version of an “America first” foreign policy. The battles will start almost immediately, with key nominations for the Defense and State departments, and continue immediately to questions of the authorization (or explicit de-authorization) of our ongoing involvement in Syria, Libya and Iraq, and to whether the Iran deal will be rigorously enforced or peremptorily abandoned. If the likes of Justin Amash in the House and Rand Paul in the Senate do not stand — early and strongly — for prudence and diplomacy, and work with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to prevent the worst, that will speak volumes. I hope I can expect the same from members of the conservative commentariat, including at this magazine.
From the left, I’m looking for something different — for evidence that they understand that rebuilding the Democratic Party will require not only resistance, but also evidence that they place the people’s business at the top of their list of priorities. Donald Trump’s one distinctive economic policy is a more nationalist approach to trade. Just as Newt Gingrich provided Bill Clinton the votes to pass NAFTA, Elizabeth Warren should be open to providing the votes to renegotiate it in a manner more favorable to the interests of American workers. Trump has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare — but he has no deep convictions on the matter, nor is there any sign that he even knows what that would mean. The Democrats should offer an olive branch of reform very quickly, and let the Republicans in the House be the ones to demand total repeal. Infrastructure spending is another area where there is an obvious overlap between Trump’s likely agenda and Democratic priorities.
The risk of handing the Republican president a “win” that makes him more popular is far outweighed by the risks of wall-to-wall obstructionism: that Trump has no-one to negotiate with but Paul Ryan, and that the Democrats get perceived as a purely negative force. The Democrats are not in a position to replicate the GOP’s playbook in 2010; they have a great deal of party building to do, and they need to show that they are listening to the concerns of voters who they lost in order to win their trust to give them governorships and Senate seats in 2018. They should stand on principle where principle is at stake, but they should also take advantage of the fact that Trump owes the institutional GOP nothing, and so can pursue whatever policies make him popular regardless of what his party’s backbenchers want.
Senator Bernie Sanders put it just about right in his statement on Trump’s election. Rep. Amash’s call to “[put] the band back together” is encouraging as well — if the band takes at least as much interest in civil liberties and war powers as it does in taxes, spending and regulation. We’ll see. That’s what I’ll be looking for.