The ‘Tea Party’ playbook can’t beat Trump — here’s what will work instead
After initially saying Democrats would try to align with Trump after his victory, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer is finally leaning toward the only sensible response to the threat of right-wing extremism: Obstructionism.
Schumer threw down the gauntlet in a CNN interview on Jan. 3. “The only way we’re going to work with [Trump] is if he moves completely in our direction and abandons his Republican colleagues.” But Schumer hedged as well by saying Democrats were not going to be the “party of no” the way Republicans were since 2008. He said, “We’re Democrats. We’re not going to just oppose things to oppose them.”
Complementing the strategy, Democrats are chattering about ripping pages from the Tea Party playbook. Former congressional staffers have published a guide “to replicate the Tea Party’s success in getting Congress to listen to a small, vocal, dedicated group of constituents.”
The document contains useful tips on how to bird-dog Congress members with phone calls, emails, in-person visits, and even sit-ins so as to put them on notice they will pay a price for supporting Trump. It also advises activists to assume a defensive posture for now as “there is zero chance that we as progressives will get to put our agenda into action at the federal level in the next four years.”
While some of this strategy makes sense, it is deeply flawed. Left and right are not mirror images in American politics. There are lessons to be learned from how the Tea Party stymied the Obama administration. But differences between the two presidencies, parties, and grassroots forces are so significant that any plan to thwart Trump has to be based on the actual conditions rather than lifting a carbon-copy plan from the past.
The biggest difference is while the right gets more and more extreme—it’s now openly embracing white nationalism while Trump flirts with fascism—it serves as corporate America’s death squad. Wall Street sees a very profitable lining in Trump’s election. Stocks have been rallying and some analysts predict “the market could explode much higher” because of “this incredible potential of deregulation, possible tax cuts and fiscal policy.”
That incredible potential for the wealthy is a stab in the back to Trump’s working-class supporters. Since winning, his actions are betraying his promises that he would boost wages and create 25 million jobs. Trump’s nominees are either utterly incompetent, such as Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Rick Perry for Energy Secretary, and Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador, or they are child molesters in charge of a nursery school, such as a slew of Goldman Sachs alum with economic portfolios, fast-food CEO Andy Puzder for Labor Secretary, or Christian fanatic Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary.
Trump has a breathtakingly radical agenda compared to Obama. As likeable and scandal-free as he may be personally, Obama was a centrist committed to status quo politics. He bailed out Wall Street and expanded Bush-era wars and surveillance. Every major progressive initiative promised—immigration reform, mitigating climate change, increasing unionization, addressing the home-foreclosure crisis—was abandoned despite the congressional supermajority he had for a year. And he bungled Obamacare, set to be euthanized, because he allowed the healthcare industry to design it to increase profits rather than address the crisis of medical bankruptcy.
Opposing Obama was about opposing incremental social progress for most Americans, including millions of white workers who backed Trump. Opposing Trump is about stopping horrific acts from savaging tens of millions. If Democrats can create gridlock, then they will valiantly stave off the barbarians. If a few fall in the 2018 election, when three-fourths of senators up for re-election are part of the Democratic caucus, that is a small price to pay.
But the only way Democrats will hold Trump’s feet to the fire, as Schumer has promised, is if activists are constantly bring the heat to Democrats. Most, after all, have bedded down with Wall Street for years, from the Clintons, Obama, and Schumer down the line. They will be inclined to buckle to Trump’s outrageous demands, right-wing unity, and Twitter fusillades rather than play brinksmanship with the debt ceiling as Republicans did.
That’s why a progressive strategy needs to diverge from the Tea Party playbook. Trump is not defending the status quo. He wants to destroy functions that serve the common good while enhancing state violence and corporate power. Republicans have introduced a bill to cripple the government’s ability to regulate a swath of policies from climate change to union organizing to net neutrality, according to investigative reporter Steve Horn.
As such, federal workers inside the government are on the front line of resisting Trump. Their only sensible course of action is to resist, not just to preserve government as a positive force, but to save their own hides. Trump and his Alt-Right propagandist, Steve Bannon, have begun a war on federal workers with a rule that, unbelievably, enables Congress to fire specific workers or reduce their pay to $1. Government workers can fight back by filing lawsuits, using their union power, leaking information to the press, Congress, and watchdog groups, and outright hampering implementation of policies.
While Democrats may cringe at playing hardball, a Trump administration will have even less regard for the law than the venal Bush administration. Their goal is to establish an authoritarian, white-nationalist, Koch brothers version of America. Federal workers who resist should be celebrated as heroes, like the climate scientists copying and securing crucial data to prevent it from being destroyed. Even if some of Trump’s actions are legal, the only standard is whether a policy is just, particularly with his threats of mass deportations, registering Muslim-Americans, and privatizing Medicare. After all, slavery, Native American genocide, and the forced internment of Japanese-Americans were legal. As for fears this will politicize the civil service, that’s precisely what the Republicans are doing. In any case, this is not about partisanship but defending the public sector’s ability to act in the public interest.
The final element is grassroots resistance, which will look little like the Tea Party. There are no billionaires who will fund workers striking for living wages nor is there a Fox News for socialists. Plus, Tea Partiers were within the GOP mainstream. They only made it more extreme with their nativism, Islamophobia and noxious birtherism, and which Trump then both encouraged and exploited.
The same is not true for the ascendant Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. His modest social democratic proposals were once mainstream, but Bill Clinton killed economic liberalism with his “third way” agenda of untrammeled free trade and corporate power while claiming he would protect workers. Instead, millions of factory jobs fled abroad, social welfare was decimated, income and life expectancy declined for many, and he sowed the seeds for the 2008 financial meltdown. Clintonism also led to Trump. Abandoning workers, of all colors, discouraged many from politics while leaving an opening the size of a Nuremberg rally for a demagogue to appeal to aggrieved whites.
Countering Trump means a course reversal. Progressives and activists should look to the broad class politics of the 1930s, the militancy of the Civil Rights Era, and the creativity of new movements from Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 to immigrant-rights “Dreamers” and the climate justice movement. The common thread is these movements exist outside of electoral politics, but they have influenced national politics, similar to how Occupy Wall Street flipped the script from economic austerity to income inequality.
But movements to stop Trump need to go further by building power, institutions, and vying for elected office. Rather than running doomed campaigns for Congress or president from the get-go, progressives should mimic the Christian Right and run for low-level offices like school boards, city councils, and county supervisors to build experience, strength, and capacity.
It’s also crucial candidates come out of mass movements and multi-issue organizations, as Jacobin argues. The usual model, which Bernie Sanders replicates, of a few people handpicking candidates and building a movement around them, reduces politics to a cult of personality and means victorious candidates have no accountability to those who elected them.
None of this will happen overnight. Trump is the result of decades of failure from the radical left and organized labor to liberals and the Democratic Party establishment. Trumpism is also the product of 50 years of strategic organizing on the right. Only now is the radical right’s dream of turning back to the clock to the 19th century within their grasp. Preventing this nightmare means acting boldly, strategically, militantly, and doing what is right rather than what is flashy or convenient.
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press.
Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_dot_com.