clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Democratic Party is facing a leadership vacuum

Who will speak for the majority of voters who didn’t back Trump?


Wednesday morning, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine both offered subdued, classy, and conciliatory concession addresses aimed at thanking their core supporters and doing what they can to set the country up for success in the future. President Obama, too, discharged his constitutional authority to set the passionate campaign aside and begin working in a constructive way toward an orderly handover of power. More establishment-minded members of the Republican Party, likewise, set about on the only realistic and appropriate course of action for themselves — kissing the ass of the president-elect and beginning to scheme for jobs, influence, and power in the new regime.

In parallel, protesters took to the streets in America’s major cities to denounce the president-elect and his message of hatred and bigotry. Around the country, millions of immigrants, Muslims, and people of color are terrified that the Trump administration will, in fact, pursue the Trump campaign’s stated agenda of mass deportations, religious discrimination, and less restrained police use of force against African-American suspects.

Also on Wednesday, white supremacists in Philadelphia marked the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht by defacing buildings with swastikas.

Elsewhere, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the one Democratic Party elected leader not retiring or defeated, issued a statement welcoming Donald Trump’s interest in infrastructure spending: “We can work together to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill.”

National Democrats are playing nice with Trump

It was left to the leaders of the California state legislature to offer a statement that speaks to the concerns of the moment.

“We will not be dragged back into the past,” said Kevin de Léon and Anthony Rendon in a joint statement. “We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.”

But in terms of national politics, even the leaders of the more populist wing of the Democratic Party followed Pelosi’s path of professing to be optimistic about the Trump agenda. In a statement offered to the Boston Globe, Elizabeth Warren noted, “President-Elect Trump promised to rebuild the economy for working people, and I offer to put aside our difference and begin working on that task.”

Bernie Sanders of Vermont, meanwhile, sought to co-opt Trump’s message, arguing in a press statement that “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.” Sanders did allow that “to the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him” while also reassuring Trump that “to the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.”

Sanders’s framing of Trump — less worried about the rights of nonwhite people or the state of the environment than Sanders is, but equally interested in fighting against the interests of global economic elites — is of course exactly the same as Trump’s own framing of himself.

Meanwhile, in the real world the stock price of the riskiest financial firms is soaring even faster than the market as a whole.

The reason is that though it was obscured from the voters during the campaign, Trump has a very clear stated agenda on finance, and it’s a bonanza of tax cuts and massive deregulation. Similarly, his plan for economically struggling whites is to drastically reduce their income by signing Paul Ryan’s plan to roll back the social welfare state.

Democrats need a plan for resistance

The week of an election is probably not the time for a political party’s most prominent leaders to be in all-out war mode. At the same time, the biggest risk the party faces is that Trump’s agenda will continue to be invisible to the mass of the public.

Democrats probably cannot stop Trump and congressional Republicans from taking away health insurance from 21 million people. But their own actions over the next twelve months could have a decisive impact on whether those 21 million people — and their friends and family — understand that what is happening to them is a result of deliberate policy choices made by Trump, Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and their colleagues. Similarly, after months of promising to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington and battle the influence of global elites, all signs are that he is going to put his campaign’s top fundraiser — a longtime Goldman Sachs banker — in charge of the Treasury Department.

Democrats probably cannot stop Steve Mnuchin from being installed at Treasury any more than they can stop other key regulatory posts from being filled by cronies and industry insiders.

But Trump’s appointees still need to go through confirmation hearings and floor votes, an exercise that could be an opportunity for Democrats to expose the reality of what Trump is doing.

Yet cutting through the noise is a nontrivial task. The notion that Trump really, really, really loves downscale white people living in struggling communities but is maybe a huge racist is simply very entrenched in people’s minds and in major media narratives. And it’s clear that there is a critical mass of white people who are fundamentally okay with that in a way they probably wouldn’t be okay with a racist whose main policy priority is regressive tax cuts.

All eyes on Chuck Schumer

In constitutional and legal terms, the natural leader of that congressional opposition would be incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose role it will be to corral Democratic senators and try to hone a national message.

Yet Schumer seems, in many respects, to be an unlikely leader for this particular role. He’s an older white man with little obvious emotional link to the party’s emerging base. He’s a prodigious fundraiser, which helps explain his leadership role, but what that means in practice is that he has a close relationship with his hometown industry of Wall Street banks. And even though he’s only been in the Senate since 1999, he’s a consummate political insider who first arrived in the House of Representatives in 1981 and has held elective office since he was 25.

On the other hand, when Schumer’s predecessor, Harry Reid of Nevada, was first elevated to Senate leadership, progressives were despondent. Reid was a pro-life, pro-gun moderate from what was at the time a reddish state. But he quickly networked with progressive activists and led the successful charge to block George W. Bush’s planned privatization of Social Security.

But beyond any personal qualities, one difference is that though Democrats were optimistic about winning in 2004, they also entered the election aware that John Kerry was behind in the polls and defeat was a very real possibility. By contrast, Democrats all up and down the line were genuinely certain Clinton would win the White House and were merely waiting to see if they would pick up enough senate seats to secure the majority.

No advance planning of any kind was done for a Trump wins scenario, and Democratic senators are going to need time both to analyze the results and data and to confer with each other. Discussions are ongoing, and congressional staff expect to see more visible signs of opposition when Congress reassembles for the lame-duck session next week. But in a practical sense, Senate Democrats are starting from scratch in terms of planning their agenda.

Senior Democrats also profess to be genuinely uncertain what policy agenda Trump will pursue and are genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of the kind of sight-unseen opposition that Republicans offered to Obama in 2009. They are prepared to fight tooth and nail against stripping people of their health insurance or slashing taxes on the wealthy, but if Trump brings a reasonable infrastructure proposal to the table, they are happy to say yes.

Leadership is needed sooner rather than later

It’s natural and appropriate for the emergence of a public opposition strategy to the Trump administration to take at least some time. But Wednesday night’s protests are a reminder not only of the activist energy that exists out there, waiting to be tapped, but also of the danger of simply allowing a leadership vacuum to persist.

Semi-spontaneous grassroots energy, after all, isn’t necessarily going to be directed in a strategically useful direction. The specter of disorderly crowds in big liberal cities could easily bolster Trump’s popularity rather than undermining it. But telling people to just stay home and keep quiet when they are — rightly — worried about themselves, their families, and their country isn’t a viable option either.

At the end of the day, most Americans voted for someone other than Donald Trump. Not only did he fall short of a majority but he fell more than a million votes behind Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. That anti-Trump majority was not situated in the exact right places to win the election. But it is still out there. So are millions of other Americans who didn’t vote, and millions of Americans who voted for Trump because they wrongly believed he would champion their economic interests. Someone needs to speak for that anti-Trump majority and point them in the direction of concrete actions that can check his worst excesses while beginning to mobilize the nonvoters and dramatize the truth to the soft Trump voters.

It doesn’t have to happen this afternoon or this weekend. But the sooner it happens the better. The instinct to hope for the best from Trump is understandable, but hope is not a plan. And the silent majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump are not feeling especially hopeful. Letting their fear and anger linger disconnected from the political process is dangerous. Someone in the corridors of power needs to speak up for them, and soon.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.