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The political lesson of 2017: resistance works

Trump is getting the minimum done, and Republicans are paying the price for backing him.

Women's March Los Angeles Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Political journalism naturally tends to dwell on the activities of those who hold the levers of power, but the biggest political story of 2017 was the resistance to Donald Trump. Millions of Americans — especially women — were shocked by Donald Trump’s election and substantially increased their level of political engagement and activism.

And though activism has by no means stopped Trump and his Republican Party colleagues from getting things done, it has sharply mitigated the damage relative to what one might have expected on Election Day.

As the New Year dawns, Republicans have their tax bill, their passel of judges, and their slate of business-friendly regulators. But that’s near the bare minimum of what one would expect a unified GOP government to get done. The Affordable Care Act, though wounded, remains in place. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s dream of shredding the social safety net has not yet come to pass. Gains in LGBT equality achieved during the Obama years have mostly been retained.

Most of all, the resistance is making sure Republicans pay a price at the polls for their indulgence of Trump. Nothing is guaranteed in politics, but so far grassroots activists appear to have set the stage for a massive anti-Trump backlash in the coming midterms.

Trump is getting the minimum done

The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act guarantees that the Trump administration will not go down in history as a Carter-esque figure with no policy achievements. And between the large tax cut, the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, and the filling of many lower court vacancies that Mitch McConnell deliberately held open during Barack Obama’s final two years in office, conservative activists can feel that they legitimately got their 30 pieces of silver for lining up behind Trump.

But fundamentally, this is policymaking on easy mode.

Trump has signed fewer bills than any of his recent predecessors, and has gotten nothing at all done that requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. That’s despite the numerous Democratic senators holding down seats in red states who might be persuaded to back a nominally bipartisan bill.

The Affordable Care Act has not been repealed, nor has the Obama administration’s financial regulation overhaul. The Clean Air Act remains on the books, and the Supreme Court decision ruling that the EPA is obligated to regulate greenhouse gas emissions remains the law.

Last winter, the door appeared to be open to Paul Ryan’s vision for comprehensive disemboweling of programs that support low-income Americans, and though Trump’s budget requests indicate that he shares this vision, he’s yet to make any headway in implementing it.

Ryan himself, of course, hasn’t given up on the idea. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent his year-end press conference pouring cold water on Ryan’s dreams, noting realistically that once Doug Jones (D-AL) is seated, the GOP’s razor-thin majority will have difficulty moving any large, contentious bills.

Most of all, the tax bill — though a big deal — is not the stuff a lasting legacy is made of. There is no political or logistical barrier to some future Democratic majority repealing the law’s unpopular business tax cuts, and in fact the quirky logic of the Senate’s Byrd rule means that a future repeal of the Trump tax cuts can be used to pay for progressive priorities.

The expansion of Medicaid that Obama enacted, by contrast, appears to be too politically robust for Republicans to kill — just as they aren’t going to scrap marriage equality, bring back Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, undo the Obama-era law that let the FDA regulate tobacco for the first time, fully roll back Obama’s diplomatic opening with Cuba or Iran, repeal the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, or rescind the consumer protections the Affordable Care Act added to job-based health plans.

Even Trump’s very first official action — the travel ban — is still partially on hold in the courts after many rounds of cancellation and modification, all because quick, determined resistance to this cruel and ill-conceived policy prevented a new presidential administration from notching an early win.

Real harm is happening

None of which is to deny that the Trump administration’s rise to power has been a significant development in American life.

This is perhaps most concretely true for undocumented immigrants and refugees, who served as Trump’s rhetorical whipping boy on the campaign trail and have faced real consequences under his administration.

Trump, his chief of staff, John Kelly; and Kelly’s protégé and successor at the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, are all true believers in a strategy of encouraging ICE agents to inflict maximum suffering and maximum fear on undocumented communities in hopes of inspiring people to flee.

That’s a tragedy for the people directly affected, a tragedy for those living in fear, and a secondary tragedy for millions of American citizens who would be living in a safer and more prosperous country if those law enforcement resources were targeted at dangerous criminals rather than sweeping deportations.

On economic policy, the country is currently living through an era of government-sponsored looting. On the tax front — and, in some ways more importantly, on the regulatory front — powerful business interests have simply been empowered to grab what they can, regardless of the long-term consequences for health, safety, or anything else. Neither objective policy analysis nor the dictates of public opinion appears to be tempering the instinct to smash and grab.

None of this amounts to a real policy legacy, but Republicans’ simple indifference to that legacy has powerful short-term consequences. Still, an engaged, active, and mobilized grassroots community is making sure Republicans will be punished for their recklessness.

Republicans are paying a price

Trump’s victory when everyone thought he was going to lose suggested to some that the ordinary rules of politics had been suspended. Certainly, both the president and his party are acting like they believe that to be true.

It reminds me, to an extent, of a movie written by my father, Rafael Yglesias, Fearless, in which a mild-mannered architect survives a deadly plane crash and ends up convinced that he’s invincible rather than the beneficiary of good luck.

The truth, however, is that 2017’s election results suggest that the normal rules very much do apply. Trump was an unusually unpopular election winner, and he’s done nothing since winning to try to improve his standing with the public. The result has been a cascade of bleak down-ballot election results for Republicans.

Contrary to the president’s bluster, while it’s true that the GOP held five open Republican House seats in special elections, they did so while running on average eight points weaker than Trump or Mitt Romney. They also lost a special election race in a blue district in California by a comically large margin, with the best-performing Republican in a jungle primary scoring less than four percent of the vote. And most obviously, they lost a Senate race in Alabama.

Republicans can console themselves with the notion that Roy Moore only lost because he was credibly accused of sexual assault, but the blunt truth is the race was uncomfortably close for Republicans before that came up — and the whole party is saddled with a president who’s been credibly accused of sexual assault, so there’s no escape here.

Expanding the sample to include the nearly 70 special elections for state legislative seats reveals Democrats running on average 10 points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers and 7 points ahead of Barack Obama’s 2012 margins.

Contrary to reams of “Trump Country” myth-making, the gains have been particularly large in places like Iowa, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, where Trump did well. The net result has been to flip 12 state legislative seats — including the majority in the Washington State Senate — into the Democratic column.

Meanwhile, in regular elections, Republicans lost control of the New Jersey governor’s mansion (plus a couple of state legislative seats) along with a previously unimaginable number of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Resistance organizing, at the end of the day, can’t actually stop Republicans from doing unpopular things if that’s what they want to do. But it has successfully made the things that Trump wants to do unpopular.

The stakes are high in 2018

One major result of Republicans losing the Senate race in Alabama is that the odds of major legislation emanating from the Trump administration next year have dropped sharply. The White House will also soon run out of final-year Obama administration regulatory actions to reverse — the low-hanging fruit of the administrative state.

But even though policy battles should slow down next year, the political stakes will in some ways be higher than ever.

Even as Trump has grown increasingly unpopular and down-ballot Republicans have increasingly paid the price for indulging him, the institutional Republican Party has become more rather than less supportive of Trump.

Once-critical voices like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have turned fully sycophantic, and congressional Republicans who welcomed Robert Mueller’s investigation as a way of getting uncomfortable issues off their plate are now joining Trump in openly calling for a political purge of America’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Republicans did very poorly in elections in 2017, but very few offices were actually on the ballot. If they do similarly poorly again in 2018, then at least some of the levers of government will be placed in the hands of people who’ll be inclined to check Trump’s abuses. But if the GOP manages to recover and hold onto its majorities while going all-in on Trumpism, the basic institutions of American civic life that proved durable in 2017 will come under profound strain.

For now, though, they’re still standing. The attack on democratic pillars has been met at every step by engaged, determined resistance. A resistance that, so far at least, has been more effective than almost anyone foresaw a year ago.