As the 115th Congress opened, Democrats met with President Obama to devise a strategy to preserve the Affordable Care Act. They war-gamed ambitious efforts to fight against potential Republican efforts to cut Medicare and Social Security, two of the most popular government programs ever. In short, Democratic leaders are preparing to continue to do their version of “normal politics” as if Donald Trump were just the next incarnation of George W. Bush.
In contrast, elected Democrats have been more cautious in highlighting the incoming Trump administration’s violation of fundamental democratic norms and constitutional requirements. (Elizabeth Warren, however, is a notable exception here.) Most glaring is Trump’s brazen refusal to fully divest himself of his global web of financial assets and obligations, and the obvious conflicts of interests it brings.
There’s a logic to this choice. Voters may say they care about corruption and ethics, but rarely does this issue mobilize voters on its own. By contrast, Democrats have had previous success scaring voters about Republican plans to cut Medicare and Social Security. Fear of loss is a powerful motivator. But voters already think Washington is corrupt, so there’s nothing to preserve.
Yoni Appelbaum argued at the Atlantic in November that Trump falls in the tradition of the lovable rogues from New York’s old Tammany Hall machine: As long as he can sustain a narrative that he’s delivering jobs, no one will care that he skims a few dollars off the top for the Trump Organization. Earnest reformers have a long history of getting distracted by petty graft and failing to recognize that political machines, as unseemly as they are, nonetheless connect citizens to government in material ways that ethical purity could not.
But Trump is no mere Tammany Hall hack. The norms and constitutional provisions he has either violated or is on track to violate go far beyond “honest graft.” His approach is not mere greasing the wheels — it’s puncturing and slashing the tires. Trump’s rewriting of the rules — refusing to acknowledge that he must divest from his businesses, continuing to keep his tax returns secret, tweeting nuclear arms policy, publicly rejecting the findings of the intelligence community on Russian campaign hacking — is so vast that it has swamped his presidency before he has even taken the oath of office.
In this context, challenging Trump primarily on “normal politics” — legislative fights over safety net programs and taxes — is like ignoring a cancer diagnosis and instead devoting all your time to going to your chiropractor because in the past, he’s succeeded at getting rid of your sore back.
Defending basic democratic norms and maintaining a strong focus on corruption is the right strategy. Not only is it more likely to work but it is likely to leave our politics in a better place in the end.
First, making the fight about entitlements and taxes is only going to reinforce existing partisan divides, at a time when Democrats and Republicans need to figure out how to build alliances to minimize the damage Trump can do to basic norms, rather than reinforcing the divide that Trump exploited in the general election.
The only chance of checking Trump’s likely excesses and recklessness is if Republicans step in, as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have done in response to Russia’s interference in the election and Trump’s apparent willingness to lift sanctions. Other conservative Republicans, outside Congress, have expressed deep misgivings about Trump’s refusal to even acknowledge conflicts of interest or his failure to hold press conferences. The potential for cross-partisan alliances on protecting democratic norms and civil liberties, and preventing corruption, is much broader than on programs.
Second, it can be hard to hit Trump on policy because he’s made a long game of being ideologically elusive. Sure, his nomination of people like Tom Price to Health and Human Services and Mick Mulvaney to the Office of Management and Budget might indicate that he has capitulated to predictably far-right Republican policies to eliminate the social safety net and cut taxes for the very rich. But equally plausible is that he wants Price and Mulvaney as validators on his side when he breaks with their orthodoxy and takes his proposals or tweets in a different direction.
Trump loves to bend men such as these to his will: Look at what happened with Mike Pence, who went from a career free trader to enthusiastically supporting the Carrier deal on the premise that “the free market has been sorting it out and America has been losing.”
We shouldn’t assume that Trump is going to pursue a traditional far-right agenda, or that he’ll pursue it consistently. His top strategist, Steve Bannon, values chaos and unpredictability over any policy, and only a few of the billionaires and generals Trump has named to his Cabinet could be considered ideologues.
Trump will be a dodgy target. If Democrats turn public opinion against the Ryan Medicare plan, Trump may happily jump on board and take credit for stopping congressional Republicans, much as he did with the fight to preserve the Office of Congressional Ethics. If so, Trump could come out of this more, rather than less, popular. Remember that in the primary, Trump was the Republican who supported preserving Social Security and Medicare, a position he used to distinguish himself.
Third, the reasons that many Rust Belt voters turned against Democrats appear to have been more based on cultural and racial issues than on economic issues. To the extent that Trump controls the agenda, he can continue to stoke these resentments. By contrast, the voters Democrats seem more likely to gain are the more affluent suburbanites who are less susceptible to the politics of resentment and more concerned about basic democratic norms. These are the Romney voters in suburban Houston and suburban Atlanta who shifted as strongly to Clinton as Obama voters did to Trump in the rural Rust Belt. If there is a coalition to be built that preserves basic liberal democratic foundations of civil liberties and civil rights, it includes these voters.
To bring Trump under control, to avoid the worst dangers of his unpredictable presidency, the first step is to bring together Democrats and Republicans who care about basic ethical norms. These principles can build consensus in a way that fights over Medicare can’t.
Many Republicans are standing with him now, and may continue to. But if they are going to defect at some point, they will need a reason to defect and turn against him. That he supported cutting health care for poor people is not going to be a very good reason. That he is in violation of the Constitution and upending 60 years of global diplomacy, for reasons that are at best obscure and at worst corrupt, is a better one.
If the narrative about Trump, broadly understood, is that he is a corrupt authoritarian, everything he does or proposes can be explained in this context. When these violations add up, and are combined with failed results, there is a more compelling explanation for failed results. Eventually, perhaps sooner than we think, there could be a cascade of Republican defectors who hear from their own voters that they want a bulwark against Trump, rather than a rubber stamp.
If Trump is not challenged on corruption and violation of democratic norms, it effectively establishes new rules for conduct, and new norms. Once the Trump rules are accepted, they will be hard to change. Why should we even have conflict-of-interest rules? Why should the president not dictate policy by Twitter whim? If the only lesson of this episode is that Medicare is popular, that won't do much to shore up the foundations of liberal democracy.
By contrast, a sustained fight against Trump’s abuses of powers can build a new consensus about what is and is not acceptable in politics. Every political moment is in some ways a reaction to the previous moment. Knowing this, we should think: What do we want the reaction to be based on? There needs to be some kind of visible penalty for treating the presidency as a rules- and ethics-free zone, in which setting global policy becomes an adjunct to running a global real estate development business.
If we’re lucky, and if Democrats and Republicans work together to support a shared vision of democracy and accountability, then we can get back to a world where the biggest arguments are over tax rates and the future of Medicare and Social Security. We’re looking forward to it.