Trump’s crisis and the feeble “opposition”

May 26, 2017

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, considers why Democrats seem more interested in the Trump-Russia connection than opposing Trump's agenda.

SHOULD TRUMP be dumped?

You'd think that question would be a no-brainer for the Democratic Party after the 2016 election sent it packing from the White House and consigned it to minority status in both houses of Congress.

Trump's bizarre combination of outrageous provocation, blundering incompetence and brazen corruption would be ripe for the pickings for any party that truly wanted to put up a real opposition. His own Justice Department has had to appoint a special prosecutor to untangle it all.

But In These Times writer Jeff Alson spoke for a certain species of Democratic-aligned liberalism with an article in May that sent the message: Hey, not so fast.

Titled "The Impeachment Trap: Be Careful What You Wish For," Alson's piece argued that it would be bad politics for the Democrats to champion Trump's impeachment, at least before the 2018 elections--no matter what "high crimes and misdemeanors" Trump might be implicated in.

Alson's article provoked serious discussion at The Democratic Strategist, a liberal blog for party advisers that doesn't normally pay attention to articles published in radical magazines like In These Times.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (right) with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (right) with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

Why would impeachment be a trap? Alson's article lists the "downsides": If successful, it would result in a President Pence, putting a competent conservative in office; it might revive sympathy for Trump and the Republicans; it might permanently alienate "working-class whites"--who, once again, are seen as Trump's main base of support--from the Democrats.

But most of all, according to Alson, pushing for impeachment would divert energy from what he considers the Democrats' most important task: winning the 2018 midterm elections.

Ultimately, Trump--the man who unleashed ICE's terror in immigrant communities, who tried to bar refugees from entering the U.S., who has presented a budget that would destroy countless lives--is portrayed as the "lesser evil" to Pence. Better to keep him around as an easy-to-demonize figurehead in 2018 campaign ads.

"THE IMPEACHMENT Trap" exposes everything that's wrong with the Democratic Party and its liberal enablers today. Politics is seen as a game played by elites, where the main concern for Washington Democrats should be to maneuver the Republicans into taking responsibility for impeachment.

Absent is any idea that politics might have something to do with mobilizing people to defend democratic rights or with offering an alternative to those fed up with declining living standards and a dysfunctional government that seems to only serve the rich.

The article speaks to the mindset of a Democratic establishment that is convinced it should steer clear of a fight. While the party's voting base has become more infuriated with each scandal and overstep and more eager to see Trump and his administration run out of Washington on a rail, the party's top representatives have moderated their posture.

Thus, as the New York Times reported in mid-May, "When House Democratic leaders hastily called a news conference to demonstrate their outrage at President Trump's latest dramatics, they took great pains to show they were not seeking to railroad him out of the White House."

The truth is that the Democrats would rather have Trump in office, still attempting to implement his reactionary agenda and succeeding in various ways--as long the deluge of media, congressional and criminal investigations continue to play out, with new revelations of wrongdoing driving down Trump's approval ratings, along with those of the Republicans.

The Democrats want Trump perpetually on trial, but never convicted and brought down.

In this context, the Justice Department's decision to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller III as special prosecutor is a bit of a problem. Mueller can conduct this investigation in the shadows over a period of years, allowing Republicans to avoid having to face a daily barrage of questions on the latest Trump scandals.

THE DEMOCRATS' "Keep Calm and Prepare Campaign Attack Ads" strategy fits with their approach to the Trump administration all along--especially the "all Russia, all the time" obsession of party leaders and their media megaphone at MSNBC.

It's impossible to know where the scrutiny of the Trump-Russia connection will end up--whether the ties are confined to sleazy business deals and indiscreet communications with Russian officials or whether there's a real conspiracy to be unraveled.

But in the meanwhile, there are all kinds of crimes in plain sight that Trump and the Republicans are responsible for, and the Democrats are ignoring them.

When Republican members of Congress aren't dodging their furious constituents at town halls or reporters on Capitol Hill, they're meeting in backrooms to plot huge tax cuts for the rich and the evisceration of all manner of programs, from student loan forgiveness to Medicaid.

Yet the Democrats haven't spent anywhere near as much energy opposing these destructive policies as they have filling the airwaves about Russia.

Plus, the Democrats' championing of the Russia revelations lets them paint their opposition to Trump as a matter of patriotism and loyalty to the state machine.

Nowhere was this more obvious then after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Only a few months ago, Comey infuriated Democrats with his decision, right before the election, to publicize new information about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails. But after Trump cashiered Comey, the Democrats suddenly discovered that he was a dedicated public servant.

The press lionized Comey for his "absolute commitment to the Constitution and pursuing investigations wherever the evidence led," as one federal prosecutor told the New York Times. But as pointed out last week:

[T]hat's never been true of the FBI, an agency launched by the anti-Communist fanatic J. Edgar Hoover primary to lead very unconstitutional witch hunts against civil rights activists, trade unionists and anyone else expressing even moderate dissent against the status quo.

In fact, that wasn't true of Comey. During the epidemic of police murders that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, Comey not only avoided investigations of law enforcement, but complained about a bogus "Ferguson effect": a rise in crime (which turned out not to even be happening) caused by civilians trying to hold police accountable by filming them.

Trump's presidency is worthy of a constitutional crisis, but far more so because of his escalation of draconian repression, especially against immigrants and refugees, and his pandering to various forces of the far right and further right.

But if we're being honest, so was Barack Obama's presidency--not because of any of the Trumpian right's fabrications about Obama, but because he launched drone wars without congressional approval; his Treasury Department, staffed with former bankers and traders, bailed out Wall Street while ordinary people lost their homes; and the list could go on.

Equally stomach-turning is the Democrats' praise for the new special prosecutor, Robert Mueller.

Nominated by George W. Bush, Mueller took over the FBI one week before the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington. He was a central architect of the draconian war at home launched as the domestic counterpart of the Bush administration's worldwide "war on terror."

Along with the scapegoater-in-chief, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Mueller's FBI was responsible for the persecution of many thousands of Muslims and Arabs--including outrageous entrapment schemes that accounted for many of the bureau's arrests on terrorism charges.

But don't expect to hear that from Democrats who want to portray themselves as patriotic champions of the U.S. state and the status quo.

IF THAT posture seems familiar, it's because Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign built its failure of a strategy around the same appeal. She portrayed herself as the candidate who would maintain the status quo in an America that was "already great."

That strategy doomed Clinton. But to judge from their approach to the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats haven't learned the lessons.

With the White House supplying a continuous stream of blunders and outrages that threaten to consume Trump's nominal party in the Congress, political analysts are seeing signs of a "tsunami" election that could even put the Democrats back in control of the U.S. House of Representatives after 2018.

A recent Quinnipiac Poll on voters' preferences for 2018 showed an unprecedented advantage for the Democrats over the Republicans of 54 percent to 38 percent in the "generic ballot" for Congress. And House Democrats have already raised more money for their candidates through online donations since January than they did in all of 2015.

The inconvenient truth, of course, is that the Democrats have done very little to deserve any of this other than being the "out" party in Washington. In fact, the same Quinnipiac poll that liberals are using to make the case for a 2018 Democratic tsunami shows that only about 35 percent of those surveyed approve of the job Democrats in Congress are doing--about the same percentage who support Trump's handling of the presidency.

Meanwhile, a recent Gallup Poll showed that the Democrats have actually lost popularity since January, with most of the erosion coming from base supporters souring on their party's performance.

PERHAPS THIS should give Democratic-aligned strategists cause to think that the party might need to stand for something other than being responsible custodians of government against the Trump train wreck.

But the old habits and prejudices of the Democratic establishment still hang on.

For example, the party apparatus remains convinced that winning in areas where the Republicans hold office currently requires them to adapt to the reigning conservative climate, rather than seek to change it. Thus, in elections this year, the Democrats have supported anti-abortion politicians, sabotaged more progressive allies of self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders and thrown their backing to economic conservatives.

Even after the closely fought battle over control of the Democratic National Committee between defenders of Clintonite orthodoxy and supporters of more liberal policies, like those Sanders espoused in his primary run last year, the Clintonites remain firmly in control.

And for them, the Democratic Party, like America, is doing "great" already.

Despite all the acres of newsprint and hours of TV airtime devoted to analyzing the 2016 election, the Democrats still haven't come to terms with why Trump, and not Clinton, is in the White House now. If not, they claim, for Comey's October surprise or for Russian meddling to support Trump, Clinton would have won. So there can't be anything fundamentally wrong with the Democratic Party.

The real failure of Clinton and the Democrats is that they let the election get close enough--at least in some critical states--for Trump to win the presidency through the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. To explain that, the Democrats would have to acknowledge that they lost any sense of enthusiasm among the party's traditional base, particularly in former industrial strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

But instead of questioning the party's commitment to neoliberal orthodoxy--of which Clinton was Exhibit A--it's easier for Democrats to blame Trump's election on the Russians and look forward to winning back Congress by tying the Republicans to the president's trail of scandals.

The Republicans who view Trump's corruption and incompetence as "distractions" from their real agenda of serving the rich are rightly accused of making a cynical deal with the devil.

But are the Democrats who sang "Na na, hey hey, goodbye" on the House floor after Republicans passed a bill stripping millions of their health coverage any less cynical? You'd think that Democrats would have a more serious response to the devastation the GOP health care bill portends than to celebrate their hoped-for 2018 electoral gains with a sports stadium taunt.

Millions of Americans have mobilized to oppose Trump and his agenda--from the largest day of demonstrations in U.S. history on inauguration weekend to the town hall protests against Republican plans to take away their health insurance. For those people, "Wait 'til 2018" is already too late.

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