WASHINGTON ― On Nov. 23, two weeks after the stunning election of Donald Trump, news emerged that he’d be naming a woman named Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education. As aides to one Senate Democrat from a red state sat around and absorbed the news, the feeling was one of resignation. “She’ll sail through. Nobody cares about the education secretary and nobody’s heard of this person,” recalled one aide looking back at the moment.
It was part of a broader political concern among Democrats. “The initial thoughts were, fuck, he’s gonna do immigration [reform], he’s gonna do infrastructure, he’s gonna go after pharma and we’re gonna get jammed,” the aide said.
But the sailing for DeVos wound up being anything but smooth. “It turns out he’s just gonna do the crazy stuff and it will be much easier to oppose him,” the aide said. “There is an education secretary who should’ve gotten 70 votes. Most of these nominees should have been able to get red-state support, and they’re not.”
As the aide was recalling the moment he learned about the DeVos nomination, and the gradual dawning that Trump had selected a thoroughly radical and unqualified nominee, news broke that at a White House meeting with red-state Democrats, Trump had floated the idea of getting back together the team of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.
It was precisely the kind of gesture toward bipartisanship that Democrats had been watching for. But already Trump had lost too much credibility on that front. “He’s not serious,” the aide quickly concluded.
In the days and weeks after Trump was elected president, Democrats were consumed by a central question: Should they oppose Trump across the board, or work with him on some of his more populist campaign promises ― such as rebuilding the country’s roads, bridges and airports, or closing loopholes exploited by hedge fund managers? Was it possible he’d pivot away from mass roundups and wall-building and pave a path to comprehensive immigration reform? And if he did, should Democrats pitch in to help make it happen?
It was both a moral and a political dilemma for the party. On the one hand, an infrastructure bill is badly needed, and Democrats aren’t accustomed to obstructing progress. Immigration reform would bring desperately needed relief to millions of families in the shadows. But bipartisan cooperation could serve to make Trump more popular ― a popularity he could then use to drive home an ethno-nationalist agenda that would turn back the American clock by decades.
Maybe Democrats needn’t have worried. So far, Trump has served up a series of radical nominees and dismaying policy changes. And for congressional Democrats, opposing these moves has been an easy call.
Take DeVos, for example. The more closely Democrats looked at Trump’s nominee, the worse she appeared. She came from a family of billionaires who’d given untold millions of dollars to the Republican Party and spent millions to decimate public education in Michigan. She herself appeared to have no real grasp of education policy. DeVos became the first education secretary not to get a single vote of bipartisan support, and the first Cabinet secretary in history to need the vice president to break a 50-50 tie.
Trump has made the politics for the opposition party easy. “The pundits were imagining a scenario where the president was going to put us in a bind by offering progressive policies. Unfortunately for the country, we have not been presented with that dilemma,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told The Huffington Post. “And more than that, there’s an understanding that it’s not just about losing on public policy now. It’s about institutions being attacked, it’s about the foundation of American-style democracy being attacked, and so it’s been clarifying for us. It’s not the main thing, but one impact of this kind of ferocious, systematic, belligerent attack on the things we care about is that it’s unified us almost totally ― and that makes for good politics.”
To get a picture of how unified Democrats are against Trump, one needed only to scan the crowd of the recent rally on the steps of the Supreme Court. There among the demonstrators was Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator up for re-election in 2018 in West Virginia, a state Trump won by a whopping 42 points.
Last week, Manchin said he’d be voting against Tom Price, Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services. The energy, even in West Virginia, is palpable. A crowd estimated at some 500 people showed up to protest outside an office of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Manchin’s Republican counterpart in the state. That’s a lot of people in West Virginia.
Populism is an amorphous concept, but on a basic level, it is a lashing-out at elites on behalf of the little guy. Trump likes to make a show of this: Think of his attacks on the media, his haranguing of CEOs on Twitter and his denouncement of Big Pharma during his first press conference as president.
But he followed up his verbal assault on the drugmakers by hosting pharmaceutical CEOs at the White House and backtracking on his suggestion that the government negotiate for better drug prices. He’s pushed his travel ban against several majority-Muslim countries, but hasn’t found time to deal with the carried-interest loophole exploited by private equity giants and hedge funds. And he’s vowed to “do a number” on the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, by rolling back Wall Street reforms in a manner expected to dole out billions to financiers.
Consumer protections, meanwhile, are under assault. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which guards customers from companies looking to rip them off, is being gutted. The administration is working to snuff out the enforcement power of the Federal Communications Commission, which could result in a very un-populist increase in your cable bill, among a slew of other consequences. An industry-friendly operative is being placed atop the Securities and Exchange Commission. A rule requiring financial advisers to pledge not to work against the interests of their clients is on the chopping block, which would open up 401(k)s to be fracked like so much natural gas.
A regulation protecting streams from coal pollution is being undone, and the administration is looking at selling off National Parks, with the proceeds going to the superrich in the form of tax cuts.
A mortgage insurance discount pushed forward by the Obama administration was reversed. That change, a boon to private sellers of such coverage, is expected to cost the average household another $500 per year. It was Trump’s very first move as president.
“A number of us were hopeful initially that there might be some things ― given the fact that he would be president for four years ― that we might be able to work on with him,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost last week. “The actions that he’s taken so far have not spoken to that hope or aspiration that that could take place. And I think in many respects, that has begun to outweigh maybe the ability to work with him.”
Trump’s attacks on the press and the courts have stiffened Democrats’ resolve. “We profoundly realize that the role of the Democrats in the Senate need to be a check against an overreaching executive, and in fact the Trump presidency is going to test our entire system,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.
Trump “doesn’t like the Article III branch” ― the judiciary ― “he doesn’t like the First Amendment branch, the press, or the First Amendment right of people to peacefully protest,” Kaine said. “He doesn’t like the Article I branch, Congress. But we all have a role to play, and the system was set up the way it is for a reason, and we’re going to play that role.”
“Everybody realizes this is exactly the kind of overreaching executive that, when the framers designed these institutions, they put these checks in place to stop,” he went on. “And that has really unified us. We all think we’re here for a very important reason right now.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), regularly spoken of as a viable 2020 presidential candidate, also cited the extreme nature of Trump’s first few weeks as helping to unify the party. “Trump doesn’t seem to be doing anything to be reaching out,” Booker said. “He’s advocating some of the most extreme policies, and frankly his Cabinet members are expressing real extremes as well, so that’s definitely sobering.”
Schatz, who has become an increasingly outspoken voice in the resistance, said that something strange happened after Democrats unified: It worked.
“We are moving public opinion,” he said. “It’s not just that we’re following public opinion, but part of what we did with [the Affordable Care Act] was actually ― and maybe it’s because we felt we had nothing to lose and people were depending on our leadership ― but we went out there for four to six weeks and made a case for ACA. The numbers switched,” he said. “We’ve seen Quinnipiac and other polling show that if we go out there and have the courage of our convictions to make the case and try to shape public opinion and show leadership instead of try to respond to it, turns out we can move numbers.”