How do we best translate unprecedented public outcry into the raw exercise of power needed to stop Trump and his allies?
At 9 AM Pacific Time Monday morning, Donald Trump will have been President of the United States for exactly ten days. In that time, the Seattle area will already have seen four major protests that each involved thousands of people (Inauguration Day, the women’s march, SeaTac, and tonight’s immigration rally). The SeaTac protest. organized in hours and viral in social media, got up to ten thousand people to drop their evening plans to rush to the airport. The women’s march was arguably the largest demonstration in Seattle history. At a fifth protest on the University of Washington campus, an anti-fascist peacekeeper was shot and critically wounded by a man wearing Trump paraphernalia. And similar record-setting demonstrations have erupted in every major city in the US, in all 50 states, and dozens of foreign countries.
And both Trump and the resistance to him are just getting started. We haven’t even gotten to ObamaCare repeal, Medicare & Social Security privatization, attacks on women’s reproductive health, environmental degradation, attacks on public education and unions, massive tax cuts for the rich, repeal of gay marriage, torture, civil liberties and civil rights rollbacks, new voter suppression initiatives, the War on Drugs, the War on Science, military and diplomatic idiocy, a new nuclear arms race, or any of the countless other things likely coming soon, some of them very soon.
Trump, his team, and congressional allies are seeking to move quickly on all of these fronts, and others we don’t expect. Many of these issues will mobilize entirely new constituencies, adding to the folks who’ve rallied and marched already.
At some point, likely very soon, the fact that scores of different outrages will have energized people will become the political and cultural narrative. All of the resistance will itself become the issue – and the right to protest will likely come under attack as well, spawning even more resistance. (Some Trump allies have already suggested cracking down on protesters.)
Just as there will be countless issues, there will also be countless demands; that can’t be helped. But just as the protests are likely to merge in their political and media narrative into one movement, we need to be thinking as well about what the unifying thing is that we want – and how best to achieve it.
The unifying immediate demand is fairly obvious, and is already showing up in protest signs and social media surrounding all of these issues: Donald Trump must go. But how?
Forcing Trump Out
There are, legally, three ways in which Trump’s removal from office can happen within the American political system. He could resign; he could be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors”; or he could be removed under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, which provides for replacing a president who is unfit to serve for any reason, from health to mental issues to dangerous levels of incompetence.
Resignation is the least likely, and, as with Richard Nixon 43 years ago, is only conceivable as a face-saving action if one of the other remedies appears to Trump to be inevitable. Trump’s combination of megalomania and delusion mean that he’d never willingly leave a job like this – where he is literally the center of global attention every day – and he’d likely be impossible to convince of his vulnerability to legal removal even if every other elected official in the country were aligned against him. That leaves impeachment and Section Four.
The bar for both is extremely high. Impeachment is the only way a sitting president can be held accountable for breaking the law, and it’s only happened twice in US history – to Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – both for political reasons having little to do with the alleged crimes in question. And in both cases, the impeachment was unsuccessful. As for Section Four, the entire 25th Amendment, enacted in 1967 after JFK’s assassination to change the protocol for presidential succession, has never been used.
Can Trump’s transgressions rise to that very rare level? After only ten days, it appears almost inevitable. Already, in terms of crimes, there are serious, multi-agency investigations into whether Trump or his campaign violated economic sanctions – or compromised national security – or encouraged espionage or foreign tampering with the presidential election – in meetings, phone calls, and other contacts the Trump campaign had with representatives of the Russian government. Multiple ethics complaints have already been filed over Trump’s (and several of his Cabinet members’) failure to divest themselves of conflicting business interests. Trump also faces credible accusations of using his position to influence how foreign governments treat his companies. Words like “corruption” and “blackmail” keep coming up. And that’s on top of all of the other alleged criminal behavior we already knew about before the election: the sexual assaults; the defrauding of contractors and swindling of Trump University students; the organized crime connections in the US, Russia, and elsewhere; multiple possible tax crimes; and much, much more.
Trump now has enormous power, but he can’t stop all of these investigations. And as the old political cliche goes, the coverup is always worse than the crime. Secretive and vindictive, Trump has already demonstrated his eagerness to blow off legal requirements he doesn’t like. And a man who is apparently incapable of discerning fact from his own fantasies seems like a prime candidate to get tripped up over, say, lying under oath, the transgression used to impeach both Johnson and Clinton.
His fantastical beliefs are also one of several reasons Trump is already giving enemies a case for his being unfit to serve. Diagnosing Trump’s mental health problems – narcissist, megalomaniac, sociopath, and more – is so common now in the national discourse that it’s hardly controversial. When a moderate mainstream elite columnist can casually write, as the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof did today in referring to the entirety of Trump’s record thus far, that the new president was either a liar or a crackpot, “unfit to serve” doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. And the evidence will keep arrived daily, delivered in a firehose.
But just because a convincing case can be made that Trump is a crook, a loon, or both, and the mechanisms exist for using those circumstances to remove him from office, doesn’t mean they will be used. That’s where political strategy matters, starting now.
The Anti-Trump Nation
Impeachment requires a majority vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a two-thirds vote for conviction in the U.S. Senate. Section Four has an even higher bar; removal is initiated by the Vice-President and “a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments” (basically, Trump’s cabinet), and then requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress.
Both houses of Congress are currently Republican-controlled, and in both cases, the majority caucus is dominated by its most radical members. This means that, in practice, removing Trump from office would require substantial support from even the more unhinged regions of the Republican Party.
At the current rate, that’s not inconceivable. Two weeks ago, in an article I wrote on how to beat Trump, I noted that he has two enormous tactical vulnerabilities: overreach and divisions within his own party. Within just the first ten days, we’ve seen both.
Despite their fear of primary challenges from their Trump-loving base, a number of elected Republican officials have spoken out against some of Trump’s early moves, particularly his immigration orders. Moreover we’ve also seen constituent groups that are normally rock-solid Republican express alarm. Christian evangelicals were widely appalled at Trump’s prioritization of Christian victims of persecution for refugee status; active missionary projects were equally alarmed at the refugee and immigration actions. And, of course, conservative immigrants are directly impacted.
In Congress, many of Trump’s plans – most notably so far the Mexican wall and the call for rapid repeal of the Affordable Care Act – have concerned both fiscal conservatives and the big business interests that many Republicans serve. Those corporations also often rely on trade agreements like NAFTA and on non-citizen employees. The military-loving wing of Trump’s party is up in arms over his disrespect to the CIA’s dead, his nomination of radical incompetents for critical military leadership positions, his disregard for the American tradition of civilian control of the military, and, this weekend, his naming of a self-identified white nationalist with zero national security experience, Stephen Bannon, to a seat on the National Security Council. Trump has also already made powerful enemies in the executive branch: career military and intelligence officials and top agency staff who are by definition politically savvy and accustomed to working with Congress to get things done. And even among avid Trump supporters, you’ll find people who are patriots first and willing to act as such if the president is clearly either acting criminally or badly harming the country. Or both.
The Republican Party under Trump has unprecedented power to enact a radical agenda that a majority of Americans – for members of Congress and for the presidency – voted against. That power was achieved by gerrymandering Congressional districts, the disproportionate weight the Senate gives to small rural states, and the matching bias of the Electoral College. In the face of majority popular opposition, the Republican agenda can only hold if the party stays unified. Ten days in and the cracks are already visible.
The Bigger Project
Jettisoning Donald Trump will require our popular movement, both individually and organizationally, to make common cause with conservatives we wouldn’t normally work with. At the same time, removing Trump gives us a Christian jihadist, Michael Pence, as President. And at least until the 2018 midterms, Pence – who is far more experienced and competent in understanding how government works – would have the same radical congressional majority to work with.
The goal of any drive to replace Trump, then, needs to use his disgrace to make the Republican brand toxic in general, so as to overcome the gerrymandered Republican control of Congress. Between now and those 2018 midterms – or 2020, if Congress stays in Republican hands next year – the more that investigations and dealing with popular resistance can consume the limited time of Congress, the better. But we’ll need to work with some of those same people and groups to remove Trump.
The goal isn’t just to get rid of Trump, but to destroy Trumpism – which I’ll loosely define as the 30-year campaign of “alternative facts,” racism and bigotry, fear, and economic resentment that Republicans have used to fire up their base, a project that has gotten steadily more radical and reality-challenged over time. In this goal, we have several clear advantages: an ever-more-diverse and tolerant population, political control of pretty much every major economic center in the country, and the passion that comes when things we deserve and depend on are denied to us. And, of course, Trump’s radicalism and incompetence is our best recruiter. We are everywhere, and in combating a national regime that only respects power, we have the power to have an enormous impact on this country’s economy, culture, and politics.
A Few Suggested Guidelines
We can, if we choose to, make this country ungovernable. If the Trump impulse toward fascism moves much farther, combined with his impulse to punish and humiliate enemies real and perceived, that might be what it comes to. Already, this weekend, California Gov. Jerry Brown is threatening to withhold money from the country’s most populous and economically powerful state, money that normally goes to the federal government. Events are moving quickly.
In supporting the acts of elected officials who are needed to remove Trump and the threat of future Trumps, however, the bitter divide gripping the country needs to be healed enough for us to make common cause with at least some of the people on “the other side.” And common cause, the idea that we’re all in this together, is also the key to disempowering the divide and punch down tactics of Trumpism. Some people are irredeemable and simply need to be politically neutralized; overcoming a generation of right wing propagandizing is a long-term project. But in the short term, as we look use the tsunami of individual issues to both remove Trump and reverse the broader reactionary rise to power, I’d like to propose a few, necessarily incomplete guiding principles. Add your own:
1) Welcome everyone. A lot of people have never protested before in their lives. Some are conservative; many just never paid much attention to politics until they personally got impacted by one or another issue. Focus on our common goals and respect. This is not the time to shame or drive away people because we disagree with them on other issues, or because we got politically engaged before they did or know more. We can’t win without an inclusive movement. We also can’t create a more inclusive society without modeling that ideal ourselves.
2) Don’t get discouraged. Pace yourself; take breaks when you need to. There will be setbacks. Things will be scary at some times, overwhelming or boring at others. We need to take care of ourselves and support each other. Take risks, but be conscious of safety. All of that is, again, also the societal norms we want to encourage.
3) Stay focused. If the goal is to remove Trump, don’t get distracted by police violence or congressional idiocy. If the goal is to, say, save an essential safety net program or act on some other issue, prioritize the leadership of people directly impacted by that issue. A health care rally, for example, is not the time to lecture people on a pipeline; a climate change direct action is not a forum for your homelessness concerns. Check your privileges.
4) Organize, organize, organize! Share information, connect people and groups. Talk with friends, relatives, co-workers, strangers. Do what you can do best, whether it’s donating, offering specialized skills, or simply showing up.
5) Make the connection between popular sentiment and political action. Hold elected officials accountable; tell them what you want, and reward them when they do it. Know what the process is that you want to influence and what the best ways are to influence it. And then tell everyone else.
6) Smile. Rage and fear will take us a long way in getting things done; they also drive away allies we’ll need, and are generally not sustainable in what may be a long struggle. Find joy in things, and above all, remember that standing up for what’s right is also an end in itself. You folks are awesome.