Last year, 2017, began with President Donald Trump lying about the size of his inauguration crowd and ended with his lying about the size of the benefits he’ll get from the new tax bill. The year began with the largest protest marches in American history — the five million strong Women’s Marches on January 21 — and ended with an upsurge of pent-up anger and activism around sexual assault toward women. It was a year punctuated by an upsurge in hate crimes and a controversial march of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, but also an unprecedented wave of Democratic victories in the Virginia state legislature as well as a commanding win by the Democrats’ candidate for governor. It began with liberals traumatized by the results of the presidential election and ended with a surprising Democratic Senate victory in Alabama, galvanized by a dramatic increase in African American voter turnout, offering hope that the party can win a majority of seats in the House, and perhaps even the Senate, in 2018.
No year in recent memory has so tested the fabric of American democracy. Trump, a megalomaniac with clear neo-fascist inclinations, has violated every norm of decency and has demonstrated an unparalleled disregard for the rule of law and the protocols of diplomacy. Although many of his Republican colleagues in Congress find Trump personally repugnant, they have been complicit in supporting his right-wing policy agenda of eliminating regulations on business, cutting taxes for the super-rich and big corporations, destroying labor unions, slashing the social safety net, and scapegoating immigrants, Muslims, and people of color.
That Trump has been a dysfunctional and incompetent president, however, has limited his ability to inflict pain and harm in the U.S. and around the world. Even though his own Republican Party controls both houses of Congress, during his first year in office Trump was unable to get Congress to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, adopt an infrastructure plan, build a wall on the Mexican border, or defund Planned Parenthood. Trump had only one significant legislative accomplishment — a regressive and unpopular tax plan drafted by Wall Street and engineered by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The policy will do severe damage to the economy and hurt the most vulnerable Americans, but it is also likely to galvanize voters in 2018 to oppose the Republicans who voted for it.
Over the past decade, efforts like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers immigrant rights movement, the battles against the Keystone pipeline and for marriage equality, and the Fight for $15 (minimum wage) campaign have generated a new wave of activism. But nothing has inspired more protest than Trump’s election.
“Lots of us woke up the morning after the election wondering whether we understood the country as well as we thought we did,” said Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy liberals who support progressive candidates and organizations. “We spent some time trying to absorb it.”
But it didn’t take long for people to recover from the shock. Indeed, Trump’s biggest accomplishment so far has been to galvanize a growing “resistance” movement. It began on January 21, 2017, the day after his inauguration, when five million people — the largest one-day protest in American history — participated in women’s marches and rallies in over 600 cities. This was followed by coordinated nationwide protests around climate change, science, immigrant rights, and Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Many of the people marching in the streets had never been to a protest before. Many then became active in local efforts to protest Trump policies and to help elect Democrats to office.
Soon after taking office, Trump issued an executive order limiting travel from six predominately Muslim countries. Immediately, a coalition of religious, immigrant rights, and labor groups led a campaign to fight back. Spontaneously, they protested at airports, filed lawsuits, and then persuaded dozens of universities and churches, mayors of big cities, and California’s political leaders, to resist cooperation with the federal crackdown. Several federal courts blocked Trump’s ban, stopping the president from carrying out one of his top campaign promises.
Soon after Trump announced the nation’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, mayors of major cities and the governor of California pledged to resist Trump’s efforts to reverse environmental progress.
The resistance movement involves many existing liberal groups, including labor unions, environmental and civil rights organizations, women’s and LBGT groups, but also, crucially, an amazing number of newly-formed activist groups. The most successful is Indivisible, started by three former congressional staff persons. Their initial goal was to thwart the Trump agenda. They posted a “how to” guide for neophyte activists on a website. Within a month, their manual had spawned about 6,000 local groups around the country in all 435 congressional districts. They’ve organized protests against Republican politicians and are working to elect liberal Democrats in the upcoming congressional elections.
The anti-Trump resistance has inspired an unprecedented surge of candidates at every level of government, with an unmatched number of women among them, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. At least 354 women — 291 Democrats and 63 Republicans — are running for U.S. House seats. The number of women challenging incumbents is almost four times the number of two years ago.
In 2017, many liberal groups — including the ACLU, Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, and MoveOn.org — saw a big uptick of members and funding.
“I can’t overstate how unprecedented the grassroots energy of this resistance is,” said MoveOn.org’s executive director, Anna Galland.
Part of the effort to neutralize Trump involves undermining key pillars of his support while resisting efforts to “normalize” the man and his policies.
Throughout his campaign and since taking office, Trump has waged war on the mainstream media, criticizing its reporting as “fake news” whenever it revealed Trump’s own blunders and lies.
Partly in response to this upsurge of activism, Trump’s mistakes in dealing with foreign leaders, and his disregard for science and facts, in 2017 the mainstream media changed the way they report and frame the president and his advisors. They started using the word “lie” in headlines and news stories to describe many of Trump’s statements — an unprecedented shift in journalistic norms. On January 23, 2017, following Trump’s false claim that he would have won the popular vote over Hillary Clinton if three million people hadn’t voted illegally, The New York Times ran this front-page headline: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.” In June, The New York Times published a compendium called “Trump’s Lies” and updated the list on a regular basis. Other newspapers have added reporters and started new columns designed to fact-check Trump’s statements.
On December 28, 2017, Trump gave an impromptu half-hour interview with The New York Times. The next day, The Washington Post, reviewing the transcript, identified 24 lies that Trump told The New York Times reporter — one every 75 seconds.
Trump has become the butt of jokes and ridicule by popular late-night TV talk-show hosts and comedians. Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Alec Baldwin, and Melissa McCarthy mock Trump on television on a regular basis, especially targeting his love affair with Vladimir Putin, his firing of FBI director James Comey (who was investigating Trump’s Russian ties), and his impulsive and bizarre daily tweets. Late night host Jimmy Kimmel has delivered serious, as well as comic, indictments of Trump’s policies. Actress Meryl Streep spent six minutes condemning Trump at the 2017 Golden Globe Award ceremony without mentioning his name.
Opposition to Trump has come from some surprising corners. Members of two of the nation’s championship teams — the New England Patriots football team and the Golden State Warriors basketball team — refused to meet with Trump at the White House. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s one-man protest against racism by police grew into a national movement by NFL players and other pro athletes after Trump challenged their right to express their anger.
In protest against his racism, several major charitable organizations — including the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross — canceled plans to hold fundraising events at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Trump has alienated many other constituencies who might otherwise have been his natural allies.
January’s Super Bowl football championship game — the biggest televised sports event of the year — featured commercials for Coca Cola, Budweiser, and other sponsors that promoted diversity and tolerance—a not-very-subtle dig at Trump’s attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and others. In one ad, a hair-products company warned viewers that we’re “in for four years of awful hair.”
In 2017, many of the nation’s leading conservative columnists — including William Kristol, Charles Sykes, Peggy Noonan, George Will, David Frum, Jennifer Rubin, and Charles Krauthammer — joined the anti-Trump opposition. They want to cleanse the conservative “brand” of its association with Trump. By contrast, the right-wing Fox News network has shown unceasing loyalty to Trump, helping him spread his pernicious fictions.
Trump has also alienated some Republicans in Congress, in part by blaming them for his own failures to persuade the public to support his policy agenda. Slowly, painfully, and without much principle or courage, some Republicans abandoned Trump. Many worried that their association with Trump would hurt their re-election chances. Some were simply appalled at his ineptitude, overt racism and sexism, and erratic behavior. Senator Bob Corker, a conservative Republican from Tennessee, raised questions about Trump’s “competence” and “stability.” In a speech on the Senate floor in October, Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, declared that he “will no longer be complicit or silent” in the face of the president’s “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior. Corker and Flake (who aren’t running for re-election) voted with Trump on most issues, including the tax bill, but they nevertheless expressed publicly what many of their Republican colleagues have said privately.
There is a growing consensus among political analysts across the ideological spectrum that Trump is psychologically and emotionally unfit to be president. He is poorly informed about public policy, indifferent to the workings of government, values loyalty over expertise within his inner circle, and is unable to think strategically. He is also impulsive, thin-skinned, addicted to flattery, a megalomaniac, a narcissist, and lacks empathy or a social conscience.
Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron,” according to reliable sources. When asked, Tillerson refused to deny it.
Given Trump’s business background, some voters thought that the new president would be an effective executive. Despite his boasts, Trump had actually run a relatively small, family-owned real estate and Trump-branding business (like the phoney “Trump University”) that was in constant legal and financial trouble, including multiple bankruptcies. Trump exercised dictatorial control over his company. He had no experience with collaboration and compromise, or being held accountable by a board of directors.
Now Trump views the entire federal government as his personal fiefdom and expects complete loyalty to his agenda and to him personally. Never in recent memory has morale among FBI, EPA, Department of Justice, and other federal employees reached such a nadir.
It turns out that Trump has no management skills. Since taking office, his administration has been in chaos. Trump’s White House has been a cesspool of infighting among key staffers, who leak nasty things about each other and about Trump to the media. In his first year as president, he fired his chief of staff, national security advisor, two communications directors, and political strategist Steve Bannon. Several cabinet members were caught in conflict of interest scandals. One, Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, was forced to resign. Trump routinely humiliated his own top advisors, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Tillerson.
Trump completely mishandled his administration’s response to the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and especially Puerto Rico. To him, these were simply occasions for photo-ops and political score-settling. He showed no compassion for the victims, even blaming Puerto Ricans for their plight. His failure to respond to Puerto Rico’s catastrophe surely cost lives.
Despite his own ineptitude, and the growing opposition to his presidency by liberals, moderates, and some conservatives, Trump remains a dangerous figure in at least four ways.
The first is Trump’s impulsive war-mongering. With no understanding of geopolitics, Trump views the world entirely in personal terms. With his fear of humiliation and being seen as weak, Trump is a loose cannon in matters of war and peace. In response to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s threats, Trump — without consulting his own top advisers or foreign allies — threatened to unleash “fire and fury” while warning that America’s weapons are “locked and loaded.” Despite Trump’s public threats, the joint chiefs of staff didn’t raise the ready-to-attack status of the military — an embarrassing rebuke to the president.
Trump, who avoided serving in the Vietnam War, appointed several generals to serve in his cabinet and inner circle, and picked General John Kelly as his second chief of staff. Ironically, many Americans believe that these military men might be needed to stop Trump from plunging the world into nuclear war.
The second danger is Trump’s ability to appointment justices to the Supreme Court and other federal courts. In 2017 he appointed right-wing zealot Neil Gorsuch to the highest court to replace the troglodyte Antonin Scalia. If Trump gets to name one more justice to the nine-member court, he can shift the balance to a strongly conservative majority that could last for decades and overturn laws and previous rulings on abortion, same-sex marriage, voting rights, the separation of church and state, press freedom, and workers’ rights, among other issues. Many Americans hope that the 84-year-old liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and 81-year-old swing Justice Anthony Kennedy don’t die or resign until a Democratic president can be elected in 2020 and appoint their replacements. Trump also moved quickly to get the Senate to approve his nominations of reactionary lawyers, many with little or no judicial experience, to the federal bench. Some of the nominees have been so outrageously extreme or unprepared (or both) that even Republican senators have opposed their confirmations.
The third danger is Trump’s ability to make policy through executive order rather than legislation. By altering the focus of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, for example, the Trump administration deported more undocumented immigrants who have no criminal or arrest record, which has made millions of immigrants and their families extremely fearful. In June, ignoring advice from several top aides and in opposition to concerns of many business leaders and environmentalists, Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris accord on global warming, despite public opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans favor the agreement.
Business lobby groups worked with Trump’s agency directors to weaken regulations on business that protect consumers, workers, public health, and the environment. The Trump administration repealed rules that protect workers from exposure to toxic chemicals that cause lung disease, that limit gas emissions from power plants, that protect drinking water from pollutants, that require safety precautions for engineers on trains and truck drivers, and that protect miners from dangerous workplaces. As of late November, the number of deaths among coal miners was double the number who died in 2016.
A final dangerous aspect of Trump’s presidency is his blatant racism, xenophobia, nativism, sexism, and misogyny, which has unleashed an upsurge of hate crimes and white supremacist activism. Trump’s racial resentments are deeply rooted. His father was arrested during a Ku Klux Klan rally in New York in 1927. During the 1970s, the Department of Justice found that Trump’s company was guilty of racial discrimination in his apartment buildings. In the 1980s, Trump took out full-page ads in newspapers to demand the death penalty for five Black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a white women jogging in Central Park. When it was discovered that they were innocent, Trump refused to apologize. Trump laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign by promoting a racist “birther” conspiracy that challenged President Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Like all demagogues, Trump resorts to scapegoating to divert attention from his own failings. During his presidential campaign, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans, Jews, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, African Americans, and people with physical disabilities triggered a dramatic increase in hate crimes. Within ten days of Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 900 new bias-related incidents against minorities. That plague worsened after Trump took office. The number of anti-Muslim groups skyrocketed. Racist and neo-Nazi groups were emboldened. It was on deadly display in the gathering of neo-Nazis and other racists and anti-Semites in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. As Roxane Gay observed in a New York Times column: “It is 2017 and white supremacists no longer feel the need to wear hoods to hide their racism and anti-Semitism.”
Trump’s unwillingness to strongly condemn racist vigilantes encouraged hate groups to escalate their violent marches and acts of intimidation. The surge in hate activism is likely to persist even after Trump leaves office.
Indeed, just when Trump will exit the White House is a matter of growing discussion. In May, over Trump’s objections, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia and related matters. Mueller has the authority to indict or prosecute Trump, even while he’s still president. Some political observers now believe that Trump won’t survive his first term if Mueller issues a report filled with damaging charges of Trump’s corrupt and illegal activities around his ties to Russia, his obstruction of justice, and his use of the White House to advance his and his family’s business interests. Should the Democrats retake Congress in the 2018 midterm elections, the likelihood of impeachment proceedings would greatly increase. Even if they don’t, congressional Republicans will be under pressure to initiate either censure or impeachment proceedings — though the odds of that happening are slim unless the Republican base, which has so far stuck with Trump, decides that it’s had enough.
Trump was elected without a mandate. Out of 136 million votes cast, Hillary Clinton had three million more votes. Had she won 77,000 more votes in three states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — she would have won the White House.
Trump began his presidency with low levels of public support and quickly squandered much of the good will that Americans grant newly elected presidents. Nine months after Trump took office, 65 percent of Americans said he had accomplished “not much” or “little or nothing,” according to a Washington Post–ABC News survey. A recent Gallup poll revealed that only 38 percent of Americans give Trump a positive rating — the lowest approval rating of any president at this point in his presidency. His job performance rating has fallen — slightly, but measurably — even among Republicans.
Most Americans neither like nor agree with Trump. When it comes to key policy areas, including economic fairness, protecting the environment, and the drift toward plutocracy, polls show that a vast majority of Americans depart from Trump by leaning left. Americans are generally upset with widening inequality, the political influence of big business, and declining living standards. Public opinion is generally favorable toward greater government activism to address these and other problems, like climate change and health care. Most Americans worry that government has been captured by the powerful and wealthy.
Trump’s most zealous political base is comprised of white fundamentalist Christians (who accounted for 45 percent of his total vote) and white supremacists (the two groups overlap). Many fundamentalists find Trump’s personal behavior offensive but stick with him because of his pledge to appoint judges who will reverse rulings on gay rights, abortion, and the separation of religion and politics. The white supremacists see in Trump a sympathetic ally who on an almost daily basis goes on Twitter tantrums that espouse bigotry and hatred. They will stick with Trump.
Trump’s unparalleled unpopularity could help the Democrats win back a majority in the House of Representatives in November 2018. A few months ago, that seemed impossible but now it looks increasingly likely. The Democrats currently hold 194 out of 435 seats and need to gain 24 more to take control of that chamber. There are now more than 60 “swing” House districts where Republicans are vulnerable. With Jones’s unanticipated victory in Alabama, it’s now clear that the Senate is very much in play, too.
“We need good candidates who can connect with voters — people who’ve been fighting for better schools, wages, the environment, and health care,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont Governor and DNC Chair. “And we can’t just run against Trump. We need a positive optimistic message about the economy.”
If Democrats and liberal groups can coordinate funding, targeting, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts — and nominate strong candidates — they can win a majority in the lower chamber and possibly the Senate as well.
If that occurs, Trump will not only be neutralized politically, he’ll also be on the defensive. Congressman Adam Schiff, one of Trump’s toughest critics, will become chair of the House Intelligence Committee and Democrats will control the other committees, too. They will hold real hearings on Russia-gate, Trump’s business entanglements, his taxes, and how he used the White House to enrich himself and his family.
Under those circumstances, Trump could resign before his term is over, mostly likely on contrived grounds of poor health. This doesn’t protect him from prosecution unless he pardons himself before he resigns — a legal question now subject to much debate.
If Trump resigns or is impeached, Vice President Mike Pence will become president. Many Americans will feel a sense of relief, thinking that Pence — a former Senator and governor of Indiana — is, compared with Trump, “normal.” True, he’s not as psychologically deranged as Trump. But, as Jane Mayer recently explained in a New Yorker profile, Pence may be even more dangerous, because he’s more ideologically right wing, has a better working relationship with Congress, is more disciplined, and would probably manage the White House in a less chaotic way. (Admittedly, these are all low bars to clear.)
If Trump leaves office after the Democrats control the House or Senate, however, they will be able to thwart Pence from advancing his fierce right-wing views.
Trump is a deranged autocrat. But so far America’s democracy, however imperfect, has hamstrung most of his policy agenda. As the resistance grows, Americans will continue to demonstrate that they are more decent than their president.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame” (Nation Books) This essay was originally published by The American Prospect.