The emerging Trump administration is a frightening mixture of free-market fundamentalists and C-list conspiracy theorists. This motley crew may well run headlong into political disaster. But Democrats should not assume that the Trump administration's incompetence will automatically result in a Democratic wave in 2018. Remember, Democrats are in their weakest position in national and state government since before the Great Depression.
So what should Democrats do? Take a page from the GOP playbook and obstruct everything.
One of the most galling things about the complete Republican takeover of American government that we witnessed last month is the way it rewarded the party's destructive behavior during the Obama years. Not only did voters never punish Republican leaders for pouring sand into the gas tank of representative democracy, they granted them victories in nearly every contested House and Senate race, proving incontrovertibly that voters simply do not care about or understand the ways that Republican leadership subverted longstanding norms of parliamentary procedure.
In perhaps the most brazen violation of democratic norms in living memory, the Republicans just stole the colossally important swing seat on the Supreme Court by obliterating precedent and refusing even to hold hearings for Merrick Garland. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer cannot continue their heroic work into their late 80s, the Democrats may be facing a hostile Supreme Court until most of Bernie Sanders' young voters are having their midlife crises.
But the Senate's Great Merrick Garland Heist is a symptom rather than the cause of our dysfunction. The towering mountaintop snowcap from which the swollen river of hateful, paralyzing, and destructive nihilism flows is the House GOP. The face of America's political torment is the smug visage of Utah's Jason Chaffetz, a man who epitomizes everything that is wrong with our politics, and who the Democrats have no realistic chance of ever unseating. Secure behind their ingenious 2010 gerrymandering plan, and the concentration of Democratic voters in big cities, it was Chaffetz and his minions who turned the tragedy of Benghazi into the 21st century's Scopes trial, and who decided to use the legislature's oversight responsibilities to hold a series of theatrical hearings about Libya rather than, say, holding President Obama accountable for his (morally outrageous and possibly illegal) policy of perpetual drone warfare.
It was Chaffetz and his fellow members of the House Freedom Caucus who decided to turn governance into a long series of hostage crises. It was party elites like John Boehner and Paul Ryan who decided that they couldn't face down the nihilists in their own caucus, even to achieve longstanding Republican policy goals like raising the retirement age for Social Security. The already-low public esteem for Congress plummeted accordingly.
Democrats clearly hoped that at some point, the voters would get Woke and point their fingers where they belong — at this clique of cynical power-grubbers in the House — remove them from office, and replace them with people that at least care whether the U.S. constitutional system is able to function as designed. These hopes are based on a pervasive and enduring misreading of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton won a sweeping re-election victory after facing down House Republicans in the 1995 budget standoff, and then when Democrats gained seats in the 1998 midterms after Republicans insisted on impeaching the popular Clinton. Obstruction doesn't pay, Republicans supposedly learned.
An alternate theory, apparently never considered in the halls of Democratic power, is that the American people just really liked Bill Clinton and were enjoying one of the longest peacetime economic expansions in U.S. history.
To wit, over the past six years we've learned that American voters cannot always, or even often, be trusted to punish politicians who cynically grind government to a halt. As such, it almost never pays to roll over for the majority.
Democrats should have learned this during the Bush years. In the aftermath of 9/11, congressional Democrats were so pliant in passing Bush's agenda that Howard Dean's rather mild claim in the 2004 race that he was "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" energized a partisan base that had grown weary of capitulation. And when congressional Democrats wised up and did a pretty nifty job of slowing down the Bush agenda after 2004, they were rewarded with the presidency, the House and, briefly, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate. Though it is worth noting that even at Peak Obstruction, Senate Democrats were willing to work with Bush on things like immigration reform, and to provide enough votes to confirm John Roberts to the Supreme Court.
This magnanimity was not reciprocated by Republicans during the Obama years.
So after the GOP's unapologetic, eight-year incineration of America's surviving governing norms, the Democrats have a stark choice. One option is to continue to be the party of decent government and compromise, and ride into power every eight or 12 years to clean up the GOP's mess. And indeed, all available signals from Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — the de facto leaders of what little remains of the institutional Democratic Party — suggest that they intend to cooperate dutifully with their new GOP overlords when the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful presents itself.
That this is the first instinct of the Democratic Party even after a crushing, incomprehensible defeat is actually kind of admirable. The urge to minimize the damage in defense of the public interest is broadly shared, and understandable. It must make many Democrats proud to support a party that truly believes in the public good, even at the expense of winning.
On the other hand, no. It's time for Democrats to say no. To everything.
Democrats must comprehend, at long last, what is being done to them by the Republican Party. The Democratic negotiating position on all issues put before them while they are in the House and Senate minority for at least the next two years should be very simple: You will give us Merrick Garland or you may go die in a fire.
Not only that, but they should do what they should have done the day Antonin Scalia died: Make it clear that the next time the Democrats control the Senate while the Republican Party controls the presidency, whether that is in 2019 or 2049, there will be an extraordinarily high price to pay for what just transpired. The next Republican president facing divided government will get nothing. This president will run the entire federal government by himself. Zero confirmations. No judges, not even to the lowliest district court in the country. No Cabinet heads. No laws. Budgets will be approved only after prolonged and painful crises. Whoever this GOP president is, he or she will be forced to watch while their presidency and everything they hoped to achieve in government is burned down while the Democrats block the fire hydrant and laugh.
And Democrats should be confident knowing that American voters will never, ever hold them accountable for it. On the contrary, they will almost certainly be rewarded with sweeping power.
It helps that the Republicans — led by a man who rage-tweets fake news in the middle of the night — are about to embark on a long voyage of turning every single thing they touch into garbage. There should be no Democratic fingerprints whatsoever on the coming catastrophe. Democrats must not give the imprimatur of legitimacy to the handsy Infowars accolyte who is about to take the oath of office. Not to get some highways built. Not to renegotiate NAFTA. Not to do anything.
At long last, Democrats must learn from their tormenters: Obstruct. Delay. Delegitimize. Harass. Destroy. Above all: Do. Not. Help. This. Man. Govern.
Hand Trump the keys and let him drive into a tree. Stop using Republican interpretive frames like "entitlements" to describe the very things that benefit the hopeless people who just granted unfettered power to Paul Ryan and his fellow granny-starvers. If Republicans are intent on gutting Medicare, do not under any circumstances compromise to make such a fiasco slightly more palatable. This is the only way for the Democrats to recapture power at a scale significant enough to fundamentally transform the American political system. And when this moment finally presents itself, in 2022 or 2024 or 2028, Democrats must have an extraordinarily radical agenda ready to roll: A massive amnesty. Compulsory voting. The end of plurality-rule elections. A new Voting Rights Act. Sweeping criminal justice reform. Medicare for all. Higher education whose cost is truly nominal. A basic income for all Americans. A Marshall Plan for climate change.
If this strikes some Democrats as a difficult strategy to square with their values, it should. After spending the past six years railing against Republican intransigence, how can the party then turn around and do the exact same thing? The answer is that our political system as currently constituted has turned into a fiefdom for a permanent right-wing minority wielding power through the Constitution's bizarre quirks, including the Electoral College. The Democrats must do whatever it takes to recapture power, even if it means adopting tactics that only yesterday they were calling threats to democracy. They must use their time in the minority to slow down and obstruct Trump, to turn the American people against the Republican Party, and to devise a message of social democracy that appeals not just to their coalition — whose vulnerable members must be defended vigorously rather than discarded in a hasty and ill-conceived post-mortem that blames "identity politics" — but also to the marginalized rural voters who have turned against the only organized force in American politics that actually cares about them.
The future of democracy, and of the planet, depends on Democrats digging in their heels and fighting dirty. Let us hope they are able to do so.