As a political performance, congressional Democrats’ rally on Monday against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban was more or less a debacle. On a cold night, hundreds of protesters showed up at the Supreme Court steps, but House members couldn’t even get the sound system working initially. “Is somebody going to deal with this?” asked an irritated Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader. She ultimately killed time by leading lawmakers in a not-so-rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
After Democrats did get the sound up and running, most of the crowd still couldn’t hear a thing. Some people headed home after just a few minutes. Others pulled out their smartphones, hoping to watch the speeches on Facebook Live. Those who couldn’t hear didn’t miss much. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer muddled through some rambling remarks, and as a group the Democrats held up minuscule fake candles—the kind you find at middlebrow restaurants—that were meant to symbolize the burning torch of the Statue of Liberty.
“We will not let this evil order extinguish that great torch,” Schumer shouted, holding his left arm high. Even up close, you could barely make out the candle between his pinched fingers.
Amateur theatrics aside, the rally was an important moment for the top elected Democrats in the country. It sent an unmistakable message that they’re being influenced by the growing populist outrage over Trump’s moves, and gives hope that they’ll try to do to the GOP what Republicans did to Democrats under President Barack Obama: wholesale obstruction.
“We will not let this evil order make us less American,” Schumer declared. “We will fight it with everything we have, and we will win this fight.”
Getting Schumer in particular into fighting form has taken some time. Within a week of Trump’s election, The New York Times was reporting on “Senate Democrats’ Surprising Strategy: Trying to Align With Trump.” On trade and infrastructure and even Wall Street reform, “candidate Trump voiced very progressive and populist opinions,” Schumer said on Meet the Press in late November. Democrats, it seemed, wouldn’t treat Trump the way Republicans had treated Barack Obama from the moment he took office: by obstructing his every move. Instead, Democrats would work with Trump where policy agreement could be found.
This strategy was always misguided, morally and strategically. I argued in mid-December that Democrats should drop all talk of bipartisanship until Republicans reached out first—especially since Trump hadn’t repudiated the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other assorted cruelties of his presidential campaign. Then as now, the GOP showed no interest in cooperation or collaboration—notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory of nearly three million—and Trump was most certainly not pivoting to a more presidential posture.
Schumer soured on cooperation as time worn on, telling CNN earlier this month, “The only way we’re going to work with him is if he moves completely in our direction and abandons his Republican colleagues.” By Inauguration Day, Schumer was on The Today Show pledging to fight Trump “tooth and nail” on most issues, though days later he was pitching the president on a Democratic infrastructure plan.
Schumer has continued this dance, and he hasn’t definitively ruled out working with Trump in the future. But the past 72 hours—marked by massive nationwide protests against Trump’s immigration ban—have clearly emboldened the Senate minority leader. On Sunday, at a protest in Manhattan, he choked up describing Trump’s “mean-spirited and un-American” actions. Trump mocked his “fake tears,” and Schumer announced he would oppose five more of Trump’s cabinet nominees, in addition to the three he’d already come out against.
Even more dramatic opposition appears to be in the works. Politico reported Monday that Senate Democrats plan to filibuster Trump’s forthcoming Supreme Court nominee—set to be announced Tuesday evening—unless it’s Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee whom Republicans blocked last year. “This is a stolen seat. This is the first time a Senate majority has stolen a seat,” Senator Jeff Merkley told Politico. “We will use every lever in our power to stop this.”
On the other hand, CNN reported Monday night that “Senate Democrats are weighing whether to avoid an all-out war to block President Donald Trump’s upcoming Supreme Court pick, instead considering delaying that battle for a future nomination that could shift the ideological balance of the court.” Clearly there’s an internal party debate, if not an outright struggle, over how to fight Trump.
That elected Democrats are scrambling at all is a good sign. It means that their mobilized constituents, with their demands for concrete action to stop Trump, are getting results. It’s taken time, but leaders like Schumer and Pelosi may finally be meeting progressives where they are.
“I think the calculous is changing almost by the minute,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who was Bernie Sanders’s senior strategist during last year’s campaign. “The public reaction to Trump’s presidency is boiling over.” Devine predicted opposition to Trump will become a political movement unlike any in the U.S. since the Vietnam War. “I think we’re going to see a genuine insurgency in this country,” he said.
Ambitious Democrats on Capitol Hill are responding accordingly. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and rising star Kamala Harris were among many elected Democrats who joined protests in the past few days. “The decisive force in politics are the people showing up in the street right now,” Devine said. “I think [Democrats] need to recognize that the 2018 election could be unlike any we’ve seen in our history.” He added that centrist Democrats on the Hill “should take a look at what happened to Republicans who opposed the Tea Party.”
Symone Sanders, Bernie Sanders’s former campaign press secretary, said she understood the impulse not to alienate centrist Democrats—including those who voted for Obama, then backed Trump—but said her party’s congressional leadership in particular needs to hold the line against the president. “Folks still think this is business as usual and it’s not,” she said. “The status quo is out the window.”
Even the co-founder of Third Way, a famously moderate Democratic think tank, is on the same page. Jim Kessler, a proud centrist and former Schumer aide, issued the following statement to the New Republic:
Trump’s first 10 days have been a spectacular catastrophe. There is nothing even remotely on the table that Democrats should or would work with him and his administration on. If Trump wants to work with Democrats in the future it’s on him, because he has to make radical changes to what he’s doing.
Sanders still wants to see more movement on Schumer’s part. She wants to hear him foreclose any cooperation with Trump. “I don’t care if it’s infrastructure,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s trade.” She’s frustrated it’s taken Schumer this long to oppose Trump this forcefully, but glad to see the base moving him along. “I think he’s on his way,” she added.
That appears to be true of the entire Democratic leadership. “It is no longer business as usual in the United States Congress,” Warren said at Monday night’s rally. “We are here to step up in this moment.” No one doubted that the Massachusetts senator would be a key part of the Trump resistance. But if her “we” includes the centrist Democratic establishment—and the evidence increasingly suggests it does—then the party just might have the spine required to obstruct this evil at every turn.