Apocalypse not yet

Demonstrations against president-elect Donald Trump continue in cities and on college campuses. (The image at right is from an anti-Trump walkout at Rutgers University.) Small groups continue to torment people who look like they belong to groups (blacks, Latinos, gays, Jews) that lost when Trump won, and now a few Trump supporters report  harassment when they come out by wearing Trump garb. Many people are trying to figure out how to respond to both Trump and what they fear he will do in office–specifically, what he promised.

It’s not just in the streets. Democrats in Congress are arguing about how to pick and fight their legislative battles, and university administrators are issuing statements not only about the virtues of diversity, but even promises to protect students liable for deportation–which may include hundreds of thousands of people.

It’s not clear what these first eruptions of activism are going to lead to, nor how effective they will be. What Trump does in office is going to matter a lot, and right now most of his opponents and allies are guessing. Trump has demonstrated no reliable commitment to any set of ideas beyond his own Trumpiness, and is already backing off some of his commitments–and commitments that supporters imagined. He’s also demonstrated little capacity or interest in managing anything beyond his media coverage, and may therefore be reluctant to undertake all of the unpopular policies he’s embraced.

Americans are worried that he’s not competent; some large share of his supporters said he’s not up to the job.  But incompetence is hardly reassuring; those who are going out into the streets are more worried that he actually can follow through on his promises.

Anti-Trump demonstrators over the weekendAmerican political institutions are designed to prevent the sorts of things he’s promised from coming about. Thus far, the tripwires have failed: The Republican Party nominated a candidate without experience in public service nor demonstrated commitment to the party; mass media struggled to cover his background, and he refused to conform to norms that we thought were well-established about transparency or honesty; and the electoral college, designed as a check against such bold ambitions, actually delivered the election to him.

The next lines of defense are in the checks and balances of political institutions in Congress. With both Houses of Congress now controlled by the Republican Party, the question is how disciplined Republicans will be in acceding or challenging Trump.

Some historical context is helpful here. Donald Trump and the Republican Party performed substantially worse than Barack Obama and the Democrats did in 2008.  Compare the results in Congress:

House of Rep.                      Senate

D             R             Dgain     D             R             Dgain

2008                       257         178         (21)        60           40           (9)

2016                       193         238         (6)          51           48           (2)

President Obama, who actually won the popular vote, won a larger majority in the House and, for a brief time, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Even then, his agenda narrowed as he sought to maintain the support of Democrats who held seats in more conservative states or districts (RIP, the public option, for example).

Within weeks of taking the office of office, Obama faced the newly emergent Tea Party, which opposed health care reform–among other things–emboldened Republicans, and scared more than a few Democrats.

If Trump had electoral coattails, they did not prevent the Republican Party from losing seats in both houses of Congress. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell command smaller majorities than their counterparts eight years earlier, and their caucuses may be equally contentious.  They have also disagreed with candidate Trump on matters of policy. The issues on which they toe the line or draw the line with a new president are still unclear, but will matter.

The issues that Trump decides to push will set the initial terms of the movements that challenge him, just as opposition to health care reform became the litmus test that unified the Tea Party and the Republican Party.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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