A few days ago I wrote that the Democrats were all but obligated to treat Trump as Republicans had treated Obama, strongly opposing all his policies, even ones they thought might have partial merit. My argument was that Republicans had created a new set of norms with their vast increase in filibusters, their refusal to hold hearings on Obama judges and, most outrageously his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. They had also gone overboard in less conventional ways, as for example giving aid and comfort to so called “birthers,” even when they were racist in their wild claims about the president. Trying to “go high” and rise above the new, low set of norms would, I argued, only empower the Republicans to go lower still, since they paid no penalty for tossing aside centuries of common practice and behavioral expectations.
But is there also a case to be made for some selective engagement with the Republican agenda, when the grounds can be found? Republicans sometimes spoke as though they were willing to work with Obama, very early on in his presidency. This may have largely been for public consumption, because, strangely enough, they just never seemed to find that common ground. Democrats could do likewise—and this may be the right way to read some of the seemingly conciliatory words from Schumer and others.
It can seem very to distinguish when strong opposition is a cynical political strategy and when it reflects a deeply held set of principles. After all, opposing the ACA or Obama court nominees or any additional stimulus spending could be justified on doctrinal grounds: health care should be left to the market; the nominees are too left wing; government spending is wasteful and deficits harm the economy. How do we know these weren’t the reasons behind unyielding Republican opposition? Well, actually historians do have ways of sussing these things out. If Republicans back away from their wholesale repeal of the ACA (despite passing numerous symbolic votes against it while Obama was in office) because of the political costs, we have some evidence their vocal opposition was really just a way to undermine the Democratic president. If they pass a budget now that balloons the deficit, we know the anti-deficit talk was just a ruse to cover up their plan to keep the economy weak on the Democrat’s watch. Plus, we also have their own words. They actually said they wanted to “bring Obama’s poll numbers down” and they met in a cabal to oppose everything Obama proposed precisely because they thought it would make him look like a failure.
So, where does that leave Democrats? Well, opposition to Trump on the principled stance of refusing to normalize what should not be normalized, that looks pretty much the same as opposing him for purely political reasons. The refusal to work with evil and the refusal to give an enemy any grounds for success end up meeting at the same point. I’m not saying the Democrats should engage substantively with Trump. Doing so is tricky since it risks moving the Overton Window still further to the right. But the sort of opposition to Trump and the Republicans evidenced in the marches last week will also be read by Republican supporters as simply trying to make the new president fail or undermining the traditions of peaceful transfer of power. There is no easy way to convince the other side that your resistance is actually moral opposition and theirs is obstinate refusal to accept the results of a legitimate process. After all, legitimacy is as political as anything else.