On Monday night there was a massacre, or so the headlines screamed. Acting attorney general Sally Q. Gates had ordered lawyers at the Department of Justice not to defend President Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending the admission of refugees and closing the country’s borders to citizens of seven countries where terrorism is rampant. For this act of insubordination, Trump summarily fired Yates, an Obama administration holdover. In doing so, he brought down fresh opprobrium on his head from liberal media outlets, which quickly lionized the heretofore-obscure lawyer for opposing an administration that already appeared to be under siege.
There are good reasons to believe aspects of Trump’s order were both poorly thought out and clumsily implemented. But whatever one thinks of the order’s substance, the willingness of so many in the press to compare Yates’s dismissal to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” — a futile effort to spike the Watergate investigation — provided further proof that the idea of all-out “resistance” to the new administration has moved from the streets to the corridors of power.
The notion of “resisting” rather than merely opposing Trump’s administration appears to have started on the margins of the public square, with rants from media figures such as Keith Olbermann that were subsequently seconded at every Hollywood awards show. It then took tangible form in the massive counter-inaugural demonstration of the Women’s March on Washington, two days after Trump was sworn in. And it has revved into overdrive with the protests against Trump’s travel restrictions, escalating from mere public protests to active efforts to obstruct the machinery of government.
Trump’s executive order is problematic. They failed to allow exceptions for green-card holders and sympathetic visa-seekers such as those Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces during the war in that country, all of whom have already been thoroughly vetted. The lack of a clear plan to implement the order — as well as the failure to fully inform various government agencies and key members of Congress, and the dismal spectacle of travelers detained at airports nationwide — seemed to buttress claims that Trump’s team was both extreme and incompetent.
But when you strip away the hyperbole and the bad political optics, it’s impossible to sustain the argument that enacting these sorts of restrictions on immigration are racist or that they constitute a “Muslim ban,” let alone the first step in a fascist coup. One can embrace the idea that America is a nation of immigrants without also accepting the proposition that there mustn’t be any limits on their numbers or discretion paid to where they come from. Nor can it be reasonably asserted that the order or any other action Trump took in his first ten days amounted to an assault on the Constitution. That’s especially true when one considers that the same people screaming bloody murder about Trump’s moves applauded President Obama when he took it upon himself to use executive orders to override the Congress and unilaterally change immigration laws in a way that actually did violate the Constitution’s separation of powers.
Reasonable people can argue about how far the government should go in ensuring that immigrants and refugees are not security threats. But once that debate descends into a fight over whether Trump’s measures are the precursors of a new Nazi era, more than civility is lost. At that point, we are in uncharted waters where every political controversy, no matter how large or small, becomes a zero-sum game, a fight to the death in which the opposition can foul the waters of democracy without actually winning or gaining concessions from the administration it opposes.
It’s unclear what they think they can accomplish by conducting themselves in this manner.
So long as it was just the left wing of the Democratic party that was clamoring for its House and Senate members to obstruct Trump’s every appointment or move, it was possible to imagine the new administration’s first year unfolding in something remotely resembling political normalcy. That someone such as Yates felt emboldened to use her fleeting moment in power to grandstand against Trump, rather than simply resigning or obeying a legal-if-controversial order, was one logical consequence of the resistance strategy. That Senate Democrats then began attempting to block the routine approval of Cabinet appointments was another. It seems exceedingly likely that a Democratic filibuster of Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, will be next, and that it will provoke Republicans to eliminate what’s left of the filibuster for presidential appointments through the so-called nuclear option.
By following their radicals down the resistance rabbit hole, Democrats may be appeasing the progressive base and gaining applause from liberal media outlets that are eager to act as cheerleaders in the war on Trump. But they are also undermining the political system and the normal functions of government that they claimed to be defending against Trump last fall.
Trump’s vanity, thin skin, and toxic resentment of opponents will ensure that his presidency is unique and attracts criticism from across the political spectrum. But liberals seem unable to separate their personal abhorrence of Trump from discussions about policy or the legitimacy of an election loss they still can’t wrap their heads around. And as a result, they have begun laying the groundwork for two–four years in which any form of bipartisan cooperation or even civil discourse will be impossible.
It’s unclear what they think they can accomplish by conducting themselves in this manner. Trump’s critics assume that exploiting the mistakes his team has made will enable them to cripple his administration. But by seeking to delegitimize every one of his actions, they’re only proving that senior Trump advisor Steve Bannon is right about politics being war by other means. Despite the help of a mainstream media that spent the last few days validating the idea that they are the unofficial opposition to Trump or at least its willing mouthpieces, it is not a war they can win. To the contrary, the more they double down on demonizing Trump, the more they strengthen the resolve of conservatives and congressional Republicans to back him despite their misgivings. And in so doing, they are leaving themselves with no way out of a confrontation in which even an inexperienced and often chaotic White House still holds all the cards.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is a veteran journalist and contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.