The self-conception of the anti-Trump “resistance” is a subject of urgent debate on the left. Who are the resisters? What do they believe? How should they respond to Trump and his administration, both the real outrages and the banal? These existential issues have consumed grassroots liberals, and elected Democrats are starting to share this fixation. There is no consensus save that the left is obliged to treat the Trump presidency as an illegitimate, existential threat to the American experiment. That presumption permits, perhaps even demands, extraordinary measures. Democrats have adopted a sort of intransigence and paranoia in response to Trump that should be familiar to Republicans, but the costs of their campaign of “resistance” to American political comity may yet become too much to bear.
Democrats spent much of the Obama years marveling contemptuously at the level of antipathy the right displayed toward Barack Obama. From the moment of his first address to a joint session of Congress, the GOP’s anger became evident when Joe Wilson famously barked “you lie.” Liberals scratched their heads over the shallowness of Republicans who considered a presidential hug enough to cost Charlie Crist a seat in the Senate and, possibly, Chris Christie the GOP presidential nomination. The right’s fear of Obama and their outrage at anyone on “their side” seen as collaborating with him should be viewed in a new light by the left. Their anxiety over what the Trump presidency represents has driven many liberals to embrace measures objectively more extreme than those the right employed in the Obama years.
The Trump era began, almost from minute one, with a shocking display of violence. The violent exhibitions that typified the campaign season, both from Trump supporters in response to the future president’s agitation and his opponents, did not abate after Trump’s victory. In a sign of the rancorous relationship to come, nearly 70 House Democrats boycotted Trump’s inaugural proceedings. Across the country on Inauguration Day, and particularly in Washington, 217 were arrested and six police officers injured as anti-Trump demonstrations turned violent.
Democrats and liberals took umbrage at the suggestion that any of this violence had been conducted by “the left,” preferring instead to blame this mass spasm of heedless destruction on “anarchists.” That objection was supported in late January when the multi-city “women’s march” protests against Trump occurred without incident. But not everyone on the left found that display of non-violence praise-worthy. “If the police stay their hand with you, white women, it is not a compliment,” wrote the New Republic’s Jess Zimmerman. “It is condescension.”
She was in good company. Just days later, in the name of anti-Trump zealotry, the University of California, Berkley, campus erupted into destructive demonstrations aimed at preventing Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. They were successful. Around the same time, the left became enthralled by a video of the white supremacists Richard Spencer being assaulted on the streets. The clip became so popular that it prompted a New York Times report earnestly asking if it was “O.K. to hit a fascist.” Too many on the left advocated acts of criminal assault, so long as the target was sufficiently distasteful.
Democratic lawmakers have nurtured the zealotry that has arisen on the left. Early this week, reporters were inundated by statements from Democratic lawmakers announcing their intention to avoid any physical contact with Trump. “I will not greet him and shake his hand,” pronounced Representative Eliot Engel who, for 29 years, made it a point of pride to secure a presidential handshake at these and similar addresses. He was not alone. A number of Democrats declined to shake Trump’s hand because to do so might be seen by liberal constituents as “normalizing” the elected president and contradicting Democrats, like Representative John Lewis, who have insisted that Trump is not a legitimate commander-in-chief.
So consuming is this passion that some Democrats have taken leave of their senses. Donald Trump displayed showman-like political instincts in commemorating the sacrifice of a fallen U.S. SEAL on Tuesday night long enough for Democrats to decide they’d had enough. Unscrupulous conservative blogs that broadcast that no Democrats ever stood to honor a military widow were lying to their readers, but Trump did manage to secure the perfectly genuine image of the red side of the aisle clapping while the blue side sat. Why? Was a two-minute and 45-second ovation for an American hero’s loved ones too gauche? Or were Democrats abiding by their instincts, which were screaming at them to reassume their defensive, scowling crouch?
Carryn Owens wasn’t the only woman to get the cold shoulder from Democrats. When Melania Trump appeared in the gallery at Trump’s first congressional address, many Democrats maintained a stony silence. The meager courtesy of polite acknowledgment was one she is not due, according to the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead. In a gratuitously graceless series of attacks on the first lady, Mead noted that “acclaim” was due to Democrats for suppressing the instinct to applaud. “In times like these, the withholding of ordinary graciousness may be the very least that one can do,” she concluded.
How heartbreakingly sad. Are these impotent poses and petulant displays truly what the Democratic base demands of their representatives? Do they demand rudeness? Bitter incivility? And is it the duty of responsible elected officials to indulge their worst impulses? Perhaps these Democrats have concluded that they must emulate the rise of the tea party, a movement they viewed as uncivil and fanatical. If so, they’ve misread the tea party, its objectives, and its adherents. Even if we accept those terms, Democrats are conceding that they must attack the structures that bind the country together if they are to reassume power. Democrats should consider what might be lost if they sacrifice generosity, kindness, and basic amiability to the monomaniacal “resistance.” Perhaps they think their temerity is saving the country. But what kind of a country will they inherit?