Apologies if this evaluation of our situation becomes obsolete 20 minutes after it’s published. We are in a constitutional crisis, and things are happening quickly. The initial week of the Trump administration produced so much heat, so much rage, and so much genuine life-of-our-democracy concern that the fury blasting out of the Left’s firehose hit several surprising targets, including but not limited to Uber and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Warren and several other Democrats came under fire for voting to confirm several Trump cabinet nominees, including Ben Carson for HUD Secretary. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has been vilified, and words like “spineless,” “accommodationist,” and “Vichy” have been bandied about concerning the whole party as it attempts to navigate this frightening new era.
Though it’s difficult given the gravity of the situation, it’s also important that as people call their representatives, protest, march, and tweet, some semblance of a plan takes shape and holds firm. My fear is the Left, from centrists to radicals, is way better at hyper-ventilating about each fresh outrage than it is about being tactically shrewd or actually effecting the legislative outcomes of all these various issues. For instance, I’m deeply skeptical about New York’s other senator, Kirsten Gillibrand’s plan to vote “No” on almost every Trump nominee (she voted to confirm Nikki Haley to the UN even though Haley is just as inexperienced with diplomatic relations as Ben Carson is with housing). The Huffington Post crowd might venerate Gillibrand, and you can definitely see the campaign ads for the 2020 Democratic primary, but will this be effective strategically? If all 48 Democratic senators do as the base wishes and votes No on every Trump nominee, and they simply pass with Republican votes, do you honestly think anyone in the tyrannical Trump regime or the Republican Party or their base will give more than zero fucks?
Obviously not. Congressional Republicans already proved with everything from the debt ceiling showdown to Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland that they are ready to shred every norm and standard to get what they want. Symbols do not matter to them.
So what is tactically shrewd then?
Writing in The Washington Post, Adam Jentleson, Harry Reid’s former deputy chief of staff, suggests Democrats can throw an enormous amount of sand into the gears simply by using procedural methods to slow down the vote of each and every nominee. Already, Senate Democrats are utilizing a grind-the-gears strategy. Trump’s cabinet confirmations are moving forward in drips infuriating to his cheerleaders
Compared with Obama’s cabinet, this slow-walk is already unprecedented, which is important not just to hold up these extremely unqualified, ethically dubious nominees but because in a sense we are all stalling for time. Every day the Senate spends putting off the confirmation of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, is another day Obamacare lives on, deficit-exploding tax cuts for the wealthy remain out of reach, further degradations of voting rights are kept at bay, and a thousand mile wall across the Mexican border remains unfunded. In other words, obstruction is about buying as much time as possible while the rest of us prepare to do the impossible (and this will be the all-time electoral equivalent of a shot from half court) and flip the Senate and the House in 2018 to create real checks on the Trump administration and real investigations into the horror show of his presidency.
Yet there’s another angle to why it does not matter if Warren votes for Carson or if some of Trump’s nominees are confirmed. In any Republican administration—let’s say we had President Rubio right now—most of these nominees would be objectionable. You’d have an anti-labor Labor Secretary, an anti-environment Interior Secretary, an anti-public education Education Secretary. This goes beyond Trump. That’s the nature of what the GOP has become. They are resistant to science, economics, empirical evidence, and certainly the public interest. While Chuck Schumer may be Wall Street’s pet monkey, the GOP is essentially a cult of neoliberal Storm Troopers shotgun-married to a white supremacist carnival barker.
However, this also means the GOP has exploitable divisions. Senate Democrats only need a handful of Republican votes to bring down a nominee. They should focus their efforts on peeling off these votes for the most egregious candidates.
Given what’s happened the past week, it would be nice if a few Republicans claiming to care about these issues stepped up, revealed a conscience, a glimmer of courage, and refused to vote on any of Trump’s nominees until he reverses his illegal, immoral, and dangerous executive order. I spent my weekend writing and calling a few of these people and you should too (McCain, Graham, Sasse, Paul, Collins, among others). But again, this would require actual political courage on their parts, and I don’t think the rest of us can bank on that.
The next best thing would be to torpedo the worst of the worst. In no particular order, these probably include:
• Rex Tillerson at State - He’s an unqualified plutocrat with whose ties to Russia are yet to be investigated. For what it’s worth, his former company, ExxonMobil, was hurt by America’s sanctions against Putin. His entire career was spent emitting as much CO2 as possible while the planet burns. He appears to have been recruited solely for the purpose of making the world safe for the continued plunder of fossil fuel companies, particularly his own.
• Rick Perry at Energy - It’s not just that he would be heading the department he vowed to destroy as a candidate, only to forget its name like something straight out of an Onion headline. It’s that Energy controls the U.S. nuclear arsenal and typically is the domain of Nobel Prize winning scientists for the because one needs a deep reservoir of technical and scientific training to even understand the issues at stake. I’m fairly certain there are eighth graders who have a better understanding of genomics (for which Energy directs and oversees research) than Perry.
• Betsy DeVos at Education - Besides her laughably awful confirmation hearing in which it was clear she does not understand anything about education policy except how to privatize it, DeVos is another plutocrat, who’s brother Erik Prince runs the mercenary company formerly known as Blackwater. Given Trump’s penchant for using private security instead of the Secret Service, this connection is especially troubling in a tinfoil-hat kind of way. Rather abruptly, it turns out we should all readying the tinfoil.
• Scott Pruitt at EPA - It’s simply insane you can nominate a climate denier who sued the very institution he is now supposed to be in charge of, but that’s where we are. One would think John McCain, who knows the reality of climate change, would not be able to even look at a grandchild after voting for this man, but we’re really about to find out how politicians can compartmentalize their consciences in fascinating ways.
• Jeff Sessions at Justice - This is the Big Kahuna, the nomination Democrats must do everything in their power to bring down. Sessions is a true fascist waiting to happen. He will make Alberto Gonzalez and John Ashcroft look like paragons of virtue and impartiality. With the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, Trump’s team is clearly trying to assert political dominance over the Justice Department. Under his leadership Justice will be turned into a political tool to damage, harass, and arrest religious minorities, people of color, political activists, journalists, and Trump’s personal enemies. Former Sessions aide Stephen Miller is part of the two-person team along with Bannon who wrote the college-intern-level document now known as the Muslim Ban. Sessions was chosen because he will rubber stamp every unconstitutional detention and torture policy alongside every voter discrimination law. One cannot overstate the danger of having a brainless lackey with clear white supremacist inclinations running what is supposed to be the independent law enforcement arm of the government. Justice will operate as a retributive arm of the executive.
Sure, there are others I could add: Andy Pudzer at Labor and Steve Mnuchin at Treasury and Ryan Zinke at Interior – these men are all unqualified or outright hostile to the departments they’re tasked with operating, but the fact is whoever rose to take their places would likely be just as awful. That’s one of the glories of Trump’s cabinet—this is such a horrific collection of rabid, soulless, reactionary animals that it’s difficult to choose a target on which to train political fire. That is surely intentional.
Yet there are enough murmurs a handful of Senate Republicans are deeply concerned with several of these nominees—enough that revolt is not unthinkable. The Senate is the only place in the entire government where Democrats can exercise enough power and influence to stop at least some of what’s coming. Pet Monkey or not, Schumer et al is what we’ve got. The goal should be to stick as many wedges into a Republican coalition unified only at the surface and for the moment. Trump may help with horrific Executive Orders and the insane elevation of men like Steve Bannon to national security posts, but to really stop this, Democrats need allies of conscience from the other side.
On the ground, people must organize, but in the halls of power, Democrats must create the sense for their colleagues that Trump is a unique threat to the country, and one that must be confronted as he goes too far and promises to go even farther.