With Steve Bannon’s appointment as White House Chief Strategist, Trump has signaled a war on his domestic opponents. In a polarized polity in which a majority of the electorate and a larger majority of the population rejects his views, Trump has a very narrow path to success as a President. An understanding of that path must shape the strategies that we use to resist him.
Trump’s rise was driven by what Josh Marshall labeled as “dominance politics”. With both Clinton and his Republican opponents, Trump did not argue for the superiority of his policy positions. He focused instead on demeaning his opponents. “Low energy” Jeb, “little Marco”, and “lock her up” were not gimmicks; they were the core of Trump’s campaign designed to persuade voters that he had the abundance of testosterone needed to deliver the change that many voters want.
This means that Trump as President cannot tolerate the kinds of defeats that are likely as Congress, the courts, and the public weigh in on disputed policies. When the toughest guy in town sends a budget to Congress and it is “dead on arrival”, he is obviously not so macho. The danger is great that he will lose the aura of power that has been the core of his brand.
But while big defeats represent a huge threat, opposition does not. On the contrary, leaders of this type increase their support by overpowering those that his supporters already despise including feminists, racial minorities, and environmentalists. One can see this in the case of Ronald Reagan whose Hollywood apprenticeship allowed him to perform a more genial version of dominance politics.
When Reagan was Governor of California in the 1970’s, we had big demonstrations against him, complete with chants of “Fuck Reagan”. But Reagan then used his success in defeating the Left to solidify the support that took him to the White House.
Once in the Presidency, Reagan made sure to eviscerate his first major opponents. PATCO, the union of air traffic controllers, went out on strike and Reagan literally fired all the controllers who refused to return to work by a certain time. The signal was very powerful; opposing Reagan was going to be costly and dangerous.
Trump and Brannon know this history and they have an added weapon. Legislation passed after 9/11 gives the government broad anti-terror powers that could be mobilized against domestic opponents. For example, organizers of mass civil disobedience to protest Trump’s environmental policies could face long prison sentences for domestic terrorism. Unless the courts acted quickly to block such moves, the signal would be even stronger than Reagan’s action against PATCO.
There are ways to defeat Trump’s dominance politics, but it will take smart tactics and smart strategies. Most critically, we need to start building the broadest coalition possible to protect free speech and the right to peaceful protest, including civil disobedience. Our nation literally started with acts of disobedience in Boston Harbor, and we must preserve that weapon of dissent.