Some Reasons for Optimism in a Time of Darkness

It has been a dark few days for the country. The FBI deputy director resigned after much pressure from a President frustrated that he refused to scuttle an investigation into him for colluding with a hostile foreign power.  Republicans in Congress recklessly voted to release a partisan hack memo designed to undermine that investigation written by Republican staffers, likely in concert with the White House, spearheaded by a Republican congressman who was part of the president’s transition team under investigation and who was supposed to have recused himself from the intelligence committee. The president is refusing to implement sanctions on Russia—the country he is accused of colluding with—that were overwhelmingly approved by Congress to punish the kleptocracy for its interference in our election. The Republican Congress is opening an investigation into the FBI itself, in a bogus attempt to discredit the investigations into Trump. And the President is reportedly asking for Robert Mueller himself to be prosecuted for imaginary offense.

It’s understandable that these developments would cause no small amount of heartburn. Democracy and the norms of American government appear to be falling apart in front of our eyes.

But all is not lost, and there are strong reasons for optimism even as a would-be dictator tries to protect himself from the consequences of his malfeasance.

The first is that all of Trump’s actions, and those of the Republicans around him, are ones not of confidence but defensive desperation. Republicans know that Trump is guilty of colluding with Russia to undermine the election. They know that he is guilty of obstruction of justice: for that matter, anyone who watched Trump’s interview with Lester Holt knows he is guilty. They know that Trump is guilty of a bevy of financial misdeeds. They know that Mueller has the evidence for all this, and that the truth is going to come out one way or another. All they can do is try to muddy the waters. The intensity with which they are doing this shows the level of their desperation.

Why so desperate? Because they have to be. A political movement in a position of strength does not let itself be taken over by a man like Donald Trump. If a virus like Trump manages to seize hold of its host, a healthy body eventually inoculates itself from the intruder and sheds it. But the Republican Party is not healthy. It is in dire straits. That’s a curious thing to say of a party that is currently dominant in federal, state and judiciary power, but it is true. Republicans only hold the House due to gerrymandering. The Senate is an anti-majoritarian institution, but it will almost certainly flip to Democrats in 2020 if not in 2018. Republicans have only won the popular vote in one of the last six presidential elections. The rising tide of millennial voters despises them, and Republicans have doubled down on old white people—a recipe for guaranteed electoral disaster.

Republicans know that Trump is their last shot to remake the country before it irrevocably turns against them. Sure, it’s a two-party system subject to Duverger’s Law, so the pendulum will swing back. But when it does, the Republican Party that regains power won’t look anything like its current manifestation.

And what have Republicans managed to do with the first year of what could be a short, two-year window? Not much. They failed to undo the Affordable Care Act. They did pass a top-heavy tax cut, but tax policy is one of the easiest things to adjust and change for a future administration. They’re trying to reduce the flow of non-white people into the country to preserve their demographic edge for as long as possible, but even Trump’s own dead-on-arrival draconian measures would only nibble at the edges of an inevitable demographic shift that increasingly emphasizes non-white voting populations. And those populations have become incredibly hostile to Republicans because of their embrace of overt racism.

As regards the Mueller investigation into Trump, Republican options are limited here as well. There are only two likely outcomes: first, that Mueller is allowed to complete his investigation and presents his findings publicly—in which case Republicans will almost certainly do nothing and refuse to impeach the president. The second option is that Trump fires Rosenstein and Mueller on some flimsy pretext, thus adding to his legal jeopardy down the line. If that happens, Mueller’s evidence will almost certainly leak to the press, and counterinsurgencies will develop within intelligence and law enforcement organizations. The fury of the Democratic base will increase, as will the demands that a future Democratic Congress impeach and prosecute the president and co-conspirators. Both of those outcomes are similar regardless of what Trump and the Republicans do.

Russians will almost certainly attempt to meddle in the election again. But it’s not clear that it will have anything like the same effect. A few Senators may get hacked, and the usual social media gamesmanship will occur, but these are persuasion efforts. Moreover, Democratic campaigns have increased security measures, social media companies are taking steps to limit the spread of harassment and false news farms, and news organizations will be more skeptical of reporting stories based on stolen private communications. It’s unlikely that Facebook ads and Twitter bots will stop a dedicated groundswell of anti-Trump voters from hitting the polls.

February is almost upon us. We are more than a year away from Trump’s inauguration, and about 10 months away from the accountability of the 2018 congressional elections. This is not a time for despair and desperation. It’s a time for organizing.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.