The Trump Presidency Is a Train Wreck. Progressives Must Be Ready to Capitalize. | Soapboxer | Indy Week
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The Trump Presidency Is a Train Wreck. Progressives Must Be Ready to Capitalize. 

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Over the last two weeks, the failures and scandals and incompetence and general chaos of the first seven months of the Trump administration have become manifest and undeniable: the inability to advance even the slightest health care reform, despite Republicans controlling both houses of Congress; the hiring of loudmouthed hedge-funder Anthony Scaramucci as communications director and the subsequent resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer and firing of chief of staff Reince Priebus, followed by the firing of Scaramucci by new chief of staff John Kelly; the leaking of embarrassing transcripts of phone calls between Trump and world leaders, in which the president begged the Mexican president not to tell the media he wouldn't pay for the wall and behaved like a petulant preteen while talking to the Australian prime minister; a story in The New York Times suggesting that Vice President Pence is quietly readying a White House bid for 2020, should President Trump be unavailable; and the president's rock-bottom approval ratings, despite a decent economy and an unemployment rate at 4.3 percent.

Perhaps most alarming for Team Trump, last week brought news that special counsel Robert Mueller has convened a grand jury in Washington, D.C., to investigate the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, and subpoenas have started going out.

A grand jury was an inevitable and logical next step. But there's nonetheless an unavoidable sense that the noose is tightening. The president, meanwhile, is reduced to holding rallies in the friendliest of territories to prop up his fragile ego.

Congress is now in recess for the summer, having left town without delivering any major legislative victories for the new president. When it returns, GOP leaders are promising to tackle an overhaul of the tax system, a task no less complicated or daunting than health care. Soon, the midterm election season will be upon us, and Congress will be more interested in self-preservation than in passing controversial legislation at the behest of an unpopular president.

In other words, if you thought that first two hundred days were a godawful muddle, just wait; it's not going to get any easier for Trump. And if Democrats retake the House in 2018—a distinct possibility—the president can expect to be mired in investigations into Russia and God knows what else, all leading into 2020.

All of which is to say, Trump's window for effecting big, lasting change is closing, and he's done precious little with it.

The resistance, those who took to the streets and besieged senators with angry phone calls, succeeded. The question now is whether progressives can keep their feet on the administration's throat and turn anger and action in the first half of 2017 into victories over the next fifteen months—and just as important, whether they can recruit and fund and propel a next generation of progressives into elected office.

That I'm less sure of.

People voting against Trump may be enough for Democrats to succeed. That's how Republicans gained power, by being against Obama and then against Clinton, not on the strength of their own agenda. But as Republicans are learning, if you want to stay in power, and if you want to get things done, you need to give voters something to support, a proactive agenda. And you need to develop a new, inspiring generation of leaders to champion it.

The Dems' recently unveiled "Better Deal" agenda marks a turn toward economic populism (antitrust regulations, $1 trillion for infrastructure, $15-an-hour minimum wage), a naked appeal to the suburban and Rust Belt whites who supposedly abandoned the Dems for Trump because they were "economically anxious." It's also a recycling of shopworn, incremental-minded Democratic policy ideas from the last twenty years—hardly exciting stuff.

Then there's the question of who's going to be selling it. Barack Obama was a singularly talented politician, but under his presidency the Democratic bench was eviscerated. Democrats lost statehouses all over the country, including in North Carolina, where our recently elected moderate Democratic governor's power is checked by the legislature's Republican supermajority.

Even as the progressive movement continues to resist a flailing Trump agenda, it needs to also focus on the state and local levels. In the Triangle, there are a number of smart, engaging progressives worthy of promotion: Wake County commissioners Jessica Holmes, John Burns, and Matt Calabria, as well as Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson come to mind. (There are certainly others.)

The point is, after Trump's inevitable collapse, progressives must have the infrastructure, ideas, and leaders in place to pick up the pieces and move forward. And that work should begin now. As the saying goes, you don't beat something with nothing.

jbillman@indyweek.com

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