Here’s a paradox: The best way to bring down Donald Trump may be to not focus political energy on him.
Imagine the Trump presidency as a temple — say, in the style of the Greek Parthenon, but with the tackiness of Ancient Rome at its most vulgar and corrupt. If you want to bring it down, you don’t go pounding at the roof, just as you don’t hammer on a tabletop to collapse a table. Instead, you weaken or remove the pillars that support it and hold it up.
All governments rely on the consent of the governed. They also rely on a huge array of people and institutions to confer legitimacy upon them and cooperate with them in ways large and small. When the leader or the government is corrupt, unfit or came to power through questionable and undemocratic means, this everyday cooperation takes on the sinister character of collusion.
That is the most striking fact about Trump: From the time he first hit the campaign trail, his rise to power has been possible only because of enablers who treat him as a legitimate public figure or otherwise cooperate with his presidency. Nearly every member of the Republican Party has been complicit in Trump’s reign — but so have a great many Democrats, either tacitly or openly, as when Sen. Chuck Schumer cooperated in fast-tracking Trump’s judicial nominees. Twitter has allowed Trump to continue to use its platform despite repeatedly violating its terms of service; over and over again, major news media have repeated his lies without naming them as such and given outsized airtime to Trump’s every utterance.
Scholars of authoritarianism, like Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the book “How Democracies Die,” underscore the crucial role of gatekeepers in either advancing or resisting autocratic rulers and rule. But the scholars have little to say about how to respond when gatekeepers abdicate that role, and when the normal checks and balances of our political system no longer function as they should.
That’s of course where grassroots movements and nonviolent civil resistance can come in: We have the potential to be the crucial check on a system that’s dangerously out of balance.
It’s not a bad thing to protest Trump himself — it’s useful to counter his lies and to have high-visibility displays of opposition to his abuses. But if we fail to pull away the sources of his support, we could protest Trump until we’re blue in the face without ever bringing him down.
This strategy entails putting pressure on Democrats as much as — or in some cases more than — Republicans. Democrats are generally more susceptible to progressive pressure than Republicans, because progressives are a part of their voting base. And Democrats have considerably more power to impede Trump’s actions than they’ve been willing to employ. Now that Democrats control the House, they have the power to hold hearings and conduct investigations that shine a spotlight on Trump’s corruption and duplicity. They also can pursue impeachment. While Democrats don’t have a majority in the Senate, they have a variety of means they could use there to slow or thwart Trump’s agenda — they could withdraw cooperation by, say, refusing to show up and thus denying a quorum, by filibustering, or by using other procedural maneuvers to gum up the works.
Targeting Trump’s enablers also means looking outside government to the institutions and entities that are helping Trump stay in power. Twitter, for instance — just imagine how much weaker Trump would be if he were banned from the platform for violating its terms of service, as he’s done many, many times. What about a sustained campaign to make that happen? Twitter has offices in Atlanta, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Seattle — all excellent targets for protest and pressure.
Many groups and individuals in the resistance have already been following some version of this strategy, and doing so with persistence and skill. To dream big and push for what we really want — Trump out of office, and robust progressive alternatives — we’ll need not only to continue this work but to escalate the pressure: creatively, nonviolently and in the words of the direct-action group Rise and Resist, “with all the joy we can muster.”