When Donald Trump was elected president, I tried to console myself with the idea that at least we were living in interesting times. Things might be discombobulating and, for some, downright terrifying, but they would hardly be boring, right?
The last year has proved me wrong. We’ve never lived in less interesting times. In order for something to be interesting it has to be at least marginally graspable. Even if you can’t see the big picture, you have to be able to back up and see past your nose. And trying to grasp the full scope of the political climate right now is a bit like trying to view a Hieronymus Bosch triptych that’s been hung inside a small, dark closet. We have no idea what we’re really looking at. All we know is that it’s overwhelming and often grotesque.
That’s part of the reason I mostly kept my opinions to myself in 2017. My taste for counterintuitive rumination and occasional devil’s advocacy felt inappropriate to the occasion. I could have spent the year clucking about unhelpful hyperbole and tiresome performative wokeness, about the perils of labeling every political opponent a fascist, and all the ways in which the “nasty woman” trope was becoming, well, a little trop. But given the magnitude of the political earthquake and the justifiability of people’s outrage, it seemed better to step back and let more visceral responses set the tone.
Still, as we come up on the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, the awe-inspiring Women’s March and the beginning of the mass nervous breakdown among liberals, I can’t help but think we’ve also reached the end of a certain grace period, one in which we pretended that wokeness was an acceptable substitute for an actual personality, not to mention for actual activism.
During this period, virtue signaling has become blue states’ own sort of opioid addiction. Post something about toxic masculinity, white privilege or, of course, President Trump (whose name is shorthand for both) and the likes and affirmations will mete out just enough dopamine to keep you going until the next fix.
Better yet, if you want to promote your movie, your book, your economic theory or your crowdfunded business venture, wrap it in the cloak of Trump-resistance and you are suddenly part of a mighty and magically unassailable franchise. Approval will be freely bestowed and favors exchanged. Important people are likely to endorse you and important media to cover you. In fact, this might be the only way to get important media coverage because “life in the age of Trump” is pretty much the only story in the news cycle.
But if you start to feel less than sincere every time you join a #MeToo chorus, you do what humans have done for thousands of years: Get together and admit privately to feeling conflicted.
Such gatherings are now referred to as “back channeling.” And they don’t just happen after a few too many drinks at media industry cocktail parties. They happen when college professors feel they have to whisper their support to colleagues embroiled in campus identity politics scandals. They take the form of direct messages on social media that start with “I didn’t want to say this in the comment thread, but … ” They’re what we professional opinionators sometimes do after holding forth with righteous certainty: turn to our closest confidants and confess to a level of cognitive dissonance and confusion we fear would alienate our followers and possibly kill our careers if we tried to put it into words.
All this messiness makes back-channel conversations the most interesting ones going on right now. It’s time they came out of the shadows.
Bit by bit, it’s starting to happen. The #MeToo movement is infused with obtuse rhetoric like “zero tolerance,” but it has also led to a handful of more nuanced analyses about the slippery nature of sexual consent and the dangers of failing (or refusing) to distinguish male clumsiness from dangerous aggression. Sure, some of the woke-iscenti dismissed these articles out of hand. I even saw someone refer to “nuance” as though it were a form of conservative trolling or rape apology. But I also noted rumblings of relief.
So with that, I’m going to drag myself out of hibernation. I’m going to check in from time to time with a report from the trenches of a burgeoning movement: #ResistanceToGroupthink. Call me a cognitive dissident. Chances are, you’re one, too.
Once again, the left is eating its own.
Democrats are in a good position as they negotiate with President Trump and the congressional majority over their legislative priorities for the next couple of months: children’s health care, nondefense spending, disaster relief and legalization of the “dreamers,” that group of immigrants brought here illegally as children. They also are within reach of retaking both chambers of Congress in November.
But the dreamers have decided to give the Democrats a rude awakening.
When lawmakers reached a short-term, bipartisan deal last month to keep the government funded, United We Dream, the organization leading the campaign to legalize the dreamers, launched an all-out attack on Democrats for failing to insist that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation be included in the spending bill.
The group declared the 17 Senate Democrats who voted for the bill the “Deportation Caucus” and, in a social-media barrage, said they “voted to deport young immigrants.”
United We Dream also fired off a tweet praising conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, “for voting no on a spending bill that did not include a Dream Act. We see your commitment and we need you to continue fighting with young immigrants!”
This is bonkers.
Democrats — in and out of the supposed “Deportation Caucus” — support legalizing the dreamers. And Lee? His opposition to the spending bill had nothing to do with dreamers. He had called DACA “an illegal abuse of executive power.” Meanwhile, Trump, who created the artificial crisis by announcing he would end DACA, gets away with barely a scratch.
United We Dream deleted the pro-Lee tweet but continues to attack Democrats. There have been sit-ins and sometimes arrests at the offices of Democratic senators.
The opposition party has been unusually unified over the past year, the result of their common horror over Trump’s ruinous reign. But just as things have begun to look hopeful for Democrats, the “professional left,” as Robert Gibbs famously called it, has begun manufacturing wedge issues to cleave the Trump opposition: over single-payer health care, impeachment, abortion and, now, immigration.
I’m sympathetic to the dreamers’ demand for immediate action. Greisa Martinez Rosas, director of advocacy for United We Dream, tells me that her group has “called out Trump as a white nationalist” and has identified the many Republicans who oppose DACA as “dream killers.” The group’s recent attacks on Democrats reflect desperation as time runs out for DACA.
The problem for Democrats is that the party is a collection of one-issue entities, which too often use internecine disputes for fundraising and, collectively, thwart any attempt at a cohesive progressive strategy.
The dreamers’ attacks on Democrats are particularly counterproductive because there is no ideological disagreement. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and other Democrats are playing a chess game: They know Republicans want an increase in defense spending, and they’re seeking to use that as leverage to gain domestic spending increases, renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, disaster relief and DACA legislation.
United We Dream, by contrast, understandably wants the DACA legislation above all. It is demanding that Democrats instigate a government shutdown on Jan. 19 by refusing to support a short-term spending bill that doesn’t legalize the dreamers. Those who favor this approach argue that Trump and Republicans would be blamed for the pain of a shutdown, and Republicans would then legalize the dreamers.
Maybe — or maybe the Democrats would be blamed, and their political and legislative hopes (and those of the dreamers) dashed for years.
Instead of training their fire on those who support them, dreamers and their supporters could use their prodigious energy on the 34 House Republicans who said they support legalization. These Republicans could force House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to include DACA in the spending bill. Also on Tuesday, a federal judge ordered that the DACA protections remain in place while a court case proceeds. And Ryan softened his earlier insistence that DACA not be considered as part of a spending bill.
Meanwhile, dreamers and the Democrats will likely gain more leverage against Trump and the Republicans with the approach of March 5, the day the DACA program, per Trump’s order, is set to expire. Trump, who had made clear he has no appetite for deporting the dreamers, would then have to capitulate — and Democrats could get a better deal for the dreamers.
Patience has been paying off for the Democrats. In his marathon televised session with lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday, Trump softened his position on the border wall and suggested a DACA deal could be had while postponing thornier issues such as chain migration.
Dreamers will win this fight — if they don’t mow down their friends first.