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Lessons for “The Resistance” from the Bush Resistance

2017 January 30
by Ian Welsh

Trump’s ban of travelers from seven Muslim countries spawned a large backlash, showing that “the resistance” is still a thing. I suspect it will continue to be a thing, because Trump is going to do much which enrages people who already believe he is a fascist.

It is little commented on now, but when Bush was ramping up for his invasion of Iraq, millions of people came out against it, world-wide. Most US allies of any significance–apart from Britain–refused to participate. The war went ahead anyway, and in its shadow there was resistance. I was part of that, the Netroots.

The Netroots opposed Bush directly when possible, and it also sought to make the Democratic Party better because we had noticed that enough Democrats (and in many cases almost all) Democrats had signed off on the worst parts of Bush’s regime. Gore, had he been in power, might not have been quite so bad, but the Democrats weren’t really opposing Bush strongly, and some of them were absolutely terrible–straight-up collaborators.  Joe Lieberman, for example. (Who was also Obama’s mentor in the Senate.)

It should be clear that the Netroots was pretty organized: We communicated behind the scenes, and often coordinated. We were in constant contact with Democratic Party staffers, and had access to many Democratic Congress members. They saw that we had reach, and, being politicians, they wanted to use that reach. Even people who despised us, like Clinton, came to Netroots.

In 2006, Republicans lost control of the House. The Netroots had helped with that, and we had hopes and expectations.

They were quickly dashed: The House caucus had taken our help, sure, but they had no intention of seriously opposing Bush’s wars or his vast over-reach on civil liberties and executive power.

Then, in 2008, Obama won. He took some of our help, but he didn’t buy it. Unlike the Democrats in 2006, many of whom had pretended to agree with us and had been willing to work with us, Obama did not work with the Netroots. During the entire campaign, the only time he reached out to us was during a period of a few weeks when he was losing to McCain in the polls, and even that was pro-forma.

Obama built his own grassroots organization, and he didn’t go through the blog gatekeepers (there were exceptions, one A-list blog of the time was the favored dumping ground for Obama oppo research). Instead, Obama’s supporters, and very likely operatives, flooded the comments and diaries. Obama got the support of Netroots supporters without having to give anything to the Netroots organizers.

By “give anything,” I mean “policy concessions.” And while there was plenty of petty careerism in the Netroots, that was never the issue. Since 2008, many people who were part of the Netroots at that time have been taken on and given jobs by various organizations associated with the Democrats. The trivial amount of money required to buy out the “alpha activists” wasn’t the question–control was.

Obama was very clear about his contempt for the Netroots. He thought that we didn’t understand how politics worked and how good things happen. He was explicit, you can read it in Obama’s original post at DKos.

So Obama got in power, he bailed out the banks, he fucked over ordinary home-owners, he increased deportations and ramped up drone assassinations. He was far harsher on whistleblowers than Bush had been and he re-signed all the bad bills when the time came, like the Patriot Act and the AUMF, which had given Bush massive executive power and carte-blanche to spy, and assassinate, and go to war.

Obama institutionalized Bush. Oh, he drew back on some things, but he advanced others, and he left the basic power structure in place and the legal structure. Then he went to war with Libya, which while it killed less people than the Iraq war, was the exact same type of war crime as Bush had committed: aggressive war on a non-threatening country. This is what the Nazis were hung for in Nuremburg.

Note that the Democrat-controlled House and Senate of 2009/2010 was no better than Obama, they did not push him to be better.

The Netroots hadn’t quite given up yet. They had one last hurrah in 2010 when they tried to primary Blanche Lincoln. Obama came out strongly in support of her and she won. The Netroots, what was left of it, collapsed (no results, crashing traffic and a cash crunch from other sources).

Six years, later Trump won the election. The apparatus put in place by Bush to allow him to commit his crimes and over-reach was not just still there, it had been extended significantly in terms of whistleblower prosecution, drone assassination, spying on journalists, immigrant incarceration, and surveillance state powers and capabilities.

Trump inherited a more powerfully oppressive system than Obama did, even if Obama had not always used it as oppressively as Bush (though in some cases he had been worse).

There are a couple lessons to learn from this.

The first is that while partisan Democrats may be one’s allies when opposing a Republic president, their opposition is opportunistic and not principled. The second they are in charge, they will support or wave aside the same actions they condemned coming from a Republican. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with partisan Democrats, it means understand when they’ll stop fighting AND that once they don’t need you, they will regard you as a threat and seek to to eliminate you.

The second is more important: The control of a party matters more than the results of any individual election.

This is where half the readers will disagree, indeed, they will disagree violently and emotionally.

But there’s a reason that the US is where it is: After each over-reach, after each extension of executive powers, to the creation of police state and the waging of war, the Democrats didn’t roll back the worst excesses when they got into power, NOR did they push the lever further to the left. In fact, Clinton had many policies worse than Reagan/Bush (welfare, crime) and Obama had many policies worse than Bush Jr., as has been discussed.

In order to stop the next Trump, not just this one, you must have control of a party to the point that they are forced to roll back the terrible laws and policies of the last 40 years–and not just roll them back, but start pushing the lever even further towards equality, away from oligarchy, and towards civil liberties and widespread prosperity.

If you do not do that, your victory over Trump is temporary. You win against him, but you do not win against what caused him, and what he represents.

The right-wing understands that. The Netroots said “More and better Democrats,” and while it had some successes, it didn’t have enough, because it failed repeatedly at primarying bad actors.

The Tea Party succeeded: They were able to remove enough Republicans they objected so that the ones who remained were scared to cross them. While doing so, they were willing to lose seats, because they understood that Republicans who would not vote for them when the chips were down might as well be Democrats. (This is where the screams about the Supreme Court would be inserted. There is truth to this, but you are now losing it anyway.)

If the Resistance wants to really succeed, to really make the US a better place, it must learn the lesson of those who fought and failed before. If you succeed at getting rid of Trump without changing the trajectory of US economy, foreign policy, and disrespect for civil rights, you have done little more than kick the can down the road.

Changing what Democrats WANT to do, who they want to be, and what sort of country they are actually willing to vote for and work to build, is what matters. Objectively, Obama and Bill Clinton contributed massively to the ills which lead to Trump. That needs to stop. There needs to be a Democratic President who rolls back what has been done, and then moves strongly to the left. Who dismantles the legal, regulatory, and institutional framework for tyranny, and who actually reduces inequality and increases prosperity for all Americans in a clear way they can feel.

Failure to achieve that, and, in tandem, to achieve a Congress which would work with such a president and oppose the inevitable future Republican presidents, will equal failure for the Resistance, no matter how many small successes they have, or even if they are able to remove Trump through impeachment or loss in 2020.

Slowing the rate of the downward spiral the US is on is good. Stopping it from getting worse is better. Reversing it and making it better is best and is necessary for long-term success and long-term security against leaders like Trump.

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110 Responses
  1. Richard permalink
    February 2, 2017

    EmilianoZ: I think it’s both. It’s partially circumstances and partially the President. Skowronek certain believes that some Presidents are put in to circumstances where they can (or have to, in the case of Lincoln) change the nation greatly. Others are constrained by circumstances. Others also by the environment they were brought up in (pretty much all the disjunctive Presidents are fated to fail because the circumstances are terrible and/or they were fated to be terrible for that time*). I agree that Obama had a chance to be a Reconstructive President, but not a very good one. He had a tight 2 year window and had to be perfect in his moves (and remember that Obama is a very good campaigner already) in order to overcome a still strong and well-funded Tea Party countermovement. If a Democrat wins in 2020, they have have a much bigger window. For instance, in 2009, the Koch libertarians were still strongly in the corner of the GOP. But in 2020, given the choice between a white nationalist GOP that tramples civil liberties and lefty Dem that increases taxes, libertarians may just throw up their hands and withdraw from politics (as the evangelicals had done for decades before the ’50’s). That shifts the balance of power a lot.

    * For instance, keen observers of the GOP would have seen that a white nationalist-enabler like Trump had a big opening to take the GOP in 2016, but it’s hard for the Reagan coalition to survive once the GOP morphs in that direction.

  2. nihil obstet permalink
    February 3, 2017

    Richard: Obama’s “tight 2 year window” was a function of his failure to deliver the change he promised. Bail out homeowners instead of bankers, pursue a health care plan that actually enables access to health care, maintain the 50-state strategy and respect for the organizations what brung ya’, appoint a Cabinet that’s somewhat less obviously committed to the interests of the rich, and the Democrats do not get wiped out in 2010. They might even have increased their majority as they did in 1934 as a result of Roosevelt’s active efforts to help the majority of people in the wake of financial distress. (And this doesn’t even get into the really moral stuff that some of us care greatly about, like not bombing people in countries that are no threat to us, reforming the horrors at home of our incarceration nation, and working for a justice system that holds rich and poor to the same standards.)

  3. Richard permalink
    February 3, 2017

    Nihil: Obama was also a product of his time, just like Bill Clinton was. Remember that Hillary was actually to Obama’s left in 2008 and more willing to see the Republicans as they are, not as you may wish them to be, but the dominant faction in the Democratic party wanted a multicultural post-partisan neo-liberal, so that’s what they got. It’s not realistic to then expect a post-partisan neo-liberal to then suddenly become a fiery liberal New Dealer once in office.

  4. nihil obstet permalink
    February 3, 2017

    Richard: Not that it matters, but I guess I don’t understand the point of your comment above. Obama had a chance to be something he wasn’t, but he wasn’t going to be something he wasn’t? OK, but then what does the 2 year window that party Democrats carry on about over and over and over again have to do with anything real?

  5. realitychecker permalink
    February 3, 2017

    @ Richard

    Well, Hitler was also a “product of his time,” so . . .

    Stalin, too.

    Pol Pot, too.

    Need I go on?

  6. Richard permalink
    February 3, 2017

    Nihil: They had the power but it wasn’t in their character to use that power.

    realitychecker: I think it depends on circumstances. I don’t know enough about Cambodia to comment though I don’t believe a Cambodian Communist leader had to be as brutal as Pol Pot was (the Vietnamese Communists weren’t).
    I’ve thought about Weimar Germany a lot, and yes, once Bruning started his financial repression, Hitler was probably inevitable.
    In the USSR, I don’t think the top leader had to be as paranoid and bloodthirsty as Stalin.

    So in short, leaders elected in democracies tend to be more the products of their time. Totalitarian ones not as much. They have even greater leeway to shape how they will turn out.

  7. realitychecker permalink
    February 3, 2017

    All that power, zero responsibility. Nice little amoral worldview you’ve got there.

  8. Richard permalink
    February 3, 2017

    Way to set up a strawman and put words in my mouth, realitychecker. Did I say they were not responsible? Do you honestly think that I don’t hold Hitler responsible? I hold Obama (and Hitler, and Pol Pot/Stalin/etc.) responsible for what they did/didn’t do just as I hold you responsible for voting for Trump.

    But the reality is that Nazis will Nazi and neo-libs will neo-lib (and pissy leftists will piss away their vote on an abomination).

    Do you honestly think Hitler would change stripes after he gained power? That Trump would change stripes? Then why would you ever think Obama would change stripes after he gained power?

  9. realitychecker permalink
    February 4, 2017

    @ Richard

    I think ethical people must have some bright line beyond which they will not make excuses for horrible behavior.

    But I guess you are ALSO a “product of your time,” because many others have already made the point that relativism has already taken us to a place where there is no interest or concern in upholding any moral absolutes anymore.

  10. February 5, 2017

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