In the roughly two weeks since Donald Trump took the White House, millions of people across the United States and the world have descended upon streets, parks, airports and embassies to protest an administration that is aggressively implementing its fascist, white supremacist campaign platform. Stunning numbers have shown they are willing to risk detention or deportation from local, state and federal law enforcement in order to fight back against the onslaught. And yet the Democratic Party has shown a dispiriting willingness to work with, and even acquiesce to, the Trump administration.
“The airport is a place where people generally feel surveilled and don’t feel they can show any resistance against the state,” Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, told AlterNet of the San Francisco International Airport protest and shutdown. “It was a pretty remarkable experience taking over SFO with so many black and brown people and families. People took care of each other, and people who are more vulnerable stuck it out and were not afraid. Almost everyone is impacted by Trump, his executive orders and entire administration. They are ready to challenge the state head-on and show force and resilience in ways we haven’t seen before.”
This outpouring, which shows no sign of letting up, has exposed a gulf between the public and key Democratic senators, even those who call themselves “progressives.” The gap widened this week when people across the country urged Democrats to use any means necessary to stop Neil Gorsuch, a right-wing, anti-choice federal judge, from filling the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. In the face of public fear, leading Democrats have remained relatively quiet, with some powerful players even suggesting that it would be “wrong” to act in an obstructionist manner.
Immediately following Trump’s nomination, Sen. Richard Blumenthal proclaimed, “He should have a hearing,” adding: “I don’t want to repeat what happened to Judge Merrick Garland. That was a travesty, an outrage. I’m still angry about it. I know many of my colleagues are. We should do the right thing here, not repeat the Republicans’ wrong.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill echoed the sentiment, proclaiming: “I mean, how big a hypocrite am I going to be? I am not going to model my behavior after their terribly bad, historically, precedent-setting behavior. I’m not doing that.”
The roll call of Democrats who have cast their votes in favor of Trump’s nominees, over the outrage and fear of their own constituents, is revealing. While they don’t have a majority to block any Cabinet members, they can still register their dissent with a vote in the Senate committee. Democrats also have a number of political tools at their disposal, including an organized push to withhold consent, that they could use to obstruct and slow the Trump administration’s multi-pronged assault.
But the rallying cries of a terrified public have largely gone unanswered. Last month, Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren were among 11 Senate Democrats who cast their votes in favor of Ben Carson’s appointment to secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The former far-right presidential candidate is an open Islamophobe who brings no experience in housing policy. In 2014, he opposed an agreement between the city of Dubuque and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the city’s housing policies that discriminate against black residents, suggesting it was proof America was “becoming communist.” Last year, he expressed his fervent opposition to a HUD fair housing rule that is aimed, in part, at reducing segregation, calling it a “failed socialist experiment.”
Facing public outrage, Warren sought to defend her vote with an explanation on Facebook. “Yes, I adamantly disagree with many of the outrageous things that Dr. Carson said during his presidential campaign. Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted,” Warren wrote. “But ‘the nominee I wanted is not the test.” This complicance bears little resemblance to the rhetoric that propelled her to stardom in progressive circles.
“As Democrats approve Trump’s nominees in Congress, we know that our resistance and our fight against Trump is also a fight against their complicity,” Mohamed Shehk, an organizer with Critical Resistance, who took place in the SFO protests, told AlterNet. “Trump’s executive actions targeting Arabs and Muslims are part of a war on immigrants, regardless of documentation, as well as on people of color, native and black communities, queer and trans people, workers and disabled people. The thousands coming out in San Francisco and shutting down one of the largest international terminals in the country is just a glimpse of the solidarity and resistance that communities are ready to wage.”
According to Shehk, the complicity of Democrats underscores the importance of looking beyond the individual misdeeds of figures like Trump to examine the political systems in which they are embedded. “The attacks on our communities both here and across the world are waged by the systems of policing, imprisonment, surveillance and border control,” he said. “These did not begin with Trump, but Trump is expanding and intensifying these systems to enforce greater control over our communities.”
Warren’s complicity is not unique. Thirty-seven Senate Democrats supported the nomination of John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly is a retired Marine general who oversaw and aggressively defended mass torture at Guantánamo Bay. He has also called immigration an “existential threat” to the United States and urges an escalated war on drugs. Among those who voted to approve the confirmation of Kelly was Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has previously been championed as a defender of human rights.
In addition, Mike Pompeo’s nomination to head the CIA received 15 “yes” votes from Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer. Pompeo is a far-right Republican from Kansas who was voted into Congress on a wave of Tea Party support. He has argued that the War on Terror is a conflict between Islam and Christianity and is a close associate of the anti-Muslim extremist Frank Gaffney, whose think tank produced the junk research behind Trump’s campaign proposal of a Muslim ban. Pompeo is a strong proponent of military escalation towards Iran, as well as expanded government surveillance powers, and has expressed support for CIA torturers while signaling an openness to the practice in the future.
Democrats overwhelmingly lined up behind James Mattis, who was confirmed as Defence Secretary 98-1. Mattis is a darling of neoconservatives who has directly presided over horrific war crimes. He was the convening authority over the Haditha massacre in Iraq and played a lead role in both U.S. sieges on Fallujah in 2004, killing thousands of civilians. “While reporting from inside Fallujah during that siege, I personally witnessed women, children, elderly people and ambulances being targeted by US snipers under Mattis’ command,” journalist Dahr Jamail noted in December. “Needless to say, all of these are war crimes.”
Supporters of Mattis’ nomination include the rising star Kamala Harris, as well as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii argued to the Huffington Post in late January, “We can’t very well be at a fever pitch on everything. The door swings both ways in Washington. At some point we’re going to want a Democratic president to stand up a Cabinet. So we’re trying to be reasonable when the nominees are reasonable.”
But Hatem Abudayyeh, an organizer with the Arab American Action Network, which played a key role in the ongoing protests at O’Hare International Airport, called such arguments a “cop out.” He told AlterNet, “You just have to juxtapose Democrats’ statements with those Yemeni families, children and mothers and fathers, standing nose-to-nose with the Chicago police, state police and border patrol at the airport. How could you say it’s difficult to vote no to a racist agenda? There are real white supremacists in the White House today.”
It is not even clear that those Democrats whose aims are self-serving will see any gain from their compliance. “Trump is unprecedentedly unpopular for an incoming president. The political risks of opposing him are minimal,” Osita Nwanevu observed in Slate.”As anyone who has been awake for the past eight years should be well aware, the notion that the Republican Party will reward Democrats in the future for their deference now is utterly laughable.”
“One of the lessons from the election should have been that people are seeking an alternative to the status quo,” Drew Joy, the executive director of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, told AlterNet. “If there ever was a time for the Democrats to offer up a bold vision that centers human rights and racial justice, this would be it. Unfortunately, they still seem to think that negotiating with the far right will gain them power in the long run. Non-affiliated organizations have a role right not to provide and fight for that alternative no matter who is in power at the local and national levels.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers face a growing revolt. On January 30, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was besieged by thousands of his Rhode Island constituents demanding answers to why he voted in favor of Pompeo and Mattis. Addressing a rally at New York’s Battery Park on Sunday, Schumer asked if the crowd was “ready to fight.” But he was met with jeers and boos, with one person calling out from the crowd “Stop voting for his nominees!” Roughly 3,000 people flocked to Schumer’s home on Tuesday night to demand that he “resist or resign.”
Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday night after she refused to defend his Muslim ban. Spurred by the developments, and pushed by ongoing protests, Democrats have since struck a more confrontational tone, postponing the vote for Steve Mnuchin, nominated for Treasury secretary, and Tom Price, appointed to lead the Health and Human Services department.
But on Tuesday, Feinstein said that she opposes further delaying a vote on the nomination of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions, a U.S. Senator from Alabama, built his national reputation by vociferously opposing civil rights. Sessions was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan in 1986 as a federal judge but rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the grounds that he was too racist to serve. Feinstein went on to defend Sessions, stating at a judiciary hearing that he “has been the fiercest, most dedicated and most loyal promoter in Congress of the Trump agenda.”
“I think it’s important for people to understand what bipartisanship is. This is bipartisanship,” Kali Akuno, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Mississippi-based group Cooperation Jackson, told AlterNet. “It’s the people who are ultimately going to have to defeat reaction as expressed through Trump and the neocons. The Democrats aren’t going to do it. People need to be clear about that.”
Sessions was approved on Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee in an 11 to 9 vote that fell along party lines.
The vote to confirm ExxonMobil oil tycoon Rex Tillerson as secretary of state was slightly less narrow on Wednesday, with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Warner and Angus King all casting their ballots in his favor. Tillerson worked at ExxonMobil for 41 years, serving the last decade as CEO before retiring at the beginning of this year. The company faces fraud charges that it financed and backed junk research promoting the denial of climate change over several decades. It is responsible for perpetrating human rights abuses and environmental harm around the world, prompting protests from Iraq to Nigeria.
Kiswani has called for concrete action — rather than rhetoric — in the face of mounting dangers to people and the planet. “We saw public officials, including Democratic Party representatives, who we know attacked our organization before directly coming out in support of Arabs and Muslims without actually doing anything,” she said. “We are calling on them to take action. If they truly want to support Arabs and Muslims, they need use their leverage and power to resist and to support people. In the meantime, it was our action, our disruption, that shut down the terminal for so long. We are the ones getting people released.”