The Seduction of the Pyrrhic Loss

We are being baited into the wrong battles

President Trump’s constant barrage of unethical, un-American behavior is drawing us into an unsustainable din of outrage. The panting and exasperation coming from Congressional Democrats feels rewarding because we love protest and absolute opposition. However, the all-night debate that isn’t a filibuster; the ravings of constant existential threat; the volume stuck at 11 is also feeding the President’s base.

For us to keep our eye on the longer horizon, it’s important that we think hard about what’s happening while we march and protest — what images are flooding cable news? What are President Trump’s voters (some of whom used to vote for us) seeing? Are they seeing the actions of a person in the Oval Office any different than who he promised to be? When Senator Warren is shut down for maligning Senator Sessions, what do people see? Do they care about the details of parliamentary procedure? We see “nevertheless, she persisted” — is that what everyone else sees? We aren’t watching the same news or seeing it the same way. We see the world lining up to fight Trump, but poll numbers show otherwise. And the largely ignored, uncertain, anxious majority in the middle continues to feel ignored, uncertain, and anxious while the President racks up obvious (and certain) political victories that are too expensive in credibility and opportunity costs.

I am not suggesting that we should not protest the blatant, the illegal, and the immoral — in fact, we must. But we have to do all of it with eyes on the larger and longer term goal of reclaiming power and our democracy. Resistance is a tactic — progress is the goal. The real battle is not just over the unethical promotion of a family brand, but over the deterioration of faith in the institutions of government that the President is intentionally (and accidentally) accelerating. Long-term resistance must be defined by driving progress and rebuilding trust. Building and promoting solutions to the real challenges facing people in this country including (or perhaps especially) to the systemic dysfunction that keeps government from being focused on these priorities in the first place. Ranting at 11 for the 1400 more days of President Trump’s first term will only serve to reinforce many Americans' belief that government isn’t about them, that the people they elect don’t work for them, don’t care for them, and aren’t focused on them, but instead are consumed by petty political victories.

With as little institutional power as Progressives currently wield, we need to develop a finer sense of which short-term battles are in fact defining for our country — the ones that demonstrate his contempt for all Americans, not just the ones that raise our liberal hackles (which would be nearly everything he says or tweets) and otherwise maintain focus on progress, focus on service, and avoid the seduction of moral victories that are ultimately losses. If the 2016 election cycle and the early days of this administration are teaching us anything, it is that our comfortable rules and norms of political engagement have been fundamentally altered. Responses that feel too familiar aren’t necessarily wrong but ought to be questioned. We must work to protect everyone the President threatens, but if we also hope to engage Americans who recognize him as immoral but generally don’t vote for Democrats and those who he has promised to help but who his jingoistic, self-aggrandizing puffery actually harms, our strategies may need similar revision.