Conventional wisdom had said all that protesting in the streets these past two months wouldn’t matter, because Donald Trump had won the presidency, and you all should just go home and “get on with your lives.”
Now we have proof that protest matters. Tweeting and Facebooking matters. Calling your representative in Congress matters. All of it matters regarding whether Republicans are stopped from going on a spree of law-passing. Activism always did matter, no matter what the opposition tried to pretend.
The problem is Republicans control all three levels of legislating, so they have the option of steamrolling their agenda. The first test of whether Republicans would really do whatever the hell they wanted, the country be damned, came swiftly. Without letting anyone know it was even up for debate, House Republicans shut down the Office of Congressional Ethics Monday. The country was shocked, for some reason. We complained, and Republicans got spooked and backed down Tuesday.
The ethics police will be sticking around, at least as long as the country is paying attention to make sure of it.
This is a win, and we ought to learn from it. Understanding why Republicans gave up on the ethics office requires at least some short-term memory, which admittedly is tougher these days with all those distracting Trump tweets.
Remember that since Election Day, Trump supporters were growing confounded that his “drain the swamp” promise was appearing sidelined. Newt Gingrich had already let it slip during an interview that "DTS" wasn’t a thing anymore. Then, days later, “I made a big boo-boo,” said the former speaker of the House in a public apology video posted online. “I talked this morning with President-elect Donald Trump, and he reminded me he likes draining the swamp.”
But then there was also Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, who went on Fox News and said draining the swamp was a low priority. “'Drain the swamp' is probably somewhere down at the bottom,” he said on Fox & Friends.
Looks like someone else made a boo-boo.
Trump headed back to Twitter, insisting his closest advisers had momentary lapses in clarity about his priorities. Pay no attention to my spokespeople!
Someone incorrectly stated that the phrase "DRAIN THE SWAMP" was no longer being used by me. Actually, we will always be trying to DTS.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
“Someone” was being asked about corruption in Washington only because Trump has nominated a Cabinet filled with billionaires accustomed to buying influence, and Wall Street’s worst players, including Steve Mnuchin for Treasury secretary. Mnuchin is only famous as the guy who kicked people out of their homes when he enforced foreclosure after foreclosure during the housing meltdown.
After all that — Gingrich, Lewandowski, and the loathsome Cabinet picks — the House Republicans aggravated Trump supporters even more by using their first official act to declare the ethics police shut down. Drain the swamp? More like fill it.
Social media went wild with outrage. Everyone tells us that complaining on social media doesn’t matter, right? Well, there’s no question it got attention. Even the president-elect himself went on Twitter to shame Republicans for shutting down the ethics police — except his main worry was that they’d done it too soon. Trump said the office is “unfair.”
But it wasn’t the resistance on social media that spooked Republicans and led them to reverse their decision the very next day. Instead, reports eventually concluded it was the flood of phone calls, the letters, the outrage from constituents who were willing to contact their representative to complain. Republicans heard from a mix of shocked Trump supporters and outraged progressives, all of whom were their constituents, and they undid the havoc they’d planned.
This is important.
Going into a negotiation, and that’s what these first 100 days of Trump’s administration will be, it’s informative that one side backed down on its first effort. Republicans were tested by the faintest of protest, and they folded.
What does this mean for repealing Obamacare? What does it signal about Republicans' commitment to privatizing Medicare or services of the Department of Veterans Affairs, or their great hopes for curtailing Social Security and any so-called entitlement program? I still don't buy the notion that rank-and-file Trump supporters, who at least say they were motivated by jobs and national security and not bigotry, are on board with losing their health care. They wanted more money for themselves, not less.
Meanwhile, social conservatives of the Ted Cruz type — which is also the Jeff Sessions (Trump's attorney general nominee) and Tom Price type (the president-elect's pick for secretary of Health and Human Services) — are pressing for the First Amendment Defense Act. During the campaign, Trump pledged to sign this law, a federal version of the “license to discriminate” bills that are sweeping the states. They pass under the guise of “religious freedom” protections, then quickly focus on whether a transgender person is allowed to use the bathroom down the hall, and whether a business owner has to serve the same-sex couple who are getting married.
One way of chipping away at marriage equality is to not recognize that you’re married in everyday life. Conservatives want to make marriage licenses conditional on the person reading them. No one has to see it as law, just a nice piece of paper you got there.
This is step 1 in the Republican campaign to unravel civil rights advancements for LGBT people. But it could be stopped.
Remember that in Indiana, Mike Pence softened that “license to discriminate” law he signed. Remember? He backed down. Republicans have always been afraid of The Resistance.
Pence was so proud of himself for signing his Religious Freedom Restoration Act, even going on national interviews to defend it. His first mistake was trying to pretend the law wasn’t intended to let business owners discriminate against LGBT people. He repeatedly claimed that it was only designed to protect religious people, which raised the question then of why he shouldn’t just make it clear in the law that it can’t be used to turn away a same-sex couple who want to eat at your restaurant.
When a load of companies threatened to leave the state, when conferences began to be canceled, when it was clear that keeping the law on the books would mean millions in lost revenue for Indiana, Pence backed down. He signed a “fix” to the law. Pence is afraid of The Resistance. And he is no different from all Republicans in Congress.
The Resistance can protest in Republican districts, it can hold marches in Washington, it can flood the switchboards with calls, it can send letters or go to town hall meetings, and more.
Then the Republicans have to decide whether they’re going to just keep right on driving, white knuckles on the wheel, pedal to the floor, no matter how many bodies they run over.
LUCAS GRINDLEY is the editor in chief of The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @lucasgrindley.