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Second Wave Resistance
If your strategy is not delivering resounding wins against a radicalized, authoritarian movement, it probably needs rethinking. We need a new game plan to save democracy.
Eight years ago this week, Donald Trump came down the escalator and changed American politics forever.
If someone told you in June 2015 that Trump would be elected president in 2016, do 11 million votes better in 2020, and be well on his way to being re-nominated in 2024, you’d be shocked.
The first wave of the #Resistance that sprung up from the left to the center-right in response to Trump had its successes, but by and large it did not work. Not only has Trump’s base grown since 2015, his movement has metastasized into something darker and more entrenched.
It’s time for a second wave of the Resistance to learn the lessons of the first. In retrospect, there are some clear lessons to guide the next offensive in the battle for our democracy:
It Takes a Big Tent to Beat Autocrats: Trump’s support represents a plurality, not a majority of voters — and like other autocrats around the world, his defeat can only be secured by a united opposition. While a big-tent coalition united around Joe Biden in 2020 to defeat Trump, he only won the electoral college by 44,000 votes in three states. That coalition remains under pressure from factions prioritizing purity over pragmatism, and at risk of splintering in 2024 from third-party presidential bids on both the center and the left.
Trump’s Appeal Was Underestimated: While Trump was mocked, dismissed, and perceived as extreme by elites, he was seen as the more moderate and palatable candidate by enough voters to win the electoral college in 2016. He made huge gains in 2020, both with minority voters and voters overall — his vote count increased by 18% to 74 million.
It’s a Long Game: Many in the Resistance hoped there would be a mass-backlash against Trump — from the left’s base turnout to the center-right’s efforts to “take back the GOP.” Unfortunately, not only did the Resistance come nowhere close to delivering a crushing blow in 2020, but Trump remains dominant in one of the two major parties. It will take a sustainable, long-term strategy to quash Trump(ism) for good.
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Lesson #1: Restraint
Don’t Let the Opposition Fracture
As the Trump show enters its ninth season (with the growing prospect of being renewed for four more seasons), the formula to knock it off the airwaves remains the same as it has always been: win a governing majority.
This is the same all over the world, and it applies to those on the center as well as on the far-left.
In a must-read Bulwark piece from fall 2021, Protect Democracy’s Ian Bassin applies the academic research on autocrats to the predicament facing the pro-democracy coalition that sent Trump packing in 2020. Here’s how he framed it:
A united opposition is the best way to defeat an autocrat. And a fractured opposition opens the pathway for one to attain power. This is a precept that America’s Democratic coalition ought to have top of mind … Because while each wing of the governing coalition may feel that aspects of the policies they prefer are good for—and even necessary for—democracy, if they can’t reach a deal, not only will they not deliver on any of those policies, but this failure will be a boon to the authoritarian forces waiting to regain power.
A similar lesson holds true for pro-democracy Republicans:
Thus far, most pro-democracy Republicans have chosen to try to tame, or co-opt, the rising authoritarians in their midst. This is a mistake. Stopping the next authoritarian attempt will require a broad, united opposition. This unity of purpose is more crucial than any legislation.
Recent examples offer a stark and painful warning of what could follow in the United States if the opposition splinters:
In Poland, the increasingly autocratic ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), initially rose to power in 2015 on only plurality support (35 percent in the first round of voting) because the opposition could not stay united. In Hungary, the autocratic Fidesz Party managed to translate its own plurality support into legislative supermajorities in large part because the Hungarian opposition fractured in the lead-up to both the 2014 and 2018 elections.
From the center-right to the far-left, we are entering 2024 with the looming threat of a divided pro-democracy coalition that could enable Donald Trump to reclaim the Oval Office:
On the centrist (and center-right) wing of the coalition, No Labels’ so-called “unity ticket” combining a Machin-esque Democrat with a Hogan-esque Republican threatens to tip the balance of power to the 2024 GOP nominee (likely Donald Trump) by peeling off the moderate conservative and independent voters who were instrumental to Biden’s victory in 2020.
Meanwhile, critiques of the Biden Administration and unpopular policy crusades have continued from the far-left throughout most of his tenure. Such unproductive excess will now be on the presidential ballot in the form of Cornel West’s third-party bid for president on behalf of the People’s Party (and now the Green Party). West, who endorsed Green Party spoilers Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 is now vying to play the same role in 2024.
The pro-democracy coalition was a big tent in 2020, but with a smaller margin of victory than Trump won with in 2016 — 44,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin separated Biden and Trump from a tie in the electoral college. The Second Wave Resistance must be rooted in the sobering realization that if the pro-democracy coalition splinters into warring factions, it will lose.
Lesson #2: Realism
Don’t Underestimate Trump’s Ceiling
The first #Resistance assumed that Trump would have limited appeal. They hoped voters would reject Trump in a landslide in 2020.
But while Biden won the popular vote by roughly 7 million in 2020, no such landslide occurred: Trump gained support from 2016 to 2020, increasing his vote count by nearly 18% (11 million more votes) to 74 million votes.
In 2020, Trump also increased appeal among minority voters traditionally considered to be core constituents of the Democratic coalition. This surprised Resistors, who assumed that Trump’s openly hostile and insensitive comments toward minorities — especially Latinos — would drive these constituencies even further left.
“In the 2020 election, Hispanics, after four years of Trump, gave him substantially more support than they did in 2016. According to Catalist, in 2020 Latinos had an amazingly large 16 point margin shift toward Trump.”
“In 2022, Asian voter defection from the Democrats was more broad-based than in 2020. Nationwide the Democratic advantage among Asian voters declined 12 points relative to 2020. And there were abundant signs that Asian voters in many urban neighborhoods were slipping away from the Democrats.”
“Democratic margins among black voters also declined by 7 points [in 2020]... Moreover, while absolute turnout for black voters was up, as it was for almost all groups in a very high turnout election, turnout did not go up as much for black voters as for other groups, so relative turnout fell.”
In 2022, voters of color continued their rightward shift, with trends pointing toward an even more competitive 2024 cycle.
Even as Trump’s indictments continue to pile up, today’s resistors must not take anything for granted — or stand by as parts of the opposition repel voters or siphon them off into third parties.
Lesson #3: Resilience
We’re in This for the Long Haul
As the Trump era kicks off its ninth year, one thing is certain: this is gonna take a while. Eight years is more than 10% of the average American’s lifespan. As much as we might wish the Trump genie could be put back in the bottle, the end is not in sight.
This fact necessitates a second wave Resistance. The first wave Resistance was fierce, energetic, and often righteously belligerent — a slash and burn approach to saving democracy. That may have made sense as an emotional reaction to Trumpism, but it did not win convincing majorities and does not appear poised to in the near future.
It will take discipline and a helluva lot more to defeat Trumpism in the long run. Here’s a set of intentional shifts from the first wave of the Resistance to what is needed now:
We Need a New Game Plan to Save Democracy
For some, the original Resistance has been going well. As the co-founder of the progressive group Indivisible said after Democrats lost the House in 2022:
“The great thing about having your strategy being proven correct is that you don’t have to rethink your strategy…We would have, if the red wave materialized. But it didn’t…”
As we told the New York Times at the time “it kind of feels like Democrats are celebrating in the locker room because we lost by four.”
Joe Biden won by just 44,000 votes in three swing states in 2020. That’s it. Oh, and Democrats lost seats in the House…. And then lost more seats in the House in 2022. And have no viable path to even 55 US Senate seats in the near-term. And could be down to just 45 Senate seats at the end of the next cycle.
The margins that decide whether American democracy lives or dies are far thinner than they should be. We cannot afford to accept lower than expected losses (and narrower than expected wins) as victories. If your strategy is not delivering resounding wins against a radicalized, authoritarian movement, it probably needs rethinking.
This isn’t to suggest that beating Trumpism is easy. But it is a lot harder if we don’t admit that the current path is not delivering the unified opposition needed to beat an autocrat.
It’s time to take the lessons of the first wave and usher in a second wave Resistance.
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