By David Leonhardt, Opinion Columnist
On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump’s election, Obamacare looked to be doomed. Millions of Americans, it seemed, were going to lose their health insurance.
Trump had campaigned on a promise to repeal the law, as had many other Republicans, and their party was about to control every branch of the federal government. All Republicans had to do was pass a law that Trump would sign. Democrats had no way to stop it.
Or at least they had no way to stop it using only the inside game of politics — congressional hearings, committee votes, presidential vetoes and so on.
Fortunately, some progressives understood that politics isn’t only an inside game. The outside game — of public protest and grass-roots lobbying — matters, too.
Even before Trump took office, activists began planning a strategy to make repeal as politically painful as possible. On the day after Trump’s inauguration, some four million Americans took to the streets for Women’s Marches (which obviously were about much more than repeal). In the months that followed, groups like Indivisible organized people to attend town halls, visit Capitol Hill and inundate members of Congress with phone calls. The efforts transformed the debate. Obamacare repeal was no longer a bloodless legislative matter, in which public opinion was measured merely with poll results and pundit analysis. The story became rawer, more human and much harder for politicians and ordinary citizens to ignore.
In the end, just enough Republican senators responded to the pressure, and Obamacare survived. The outside game had changed the math of the inside game.
The impeachment inquiry has reached the stage when it needs an outside game. We all know where the inside game is likely to lead: House Democrats will impeach Trump; Senate Republicans will acquit him; and he will claim vindication. But Trump’s presidency has become too dire for Americans to accept that outcome without trying to change it.
Consider what happened last week alone. Trump created a foreign-policy disaster in Turkey and Syria, for no apparent reason, while multiple administration officials testified that he views diplomacy largely as a way to advance his personal interests. His attitude, evidently, is: America, c’est moi. Even more so than a month ago, Trump is a national emergency, flagrantly violating his oath of office and daring the country to stop him.
Yet the chances of removing him appear as dim as Obamacare’s chances of survival did on Nov. 9, 2016. Trump even has plausible paths to re-election, some of which involve again losing the popular vote.
L.A. Kauffman, a historian of protest movements, has said that effective ones often throw “a monkey wrench into a process that was otherwise going to just unfold smoothly.” That’s the role that an outside game can now play in the impeachment saga.
It can wake up more Americans to the gravity of the situation. It can mobilize progressives to work as hard as they did during the 2018 midterms. It can confront congressional Republicans with their cowardice.
Do you remember the images showing throngs of people taking to the streets for the Women’s March? The size of the crowds, especially compared with Trump’s inauguration, reinforced the fact that most Americans rejected Trumpism. The marches also helped inspire the so-called resistance movement, which in turn created a network of dedicated activists, as the social scientists Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol have pointed out.
And do you remember the viral moments from the save-Obamacare movement, like the disability-rights activists visiting Congress or the citizens speaking up at town halls? Jessi Bohon, a teacher in central Tennessee, created one of those moments by connecting the fight to her Christian faith. It was one of many ways that ordinary people held up for a vision of America as decent and communal as Trump is vulgar and selfish.
“Protests work,” as Kauffman has said — not always, of course, but often “when groups are willing to be bold in their tactics and persistent in their approach within the broad discipline of non-violent action.” As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote last week, public protest “serves as a powerful signal to the rest of society that something extraordinary is happening.” If anything, protest may be more important than in the past, because the elite institutions that helped bring down Richard Nixon, like political parties and the national media, are weaker today.
So it’s time for a sequel to that first Women’s March — an Americans’ March, in which millions of people peacefully take to the streets to say that President Trump must go. And it’s time for a more intense grass-roots campaign directed at his congressional enablers, one that conjures the respectful intensity of the save-Obamacare campaign. Even if the Senate still acquits Trump, a new protest movement can help galvanize people to defeat him, and his enablers, next year.
The country is in crisis. Right now, that crisis feels all too normal.
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