Two of the most intense factions in our politics, the anti-Trump Resistance with its claim to be standing against fascism and the conservatives trying to delegitimize Joe Biden’s victory with claims of widespread voter fraud, agree on almost nothing, but they do agree on one point: The Trump administration was successfully undermined — the Trump agenda thwarted and Donald Trump himself defeated — by liberal institutions that refused to normalize him, maintained a persistent alarm about his presidency and took every opportunity to obstruct, investigate, protest and impeach.
The liberals urging constant vigilance and outrage against Trump’s challenge to the 2020 outcome are trying to see this project of resistance through to its Biden-inauguration end. Meanwhile, the Trumpian side is trying to imitate it, since lurking below the right’s fantasy politics is a more cynical assumption that it’s a great idea, a highly effective political counterpunch, for Republicans to act like Biden is an anti-president, a Great Pretender — because that’s what liberals did to Trump and it obviously worked.
I think both of these groups are mostly wrong — that what defeated Trump was Trump himself, that the “fascism” discourse around his presidency was often a distraction, and that the most successful strategies pursued by the Democrats were strategies of normalcy rather than alarm. But now that the Electoral College has voted and a Biden presidency seems essentially assured, let’s consider the best arguments for how and why the Resistance undid Trump.
From the Resisters themselves, those arguments accuse anyone who was skeptical of their alarmism of ignoring the importance of passion, organization and mobilization in American politics. To eye-roll at the would-be defenders of liberalism and democracy, Laura K. Field of the Niskanen Center asserted just before the election, is to engage in an “implicit denial of the work that has gone into attempting to defeat Trump.” If his authoritarianism has fizzled out in fantasy and hopeless lawsuits, it still could have been much, much worse if people hadn’t felt a world-historical incentive to resist — an effort that merits “gratitude and respect, not dismissive call-outs and belittling tweets.”
Rather than emphasizing mobilization, meanwhile, the Trumpist version of Field’s argument emphasizes elite power — the way that the media and the judiciary and the bureaucracy joined with congressional Democrats in denying Trump any of the normal space of action that his predecessors enjoyed. This newspaper’s famous Op-Ed by “Anonymous” (later revealed to be Miles Taylor, the homeland security secretary’s chief of staff) claiming to represent the Resistance inside the Trump White House offers a condensed symbol of what these Trump supporters have in mind — a kind of inside-outside game of obstruction, with media entities and government officials cooperating to keep the agenda that Trump actually campaigned on from taking shape.
To these arguments I would offer a concession and a rejoinder.
The concession first: There’s no question that the anti-authoritarian, America-imperiled narrative of the last four years had some benefits for Trump’s opponents. It helped pressure the disparate factions of the American elite, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, to close ranks against the president. It created an ideological home and a compelling self-understanding for anti-Trump Republicans. It contributed to the mobilization of suburban and minority voters in crucial states like Georgia and to the general sense of purpose that a successful political movement needs. And in its inside-game form, elite resistance definitely obstructed at least some of Trump’s expressed desires, from Gary Cohn and John Bolton maneuvering deceptively on NAFTA or NATO to the generals who repeatedly slow-walked orders to withdraw forces from the Middle East or Afghanistan.
My rejoinder, though, is that it’s not clear whether the Resistance mentality was more effective than more politically normal modes of fighting Trump, and whether the inside-the-system obstruction of the president actually derailed a real agenda rather than just adding extra layers of chaos to a presidency that never had a vision or a plan.
On the first point, one might observe that the Trump-era controversies most dominated by Resistance theatrics were conflicts that the Resistance didn’t win — the long Russiagate investigation and imbroglio, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle, the impeachment fight.
At the same time, Trump’s actual defeats were the work of very conventional political campaigning: a midterm campaign in which the Democrats organized around health care and other kitchen-table issues and a presidential election in which they nominated their most moderate candidate and ran on normalcy and decency, casting Trump as a terrible person and a bad president but not a Mussolini in the making.
Then, too, the gains from the Resistance mentality came with a political price. The anti-Trump closing-of-ranks within elite institutions helped shore up the president’s populist bona fides, his claim to represent outsiders and non-elites, even when his actual policies favored insiders and the rich. The tendency to see an authoritarian depredation behind every policy move, however banal, weakened the credibility of the media, especially putatively neutral outlets like CNN. The pitch of anti-Trumpism bound once-dubious Republicans to his cause, almost matching the mobilization on the Democratic side.
And the liberal belief that Trump was obviously, self-evidently a white supremacist and semi-fascist left liberalism somewhat blindsided by the voters who disagreed: not just the white shy-Trumpers of the suburbs but also the Trump-voting Latinos and African Americans who helped keep the 2020 race competitive, denying Biden his blowout and the Resistance the full repudiation of Trumpism that it sought.
On the right, meanwhile, the Trumpist conceit that the Mueller investigation or MSNBC hysteria were the main forces preventing a more successful Trump agenda gives that opposition way too much credit — and Trump himself way too little blame. It was not the Resistance but his own indifference that induced Trump to outsource policymaking to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell during the two years when his party actually controlled the government. It was not the Mueller investigation but the attempted Obamacare repeal and a not-very-populist tax plan that drove his polling numbers to their notable lows.
When Kayleigh McEnany complained recently that her boss “was never given an orderly transition of power,” she had a point — but the major source of disorder was not Crossfire Hurricane or the Steele dossier but just the Trump team’s own incompetence, notably Jared Kushner’s decision to ditch Chris Christie’s transition plan without having a replacement.
The Resistance may have induced Democrats to take a lot of party-line votes against the president, but if Trump actually pursued his promised infrastructure bill he would have found Democratic takers. In areas where he had competent people working for him (judicial nominations, above all), the political and media opposition was impotent to stop him. Impeachment was just a segue into his presidency’s peak, a triumphant State of the Union address just before the coronavirus came calling. Even late in 2020, Nancy Pelosi was willing to make a deal with him on a big new round of coronavirus relief, which might have helped save his reelection bid — yet Trump preferred instead to go down tweeting.
So treating Biden the way Trump was treated, opposing him as Trump was opposed, is only a devastating strategy if you assume that Biden and his White House will miss as many opportunities and perform as many face-plants as Trump’s administration did.
And that’s without even getting into the fact that the Republican campaign to delegitimize Biden can’t really emulate the Resistance, since the whole point of the anti-Trump effort was to mobilize a political and cultural establishment from which the populist right is notably excluded. At most a refusal to recognize Biden’s legitimacy could keep congressional Republicans voting in lock step against whatever the new president supports. But most would vote in lock step anyway, and the Republican senators most likely to break ranks, a Mitt Romney or a Susan Collins, are the least likely to be swayed by appeals to Biden’s supposed illegitimacy.
Which means the attempt to build a right-wing Resistance narrative should probably be understood less as an effort to actually impede Biden’s administration and much more as a project to maintain Donald Trump’s position as his party’s leader, a president in exile — because, after all under its theory, he never really lost.
If the idea of Trump 2024 appeals to you, as it currently does to many Republicans, then this kind of Resistancing may sound like a good way to keep anybody else from claiming any kind of real position in the party. But the primary claim being made for it — that it will obstruct and defeat Biden the way Resistance liberals took down Trump — is a twofold error: They didn’t, and it won’t.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.