Common Ground in the Trump Era is Doubtful

Americans caught in a cycle of disrespect and payback

Donald Trump speaks after being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, on the West Front of the Capitol, on January 20, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Donald Trump speaks after being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, on the West Front of the Capitol, on January 20, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 26, 2017 at 5:00am

The parallels aren’t perfect, but close enough to see and hear hypocrisy from all sides.

Observing some of the more dismissive reactions against last weekend’s women’s marches that exceeded expectations in Washington, across the country and around the world, you would think that gathering for a cause and against an American president was somehow unpatriotic.

New President Donald Trump’s initial statement that he was “under the impression that we just had an election” eventually gave way to a defense of a constitutional right to protest, though his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said, “I frankly didn’t see the point.”

Various Republican elected officials around the country mocked protesters before offering half-hearted apologies. In North Carolina, GOP state Sen. Joyce Krawiec tweeted: “Message to crazies @ Women’s March — If brains were lard, you couldn’t grease a small skillet. You know who you are.” She won her seat without opposition in November, so she probably felt pretty safe.

Déjà vu

I had a flashback to a revved-up crowd at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, where I was covering what was called the first national tea party convention in early February 2010. Participants who came to rail against health care and other policies of then-President Barack Obama claimed patriotism as their motivation for righteous dissent.

Though the issues that drew them were as varied as the signs that dotted Saturday’s marches, tea party speakers, who included Sarah Palin and former Colorado congressman and onetime presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo, earned the loudest cheers for attacks on a democratically elected president.

Many of the same folks who are demanding respect and acquiescence for President Trump were having none of it back then for President Obama. “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’, or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House,” said Tancredo. “His name is Barack Hussein Obama.” The crowd went wild.

These activists were sincere. They were resentful of media and “elites” — sound familiar? — but very human when we chatted one-on-one. They looked at people outside their like-minded circles with suspicion. The crowd stood as one to scream at the press assembled at the back of the room to “go home,” though my table companions shifted uncomfortably and assured me they didn’t really mean it for the “honest media,” honest being media that adhered to their own points of view.

On the other hand, some folks I knew were horrified when I told them about my informative chats with folks from Florida to California, and questioned how I could even be in the room, much less sharing breakfast with members of tea party nation. They are American citizens, I would answer, entitled to disagree with elected politicians.

As usual, opinions depended on whether your guy or gal was in or out of power.

Power surge

It was instructive to watch an underestimated movement gain momentum — at the rallies, marches and a National Rifle Association convention I covered — and transform into political action, leading to the triumphant Republican-allied tea party revolution in the 2010 midterm elections and in the states.

Mainstream Republicans were very smart at harnessing tea party energy, though some, like Virginia’s Eric Cantor, former House majority leader, eventually were punished for being too tied to the establishment.

The positions are reversed now, with Democrats in the electoral wilderness, clinging to the massive weekend turnout as a sign that a comeback is possible. Doubts about what Saturday’s marches mean in the long term, and what the follow up will be could be turned to the party’s advantage, if the marchers continue to be discounted and if Trump continues his erratic government-by-tweet.

As Trump angers activists on issues from reproductive rights to climate change to immigration to criminal justice reform to voting rights, he is racking up quite a list of opponents. Republicans in power are hastening to back up the president’s quick actions, undoing the Obama administration’s governing philosophy. That, more than anything else, could spur cooperation among Democrats’ sometimes squabbling factions, as the party chooses a new DNC chair and a direction forward, and it could unite a party with an earned reputation for being a tad less disciplined than the GOP.

Intraparty cohesion is looking a lot more possible than any cooperation across the country’s bitter partisan divide. But both sides could look to mass actions of the past, for example, the civil rights movement’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that also filled the nation’s capital.

The view through a historical lens is a lot gauzier than the divisive reality of 1963, when politicians and an FBI director imagined horror scenarios of violence, and current elder statesman Congressman John Lewis was the young activist who was persuaded to edit his fiery speech. Today, it would be hard to get anyone to admit to being skeptical of the 1963 march’s mission and the country-changing legislation that followed.

With American citizens now caught in a cycle of disrespect and payback, with little sympathy or empathy to spare for “the other,” any consensus or common ground is doubtful. Who knows how much time it will take to learn from the contentious history of American democracy or to see the consequences of ignoring it?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.