The Republican Party is celebrating the passage of a deeply unpopular and comprehensive rewrite of the U.S. tax code, which critics argue is skewed unjustly toward the rich. Members of the party, however, are convinced that we will learn to love the new tax code, as House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday. “When people see their withholding improving, when they see jobs occurring, when they see bigger paychecks, a fairer tax system, a simpler tax code, that’s what going to produce the results,” he said at his weekly press conference. “Results are going to make this popular,” he added, sounding like parents telling their child, “When you’re older, you’re going to thank me for forcing you to take violin lessons.” But like a child who grows up resenting a domineering parent, voters are likely to punish the GOP at the ballot box, as some have predicted. And unlike my analogy, voters are not children.
My actual child recently approached me, wondering if he could ask me a serious question. I braced myself, sat him down on my lap and nudged him to speak. Some of his schoolmates had been discussing writing letters to Congress about outlawing shark fin soup in order to protect endangered sharks. But another friend worried that if they did so, President Trump would know where they live and might retaliate. My son wanted to know if it is dangerous to write letters to Congress.
My heart broke a little with the realization that there are children in America who are afraid of exercising their democratic rights because a tyrannical president and party foists unjust policies on us, and that my own child—who listens in on his parents’ spirited dinnertime political discussions—is among them. I explained that not only is it OK to write to Congress, it is our job as citizens to do so—and it is the job of Congress to listen to us.
After we discussed at length who our local, state and national representatives are and how easy it is to write to them, my son asked if Trump could fire senators like Bernie Sanders for standing up to him. I replied that, on the contrary, members of Congress could fire Trump if they wanted to. My son did not understand why Congress has not yet done so.
The Republican Party and their president have done a number on all of us. We feel defeated. Despite our best efforts, wealthy elites have managed to grab political power and enrich themselves, and the tax bill is the latest and perhaps greatest blow this year. But this is part of a tactic designed to leave us feeling disoriented and helpless. A party that openly resorts to redrawing district lines and disenfranchising opposition voters in order to cling to power realizes that its days are numbered and acts at breakneck speed to seize power before we know what has hit us. A president who knows deep down that he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million people and that his poll numbers are decreasing steadily, even among his own base, knows he has only so much time to carry out his heist. He is keenly aware that if he leaves us reeling with horror each week (so that we forget the indignity of the week before and the week before that), we are less likely to revolt—or so the unspoken logic goes.
While we may feel overwhelmed by losses, what we have witnessed over the past year is that despite their best efforts, Trump and his cohorts have few victories to show for their domination of both chambers of Congress and the presidency. After months of wrangling with the courts, Trump has pushed through a lesser version of his original “Muslim ban.” Despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord, state governors and mayors across the U.S. and nations around the world remain committed to the modest agreement. Even though Republicans have targeted the Affordable Care Act in piecemeal ways, they were unable to keep their promise to “repeal and replace” the law in its entirety. While the year ends with a major blow to economic justice in the form of this tax bill, the Republican Party knows it has passed a hugely unpopular bill just so it could have something to show before Dec. 31—and the bill is likely to come at serious political cost.
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The recent win by a Democrat (albeit one who might be friendly to Republicans) in Alabama could mean that the opposition party will win enough midterm election races in 2018 to flip the Senate and even the House. Democratic Party leaders certainly hope so. But for social movements to pour their energy back into the Democratic Party is not a long-term solution either, because time and time again the party has taken progressive voters for granted and betrayed its stated ideals.
What we need instead is a stark reminder of the relationship between elected politicians and the electorate—a lesson similar to the one I found myself sharing with my son. Members of Congress should neither be championed nor relied upon. They are serving their terms at our whim: They are literally public servants. While they ought to be instruments of our bidding, they understand how to rig the system to feed their power and brainwash us into thinking that we are either on their team or are helpless against their power. Neither is true.
Just as Republicans are desperate to do the bidding of their paymasters, Democrats (and any member of any party) ought to work for our votes. Trump and his party are doing as much damage as fast as possible in the hopes that people will accept it. The Democratic opposition is gleefully expecting a backlash to feed its return to power. We cannot assume either truly cares about ordinary Americans.
The most effective way to express our demands is through political organizing that is entirely independent of any political party. A year after the historic Women’s March, there will be a second march on Jan. 20, 2018. Last January, Trump was clearly threatened by the sheer number of protesters, as evidenced by his desperate need to inflate his inauguration crowd numbers over Women’s March attendees. Despite the temptation to give in to activism fatigue, it is critical that turnout be even greater in 2018. Last January, we protested against what we feared would come to pass. Now we have evidence that our fears were, in fact, understated.
Of course, a single march or even series of marches will not be enough. Our challenge is multifold. We have to show politicians how deeply unpopular their schemes are. While we ensure that lesser evils replace the worst evils, we also have to insist that no matter who is in power, our demands for social, racial, gender, environmental and economic justice be met. The tax bill is a depressing end to a depressing year. But Trump and his party are counting on us feeling disoriented and powerless. Let’s agree to a New Year’s resolution: Fight the injustice of the Christmas tax cuts and prepare ourselves to battle Trumpism better in 2018.