Editor’s Note: Lev Golinkin writes on refugee and immigrant identity, as well as Ukraine, Russia and the far right. He is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
So far, 2020 has brought a dose of sobriety for the Democratic Party: the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump gained little viewership, while the President’s approval ratings hit a personal record high. Even more troubling is the turnout in last week’s Iowa caucuses. One would expect the prospect of voting out Trump to bring record-shattering numbers of energized Democrats to the polls. Instead, the turnout was lower than expected, an ominous sign for what’s to come.
This shouldn’t be surprising. It’s becoming clear that the fault lies neither in the White House nor in the American public, but in a troubling undercurrent at the heart of the Democrat-led resistance to the Trump administration. Unless we acknowledge and address this, we’re looking at a repeat of 2016.
In nearly every other use of “the resistance” – from World War II to “Star Wars” films – the term refers to individuals battling actual tyranny while actually risking their lives. People saving Jews in Nazi-occupied France didn’t advertise their bravery. Harriet Tubman didn’t walk around the South soliciting accolades. For them, being discovered meant being literally slain. For them, there were consequences.
Conversely, Democratic resistance leaders have often accommodated Trump while simultaneously casting themselves as martyrs in primetime passion plays, appropriating historic tragedies and pretending they live in a dictatorship.
In 2018, after Trump held a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, lawmakers and commentators compared the meeting to the Japanese slaughter of two thousand Americans at Pearl Harbor. Others went further, likening the Trump-Putin meeting to the Nazi pogrom of Jews on Kristallnacht.
Last year, California Rep. Eric Swalwell invoked the Holocaust after the Trump campaign issued a memo telling television producers Swalwell and other members of Congress weren’t trustworthy. It was pure trolling, malicious yet toothless. But that didn’t stop Swalwell from comparing himself to Holocaust victims by referencing Pastor Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the…” poem about vulnerable groups targeted by the Third Reich. The need to explain why a powerful member of Congress in the greatest democracy in the world has nothing in common with Holocaust victims is one of the more depressingly unnecessary exercises of the past three years.
The Niemöller poem resurfaced this week, when prominent Resistance member Benjamin Wittes tweeted “First they came for Comey, and I said nothing.” Anne Frank huddled in an attic, then died in a Nazi concentration camp. James Comey was fired from the FBI and is currently raking in millions from book sales and speeches.
Apparently to some people, those two situations are comparable.
The performances aren’t limited to Twitter. Last month, during Trump’s impeachment trial, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler publicly called the President “a dictator” from the Senate floor. Again, it’s hard to explain just how absurd and insulting this is, especially for someone like me, who came to the US as a refugee from an actual dictatorship.
But perhaps the most telling encapsulation of these theatrics is the video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tearing up Trump’s State of the Union address. The problem with Pelosi’s gesture is that last June, she and the rest of the House leadership bankrolled Trump’s dark vision for America by approving the Senate’s emergency funding border bill. Other than curtailing the amount toward building Trump’s wall, the bill had nearly everything the president wanted.
The House Democrats couldn’t stop ICE’s predations on vulnerable immigrants and asylum seekers. They couldn’t negotiate delivering basic sanitation supplies to the camps. They couldn’t even bring themselves to censure Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has a track record of spewing the same talking points as white supremacist terrorists.
But they sure could preen during the State of the Union.
Over the past three years, the US courts, human rights groups, media organizations and countless ordinary Americans have stood up to the White House’s attempts to circumvent our democracy. But those actions stand in stark contrast to the cynical choreography of prominent resistance champions. And if words matter, and gestures matter, and actions matter, the answer to Trump requires a sober commitment to avoid meaningless words, gestures and actions.
I remember the awful helplessness of living in refugee camps and praying for America to grant asylum to me and my family. Our living conditions were nothing like the horror today’s asylum seekers are going through, but still, they gave me an appreciation of true versus empty acts. And it didn’t take long to realize that the people who helped us the most, bragged the least while the ones who did little, bragged the most.
Comparing America to a dictatorship didn’t aid a single child in the camps. Ripping up the State of the Union speech didn’t help the families huddled in terror of ICE raids, or millions of individuals deprived of food stamps by the Trump administration, or Jews and Muslims fearful of getting gunned down by terrorists. If tearing up pieces of paper is the best that powerful American Democrats can do, is it any surprise to see low voter turnout?
If tearing up pieces of paper is the best we can do, we’re in for a depressing November.