What the DeVos and Puzder nomination fights show isn’t that protest and other forms of organized opposition don’t work, but that their effects can be nebulous or nonlinear. The climate in which opposition to DeVos could break through to the broader public contributed to Puzder’s vulnerability, even if it didn’t actually force DeVos out of contention or influence Puzder’s fate in obvious ways.
Politics is weird. Unpredictable things happen all the time. Sometimes those things confound our ability to tell simple stories about how power works. But that doesn’t mean single-issue protests aren’t working; they are.
We can count the ways in which specific acts of resistance—protests, or calls to congressional offices—have had intended effects. The clearest was most likely the GOP’s swift reversal, prior to inauguration, of an effort to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The Department of Health and Human Services likewise partially reversed efforts to depress Affordable Care Act enrollment at the end of January. These acts of mischief, along with several others, were undone because Republicans didn’t expect to attract much negative attention for them, and responded swiftly when they did.
Trump has had better luck getting his cabinet confirmed, despite mass mobilization against several nominees. But that doesn’t mean the mobilization went unnoticed. DeVos spent her first day on the job at the Department of Education doing damage control. (She’s also still being hounded by protesters.)
Vincent Viola, the billionaire trader and executive, withdrew from consideration to be Trump’s army secretary no doubt in part because he didn’t want to endure the scrutiny that Trump’s other financially conflicted nominees have faced.
When the White House nixed plans to make investor Anthony Scaramucci director of the public liaison’s office, which manages relations between the administration and the business community, President George W. Bush’s former ethics lawyer told the New York Times that Scaramucci’s entanglements “[do] not seem to me to be a clear disqualifying factor…. Another possibility is they decided not to keep him for a political reason and cited an ethics conflict as a cover.”
Rich Lowry, who edits the conservative National Review, admonished Republicans to take the Trump backlash seriously. “In the normal course of things,” he wrote, “it’s not easy even for a well-funded and -organized group to get people to spend an evening at a school auditorium hooting at their congressman. If these demonstrations are happening in districts around the country, attention must be paid.”
Republicans are paying some attention, though not typically the right kind. Many of them are hiding from protesters and angry constituents at their town halls. Some are chocking the whole resistance up to paid agitation, but others are clearly allowing the outcry to affect their political thinking. In closed doors with one another, and even to reporters, they cite the flack they’re getting for everything from failing to conduct oversight to taking confirmation votes to pursuing Obamacare repeal.
Democrats have taken more notice still, and have thus waged historic opposition to Trump’s nominees and early agenda items.
Trump himself has paid the closest attention—but the main upshot has been to drive him crazy, which is its own form of reward.
Meanwhile, out of sight, the surge of activism is creating networks that are already helping shake loose latent fundraising potential and political talent, including people willing to run for local office.
Yes, it seems likely that Oprah, not protests by janitors and fast-food workers, ultimately struck the blow that knocked Puzder out. It also seems likely that if the infamous Access Hollywood tape had leaked after, rather than before, FBI Director James Comey reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, then she would be president today. Arbitrary events drive politics perhaps more than they should. But they don’t shape the zeitgeist the way activists can, and today’s zeitgeist can’t be denied.