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Former Obama officials become aggressive voices against Trump

On the night of President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress last week, Senate Democrats used their social media accounts to deliver several messages of defiance and opposition, including one from former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

“I know that this is a time of great fear and uncertainty for so many people,” Lynch said in the video posted on Facebook. “I know it’s a time of concern for people, who see our rights being assailed, being trampled on and even being rolled back. I know that this is difficult, but I remind you that this has never been easy.”

Lynch cited the Founding Fathers and others who have fought against all odds for the country’s ideals as figures of inspiration.

“They’ve marched, they’ve bled and yes, some of them died,” she said. “This is hard. Every good thing is. We have done this before. We can do this again.”

Conservative news site WorldNetDaily reported on the video over the weekend, falsely attributing to her a call for “marching, blood, death on streets.” A later version of the post removed the quotation marks but retained the allegation that she was inciting violence.

Though the video has not received much mainstream media attention, it has been viewed nearly 250,000 times. Bill O’Reilly’s website declared it the Video of the Day Sunday, claiming that Lynch “seems to endorse violent protests.”

Lynch’s minute-long statement did not call for violence. Her words may reinforce the sense among activists that the current president must be opposed passionately, though, even as a recent poll showed 53 percent of voters want protesters to “move on.”

Other former members of the Obama administration have taken much more aggressive roles in the fight against the new president.

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was recently elected as chair of the Democratic National Committee, narrowly defeating Rep. Keith Ellison, who had been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and many progressive activists. He named Ellison his deputy, but deep divisions remain within the party over the strategy the anti-Trump movement should pursue.

Lynch’s predecessor at the Department of Justice, Eric Holder, has also stepped in to help fill a void in Democratic leadership. He is chairing the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an organization devoted to ensuring district maps drawn in 2021 are more favorable to Democrats than the current ones.

Holder has said he believes the new administration deserves an opportunity, but he has a pretty long list of “red lines” that he will fight back over if Trump crosses them.

“If you do anything that is not consistent with what we did in trying to protect the people's right to vote,” he told Mic, “if you try to roll back LGBT rights, if you don't use the Article 3 courts for terrorism cases, if you try to roll back the progress that we made in criminal justice reform, at that point, I will be extremely critical, and will be a voice of dissent and opposition to what the administration is doing.”

Holder has also defended the massive protests across the country against Trump’s policies and actions.

“Don’t underestimate the power of citizen engagement, of street protests. Progress is not linear,” he told an audience at the University at Buffalo last month.

Additional former officials have spoken out at times. Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, now president of the University of California, has been critical of Trump’s executive order on immigration and she has promised to protect students from deportation threats.

Julian Castro, Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development, is a vocal Trump critic on Twitter, calling him “the shadiest, most corrupt guy to take the Oval Office” in December. Last week, Castro described Trump’s administration as “the swampiest of all.”

Obama himself has been a largely passive observer to date, aside from one statement through a spokesman on the immigration order and a denial of the wiretapping conspiracy theory. Holder has indicated that will soon change.

“It’s coming. He’s coming,” he told reporters at a briefing last week. “And he’s ready to roll.”

If Obama does emerge as a leading Trump critic, it will be a break from the behavior of his recent predecessors. Last week, on a media tour for his new book of paintings, George W. Bush reiterated his stance that former presidents should not publicly criticize their replacements.

Members of Bush’s administration have not shown the same reluctance. In mid-March of Obama’s first term, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused him of making America less safe. Former Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey has also been a vociferous critic of Obama.

“I don’t find the criticism by Obama Cabinet members to be all that remarkable,” said Robert Mann, a professor at Louisiana State University and former Senate press secretary. “There is a tradition of former presidents keeping their own counsel on their successors, but I’ve never known the same to apply to Cabinet members after they leave office.”

With Perez and Holder settling into their new gigs, it remains to be seen how effective these former White House insiders can be in harnessing a progressive base that harbors resentment and distrust of the party establishment.

“Many progressive or populist Democrats who supported Sanders and Ellison will join any Democratic opposition to Trump… But that is different from stoking real intensity and enthusiasm,” Douglas Rossinow, a history professor at Metropolitan State University, said. “I see no way that Lynch or Holder can close that enthusiasm gap, especially with the populists in the party smarting over the way the establishment swooped in to block Ellison.”

To win the confidence of the base, Perez may soon need to display independence from the party apparatus that put him in power.

“Perez clearly faces a challenge to unite his party after serving as the instrument to block Ellison,” Rossinow, author of “Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America,” said, “and I doubt former Obama administration officials will be any help in that cause.”

Experts on social movements say Perez and other prominent Democrats are not and probably should not be leading the resistance.

“Mostly these elected officials or appointees are following the protest rather than leading it… People who work in institutional politics pay attention to what their base cares about and follow the signals they’re getting,” said David Meyer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine and author of “The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.”

Lynch’s video likely struck a chord with activists but it may have little impact beyond that.

“To be clear, Democrats, both current and former, are following rather than leading the movement,” said Jason Del Gandio, author of “Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists.” “Trump’s election was a wake-up call for many left-of-center constituents, and the anti-Trump opposition has a wider agenda than voting Democrats back into power.”

The possible exception to this dynamic would be if Obama or Vice President Joe Biden does come forward to assume a leadership role, something neither has publicly expressed interest in doing.

“It would be foolish for Democrats to overlook [Obama’s] political strength or the experience of his team when formulating responses to Trump,” Democratic strategist Craig Varoga said, but he added that turning to Obama will not solve the party’s problems with its base or the disaffected Rust Belt voters who sided with Trump in November.

Meyer pointed to Jimmy Carter as an example of a former president who has criticized other holders of the Oval Office so often that his word no longer carries much weight. Obama cannot be a leader or spokesman for the opposition, and attempting to play that part could backfire.

“If he is very, very controlled and just picks one or two points to intervene, he can probably make a difference,” he said. “If he overplays it, not so much.”

Those criticizing Lynch and other prominent Democrats for fomenting division may be undermined by President Trump’s own behavior. Experts say he has done little to unite the country or defuse the anger that is driving protests against him.

“Usually it’s hard for opposition movements to sustain themselves,” Meyer said. Most presidents try to win over their opposition, even if they often fail. Trump has fed the fire instead of attempting to extinguish it.

“He had a chance to do so, but clearly he has gone in the opposite direction, doubling down on his existing base,” Rossinow said.

Trump attempted to deliver a call for unity and bipartisan cooperation in his address last Tuesday, but by the end of the week he had squandered any possible goodwill created by that with his tweets attacking Democrats and the former president.

“I have been surprised that Trump has so done little — virtually nothing, in fact — to try to calm the fears of those who did not vote for him,” Mann said.

While the words of Holder, Lynch, or even Obama may not turn the tide against Trump or bring together a fractured party, a group of former Democratic congressional staffers is successfully aiding the grassroots. Their Indivisible guide helped activists strategize to confront Republicans at town halls last month, creating many viral moments and possibly demonstrating a path forward.

“Unity for the Democrats will more likely come from below than from the top,” Rossinow said.

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