The roll call of Democrats who have cast their votes in favor of Trump’s nominees, over the outrage and fear of their own constituents, is revealing. While they don't have a majority to block any Cabinet members, they can still register their dissent with a vote in the Senate committee. Democrats also have a number of political tools at their disposal, including an organized push to withhold consent, that they could use to obstruct and slow the Trump administration’s multi-pronged assault.
But the rallying cries of a terrified public have largely gone unanswered. Last month, Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren were among 11 Senate Democrats who cast their votes in favor of Ben Carson’s appointment to secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The former far-right presidential candidate is an open Islamophobe who brings no experience in housing policy. In 2014, he opposed an agreement between the city of Dubuque and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the city’s housing policies that discriminate against black residents, suggesting it was proof America was "becoming communist." Last year, he expressed his fervent opposition to a HUD fair housing rule that is aimed, in part, at reducing segregation, calling it a “failed socialist experiment.”
Facing public outrage, Warren sought to defend her vote with an explanation on Facebook. "Yes, I adamantly disagree with many of the outrageous things that Dr. Carson said during his presidential campaign. Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted," Warren wrote. "But 'the nominee I wanted is not the test." This complicance bears little resemblance to the rhetoric that propelled her to stardom in progressive circles.
"As Democrats approve Trump's nominees in Congress, we know that our resistance and our fight against Trump is also a fight against their complicity,” Mohamed Shehk, an organizer with Critical Resistance, who took place in the SFO protests, told AlterNet. “Trump’s executive actions targeting Arabs and Muslims are part of a war on immigrants, regardless of documentation, as well as on people of color, native and black communities, queer and trans people, workers and disabled people. The thousands coming out in San Francisco and shutting down one of the largest international terminals in the country is just a glimpse of the solidarity and resistance that communities are ready to wage.”
According to Shehk, the complicity of Democrats underscores the importance of looking beyond the individual misdeeds of figures like Trump to examine the political systems in which they are embedded. “The attacks on our communities both here and across the world are waged by the systems of policing, imprisonment, surveillance and border control,” he said. “These did not begin with Trump, but Trump is expanding and intensifying these systems to enforce greater control over our communities.”
Warren’s complicity is not unique. Thirty-seven Senate Democrats supported the nomination of John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly is a retired Marine general who oversaw and aggressively defended mass torture at Guantánamo Bay. He has also called immigration an “existential threat” to the United States and urges an escalated war on drugs. Among those who voted to approve the confirmation of Kelly was Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has previously been championed as a defender of human rights.
In addition, Mike Pompeo’s nomination to head the CIA received 15 “yes” votes from Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer. Pompeo is a far-right Republican from Kansas who was voted into Congress on a wave of Tea Party support. He has argued that the War on Terror is a conflict between Islam and Christianity and is a close associate of the anti-Muslim extremist Frank Gaffney, whose think tank produced the junk research behind Trump’s campaign proposal of a Muslim ban. Pompeo is a strong proponent of military escalation towards Iran, as well as expanded government surveillance powers, and has expressed support for CIA torturers while signaling an openness to the practice in the future.
Democrats overwhelmingly lined up behind James Mattis, who was confirmed as Defence Secretary 98-1. Mattis is a darling of neoconservatives who has directly presided over horrific war crimes. He was the convening authority over the Haditha massacre in Iraq and played a lead role in both U.S. sieges on Fallujah in 2004, killing thousands of civilians. “While reporting from inside Fallujah during that siege, I personally witnessed women, children, elderly people and ambulances being targeted by US snipers under Mattis' command,” journalist Dahr Jamail noted in December. “Needless to say, all of these are war crimes.”
Supporters of Mattis’ nomination include the rising star Kamala Harris, as well as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii argued to the Huffington Post in late January, “We can’t very well be at a fever pitch on everything. The door swings both ways in Washington. At some point we’re going to want a Democratic president to stand up a Cabinet. So we’re trying to be reasonable when the nominees are reasonable.”
But Hatem Abudayyeh, an organizer with the Arab American Action Network, which played a key role in the ongoing protests at O'Hare International Airport, called such arguments a “cop out.” He told AlterNet, “You just have to juxtapose Democrats’ statements with those Yemeni families, children and mothers and fathers, standing nose-to-nose with the Chicago police, state police and border patrol at the airport. How could you say it’s difficult to vote no to a racist agenda? There are real white supremacists in the White House today.”