This tension underscores a deeper paradox of liberalism that has arguably reached its apex in the Trump era. Since the president’s election four years ago, the political and intellectual leaders of America’s supposedly reform-minded opposition have issued warnings about the existential threat that Trump poses to democracy. Amid it all, senior Democrats have mostly maintained both the regular operation of government and a standard of congressional etiquette that connotes normalcy more than it does any state of exception: applauding the president’s speeches, approving his military budgets, awarding him new domestic spying powers, and even fast-tracking his judicial nominees. A line from one 2019 CNBC report detailing the overwhelming House approval of Trump’s marquee NAFTA renegotiation sums up the absurdity of this posture: “Democrats also wanted to show they can work with Trump only a day after they voted to make him the third president impeached in American history.” Determined opposition to Trump has sometimes been so nonexistent that Democratic partisans have had to invent it, as when an image of Pelosi during the 2019 State of the Union address went viral on the entirely spurious grounds that the speaker had intended for her clapping to look sarcastic.

Liberalism in the Trump era has thus become a kind of strange pantomime act in which elite politicians deploy the rhetoric of imminent threats and national emergency only to behave like hapless passengers trapped aboard a sinking ship. Although it has certainly found its most potent expression in Washington, this posture of feigned powerlessness has gradually come to infect the broader culture and ideology of American liberalism as a whole.

Even in solidly blue states where Democrats face none of the institutional impediments that confront them in Washington, D.C., robust progressive legislative agendas are rare.