WASHINGTON — For more than two years, Democrats have struggled with how aggressively to confront Donald J. Trump, a political opponent unlike any other: Should they attack him over his hard-line policies; his inflammatory, norm-breaking conduct; or some combination of both?
In recent days, as institutional Democrats wring their hands, those deliberations have started to give way to furious liberal activists and citizens who have taken matters into their own hands beyond the corridors of power.
Progressives have heckled the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, and the White House aide Stephen Miller at Washington restaurants. They have ejected the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, from a Lexington, Va., eatery. And they have screamed at one of Mr. Trump’s leading cable news surrogates, Florida’s attorney general, Pam Bondi, at a Tampa movie theater.
“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up,” Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, said Saturday at a rally in Los Angeles. “And if you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
The attempts at shaming have delighted many on the left, particularly following Mr. Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, and many progressives feel that the president’s incendiary messaging and actions must be met with something far stronger than another round of news releases from politicians.
But the social media-fueled confrontations have opened a rift in the party over whether stoking anti-Trump outrage is helping or undermining its prospects in the midterm elections. Many younger Democrats believe that conventional politics are insufficient to the threat posed by a would-be authoritarian — and that their millennial and nonwhite base must be assured that the party is doing all it can to halt Mr. Trump.
Older and more establishment-aligned party officials fear the attempts at public humiliation are a political gift to Republicans eager to portray the opposition as inflaming rather than cooling passions in the nation’s capital.
“Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable,” Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said Monday, rebuking Ms. Waters, a veteran flamethrower who is enjoying something of a renaissance in the Trump era.
This sort of talk infuriates the new guard of liberal leaders, who warn that Washington Democrats risk dampening enthusiasm among anti-Trump activists if they continue denouncing direct action.
“It’s completely tone deaf to discourage this type of activity,” said Quentin James, 30, a founder of the Collective PAC, an organization dedicated to electing more African-Americans. “They’re acting as accomplices.”
Mr. Trump did appear to relish the decision by a Virginia restaurant owner to ask Ms. Sanders to leave her establishment, the Red Hen, over the weekend.
“The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” he taunted on Twitter.
Nor did he let Ms. Waters’s broadside go unanswered, calling her an “extraordinarily low IQ person” in a tweet.
And later Monday, at a rally for Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Mr. Trump said, “They are the party of Maxine Waters.”
Ms. Sanders used the moment to put Mr. Trump forward as an exemplar of civility against the braying hordes of Democratic activists, whose “calls for harassment” are “unacceptable.”
“America is a great country, and our ability to find solutions despite the disagreements is what makes us unique,” she said. “That is exactly what President Trump has done for all Americans.”
But it was not just the White House that was tut-tutting the public shaming.
“I think civil disobedience has had an important role in the sweep of history, but when it is done well, it has always been done strategically and with the high ground,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, who has used his Twitter account to urge activists to stay focused on the policy issues that he thinks move voters. “We have to be careful not to pick every battle in every place, both literally and figuratively.”
Like much else in the Trump era, however, it is not clear whether the episodes of “disobedience” will continue or at least continue garnering attention when other controversies flare up.
And having just returned from a weekend campaigning with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mr. Schatz said he felt reassured that, away from the raging fires of social media, most Democrats on the ballot “understand that they need to focus on economic issues and health care.”
Other prominent Democrats, however, are alarmed at those in their ranks who believe these public clashes should be encouraged.
The party has found its greatest electoral success by casting itself as the antidote to Republican excess and divisiveness, these Democrats say, not by emulating the most heated talk and behavior on the right. When Republicans have prospered, they warn, it has often been when they can ride a public backlash against Democrats.
“It’s totally counterproductive,” said David Axelrod, the former chief strategist for President Barack Obama. “You’re making Sarah Huckabee Sanders a sympathetic figure.”
Mr. Axelrod, who received an avalanche of criticism online over the weekend after tweeting about his unease with how Ms. Sanders was treated, bristled at the criticism and noted his success in winning a pair of presidential elections.
“Organize, run for office, donate and most of all vote,” he said. “That’s how you change policy in a democracy.”
Yet a growing contingent of Democrats believes that up-for-grabs voters are scarcely paying attention to the Trump story du jour and that the president’s devotees are already roused.
There is little risk in speaking out about Mr. Trump’s demagogic conduct, these Democrats argue, and party elders should recognize how serious this moment is and not diminish the anger of activists.
“Individual citizens using what relatively little power they have to have a voice in what is a moral tragedy in our country is not the problem we face,” said Ilyse Hogue, who runs Naral Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group. She argued that Mr. Trump and Ms. Sanders using their platforms “to publicly punish these individuals for using their voices is a larger problem.”
Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist and senior official on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, likened the past few days to the end of the Virginia governor’s race last year, when a liberal Hispanic group ran an incendiary ad against the Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, after he accused his Democratic opponent, Ralph S. Northam, of not being sufficiently tough on MS-13, the heavily Latino gang that has become a Trump talking point.
“Certain Democratic strategists wrung their hands when Hispanic groups correctly called out these attacks as racist,” Mr. Fallon said. “We don’t have to sit idly by and condone Trump’s racism and forcible separation of families for fear of awakening Trump’s base.”
And those who are enraged by Mr. Trump and determined to stop his agenda must know that their activism on behalf of Democratic candidates is worth the effort, Mr. James said: “If we aren’t showing solidarity and encouragement, they’re going to feel like voting isn’t the best pathway.”
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