Mr. Trump Goes to Washington
Can the new president really shake things up as much as we fear?
During and since the presidential election, Donald Trump’s critics (of which I was one) lost no opportunity to inform the public about their concerns over both his policies and character. The American voter was unmoved. Now, all of us are grappling with voter indifference to — even enthusiastic rejection of — our concerns.
My not-very-original theory is that Trump won the election because a) Americans are deeply worried about the way the economy is changing; b) elites of both parties have been insufficiently responsive to voter exasperation; and c) Democratic and independent voters were underwhelmed by the Democratic candidate — a fact exacerbated by Russian manipulation and unfavorable circumstance.
One of the marvels of the American political system is its wide-openness. As Clarence Darrow once joked: “When I was a boy, I was told that anybody could become president. Now I’m beginning to believe it.” There are no real barriers to entry for candidates: not credentialing, not party discipline, not media gatekeepers. Not even money, which in this election served to keep a wider ideological range of candidates viable, not prevent them from becoming so.
Nor is electing inexperienced or anti-establishment leaders all that rare. American voters take satisfaction in jolting the system every 40 or 50 years by catapulting to power someone running against the established political order: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama. Our political system has the ability to shake the cage of the establishment and revivify itself, something prophets of American decline often overlook.
Although Trump won the election, and admirably appointed to his cabinet a number of accomplished secretaries whose sober, sensible views differ from his own, serious concerns remain about his stewardship of the state. And let’s be clear about the power of the executive: The president has the ability to sweep into power a huge number of his advocates to staff the machinery of state.
Even in propitious times, thoughtful people worry about the future of our country. Anticipating the trial of revolution, no less a patriot than Abigail Adams fretted in May 1775: “If we look forward, we must shudder at the view.” Being paranoid is, after all, a requisite characteristic of good strategists.
But much of the commentary about Trump is overwrought. It is one of the great blessings — and ingenious design characteristics — of our political system that it has robust checks and balancing of competing interests to buffer against excess. Moreover, the current tenor of criticism is unlikely to be a successful strategy for persuading the president-elect’s supporters to take an interest in legitimate concerns about infringements on constitutional rights, corruption, and conflicts of interest.
As Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle has emphasized, patronizing lectures from self-satisfied liberals are part of what got Trump elected. When Fran Lebowitz snidely observes that Trump is what poor people think rich people are like, it will not change the minds or hearts of his supporters. Nor is it helpful to call into question the Electoral College that has been in force for every previous presidential election or to publish salacious and unconfirmed reports (especially when, as in the case of the Russian “intelligence dossier,” reporters have had the document for months and been unable to corroborate many of its findings). Such actions serve mostly to delegitimize those who undertake them.
They also make more difficult breaking through the noise screen of reports designed to distract attention and muddy the waters of public discourse, and of Trump’s incendiary tweets and statements, which often serve the same purpose. Having the discipline to focus and sustain attention on the few most important threats will be essential. So will be activism by civil society groups, businesses, and states to bring restraining legal and policy remediation.
Most important of all, though, will be a rebuilding of the willingness to cooperate across ideological factions. As Marc Bloch’s indicting book Strange Defeat relentlessly shows, Nazi Germany’s conquest of France in 1940 owed as much to the unwillingness of French political and social factions to work together as it did to the military excellence of the Wehrmacht. The best defense against all enemies, foreign and domestic, is political and social cohesion.
Most conservatives have been hoping that Congress will serve as the crucial brake on Trump. After all, the Republican Party holds both chambers, considers itself to have an electoral mandate, will face a 2018 election on favorable electoral terrain, and is eager to fill the policy vacuum of Trump’s campaign promises. Curiously enough, Trump may prove to be a crucial brake on the ideological intransigence of my fellow Republicans in Congress.
Because our president-elect has no apparent ideology, he is at liberty to pick and choose issues. His genius at direct communication with voters will amplify the megaphone of the bully pulpit over other voices. His unorthodox approach to politics does raise serious questions about compliance with laws, norms, and even the Constitution. But it may also free Trump to create a mélange of policies that rebuilds a cohesive center in American politics: infrastructure spending, debt reduction, universal (catastrophic) health insurance, tax and regulatory reform, increased border control, less emphasis on culture wars. Many of these policies are contradictory, but he has injected dynamism into stale debates. Voters’ willingness to elect him despite concerns about some of his approaches gives him trade space. Despite targeting big businesses, economic sentiment is positive; and growth attenuates many social and political frictions.
It is counterintuitive, I know. Progressives, independents, and even some Republicans will be loath to credit so polarizing and offensive a figure no matter what his policy successes are. But this is my hopeful view of what is necessary, and may even be possible, for our country as the 45th president takes his oath of office.
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