Trump and the Shibboleths

On losing, gloating, and the future of the GOP.

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 14:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The most optimistic candidate wins. Nobody gets elected running against the troops. There are agreed boundaries of social discourse we would not allow our leaders to transgress. Progressivism is a rising tide in prosperous countries. Disciplined get-out-the-vote efforts win. None of these held true this election.

As I think back on all the shibboleths of American politics broken or rendered obsolete in this election, I keep hearing the former poet laureate Robert Pinsky in my mind. In his book Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, Pinsky said — of poetry, mind you — that “American culture as I have experienced it seems so much in process, so brilliantly and sometimes brutally in motion, that standard models for it fail to apply.”

Further surprises include: Nearly one-third of Latinos voted for Donald Trump, even with wide publicity of his disparagement of Mexicans and strident deportation policy; more blacks and Latinos voted for Trump than had voted for Romney; more Democrats voted for Trump than Republicans voted for Clinton; and only 43 percent of white women voted for Clinton. So yeah, the Democratic presidential candidate underperformed. Clinton’s biggest losses were in places where Obama was strongest with white voters. The Democratic Party’s most progressive voters delivered an election victory to the candidate most hostile to their values since 1968.

I’m sad for my country that we’ve elected someone disrespectful of so many of our fellow Americans, so opposed to many of the norms and beliefs that have made our country prosperous and safe. I fear for that safety and prosperity because of the policies he advocates. The pertinent question at this point, though, is what do we do now?

First and foremost, let us be grateful to live in a country with a political system designed by 18th-century geniuses. Checks and balances have always been vital to our national well-being, and they will be especially so now, with a president so blasé about constraints on his powers. Our civil liberties will need exuberant guardians like Elizabeth Fink, who said “what a thrill it is to defend the Constitution against the domestic enemy of the American government.”

Possibly the most interesting question in American politics will become: Do Republicans in Congress follow President-elect Trump’s lead or seek to protect the party from his particular brand? Can Paul Ryan construct a policy agenda addressing the concerns that propelled Trump to the presidency without Republicans becoming defined by Trump’s worst excesses? Can he defang the ugliness of Trump’s statements but address sensible policies that underlay Trump’s directions on issues like border security? I hope so, but I’m skeptical. Does the Senate bog down in rules disputes or bare-knuckled partisanship? Are principled conservatives like Sen. Ben Sasse penalized for refusing him their support?

That’s the way to bet your money, but hopefully President-elect Trump will surprise us. The British Labour Party is almost always reckless in opposition and sensible in government. Perhaps responsibility will cause him to adopt policies he campaigned against, as President Barack Obama did on trade and counterterrorism. Perhaps not being ideologically attached to the Republican Party will give him latitude to re-examine policies long overdue for reconsideration, as with cybersecurity. Perhaps his ability to connect beyond the Beltway will build broader public support for important policy tools like metadata analysis.

The biggest mistake of the Obama presidency was his decision to pass the stimulus bill and health-care reform on party-line votes. If he had instructed his congressional leaders to pass a bill with 10 Republican votes, the entire presidency might have unfolded differently. I hope Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress are smart enough not to repeat his mistake, but I fear they are not. If Republicans take the election outcome as a policy mandate and govern with disregard for Democrats’ concerns, they will deserve the same losses voters delivered to Democrats two years into the Obama administration.

I’m told Trump will blacklist from consideration for appointments any signatories of the #NeverTrump letters, and that’s just as well. I meant never when I said never. But the signatories were by no means the entire bench strength on the Republican side. I expect lots of talented, experienced conservatives who were unwilling to help Trump get elected will, now that voters have elected him, feel a sense of duty to the country to make the best of it. And they deserve our thanks and our support in their work.

In conclusion, it’s a corny thing to say, but I hope we will all be nice to each other. Please reassure people who are fearful that in times sure to be rocky, we will look out for each other. If you know anyone who has been made to feel unwelcome, now would be a great time to assure them you value their sharing in our common home.

Photo credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

About the Author

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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