This morning marked the fifth consecutive on which I was assaulted by the reality that Donald J. Trump will be the forty fifth president of the United States. The same Donald J. Trump who lied to the American public as a matter of course throughout a campaign branded by blatant demagoguery, factual illiteracy, and innumerable displays of grotesque character. Each morning, my mind strains and twists for some buoy of hope that I may still be asleep—a nightmare in reverse.
While it’s true that we do not yet know whether a Trump presidency will result in a literal nightmare, we can take little comfort in the fact that the spectrum of possibilities includes the fall of the republic. Mirroring his campaign, we are beginning to see a flurry of decisions and statements that in previous years would each result in sustained scandal (a climate skeptic leading the EPA transition; Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist; a transition team full of family members), but which are coming so fast that the media and public is forced to move from one issue to the next. This is a precarious situation—the executive mistakes have the potential to pile on so quickly that the most rotten and consequential will not be given their due.
Even if the Trump presidency escapes catastrophe, it has caused permanent damage in at least one way: lowering our standard of qualifications and fitness for the position. Trump has now proven that one need not have governance experience, policy expertise, establishment connections, or even consistent principles to be elected leader of the free world. Roll the dice enough times with these lowered qualifications and with these stakes, and disaster will ensue. Whether it happens during Trump’s reign or sometime in the future is anyone’s guess.
What we should do now is recognize that our actions can have a greater or lesser chance of bringing about the as-still-hypothetical disaster scenarios we fear, and being disciplined enough to engage in only the former. This will require humility and a steeling of nerves. We’re going to face policy positions we do not like, and we must pick our spots for outrage carefully. Challenge Trump too early on divisive issues (e.g. identity politics) and he will strike back with ferocity, and with the full backing of Congress. The ideological Right is so giddy with its control of the House and Senate that I have little hope that any issue that is not existential (e.g. climate change, NATO) or any action that is not unconstitutional will sever their honeymoon loyalty to Trump. If I were the Democratic establishment, I would be prepared to compromise beyond normal comfort levels early with congressional Republicans—particularly if this acquiescence blunts the most insidious Trumpian initiatives—and to wait to mount, if deservedly, a full-bodied political attack nearer the midterms. This strategy would of course need to be carefully applied, as many Republicans will use the threat of Trump’s scariest proposals to try to force capitulation to lesser evils as seen by Democrats.
In the meantime, I suggest we, as the opposition, keep our eyes on two things. First, any legitimate and realized steps toward authoritarianism or fascism. The suggestion of acquiesce above emphatically applies only to actions which are constitutional—if Mr. Trump steps beyond that line or if institutional checks fail, we must improvise a response. Second, we must keep our eye on the ultimate goal: bringing a divided nation back together. Unless we do this, any progress, now or in the future, can be unwound. Anger and resentment cannot override reason, tolerance, and empathy—to let that happen risks further division which ultimately can and will lead only to violence.
Trump is as unlikely a figure as one can imagine to bring about the unity we need. His campaign was the antithesis of unity.
Here’s hoping he can surprise us once again.