No one wanted Donald Trump to win the election less than we did. And we were right, judging by his subsequent nomination of extremists like Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos, his self-indulgent and unpresidential demeanor, his nonstop Twitter attacks on European allies, intelligence agencies, Rep. John Lewis and even Meryl Streep. Far from mellowing since his surprise victory, Trump has exhibited the same thin skin, dishonesty and demagoguery that were on display during the campaign.
The list of Trumpian shortcomings sometimes seems bottomless. But the fact remains: He won the election. And he will be the president. Rep. Lewis and Michael Moore and former Mexican president Vincente Fox can call Trump’s victory “illegitimate” if they choose to. Members of the California delegation can sit out the inauguration. Americans can march to the Mall in protest and append #notmypresident stickers to their car bumpers or their foreheads, but by noon on Friday, the deed will be done.
It’s true that Trump wasn’t the choice of most American voters. Hillary Clinton, as everyone knows, won more votes than he did. And it is possible that without Vladimir Putin’s hacking or James Comey’s press conferences or any of a number of fake news stories, the outcome would have been different. But those disturbing facts don't change the reality; Trump won 304 electoral votes and he needed only 270. He will be president.
The hard question now for his opponents is not whether to attend the inauguration, but what to do afterward. Stay away Friday by all means, Rep. Lewis, but on Monday, decisions will have to be made. When do you say yes and when do you say no? When is #resistance the right response and when is it merely petulance or obstructionism or political miscalculation? Recalling how the Republicans worked to make President Obama a failure, the question is whether Trump’s opponents should compromise with him when they can — or whether they’d be selling their souls by doing so.
When Trump is ready to nominate a new Supreme Court justice to fill Antonin Scalia’s old seat, for instance, should Democrats dig in their heels, remember Merrick Garland and refuse to budge — or should they participate in the process and keep their eyes open for a deal? When Trump proposes an alternative to Obamacare, should his critics listen and engage, or should they throw up obstacles?
The argument for non-cooperation is that Trump is in a category by himself — that he is so strange, unorthodox, reckless, feckless, unpredictable and, ultimately, dangerous that longstanding traditions and principles should be tossed to the wind in a last-ditch effort to save the Republic. What alternative is there if you believe, as California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon apparently does, that Trump is a “very dangerous person with totalitarian fascist tendencies” who might cancel national elections in two years? Or, worse yet, that he is a Manchurian Candidate controlled by Vladimir Putin? If you’re in either of those camps, there is little choice but to follow the advice offered in the Nation magazine to “throw sand in the gears of everything.”
But wholesale panic is not justified at the moment. Yes, the president-elect is dangerous — and we don’t yet know how dangerous — but the United States has outlasted multiple political and economic crises, from the burning of the White House to the Civil War to Richard Nixon. While it is reasonable to have grave concerns about the Trump presidency — and to fight him hard when necessary — remember also that the nation’s resiliency is built on the rule of law, respect for institutions, the peaceful transfer of power and acceptance of elections even when they bring to office people with whom one vehemently disagrees. Democracy can only survive if voters and their representatives have faith that, in the long run, the system will both endure and self-correct.
In recent years, that faith has been shaken. The country has fallen into a cycle of partisanship and obstinacy. The way the Republicans treated Obama was shameful and cynical and now, if the country is to prosper, it must somehow find its way back to rationality, cooperation and dialogue, even among political opponents. Washington cannot function if two polarized parties merely seek to obstruct each other’s aims.
For that reason alone, it would be wrong to proceed from the assumption that every proposal Trump makes is bad simply because it was Trump who proposed it — and that all of his policies should be resisted equally. The same goes for every Trump departure from the usual presidential practice. Of course a Trump presidency will not reflect the values of those who voted against him, but we have yet to learn how different it will be from a Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry or Jeb Bush presidency.
None of this requires caving in to Trump's bad ideas or pulling punches when he is irrational. When he behaves recklessly or irresponsibly or unfairly, he must be opposed — by citizens and elected officials (and newspaper editorial boards), among others. We should be scathing in criticizing him when he lies or when he appoints people who would ignore the laws they’re sworn to uphold. He should be protested and excoriated if he tries to carry out the more outlandish of his campaign promises, if he persists in his ignorant denial of climate science or if he seeks to restrict civil liberties or backtrack on racial justice issues. Special attention must be paid to the needs of poor people, people of color and other vulnerable populations.
In the months ahead, it will be essential to try to separate Trump the carnival barker from Trump the president. It will be important not to confuse every irresponsible, unpresidential tweet with meaningful policy. Though Trump has promised all manner of wild-eyed things — unbreachable border walls, a secret plan to defeat Islamic State, “terrific” universal health care for less than we’re paying now — it is utterly unclear how much he will actually be able to achieve, or, conversely, how much damage he will actually be able to inflict.
To the extent that he moves in any directions that are reasonable, he deserves encouragement and cooperation. If he miraculously finds a cheaper alternative to Obamacare that provides high quality universal health insurance, as he has promised to do, we’ll support him. If he can create jobs and help more Americans climb out of poverty, count us in. When he’s wrong, he must be opposed.
It would be absurd to suggest at this late date that we’re coming to the Trump presidency with an open mind. We’re deeply dismayed, even frightened. But we’re still listening.