As we watch the jumble of reports on plans for a Trump presidency, it’s hard to know whose opinions reliably predict future actions. With an unfocused president-elect and an eager but changing Republican Party, who will be calling what shots? Will they really move troops into the streets to deport millions of Mexican immigrants, repeal Dodd-Frank—the only protection from another greed fueled financial collapse, impose a registry for Muslims as the Third Reich did for Jews, withdraw from the Paris Agreement when carbon threatens massive social displacement and the health of the planet, or eliminate Medicare along with Obamacare, reducing coverage and raising costs for millions of the most vulnerable Americans? Will the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center subside as it did after 9/11, or will racial and religious prejudice grow along with the power of self-avowed racists, anti semites and authoritarians gathering in and around the White House? Clarity will either ease minds or establish battle lines in an epic fight for the future, if not for the soul of the country.
As we wait, and as a person who spent most of his adult life working to improve the effectiveness and responsiveness government, I’d like to make a few observations.
First, the essential qualities of Mr. Trump’s narcissism will not go away. As president he will continue to seek adulation and ruthlessly punish those who do not show him the respect he needs. And, his need and expectations will only increase with his exalted status. Unless he cedes large arenas of control, which could happen given his lack of interest in study, this will almost certainly keep his administration in turmoil, and narrow participation to fawners and authoritarians whom he seems to admire. His compelling need to be on top will very probably lead to more aggressive and dominating behavior.
Second, this situation is not normal, not politics as usual, not just disagreement between political parties over policies; not normal, that is, for America. It wasn’t a normal election and it almost certainly will not be a normal administration. Democratic and Republican leaders agreed on that just a few months ago when Donald-the-candidate’s statements disrespecting women and minorities, religions, government, the free press, treaties and international relationships, and even Constitutional principles were widely condemned. All but a few leaders declared Mr. Trump unfit for office.
That Republicans since the election are moving toward rather than away from his attitudes and values could serve to normalize them. The press, in a conflicted position after opposing him, could help normalize by treating the new administration’s comments and actions with the deference and respect traditionally accorded the office of President; and that’s assuming they don’t back away out of fear. Congress is likely to further normalize by routinely overpowering objectors with their control of all branches of government. Maybe the most worrisome pressure to normalize, however, will be our own human nature seeking security and comfort.
Normality lets us feel free to go about our lives. It was only a week before I was tired of worrying. I felt my mind desperately straining between worst case scenarios and hope, looking for a bit of good news that I could spin a cocoon of optimism around to go happily back to my routines. I still see very few silver linings or bright spots, and I can’t stand it. I’m a solution junkie in withdrawal.
Will we just acclimate? Will we forget how it was once a given that acceptance of differences was important even when it’s hard, that guarding constitutional protections for individuals was honorable even if the right being protected at the moment wasn’t our own, and that good leaders encouraged our better angels, advocated inclusiveness and compassion, spoke truthfully and factually, and (at least publicly) modeled honestly and integrity? Will we just accept the dominance of regressive values and policies as the new normal?
A third observation is the apparent loss of respect for critical systems of democratic self-governance. I’m not sure when or how this happened, maybe when we stopped teaching civics in high school. A journalist told me recently that in a journalism class she was teaching only two students could name even two of the five protections guaranteed by the 1st amendment, the rest couldn’t name any!
Mr. Trump’s evident lack of respect for the office he just won, in a bid I think most people recognized as an act of ego vindication and showmanship, is extraordinary. He has mocked and criticized the United States and its government for decades. He says paying taxes is stupid, and refuses to put his business ventures in a blind trust as every president does and as every federal judge and high-discretion public official must do. He seems unconcerned about conflicts of interest, something that only makes sense if his real interests are marketing his brand and making money.
Almost as disrespectful is Americans’ failure to vote. Voting is the ultimate, and in most cases the only way citizens can shape the rules and priorities of the society they want. We should value our votes precisely as much as the freedoms, rights, and opportunities we want from our government. If we think those rights are sacred, so should be our vote. Declining to participate, as nearly half our eligible citizens did, betrays the faith the founders of the nation placed in democratic self-governance and in each of us as citizens. If we don’t govern ourselves, be assured someone will step up and govern us…as they see fit.
Finally, much as I understand the temptation, I suggest that voting for a candidate we wouldn’t choose for office in order to register a protest is also disrespectful. For those who intended to undermine and deconstruct the values and norms of American society, I say bully for you, you succeeded. For those who voted for Trump without intending the destruction now likely to follow, perhaps thinking he wouldn’t be elected or that he didn’t mean what he was saying, I can only urge that you stand now with those who will be mounting whatever opposition they can to the cruel and selfish forces let loose in our country.