ANGELS, DEMONS, AND OUR UNCIVIL WAR
Even by the low standards of the modern Republican Party, the President-Elect is a man deeply ignorant of policy. And he possesses few, if any, real moral or political principles.
For some this week, these facts have been a source of curious optimism. We can hope, they suggest, that Mr Trump might be capable of learning or, at least, of responding to being leaned on by the many, many who are much, much more knowledgeable than he is. But his intellectual indifference and limits were obvious not only throughout the campaign, but throughout his career. And it’s difficult to feel confidence in the motley crew – the Arpaios and Giulianis, Gingrichs and Pences – he now surrounds himself with.
Of course, others see civil war and the fall of the Republic. And such panicking isn’t irrational. How will an intemperate bully respond to the new powers, including nuclear weapons, soon to be given him? Will a feckless media continue to collaborate in the narrative of normality that worked to Trump’s benefit, especially given his not-so-subtle swipes at the First Amendment? Will it matter as so many red or blue voters simply search out the sources that confirm rather than challenge their particular prejudices?
And will bruised progressives, both within and without the Democratic Party, serve as coherent opposition or undermine one another in assigning blame? There’s good reason to be afraid, especially if you belong to the long lists of minority scapegoats and political enemies the President-Elect targeted and gathered.
But there also remain practical and structure impediments that might limit the license of the incoming regime. Even this more cautious despair recognizes that significant damage is unavoidable in some institutions. The Supreme Court is an obvious, immediate example. There, extra-constitutional delay that had nothing to do with the President-Elect has inappropriately robbed President Obama, winner of two presidential elections, of his choice for the court.
Whoever leaves the Supreme Court in the next four years – and the most liberal judges are also its oldest – the new populist Right will likely have an unprecedented impact on American jurisprudence. Given Trump’s cultured ignorance about constitutional text and insouciance towards its contexts, this is profoundly unsettling.
The President-Elect and Congress will also likely do great damage to the economy and to the thin social safety net we grudgingly provide at present. Their trickle-down theories are no less rooted in irrational faith than the fundamentalism too many of them espouse. Both do real damage to the very people who propelled Trump into office.
Still, even with congressional dominance and Republican cowardice, many of the proposals made during the election, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, will prove difficult to achieve. Treaties, too, will not be easily renounced or our allies and enemies easily altered. The practical realities of our foreign policy, and the pleas of our Generals, will provide fewer options than Trump’s cowboy fantasies might suggest.
And this new conservative party will, like the Grand Old Party of recent decades, inevitably overreach. When that occurs, and assuming reasonably fair and free elections still exist, they won’t be able to avoid blame or the electoral consequences that follow.
In the meantime, politicians, partisans, and protesters have to decide how to provide opposition and ensure a speedy return to government. While the Left hasn’t always been rewarded for responsible behavior, progressive opposition should be constructive, civil, and coherent. We must be unrelenting and honest, principled and practical, in our critique, both about the Republican Party and ourselves.
Civil disobedience, for example, can be powerful and has historically been an important spur to social and political change. But violence and the destruction of property play right into the Right’s ‘law and order’ narrative. The morally inconsistent selectiveness of middle class outrage doesn’t make it any less real. Progressivism without pragmatism results in little more than pious platitudes, with scant effect on the lives of those we wish to champion.
We must be careful, too, neither to overreact to the election result nor to too easily reconcile ourselves to it or to those that made it possible. Yes, Secretary Clinton represented continuity more than change. As such, she unfairly carried the burdens of a Republican-inspired gridlock in Washington and a swelling global backlash to liberalism of all sorts. But this was largely balanced by that same experience that made her part of the establishment, as well as the approval ratings of both her husband and President Obama.
A majority of Americans, including a voting majority, were in agreement with her on the issues. The scope of that majority is expanding daily. And, as in the presidential race, Democrats appear to have polled more votes than Republicans for the Senate. The opposite was true in the races for the House of Representatives, though both parties received fewer votes than their respective presidential candidates. There, the electoral system resulted, as it inevitably does, in disproportional representation. Given the shape of current constituencies, the slight Republican advantage in votes in magnified in the seats won.
If these are failures, they’re failures of federalism rather than of our first female candidate for the presidency. And we can, and perhaps should, complain about such structures. We might even press for their reform. But it’s also too easy to protest too much about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. Its mechanisms were clear in advance. It’s easy to imagine that if things had turned out in reverse, both apologists and critics could be neatly exchanged. The origins of the institution are irrelevant and there is no inherent bias against Democrats. But we were neither routed nor robbed.
We might more rationally complain about voter turnout, though this, too, was well within depressing historic patterns. On the bright side, the fact that a little less than a majority of those voting, who were a little less than a majority of eligible voters, means that only a quarter of voting Americans chose Trump.
Beyond these structural problems, and recognizing that Clinton’s popular vote totals were more impressive than they first appeared, the reasons for her loss are complex. They include her gender and the audacity of hoping to be our first female President. They include the false equivalence of the candidates by mainstream media. Horse-race coverage diminished a politician with ordinary limitations and years of service to the country, while elevating a narcissistic demagogue who had only ever sought to enrich and entertain himself.
Public overconfidence was another factor. This was rooted, in part, in the widespread failures in polling, and consequently in punditry, that marred analysis of the race. The fortuitous foresight of Trump was more accurate. The threats of vulgar voter suppression by conservatives and the President-Elect’s implied intimidation contributed, too, to Clinton’s loss. And as her campaign has noted, FBI Director Comey’s shameful, partisan surprise so near to election day was deeply damaging. It was a gift to those congressional Republicans who have peddled in shameful, partisan conspiracies long before Trump was their nominee.
Indeed, the personal invective and political disinformation leveled at Clinton is unmatched by anything in recent memory. It was as much the result of her husband’s political successes, and those of President Obama, as her personal failures. For too many, memes trumped facts. And this was also sadly amplified by some on the Left. Senator Sanders was personally less guilty of this than were his supporters. But his belated, begrudging concession and the hysteria he generated robbed Clinton of valuable time and money in the general election.
Centrist and nominally-socialist progressives have already begun their post-election analyses and finger-pointing. This is unavoidable and even necessary. But while some of my best friends were Sanders supporters, the idea that he would’ve done better in the general election ignores his significant personal and political liabilities. And however unfortunate and inconvenient the fact is, the populism that propelled the President-Elect to victory was not one that sought social democracy.
The subject of populism, or the many varieties of populism, did arise repeatedly throughout the race. Democrats, especially its centrists, have been accused of failing to recognize the plight of the working classes or poor whites. There is some truth to this, though it is largely a matter of emphasis. Insofar as it’s true, it applies to the Left generally and to radicals still more forcefully.
The progressive social agenda often appears, at least to these voters, to focus on special interests and select groups (for example, the transgender community) at the expense of the wider public. As a practical matter, these efforts at social justice both dampen and obscure the Left’s ongoing efforts for economic justice. This is simply the price we pay for trying to achieve both. But only wishful thinking suggests that doubling down on economic issues is the silver bullet for our present dilemmas.
That ordinary Republican voters frequently act against their economic interests is hardly a revelation. It’s true again this year. But this isn’t, as some on the Left suggest, mere false consciousness and ignorance. Trump voters made a complex and broadly rational choice not only for change – though they certainly did that – but to simultaneously affirm their cultural interests. Indeed, they did so, depressingly, despite the fact that a moral monster was their new champion.
Clinton understood spoke repeatedly of empathy and understanding for ordinary Americans, just as her husband had two decades earlier. But the nature of this race, especially the President-Elect’s explicit appeal to fear and xenophobia, made it difficult to separate the despondent and the deplorable. In attempting to remind the former than they were facilitating the latter, Clinton – and we – seemed to belittle them all. It was a costly error for a candidate who was otherwise so gracious, even in defeat.
This is, in fact, difficult terrain for many progressives, including me, as the son of a Southern conservative community. My faith in the basic goodness of ordinary Americans has been sorely tested over the last year. And like my fellow citizens of all sorts, I slip on occasion. I, too, grasp for simple narratives that save me from the hard, ongoing work of empathy and understanding. But the voice of the people – even my people, the people I love – is sometimes no more than the cry of its demons. This was true in my region for a long time.
Trump’s victory doesn’t exonerate him, Republicans, or their supporters from the responsibilities of math (their policies don’t work), history (they prevented change), or morality (they nominated a pig). It doesn’t alter the fact that the President-Elect is intemperate and petty, a misogynist and sexual predator, who openly appealed to racists, Alt-Right anti-Semites, and our darkest anti-Muslim undercurrents.
Republicans, with a few notable exceptions, failed us. They choose to put politics over principle and shamed us before the world and our children.
Americans have to come to terms with the fact that Trump won not despite his liabilities, but because of them. But blame and shame cannot be our only weapons. We must care about his supporters, too, and not see the war as a lost cause. We must do this not only because they’re voters – though our compassion is less effective without political power – but because they’re our fellow citizens, with all the failings of any other peoples.
We can empathize for and understand the real, felt angst of white voters without ratifying their choices. Like many Southerners, I know from experience that even the sin of racism can be skin deep; the most bigoted of men can step forward to assist the stranger. I know, too, that fear of the foreign is not rooted in inherent evil, but usually another failure of empathy and understanding.
On the eve of our Civil War, our first Republican President said that:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Lincoln’s plea obviously went unheard. And perhaps I’ll fail, too. Perhaps my faith in others is as irrational as the beliefs of those I oppose and love and who have failed us. But hate and fear are what brought us here. They can’t be our salvation.
I don’t hate them. I don’t. I don’t hate them.
A native of Louisiana and long-time resident of Ireland, Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor and Deputy Head of the University of the South Pacific School of Law. No, really. He blogs here.