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Peter SteinfelsNovember 9, 2016 - 12:25pm9 comments
For two weeks I’ve been thinking about a dotCommonweal post beginning
with those words. Its premise, however, was going to be that Hillary
Clinton had been elected president. The question was what she, what
liberals, indeed what just about everyone alarmed by this election,
could do to remedy what it revealed about the state of our nation.
Trump, I was planning to write, may or may not go away; but Trumpism
surely would not. The economic, cultural, and political conditions that
spawned it still loomed. The new president (Hillary) would face four
more years of Washington gridlock, four more years of doing little or
nothing about pressing national problems, four more years of letting the
toxins that produced Trump simmer and multiply unattended in the
nation’s bloodstream. To say nothing of four more years of investigating
emails and braying about impeachment. Weren’t there already some
Republicans growing wistful at a possibility that chilled other
Americans fearful for democracy in both parties: the possible emergence
in 2020 of a Trump 2.0 as politically noxious, factually unmoored, and
temperamentally worrisome but without all that repulsive personal
Well, we don’t have to worry about that any more. The Trump we saw is the one we’ve got.
Watching the CNN election team exude excitement at every Trump
success even at a point in the evening when the returns were minimal, I
was reminded of sportscasters who wax enthusiastically over whatever
team has taken the lead.
Of course, anyone who challenged the tide of predictions and everyone
who executed the Trump strategy deserves congratulations for political
But neither political genius nor victory changes some other
realities. Last spring after months of watching Trump roll through the
Republican primaries, after listening, almost mesmerized, to his
free-associating rants, after examining whatever policies he actually
sketched, I concluded in Commonweal that clearly he was “not a fascist.” Rather, he was “a semi-fascist.”
All the things I said about his message of fear, exaggeration, wild
inaccuracies, scapegoating of minorities and foreign adversaries remain
true. So, too, about his narcissism, bullying, and a long list of
personal characteristics that, even in those pre-locker-room talk days,
were upsetting many conservatives. All of these things remain true. Was
he going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, round up and deport
the undocumented, relax our strictures against torture? Were his
financial shenanigans and blatant tax avoidance eventually exposed? Did
he later promise to appoint a special prosecutor, anticipating putting
his opponent in jail? Did he regularly act the strongman to the glee of
supporters? None of that is erased by the wash of victory.
Democracies transfer power by the vote of the citizenry, sometimes
counted in complicated but legally established ways, whether in
parliamentary systems or with America’s electoral college. (As of this
writing, Clinton may very well win the popular vote.) It is essential
that such verdicts by established procedures be accepted, even more in
elections than in jury trials. When a nation is deeply divided this can
be a delicate business of painful concession, generous acceptance, and
The process should be honored, as it has been. It was in fact a
strike against Trump that he had encouraged his supporters to question
the honesty of the vote, as perhaps a third of them did, according to
the exit polls. But hewing to this crucial element of democracy does not
mean accepting the outcome of the election as necessarily wise or just
or informed. The electorate, no less than juries, can be wrong. A
quarter of the votes for Trump were cast by people who also believed,
according to the exit polls, that he was not qualified nor
temperamentally fit to be president! Something besides rationality was
at work here.
The next days and weeks, probably months, maybe years, will be spent
in analyzing this political upheaval. Many of the forces at play have
been long identified. How will they be weighed? On whose shoulders will
responsibility for failure or success be laid? How many of us will
engage in self-criticism rather than pointing the finger to our right or
left? This necessary inquest may impart important lessons in how to
oppose what is manifestly untrue, unjust, and potentially destructive in
Trump and Trumpism. But it should not deter that opposition.
As for the future, the welcome mat is being rolled out for a new
Trump. After all, his victory speech contained no threats or indecencies
and everyone, it seems, wants infrastructure. The cynics,
power-seekers, and wheeler-dealers will be quick to do what Trump prides
himself on, cut a deal. The knowing and the competent, those with
convictions or an urgent vision, will confront the choice of helping out
or going into opposition. Honorable conservatives who refused him their
support will be tempted to sign up. The tests will come when Trump
foresees or meets opposition, whether in the Senate (think Supreme
Court) or the courts or the agencies or even, one prays not, in the
streets. The impulse will be to rewrite the rules.
Hope and change? Change, certainly.
There is always hope.