To my friends who are feeling frightened and damaged by the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016, I offer the following thoughts.
First, the people have spoken. Virtually the entire American establishment–mainline politicians, the media, the major religious leaders, Hollywood, the pundits of both parties, former and current national security personnel, the diplomatic corps, the leaders of major foundations, etc.–banded together to warn the American people not to elect Trump. It was perhaps the greatest show of mainline solidarity in American history–several newspapers and magazines devoted whole editions to denouncing Trump–and yet a man with no experience in government, no military service, and no interest in constitutional norms was elected to the presidency. Against this unprecedented phalanx, warning the citizens of the United States in no uncertain terms that Trump was utterly unfit to serve as President, Trump’s victory on November 8 must be seen as a resounding, almost unbelievable victory. The people have spoken loud and clear. They are dissatisfied with the status quo. They want change. They want change so completely that they are willing to elect to the Presidency someone even his most ardent supporters regard as a highly imperfect embodiment of their ideals.
Second, it seems to me clear that the American people have declared emphatically that they do not want Hillary Rodham Clinton to be their President. The election was a resounding vote of no confidence to Hillary Clinton, and probably Hillary and Bill Clinton. Given the chance to prefer a solid political heavyweight over a man who demonstrated no political discipline whatsoever, a man who has never bothered to pay his dues in the American political system, they rejected her in a way that must be almost unbearably hurtful to Mrs. Clinton. My view is that the FBI Comey intervention, less than two weeks before the election, saying that a new cache of emails must be examined in the unfinished investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s irresponsible mishandling of her email accounts, will be seen as a decisive moment in the election of 2016. Leaving aside the propriety of Comey’s letters to Congress, the effect of those pronouncements was to trigger a vast “Clinton fatigue” (Whitewater, Vince Foster, Monica, impeachment, Paula Jones, etc.) in the consciousness of the American people. It made millions of people who might otherwise have voted for Hillary Clinton think: “really, do I want four or eight more years of the Clintons, with all the controversies, investigations, special prosecutors, misstatements, etc., that we remember from the first Clinton era? A very large majority of the American people have made it clear that they regard Hillary Clinton as dishonest, corrupt, lacking in integrity, prone to playing by rules that ordinary people might go to prison if they followed.
Whatever the precise train of events and public responses, the American people have spoken unambiguously: they do NOT want Hillary Clinton to be their President.
Third, we will survive this crisis. I believe that a very large percentage of Trump supporters voted for the New York real estate mogul thinking they were casting an essentially non-binding protest vote. In other words, they did not really think he would win the Presidency. In fact, I believe it will be shown that Trump himself did not think he would win the Presidency. But he did. While it is tempting to say, “Beware of what you ask for,” or “Now look what you have done,” or “seeds planted by the Republican party for forty years are now bearing a very dark fruit,” it would be wiser to consider just what a Trump Presidency is likely to do to America.
We have had problematic Presidents before. Some of them have proved to be ok, even popular, sometimes even outstanding Presidents. Thomas Jefferson looked upon the candidacy of Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson as very alarming. He regarded Jackson–a duelist, a savage soldier, a man of doubtful literacy–as wholly unfit for the Presidency. Jackson’s partisans trashed the White House on the day of his inauguration in 1829, fouling the carpets, stealing loose items, standing up on the sofas, tearing down the draperies. But Jackson turned out to be a much better and more important President than anyone could have anticipated.
When FDR died on April 12, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt told Vice President Harry Truman that she felt sorry for him, trying to fill such giant shoes without having had any substantive communications with the aging FDR. In fact, on the day he became President, Truman learned for the first time of the existence of the Manhattan Project, whose first two devices he would have to decide to drop over Japanese cities within four months of his unexpected ascension to power.
John F. Kennedy’s dark side was unknown to the American people. He suffered from potentially life-threatening Addison’s Disease, about which he lied to the American people; his complete lack of sexual self-restraint led him to a priapic career of increasingly reckless womanizing, including girlfriends of Mafia kingpins being investigated by his brother’s Justice Department, including Marilyn Monroe, who was threatening to go public just before her “suicide” on August 5, 1962, and an East German spy, who could have brought down his administration had the liaison been disclosed.
President Reagan was suffering from Alzheimers’s Disease for much of his second term. By the end, he was virtually an American analogue to the old notion that Soviet Premiers were comatose and dying men propped up for photo ops by the Soviet propaganda machine. Mrs. Reagan actually consulted a California astrologer before she allowed her beloved Ronnie to schedule major events, even diplomatic summits. When Reagan was elected in 1980, his detractors regarded his advent as the death of the American republic. He turned out to be an essentially moderate conservative, and today he is beloved well beyond the Republican Party.
Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke for a significant portion of his second term.
My point is the the American Constitutional system is solid, stable, robust, and self-correcting. The work of the Founders has been vindicated again and again in American history. Richard Nixon left office peacefully in 1974 after the “smoking gun” Oval Office tape was released. He may have been the most corrupt President in American history (he has a number of rivals), but the country survived, the progressive agenda of empowering and protecting wider and wider sections of the American population moved forward in spite of his bigotries and his crimes.
We will get through this.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and a large percentage of the American people believed that he was about to bring on a golden age of American life, my friend DS said, on the day of his election, “He is going to break many hearts.” And I said then, as I say now, “His agenda involves trying to turn the Titanic around in a bathtub.” Our system, designed by the great Madison and his colleagues in the age of Isaac Newton, is designed to absorb blows, waves of fanaticism, war fever, ignorance, mediocrity, criminal behavior, corruption, and much more.
Finally, no matter what you think of him, Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. Try that sometime! To become the President of the United States, you need to convince a majority of the American people (at least a majority in the electoral college) that you are the better choice over a very wide range of other people, some of them deeply ambitious, well-funded, and clever. It would be very unwise to sneer at the Will of the People.
In fact, like him or not, there is something breathtaking in the election of Donald Trump. He could not have achieved the Presidency without the vote of almost 50 million people. He was opposed not only by the highly-sophisticated, well-oiled, and ruthless Clinton Machine, one of the most effective political organizations in American history, but by the entire American establishment. In some sense, we must say hats off! And it is never a good idea to question the potency of the American people when they become frustrated enough.
Our duty is to try to read and understand the rage that elected Trump, and to find ways to channel it into a productive and constitutional future for the United States. This can be done. But it cannot be done if the losers in this election refuse to take Trump and his movement seriously.
I do worry about people of color; people born in another country; the LGBT community; Muslims (deeply); the disabled, and the reproductive rights of women. If Trump is serious (probably not, but who really knows?), and if he can convince Congress to go along with him, we could see the dismantling of the American Enlightenment. I do not think that will happen. I believe the forces of Enlightenment will find a way to check his excesses. More than that, I do not believe the American people will actually permit Trump to turn back the clock on the widening gyre of American progressivism. This may be a mid-course correction, as it is certainly a setback, but I do not think Trump can shatter the post World War II American “settlement.” We will survive.
And we will all owe an immense debt of gratitude to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson’s collaborator and closest friend.