Our country needs a new era of bipartisanship – but not the kind you are probably thinking of, and not, I fear, the kind we are likely to get.
Barely a week after Donald Trump secured his Electoral College majority, we are confronted with a series of abuses that would be unacceptable from any other president-elect, Republican or Democrat.
In the coming months and years, members of both parties who honor our constitutional rights and our shared ethical standards need to band together in what you might call an Alliance for the Republic to defend basic norms and resist their violation.
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Trump’s defining down of what we have a right to expect from our leaders is already obvious. Begin with his naming of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and senior adviser. The press release announcing the appointment listed Bannon above Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who was made chief of staff. Typically, the chief of staff would come first, but the ordering was a clear indication of which of the two has Trump’s ear.
Bannon has proudly fostered the “alt-right,” a movement that promotes racism and anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, Democrats were furious. “As long as a champion of racial division is a step away from the Oval Office,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid declared in a floor speech, “it will be impossible to take Trump’s efforts to heal the nation seriously.”
Kudos to Reid for putting the burden on Trump to bring us together after his hate-filled campaign and for rejecting the idea that this is a normal transition of power. Trump’s opponents cannot be commanded, in the name of comity and good manners, to behave as if Trump never said what he said or did what he did.
But you don’t have to listen to liberals about Bannon.
In an essay on the website of the conservative National Review, Ian Tuttle noted that Bannon’s Breitbart News website “has provided a forum for people who spend their days photoshopping pictures of conservatives into ovens” and that Bannon’s appointment “should be a source of grave concern – and an occasion for common cause in the crucial task of the years to come: vigilance.”
Such vigilance, alas, seems in short supply among elected Republicans.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, for one, was unperturbed by Bannon. “This is a person who helped him win an incredible victory,” Ryan gushed. “We’re confident about moving forward.” I guess we can’t expect much independent oversight from the GOP House, given that a “Make America Great Again” hat was placed on the seat of every caucus member at its Tuesday meeting. Is the House about to be reduced to a cheering section?
Then there is the role of Trump’s children and his son-in-law Jared Kushner in the transition and the presidency itself. The Trump operation resembles nothing so much as a medieval court – the word Byzantine comes to mind – in which family members align with preferred aides, and push others aside. This has already thrown Trump’s appointments process into chaos.
Trump’s defenders reply that if John F. Kennedy could name his brother Robert as attorney general, why can’t Trump rely on his kids? But the two situations are not comparable because Trump has said that as president he will deal with his vast business holdings by placing them under the control of his children. Under those circumstances, if his children continue to play a central role in forming his administration and influencing its policies, the conflicts of interest and opportunities for corruption will be limitless.
Even if his kids weren’t such close advisers, his plans for his economic empire would still be ethically laughable. As former ethics lawyers for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush wrote recently in The Washington Post, Trump’s approach is “the opposite of a blind trust. It is a demand that the American people blindly trust Trump and his family.”
And, by the way, contrast Trump with former President George H.W. Bush, who wrote his children six months before he was elected president in 1988, “My plea is this: please do not contact any federal agency or department on anything.”
Trump is signaling that he’s prepared to run roughshod over the benchmarks of decency and (small-r) republican government long endorsed across ideological lines. Left and right will have their differences over policy. But if they don’t come together from the start to thwart Trump’s departures from widely accepted practices and values, our country could face a grim four years.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.