WASHINGTON – “Now all the truth is out,” said William Butler Yeats. “Be secret and take defeat.” Which is not really an option for a columnist.
After so many harsh words for Donald Trump, I can’t pretend that his victory is anything less than a disaster for the country. A hurricane has power. It clears away the sticks and bricks of an old order. But anything it might construct defies entropy in miraculous ways. Hurricane Trump was a defeat of elite expectations so complete and unexpected that it might be called an act of God. An assessment that Trump himself might share.
The most immediate concern should be to reassure men, women and children – particularly Muslim-Americans and migrants – who feel uncertain of their place in the new order. Trump should go out of his way to signal tolerance. Whatever he does, all of us should go out of our way, in the small circles of our daily lives, to tell the newly vulnerable that millions of Americans will oppose bullying and threats of any kind. This has become a duty of citizenship in the Trump era.
More personally, it is sobering to find that your view of the world – your most basic principles of ethics and political theory – are not ascendant in the electoral world of 2016. And to find that your political party, on the verge of controlling all the elected portions of the federal government, is completely unrecognizable. It feels like a kind of exile from everything cherished and familiar. Many I disdain are cheering; but not everyone cheering is worthy of disdain.
This election has also challenged my conception of American exceptionalism. When voters don’t think that democracy is delivering the goods and turn to a populist strongman, I think of recent history in Central and South America. When voters turn against immigrants in service to an ethnic definition of nationhood, I think of politics in Western and Central Europe. The election outcome is a reminder that American politics is human politics, subject to the same temptations and enthusiasms felt by other nations.
What I find most reassuring at this moment is that America’s founders designed a constitutional system with human politics in mind. In Federalist 10, James Madison says that we can’t always assume the existence of “enlightened statesmen.” And, by golly, he got that one right. The Constitution is designed to channel and balance conflicting interests, making the whole system less vulnerable to a bad leader. The founders might have been appalled by the election of a Trump-like president; they would not have been surprised by it.
America bears no resemblance to Weimar Germany, which had public institutions so weak and discredited that they crumbled to the touch. Our legislative branch – which moves at the speed of its most disgruntled senator – is perfectly capable of healthy obstructionism. The judicial branch does not lack for self-regard. Governors can gain a national audience through defiance. And a thick layer of civic and political institutions exists to be a pain in the backside of political leaders.
This picture is complicated by Republican control of both House and Senate. An undivided government will depend on the leader of each legislative body to view himself (less likely, herself) as something more than instruments of the executive will. In this case, the chief executive has made a series of promises – restrictions on press freedom, systematic religious discrimination, a continental wall, one of the largest mass expulsions in history – that straddle the line between immoral and impossible. The House speaker and the Senate majority leader may be tempted to fall in line with their partisan team, as both Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell did at various embarrassing points during the campaign. Their job as legislative leaders (or whoever holds those jobs) is to offer their restraining judgment and to defend the integrity and influence of the institutions where they serve.
Republicans will genuinely agree on parts of Trump’s agenda. But the republic is likely to depend, at certain defining moments, on stubborn Republican institutionalists willing to defy the wrath of populists. Democrats may find this unlikely. It is incumbent on GOP leaders to prove them wrong.
Donald Trump possesses all the faults and prejudices he had on the morning of November 8th. But now he possesses one thing more – democratic legitimacy. And that is not a small matter. This requires us to show the respect that is due to the office, to hope he will appoint well-intentioned and competent people and to pray he will discover a commitment to the common good.
As it turns out, stranger things have happened.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.