WASHINGTON – Gloom is a terrible way to ring out the old and despair is of no help in trying to imagine the new.
So let us consider what good might come from the political situation in which we will find ourselves in 2017. Doing this does not require denying the dangers posed by a Donald Trump presidency or the demolition of progressive achievements he could oversee. It does mean remembering an important distinction President Barack Obama has made ever since he entered public life: that “hope is not blind optimism.”
“Hope,” he argued, “is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.”
It is this spirit that began to take hold almost immediately after Trump’s election. Americans in large numbers, particularly the young, quickly realized that the coming months and years will require new and creative forms of political witness and organization.
Trump’s ascendancy is already calling forth social and political initiatives aimed at defending the achievements of the Obama years (particularly Obamacare), protecting the environment, standing up for immigrants and minorities, preserving civil liberties, civil rights, voting rights, and highlighting how Trump’s policies contradict his promises to working-class voters. Here is a bet that the mobilization against Trump will rival in size and influence the tea party uprising against Obama.
Another positive for the future: Trump’s campaign forced elites and the media to pay attention to the parts of the country that have been falling behind economically and to the despair that afflicts so many, particularly in rural and small-town America.
It should not have taken Trump (or Bernie Sanders) to bring their problems to the fore. If the powers that be had been paying more attention, the resentments and dissatisfactions that Trump exploited might not have been there for him to stoke.
In 1972, Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb wrote a memorable book called “The Hidden Injuries of Class.” We forget about economic inequality at our peril. Every generation or so, it seems, we need to be reawakened to the injustices of both class and race and rededicate ourselves to remedying them together. We can now move forward with this in mind.
From the outline of his policies so far and from the right-wing Team of Billionaires he has chosen to run large parts of his government, it’s hard to see how Trump will advance the material interests of those who voted for him. But justified skepticism about Trump is no substitute for fresh thinking by his opponents about what they would do when they next take power.
The pollster Allan Rivlin has been offering a compelling presentation to Democrats arguing that they lack a clear, comprehensible and convincing economic message. He’s right. It’s time they got one. The fact that this imperative is now nearly universally recognized is another piece of good news to come out of 2016 – even though the cost of the lesson was much too high.
It is also useful that Republicans will be put through a series of tests. If they fail to apply to Trump the same ethical standards they demanded of Hillary Clinton, voters will notice. The Republicans’ claims to fiscal prudence will be exposed as fiction if they follow through on pledges to combine large tax cuts, mostly for the rich, with big increases in military spending.
For the last six years, Republicans have been able to pass radical budgets through the House to satisfy their ideological enthusiasts, knowing their policies would never become law. They claim to be pleased that they can now enact their full agenda on shrinking Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs. But as their plans move closer to reality, voters – including Trump’s supporters – will start counting the costs. In large numbers, they will find them too high.
Lastly, it’s hard to imagine a president more likely to inspire Obama Nostalgia than Donald Trump. Americans who might have found the president too cool, too cerebral, too cautious or too self-contained will soon long for such qualities if Trump remains as reckless, vindictive and undisciplined as he was during the campaign, and has continued to be during the transition. Replacing a great orator with a promiscuous tweeter is not much of a trade.
The folk singer Joni Mitchell might as well have been talking about politics when she taught us that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.