Partisan-stoked doubts about the legitimacy of the president (of whatever party) have become fashionable in the 21st century, but in the run-up to President Trump’s inauguration, their intensity has spiked. No doubt many in the media and the partisan opposition would be lobbing some of these attacks against any Republican; the claim that Trump is shockingly terrible would be more persuasive if similar denunciations had not been leveled against Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush. Nevertheless, the fierceness of the anti-Trump backlash is striking. Popular narratives to the contrary, Trump’s election is less a cause of our current crisis than a sign of it. In the months ahead, then, we need to attend to the conditions that have led to such a radical disruption in our politics.
Normally, radical outsiders don’t win the presidency. In looking for a president, the American people usually balance a taste for novelty with a respect for experience. So it’s telling indeed that Trump is the first person elected to the presidency without any prior experience in elected office or other government service. Only when the mandarins of consensus have proven both so parochial and so inept could such an outsider have smashed his way into the White House. A series of institutional failures led to President Trump’s ascendancy. We have been treated to the spectacle of an elite that has promised too much and so often failed so spectacularly. Our public rhetoric has been frozen by nostalgia and an elite reliance on what Josh Barro has called “no-choice politics” to enforce a narrow consensus on immigration, trade, and other issues. Trump’s campaign was powered by denunciations of various debacles over the past decade, whether in foreign affairs, the economy, or national security.
The populist insurgency takes place in the context of plummeting faith in major institutions, from Congress to large corporations to the press. Partisan political organizations aside, many institutional agents in American life resisted Trump strenuously — from major media organizations to the professional classes who dominate the Beltway. After reveling in his political electricity in 2015, TV news channels portrayed much of the 2016 general election as a trial of his alleged shortcomings. Few national newspapers endorsed him; USA Today, which had never before endorsed a presidential candidate, outright anti-endorsed Trump. By and large, those who occupy the commanding heights of culture — in the media, the academy, and Silicon Valley — treated Trump as an existential foe. Even many marquee conservative names opposed him.
And yet Trump still ended up with the most commanding Electoral College majority of any Republican in a generation. Although that majority hangs on a relatively slim number of individual votes, the fact that Trump achieved that result despite massive institutional opposition is a sign of how dissatisfied voters were with the status quo and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the alternative it offered. (That American politics offered only Hillary Clinton as a plausible, competitive alternative to Trump in the general election is itself a searing indictment of the current status quo.)
If we are interested in defending republican governance, we should not cheer this crisis of institutional faith. Institutions diffuse power and cultivate the networks of trust and competence that are crucial for maintaining civil society. In order to address the current crisis, we should focus on the reform of institutions rather than the destruction of them.
It might be troubling, then, that many of the institutional actors who flailed against Trump’s rise should then double down on some of their tactics that inadvertently fueled it in the first place. There maybe a touch of the apocryphal in the famous Vietnam-era declaration “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” but it provides a helpful image for the way some institutional stakeholders in the media and elsewhere have responded to Trump’s election: We have to destroy the public square in order to save it.
If we are interested in defending republican governance, we should not cheer this crisis of institutional faith.
In that narrative, President Trump is a threat to the republic and must be “resisted” at all costs. Paranoia should replace fact-checking. Accusations of treason or malice should supplant the presumption of patriotic good faith (even when we disagree). The monologues of those who fancy themselves the virtuous should replace a vigorous public debate. This is like plucking out your eye because you think that you have glaucoma; this procedure might remove glaucoma from your body, but you still won’t be able to see. If you think that Trump’s election is a republic-threatening crisis, blowing up the cultural norms necessary for republican life is a counterproductive strategy in the extreme. Believing that President Trump is himself destroying those norms is no excuse for torching them yourself. The Republic will be preserved by nurturing the soil of healthy political norms — not by a race to create a wasteland.
Instead of projecting all the ills of America onto President Trump, we should confront them directly. Those who aspire to political power need to recognize their obligations to the electorate they serve. Leaders should look at the challenges of the moment with open eyes instead of simply exulting over past successes or wallowing in past failures. The snideness that has too often proven a handmaiden for complacency should be put aside.
In facing these challenges, any effort to “get beyond politics” will likely be a distraction. Political contests arise because we disagree, and some of the problems of the present can be attributed to an effort to enforce a stifling conformity on many cultural and political issues. What we might need to recover instead is a way of doing politics: mediating disagreement, expanding political rhetoric beyond vituperation and preaching-to-the-choir bromides, rebuilding constitutional norms, and shaking off the debilitating comforts of nostalgia.
In facing these challenges, any effort to “get beyond politics” will likely be a distraction.
A significant component of these present challenges involves rhetoric that reflects, and reinforces, certain intellectual commitments that have calcified our politics. But there are more directly practical tasks, too: revising the federal bureaucracy, updating foreign-policy and national-security strategies, reinvigorating the economy, and working to rebuild a sense of civic belonging (so that Americans feel cooperatively responsible for rather than alienated from the institutions of governance). Some of these tasks will weigh more on congressional leaders, some more on the executive branch. Some are federal; others, local. Most of them, though, will involve efforts by both elected representatives and the citizenry at large.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson proposed that “the manners and spirit of a people . . . preserve a republic in vigor.” The Founders recognized that the health of a republic relies on the moral and intellectual constitution of its people. Civil government depends on civil society, which itself is made up of the efforts, habits, and beliefs of the citizens of a nation. Our current political crisis is in part a product of broader cultural trends. We can face these challenges by embracing a spirit of charity, by striving to listen, and by attending to our commitments to our fellow men and women. In the maelstrom of disruption, we should hope for the best and try to see it in each other.