If you’re like many Republicans, you didn’t support Donald Trump during the primaries but reluctantly voted for him on November 8. Maybe fearing the loss of Scalia’s seat, or hoping that Trump would be good for the pro-life movement, you held your nose and cast your ballot for him despite a queasy conscience. You knew he was bad news. Your stomach turned when he egged on violence at his rallies, when he denigrated our generals and POWs, and when he was exposed as a massive fraudster. Your heart sank when he undermined the NATO alliance, advocated reprisal killings of innocent civilians, and openly fantasized about using nuclear weapons. You were revolted to hear him brag on tape about sexually assaulting vulnerable women. But as unfit as you found Trump, you judged Hillary Clinton to be worse. So you voted for him, hoping to hold him accountable after he took office.
If you were one of these voters, you must first reckon with the reality that a profoundly unfit man now sits in the Oval Office. His election and inauguration have not wiped away his amorality or stabilized his impulsive temperament. And we can no longer justify supporting him by comparison to an opponent. The options are no longer Trump or Clinton. The options are holding Trump to his constitutional obligations or failing to do so. But how can we actually hold him accountable?
First, we must fight the psychological pressure to rationalize and defend everything Trump does. Many of my friends and colleagues voted for Trump with eyes wide open, acknowledging him as a menace, but now twist themselves into partisan pretzels explaining away each fresh outrage. Moral, thoughtful, humane people I love and admire now look me in the eye and straight-facedly justify mocking a disabled reporter or grabbing a stranger’s vulva. Put simply, Donald Trump leads good people to support bad things. If you voted for him, you now have a strong incentive to stick with him rather than confront his odiousness. Recognize the power of this ethical undertow and swim against it.
In practical terms, this means frequently reminding yourself of the warning signs you recognized mere months ago. When Trump does something indefensible, ask yourself whether you would have explained it away had Barack Obama done the same. Avoid the online echo chambers that exist to reassure you about your choice. Force yourself to read honest critical reportage from outlets such as the The Economist and the Financial Times. When speaking with fellow conservatives, be vocal about what alarms you. Do not silently allow them to slip into easy and automatic support for this man.
If you can resist the pressure to rationalize Trump to yourself, the second step is to speak up. Signal to the president loudly and insistently that you will not give him a long leash. Make clear that you will not tolerate authoritarianism or the unconstitutional abuse of civil liberties, even if they’re used to advance policies you favor or punish your political opponents. The true measure of your respect for the Constitution is how often you acknowledge that it forbids something you support, not how often you argue that it forbids something you oppose.
Even if Trump proves unresponsive to pushback from conservatives, sending such signals forcefully will serve a second purpose. Many of your neighbors and fellow citizens did not support Trump, and are presently afraid — not just because of his own wickedness, but because they believe that millions of his voters have given him carte blanche to indulge his authoritarian impulses. If you don’t think the latter perception is fair, you have a responsibility to reassure anti-Trump Americans of your commitment to constitutional government.
Constructive criticism is not enough.
Constructive criticism is not enough. Many of the congressional Republicans now shamelessly currying favor with Trump were less than a year ago publicly arguing that he is a pathological liar wholly unfit to be commander-in-chief. If they won’t act as a check on Trump’s power — right now, the stalwarts could all fit into an elevator with room to spare — they must be made to pay a political price.
The third step is figuring out your tripwires — deciding in advance what specific lines Trump could cross that would make you withdraw your reluctant support. This is not just about holding him accountable; it’s about holding yourself accountable for holding him accountable. Recognize how tempting it will be to rationalize away abuses after the fact. It’s fine to “give him a chance,” but that stance will quickly become blind allegiance unless we set clear red lines — and stick to them. If Trump triggers a constitutional crisis by ignoring a major judicial ruling against his agenda, can you promise to stand against him — even if it requires impeachment by his own party? What about if he “jokingly” encourages the assassination of one of his critics on Twitter, or if he orders the military to deliberately kill civilians? If you think that all seems totally implausible, you should have no problem deciding ahead of time that you won’t tolerate any of it.
The most effective tripwires are those you state publicly. Sending Trump a clear message that certain actions will cost him your support is the best way to prevent them. Trump doesn’t care what Never Trumpers think, and says openly that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing his core supporters. The mass of reluctant Republican supporters in between will be responsible for either steering him toward constitutionalism or enabling his darkest impulses. They must not fail their fellow citizens.