In following the debate over criticizing the president’s critics, I’m reminded that one of the dividing lines in American politics these days is between those who view President Trump as the singular cause of the present crisis and those who view his election as the symptom of a much broader crisis. This is not the only line in American politics, and it doesn’t break down neatly along partisan lines; people from a variety of sides might have different responses about how to address this crisis, and some might not think that we’re in a period of crisis at all. But it is a line.
If you see Donald Trump as the cause of our current discontent, then the temptation might be pretty strong to pull out all the stops to defeat him — every inopportune norm must be crushed, every argument against him deployed, every defense of his actions shredded. Mobilizing against Trump might mean the sacrifice of principles (for instance, supposedly pro-life folks might have to support candidates who call for no restrictions whatsoever on abortion), but you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. There’s a reason why the more fanatical of Trump’s opponents have appropriated the iconography of “the Resistance,” as though the Nazi invasion of France were the same as the constitutional election of Donald Trump: Only when the enemy is so wicked can the moral compromises become so virtuous.
If, however, you believe that Trump’s election is the sign of a greater crisis, the stop-Trump-at-all-costs strategy might end up being counterproductive in the extreme. According to the symptomatic interpretation of the Trump presidency, his rise has been premised on a variety of things, including economic stagnation, escalating negative partisanship, elite indulgence in bad-faith arguments and “no choice” politics, the tendency to respond to dissent with cultural excommunication, and the sense of a splintering body politic. Doubling down on those tendencies either to oppose or to support the president could be more a poison than a remedy.
For those who subscribe to this symptomatic interpretation, navigating the Trump presidency means the careful adjudication of norms, regardless of which partisan faction benefits from this adjudication. It means cultivating the virtues of republican life, such as courtesy, moral responsibility, civic fellowship, thoughtfulness in public affairs, and probity in political deliberations. That adjudication involves recognizing that there is no “Trump exception” to the Constitution or to politics — precedents laid out during this administration will be felt by later ones. For instance, a weaponized partisan bureaucracy could become a tool to “resist” more than one presidency; it could also further corrode faith in important institutions.
Even those who view the Trump administration as an existential threat to the country might have good reason to pay attention to the norms they’re willing to adopt in order to stop him. History did not begin with Donald Trump, and it will not end with him, either. There is no guarantee that toppling what you take to be a bad regime will lead to a good one.
A citizen’s attention to norms should not be seen as political cowardice or “enabling” Trump. Instead, it is nurturing the soil for the political renewal that many Trump supporters and opponents believe our republic needs.