Magazine | December 19, 2016, Issue

Trumpocalypse

The world has not ended, yet

There is a whiff of apocalypse in the air. The election of Donald Trump has sent millions of progressives into a spiral of rage and pain that goes beyond any other post-election tantrum in modern American history. As with every recent presidential election, the Left described its opponent in the direst terms possible during the campaign. But this time, they seem to have believed their own rhetoric. This time, they believe, the American people really did elect a man capable of destroying the republic.

Examples of moral panic are everywhere. In Portland and Oakland, angry young radicals rioted. In schools across the land, students walked out of class to chant “Not my president.” Liberal outlets reported on a handful of disturbing, hateful incidents targeting religious or ethnic minorities as evidence that we now live in “Trump’s America.” (By this logic, do the Left’s post-election riots represent “Obama’s America”?) College administrators are writing emotional letters to their students and opening “safe spaces” to those in need of a good cry. The Left is whipping itself into a frenzy of fear.

But it’s a fear tinged with hate. The only way, they argue, that such a man could have been elected is if millions of their fellow citizens are, in fact, more racist than they had imagined. And so the fury is unleashed on each and every Trump supporter. Those liberal voices calling for calm and reflection (there are some) are too often drowned out by those who now see all of red America as the great, howling wilderness of hate.

Recounting a small but telling incident, David Marcus, a writer for the Federalist, describes a recent shopping trip to a Whole Foods–style grocery store in Brooklyn. Like many stores, it plays music over the intercom, and one of the songs on the rotation was “Sweet Home Alabama,” by legendary southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. The song got an immediate reaction as a woman wearing a “Love Trumps Hate” button angrily declared the song “inappropriate” and demanded that it be turned off. Some loving liberals can’t stop hating the South.

To be fair, leftists are hardly the only Americans to lose perspective. Hillary Clinton’s victory was so widely assumed that liberals had no time to prepare for the pain of an electoral loss. So it hit them all at once, during a roughly three-hour span beginning at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on Election Night. Conservatives, by contrast, had months to ponder the implications of a Clinton win, and their rhetoric was sometimes equally unhinged.

This was the “Flight 93 election,” according to one (anonymous) writer in a widely shared essay: “Charge the cockpit, or you die.” Every conservative writer who expressed doubt about Trump was exposed to the same argument: If Hillary wins, America is over. One prominent Christian conservative writer declared in the Wall Street Journal that if Hillary won, the chance for a Supreme Court that “values the Constitution” would be gone “forever.”

All of this rhetoric — from both sides — is the product of a massive failure in civics education combined with equally massive portions of self-interest. Politicians seeking power (and activists raising funds) have for so long escalated their rhetoric that it’s understandable when citizens respond with the same level of hysteria. A nation that has grown ignorant of its own constitutional system — and even of its own recent past — no longer understands how the American republic works.

Take the Obama legacy, for example. For all of the hyperventilation over his alleged “fundamental transformation” of the country, it turns out that a Republican president and a Republican Congress can together undo virtually his entire legal and statutory legacy in the first three months of a new administration. Obama’s executive orders can be undone with the stroke of a pen, and his most onerous regulations can be rolled back wholesale. Obama’s signal statutory achievement, Obamacare, can be repealed and replaced if Congress has the will and can craft a viable alternative. He didn’t have the opportunity even to fundamentally alter the balance of power on the Supreme Court.

It’s also time to revisit the alleged “failure” of the Republicans in Congress — the failure that triggered so much anger against the GOP establishment. But for congressional Republicans’ stubborn resistance, Obama would enjoy the kind of legacy that would be truly hard to undo. A cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions would have transformed our economy. The employment non-discrimination act would have metastasized the culture war, bringing the conflict between gay rights and religious liberty to every nook and cranny of American life. Card-check legislation could have helped revitalize highly partisan Democratic unions. Gun-control legislation would have limited the Second Amendment rights of Americans from coast to coast. None of these things happened, in large part because even the most “squishy” Republican moderates locked arms with the Tea Party to block Obama’s most ambitious reforms.

What’s the lesson here? The Founders built our national system from the ground up to resist exactly the kind of “revolution” or “transformation” that politicians promise. Panic over Hillary was just as unjustified as the new panic over Trump. Neither president could have ruled by decree. Neither president could have entirely escaped the checks and balances limiting the presidency’s power. The American system blocks and constrains a president at every turn — as Obama found to his immense and lasting frustration.

Already we see the checks at work on the Trump agenda. His most outlandish and dangerous promises are being rolled back, one by one, as the American system works its magic. His promise to torture terrorists and order the military to commit war crimes has run headlong into American law and military resistance. Not one of his potential secretaries of defense would implement such an order, and a leading candidate, the revered General James Mattis, has caused Trump to reconsider his stance on waterboarding.

Trump’s misguided “Muslim ban” is slowly morphing as well. First he wanted to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country; then he (more sensibly) wanted to ban immigration from jihadist conflict zones. Now there is discussion of re-implementing a modest Bush- and Obama-era system of registering and tracking visitors from specific, listed nations. That’s hardly the stuff of dystopian nightmares.

Even on Trump’s signature issue, immigration, the evolution has begun. Sweeping statements made early in his campaign about removing every illegal immigrant from the country have turned into a plan to focus on deporting criminal aliens. Regarding the fate of the majority of illegal aliens who are otherwise law-abiding, Trump continues to be stubbornly vague. Oh, and the big, beautiful wall is now going to be part fence, and exactly no one will be surprised if even the fence becomes “virtual” in particularly rugged and desolate areas along the American border.

Donald Trump can’t escape judicial review, he can’t escape Congress, and he can’t escape mid-term elections in less than two years. Even his control of the federal bureaucracy is limited, both by the labyrinth of pre-existing regulations and by the same legal reality that thwarted Obama. Every contentious new regulation will be answered with a lawsuit, often filed by an ambitious state attorney general in a jurisdiction handpicked for maximum chances of legal success.

Ironically enough, while these countervailing forces will frustrate Trump’s most ambitious supporters — the ones who want him to “drain the swamp” or “burn it all down” — they may actually end up prolonging his hold on power by rendering him far less radical and less “dangerous” than leftist rhetoric suggests. In most areas of law and policy, he simply can’t do his worst. He will talk loudly but wield a rather small stick.

But that won’t stop the Left from continuing to claim that the sky is falling. This is a movement, after all, that uses words such as “Jim Crow” to describe a world in which one baker out of ten thousand refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding. It screams about “voter suppression” and raises the specter of the post-Reconstruction South when a state merely requires voters to show their identification at a polling place. What will they do when Trump adds the first few miles to existing border walls? How will they respond when he stops admitting Syrian refugees?

Moreover, it’s a movement that seems intent on hating its enemies, on driving millions of persuadable Americans directly into the Donald’s waiting arms. If Trump’s policies are reasonable — and by that I mean within the spectrum of conventional conservative or populist politics — progressives will shred what’s left of their credibility in middle America. It’s simply not racist to appoint originalist judges, protect our borders from potential jihadist infiltration, or deport criminal illegal aliens. None of those policies are extreme. None of them justify hysterics.

As pundits left and right noted before the election, the Left’s tendency to “cry ‘Wolf’” helped create Trump’s candidacy. Call people racist, sexist homophobes long enough and they stop believing or caring what their critics have to say. But the hard Left is now actually screaming “Wolf” — redoubling its rhetoric and increasing its volume. How will voters respond when even the most watered-down Trump reforms are greeted with howls of outrage and a barrage of insults against his supporters?

I live and work in a county in Tennessee that gave 68 percent of its vote to Trump. While there are racists in my town (and to varying degrees in every town), it’s not a town of racists. It’s a great place to raise a family, full of people who are kind and generous, especially to strangers. Southern hospitality is real. But this is also a town that struggles. The economic boom that’s benefited so many of America’s urban enclaves has largely passed us by. Hillary Clinton had no answers for my town. Hillary Clinton had contempt for its values, and her supporters had contempt for its people. How could they possibly vote for a woman like that? How is it possibly their moral failing that between two unfit candidates they chose the one who at least paid lip service to fighting for them and their values? The exit polls showed that 61 percent of voters believed she was dishonest, and while voters were certainly aware of Trump’s faults (they viewed him as less honest than Hillary), he received 82 percent of the vote from those Americans who first and foremost wanted “change.” Why can’t the Democrats acknowledge the crucial fact that many Trump voters viewed him as the lesser of two evils?

To argue that Trump is far less dangerous than Democrats fear — and less powerful than his base hopes — is not to argue that Trump is benign. As is often the case, our nation risks making its worst mistakes in those few areas where there is either consensus or apathy. Take trade, for example. Trump can draw on widespread left-wing support if he chooses to restrict trade, and if he bungles trade negotiations, he can inflict new pain on the very working-class Americans he now claims to represent.

In foreign policy, Trump has great authority to act on issues about which most Americans are indifferent. How many are concerned about how aggressively we should deter Russia in the Baltics? How many think even for a moment about America’s defense posture in South Korea? Yes, there are many Americans who want the U.S. to “rip up” the Iran deal, but what comes next?

Recent American history is littered with disasters born from consensus or indifference. Americans broadly agreed with our escalations in Vietnam, then broadly agreed on our decision to leave South Vietnam to its fate. Similarly, there was bipartisan consensus to invade Iraq followed by bipartisan, war-weary apathy when Obama pulled out our troops in 2011. We make our worst mistakes when we make them together.

Moreover, there is real danger in continued domestic overreaction to entirely manageable and normal events. Citizens can spit venom at one another for only so long before a nation’s social fabric starts to unravel. Recent polls have shown that upwards of 80 percent of Americans now believe that our nation is growing more deeply divided. Americans’ perception of race relations is dangerously negative. Our distaste for one another is growing so strong that our political polarization is mostly net-negative — we dislike the other side more than we like our own. Given his scorched-earth approach to his political opponents, it could be that Trump’s worst role will be as polarizer-in-chief, a man who does more than his fair share to degrade our political culture.

It’s time to take a deep breath, renew our civic education, and admire the wisdom of the Founders. Trump can’t destroy America. He can’t bring back Jim Crow. There won’t be jackbooted fascists in American streets. Nor — to the disappointment of his supporters — will he “drain the swamp,” “burn it down,” or shake up Washington apart from the non-stop scandals (real and imagined) that will follow him everywhere he goes. The city has absorbed more than its fair share of ambitious outsiders. Like every president, he has a chance to do the nation some lasting good — if he can show some wisdom and perhaps enjoy a bit of good luck.

In the contest between two unfit candidates, the Republican won. It’s understandable that his Democratic opponents would be appalled, but their panic is unjustified. There is only one American president who had a real chance to rule like a king, and his name was George Washington — not Donald Trump. Washington refused his chance and helped set in motion an enduring political system that resists the excesses of any one man. The president may be the most important man in politics, but the presidency is far from the most important institution in American life.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In This Issue

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Politics & Policy

Letters

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