What Both The Left And Right Should Learn From Trump’s Election

What Both The Left And Right Should Learn From Trump’s Election

We can still hope for America's success, and consider the silver linings a Trump presidency might offer. But Trump is a terrible model for the right.
Paul David Miller
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I wrote 2,000 words ruminating on the implications of President-elect Hillary Clinton’s victory last week, so my credibility as a political analyst is as good as anyone else’s you’ve read since Tuesday. But since that hasn’t stopped anyone else from offering their take on the Election To End The World, it won’t stop me either. You’ve been warned.

Like It Or Not, Trump Is ‘Our’ President

#HesNotMyPresident was trending on Twitter in the hours after Donald Trump’s victory. I find the argument about whether Trump is truly “my” president or “your” president utterly silly. The presidency is not a personal relationship that the occupant has with each and every citizen of the United States. You don’t choose to “have” a president or not. The office is not a personal accouterment or decoration that citizens can doff or don at their pleasure, depending on how well it suits their taste and lifestyle. Public office is not a mood ring. He’s just there, whether your like him or not.

Identifying yourself by your personal feelings towards the White House’s occupant is childish. Worse, treating the presidency this way is undemocratic. It is exactly how monarchs wanted to be viewed by their subjects: as fathers to children. We are citizens, not subjects. The president serves us. Yes, he’s mine: he is my employee. I didn’t want to hire him (don’t blame me, I voted McMullin), but I’m stuck with him and now I expect him to perform. If he doesn’t, I’ll do my best to fire him in four years.

Another silly mantra emerged after Trump’s victory: “He’s our president now, so we must all support him and hope for his success.” That’s bunk. I wish America success. I think Trump, in most respects, will be terrible for America. To the extent he personally succeeds, we will suffer. I don’t wish him success in pursuing the agenda he campaigned on or the (personal) agenda I expect him to pursue.

If, by chance, he changes his mind and decides to pursue an entirely different agenda (say, the agenda of the historic Republican Party), I would happily wish for his success. He’s my employee. I wish our common enterprise success; he’s incidental.

There Are Some Silver Linings to a Trump Presidency

Despite my misgivings—and my not having voted for him—I recognize that some decent things could actually happen under President Trump’s administration. Note I did not say that Trump could accomplish some decent things, but rather that such things might occur while he sits in the Oval Office.

For example: the Republican-controlled Congress might actually pass laws, and President Trump might actually sign them—a pleasant novelty that most millennials have never witnessed. Trump doesn’t have to do anything except sign a piece of paper after Congress has done all the work. Presumably Trump won’t have a problem letting others do the work, taking all the credit, and then signing autographs.

Republicans have rarely controlled the House, Senate, and presidency simultaneously—indeed, since 1929, Republicans have controlled them for just two years under Eisenhower and (effectively) two years under George W. Bush. By comparison, Democratic presidents, including Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter enjoyed control of Congress for all or almost all of their terms in office. Persistent control of the major levers of government decade after decade is what enabled Democrats to push the distending belly of the progressive state relentlessly outwards.

Republicans now have majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, 33 governorships, and control a similar number of state legislatures. Together, they could do remarkable things. All Trump has to do is shut up and stay out of the way. I still think he will find that challenging.

Also, Trump could nominate good judges. But I’m not holding my breath.

Lessons The Left Can Learn From This Election

The left is almost certainly going to conclude that they lost because 1) racism, 2) economic anxiety, and 3) Clinton was a uniquely unqualified and untalented candidate.

This is a self-serving narrative because it tells Democrats that their message is essentially correct and they need change nothing about their party or platform. “If Americans are racist, we’ll be the party of diversity and wait for those old white bigots to die out. If Americans are anxious about the economy, we’ll keep offering the welfare state, wealth redistribution, and class war against the one percent. If Clinton was unqualified, we won’t nominate her again.”

A few liberals have been a bit more honest. The truth is that the left has irredeemably alienated half of America because it mocks our religion, treats dissent like treason, and labels opponents bigots, sexists, and racists. From Obama’s dismissive assertion that Middle America is just “bitterly clinging” to its religion, to Clinton’s comment about Trump’s “deplorables,” it is clear that they don’t like people like us and wish they didn’t have to share the country.

Middle America is sick of progressive bullying from social justice warriors, community organizers, enforcers of safe zones and speech codes, the politically-correct thought police—and from their apologists in the media, their proselytizers in the universities, and their enforces in the courts and the bureaucracy. How sick are we? We just hired a crypto-fascist demagogue to protect ourselves from them.

I do not condone or excuse conservatives’ turn to Trump. But I do agree with the sense that the Left has completely lost touch with reality and no longer appears wedded to American ideals of limited and accountable government, and thus that a drastic solution was and is necessary. I remain convinced that the Left provoked the rise of Donald Trump through their extremism and illiberality.

Trump Is Not a Model For the Right

Unfortunately, the Republicans have just handed Democrats the perfect excuse to ignore their own failings. Instead, the Democrats can focus on the fact that the Republican Party just installed in the White House the least qualified, most ignorant, vulgar, and boorish president in history; the most overtly racist president since Woodrow Wilson; and the most sexist since Bill Clinton. If the left has been on a long, slow path towards extremism and illiberality, the right just took a dramatic lurch in that direction.

Trump is a terrible model for the future of the Republican Party. He lost the popular vote. The Democrats’ argument about demographic changes is true; it was just overtaken by electoral college math by a fluke. George W. Bush got higher percentages of the Black, Hispanic, Asian, and “Other” vote in 2000 and 2004. Which path to the White House do you think is more reproducible in future years?

On top of the dubious reliability of Trump’s electoral strategy, he is almost certain to be a terrible president. Again, I acknowledge some good things might happen in the next four years, to which Trump will be mostly incidental. Yes, some elements of conservatism will advance in coming years. Trump might get bored and outsource presidenting to Mike Pence. But those are not the most important measuring sticks of presidential performance.

Three Dangers of a Trump Presidency

Three very bad things are likely, in ascending order of magnitude:

  1. Consider Trump’s effect on our political culture. People love a winner, and nothing vindicates like victory. I hoped Trump would lose because I wanted to see him—his style, his dishonesty, his braggadocio, blatant insincerity, and cruelty—discredited (that is also why I wanted Clinton to lose). Instead, they have been validated. Think for a moment about the Trump effect on all future elections.
  1. Consider his effect on the Republican Party and on democracy in America. As someone Tweeted, the Republican Party is no longer the conservative party. It is the populist party. If you think populism is an unvarnished good, you need to reread Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers, and some Aristotle for good measure. Tyrannies can come in the form of mobs as well as individuals. The passion of a mob is not a wise principle for governance. Conservatism is premised on the importance of constitutional, limited government. America no longer has an organized, institutionalized voice for conservatism. Think about the danger to our system of government, trapped between dogmatic progressive fundamentalists and a populist mob with Trump at the head.
  1. Consider Trump’s effect on the world. The President of the United States is still the most powerful position in the world, the Commander-In-Chief of the greatest military in world history and chief spokesman for an alliance of free nations that encompasses nearly half the globe. And now the presidency is occupied by someone who overtly admires tyrants and dictators, seems ready to cooperate with a new era of Russian aggression in Europe, and openly doubts the value of America’s historic alliances. This deserves its own post, but if I were editing the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I would advance the Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight. I am not trying to be hyperbolic when I say that the Trump presidency could see the end of NATO, which would rewind the geopolitical calendar to 1939 and make global war more likely than at any time in three generations.

In the days after the election, I heard many people counsel calm and perspective. America will survive, they say. We’ve been through worse. It’s not the end of the world.

To which I say, Trump hasn’t been sworn in yet. Give him a chance.

Paul D. Miller teaches public policy at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He previously served on the National Security Council Staff from 2007 through 2009. Follow him on Twitter.

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