Come Heil or High Water

Progressives are struggling, with appropriate wailing and gnashing of teeth, to respond to the election of a short-fingered vulgarian to the world’s most powerful office. Many fear we’ll never be the same. And they may be right.

Trump the candidate had already done great damage to our civil discourse and generated considerable anxiety among our people and our allies. Since his campaign began, he’s shown considerable disdain for, and ignorance about, immigrants, minorities, and women. It was also this time last year that he publicly mocked a disabled reporter. True to form, the President-Elect of the United States denied he did so despite the incident being filmed and easily available online.

Sadly, Trump’s actions over the last three weeks suggest no movement towards a more modest presidency. Sure, he may not attempt to prosecute Hillary Clinton, as other authoritarians might. And he’ll finally get around to having someone, perhaps President Obama, explain the Paris Agreement to him. But with few exceptions, the advisers and cabinet posts Trump’s made show him prioritizing his descendants and donors over competence. His picks are a slurry, too, of xenophobia and intolerance. The Klan and neo-Nazis have proudly paraded their approval.

Despite this, most Republicans have remained silent. Conservative leaders and voters sold their souls, and the patriotic values they so cheaply championed, for the passage of pet policies. They are perhaps beyond good and evil. And even some who opposed Trump until the end have now turned with the prospect of power that was denied them in more innocent times. Making their own complex moral calculations, they bow before Trump. Whatever they see, they say nothing of the Emperor’s naked untruths.

Trump’s presidency, however long it lasts, seems certain to vulgarize our most precious political ideals and vandalize our most-beloved political institutions. And the billionaire seems hell-bent on entangling his personal profit and political ascendancy in a Russian-style kleptocracy. It may be this, rather than his many other sins, that derails him. But there’s little sign of that at present.

This is not normal. Trump is not normal. He cannot, or must not, be normalized.

But many are so loath to acknowledge a Trump presidency that they arguably lose sight of practicality and principle. The effort, for example, to get the Electoral College to choose Clinton over Trump is extremely unlikely given established conventions and the convictions of the Electors. And if it was somehow successful, it would be yet another nail in the coffin of our constitutionalism. Whatever we might do to alter or eliminate such institutions for future elections, we do little good by adding our own violence against our values and the rule of law. We must fight this exceptional threat with ordinary means and extraordinary efforts. Adopting Trump’s tactics as our own would be his greatest victory.

Recounts may be more reasonable, though fraud isn’t the only answer for the results and only a cascade of irregularities would alter the result. Bizarrely, even by his low standards, Trump’s attempts to declare a popular vote victory and attack the recount efforts merely fueled those efforts by suggesting massive voter fraud. Without a scintilla of evidence, he tweeted

In our post-truth world, Trump’s truth is far stranger than satire.

So, like it or not, Trump appears to have won. But he did so without a mandate, a fact that must be repeated at every opportunity. The idea of a ‘mandate’ is admittedly nebulous. But if it means anything, it attaches to a candidate who wins the popular vote, ideally with the largest turnout possible. Trump’s unanticipated victory in the Electoral College doesn’t alter this. Despite her defeat, Clinton polled well and out-performed Trump, congressional candidates, and Democrats in state elections. Her lead in the popular vote now extends to over two and a quarter million votes. This is greater than the population of sixteen of the fifty states. It stands as a rebuke to the President-Elect, as well as to progressive critics more eager to blame than to understand.

Congressional Republican victories are also important and shouldn’t be denied. They can’t be attributed in every instance to voter suppression and gerrymandering, though those are real concerns. But here, too, more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans in the elections for the Senate. The Democrats gained two seats, with another still to play for in Louisiana. As with the presidential election, the benefit was less significant than expected and will not significantly alter the balance of power. Still it’s appropriate to note, with Ezra Klein, that Democrats are effectively in opposition at the national level; they’re not, at least in any simple sense, in the minority. 

This thin silver-lining doesn’t exist in the House of Representatives. There, Democrats picked up a few seats, but trailed by three million votes. And things are still worse at the state level. Neither the President nor party leadership ever effectively counter-acted the ideological intransigence and brinkmanship of the Republican Party. Instead, as they lost governorships and legislatures across the country, the President and party retreated to expanding executive powers and the judicial serendipity of the nation’s highest court. The keys to both are now handed on to Trump.

In any event, progressives should not fear honest debates with one another. We’re a plural bunch. We’ll read the political landscape differently and recommend different responses. We’ll argue with the sweet bitterness of married couples who just don’t understand how, given our many pleasant qualities, we can get some things so very wrong. But the adults among us will be untroubled by these family squabbles. We’ll continue to break bread together and get down to planning our individual strategies in our broadly common cause. We’ve little choice.

This is not normal. Trump is not normal. He cannot, or must not, be normalized.

A native of Louisiana and long-time resident of Ireland, Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor and Deputy Head of the University of the South Pacific School of Law. No, really.


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