What Doesn't Change

Now what?

For two weeks I’ve been thinking about a dotCommonweal post beginning with those words.  Its premise, however, was going to be that Hillary Clinton had been elected president.  The question was what she, what liberals, indeed what just about everyone alarmed by this election, could do to remedy what it revealed about the state of our nation. 

Trump, I was planning to write, may or may not go away; but Trumpism surely would not. The economic, cultural, and political conditions that spawned it still loomed. The new president (Hillary) would face four more years of Washington gridlock, four more years of doing little or nothing about pressing national problems, four more years of letting the toxins that produced Trump simmer and multiply unattended in the nation’s bloodstream. To say nothing of four more years of investigating emails and braying about impeachment. Weren’t there already some Republicans growing wistful at a possibility that chilled other Americans fearful for democracy in both parties: the possible emergence in 2020 of a Trump 2.0 as politically noxious, factually unmoored, and temperamentally worrisome but without all that repulsive personal baggage?

Well, we don’t have to worry about that any more.  The Trump we saw is the one we’ve got. 

Now what? 

Watching the CNN election team exude excitement at every Trump success even at a point in the evening when the returns were minimal, I was reminded of sportscasters who wax enthusiastically over whatever team has taken the lead.

Of course, anyone who challenged the tide of predictions and everyone who executed the Trump strategy deserves congratulations for political genius. 

But neither political genius nor victory changes some other realities. Last spring after months of watching Trump roll through the Republican primaries, after listening, almost mesmerized, to his free-associating rants, after examining whatever policies he actually sketched, I concluded in Commonweal that clearly he was “not a fascist.”  Rather, he was “a semi-fascist.”  All the things I said about his message of fear, exaggeration, wild inaccuracies, scapegoating of minorities and foreign adversaries remain true. So, too, about his narcissism, bullying, and a long list of personal characteristics that, even in those pre-locker-room talk days, were upsetting many conservatives. All of these things remain true. Was he going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, round up and deport the undocumented, relax our strictures against torture? Were his financial shenanigans and blatant tax avoidance eventually exposed? Did he later promise to appoint a special prosecutor, anticipating putting his opponent in jail? Did he regularly act the strongman to the glee of supporters? None of that is erased by the wash of victory. 

Democracies transfer power by the vote of the citizenry, sometimes counted in complicated but legally established ways, whether in parliamentary systems or with America’s electoral college. (As of this writing, Clinton may very well win the popular vote.) It is essential that such verdicts by established procedures be accepted, even more in elections than in jury trials. When a nation is deeply divided this can be a delicate business of painful concession, generous acceptance, and ritual pledges. 

The process should be honored, as it has been. It was in fact a strike against Trump that he had encouraged his supporters to question the honesty of the vote, as perhaps a third of them did, according to the exit polls. But hewing to this crucial element of democracy does not mean accepting the outcome of the election as necessarily wise or just or informed. The electorate, no less than juries, can be wrong. A quarter of the votes for Trump were cast by people who also believed, according to the exit polls, that he was not qualified nor temperamentally fit to be president!  Something besides rationality was at work here. 

The next days and weeks, probably months, maybe years, will be spent in analyzing this political upheaval. Many of the forces at play have been long identified. How will they be weighed?  On whose shoulders will responsibility for failure or success be laid? How many of us will engage in self-criticism rather than pointing the finger to our right or left? This necessary inquest may impart important lessons in how to oppose what is manifestly untrue, unjust, and potentially destructive in Trump and Trumpism. But it should not deter that opposition.    

As for the future, the welcome mat is being rolled out for a new Trump. After all, his victory speech contained no threats or indecencies and everyone, it seems, wants infrastructure. The cynics, power-seekers, and wheeler-dealers will be quick to do what Trump prides himself on, cut a deal. The knowing and the competent, those with convictions or an urgent vision, will confront the choice of helping out or going into opposition. Honorable conservatives who refused him their support will be tempted to sign up. The tests will come when Trump foresees or meets opposition, whether in the Senate (think Supreme Court) or the courts or the agencies or even, one prays not, in the streets. The impulse will be to rewrite the rules. 

Hope and change? Change, certainly. 

There is always hope.

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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