Reflections of a “Never-Trump”er a week after his shocking win
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election was stunning almost on more levels than one can count. One week on, I find the shock has not worn off, but upon some reflection I have collected a few thoughts. I’ve divided them into four sections — historic, personal, political and practical.
Historic: A Tradition Broken
Over 228 years, choosing 44 presidents, Americans never selected as their leader someone who had not spent one day serving his country in the military or as an elected official. In fact, the bar for someone coming from outside the political world and being elected president seemed to require not just military service but military greatness — with the Generals who won the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II falling in that category.
From early in the 2016 election cycle, I struggled to come to terms with the possibility that the first big exception to this entrenched precedent would be a man with the character and opacity of Donald Trump. And now that he is poised to take the oath as America’s 45th President, I mourn for that tradition.
Personal: Long Roots, What’s at Stake, and a Terrible Lesson
My #nevertrump imperative has its roots decades before this campaign began. Growing up in the New York area meant being exposed to Trump on a regular basis — raunchy tabloid headlines, casino bankruptcies, the brief and ill-fated northeast shuttle airline to name a few. Though I never watched his television show, I have many memories of him as a guest on David Letterman, one that I found mildly entertaining but shallower than other celebrities with whom Dave would banter.
Despite having been on the staff of the campaign in which Bill Clinton defeated incumbent president George H.W. Bush, early in the 2016 election cycle I decided to back Jeb Bush, his son, over the wife of the candidate I once worked for. As I explained at the time, this was not, for me, about Hillary, but out of a sense that the nation needed a more unifying figure. In Jeb I found a successful Governor of the most “purple” state in the nation, who left office popular among voters in both parties. More than anyone else running, I thought he had the desire and ability to lower the temperature, to begin to unite the very divided political house that is America today.
The second major motivator in my support of Jeb was foreign policy. The Obama administration increasingly exasperated many, myself included, by purposely weakening American power, publicly forswearing the use of force, allowing ISIS and Russia to fill power vacuums, having no coherent strategy in one of the most consequential civil wars in recent decades, drawing and then discarding “red lines,” and ultimately appeasing, with seeming glee, the genocide-threatening Mullahs in Tehran. My preference was for a new President from a different party to clean house in the organs of American foreign policy.
What I hoped for was experienced, yet humble, leadership, and a cool and steady hand on the ship of state.
It seems that is not what is to be. And if, as I fear, Obama’s reckless diplomacy is proximate cause of a later conflagration, with Trump at the helm one imagines Obama will escape responsibility much more easily than if it had been Hillary.
Finally on the personal side, this was the first presidential election my kids got to watch up close. The hardest thing for me to explain to them is that this is not the way the world usually works — or should work. One should not draw too many lessons from this experience. Nice guys (or women) do not always finish last. The class bully does not always get to be class president. The student who took no interest in studying for his debates, and was visibly less prepared and knowledgeable, does not usually have the better outcome.
Political: What Does it Mean for America’s Future?
By all accounts, Trump’s main key to victory was successfully tapping into growing frustration among America’s blue-collar workers. He out-performed expectations across the rust belt — Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in America’s historic factory towns. It is no secret that these are communities that have seen persistent economic retreat over the last decades, and were willing to take what others might regard as extreme measures to make sure their voices were heard.
The problem is, as much as Trump may have channeled their frustrations, the solutions he offered were unrealistic at best and at worst would devastate the economy. As Clinton was courageous enough to say, the old coal mining jobs are not coming back. And that is not because environmentalists or Mexicans — it’s because economies evolve and the work required changes. In early America, most jobs were agricultural. Today only one or two percent of Americans are in agriculture — and yet 320 million are fed. The children of farm workers found other things to do — and for the most part liked their new jobs better.
Trump will not succeed in putting up the trade barriers he implies — nor should he. America’s past flirtations with protectionism have ended in unmitigated disaster. And even if he could “renegotiate” trade deals to keep factories from relocating elsewhere, that would not stem the loss of manufacturing jobs either.
That’s because within the first term of this administration, it will become blazingly clear to all that job stability is under threat now not by immigrants, not by trade deals, but by robots. Automation is on the march — and will in the coming years, I believe, go hyperbolic. Marc Andreessen famously said five years ago “software is eating the world.” Now, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine vision, machine learning and related, intermingling advances are beginning to eat jobs by the millions. Factory workers are only the appetizer. We will soon see massive job displacement in the service and transportation sectors — self-driving trucks are already a reality and robotic taxis are a few short years from commercialization.
So if the current level of job insecurity frustration gives us Trump, watch out for what comes next if we fail to navigate a better course.
Donald Trump ran vocally against “the establishment.” Well, he is now it. And unless these really are problems, as he said at the convention that he “alone can fix,” he is in for a rougher ride than he can imagine.
Practical: What Do We Do Now?
As President Obama and Hillary Clinton have graciously repeated, Donald Trump will become our next president, and, uncomfortable as it is for many of us, all of us have a vested interest in his success.
We do not owe it to him to give him the benefit of the doubt, but we do owe him a clean slate, and an open mind, not forgetting or forgiving all the repulsive things he said and did in the campaign and before, but putting them to one side.
To be very clear, when he proposes policies we believe are harmful, they should be loudly opposed. If he engages in any of the counter-constitutional talk or action he flirted with during the campaign, he must find a universal wall of opposition. And, as he proposes taking into his inner circle those with a record of bigotry and division, he should be made to hear the outrage.
He can begin to set the right tone by doing something that does not come naturally to him — enlisting some of those who vocally opposed his candidacy, and rebuking those amongst his fan base who see his election as a license for open bigotry or worse.
In 1992 Bill Clinton stood up to Sister Souljah — and by extension a section of his own base of support — when she made divisive remarks on race. Never has it been more urgent for a leader to make limits clear to his own supporters than it is for Trump now. Those that engage in bigotry — and we have already seen examples of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism out of those identifying themselves as his fan base — he must forcefully condemn and distance. His modus operandi has been to accept only the currency of admiration for him and loyalty to him. This he must quickly learn to change if he is to succeed.
Without imagining what circumstances would have followed had it been Trump who got one to two million more votes, but Clinton who won the election, particularly as Trump was previously on record opposing the electoral college, it should be Trump himself that reminds his followers that there is reason for humility.
The Jewish tradition teaches that the one thing without which the world could not survive is penitence. With that in mind I am committed to give room for Donald Trump to evolve into a strong leader absent the mean-spiritedness, the vitriol, the daily offenses that we have seen. If the awesome nature of the responsibility that he has just been handed can have a humbling effect — rather than one that confirms his visions of self-grandeur — then it is within his grasp to achieve great things.
One might say that the odds of that are small.
But we all said that about his candidacy as well.
In a political season where conventional wisdom has been upended at every turn, let us pray that it is once again proven false, and that Donald Trump governs in a way that encourages greater harmony and brings progress for America. That will be my prayer.