Wednesday, November 16, 2016

America Takes a Step Back: Where Do We Go From Here?

It has taken me more than a week to process that Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. I never really believed it would happen. Like most of the mainstream press, the academics, the pollsters, the political establishments of both major parties, I watched with increasing shock and despair on election night, as first Florida and North Carolina, and then Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, tilted in favor of Trump. When I finally accepted that Trump was likely to win – sometime around midnight – I felt deep despair, as if a large weight had descended into the pit of my gut. For the first time in my life, I was forced to acknowledge that I know not my own country.

In hindsight, there are many reasons for Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss: Her message and appeal failed to capture the trust and enthusiasm of the white working class communities in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, including many of the same communities that voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Clinton lacked charisma and her speeches failed to inspire. Her campaign forever played defense and did not invoke a sense of higher purpose. Americans wanted “change” – whatever that means – and she represented the status quo. Trump promised to shake things up and was, like it or not, the “change” candidate. The Latino surge didn’t quite happen. African Americans did not turn out in the numbers we had hoped. More than half of white women voted for Trump. Most disappointingly, 60 million Americans willingly overlooked Trump’s express appeals to bigotry and prejudice, xenophobia and fear, misogyny and hate, and voted for him nonetheless.

Although Clinton is ultimately responsible for her loss, FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the email investigation unfairly and improperly impacted the election. His extraneous comments during a press conference in July, when he announced the FBI’s decision not to pursue a criminal case, were inappropriate. And his ill-advised letter to Congress eleven days before the election, which led most people to think the FBI had found new evidence of wrongdoing, predictably halted Clinton’s momentum. When he announced eight days later that the FBI had discovered nothing new and there remained insufficient evidence of illegality, it was too late and the damage was done. As a former federal prosecutor, I will never understand Comey’s motives or why he thought he was exempt from Department of Justice policy that prohibits comment on pending or concluded investigations. We may never really know its full impact, but the FBI’s interference with the American electoral process was irresponsible and inexcusable.

The media, and particularly cable news, also failed at its job in 2016. The single biggest factor in this election was the media’s embrace of celebrity culture and its thirst for ratings at the expense of fairness and truth. Almost every day for the past year, and sometimes several times a day, the cable news networks covered entire Trump rallies while offering little in the way of critical analysis or fact checking. And while the cable channels bequeathed to Trump nearly $3 billion of free air time, there was typically no similarly unabridged coverage of his opponents.

For all of the attention placed on Clinton’s emails, where were the stories and investigations into the hundreds of past and pending lawsuits against Trump, many for racial and gender discrimination, fraud, and unethical business practices? Why did the press fail to highlight and question Trump about his flagrant lies and distortions that left me speechless on a daily basis? His childish insults and tweets, his crowd-pleasing mocking of reporters and protesters, his supporters’ chants of “lock her up” and other hate-filled rhetoric, were frightening and un-American. And yet, the press routinely dismissed these plentiful horrors merely as "Trump being Trump."

But I do not wish to dwell on the negativity of this election other than to note that the Trump campaign was a low point in American electoral history. I am shell-shocked and disappointed with the outcome, but I accept the results. Although Clinton won the popular vote, we elect our president through the Electoral College, and Trump won according to the rules as they presently exist. He is legitimately the President elect.

Although I understand the frustrations and despair of the many protesters marching and chanting against Trump in some of our cities, I hope that will soon stop. Among the most offensive aspects of the last eight years were conservative attacks on the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency, including the birther movement, fomented by Mr. Trump and magnified by such alt-right news outlets as under the guidance of Trump’s campaign manager, and now chief strategist, Steve Bannon. I will not soon forget these thinly-veiled racist attacks on our nation’s first African American president. It is also wrong, however, to exclaim that Trump is “Not My President” for this slogan protests not his policies but the legitimacy of the election. Organize the opposition, fight implementation of Trump’s policies after he takes office, hold his feet to the fire and pressure the Republican Congress, but don’t delegitimize the nation’s institutions of democracy.

So where do we go from here? 

First, we need to give Trump a chance at governing. He will not take the oath of office until January 20, 2017. Let’s see who he picks to fill his Cabinet seats. Let’s give him an opportunity to moderate his extreme and irresponsible campaign “promises” such as building a wall (okay, maybe not a wall, he says now, but at least a fence), repealing the Affordable Care Act (he apparently likes its main provisions and now only wants to amend it), deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants (he has largely backed off of this one as well), and putting Hillary Clinton in jail (following her “gracious” concession, he seems to have lost his vindictive, banana republic instincts). Of course, we must watch his every move, because what he says one day means nothing a day later.

Trump seems already to be learning what President Obama and Secretary Clinton already know, that governing a country as large and complex as the United States is hard. As President, he will be forced to understand and balance enormous international and diplomatic pressures, intense national security concerns and foreign entanglements, and conflicting domestic political interests. The federal bureaucracy is vast and complex and does a lot of really important things, from protecting our homeland to inspecting our food supply, to keep this country running smoothly. The Affordable Care Act may require modification, but as Trump has already discovered, there are many aspects of the law that Americans want and need. You cannot simply cut off the health care coverage of 20 million people and go back to the way things were without causing extreme hardship and devastation. Unilaterally revoking treaties and trade deals will not only endanger international relations, but will cause massive disruption to our economy. Being Commander-in-Chief is not as easy as it looks, even for a guy who built a few hotels and thinks he knows more than the Generals.

Second, the Democratic Party must find a way to better understand and appeal to the working classes of all races and ethnicities. We used to be the party of working men and women. Although I personally believe Democratic policies are much better for working families than Republican policies, the Democrats need to shake its image as the party of upper crust "elites". We must recognize that at least some of Trump’s support in this election was motivated, not by bigotry and xenophobia, but by legitimate anxieties about the American economy and concern for the future. Yes, Trump exploited these anxieties and inflamed them through racially-tinged and nationalistic fear-mongering, but for millions of rank-and-file union members, low-wage workers, farmers, and small business owners, the anxieties caused by an ever changing economy and globalization are real and legitimate.

Third, we must closely scrutinize Trump’s choice for the vacant Supreme Court seat. This one was not supposed to be his choice. This one was President Obama's to fill. For nine months the Republicans refused to hold even a hearing on the nomination of Merrick Garland, a distinguished and respected jurist with indisputable qualifications. Democrats should filibuster whomever Trump chooses and not back down unless Trump nominates a consensus moderate in much the same way President Obama nominated one in Garland. On most matters I want the Democrats to be the adults in the room and to not play games with American democracy or damage American interests as Republicans have so frequently done the past eight years. But on this issue, we should give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine.

Finally, we must remain active and engaged, especially in this perilous moment of history. We must not allow America to fall victim to the rising tide of nationalism and xenophobia that has befallen much of Europe. Trump’s authoritarian instincts must be unequivocally resisted. Attempts to restrict our civil liberties, to turn away from our moral and historic obligation as a welcoming nation to refugees and persecuted immigrants, to discriminate against religious minorities or to foment fear and hatred against whole classes of people, must be fought with every non-violent tool in our democratic arsenal.

“The worst thing that can happen in a democracy - as well as in an individual's life,” says Hillary Clinton, “is to become cynical about the future and lose hope.” It is good advice, for Democrats and all Americans, as we attempt to make sense of the Trump years.