After digesting this election, it is important to understand what we are about to encounter with a Trump Presidency. While no one should assume to have a good idea about what policies will be pursued, there seem to be several clear themes emerging that are the consequences of earlier decisions made by many people usually involved in the political process.
The almost universal rejection of Trump’s candidacy by the foreign policy and intelligence community leaves us with outliers to dominate this aspect of the new administration. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn does not fit the mold of other National Security advisors and, however he performs, his very presence is a result of the absence of more of the “usual suspects” who invariably migrate to the campaigns from each party. While Mitt Romney would make this observation suspect if he is indeed made Secretary of State, the inevitable tension that would ensue may make it valid down the road. In any event, the reckoning we are dealing with here is a result of who chose to stay out of the fray because of their inability to imagine Trump as President.
The inevitable hand wringing about the result of this election is a direct result of permitting a candidate to go through an entire election without having to demonstrate in any way an understanding of policy choices or institutions. Much was made of his vulgarities and his “fitness” for office. Instead of pointing out that Trump was unaware of what the nuclear triad was, significant media focus was paid to his tweets.
In a 2003 presidential debate, Howard Dean, then a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, said that Democrats essentially needed to learn to talk to the people who drove pickup trucks, with gun racks on the back and a confederate flag decal on the window. He was excoriated by his opponents who took this prescient observation as one that embraced a culture of bigotry. The failure to follow this advice is the reckoning that resulted in Trump’s victory.
Finally, it is necessary to learn to not treat Trump as if he were a traditional U.S. President. To illustrate this particular reckoning, I call your attention to the fact that each tweet from @realDonaldTrump is treated as a major policy decision or statement of significance. We might normally expect that to be the case from a President-Elect. This time, however, it is not the case. His public comments through Twitter are more akin to a common citizen letting off steam among friends and colleagues. To treat them as anything more than cringe worthy mutterings is to fall into the same trap that empowered his campaign. It is also necessary to calibrate outrage. A tweet about Hamilton is not an attack on the freedom of expression. Attempting to ban Muslims is. If everything is an outrage, nothing is an outrage.
We are going to have to count on people like Chief Justice John Roberts to make sure our constitutional institutions continue to work. We will need to find profiles in courage among brave Republican and Democratic senators to ensure the world’s greatest deliberative body continues to keep things from running amok.
Adjust to the fact that we will have a President who believes he is justified in tweeting anything that comes into his head. We have to learn to put these things in perspective. As then Attorney General John Mitchell noted at the beginning of the Nixon Administration, “Don’t watch what we say, watch what we do.” Keep watching.