There are lots of reasons to bemoan the choices in this year’s Presidential elections. The weaknesses of both candidates are manifest and telling, and have resulted in the largest collective moan from the voting public in decades. Moreover, the country is now faced with the prospect of Donald Trump being elected to the US Presidency. This has induced a collective panic unlike I have seen since, well, the prospect of Ronald Reagan becoming President. (Corey Robin has an excellent piece on the institutional amnesia of today’s commentators.) It’s interesting how people seem to have forgotten how genuinely awful the Reagan Presidency actually was—it’s all taken on some hazy glow, largely as the result of a still-supine media. But it initiated and validated the general meanness of the modern Republican Party, which has now reached extreme proportions, but the ground rules of which were initially laid out by Reagan and his Southern California car dealer and real estate buddies. Yes, yes, I’ve seen all the comparisons of Trump and Nixon, but Nixon wasn’t necessarily an awful President, although he was an awful person. Reagan was a genuinely awful President, and the county has been impoverished, both literally and culturally, by his legacy.
So is Trump worse? Perhaps, but it’s a close call, frankly. Reagan didn’t know anything and was proud of it, and was also proud of the fact that he had no interest in learning anything either. (Plus there was that astrologer thing.) Trump is similar in this respect—what he doesn’t know is astonishing, and he doesn’t care that he doesn’t know it either. And it’s easy to see where that can cause a whole lot of trouble—his climate change views, for example, are baffling and potentially damaging for the planet, and our grandchildren. His foreign policy views, while occasionally and perhaps accidentally leavened with a bit of commons sense (just what is NATO’s function these days, anyway?), are simplistic to a degree that we haven’t seen since, oh, George W. Bush. Was that really only the past decade? Yes, it was. The list could go one for some time.
Here is where it starts getting complicated. First, any hope that the top of the Democratic ticket will bail us out really has to be abandoned. The top of the Democratic ticket is a disaster—the campaign to date has been abysmal, against a senator from Vermont that practically no one had actually heard of before he started campaigning, and the people who have been running it, as we now know, show no signs of having learned anything, ever. This appears to be an attribute shared by the candidate herself, who has the political instincts of a rock. So no help there, I’m afraid. The Democratic campaign slogan for the remainder of the year is going to be “We’re not Trump, so vote for us.” This does not strike me as a winning strategy. It’s been tried, in fact—by every single Republican presidential candidate this past year. How’d that work out?
Nor does the strategy of waiting for Trump to blow himself up offer much hope. Is there anything that he has said that hasn’t pissed someone off? Is there anything he could say at this point that would be more insulting, demeaning, or just plain stupid that he hasn’t already said? But he keeps rolling merrily along anyway, and is now the candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States of America. No one saw it coming (not strictly true, but certainly true inside the Beltway), and if anyone still thinks he’s going to do something that will lose him supporters, I have a bridge I want to talk to them about. There is a real chance that he can con people into actually electing him President. He conned people into making him the Republican nominee (although as Eliot Weinberger recently pointed out, given the competition, this wasn’t hard). Perhaps we should all be grateful to Trump for sparing us from the prospect of President Cruz, or President Jindal.
Don’t forget that it’s about the con. Anyone who spent time in New York over the past several decades, as I have, will understand what Trump really is about. Yes, he’s a boor. But he does real estate cons really well in the place where real estate cons have reached an art form, and has managed to extend the con. He had that television show, which, let’s face it, is one reason any number of people will be voting for him. He co-wrote a book called The Art of the Deal. Well, maybe “wrote” isn’t exactly the appropriate term, but it’s a book with his picture on the cover, which for many people is good enough. The con is the thing—if you’ve conned someone, you win. Simple as that. Usually it’s money, admittedly, which is the great motivator of most cons. But sometimes it’s something else—like the US Presidency, which often, admittedly, seems to be for sale. David Auerbach comments that “….even calling Trump a con artist seems an injustice, for a con artist has an ulterior motive. Trump has no motive other than to be the conman, not the conned.” Auerbach says this as if it’s a bad thing. But for Trump, it’s the only thing.
Thus far the reaction among the non-Republicans—and, indeed, among a number of Republicans—has been shock and horror. I’m not saying there isn’t a very good reason for this. But it might not matter. Because he might get elected anyway. Four million people in 2012 voted for Rick Santorum. Lots of people voted for Mike Huckabee—not enough, fortunately for the rest of us, but still. So how can we prepare for a possible Trump Presidency?
Well, the best preparation would be to keep it from happening in the first place. But that may be difficult, and, as I said above, we’ll get no help from the top of the Democratic ticket. Will enough Republicans desert Trump and vote for Gary Johnson and Bill Weld of the Libertarian Party? It’s possible, I suppose, but it’s not something I would count on, and it’s certainly not something I would call a “strategy,” although lord knows what passes for “strategy” at the DNC or in the HRC campaign (same thing, I know) these days.
So the next step is to prepare for an actual, real world scenario of Donald Trump taking the office. Then what? Well, at that point we’ll know what his cabinet will look like—probably a lot like Mike Pence. This is horrible, but no worse than many of the people Junior Bush or Ronald Reagan populated their cabinets with. Some will be a waste of space, but some may not be totally incompetent. I don’t think we really want competent people trying to implement a set of Trump policies, whatever they might be. Reagan was famously disinterested in this sort of thing, which actually turned out to be a blessing—think of how much worse things would be if he actually had been efficient and managerial.
So what’s the best defense here? It’s pretty clear—elect a lot of Democrats to the House and Senate. This won’t be helped by the lack of inspiration from the top of the ticket, and we may very well get people voting Democratic for everywhere on the Democratic ticket except the Presidency. We should prepare for this to happen, in fact. But what this means is maximizing the vote down ticket. HRC has done little here, and neither has the DNC, which we now recognize to be supremely incompetent. There are a bunch of Sanders candidates who may make a difference in galvanizing the vote in some areas. The main thing, however, is to turn out the Democratic vote across the country, something the DNC appears to have difficulty doing. This has always been problematic, especially in non-Presidential years, which is why Democrats got creamed in 2010 and 2014. That cannot happen again.
The point of this is to be in a position to neutralize what Trump says he wants to do—if he even really means it. Deport all Muslims? Fat chance. Ditto the stupid wall. President Trump’s major job should explaining to his supporters why he can’t do what he told them he would do. All of that becomes easier with a Democratically-controlled Senate, and perhaps even the House. Trump offers that kind of possibility—a potentially transformative election. But only if Democrats are smart enough to take it. Given the unlikelihood of this happening as a top-down process, it’s up to the voters themselves, and the candidates for the House and the Senate. Heavy lifting, but possible. The Founding Fathers were pretty smart—Separation of Powers is an excellent idea that has served us well.
The second thing is to lawyer up. Trump will try to discover the limits of executive action, and will probably try to do a number of stupid things through executive action. This is where we take a page from the republican playbook—litigate everything in sight. Every single unreasonable thing Trump tries to do—and there may be a lot or very few of them, who knows?—should be litigated. Many would be anyway, of course, but we need to prepare the resources for doing this. In the environmental arena alone there are a number of organizations who have a good history of litigating the federal government (as well as the states), and who will undoubtedly be busy in the event of a Trump Presidency. If I were running one of these organizations, I’d be doing my fundraising right now—this is probably a better strategy than giving money to the HRC campaign at this point anyway.
The third thing, of course, is civic action. Republicans played a long game, and over two or three decades they managed to take over much of America—through school boards, planning boards, mayorships, state senates and assemblies, whatever. There is a desperate need for a Democratic ALEC. But not having one should not preclude running for the school board. This is where things get done—the fight over evolution in American education is being fought precisely at this level. The fight over the privatization of America’s water resources is also happening at this level. The Republican antipathy to federal land ownership (including National Parks) probably extends to the state level as well. These fights will keep happening until enough of us are sitting on school boards and planning commissions ourselves—and we’ll keep losing until then as well.
Does this mean I’m relaxed about a Trump presidency? Of course not. If nothing else, the guy has incredibly bad manners. But I do not agree with the current trope that Trump is the worst person to ever walk the face of the planet, and that if he’s elected it’s all over for democracy. That may happen, but only if we let it. The thing about democracy is that it lets you partake of the process. It’s when we stop using it that things start getting genuinely scary. But using it can mitigate a lot of potential damage. That’s what it’s for.