Faculty Journal Posted on Thursday, December 15, 2016

Trump is a Challenge for Us All: Democrats of All Stripes

Sanford F. Schram Professor of Political Science, Hunter College and Professor of Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center

Donald Trump has become President-Elect by running an unprecedented campaign filled with hate and lies. He has railed against Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, African-American citizens, current President Barack Obama (the first African-American President), and Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton (the first female to run as a major party nominee). Nonetheless, in spite of (or perhaps because of) what turned out to be a Trump campaign of vilification against just about anyone who is not white and male, Clinton ended up surpassing him by about 3 million in the popular vote while narrowly losing in the Electoral College (making her the second biggest winner of the popular vote ever among the five candidates who won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College). Therefore, it is safe to say that Trump has won the presidency but not a popular mandate, further underscoring that he is the most unpopular President-Elect in the history of polling.

Democrats in Congress and those few brave Republican colleagues who might dare to buck Trump should feel free to adamantly oppose him irrespective of possible retribution from the minority of voters who were his supporters. Time is of the essence; Trump plans to move quickly on a number of fronts during the first 100 days of his Presidency. His opponents need to be strong and continue to mount a resistance to his divisive policy proposals, including promises to build a wall on the southern border, require Muslims to sign onto a registry, send a deportation force into neighborhoods to root out undocumented immigrants, reinstate the use of torture against captured enemies, and many other unconstitutional  initiatives that violate fundamental civil liberties. They need to remain critical of Trump’s highly questionable appointments (including Steve Bannon, leader of the hate-mongering, white-nationalist website Breitbart.com, as his top advisor in the White House). Trump’s other racist and conspiracy-theorist policy advisors like Frank Gaffney need also to be opposed, as well as his extremely right-wing cabinet nominees, many of whom have no real qualifications for their positions other than they either gave millions of dollars in campaign contributions or have proven to be blindly loyal. Democrats must resist normalizing Trump’s presidency as a whole or risk being complicit in legitimating a presidency that came to be based on pandering to hate groups and spreading lies.

The challenge is made all the more difficult in that Trump’s personal history suggests he is not to be trusted. Trump’s mixed record as a businessman leaves more than an impression of profound untrustworthiness. His career as a real estate developer is one littered with non-transparent deals, illegal actions, deceit and cons. His lack of political experience, together with his penchant for media attention, conveys the image of a man uninterested in actually governing and more interested in realizing pathologically narcissistic dreams of being acclaimed a great leader. His promise to actually improve the lives of ordinary people is suspect as well. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again” by appealing to voters who felt economic and cultural change were passing and leaving them behind. Yet, his mostly white constituency often interpreted his slogan as if it actually said “Make America White Again” (just as much of the hate-filled graffiti splayed over schools, synagogues and mosques around the country in the week after the election often said explicitly right next to swastikas and Trump’s name).

Any attempt to highlight the racism, xenophobia and misogyny that Trump espoused was often met with overly aggressive pushback. For instance, some of Trump’s most fervent supporters, we now learn, during the campaign threatened to kill a prominent journalist, Megyn Kelly of Fox News, for simply having asked Trump difficult questions, especially about his widely publicized proclivity for committing acts of sexual assault.

In fact, Trump’s personality is widely recognized as unfit for the Presidency. He cannot concentrate, does not read, does not write or even use a computer (he just tweets on an iPhone). Actually, his obsession with tweeting out revengeful comments against those who criticize him highlights just how pathologically narcissistic and thinned-skinned he is. He would rather trash a magazine for writing a negative review of his restaurant than use the bully pulpit Twitter gives him to create jobs. When he does, as with the Carrier deal, it turns out to be mostly lies and posturing. This is not normal; it is not presidential behavior.

And now, President Obama and members of both parties in Congress want investigations on whether Vladimir Putin’s Russia hacked into the emails and possibly tampered with the election in other ways in order to help Trump win the White House. Trump has been inexplicably effusive in his praise of Putin as a great leader who exercises tight control over his country. Should it prove to be the case that Trump’s victory is due in part to Putin’s cyberwarfare on the U.S. election system, it would be the equivalent of a coup.

Nonetheless, despite being completely justified in their opposition to Trump, Democrats are actually in a tricky political position. On the one hand, it is important that they do everything they can to avoid normalizing a Trump presidency. On the other hand, some of his policies on infrastructure, family leave, and childcare would be beneficial to average Americans. If Democrats oppose these policies on the grounds that they are against normalizing Trump, they could be seen as opposing policies that would benefit the American people, and that could hurt them in trying to win back the votes they lost to Trump as he appealed to whites who legitimately saw themselves as being ignored by Washington for some time now.

But simply negotiating with Trump over mundane issues like tax cuts and business incentives to create jobs could risk normalizing an anti-democratic demagogue, who is prepared it seems to move governance in a more authoritarian direction and rule as an autocrat. His continuing criticism during and since the campaign that the U.S election system is allegedly “rigged,” and rife with voter fraud committed by millions of “illegal” immigrants who voted against him, suggests he is prepared to promote a massive voter suppression campaign going beyond the anti-democratic efforts undertaken by the Republican Party for some years now. In addition, his ongoing condemnation of the press suggests that he is ready to overturn yet another key institution critical to sustaining liberal democracy. Trump’s Presidency could well augur in a move to a more authoritarian system of rule.

The challenge Trump poses extends beyond the Democratic Party to everyone who is concerned about democracy. Commentators have now started to note that Trump’s victory in fact gives rise to the question of whether we can continue to sustain our commitment to liberal democracy. Our political system has always been less than ideal, never as fully open and democratic as American mythology has suggested. For many, it is ordained, God-given or just part of our destiny of American Exceptionalism that we will always have an ideal system founded on liberal democratic commitments to personal freedom, free expression and equal access to the ballot. Our reality has been at best an imperfect version of that ideal, excluding all kinds of people and ideas at various points in our history. But warts and all, the political system could become far less open and democratic. Before this election, we have already seen threats to maintaining democratic elections and a free press. And it could get much worse with Trump as President.

Valerie Bunce and Mark Beissinger note that with Trump’s win, the U.S. has come to add the third of the three critical conditions for when a democracy in crisis turns to authoritarianism as a political solution to its social and economic problems. These conditions are:  (1) public opinion turns to distrusting the government’s ability to address the problems that have come to be seen as bringing on the crisis; (2) governmental institutions start failing to function at a rudimentary level of enacting public policy and enforcing the laws; and (3) a strongman or party steps forward announcing that he alone can solve the problem by taking swift and decisive action.

The high levels of distrust in the U.S. government have been building for years. The chronic gridlock born of partisan polarization which produced a policy stalemate is the ongoing result of the Republican Party’s refusal to recognize Barack Obama as a legitimate president. Now, Trump’s explicit campaign statement that he alone is strong enough to fix the problem puts the U.S. in line with other democracies that had these three critical factors at work in leading to the overturning of a democratic system and producing a turn to authoritarian rule. Comparative political analysis suggests we need to be concerned about what Trump will do as President going forward.

Trump as President represents a challenge for all citizens. To sweep under the rug the fact that Trump’s presidency represents nothing less than an existential threat to the American way of life – to democracy, decency, fair play, and justice – is nothing less than a capitulation of historic proportions.

If the American people stand in resistance to normalizing Trump’s presidency, there’s a good chance that Democrats will not buckle. Already we are seeing record contributions to non-profits and a surge in membership to the ACLU. Positive signs of active resistance are spouting everywhere and are building off student protests and street demonstrations.

Policy scholars as well as students, faculty administrators as well as policymakers, need to consider joining with others to rise up, resist normalizing Trump, and accept the challenge of how they will confront the Trump Administration. We all have a moral obligation to stand up now. Otherwise, future generations will ask why not.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Sanford Schram is Professor of Political Science Department at Hunter College, CUNY and a faculty member of the Sociology Department at the CUNY Graduate Center where he teaches in the doctoral program in Political Science.