America is still stunned by Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election. And that shocking surprise, combined with the president-elect's extreme policy positions, long track record of incendiary statements, and temperamental instability have sent American political culture into a tailspin, with angry hyperbolic assertions flying in every direction.
For now, American political institutions continue to function as they were designed to do. But in the weeks, months, and years to come, these institutions are likely to endure more stress than they have in a very long time. Those of us who strongly opposed Donald Trump face the considerable challenge of responding to him constructively, responsibly, and in a way that doesn't end up inadvertently empowering him even further by increasing his popularity and weakening the very institutions that will be required to constrain him.
The week since Election Day has provided a series of abject lessons in how not to respond to Donald Trump. Here are a few.
1. Don't manipulate the rules of the election to deny Trump his rightful victory
More than 4 million people have signed a petition calling on the Electoral College to make Hillary Clinton president-elect when electors vote on Dec. 19. Given Clinton's large (and growing) victory in the popular vote, this is an understandable impulse. It's also a terrible, extraordinarily dangerous idea.
First of all, don't buy into the faulty premise that Trump is the fundamental problem, one that can be dispensed with by denying him the presidency by any means necessary. Trump himself isn't the fundamental problem; the fact that he has a following is.
To stand in the way of giving Trump the White House by changing the rules would confirm every conspiracy theory his millions of supporters ever entertained and convince a good number of them that the country's political institutions are actively working to thwart them. And they would be right.
Democrats can go ahead and try to abolish the Electoral College going forward if they want, but they need to let it play its traditional role this time. Those are the rules everyone agreed to. Full stop.
2. Resist the urge to rely on name-calling
Some on the center-left have an almost mystical faith in the political power of verbal demonization. Shortly after Trump announced his candidacy for president, The Huffington Post thought it was making an important statement by relegating Trump campaign coverage to the website's "Entertainment" section. Now it's receiving widespread applause on the left for daring to announce Stephen Bannon's position in the incoming administration with the headline, "A White Nationalist is the New White House Chief Strategist." (When the article first appeared on Sunday evening, it ran under a headline calling Bannon an anti-Semite.)
Trump's critics should not overestimate the usefulness of such efforts at branding opponents.
Those who advocate such tactics emphasize the importance of opposing the "normalization" of Trump. But that's not the way norms work, which is tacitly, setting the terms of acceptable speech and behavior prior to our conscious awareness. Once you need to say "don't normalize behavior x, y, and z," you've already lost the battle. What was once understood and accepted by all without deliberation is now a matter for political dispute, which means a case for re-imposing the norm must be made. And name-calling has never been an especially effective way to persuade those on the other side of a political dispute.
3. Don't hype stories of violence
If you got all your news on social media over the past week, you'd likely conclude that the country is coming apart at the seams, with waves of violence and threats committed by Trump supporters against members of minority groups. The problem isn't that there haven't been such attacks, but rather that we just don't yet know how many there have been, or whether that number represents an uptick over recent rates and by how much. At the same time, we also know that there have been some indeterminate number of violent acts committed by anti-Trump protesters. Trump critics fasten onto the former while Trump defenders fixate on the latter. Neither camp is acting responsibly. The last thing America needs at this moment is more anxiety, anger, and suspicion — all of which are likely to increase the likelihood of violence and ultimately strengthen the hand of the president-elect once he takes the oath of office.
What would be a better approach?
Though I didn't support him in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders has done more than anyone since Election Day to show how to respond effectively and responsibly to the challenge of Trump's victory. In an op-ed for The New York Times and in other public statements, Sanders has offered to work with Trump in addressing the demands of his core supporters (the white working class), while simultaneously expressing criticism of the Democratic Party for failing to make more inroads with those voters and promising that he will strongly fight "racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and sexism…in all its forms, whenever and wherever it re-emerges."
Trump won. The opposition has no reasonable choice but to allow him to take office, govern, and (most likely) fail all on his own. In the meantime, they need to develop a compelling alternative vision to offer the country when it happens. That — and not system-rigging and name-calling — ought to be the way forward.