If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. –James Madison, Federalist #51
Today is January 21st, 2017…day two of the Trump presidency. One cannot visit any site–social media, sports, or otherwise–without witnessing the collective shock of Democrats.
As a 30-year-old white male, I’m not in Trump’s list of genders/ethnicities/nationalities that he’s made fun of or harassed (yet). I grant the reader that being a target of this language is different from witnessing it, even if I’m fully capable of realizing how utterly reprehensible it is. So while my gut often tells me that people are overreacting to the bile that regularly escapes Trump’s mouth, certainly I recognize that it’s tough for me to fully grasp as an outsider.
That said: Trump did indeed win the presidency. Russians did not steal it. The Electoral College is and always has been a thing. (If the election was determined by the popular vote, campaigns from both sides would have spent and strategized completely differently from how they did. In fact, the entire structure of the national political parties would be different.)
More bad news: Donald Trump and congressional Republicans are going to work tirelessly to advance an agenda that you mostly disagree with. This likely includes the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, reduction in federal spending on education, rollback of many environmental regulations, a stricter immigration policy, and more.
So what can you do about it aside from the obvious (i.e. volunteering for/donating to Democratic candidates and organizations)? I offer this advice not as a gloating Trump supporter, but as a libertarian who hasn’t seen a president he actually liked in his lifetime and most of whose friends are liberal.
Step 1: Regain perspective. Given Trump’s comments I understand this has been difficult. But if you want to convince people to join you or to consider your opinion, likening his win to Hitler’s rise to power is not a good start. Nor is threatening to leave the country. 2017 America is not a uniquely awful time and place to live; it’s probably the best. Trump–much as I dislike him–is not an historically unique candidate. The allure of the presidency typically doesn’t attract saints; read biographies of Andrew Jackson, Nixon, or LBJ if you don’t believe me.
We’ve all experienced true adversity in our lives; the way many otherwise reasonable people are describing his election makes you think they’ve gone through a personal tragedy.
Of course both Republicans and Democrats should hold Trump accountable for offensive things he says, and they should advocate on behalf of policies they support/Trump opposes. But continuing this hyperbole anytime that Trump says something you disagree with creates a “boy who cried wolf” situation: if -everything- is tragic, then nothing is.
Step 2: Reexamine the past eight years. For the first time in many of your politically-conscious lives, you’re going to live in a country presided over by a president of the opposition party. It will not be easy. But please, consider your conservative and libertarian friends’ perspectives during the Obama years.
President Obama nationalized a third of the economy without a single one of their representatives’ votes; his IRS denied nonprofit status to conservative-sounding applicants; his ATF supplied guns to Mexican cartels; his Department of Education imposed speech-limiting procedures on public universities; his Pentagon started wars in six different countries without congressional authorization. When congress wouldn’t approve regulations he wanted, he encouraged bureaucracies to circumvent voters and write their own rules. Almost every day it seemed as if the president was attempting to do something I was opposed to. Many times he succeeded.
I don’t recall many progressives exhorting the president to slow down and build consensus with Republicans. “Elections have consequences” he was fond of telling the GOP. I wouldn’t ask liberals to not speak out against Trump’s policies. Rather, please just recognize that for roughly half the country, the past decade wasn’t our cup of tea, either.
Step 3: Separate your life and happiness from the presidency. If I could recommend a “self-help” book for progressives who are feeling down, it would be Gene Healy’s The Cult of the Presidency (that link is to a free PDF/Kindle version of the book) and the shorter follow-up about Obama’s first term. Healy relies heavily on primary documents to show readers what the presidency used to be like, how it’s transformed into a near-spiritual position, and how sad–but hilarious–this is.
Healy’s book gave me proper perspective during the previous administration. For those who are seriously upset by Trump’s election, “Cult” will give you a tool to divest yourself from presidential goings-on as much as possible and still enjoy your life.
Step 4: Rediscover the Constitution. Modern liberal thought stems largely from Woodrow Wilson, who taught that the Constitution was an outdated impediment to human progress. The Founders, he reasoned, couldn’t have anticipated what modern society would look like. Given new technologies and the increasing complexity of the American economy, major decisions should be entrusted to well-educated technocrats rather than the people.
Wilson’s influence was enormous; without him (and later FDR), Supreme Court jurisprudence would look entirely different than what it is today. Checks on government power were rolled back with abandon, and the presidency–an office that most Framers thought should be administrative only–became more akin to a monarchy.
Alas, there is some good news. The Constitution as written does not justify much of what President Trump might want to accomplish. And now supporting a minority party, liberals have natural allies in wielding the Constitution to check Donald Trump’s power: libertarians.
Like James Madison, we believe that men are not angels, and that procedural checks on power–even when they get in the way of our agenda–are crucial for the success of a republic. The Constitution is not perfect, but it’s damn good. Even better: it’s written down, so we’re all playing by the same set of known rules.
The authentic libertarians (think Glenn Reynolds rather than Glenn Beck) will support liberals whenever Trump seeks to usurp power from other branches of government or the people. Much of Barack Obama’s legacy was formed through executive actions that were unconstitutional in the first place, so there they’re out of luck. Progressives will find little solace in the Constitution if they’re looking for help maintaining new EPA regulations, for example. But Trump can’t build a border wall on his own; the Constitution requires that funding originate in the House of Representatives, where even the minority of Democrats could join with enough Republicans to stop it.
The Founders had an extremely impressive understanding of history and philosophy. The modern progressive will probably disagree with many of their arguments, but if taken seriously, they can provide many ways to limit the power of a perceived tyrant.
Step 5: Even when you win an election, repeat step 3. As I’ve touched on before, minority parties tend to love the Constitution…until they win an election, and then it’s back to business as usual. It’s extremely tough to willingly limit ourselves when in a position of power, particularly with such high stakes. But in the long run, a mutual respect for previously-agreed upon rules will make for smarter, more efficient governance.