These have been the strangest of months. I arrived in the United States in late August 2016. The presidential campaign was entering its final stretch. The presidential debates were held – farcical spectacles, it must be said – a few more scandals broke out, and on November 8th the American people expressed their view.
Did that come as a shock.
Unexpectedly, Mr Trump won the states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and, some weeks later, also my temporary home state of Michigan. After the strangest of a transition, which Mr Trump seemed to regard as a rerun of The Apprentice, on January 20th he was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.
What happened next is well recorded. A slurry of executive orders has sent shockwaves through Washington. On a daily basis, Mr Trump and his entourage have shocked the media, progressive Americans (and perhaps also some conservative ones), and the world beyond America’s shores.
Reactions against Mr Trump have been strong, too. Demonstrations abound, progressive trolls have been emerging in the Twitter-sphere by the thousands, private individuals supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and even state governments have filed law suits contesting the constitutionality of Mr Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim Ban’, i.e. the executive order banning entry to the US to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Californians, where Mrs Clinton won with an incredible margin, are openly discussing secession.
How to deal with Mr Trump?
I am amongst those who believe Mr Trump’s actions are driven by a combination of incompetence and malevolence. The Muslim Ban, as Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith has suggested here, attained its objective, which was to destabilise America by creating disarray and chaos. At least part of Mr Trump’s strategy consist in distracting the American people. With chaos everywhere, people stop paying attention. Chaos is the totalitarian’s best friend, Hannah Arendt argued many years ago.
The same thing can be said of Mr Trump’s Twitter use. The ‘Tweeter-in-Chief’ often seems to indulge in uncontrolled rants, raising questions as to his sanity and fitness to govern. As the same professor Goldsmith pointed out, however, there is a certain pattern to Mr Trump’s Twitter usage. In the aftermath of the court rulings suspending the application of the Muslim Ban, Mr Trump on regular intervals attacked the court system and individual judges. He went as far as to place responsibility for hypothetical future terrorist attacks with the judiciary.
Tweets of this type, I believe, are part of a strategy to undermine the credibility of institutions that Mr Trump perceives as standing in the way of realising his policy agenda. In this sense, as I have suggested elsewhere, Mr Trump is a populist pur sang. He does not believe in the rule of law; only he, the direct voice of the people, is in charge.
Mr Trump’s Twitter strategy places the media in a difficult position. Surely, journalists are aware of the catch 22 situation they find themselves in. On the one hand, by responding to each of Mr Trump’s tweets, less time is available to hold Mr Trump to account on other fronts. On the other hand, if they do not respond, they contribute to ‘normalizing’ Mr Trump – not exactly an attractive prospect, either.
I would like to suggest that perhaps we – by which I mean, those who believe in the values of constitutionalism, the rule of law, representative democracy, regardless of party affiliation – should not expect too much from the media in the fight against Mr Trump. Surely, the media play an important role in holding government – both the legislative and executive branches – to account. They fulfil a key role in informing the citizenry on what the government is up to, they provide a platform for political discussion, and through analysis and investigative reporting they force the government to justify and defend its actions.
At the same time, however, unlike what Mr Trump’s extreme right advisor Steve Bannon has suggested, the media is not the ‘opposition party.’ The main responsibility for holding the government to account lies with those members of Congress, those members of state legislatures currently not in government and with elected officials at all other echelons of government. The key challenge facing the majority of Americans not supportive of Mr Trump, then, consists in regaining control of these government offices. As Mr Obama argued in his goodbye speech: if you’re not happy with the way things are going, run for office yourself.
While self-evident, this is nonetheless a message worth repeating. I was encouraged to see millions of Americans hit the streets after Mr Trump’s inauguration, and again after the issuing of the Muslim Ban. I am pleased also to read blistering posts on Facebook and sharp criticism on Twitter.
This is all good and very useful. Those who will make a difference at the end of the day, however, are those who run for office. I hope recent events, tragic and profoundly depressing as they are, will convince Americans to participate in the political process, however imperfect it might be. This message goes out in particular to young Americans, whose trust in democracy has never been lower, as scholars like Yascha Mounk have pointed out. Nonetheless, engagement, by voting, campaigning and most importantly, running for office yourself, is the only way to regain control over the federal government, and to again place the values of liberal democracy on a stable footing.
This points also to the importance of participation at the local and state level. Only if liberal democratic values stand strong locally, when they are embedded within local communities, will they continue to prevail at the federal level. I like to view liberal democracy as a culture; it must be shared broadly if it is to survive.
I hope young Americans have gotten the memo Mr Trump is sending them. If you want to protect the Republic: run for office.