In October of 2010, less than two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Shortly after, far-right anti-establishment Tea Party candidates wrestled the House from the Democrats, pledging to block liberal policy at all costs. On even the most necessary and bipartisan initiatives, from raising the debt ceiling to investing in infrastructure, their obstinacy helped make the 112th and 113th Congresses the least productive in decades.
Following reality TV star Donald Trump’s shocking presidential upset, Hillary Clinton supporters now face a position resonant with that of Republicans in 2008. Like Obama, Trump has ridden a wave of disillusionment on promises of change, carrying with him House and Senate majorities that could leave him unchecked in pursuing an agenda that terrifies his opponents.
But, insofar as Democrats care to guard their core agenda and heal national divisions, they will need to radically rethink the poisonous underdog mentality McConnell assumed and make a progressive Trump presidency their top priority.
For those who sat late into Tuesday night, stone-faced, teary eyed, watching analysts scrounge for Hillary votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the mandate to work with Trump may seem like a sick joke. This is the man who discussed nuclear policy like it’s a game, who has denied the threat of climate change, and who has said he supports the use of torture, regardless of international law. This is the man who bragged about committing sexual assault, who said he will create a ban on Muslims and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, whom he broadly labeled criminals and rapists.
At times, his language sounds anti-democratic and authoritarian. His blunt charisma and ever-changing campaign guarantees seem to erase any concern for factuality from the minds of his riotous supporters.
How can anyone in good conscience work with such an offensive and frightening man? Why shouldn’t Democrats follow the Republican lead and fight Trump tooth and nail? Anti-Trump protesters have already signaled such a sentiment by chanting, “Not my president” and “Stop Trump” and, in one case, burning an effigy of the president-elect’s head.
Nevermind the double standard this posture reveals: After all, how would Democrats feel if Trump supporters did the same following a Clinton win? The fact is, Donald Trump is the president, and he’s likely to be a much better one if, rather than vilify him wholesale, his opponents seek to meet him on some common middle ground. That doesn’t mean citizens from both parties shouldn’t protest his specific behaviors and policies when they are unjust or damaging.
Dealing with Trump’s unruly ego could provide its own source of cross-aisle unity, as Republicans and Democrats appear to be undergoing major realignment. However, when we look through our new president’s unpalatable and even terrifying traits, we must acknowledge that his core appeal to voters – to “drain the swamp” of political corruption and intransigence stifling our county’s potential – is actually in the interest of all voters.
Given the shameful failure of polling prior to Nov. 8, it’s impossible to know exactly what in Trump inspired such a stunning show of support. If we are to trust his historically low 37.5% approval rating, though, it seems likely that, beyond a base truly committed to his nationalistic bigotry, a broad swath of his voters found these traits distasteful but selected him anyway because he promised to shake up the political system.
In the Rust Belt in particular, which in 2008 and 2012 voted predominantly in favor of our first black president, it seems likely that a loss of faith in the Democratic party, rather than Trump’s unsavory tendencies, accounts for the former reality star’s pivotal success in the region. Both Wisconsin and Michigan, Democratic states since 1988, went to Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Primaries, indicating that Trump’s similarity to the fellow New Yorker on issues of trade and corporate influence might have been critical in winning states hit hard by globalization. In the final presidential debate, when Trump distanced himself from conservative hero Ronald Reagan’s trade policies and condemned Bill Clinton’s signing of NAFTA, the real estate mogul was speaking directly to that demographic.
As Sanders stated on his website Wednesday, “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media… To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”
Certainly, it’s questionable that a billionaire who participated in offshoring and tax avoidance should champion these anti-elitist views, and it would be foolish for anyone to take Trump’s word on his policy promises. But liberals would be equally remiss to neglect any opportunity to steer Trump’s priorities away from his more divisive policies toward ones they have advocated for years. That would only further alienate his supporters from the Democratic Party and maybe even encourage them to absorb his corrosive ideologies as they identify more closely with him.
On the other hand, if “striking deals” and garnering broader support means prioritizing his more unifying interests, then someone as mercurial and pragmatic as Trump might be swayed into efficacy by people quite unlike him. Clearly, Trump wants to lead a successful presidency and win a second term, and that means he’ll have to increase his approval rating and hang on to his coalition even when the crutch of his outsider status is no longer compelling.
The alternative – fighting Trump at all costs – would reduce Democrats to little more than white noise while hypocritically endorsing the partisanship and political calcification for which they’ve blamed Republicans for the past six years. If Democrats win the mid-term elections, digging in their heels could limit Trump to a single term, as McConnell hoped to do to Obama. But it could also be dangerous, emboldening a precedent of legislative inertia that has already pushed Obama to resort to a number of questionable executive orders. If Trump’s ascendency demonstrates a growing political will for a strong man who gets things done, then the last thing anyone needs is to nurture the very source of that feeling.
The words offered Wednesday first by Trump, Obama and then Clinton all stressed the preeminence of unity. Echoing themes in his original acceptance speech, Obama reassured disappointed liberals, “(W)e’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage.”
Clearly, the past eight years have failed to embody that mindset. Republicans bear a sizable share of the responsibility, but it’s hard to believe so many white working- and middle-class Americans would feel like “forgotten men and women,” as Trump described his supporters, if Democrats had truly prioritized their needs. What many predicted would be a day of reckoning for a party that has flirted with veiled racism since Nixon’s Southern Strategy has instead proven a wake-up call for Democrats. Their message of inclusivity – often undergirded with sweeping labels like “bigot,” “redneck,” and “deplorable” – has turned divisive; meanwhile, their acquiescence to corporate interests at the expense of real economic relief has allowed Trump to appropriate their egalitarian message.
None of this is to excuse what CNN’s Van Jones called a “whitelash against a changing country,” or to say Trump has the intention or skill set to fulfill his more palatable campaign promises. But if liberals are serious about steering the country away from division, bigotry, and corruption, they will have to work with the man.
“We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought,” Clinton told supporters in her concession speech Wednesday. “But I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
If liberals and conservatives can agree on anything, it’s that these are troubling times. Though a great deal lies outside our control, we all have a responsibility to follow the guidance of careful reflection rather than letting fear and anger propel us in the wrong direction.