Nothing good comes of this. Donald Trump’s success in the presidential contest is another low point for the Republic. Unfortunately, we’re the ones who have to be here for this particular passage of history, and this disaster will now waste our time and energy. Politics is grim business when there are no particular rewards in sight. No improvements, and only tottering supports to buttress. For the time being many Americans may have to be political to an unusual degree and political in a new way.
One thing to consider may be citizens’ capacity to resist and disobey. To what extremes of disobedience and resistant behavior do peaceful Americans know how to go? I would like to find out. I think familiar forms of symbolic resistance will not be enough by themselves. I am thinking of protest and journalism. The ordinary and unromantic and vilified forms of disobedience may be what we will depend upon. Refusal of allegiance. Refusal of participation, at all levels. Not showing up. Leaving key government jobs. Staying in those jobs to slow down or stall illegitimate actions. Daily refusal to go along with orders coming from an illegitimate executive. Refusal of bureaucrats tasked with reporting on citizens to report, if it could put their subjects in jeopardy. Refusal of enforcement agencies to enforce. Refusals and resignations in the armed forces. Refusal of many tasked with cooperating, in the government, to do so.
The old rule of thumb for a Republic is that all points of view and methods of politics can be borne except one that denies rule of law in the Republic itself, its characteristic existence and Constitution, its norms. This alone can and should be treated as a threat, as if coming from outside. During the presidential campaign, Trump went on record, repeatedly, steadily, and memorably, in front of us all—in the debates, in the press, in his campaign communications—to register that he would not obey the norms of the Republic, that he would not submit to the rule of law, and indeed that he had not acted in the interests of the Republic as a citizen. He would not submit to the result of the election, or a smooth succession, if he lost the vote. He did not acknowledge the independence of the judiciary regardless of the ethnicity of its judges. He had not paid his share of taxes to the State. He would not separate his planned policies from his own personal enrichment nor his possible government role from his commercial enterprises. He had given donations to elected officials, Hillary Clinton included, to buy access to them and influence them if possible. Trump served a salutary function as long as he was not elected, in showing the compromises and corruptions of American democracy and society in his own person—he could say, and show, convincingly that the “system was rigged” and corrupt because he had done his best to make it so.
“I alone can fix our nation because I have contributed at the highest level to its destruction and corruption” is not an admission that can command loyalty or legitimacy. It is a whistle-blowing admission that also serves as a forfeiture of standing. Elected to a governmental form he has tried to compromise, I think he can only be understood, paradoxically, as an Enemy of the Republic, who through a series of adventures and surprises has been awarded an essential office. His innuendo during the campaign that critics and genuine whistle-blowers would be subject to retribution once he was elected makes this recognition urgent, and differentiates his role as an illegitimate individual person, gaining the coercive powers of the chief executive, from the quite different, and frankly less urgent, story of a merely “Republican” president.
This role, as President, of nominal “Republican” leader and therefore leader and figurehead of the Republican Party, capable of leading legislators to pass legislation on his initiative, empowered by his electoral mandate, actually confuses matters and should be set aside. The exchange of political power in a two-party system, and the reversal of the policies of the previous administration—and the razing of edifices that have been built, and destruction and frustration and wastefulness—are all ordinary and normal. That is something we’re just going to have to suffer. The thing before our eyes is the installation of an extra-legal and extra-judicial personality into an office of the Presidency that has been expanded, through Republican and Democratic administrations, decade after decade, to dangerous excesses of power. This includes the proliferating executive orders, which on the president’s “word” seem to have the force of law. These make the president not merely someone presiding over a tripartite government, but a pre-modern monarch or a Führer. But principally it is the more ordinary coercive powers of the executive that add urgency: the Department of Justice, and thus the Attorney General and Federal Prosecutors and the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and thus Citizenship and Immigration and the TSA, the Department of the Treasury and thus the IRS, the Department of Defense, and thus the military. Having witnessed the Republican Party fail to eject Trump as a candidate, and nearly half of the citizenry on lines laid down by the Electoral College elect him, does the system itself have any capacity of restraining such an extra-legal personality from reaching the inauguration?
One thing that makes me worry all the foregoing may be mistaken is that it seems to mirror in key ways the reaction of Trump and a right-wing apparatus, in 2008, to the experience of the election of Obama. Arguing, that is, that he was illegitimate—in the “birther” conspiracies on how he was not an American, or was disqualified to be American—and in conspiratorial arguments for internal enemies, treason, etc. The delegitimating of Obama worked from secrets and the absence of “evidence.” Where was his US birth certificate? (There it was, from Hawaii, but never mind.) The mode was secrecy and lack. Trump’s delegitimating of himself occurs in the most public material, before all of our eyes, and a surplus of it. In his own words, in the debates, on videotape, in published interviews, Trump boasted of opposition to the electoral process, of racial bias in his decisions, of assaults on women. And yet the problem here is that we know the voters who pushed him to success through the Electoral College saw all this, too. So did the Republican Party and its chairmen and apparatus. So did we all. They saw and heard it, there were no secrets in this sense. By choosing him with this straightforward evil, they in some sense announced their view that it was legitimate; it was entered into the record, it was in some manner legitimated. The whole idea of disqualification of an individual within a context of a legitimate system—a genuine election, fairly run, most importantly—when voters have seen the disqualifying evidence and still cast votes for him, is dizzying, and can seem to succumb on “our side” to the extremes of madness on “the other side,” leaving nothing standing.
So I feel I may be wrong in my basic intuition. And yet, for once, reading historical parallels, I feel it is far better to “overreact” at a moment that sets up the means for tyranny, than not to react. Better to seize hold of the abnormal, than turn violation into the normal.
Insofar as the polity is its citizens and not the State, the most important thing individual Americans can do is to deny shelter, aid, collaboration, agreement, and acceptance of Trump. Not accept, not adjust, not adapt, not appease, not conciliate. There is something sinister in the media’s “ten-step plans” to adjust to a Trump President-elect, as if this were a personal upset needing therapy rather than a question of the political system. I regret that Hillary Clinton conceded quickly and that Barack Obama assured a smooth transition. It is always better not to seat tyrants, not to have an inauguration, not to make it that far, than to try to undo things once a tyrant has hold of the levers of violence. The important thing with a tyrant is not to seat him at all—even at the expense of unfairness to an individual who might have become better than his word. Having seen the slogan and heard the chant, “Not My President,” I feel the slogan should instead be “No President.” Not only is Trump no president in attitudes and beliefs, but in effect we should decide we do not have a president, through the paradox of the legitimate election of an illegitimate officeholder. In fact, for America to learn if it can get along without a president, in 2016, might be the most valuable thing we could learn. It would throw the weight of significance back upon the Congress—the place where political power should lie in a democracy.
What we cannot and must not nullify is the will contained in voters for Trump, their democratic standing; so there is a second round of thinking and analysis—a round of conversation—which must take up the other topic of legitimation. This, in a sense, is where all the news coverage has been, asking what is to be understood in the demographics of the voters for Trump. (That is to say, why the voters for Trump did not find previous administrations and recent American government legitimate for them, and why they recognized that it was not dedicated to their needs—and what would constitute government recognizable as devoted to the needs of all, thus legitimated in the eyes of all. I am thinking of the voters in deindustrialized and underemployed regions who correctly recognized that free trade orthodoxy, and the obsession with college education, and the notion that “those jobs aren’t coming back,” means elected politicians are simply not thinking of them, in the abandonment of vast tracts of the electorate and their work and support to the financialized technocratic future.) But I feel pretty certain this should come on a separate track, because it is also a much slower and deeper round of thought, where the necessary things to see possibly cannot or could never be seen in the mass media, which speaks from an altogether different position, high above the electorate.
Insofar as the instinct of “respectable” politicians and mass media is to regularize and contain, to cooperate and appease—wrongly, and dangerously—this moment places an extraordinary pressure on individual conscience and judgment, as each isolated person is reminded to seek individually to join others in a collective will to refusal. It also leaves many of us twiddling our thumbs much of the time—hoping that those individuals who must take orders will refuse or resign. You have to hope that there are enough people willing to withdraw from collaboration with Trump that it will be impossible to find anyone to drive his limousine, cater his food, and no one but obvious villains and thugs can be found to staff a presidential inauguration. The task for “good people” is non-cooperation. But there is something to be done in asking citizens not to cooperate. There is something to be done in communicating a vision of what the Republic can and cannot allow.