After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, many concerned onlookers expressed hope that his wild showmanship might be tempered by the responsibilities of governance. A few weeks into the Trump administration, that is clearly not the case. Trump meant what he said about building a wall on the US-Mexico border, withdrawing from trade agreements, banning Muslim immigration, and disentangling the US from international allies. He continues to berate journalists and judges, interfere in the business decisions of corporations, blur formerly clear norms opposing nepotism, and has failed to meaningfully separate himself from his businesses. He and his closest aides lie overtly and seem enlivened by ceaseless disputation.
Given the tumultuousness of the past weeks, some Trump opponents are anticipating a speedy impeachment—or, at the very least, a Democratic victory in the 2018 mid-term elections to curtail his power. But these hopes are based on a misunderstanding of the forces that got him elected.
There is little doubt that Trump’s presidency is dangerous for Americans and for the international community. It’s also true, however, that his opponents—and many in the media—are frequently histrionic, and occasionally inaccurate, in their criticisms.
For example, many new outlets reported with alarm that Trump’s executive order on the National Security Council demoted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence while elevating chief strategist Steve Bannon to participation. Yet the order was consistent with president George W. Bush’s 2001 roles for senior military and intelligence representatives, whose presence on the Principals Committee was required “only when issues relevant to their responsibilities or expertise were to be discussed,” as a former National Security Council director notes in The Atlantic. And president Barack Obama established the precedent of including political advisors in similar meetings, although Obama advisor David Axelrod noted in a recent op-ed that he was not a member of the committee and did not attend meetings regularly. In this and other stories, journalists and pundits are quick to ascribe bad faith. Their high level of indignation is sincere, and perhaps justified, but probably counterproductive. It serves to energize the president’s supporters and legitimize their methods.
Indeed, since his election, Trump has been playing smarter politics than his opponents. The start of most presidential administrations is always at least mildly chaotic because jobs are not yet filled and people are working together for the first time. This transition is more chaotic than most: The Trump team was unprepared, many experienced conservative policymakers declined to support the candidate, and Trump is an erratic manager. But he has appointed mostly qualified people to the cabinet, many of whom are known to disagree with some of his more virulent prescriptions. His Supreme Court nominee is an eminently qualified jurist who has worked hard to limit the administrative state.
Liberals decrying Republicans in Congress as cowards should understand that many conservatives have grave concerns about the direction of our government. For some, Supreme Court seats alone were reason enough to vote for Trump. And in his first two weeks—in addition to the disgraceful immigration order and numerous other transgressions—Trump did deliver on his promise of a solid center-right pick for the court. If Congress produces tax reform and economic growth picks up, many Republican voters and legislators will potentially be able to stomach the craziness. It is unlikely Republicans in Congress will turn on the president for carrying out the policies that got him elected.
Trump will face principled opponents on the right, such as senator Ben Sasse (who refused to endorse Trump) and national security hawks like senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who will impede the president on national security issues. But recall that the 2018 midterms are structurally very advantageous for Republicans. Many seats being contested have a Democrat representing a conservative-leaning district. Rather than facing a resounding repudiation from mid-term voters, Trump could end up trumpeting an expanded mandate thanks to favorable terrain.
Efforts to constrain Trump’s worst excesses are more likely to be successful if his opponents separate him from his supporters. One way to conceptualize this challenge is to use an analogy from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Insurgents don’t fight by accepted rules. They transgress rules for shock value and to neutralize their battlefield weakness. Countering an insurgency requires separating “reconcilable”—people who have legitimate grievances or are being pressed by circumstances into supporting the insurgents—from irreconcileables. In other words, minimize the number of enemies you face by winning over those who are only marginally committed to the cause.
Opponents of the president’s policies have a wealth of tools on their side, including the courts, state houses and legislatures, pressure from businesses, and the marvelous civic-mindedness of concerned Americans. What they have so far not attempted to do is identify and separate out reconcileables: people who voted for Trump but are nonetheless worried about many of his decisions and prospective policies.
At the moment, Trump’s supporters continue to be described mostly in pejorative terms, rather than with empathy for their concerns. But the only way to rein in Trump is to peel off the reconcileables from the Trump coalition, and show them that the country need not resort to authoritarianism and xenophobia to address unemployment and economic immobility. A key lesson of the 2016 election is that it’s not enough to highlight the dangers of Trump’s behavior; the opposition must come up with a detailed picture of a better alternative, and sell it to voters who feel systematically overlooked.