So here’s my first thought. In The Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel—appropriately enough, a Russian spy. When asked, in various sticky situations, “Are you worried?” or “Are you scared?”, his invariable, quizzical response is “Would it help?”
That is not a bad start for dealing with the unforeseen and unpredicted election of Donald Trump. It’s dreadful, yes—that is why I helped organize those two letters denouncing him as unfit by temperament and character to serve as Commander-in-Chief. Some of the people around him are even worse. The country is deeply divided, and there is no reason to think that he will rise to the occasion or transform himself. He is what he is.
So why should you cheer up a bit?
Well, Hillary was better, but still pretty bad: corrupt, and worse, unable to serve as a unifying President or provide solutions to our problems beyond standard progressive nostrums. Whether you agree with that assessment does not matter, though, because he won. I can think of three reasons why that may not be as awful as we think.
First, the buffers and restraints built into our system—Congress, the courts, the press, bureaucratic inertia, federalism, and certain norms—are really quite strong. Republican politicians know that with a better candidate they would not have eked out a bare tie in the popular vote, but would have crushed Clinton and added to their Senate majority rather than reduced it. They are not beholden to Trump and do not feel that they should be. He will not be able to rule as a dictator. And in truth, Democratic fears that he may are salutary. So many of them dismissed Republican complaints about a politicized Internal Revenue Service—my guess is that they are rediscovering a healthy respect for older values of rigid political neutrality, as well as the larger system of checks and balances.
Second, Trump may be better than we think. He does not have strong principles about much, which means he can shift. He is clearly willing to delegate legislation to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. And even abroad, his instincts incline him to increase U.S. strength—and to push back even against Russia if, as will surely happen, Putin double-crosses him. My guess is that sequester gets rolled back, as do lots of stupid regulations, and experiments in nudging and nagging Americans to behave the way progressives think they should.
Third, part of the magic of America is its ability to regenerate itself. Both parties produced rotten outcomes at the presidential level; both deceived themselves about the actual concerns of the American people; both desperately need new generations of leaders. Those will emerge. What one can hope for as well is a sobering realization about the extent to which both have played dangerous games—with identity politics, with falsehoods, with cultural contempt, and above all, with the transformation of politics into a matter of unthinking tribalism.
Tough times ahead, no doubt. But I think about my grandparents, who fled pogroms, arrived here penniless, and experienced World War I and the influenza pandemic, as well as ethnic and religious discrimination of a kind now unthinkable. My parents lived through the Depression and World War II—and then the social upheavals of the 1960s.
Benjamin Franklin, when asked what kind of government he and the other authors of the Constitution had provided, famously said: “A republic, if you can keep it.” That generation understood that the maintenance of free institutions requires constant vigilance and struggle. Why, then, should history spare our generation, and our children’s, our own distinctive tribulations? And should we and they not regard them as tests of our character and pluck, rather than as afflictions to be assuaged by silly talk of moving to Canada?
You asked what I thought about going to work in a Trump Administration. I do not have to worry about that, of course: I was one of the ringleaders in denouncing him as unfit by temperament, character, and judgment for political office. They will have no use for me, or, to be fair, I for them. But others, including some of my younger friends, will have jobs dangled in front of them, because the government has to be staffed.
It seems to me that if they are sure that they would say yes out of a sense of duty rather than mere careerism; if they are realistic in understanding that in this enterprise they will be the horse, not the jockey; if they accept that they will enter an administration likely to be torn by infighting and bureaucratic skullduggery, they should say yes. Yes, with two conditions, however: that they keep a signed but undated letter of resignation in their desk office (as I did when I was in government), and that they not recant a word of what they have said thus far. Public service means making accommodations, but everyone needs to understand that there is a point where crossing a line, even an arbitrary line, means, as Sir Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, letting go without hope of ever finding yourself again.
It goes without saying that friends in military, diplomatic, or intelligence service—the career people who keep our country strong and safe—should continue to do their jobs. If anything, having professionals serve who remember that their oath is to support and defend the Constitution—and not to truckle to an individual or his clique—will be more important than ever.
As for the rest of us, surely one of the great failures here is cultural and civilizational. We elected a reality-show personality because that is one of our dominant modes of entertainment; we ignored or excused his lies (and those of his opponent, in lesser measure) because we do not particularly revere integrity; we smoothed over the faults of our fellow tribesmen and -women rather than apply one standard to all; we were surprised when those who, unlike you or me, do have some reasonable concern about immigrants taking their jobs, or about those jobs disappearing because of technological change, vote the way they do.
Politics can only fix certain things. Our country has, in particular, made too much of Presidents, whom we regard as potentates and saviors, for whom city blocks must be shut down when they sweep through, and to whom we look for relief from all of our social woes. That is wrong. There are a lot of things that only we can fix—by teaching our children the basics of citizenship; by instilling in them a patriotism that is not naive, but is warm and resolute; by encouraging them to understand and compromise with others unlike them.
If the reaction to this debacle is everyone immediately starting to plot for 2018 or 2020 we will never get out of this mess. Luckily, we can do a lot better than that. As one wise friend said to me the other day speaking of this dismal election: “We all own this—all of it.” Each of us has something to offer in restoring a temper of decency, responsibility, and civility to politics. There is plenty of work for all of us to do, and we would do well to get about it.