So I turn thirty tomorrow and I truthfully keep forgetting, which is a pretty good sign that one is getting older. I remembered enough to get a little more reflective than usual on my run today. Apologies ahead of time for being pretty stream-of-conscious in this post.
This isn’t a fancy blog, so most readers know me and have known me for some time. One reason why I’m so flabbergasted by this election is because I have this deep affection for American political philosophy and historical tradition. Even in the most imperfect state, I view it as the one of the most important aspirations driving all policy considerations; that this is a government whose validity rests on consent of the governed; that each of us is created equal, and; that the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental in a free society.
My adoration has tempered as I’ve grown older. I’ll be the first to admit it was naive and maybe even a little contrived. It was definitely sanitized.
The first thing that comes to mind is the old political compass test my friends and I used to take. There’s a statement that says – and I’m paraphrasing – “A sign of maturity is making peace with the establishment.” I used to say strongly disagree. I don’t know if I agree with that statement but has, to some extent, come true for me. I’m a lot more pragmatic in my thinking and willing to sully my hands in a way I would not have when I was 18 (this was, by and large, why I didn’t lash out much at younger supporters clamoring for a more inspirational presidential candidate. I’ve been there.)
I also acknowledge a lot of institutional failings. Governments are created by human beings, who are fallible. Admitting imperfection in the application of a good rule doesn’t mean the rule is bad. It just means have to approach it as a kaizen of sorts, rigorously pointing out the flaws to incrementally improve and, eventually, create a better product or process. In addition to this, our history is marred with all kinds of prejudice and we’re only just beginning to peel away at the acknowledgment of our role, formally and informally.
Why the personal backdrop? Primarily because I’ve seen a consistent theme in casual conversation regarding Trump’s upcoming presidency, which is a reliance on institutions and checks and balances and a dismissive attitude towards the potential dangers of a Trump presidency, as though this is merely unfounded prognostication and not grounded in the words and deeds of Trump throughout his campaign and public life.
We’ve been taught (rightly) that these checks and balances are implicit in the structure of American government. But I’m reminded of a conversation I had with an Australian friend of mine that I’ve never forgotten:
This was around 2007-2008, when America didn’t have the best reputation abroad and there was a thread soliciting feedback from non-Americans: what are some things you do like about America/Americans? He replied that Americans always push back and don’t take their rights for granted. His fear was that, in Australia, most people have an attitude of “It will work itself out.”
I think this applies to our current situation. Government structure only takes us so far. We have political traditions, customs and norms that effectively function as the cement holding our wall of governmental limitations in place. We have political attitudes and mores that are violative even if we haven’t written them down on paper. There are certain kinds of behavior that, while not illegal or set in policy, are giant warning signs of how a person will act and the level of respect they have for institutional protections such as checks and balances.
Even specific campaign policies don’t materialize precisely as promised, they can still be problematic, and therefore are still fair game to be concerned about. They’re not crazy and they’re not drawn from thin air. They’re taken straight from what the candidate has signaled as a policy preference to voters. A candidate who says he wants a Muslim ban might not actually be able to ban Muslims but it is a definite proxy for how he intends to treat a religious minority. Likewise, the act of voting him into power signals a value preference by certain parts of the electorate. A voter might not hate Muslims, for example, but they can be frightened enough to treat them poorly without cause or reflection, and we’re supposed to be governed by the rule of law, not fear.
Bearing these warning signs in mind, the American political tradition of speaking out against government abuses is pivotal even if a policy hasn’t yet been instituted, but has nonetheless been alluded to. They’re important when abuses occur, but an active and engaged citizenry is a necessary condition for ensuring free societies stay free in the first place. It’s very difficult, once policy is enacted, to roll it back. It’s especially difficult if that policy has targeted traditional means of speaking out – like, for example, if you decide to eliminate a press corps, revoke press credentials, and otherwise limit access to influential political actors.
It’s hard to measure a negative, by which I mean I don’t have any numbers at my fingertips that demonstrate all the bad things that never happened because, well, they never happened. One thing I can do is point to the saying “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” (commonly attributed to Mark Twain but probably not said by him.) We have enough themes found in the history of authoritarian regimes to know that personality-driven candidates take advantage of vulnerable, often anxious and fearful populations, by manipulating that fear and then slowly deconstructing institutions and norms to create a new narrative. This narrative usually centers around one man – “I alone can fix it” – being the solution, taking a preferred subset of society under his protective fold, and then singling a visible group of people out as the cause of that subset’s perceived ills.
Donald Trump might never be the worst thing to happen in America, but he’s definitely signaling a lot of concrete warning signs that should be galvanizing Americans to hoist the flag. Governments are just conglomerates of men. It exists to serve society’s needs. Policies don’t exist in some vacuum; whatever brew the Trump administration concocts will affect real people, people we know. The protections that serve them today serve all of us and need to be preserved. That’s not hysteria. It’s vigilance, and it’s precisely the underpinning of American governance that the Founding Fathers sought to capture in our constitutional order.