A few weeks ago, The N&O editorial page featured a cartoon by David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times. It showed a woman enjoying happy events until she remembered that Donald Trump was about to become president. She covered her head with a pillow and said, “I may stay in bed for the next four years.”
The cartoon prompted a reader to write: “You folks showed poor taste in your cartoon today. You folks should be trying to get the public behind our new President not more against him. Try and do a better job. We have to get this country back and work together.”
The sequence neatly framed the choice facing those who dread President Trump: Give him a chance, or declare his presidency hopeless from day one? Certainly, Trump elicits such a strong, visceral reaction from those who don’t support him that the head under the pillow reaction is understandable. But that feeling is at odds with the patriotic impulse to respect the office, if not the man, accept the results of the election and appreciate this rare and noble quality of the United States – the peaceful transfer of power.
The call to get behind our new president breaks down because President Trump refuses to get in front of his new constituency. He spoke encouragingly of reconciliation in his acceptance speech and but just barely struck that note in his Inaugural address. Beyond those two instances, his actions and his appointments have been combative and divisive.
His tweets are adolescent rants against anyone who criticizes him. He has ignored calls to remove himself from financial conflicts of interests. His Cabinet appointments are almost uniformly ill-qualified people who are hostile to the missions of the agencies they will lead. It’s said that Trump manages by putting his underlings in conflict and his mantra is to hit back harder than he’s hit. He cultivates discord. His political opponents and liberal opinion writers can hardy be blamed for failing to be in accord with him.
The notions of giving Trump a chance and respecting the office of the president appeal to American instincts for fair play, granting second chances and revering the office of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt. But it falls to the leader, not the led, to appeal to our better instincts. Instead, Trump has indulged his worst. He has lashed out instead of reaching out. He’s dismissed his losing the popular vote and denigrated the defeated candidate and her supporters.
Part of this is Trump’s tendency toward tantrums. But the rest of it reflects a partisanship and polarization he has exploited but did not invent. Credit for that belongs to the Republican Party which, at least since 1980, has seen division as the key to victory. Faced with a shrinking demographic base, the party has turned to wedge issues – none older or more effective than race – to stir and unite a base that combines the wealthy with white working class and evangelical voters who feel besieged by economic and cultural changes.
There’s no room in this approach for consensus that bridges race, geography and different cultural views. When Barack Obama won national election twice, the Republican response was unrelenting obstruction and resistance. Now that an accidental Republican has captured the White House with the help of hacking, fake news and Hillary Clinton’s genius for squandering leads, the attitude is that the other side doesn’t exist, its votes have no meaning and its concerns will receive no attention.
One of the false readings of Trump’s victory is that the Democratic Party is now in the wilderness, having lost the presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court and most of the state legislatures and governorships. But the truth is that the Democrats have a broader base and a more positive and appealing approach to governing that will hold up better over time than an approach built on anxiety and nostalgia. Republicans are hailing their ascendency, but their dysfunction gave rise to a bizarre candidate who their own elders declared unfit for the presidency.
The larger political message this January may not be in Trump’s move into the Oval Office, but in the contrast between his taking office with only a 40 percent approval rating while Obama departs with 60 percent, a remarkably high number after eight years of Fox News criticism and Republican efforts to deny him any accomplishment.
Trump won the election. But Obama has won the nation’s appreciation. Obama didn’t have to lean on his office for respect. He had his own dignity. Trump does not. And neither his supporters nor his opponents can give him that.
But for those alarmed or discouraged by President Trump, the answer isn’t to go to bed for the next four years. It’s to stand up and stay wide awake.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com