The most fragile part of the country right now is our democratic values. Yes, we face other serious problems — the physical condition of our planet, above all. But the fate of those other problems will be decided in the months and years to come. The condition of our democracy is acute.
We’ve just finished an election that included unprecedented violations of America’s long-held democratic values, like calls to overturn civil liberties and the interference of a hostile foreign government. And, of course, the candidate who violated those values won the election.
So the question becomes: Will the country start adjusting to a new, less democratic reality, or will Donald Trump adjust his own approach as president-elect?
It would be a grave error to believe wishfully that Trump must change. The best working assumption about any candidate is that he will try to do what he campaigned on. Studies show that presidents usually do.
But it would also be a mistake to reject any moves that Trump makes toward greater respect for democracy. We should be fervently rooting for and working toward such a shift. Trump has been known to change his positions, after all.
For the many people opposed to him, the right approach involves a balance of vigilance and generosity of spirit. Trump’s initial appointments — of Reince Priebus as chief of staff and Stephen Bannon as chief strategist — underscore the need for both.
Priebus, a longtime Republican official, supports many policies that I believe would damage the planet and the middle class, and fighting those policies will be important, soon. Yet I welcome his appointment. He fits squarely within our country’s democratic values.
The Anti-Defamation League struck the right balance on Sunday, first commending Trump for choosing Priebus — and then strongly criticizing Bannon. As executive chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon turned that site into a promoter of racist and anti-Semitic conspiracies, which, to name just one example, smeared the conservative William Kristol as a “renegade Jew.” Bannon has done little to repudiate it.
For the news media and official Washington, the danger will be normalizing appointments like Bannon’s. He will hold an august office, and it will be hard to resist treating him as one more subject of partisan debate: Some say he has a racist past, while others say he is a good guy.
His appointment is a violation of American values, period. As John Weaver, the Republican strategist, said on Twitter: “Just to be clear news media, the next president named a racist, anti-semite as the co-equal of the chief of staff. #NotNormal.”
But if official Washington should be tough enough to avoid normalizing the Bannons of the world, Trump’s opponents should be smart enough to avoid Bannonizing any sign of normalcy.
This will be hard, I realize. It will be hard because people are angry and worried. It will be hard because every shift by Trump away from his campaign rhetoric will seem hypocritical. In fact, it will often be hypocritical. But hypocrisy is better than authoritarianism.
And it remains unclear which path Trump will choose. On election night, he gave a gracious victory speech. On “60 Minutes,” he looked at the camera and told people who have been harassing minorities to “Stop it.” Last week, after sending a chilling tweet criticizing “professional protesters,” he followed up by affirming the idea of protest.
To be clear, these signs do not necessarily represent a new Trump. Other signs point in the opposite direction. But the tentative steps toward democracy are nonetheless important. “Gestures matter,” as President Obama said Monday.
There are two kinds of issues now: those worthy of passionate, ideological debate, and those that must unite left, right and center at a dangerous moment. “If you want to save the country,” tweeted David Frum, the strongly anti-Trump conservative, “you have to work with people you disagree with on almost every ordinary political issue.”
Obama and Hillary Clinton have also struck the proper balance between vigilance and generosity. They have welcomed Trump’s nods toward unity, understanding that to reject them is to aggravate the dangers. But they have also carefully promoted vigilance — that, as Obama said, the country depends on “a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life.”
Perhaps the most important figures now are the Republican leaders who voted for Trump. They are planning the legislative changes they will be making, as is their due. But they also have a patriotic duty — a duty to stand up for pluralism, equality, tolerance of dissent and the rule of law.
They have a duty to encourage Trump toward those values and, in the case of Republican senators, to block any nominees who violate them. Republicans often like to describe themselves as defenders of freedom. We need them to live up to that ideal.