My latest column at The Week is a belated Thanksgiving-related bit of musing:
This being the season for such things, I spent last week looking for reasons to be thankful that Donald Trump won the presidential election. It was a tough quest.
It’s not that there are no elements of Trump’s program that I think might be worth pursuing. I have long argued that we’re overdue for a serious rethinking of American foreign policy, something that Barack Obama has partially begun and that Hillary Clinton looked likely to reverse. I’ve come to conclude something similar about our approach to free trade — which isn’t really free at all, but managed to favor the interests of America’s most profitable industries like finance, software, pharmaceuticals, entertainment, and agriculture — another area where it seemed less likely that Clinton would be readily open to new thinking.
But while these might perhaps be reasons to be hopeful, they aren’t really reasons to be thankful yet. And with appointees like Michael Flynn advising President-elect Trump on foreign policy and advisers like Stephen Moore instructing him on economics, even hopefulness feels more than a bit optimistic.
I could perhaps be hopeful about other aspects of Trump’s transition — his self-professed “open mind” on climate change, his willingness to reconsider his embrace of torture, or his lack of interest in pursuing prosecution of the Clintons. But even if I am ultimately thankful that Trump doesn’t manifest the worst expectations based on his promises during the campaign — and it’s far too soon to say whether that will be the case — that’s still hardly a reason to be thankful for his election.
There is one thing I can be thankful for, already, even if President Trump lives down to my worst reasonable fears about corruption, incompetence, and disregard for democratic norms.
Trump has forced me to reckon with reality — specifically, the reality of what democracy is.
It is remarkably easy to remain deluded about that question, and to think that democracy is a system for choosing the best leaders for our country, or for expressing the will of the people. But plenty of organizations need to choose the best leaders, and rarely do they do so democratically. Certainly neither the military nor corporate America does so. As for the will of the people, how can it be determined other than tautologically, as read from the result of the election itself?
Populists may be the only ones who truly understand what democracy really is for, and that is, fundamentally, for expressing dissatisfaction. Elections force leaders to turn to the people and say: How am I doing? — and to accept the people’s verdict if the answer is: Not so great.
For a large swath of the country, the answer has been “not so great” for quite some time. This year, they rendered their verdict.
With every appointment and announcement via Twitter, it becomes clearer that there is little if any reason for hope from the actual conduct of a Trump administration. But populists are rarely if ever any good at governing, or achieving any concrete and positive achievements for their voters. One can still hope that something good may come of the mess the country is going to go through, if it forces rethinking on the part of the elites seeking to regain the people’s confidence. Meanwhile, both the likely shape of the mess and what that rethinking will require are topics that are going to occupy all of us for at least the next four years.
So, thank-you very much, I guess.