James Comey’s day has come and there is still no proof that President Trump committed any impeachable offenses. However, even though Trump escaped this round alive, Comey’s statements about his weak character and lack of honesty have added new strength to the bombardment of scandal, incompetence, and declining public opinion that are threatening to topple the White House. Indeed, it feels like the fort just can’t hold— that we are now entering the stage of a war where the outcome is decided—where one side’s victory feels assured and the other’s, Trump’s, feels hopelessly doomed.
Historically, this is the time that the victor’s focus should switch from winning the war to winning the peace. This was the case at the Tehran Conference in February 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met to draw the lines of post-war Europe; and in December 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued his “10 percent” plan to begin Reconstruction in the South. Now, as the Trump presidency verges on foundering in a shipwreck of its own making, leaders need to ask the very same question: what will an America without Trump look like? And more immediately, if the Trump presidency is damaged beyond repair, what is the national exit strategy?
The importance of careful planning comes down to this point: with or without Trump in office, this country will still be divided. If Donald Trump drops dead, resigns, or is impeached tomorrow, the deep cultural fissures that put him in the White House will still live on.
In liberal urban areas, this emotional thinking springs from Trump’s insensitivity on issues of race, sexuality, gender and religious tolerance. Trump’s willingness to insult these sacred cows has earned a theological opposition from millions on the left who view him as an authoritarian bigot. This perspective has clashed with the opinions of many others who see Trump’s willingness to challenge PC culture as a sign of authenticity and a readiness to discuss real issues rather than regurgitate poll-tested arguments that politicians have used for decades to paper over decline.
But whether or not Donald Trump is president, these highly personal arguments remain far from settled. Here’s a sampling of recent poll data:
- According to pre-election polls, 66 percent of Trump’s supporters believe that immigration is a “very big problem,” compared to just 17 percent of Hillary Clinton’s.
- A February survey found that among practicing Christians, a demographic that favored Trump, a majority believe that their religion is essential to being an American. And in a telling refinement of that data, Trump’s fortress of voters—those without a college degree—are more than twice as likely than those with a degree to think that Christianity is “very important” to American identity. Only 28 percent of non-Christians, whom Hillary Clinton won by a wide margin, see it that way.
- On secular matters, about half of the country (45 percent) thinks that for a person to be considered truly American, it is very important that he or she shares American customs and traditions. Only 33 percent of Americans with a college degree agree with that.
- And on the issue of LBGT rights, the crown jewel of modern liberal social consciousness, the nation remains almost evenly split on whether or not new legal protections are required for gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens, with 51 percent agreeing, 46 percent disagreeing, and 3 percent bearing no opinion on the matter.
Perhaps more important than any of this are partisan views on the media, given that The New York Times and Washington Post broke a series of stories last month that may have damaged Trump beyond repair. Here again, is a telling fact: 87 percent of Republicans believe that the news media favors one side over another. That’s a statistician’s way of saying that the vast majority of Trump’s supporters don’t think that their guy is getting a fair trial.
None of these issues are going away anytime soon. Indeed, Trump’s cries that he’s been treated “unfairly” and has been a victim of a “witch hunt” have gotten traction because a lot of people agree with him. Even going back as far as the campaign, liberals treated Trump’s candidacy more as a personal issue than an objective one. When Hillary Clinton labeled his voters “deplorables,” she opened the door to something new in politics: a free season to despise Trump’s supporters on the basis of their political views alone. You’d have to have your head in the sand to say that there has ever been anything comparable to these times, where publicly supporting Donald Trump is tantamount to social suicide. Take, for example, Nordstrom’s decision to stop carrying Ivanka Trump’s shoes; backlash against Tom Brady and Bill Bellichick for their personal friendships with Trump; boycotts of Uber because of its CEO’s brief service on the Trump’s economic counsel; and liberal anger over Jimmy Fallon’s fair treatment of the president when he appeared on his show during the campaign.
This social stigma was matched by mind-blowing intellectual condescension from the left when Trump’s enemies put pressure on members of the Electoral College to switch their votes to Clinton and nullify his victory. Their view that the Electoral College was designed as a failsafe to stop people like Trump from holding office might be academically defensible, but to the 63 million people who voted for him, it just sounds like a highfalutin way of being called a moron.
And in the journalism world, the rush to run stories damaging to Trump has often resulted in publishing pieces that weren’t even true, like the dossier written by British operative Christopher Steele detailing fake Russian blackmail on Trump and reports that James Comey was fired after requesting more resources to investigate the president’s Russia ties. How’s that for fake news?
But whether or not you think that Trump has been treated fairly doesn’t matter. Politics isn’t about facts. It’s about being persuasive. As pollster Frank Luntz says, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear,” and if Trump’s critics don’t help to unwind his presidency in a diplomatic way, then what his supporters will hear is a lynch mob coming in skinny jeans and v-neck t-shirts to remove him for one reason: they just don’t like him. Right or wrong, this type of scenario presents its own constitutional crisis. It suggests that the votes of poor white people in the Midwest are worth less than those of coastal elites and country club Republicans, and reeks of a paternalism that is sure to galvanize a new generation of populist outrage.
Here’s how to avoid that situation. You make Trump’s departure about the crimes and not his beliefs. Incompetence, dishonesty, and—if proven—obstruction of justice are impeachable offenses. Having ideas that people in New York and Los Angeles disagree with aren’t. So far, on this count, Democratic leadership has done a good job of separating the man from the politics. Said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “If you’re talking about impeachment, you’re talking about ‘What are the facts?’ Not ‘I don’t like him, and I don’t like his hair’… What are the rules that may have been violated?”
Second, don’t demonize the people you persuade. Sometimes, politics make titans out of mortals. Names like Lincoln, Churchill, and Caesar are etched in history. But more often, it makes children out of men. As Republicans cross over party lines to criticize Trump, Democrats need to ignore the childish urge to thumb their nose and say, “Hate to say I told you so.” Persuasion needs to be rewarded, or else it will fail.
Third, don’t fault the people who tried to make this administration work. The United States in 2017 isn’t Vichy France. Citizens aren’t being rounded up, deprived of their rights, or sent to death camps by the trainload. The people who have tried to faithfully execute their offices, whether in the administration or on Capitol Hill, should not be treated like Nazi collaborators. Vote against them if you like, but don’t impugn their character. For advice on this, Democrats need to look no further than the departing wisdom of President Barack Obama, whose last weeks in office were dominated by a plea for fellow Democrats to give Trump a chance.
Lastly, Republicans need to fight their emotions too. With Mike Pence waiting on the bench, Trump is no longer essential. Credit to the president for closing the deal of a lifetime by winning the White House, but experience is showing that someone else needs to take over before he runs this company into the ground.
There is nothing glorious about watching a president fail. But with collapse looking more likely, serious leaders need to let up on the attacks and begin to invest in healing the divide that Trump’s implosion might leave behind. The focus should be on winning the peace and not on broadening the war.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) warned on the Senate floor that, “Concerns about our national security, the rule of law, and the independence of our nation’s highest law enforcement agencies are mounting. The country is being tested in unprecedented ways.” He was absolutely right, but with one correction: Trump isn’t the only one testing the fabric of democracy. His critics are, too.
Alex Keeney is a former legislative aide in the House of Representatives. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he works as a television writer and political consultant. He blogs at www.lacarpetbagger.com and can be reached at [email protected]