Act One, Scene One
What to make of him? The man is a shock, like the toy buzzer in a prank handshake, and the effect is to baffle and immobilise thought. Consider a typical reaction from the morning after the election, Aaron Sorkin’s rant on the Vanity Fair website: ‘The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons … misogynistic shitheads everywhere … If he does manage to be a douche nozzle without breaking the law for four years, we’ll make it through those four years.’ Or consider the message read out to Vice President-elect Mike Pence by the cast of Hamilton after he attended a performance: ‘We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that our show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.’ This has at least the value of staking a claim to decency in language that is decent; but the hopeful words of the performers of Hamilton and the flailing words of the creator of The West Wing betray the same stunned bewilderment.
By the first week of December, it was hard to recall the mood of a few weeks earlier – a mood in which it had been possible for Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, to write a column for Bloomberg entitled ‘On November 9, Let’s Forget Donald Trump Happened’. In 2003, six years out of law school, Feldman drafted the constitution for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and his confidence in the future of Iraqi democracy was now equalled by his confidence in a Hillary Clinton victory. Afterwards, he wrote, we should ‘treat Trump voters as though the whole sorry episode of his candidacy never occurred’. Aglow with triumphal assurance and magnanimity, he added this reservation: ‘Patronising Trump voters would also be a mistake – practically, rather than morally. The risk of condescension is especially great.’ On 9 November the risk of condescension (or gloating) had changed sides in a way no well-appointed liberal could have guessed.
The sporadic protests that followed the election were a response to a generalised threat, not a particular grievance; but the shock to the laws and institutions of the country could already be felt in Trump’s first three days as president. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was repudiated, and a few hours later Trump ordered the construction of the promised wall with Mexico; an absolute ban was issued on immigration from seven Islamic countries, and a warning given to American ‘sanctuary cities’: if they refused to co-operate with plans for the detention of undocumented immigrants, they would lose federal funding. The process of repealing Obamacare was launched, all mention of climate change was scrubbed from the White House and State Department websites, and Trump signed executive orders to reopen the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access oil pipelines. His pre-inaugural negotiations to reclaim American jobs – particularly at a Carrier factory in Indiana that produces air conditioners, but with similar reverse migrations at Ford and Boeing – were a timely piece of political cunning and showmanship. His thank-you tour and the roughly 30,000 jobs he can claim to have brought back were strategically placed in the swing states that clinched his majority in the electoral college.
In Leviathan Hobbes said that what we call the ‘deliberation’ of the will is nothing but ‘the last appetite, or aversion, immediately adhering to’ an action. Whatever the general truth of the analysis, Trump’s process of thought works like that. If Obama often seemed an image of deliberation without appetite, Trump has always been the reverse. For him, there is no time to linger: from the first thought to the first motion is a matter of seconds; the last aversion or appetite triggers the jump to the deed. And if along the way he speaks false words? Well, words are of limited consequence. What people want is a spectacle; they will attend to what you do, not what you say; and to the extent that words themselves are a spectacle, they add to the show. The great thing about words, Trump believes, is that they are disposable. Among the prodigies of 2016 was the lightness with which he slipped out of his association with the ‘birther’ movement that had questioned Obama’s status as a US citizen: ‘I was wrong,’ he said, and that was that. (He added, for the hell of it, that Mrs Clinton had been a birther before him: a lie and easily exposed, but forgotten as soon as uttered.)
Neoliberals have spent a quarter of a century arranging the ingredients for the catastrophe. Lenin said of Stalin that ‘this cook will give us peppery dishes,’ and for all the talk of nation-building, democracy promotion, multiculturalism and tribal recognition, globalisation à la Nato has been a peppery dish. There were several chefs involved: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and their exemplar Tony Blair. They all wanted to convert the populace to an enlightened internationalism, but along the way they forgot to talk us out of nationalism. The military operations that dismantled Yugoslavia and overthrew the undemocratic governments of those artificial entities Iraq and Libya were meant to be an earnest of the goodwill of the global improvers. The trouble is that wars tend to reinforce nationalism, and unnecessary wars, where the fighting is drawn out and the result chaotic, leave people doubtful and suspicious. Trump, on the campaign trail, said he had always stood against America’s Middle Eastern wars, which he blamed on Bush as much as Obama. This was shown to be a wishful self-revision, but he had been laying plans for longer than most people realised. Six days after Obama’s victory in 2012, he filed a trademark application for the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’ and he was soon tweeting that the election was illegitimate and urging his followers to join the revolution. But Trump has always acted as a destabiliser-at-large more than a propounder of doctrine, and the majority of votes for him in 2016 were votes to stop talking about the world, start doing things for America, and bring back our jobs. By late October, the surest sign of his resilience was the fizzle and thud after a decade-old tape of his dirty talk was leaked. The Clinton people thought it would finish him. When the sparks flew but no fire ignited – Michelle Obama said she had never heard talk like that and the right blogosphere dug up some ugly Jay Z lyrics and linked to Jay Z’s invitation to the Obama White House – there was no telling what might happen next.
Post-election, the liberal argument veered away from Trump and turned to the important question of whom to blame. The initial target was the director of the FBI, James Comey, who in July had refused to indict Mrs Clinton, but criticised her use of an insecure email server while she was secretary of state. A few days before the election, Comey gave notice of another possible violation only to clear her again. A more popular and reliable target was Vladimir Putin, the preferred ‘enemy on the horizon’ for neoconservatives, adepts of humanitarian war and the national security state as far back as the Sochi Olympics. It is possible that Trump’s defiance of this multifarious establishment actually helped his popularity with non-political voters. Damage more telling than any emanation from the FBI or Russia probably came from Hillary Clinton’s remark that half of Trump’s supporters were ‘a basket of deplorables’ – an unforced error that was rightly read as an expression of contempt, addressed to her audience at the LGBT for Hillary Gala held at Cipriani Wall Street, and overheard by undecided voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
With the election and partial legitimation of Trump against the massed energy of the Democratic Party, many Republicans and virtually all the mainstream media, we have witnessed a revolution of manners. Will a political revolution follow? What is ominous is the uncertainty and the leaderless state of the opposition. The Democrats are at their lowest ebb since 1920, and this is anything but a sudden misfortune: the loss of nerve started with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which surprised the Democrats and shook their confidence in the tenability of the welfare state, and the threat to mixed constitutional government was clear in the 1994 midterm election, when 367 Republican candidates signed the Contract with America, with its pledge to slash government spending in the first hundred days of a new Congress. The contract was the precursor of the Tea Party – its instigator, Newt Gingrich, has become a leading adviser to Donald Trump. The Democrats behaved persistently as if the Republican hostility to government-as-such were a curable aberration. Yet eight years of Obama have ended with his party’s loss of the presidency, its relegation to a minority in both houses of Congress and – something that happened when no one was counting – the loss of 900 seats in state legislatures. Any return to majority status must begin at the local and state levels, yet in the 50 states of the union, the Republican Party has 33 governors and now controls 32 legislatures. The losses grew steeper with every mishap, from the delay of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 to the standoff over the national debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. Yet after Obama’s re-election, as the PBS Frontline documentary Divided States of America vividly recalled, he thought he was in 2008 again, the old mandate renewed, and would say to reporters in 2012 and 2014 just as he had done in 2010: ‘the [Republican] fever will break.’
Trump’s inaugural address carried the stamp of hot ambition even in its salutation: ‘Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans and people of the world, thank you.’ What were the people of the world doing here? It has been conjectured that Trump was greeting a blood-brotherhood of populari that encompassed the followers of Farage, Le Pen, Orban, Wilders and others. Just as likely, given the grandiosity of the man, he meant to suggest that the fate of the world was so implicated in his ascension that it was only polite to say hello. The next section, however, seemed to see the American people as deciders for the world: ‘We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people. Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come.’ This was immediately followed by an attempt to divide friend from enemy within the US. Against me, the establishment (‘Washington’); with me, the people – or rather the people who matter. In the new era of globalisation, ‘politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.’ For the people, for once, this inauguration day would be a day of celebration, and Trump would rejoice with them: ‘January 20th 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.’
These men and women had been noticed before: they were the ‘silent majority’ invoked by Richard Nixon. The speechwriter who coined that phrase, Pat Buchanan, would become the insurgent Republican of the 1992 primaries, and at the 1992 party convention he gave a speech that seems the prototype for Trump’s inaugural. In fact, Trump delivered no passage as inflammatory as Buchanan’s ‘there is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war’; and he issued no call to battle comparable with Buchanan’s peroration: as the US army in the riots of that year ‘took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country’. Trump’s speech was in the same key, but far more diffuse and less provocative.
‘We are one nation,’ he said, speaking of the forgotten people, ‘and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams, and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home and one glorious destiny.’ But if we really believe this, we cannot go on subsidising other nations through alliances, foreign aid and military interventions while ‘America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.’ Even as Bush and Obama chased a distant foe in Afghanistan and Iraq, ‘one by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores.’ If ‘their pain is our pain’ was a Bill Clinton touch, the use of ‘shuttered’ evoked Obama’s early speeches on the need for jobs – Trump’s speechwriters are indisputably eclectic. When he went on to speak of ‘rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation’ and ‘the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential’, liberal commentators accused him of dark hyperbole, and certainly the picture was overdrawn. But Trump was calling on a resentment caused by quite recent events. After the exporter of jobs and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt entered the White House as its jobs tsar, in 2011, Obama switched definitively to a cooler upbeat tone and ‘the economy’ took the place of ‘jobs’. Trump knows what a let-down this was. Accordingly, he passed from the dank image of shuttered and rusted factories, crime-ridden neighbourhoods, and children ruined by drugs to an emotionally satisfying and opportunistic climax: ‘This American carnage stops right here and right now.’ The diktat – the stress on immediate action – made clear once again the authoritarian quality of the man, and the sentence ‘Now arrives the hour of action’ sounded as if it was translated from German. (But then, Obama said in September 2009 ‘Now is the season for action’ – different, but how exactly?)
Trump vowed to enact tariffs and enforce trade protection. He would ‘bring back our borders’ and ‘unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism’ – Fox radio hosts have long charged Obama with harbouring occult reasons for never saying the words ‘Islamic terrorism’ though he has always spoken plainly against ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘acts of terror’. Trump also added his personal assurance – in the ‘protector’ protocol innovated by Bush and ratified by Obama – that he would guarantee the safety of the American people. ‘There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected.’ As if to say to a child: the night is dark and dangerous but I am with you. After a routine summons to self-sacrifice – ‘whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots’ – he unleashed the maxim that will guide his policy:
From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families … We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.
His adoption of the phrase ‘America first’ was made a cause of scandalised rebuke by people who know that the spokesman for the original America First movement, 77 years ago, was Charles Lindbergh, an anti-Semite who warmly sympathised with Hitler’s politics. (How many of these people also know that John F. Kennedy was an early supporter of America First?) But the underlying question was not whether Trump was giving a secret signal to anti-Semites – among his biggest supporters are the prime minister of Israel and the mayor of Jerusalem – but rather what he means by putting our own interests first. He said America would not seek ‘to impose our way of life on anyone’, which seems a clear warning against nation-building such as Bush and Obama attempted in Afghanistan. Yet the tone of the speech and the tone of the man leave us uncertain whether our interests are best served by peace or war; and in an administration bristling with generals as well as oligarchs, an aggressive platitude about the virtue of our way of life scarcely settles the question. An anti-Muslim alarmist and advocate of multiple wars like Frank Gaffney can think that Trump is on his side. So, with as much reason, can an anti-interventionist like Buchanan. Events will not allow Trump to profit much longer from this calculated ambiguity. Besides, the deeper danger of his populism, as Jan-Werner Müller remarked (LRB, 1 December 2016), is that a leader who sets up as spokesman for the ‘real people’ inevitably sows violent division. The other people, the unreal ones, are pictured as tools or puppet-masters, the glitter and the rot. Trump is likely to feel no scruple about hardening this contrast.
Obama was a softener of the truth, congenitally averse to blunt statement or calling things by their shortest names. Trump is an incorrigible liar. When, for example, he wanted to justify his decision to exempt Christians from his ban on immigrants from Syria, he said on 27 January on the Christian Broadcasting Network that he was merely executing a correction to the law under Obama, when ‘if you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.’ That statement, if made by anyone else, we could call a flat-out lie. In Trump, it is a lie that belongs to a peculiar pathology, an exceptional grammar. You cite a ‘fact’ that you calculate will draw opinion to your side; you do this partly because it fits with other things you heard somewhere and you expect not to be contradicted because you say a lot of things like that, and most of them never catch up with you, dog your steps and compel a denial; but if the statement is proved false, through and through, beyond the possibility of denial and without a single person of consequence to support you, when at last a concession is required you blame it on the failure of the circulation of facts in the world.
How often will he be caught at it? The national security state that Obama inherited and broadened, and has now passed on to Trump, is so thoroughly protected by secrecy that on most occasions concealment will be an available alternative to lying. Components of the Obama legacy that Trump will draw on include the curtailment of the habeas corpus rights of prisoners in the War on Terror; the creation of a legal category of permanent detainees who are judged at once impossible to put on trial and too dangerous to release; the expanded use of the state secrets privilege to deny legal process to abused prisoners; the denial of legal standing to American citizens who contest warrantless searches and seizures; the allocation of billions of dollars by the Department of Homeland Security to supply state and local police with helicopters, heavy artillery, state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and armoured vehicles; precedent for the violent overthrow of a sovereign government without consultation and approval by Congress (as in Libya); precedent for the subsidy, training and provision of arms to foreign rebel forces to procure the overthrow of a sovereign government without consultation and approval by Congress (as in Syria); the prosecution of domestic whistleblowers as enemy agents under the Foreign Espionage Act of 1917; the use of executive authority to order the assassination of persons – including US citizens – who by secret process have been determined to pose an imminent threat to American interests at home or abroad; the executive approval given to a nuclear modernisation programme, at an estimated cost of $1 trillion, to streamline, adapt and miniaturise nuclear weapons for up to date practical use; the increased availability – when requested of the NSA by any of the other 16 US intelligence agencies – of private internet and phone data on foreign persons or US citizens under suspicion. The last of these is the latest iteration of Executive Order 12333, originally issued by Ronald Reagan in 1981. It had made its way through the Obama administration over many deliberate months, and was announced only on 12 January. As with the nuclear modernisation programme in the realm of foreign policy, Executive Order 12333 will have an impact on the experience of civil society which Americans have hardly begun to contemplate. Obama’s awareness of this frightening legacy accounts for the unpredictable urgency with which he campaigned for Hillary Clinton – an almost unseemly display of partisan energy by a sitting president. All along, he was expecting a chosen successor to ‘dial back’ the security state Cheney and Bush had created and he himself normalised.
How did America pass so quickly from Obama to Trump? The glib left-wing answer, that the country is deeply racist, is half-true but explains too much and too little. This racist country voted for Obama twice. A fairer explanation might go back to the financial collapse of 2008 when Americans had a general fear and were shocked by what the banks and financial firms had done to us. ‘In an atmosphere primed for a populist backlash’, as John Judis wrote, Obama ‘allowed the right to define the terms’. The revolt of 2008-9 was against the financial community and anyone in cahoots with them, but the new president declined to name a villain: when he invited 13 CEOs to the White House in April 2009, he began by saying he was the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks, and ended by reassuring them that they would all work together. No culprit would be named and no sacrifice called for. Trump emerged early as an impresario of the anger, a plutocrat leading the people’s revolt against plutocracy. The most credible explanation for the popular turn to the right – there are plenty of examples of people who voted twice for Obama but then for Trump – was offered by the Italian legal scholar Ugo Mattei. As he sees it, the resemblances between Trump and Berlusconi run deep, and in both cases the appeal derives from popular cynicism more than credulity. The voters have come to understand that the big banks, along with investment companies like Goldman Sachs and transnational corporations, are sovereignties as powerful as states and in some cases more powerful. By vesting a billionaire with extraordinary power, therefore, the voters are going straight to the relevant authority and cutting out the middle man – the politician.
Trump unquestionably shares this perception with the people who voted for him. In a radio interview in 2015, he recalled his visit to Russia in 2013, in an unsuccessful attempt to close a deal on apartment complexes. ‘I was with the top-level people,’ he said, ‘both oligarchs and generals, and top of the government people … I met the top people, and the relationship was extraordinary.’ Though it may seem a tiny slip, one notices the distinction between top-level people and the top people in government. Oligarchs and generals come first and rank highest in Trump’s estimation; top government people are worth knowing, but secondary. Trump likes the relationship of money to power in Russia – and specifically of financial power to government authority – more than he admires anything special about Putin, whom he has never met and about whom he knows little. Evidence of a vaguer affinity can be tracked in his appointment of four billionaires and three generals to senior advisory or cabinet positions: in his US government the ‘top-level people’ will be identical with the ‘top of the government people’. By comparison, Obama, like the younger Bush and Bill Clinton, delegated authority for projects like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to quasi-political mediators who could work with financial bigwigs because they also came from that environment. Peter Orszag, Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, William Daley, Michael Froman, Jason Furman and Jack Lew were all finance-to-government mediators of this stamp. Trump, however, gives up all pretence of a distinction between finance and government. A possible reaction is delight, as at an honest revelation. A later reaction may be fury, as at a betrayal.
But money is something most people feel they can understand, with the right guidance. Government seems much harder. If you want to know the reason, listen to Obama, in one of the many post-election interviews he granted, responding to a question about the degree of his surprise at the election result:
I think all of us, and that includes the campaign, felt that there were certain thresholds with respect to somebody becoming president that during the course of the campaign President-elect Trump had not crossed, and I think there was probably some sense internally that because he had not run a traditional campaign or behaved in a traditional way, despite the success that he had shown, that at the end of the day he would not inspire enough overperformance in any sector that it would throw off the data as much as it did.
This slurred and heavy-lifting patois is typical of Obama off script, and the mix of corporate and technocratic jargon and media cliché will defeat any reader’s first attempt to parse the sense. Now listen to Trump on Twitter:
Someone incorrectly stated that the phrase ‘DRAIN THE SWAMP’ was no longer being used by me. Actually, we will always be trying to DTS.
I met some really great Air Force GENERALS and Navy ADMIRALS today, talking about airplane capability and pricing. Very impressive people!
Yes, it is true – Carlos Slim, the great businessman from Mexico, called me about getting together for a meeting. We met, HE IS A GREAT GUY!
He is the loudmouth at the bar, cocksure and full of himself and you may want him to stop, but you catch his drift. Trump is short-winded, vulgar and lowbrow, where Obama was long-winded, refined and impeccably middlebrow.
Trump’s most disturbing habit is also his most ridiculous trait: he credits and is apt to repeat his professed beliefs when – and in exact proportion as – he sees other people credit them. We normally think of beliefs as something you cannot choose (unlike opinions or estimations), but Trump does choose and he correlates the numbers of his followers with truth in the physical world. So when, in an interview on 25 January, the ABC reporter David Muir inquired into his unsubstantiated belief that between three and five million people voted illegally, accounting for Hillary Clinton’s popular majority, Trump replied: ‘You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that.’ The when-I-say-that is essential to Trump’s belief and essential to the relationship to his beliefs enjoyed by millions. His belief, triggered by impulsive attraction to something dressed as a fact, is fortified against refutation by the echo of the belief from his followers. The pride of a demagogue is never quite compatible with sanity; and none of Trump’s actions has so perplexed the media and dismayed his party as his ordering of an investigation into possible illegalities in the election that delivered Republican control over all three branches of government.
As for the oligarchs and generals, it is hard to say which is the most unqualified or inappropriate. James Mattis, Michael Flynn and John Kelly, the generals appointed as secretary of defence, national security adviser and secretary of homeland security, are all renowned as haters of Iran, though Mattis has said he will abide by the nuclear deal. Kelly thinks a border wall with Mexico will be insufficient: we need ‘a layered defence’ with protection extending ‘1500 miles south’ of the Texas border and involving agreements with Peru. The richest of the billionaires appears to be Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, a promoter of charter schools who has denigrated the very idea of public education. Tom Price, the doctor who is the nominee for health secretary, owes his appointment to his agitation for the repeal of Obamacare. Andrew Puzder, the CEO of the fast-food franchise Carl Jr, chiefly known for his opposition to raising the minimum wage, is Trump’s pick for labour secretary.
The most ominous appointment for the laws and liberty of the country is the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo. A former representative from Kansas, Pompeo has cited Obama’s revision of Executive Order 12333 as providing legal support for the expanded surveillance of US citizens. Under his directorship, Pompeo conceded, the rights of an American citizen will be ‘considered in assessing whether it is lawful to target the individual’, but that sounds a good deal like the ‘process’ Obama and his drone tsar John Brennan claimed to employ when looking at the targets of drone-fired missiles in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere. There was a process, all right, even in cases where the personal identity of the target was unknown, but it was never what anyone could call ‘due process’. Pompeo, in a speech to a church group in Kansas three years ago, spoke of the War on Terror as a religious war and said that Americans must ‘pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ our saviour is truly the only solution for our world’. Fourteen Democrats voted with the Senate majority to confirm him as the new director of the CIA, including Dianne Feinstein, the former vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the new Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer. This would have been an excellent opportunity for a minority leader to signal the propriety of opposition, but Feinstein’s capitulation was stranger still, in view of Pompeo’s outright advocacy of torture: she had demonstrated great persistence and courage during Obama’s second term in extracting from the CIA the congressional oversight report on torture and securing from a reluctant White House the permission to publish its summary. Pompeo condemned that torture investigation as ‘quintessentially at odds with duty to country’.
When, in early January, the directors of the FBI, the CIA and National Intelligence combined to issue a report on the supposed Russian hacking of the election and went some way to implicate Trump, their intervention could have been taken for an effort to precipitate a constitutional crisis. The report offered conclusions without the evidence to back them up; seldom has so foggy a document been treated with such respect by mainstream journalists; and the partial abstention of the NSA – which endorsed the conclusions with only ‘moderate’ confidence – made the situation even more obscure. Now that Trump is president, impeachment affords the only opening for an early shove out the door. A constitutional footing might be found in the foreign emoluments clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8) and the application is plain enough. Trump Hotel in Washington is not yet divested, and stands to profit enormously when foreign dignitaries stay there to curry favour with the world’s new boss: ‘no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.’ The Democrats, however, have for a generation been hesitant to act as accusers in any merely political context. They may routinely charge Republicans with sexism or racism, but constitutional illegalities they regard as tedious and extracurricular. At the height of the reaction against Cheney and Bush in 2007, when their violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was at the centre of national discussion, the Democratic majority leader in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, announced that impeachment was ‘off the table’. That is something a politician in her position might well think but should not say; it typifies the Democratic Party’s continuing state of mind and etiquette.
As soon as the 2016 election result came in, Americans on the popular left began throwing about the word ‘resistance’. The right of resistance comes into play (according to Locke and Jefferson) when a previously legitimate government breaks its compact with the people. This justification has seldom, if ever, been used against an elected government before it took office. But a larger confusion was apparent here, one that responsible politicians who saw that Trump was unqualified should have taken an interest in clearing up. There is a marked difference between resistance and opposition. Resistance is in order when a person’s civic conscience forbids obedience to laws introduced and enforced by a criminal government. Opposition ought to be more common: in a constitutional system it has an indispensable function when one party dominates unscrupulously and the opposing party works to prevent the damage that would be done by adoption of the majority party’s policies. An opposing party of substance can also use what power it has to articulate with precision the miscarriages of authority it detects in the conduct of the majority; and it can be expected to vote against a person nominated to high office whose recorded words and actions show him to lack the necessary stature.
There has not been a time in the past half-century when Americans stood so much in need of a political opposition. It is early to say this for sure, and Schumer, Pelosi and other party leaders may discover the resolve they have yet to show, but if the Democrats cannot be roused, another party will have to collect itself for the work of opposition. The summer disorders of 2016 that trod the brink of riots, with their explicit anti-police slogans, simmered down by September and were only a background subject in the presidential debates, but they had much to do with the Republican votes in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Apparently unorganised and leaderless protests have gathered about them a certain romantic glamour ever since the Occupy movement of 2011-12, and yet the real utility of such protests is to serve as a warning when planned in alliance with an existing party. The only other purpose they can have is to initiate a revolution; and people who act from such a motive had better have a chance of succeeding. On the other hand, refusal to obey unjust laws, if carried out by a large enough mass of the people, may crystallise an opposition when party leaders have lost their way.
Democrats have forgotten what it means to constitute an opposition. In the age of Clinton, Bush and Obama, the presidency was all. Even if the party lost majorities in one or both houses, executive orders and the veto were thought to be as good as laws, or as good as we should expect. The talents of the party know better – senators like Sherrod Brown and Sheldon Whitehouse, Elizabeth Warren and Chris Murphy – but many others appear not to realise how much they have surrendered. ‘A majority,’ Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, ‘held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism.’ Are Americans a free people by this standard? The most recent changes in popular opinion have been anything but deliberate. We are not yet close to anarchy or despotism, but the checks and limitations will require constant guarding and frequent use in the months to come.
Trump achieved a majority in the electoral college but fell three million short in the popular vote. The nationalist ideology that drove his campaign belongs as yet to a minority. Even so, Trump in his first ten days has already broken through the restraint of familiar constitutional checks and limitations: the duty to abide by the result of elections no matter how they turn out, and the right of religious toleration. Other transgressions are likely to follow at a dizzying pace. The women’s marches on the day after the inauguration, with millions of protesters worldwide, were a preventive demonstration against an anticipated evil; but the ban on Muslim immigration is no longer the name of a wrong to be feared. The change is with us, it has happened. And the exemptions from the ban awarded to citizens of America’s regional allies of convenience – Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the same Saudi Arabia that supplied 15 of the 19 hijackers on 11 September 2001 – rendered unmistakable the opportunistic character of the act. When Muslims with legitimate visas are stopped from boarding planes to the US, our freedom of religion in America has become a freedom that was. It will remain so until political opposition and organised protest succeed in overturning this ban. The depth of the crisis was confirmed on 30 January when Trump fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, who had refused to defend his immigration order. In the preceding days he had purged most of the senior officials of the State Department and given a permanent seat on the National Security Council to his political strategist, Steve Bannon. At the start of February who will say that the alarm felt by so many on 8 November was exaggerated? The entertainment of the autumn, when a would-be Caesar held us fast in our seats by mixing forbidden truths with his lies, has already glutted the heartiest appetite, but the exits are closed and we are still in the first scene of the first act.