The election of Donald Trump could be one of the best things that ever happened to American democracy.
We say this even though we believe that Trump poses a genuine danger to our republican institutions and has done enormous damage to our country. He has violated political norms, weakened our standing in the world and deepened the divisions of an already sharply torn nation.
But precisely because the Trump threat is so profound, he has jolted much of the country to face problems that have been slowly eroding our democracy. And he has aroused a popular mobilization that may far outlast him.
Many of the trends that led to Trump’s election have been with us for years; he has created a crisis by pushing them to their alarming endpoints. Political norms, for example, have been decaying for decades, but Trump has eschewed norms altogether. One reading is that there will be no going back from the diminished public life he has created, and it’s certainly true that the breaching of norms often produces a cascading effect: behavior previously considered inappropriate is normalized and taken up by others. Yet Trump’s sheer disregard for the normal practices and principles of presidential behavior has cast a spotlight on the vital role that norms play in regulating and protecting our democracy. Only when norms disappear are we reminded of how important they were in the first place.
The steady radicalization of the conservative movement since the 1960s paved the way for Trump by undermining trust in government and promoting a sense that public officials are not interested in solving the problems of everyday Americans. This was a successful strategy for the Republican Party, but it produced the least-qualified and least-appropriate president in the nation’s history. While many Republicans remain in denial, hoping that Trump will deliver them policy victories and court seats, some of them are starting to re-examine their consciences and their long-term political interests.
A large group of influential conservative thinkers — Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, Max Boot, George Will, Peter Wehner, William Kristol and Tom Nichols, to name just a few — has spoken out against the nativist and xenophobic strain in the Republican Party that gave rise to Trump and against his manifest disrespect for our institutions. They want a problem-solving Republican Party, a necessity for our political system to operate. Only a handful of Republican politicians have joined them, but their ranks are growing and include Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Meanwhile, the Republicans’ failure to pass any major piece of their legislative agenda, despite their control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, is a sign that tea partyism provides no plausible path to governing. A purely anti-government creed is out of touch with an American majority that may mistrust government but still expects it to provide significant services, social protections and help in time of catastrophe. We have seen this in the backlash to the efforts to repeal Obamacare. Republicans are scrambling now to pass another destructive repeal bill that would leave millions without health insurance, simply because the congressional majority is desperate for a legislative victory. But it has already lost the battle for public opinion.
The Trump era has pushed corporate leaders out of their comfort zones, too. The mass resignations of chief executives from White House business advisory groups in the wake of Trump’s shamefully equivocal remarks about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia were one sign of this. So was the strong pushback — from Apple’s Tim Cook, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Meg Whitman and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, among many others — against Trump’s elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.