I’m a Donald Trump optimist. Like the many who don’t support him, I am alarmed that he won. But I don’t believe he will be as bad as the worst fears.
It’s a very modest definition of optimism, but I think it’s the best liberals can come up with. The worst fears are widespread, serious, and may yet prove to be well founded.
Still, my main reason for “optimism” is America’s tradition of liberty, its ineradicable pluralism — and (to sound a populist note) the American people.
Those who view a Trump presidency pessimistically believe his election to be “nothing less than a tragedy”. Some see a fascist in the making.
The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen, drawing on her experience of Vladimir Putin, wrote that rule one of survival under authoritarian rule is to, “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.”
France’s Le Monde was heavy with warnings of de-globalisation, trade wars and mass unemployment in the US and Europe. The chief editor of the German weekly Der Spiegel, Klaus Brinkbäumer, wrote that the United States had elected “a dangerously inexperienced and racist man.”
There was a welcome in Europe, and it was led by far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen of the French National Front. Leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, opined after his meeting with Trump that he would be a good president.
There’s been a lot of popular support on social media, especially in an Italy which elected Silvio Berlusconi three times in the past quarter century. The British government has taken as “let’s hope for the best” view.
I’m more than a little scared, but also an optimist for the following reasons:
First, a fascist leader needs fascists. There are some in the US, and they — the Ku Klux Klan and others — have welcomed Trump’s election. But most of his voters aren’t in that camp.
Fascists want a strong state to crush opponents and to provide jobs. Trump’s people, working, middle or upper class, want less state. Far-rightists need an enemy within, as the Nazis used the Jews, or externally, as fascist Italy did in its grab for an empire in Africa.
The model fascist countries had populations desperate, impoverished and humiliated enough to rally behind fascist/Nazi leaders. Americans are nowhere near that state. Nor is Trump anything like as wholly ruthless as were Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
Second, the Constitution of the United States is one of freedom. Freedom, both constitutional and civic, is the common currency of politics, with the right professing to value it more than liberals.
The Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which allowed unlimited corporate spending on elections, was argued on the basis of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.
The Second Amendment, granting the right to citizens to bear arms, has made it almost impossible for legislators to pass effective laws on gun control. In few other countries does a constitution play such a central, and often contentious, role in public life: that passionate attachment protects its checks and balances, and the erosion of long-held rights, more effectively than anything else — since laws and constitutions are everywhere only as strong as public support, or at least acquiescence.
Third, US media, traditionally supposed to function as watchdogs over the government, are not in good shape. They are embarrassed by their over- reliance on polls which all but guaranteed a Clinton win and are suffering from drops in advertising revenue.
Trump, displaying once more his ingrained infantilism, loves to crow over the blow he delivered to their pride. The partisanship of cable channels, aping Fox, will probably become more pronounced after this campaign.
Few major publications or networks have emerged from the election with their credibility unscathed. But great newspapers such as the New York Times have promised to learn from the experience.
In addition, voters now also have hundreds of sources of online news, many on sites striving for objectivity. The relatively free practice of journalism will remain powerfully influential. Top American reporters and editors set world standards, and won’t abdicate from a self-defined, and democratic, duty to hold power to account.
Fourth, Americans are famously adaptable. They’re less bound by tradition than their European counterparts and are unafraid of change. This election is widely viewed as a reflection of the nation’s bigotry and xenophobia, but it could also be seen as the “discovery” of the nation’s alienated white working class in a way that has some parallels with white America’s “discovery” of a much more radically disenfranchised African American population in the 1960s.
Like the latter, the president will have to address the former — though Trump, hailed as a saviour, may prove to deepen the plight of the left-behinds. US liberals have a large job to do in revising their policies, as do European leftists. The Europeans, one should note, have yet to ‘discover’ the millions of young men and women — around 40% in Italy, Spain and Greece — who can find no jobs.
Fifth, Trump may not be as quick to disrupt international agreements as his rhetoric suggests. He has Republican majorities in both houses, but not Republican assent to all his policies. Party legislators may agree that other Nato members should pay more toward maintaining the Alliance, but many Republicans support Nato, often fervently.
The fate of pending trade agreements, particularly the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asia, is less clear. But even if the Republican Congress refuses to ratify the treaty, it’s not unreasonable to think that Trump might be swayed by those who argue that the US would be ceding the Asia-Pacific region to China’s economic expansionism if Washington doesn’t participate in multilateral trade agreements.
All bets are off if the world falls into a deeper recession, and the threatened decimation of jobs brought about by advanced computerisation.
But in that case, the bets are off everywhere, including in an enfeebled and already economically stagnant Europe. Until such a dismal eventuality, American liberals must now trust the Constitution, with its checking and balancing institutions, its guarantee of free speech and a free press, and above all the American people, including those they blame for the Trump victory. They have, in any case, no choice.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. The views here are his own