In 1987, President Reagan famously popularized — and translated — the Russian proverb Доверяй но Проверяй (Doveryai no Proveryai) as “trust but verify.” Those of us on the center-right who are still coming to grips with the extraordinary presidential victory of Donald Trump — a figure we vigorously and sometimes bitterly opposed during the campaign — would do well to further modify the Gipper’s formulation: when it comes to President-Elect Trump, we should respect but verify.
In other words, Trump won a democratic election fairly and decisively, albeit narrowly, and he is worthy of our respect as the duly elected successor to President Obama.
Peacefully protesting Trump’s election — even, yes, from a Broadway stage — falls squarely within American democratic tradition, and to be sure, no one is obliged to respect Trump as a person. But to question the legitimacy of his election because Secretary Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote, to insist Trump is #NotMyPresident, and to heap scorn and abuse upon those tens of millions of Americans who cast ballots for him — these actions disrespect the office of the president and the customs of American political practice.
The last of these is the most odious. “Racist” is a peculiar epithet to hurl at those voters who twice supported a black man’s presidential bid but balked at voting for a white woman, as hundreds of thousands of voters across numerous swing states apparently did.
But that hasn’t stopped liberal pundits and journalists from tarring 60 million Americans as bigots. For instance, in a piece entitled “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie slammed Trump supporters who “voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes,” calling it “morally grotesque” and “myopic and solipsistic” to consider them “good people.” Well, then, so much for half of America.
(Others, to their credit, have resisted this temptation. Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post called the charge “ridiculous” and declared there was “nothing more maddening — and counterproductive — to me than saying that Trump’s 59 million votes were all racist.”)
And so, I encourage my fellow onetime NeverTrumpers to respect our president-elect and wish him well, especially because as the chief executive of a federal government soon to be under unified GOP control, he could potentially do a lot of good.
On the one hand, excellent opportunities abound for principled center-right governance, including repealing the execrable Obamacare and replacing it with market-based alternatives, such as the one my friend Lanhee Chen of Stanford’s Hoover Institution proposed a year ago; repairing the U.S.-Israel relationship so badly frayed by President Obama and unraveling the disastrous Iran deal he so recklessly negotiated; taking seriously the global Islamist threat; and restoring balance to the federal court system, which Obama has shifted sharply leftward, as was his prerogative (in fact, Trump may be fortunate enough to lock in a conservative Supreme Court for a generation). Generally speaking, a unitary Republican government can unspool at least the most egregious domestic and foreign policy missteps committed by the Obama administration.
Indeed, no less an authoritative figure than President Obama himself proclaimed that “all the progress we’ve made over these last eight years goes out the window if we don’t win this election.” This sense of measured desperation was abundantly evident as the president stumped for Secretary Clinton; in the words of the New York Times’s Peter Baker, Obama “campaigned all out for Mrs. Clinton as no departing incumbent has in modern times.“
True, after November 8, Obama attempted in a lengthy New Yorker interview to diminish the import of Trump’s victory and (retroactively) to lower the stakes of the election. But Baker was right to speculate that “the transformation he envisioned may not survive his administration.”
Yet, on the other hand, Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric, his preoccupation with stifling illegal immigration by building an expensive wall, his oft-stated desire to reduce the American footprint abroad, and his pro-Russian tilt present serious policy challenges to traditional Republicans. In addition, and perhaps more pungently, his hard-edged populist appeals have coarsened American democracy, have exacerbated racial and ethnic tensions, and have begun to transform the American right into an ethno-nationalist European version. His repurposing of leftist identity politics in the service of electoral gains among working-class whites runs the risk of further corroding the profoundly noble and distinctly American notion of e pluribus unum.
It therefore falls to those of us former residents of the #NeverTrump center-right to hold the president-elect’s feet to the fire, to ensure he promotes free-market principles and a strong America abroad, and to call him out when he does not. We must respect the president-elect while verifying his adherence to principles of sound conservative governance.
This won’t be easy, especially as Trump and his circle deviate from contemporary conservative orthodoxy. As Yuval Levin astutely points out, the Trumpistas seek to reformulate conservatism altogether, a project we should regard with suspicion.
In addition, while throughout my lifetime, the Republican Party has always been more or less synonymous with conservatism, this was not always the case. As National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke astutely points out, his magazine often used to criticize the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations from the right.
This means denouncing Trump’s unworthy actions and appointments, including his recent decision to name campaign manager Steve Bannon, a right-wing provocateur and stirrer of the ethno-nationalist pot (even if not an anti-Semite or white supremacist), his senior advisor. (Along with the likely futile hope that well-meaning liberal friends will follow suit, as with the problematic Rep. Keith Ellison, potentially the next head of the Democratic National Committee).
In many ways, this task is less enviable and more fraught than the challenges facing either Trump’s core backers or his hard-core detractors.
The Trumpistas will compound their electoral support by vocally endorsing his every Oval Office decision, and their message will be amplified by cheerleading media outlets like Breitbart and certain precincts of Fox News. Meanwhile, liberals and leftists alike are already relishing their role as the loyal opposition, comfortably able to evince outrage at every Trumpian misstep, small or large.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone will have it tough over the next four years, and I’m not looking for sympathy. In particular, I feel the pain of my liberal friends whose feelings of shock and dislocation surely outstrip mine of eight years ago.
But intellectually and morally speaking, those of us who share Trump’s party but only some of his (apparent) political beliefs and none of his personal values (such as they are), will struggle mightily to square our principles with his performance. Here’s hoping that struggle, informed by a respect-but-verify wariness, will turn out well for all of our fellow Americans.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in Ra’anana, Israel. He and his family recently made aliyah from San Diego.