The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Yesterday's election result was a terrible setback for those of us who opposed Donald Trump and his agenda. Following the lead of the vast majority of pollsters and election analysts, I did not expect it to happen. Obviously, I was wrong.
For the sake of the nation, I hope I also turn out to be wrong about Trump himself. Perhaps he does not actually intend to carry out the scary agenda he ran on, and is not as unfit for office as he seems. My general take on Trump has always been that what you see is roughly what you should expect to get if he wins. That's why I opposed him from the first, and believed that he was a considerably greater danger than Hillary Clinton, of whom I am no fan. As a general rule, presidents make a serious effort to carry out at least the major elements of the agenda they run on. That strikes me as the most likely scenario with Trump, as well.
But, it's certainly possible that Trump will prove to be an exception to this rule of politics, as he has proven to be on so many others. Maybe he doesn't really believe most of what he says, and does not intend to act on most of it. Maybe he has no real desire to deport millions of people, start trade wars, censor his critics, target the families of suspected terrorists, and so on. Perhaps he only said those things to gain a political edge. Even if the latter scenario is true, Trump might still act on some of these ideas nonetheless. If he thinks they helped him get elected, he might also conclude that they will be politically advantageous once he's in the White House. And most of the Republican Congress might go along with him, since, after all, Trump just led them to a major electoral victory.
The Republican Congress could still surprise us. Perhaps they will grow a spine and resist Trump. But in this day and age, it is very rare for members of Congress to oppose a president of their own party on any major issues.
At the very least, we should be prepared for the possibility that Trump really does mean what he says, that he does indeed plan to lead the GOP in a dangerous right-wing nationalist direction, and that most GOP members of Congress won't do much to stop him. Those who oppose that agenda should be prepared for such an eventuality.
What should we do? I certainly don't have anything like a definitive answer. But it seems to me that one of the causes of Hillary Clinton's defeat was her failure to reach out to the many Republican-leaning constituencies that were uncomfortable with Trump and his agenda. She made some rhetorical gestures in their direction, but offered virtually no concessions on policy. Instead, she ran on the most left-wing Democratic platform in many years. Don't take my word for it; take that of former Bill Clinton adviser William Galston. This made it very hard for #NeverTrump conservatives and libertarians to support her. Eventually, it was one of the factors that led many of them to "come home" to the GOP and vote Trump. If Hillary Clinton had gotten even a relatively modest additional percentage of the traditional GOP vote, she could well have won easily. If she believed that Trump is not just an ordinary candidate, but a menace beyond the bounds of normal politics, she should have acted like it and worked to build a bigger coalition to stave off the threat than you would create for an ordinary election.
The blame here is not all on one side. Far from it. If the Democrats didn't make enough effort to reach out to #NeverTrumpers, most of the latter made little or no attempt to reach out to the Democrats either. The two sides' actions were understandable. Both saw the same polls as everyone else did, and likely concluded that Trump was going to lose anyway. In addition, we live in an age of strong partisan bias and hyperpolarization. Neither liberals nor most #NeverTrumpers were enthusiastic about working with their traditional partisan enemies.
This refusal to reach across the partisan aisle was a mistake. If Trump acts as we expect him to, the liberal, conservative, and libertarian opponents of his agenda must find a way to work together. Despite our many differences, I believe we have much in common, as well, most notably a commitment to the liberal democratic values that Trumpism imperils.
Political scientist Lee Drutman has argued that Trump's political success may realign the parties along a cosmopolitan vs. nationalist divide, instead of the current right-left political spectrum. It is too early to say if this will actually happen. But if it does, now is the time to start working on building the cosmopolitan coalition, which is also likely to be the coalition of civil liberties and constitutional values. Even if we do not see a complete realignment along these lines, there is still good reason for the opponents of Trumpism to seek common ground.
I don't have any detailed proposal for what that common ground will look like. Finding it will not be easy. But it seems to me that we should make the effort to try.
I am not the only one who has advanced the idea of this kind of cross-ideological cooperation. Benjamin Wittes of the liberal Brookings Institution have put forward similar thoughts (see here and here). Conservative Dan McLaughlin has proposed a more limited form of detente between Trump's liberal and conservative opponents.
Much more work needs to be done before any of these ideas can become a reality. But now is a good time to get started.
UPDATE: It's worth noting that, despite his victory, Trump remains highly unpopular. Neither is there strong public support for his signature policies. For example, exit polls show that 54% of voters oppose his famous proposal to build a wall across the Mexican border and 70% believe that undocumented immigrants working in the United States should be granted permanent residency (only 25% say they should be deported). All of this suggests that there may be a real opportunity for an opposition movement that has cross-ideological and bipartisan appeal.