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's editorial was heavy with warnings of deglobalization, trade wars and mass unemployment in the United States 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." In The Guardian, Gary Younge wrote that Trump "represents the incoherent, inchoate and ill-informed rage against the fallout of neoliberal globalization."
There was a welcome in Europe, and it was led by far right leaders like Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, who sees in Trump's "Make America Great Again" a model for France. The transported-to-paradise leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, opined after his meeting with Trump in Trump Tower 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 a "let's hope for the best" view, with the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, calling on fellow European leaders to stop indulging in a "whinge-orama" about the election of one whom Johnson had earlier said he would take care to avoid on any trip to New York.
The political writer for the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh, thinks that liberals are just flagellating themselves with horror forecasts, as they like to do. So does the American economist and columnist Zachary Karabell. But outside of the far right, everyone is at least a little scared. Some, including a former British Foreign Secretary, say they're terrified.
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 United States, 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, often much less, state. Far-rightists need an enemy within, as the Nazis used the Jews, or externally, as Fascist Italy did in its late and bloody grab for an empire in Africa. The model Fascist countries - Italy from the 1920s, Germany from the '30s - 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, U.S. 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 vertiginous 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 savior, may prove to deepen the plight of the left-behinds. U.S. liberals have a large job to do in revising their policies, as do European leftists. Both will be energetic in doing so, though that may take some time. 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 campaign rhetoric suggests. Trump has Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, but not Republican assent to all his policies. Party legislators may agree that other NATO members should pay more toward maintaining the Alliance - some Europeans accept that - but many Republicans support NATO, often fervently. Indeed, within days of his election Trump committed himself to maintaining a strong relationship with NATO during a meeting with President Barack Obama.
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 - who met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York on Thursday - might be swayed by those like distinguished Japanese political scientist, Yoichi Funabashi, who argues that the United States would be ceding the Asia-Pacific region to China's economic expansionism if Washington doesn't participate in multilateral trade agreements.
This faith seems to me to be justified by tradition, Constitution and the record of American actions in intervening on the side of freedom, even if at times disastrously. All bets are off if the world falls into a deeper recession, and the threatened decimation of jobs brought about by advanced computerization and robotization actually materializes. 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.© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2016.