In his combative inaugural address, Donald Trump promised that his inauguration would be remembered “as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” He celebrated “a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.” At its center, he said, was a “crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”
The next day, his inauguration sparked a mass mobilization of historic proportions across the country and the world. Organized spontaneously over social media, without initial support of national organizations or leaders, it brought millions of people into the streets in support of women’s rights, human rights, and basic decency. Millions of Americans — representative of the majority of voters that did not support Trump — called on him to hear their voices.
Trump is president, so he gets to decide whether to listen or not. Clearly, his instinct is to feel insulted, to strike back, to deny their claim. In his first hours in office, he offended the professionals of the CIA, denounced the press as dishonest for accurately reporting on the inaugural turnout, and issued an executive order to begin repeal of Obamacare, potentially stripping millions of health coverage.
But Trump is likely to learn, as his predecessors did before him, that even in the presidency, grace and compromise increase power; denial and spitefulness saps it away. The president is most powerful when he is in fact responsive to the citizenry; he is least powerful when he insists on doing it “my way,” scorning those who petition him.
Grace and responsiveness doesn’t require abandoning one’s own promises or program. Many of Trump’s promises will garner widespread support. His pledge to rebuild our decrepit infrastructure, to “buy American and hire American,” will be applauded across partisan divides. His pledge to revise our failed trade regime will win him support in union halls and over family dinner tables. His pledge to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be backed by the vast majority of Americans. His intimation that he is skeptical about regime change, and that he wants to limit American interventions abroad and push our allies to bear their fair share of the burdens, will be widely popular.
If he uses the presidency to divide us one from another, however, he is likely to reap the whirlwind. As the march demonstrated, millions of Americans will mobilize to stop the effort to deprive women of basic rights, to wrench immigrant parents from their children, to rollback voting rights, or to embolden racially biased policing and ignore the systemic bias that puts lives at risk. If he continues to ignore the reality of catastrophic climate change, he will not only face mass civil disobedience but he will be condemned for generations to come.
Trump was carried into the White House on a wave of popular anger at the failure of a bipartisan establishment that accepted a corrupted politics and an economy that did not work for working people. He argues that he alone can fix it. He offers a mix of the new — new trade policies, a massive effort to rebuild America — and old elixirs that have already failed — top-end and corporate tax cuts, deregulation, privatization.
The Republican Congress will push the latter and try to block or weaken the former.
Trump will need allies to preserve the parts of his agenda that actually might help put people to work, and he will need to take a hard look at the parts that are likely to add to their despair — starting with the repeal of Obamacare, particularly the gutting of Medicaid.
In his first days in office, the president has shown that he knows how to shout. The question now is whether he has any capacity to listen.
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