Despondent, worried Republicans and right-leaning independents who voted for Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate are, like their Democratic friends, still reeling from the election results and gobsmacked by a political world in which the Republican president-elect espouses views, characteristic and attitudes they find repulsive. At least the Democrats have a party from which to mount opposition to the incoming administration’s excesses and outrages. But what are those who feel the GOP has left them to do now?
Let’s address a few issues, keeping in mind that people in different capacities — journalist, lawmaker, activist, candidate — have different obligations.
First, tell the truth. Bret Stephens, a #NeverTrump journalist, explains:
What a columnist owes his readers isn’t a bid for their constant agreement. It’s independent judgment. Opinion journalism is still journalism, not agitprop. The elision of that distinction and the rise of malevolent propaganda outfits such as Breitbart News is one of the most baleful trends of modern life. Serious columnists must resist it. …
Many things explain Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory, but not the least of them was the ability of his core supporters to shut out the inconvenient Trump facts: the precarious foundations of his wealth, the plasticity of his convictions, the astonishing frequency of his lying. Mr. Trump attracted millions of voters thirsty to believe. That thirst may hold its own truth, but it doesn’t lessen a columnist’s responsibility to note that it won’t be slaked by another hollow slogan of redemption.
This is the distinction between cheerleaders (e.g., Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity) and actual journalists. The former’s loyalty is to a person, the latter’s to intellectual integrity and accuracy. It will be more important than ever, as Stephens says, for the latter to remain stalwart, calling it as they see it. The instinct to “give him a chance” and “pick your fights” may apply to activists, lawmakers and interest groups as part of strategic calculations; there is no similar obligation for journalists to suspend judgment or be lenient on liars.
Second, hundreds if not thousands of Republicans and center-right independents will have to wrestle with the dilemma of joining an administration that espouses — at least now — dangerous ideas and exhibits abhorrent views.
There is a difference between bad compromises and rotten compromises. Bad compromises: yes, if they are the only way to do good or mitigate harm. Rotten compromises — never.
And what is a rotten compromise? It is a compromise where you participate in assaults on fundamental human dignity. That’s a vague and porous standard, but if you are a lawyer with a conscience you know it when you see it — provided you don’t loophole-lawyer your own conscience. Mass dragnets and deportations, torture and degrading treatment, targeting policies that accept excessive civilian casualties or ignore war crimes, deliberate failure to repress anti-Muslim hate crimes: all of these are assaults on human dignity, and compromising your principles on them is a rotten compromise. When it comes to rotten compromises of your principles, exit takes precedence over voice and loyalty. Exit doesn’t necessarily mean resigning, although it may. It certainly means refusing to participate.
We suggest this formulation: If you choose to serve, know the lines you will not cross and be prepared to leave if continued service demands you cross them. Write that letter of resignation now, put one copy in your desk and give one to the person (a spouse, a child, a colleague) you could not look in the eye and justify staying under such circumstances. We all need moral watchdogs to compel us to live up to our standards.
Third, ditch partisanship and become ruthlessly pragmatic. If a Republican senator needs to collaborate with a Democrat to stop an absurd policy initiative or truly dangerous nomination, he or she should do it. The former can oppose the latter the very next day on taxes or spending or something else. Avoid the urge to game it out. (Maybe the Democrats will look more reasonable. Maybe my supporters will turn on me if things work out better than I thought.) Some strange bedfellows — the ACLU and the Federalist Society, Democratic governors and Republican congressmen, ex-presidents and Cabinet officials of both parties — will be needed to prevent the worst from happening. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” should be written on the backs of #NeverTrumpers’ hands.
Finally, while some are dismissive of the role institutions can play in combating autocratic tendencies, that is precisely where resistance to destructive tendencies must be waged. An independent judiciary, a free press, a system of federalism and other attributes of our democratic society need all the help they can get. For too long, the question on issues such as judicial restraint and federalism (not to mention the filibuster) has amounted to “Whose ox is being gored?” Now, both sides need to defend every institution that erects barriers to abuse of power.
Consider what would happen if the administration refused to allow certain mainstream media outlets into the press pool. We should expect that: (1) Conservative outlets would protest, to the point of refusing to operate without the banned entities’ participation; (2) Conservative and liberal legal groups would explore First Amendment challenges; (3) Republican and Democratic lawmakers would hold hearings and denounce the move; and (3) former White House officials of both parties would loudly condemn the move. Devotion to democratic institutions must be cultivated and sustained.
These are strange times, and men and women of good conscience will need to be resourceful. The consequences of moral and intellectual sloth will be serious.