The American left is in a panic and for good reason. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement hands President Trump his second high-court pick in 15 months. That same court’s ruling last week against public-sector unions dealt Democrats and their allies in the movement a crippling blow. Hostile decisions on abortion and gerrymandering added to the sense of dread. And Trump’s decision to make the separation of children and their parents official U.S. policy has inspired a recurring question: “Where are the children?” Pressed on that pitiless policy last week, Trump doubled down by declaring due process and federal judges obsolete.
Camelot this is not. But neither are Trump’s wretched displays of cruelty and ignorance dispositive proof of democracy’s imminent demise. The president’s twisted view of constitutional norms has rightly fueled fears on the left that the Madisonian model’s future hangs in the balance.
But the American experiment is far from over, and Madison’s system of checks and balances remains resilient despite “political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth,” to borrow from William F. Buckley Jr. Still, such gathering storms inspire me from time to time to draw comfort from the sage insights of that American philosopher Billy Hicks, as portrayed by Rob Lowe in the 1985 Brat Pack flick “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
“This isn’t real. You know what it is? It’s St. Elmo’s Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere,” Lowe told a whimpering Demi Moore while producing puffs of fire from aerosol cans lying conveniently around his feet. “We’re all going through this. It’s our time at the edge.”
Or as Charles Krauthammer once told students at McGill University: “Don’t lose your head.”
Speaking two years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Krauthammer recalled the past decade’s “near mass-hysteria about imminent nuclear apocalypse.” The late, great Post columnist noted that while there was still a nuclear problem, “there is a difference between a problem and a panic.”
The same can be said of Trump.
Instead of viewing this accidental president, who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, as the apocalypse du jour, Trump skeptics should treat him more like those flashes of light in dark skies. As with Krauthammer’s caution over nuclear panic, the danger created by Trump’s presidency is real. But it is not the sign of a coming Armageddon. Instead, these electoral aftershocks are more political proof that Democrats must face the ugly truth that their cataclysmic losses in 2016 were not caused by Fox News, Susan Sarandon, Vladimir Putin, the New York Times’ email stories or the sudden spread of racism in Midwestern states carried twice by Barack Obama. Rather, their shellacking was the result of a lackluster presidential campaign that had no coherent message, ignored warnings from Democratic leaders and forgot to visit Wisconsin.
It must be noted, a week after Kennedy’s retirement announcement, that some shifts in the shape of U.S. politics have been generated by Trump’s aberrant behavior. Others, such as the court’s continuing rightward turn, were the direct result of the Democratic Party losing its congressional majorities with the understated style of the Hindenburg crash.
Blaming Hillary Clinton for the party’s demise is too easy. More than 18 months after that inexcusable loss, Clinton’s party still lacks a winning national message and has yet to find a candidate younger than 77 to replace Republican Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
But many Democrats campaigning across the United States understand that now is no time to panic. Instead of being distracted by those electric flashes of light created by Trump’s perpetual motion machine, they are knocking on doors, reaching out to neighbors, making Facebook friends and organizing teams to drive their supporters to polling places. For those still distracted by the latest cable news calamity, remember the words of a union activist wrongly executed in 1915. Before his death, Joe Hill sent a friend instructions: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
American democracy will survive Trump. And if Democrats want to stem the recent Republican tide of victories and finally control the direction of Madison’s government, they should stop mourning Trumpism’s rise and instead fervently take Hill’s advice to heart.