A week after the 2016 election, much of America is still trying to cope with the reality of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States — an idea that was once a futuristic joke on “The Simpsons.”
Many in the anti-Trump camp, of which I have been a proud member, now warn against “normalizing” the real estate tycoon and reality TV star in his new role. It is true that, given the ugliness of Trump’s journey to the White House, his personal volatility and the extremism of some of his statements during the campaign, we should not be complacent about a Trump presidency’s potential dangers. But we Trump critics should also avoid hyperbolic doomsday rhetoric that could worsen the situation — and damage our credibility.
Calls to deny Trump legitimacy are not only useless but hypocritical, given that only recently Trump and his supporters were excoriated for suggesting they might not accept the legitimacy of his defeat.
Yes, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but the Electoral College determines the winner, and no one knows how people would have voted in a system in which the popular vote decides the results. Some reactions have been irresponsible and bizarre: “Trump cannot CANNOT [sic] be allowed a term in office,” television and film director Joss Whedon tweeted on Monday, seemingly suggesting a coup.
Meanwhile, claims that Trump’s victory has unleashed a wave of terror against blacks, Muslims, Jews and gays have proliferated in the social media and the press. Yet many of these alleged attacks are unverified and some have turned out to be hoaxes, as Elizabeth Nolan Brown has documented in a story for reason.com. While there have been some real post-election incidents of racist and anti-Semitic vandalism, no one knows how many of them were linked to Trump supporters. (The same is true of FBI statistics showing an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes for 2015.)
Yes, Trump’s strategy included appeals to anti-Muslim fears and racial resentment. The presence of white supremacists and anti-Semites among his faithful, particularly on the internet, remains a disturbing fact of his campaign. But to say he won by campaigning on white nationalism is a dramatic overstatement — a dangerous one, because it imputes to extremist bigots far more power than they have. By far, most white Trump voters are not white nationalists (many even voted for Barack Obama in elections past). And Trump’s much-derided outreach to minorities, while not hugely effective, won him a greater share of the black and Hispanic vote than Mitt Romney got in 2012.
So far, Trump’s postelection behavior has been a mixed bag. It has included a petulant tweet complaining of “unfair” protests and media coverage, as well as a forceful appeal against harassment of minorities in his “60 Minutes” interview. It has included a “senior counsel” White House post for media executive Stephen Bannon, who used his pro-Trump Breitbart News website for race-baiting and mainstreaming the bigoted “alt-right,” as well as appointments of moderate establishment figures.
Trump’s volatility and tendency to change his positions mean that we quite literally have no idea what policies to expect; nor do we know to what extent his administration might be hobbled by scandal. We should firmly oppose him when he makes moves that endanger Americans’ civil rights or compromise our commitments to our allies. But we should also avoid panic, hold our political institutions accountable — and give Trump credit if he does something right.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.