Donald Trump pulled out a stunning election victory Tuesday, defeating Hillary Clinton and signaling a radical shift in the country’s direction and even in its conception of itself.
Eight years after the country elected its first African-American president, it was unable to shatter another barrier. It has also taken a giant risk, giving the power of the chief executive and commander in chief to a political neophyte. Nevertheless, there is a job to do. Trump will have his hands full, and in a way none of his predecessors had.
Beginning in the Bill Clinton administration, continuing through that of George W. Bush and gaining destructive power during the Obama years, America has turned its back on the essential idea that what we have in common is more important than what divides us. Trump will either overcome this new nihilism (that he exploited, in a country that likes to think of itself as exceptional) or be consumed by it, with unknown but potentially severe consequences to the nation.
And that’s just the price of admission. Without restoring some semblance of good will and, critically, an ability to compromise and to distinguish between policy disagreements and personal disdain, the new president will find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to govern. And governing, of course, is the point of an election, not the signal to pursue political “enemies,” but to deal with important issues in a way that respects voters and the Constitution.
An early test could come at the Supreme Court, which needs a new justice to succeed the late Antonin Scalia. How smoothly will that process proceed? With the Senate still in Republican hands, Democrats will be able to block appointments through the filibuster.
And what about presidential appointments to important posts? Western New York needs a new U.S. attorney to succeed the recently retired William J. Hochul Jr. How smoothly will that happen? What about the Affordable Care Act, which Trump has vowed to kill? Whatever its defects, it has helped millions of families.
Optimism would be hard to come by under any circumstances, but given Trump’s history and personality, any legislative progress is likely to be arduous. Like Clinton, he finished the campaign dragging historically high negative ratings and the outright hostility of many Americans, including members of Congress from both parties. That doesn’t augur well for accomplishment.
Yet, the issues won’t go away. The question of jobs will remain prominent, inextricably linked to the larger challenges posed by a changing economy – one of the issues that gave Trump traction. The environment will remain an issue. So will income equality, terrorism, foreign relations and a host of other knotty, sometimes intractable, matters.
Dealing with them will require enforced good will by all parties: Trump, Congress and the voters who put them there. It means debating our choices, honestly and passionately, but tuning out the shrill voices that falsely insist compromise is the legislative equivalent of treason. It’s not. Congress was created as a means for compromise, not as an automatic obstacle to it.
But Trump has shown no interest in seeking compromise or promoting good will. Indeed, his campaign often devolved into insulting people who don’t look like him. The best chance he has for any kind of success is by surrounding himself with able and respected advisers, including Cabinet members, who know more than he does. Even then, he would have to be willing to accept their counsel. That seems unlikely, given Trump’s high opinion of his abilities.
Regardless, the election season has now come to an end. At this point, it’s time to get on with governing a large, diverse and divided nation. It won’t be easy, but it’s the task on which Trump and all of today’s winners should be judged. That work begins with the acceptance of the outcome by those who lost.