Ten days in, it is clear that one of the main tasks of responsible citizens during the Trump administration is to distinguish facts from fiction, hysteria from reasoned analysis. This, of course, is always the task of a responsible citizen, but it becomes paramount with an administration happy to baldy lie about the most trivial issues and a media driven to hysteria by every move the administration makes.
As much as I wish Donald Trump were not President and as much as I doubt his competence, I am unwilling to assume that every single action he takes is abhorrent and wrong-headed. I have neither the emotional stamina to live in outrage for four years nor the confidence that continual panic serves the common good. Instead, I must sort through the facts, do my best to discern the truth, and then pick my battles. Which actions and appointees are tolerable, and which ones threaten our democracy?
So, how do you discern this? I cannot say that I have figured it out entirely, but I have determined a few steps. First, on any issue or appointee, I make sure to read both liberal and conservative writers. I take care to read analysis by those whom I have seen historically to be fair-minded. By that, I mean that they give the benefit of the doubt to their ideological opponents and that they are willing to occasionally criticize their own side. David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the conservative side, and Nick Kristof on the progressive side are good examples of this.
Second, I have found it useful to not only read articles in (left-leaning) newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, but also to read articles written by independent conservative thinkers like those at National Review. One of the tasks before us is to distinguish between the times when Trump is acting in a traditionally conservative way and the times when he has gone rogue. This provides helpful context. The easiest way to determine this is to read conservative thinkers who opposed Trump during the election. They represent a baseline of traditional conservatism, and they have proven their independence from party motivations. In this category, I recommend Jonah Goldberg. Other right-leaning yet independent thinkers worth looking at are Meghan McArdle, Ana Navarro, and Michael Dougherty.
Some of my most progressive friends may say “I don’t care about those distinctions because conservative principles and players are abhorrent no matter what.” To those friends, I would suggest that such wholesale dismissals of conservatism will cause serious problems going forward. In fact, I wonder if it was that very attitude that so thoroughly alienated some in our country that they rose up and voted for Trump in protest. Although I don’t agree with that action, I can sympathize with its motive. Paying respect towards those we disagree with can go a very long way.
The routine painting of men like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney as evil fools by many on the left proved to be a grave strategic error. Those in the media and in entertainment who did that could then not gain a hearing on the particular issues with candidate Trump because they had already used up all their words on more reasonable candidates. They had simply cried wolf too many times. Does George W. Bush not appear different than you originally understood when you stand him next to Donald Trump? I pray that we will all take this lesson to heart. Let us save our hysteria for true horrors. Be measured in your speech so that you have chips left to play when they matter most.
Having taken the above steps, my reading over the past couple of days suggests that Trump’s reordering of his National Security Council may be of even graver concern than his recent executive order on immigration. Don’t get me wrong – he mistreated thousands by blocking admission to our country of those with green cards and valid visas, and he threatened key relationships in the Muslim world by issuing a complete ban on people from seven Muslim countries. And, as David Brooks says,
Other Republicans have gone far out of their way to make sure the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam or on Arabs, but Trump has gone out of his way to ensure the opposite.
The demotion of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence alongside the promotion of Stephen Bannon to his National Security Council, however, is unprecedented and even more gravely concerning. With that make-up of the National Security Council, we may well end up with a series of errors even more costly than the recent executive order. To sideline people with actual expertise on matters of intelligence and military strategy is frightening. To elevate a person as morally questionable as Bannon to such a seat of influence is further terrifying. Friends and concerned citizens, we need to keep an eye on this.
©2017, Laura Goetsch and Thinking about Such Things