Commitments for the Trump Era

January 6, 2017

Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been thinking a good deal about how I should act towards this unwelcome person vested with the authority of the presidency. I’ve read a great deal from others, much of it worrying about specific things that may or may not come to pass. Gradually, a few principles to guide my own posture, attention, advocacy and action have come into view. I’m setting them down here to record my thinking at this particular time, before he takes office, and also to make them available to others.

  1. I begin with an understanding that Donald Trump is unfit to be President. The problem is not that he is inexperienced, uninformed and prejudiced, though he is all of these. Rather, he is unfit in character. He feels no commitment to evidence or truth telling. He is unable to show even a smidgen of empathy to others. He has no ability to pay attention at length or focus in depth. He insists on the adulation of others. In evidence over the whole of his well-documented adult life, these features of his character will not change with experience. They make him unacceptable as a President. These features will not be altered or restrained by those he chooses as advisors. It would be reckless to expect the office to change him.

      One consequence is that I want to pay little attention to what he says. Much of what he says is intended (not necessarily consciously) to inflame and incite. It will only be distracting to real issues to pay attention to whatever he says in tweets and parries.

  1. My second commitment is to pay close attention to those he invests with authority: the Cabinet Secretaries, Department heads, White House advisors and Congressional leaders. These are the people who can make things happen if things are to happen. By himself, the President can do little. It is those who choose to be his allies that I want to watch carefully. It is to them I want to respond in word and deed.
  1. I will feel an obligation to speaking truthfully and to hold others to a standard of truthfulness. I will feel an obligation to speak with civility and generosity. These are commitments I have had for many years, but I need to renew these. Two things follow from this.

      I need not only to read but to support institutions (newspapers, magazines, etc.) that I believe seek and speak the truth. I need to be wary of becoming a free rider on those sources to which I can gain unpaid access via the Internet. I need to give them active support.

      At the same time, I need to be sure I pay attention to the best of the opposition. Some time ago, I resolved to pay more attention to those with whom I disagreed. I try to read regularly opinions, perspectives and policy arguments of those with whom I part company, even on what seem like fundamental matters. This commitment must continue.

  1. I need to keep fresh a short list of the most important issues in play. I need to pay attention to these, even when they slip from sight in the news, and I need to stay focused on the actions that might advance those causes or set them back. I cannot/should not trust the news media to do my focusing for me.
  1. I need to pay attention to the Congress. Many of the bad things that could come to pass will only happen with Congressional action. I need to hold members of Congress accountable for their votes and for their refusals to vote. I need to write and call them regularly to voice my views on the issues most important to me.
  1. I need to insist on adherence to the law. Because there is little I can do as an individual in that regard beyond speaking out, this will mean giving tangible support to those organizations that press for the rule of law. I need to insist that organizations I care about be treated lawfully and equitably, and at the same time I need to insist that those organizations I support tell the truth and act lawfully and ethically.
  1. Finally, I know that there may be issues on which I may be compelled to stand for a change in the law, even perhaps to commit civil disobedience. I need to support organizations that do this, too, when necessary.   Civil disobedience is a not a path to be embarked upon quickly or rashly, but only when the stakes are very high and when other avenues have been shown ineffective.

      The organizations that will lead efforts in civil disobedience are unlikely to be the same organizations that insist on adherence to the law. I need to be thoughtful about the organizations to which I give support.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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