Using positive reinforcement to steer Donald Trump in a better direction might just work, but only if we stop the blanket hysteria
It is fair to say that the New York Times – which, it always pleases me to remember, not so long ago showed such fawning deference to executive power that they forced their journalists to warp the English language, describing the same actions as “torture” when committed by swarthy foreigners but merely “enhanced interrogation” when conducted by Our Boys – has not taken well to the election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States.
But the preface to today’s Opinion Report from the Times, written by David Leonhardt, strikes the right tone and gives some sound advice:
If you opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy, it’s easy to be angry about almost everything he now says or does. When he does something outrageous — like appoint a promoter of racism to a top job — it confirms your fears. And when he does something reasonable — like say he wants to improve the lives of all Americans — it feels hypocritical.
Yet I would still urge people to welcome any step he takes toward democratic normalcy, including those that feel hypocritical.
Trump ran a campaign that was opposed in important respects to American democratic values — and he won. The question that now confronts us is whether our values will change or whether Trump will begin to change.
One of the main reasons that President Obama and Hillary Clinton have reacted to his victory as positively as they have is their desire to move the country back toward democratic normalcy. It’s the right instinct.
I think this is good advice. The endless catastrophisation of Donald Trump’s victory – extending well beyond those areas where we have good reason to fear a Trump presidency toward those where there are no suggestions he intends to make backward steps – is now in danger of doing real harm, not only to the reputations of some of Trump’s most hysterical critics (those who railed against Trump for not committing to accept the election result, and are themselves now refusing to accept the election result) but more importantly to Americans’ faith in their own democracy and electoral system.
During the press pool at their first White House meeting, one could sense the look on Donald Trump’s face that the realisation of what he has wrought is now finally starting to hit. The man who probably didn’t seriously believe he would be in this position, either on the day he announced his candidacy or the day before the election, is rapidly coming to terms with the vast amount of institutional and bureaucratic machinery which he must master, and which will inevitably constrain whatever plans made during the campaign he was serious about enacting.
The mere fact that President Obama spent 90 rather than 15 minutes in that initial meeting walking Donald Trump through the basics (oh to have been a fly on the wall during that American Government 101 session) and plans to hold many more such remedial governance classes with an apparently grateful Trump suggests that the president-elect is finally beginning to accept that there are many things he does not know, and many areas where his administration will need to be guided by the advice and precedent left by history.
And as a reader of this blog pointed out, Americans (and the world) have thrown themselves into a panic before about incoming Republican administrations – with similar accusations of naivety, ignorance and incompetence – only to later have to grudgingly concede that the resulting presidencies were quite good, even historic.
Now, to be clear: I have no such expectations of Donald Trump, who is a tiny fraction of the man that Ronald Reagan was, and certainly nowhere near as faithful a friend to conservatism or the cause of liberty. Real, visceral concern about Trump’s presidency is entirely warranted, especially where it can be eloquently articulated (as opposed to inchoate paranoia) and particularly where its expression closes off doors to some of the more obviously dangerous Trumpian flights of fancy. And of course public protest has an important place in expression opposition to the Trump agenda. But let’s spare the sackcloth and ashes, particularly those of us with public platforms either large or small.
If the goal (for everybody) is to survive the next four years intact and to make Donald Trump’s presidency a successful one for America in spite of the man himself, then we need to ask whether mass hysteria, Trump catastrophisation and total implacable opposition to everything the new administration tries to do is really the best approach, or whether it might be better to provide affirmation and support where Trump does something right combined with forceful dissent and opposition where he or his team stray from an acceptable path, in the hope of teaching the new president some boundaries.
It is quite clear to this blog which is the better option. Keep screaming that everything Trump now does is tantamount to fascism will be like crying “wolf!”, causing the president-elect himself to block out the just criticism along with the superficial, and his supporters to harden in their support for him. We saw just how well that approach worked during the election campaign. Let’s not now make the same mistake during the transition and on into the new administration.
Where Trump does the right thing – even if it means walking back on previous, extreme campaign positions – it wouldn’t hurt to try giving credit where credit is due, at least for a trial period. If we know anything of Donald Trump’s character, it is that while he will take any publicity, good or bad, he much prefers people to think well of him.
And while the Democratic Party and intra-GOP opposition take their time to get organised, Donald Trump’s desire to be admired and respected may turn out to be a very useful constraining factor on his behaviour on office.
Those of us with real concerns about Donald Trump’s presidency should not throw away that potentially vital lever of control in our haste to criticise absolutely everything about the incoming president.
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