Donald Trump’s America has plunged below rock bottom. The coronavirus has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. Trump has spent years debasing our foundational institutions while being cheered on wildly by half the country. And Congress was assaulted by a violent mob while carrying out the most essential democratic function of all – the peaceful transfer of power after an election.
Where do we go from here?
We must achieve two objectives to reverse the spiraling trend line and restore American sanity and stability.
First, we must reduce our political divisiveness. The polarized rot at the extremes of our polity are rapidly gaining market share. And the common way to address divisiveness – insisting that the other side is bad and must change – has only deepened the divide. The antidote to polarization is not uncompromising demands (however eloquent or well-reasoned) that our political opponents roll over.
Instead, the way forward is to finally start compromising – to give the other side concrete policy wins when possible. This, in turn, lessens the sting of their own concessions, thereby spinning the political flywheel in the right direction.
Of course, politics will always be a partisan enterprise. Electoral winners shouldn’t be expected to embrace policies antithetical to their fundamental values. And large coalitions on both sides are unlikely to budge. But, in Trump’s aftermath, moderates on both sides must become first-movers in a substantive shift toward bipartisanship. The alternative is more of the same – an ever-accelerating descent into political madness.
The second thing we must do to restore American stability is resist the urge to overreact to Trump’s presidency. Perhaps the one thing all Americans can agree on is that Donald Trump is an outlier. The Biden presidency is a sharp reversion to the mean, a restoration to normality and sanity in the executive branch.
The rules and institutions of our government should be engineered to withstand an anomaly like Donald Trump. But they should not be premised on Trump becoming the norm. We should not overreact and, for example, eliminate core free speech for Trump’s allies, reshape executive power in response to Trump’s abuses, or pursue overzealous prosecutions of Trump’s friends.
In response to Watergate, Congress passed the 1978 Independent Counsel Act – a misguided and constitutionally dubious overreaction to Richard Nixon’s presidency. The mistake came into sharp focus as Ken Starr brazenly investigated Bill Clinton. And after Clinton’s impeachment the Department of Justice corrected the error by rewriting the rules for appointing outside prosecutors. We shouldn’t make similar mistakes now.
These two objectives, of reducing divisiveness and not overreacting to Trump, go hand in hand. They are rooted not just in reverence for America’s history but confidence that our constitutional system works as designed.
Abraham Lincoln asked at Gettysburg whether this nation could long endure. And it has. Lincoln’s sweeping pardon of all Confederate soldiers after the Civil War reverberates today. Instead of punishing the soldiers, Lincoln forgave them. And he trusted that America’s constitutional system could harness the potential of all Americans, not simply his political allies. What followed was the most successful national reemergence in history.
Lincoln understood that after years of violence and division the key ingredients for restoring American stability were compromise with his adversaries and confidence in the principles of American government.
The same is true now.
William Cooper is an attorney who has written for the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News and USA Today, among others.