There is a saying I’ve heard all my life. “What’s done is done.” It is the recognition of the directional nature of time. It is the sentiment expressed by many after a much too long and far too vitriolic campaign for the presidency. We are now faced with the certainty that Donald J. Trump will be 45th president of the United States. Neither principled conservatives nor liberals have much to cheer.
Those of us who served in government and who are wonkish about such things recognize the president-elect’s foreign policy pronouncements shred the Reagan-Weinberger doctrine; his coddling of a Russian dictator and denigration of U.S. generals may make them roll in their graves. The placement in his transition team of someone whose publication called well-respected conservative intellectual Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew” ought to give pause to all who have any sense of history. Constitutionalists, of which I am one, cannot be pleased at the rhetoric about the cracking down on, simple opacity with, or personal attacks directed toward the press. Nor can they be happy about stated policy goals in direct opposition with the 1st Amendment’s protection of religious liberty. But, what’s done is done.
I will call him Mr. President. I respect the office. But what is done is perhaps not quite so clear as his many supporters may believe. Some have said this election represents a sound rejection of President Obama’s legacy and liberalism in general. Pundits sounded a similar death knell over conservatism, the GOP, and the candidacy of the new president-elect. Both obituaries are and were premature in the extreme.
Though the Trump campaign made the case that he was tapping a source of new voters and driving record numbers, that was not the case. It’s true more voted for him during the primary than for any Republican in history. It is equally true more voted against him than any candidate in primary history. From general election data, it appears nearly five million fewer people voted for Mr. Trump than for Governor Romney in 2012. Six million fewer voted for Secretary Clinton than for President Obama in 2012. Voter turnout was lower overall by percentage than it was in either 2008 or 2012, an indictment of the quality of the choice. Of the ballots cast, Secretary Clinton received over one million more votes than Mr. Trump. While that is just a footnote in history as it relates to the election of the president, it should not be ignored by the new administration or by the Republicans controlling Congress.
It might surprise you, given the bluster of congressional leaders, that the ruling party lost ground this election. The Senate GOP majority is razor thin at 51-48 (with one independent). What all this means is that approximately 21% of adult Americans supported the election of the next president—one in five—and some did so only reluctantly. This is nothing new. Voter apathy means no president in modern history has been elected by a majority of Americans.
What is important here is that when more people vote for someone other than you—an anomaly in presidential politics—and when your party loses seats in both houses of Congress, it means you do not have a mandate. Mr. Trump and Republicans eked out a very narrow win; they were not swept to victory. This was a rejection of a particular candidate and the dubious character of the possible dynasty she represented, not much more. It does not mean our country is “deeply divided.” On any given day, roughly half of us support the direction represented by one of two parties. That’s not division. It’s balance. If the new congress and president—along with all of us—can come to grips with that reality, there is a possibility we may again know effective governance. If not, then what appears done may just as easily be undone.