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Was It Wrong for Hillary and Obama to Be So Gracious This Week in the Aftermath of Trump’s Election?

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On Daily Kos, the piece was  titled “Obama and Clinton delivered amazing grace under pressure—but they shouldn’t have.” On slate.com, the piece was called “A Russian Dissident Explains Exactly Why Clinton’s Concession Speech Was So Dangerous.” Both writers (Mark Summer on daily kos, Mark Joseph Stern on slate) were endorsing the argument by Masha Gessen — a Russian with experience of dealing with autocracy– that it was a mistake for Obama and Hillary to treat Trump as something normal, something other than the threat to fundamental aspects of American constitutional democracy that he is.

However well-intentioned, this talk assumes that Trump is prepared to find common ground with his many opponents, respect the institutions of government, and repudiate almost everything he has stood for during the campaign. In short, it is treating him as a “normal” politician.

Are these critics right? Should Obama and/or Hillary have played their traditional roles — Hillary as the defeated candidate, Obama as the out-going president — in a non-traditional way because the victor in the election is a non-traditional, extraordinary, unprecedented disaster of a president-elect?

I don’t think so.

The way I framed the question reveals how I think one should understand what was called for from Hillary Clinton and President Obama. They have a role to play, one which affirms American norms. It was their job — on this occasion — not to attack the new president-elect, but to reaffirm the basic rules that have enabled American democracy to survive.

They were speaking at a particular moment in the process– neither while the American electorate was making its millions of decisions whom to support, nor in the coming time when the new leader is taking actions in his new role.

Both Hillary and Obama had said plenty before the election about how they see Trump. They attacked him rightly, eloquently, powerfully. And they did not take those statements back.

(I might have wanted them to speak in more qualified ways– e.g. not to wish him “success” in some general kind of way, but rather “success” in moving the nation forward in a way that serves all Americans, or some such way that narrows how success should be understood.)

But now that Trump has been elected, and has yet to act, the purpose of the occasion is to enact the peaceful transfer of power.

It would have been inappropriate to criticize Trump, who is now newly-minted, rendered in the moment with a kind of clean slate, with an unblemished record as president.

It would have been inappropriate to have said, as Gessen would have had her say, “Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise.”

All that is true, and almost certainly he will start acting in ways that prove it to be true.

But those who made much of the importance of the acceptance of the results of the election, and of the peaceful transfer of power, and thus of honoring the system by which the people made their decision, are required in that moment to affirm those values. (Even if we suspect — with good reason — that Donald Trump would have done no such thing had Hillary been the victor.)

It is when Trump begins, once past the point of his election, to demonstrate the danger he poses to “our political system, our society, our country itself” that the criticism that Gessen (and Summer and Stern) think would have been the right way for Hillary and Obama to have spoken this past week wanted to hear from Hillary and Obama this past week will become appropriate.

  • Jim B

    I suppose most politicians are just like prosecuting and defense attorneys. During a trial they fight and afterwards off to the country club. Obama and Clinton will now be off to the country club so to speak as whatever disaster may be coming will not affect them.

    • Andy Schmookler

      I believe you misread them completely, Jim. B. I doubt there are many Americans more bitterly disappointed than Obama and Clinton. Because Trump won, there’s a good bet his whole legacy will be erased. Because Trump won, Hillary’s dreams of being president, and accomplishing things close to her heart — which had seemed right within her grasp — are now forever lost. Plus the weight of having protected the nation by defeating Donald Trump.

      I expect their suffering goes very deep.

      But they had a job to do that is part of the set of traditions and norms that have been built up around the Constitution to safeguard the spirit of democracy. The concession speech that Hillary delivered, contrasted with the readiness Trump had to assault that spirit by simply threatening to reject the outcome of the election if it wasn’t to his liking, with no substantiation whatever for his declaring that the election was “rigged.”

      By honoring our norms, Obama and Clinton affirm the importance of American norms. That will be one of the battles coming up, most likely– and it is good to remind the American people that there are norms, and that our nation works better when they are honored. And therefore they should require Trump to honor those norms and, since he is most unlikely to do so, he should be denounced in front the American people when he violates them.

      These two events were the enactment of valuable American rituals. The loser must accept the outcome of the constitutionally-mandated process, and the old president is called upon to hand power over to the successor — even the most despised opponent — with dignity and respect for the system.

      Obama and Clinton would likely have given up an arm, or at least several fingers, not to have to enact that ritual with Donald Trump as the president elect.

      I hope they won’t be silent when it becomes time to speak out against Trump, but I’m not certain that it will work for them to do so. There is a tradition, for example, that the former president does not comment publicly on the new president.

      Is that a tradition that should be preserved. Or are there circumstances forseeable ahead, under which Obama should?

      In any event, Clinton and Obama have earned a marker than makes the Democrats’ future attempts to preserve the system that much more credible.

  • Not sure I agree with this one…I’d say Trump is already showing us plenty of horrible stuff (e.g., climate science denier as head of EPA???) to blast away. F*** him and his corrupt band of authoritarian goons. FIGHT!

    • Andy Schmookler

      The cross-over from hated candidate to accepted winner of the election, and thus president-elect, had just taken place when Clinton spoke, and then Obama met with Donald.

      So his record as president was a clean slate. Part of the deal is that we give him a chance to prove us wrong in our beliefs of how terrible he is going to be. Hence they both called upon images of a presidency that is different from the one that we expect.

      Since then Trump has undertaken actions — making statements, having surrogates and supporters of his make statements, naming atrocious people as involved in the staffing process — that warrant opposition, including firing a shot across his bow.

      Nonetheless, we have an obligation to see whether there is any way to come to a scenario that’s better than the political war that is almost certainly otherwise brewing.

      We owe it to ourselves, and our children and grandchildren, to do everything we can to come to a scenario that is not hugely damaging to the nation.

  • JWS

    The President and Secretary Clinton behaved with the dignity and class that befits them and the roles that they play.

    As for me, and what I’d advise the rest of us to do, I’m with Jim Zogby:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-zogby/what-just-happened-and-wh_b_12918600.html

    And, I’m not a huge fan of Jim’s.

    • Andy Schmookler

      Maybe Zogby is right in faulting the Democrats with ” Within the Democratic Party, I am arguing, as I have for decades, that
      we have slighted the white working class. Despite having been the
      backbone of the Democratic Party, we ignored the hardships they endured
      as they became victims of economic and social dislocation.” A number of people have said similar things.

      But I think that’s putting the emphasis on the wrong place, when it comes to seeing the problem. Sure, the Democratic Party has not been nearly the ally of the working class that it was when George Meany was the head of the AFL-CIO, and when organized labor was indeed the backbone of the Democratic Party.

      The fact is that the union movement has lost most of its power since then, and Democrats had to move more toward the corporate world to be able to compete with the much more corporate Republican Party.

      So even if the Democrats have not been as strongly committed to looking out for the working class– ALL THAT GETS DONE FOR THE WORKING CLASS IN WASHINGTON IS DONE BY THE DEMOCRATS, AND GENERALLY OVER THE OPPOSITION OF THE REPUBLICANS. When it comes to the National Labor Relations Board, when it comes to raising the minumum wage, when it comes to countless other issues to balance things more in favor of working people, it has been the Democrats who have invariably been their champions.

      So the real issue here is not how the Democrats abandoned the working class. It is how so much of the working class got persuaded to lend its political support to the very political force that continually stacks the deck against working people.

      And now a lot of them have voted for Trump NOT because they made any rational judgment based on evidence that the Democrats were not championing their cause, but because of a wholly unwarranted judgment that somehow this plutocratic Republican Party, and now this billionaire con man, is going to serve them better than the Democrats and Hillary Clinton would.

      That judgment reveals a lack of perception of reality, a buying into a whole host of falsehoods, and being distracted by a whole lot of issues — like abortion — that will not improve their lives even if they win — and guns — on which their liberties and safety depend a whole lot less than they’ve been led to believe.

      It is really hard to make a case that, for almost any working class person, that voting for Trump and for the Republicans is a reasonable way to make their lives, and their children’s lives, better.

      The heart of the problem is that these people have been manipulated not to see things as they are, and thus to be unable to judge how to address their legitimate concerns and feelings.