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.