BERLIN – On the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States elected a president who plans to build an even bigger wall, this time on the border with Mexico. Now, President-elect Donald Trump must decide whether he wants to plow forward with his divisive agenda or actually advance America’s best interests.
There are strong parallels between Trump’s victory and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union last June. Republicans interviewed after the election result was known looked almost as shocked as the architects of the UK’s “Leave” campaign on the morning after the referendum. But no one was more dumbfounded than those on the losing side, which in both cases had been widely expected to come out on top.
One effect of the Brexit vote that has already emerged in the US as well is a surge in hate crimes, including an alarming number of incidents being reported at schools and on college campuses. Trump’s win has emboldened some of his supporters to move from the anonymity of abusing targets on social media to accosting them openly on the street.
This is not surprising: Trump’s campaign was marked by nearly 18 months of vitriol, aimed not just against his opponent, but also at US government institutions, the press, and many segments of the US population, particularly immigrants, refugees, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Muslims. He attracted the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and surrounded his campaign with the white nationalists of the so-called alt-right.
In fact, many of the promises Trump made to his supporters during the campaign are highly divisive and even dangerous, and their implementation could have serious adverse effects on the lives of ordinary Americans, triggering civil unrest. Conversely, abandoning some of the policies he promised could trigger a backlash – perhaps violent – among his supporters.
However busy Trump is planning the transition to the White House – selecting his cabinet and prioritizing his many promises – he must not ignore this risk. If he hopes to be anything remotely close to a responsible leader, he must move urgently to address the deep divisions that he so enthusiastically fueled during his campaign.
That means becoming more presidential, by advocating a calm and reasonable approach that emphasizes, above all, upholding the US Constitution and the rule of law. He should start by speaking out firmly against violence, and taking proactive measures to protect immigrants and minorities, who are understandably fearful of attacks by his supporters.
More broadly, Trump must avoid triumphalism, and acknowledge, with uncharacteristic humility, the magnitude of the challenge ahead. And he must convey a credible message about a consensual approach, discarding the partisan hostility that has dominated US politics in recent years and, in particular, during the just-concluded campaign.
Of course, Trump is not in this alone, and a leader is only as good as his or her team. To build credibility, Trump will need to be transparent about how he crafts his administration, ensuring that it includes the knowledge and experience that he lacks. He does not have a deep bench to draw from, but he must find a way to make it work, assembling a group that can advise him wisely.
It is vital that Trump takes these steps quickly, so that his administration can hit the ground running. Only then can he hope not only to meet his commitments for the first 100 days in office, but also – and more important – to begin easing the fear and anger that his campaign has brought to fever pitch.
All legislators – whether pro- or anti-Trump, Republican or Democrat – must participate fully in the effort to reduce tensions, improve cooperation, and protect the US political system’s checks and balances. They must recognize that the US today is a tinderbox. The time for playing with fire is over. Cool heads must prevail.
The business, culture, and non-profit sectors, as well as the press and pundits, must remain calm as well, resisting the lure of hyperbole and scare tactics, and look toward a shared future. Most important, community leaders must not allow their constituents to be manipulated or goaded into behavior that risks dangerous knock-on effects.
Judging by Trump’s long history as a public figure, the idea that he would help to bridge the divides in the US probably seems ludicrous. His victory speech did include the traditional pledge to be “president for all Americans.” The American people need to hold him to that sentiment – and uphold it themselves. Some – indeed many – will never support him; but it is his job, as president, to reach out to all and appeal to the country’s shared values.
Being president and running for president require very different skills. President-elect Trump must use his first 100 days in office not just to make appointments and prioritize legislation, but also to set a reassuring tone for his administration. Stability and trust must be the order of the day.
In his second inaugural address, following a period of extreme division and civil war, Abraham Lincoln declared, “let us strive on” and “bind up the nation’s wounds.” Trump is no Lincoln, but he did invoke the same spirit in his victory speech. One hopes that he meant it.