The Political Problem That's Just As Important As The Presidency

Trump's ugly and divisive rhetoric, whether he means it or not, is something which beyond the politics of the moment could be seriously harmful in the longer run of the United States.
07/25/2016 01:33 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2017
Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx 7/21/16 Donald Trump at day 4 of The Republican National Convention. (Cleveland, Ohio)
Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx 7/21/16 Donald Trump at day 4 of The Republican National Convention. (Cleveland, Ohio)

Shortly after the UK vote a couple of weeks ago, I was asked to give a speech in front of a Chicago group about "Brexit and American Populism." During the Q&A, a thoughtful twenty-something asked me if I believed Donald Trump would really govern as conservatively or radically as he is promising to on the central issues of his campaign. It's an oft-asked and interesting question, for more than one reason.

Like many, I've wondered about this hypothetical for months, even as I continue to believe that a number of relevant data points make a Trump victory unlikely. But if all of us who're predicting such a loss turn out to be wrong, would this man then behave more like a centrist in the White House? Might he be more transactional, which seems to be one of the cold constants throughout his career? Or might he even become progressive, as he has sounded at times publicly for decades (and even on a few issues in this race)?

My answer seemed to put the questioner at ease, though that wasn't the intention. I told him that setting aside my strong personal disgust for Trump, I would be very surprised if he truly believed a lot of what he was saying, and even more surprised if he actually tried to execute on the most extreme things he's promised. But even if he did try, I continued, there's something called "Congress" that has the power to reject many of his ideas. And when it comes to his proposals that threaten religious tests, trade wars, abdicating responsibilities to NATO, etc. -- thankfully members of his own party and its leaders in Congress are already vocally opposed.

Trump may not fully understand this concept. At his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he offered one dramatic sentence that spoke volumes: "I, alone, can fix it." Even though it's likely Trump was basing this assertion on his vaunted "outsider" status and personal experience rigging the game as a businessman who bought politicians, the phrase caught the attention of a ton of people -- left, right and center. Even if these words were not meant literally, the phrase itself flies directly in the face of the U.S. Constitution and the entire idea upon which our republic was founded. I think Jeff Greenfield summarized it best when he labeled it "Caesarism."

It's true that Trump's knee-jerk style and extreme guarantees did gain enough traction to win the primary nomination with approximately 14 million votes. But we have an upcoming general election with more than 220 million eligible voters. We also have a separation of powers in our republican form of government that restrains the executive from becoming an authoritarian. It's almost as if we adopted these checks and balances 237 years ago for just such a potential situation! Come to think of it, delete "It's almost as if."

Bearing all of this in mind, my biggest concern in this presidential race is not the possibility of an extreme, runaway Trump administration. What I'm more troubled by, no matter who wins the White House, is just how much more raw the division will feel in our country after this cruel, dishonest and protracted display by Trump. This is not to say that only one party or one candidate in any presidential race plays hardball and draws clear contrasts, including character attacks. We're talking about politics at the national level, and it gets muddy. Democrats play plenty rough, too. But the vitriolic things that Trump has said as a presidential candidate/nominee over and over about race, religion, and gender in our country are unprecedented. And even if it has struck a chord with an incredibly frustrated chunk of the electorate, I still believe that it is contributing to an already heightened polarization in American at a time when political compromise seems to be a concept on the verge of extinction.

Just over a year ago, I published Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules -- Restore the System. The book was designed as a non-partisan, fact-based review of our defective legislative branch. It's no bestseller yet, but that wasn't the primary goal. First and foremost, I wanted to make sure that the set of ideas I laid out would have the capacity to resonate with Americans from across the ideological spectrum. Politics is not a zero-sum game in our system of governance. And based on that reality, I tried to construct a logical diagnosis of the structural problems holding back Congress -- even as I acknowledged the current level of division between the parties. In fact, the solutions I proposed are intended to decrease party division.

As a guy who used to manage campaigns for the U.S. House and Senate, this stuff genuinely matters to me. There are a great many Americans who view politicians and strategists cynically -- and I can certainly understand that attitude at this historical moment. But I still see the endeavor of running for office and representing voters as a public service. I've also been around campaigns long enough to know the value and power of the words our leaders choose to speak. There used to be an instinctively identifiable line in politics in terms of what was acceptable to say publicly, and what was going too far. While it's true that over the last couple of decades it has seemed like that line keeps getting redrawn and pushed back, Donald Trump's language in this campaign has completely eviscerated it. He has exploded any unspoken agreement about what type of rhetoric is appropriate when uttered in the political public square.

Some folks are pleased about this and find it a refreshing relief from "political correctness." I don't. I find it a manipulative and opportunistic tactic -- that's worked for him so far. But I believe the ubiquitous trail of negative residue left by Trump is working against the already daunting challenge of changing our political atmosphere so that the two major parties can actually come to agreement publicly about many of the things they already agree on privately. Try to find a U.S. representative who thinks our nation's infrastructure is in great shape. There's plenty we could do on plenty of issues, if only our politics allowed for it.

America's elected officeholders have always had to deftly weigh the balance between directly representing the views of their voters while also making sound judgments about the country's future -- which often involves courageous compromise. This is an inherent part of the system our founders created. Trump's ugly and divisive rhetoric, whether he means it or not, is something which beyond the politics of the moment could be seriously harmful in the longer run of the United States. I, for one, will have an incredibly difficult time trying to forgive this man for what he's done. I'm sure this news would just break his "huge heart."

For all Trump opponents who have a visceral reaction to his words and policy "suggestions," it can be easy to get carried away in our disdain. But when I slow it all down, I remember the constraints that exist within our federal framework. At that point, the whole Donald Trump fiasco reminds me of two important practical goals that we would be wise to keep our eyes on. The first is to push for those congressional candidates on the ballot in November whom we truly believe will best serve our interests. And if you're as hungry as I am for actual reform and improvement in Congress, then you'll check out the "By The People" legislative package that was unveiled by House Democrats just prior to the conventions.

The second priority is to not let our sense of personal disappointment in any election campaign or its results prevent us from working toward a more rational and bipartisan performance from our elected representatives. Americans who are already engaged in our political process will continue to fight for their principles once we have a new government in place. And, as ever, I hope this general election will bring many new voters into the process. At the same time, I hope we will all take the high road when it comes to picking up the pieces of this historically high-stakes general election battle. If we let one candidate or one presidential race divide us even further from the place where we already find ourselves, then we've all lost the election, no matter which party wins.