Democrats have a choice. Should they oppose everything about the President-elect on principle, or should they wait to see what Donald Trump actually does now that the election is over, and tailor their critiques to the actions he takes?
Some of the Democratic Party’s most prominent leaders have argued in favor of giving Donald Trump a chance to demonstrate what he will do. “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” Hillary Clinton urged during her concession speech.
But that’s just one possible way to approach a Trump presidency. “Give Trump a chance? Give me a break,” the headline of a Washington Post op-ed declared last week. The Post’s digital opinions editor James Downie argued: “We must plan for the worst,” adding that “now is the time for those who oppose him to organize.”
Those viewpoints aren’t necessarily diametrically opposed. Even Democrats who argue that Trump’s presidency should be approached with an open mind likely believe that liberals should be readying the opposition to come. Nevertheless, tensions and disagreements are bound to arise as critics determine how to respond to a Trump presidency.
I spoke with George Edwards—a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University—about what Democrats should do if they want to hold Trump accountable as president. A transcript of the interview appears below. It has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Clare Foran: There’s been a lot of resistance from some of Trump's critics to the idea that he should be given a chance now that he has been elected. What do you think of that?
George Edwards: I think there’s actually not much of an option—you have to wait and see what he really does. We know that we’ve had incendiary rhetoric and proposals from Trump, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to have radical policies from him. We might. But his critics can’t just assume before he’s made a proposal that they are going to be as bad as they fear. Once Trump takes action, if it is as bad as his critics fear, then they should oppose it. But they will paint themselves into a corner if their opposition does not stem from concrete actions that Trump has taken.
Foran: Why do you think that kind of opposition would be ineffective?
Edwards: It’s not politically smart. If you express opposition to what you think is coming before it has actually happened, Trump can say ‘I haven’t even done that’ and then he is more likely to become a sympathetic figure. But if Trump’s opponents are civil and it turns out that Trump isn’t, or if they wait until he does something and then point out what they think is wrong or detrimental about it, then the comparison will be clear and it is far more likely to be in favor of his opponents than if they oppose him before he does anything.
Foran: Do you think it will be easier for Trump supporters to dismiss criticisms directed at Trump if they’re able to say to his opponents “well, you opposed him from day one”?
Edwards: Yes. I think that there is a lot of potential danger in a Donald Trump presidency for a lot of reasons, and one I think is that he doesn’t know anything about governing. But if it looks like you’re trying to undermine him before he takes office, then it will be harder to argue that if things go wrong under Trump that he alone is to blame for that. It may obscure the accountability for any problems that emerge.
Foran: What else do you think Democrats need to do if they want to win back the political power they lost as a result of the election?
Edwards: People who opposed Trump in the election need to reach out to other people to increase their coalition. They will have to take some of the people who supported Trump and bring them to their side. And they won't be able to do that if they alienate those people from the start.
Once Trump has taken concrete actions, Democrats should start reaching out to people who supported Trump to try to show them that the consequences of his policies will be very bad from their point of view.
Foran: When we talk about the need to increase the Democratic coalition, what about the fact that Clinton leads in the popular vote, even if Trump won the election?
Edwards: The coalition still isn't big enough. Clinton’s lead in the popular wasn’t enough to elect her president, and this isn’t just about the presidency either. The Democrats at the state level are in the worst position they’ve been since the 1920s. They’re a minority in the House and the Senate, and they are very vulnerable in the mid-term elections since they have to defend 25 Democratic senators, and a good number of those are in states Trump won. Democrats will have to bring some of the people who voted for Trump over to their side if they want to win going forward.
Foran: Setting aside the question of what's politically strategic, do you think it would be dangerous to reject the legitimacy of a president before they have actually taken office?
Edwards: I think so. We are at historic levels of polarization, and I don’t think contributing to that polarization is helpful for American democracy.
Foran: But can’t Democrats argue that Republicans have already set a dangerous precedent of obstruction by refusing to hold hearings on [U.S. Supreme Court nominee] Merrick Garland, for example?
Edwards: Republicans certainly in my view have acted very badly. But you don’t want to institutionalize bad behavior. And I think that Democrats should hope that what happened with Garland is an exception, and a deviation, and not do anything that could help turn it into a norm. If it becomes a norm, then it can be done to Democrats again more easily.
Foran: What about expressing opposition to what Trump does during the transition before he officially takes office? Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, for example, has expressed vocal opposition to Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as a chief strategist and senior counselor to the president.
Edwards: I think that criticizing specific actions that Trump takes following the election is absolutely fine, and that would include criticizing appointments to his administration, If Bannon is indeed a racist, then I think it is absolutely required to point that out. It’s not clear to me yet that he is a racist. But it’s perfectly legitimate to raise those questions and to criticize anything that smacks of racism, misogyny, etc.
If Trump appoints people who represent despicable or unacceptable views to his administration, then he is responsible and it makes sense to point that out and to be critical of it.
Foran: If people who oppose Trump hold off on criticizing him until he takes concrete action either as president-elect or once he takes office, does that risk sending a message that things like what Trump said on the 2005 Access Hollywood recording that surfaced during the campaign are acceptable?
Edwards: Well, that would be very bad if that became normalized, and it is completely unacceptable. But I don’t think that that people will forget that he did that, or that his critics will stop raising the fact that he did that. None of this is to say that navigating how to respond to a Trump presidency will be easy for anyone who opposed him or who continues to oppose him. It's a very difficult situation, and I don’t think anyone should forget about his past behavior.