‘OK, So You Drain the Swamp; What Happens Next?’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader dissents over this Notes series trying to give a fair hearing to the views of Trump voters:

How many more of these fucking notes? I get it. “Get to know Trump voters” is generating clicks. But at least publish something real in response.

Reader Marco says, “It won’t fall because the U.S. government’s institutions are designed to prevent irrational outcomes to a good degree. Trust the system a little, if you learned anything from history.” Really? We had Japanese internment upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1940s [a reader previously made this point] and national-origin restrictions on Japanese people until the 1950s. We had state-sponsored terrorism of black people in the South through the 1960s. [This reader and others previously invoked the history of slavery and white supremacy.] What someone who actually reads history, and pays attention to it, knows is that the values of liberal democracy are not universally held and when lost, recovered only at great cost.

I don’t think these things will happen. I also don’t think there are 60 million racists. But I do think there are 60 million people who don’t really give a shit whether it does or doesn’t. If I’m wrong and they do give a shit, let them prove it with their own behavior and statements—not just tell people to “rely on the institutions” that they say they voted for Trump to destroy.

Another reader, James, lives in southern California and describes himself as a “White, middle-class, Christian, culturally-rural, ideologically-moderate Independent” who is sympathetic to the grievances of Trump supporters but couldn’t bring himself to vote for the guy. Now with Trump’s victory, James worries that the democratic norms and institutions of the U.S. won’t be able to withstand the dicey demagogue, and he fears that the country could veer down a painful path like that of Venezuela, Uruguay, and Peru during the late 20th century. Here’s James:

Fascinating discussion, and I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of the responses on both sides and the courage of Trump voters to explain their reasoning. But like reader Pamela, I’m afraid I still don’t get it. I share many of the same concerns that other readers have brought up, but I feel like I must be missing a step.

I am sympathetic to conservatives who felt that their voices were not being heard. I am a grad student, and I wish that conservatives were better-represented in my discipline, political science. I also wish that conservative students at my university felt safer in expressing viewpoints that differ from those of the majority on campus. I think that some individuals are over-zealous in their political correctness, though I would hardly attribute this to “liberalism” as a whole any more than I would attribute racism to “conservatism.” Most people I know—whether on the Left or the Right—want to live in a society like the one that Southern Guy described. I do, too.

But I struggle to see how electing a demagogue who has put identity politics at the heart of his campaign and who has just chosen a white nationalist as his chief strategist is going to get us to that pluralistic, tolerant society. If you really want to see an end to identity politics [as reader Alan says he does], why stoke the flames?

I am also sympathetic to voters who wanted to cast a protest vote. I myself cast a protest vote in this election, but my protest vote was for a third-party candidate who had zero chance of winning my state. If there were other options, why did you cast your protest vote for a competitive candidate, unless you also wanted him to win?

I am all for protest, but like any other political act, protests have consequences. In deciding to vote for a candidate other than Clinton or Trump, I thought very carefully about what I was doing. I considered whether the election in my state was close enough that enough voters voting the same way as me could tip the balance between Clinton and Trump. I decided that there was a near-zero probability of this happening, and in the end, Clinton won my state by a 30 point margin.

I also considered whether I was ok with legitimizing my third-party candidate’s policies or party. I decided that while I did not agree with everything my candidate said or believed, I had no problem legitimizing those positions.

Similarly, before I participated in my city’s (nonviolent) post-election protest this weekend, I spent several hours carefully considering whether I should be doing this. I do not take protests against democratically-elected leaders lightly. I considered the possibility that my protest would make President Trump take a more hardline stance than he otherwise would have taken. I considered the possibility that protesting on the streets would undercut the position of moderate Republicans in Congress who will be one of Trump’s few institutional constraints during these next four years. I also considered the possibility that the 60 million people who voted for Trump would take offense at my protest and misinterpret it as an attack against them.

But in the end, I decided that since the demonstration would happen in any case, it was better for all sides that it contain more White, middle-class, Christian, culturally-rural, ideologically-moderate Independents like me, so as to prevent the protest from being about “racial minorities versus Whites” or “Left versus Right.” I knew that my vote-choice and protest-choice entailed costs and risks that I would not fully internalize, but I calculated that the benefits for society outweighed the costs.

For those of you who voted for Trump out of protest, I would love to hear more about your calculation. You have said a lot about what you were voting against, but the other side of the equation is not completely clear to me yet. Did you think that Trump’s critics had exaggerated the harm that a Trump presidency might do to our country’s institutions? Did you think that Trump would abandon most of his policies and that nobody would get hurt? Or did you accept that some people might get hurt by his presidency, but conclude that it could do more good than harm for the country over all?

[If you’re a Trump voter and would like to address any of those questions, send a note to hello@theatlantic.com.]

No liberal or moderate I know thinks that all or even most Trump voters are racist. But many of us do worry that you have disregarded the risks that come with a Trump presidency, especially the risks that are concentrated on minority groups that Trump has spoken out against. I doubt that this was really the case, and I think you could make your position more understandable by telling us more about what you thought a Trump presidency would actually look like. Ok, so you drain the swamp; what happens next?

And that brings me to reader Marco. I’m not crazy about political dynasties or corruption either, and I have tried to learn from history. I have studied historical cases of populist and outsider candidates coming to power in presidential democracies, and that is part of the reason why I am so worried. Democracies often fail from within, and democratically-elected leaders can dismantle democratic institutions, even in established democracies.

Venezuela was a decades-old, consolidated democracy at the time of its 1998 election, even though its political system was facing a crisis of legitimacy. Within a couple years of that election, the elected populist president had rewritten the constitution, cemented his control over most other state institutions, and severely weakened the political opposition.

Uruguay was a decades-old, consolidated democracy at the time of its 1971 election. Less than two years after that election, however, the elected “political outsider” president had expanded his emergency powers, arrested opposition leaders, and suspended the Congress.

Peru was not quite a consolidated democracy at the time of its 1990 election, but nor was it a new democracy. A few years after a dark horse candidate assumed the presidency, he had closed the Congress, eliminated the independent judiciary, and established a security state. Nor were any of these presidencies paragons of clean government.

I do not know that Trump will do any of these things, and I could come up with just as many examples of victorious populist candidates who turned out to have fairly quiet and “normal” presidencies. I can even come up with an example or two of populist presidents who really did make their country greater.

But I do not share your optimism that our political institutions will save us, especially when our supposedly strong, democratic norms failed to prevent such a candidate from being elected in the first place. We have only so many safeguards left.