Capitol building
Credit: Daniel Huizinga/Flickr

Since last November’s election, there has been a lot of hand wringing and arguing among Democrats about why they lost the election. But even though Republicans won, it is increasingly obvious that the victory came with a price…Donald Trump.

About a year ago, David Frum wrote that the rise of Trump shattered seven guardrails of democracy. He ended with a question.

Policy, however, is not the first or second or third impetus of the Trump campaign. It’s driven by something else—and the source of that something is found inside the conservative and Republican world, not outside. The Trump phenomenon is the effect of many causes. Yet overhanging all the causes is the central question: Why did Republicans and conservatives react to those causes as they did? There were alternatives. Of all the alternatives for their post-Obama future, Republicans and conservatives selected the most self-destructive of the options before them. Why? What went wrong?

Adam Gopnik writes that, faced with some of the same challenges, conservatives in France made a very different decision.

In France, as in America, the election pitted an extreme right-wing nationalist against a moderate technocratic liberal, but in France the leaders of the “Republican” right recognized the extreme nationalist right as a threat to democratic values and, after one round of voting, supported Macron, a man of the center-left who had served in a Socialist government. In this country, the leaders of the Republican Party made the opposite choice.

That difference made all the difference. The space between François Fillon, the defeated right-wing candidate, and Macron is, in ideological terms, every bit as large as the space between, say, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton. But Fillon understood that a Marine Le Pen in power would be a threat to the nation’s constitutional structure. The irony was that the French, with their (mostly unearned) reputation for craven surrender and opportunism, held fast to their deepest principles, while mainstream American rightists discarded theirs.

I was reminded of the Frum article when I read that because this is how he talked about the seventh guardrail that has been shattered:

Once you’ve convinced yourself that a president of the other party is the very worst possible thing that could befall America, then any nominee of your party—literally no matter who—becomes a lesser evil.

Lest liberals get on their high horse and claim to be above all that, Gopnik provides this warning.

Yet the challenge remains for the left to avoid falling prey to tribal habits, as the right did. You see this risk in the insistence, surprisingly widespread, that there is no real point in resisting Trump, since the Republicans in Congress are complicit in his program. Mike Pence would be more dangerous to liberal causes, this argument runs, because he shares the Republicans’ beliefs and brings none of the chaos. Trump is almost better than Pence because he is more nakedly unfit for the office.

That is a Vichy-style mistake in itself. Democracies die when they can no longer distinguish between honest opponents of another ideological kind and toxic enemies who come from far outside all normal values.

For whatever reason(s) too many Republicans didn’t draw the distinction between honest opponents and toxic enemies. The seeds for the rise of Donald Trump were laid by the demonization of Democrats like Obama and Clinton as “the very worst possible thing that could befall America.” I believe that Gopnik is right to say that this is how democracies die. So whatever path Democrats choose in the future, maintaining the ability to make that distinction is critical.

Here is how Gopnik suggests that we can chart a path forward:

What’s needed against Trump now is what has been found in France—not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.

Right now it is easy to get cynical and reject that vision. But we do so at our own peril, because now—in response to a toxic enemy like Trump—is when we need it the most.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.