For skeptical Americans, a debate over whether to give Trump a chance

Some skeptics say a smarter long-term strategy than obstructionism is to let him govern. If his policies don’t pan out, Trump will have no one to blame but himself.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.

Should skeptical Americans give President Trump a chance?

After all, giving newly inaugurated presidents the opportunity to govern, and show what they can accomplish, is part of America's great democratic tradition. Even former President Barack Obama, no fan of Mr. Trump, urged forbearance in the early going.

“Let him make his decisions,” Mr. Obama said soon after the election.

But the reality hasn’t been so simple. Trump is no ordinary president. And from Day One, Americans have responded to his insurgent presidency in no ordinary way, from deep satisfaction that the political establishment has been upended, to vocal resistance, street protests, and warnings of incipient autocracy.

By Day 10, Obama had already broken his silence, saying he "fundamentally disagree[d]" with Trump's executive order temporarily curbing immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

But some Trump skeptics say the smarter long-term strategy should be, in fact, to let him govern – unfettered by his opponents’ obstructionism and constant outrage – and then if his policies don’t pan out, Trump will have no one to blame but himself.

Respect for democracy

Enthusiastic Trump supporters appeal, foremost, to Americans’ respect for democracy, specifically, the fact that Trump won the election.

“Giving Trump a chance simply means that you're open-minded enough to allow the new administration to do its job and to succeed or fail on its own terms,” said conservative lawyer Gayle Trotter at a recent debate on how to approach the Trump presidency, staged by the group Intelligence Squared.

Given the shock-and-awe of Trump's first few weeks, he may have already blown it with some voters who were taking a wait-and-see approach.

For people opposed to the new president’s policies and rhetoric, anti-Trump activism couldn’t start soon enough. The urgency, they say, is born of fear over what will happen to segments of the population they believe will be hurt by Trump policies: women, racial minorities, religious minorities, immigrants.

The right to speak out and petition the government is enshrined in the United States Constitution, they note, and if Trump does have autocratic goals in mind, they want to put him on notice. His recent reference to the “so-called judge” in Washington State, who stayed Trump's immigration measure, called into question whether Trump respects the American democratic system, they add.

Still, Ms. Trotter’s position reflects an important strain of public thought – even among Democrats. Some 34 percent of Democratic voters want congressional Democrats to “focus on finding ways to work with Trump in order to get things done,” a Morning Consult/Politico poll reported Wednesday.

Trump, after all, was elected as a “change” candidate – not only via a change of party control, but in his goal as a nonpolitician to upend the governing establishment.

“The ‘change’ sentiment was the dominant positive about him during the campaign,” says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “So I think he has some running room.”

Take Richard Bonomo, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a reluctant Trump voter. So far, he sees the Trump presidency as a “mixed bag.” Mr. Bonomo is happy about Trump’s moves on abortion, the Affordable Care Act, addressing radical Islam, and the Supreme Court.

But Bonomo is unhappy that Trump “continues to shoot from the hip” and that his administration “is still learning how to administer.” He’s also critical that Trump “still equivocates” on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I’m just hoping he grows into the office,” Bonomo says.

Frum: Trump already had a chance

Having assumed office with a historically low public approval rating for a new president, Trump has a narrow margin for error. Three weeks in, his job approval is holding steady in the mid-40s. But feelings toward Trump are more complicated than the polls show.

On either end of the spectrum, there are the diehard Trump supporters and opponents. Then there are the Republicans like Bonomo who held their nose and voted for Trump, because he was their party’s nominee (and not Hillary Clinton) – and for now, are giving him the benefit of the doubt. Some Democrats, too, are reserving final judgment, and holding out hope that Trump exceeds their (low) expectations.

Some “Never Trump” conservatives during the campaign have fallen in line behind Trump, such as the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. But others are as virulently opposed to Trump as ever. David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, argued against the motion – “Give Trump a chance” – at last week’s Intelligence Squared debate, and his side won.

Mr. Frum’s argument was, essentially, that Trump has already had a chance, and shown that he is unfit to lead the country. Frum’s evidence: Trump has already cast doubt on the US’s commitment to NATO. He makes and repeats significant unsupported claims. He poses, in Frum’s view, an “existential threat” to the free media.

Frum’s cover story in the March issue of the Atlantic, “How to build an autocracy,” presents a dystopic future under Trump, preventable only if Americans step up and defend their democratic way of life.

“[The] call now is not to ponder or to deliberate or to wait on events,” Frum said during the debate. “The call now is to say, ‘What are the actions that we as citizens have to take to defend free institutions, to defend the traditions of American government, to defend free media, to reassure America's friends around the world that the word of the United States government is still good despite the present occupant of the office.’”

Bloomberg View columnist Clive Crook, a Trump critic who nevertheless favors reserving judgment on Trump, turned Frum’s argument on its head. The kind of opposition that calls Trump a “would-be dictator” and his supporters “either idiots or evil accomplices” actually helps Trump, he said.  

“This cannot be overstated,” Crook said. “Trump is a brilliant manipulator of reflexive outrage. He provokes it. He thrives on it. An opposition that says, ‘Give him no chance, never collaborate, oppose him regardless,’ I think he'd like nothing better. So, give him a chance, not least as a gesture of respect to the … voters who backed him.”

Gestures that transcend partisanship

In Congress as well, there are calls to allow the president to pull the country together at a time of intense partisanship.

"I'm hoping that we can still have our fights and still have our arguments and still have the enjoyable aspects around here of comradeship and working with each other," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah on Thursday, when he was recognized as the Senate's longest-serving member. "But I'm hoping that we can set aside some of these animosities, give the president his cabinet and his leaders, so that he has at least a shot at pulling this country out of the mess it's in."

Democratic opposition to Trump’s cabinet picks has not been absolute. Every confirmed nominee so far has received at least one Democratic vote, except Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Some, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, have been confirmed with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes.

Of course, that’s the norm; presidents, by and large, get the cabinet they want. Besides, with Senate Democrats in the minority and no right to filibuster cabinet nominees, there’s little they can do on their own, beyond slow-walk the process.

Still, small gestures that transcend partisanship aren’t unheard of in Trump’s young presidency. When Trump traveled last week to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the dignified transfer of the remains of a Navy Seal, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware accompanied him.

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