E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post, a professor at Georgetown University, and a frequent commentator on MSNBC. With Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, he’s co-author of the new book One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You open your new book by declaring that a crisis can be an opportunity. We certainly have a crisis; how would you describe it? And what exactly is the opportunity here?
E.J. Dionne: The crisis is that Donald Trump really has no business being president of the United States. The opportunity, I think, is visible all over the country. Trump has given the system a jolt. There were a lot of things slowly decaying in the system, and Trump has sped this up to the point where no one can miss it. Trump has obliterated political norms—basic understandings of how people in power or close to power should behave. These days I like to quote the political philosopher Joni Mitchell, who said “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Trump is sure reminding us of that.
Secondly, we’re seeing an autocratic side to Trump, which has called forth a powerful response. The media have come to the realization that there’s something wrong with false balance, and that the media’s job is to tell the truth, and you don’t really have to say “there’s another side to this story” when there really isn’t another side to a set of facts.
We’re seeing the response especially in the mobilization around the country, both in civil society and in politics. Every Trump action has drawn an extraordinary outpouring of civic activism. Look at the Muslim ban, when people rushed to the airports, lawyers rushed to the courts, citizens rushed to aid their neighbors. Look at the DACA decision, to which there was an immediate pushback. Perhaps the most impressive pushback was against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, where many Republican congressmen from very Republican districts were shocked to see enormous turnouts of their own constituents saying, “This law shouldn’t be repealed. We should build on it.” Finally, I think you’re seeing some real activism all the way down to the precinct level in the country. A lot of groups are recruiting candidates for office up and down the ballot. People are trying to turn anti-Trump anger into actual political organization on the ground. This is something that needed to happen in any event to make our democracy work, and I think Trump has accelerated this process.
JW: The subtitle of your book is “A guide for the perplexed.” Of course you took that from the medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, whose book with that title was published in 1190. I learned this from Wikipedia. That guide for the perplexed sought to find rational explanations for many events in the Bible. I see that you, like Maimonides, are seeking rational explanations for, in this case, events in our recent political history: like, What the hell happened to make Trump president? Do you have a rational explanation for that?
EJD: Well, first of all, we are deeply grateful that you compared us to Maimonides. Thank you for that.
Yes, there is a rational explanation for Trump. First, we now have a non-majoritarian democracy in the United States. It cannot be forgotten that Trump lost the popular vote by 2.9 million, and that the electoral college is increasingly out of step with where people actually live in the country. The electoral college vastly over-represents rural America, over-represents smaller states. It’s making us an undemocratic democracy.
The other side of it is that the country went through an enormous amount of turmoil in a very short time: the Iraq War, followed by the Great Recession, and all of this happening at a time when economic inequality has been rising. We’ve felt the fruits of globalization and technological change for a long time, but it really hit a crisis point. Yes, Trump ran, in many cases, a racist campaign—there’s nothing else you can say about calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” But you can’t write it all off to that. It’s a form of denial to ignore the vast economic inequalities both among Americans as individuals, but also across regions, within states. In places like Erie and Reading, Pennsylvania, de-industrialization has really hammered living standards. So, for progressives, it is a useless argument, a counterproductive argument, to debate whether Trump was about race or about economic discontent. We should accept that race played a big role in it, but the part we can most address are economic inequalities that affect parts of the white working class, but also a very large share of African Americans and Latinos.
I have been struck recently by the slogan of the 1963 March on Washington: “Jobs and Freedom.” That slogan embodied the idea that if you care about racial justice, you also have to care about economic justice, and if you care about economic justice, you have to care about racial justice. We have to bring these causes together. Splitting them is Donald Trump’s game, and we shouldn’t play it.
JW: Do you think that Bernie Sanders identified the issues that can be deployed to recruit Trump voters back into the Democratic fold? A lot of people at the Democratic National Committee don’t agree with that.
EJD: Bernie identified a number of issues that Hillary Clinton picked up on. She didn’t go for single payer, but she did advocate a very substantial expansion of Obamacare. She came very close to adopting Bernie’s free college proposal. Bernie addressed class division—something he’s done all his life—and this is an important part of the puzzle here. I have a broad view of the left: the left can’t win without the center left, and the center left can’t win without the left. We do not need a debate over “do you move to the left, or do you move to the center?” Instead we need to focus on other questions related to the basic concern: what steps do we take to create a more just and equal society? What steps do we need to take to empower workers in an economy that increasingly disempowers them? Bernie talked a lot about that, but there were a lot of other people on the progressive side who were very open to that, whether they supported Bernie or Hillary. Yes, I am trying to pitch a big tent here. I think that’s the only way progressives can win.
JW: You argue that Trumpism does not own the future. That is great news. Are you sure you’re right about that?
EJD: I deeply believe that. First of all, Donald Trump did not get a majority in the election. And he’s hovering around 38, 42 percent in the polls, the lowest polling for a new president that we have ever seen. From the beginning, he never had a majority of the country on his side. Unlike other presidents who try to reach out to their opponents, all he’s done is reach out to a narrow part of his base, so he hasn’t added to his support.
Secondly, Trump is exceptionally weak among younger voters. He did no better than Mitt Romney among younger voters. The young do own the future, and they are not on Donald Trump’s side. The country is becoming more demographically diverse, more Latino, more Asian, more African-American, and those communities are not at all enamored of Trump. In the long haul, the country is not going in Trump’s direction.
But in the short haul we have to fight to prevent the damage Trump can do—as we did around Obamacare. We have to do the same around this awful, reactionary tax bill. We have to protect immigrants and African Americans from this administration. And we also have to build for the future. Opposition to Trump is important, but the political persuasion of Trump supporters is also an important part of the story. We need to create a more just economy, to strengthen civil society, and to reform our democracy. We hope that our suggestions might be a kind of first-draft set of ideas for people to think about as they try to create an alternative vision to the one Trump is offering.