Last spring, as Donald Trump bullied and belittled his Republican rivals, my husband and I had dinner in Orange County with an influential red-state conservative friend.
He was concerned. Trump, as he saw it, was bad news for the country. The disregard for public service, the weird tweeting, the lying, the hiding his taxes, the Vladimir Putin connections, the vulgarity, the trashing of decent people in his own party – everything about the guy, he felt, spelled “clear and present danger.” He was thinking of backing Ted Cruz, whom he found personally annoying, he told us, just to keep Trump from becoming president.
Secure in my blue-state delusion that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in, I sympathetically nodded. Neither of us imagined it actually would come to this moment, with the Electoral College preparing to certify a Trump presidency, as it is expected to do this week.
But it has. And – I’m going to just say this – the electors should hit pause before handing Trump that certification.
My conservative friend and I don’t agree on much, but few things could generate more of a clear and present danger for the country than a rushed rubber-stamping of this presidency.
Look, I know millions of voters chose Trump over Clinton. Not as many millions as voted for her, but enough to eke out majorities in the swing states that control the electoral vote.
And I know that a lot of those voters, including many in California, voted for Trump because they affirmatively like him – his flair, his swagger, his take-downs of smarter-than-thou lefties. I like swagger, too. Lefties moralize so much, and Trump’s blingy, male-Joan-Rivers style can be entertaining. And if he can create good jobs in the depressed coal country I came from without turning the streams orange again and giving black lung to my loved ones – hey, good for him.
But the way this election has gone down, there’s no way he can effectively govern. Half the electorate is convinced that the other half has steamrolled a dangerous and unstable autocrat into the Oval Office.
And unfortunately, neither Trump nor the facts so far have offered much reassurance.
The CIA says that Russian operatives put, not just a thumb, but a fist on Trump’s side of the scale in this election.
Trump’s foreign business dealings, which he won’t disclose or address until after the electors hand him the keys to the White House, appear to violate the Constitution.
He has hidden his financial obligations from his employers – aka, you, me and the rest of the American public – so we have no way of knowing who he owes, or whether his debtors’ interests might conflict with those of the nation.
He has threatened to jail his political opponent. He has named as his top strategic adviser the head of a website that caters to racists, and has offered a top national security post that Congress can’t vet to a conspiracy theorist.
He has told lie upon demonstrable lie in what increasingly appears to be a symptom of some personality disorder. He has used his huge Twitter presence to bully, hurt and harass private citizens – little guys – who have dared contradict him.
These aren’t partisan sour grapes or philosophical differences. These are red flags and signs of abuse and corruption.
If Trump was a Democrat, Republicans would be up in arms, rightly. He may seem a mere character now, but on Jan. 20, the entire U.S. military and a massive surveillance state will be at his disposal. Bullies become tyrants with power like that.
The Founding Fathers knew mobs could be manipulated and enemies would test us. That’s why they created the Electoral College, to, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, keep foreign powers from “raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union” and ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
Millions of Americans have pleaded with the electors to put patriotism before party and deny Trump the election. Some want them to throw their votes to Hillary Clinton, so the decision won’t move to the House of Representatives in the absence of a clear winner. Others want an alternative Republican – Mitt Romney, say, or Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Still others want to delay the vote until they’re briefed on the Russian hack.
Some say such due diligence would destabilize democratic institutions. But nothing will be stable until everyone is sure that we, the people, are in charge here, even if the House has to choose, and chooses Trump.
Most electors are reportedly dug in. No surprise there. We like to think that we would stand up when faced with signs of wrongdoing, but questioning authority isn’t easy. In a famous series of studies done in the 1960s and 1970s, test subjects helping with a supposed memory experiment administered what they believed were near-lethal electrical shocks to humans. We comply; hence Auschwitz and Abu Ghraib.
Then again, when even a few in those studies thought for themselves, the majority followed. All it took was two or three participants defying a wrong, refusing to inflict pain, and the group found its ethical bearings.
Electors, you do have a choice. Something wrong happened in this election. You don’t have to go along with it.
That dinner with the conservative friend isn’t the only memory on my mind lately. Remember the 2003 run-up to the invasion of Iraq?
Remember how odd it seemed that we were retaliating against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11? Remember all those red flags?
Dissent, then as now, was bullied and belittled. Lies, then as now, clouded the way forward.
Four thousand four hundred seventy-five dead U.S. service members. Some $4 trillion by the time the surviving veterans are cared for.
If only we had acted on all those signs of clear and present danger. If only – regardless of our place on the political spectrum – we had hit pause, and not been so compliant. If only we could take that terrible error in judgment back.