It's time to stand up for democracy

The most fragile part of the United States right now is our democratic values. Yes, we face other serious problems - the physical condition of our planet, above all. But the fate of those other problems will be decided in the months and years to come. The condition of our democracy is acute.

We've just finished an election that included unprecedented violations of America's long-held democratic values, like calls to overturn civil liberties and the interference of a hostile foreign government. And, of course, the candidate who violated those values won the election. So the question becomes: Will the country start adjusting to a new, less democratic reality, or will Mr Donald Trump adjust his own approach as President-elect?

It would be a grave error to believe wishfully that Mr Trump must change. The best working assumption about any candidate is that he will try to do what he campaigned on. Studies show that presidents usually do. But it would also be a mistake to reject any moves that Mr Trump makes towards greater respect for democracy. We should be fervently rooting for and working towards such a shift. Mr Trump has been known to change his positions, after all.

For the many people opposed to him, the right approach involves a balance of vigilance and generosity of spirit. Mr Trump's initial appointments - of Mr Reince Priebus as chief of staff and Mr Stephen Bannon as chief strategist - underscore the need for both.

Mr Priebus, a long-time Republican official, supports many policies that I believe would damage the planet and the middle class, and fighting those policies will be important, soon. Yet I welcome his appointment. He fits squarely within our country's democratic values.

The Anti-Defamation League struck the right balance on Sunday, first commending Mr Trump for choosing Mr Priebus - and then strongly criticising Mr Bannon. As executive chairman of Breitbart News, Mr Bannon turned that site into a promoter of racist and anti-Semitic conspiracies, which, to name just one example, smeared the conservative William Kristol as a "renegade Jew". Mr Bannon has done little to repudiate it.

There are two kinds of issues now: those worthy of passionate, ideological debate, and those that must unite left, right and centre at a dangerous moment. "If you want to save the country," tweeted Mr David Frum, the strongly anti-Trump conservative, "you have to work with people you disagree with on almost every ordinary political issue."

For the news media and official Washington, the danger will be normalising appointments like Mr Bannon's. He will hold an august office, and it will be hard to resist treating him as one more subject of partisan debate: Some say he has a racist past, while others say he is a good guy. His appointment is a violation of American values, period.

As Mr John Weaver, the Republican strategist, said on Twitter: "Just to be clear news media, the next president named a racist, anti-Semite as the co-equal of the chief of staff. #NotNormal."

But if official Washington should be tough enough to avoid normalising the Bannons of the world, Mr Trump's opponents should be smart enough to avoid Bannonising any sign of normalcy. This will be hard, I realise. It will be hard because people are angry and worried. It will be hard because every shift by Mr Trump away from his campaign rhetoric will seem hypocritical. In fact, it will often be hypocritical. But hypocrisy is better than authoritarianism.

And it remains unclear which path Mr Trump will choose. On election night, he gave a gracious victory speech. On 60 Minutes, he looked at the camera and told people who have been harassing minorities to "stop it". Last week, after sending a chilling tweet criticising "professional protesters", he followed up by affirming the idea of protest.

To be clear, these signs do not necessarily represent a new Mr Trump. Other signs point in the opposite direction. But the tentative steps towards democracy are nonetheless important. "Gestures matter," as President Barack Obama said last Monday.

There are two kinds of issues now: those worthy of passionate, ideological debate, and those that must unite left, right and centre at a dangerous moment.

"If you want to save the country," tweeted Mr David Frum, the strongly anti-Trump conservative, "you have to work with people you disagree with on almost every ordinary political issue."

Mr Obama and Mrs Hillary Clinton have also struck the proper balance between vigilance and generosity. They have welcomed Mr Trump's nods towards unity, understanding that to reject them is to aggravate the dangers. But they have also carefully promoted vigilance - that, as Mr Obama said, the country depends on "a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life".

Perhaps the most important figures now are the Republican leaders who voted for Mr Trump. They are planning the legislative changes they will be making, as is their due. But they also have a patriotic duty - a duty to stand up for pluralism, equality, tolerance of dissent and the rule of law.

They have a duty to encourage Mr Trump towards those values and, in the case of Republican senators, to block any nominees who violate them. Republicans often like to describe themselves as defenders of freedom. We need them to live up to that ideal.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'It's time to stand up for democracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe