“Seek Peace While Preparing for War”: A strategy for the outset of the Trump era

Column by Andy Schmookler

donald-trumpThe United States has entered an extraordinarily dangerous era, with Donald Trump as president and a deplorable Republican Party holding majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as a likely “conservative” majority in the Supreme Court. Never have the forces of brokenness held so much power in America.

With such an adverse balance of power, it is essential that our side – call it “the non-Trump part of America” – generate a strategy that maximizes what advantages we still have.

The challenge for us can be clearly stated: What can we do to minimize the damage the nation – and the world – will suffer from the Trump presidency?

A major obstacle to coming up now with a strategy to meet that challenge is that there is so much that remains unknown about what the various components of the picture will do, and what will be the dynamics that emerge from all their interactions.

What would serve us best now is a strategy that will serve us well regardless of how those uncertainties play out.

One of the crucial uncertainties concerns Trump himself: as we seek to protect all the values and interests and people he seems to threaten, is our only option to fight him tooth and nail with everything we’ve got? Or is there some chance that ways can be found for dealing with him that will make his presidency less malign and less destructive than we fear?

In other words, is political war the only option? Or is there a possible better scenario for America?

The strategy I will propose calls for some opening moves for our side to make to test for the possibilities for that better scenario.

Let me address right off the objections that we already know who he is, that we know that the option of peace rather than war does not exist, and that it would weaken us to seek any sort of peace with a man as monstrous as he has abundantly shown himself to be.

First, I believe that we do know who he is, and that what we have seen provides scant basis for optimism about “best-case” scenarios of how he will act as president. I myself have written, since July of 2015, literally dozens of articles characterizing his authoritarianism, his extraordinary dishonesty, his lack of principle, his thirst for revenge, his sadistic pleasure in humiliating people, his disregard for fundamental American norms, etc. etc. I have researched how to understand him in psychological terms – perhaps a narcissistic personality disorder combined with an anti-social personality disorder – and I believe I have a reasonably good picture of what a horrible person he is.

And most of what we’ve seen since the election only confirms that ugly picture.

But….

We should never be so certain of our understandings that we simply assume we know for certain what is and is not possible. The option of influencing him in a positive direction should not be ruled out simply on the basis of an assumption.

Might his vanity be used to motivate him to achieve something history will applaud? Can inroads be made in his ignorance that would lead him to reconsider some of his pernicious beliefs? Might he be moved by the grandeur of the office to care, for the first time, about something larger than himself?

Probably not, or not much. But the possibilities must be tested.

The Danger of America’s Second Civil War

Assuming that political war is our only option would be a tragic mistake – however small we may judge the possibility of a better alternative – because that political war is apt to be profoundly damaging to the nation. If the choice is between all-out political conflict or just letting Trumpism impose its warped spirit on the nation, I’m for waging the political war. It should be waged wisely, carefully, strategically. But if Trump proves as dangerous as many of us suspect, we must resist.

However, let us not have illusions about what a tragedy for America this political war could prove to be. (By “political war” I mean at least an approach of “oppose, oppose, oppose” and “denounce, denounce, denounce” on one side and an approach of “jam it down your throats” on the other. But from the realm of political battle, in the present climate, the conflict could readily spread and intensify from there.)

Already, one might reasonably imagine that the recent wave of Trump-inspired hate crimes together with the growing peaceful anti-Trump marches in America’s cities could prove to be opening moves in a battle that escalated and careened out of control.

We may well be heading for what might be considered a kind of Second American Civil War, albeit one not fought with vast armies on far-flung battlefields. As in the Civil War of the 19th century, even if the right side wins, the nation gets wounded. As with that previous Civil War, this one could do lasting damage to the nation.

We owe it to ourselves, and to our children, and to the nation we love to do everything we can to find a way to protect what must be protected that doesn’t amount to destroying the village in order to save it.

(People always wonder, about history’s nightmares, “What could someone have done to have prevented that?” Let us not leave our children and grandchildren wondering that about us and what we did in this dangerous moment in America.)

Another reason that – however inflamed we presently are with rage at the idea of Trump ascending into the presidency – we should not be eager to conclude that all-out conflict can be the road ahead is that our side is weak.

We have some good tools available to us. (More about where our strengths are, and how they can best be employed in the battle in coming entries in this series). But in terms of actual power, the more that push comes to shove, the more likely it is that the other side will use its power to do terrible things. If we’re going to fight, we will need to be the strategically superior side.

(The coup leaders in Turkey some months ago were presumably trying to liberate their nation from an increasingly authoritarian regime. But their defeat became the occasion for the Turkish strong man they failed to defeat to greatly expand his dictatorial powers and to silence all opposition. We who hate Trump’s becoming president should proceed not only with passion but also with prudence.)

Moves that Both Test for Piece and Create an Advantageous Battlefield for a War

And finally, what about the fear that by pursuing unlikely possibilities for peace, however partial, we will disable ourselves for the political war that, to one degree or another, is virtually certainly coming?

Fear not. These moves will have nothing to do with “appeasement.” Being weak in the realm of legal and raw power, we do well to seek peace– but only on acceptable terms. And the moves to be proposed will not in any way be a distraction from the battles that must be fought. Indeed, they are — if it comes to that — a good way to begin the battles.

These moves – the ways I will propose of approaching Trump, of appealing to Trump, of challenging Trump – will be designed for both seeking peace and waging war. They will be designed such that if he responds favorably, we win a degree of peace and perhaps move America forward (or less backward). And designed such that if he responds unfavorably, the public drama enacted by the move will have framed the battle in terms optimal for our side.

It is always good PR to be observed trying for peace, staking out a completely defensible position, and to have the other side be seen as responsible for the outbreak of war. Draining Trump of his popular support is an essential ingredient in any good war strategy.

In other words, these appeals for peace will be designed to be optimal first moves for waging the political war. They can begin what will quite likely prove the necessary process of taking away from Trump and the Republicans as much of their power as possible.

So, “Seek Peace While Preparing for War.”

(Which fits nicely with Elizabeth Warren’s posture: ready to work together to move the nation forward, but ready to fight Trump “every step of the way” if he moves against her core issues and values.)

The value of this strategic principle will depend, of course, on the specifics of design and execution. Some of these specifics will be dealt with soon in series of “Seek Peace, While Preparing for War” pieces.

Previews of Coming Attractions

Here are some pieces I will be posting her in the coming days, laying out some specific ideas of how this strategy of “Seek Peace While Preparing for War” can be implemented:

  • A move that can be made very soon to confront Trump on the issue of climate change—a move that conceivably might influence him, and if it doesn’t, it will publicly frame the battle we should be ready to fight over the protection of our planet.
  • A plan for how the Democrats in the Senate can play a vital and entirely defensible role in pushing for constructive action and blocking destructive plans that may be hatched by Trump and the Republicans in Congress.
  • The important contribution that can be made – for peace or for political war – by what is developing through these nationwide rallies in protest of Trump’s election.
  • A plan for who should be the spokespeople for our side – seeking cooperation on acceptable terms and/or waging a rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the American people – and how they should be utilized. And
  • An appeal to Trump to define his presidency in terms that contrast with ugly things being done in his name – an appeal that, if it is refused, can begin to drive a wedge between him and many of the people who voted for him.

Please stay tuned.

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