On Friday, January 20, 2017, as Donald Trump officially takes office as the president of the United States, a group of Americans plan to gather at the U.S. Capitol in protest of the inauguration. The rally, entitled “#NotMyPresident,” has attracted tens of thousands of RSVPs in its Facebook event, and it’s just one of many planned protests in rejection of the election’s outcome. The movements arising in the wake of the election signal the mass anger and fear over the fact that a man with ethics, biases, and policies that millions of Americans vehemently oppose has managed to take the presidency without the popular vote. On one hand, American democracy’s very legitimacy rests on political participation of the people—our right and responsibility to cry out and make our voices heard.
That being said, however, protests that reject the presidency itself and feature the burning of American flags raise the question—at what point are we threatening the very institutions upon which our democracy stands, dividing ourselves further, or ultimately giving Trump an excuse to reject our appeals on the basis of our rejection of his position? In the earliest well-known critique of presidentialism, political scientist Juan Linz warned that in presidential systems, the zero-sum, winner-take-all nature of elections creates high-stakes races that lead large proportions of the electorate not to feel represented by the president. In turn, such systems lack a measure by which to peacefully oust the president without creating a full-on regime crisis. Scholars point to the fall of democracy in Chile, where the president lost popular support and mass rebellion led to dictatorship. The United States is certainly no Chile, but mass rejection the result of an election—which essentially equates to rejection of the election as an institution—do raise questions about our democratic stability and the potential of sending government a message that institutions like checks and balances don’t matter.
Many leaders in the Democratic Party are counter-balancing these rejection protests by emphasizing accepting the outcome and facilitating a peaceful transition of power. Hillary Clinton has conceded, and so long as President Obama stays true to his promise to hand down the presidency as smoothly as possibly, democratic institutions probably will not crumble. Thus far, the protests are simply demonstrating legitimate anger and will likely not rise to the level of Chile. Despite the common fear that Trump’s election represents the weakening of American democracy, our institutions can probably withstand some turmoil. That turmoil might even have some benefits, like creating a sense of urgency, trying to create a climate for government accountability, and building the organizational base that those who oppose Trump’s and the new government’s policies will depend upon for the next two to four years.
Furthermore, continuing to protest Trump’s election for four years will not change the fact, that, barring a remarkable event, he will be our president. In order to fight for issues like minority rights, voting rights, equality, reproductive rights, education reform, effective and ethical foreign policy, and a fairer electoral system, the movement against Trump will have to use more effective tactics, like making use of civil society and directed lobbying. Those who oppose the Trump presidency will get nowhere by fighting against him—change comes from fighting for something.
At the end of the day, this election’s outcome represents a cleavage—social, political and economic—whose depth no one foresaw. We cannot change the truth, but we can keep fighting for what is right. We have a responsibility, not just to our own interests but to those of all Americans, to invite open discourse. We need to find out why so much of America felt moved to vote for (or not vote against) a populist with a track record deeply offensive to so many other Americans. Democrats, Republicans, Trump Supporters, Libertarians, Muslims, women, people of color, white people, LGBTQ+ people, straight people, urban people, rural people—though it can be hard to see—are stronger together, as Hillary Clinton herself purports. We won’t resolve our differences overnight or even in the next four years, but, even if only for our common humanity, all Americans have a responsibility to each other to listen. Let’s get angry, let’s hear each other, let’s preserve democracy, and let’s fight for a future of peace and prosperity for all.
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