By Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
True confession: before starting this article, I searched the Internet for information about how best to communicate with someone experiencing panic. Among many people on the left, nerves are so raw, anxieties so high, friendships so strained, that a lot of what can be said about Donald Trump just seems to make matters worse. I’ve learned that I must first remove the cause of the anxiety, if possible. Since the cause is the result of a free and fair election (electoral college complaints aside), I won’t be able to help on that score. I’m also supposed to avoid touching the anxious person. Reader, this I pledge to do.
Finally, I’m supposed to speak in a reassuring but firm manner. So let me try saying this: There’s plenty of cause for concern and sometimes alarm about the incoming Trump administration, but pushing the panic button on everything, which is the vibe of a lot of news coverage right now, is obviously counterproductive. If trivial news becomes huge, then huge news becomes trivial. It also makes us hate one another more than necessary. So let’s try to get a bit of perspective on what matters and what doesn’t. Panic is permitted, but in moderation.
Here, then, is a rundown of prominent Trump-related news developments and a guide to the recommended freak-out level.
1. News item: Trump is considering John Bolton as secretary of state.
(Recommended freak-out level: Medium.)
John Bolton embodies everything no one liked about George W. Bush–era foreign policy: arrogance, rudeness, interventionism, and unending belligerence. He’s also unpleasant in person. Apart from that, he’s probably great. Bolton supported invading Iraq and rejects allying with Moscow against ISIS, putting him at odds with key policy pronouncements from Trump. Voters who supported Trump in the interests of a less aggressive stance toward the world would treat the appointment of Bolton as a betrayal, not to mention the fact that we might have a few more wars on our hands. This would normally merit a freak-out recommendation of High, but, since we’ve heard about candidates ranging from Mitt Romney to Rudy Giuliani, Bolton seems unlikely to be chosen. On the other hand, that he’s in the mix at all is bad news.
Video: Donald Trump’s Short List for Cabinet
2. News item: Trump gets into fight with the cast of Hamilton.
(Recommended freak-out level: Zero.)
If you didn’t follow this controversy, don’t start now. But Mike Pence attended a performance of the hit Broadway show Hamilton, to scattered audience boos, and a cast member addressed Pence from the stage expressing hopes that the Trump administration would reassure and represent all Americans. Here, the right says, “How arrogant and rude of cast members to lecture an audience member,” and the left says, “How horrible that Trump is looking to suppress dissent.” Forget it. Actors are actors, and Trump is Trump—don’t go looking to either for unexpressed thoughts. The only one who took things well was Pence, who apparently told his daughter this “is what freedom sounds like.” God bless him for that.
3. News item: Trump appoints Jeff Sessions as his attorney general.
(Recommended freak-out level: Low.)
Jeff Sessions will be a linchpin in the Trump administration, and his appointment merits an in-depth examination in this space, something it will get in a few weeks. For now, though, we can say that Sessions has many views that are completely at odds with those of liberals (and, for what it’s worth, this author)—on criminal sentencing, on judges, on taxes, on abortion, on drug policy, on the environment, on energy, on foreign policy, and on health care.
The biggest worry when it comes to attorney generals is that they’ll be like Alberto Gonzales under George W. Bush—cronies who are happy to subvert the justice system for partisan ends. Sessions won’t do this. He’ll displease liberals for countless reasons, but the rule of law will have a protector, and that’s crucial with a mercurial president. (As for reports of Sessions’s alleged racism, we’ll return to that later.)
4. News item: Trump has been talking to foreign leaders about deals and decisions that affect Trump’s business.
(Recommended freak-out level: moderate, with option to go high in a month.)
One thing that many of us disliked about the habits of Bill and Hillary Clinton during the past decade was their carelessness about separating personal empire-building with government work. Cheryl Mills was doing work for the State Department and the Clinton Foundation at the same time, for example. But Trump has already gone much farther than that in the space of just 10 days, apparently hosting business partners in his hotels and discussing business-related matters in conversations with foreign officials.
It’s early enough in the Trump transition that people will forgive initial carelessness, if that’s what this is. But Trump seems unaware of the severity of the problem. This would be a high-level freak-out problem if conservative outlets were closing ranks around him over this matter, but they’re not, and the Trump-endorsing New York Post is already calling him to account. Trump will have to cut ties with his business for the next four years, and on this everyone seems to agree.
5. News item: Trump picks Mike Pompeo as head of the C.I.A.
(Recommended freak-out level: medium.)
Mike Pompeo seems to be an intelligent congressman who is on good terms with his colleagues, even those across the aisle. But Democrats and many conservatives—especially those who describe themselves as advocates of “realism” and “restraint”—should be dismayed to have him at the Central Intelligence Agency. Most of Pompeo’s policy positions would be the envy of Dick Cheney. He wants to get involved in the conflict in Syria, tear up the nuclear deal with Iran, and, worst of all, re-introduce the torture of inmates in detention. Fortunately, Congress has outlawed most of the “enhanced” interrogation techniques used under George W. Bush. For now, then, the biggest risk of Pompeo at C.I.A. is that he’ll get assessments very wrong. Which would at least make him an upholder of tradition.
6. News item: White nationalists hold annual conference in Washington, D.C., and celebrate Trump win.
(Recommended freak-out level: Low.)
Good gracious. When I was in Cleveland for the Republican Convention, the excellent Vanity Fair photographer Justin Bishop took in a scene of protesters gathering across from a small pro-Trump rally and noted that journalists outnumbered the cops and the protesters, taken respectively. The same is true of the alt-right and its leading light, white nationalist Richard Spencer, who is famous mainly because the press wants to make him so. Spencer’s alt-right organization, the National Policy Institute, held its annual conference in Washington, drawing about 300 people, none with any meaningful known connection to Trump or even to Breitbart. (In fact, when I counted, I saw that Spencer has received less coverage at Breitbart—much of it focused on disavowing any connection to him—than in The New York Times.)
The hard-core alt-right, made up of white nationalists, is tiny. It matters, yes, and its influence is greater than the small numbers would suggest, but throngs of press and television reporters and days of stories? This is journalists egging on journalists and doing the public a serious disservice.
7. News item: Stephen Bannon joins the Trump White House as chief strategist and senior counselor.
(Recommended freak-out level: Low.)
Amid all the uproar, you could miss that Stephen Bannon got passed over for the truly powerful job, that of chief of staff. This is surely why Bannon’s name appeared above that of Reince Priebus in the announcement released by the Trump campaign: it’s a dignity preserver. A strategist has no department, no control over the president’s schedule, and nothing that makes him powerful apart from the respect of the president. He’s got no fixed responsibilities or authority, which is great for him, unless it isn’t. It might just be hell. Also, Bannon’s not a white nationalist. (When he told Mother Jones that he a viewed Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right,” it was undoubtedly because he’d read a long Breitbart article by Milo Yiannopoulos entitled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt Right,” published this past March, and assumed that everything non-Establishment was “alt.” (In reality, the article was more like a whitewash that relegated the origins of the term and Richard Spencer to the sidelines.)
Even former employee Ben Shapiro, who loathes Bannon and quit Breitbart in disgust over what he saw as Trump shilling and tolerance of racism, decided to weigh in, scolding journalists for claiming that Bannon is “personally anti-Semitic and racist and a white nationalist and anti-Israel,” adding, “This is ridiculous.” Bannon seems to be a cynical bastard, but let’s not make him into David Duke, for the simple reason that we have to be prepared for an actual David Duke.
The final thing to say is entirely obvious, but it’s worth remembering the difference between worrying about Republicans and worrying about fascism. Republicans are going to do many things that Democrats don’t like, and that’s just the misery of losing elections. Trump’s appointees will have many views that are hated by Clinton voters—on marijuana policy, or criminal sentencing, or abortion, or gun ownership, or taxes, or education, or health care, or immigration, or much else. These matters are life and death for many people, but that’s the case no matter who is president. Democracy has long weathered such differences. The biggest areas of concern should be those related to war, civil liberties, procedural norms, and the rule of law. Do they appear threatened under Trump? That’s the big question. So let’s forget about Richard Spencer and tweets about Hamilton. We’ve truly got bigger things to worry about.