Compromising with Trump
Democracy Lessons from Havel and Michnik
It is now abundantly clear that, as many warned, President Trump constitutes a threat to American institutions and values. The deep hostility to criticism, vindictiveness towards opponents, and the contempt for the law, political norms, and basic decency flaunted by candidate Trump, validated (in his eyes and those of his supporters, at any rate) by his electoral victory, have already marked his short time in office. We face an authoritarian turn in American politics, an upheaval in our institutions and a crisis in our norms. Under such circumstances, all who support democratic values and institutions must seek to oppose the present administration — and must look for examples that might guide resistance to it, whether by progressive, or by patriotic and law-respecting Republican, opponents.
Some critics of Trump have called for intransigent resistance; others have counseled openness to compromise in the hopes of taming or co-opting the administration. Even those who doubt that President Trump will prove to be the pragmatic problem-solver he and some supporters have promised must recognize the hunger to believe such promises. President Obama and others speak for many Americans when they express the hope that a President Trump will move away from his divisive and abusive stances when governing. Repudiating these hopes, however strong the basis for doing so is, may carry political costs.
In thinking about the choice between compromise and intransigence, it is useful to turn to examples of those who have astutely analyzed and effectively opposed authoritarian regimes. In particular, we can gain insight from the example of the dissidents who opposed the Communist autocracies of Eastern Europe. These dissidents offer an instructive model, not because conditions under a Trump administration are likely to resemble those under Communism, but because they show us how elements of moral intransigence and pragmatic compromise may be combined into a single strategy, a single ethos of opposition. They held out under extreme moral and material pressure — public condemnation, ostracism, blackmail, imprisonment, impoverishment, exile, and violence. And then they negotiated with their former jailers to bring about peaceful transitions to democracy. What do they have to teach us about how to fight, and compromise with, authoritarian rulers?
There are, I think, five lessons that Eastern European dissident thinkers drew from their experience, and which they offer us. They are: 1) the necessity of seeking compromises and accepting disappointments and defeats when engaging in politics; 2) that the ability to make acceptable compromises depends on trustworthy opponents who themselves accept and uphold fair conditions of political contestation; 3) that opposition movements should be ready to compromise on matters of policy, but not on matters of truth or basic principles; 4) that those who oppose unjust and tyrannical regimes should beware of the dangers of self-righteousness and fury, and avoid emulating the methods and spirit of their opponents; and 5) the importance of creativity and resilience in engaging in long-term political struggles.
While these dissidents were models of morally-inspired protest, their example shows that that compromise will be necessary — and that responsible participation in politics demands an ability both to reach out to opponents, and to tolerate disagreement and disappointment. This means foregoing self-righteousness as a guide to action. The Polish dissident Adam Michnik warned his comrades to “stop thinking in terms of how right you are,” and to “learn the difficult art of compromise, without which authentic pluralism will not be possible.” Such pluralism was necessary for the success of the opposition, which required that those who disagreed over both values and strategy find a way to work together. It was also necessary for the success of democracy in Poland and other post-Communist countries, which required that those who had taken different sides during the battle between the opposition and the regime be able to live together peacefully. Stigmatizing all opponents as crooked or bigoted was both politically counter-productive, and fostered a mentality of self-righteousness and suspicion which perverted the opposition’s own values.
But openness to the claims of opponents is not the same as trust in them, or a willingness to cooperate with them in all circumstances. For there to be compromise, rather than mere surrender to force, there must be the possibility of open, fair political competition and conflict, the outcome of which is not predetermined. If freedom of speech and association, the ability to disagree with and criticize those in power, the requirements of proper judicial procedure, and the integrity of the electoral process, are not respected, political cooperation becomes meaningless
Not only the political background, but the character and conduct of potential bargaining-partners, matters. To again quote Michnik, “A policy of conciliation makes sense only if both sides take it seriously.” Making agreements with “people who treat the very concept of ‘agreements’ completely arbitrarily, who regularly go back on their promises, and for whom lies are their daily bread, is contrary to common sense.” Cooperation simply will not work when one side regards the other as “material to work with,” as persons who can be “either bought or intimidated.” A leader who demonstrates contempt for the truth, encourages violence, or threatens to strip dissenters of the basic rights of citizenship, is unlikely to be a viable political partner. The deeply pathological character exhibited by President Trump gives us reason to think that viewing him as a partner in compromise will be a mistake.
A related lesson from the anti-Communist opposition is to be ready to compromise on policy, but not on narrative or truth. A central strategy of authoritarian regimes is to render their subjects confused, by flooding them with misinformation and conspiracy theories, and complicit, by forcing them to repeat officially-sanctioned untruths. Eastern European dissidents therefore embraced a strategy of what the Czech dissident leader (and later President of democratic Czechoslovakia) Vaclav Havel called “living in truth.” This meant a willingness to identify lies as lies, threats as threats, crimes as crimes, and hate as hate. As the political theorist Jacob Levy, drawing on Havel and others, has recently reminded us, “insisting on the difference between truth and lies is itself a part of the defense of freedom.”
President Trump and his allies will have good reason to seek to compromise with his opponents (or to manipulate them into compromising themselves). Blind intransigence is likely to be politically costly for opponents of the Trump administration, but allowing themselves to be co-opted and compromised, even for the sake of short-term successes, may be just as costly. But what if, despite their misgivings, President Trump’s opponents conclude that they should seek compromise with him?
Following the example of Eastern European dissidents, they should set conditions and limits on such cooperation. In dealing with a President Trump, political opponents (both Democrats, and Republicans who disagree with his policies and conduct) should make clear what is up for discussion — and what isn’t — ahead of time. And they should hold themselves to such commitments. (A recent example of such an approach is provided by Republican Senator John McCain, who, while accepting Trump as President-elect and leader of his party, has drawn a line in the sand regarding torture). Such political opponents would be well advised to make it clear from the beginning that the onus is on the President to win their trust — not on them to win his forbearance The same applies to those journalists on whom the President and his sycophants have rained contempt.
Insistence on basic standards of truth, decent treatment of opponents, and fair process are not matters of moralistic blindness to political reality; they reflect a realistic response to an authoritarian political style that preys on weakness and thrives on confusion and ambiguity.
Those who oppose and protest President Trump should, however, beware of such defiance shading into an alienating self-righteousness and intolerance. In his powerful essay “Maggots and Angels,” Michnik — himself once a prisoner of conscience — defended the “maggots” who compromised with the Communist regime, and attacked the self-regarding “angels” who condemned all compromise. The problem with such “angels” wasn’t that their approach was wrong, but that they thought it was the only right approach. In fact, there was a need both for those who “saved what could be saved” under the regime, by going about their ordinary lives and performing their public duties as best they could, and those who loudly said “No!” to any cooperation with the authorities.
This call for humility and tolerance among opponents of the regime did not mean relaxing moral standards. To the contrary, Michnik and other dissidents insisted that both those who took the path of cooperation and those who took the path of outright resistance recognize common limits on acceptable action. These limits were defined by the individual rights of others, rights that made it wrong, on the one hand, to actively assist the regime in violence and terror and, on the other, to use violence and terror to combat the regime.
Following this model, those who engage in protest against Trump’s actions should be sure to respect the law, as well as the sentiments and physical integrity of their fellow-citizens. They must eschew both violence and puerile gestures like flag-burning. Those who oppose the Trump administration’s policies and tenor but choose to take the path of cooperation — by serving in federal office, for example — should draw the line ahead of time at participating in illegal and immoral actions, and be ready to publicly resign if they are commanded to act against basic standards of legality or decency. Those who adopt one strategy in fighting Trump’s policies should respect those who adopt different strategies, as long as these strategies have a plausible chance of doing good, and do not involve violating the rights of others.
Another lesson from Communist Eastern Europe is that an effective opposition must be active rather than reactive. Trump himself shows that sometimes audacious offensives are more effective than a cautious game of defense. This is not to suggest that those who oppose him should sink to the level of gutter-politics — this will only confirm Trump’s mastery of the political field. But they would do well to emulate his boldness, finding creative ways to advance their agenda and combat abuses of power. Above all they should, as Havel warned, avoid becoming embroiled in polemics over abstruse theoretical points or matters of abstract principle; they should focus instead on “concrete causes, and be prepared to fight for them unswervingly.”
Creative initiatives can and should take many forms, including, but not limited to, conventional political channels. Here again, Eastern European dissidents offer a useful example of political innovation. In particular, they pursued a strategy of engaging in what they termed “social work”: providing the social services and cultural resources — legal defense and financial assistance to victims of the regime, private venues for education and free discussion, an independent underground press — that the state failed to provide. If a Trump administration and Congressional Republicans make good on promises to roll-back and privatize public services, there may be broadly similar opportunities for progressive organizations in America.
Trump’s opponents have already suffered significant defeats; they can expect to suffer more in the years ahead. In the face of such defeats, they should remember a final lesson from Michnik, who spent years in prison before his campaign for Polish freedom bore fruit: in politics, “there are no final victories, but also no final defeats.”
Meeting defeats with self-control, determination, and resilience; finding ways to win small, cumulative victories, will require a great deal of creativity, clarity, and courage from political leaders and activists. Past experience may not make us optimistic about finding such qualities. But opponents of the Trump administration must now cultivate — and demand — them.