A Plea for Cease Fire in the New American Civil War, Part I—A Trump Unity Agenda

4 December 2016, 2359 EST

Before the election, I offered that I would write three posts on bridging the sharp divides that have us in warring camps–one on a unity agenda, the second on changes in the tone of our public discourse, and the third on increased civic engagement. Honesty is the best policy so I’ll start by saying that I did not think President-elect Trump would win. While I’m being honest, I’ll add that I’m a liberal democrat who found Trump’s victory deeply and personally devastating.

To make all of this honesty even worse, what I will propose as a Trump unity agenda is largely what most would consider a progressive one. So why in the world would the President-elect humor a Bernie Sanders supporter (me) by implementing any of these proposals? Here’s why.

First, I’m leaving out a huge range of issues on which agreement between Trump, Republicans and Democrats is not possible—taxes, financial regulation, gun restrictions, judicial appointments, climate change protection, much of national security policy, to name just a few. I’m not going to suggest that any of this should be part of a unity agenda because I don’t believe there’s a possibility of unity on these issues. Trump, the GOP (and I list them separately on purpose because I don’t think Trump is wholly aligned with his erstwhile party) and the Democrats are going to fight these out.

Second, my recommendations will help Trump solve his not-so-long-term political problem—how does he keep the base that elected him while adding new supporters who opposed him. And he’ll have to do this to keep Congress in 2018 and get re-elected in 2020. Why’s that? Because he won less than 47% of the vote, because a switch of 80,000 votes in three key states would have beat him, and because there will be more of his opponents than supporters in future elections than there were this time. This means he’ll have to get more votes from blacks, Latinos, women, and younger voters than he did this time. And in 2018 and 2020, Trump will be on the ballot not as an idea but as an incumbent. He won’t be a blank slate on which angry voters can write what they want and vote for as a protest. He’ll be a real live office holder with successes, failures, unfulfilled promises, and unanticipated crises to which he’ll respond either well or poorly. He will lose friends he has now and need friends he does not have now.

Third, and most important, these proposals are the right thing to do. They will all reduce human suffering and heal deep divisions in our country—divisions of gender, race, ethnicity, and economic opportunity. Here they are.

1. Build infrastructure that is needed and pay for it fairly.

Done right, building and rebuilding infrastructure will help relieve one of the most pressing and divisive inequities in our country—the fact that economic recovery has been uneven and has left many displaced workers out. There’s no political downside to this for Trump because he promised major building of infrastructure. Following through is a political winner for him, and it plays to one of his strengths—he knows how to build things. Building roads, bridges, airports, railways, expanding wi-fi access through wiring and training facilities, upgrading schools for vocational and technology training will create jobs and enhance communities’ capacity to support business.

Having said that, the details of Trump’s proposal will of course matter greatly. His infrastructure plan cannot be a sop to his wealthy supporters or his own extensive holdings. It should focus on places where things need to be built or upgraded to protect public safety and benefit all people in a community. It should also be designed to lift up those left out of the recovery—older white workers in industrial areas, minorities excluded from opportunities, younger people struggling to start careers, all of whom would benefit greatly from building that increases their access to technology, training, and skills. The infrastructure program should be subsidized fairly. Trump may want to consult with Bernie on what should be included, and excluded, from an infrastructure policy, if he wants to be sure his proposal addresses the needs of the disaffected who are economically marginalized.

2. Enact equal pay for women, increased prosecution of violence against women, and paid family leave.

Much of this was promoted by Ivanka Trump in her convention speech, and one of the more healing things her father could do is fulsomely promote policies that empower women, protect them from violence, and respect their human dignity. Doing this with a sense of humility and contrition for his past words about and deeds toward women would help show that he understands the gravity of his office and that he needs to set a higher standard as President.

3. Promote criminal justice reform and police reform to protect African Americans.

Many in the Republican Party have supported criminal justice reform to protect black Americans from bias in arrest, prosecution and conviction, so this should not be a heavy political lift for Trump. Addressing the lethal friction between African Americans and police is another matter, because it has become so politically charged and Trump himself has clearly aligned with what he calls “law and order”. But this violence is a critical life and death issue on which Trump could break from character, do the right thing, and gain more confidence from black Americans skeptical about his motives and others who rightly see the violence against African Americans as unacceptable. The truth of the matter is that there are very practical solutions that he could promote that would protect not just black lives, but police lives, such as training on use of lethal force, education on discrimination and bias, more interaction between police and communities, and less partial accountability procedures.

4. Don’t privatize or compromise Medicare.

This one should be politically easy because it’s what Trump promised repeatedly in the campaign. Take away Medicare now and he would surely lose the votes of seniors, who supported him strongly. Take away Medicare in the future and he could lose even more of the support of younger voters, who he and the GOP must gain more support from in the future. Plus there are the votes of the tens of millions of disabled voters. “Privatizing” Medicare is among the most cruel policy ideas being floated, because the elderly and disabled will find it difficult if not impossible to find health care coverage even if given vouchers given their high risk of costly illness.  The political battle here will be with the GOP wing that wants to gut Medicare either directly or sneakily. This issue is another chance for Trump to take the high road and protect the vulnerable.

5. Give vocational and skills training for those economically vulnerable or displaced.

There’s no doubt that many under or unemployed manufacturing workers, minorities, and younger workers feel swept aside by the forces that lift others in the economy. A comprehensive vocational and skills training program would help even the playing field. This could include vouchers and bulked up education and training at community colleges and vocational training.

6. Educational loan forgiveness.

One reason younger Americans are behind is that they are saddled with educational loans, which penalize them for the very training they need to succeed and contribute to society. A program combining educational debt forgiveness with increased vocational and skills training would help young people get started in their careers. And promoting this would help Trump get more support from a demographic that is very hostile to him now.

7. Less War.

The public is tired of long, bloody, inconclusive American wars in the Middle East. On this there is a divide between public opinion skeptical of these conflicts and foreign policy elites who promote them. Trump appears to be of two minds on the issue of war in the Middle East, at times criticizing our wars there as unsuccessful and diminishing our resources to do other things while at other times promising to escalate our conflicts through inhumane and illegal means such as torture, attacks on civilians and confiscation of resources.

I said “less war”, not “no war”, for a reason. We have interests and lives to protect and must fight as necessary to protect them, but this use of force needs to be right-sized. What Trump should do is promise less war—returning to a traditional American policy of using force rarely and as a last resort, pledging to fight necessary conflicts against ISIS and Al Qaeda in as limited a way as possible, while transferring responsibility for security and stability to regional powers. He could also involve Congress by proposing legislation which would define and limit the scope of ongoing conflicts. A Trump policy of reducing our conflicts would be popular across party lines, would conform to campaign statements critical of the use of force, and allow him to demonstrate that he intends to rededicate those resources to domestic needs.

8. Review security vetting for immigrants—but no Muslim ban.

It’s fair for the new administration to review security vetting for immigrants and to make revisions as necessary to keep unsafe people out of the country in ways that comply with the law. Trump should pledge to do this and renounce any ban on  Muslim immigration (or requirement that Muslims resident in the U.S. register) as unconstitutional and contrary to American values. I’d anticipate that he can credibly say that he has reached this conclusion after the advice he has received from those he has consulted with during the transition.

9. Immigration reform—less wall and fewer deportees.

A pivot on immigration would be the most politically risky of these policy recommendations because of the clarity of two foundations of Trump’s candidacy–building a wall and deporting those here illegally.

Here’s why he should do it. One, he may not lose his base. Trump voters appear to support his leadership without regard to policy details or consistency. As Trump famously observed, he could shoot people on the streets without losing support, so he should be able to walk back promises which are logistically impossible to keep. Trump will not be able to hire enough people or spend the money needed to build the wall and deport the twelve million people here illegally, so at some point he will have to climb down from his promises.

The question is when and how he will do this. One rule of politics is to be for what will happen, and what will likely happen is that Trump will be able to build a partial barrier well short of a wall and that he’ll be able to deport at about the numbers the Obama administration has done (numbers which many observers claim are too high and inhumane). So the limits of what is doable mean Trump will build a limited barrier (or perhaps build no barrier but increase border control personnel) and maintain current levels of deportation.  After that, Trump has an opportunity to pivot to how to legalize the presence of millions of those here illegally, perhaps through a guest worker program.

Most Americans favor this, including vast majorities of Latinos. It is also popular with businesses (such as hotels, restaurants, construction, to name a few Trump is close to, and agriculture, which he knows less about) who rely heavily on undocumented workers to do the hard labor that keeps them going. This is still another opportunity for Trump to compromise, to reach out to those he has insulted, and to show the humility and grace one hopes for in a president.

Much of this, though seemingly departing from the Trump we saw as a candidate, actually reinforces his primary distinction—he is a political maverick who disregards convention. And to the extent it calls for some apology, I am reminded of a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to General Ulysses Grant about a dispute they had. Lincoln described the disagreement and acknowledged that Grant was correct. Lincoln concluded, “you were right and I was wrong.”

A little of that goes a long way.