Loyal Opposition: Nonprofits Struggle with Acceptance or Resistance Responses

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November 13, 2016; New York Magazine

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait writes, “There’s no So You’ve Elected a Bullying, Racist, Authoritarian Swindler As President pamphlet within easy reach. The loyal opposition faces an unusual paradox. What will almost certainly be a catastrophe for the Republican Party in the long run will also be a catastrophe for the United States much sooner.”

The concept of loyal opposition is important to our democracy but many in civil society are asking themselves about its application in the wake of the recent presidential election and, indeed, it is a tough moment.

Donald Trump as a candidate said things that offended many and challenged our assumptions about the way our democratic process is supposed to work. He tuned into the struggles of an overlooked segment of our population, one ignored by his opponent and most conventional political pundits. His key to bringing white, working class voters into his camp was a willingness to light a match to racial, gender, religious, and class animosities—even hatreds. His campaign’s policy positions seem built on a web of misinformation and put people and our planet at great risk. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman described it as “unprecedented in its dishonesty; the fact that the lies…resonated with a large bloc of voters, doesn’t make them any less false…Lies are lies, no matter how much power backs them up.”

When the sun rose Wednesday morning, we had a new president, and not the one all the “experts” told us we would be greeting. In the wake of this surprise, we need to figure out for our ourselves, for our organizations, and for those we serve the meaning of what we lived through. How will we respond to Trump supporters who are thrilled with their victory and who expect his words to quickly become his actions? Or to the more than 50 percent of the voters who did not support Trump, some of whom took to the streets to tell us loudly, “He is not our candidate.”

A “normal” election features candidates who, though they may heatedly disagree about their previous records and the government policies and programs they will work to enact, agree on a set of values and share a commitment to a united country. When the battle ends, the scars are not so deep that they cannot heal quickly. The basic social fabric of our nation remains in place.

On Wednesday morning, was there a “new” Donald Trump? Was the hate speech just overheated rhetoric from a passionate but inexperienced campaigner? Now that Trump will be the next president, do we wipe the slate clean and forget his words and his actions along the campaign trail? Should the policy proposals his supporters expect to be enacted on Day 1 of his term, proposals that threaten great harm to so many, be seen, like so many campaign promises, as just words that will never be acted upon?

If this were just politics as usual, we’d know how to greet a new president, even one with whom we have policy disagreements. Organizations taking this stance are ready to forget the campaign, suspend judgment, and allow the new administration to start with a blank slate. Take, for example, the National Council of Jewish Women:

NCJW welcomes President-Elect Donald Trump’s pledge to be president for all Americans.…The American people have spoken, and we will look forward to a peaceful transition of power. We urge all our elected officials from both sides of the aisle to foster a bipartisan spirit and willingness to compromise in order to solve our nation’s most pressing problems.…We will work together with our nation’s next president and Congress.

No bridges burned or gauntlets thrown. But for others, this is not business as usual; they see this as the time to draw lines and mobilize. The ACLU took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to state its position forcefully.

If you do not reverse course and instead endeavor to make these campaign promises a reality, you will have to contend with the full firepower of the ACLU at every step…thousands of volunteers, and millions of card-carrying supporters are ready to fight against any encroachment on our cherished freedoms and rights.

Still other organizations have begun to develop resources to mitigate any harm that will be dealt out as the Trump Administration enacts its policy agenda. Oakland organizational leader Cat Brooks told the Times that “her group and other leaders in the city were planning to raise money to provide direct services for social programs they feel certain will be cut under a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. They were making plans, for example, to find ways to offer diabetes testing and counseling if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.”

In other years, only political scientists (and, of course, Nonprofit Quarterly) would take a deep interest in how the nonprofit sector would respond to the transition of national leadership. This year, it’s important for every organization to think very carefully about how to act and react at this moment. What must we protect, or even advance, and how will we do so?

Chait’s article is well worth reading, even down to his call to have Obama stay involved as an opposition leader but the conclusion to his article makes it pretty clear what he thinks overall.

Trump’s election is one of the greatest disasters in American history. It is worth recalling, however, that history is punctuated with disasters, yet the country is in a better place now than it was a half-century ago, and a better place than a half-century before that, and so on. Despair is a counterproductive response. So is denial—an easy temptation in the wake of the inevitable postelection pleasantries and displays of respect needed to maintain the peaceful transfer of power. The proper response is steely resolve to wage the fight of our lives.

—Martin Levine and Ruth McCambridge