Reaching out.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Imagine a Gracious Trump

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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When Donald Trump takes the oath at noon Friday to become the 45th U.S. president, he will face a more bitterly divided country than at any time in more than 40 years. Scores of senators and representatives will boycott the inauguration, and there may be more protesters than celebrators.

More than a little of the blame lies with Trump. If over the past 10 weeks he'd behaved like his predecessors, reaching out to opponents and showing some grace, it wouldn't have been as bad. He didn't, and it is. 

It never would have been harmonious. Trump had questioned President Barack Obama's legitimacy, launching his political career by advancing racist nonsense about Obama's birthplace. That was followed by a mean 2016 campaign and a modest electoral victory marred by a substantial loss in the popular vote, an unprecedented intervention by the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a probable boost from the Russian government.

But then the president-elect lashed out at a long series of real and perceived slights and hardened the opposition. Imagine if instead he had:

  • Expressed disappointment when Representative John Lewis questioned his legitimacy instead of attacking the civil rights hero. He could have urged the lawmaker to reconsider his refusal to attend the inauguration. But maybe Trump doesn't understand what happened at Selma, Alabama in 1965, when Lewis was bloodied by segregationist state troopers.
  • Supported U.S. intelligence professionals instead of likening them to Nazis over the release of unverified reports that the Russian government had gathered compromising material about him. Then he could have noted that he has tapped a new intelligence team that would work with the professionals on reforms.
  • Expressed a desire to improve relations with Russia while insisting on better behavior by President Vladimir Putin instead of embracing the Russian dictator.
  • Appointed one moderately conservative Democrat and one Hispanic to his cabinet, at the expense of one billionaire and one right-wing fringe figure.

None of this would have undercut Trump's ability to govern as a conservative Republican. It might have slightly improved the toxic political environment.

Other recent presidents-elect have tipped their hats to opponents. Eight years ago, Obama sent his designated chief of staff to meet with Republican congressional leaders and invited his defeated rival, Senator John McCain, to a meeting in Chicago. (Relations between the two men remained tense nonetheless.) In 1980, President-elect Ronald Reagan invited House Speaker Tip O'Neill and his wife to a private White House dinner after he took office. The veteran Democratic lawmaker then told his staff, "He's a charmer."

In 2001, after another contested election, George W. Bush refrained from criticism of his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, and named a respected Democrat, U.S. Representative Norman Mineta, to his cabinet. Trump continues to trash Hillary Clinton.

Twelve years earlier, Bush's dad, George H.W. Bush, took pains to sit down with various rivals during his transition period. He met with his defeated opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and also with the Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and environmentalists because, as one analyst wrote, he knew he didn't have "a strong mandate." Bush won the 1988 popular vote by eight percentage points and the Electoral College by more than 300 electors. Trump lost the popular vote by more than two percentage points and won the Electoral College by 74 electors.

Yet Trump seems incapable of grace.

That will wear thin. So the best we can do is hope that starting at noon, the weight of his office will change the behavior that has marked his life.

(Corrects Trump's Electoral College margin of victory in third-to-last paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net