White House

I Gave Trump a Chance -- and Lost

Keeping an open mind about Trump is a thankless task.

I took part in an Intelligence Squared debate last night, speaking for the motion, "Give Trump a Chance." My partner, Gayle Trotter, and I were soundly beaten by David Frum and Michael Waldman. Here's the link: I think you'll enjoy it.

When I say beaten, I do mean beaten. The winners of these debates aren't the team with the most votes at the end. Counts are taken before and after; the winners are the team that moves the audience its way. As you'll see, the rush from "for the motion" or "undecided" to "against the motion" was impressive.

If you're unfamiliar with these Intelligence Squared events,  check them out. It's a non-partisan not-for-profit operation providing a valuable public service. John Donovan, the excellent U.S. moderator, preps and supervises the debaters and the audience to encourage a civil and attentive exchange of views.

But about last night. Maybe the less said the better, from my point of view. Nonetheless, I have a couple of post-debate observations, if you're interested.

Frum and Waldman convincingly set out the evidence that Trump is a menace and asked, what else does anybody need to know? Fair question. They were ideal partners, as well -- a conservative and a liberal equally disgusted by Trump.

Best of all, they advanced an appealingly moderate notion of what "Don't Give Trump a Chance" actually means. Frum said some of Trump's cabinet nominees should be confirmed for instance, and didn't say every Trump initiative should be blocked. That's in contrast with many Democrats in Congress, to say nothing of anti-Trump activists on the streets, who want Trump halted on every front, merits be damned -- the position I had in my sights, and an easier one to attack.

Our side, I'm afraid, was a house divided against itself -- an enthusiastic Trump supporter and me, who agrees with Frum and Waldman that Trump was a terrible choice and is shaping up to be a terrible president. As a matter of logic, those positions can support the same conclusion about giving Trump a chance. But for rhetorical purposes we sounded like two attorneys defending a man accused of murder -- one arguing it's a case of mistaken identity, he wasn't even there; the other saying, yes he was the shooter, but acted in self-defense. In short, guilty.

I stand by my view on what I think is the main point. There are essentially two strategies for opposing Trump. One is to energize the Democratic base to higher and higher levels of outrage, and the other is to peel away reluctant Trumpers, drawing them back to normal politics. At this rate, Trump may send a lot of his voters back to the side of rational politics all by himself. But if his critics want to spur that process, they should be calmer and more disciplined in their attacks -- and when he does something right, be willing to say so.

One thing I take from the debate -- and from thinking about the events of the past couple of weeks, as the hyperactive new president did one dumb thing after another -- is a better sense of how U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might be feeling at the moment. Keeping an open mind about Trump is a thankless task. Leaders of close and long-standing U.S. allies, hoping for productive relations with the new president, have been rewarded for that posture by being made to look stupid.

Perhaps we had it coming. In any event, should U.S. allies continue to give Trump a chance? I wouldn't advise it. For them, this debate is hardly academic.       

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:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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