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It's Time to Deal with the Reality of a Trump Presidency

With the Electoral College casting its ballots on Monday, Trump's opposition needs to stop fantasizing about ways to stop him from winning the White House and look toward the future.
December 19, 2016, 7:55pm
Donald Trump in Orlando on his "Thank You Tour" on Friday. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)​

Today, Monday, December 19, electors will be meeting in the 50 state capitols to go through the formality of casting their ballots and officially making Donald J. Trump the president of the United States. Itis almost certainlytoo late to stop Trump, though groups of protesters were still trying as late as last night at candle-lit "vigils" all overthe country where people called upon red-state electors to break ranks and vote against Trump, as a few already have sworn they would do. It's just the latest, and likely last, expression of a sentiment shared by anti-Trump conservatives and liberals alike: This guy can't be president, right?

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Trump's entire year-and-a-half-long campaign unfolded in a bubble of unreality. Before the primaries, when he was leading in the polls, it was dismissed as a blip. When he won a whole bunch of primaries, people noted he still wasn't on track to secure a majority of GOP convention delegates. When he did win a majority of the delegates, anti-Trump Republicans talked about using last-ditch maneuvers at the convention to stop him. After he accepted the nomination, everyone who knew about such things looked at the polls and figured he couldn't win. I sure didn't think he could win. Then he won. Fuck.

In such a close election—Hillary Clinton won 2.8 million more votes nationwide than Trump, but lost thanks to a combined margin of less than 100,000 in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—breaking down the causes can be tricky. But Trump was aided at every turn in the process by a pervasive attitude that he couldn't become president. The establishment Republican candidates didn't realize the threat he posed to them fast enough to coordinate any kind of response; instead, he took advantage of a crowded field, building a sizable delegate lead without winning a majority of votes until the New York primary in April. Clinton's campaign was so convinced of Trump's vulnerability that they looked forward to facing him (or Ted Cruz or Ben Carson) rather than someone like Jeb Bush. The media didn't take Trump seriously until he had steamrolled the Republican Party—important stories about Trump's lack of proven charitable giving and his habit of not paying contractors didn't come out until he had the nomination locked up. Before then, Trump was regarded as a sideshow and given heaps of coverage, most embarrassingly when he got major coverage of a fundraiser he put on for veterans instead of participating in a primary debate. And in maybe the most damning example of overconfidence dooming Clinton, her campaign failed to pay enough attention to Michigan because it was certain of victory there.

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It's hard to blame anyone for not taking Trump seriously, since it's not clear how serious Trump himself was about actually becoming president. One former campaign staffer said in March that Trump was supposed to be a protest candidate, and after the election a Chris Christie aide told CNN that Trump thought he'd be done by October 2015. Like a sitcom character caught in an escalating series of fibs, Trump took things further and further. Meanwhile, anti-Trumpers gawked in horror at his nativist rhetoric and fact-free bluster while simultaneously reassuring themselves that this guy really, really couldn't be president.

That's why Trump's election hit so many people like a personal trauma—for months, the possibility had seemed both remote and disastrous, like being crushed to death by a falling piano. A Trump administration was never contemplated as an actual reality, and so when we found ourselves suddenly living in that world it felt so much worse. Trump's victory still feels impossible, hence the last-ditch vigils, the demands for electoral defection, the posts on Facebook and Change.org and Medium.

Absent some unlikely last-minute legal chicanery—maybe there's something written on the back of the Constitution we missed?—the electoral votes will be formally counted in Congress on January 6, and Trump will take the oath of office on January 20. After that, people will have to start treating the Trump administration as a reality, because it will be.

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This means not engaging in impeachment fantasies—incredibly unlikely with a Republican congress—or continued demands for go-nowhere recounts. It means operating from the assumption that Trump will be the president for four years, because that's what's going to happen.

There's been a lot of talk of how "normalizing" Trump only plays into his hands. But live with anything awful long enough and you know that it does become normal. Losing an arm is normal. Being so broke you can barely eat is normal. Getting cancer is normal. Watching your friends die because of suicide or drugs or both is normal. Your mind naturally dulls the pain of trauma, because otherwise how could you get through the days? That doesn't mean those who oppose him won't continue to pursue every avenue available to block any of his harmful policies, but they will be doing it with the acknowledgement that Trump is officially the president of the United States.

The other path, to continue to deny Trump's legitimacy, to decry him as an outsider hell-bent on destroying the republic, grants him that same aura of impossibility that helped him so much during the campaign. Trump is very good at playing a cartoon, a tabloid star so ridiculous the rules of ordinary morality don't apply to him. Low expectations helped him cruise to the nomination, while hysteria during the general election just affirmed his narrative that he was coming to break apart old Washington, DC and drain the swamp. Going forward, any expression of rage at Trump—however justified—will be used by him as proof of the irrationality of his opposition. (He's already making those sorts of remarks on Twitter.)

So treat Trump as what he is: a politician who caught a shit-ton of lucky (and occasionally Russian-aided) breaks and wound up in the White House. Call out his failures and any corruption that emerges, note the damages his policies do to the poor and the vulnerable. Don't dismiss him as a buffoon or imagine him to be the Julius Caesar to America's Roman republic. He's just a man with ugly hands who we have to deal with for the next four years.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.