E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post, a professor at Georgetown University, and a frequent commentator on MSNBC. With Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, he’s co-author of the new book One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You open your new book by declaring that a crisis can be an opportunity. We certainly have a crisis; how would you describe it? And what exactly is the opportunity here?
E.J. Dionne: The crisis is that Donald Trump really has no business being president of the United States. The opportunity, I think, is visible all over the country. Trump has given the system a jolt. There were a lot of things slowly decaying in the system, and Trump has sped this up to the point where no one can miss it. Trump has obliterated political norms—basic understandings of how people in power or close to power should behave. These days I like to quote the political philosopher Joni Mitchell, who said “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Trump is sure reminding us of that.
Secondly, we’re seeing an autocratic side to Trump, which has called forth a powerful response. The media have come to the realization that there’s something wrong with false balance, and that the media’s job is to tell the truth, and you don’t really have to say “there’s another side to this story” when there really isn’t another side to a set of facts.
We’re seeing the response especially in the mobilization around the country, both in civil society and in politics. Every Trump action has drawn an extraordinary outpouring of civic activism. Look at the Muslim ban, when people rushed to the airports, lawyers rushed to the courts, citizens rushed to aid their neighbors. Look at the DACA decision, to which there was an immediate pushback. Perhaps the most impressive pushback was against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, where many Republican congressmen from very Republican districts were shocked to see enormous turnouts of their own constituents saying, “This law shouldn’t be repealed. We should build on it.” Finally, I think you’re seeing some real activism all the way down to the precinct level in the country. A lot of groups are recruiting candidates for office up and down the ballot. People are trying to turn anti-Trump anger into actual political organization on the ground. This is something that needed to happen in any event to make our democracy work, and I think Trump has accelerated this process.
JW: The subtitle of your book is A Guide for the Perplexed. Of course, you took that from the medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, whose book with that title was published in 1190. I learned this from Wikipedia. That guide for the perplexed sought to find rational explanations for many events in the Bible. I see that you, like Maimonides, are seeking rational explanations for, in this case, events in our recent political history: like, What the hell happened to make Trump president? Do you have a rational explanation for that?