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The Entry-Level Presidency

After Trump, we need a leader who is not only popular but qualified

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | January 10, 2018
Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection

I’ve been amazed by the enormous and genuine excitement generated on the left by the prospect of a presidential run by Oprah Winfrey. Yesterday, I published an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that liberals should not get behind this, which has itself sparked a spirited debate online. For that reason, I’d like to add a few additional thoughts. That liberalism is in crisis seems undeniable, but what Columbia University scholar Mark Lilla has called the Trump “reset,” which the current moment represents, provides the left with an opportunity to rethink our values and rebuild them stronger from the ground up. To present a widely appealing image of the good life, we need a liberalism that neither downplays nor fetishizes identity grievances, but looks instead for ways to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert.

Yet, as the tenuousness of even our most noble and seemingly durable civil rights gains grows more apparent under the current administration, we must also consider that a full national healing may not be possible. The rancor in our politics may be as permanent as it is unpleasant. There will always be alienated citizens and communities. There will always be citizens and communities that value themselves above all others. There will always be political winners and losers. Our system, moreover, was not designed for unanimity, but for conflict and compromise. So we are also going to need a liberalism that, while pushing America to equal its ideals, soberly recognizes the harsh and irreducible realities of who we are—a liberalism that is unafraid to acknowledge that there really is “a basket of deplorables” out there (however unpalatable that sounds, it is one of the truest things Hillary Clinton ever said) and that high-minded notions of the common good may never be able to reach this segment of our demos. None of that means we must consent to meet the forces of chaos on the field of pure spectacle, turning the nation’s highest office into a celebrity deathmatch. The presidency is not—and should never again be—an entry-level position in government.

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