Commentary: An open letter to those anxious about a Trump presidency

SAIS professor, former State Department official Eliot A. Cohen pens letter for 'The American Interest'

In the turbulent aftermath of last week's election, Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., drafted an open letter titled "To An Anxious Friend..." addressing concerns about a Trump presidency.

Eliot Cohen

Image caption: Eliot Cohen

(Update: Cohen seemed to change his tune significantly on Tuesday, five days after his article was published; more on that in a moment).

The letter was published Thursday in The American Interest. In it, Cohen—who previously helped to organize letters signed by foreign policy experts denouncing Trump as unfit for office—calls the election results "dreadful." But he tempers that judgment with three silver linings:

  • First, the checks and balances built into the political system to combat authoritarians "are really quite strong," he says. In addition to the abilities of Congress and the courts to limit power, "the press, bureaucratic inertia, federalism, and certain norms" will help restrain the executive branch from overreach.

  • Second, Trump is still an unknown quantity, politically, and "may be better than we think," Cohen says. "He does not have strong principles about much, which means he can shift."

  • Third, Cohen says, "part of the magic of America is its ability to regenerate itself." Both political parties "desperately need new generations of leaders," and Cohen hopes the Republican and Democratic parties can reform practices that result in "unthinking tribalism."

The Framers of the Constitution "understood that the maintenance of free institutions requires constant vigilance and struggle," Cohen writes. "Why, then, should history spare our generation, and our children's, our own distinctive tribulations?"

Cohen, who served from 2007 to 2009 as counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, adds that "there are a lot of things that only we can fix—by teaching our children the basics of citizenship; by instilling in them a patriotism that is not naive, but is warm and resolute; by encouraging them to understand and compromise with others unlike them."

Update: Tuesday, Nov. 15

Upon further review, Cohen struck a somewhat less optimistic note Tuesday with the following tweet, which drew widespread attention:

Cohen later expanded on his thoughts in an interview with The Washington Post, saying that after trading emails with a longtime friend and senior official on Trump's transition team about possible national security appointees, "it became clear to me that they view jobs as lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls."

Read more from The American Interest