What can liberals do about Donald Trump?

Story highlights

  • John McTernan: Politicians must take Donald Trump seriously, not literally
  • But Europeans should not fear the President-elect, McTernan says

John McTernan is a former speechwriter for ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-communications director to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)"We need to talk about Donald." That was the message that flashed across Europe the day after the election as the continent awoke to President-elect Donald Trump.

Many politicians had invested heavily -- too heavily for diplomatic comfort -- in a Hillary Clinton victory. The UK House of Commons was the most egregious, with its debate about banning Trump from entering the country.
    I wonder how many of these lawmakers would want to repeat exactly what they said now. Or more importantly, how many would still decline a meeting with President Donald Trump on an issue that affected their constituents?
    The liberal, Western mainstream that has dominated politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall is facing a threat that as recently 12 months ago seemed, at worst, far-fetched. This assault on liberal, globalist policies is being felt acutely in Europe.
    In part, this is because of the continent's recent history: The European project that healed Europe's wounds after World War II, after all, is loosely based on the premise that nations who cooperate economically with one another are less likely to launch wars on their neighbors. It's only natural that populist insurgency makes Europeans feel squeamish.

    Politicians must take Trump seriously

    But it is also being met with such anguish because of the current political climate on the continent: Britain voted for Brexit; nationalists are surging in France, Germany and Italy; the eurozone is staring down the Greek barrel once again.
    The first and by far the most important thing that liberal European politicians must do is take Trump seriously.
    Not just in the formal sense -- politics is about power and European leaders get that Trump will be the commander in chief and the leader of the free world. But more significantly, they must take him seriously as a politician.
    There is a very simple corrective to the European disdain for Trump. The possibility of his election was massively discounted. In part, this was because the liberal elite committed the cardinal sin of public life: They believed that what they hoped would happen would actually happen.
    But the error in judgment was a far more profound mistake. The European political elite took Trump literally but not seriously. They heard his words, and many rushed to judgment, missing the electoral appeal that propelled him to a narrow victory.
    Trump voters and supporters did the opposite to the elite: They took him seriously, not literally. They heard him say the system was rigged, that he would build a wall, ban Muslims from entering the United States, bring jobs home from abroad and many other things. And they knew what it meant was: "I feel your pain. ... I get you. ... I'm on your side. ... I got your back."
    There is a lesson there for political elites looking at challenge from insurgent politicians of all kinds -- from Nigel Farage in Britain, to "Beppe" Grillo in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France: think like a voter. What if you took them seriously, but not literally?
    Mario Cuomo famously said: "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." Too many political professionals and commentators implicitly believe that this only applies to progressive or centrist politicians. It applies to populists, too.

    Diplomatic dilemma: What to do with Trump?

    That, though, is ultimately a political challenge. What to do with Trump diplomatically? The answer is breathtakingly simple, though far from easy: Try to think like him.
    First, he is a deal-maker. So what is the deal he will want to do? The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is dead, but it was probably DOA. The bad news for Europe is that the deal that Americans -- including Trump supporters want -- is with the Anglosphere. Good news for Brexit Britain.
    Well, there should be some honesty here. Trump said in public what many in defense circles say privately: Many NATO countries don't pull their weight and don't meet the target of defense spending being 2% of gross domestic product.
    The United States has long felt it shoulders a disproportionate burden -- and with the UK renewing its Trident nuclear program, that is a complaint that can fairly be made by Brits, too.
    The invocation of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty is dependent on the consent and willingness of the population of NATO members to consent to the deployment of their forces. That, ultimately, is a political challenge. Europe's best defense against Vladimir Putin is not turning away from the United States, but renewing the commitment to NATO and mutual defense, country by country.

    Trump cannot afford to fail

    Finally, Europeans should not be scared of Trump: He can't afford to fail. He spent $30 million of his own money, and he has become a global brand. (Any corporation would be overjoyed to build global recognition with that small an outlay.)
    Without a doubt, Trump plans to have a career post-politics, and he doesn't want to tarnish his brand. Whatever the rhetoric, he will be looking for a deal and achievements.
    Don't take him literally; do take him seriously.