The election of Donald Trump has been an agonizing experience. America's friends have been dumbfounded by Mr. Trump's alliances, temperament and policy utterances. There is good reason to fear the worst, having seen and heard the kind of man he is.
We could, at the moment of his inauguration, easily recount again the many ways the President has espoused violence and racism, failed to remove doubts about his business interests, and rejected the basic tenets of international diplomacy and trade.
But it behooves critics of Mr. Trump, now that he is in power, to stop setting on fire the few hairs we haven't already pulled out of our scalps, and to take a deep breath. Mr. Trump is the President of the United States. It is time now to get past the shock, and to begin calmly sizing up and mitigating the threat.
Along the way, we may discover that the best way to neutralize Mr. Trump is to remain above his taunts and tantrums. It won't be easy, but it has to be done.
The President is frankly brilliant at throwing people off-balance. A well-timed blitz-tweet by Mr. Trump can dominate the news cycle for days. His comments have put leaders in Canada, China, Mexico, Japan and most of Europe on their back heels, forcing them into reactive modes.
There are good ways to deal with these provocations, and bad. Canada has established the prototype of the good way. The Trudeau government, which is the ideological antithesis of Mr. Trump, has wisely stuck to a simple message: The U.S. is our biggest trading partner and oldest friend, and Canada looks forward to working with the administration to enhance that relationship.
At the same time, the government has enlisted former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who is a friend of Mr. Trump's and of some of his cabinet members, to open doors. It has also moved Chrystia Freeland into the role of foreign affairs minister, and named Andrew Leslie, a retired army commander who has worked closely with U.S. generals in the Trump cabinet, as her parliamentary secretary.
This is the right response. Never get in a pissing match with a skunk, as they say. Especially when the skunk is the most powerful creature in the forest.
But Mr. Trump does not hold all the cards. Yes, it's true that as leader of the world's only superpower, he is able to chest a healthy share of the deck. And he currently has a lot of momentum, thanks to his unexpected victory. But he is not omnipotent. That's not how the U.S. political system, or the world, works.
American blacks, Muslims and Hispanics who have reason to be nervous about Mr. Trump's angry rhetoric should remember that American courts have repeatedly demonstrated that they will stand up to a president on civil-rights issues.
U.S. trading partners who have good reason to worry about his threat to impose "a big border tax" on imported goods should remember that tariffs work both ways. There are a lot of American states whose economies rely on exports. They don't want to lose access to foreign markets. And tariffs will cause the cost of many goods to rise. A self-inflicted trade war would hurt American workers and consumers, and that in turn could cost Mr. Trump the limited support that he has.
As President, Mr. Trump's posturing – on trade, on foreign affairs, on tax cuts, on repealing Obamacare, on building a wall along the Mexican border – is going to be tested by new realities that didn't exist in the vacuum of the transition period. Congress, for one. The President has many Republicans in Congress on his side, but their interests aren't completely aligned with his. Those allies can become enemies if he bullies them, or endangers their re-election chances.
He will also have to deal with rights organizations that file lawsuits, foreign leaders who respond by lighting their own fires, and protesters who refuse to be silenced. He may even have to deal with Barack Obama, who left office with far higher approval ratings than Mr. Trump has going in, and who has vowed to speak up, if necessary.
Mr. Trump's chief weapon against the forces aligned against him is the division he can so expertly sow. It's the secret to his success. Keep people at each other's throats, and they won't focus on the big picture. The best thing that can happen for Mr. Trump – and for Vladimir Putin, the one foreign leader he refuses to criticize – is for the U.S. to become so polarized that its democracy stops functioning.
One defence against this is to have some faith in the legislative and judicial branches of the U.S. government to rein in the Chief Executive. The system of division of powers is designed to make legislating and even governing slow and difficult. Force him to play by the rules of American constitutional democracy, and he won't be able to play by his own.
Critics should also focus on attacking Mr. Trump's positions on their merits, not on his rhetoric. Take the threat he poses seriously, but don't exaggerate it. Each and every Trump pronouncement is not one step closer to the end of the world.
Above all, don't respond intemperately. The President's shock tactics encourage both followers and opponents to go overboard. But there is no victory in retaliating in a similar fashion, or in becoming enraged by his calculated hypocrisies and lies, which are only meant to provoke.
Mr. Obama had it right in his goodbye speech in Chicago two weeks ago. "The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some."
History is not on Mr. Trump's side. This is his greatest weakness, and the reason to never lose hope.