Opinion

Will Donald Trump bend back the arc of history?

Only if you let him

On Inauguration Day, the nation's focus is trained on one person. And most of the time, we should take a wider view.

When we elect a president, we also choose an entire government. Not just personnel by the thousands, but a set of policies and an ideology that accompany that one individual to Washington. Because of that, one can argue that the party is the most important part of the presidency. All Republican presidents will try to do certain things: Cut taxes for the wealthy, reduce regulations on corporations, increase military spending, restrict abortion rights, and so on. All Democratic presidents will try to do the opposite, and that's what will determine how government affects each of our lives.

But there are also ways in which the individual in the Oval Office matters a great deal: his priorities, his prejudices, his predilections, his strengths and weaknesses. And the individual psyche of the president may never have mattered more than it does with Donald Trump, not only because of his thin ideological commitment, but because he is so unconstrained by the strictures of ordinary adult behavior.

I have no idea what Trump's aides talk about amongst themselves, whether they walk out of his office and whisper to each other, "Was he serious? Is that really what he wants? Because oh my god." But never have we had a president so consumed with slights and offenses, not even Richard Nixon. That in the end may be the force that defines his presidency, with every day driven by what the president is mad about and whom he's taking revenge on.

Which is good reason enough for so many Americans to be fearful today. But there are other good reasons, too.

"Dreamers" might fear being rounded up and deported to countries they barely know. Tens of millions might fear losing their health coverage, and hundreds of millions their health security. African-Americans might fear for their voting rights. Muslims might fear that their houses of worship will fall under surveillance. Women might fear the atmosphere created when a presidential candidate gets caught bragging about sexual assault, then brushes it off as "locker room talk" — and wins anyway. Workers might fear their rights on the job being taken away. Most Americans might fear that a man who thinks climate change is a hoax concocted by the Chinese will do nothing to arrest the warming of the planet. And many might fear what Trump will do in a sudden fateful moment, whether through ignorance or pique or impulsiveness, that could plunge us into a deadly crisis.

But that fear need not be paralyzing. You do not have to simply wait to see what Trump will inflict.

As we watch a dignified, thoughtful, thoroughly classy president leave office, to be replaced by one who is his opposite in every way, it's worth recalling the central theme of Barack Obama's rhetoric over the years. Obama spoke again and again about the American story being one of change and progress, in which the country's greatness is found not in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution or the perfect wisdom of its founders, but in a relentless movement toward its noble ideals. "What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this," he said in Selma at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, "what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?"

His point wasn't that victory was ever guaranteed, or that American history moves in a straight line toward the light of justice. Nothing is assured, and there have been many reversals. We're experiencing one now, born of a backlash to the progress that was so intoxicating to so many eight years ago.

If you're a progressive, you may have felt then the opposite of what you do now. You may have felt that for all the country's problems, it was moving in the right direction, becoming more fair and more welcoming and more inclusive. And today you may feel that you were wrong all along. The eruption of ugliness we saw in 2016, the victory of a man who encouraged voters to nurture their hatreds and resentments, may have convinced you that the way you felt then was an illusion.

But it wasn't. You weren't wrong — or if you were, it was only in the belief that gains couldn't be lost, at least for a while. And that's what's important to remember now. Yes, today the oath of office is taken by a man who told Americans that their country was pathetic and despicable, and who promised that a strongman like him could turn back the clock to a simpler time. He is, if anything, even worse than he seemed when he began his campaign. There is ample reason to fear, and many awful things will happen in the next four years.

But what begins today will end. How quickly it does, and how much damage is done before it's over, will be up to us.

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