Trump and the obliteration of America
Two years of President Trump have been bad. The next few decades will be worse.
Today marks the two year anniversary of President Trump's ignominious reign over the United States. We are now at the midpoint of Trump's first, perhaps only, term as president of the United States, what we can now understand as our collective Trumpening.
It is natural to ask about the consequences of handing the office of the presidency to a friendless, joyless, violence-worshipping narcissist. Unfortunately, what we know about the repercussions of this period is vastly outstripped by the disasters to come. For all the many ignominious assaults that the country has endured over the past two years, we have not yet experienced even a fifth of the calamities this man and his misrule will ultimately inflict upon us.
But we know a few things.
We know that President Trump has, perhaps permanently, transformed the presidency with his malevolence, ineptitude, and divisiveness. Donald Trump is by far the laziest and least informed person ever to inhabit the White House. In two years, he has defined deviance so far down that he may have forever altered the expectations of the office of the presidency itself. As we have learned from a thousand anonymously sourced news analyses, the president's time is largely unstructured, filled mostly with blocks of compulsive Fox News watching, an activity that he telegraphs to the public by live tweeting it. America's voters are constantly being told, by the president of the United States, to watch particular Fox programs and to applaud quotes by right-wing gadflies uttered without any serious pushback from other guests on what is now effectively Republican state television.
Aides, despairing of any real hope that Trump will take his job seriously, desperately schedule short blocks of "policy time" for their addled boss, a man so bereft of any lawmaking depth that he has repeatedly sent his congressional enablers scrambling to meet his capricious demands and volte faces. He has lit millions of taxpayer dollars on fire visiting his own gauche resorts, time he might have spent reining in the unprecedented corruption emanating from nearly every executive agency he staffed either with members of his dimwitted entourage or the very "globalists" he continues to hypocritically decry. Every day, this darling of the evangelical movement lives his truth, which happens to line up with every one of the seven deadly sins of sloth, envy, greed, pride, anger and gluttony. Lust, at least, he seems to have left mercifully in his recent past.
Heralded as the first post-partisan president, a transactional dealmaker sent to blow up the shriveled gridlock in Washington, Trump has instead governed as the president of the Red States of America. Journalists working outside of the right wing mediasphere are demonized as "enemies of the people" and hounded by his supporters. He rarely visits states that voted for Hillary Clinton unless there's a golf course there, and signs bills designed explicitly to punish voters in Democratic strongholds. While he constantly caterwauls about Democrats obstructing his agenda, he has never once crafted a public message designed to expand his appeal beyond his MAGA base and clearly views his political future as dependent only on the narrow coalition of people who voted for him in 2016.
Fueled by a lifetime of resentment against elites, racial minorities, and immigrants, he is incapable even of treating disasters and tragedies in blue states and territories with the gravity they deserve. Texas is a "great state" hit by an unfathomably catastrophic hurricane, while Puerto Ricans "want everything done for them" and California wildfires are the fault of government mismanagement. Here again what was once unthinkable — a president openly despising people who voted against him and punishing them for their supposed thought crimes — has become routine.
A complete trainwreck as a policy leader, Trump has also managed to be a miserable failure at the president's ceremonial duties. Instead of comfort to the afflicted, he drags his witlessness and anger into every room with him, teaching victims of calamity that their moral worth depends on who they voted for or which racial caste they were born into. He feuds endlessly with black women, uses the fever-swamp sobriquet "Democrat Party" to describe his opposition, bestows a childish nickname ("Adam Schitt") on each of his multitudinous detractors, and seems to reserve his admiration only for fellow American white nationalists and overseas strongmen.
That this dispiriting display of churlishness, petty grievance mongering, and inept blame-wielding has resulted in consistently low approval ratings is little comfort for the future. At least a third of the country has told pollsters over and over again that there is no line the president can cross, no standard of action that he can violate, no indecency incapable of being waved away by pointing to the unemployment rate or manufacturing gains. Millions of Americans — thankfully not yet a majority — are willing to tolerate from our chief executive execrable behavior that no sane person would put up with from their friends, co-workers, or loved ones. He is able to do this because he is the apotheosis of a 40-year-long Republican-led assault on objective truth, expertise, and policy evaluation.
Like domestic abusers and cult leaders and con men, the activity that consumes the preponderance of President Trump's time is relentlessly hammering away at our self-worth and our sense of objective reality. His war on truth operates on multiple fronts and never rests. Arrayed against him are journalists, and at The Washington Post and Politifact they employ a truth-value spectrum, where the number of 'Pinocchios' or a four-category schematic lends a sort of nuance to the kind of nonsense claims politicians clobber each other with in staged debates or campaign ads. Was Barack Obama 'lying' when he said, "If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor?" I guess, but the real problem there was the inability to be straight with voters, to able to say something like, "A small number of you may be forced to change insurance plans, for the greater good of your fellow citizens." Donald Trump's lies are not like this. He fills up the public record with things that are not just artful rearrangements of things that are basically real, but rather outlandishly, transparently, undeniably untrue.
I'm not here to recount this litany of lies for you. Set aside for a moment the running count of the total number of lies that he has told — the content of each is irrelevant. The point is for you to forget what it is like to have the president try to tell the truth, to disorient you, to get you to make a false confession. This is our truth, he wants us to say. That's why the president of the United States gets up every morning, uncaps a bottomless flask filled with lies and magnificently ill-informed opinions, and spends entire days and evenings pouring it out over all of us. It is working. We have become inured. We are told that to point out the president's preposterous, outrageous lies is to play directly into a game whose rules only he sets and understands. This is how you got Trump, we are told over and over again by our abusers and their apologists.
In the haze of this unending sensory and rhetorical assault, President Trump has also, loosely, governed the United States as the leader of the most disinterested and unproductive unified government in American history. Has the president delivered on the promises he made? His economic policies, it should be obvious, have been radically different than what you might have gathered from his rally bluster. The man who campaigned on behalf of ruined factory towns and raw-dealed blue collar workers immediately appointed a gallery of sniveling economic con artists to his Cabinet. Together, they have mildly tweaked American trade policy but have tripled down on Reagan-era economic orthodoxy, blowing a long-term hole in the deficit with reckless tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Fleeting manufacturing gains have not been married to any coherent reorientation of American economic policy that will survive the next recession. He has ruined the lives of many people — workers in Ford manufacturing plants and soybean farmers in the Midwest, for instance — that he explicitly promised to rescue.
Thus far there has been no 2008-style disaster so obvious that it penetrates the epistemic closure of even the most fervent diehards. The stock market is up. Unemployment is down. Trump's overseas misadventures, for all of their gobsmacking foolishness, have not yet begun to even approach anything on the scale of the Iraq disaster. For many Americans, that is enough. If you tuned the dude out on Twitter (and you don't work for or depend on the shuttered federal government) you might be able to convince yourself that nothing all that important is amiss. But it is in the realm of policy where we are likely to experience the worst aftershocks, untraceable to the fault line of origin, for many years hence.
President Trump's open dismantling of the country's diplomatic apparatus and soft power capital is likely to haunt us in future dealings with other countries. When future presidents find it impossible to negotiate agreements and treaties with allies and adversaries, because all trust in American policy continuity has been broken and because an entire generation of foreign policy talent has been vaporized, they can thank President Trump. Presidents and prime ministers know that Trump is temporary, that Trumpism might be fleeting. But they now regard America's voters themselves with wariness. When will they next erupt in a petulant display of shortsightedness? Who will be the next rogue elevated to the presidency?
The transition to a post-American global system, multipolar and more complex, was inevitable. But we did not have to gratuitously piss away a century's worth of accumulated goodwill in the process. Republicans since the turn of this century have been bent on dismantling the very international institutions that could help ease the shift to a world in which America is no longer its most powerful country. But it is Trump who has finished the job of blowing apart the post-World War II international order, a loss that while currently a kind of abstraction will be deeply felt during the next serious crisis. For all the many faults of the Pax Americana, one led by China, hampered by an untrusted, isolated United States and reeling from crisis to crisis inflicted by a warming planet, will be worse in ways we can scarcely yet imagine.
The Trump administration's blinkered economic policies, so far the only thing where voters broadly give him some credit, are setting us up for a future meltdown that we will be very poorly equipped to manage. The decade-long Republican assault on the public sector is driving new workers away from civil service, and will leave every important agency within the federal government scrambling for properly trained talent when the time finally comes to either hire them or depend on them in a crisis. Who wants to work for an employer who threatens either to furlough you or drag you into work without pay every time Congress and the president can't agree on a budget? The destruction of these institutions, constructed painstakingly over decades, may cripple a theoretical Democratic administration trying to expand Medicare or reform the systemic graft in our financial system. Just holding together what we now still have may become an impossible task.
America is also deliberately, as a matter of official Republican policy, hemorrhaging money during a long economic expansion. If Trump is in charge when the economy crashes, he will surely listen to the Randian ideologues in his coterie, who will tell him to cut spending, which will make it all incomprehensibly worse. Millions will suffer needlessly. If Republicans manage to slip out of office before the reckoning, the next Democratic administration will be forced to run unthinkable, politically toxic deficits in order to pull us out of the economic spiral. Everything that the leaders of the Democratic primary field want to do will be made more challenging by the wreckage they will first be compelled to wade through. Heads they win, tails we lose. A Trumpist minority that, during these relatively good economic times seems bent on cruelty to minorities and immigrants, will turn darker and more sadistic when the good times come to an end, or when their status as a numerical minority is finally reflected in our politics. They will not go quietly and they almost certainly will go violently. They will add social mayhem to the economic wreckage. It will not be pretty.
And yet we do not know, cannot know, the precise shape of the horrors to come. What we know is that over the past two years, we have cheapened and embarrassed ourselves. Even if this man and his enablers are removed from their offices next year, or even if the latest bombshell leads to Trump's impeachment, we will be like a teenager slinking back home at midnight, stinking of booze, promising that we only had one beer and that we'll never do it again. The moment of release will be poisoned by the memory of what has already transpired. Something about America, as an idea, has been obliterated.
If there is some silver lining to be found, it is that Trump's opponents have rediscovered the importance of institutions that they long took for granted. Normal people are talking about regulations at the Department of Justice, the separation of powers, and the Emoluments Clause. A new generation of young people is engaged in the political process and determined to seize power from the Baby Boomers who have destroyed their futures. The hot blog of the administration is a geekfest called Lawfare. Far from destroying his media tormentors, President Trump has instead sent people scrambling for subscriptions and stories. And millions of people have realized the ways that our democracy is deficient, from the suppression of voter rights via Voter ID laws and felony disenfranchisement procedures to the unequal representation in the Senate suffered by so many Americans.
Whether that encouraging fervor is sufficient to rescue American democracy from the grip of kakistocrats, white nationalists, grifters, and traitors remains to be seen.