Opinion

The most alarming thing about the Trump presidency

In four short years, this nation has been transformed

The presidency of Donald J. Trump is ending not with a whimper but with something like blissful silence.

This doesn't mean the Trump administration ended early. On Monday, two days before the swearing in of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, Trump issued an executive order calling for the creation of a statue-filled National Garden of American Heroes. On Tuesday, Trump's last day in office, he's set to issue dozens of pardons that are bound to make waves.

Yet something has nonetheless been different about the waning days of the Trump administration — and that is how little the president himself has been heard from. After four years of incessant lies, insults, exaggerations, and poisonous conspiracy-mongering, the presidential gaslighting came to an abrupt end when Twitter and Facebook muzzled Trump by suspending his accounts in the days following the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. The result has been 10 days unlike any similar stretch of time since January 2017.

And that tells us something important about what we've lived through since then.

In the days following Trump's inauguration four years ago, I proposed that in trying to make sense of the new and highly unusual administration just getting off the ground, analysts should work to separate out the normal from the abnormal and the truly alarming.

The normal included things any Republican president would do — nominate conservative judges, support tax cuts, take executive action to roll back regulations, break from the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord. The abnormal, meanwhile, involved policy moves connected to distinctively Trumpian policy commitments. These included everything from the travel ban and family separation on the Southern border to an international trade war, insults to allies, and chummy meetings with Kim Jong Un.

For someone like myself, who isn't a Republican at all, there has been plenty in both categories to dislike, even hate. But most of these have been reversible — and indeed, the incoming Biden administration is preparing to reverse many of them very quickly. This can cause its own problems, since severe, even diametric, shifts of direction from one administration to the next make it hard for citizens and business owners at home, as well as allies, rivals, and opponents on the world stage, to anticipate and plan for the future. But it also means that many of the bad things that Trump has done can be undone.

But not all them. That's where the third category comes in — with those actions and statements of the president that may well have irreparably damaged absolutely crucial aspects of American democracy.

One week into the Trump presidency, just days after the new commander in chief lied during a visit to CIA headquarters about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, I placed that and other early events firmly in the category of the truly alarming:

There were the 40 staffers Trump brought with him to CIA headquarters last Saturday afternoon to act as a personal cheering section. And the press secretary's first bizarre, hostile, extravagantly dishonest press conference about the size of the crowd at the inauguration. And Trump's insistence on repeating the wholly unsubstantiated assertion that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in the November election. And his subsequent vow to launch an investigation of voter fraud (just a decade after a five-year investigation by the Bush administration's Justice Department uncovered "virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections") …

With every such story, the office of the presidency is degraded. With every flouted ethical norm, tolerance for corruption expands. With every officially sanctioned falsehood, the distinction between truth and lies, fact and fiction, becomes blurrier. And as each of these new thresholds is crossed, another barrier to outright authoritarian government gets kicked away. [The Week]

Just a week into the Trump administration, I had no idea how bad things would get. Four years later, many of us feel like people about to be liberated from a psychological torture chamber where we've been subjected to continual abuse by a merciless tormenter out to break our wills — daring us, over and over again, to continue upholding the truth in the face of a torrent of lies.

I know it sounds overly dramatic, but it's true. Living through the past four years has been an endurance test. Consider: Trump really did lose the 2020 election. And yet, repeatedly the past two months, he asserted not just that he won the election, but that he won in a landslide. This was enough to plunge millions of his supporters into an alternative universe where it was Biden and not Trump who was trying to steal the election. But it was also enough to provoke plenty of liberals and progressives into experiencing the kind of furious, defensive anger one normally directs at the torturer who constantly insists there are five lights hanging from the ceiling when you can see with your own eyes that there are in fact only four.

That kind of abuse has consequences — both on those who perpetrate and happily go along with it, and on those who refuse to.

A large faction of Republican voters now appears to delight in being lied to — just as a bloc of their representatives in Congress seems eager to continue practicing a politics of lies and total war, even when it inspires a real-world insurrection against the very institution in which they serve. Democrats, by contrast, will be in a good mood for a while, enjoying being rid of the mad king and relishing their own return to political power. But how long will the good feelings last if the GOP continues to treat the new president as a man who rose to office through fraud?

With the Democrats controlling the presidency along with both houses of Congress, we will no longer face the danger of "outright authoritarian government" I wrote about four years ago. Now the risk will be a violent insurgency of citizens whose minds have been addled by a conspiratorial style of politics. It's to prevent exactly this that our nation's capital — and the capitals of numerous states — are filled with National Guard troops this week as we approach the start of the Biden inauguration.

And that may be the most alarming thing of all about the Trump administration. Not only has it left the nation weaker, more divided, and more dysfunctional than it was in 2016. It has also managed to transform us into a country where the peaceful transfer of power is no longer assured. That's quite an achievement for four short years — a real milestone in the annals of disastrous governance.

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