The Trump presidency has now, courtesy of the Republican cabal in Congress and against all the history that has hitherto defined the office, entered its second appalling year. There aren’t enough words for the damage it has done, not only to us but to the cause of democracy itself. I’ll attempt a few.
Democracy has been taking hits for awhile, after its presumed victory with the fall of the Soviet Union. The Founding Fathers, well aware of its capacity for volatility, hedged it with constitutional checks and balances. Ironically, these very protections are now undermining it, making the removal of Donald Trump from office a prolonged and agonizing task, if it is even possible. Other nations have taken note.
The Chinese have pointedly noted the ‘flaws’ in our system of selecting executive leadership, a point that is hard to argue under present circumstances. The Romans, under imperial rule, had to suffer the likes of Caligula and Nero. But they did not elect these rulers; they were imposed by hereditary succession. We are the first country in the world to put a leader into the chief office of state who bears comparison with the most feckless of Roman emperors. Indeed, a recent New York Times op-ed offered a point-by-point comparison of Trump with Caligula. The comparison was not to Trump’s advantage.
The point bears emphasis. Mussolini was not elected to office in Italy, nor was Hitler in Germany. Terrible tyrants have clawed their way to the top in other systems; they have not been freely chosen by popular election. To be sure, Trump is a minority president, elected in key states by voter suppression and the antiquated relic of the Electoral College. Nonetheless, our electoral process produced him. It also recently produced another minority president, George W. Bush, who, installed by partisan chicanery, undermined our constitutional system and embroiled us in our current cycle of seemingly endless wars. That helped make Trump possible, but the road to him has been a long one, and the crisis he represents cannot be overestimated. Part clown, part criminal, part fraud, the damage he has done has degraded us almost beyond calculation.
Let’s look to begin at what Trump has done to our position abroad. I’m no fan of the American empire and its doings, but cavalierly casting NATO aside while simultaneously retreating before China — except to threaten its North Korean client with nuclear incineration — has left much of the great power field to Moscow and Beijing, not only in Europe and Asia, but in the Middle East, Africa, and even South America. One can shrug this off as Trump has done with the slogan of America First, but first at what? No policy or goal is evident, but merely a petulant thrashing that has led others to simply dismiss us as an international actor.
No great power has ever fallen this far this fast, or for such a reason: not military defeat or economic collapse, but a self-inflicted loss of purpose and identity. Driven by the whim and ego of an infantile personality that has little conception of anything beyond moment-to-moment gratification and private gain, it presents the spectacle of a rogue nation both dangerously unpredictable and pitiably absurd.
At home, we are in a new era of capital conglomeration unlike anything ever experienced before, with such Internet platform giants as Amazon, Google and Facebook angling for worldwide domination of the new information and surveillance economy, while vertically integrating themselves with its industrial base. This didn’t begin with Trump, but it is proceeding under him with no antitrust pushback at all, as if monopoly were simply the order of the day and control of the world by a few corporate elites was the natural, unstoppable force of social evolution. It will be exponentially harder to challenge, let alone reverse these trends in future administrations because of Trump’s carte blanche.
Needless to say, you can kiss democracy goodbye on this basis alone, but Trump has further undermined the courts, the press and virtually every agency of even executive government with the exception of the military, and by vitiating or refusing to enforce existing laws, has made a joke of Congress as well. This leaves the way open to authoritarian government on behalf of private interests, including Trump’s own, to control the political process as well as the economy. The death’s head battalion of the Republican Party appears fully complicit with this as long as it can claim its share of the swag, while the Democrats, themselves knee-deep in donor corruption, have little to offer but the rhetorical handwringing that they hope will return them to their place at the trough.
Again, this is more the process that produced Trump than the direct consequence of him; we could not have fallen so far so fast without long preparation: the abandonment of the social justice agenda of the New Deal and the civil rights movement; the rise of unfettered corporatism and its handmaiden, runaway technology; the takeover of the legislative function by lobbyists and bureaucrats, leaving Congress a hollow vessel. But Trump, in unabashedly celebrating it as the permanent norm, has removed the floodgates to cynicism and despair.
Finally, there is Trump’s unspeakable personal vulgarity. The scandals of his business and personal life have degraded the presidency, the last touchstone of our faith in public leadership. His abuse of language, his disdain for any concept of common value and truth, and his assault — partly casual, partly calculated — on any person or institution that attempts to speak for them, has made a slanging match of civil discourse. That’s farewell to the very idea of a republic, or an America that is anything but a deluded exercise in flagwaving. It is not by accident that Trump has made the failure to stand to attention at the playing of the national anthem at football games or to applaud his speeches virtual acts of treason. The empty symbol and the empty suit go completely together.
And all this is only the beginning.
Unlike other nations formed by slow processes of habitation and growth, America was born of an idea, which is to say something that must be continually shaped, talked through and defined. If that process fails or is terminally corrupted, nothing is left but a monster. That is what the world is beginning to see in us. Our public face now is the ominous scowl and self-congratulatory grin of a casino operator lurching from bankruptcy to bankruptcy, a lecher going from assignation to assignation, a fool being played upon by foes abroad and opportunists at home.
How we got here will be fodder for historians for many years to come, if there are historians. One thing should be clear, though: Donald Trump was no accident. He is the product of an economic system run amok and a political system that has become to all intents and purposes its partner in crime. Barack Obama was the slicker package, but Trump is the unvarnished truth. He is the face in the funhouse mirror that, when the wheel stops turning, shows us our own.