I would feel so much better if I could convince myself that the Trump presidency is merely the swing of the traditional pendulum. If only his impact could be confined to his “policies,” then all that we are witnessing could be safely placed under the category of politics-as-usual. But it is not any specific agenda that defines this moment. In fact, the usual left/right tug-of-war is almost irrelevant, the vestige of a political debate that no longer addresses the realities, the dangers, with which we are now confronted.
Trump is not just the result of our inability to carry on a normal political discussion, but he has become the major cause of the deepening divide between us. His divisiveness is not just a matter of agendas, but results from his open identification and attack of those citizens and institutions he has deemed to be his personal enemies. His understanding of his role is more akin to that of factional leader than of President of all Americans. He brings to the concept of the presidency an amorality that his followers have rationalized and normalized. He has replaced America’s generosity of spirit with his own personal smallness and lack of empathy. He has promoted a disregard of the truth, of facts, of accountability, in exchange for an illusion of “winning” and “greatness” unencumbered by reality.
Under Trump, there are no ideals, nothing larger than our own pettiness, nothing worth striving for beyond our own material desires, nothing more to offer to the world than the threat of our economic and military power. The values we once held and symbolized and fought for have become only words. And the concept of “greatness” has become that which is is achieved by making others less.
If all we had to worry about was this person, this temporary regime, then the threat would not be so immediate. But he is empowered and protected by those who enable his every single act against our democratic institutions. And here I make a distinction between those who have supported him because of the lack of viable alternatives and those who are drawn to the subtexts of his rhetoric and attitude, his core supporters. He tells them what is real and what is fake, who is friend and who is enemy, what is patriotism and what is treason, and his word is accepted by them as the final authority, the only authority. I do not know if it would be worse if they actually believe him, or if they do not believe him but just don’t care what he says or does. The result is that they form a political force that owes allegiance only to this individual, the leader, and which he employs as a weapon in exercises of naked, personal power.
The attitude of those hard-core followers, their willingness to be led regardless of the consequences to the nation as a whole, will remain after he has gone. That will be his legacy. He will leave no blueprint to build upon, no model of governance to follow, no ideas by which to move forward. They will be left hungover and empty from the aftermath of those heady years when they were on top and those who once deplored them were powerless. They will continue to feel aggrieved and angry and afraid, as before, ripe for the picking by the next authoritarian leader, perhaps this one with a purposeful agenda, one that is more sinister, whose goals will not be described by the ideologies of conservatives or progressives, Dems or GOPs, but rather as the finalization of the assault on our democratic institutions themselves.
This is not just a swing of the pendulum, but potentially a shift of the entire system, one from which there will be no way back.