In my most recent post, “Enemies of the People” (November 1), I argued that President Trump’s denigration of the press is more than harmless expression of his paranoia. It’s a symptom of evolving despotism, one of many such precursors to which America and the world have been treated in these last years. You’d think that forebodings of this sort would make us increasingly aware of Trump’s grave threats not only to our republic but to a peaceful world order. But no; by painstaking repetition and an electorate more angry than wise, they’ve become just old news. We seem to have lost our ability to be warned.
Events and assertions that only a few years ago would have stunned us are now just another day’s tweets, schoolyard taunts, and blasé dismissals of democratic ideals. While the president himself stood out as the danger two years ago, his pollution of government has spread further as Republican officials raced to see who can most shamelessly grovel before Trump, ignore their Constitutional responsibilities, or adopt Trump’s toxic, transitional manner of governance. To be sure, the carefully constructed Constitutional system he and they carelessly endanger is not perfect. But it was assembled with more thoughtfulness and more philosophical integrity than most elected officials ever exhibit in their numerous terms.
At this point, railing further against Trump’s incompetence and treachery may be a waste of time, for he is neither inclined to accept nor capable of understanding either Constitutional democracy or multi-level large management. He came to office due to a massive mistake by the electorate. He has been and still is promoted in office by Republican elected officials stripped by greed of their ability to discern between gamesmanship and statesmanship. It is they, as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, to whom we must turn our attention, for it is they who have let America down quite as much as the fool they’ve allowed to run amuck.
Let me suppose the American electorate retains some memory of proper government, one wherein we can have great disagreements over policy, yet can value each other and remember we are Americans, not merely pro- or anti-Trumpists. A population can forget those skills as has occurred elsewhere after a long experience of totalitarianism. Indeed, every year more of us forget the pre-Newt Gingrich days in which parties fought in the Capitol, but drank together in the bar. Our policy differences, after all, are worth struggling for, but not worth crippling the very system designed to safely contain and support the elucidation and resolution of those differences.
As long as preserving and improving the system itself is as valued as it should be, an influence like Trump minimizes and perhaps destroys the ability to approach politics productively. Sports provide a useful example. Playing as well as possible is encouraged, but has meaning only while respecting the rules. The current period in America is one in which basic rules of American democracy are ignored and even intentionally damaged, creating a bizarre game in which outmaneuvering those rules is treated as if it is the score.
It is not too early to turn attention to post-Trump America, with fervent hope there will be one. That requires studied thought and public debate about the restoration of values we’ve allowed to slip away. Our country cannot be expected to right itself simply because Trump is not around. Nor will the massive damage to American influence and international trust reconstitute itself just because we’re no longer continually exposed to Trump’s malicious brand of fake news. Such a rebirth requires far more than eliminating the negative; it requires a commitment to the positive.
We can expect, for example, that many Republican leaders will be ready to rewrite the history of their role in this horror, eager to claim their availability to lead the rebirth. A similar process unfolded in the former Soviet governments in Eastern Europe after the fall of the USSR. Old communist bosses were all too inclined to be the new capitalist bosses. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Democrat officials will be either as righteous or as effective in restoration as they might be in opposition. Similarly, it would be a mistake to think no Republican officials are fit for a role in renewal.
Less obvious, Democrats would be faced with the moral test of not pressing their partisan advantage to the injury of system regeneration. For example, the focus must be on saving and improving critical elements of the system, not winning a vote on building a wall. In like manner, whether to pass a certain tax legislation would not be the kind of system-saving action I refer to, but safeguarding the country from the time-bomb looseness of the National Emergencies Act would be. For the whole country this would be a new kind of task, one that cries out more for renaissance than course correction, and asks elected officials more for wisdom than parliamentary cleverness.
I’m not sure the United States, its citizenry, and its available leadership are up to this job. But it is certain we’ll not be its match without studied preliminary attention to the post-Trump era. It’s not even clear that we’ll have the opportunity. If we are fortunate, still sufficiently comfortable with democracy, and possessed with enough civic faith—perhaps there can be an American revival of political decency, dignity, and competence.
I am moved to quote two Republican presidents in connection with my possibly Pollyanna prescription, leaving the relevance of these words to your consideration:
- President Gerald R. Ford: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
- President George H. W. Bush: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”