I have refrained this past year from writing about the state of our political affairs, preferring instead to keep an open mind and to wait-and-see if things were really as bad as I had feared. They’re worse. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has caused daily anxiety and stress, not only for me and other liberal minded, politically-interested citizens, but for the majority of Americans and the world at large. Trump as President has changed everything – he has cheapened our public discourse, undermined the rule of law, degraded our civic values, and methodically lowered our standards. One need not read Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House to understand that Trump lacks the skills needed to effectively govern. His actions and words have steadily frayed the societal bonds that hold us together. For the first time in my life, I awaken each morning with a sense of dread.
We live in dangerous times, with a mentally unstable, unpredictable leader of the free world; an uninformed, ignorant, angry and insecure man in the White House. Trump has weakened American democracy, because he does not respect the political and legal institutions on which our democracy depends and which have provided stability and security since the end of World War II. Our alliances have been shattered, trust in U.S. leadership is at an all-time low, and the country is deeply divided in ways that seem more serious and permanent than ever before.
I freely acknowledge this is not the first time we have experienced deep divisions – in my lifetime, the United States was torn apart by the struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate, abortion, the rights of gays and lesbians. But it seems different now. Where we used to disagree about the means to an end, we no longer agree on the ends. We no longer accept the same facts. The president throws out incendiary, fabricated terms like “fake news” and “deep state” and promotes paranoid conspiracy theories on such a routine basis that we risk losing our grip on bedrock reality.
It has only been one year since Trump’s inaugural address, when he spoke of “American carnage” and gave the darkest, most sinister and depressing presidential speech in American history. Over the course of the past year, Trump has insulted foreign leaders on Twitter, called for the arrest and prosecution of his political opponents, openly undermined members of his own Cabinet, mocked and denigrated the FBI and CIA, insulted the leaders of friendly nations, and sang the praises of some of the world’s worst dictators.
As president, Trump has diminished our 70 year-long alliance with Western Europe and placed in doubt our commitments under NATO. His calls for “America first” harken back to the isolationist and anti-Semitic America First Committee founded by Charles Lindbergh in 1940. His pre-presidential campaign behavior, when he bragged about the size of his penis, made fun of his opponents’ wives, and mocked a disabled reporter, has carried over to his similarly puerile conduct in office. No other president in modern times has treated his political adversaries in such a disgusting, dishonorable fashion. Being president has done nothing to sensitize Trump to the majestic arc of American history, the immense responsibilities of his office, and the reality that he presides over a diverse nation of 325 million people.
Trump has perhaps irreparably damaged the reputation and credibility of the United States with the rest of the world. He has threatened the use of nuclear weapons in ways so irresponsible and immature, it has made a mockery of America’s traditional role as the world’s foremost superpower. With no moral compass, no sense of decency or decorum, he has abandoned America’s commitment to human rights and the maintenance of world order as seminal principles of U.S. foreign policy. He has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened repeatedly to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and left a vacuum in world leadership that is already being filled by Germany, China, and Russia.
At home, he has done nothing to expand his appeal beyond the approximately one-third of Americans who continue to support him no matter what he does or says. He fundamentally misunderstands his constitutional responsibilities, the separation of powers, and his ethical duties, and instead acts like a morally bankrupt figurehead who has no qualms about exploiting his position for financial gain. He enjoys sparking the flames of racism and white identity politics with attacks on political correctness and civility. Having entered the political arena by promoting the blatantly racist and false claim that Barack Obama was not born in America, hardly a week goes by when Trump does not insult Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, black athletes, or some other identifiable segment of humanity, including most recently the people of Haiti and the entire continent of Africa.
Among the most dangerous aspects of the Trump presidency are his attacks on truth, science, facts, and a free press. As Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona articulated on the Senate floor on January 17th, “2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth – more battered and abused than any other in the history of the country…It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods.” This president lies so frequently – as of a few days ago, The Washington Post had documented 2,140 falsehoods told by Trump since being sworn in as President – that his public pronouncements, and that of his press spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, are the source of daily outrage and embarrassment.
His phony cries of “fake news” and his disrespect for an independent press are direct attacks on the First Amendment. In calling the press not simply unfair but the “enemy of the American people,” he has attempted to delegitimize the one institution of our democracy that has any chance of holding Trump accountable. His personal insults directed at individual reporters whose stories he dislikes are among the most ugly and obscene aspects of this presidency, for attacking a free press is a tool historically used by despots and dictators. The effects are poisonous to American democracy.
As the year unfolded, we have learned just how actively Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with increasing evidence that Trump’s closest confidantes exploited and encouraged their Russian connections to create disinformation and corrupt the electoral process. I will wait for all of the facts to develop through the Mueller investigation before commenting further, but it is astonishing to me the lengths to which Trump’s supporters defend and excuse every aspect of this story.
Trump and the Republicans have done nothing to retaliate against the Russians for attacking our sovereignty, discrediting the U.S. political system, and distorting our democratic process. Instead, the president has repeatedly called the Russia story a “hoax” and ridiculed the Justice Department, the FBI, and his own intelligence agencies for telling him what he wants not to hear. As Senator Flake also warned in his remarks last week, “an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame – is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”
It may well be for future historians to determine the full degree to which the Trump presidency has distorted the truth and damaged the institutions of American democracy. But it is self-evident that serious damage is being done. Trump has succeeded in lowering our standards and creating a new "normal." He has elevated pettiness and indecency to new heights, reduced presidential discourse to ignorant and childish Twitter feeds, personal attacks and insults. He does not read. He is ill informed on almost every policy issue. He has demonstrated not a scintilla of interest in personal growth since becoming president. If he had remained the mediocre, publicity-hungry real estate developer he once was, none of this would matter. But when such behavior and pettiness emanates from the leader of the free world, it is destructive of our politics and degrades our moral authority. Leadership requires judgment. Humility. Character. A true leader does not encourage the ugly and debased passions of white supremacists and appeal to our darkest impulses.
During his inaugural address in 1861, at a time when the nation was even more divided than we are today, newly elected President Abraham Lincoln spoke the words of a true leader:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
If only Trump would study the speeches and actions of some of our past presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan – men he claims to respect, who presided over the United States during tumultuous times in our history. They knew the importance of using the privilege of their office to heal divisions, to reach out to those who opposed them, and to seek common ground. No president is perfect. But Trump doesn’t even try.
In 1789, at the beginning of the American journey, George Washington observed that a president should not in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.” It is a gross understatement to suggest that Trump has failed this test. He demeans himself and the office on a daily basis, and we as a nation are becoming inured to it. He has done immense damage to the rule of law, our constitutional system, our social fabric, and our sense of national unity. Although I would like to believe otherwise, I fear that, like the melting glaciers in the arctic, there will be a breaking point from which we cannot recover.