Are the Winter Olympics still on? I ask because last week saw a sharp uptick in the use of the term “getting out over their skis.” Nikki Haley was out over her skis in talking about sanctions on Russia, reporters were out over their skis in speculating about what charges would be brought against Michael Cohen, Democrats were out over their skis in anticipating a midterm landslide….
It was enough to make Claudine Longet scrape the rust off her biathlon skills. (Look it up, youngsters.)
So in that spirit, I am going to risk getting out over my Rossignols in talking about how history will remember Donald John Trump.
Obviously, getting Trump into the past tense is yet a long way off, and I am by no means sanguine about how that is going to happen. But we don’t need to speculate about how the Insane Clown President will leave office. (I offered a few possibilities last week.) Someday leave he will.
But beyond sheer prematurity, there are two major ways in which this thought experiment risks a face-plant in the snow.
The first is that it presumes we will not all die in a thermonuclear holocaust because Donny and Kim Jong Un got into a Three Stooges-style slapfight over whose missiles are bigger. (Nyuk nyuk.) Even with unprecedented events unfolding on the Korean peninsula, that remains a pick’ em.
The second is that it presumes that what we call “history” will not be reduced to Fox News-meets-Josef Goebbels propaganda in a neo-fascist Amerika led by President-for-Life Trump, a possibility that an alarming—though not surprising—number of Republicans would be cool with. Also not an assumption we can safely make.
So let’s stipulate that we’re talking about a future in which America somehow survives this administration with the fundamentals of our quasi-democracy intact, and we begin the process of rebuilding. Barring the aforementioned nuclear omnicide, or descent into truth-obliterating totalitarianism, presumably someone will be left to make an honest assessment of his reign.
So what will they say about him when he’s gone? Let’s begin by looking at what precedent tells us.
NIXON’S THE ONE (AND TRUMP’S ANOTHER ONE)
Last week, I wrote about Slate’s terrific Watergate podcast “Slow Burn,”which got me thinking about how posterity remembers Richard Nixon.
While Nixon avoided prison, or worse, he was not able to avoid the verdict of history. Today he is a pariah, widely regarded by knowledgeable Americans—not to mention scholars and experts—as one of the most corrupt and terrible presidents in American history. Ironically, Trump has caused Nixon’s stock to rise a little bit by comparison, which is more a measure of just how awful Spanky is, as opposed to anything positive about Tricky Dick.
Of course, there is a small slice of the American public that still admires and even reveres Nixon; it is the same demographic that adores Trump, which says it all. Even now, when the subject comes up, these folks will parrot the chilling, authoritarian-friendly lines of defense that Nixon’s myrmidons deployed in 1972, ’73, and ’74:
Everyone does it; all Nixon did wrong was get caught!
He was a tough sonofabitch who knew how to handle the Russians!
At least he got us out of Vietnam!
Baseless canards all. But there will always be a small segment of such dissenters on every topic, just there will always be people who believe in Bigfoot.
(The phrase most associated with Nixon—“I am not a crook”— sits beside his description of his wife Pat’s “respectable Republican cloth coat,” from the 1952 Checkers speech, atop the pyramid of his most pathetic public lamentations. The analog, of course, is Trump’s Tourette’s-like compulsion to shout—and tweet—“No collusion!”, a habit so frequent that it is comically suspicious. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine that the Richie Rich cartoon who is our current president would ever brag that Melania doesn’t own a fur.)
Today, the people who cling to that admiration for the 37th president are almost uniformly regarded as cranks, ignoramuses, and neo-fascist knuckleheads—especially when taken to the extreme of getting, say, a huge tattoo of Nixon’s face on your back. Admiration for Trump will someday be seen in the same light, as it already is in much of the reality-based world.
In a much discussed article in the New Yorker, Adam Davidson beautifully outlines how the narrative that Trump voters bought into—the hardnosed billionaire businessman who would fight for them and “drain the swamp”—is already giving way to a more realistic and very different consensus—that of a shady, pathologically dishonest two-bit con man who screwed over everybody who ever got near him. That is the one that is likely to last, in the same way that new conclusions eventually emerged on other issues where the opposite view once held sway, like the wisdom of the Iraq war or the sturdiness of the housing market pre-September 2008.
Barring some sort of Damascus experience (insert Syria joke here), alien abduction, or near-death encounter that miraculously turns the Cretin-in-Chief into the second coming of Abe Lincoln, I have absolutely no doubt that that is how the Very Stable Genius will go down in our collective memory. If the American experiment—and the human race—survive his presidency, history will likely remember Donald Trump with a gimlet, unforgiving eye, and it won’t be pretty. But it will be accurate.
History has a knack for that.
WHO TELLS YOUR STORY
It is of some comfort to know that, while the arc of history may not bend toward justice (contrary to Dr. King’s optimism), it has a pretty good track of accurately assessing gods and monsters in retrospect.
I was recently with my family in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where we visited the collection of official presidential portraits. It was heartwarming to see the huge line of visitors waiting to view—and take selfies with—Barack Obama’s bold, newly unveiled portrait by Kehinde Wiley. (In a separate section of the museum, a similarly large, similarly enthusiastic snapshot-taking crowd thronged around Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald—maybe an even more encouraging sign.)
But as we entered the hall of presidential portraits, a terrible and depressing thought stabbed at my heart: someday Trump’s picture will be hanging here? At first—instinctively—I comforted myself with the irrational thought that “Of course it won’t!” One way or another Trump will be exposed as the criminal charlatan he is and run out of office on a rail. He will be an asterisk, not deserving of inclusion in this hall. Right?
But then again, Nixon’s portrait is hanging in there. (And it’s one of the most bizarre: an uncharacteristically smiling, unjustifiably flattering depiction by Norman Rockwell—of all people—at once fitting in its aspiration to a mythically idyllic, white-dominated America that never existed but was much mourned by Nixon supporters, and at the same time deeply ironic.)
Accordingly, I adjusted my perspective to face reality. Appalling as it is to imagine, of course Trump will take his place here someday! Even if his administration is rightly remembered as a disaster, it is an undeniable part of American history. How depressing.
But as I wandered the gallery and read the descriptions accompanying each portrait, I was heartened to realize that they were pretty clear-eyed, and therefore often quite harsh. (Sorry John Tyler, Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, James Buchanan, et al.) Brief as they were, the descriptions did occasionally gloss over some nuances, a trend that was much more obvious to me with recent presidents, with whose history I am more familiar. Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Dubya, for example, all got off pretty easy for my taste, so I presume that proper historians might have some quibbles with a lot of others as well. But none were outright hagiographies. (I’d like to know the procedure by which these descriptions are written, and who makes those decisions. I suspect the politics are intense.)
So what will Trump’s portrait and caption look like? First of all, I think we can assume it will be painted on black velvet, and maybe accompanied by something like this:
Donald Trump pulled off the most improbable upset in American presidential history when he defeated the far more experienced and qualified Hillary Clinton in 2016, after running a chaotic, scandal-ridden campaign that did its damnedest to lose in a landslide. Trump was later revealed to have secretly conspired with the Russian government to help win the election, a charge he vehemently denied for years before it was conclusively proven by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump’s was by all accounts the most incompetent, anarchic administration the United States had ever seen. Ultimately his Kremlin connections were shown to stem from deep financial entanglements with Russian organized crime—principally money-laundering, fraud, and other malfeasance—stretching over decades. Ironically, Trump’s run for the presidency, which began as a lark, wound up destroying him, his family, his business empire, and the Trump name. It didn’t do the USA much good either.
OF ELEPHANTS AND OSTRICHES
But in the same way that even now there remains a small subset of Americans who think Nixon was a great man, it’s clear that for Trump’s most extreme dead-enders, nothing that their hero is eventually revealed to have done will make them turn on him.
Not evidence that he conspired with Russia to steal the election.
Not evidence that he stiffed every blue collar contractor who ever worked for him.
Not evidence that he has been cheating on his taxes for decades at the expense of those same honest, hard-working people.
Not conclusive proof that he had physically assaulted and even raped numerous women, some of them underage.
Not revelations that he eagerly laundered money for the Russian mob, or handed top secret intel over to the Kremlin on a silver platter.
Not a decision to start kneeling during the National Anthem along with Colin Kaepernick. (Oh, if the NFL’s ownership wasn’t conspiring to keep Kaep out of the league, that is.)
Not video of him slapping on knee pads and a French maid’s outfit and pleasuring Vladimir Putin.
Not a photograph of him wiping his ass with the American flag.
Not even the admission that he regularly dines with Hillary Clinton and seeks her advice. (Though of all those hypotheticals, this is the one with the best chance of alienating his fans.)
No no no no no no no no no. If the events of the past two years proven anything, they have proven that Trump’s staunchest supporters will rationalize anything and everything he does….and the GOP leadership will provide them cover.
(Sidebar: Why don’t liberals ever demonstrate that sort of reason-defying fealty to their leaders? There is certainly partisanship on the left, but never on this scale or of this scope. I would venture that it’s because the very nature of the progressive mindset is incompatible with the sort of blind loyalty and ostrich-like capacity for the denial that characterizes the right wing way of thought. The authoritarian impulse is by definition immoral, based on an unjust denial of the rights of others, and varying degrees of sadism. From there it is not a big leap to justifying anything and everything the cult of personality demands.)
RETURN OF THE DEAD END KIDS
This past week, a video by the Guardian —filmed in Northampton County, PA, where I went to college—was widely re-circulated, showing Trump supporters defending their man. (It was actually produced last summer, shortly after revelations that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner met with Russian nationals at Trump Tower in July 2016.) Its predictability does not make it any less jawdropping. The Trump supporters cite the usual Fox News lies that there’s no evidence of any conspiring with Russia and argue that the scandals swirling around the president* are all just sour grapes from Democrats. “He is the president of the United States,” says one man, with great disgust for Trump’s critics. “Where is the respect for the presidency?” We didn’t hear much of that sentiment from these folks when the Tea Party was holding rallies where they lynched President Barack Obama in effigy.
But these people are at least basing their arguments on the position—mistaken though it may be— that Trump did nothing wrong. To their credit, some of them do say that if Trump is eventually shown to have done “underhanded” things, they would want him held to account. (What acts reach that standard, and what proof would be required, and what punishment they would merit, are all separate questions. In the roughly nine months since that video was filmed, all the hard evidence of misdeeds by Trump and his team have failed to appreciably sway his base. Per above, it’s hard to imagine what would.)
Much much scarier are those who admit that our fearless leader might have done questionable and even illegal things, but simply don’t find it troubling. As one interviewee tells the Guardian reporter: “If Trump had to cheat to get in, I’m OK with that.” Again, needless to say, it’s impossible to imagine similar generosity being extended to Hillary Clinton had she been shown to have engaged in conspiracy with the Kremlin. Or even just jaywalked.
So we should be under no delusions of what these Trump supporters will say when their hero is gone—even if he run out of office, impeached, forced to resign, or frogmarched off to prison in chains.
They will say he is a martyr. They will say he was the victim of “the liberal media” which propagated “fake news” designed to destroy him, and of “out-of-touch East Coast elites” who are not real Americans and conspired to use their wealth and power against him. They will say that the so-called “Deep State” marshaled all its secretive might to undermine him, that the CIA and the FBI and Department of Justice were all out to get him, notorious hotbeds of liberalism that they are. They will say that the Mueller probe was a kangaroo court riven with corruption. They will say that the evidence against him—no matter how incontrovertible or convincing to sane observers—was manufactured. They will say that Rod Rosenstein is a secret Muslim, that Jim Comey is actually only five nine and walks on stilts, that Hillary orchestrated it all from her secret lair inside a fake South Pacific volcano.
In short, the far right will wallow in the warm, comforting bath of victimhood, which they will use to deny objective reality, an honest assessment of the facts, and the truth about the morally bankrupt, utterly disgusting meatsack of Kentucky Fired Chicken and Diet Coke that was the 45thPresident of the United States. He will join Nixon, Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy, and a few others in the pantheon of indisputable villains who are somehow lionized in right wing Bizarro World. Theirs will be a minority view, but it will be resilient within certain circles, like the contention that Pete Rose should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, or that Aerosmith should have made any records after 1977.
Most chilling of all, they will largely acknowledge Trump’s crimes, but shrug and say, “So what?” And that is the most telling fact of all, as it reveals the fundamental truth at the core of right wing politics, and the American right wing in particular: at the end of the day, they simply do not care about any of this, because they do not truly believe in liberty and justice for all.
I am not sympathetic to the argument that these folks have merely been misled or deluded, that their vision has been skewed by economic hardship or feelings of alienation as a result of the globalist revolution. Bullshit. THAT is East Coast elitist condescension. THAT is the soft snobbery of lowered expectations. These are intelligent adults. While some are working class, many of them are very comfortable and even well-to-do, not to mention the plutocrats who went for Trump in droves. (The evidence that white suburbia elected Trump, and not for economic reasons, is strong, belying the bluff claim that arithmetic and not the reptile brain was the driving factor.)
Did some good salt-of-the-earth people simply get conned? Hell yes, and I know that is hard for anyone to admit. But as any grifter will tell you, you can’t con a person who isn’t willing to be conned.
Whatever the mitigating factors, if Republicans and other Trump supporters cannot open their eyes and recognize the lies and the deceit and the pandering and the demagoguery…..if they shut their minds to the distortion of the values that they claim to hold dear…..if they are willing to throw out the rule of law and ignore or explain away the transgressions of their own tribe and its would-be leaders while depriving others of equal, fair, and just treatment…..if they give in to humanity’s worst impulses out of willful blindness, denial, and shameless rationalization…..if they cannot recognize neo-fascism, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny when they see it, then they are culpable. And so are we all.
Speaking to Salon columnist Chauncey Devega, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Cay Johnston recently described how he thinks Trump will continue to undermine our democracy once he is out of office (presuming it is not feet first):
America will survive this, we’ll get past it, but whenever Trump leaves, there’s no good ending. If Trump is removed by impeachment or by the voters, whether in a Republican primary or a general election, I know what he will do. He’s already told us what he will do by his actions. Trump will spend the rest of his days fomenting violence and revolution in this country. He’s careful not to directly say “revolution,” but he will call the government illegitimate. He might even call it criminal, since he called Democrats who didn’t stand up during his State of the Union speech treasonous. If they’re going to impeach Trump, I believe they have to have a plan to indict, try, convict and imprison him…..and there may well be violence over it.
That prediction is remarkably similar to what we once feared the Very Stable Genius would do after his “inevitable” loss to Hillary, when he refused to say definitively whether he would accept the results of the election, a scenario that now looks pretty good compared to what happened instead.
In order to avoid a collective stroke, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of Americans do oppose Trump. (What that says about our so-called “democracy” and how he got in office in the first place is a different matter.) It’s easy to forget that amid all his daily horrors, and the amount of undue attention his base gets. We should always remember that we have numbers and passion on our side.
At the risk of being ridiculed, I hasten to remind us all that Hillary won the popular vote, a fact I cite not to complain about the anti-democratic and deleterious impact of the Electoral College (a topic for another day), but merely as a reminder that Trump did not come in with any kind of mandate, let alone the support of anything close to a majority of the American people. He “won”—to the extent that he genuinely won at all, given what continue to learn—by virtue of a severely screwed up system that the Republicans were able to game in defiance of the national will, not in reflection of it. Since taking office his support has waned even more…..which means that the numbers and the zeitgeist remain on our side, not his.
Because Trump has blown through so many norms, the question of whether the American public is rejecting him is a momentous one. Trump has embraced overt racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism, in the form of regular racial provocations, assaults on our institutions and the rule of law, and an unprecedented level of self-dealing that basically constitutes a big middle finger to the country. He has married all this to orthodox GOP economic priorities—indeed, as Brian Beutler says, the three pillars of Trump-era conservatism are self-enriching plutocracy, racism and authoritarianism.
If that is so, then it is notable that majorities are rejecting all of those things. Obamacare repeal crashed and burned. The tax law passed, but it remains deeply unpopular. Majorities disapproved of Trump’s response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Majorities sided with the “dreamers” against Trump and majorities reject Trump’s border wall and many of his demagogic arguments about immigration (though in fairness the polling is mixed on the thinly veiled Muslim ban). Majorities trust the news media, not Trump, to tell them the truth. Big majorities still want Trump to release his tax returns. Large majorities support special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of both potential collusion with Russia, dismissing Trump’s claims of a “witch hunt,” and of Trump’s finances. The public has sided with the investigation and the rule of law, and against Trump.
Liberals and Dems across the country are responding to Trumpism with politics and organizing. It’s plausible that Trump’s racism and assaults on the rule of law are being widely understood as threats to the country, prompting high turnout and electoral organizing, even among normally less active voters and swing voters, that may be driven by a desire to reinvigorate our democracyagainst Trump’s degradation of it. We don’t talk enough about the deep and widespread public rejection of Trumpism and what it means for the country and its future.
In that same Salon interview noted above, David Cay Johnston called the upcoming midterms “the most important American elections since the Civil War, and I’m including 1932,” and it’s hard to disagree. Per Sargent, I am optimistic that by virtue of sheer numbers and passion—and despite the GOP’s best efforts at voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the like—the better angels of Americanism will carry the day. How much damage is done in the mean time and what it will take to repair it is another question.
WRAPPED IN THE FLAG AND CARRYING A CROSS
So, as I feel my nose leaning dangerously out over the tips of my skis, I return to the question of what post-Trumpian America will look like.
Much as I look forward to that day, we must reckon with the fact that the neo-fascist strain that put him in power—even if beaten down and once again suppressed—will, in one form or another and to a greater or lesser degree, still be here for us to contend with. Indeed, the greatest lesson of the Age of the Insane Clown President may well be that we should never delude ourselves that it won’t be.
As the author James Carroll said in these pages last October, Trump is the evidence of the crime, not the crime itself. He didn’t invent the poison that is currently sickening America; he merely exploited a disease that was already in the American bloodstream, mostly hidden if not actually dormant, waiting only for someone like him to come along and activate it.
In that regard, many observers have noted that the rise of Trump has, at least, done an inadvertent public service by exposing this ugly undercurrent that many of us kidded ourselves had long ago been eradicated (or at least driven underground in shame, where it posed no real threat). Remember talk of a “post-racial America” after Obama’s election in 2008? Good times.
The last two years ought to have thoroughly disabused us of that tragic naivete.
If we survive Trump, maybe we can find a way to isolate and control this repulsive strain like smallpox. Or maybe we will all wind up buying Trump™-brand blankets laced with the disease and find American democracy wiped out like the Human Beings at Fort Pitt in 1763.
America is far from alone in that phenomenon: every nation on Earth has its share of quislings, lemmings, cretins, and others who are eager to march along to the sound of jackboots. Indeed, the US has—thus far—never succumbed to outright totalitarianism in the way that others have, including the great civilizations of Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and Russia, to name just a few. Some of that is dumb luck, some of it a testament to the strength of the system the Founders bequeathed us and the values on which it was based. I’ll stop short of trafficking in American exceptionalism and giving credit to any special pixie dust in the American soul. On the contrary: there are numerous strains in our collective DNA that render this nation especially susceptible to authoritarianism, from the religious fanaticism of the Puritans who first settled here, to the “rugged individualism” of our pioneer tradition (whose bastard child lives on in Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style”), to the long history of right wing demagoguery and Orwellian distortion of truth, from Father Coughlin to Fox News. Numerous observers, from Tocqueville to Sinclair Lewis to Noam Chomsky, have speculated about fascism taking root in the United States, and there have been repeated instances in our history that attest to that threat, from Andy Jackson to Charles Lindbergh to Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon. I don’t know if Trump will prove to be the worst, but he is certainly in the running…. and the game ain’t close to over yet.
Johnston’s take on where we are headed is scary and sobering: “If Republicans retain control (of Congress), then I believe what will happen over time is that someone who shares Trump’s dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies but doesn’t have his baggage—someone who is a competent manager and just as charismatic—will eventually arise and you can kiss your individual liberties goodbye. That will take time, but it’s the trend we are heading towards.”
Sound outlandish? Hyperbolic? Alarmist? Maybe. But bear in mind that nobody thought Donald Trump could get elected President of the United States either, not even Donald Trump.
So how do we stop that?
Well, we start by organizing, mobilizing, keeping the passion high, and getting out the vote in November. We do it by holding Trump and his enablers to account every day and in every way, by calling out their hypocrisies, their lies, their sins, and the ways that they daily abuse and exploit the country they are supposed to be serving.
On the macro level, we do it by remembering the principles upon which this nation was founded, warts and all…..By not letting the troglodytes and the con men co-opt the mantle of patriotism (as they are perennially wont to do), tarring all others as “un-American” and even “traitors” when they are the ones who have betrayed our ideals and even actively consorted with our enemies….and by remembering that we are one people, and—hard as it it is, and I am certainly guilty of it myself, even in this essay—by not demonizing our countrymen, even those who have fallen under this monster’s sway.
To that end, I’ll give the final say to the late cartoonist Walt Kelly, who in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, wrote: “Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly.”
Or as he more famously put it: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”