Ongoing opposition to Donald J. Trump’s presidency continues a trend that began during the election campaign: a singular focus on the man and his foibles, as if those who supported him did not get enough of the hashing and rehashing of those same weaknesses before Election Day. Many of us in the opposition are still acting surprised that he is such a consummate con artist, liar, bloviator, narcissist and so on, in office as he was on the campaign trail.
What were we supposed to expect? That Trump was only lying to get into office and would stop doing so out of respect for the majesty of the presidency? That his narcissism would be attenuated somehow by the demands of the office? That he would suddenly become a ratiocinative person just because he is now president? That his racism would evaporate because, somehow, the presidency is a cure for that disorder?
Trump’s triumph has little to do with the man himself, whatever his strengths and weaknesses or even the genius of his campaign strategies. It has more to do with where the nation is, where we its people or at least a salient segment of us are, and the state of our public life and discourse and the institutions that provide the vessels in which they unfold. Our vituperations against Trump will not deny him a second term if those fundamentals do not change significantly. Of course, if we are lucky, the man will self-destruct. Don’t count on it.
Ours is a degraded country epitomized in a degraded electorate, degraded media and degraded institutions — political, educational and bureaucratic.
We still have a two-party system, but in name only. The dominant Republican party is in thrall to a membership that no longer can distinguish between truth and falsehood and is ever eager to dismiss that distinction when confronted by or caught out in blatant falsehoods. The party’s leadership is so hell-bent on power and the actuation of its destructive ideology that it unapologetically deploys scorched-earth practices, in or out of power. Republicans have transmuted into a tribe marked by unanimity of opinion or, failing that, ideological purity that brooks no dissent or makes its transaction costs prohibitive; absolutely petrified of the vengeance of a followership it has nurtured to this level of destructive baying for blood; unmindful of, if not actively willing to abet, the damages it does to the most important of our time-honored institutions and practices.
Improving on their bad behavior in 1996, when the Republican leadership stayed away from the funeral for Secretary of Transportation Ron Brown — who had died in the service of his country — not one member of the congressional GOP broke ranks, for eight years, in their undisguised war on the first black person to be president of this country. This shameful display was consummated by the unprecedented refusal even to consider Merrick Garland, a distinguished jurist of the second-highest court in the land, in order to force the Supreme Court to operate short-handed either indefinitely or until they could secure the open seat for their tribe. When they did, they handed the seat to a judicial hack peddling the snake oil of constitutional “originalism,” the same doctrine that had doomed Robert Bork’s nomination back in 1987. A seat on our Supreme Court has become a feudal preferment.
Our current fulminations do not address the electorate that voted Donald Trump into office. If they elected him once, flaws and all, why would they not elect him again? If they don’t, it will not be because they have found him to be a singularly flawed person. Focusing on and highlighting Trump’s failings has the ironic effect of burnishing his credentials among his followers. Remember, this is exactly how his opponents — or, as his supporters call them, the liberal elites, the coddlers of criminals, the embracers of illegal aliens and so forth — are expected to view him.
This is where we need to confront the most significant degradation that our country has undergone in the last 30 years; a period and a process inaugurated by the election of Ronald Reagan.
During the Reagan years we made the transition to substituting style for substance; that was when communicating became more important than what was being communicated; when “the war on thinking” became a framing trope of our public life; when we went from an industrial power with a dominant manufacturing economy to a financial one in which “McMoney” became king, and then transmuted again into a service economy. To boot, we became the world’s No. 1 debtor nation. That was when running for public office stopped being about what candidates would do for us and became denominated by what candidates would do to certain of us. That was when we found a way in public discourse to elide the strictures of the civil rights movement’s outcomes by making an art form of dog whistles. That was when invoking the bogey of “political correctness” became a refurbished refuge for scoundrels until, with the election of Barack Obama, a full-blown atavistic epidemic of name-calling and outright demonization of nonwhite groups, native or immigrant, broke upon the land. That was the beginning of a relapse to “the good old days” when “white was right” and nonwhites knew to stay in their place.
Academia and the intellectual class cannot claim innocence in the debacle that is life under Trump for most of America’s inhabitants. The widespread diffusion of less sophisticated variants of postmodernism, deconstructionism and post-structuralism in our higher education institutions has led to the proliferation of motley nihilisms, ranging from mild to severe, undermining truth claims, making fashionable the miniaturization of social life, political movements and even protest traditions. The upshot is that the right wing has found a way to weaponize doubt in favor of “the noble lie,” peddling outright falsehoods while placing the onus on the rest of us to show why those lies are not true and making it almost impossible to have genuine debates about the gravest issues of life and death.
We now inhabit a world of “alternative facts” and outright falsehoods promulgated by our president and his minions in the White House. Those only rankle a few of us in what their supporters readily demonize as “the elites” or the unpatriotic, humorless political correctness police, and have become par for the course for the electorate that elected Trump and handed him a Republican Congress.
I would not like to be misunderstood. Yes, individuals are important in the evolution of historical processes. No doubt Trump’s personality and his knack for exploiting the basest aspects of human nature for personal gain, money, fame and now power must not be ignored or underestimated. But he did not create, nor could he have created, a situation in which our basest characteristics are there for the taking.
Our challenge now is to reconnect with the angelic in us and to stop playing suckers to the likes of Donald Trump — to cease placing them at the center of our public life, much less at the helm. This may be on the order of actuating the punchline from Bertolt Brecht’s satirical “The Solution,” which calls for the government “to dissolve the people and elect another.” Of course we cannot dissolve the American people or create them again from nothing. We need to effect a sea change in them to prevent a renewal of the Trump incubus in 2020.