On January 20th, we inaugurated Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.
I remember, back in February of 2016, before Trump was even properly on track for the Republican nomination, writing a post on Facebook about belief in policies not making people good or evil. (There were a lot of moral judgments flying around between Berners and Clinton supporters on top of the tumult in the Republican field.) One of my high school friends pushed me on a particular point of phrasing. At that time, I confessed that Trump had said things that went well beyond the political for me, things that crossed moral lines.
A year ago.
The outrages and the outrageous have only compounded since then. We now have a sitting president who boasted about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. We have a president who mixes George W. Bush’s insight and Reagan’s nostalgic machismo with Nixon’s paranoia, disdain for intellectuals, and ethical corner-cutting. His campaign strategy was that of the most effective internet trolls: keep spewing shit, ignore anybody who tries to call you on it, and then yell about the bias of the mods. He approached the campaign with all the savvy of a reality TV star.
With a substantial assist from the electoral college, Americans kicked the only alternative off the island.
I’d watched Brexit unfold in real time through the social media accounts of European friends. There was disbelief. There was grief. There was a sense that an order was ending for all the wrong reasons. People predicted immediate disaster.
November 10th felt the same way. I’m not going to lie: I cried. It wasn’t in disbelief, though—I live in Texas. I grew up in rural Idaho. Hell, I’ve spent time in the deeply-red outer ring suburbs of the Twin Cities. There’s a lot of bigotry in this country, much of it quiet and wearing the clothes of class and the trappings of “responsibility.” Even more, though, there are many people who already see the world ending, for whom progressivism and any hint of relativism are failings of both morality and civilization. There are people who see zero-sum games everywhere they look and understand others’ rise as their loss. There are those who believe fervently in American exceptionalism and national pride. Trump was able to tap into all of that. I cried that day because the world I want for my students, for my own kids, is not the “great again” one that Trump spun for the crowds.
Is the best case scenario for our president “too incompetent to really damage much”? Alas, that’s unlikely. He’s built a cabinet of the rich and richer, of executives and careerists who have in many cases aggressively argued to end the existence of the government offices they’re about to lead. Steve “Breitbart” Bannon is his chief policy advisor. Even if Trump himself is too busy throwing Twitter fits about the meanies who make fun of him, that cabinet is going to make things happen.
The media won’t save us. It can’t. Let me tell you about one of the impossible situations teachers occasionally face. Sometimes, there’s a student who decides to say “no.” No threat of consequences will move her. No appeal to personal responsibility, to judgment, to the needs of fellow-students will dent that “no.” As a teacher, your only recourse is to call in administrator (or, sometimes, an SRO). Trump has said “no” to the media in so many ways. He has said “no” to the American people when they have asked about his tax returns, his potential conflicts of interest, and, in most cases, any description of policy beyond “best,” “outstanding,” and “terrific.” He’s the president now, and he doesn’t care. There’s no administrator to call in. His surrogates are already talking, literally, about alternative facts… We’ve taken internet echo chambers into a real reductio ad absurdum.
There were protests over the weekend. As Congress moves to gut the Affordable Care Act—a law, incidentally, that guarantees my son his health insurance—their phones are busy as hell. There are calls to make sure the cabinet nominees get at least standard ethics office screenings. We can push back. We might lose. We will lose on some things, because it’s not for nothing that Trump was elected. It’s not for nothing that Republicans control government. Democracy means losing sometimes.
What we can’t lose is democracy, as fragile and incomplete as our American one has always been. We will have to build our own bulwarks against the flood of propaganda that is already flowing from the White House with its “alternative facts.” We must keep one another from falling into “some people say…” no matter how much we’d like those things to be true or untrue.
This isn’t reality TV anymore. It’s reality. We have an obligation as citizens to deal with it that way.