“Hey, I’m President! I’m President! Can you believe it?!”
That’s what Donald Trump said in celebrating the passage of the American Health Kill bill through the House of Representatives at a beer party on the White House lawn. And, no, we can’t believe it. If you can’t, Mr. President, why should we?
The presidency is a burdensome office, and I’m sure many of those who have occupied it have wondered in dark hours whether they have the wisdom, judgment, and discipline to exercise it. That isn’t the case with Donald Trump, to whom wisdom, judgment, and discipline are quite unknown. For him, it’s part business bonanza and part opportunity to mainline instant ego gratification. In short, it’s the ultimate toy. Every time you press a lever, someone jumps. One day, it’s the prime minister of Australia or the president of Mexico. Another, it’s an immigrant mother in an ICE holding cell contemplating suicide at the prospect of being separated from her children. Sure, it’s fun to make an off-the-cuff remark on a tarmac and upset decades of diplomatic understanding. It’s a cheap thrill to tweet an attack on someone, knowing you’re safe from the rules of libel or common decency. You’re the President. Can any of us believe it?
Whether Trump can succeed in turning America into a tyranny, or whether he will just carry water in the end for the most reactionary Republican Congress in memory, is an open question. That he is, by every aspect of temperament and inclination, a tyrant in person is at this point beyond dispute. The classical definition of a tyrant is not merely someone who does bad things, but one who does arbitrary ones, changing his mind on questions from one minute to the next and not necessarily remembering what he said or did last. Such a person cannot have advisors, because his impulses override any counsel. Those who work for him serve his whims, clean up his messes, and “clarify” his comments. Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, and Sean Spicer, respectively Vice President of the United States, White House Chief of Staff, and White House Press Secretary, are the chamberlains who most visibly perform these functions. Spicer, who has to face the world on a more or less daily basis, has the toughest job; his face is that of a man in a constant condition of whiplash. But I can imagine the rest of the White House staff more or less going about the same way, their heads moving partly in a state of disbelief and partly with the reaction of someone slapped in the face or stung by a bee.
The rest of us shake our heads only slightly less. After all, we’re not around the guy day and night. It only seems so.
On the campaign trail, people could afford to take some amusement in Trump. It was fun to watch him mock the pieties of political discourse, and get away with saying or doing more or less anything. After all, the unspeakably dull Hillary Clinton was going to become president, and we were about to have four years with the equivalent of a dental drill in our ears every day. Even if, by some miracle, Trump were to squeak through—but no, miracles don’t happen in politics, the pollsters are there to guard against it—he would have to clean up his act and become presidential in a hurry. The office was too great, the powers and responsibilities too awesome, not to change the man.
Wrong, alas, on both counts. Trump did win, and he didn’t change at all, except to become the hugely magnified version of himself—sorry, I should have yuuugely!
The pundits, and shortly enough the historians, will try to explain how this happened. In a democracy, though, the buck doesn’t stop with the king or (pace Harry Truman) the president. It stops with us. We produced Donald Trump, and we made him happen. So we have to start by understanding that first of all.
As I’ve argued previously myself, Trump’s election may be regarded as illegitimate. Most obviously, he got nearly three million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton. He therefore owed his election to the Electoral College, a sop to slaveholders that outlived whatever evil utility the Founding Fathers may have conceived for it at Appomattox. In the states that put him over the top by the narrowest of margins, Republican officials had assiduously purged the voter rolls to disenfranchise likely Clinton voters.
These are valid considerations. They are also beside the point. The problem with being a democracy is that there is no place to hide. We have the system that elected Donald Trump because we have tolerated it. We have had 150 years since slavery to get rid of the Electoral College, and we haven’t done it. We wouldn’t have poor people and minorities railroaded out of their vote if we didn’t elect Republican governors and secretaries of state, just as we would likely have far fewer problems in general if we never voted for Republicans at all, or allowed them to gerrymander their way into office regardless of the polls. The excuse political scientists make for us is something called the Iron Law of Oligarchy—that wealthy elites will dominate any political system regardless of its structure, so that they run democracies too. Even if this is the case, it’s not the excuse. If we don’t really have a democracy, it’s time for us to get one. If that can’t be done, then let’s stop calling ourselves by such a name, because the worst form of government is one that won’t own up to what it is.
Donald Trump makes us need to face up to this. If we were Italy, we could afford to elect a Silvio Berlusconi because we wouldn’t be hurting anyone but ourselves. We’re the world’s biggest power, though, and our actions have global consequences. A Canadian friend of mine complained to me her countrymen should be able to vote in American elections because our president is far more important in their lives than their prime minister. Whatever you think of the idea, the point holds. Trump isn’t just a disaster for Americans. He’s a disaster for everyone.
Trump is also neither a novelty nor an accident. He’s the kind of opportunistic, thuggish business type who operates on the borderlands of peculation, games the tax and bankruptcy codes, and keeps an army of lawyers to hold off those he’s swindled. One frequently finds such characters around the edges of politics; think Bill Clinton and Marc Rich. Trump is only the first to have crossed openly into politics, his appeal being based not only on his swagger but his alleged independence of the political class that, after nearly fifty years, was at last being blamed for the implosion of the American economic system: falling wages, vanishing jobs and pensions, and recurrent financial crises that stripped the working population of what was left. The plague fell on both houses, Democratic and Republican, and a glibly populist outsider with a gift for channeling resentment was able to sweep the board. Much the same phenomenon was visible abroad, sometimes coalescing around a figure and sometimes, as with the Brexit in England, around an issue. The common factor—in Britain, France, Italy, and Greece—was a sudden repudiation of existing parties and personalities, and the search for a strongman who would break the impasse the governing parties represented. Only in France has such a strongman emerged, if one discounts the now discredited Berlusconi, in the philosophy student turned investment banker Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s described vaguely as a “moderate,” but the point about him is that, having broken with the ruling Socialist Party, he ran solely on his own, with no institutional backing whatever. His mandate is simply to be himself.
Trump, too, is free of all ties, despite his nominal affiliation with the Republican Party. His home instincts—a world made safe for the billionaire class, and as profitable as possible under all circumstances for himself, his family, and those in whom he sees himself—are, to be sure, GOP-friendly, but the brazenness of their application is likely to be costly. Trump came to power because he made himself the mouthpiece of those who felt cheated by the system and enraged by the politicians who’d abetted it, only to reveal its nature more nakedly and unabashedly than ever. After Trump, it is no longer possible to retain the least illusion about what it is and whom it serves.
This is, or should be, very bad news for the Republicans, but it is not necessarily any better for Democrats. Against the plutocratic Trump, they ran the Goldman Sachs girl, Hillary. To understand the politics of our moment, one must realize that all established parties, both in Europe and America, are viewed with anger and contempt by most of their electorates. And this anger, to judge by the economic, ecological, and ultimately moral devastation wrought by global finance capital, is eminently justified.
What, then, is the citizen to do? Our politicians, up to now, have lied to us in the words of truth—of freedom, equality, pluralism, and the community based on these values. Donald Trump demeans the language of politics every time he opens his mouth, and so requires us to reconstruct it. This will mean building new movements and parties, and keeping them honest. It will mean forging new associative bonds, and the practices and institutions to serve them. Quite simply, Trump doesn’t leave us any other choice. If we accept, for one moment, the world he represents and from which we may no longer avert our eyes, we are lost. It’s him, or us.