The Ultimate Fighting President – The American Prospect
The impending impeachment of Donald Trump brings with it the possibility of something that has been in short supply over the last three years: accountability. At last, you may think, we can use a constitutional process to proclaim at last that This Is Not OK. A president may not coerce a foreign country to dig up dirt on one of his political rivals, not to mention the many other impeachable offenses he has committed. He will be forced to answer for what he has done.
Yet that feeling is accompanied by the suspicion that actually, he won’t—not really. For now, it appears all but certain that Trump will be impeached by the House and then acquitted in the Senate, where 20 Republicans would have to vote against him for him to be removed from office. When the process is complete, we will know that his misdeeds were detailed and laid before the public, but it’s hard to feel as though we’ll have all that much reason to be happy.
This is one of the products of Trump’s time in office: the contamination of our emotional lives. Trump has made us feel dread, despair, disillusionment, and a dozen other awful emotions whose grip it feels impossible to escape. And even if he loses in 2020 then slinks back to Mar-a-Lago to spend his days regaling his dwindling number of sycophants with tales of his matchless presidency, we’ll continue to live with the effects for years or even decades to come.
It isn’t just the unceasing parade of horrors emanating from the Oval Office, alternately bizarre and appalling. We never know if a given day will see some comically stupid tweet, another racist statement, or some ghastly policy change of unfathomable cruelty. The relentless pace of news in the Trump era has made us all feel tired and worn down, as though the greatest blessing would be a president who does their job without doing so much to feed the outrage machine. And how many times have you found yourself almost involuntarily talking with friends or family about some awful thing Trump did or said, only to have someone stop and say, “Oh god, let’s just not talk about him for a while. I can’t take it.”
That’s all bad enough, but accompanying it is the irrefutable feeling that Trump revealed to us something awful about our country and its future, and having learned it we can’t see things the way we used to.
For many the mere fact that Trump could win in 2016 (even if he got three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton) was reason enough to lose faith in their country in a fundamental way. Eight years before they had convinced themselves that Barack Obama’s election meant America could be the place they wanted it to be: inclusive, tolerant, progressive, hopeful. Trump came along and told them that America was not that place.
America, he argued, was small and angry and hateful. It would elect the worst person it could find, an amoral con artist without a single identifiable human virtue. He could make his stupidity plain, tell thousands of lies, revel in his corruption, even be caught on tape bragging about his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity, and he’d still win. You had hope for America? If you did, Donald Trump said, you’re just a sucker.
You might say that to have had hope in the first place was naïve; it’s no accident that in 2016, many of the relatively small number of people who predicted Trump’s victory were women and people of color who had earned through hard experience their cynicism about what the voting public would do. But I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that Trump robbed me of the ability to feel optimistic about even what the next Democratic presidency might bring.
When I think about that future today, I still see the possibility of great good being done. But whatever optimism I might feel is accompanied by the certainty that every advance will produce a backlash, and our politics will become no less angry and ugly even after Trump is gone. Perhaps that Democrat will succeed at health care reform and enhancing workers’ power and addressing climate change, but their reward will be another explosion of rage.
Trump is not responsible alone for polarization and anger; what distinguishes him from his predecessors is the fact that he never pretended he wanted anything else. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all said they’d bring Americans together, and all failed. We could debate how much each of them believed it was possible or what effort they put into the task, but at least we can appreciate the sentiment. Trump, on the other hand, made clear from the outset that he knew his only path to victory lay in division, discord, and anger. He has governed on the same theory.
And what will happen if Trump is beaten next November? His poison will continue to circulate through the country’s veins. His supporters will rage, convinced that the election was stolen and the new Democratic president is an illegitimate usurper. Their anger will be everywhere, and some measure of violence is a near certainty. Trump’s defeat will convince some of them that the normal processes of politics are insufficient to achieve the outcomes they want, and only a spasm of revanchist brutality can wake the country up and bring about the revolution they seek. Will anyone be surprised if an angry man in a MAGA hat shoots up a synagogue or sends bombs to members of the media? Of if it happens ten or twenty times?
I thought about the emotional cloud hanging over the country as I watched Trump get roundly booed at sporting events recently, first at a World Series game and then at a UFC event in New York where he was under the misimpression he’d get a warmer reception. It provided a moment of satisfaction, allowing liberals to laugh, gloat, and retweet this small bit of resistance in which the public (or some portion of it) expressed their disgust at Trump in a language he understands, the semi-verbal expression of the crowd. But what does it mean that this is what passes for justice where Trump is concerned?
There may yet be more to come, if nothing else in the form of an election defeat next year. But it’s hard to escape the gnawing feeling that nothing we can do to Trump will ever make up for what he has done to us.