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In the summer of 2016 I wrote a song titled “Not This Time,” about an unnamed demagogue seeking power in America. The song concluded that the populace, while heading in that direction, wasn’t in enough discomfort to elect an inept, transparent buffoon. My refrain hinted broadly that, instead, a descent into authoritarianism could well happen the next time around.
Not long after a grim ordeal in front of the television on Nov. 8, 2016, and the sleepless nights that followed, I rewrote the song and called it “Next Time Came This Time.” The original was fun to sing. I don’t perform the revised version much.
Although Donald Trump will very likely go down as the worst president in U.S. history, if there is anyone left alive to look back on his tenure, I have been thinking lately that there is a chance we caught a break when he became the standard bearer for the American right. Not that things have been good by any measure, but they could be oh so much worse.
Trump has set back America’s already shaky standing in the world by years, if not decades. In governing primarily by executive order, he has surely hastened the effects of climate change, made perhaps hundreds of judicial appointments that will haunt the future of our courts, left what remains of our democracy vulnerable to catastrophic tampering by a hostile foreign government, put an administrative stranglehold on everything from immigration to equal rights to consumer protections, signed into law a tax cut for the wealthiest among us at the expense of the lower and middle classes, denigrated and thereby weakened our national security infrastructure and, perhaps most significantly, demeaned the dignity and the legacy of the highest elected office on the planet.
Not only has he failed to “drain the swamp,” he has populated the White House and the Beltway with the most corrupt, incompetent, self-serving cast of scoundrels to serve under any administration in recent memory. In the past he has almost certainly assaulted women, and these days he demeans minorities and insults the handicapped; he blusters, he rages, he defames, he lies, he distorts, he endangers American interests instead of protecting and defending them. He accepts blame for nothing, and taunts and provokes foreign leaders who, like he does, control weapons of mass destruction.
The deficit-exploding tax cut aside, he has no realistic legislative agenda, so deeply is he submerged by the rising waters of Mueller’s Russia investigation and its offshoots. The turnover in his staff and cabinet are unprecedented and would be laughable if they weren’t frightening as international crises loom. Any benchmarks of governing normalcy have been so completely upended that his administration, the media and even Americans who don’t profess an interest in politics are reeling from a constant succession of political bombshells, seemingly on a daily basis.
The ways in which it could be worse, however, are truly chilling. Instead of Trump, our divided country could have elected an American version of Putin—smart, experienced, cunning, adept at consolidating power with icy ruthlessness—in short, a vastly more competent and effective authoritarian. Such a figure would be in control of his narcissism, better at concealing his sociopathic core, and above all, smarter about orchestrating the malevolent incrementalism through which other democratic governments have been turned into autocracies.
For all the dismaying damage Trump has done, he has also misstepped and misspoken with regularity. In doing so he has galvanized opposition among a growing majority of women and awakened activism among millions of previously complacent and distracted Americans of all stripes. His catastrophic regime has hastened the implosion of the Republican Party and will most likely deliver the House into Democratic (and hopefully more progressive) hands in the midterm elections. At this rate the Senate could go the Democrats’ way as well. May they grow spinal vertebrae and develop the ethics they’ve lacked to rise above their historical shortcomings.
Perhaps best of all, Trump has very likely set back the ascendance of an effective authoritarian for some time. For even if his presidency survives the growing (and largely self-inflicted) onslaught, and even if the rightwing media and the truly treasonous gang of congressional Republicans ready to sacrifice country for party prevail in protecting him from legal disaster, too many truths have already emerged for him to fully seize the power he covets. In reality, too many Americans have had enough of him and will find a way to remove him or at least render him politically impotent.
And so, in an unpredictably serpentine manner, my song may have gotten it right the first time. Trump has put us through hell. But he’s clumsily revealed for all to see the depths of his dark and immoral vision. Our awful struggle with him, which may have months or years to go, may yet serve as a cautionary tale and strengthen us for battles to come.