I have co-authored, with Mark Green, two books on Donald J. Trump, and I’ve thought a lot about the toll his presidency has taken on our country. Trump’s legacy goes beyond him being a toady of Wall Street interests or an inflator of massive, wasteful military budgets, or his siding with corporations over workers, consumers, small taxpayers and needy communities. Other presidents have also betrayed their oaths of office in these ways. However, Trump’s most lasting impact is that he actively and brazenly unleashed the worst elements in our society – cruelty, bigotry, greed, violence-prone bullying, racism and misogyny. He gave visibility and status to these traits, which were dutifully reported daily by the ratings-minded mass media moguls, in part because he kept getting away with such behavior year after year.
Moreover, Trump openly violated long-established norms and standards, both criminal and civic, as well as our Constitution. Recall his radical declaration in 2019, “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as President.” By getting away with this outlawry, until some recent pushback by law enforcers, Trump further institutionalized such violative and criminogenic behavior for others to also openly emulate. Children now use his foul words in family exchanges.
Others among his predecessors engaged in some of these transgressions, but Trump overtly, regularly brought these and other offenses to the surface. His abuses of power include, criminally violating the Hatch Act and the Anti-Deficiency Act, defying over 130 Congressional subpoenas as well as openly, defiantly and recurringly engaging in at least a dozen impeachable offenses from the White House (See, Congressional Record, December 18, 2019).
Once unleashed, his imitators rush to replicate such behavior, especially when as candidates, they see political rewards in our winner-take-all, gerrymandered, Electoral College system of minority rule.
During Trump’s rule, countering forces became meek, not more energetic. Many from organized labor and organized religion, the academic world and civic groups found the will to adequately confront Trump’s abuses of power. If they were engaged at all, they seemed overly sensitive to the torrents of anonymous abuse over the Internet. In athletic lingo, they froze or clutched. If they tried, they couldn’t keep up with Trump’s high-velocity vitriol.
Tracker Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post counted over 30,000 false or misleading assertions by Trump in his four-year term. Politicians lie, to be sure, but for Trump, it was a way of life, hourly, 24/7, as was his chronic, daily, personal obstructions of justice, which intimidated law enforcement officials.
A long-time civic leader confessed to me that his group could not figure out how to get its arms around this guy. Progressives picketed Obama’s White House. Fifteen hundred people were arrested there during a civil disobedience protest against a proposed pipeline certification that protestors believed would open the door to adding more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. More protests should have occurred in front of Trump’s White House for far greater offenses in just about every domestic sector. “What’s the use,” was the fatalistic explanation for not doing so (See the list of some of the protests during the Trump administration: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_protests_against_Donald_Trump).
Of course, the ratings-obsessed mass media bears great responsibility for the rise of Donald J. Trump, from his early misogynistic interviews with Howard Stern while a failed gambling czar, to his presidential campaigning. The press gave him center stage. The usually reserved New York Times, regularly denounced by Trump, gave him huge print space, and even repeated his slanderous personal tweets, down to printing his attacks on members of Congress and private citizens without giving the accused any right to respond. Never mind the Trump “dittohead” Fox News.
Is our country in for a Trumpian replay going into 2024 (assuming he is not convicted by prosecutions underway)? The cowardly GOP leaders seem resigned to such a horror show, in spite of Trump’s negative poll numbers. Will enough GOP voters migrate to the Libertarian Party, stay home, or hold their noses and vote for a Democrat? Nobody knows because the wild card is whether we will see either mass voter passivity or a mass fed-up backlash. By “mass” I mean enough of a slice of voters dropping Trump to produce a landslide for the opponents of Trump and his Trumpster candidates at the national and state levels.
The coming political season is a historic wait-and-see moment – a time for some emerging prominent figure, or some “had enough” voter turnout, or some bullying episode involving a brutish Trump act (say against a tiny number of dissenters at one of his rallies) to create a breakthrough by unleashing the frustrations, decencies and moral outrage too long kept at bay by so many people in our country. A majority of U.S. citizens still long for a president who seeks to inspire the best from its citizenry. Their spirits need kindling to carry their longing to the voting booth.