“The cure could be worse than the disease.” That was the way Donald Trump portrayed the economic impact of shutdown. It’s too early to make a call on that prediction. But the shadow hanging over America’s near future has to do less with Covid-19–that seems to have been defanged, as we never doubted it would be, by medical science–and more with the polemical environment the pandemic has helped to shape. Trump is a sort of coronavirus of the body politic: the inflammatory reaction created by his insertion into the system has proved more dangerous than the pathogen. The effects are reversible, but America will need to be on a ventilator for a while.
Certainly we can hold the virus accountable for the end of the Trump administration. A year ago, every issue seemed to be playing to his advantage–the economy was improving for ordinary people, the image of caged children had done little to dampen fears of “migrant caravans” from the South, and divisions among foreign policy advisors were ignored in favor of ending U.S. commitments abroad, except to Israel and its new Arab “allies.” Trump and his ever-shuffling inner circle had apparently found the perfect formula for re-election. One almost feels a pang of sympathy over what happened next. If the President is still Biblically inclined, he might find parallels in the Old Testament accounts of the divine punishment of Israel and their unrighteous rulers. It was as if the Almighty was a Democrat. In the end, Trump’s reflex actions–Chinese travel ban, Operation Warp Speed, support for a larger Covid-relief package–were condemned as self-serving and earned him little credit. Was it fair to blame him for doing things that seemed likely to improve his chances at the polls, especially if they actually helped limit human suffering? Surely that is the one thing we expect of politicians. If only the pharmaceutical companies had released their positive vaccine results just a week earlier, he would have been regarded as a national savior and swept back into office by a landslide, right? The explanation for their silence must lie in a conspiracy.
Trump knows that Americans love a winner and, above all, an underdog coming from behind. That he has managed to promote his image as either a capricious autocrat or a beleaguered victim with more than half the public is a measure of the damage his presence has done. A Trump slogan recently seen in Florida–“Jobs, No Socialism, Law & Order”–might find widespread approval, until you dissect the doublespeak behind each term. Unemployment was falling before the pandemic, to be sure, but since then the failure to control the virus has driven millions from work and left those who have to go to their jobs vulnerable to unknown dangers. If socialism means that individuals enjoy no reward for achieving prosperity, and instead become dependent upon government, what do we call our collective response in times of emergency when trillions leave the Treasury? Whose law to protect which order? Police are rightly wondering what their mission is, as violent crime rises in many urban areas. But Trump’s DoJ has simply multiplied the number of targets without offering any guidance about conduct, and ‘dog-whistles’ abound: “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” Every element of the message drives the wedge deeper.
Photo: Brianna Soukup, Portland PressHerald
Trump’s supporters are certainly right to maintain that their man is entitled to recounts within the prescribed vote margin and also to investigations of electoral cheating, whether or not they might sway the outcome. In fact, most loyalists have ceased to allege actual fraud–of late even Republican lawyers have repeatedly disavowed this claim–focusing instead on “irregularities” or “over-counts.” There is ample reason to resolve these cases, if evidence exists, but the difficulty is that the seed of doubt about the process has already been sown, quite deliberately. “Stop the Steal” has emerged as the most recent pro-Trump hashtag, with matching T-shirts and hats. The media, locked in competition with each other, will continue their role as enablers of controversy by highlighting every flight of fancy that issues from the White House. Already there is speculation about a miracle comeback in 2024 or a TV channel.
We understand that the departing incumbent never had much interest in actually governing, but is there no relief from this show? The country was treated to breathless commentary about democracy teetering on the edge for over 50 months, beginning with bemusement at the rise of Trump and continuing through Flynn/Russia case, Mueller, impeachment, and Kavanaugh. In a genuine “constitutional crisis,” something changes. Nothing has. The long-term cascading side-effects of that can only be imagined; they likely include continued gridlock in Congress, a logjam on issues like immigration, healthcare and infrastructure, distraction from pressing international concerns, and a virulent suspicion of any viewpoint that purports to mere “objectivity.”
Now left-leaning organs publish tracts with absurd titles like “Can America Restore the Rule of Law Without Prosecuting Trump?” and conclude that “healing” might require punishment as well as defeat. Indeed, it’s said, we’d be better off to have put Richard Nixon on trial instead of pardoning him. The only helpful thing about this nonsense is that it restores the proper chronological perspective. Sadly, our divisions today can still be traced to the tumultuous decade 1965-1975. That might sound like the self-important pronouncement of an aging Boomer–though this one was notably absent from the front lines in any conflict of the period–but those wounds will remain fresh in some minds until that entire cohort passes away. The important work of the present is to prevent a sense of alienation from being transmitted to another generation.
The cure for our public angst is not more politics. A saner path will require acknowledging that politics is only a livelihood for a few and a way of life for some; for no one is it a guide to life. There’s been a lot of facile talk about how “history will judge” the Trump years. Personally, I would welcome taking this job out of the hands of celebrity journalists and giving it to historians, provided they don’t work for PBS or CNN.