There is plenty of ugly fight left in Donald Trump’s presidency, which has already warped American culture. But it’s not too soon to contemplate a post-Trump challenge: tyrant-proofing the country, in case the next one isn’t such a clown.
It is my dearly beloved hope (yours too, I trust) that it won’t take another presidential election to expel the Desecrator in Chief from the premises, to liberate us from the otiose spectacle of Donald Trump tramping over the Constitution in his golf spikes and exercising his tweeting thumbs at the expense of decency, democracy, and basic spelling (“Somtimes you need protest in order to heel, & we will heel, & be stronger than ever before!”). The frantic tempo of his cruel, petty fits of pique—the pardoning of the sadist sheriff Joe Arpaio, the transgender ban, the decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program simply to inflict pain and roll back any vestige of the Obama-stamped compassionate policy—and the Agatha Christie elimination of assistant warlocks such as Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Seb Gorka (could Stephen Miller be next on the skewer?) signal an administration heading toward a crescendo, not one buckling down for the duration and plotting new coordinates. It’s stuck in a dead man’s float.
All Trump has to show for his first year in office is a whole lot of nada. No border wall. No tax reform. No infrastructure package. His sole bragging point—the installation of Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court—was a gimme, owing everything to the Republican Senate’s obstruction of Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, not to any exertion of his own. His spats with congressional chieftains (Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Paul Ryan) reek of sour grapes and frustrated stalemate. Meanwhile, in the background is the ominous sonar beep of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference, a run-silent, run-deep probe drawing upon a lode of legal brainpower that ought to make any finky operator nervous. (And Mueller’s reported Batman-Robin team-up with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman takes the magic pardon wand out of Trump’s little hand.)
In the sorriest days of the Watergate scandal, the iconoclastic journalist and 60 Minutes commentator Nicholas von Hoffman compared the Nixon presidency to “a dead mouse on the American family kitchen floor. The question is: who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash?” It would be premature to write off the Trump presidency as a deceased rodent lying on the linoleum. In its nasty defensiveness, it is closer to a cornered rat. It still has plenty of ugly fight left. But we are at the beginning of the endgame and it is not premature to start imagining how to pick through the damage the Trump presidency will leave behind and future-proof the republic so that It Can’t Happen Here never happens again. So much headspace will be opened up once Trump is no longer occupying it that we must make the most of it.
The moment Trump leaves the White House for early retirement, jail, a sanitarium, or a Russian refuge, let the reckoning begin. Cue the exodus of his cronies from the Cabinet and commence the shunning. The Trump family itself should be as unwelcome in what passes for society as Bernie Madoff at a Bar Mitzvah. Pay no heed to those pious owls in politics, the op-ed pages and cable-news panels—pastoral Voices of Civility such as Jon Meacham and David Gergen—who will caution that “now is not the time” to be raking over the recent past, casting recriminations, and turning Schadenfreude into tasty casseroles; the nation must move forward and let the healing process begin. To such doily knitters and thumb twiddlers, it’s never the right time to sift through the debris, apportion responsibility, and name the guilty parties; this is why it took more than a year to establish a 9/11 commission, and its final report was analytical, rhetorical mush. The day after Trump is deposed will be the day to get cracking on addressing what got him to where he never should have been.
When Laura Ingraham seemingly snapped a Sieg heil! salute at Trump’s giant-screen image at the Republican convention, it was a signal that a rabid strain of Fascist flirtation had been reborn—and mainstreamed. Post-Trump, the country needs its own, domestic version of the de-Nazification program established in Germany after World War II, an inquiry into how so many alleged neo-Nazi, white-supremacist sympathizers had input into this presidency, and their connection with neo-Nazi and nativist movements overseas. Trump has legitimized the hate militias like no president ever before, one of his many blighting legacies and perhaps his most lasting. The domestic threat posed by white-supremacist militias and other violent extremists armed to the steel teeth has been minimized by Republicans, who, jerked around by their Fox News puppet masters, prefer fulminating against Black Lives Matter and antifa street fighters. But white people’s grievances are always given precedence, reflecting the racial makeup of newsrooms and corporate hierarchies.
This bias infiltrates political feature writing past the point of exasperation. How nice it would be if even before Trump humps out of view and into the elephants’ graveyard we were given a journalistic moratorium on earnest dispatches devoted to the Loyal Trump Voter in the battered industrial ruinscape who still supports the big guy despite the latest storm out of Washington. Nary a month goes by without The New York Times or The Washington Post filing a story about Trump supporters who can’t quit him even though he’s plotting to cut off their health coverage or shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
This sentimentalization of the Loyal Trump Voter, whose rationale for standing by the president is often cradled in incoherence and plain, proud ignorance with a large chunk of stubborn pride, is the latest extension of the press’s centering of the White Working Class in the national narrative, no matter how much the demographics and the complexion of the country change. Every election cycle, eastern reporters ritualistically venture into caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire on Norman Rockwell safari to file copy from the diners and truck stops on “real Americans” in plaid jackets and tractor caps with heartland values and comfort-food appetites. It is time this romance with Ma and Pa Kettle was put out to pasture. Let journalists find other ways to pretend to be in touch with those left behind and clinging to their discredited articles of faith. Otherwise, decades from now, if news outlets as we know them survive, reporters may still be tramping through the hinterlands searching for the last remaining Trump holdouts to interview as if they were Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungles long after World War II ended.
It will be welcome to see arts and entertainment return to tumultuous normalcy after so much Trump-infused fear and loathing. Late-night hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers have risen to the challenge of converting the asteroid belt of daily bad news into satire and serrated commentary, but four years of this is too much to ask of them, their writers, the audience. Even Jon Stewart, the Cal Ripken of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, experienced occupational burnout after so many years covering the follies. It will also be a blessing to have no more need of Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation, that neckless head and those pursed lips bypassing humor and hunching toward the macabre. Inspired as Baldwin’s travestying of Trump is, perforating as the pellet-gun attacks by Colbert, Meyers, and HBO’s John Oliver (who has inherited Jon Stewart’s gift for ratcheting up irony into saeva indignatio) are, this is an administration undone by its own boneheaded incompetence and overreach, and still managing to reap misery and havoc through the sheer power of the executive office. Pop culture can help release our fear and anxiety, distributing the angst and focusing on moving targets that the news media filter out, but it is no substitute for actual politics, a lesson so many liberals neglect. One of the handicaps of the liberal mind-set is this overrating of pop culture and brand-name clout, this celebrating of feminist gestures and political provocations by big-name entertainers as if they signified shifts in the Zeitgeist; meanwhile, the rollbacks of reproductive rights and the degradations of the underprivileged continue.
Look at the superstars lined up on Hillary Clinton’s side for the 2016 election (LeBron James, Lady Gaga, George Clooney, Adele), then look at the C-list has-beens supporting Trump (Scott Baio, Ted Nugent, Gary Busey)—did it make any difference to the outcome? Superstar culture feeds the thirst for saviors, and since celebrity superstar culture tilts liberal, we’re the ones looking up when we should be looking around and attending to the ground game. Losing on the local level has hollowed out the bench strength of the Democratic Party, and one-party rule is a recipe for tyranny. If we don’t prevent future Trumps, the next self-styled, Putin-picked autocrat may not be a complete boob and may have a better handle on how to accomplish his heinous goals. Which suggests a President Pence won’t be any picnic. Oh well, let’s just wait and detonate that bridge when we get to it.