No matter how appalled many of us were at the election of Donald Trump, and even as his regime (“administration” is too dignified a term for it, as it suggests order, discipline, actually administering) has lurched from tweet to tweet through its first chaotic year, many of us clung to certain desperate hopes: that once in office and relieved of the need to pander to his supposed base, he might dispense with the bragging, braying childishness that are the hallmarks of his public persona, might even reveal himself to be more of a pragmatic centrist than he’d than he’d pretended during the campaign; that the office itself would inform the man of how he should behave; that the handful of putative grown-ups around him might constrain his most wayward impulses; and that, in any event, the institutions of our government, carefully framed by brilliant men, nurtured for two centuries, and respected by all of Trump’s predecessors of whatever political stripe or personal temperament, were strong and flexible enough to withstand a chief executive even as vulgar, impulsive, and thoroughly unprepared as he.
Those were our hopes, and as the year wore on and each day brought some new embarrassment, some new lie, some new insult to public civility and basic tact, we continued to cling to them. Surely it would get better. Surely the Republican establishment, whose conservative heritage exalts moral probity, would rise up and insist that things not go on this way, that their party’s leader and the leader of what we used to call the free world simply could not be allowed to attack First Amendment rights, or give comfort to neo-Nazi groups, or re-tweet posts of British far-right extremists, or brag about the size of his nuclear button, or back a notorious pedophile for the U.S. Senate, or engage in repeated bouts of puerile name-calling with foreign dictators, or….
The list seems endless because, actually, it is. It’s become clear that Trump isn’t going to change, and no one in the Republican establishment is going to persuade him of his folly in the old arm-twisting way of an Everett Dirksen or a James Baker, because Trump doesn’t understand that language. Taking advice from those who know better is not in his life repertoire.
So as the year went on, we slowly let go of our hopes, and replaced them with a painful suspension of disbelief. We accepted that Trump, in all his awfulness, is our lot. To say that the President’s shameful and bizarre excesses have been “normalized” doesn’t begin to capture the deep cynicism that his behavior requires the average citizen to adopt out of sheer self-protectiveness.
Still, there’s a line beyond which our grudging acceptance of this presidential anomaly can’t carry us. That line is different for each of us, and for some Trump will never go far enough to elicit their complete rejection, as he gives license to a political agenda that is, in fact, being advanced day by day. But ultimately this line has little to do with ideology. Whatever one might think of the current trend of national policy — corporate tax cuts, offshore drilling, the withdrawal from international climate accords, sabotaging Obamacare and the Iranian nuclear agreement, the slow-motion dismantlement of the State Department and the EPA — we could accept that, in our former President’s now-haunting phrase, elections have consequences. What we can’t accept, what no citizen should be asked to accept, is that our President be so lacking in character that he behaves in ways that shame us and diminish the office he holds.
My own line was crossed with Trump’s recent reference, in a critical strategy session with lawmakers, to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” from which the US shouldn’t deign to accept immigrants. Though the casual racism implicit in this remark is horrific enough, it’s not just the language of a callous bigot, the kind of feckless profanity that parents try to shield their children from for as long as possible. It’s the language of a man who doesn’t even perceive, much less aspire to, the minimum behavioral standards of the highest office in the land. He simply can’t comprehend that he represents us, that his words and actions reflect on each of us, as he’s never in his life represented anyone but himself. It’s in this way that his unfitness for the office manifests itself most malignantly, takes us over the line of irredeemability, as it means we have to disassociate ourselves from one of the greatest emblems of our patriotism – the office of the Presidency — if we are to retain a sense of moral integrity. And that’s a level of cynicism that no democracy can long withstand.
One of the oft-repeated deflections of dismay at Trump’s behavior is the claim that the people knew what they were getting when they elected him. But this is a fallacy. The people who voted for Trump knew what he was, indeed may have darkly fantasized about the chaos that his unpreparedness would visit on Washington, or may have dreamed of what would be possible if he were a willing puppet of traditional conservatives. But they had no idea they were actually electing him; no one believed that was possible. Their vote (a minority vote, it must be remembered) was, in the moment it was cast, a protest vote, a raised middle finger to establishment politics, or Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, but it wasn’t imaginable that it was a vote to actually install in the office of the Presidency the incompetent narcissist who now holds it. If I’m to get up each morning and act like a citizen of a respectable nation, I have to believe that, if they’d been offered a do-over the very next morning, a majority of those who voted for Trump would have gratefully accepted it.
So what are we to do for the balance of this irredeemable presidency? Certainly not cling to the hope that Trump’s unfitness will become so widely acknowledged that the 25th Amendment will be invoked and the man removed from office. Nor should we expect that the Mueller investigation will lead to a Nixonian meltdown, resignation, or impeachment. None of these scenarios is remotely likely and any of them would, after all, leave us with Pence in the presidency, which, while it would be a big step up in decorum, would only mean that right-wing, theocratic extremism would have a more competent standard-bearer. Nor should we, particularly those misguided Democrats who entertained the destructive candidacy of Bernie Sanders, delude ourselves that wearing pussy hats or black Dior gowns, or claiming that he’s “not my President,” or laughing at Trump as we sit in our liberal enclaves watching SNL and chortling to one another over quotes from Fire and Fury, moves any needles in his world or that of his hard-core supporters. The time for gestural protest is already past, and his brand of vulgar egotism is, in any event, beyond shaming.
No, what we need to do is vote this fall to return control of Congress to Democrats, leaving Trump fully isolated within his own delusions, and then vote him out of office when the time comes by electing someone who, first and foremost, will once again treat the office of the Presidency with the common dignity it demands and deserves. It’s time for the actual majority to rule once again. We the people who elected him so carelessly must quietly but systematically rebuke not only the man, but the idea that he represents an acceptable standard of behavior and preparedness for the Presidency. The rest is just noise.