Three years ago, when the Trump administration announced a hastily crafted ban on travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries, thousands of Americans rose up in defiance. Some went to airports and others marched through city streets, as the so-called resistance mobilized to fight an executive order clearly motivated by racism and xenophobia.
One week ago, the Trump administration expanded its travel ban to six countries, four of them in Africa — including the region’s largest nation, Nigeria. According to some estimates, nearly a quarter of the 1.2 billion residents of the African continent will now be affected.
This time there were no major protests; not even much media coverage. In Trump’s America, cruelty and callousness have become mundane.
All this happened a week ago Friday, marking the start of a 10-day period in which the wheels seemed to come off the American democratic experiment.
On that same day, Senate Republicans followed through on their cover-up of President Trump’s abuse of presidential power by blocking witnesses and subpoenas for his Senate trial. In the days that followed, Iowa Democrats struggled to count the vote in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, leading to an inconclusive outcome and shaking confidence in America’s voting systems. The president traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver his State of the Union and heard partisan chants of “four more years” at an event traditionally focused on demonstrating American unity. The next day, Senate Republicans acquitted Trump in the impeachment trial. And on Thursday, Trump celebrated by delivering a vindictive, self-pitying, hour-long diatribe from the East Room of the White House. He called Democratic lawmakers “vicious” and “evil,” questioned their religious faith, and pledged revenge against all those he believes have wronged him.
And the leading members of his political party, like the trained seals they’ve become, clapped and hooted their praise. What have we become as a nation?
When the history books are written, the past week-and-a-half may very well be seen as the point of no return, when the guardrails on our democracy came off and our political system became permanently and irretrievably infected by the virus of Trumpism. It’s not just that Senate Republicans covered up and then excused Trump’s crimes, it’s that they have given him carte blanche to do it again.
If Republicans cannot say it is wrong to use the power of the presidency to pressure a foreign government into attacking a political rival, what will they say when Trump tries to do even worse? Could he try to shut down news outlets that write negative stories about him? Could he get the Justice Department to investigate his political rivals, their children, or their spouses? Already, Senate Republicans are doing what Ukraine would not — opening an investigation into Hunter Biden. Will Trump encourage more foreign interference in the election or look the other way as Russians try to duplicate the meddling they did in 2016? Will he take shots at states that don’t support him? Already, the Department of Homeland Security has announced that New York travelers will be banned from a trusted traveler program because of a new state law that allows undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses.
This week, Attorney General William Barr told the Department of Justice that any criminal investigations of 2020 presidential candidates must be authorized by him, which is practically a permission slip for the Trump campaign to engage in wrongdoing.
With the president training his guns on Senator Mitt Romney for voting to convict him, will any Senate Republican have the courage to stand up to the president if he openly tries to break the law to ensure his re-election?
I know all of this sounds a bit far-fetched, but the president of the United States delayed military assistance to Ukraine so that it would open a phony investigation of Joe Biden — and he got away with it. It’s time to widen our imaginations to what Trump is capable of doing.
Over and over, Senate Republicans justified their refusal to punish the president for his high crimes and misdemeanors by arguing that the American people should decide the issue of innocence or guilt at the ballot box. That assumes that the 2020 election will be free and fair. After this week, how reasonable is it to expect that it will be?
Though Trump’s acquittal was pre-ordained, I fear that it represents a true before-and-after moment in American history — unleashing the full criminality and vindictiveness of an authoritarian president on a nation with political institutions ill-suited to stop him. America may never be the same again.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.