Here we are again, at the precipice.
After four painful, destructive, exhausting, eternal years, we’ve arrived at a moment that feels like a last chance.
Love him or loathe him, President Trump has consumed just about every minute of every day since he first announced his candidacy, and certainly since he won the presidency. Instead of growing into the job, he has grown into our lives, smashing norms, upending government in ways that have horrified many — maybe most — of us (tune in Tuesday), but thrilled his devoted fans.
Many who voted for him in 2016 wanted to blow up the system. What we are now is what that looks like. Will those who clamored for this have their way again? Or will the rest of us pull America back from the edge?
Either way, it’s certainly been educational. Without meaning to, Trump has taught — or retaught — this country plenty about ourselves. And, like those who have enabled him, those lessons will still be with us, no matter what happens on Tuesday.
Here are eight of them.
Your vote matters. A lot. Plenty of people sat out 2016, figuring there was no difference between the parties, or that their votes wouldn’t make a difference. Wrong, and so wrong! Trump’s vanishingly narrow Electoral College victory bought us all that has come our way — tax breaks for the rich, family separations, hateful rhetoric, environmental havoc, and Federalist Society rubber stamped judicial appointments. And now we’re seeing massive voter mobilizations around the country, and also pervasive attempts at voter suppression. Trump’s GOP is openly trying to win not by persuading Americans, but by trying to get votes thrown out in swing states. See?
Democracy is like Tinkerbell: If enough people stop believing in it, it expires. All of that rule of law and separation of powers stuff doesn’t just magically exist: People make it happen. As we’ve seen, unless enough people decide to stop him, the president can go right ahead and turn the government to his own profit, or use the Justice Department or the White House as an extension of his reelection campaign. Much of this damage will live on long after Trump is gone. If he’s gone. Clap your hands, America!
Also, it dies in darkness. Well, it appears to be dying in the light as well, but at least we can see it happening, thanks to the free press. The last five years have been a blur of horrific and vital revelations, thanks to reporters who found ways around the secrecy and obstructionism of an administration that otherwise answers to no one. How else would we know that the Trump family is raking in millions from taxpayers, or that the president only pretends to be a successful businessman and pays stupidly little taxes, or how eager he is to do favors for a despot who runs a country in which he does business? And that’s just what we’ve learned in the last few weeks.
Government actually does stuff. It turns out that the federal bureaucracy isn’t bloated and useless after all. Those faceless civil servants, their entire careers spent in public service, actually keep this country running. Some even help keep us alive. Exhibit A, obviously: the pandemic that has so far killed 230,000 of us and is now, once again, hurtling out of control. How much better off we’d be today if the White House had thrown its weight behind the efforts of our public health saints and savants, rather than undermine them? And now the administration is planning to broom even more competent civil servants at will and replace them with blind loyalists. That’ll work out great!
There is no “Deep State.” Though some of us might wish for it, nobody inside the administration can stop Trump and his minions from doing exactly as they please. Look no further than their environmental policies to see how easy it’s been for Trump to smash it all to smithereens. As a Washington Post analysis has pointed out, his administration has gutted or eliminated 125 policies designed to protect the environment, and there are 40 more on the chopping block. The upshot: dirtier air, more hazardous waste in rivers, open season on protected wildlife. On Thursday, the administration opened up 9 million acres of land in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging. What could go wrong?
Courage is in short supply. Sure, there have been legions of resignations, countless anonymous leaks, and, as the election has drawn near, more public condemnations from some brave Republicans, including some who enabled his most destructive policies. But so few in a position to make a difference have had the courage to stand up when it counted. Alexander Vindman, the Army lieutenant colonel whose testimony was central to abuse of power allegations against the president, stands out. So does Utah Senator Mitt Romney, an early if inconstant Trump critic, who was the lone Republican to vote for his impeachment over the Ukraine scandal. So many others debased themselves, like South Carolina’s obsequious Lindsey Graham, or the officials who did nothing as children were being separated from their parents at the border. It seems like a lot of Trump Republicans are certain there is no hell.
Ours is government of, by, and for some of the people. Trump has made it clear that he is the president only of the red staters who voted for him. The rest of us can beg for disaster relief or PPE or transportation funding or protection from terrorists planning to kidnap and kill a sitting governor, but this transactional president sees those things as gifts, to be bestowed only upon those who do right by him. Of course, Black Americans, poor Americans and other less lucky citizens have known all along what it’s like to have a government content to let them twist while it tends to more valuable voters. We should probably do something about that.
Being presidential matters. How much we took it for granted, before now. We might have disagreed with previous presidents, but at least they seemed to believe in what they were doing — to believe in something — most of the time. At least they wanted to appear ethical, or compassionate, or statesmanlike, to be serving a cause greater than themselves. Successful or not, they tried to calm crises rather than throwing fuel on the flames. They showed affection for their families, and almost always had pets. Who knew we’d miss all that quite so much?
Trump has taught us some painful lessons. It’s on us to take them to heart, before it’s too late. If it isn’t already.