Opinion

Opinion | Richard North Patterson

How Donald Trump is changing America

FILE - In this July 11, 2015 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump finishes up speaking before a crowd of 3,500 in Phoenix. Trump was just a few weeks into his candidacy in 2015 when came to Phoenix for a speech that ended up being a bigger moment in his campaign than most people realized at the time. And now Trump is coming back to Arizona at another crucial moment in his presidency. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Donald Trump speaks before a crowd of 3,500 in Phoenix in 2015.

To a degree which remains hard to grasp, Donald Trump is changing America itself. For all that has been written, we have yet to gauge the breadth of what Americans must overcome.

There is simply too much.

Merely measuring mendacity cannot capture the damage he inflicts. We are caught in his vortex — his tsunami of disinformation is so exhausting that we cannot see beneath.

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Every falsehood distracts attention from his policies — whether gutting environmental protection, ordering pervasive deregulation, or degrading our leadership abroad. Countless lies erode respect for any governmental institution that can call him to account – including, critically, the guardians of ethics. Millions of his followers reject the existence of objective fact as a basis for political discourse.

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He has erased the line between celebrity and fitness for office. His principal “qualification” was to play a titan of capitalism on “The Apprentice,” a deception that whitewashed his capricious, dishonest, and bankrupt — often, literally — stewardship of a dysfunctional family business, the same malignant style of “leadership” he now inflicts on us as president. Little wonder that Kid Rock has emerged as the leading Republican candidate for senator from Michigan in 2018.

He has undermined respect for democracy and civil liberties. A recent poll shows that nearly half of Republicans would support Trump if he proposed postponing the 2020 election — at least until he eradicates the nonexistent voter fraud he conjures from the ether. Another poll shows that 4 in 10 Republicans believe that freedom of the press and the right to criticize our government have gone too far.

He rejects the responsibility of a president to respect our institutions and administer our laws. He threatens to gut funding for the Affordable Care Act, jeopardizing health care for millions of Americans. He savages the judges who invalidated his travel ban. He pardons Joe Arpaio. He discredits any source of information that threatens his alternate reality — the CBO, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CIA, environmental scientists.

He makes no distinction between his office and himself — as illustrated by his excoriation of his own attorney general and his flouting of ethical norms. For his true believers, the national interest and Trump’s self-interest have become synonymous.

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He promotes racial, ethnic, and religious division for political gain — distorting crime rates among undocumented immigrants and in America’s cities, scapegoating Muslims, lying about minority voter fraud, implicitly excusing neo-Nazis and white supremacists. To a degree without precedent, he has used the presidency to nourish hatreds that tarnish our society.

He weaponizes organs of propaganda masquerading as purveyors of news – the right- wing janissaries of Fox News. the cynical frauds of “conservative” talk radio, the print and digital peddlers of venom like Breitbart and the National Enquirer. In effect, he has summoned his own hydra-headed version of Pravda to inflame his base and discredit his opponents.

He relentlessly erodes our communal understanding. He spreads bogus conspiracy theories like birtherism. He sucks America into his seemingly inexhaustible persecution complex, as when he accused Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. He tweets fake news, often perpetrated by the Russians.

He demeans the very idea of leadership. He spews venomous abuse and playground vulgarities at a bewildering array of enemies, real and imagined. He addresses geopolitical minefields with ignorant bluster. He sullies America’s global reputation. He attacks members of his own party to conceal his incomprehension of politics or policy. He uses the bully pulpit to sew divisiveness and shift blame. He governs to serve his warped psychology and infinite self-absorption.

Finally, he is preparing to subject us to a constitutional crisis — to save himself. His aspersions on Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein, and Robert Mueller serve but one purpose: to undermine the credibility of lawful efforts to protect our democracy from Russian hacking, and to persuade his followers that reckoning his responsibility subverts their will.

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No American president — ever — has done so much harm in so little time. If Vladimir Putin had designed a “Siberian candidate” to weaken and degrade us, he could have done no better than Donald Trump. The presidency has not transformed him; he has transformed the office. His sickness is now ours.

What to do?

Organize. Advocate. Uphold truth and fact. Contribute to good causes and candidates. Talk to friends, neighbors, and family. Model respect for difference. Speak out for democratic traditions. And, by doing so, strengthen the national spirit of decency from which new leaders can emerge. Only then can we limit the damage which will be Trump’s lasting legacy.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.