So here we are. The swearing in has passed, and it seems no more realistic than it did in the wee hours of Nov. 9 that Donald Trump is going to be the president, but he is. It’s fair to say that it’s a moment unlike our country has ever faced. We’ve elected crooks and liars and incompetents and alcoholics. But there is something I don’t think we’ve ever done, until now.
I don’t think we’ve ever had a president who seems not to care at all about the institutions of our government. He may care, I suppose, deep down, in some corner of his soul that stands as-yet secret to us. But presidential campaigns are grueling, raw affairs; such passions are usually exposed at one point or another. In the 17 months since Trump announced his candidacy, though, he’s said nothing that I can recall that expresses the slightest respect for our institutions or our system. When he has spoken of our institutions or traditions, it’s been to ridicule them or to display his ignorance and irrelevance of them. He’s cited a section of the Constitution that doesn’t exist. He’s called our government a “swamp.” He mocked the military and intelligence services. He said the election would be legitimate—if and only if he won.
This is new. Mitt Romney didn’t say the election would be legitimate only if he won (and to those who would counter that Trump was “joking,” I ask you to consider what Trump would have said if Hillary Clinton had won the electoral tally but lost the popular vote by 3 million). John McCain didn’t call the government a swamp. George W. Bush may not have been a constitutional lawyer, but I dare say he probably read the document once or twice anyway.
ONLY SERVE TRUMP
With the new president, the argument is something different. He thinks the Department of Justice and the 14th Amendment should serve one person: Trump. That’s it. Surely no American is naïve or self-deluding enough to think that Trump has even read a book about the Department of Justice or the 14th Amendment. It’s doubtful he’s ever read a newspaper article about either. They, and all our laws and branches of government, have no meaning to him, except, now, as devices that can serve Trump.
NO BELIEF SYSTEM; NO IDEAS
That’s what makes this different. Trump has no belief system that fits into the existing American political scheme in any reasonable way. He has no ideas. The idea that he adopted, the one that won him the presidency, about workers and trade, is just something he picked up and pounced on when he saw that it could help him. He saw three things. He saw that Bernie Sanders had lit a prairie fire on the issue; he saw that Hillary could be boxed into a corner on it, since she’d been for free trade; and, significantly, he saw that he could bend the ninnies in his party—that is, his new party, to which he has no actual loyalty—to his will.
One thing he’s not is stupid especially about seeing openings; it’s how he’s survived bankruptcies that would have put lesser men—no, better men; think about that—in the poor house or in jail. He was right about all 3 things, and it was these three hunches that won him the White House. But he doesn’t actually care about them. He embraced them because they helped Trump. When the day comes that they don’t help Trump, he’ll toss them aside. He is already thinking about doing this to Press Sec Spicer – tossing him aside.
NO BELIEF SYSTEM
This is what we are dealing with, and this is what’s new: A president—a president!—with no belief system. This will mean my fellow liberals that he’ll do something you like once in a while, when he hasn’t just farmed the decision out to the Heritage Foundation because he doesn’t give a crap. He might wake up one day in 2018, with Jared and Ivanka whispering in his ear about poll numbers, and decide the minimum wage should be $10.50. Fine. Nice. We’ll take it. But don’t be fooled. It’s cynicism..
Someone with no respect for these institutions is someone who will destroy them. Bush wanted his war in Iraq. To do so, he (and Cheney and Rumsfeld and their gang) had to bend the Pentagon and the CIA to their will. They did this, and it was appalling. But they had enough respect for the institutions that they knew had to make it all look good; make it look official, make it so that the CIA could emerge from John Yoo’s explanation of torture with the capacity to say, “Well, that was then, this is now.”
Bush and Cheney twisted these institutions but would never destroy them. Trump will destroy them, if keeping Trump on top requires it. Or try to. He might not succeed. And that is where we rest our hope—on conservative judges who will choose our institutions over Trump. Mark my words: it will come to this.
PREDATOR IN OVAL OFFICE
In the meantime, there will be the daily, weekly, monthly effort of feeling the man drag us all down, as he already has. How much worse are we as a people than we were 17 months ago? It’s impossible to measure precisely. But we know that we’ve gone from being shocked at the idea of having a presidential candidate shout about building a wall to debating whether Congress would appropriate the funds for it; from being scandalized at the very idea of a Muslim registry to wondering how such a thing could be implemented; from being stunned that a sexual predator could sit in the Oval Office to not even mentioning it anymore. All that happened without him even being president. To what will we be sensitized with him holding the office?
BE ON GUARD
We survived the crooks and liars and incompetents and alcoholics. I think we’ll survive Trump too. But it will require people on the left and the right to guard our institutions, and to say to him no, you just can’t do that. I was struck by words written by Eliot A. Cohen, a conservative, writing in The American Interest: “nothing will teach him gravitas, magnanimity, or wisdom.”
No, nothing will. But I still hold out the hope that we the people can punish him for his lack of those qualities, his lack of any belief system. He didn’t win a majority of our votes. He doesn’t today have a majority of our support. And time will show that gravitas, magnanimity, and wisdom, especially wisdom, still matter.
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