Donald Trump is at once a unique danger to the Republic and that for which it stands — and the leader we had coming.
The man genuinely behaves as though he can do whatever he pleases and, when curbed, acts aggrieved. With a stable of spin doctors, he sets out to destroy those who would rein him in, and paints as liars those who point out his lies.
And people buy it. Indeed, they embrace it, and cheer it, and declare transparent falsehoods as bold truth.
What accounts for this willingness to discard proven institutions in favor of whatever inanity Donald Trump feels like blurting out?
In “Idiot America,” Charles Pierce lays out “how stupidity became a virtue in the land of the free.” The title and subtitle are his words, not mine, and it’s also worth noting the book was published in 2010, well before good, intelligent people made one catastrophic choice at 2016’s ballot box.
“The people to be most distrusted were those who actually knew what they were talking about. This is how people get elected while claiming not to be politicians,” Pierce writes, in reference to a 2004 dust-up in Dover, Pa., over the scientific theory of evolution versus the non-scientific theory of intelligent design. Pierce also later notes: “The pursuit of the presidency is now a contest of narratives.”
More prescient, I think, was his description of the crank. Pierce’s example, Ignatius Donnelly, burned through harebrained theories about Atlantis, Shakespeare, and comet-driven tectonic shifts. (The media, notes Pierce, “ate it up,” at least the first time.)
But it’s not cranks that should worry us — according to Pierce, it’s charlatans: “A charlatan is a crank with a book deal and a radio program and a suit in federal court. A charlatan succeeds only in Idiot America.”
To give poor summary of Pierce’s overall point: Idiot America is the place where we distrust those who trade in objective proof, and where we ignore actual dangers in favor of ridiculous conspiracies. It is the place that was bound to elect a charlatan as leader.
Donald Trump is that charlatan.
And we are in trouble.
Of course other presidents have lied to, and manipulated, people, and/or exhibited difficult personalities. Trump stands out, however, even in D.C. — which, in one of the few accurate things he’s said, is a political cesspool. It’s just he’s either deaf to his own noisy contributions to the effluent, or is hoping we are
Strip away his colorful braggadocio — the Twitter rants, the insults, the golf games, the incoherent speeches, the inability to keep his mouth shut when it counts, personal insults, nepotism, scandal upon scandal and the dozens of ways he embarrasses the nation every week — and we are left still, with a man as colossally dangerous as he is incompetent.
His Cabinet is larded with people who are short on applicable skill, and long on hostility to the very mission of the agencies they oversee. (Rick Perry experienced brain freeze mid-debate once, and couldn’t come up with the name of the Energy Department as one of three he would like to do away with. He is now head of it. That’s just one example.)
Trump is undermining the institutions that would hold him accountable, particularly the press, and he’s launched a “voter fraud commission” on the insane pretext that Hillary Clinton’s 3 million popular-vote lead over his tally (seven months ago!) is somehow tainted by illegal voting. Fearless prediction: This commission will find exactly what Trump wants, or at least a niggling of doubt it can blow up as “proof.”
Also, while bemoaning how “weak” America is, Trump’s conduct on the global stage has actively undermined American power and prominence. Allies are looking beyond us now; some may be close to writing us off entirely. This will harm us geopolitically and economically. It will not harm Trump. If this continues, it is bound to make us the target of something much worse, when those who are not our allies see an opening.
The cherry atop this unpalatable sundae is the man’s obsession with loyalty — he demands unswerving fealty from others, but hardly responds in kind.
Consider Trump in tandem with the so-far tepid reactions of the House and Senate, which are supposed to act as a check on the presidency.
Members of Congress have only rarely stood up to a man they allegedly do not fear. Apparently, it does not lie within their personal interests. For many decades, we’ve allowed them to forget who they serve; now we reap the whirlwind.
Add to this tit-for-tat obstructionism. In but one recent example, the Republicans refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s Supreme Court pick; Democrats subsequently did everything they could to block a hearing on Trump’s. As much as I dislike some of Neal Gorsuch’s pre-Supreme Court rulings, he is a competent jurist and deserved the hearing he ultimately received — just like Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, who did not receive one.
And of course, health care. While there are many legitimate criticisms of the Affordable Care Act, it is unconscionable that the party with seven years to come up with something better has not, but instead, was in late July still working hard to repeal the act for the sake of repeal — to hell with the millions who will be hurt.
Perhaps taking a page from the way Trump tries to undermine objective information that doesn’t fit what he wants to be true, some Republicans were working to cripple the Congressional Budget Office’s ability to objectively assess the costs of proposed legislation. One idea was to drain funding, and force the CBO to rely on the work of “think tanks” instead of conducting its own research. Whether liberal or conservative, think tanks can be biased, as can the data they produce. Think about that!
If the situation were just one of an incompetent president or a weak Congress, it would not be so dire. When executive incompetence meets congressional weakness, though, it brews a toxic mix. The overarching danger is that We, the People, will be stripped of recourse and the ability to rein in abuses.
Trump’s voting “integrity” commission, combined with growing efforts to restrict voting access, will lead to loss of voice in governance, and a government that no longer even pretends to hear that voice.
Some are nervously eyeing Trump’s likely judiciary picks, fearing we could wind up with someone more loyal to the man than the rule of law. If that happens on a broad scale, we lose meaningful legal recourse and instead will be crushed by a deck stacked in favor of a personality cult. Personality cults breed dictatorships.
If the agencies charged with protecting our water, air, food and drug safety, voting rights, election processes, civil rights, education, privacy and our very freedom are headed by someone with no experience and no regard for the mission, we are doomed in ways we’ve only begun to imagine.
Humanity has been here before. What happens when we fail to learn from history is by now more self-fulfilling prophecy than sage warning.
We appear on track to repeat a particular chapter of history — the time when “might makes right” was reality; when the majority literally and directly lived and died at the whim of the minority who had the swords and armies; when Church and State truly were one; when free speech wasn’t even a daring whisper.
Don’t be swayed by fairy tales and fantasy novels: The Middle Ages were no sort of utopia — there wasn’t even clean water. It was like the Third World, only with Christian Europeans in it.
History indeed shows power and wealth have long been concentrated in the hands of a comparative few. But history also shows people can be propelled into action, despite great risk.
In the past, people pushed back by challenging power, up to and beyond our own country’s founders — elite and commoner — who laid the groundwork for a system based on equality under the law, checks and balances and the consent of the governed. These things are not hollow relics; they are our means of recourse, and allowing them to erode is perilous.
In 2016, people got pushed toward the wrong sort of leader — the crank and the charlatan, presently enabled by a weak-kneed and self-serving Congress.
We, the People, need to use our established power to push that pendulum back.
The current state of affairs is not entirely gloomy. Our constitutional protections can still be a bulwark, if we use them. There are for now dedicated civil servants we must support, before all of the principled and competent ones leave in frustration or are removed. We must also support Congress in its rare forays into common sense, as seen July 26, when even conservative members spoke against Trump’s transgendered-troops ban, and criticized his attempt to vilify his own attorney general.
And, on July 27, Democrats with three Republicans — Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and John McCain — halted (for now) the highly flawed and rushed efforts on health-care repeal.
Murkowski as much as told Trump she was not elected to do his bidding, and also stood up to his sleazy blackmail efforts delivered through Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Collins reminded the body of the necessity of bipartisanship. McCain, who had at first voted to advance debate on the repeal efforts, came through at the end.
These are encouraging signs. We, the People, need to act against the excesses of power before it’s too late and America becomes the land of We, the Peasants.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.