I’ve been struggling, since Trump’s election, to articulate exactly why it’s left me so upset. I hadn’t expected last week’s inauguration to fill me with my post-election emotions all over again, but it did, and even worse this time. For a while, though, I’ve had a hard time pinning down exactly why. Sure, bad things are happening to our country — or rather, our country is doing bad things; the passive voice is much too forgiving here — but this is hardly the first time that’s been the case. What makes this different?
It’s not just the gag rule or the Affordable Care Act or the Supreme Court, or even the wall. As disturbing as the policy implications of this administration are, and without minimizing the very real damage they will cause, they are, to some extent, part of the normal give-and-take of politics. There’s an alternate universe where Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, or even Mike Pence, or god, even — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — Michele Bachmann is President, and while the impact of these hypothetical administrations would be almost as severe, the sense of loss wouldn’t be as overwhelming.
Perhaps in saying this I’m revealing myself to have believed, somewhere deep down, in a kind of American exceptionalism that I’d never consciously defend, but what’s been broken with Trump — uniquely broken — is a piece of this country’s story. Even if he ends up resigning in disgrace, even if his every legislative action is overturned, even if his reputation is so sullied that his grandchildren change their names, that even Donald Duck has to be rebranded — none of that will change the fact that we made him President once.
While a part of me hesitates to make such a definitive statement about something I can’t possibly prove, I’m convinced there’s never been a President before who so obviously conned his way into the office, who so clearly cares so little about the country he’s now responsible for, who’s so transparently in it only for himself. For every horrible President we’ve had before — every George W. Bush, every Warren Harding — I never doubted that they were motivated, inasmuch as any human being’s complex web of motivations can ever be disentangled, by some attempt to do right by something larger than themselves. There have been ideologues in our history who caused damage I think it’d be hard for this administration to top, but even the worst of them (Jackson comes to mind) were better than this — an ideologue, no matter how abhorrent, is somehow less disturbing, less tragic, than watching a psychologically damaged person lash out on a national scale.
Maybe in believing in this unbroken lineage of well-intentioned Presidents I was just foolishly buying into an America’s story that was never quite real. Maybe it’s just privilege that lets me be so devastated by the symbolic over the practical. But still. Our revolution, mythologized as it’s been out of its origins as the selfish tantrum of a bunch of wealthy landowners, lit the flame of democracy around the world. We survived the Depression without succumbing to strongmen; held tight to democracy as Europe fell to fascism less than a century ago. Now we’ve revealed ourselves to be just as bad as every nation we once looked down on. Now Germany — Germany! — looks like the last bastion of liberal democracy. Now Philip Roth is giving interviews in which he compares the isolationist, Lindbergh-led America of his dystopian World War II novel to the Trump administration—and the dystopia comes out on top.
In the centuries since the American revolution, many other countries — mostly in Latin America — copied our somewhat unusual system of Presidential democracy. Every single one of them ultimately collapsed. Did ours survive because there’s something special in our culture, our beliefs, our political myths? Or have we just been lucky?
I don’t actually think that our democracy is on the verge of collapse — not yet, at least. But what we lost with Trump is the ability for that kind of thing to go without saying.