Many of the worst things the president has said and done were said and done by his predecessors.
By Jamelle Bouie
For many millions of Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a kind of transgression, an endless assault on dignity, decency and decorum. They experience everything — the casual insults, the vulgar tweets, the open racism, the lying, the tacit support for dangerous extremists — as an attack on the fabric of American society itself. And they see the worst of this administration, like family separation at the border, as an unparalleled offense against the values of American democracy.
There’s no question these are useful beliefs — they are responsible for the mass outrage against Trump at the beginning of his term, the wave against the Republican Party in the 2018 midterm elections and the currently strong anti-Trump energy of at least half of the voting public — but it’s hard to say they are true ones. Trump is transgressive, yes. But his transgressions are less a novel assault on American institutions than they are a greatest hits, a recapitulation, of past failure and catastrophe.
Which is to say that whenever the Trump era comes to an end, many Americans will feel that we’ve lost something about the country, that there’s been some irrevocable change. And to the extent this is true, it won’t be because something has actually changed, but because we’ll no longer have the luxury to indulge our illusions about the character of this nation and its government.
Put differently, there is very little about Donald Trump that doesn’t have a direct antecedent in the American past. Despite what Joe Biden might say about its supposedly singular nature (“The way he deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they’re from, is absolutely sickening”), the president’s racism harkens right back to the first decades of the 20th century, when white supremacy was ascendant and the nation’s political elites, including presidents like Woodrow Wilson, were preoccupied with segregation and exclusion for the sake of preserving an “Anglo-Saxon” nation.
Trump’s indifference to the pandemic is, in the same way, an echo of the Hoover administration, which stood by as the country was crushed by economic depression and the immiseration of millions of Americans. It is impossible (for me at least) to think about child separation without also thinking about chattel slavery and the nation’s vast trade in enslaved people, conducted over decades under three generations of American presidents, including men like James Polk, who bought and sold human beings from the White House.
The president’s personal corruption is somewhat unique — there’s never been someone in the White House so committed to the most petty forms of graft — but his lawlessness (and that of his administration) is the direct outgrowth of a contempt for accountability that stretches across four decades of Republican presidencies, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. The same William Barr who helped cover up Iran-contra for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with his support of pardons is now attorney general under Trump, ready to abuse the law for the sake of the president’s re-election.
Trump isn’t the first president in recent memory to let Americans suffer and die in the face of a deadly hurricane — that distinction goes to the aforementioned George W. Bush. And he’s certainly not the first to let a plague kill thousands of Americans — that distinction goes to Ronald Reagan (of course, for his dull response to the flu pandemic in 1918, Wilson deserves that distinction too).
Trump has helped conjure ugly forces out into the open, giving aid and comfort to assorted racists and white nationalists. Yet it’s also true that these groups and individuals have always been with us and that our focus on Trump betrays a lack of attention to the ways in which they’ve grown and changed over time, waiting for a moment like this one.
Read the catalog of horribles for Donald Trump and his White House and what you find is an administration that has embraced the worst aspects of our political culture and tried to weaponize them for its own gain and advantage. But to recognize this is to see as well how it doesn’t make sense to say that we’ve lost anything because of Trump. His mark is the period he’s placed on our consistent failure to live up to our own self-image.
Perhaps more than most, Americans hold many illusions about the kind of nation in which live in. We tell ourselves we are the freest country in the world, that we have the best system of government, that we welcome all comers, that we are efficient and dynamic where the rest of the world is stagnant and dysfunctional. Some of those things have been true at some points in time, but none of them is true at this point in time.
What Trump has done is made it difficult to maintain the illusion. We can either take the opportunity to look with clear eyes and assess this country as it is and as it has been or again seek the comfort of myth.
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