Most of my free time these days goes to the podcast — or, at least, that’s my excuse for why I haven’t blogged regularly in over a year now, and I doubt I’ll be resuming regular blog posts again any time soon. But I felt the need to write something about what happened two weeks ago, about this future that has not yet happened but soon will be, compelled by a vague feeling that I did not want to let this moment of suspension pass without registering my dissent.
If you’re the kind of person that would be reading this blog, you probably already know about the Hamilton affair. To recap, on Friday the soon-to-be Vice President Pence decided to attend Hamilton, a musical about the American Revolution with an emphasis on parts of America that Pence’s stated policy positions would not appear to support. At the end of the show, as Pence was leaving, Vice President Burr’s actor read out a statement while the rest of the cast linked arms behind him:
We had a guest in the audience this evening. And vice president elect Pence, I see you’re walking out, but I hope you will hear us, just a few more moments… We have a message for you sir, and we hope that you will hear us out. Vice president elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical. We, sir — we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of ALL of us, all of us. We truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.
In response, the president elect of these United States took to Twitter to denounce the Hamilton cast for “harass[ing]” the vice president elect, declaring that such public statements of dissent “should not happen.” He then demanded that the cast “apologize!” for voicing their concern that the new administration will not protect them.
Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
You’re going to hear this a lot more over the next four years, but: this is not normal, this is not okay, and this is not going to be okay. Trump’s words are chilling, both figuratively and constitutionally, and although the fact those “words” took the form of a social media rant may add an extra air of dystopian parody to the whole mess, they are no less dangerous for that. But I think what leaves me the coldest, what amplifies those feelings of anxiety and alarm the most, is that Trump spent a few extra precious characters out of his 140 to decry that there were “cameras blazing” when this act of dissent occurred. The cast of a Broadway musical humiliated his proxy, and then that humiliation was broadcast to the world. In the president-to-be’s mind, “This should not happen!”
The Hamilton affair was not, of course, an isolated event. Among Trump’s very first acts as the President Elect of the United States was to announce that protests of his presidency were “very unfair” to him, and to inform the world that those protests were not genuine expressions of disagreement among the populace, but an artificial insurgency funded by shadowy forces, and (somehow also) incited by a corrupt media. In the days since, he has launched a barrage of attacks that have de-legitimized the media, both by directly describing a major media publication as “failing” and “dishonest,” and by making self-aggrandizing and fabricated claims of his achievements, which in turn were picked up and reported on by those in the media clinging to the antiquated belief that reality is a meaningful construct for this administration.
And yes, I agree that the Hamilton affair is only one of many serious and disturbing developments in recent days, most of which are being shamefully under-reported. That does not mean that it can or should be dismissed as a theatrical sideshow, though. A president elect’s expressions of outrage that the citizenry would use the First Amendment in a way he doesn’t like is a big deal. The message is clear: the president will be calling out and attacking individual citizens who expose him to public criticism. Unfortunately, based on the experiences of the past 12+ months, it’s a safe bet that this event’s significance will be mostly overlooked in favor of sensationalist headlines and false equivalencies, and the whole kerfuffle will be forgotten entirely by Monday. And all the other presidentially disqualifying events of the weekend will, somehow, be lost in the shuffle.
That’s where the hopelessness starts to find root. What can be done, when the president himself is understood to be so intrinsically corrupt that acts of his corruption cease to be newsworthy events? And why have so many Republican lawmakers capitulated to this pretense that Trump is an acceptable president, when I still believe, must believe, that they too know the emperor has no clothes?
That last question is mostly rhetorical. The opportunity for unchecked and unpopularly-elected power was too much to turn down, and they have convinced themselves things will go better for them than they did for Faust. They believe that they can channel Trump to serve their own ends; I think they are wrong about that. Either way, they have willingly gambled on this country’s future by supporting Trump in the hopes that, when it all shakes out, they will be able to use this opportunity to further their own agendas while minimizing Trump’s more “awkward” policy positions, even knowing that, should the dice land the wrong way, their support will enable Trump to carry out his unconstitutional goals.
The Hamilton affair is one more warning that our elected officials are wrong to make this wager. Trump’s ongoing series of tweets raging at this display defiance by private citizens — four tweets in total, at last count, with one deleted — is not a meaningless distraction, it is a warning. President elect Trump does not have the capability to tolerate dissent to his rule. Although there are many contenders to choose from, it is this failing, I think, that will be the greatest threat to our nation. The guiding stars of Trump’s life are an obsession with vengeance and an unquenchable need for affirmation by the external world; the danger ahead lies in that the office of the presidency will provide him with nearly unlimited resources to fulfill this first directive, while rendering the second permanently beyond his reach.
Starting on January 20th, Trump will attempt to use the power of his office to enforce a belief that he is a worthy leader. He will not succeed. When he realizes that he will never have the respect of the people, he will settle for having their fear instead. If need be (and it will probably need be), he will try to break the Constitution to protect his own ego.
There is no possibility that Trump might instead do well enough at the job to earn the validation he believes is his due, and therefore have no need to mandate it. Trump has no abilities that are desirable in a statesman, and has displayed no aptitude for government administration. Although his “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity” aided him as a campaigner, it is those same attributes that led some of the founding fathers, in an ill-conceived attempt to prevent a Trumpian figure from one day ascending to the presidency, to place the choice of the executive in the hands of a special group of electors rather than with the people. That it was this subversion of the democratic ideal that ultimately made a Trumpian presidency possible is an irony that has not gone unnoticed, though perhaps some cold comfort can be drawn from knowing that it was not democracy itself that failed here. It was the Founders’ failure to embrace democracy completely that brought us this fate.
If things go as well as could possibly be hoped, the next four years will be a painfully awkward moment in our nation’s history. Things will not go as well as could possibly be hoped. If things go bad — like, darkest timeline bad — we may end up learning the answer to Trump’s favorite campaign-trail question: what do we have to lose? Because there may have been periods in our history where four years of rule by an autocratically-inclined idiot would have caused minimal damage, but those times are long past. Our institutions and economies are too interconnected for us to miss a step and not cause the rest of the world to stumble, and we are now living on a planet that, day by day, is becoming less hospitable to human life.
My hope is that, four years from now, we’ll be able to look back at this post and mock it for being overwrought alarmism, and that our institutional mechanisms for self-correction will turn out to have been more robust than my fears. If that happens, I’ll laugh too, at myself, and in relief. I think, though, that denial of the threat Trump poses is more dangerous than any alarmism could ever be, and the American exceptionalism that tells us this can only get sorta bad, that this can’t actually get scary bad, will drag us down faster than Trump’s petty vindictiveness ever could.
Because it takes no special insight to predict that the coming administration is a threat to this country in a way no other administration has been. Trump’s threats to the First Amendment are only one facet of his manifest unsuitability, as he has spent all of 2016 and a good chunk of 2015 demonstrating. For a heavily abridged sampling,
- Trump does not value the truth, either coming from himself or from others. He lies, constantly, for his own gain; not even his most ardent supporters would (or could) deny that, they just pretend this is a strategy. Which, okay yes, it is, but it is also a terrifying threat to our national security. Our allies cannot rely on America’s word, because the executive is our voice in the realm of foreign affairs, and beginning on January 20, 2017, our word will not be tied to any single objective meaning and will have no predictive value. If you doubt the danger, ask yourself this: what happens when other nations have no idea whether the president of the United States was telling the truth when he said he thought more countries should obtain nuclear weapons, or whether he was telling the truth when he said he thought they should not? What happens when they ask themselves how their neighbors will answer that same question?
- Trump is corrupt. He is going to wield the office of the president for his maximum financial benefit, and is making only the barest efforts to pretend otherwise. I do not think he will continue with the pretending for much longer. He has already begun laying the groundwork for his newest theme: there is nothing improper or even undesirable for a president to increase his wealth through being president, because he’ll be increasing everyone else’s wealth at the same time, too. He is already profiting from being president, by having his financially untenable hotel propped up by foreign dignitaries that feel compelled to stay there in order to curry presidential favor. He has also had the family members that are running his business empire sit in on meetings with foreign heads of state, and is seeking to have his son-in-law get the top secret clearance necessary to be privy to his foreign affairs briefings; this information will necessarily be used by the Trump family to further the interests of their businesses, because it is impossible that they will not take that information into account when making business decisions.
- Trump is supporting a white nationalist agenda. He claims to have been elected due to the economy, but his appointments so far have shared one overwhelming focus: white men obsessed with the national security threat posed by non-whites and non-Americans. Only one appointment so far (hi there, Mr. Priebus) breaks this mold, by being just the regular sort of Republican with no close ties to white supremacists, people that have proposed Muslim registration as a national security measure, and/or Russia. All the rest have openly espoused racism and xenophobia as desirable attributes in a government, or are openly on the payroll of foreign despots.
These are not the kinds of things that can happen to a country and then have everything somehow come out okay. These are the kinds of things that happen to a country just before something very dangerous and undemocratic occurs. I do not know what can be done to stop it, but I do know that no resistance can begin until Trump’s fascism is recognized for what it is.
To those who support Trump, I would encourage you to disagree with this assessment while remaining open to the possibility that there may be genuine cause for alarm. Maintain awareness of what the Trump administration is doing and how that compares to our ideals as a nation, and if, at a later date, you should see something his administration has done that undermines those ideals, then speak out against it, even if you maintain support for his presidency as a whole. And to those who are frightened about what the future holds, well, I am right there with you. All I’ve got is this: as a nation, we are really good at falling down and getting back up again. One of our greatest virtues has always been our ability to come back from disaster, even though as often as not we were the ones that invited it in. There is no reason to think it is impossible for us to do so once more.
For those of us who believe that this country has a promise it has not yet managed to fulfill, there is much to grieve, but America has never been close to perfect. The fact we’re even less close now is not an excuse to give up on efforts to strive in that direction. Our current president will likely come to regret, along with the rest of us, his dangerous expansion of the executive power, but Obama’s words to his daughters on what Trump’s election means are the best chance we have of making it through this intact: “[Y]our job as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding.”