The President is both the problem and the distraction. Thousands of words are written about him every day but it’s hard to determine what significance, if any, they have. We are caught between the Scylla of paying too much attention to every word he utters and the Charybdis of treating his unhinged behavior as normal.
When future historians look back at the times we are currently living through, they will not need to say that there were no voices raised in protest. Nor will they think that no one warned of the dangers Trump posed to the American constitutional system and to the norms keeping politics within fairly reasonable boundaries over the years up to 2016.
They will instead have the daunting challenge of figuring out why so many Americans were unmoved by the warnings. Historians will ask why large groups of citizens were willing to take a leap into a totally unfamiliar future based on Trump’s unreliable promises and his appeals to the worst in human nature.
There are some clues already available. We were a deeply divided, indeed polarized, country even before Trump announced his campaign for president. Now it appears that we don’t even agree on facts because we rely on different information sources with little or no overlap. His attacks on the media and on “fake news” are likely to diminish our ability to find common political ground long after he has departed the public arena.
Moreover, there seems to be an enormous gap in this country about how to define self-interest, a concept that has been central to political analysis throughout history. Critics of Hillary Clinton’s campaign slammed her for not having an economic message that reached out to working class whites left behind by the global economy. However, numerous studies have argued that many of those voters are less moved by economic interests than by social issues, especially coded or symbolic ones. Trump supporters continue to respond to his call to build a wall and to ban Muslims from entering the United States even as coal and manufacturing jobs show no sign of returning.
I regularly read some of the smartest and most thoughtful columnists working today. While Trump has certainly provided them with a steady stream of materials to write about, many must feel as if they are trapped in an endless loop where nothing changes despite their best efforts. We are living in an Age of Sisyphus where the rock keeps rolling back down the hill.
The New York Times’ David Brooks recently wrote a column entitled “Getting Trump Out of My Brain.” His goal was “to spend less time thinking about Trump the soap opera and more time on questions that surround the Trump phenomena and this moment of history.” It’s a challenge that a lot of smart presidential observers are struggling with and achieving only limited success. It may be, however, the crucial question to pursue.
Trump’s most recent rant threatening North Korea with unprecedented “fire and fury” illustrates the challenge. The cynic might view his bellicose language as just another instance of his lack of impulse control or, alternatively, as a deviously clever way to distract everyone from the Russia investigation. And while we have been cautioned on numerous occasions to not take his words literally, what if Kim Jong-un does?
We may be too deep into our current situation to be able to make much sense of it. The search for historical precedents for his presidency has provided neither insight nor comfort. We do know that his campaign struck an emotional chord with many Americans and that some percentage of those continue to enthusiastically support him.
One report which underscores that reality is a poll showing that over 50% of Republicans would agree to cancel the 2020 Presidential Election if Trump claimed that the results would be rigged against him. Even if you don’t believe that a nuclear war with North Korea is imminent, you should be terrified that so many of your fellow citizens have that opinion.
I have neither the audience nor the skill of Tom Friedman, E.J. Dionne, Trudy Rubin or Michael Gerson. In offering commentary on the Trump presidency, I am searching for the words to help me understand the Trump phenomenon as well as to express my concerns and even my outrage at what is happening to our country. At times, friends have thanked me for putting their thoughts into words and for reminding them that they are not alone. I am grateful for that feedback, but have not figured out how to expand my reach beyond the choir.
And, like Sisyphus, I sometimes feel like I am writing the same column over and over again with only the words rearranged. Beating your head into a wall is not a productive political exercise, but neither is standing idly by as the political system is hijacked.