2017: A Year Out of Focus


Year-end reviews usually seek to offer perspective on events of the prior 12 months.  As I thought about how to approach that task for 2017, I realized that this past year had been a bit off from the start, never quite in focus, not fitting in with any standards by which we usually make comparisons.

Still, shouldn’t we be able to summon the means to make sense of what has admittedly been a jarring period and maybe even learn some lessons from the experience?  If not, we run the risk of repeating a history that seems to many of us to be bending its arc in the wrong direction.  That version of “Groundhog Day” would be more horror show than comedy.

The presidency of Donald Trump and its assault on long-standing traditions and norms of our political system is certainly not the only important story of 2017, but it is in many respects the central one.  Yet, even as we were living through the first 12 months of an administration unprecedented in American history, it was incredibly difficult to stay focused on the most significant developments and not be distracted by the numerous sideshows, some deliberate and some just “Trump being Trump.”

As much as I am appalled by many of the policy decisions made by the President and the Republican Congress in 2017–the tax bill, the relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the dismantling of environmental protections, the undermining of alliances and international agreements—all of those actions and more were the inevitable byproducts of the 2016 election results.

We have to hope that future elections will produce public officials who reverse many of those actions and move the country in a different direction.  Great damage is being done in the meantime to the  nation as well as to individuals, but, as both voters and non-voters must realize, elections have consequences.

My greatest concern is with the very real threat—and I don’t believe I am engaging in hyperbole—to our democratic system of government.  Trump has trashed long-standing political norms—not releasing his tax returns, not divesting his business and financial holdings, appointing relatives to senior White House positions, trying to delegitimize the media, calling into question the validity of election results, treating truth as a plaything to be disregarded at his whim.  Whether those norms and standards can be re-established after the Trump Presidency is far from certain.

The future may be even worse.  His Justice Department is supporting efforts in multiple states to disenfranchise voters.  His commission on voter fraud is a transparent gimmick to limit access to the ballot box.  His rhetoric in the aftermath of the 2016 election could foreshadow moves in 2018 and 2020 to nullify votes and even election results.  Preventing that possibility requires public vigilance, legal challenges and electing officials who will oppose his efforts rather than blindly following his lead.

My review of what is significant about Trump’s first year in office has no room for his tweets, for Ivanka and Jared, for the greed and lack of ethical standards of members of his cabinet or for his generally crass behavior.  I’ll leave those topics to the re-energized media as well as to late night comics.

On the other hand, there are a number of areas in which Trump’s failure to act has had enormous significance.  His administration’s refusal to take seriously Russian interference in the 2016 elections and its continuing cyber-attacks on this country is a serious dereliction of duty in not protecting our national security.  His indifference to the impact of growing inequality in the United States poses a serious risk to the country’s long-term stability.  Is there a point at which the economic imbalance becomes so great that it threatens the relative political stability that has endured since 1789?

Two additional trends from 2017–both relevant to the Trump Presidency but neither merely the product of it—also make my review.  2017 unearthed a level of tension in race relations in this country that had been submerged for many years.  This hostility became more visible partly as a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama but also in response to the overt encouragement and racial “dog whistles” of his successor.

There were many moments during the year that illustrated those patterns, but none so vivid as Trump’s comments in the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As if that weren’t enough encouragement for undercover racists, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, often described as the only adult in the room, offered his own revisionist interpretation of the Civil War in which he downplayed the role of slavery.  The “good people on both sides”line was a much clearer signal than any wink or nod might have been.

The other major development of the year, celebrated by Time magazine, was the “#MeToo” movement.  Demonstrating that all roads in 2017 led back to Trump, the accusations of sexual harassment and worse that led to the ousting and resignations of many powerful males in the last few months generally paled in comparison to the list of those making similar claims about Trump.  Yet, he remains in office vigorously defended by his base supporters including many Evangelical Christians.

As awful as much of 2017 was, there were a few encouraging signs of a willingness to fight back against Trump.  Elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama have been seen by some as the precursors of a Democratic tsunami in 2018.  Unprecedented numbers of women running for public office are starting to break up the old patterns of traditional politics.  High turnout in the normally low turnout off-year election of 2017 offers the hope that sleepy Democrats may finally be waking up.

If you were paying attention only to day-to-day events, to the seemingly endless stream of distractions and outrages, 2017 was a truly depressing year.  There were, in addition, some dreadful policy outcomes.  However, if you are looking for any glimmers of hope, the new activism, particularly among women—and specifically, in Alabama, African-American women—gives you something to hold on to.

Fighting back against the darkness requires having hope that change can be achieved if we all work hard enough at it.  That needs to be the theme of 2018.