The other day, my wife asked me how I’d remember 2017. My answer:
- It was a great year for me personally. Great. That’s not what this post is about though.
- It was the darkest year for our country of my adult life.
Now I suppose that if you spent the last eight years stewing that a Kenyan terrorist was putting his feet up in the Oval Office, you probably regarded 2017 as a time when the light flooded back in, but I spent the first few months abjectly terrified. For weeks after Donald Trump’s swearing-in, I checked the news compulsively, half-expecting to see the White House groaning under a giant gold “Trump” sign, Supreme Court judges ousted like reality show contestants, troll armies spilling open my bank account information online for daring to raise a verb against Donald Trump. It was all in play.
But when the courts smacked him down, when the press kept hounding him, when even his own supporters questioned his tweeting — I finally exhaled. You had to marvel at the founders’ genius for checks and balances. It was a Trump that they’d planned for. Now we had one and the seams were still holding. The American vessel was still watertight. Democracy (sort of) survived.
But it was a dark year. Presidents influence the tone of the country. Most of them radiate some form of optimism. Ronald Reagan sold “Morning in America,” Bill Clinton sold jobs (“It’s the economy, stupid”), George Bush had Compassionate Conservatism, and Barack Obama assured the country, “Yes, we can.” Sure, they whipped up fury against the incumbent. They had to in order to win the election. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that America was capable of greater things under their leadership. They were optimists, all of them.
But for Donald Trump, whipping up fury is the whole point, I think. He is a pessimist. “Make America Great Again” is just a slogan. Trump doesn’t believe in us. In fact, he thinks human nature is dark. He won by invoking an America I couldn’t recognize: a third-world nation ravaged by drugs, crime, and economic hardship. All immigrants were dangerous criminals, not innovators, not seekers of the American Dream. Anyone holding power was corrupt — from Republican elites (“Lyin’ Ted”) to Democratic challengers (“Crooked Hillary”). Any institutions he didn’t like were corrupt: the free press (“fake news”), the courts (“a Mexican judge”), law enforcement (“in tatters”), and even in the democratic voting process itself (“a rigged system”).
He even went so far as to equate the United States with one of the world’s most notoriously corrupt dictatorships, stopping no less a conservative than Bill O’Reilly dead in his tracks:
O’Reilly: “But [Putin] is a killer.”
Trump: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
There it is. That’s 2017 in a nutshell. In Trump’s mind, it doesn’t matter that we cherish the free press and hold fair and free elections, while Vladimir Putin kills journalists and bars opponents from campaigning against him. In Trump’s mind, we’re all corrupt. The United States was being rebranded by a master con man as such a fallen, lawless place that only a strongman could clean it up. It was dark.
Not only did Trump sow distrust in 2017, he sowed division. 2017 was the year of the Troll-in-Chief. It’s easy to forget that most presidents, no matter how slim their electoral margins, see it as Line 1 in their job description to unite the country. But not Trump. In just the last few months he has trolled the NFL (“Any player who kneels should be fired!”), the British government (posting racist videos from their fringe right), and an unstable dictator with a runway full of nuclear weapons (“Rocket man”). We’ve seen him tacitly support Nazis in our streets, openly support a pedophile running for Senate, and suggest, apropos of nothing, that a female senator would trade sex for donations.
At one point in 2017 the President of the United States all but accused the head of a major American news show of murdering an intern . . . and no longer did we think this was strange. It was business as usual under the Troll-in-Chief.
Last year commentators called Donald Trump the Id of the Republican party. Now I think he might be the Id of our era — the crude, divisive, internet troll that lurks in all of us.
My, oh my, what a dark year 2017 was.
But strangely enough, I’m optimistic. Sometimes an era is defined less by a president’s tone than by the tone of our reaction. I strongly believe that 2017 taught us a lot about ourselves. It has taught us about our lowest impulses and about our most dangerous temptations. The simple fact that we elected a man like Trump — here, in our country — is making all of us take a good, long look in the mirror. And little by little, we’re dealing with what we see.
Didn’t the Trump era, with its apparent electoral embrace of sexual assault, lead to the largest outpouring of sexual assault stories in recent memory? You can’t prove the two were related, but I think they were. I think the women in our country could not believe we’d elected Trump, and it wasn’t long before a whole lot of powerful men, like Harvey Weinstein, who seemed untouchable, started to fall like dominoes. It wasn’t long before even the reddest-of-red states finally said enough.
Hasn’t the Trump era forced the whole ossified Republican party — the riders of the Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh populist tiger — to a crisis point over who they really are? Trump forced a decision. You could no longer look the other way when your base started talking crazy, while telling yourself it was worth it to pass tax cuts. The wolf was finally at the door. Trump started attacking his own party, crossing every line imaginable, and you started seeing principled red-state senators — Jeff Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker — publicly questioning a Republican president’s fitness for office and even basic sanity. Doesn’t a moment like this finally force the Republican party to reckon with what it has become? Is it overly hopeful, then, to expect the Republican party to emerge renewed — perhaps transformed — from this nadir?
And won’t the Trump administration — jowl-deep in scandal from the moment they deplaned in Washington — force Americans to reconsider whether they want a circus barker or an experienced public servant running the levers of government? Isn’t the outcome of this not more populist rage, but a collective coming-to-sense that what we want is an adult — not adult daycare — in the Oval Office?
And then there’s something deeper about ourselves that I think Trump is showing us. We free speech proponents always believe that it’s better to let the racists speak rather than to censor them. That way you can refute their arguments. Plus you know who the racists are in the room.
In 2017, we learned who the racists are.
I was never one of those Obama supporters who believed we lived in a “post-racial” society. The racism in our country wasn’t gone. In fact, it was probably as strong as ever, but it was less and less socially acceptable to express it — until Donald Trump came along and made it okay. Suddenly all the hatred that so much of the country felt at having an African American president, all the things they’d said in living rooms and bars and barbershops — it all flooded out. I know because I’d heard it. I’d heard it in a barbershop in western Maryland. I’d heard it in a bar in central Idaho. But it was never okay to say it in public during the Obama era. Yet you always knew it was boiling below the surface, just waiting to come out. Then along came Donald Trump and suddenly the crudest bigotry was out in the open: not just racism, but sexism, nativism, xenophobia, all the ugliness and intolerance of every kind that anyone who has ever been a teacher during a difficult conversation and heard tell of racist “uncles” and “aunts” knows lurks just beneath the surface even in the blue states. Suddenly it was pretty clear who the racists were in the room.
But I think that’s what we need. I’m not saying that the Trump era is a good thing. Like I said, I was terrified that democracy itself wouldn’t survive. But it has, and it will. And we know now for sure that simply electing a black president didn’t move us past our troubled racial history. Instead the Trump era has made us look more closely in the mirror, into our history, to reckon with who we are, warts and all.
I truly believe, as our former president did, that we are moving forward as a nation. I do not believe, as our current president does, that we are fundamentally corrupt. I do believe that progress often means one step backward for two steps forward. I believe that the Trump era is that backward step. It’s a temporary one, but a necessary one. Because Donald Trump, the oldest president we’ve ever elected to a first term, represents much about our past that we need to move beyond. He does not represent our future.
It won’t be easy. While 2017 was a dark year, I do not believe we have hit bottom yet. We will have to reckon with the fallout from Robert Mueller’s findings, which already suggest impeachment. We will have to watch Trump and his followers try to destroy our trust in Mueller by saying that the rule of law itself is biased and corrupt and should not apply to Trump. We may see violence in the streets. We may see our country torn apart as it has never been before. We will likely see America at its worst, even worse than in 2017.
But I have a feeling that even in the turmoil, even if we do hit rock bottom in 2018 as I believe we will, it won’t be as dark a year as 2017. Why? Because by then, the end will be in sight.
It already is.
Happy New Year, everyone.