Ending a Bad Relationship after Four Years
When America elected Trump four years ago, it agreed to enter a bad relationship with him. A relationship in which the abuser, Trump, claims ad nauseam he is the aggrieved party. Now that America, the abused, has decided to move on with someone else, he is not happy. He tells America something to this effect: “If I can’t have you, nobody else will have you. Or if they end up having you, I will make sure you are damaged goods.” Like all bad relationships, this one will leave scars that may never disappear, if we are fortunate enough to extricate ourselves from it.
The strange thing is that America entered the relationship with Trump in full knowledge of the facts, since Trump’s character was always on full display. Furthermore, he was unequivocally clear about his intention to deconstruct the state as well as longstanding values and relationships at home and abroad. The presidency, like the relationship, has not changed Trump. To say it has is as illogical as to say there was a chance he could be improved by the office, as people like Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly believed. Rather, what the White House has done is amplify the man by giving him the biggest megaphone and the most powerful instrument today, together with the accompanying latitude of action.
Many have said, with varying degrees of confidence, that come January 20, 2021, Trump will leave the White House and Joe Biden will be president. This sentiment seems to be based on two related variables:
1) That Trump has a conscience. This conscience would push him to show some regard for the constitution and the institutions of our democracy, which in turn will lead him to accept the people’s verdict and take his bow. However, it is not clear Trump has a good idea what the constitution is, nor does he fully grasp or care for the way the institutions of our democracy work. Even if he were an expert on the constitution and democracy, that would not guarantee anything. Americans have never had a consensus on the meaning of the constitution. Trump knows that, and he continues to exploit our divisions.
Our conscience is our guide, our moral compass; that which lets us know if the path we have taken or are about to take is the right or wrong one. When every single action a person undertakes is guided only by their self-interest and a concomitant disregard for the interests of others or the integrity of the democratic process, it is fair to say that that person’s conscience has been badly damaged, if he ever had one at all.
2) Betting on the American democratic system. This is the basic proposition that our democratic system is so solid that one man cannot topple it.
It makes sense to bet on American democracy. After all, America is one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the world. It has faced many threats to its viability (slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow, and extant systemic racism). However, it is also true that if democracy were natural to humans, we would not need to invent it. The pillars of our democracy are human-made, so they carry the indelible imprint of our human fallibility. It is a lot easier to destroy than to build or rebuild. American democracy has been under construction for over 200 years; you can do a lot of damage to it in four years.
For over 1,400 days (and counting), day after day, Trump has presided over what is arguably the most unapologetically bigoted, racist, sexist, xenophobic and autocratic White House in modern history. The project of our ‘more perfect union’ has not been under a greater stress in recent memory than it is today. To be sure, this has not been a one-man show. One man, alone, cannot destroy a system built by many. Over the past four years, we have seen that Trump is not one man. A coterie of spineless lawmakers (Graham and McConnell at the helm) as well as throngs of Americans, all too willing to cut off their nose to spite their face, have happily enabled him.
Ultimately, a democracy is as strong as the will and dedication of its custodians.
Now that Trump has ‘allowed’ the GSA and his White House staff to work with the Biden-Harris transition team, Americans feel increasingly confident Trump will leave office. Assuming he does — even without conceding defeat — , between now and January 20, Trump will do everything to ensure that Biden’s victory is a pyrrhic victory. If he cannot have the White House, he will use the power it still offers him to cause so much damage that much of what Biden and Harris will do is to put out the fires Trump will have set rather than focus on their own agenda, including the battle against COVID and the widening rifts in this country. One of those many fires Trump could leave the Biden administration, and the country, is a new war.
As has been repeated by many, we should be in no illusion that by electing Biden America is free of Trump. After all, nearly half of Americans voted for him the first time. And again, even after four years of the carnage he has visited upon democracy and basic human decency. What his influence will be in the next four years without the White House is an open question. Moreover, we must take him at his word and assume that he does not intend to leave office. Whether or not he can actually hold on to power after January 20 is beside the point. He has been very transparent about his intention to stay in power, and by any means at his disposal.
Like all democracies, American democracy does not have automatic immunity against the virus of megalomania. To spoil a working democracy, a state of emergency is one of many excuses the megalomaniac could deploy. In the absence of real emergencies, the megalomaniac will invent one, or a few, and then present himself as the only one capable of resolving them. For example, if he can, Trump could start a war, and then use that to justify his stranglehold on America. To assume he will not try this, or any other gimmick, is to say he has a minimum respect for our democracy and a conscience that could make him decide to do the right thing on his own. The only thing we can predict with certainty about Trump is that he will do anything that serves his personal interest.
As in all bad relationships, when someone tells you he knows everything and has an answer to every affliction, you should run as far away from him as possible. Trump is like a snake-oil peddler. We may yet be able to disentangle ourselves from a relationship we willingly entered by electing Trump in 2016, even as we realize he has made it that much harder to put the bad genie back in the bottle.
May God help us!