In the May 1, 2017 issue of The New Yorker magazine, its editor David Remnick gives us an excellent summary of Trump’s first hundred days. “For most people,” Remnick says, “the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite. The hundred-day marker is never an entirely reliable indicator of a four-year term, but it’s worth remembering that Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama were among those who came to office at a moment of national crisis and had the discipline, the preparation, and the rigor to set an entirely new course. Impulsive, egocentric, and mendacious, Trump has, in the same span, set fire to the integrity of his office.
Trump has never gone out of his way to conceal the essence of his relationship to the truth. In 1980, when he was about to announce plans to build Trump Tower, a 58-story edifice on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, he coached his architect before meeting with a group of reporters. ‘Give them the old Trump bullshit. Tell them it’s going to be a million square feet, 68 stories.’ This is the brand Trump has created for himself – that of an unprincipled, cocky, value-free con who’ll insult, stiff, or betray anyone to achieve his purposes. But what was once a parochial amusement is now a national and global peril. Trump flouts truth and liberal values so brazenly that he undermines the country he’s been elected to serve and the stability he’s pledged to ensure. His bluster creates a generalized anxiety such that the president of the United States appears scarcely more reliable than any of the world’s autocrats. Trump thinks out loud, and is incapable of reflection. He’s unserious, unfocussed, and, at times, it seems, unhinged. When journalists are invited to the Oval Office to ask about infrastructure, he talks about how Bill O’Reilly, late of Fox News, is a ‘good person,’ blameless, like him, in matters of sexual harassment. A reporter asks about the missile attack on Syria, and he feeds her a self-satisfied description of how he informed his Chinese guests at Mar-a-Lago of the strike over ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.’ Little about this presidency remains a secret for long. The reporters who cover the White House say that, despite their persistent concerns about Trump’s attempts to marginalize the media, they’re flooded with information. Everyone leaks on everyone else. Rather than demand discipline around him, Trump sits back and watches the results on cable news. A team of rivals? No – a new form of reality entertainment: ‘The Circular Firing Squad.’
During his first hundred days in office, Trump hasn’t done away with populist rhetoric, but he’s acted almost entirely as a plutocrat. His cabinet and cast of advisers are stocked with multimillionaires and billionaires. His positions on health care, tax reform, and financial regulation are of greatest appeal to the super-wealthy. The early days of his administration are marked most indelibly by Trump’s attempted ban of travelers from six Muslim countries, which failed in the courts, and the effort to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, which imploded in the House of Representatives. Proposals for domestic initiatives are largely confined to reversals of achievements of the Obama era: an expansion of the prison at Guantánamo, easing of Dodd-Frank financial regulations, reversal of plans to save wetlands and protect waterways from coal waste and executive orders banning gun sales to the mentally ill and protecting L.G.B.T. federal employees from discrimination. Because of the lavish travel habits of his family, Trump is shaping up to be the most expensive executive in history to guard. At the same time, his budget proposals would, if passed in Congress, cut the funding of after-school programs, rental-assistance programs, the Community Development Block Grant program, legal assistance for the poor, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Trump emerged from neither a log cabin nor the contemporary meritocracy. He inherited his father’s outer-borough real-estate empire – a considerable enterprise distinguished by racist federal-housing violations – and brought it to Manhattan, entering a world of contractors, casino operators, Roy Cohn, professional-wrestling stars, Rupert Murdoch, multiple bankruptcies, tabloid divorces, Mar-a-Lago golf tournaments, and reality television. He had no real civic presence in New York, and though wealthy, gave almost nothing to charity. He had no close friends. He worked, played golf, and spent long hours watching TV, his misogyny and low character always manifest. Insofar as he had political opinions, they were inconsistent and mainly another form of performance art, part of his talk-show patter. His contributions to political campaigns were unrelated to conviction; he gave solely to curry favor with those who could do his business some good. He believed in nothing.
By the mid-‘90s, Trump’s investment prospects had foundered. Banks cut him off. He turned to increasingly dubious sources of credit and branding opportunities at home and abroad. A typical deal, involving a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, included as partners an Azerbaijani family distinguished for its corruption and its connections to Iranians who worked as a profit front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. There’s little mystery as to why Trump’s broken with custom, refusing to release his tax returns. They record his colossal tax breaks, associations, deals, and net worth. As Trump struggled in business, he made a deal with NBC to star in ‘The Apprentice,’ which featured him for fourteen seasons in a role of corporate dominance. It was there that he honed his peculiar showmanship and connected to a mass audience well beyond New York City, perfecting the persona that became the core of his presidential campaign: the billionaire populist. Now he’s discovered that it’s far more difficult to manage the realities of national politics than a TV set. In the transitional period between Election Day and the inauguration, Obama’s aides were told that Trump, who has the attention span of a hummingbird, wouldn’t read reports of any depth; he prefers one- or two-page summaries, pictures, and graphics. Obama met with Trump once and talked with him on the telephone ten times. The discussions did little to change Obama’s mind that Trump was ‘uniquely unqualified’ to be president, his grasp of issues rudimentary at best.
In his inaugural speech, Trump furiously rebuked the elected officials seated behind him and the international order they serve. Using the language of populist demagogues, from Huey Long to George Wallace to Silvio Berlusconi, the new president implied that he, the Leader, was in perfect communion with the People, and that together they’d repair the landscape of ‘American carnage.’ As George W. Bush was leaving the grandstand, according to New York magazine, he said, ‘That was some weird shit.’
By all accounts, the West Wing has become a battlefield of opposing factions. The most influential of them is also the only one with a guarantee of permanence – the Family, particularly Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. (His sons Eric and Donald, Jr., have remained in New York to run the family business. Despite his responsibility to put country before personal profit, the president refuses to divest from it.) Kushner has no relevant experience in foreign or domestic policy, but has been tasked with forging a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, steering U.S. relations with China and Mexico, reorganizing the federal government, and helping to lead the fight against the epidemic of opioid use. It’s hard to know if, as an executive, he’s in charge of everything or of nothing. But, as a counselor, he’s clearly powerful enough to whisper in his father-in-law’s ear and diminish the prospects of rival counselors, including those of the administration’s most lurid white nationalist, Steve Bannon. Ivanka Trump’s duties are gauzier than her husband’s, but they seem to relate to getting her father to go easier on L.G.B.T. and women’s-rights issues and calming his temper. The way that Trump’s established his family members in positions of power and profit is redolent of tin-pot dictatorships. He may waver on matters of ideology, but his commitment to the family firm is unshakable and resists ethical norms. The conflicts and the privileges are shameless, the potential revenues immense. On the day the Trump family hosted Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, the Chinese government extended trademarks to Ivanka’s businesses so she could sell her shoes and handbags to the vast market from Harbin to Guangzhou.
Trump is wary of expertise. During the campaign, he expressed his distrust of scientists, military strategists, university professors, diplomats, and intelligence officers. He filled the executive branch accordingly, appointing a climate-change denier as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; a Secretary of Education who, during her confirmation hearing, displayed stunning ignorance of public education; an Energy Secretary who previously called for closing the Department of Energy; a United Nations Ambassador whose international experience is limited to trade missions for the state of South Carolina; and a national-security adviser who trafficked in Islamophobic conspiracy theories until, three weeks into the job, he was forced to resign because he lied to Vice-President Pence about his ties to the Russian government. Trump has left open hundreds of important positions in government, largely because he sees no value in them. ‘A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,’ he’s said. Among the many federal bureaucracies now languishing with empty offices are the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Defense. It’s the generals who are the authoritative voices in Trump’s administration. To a president whose idea of a strategic move is to ‘bomb the shit out of’ ISIS, they’re the ones who have to make the case for international law, the efficacy of NATO, the immorality of torture, and the inadvisability of using the rhetoric of ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ At the same time, the pace of bombing in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen appears to have increased, and tensions with Iran, Russia, and North Korea have intensified. Trump, an erratic and impulsive spokesman for his own policy, needs competent civilian advisers, if only as a counterweight to the military point of view and his own self-admiring caprices.
The Trump presidency represents an angry assault on the advances of groups of people who’ve experienced profound, if fitful, empowerment over the past half century. The Trumpian rebellion against liberal democracy isn’t a local event; it’s part of a disturbing global trend. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later, the democratic movement grew and liberalism advanced, and not only in eastern and central Europe. During the course of thirty years, the number of democracies in the world expanded from thirty to roughly a hundred. But since 2000, nation-states of major consequence – Russia, Hungary, Thailand, and the Philippines among them – have gone in the opposite, authoritarian direction. India, Indonesia, and Great Britain have become more nationalistic. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is polling credibly in a presidential campaign guided by two longtime fascist associates. The prestige and the efficacy of democracy itself is in question. The stakes of this anti-democratic wave can’t be overestimated. Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that researches global trends in political liberty, has identified an eleven-year decline in democracies around the globe and now issues a list of ‘countries to watch’ – nations that ‘may be approaching important turning points in their democratic trajectory.’ The ones that most concern Freedom House include South Africa, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, and the United States.
Pushing back against Trumpism won’t be easy. The president isn’t finished with his efforts to repeal Obamacare in a way that would deprive millions of people of their health insurance; he isn’t going to relax his effort to enact hard-line immigration restrictions; and he isn’t through trying to dismantle legislative and international efforts to rescue an environment that’s already suffering the grievous effects of climate change. But there are signs that doomsayers of democratic values will be proved wrong. Hope can be found in the extraordinary crowds at the many women’s marches across the country on the day after the inauguration; in the recent marches in support of science and a more compassionate, reasonable immigration policy; in the earnest work of the courts that have blocked the ‘Muslim ban’ and of various senators and House members in both parties who, unlike Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, have refused to put cynicism and expedience before integrity; in the exemplary investigative journalism being done by traditional and new media outlets; in the performance of anti-Trump candidates in recent congressional races in Kansas and Georgia.
The clownish veneer of Trumpism conceals its true danger. Trump’s way of lying isn’t a joke; it’s a strategy, a way of clouding our capacity to think. Our task isn’t just to recognize this presidency for the emergency it is and resist its assault on the principles of reality and the values of liberal democracy, but to devise a future, to debate, to hear one another, to organize, and to preserve and revive precious things.”
My only quibble with Remnick, and it’s a pretty big one, is that the failures of “liberalism” are what allowed Trump – or someone like him – to be elected. To succeed in the future, we’ll have to go way beyond elite liberal concessions to the masses – we’ll have to completely re-envision our democracy (actually create one) and guarantee a minimal living, a good education, health care, freedom, and security to everyone. That last item – “security” – is a big one, including freedom from harassment, discrimination, and maiming and murder by the police; a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than the use of force and including negotiating the end of nuclear weapons; and safeguarding the environment, including addressing climate change (eliminating the use of fossil fuels, except to create “green” alternatives). A tall order? Yes. But necessary to avoid Trump-like demagogues – and the destruction of the human race – in the future.