Writers on how our world has changed since the 2016 presidential election.
Until a year ago, the US was setting a lead of a very different sort. America’s first black president seemed about to make way for the first woman president. Once again, the US was offering an example to the world, affording a glimpse of what twenty-first century democracy might look like. Instead, Trump has provided a glimpse into a gloomier future, one of lies, ethnic division, authoritarianism, and the ever-looming prospect of war. It’s fair to say that most outside the US are counting down the days, like a prisoner scratching marks onto the wall, waiting for Trump to be gone, so that the world might feel steadier, and safer, again.
Trump’s lawyers deny that the president’s continued receipt of business from foreign, federal, and state governments violates the Constitution. They may be right. And it may be difficult to persuade a court that anyone has standing—the appropriate injury—that would permit a lawsuit in the first place. But while profiting from the presidency may not violate the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses, refusing to follow routine conflict of interest practices shows a contempt for norms. We might quibble about what counts as an emolument, but we should raise questions about a president unconcerned about mixing private profit and public duty.
The Trump problem is probably somewhat self-limiting, he and his ilk being so very strange. But there are older, deeper problems. A substantial part of the American public seems to have lost interest in ideas, therefore in substantive controversy. This worrisome depletion has affected the whole of society, universities included. In saying this, I am making a criticism of institutions I value profoundly, as I do the politics of democracy, more for their splendid potential than for their present influence.
It was in 1991—the year legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality”—that Anita Hill came forward with sexual harassment allegations against a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas. If Hill had been believed, it could have sunk his appointment. But such claims from a black woman were not taken seriously. Believing Hill decades ago could have changed access to the ballot and who occupies the White House. Americans should have listened to a black woman then. They should listen to black women now.
“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” said Senator Jeff Flake (Republican of Arizona). But the reality is that the GOP has, in fact, accepted the Trump New Normal. Even though other Republicans shared Flake’s views, few were willing to speak out, and the GOP’s surrender seems complete. Less than a year into his presidency, we hear the same question again and again: What will it take for Republicans to break with their Mad King?
Probably the greatest misconception about the resistance is that it’s a youth movement. By an overwhelming majority, the leaders of the groups are middle-aged women—middle-aged white women, to be exact. A great many of them have never been involved in electoral politics before. Many never even went to a protest before they got on a bus to the Women’s March back in January. “The Democratic Party is really good at misreading energy on the ground,” says L.A. Kauffman, the author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. I’m afraid that consultants will swoop in, vacuum up phone and email lists, import kids from Brooklyn to get out the vote, then vanish again. If people newly roused to political action are going to stay roused, then the Democratic Party had better pay attention and follow their lead.
In a weak democracy, an authoritarian leader like Trump could do widespread and lasting damage. Such leaders often control the legislature, are immune from court oversight, and suppress civil society institutions. But our hallowed traditions of judicial independence, civil liberties, and a robust political culture have—thus far, at least—held Trump in check to an important degree. The courts cannot stand up to President Trump alone, however, and it would be a great mistake to think they could. In the end, the most important guardian of liberty is an engaged citizenry.
It feels as if the world has taken a bad turn on its axis and we are now in a different, awful era that will go on for the rest of my life, and maybe my daughter’s life as well. Things are happening that cannot be so easily undone: the parade of arch-conservative federal judges about to be appointed, for starters, because Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was only the beginning; climate change; environmental damage; the mobilization of a confident proto-fascist movement. How can I not rage at the people who are bringing all that about? Away with them! Away with us. Our minds have been hijacked and colonized by a ridiculous con artist and reality TV showman, and we are of no real use to anyone anymore.
I hate everyone you hate, was Trump’s message over and over again, and these numbskulls who can’t even tell the differences between an honest man and a crook nudged each other, knowing exactly whom he had in mind. Since Trump became president, every time I told myself this man is bonkers, I remembered Ubu Roi, realizing how the story of his presidency and the cast of characters he has assembled in the White House would easily fit into Alfred Jarry’s play without a single word needing to be changed.