The biggest stain left on the fabric of our nation after Donald Trump’s departure will be the stain of acceptance.
Many people on the left and in the middle, along with a few on the right, have fought against his desecration of political and social norms and stood up to his bullying.
But what is striking is how many more Americans have just accepted all of it—the insanity, the narcissism, the lies, and the bullying of the last few years. Millions have adapted to the Trump madness, accepting it as the new normal.
Many even welcomed it, embraced it.
That is true even now, when Trump has lost his re-election bid—and instead of a working president striving to lead the country through the ongoing crisis of the pandemic, we have a whimpering crybaby camped out at Mar-a-Lago who spends his days golfing, tweeting and plotting a coup.
He has not led the effort to vaccinate Americans. “Operation Warp Speed” has become “Operation Turtle Crawl,” as the distribution of vaccines has been appallingly slow and disorganized. Trump has done nothing to use the enormous power of his office to bring speed and order to the process. In fact, he has specifically denied responsibility, fecklessly tweeting that “it is up to the states to administer” the vaccines. As usual, he refuses to accept any responsibility—though he always wants the accolades.
Nor is Trump leading in the effort to bring economic relief to the Americans affected by the pandemic. The self-described dealmaker ignored months of negotiations among lawmakers. This allowed Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to stonewall various Democratic proposals. Trump’s bizarre last-second veto hint over the size of the relief checks going out to Americans angered and confused the Republicans and Democrats who had finally worked out a deal—but then, just as bizarrely, after a delay of a few days he signed the bill anyway.
And he damn sure hasn’t tried to make the transition peaceful.
Since Christmas, the president’s communications staff has issued White House reporters a daily email telling us of Trump’s activities. It amounts to an out-of-order sign: “During the Holiday season, President Trump will continue to work tirelessly for the American People. His schedule includes many meetings and calls.”
The meetings are with Roger Stone and Michael Flynn—members of his fellowship of the crime ring. The phone calls are to sycophants, as he disparages the Supreme Court for not doing his bidding.
The only work he is concentrating on, the only thing he is obsessing over besides his daily golf game, is his right-in-plain-sight coup. One part of the coup attempt will play out inside the Capitol, where Trumpist lawmakers are planning on objecting without merit to the counting of Electoral College votes on January 6. The other is to be the same day in the streets—as per Trump’s cryptic tweets of incitement:
See you in Washington, DC, on January 6th. Don’t miss it. Information to follow!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 27, 2020
JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2020
On January 4 he plans to be in Georgia for a “big and wonderful” rally. Meanwhile, he’s still trying to write that last episode of his reality show—which includes a last-minute rewrite given to us via an email to the press corps Wednesday night: In addition to the usual “out-of-order” message, we were also told that Trump will be coming back to the White House for New Year’s Eve. Perhaps he has another maskless superspreader event in mind to ring in the New Year.
Aside from Trump and his family, the individuals most directly responsible for the horror show of the last few years have been those who work for him—the senior staffers who have funneled his fecund lies to the public. Without them acting as megaphones and amplifiers, Donald Trump would have far less influence.
They have fed his message into the vast, hungry maw of Trumpian broadcasters and publishers. They have warped reality with their mix of alternative facts, racism, and sedition.
They have told us to wear masks but they don’t themselves. They have called the pandemic a hoax or a fraud—but are now the first in line for vaccines. They have claimed the president has done a fantastic job of dealing with the pandemic—but now one out of every thousand Americans is dead because of the coronavirus.
They have claimed that Trump dealt with Russia tougher than any other president—but he did nothing about recent revelations about Russian hacking our defense systems, just as he did nothing about the 2016 election hacks and nothing about the bounties placed on our soldiers.
Knowing that I am a White House reporter who has raised these issues—and been routinely ignored, lied to, or insulted for doing so—friends and acquaintances often ask me if the members of Trump’s team are “viciously evil” or “morally bankrupt.”
My reply now usually mentions Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt, who wrote in the New Yorker and in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem about the trial of the infamous Nazi bureaucrat, said he was “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
In trying to understand how Eichmann could seem so ordinary in contrast to the horrendous crimes he committed, Arendt argued that his actions weren’t driven by hate or malice but a “blind dedication” to the Nazi regime and a need to belong. This need, she said, overcame Eichmann’s ability to think for himself. His desire to be able to say “we” and find a meaningful role for himself as an individual in a group dynamic clouded his thoughts and made the most horrific actions possible.
“The lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us,” Arendt famously wrote, was “the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Six decades after she wrote those words, we are learning that hard lesson again. Man’s inhumanity to man, the source of so much suffering, comes in part from an inability to understand that blind allegiance to certain ideologies, while often providing a sense of meaning in a cold and alienating world, can lead seemingly normal people to do terrible things, thus leading to more suffering.
There are many friendly, smiling faces inside the Trump White House. There are also many unfriendly and vapid faces—the faces of those who believe that to question Trump’s motives or actions is a result of being a “libtard” or an “activist” reporter. It is always easier to question the motives of others than reflect on one’s own actions, especially actions taken in defense of a man like Donald Trump.
Such self-examination and critical thinking are absent from many of the people who surround the president. He, of course, wants it that way. Unlike presidents who have worked with “teams of rivals” or administrations which welcomed and thrived on internal criticism, Trump demands blind obedience. Moreover, that requirement extends outward from the White House to the far corners of his party and to millions of supporters eager to accept his false version of reality.
So the acceptance of the ugliness of the last four years—and of the ugliness that remains in these last three weeks of the Trump administration, including the pending coup attempt—has not only damaged our political system. It has also stained the fabric of our society, our decency, and our humanity.
Donald Trump has brought the United States closer to the precipice of political and social disaster than anyone in my lifetime. And he did it not with an intellect of deep thought, but with the shallow narcissistic desires of conquest over our fellow human beings. He bullied and used the banality of belonging to a seemingly successful group to keep those of weaker resolve in his embrace. Those who could think for themselves either left his circle or never joined it.
In the end, I think many of the Trumplicans will try to destroy all evidence of their misdeeds, much as other criminals try to do. That’s as far as they’ll go in admitting any guilt. When the music stops—and it will soon—these Trump supporters will be ashamed of what they’ve done.
Many others, though, not wanting the dance to end, will try to find ways to keep humming along.