America’s Trial by Fire Begins Today

This is what we are dealing with, and this is what’s new: a president—a president!—with no belief system.

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

So here we are. The day has arrived, and it seems no more believable than it did in the wee hours of Nov. 9 that Donald Trump is going to be the president, but he is. It’s fair to say that it’s a moment unlike any this country has ever faced. We’ve elected crooks and liars and incompetents and alcoholics. But there’s something I don’t think we’ve ever done, until now.

I don’t think we’ve ever had a president who seems not to care at all about the institutions of our government. He may care, I suppose, deep down, in some corner of his soul that stands as-yet unrevealed to us. But presidential campaigns are grueling, raw affairs; such passions are usually exposed at one point or another. In the 17 months since Trump announced his candidacy, though, he’s said nothing that I can recall that expresses the slightest reverence for our institutions or our system. When he has spoken of our institutions or traditions, it’s been to disparage them or to display his ignorance and indifference to them. He cited a section of the Constitution that doesn’t exist. He called our government a “swamp.” He disparaged the military and intelligence services. He said the election would be legitimate—if and only if he won.

This is new. Mitt Romney didn’t say the election would be legitimate only if he won (and to those who would counter that Trump was “joking,” I ask you to consider what Trump would have said if Hillary Clinton had won the electoral tally but lost the popular vote by 3 million). John McCain didn’t call the government a swamp. George W. Bush may not have been a constitutional lawyer, but I dare say he probably read the document once or twice anyway. I’m not favorably inclined toward any of these men ideologically, and in their times, I wrote very critically of them.

But I wrote critically of their ideological positions. I thought their ideas about what the Department of Justice should do or how the Fourteenth Amendment should be interpreted were anathema.

With the new president, though, the argument is something different. He thinks the Department of Justice and the Fourteenth Amendment should serve one thing: Trump. That’s it. He has no theories about them. Surely no American is naïve or self-deluding enough to think that Trump has ever read a book about the Department of Justice or the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s doubtful he’s ever read a newspaper article about either. They, and all our laws and branches of government, have no meaning to him, except, now, as instruments that can serve Trump.

That’s what makes this different. Trump has no belief system that fits into the existing American political schema in any logical way. He has no ideas. The idea that he adopted, the one that won him the presidency, about workers and trade, is just something he picked up and pounced on when he saw that it could help him. He saw three things. He saw that Bernie Sanders had lit a prairie fire on the issue; he saw that Hillary could be boxed into a corner on it, since she’d been for free trade; and, crucially, he saw that he could bend the ninnies in his party—that is, his new party, to which he has no actual loyalty—to his will. Reince Priebus chief among them, but almost everyone.

One thing he’s not is stupid about seeing openings; it’s how he’s survived bankruptcies that would have put lesser men—no, better men; think about that—in the poor house or in jail. He was right about all three things, and it was these three hunches that won him the White House. But he doesn’t actually care about them. He embraced them because they helped Trump. When the day comes that they don’t help Trump, he’ll toss them aside.

This is what we are dealing with, and this is what’s new: A president—a president!—with no belief system. This will mean, fellow liberal, that he’ll do something you like once in a while, when he hasn’t just farmed the decision out to the Heritage Foundation because he doesn’t give a crap. He might wake up one day in 2018, with Jared and Ivanka whispering in his ear about poll numbers, and decide the minimum wage should be $10.50. Fine. Nice. We’ll take it. But don’t be fooled. It’s cynicism. It’s caprice.

Someone with no respect for these institutions is someone who will destroy them. Bush wanted his war in Iraq. To do so, he (and Cheney and Rumsfeld and their gang) had to bend the Pentagon and the CIA to their will. They did this, and it was appalling. But they had enough respect for the institutions that they knew that they had to make it all look good, make it look official, make it so that the CIA could emerge from John Yoo’s interpretation of torture with the capacity to say, “Well, that was then, this is now.”

Bush and Cheney twisted these institutions but would never destroy them. Trump will destroy them, if keeping Trump on top requires it. Or try to. He might not succeed. And that is where we rest our hope—on conservative judges who will choose our institutions over Trump. Mark my words: It will come to this.

In the meantime, there will be the daily, weekly, monthly slog of feeling the man drag us all down, as he already has. How much worse are we as a people than we were 17 months ago? It’s impossible to measure precisely. But we know that we’ve gone from being shocked at the idea of having a presidential candidate shout about building a wall to debating whether Congress would appropriate the funds for it; from being scandalized at the very idea of a Muslim registry to wondering how such a thing could be implemented; from being aghast that a sexual predator could sit in the Oval Office to not even mentioning it anymore. All that happened without him even being president. To what will we be sensitized with him holding the office?

We survived the crooks and liars and incompetents and alcoholics. I think we’ll survive Trump too. But it will require people on the left and the right to guard our institutions, and to say to him no, you just can’t do that. I was struck Thursday by words written by Eliot A. Cohen, a conservative, writing in The American Interest: “nothing will teach him gravitas, magnanimity, or wisdom.”

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No, nothing will. But I still hold out the hope that we the people can punish him for his lack of those qualities, his lack of any belief system. He didn’t win a majority of our votes. He doesn’t today have a majority of our support. And time will show that gravitas, magnanimity, and wisdom, especially wisdom, still matter.