Today, the reality of a Trump presidency sets in for a grim majority of Americans as they watch the most unpopular incoming commander-in-chief in our modern history, and one of the most actively vindictive and erratic, take charge of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the IRS and the nuclear codes.
There have been unprecedented protests outside inaugural events in Washington, American flags burned in the Philippines amid cries of “fascist!” and “KKK!”, and anti-Trump protests rippling around the world. Trump enters office with record unpopularity, and only around a third of Americans rating him favorably. He is, in short, despised the world over; like George W. Bush after the invasion of Iraq, which Trump so forcefully pretended to have opposed from the start. And yet, we are learning that despite the global outcry and anxiety, the incoming president won’t have to lift a tiny finger to have even his worst excesses normalized at home. The media, writ large, are doing it for him.
His inaugural has been feted with the usual pageantry, gratuitous self-congratulation for passing on the presidency without a coup or a war, and solemn calls for national unity. Never mind that Trump himself has failed to make a single unifying gesture, even using his address to supporters at Union Station in Washington on Thursday to again laud himself and his victory, in a speech that could have been encapsulated, “with snark toward all and charity toward none.”
His inaugural speech made token gestures toward bringing the country together, but quickly reverted to his dark campaign themes of American industrial decline and the need to turn inward in a defensive crouch against “foreigners,” “elites” and dangerous modernity. He threw in a call for “total allegiance,” a great, international Christo-Islamic religious war, plus the odd, Euro-nationalist phrase: “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny,” for that extra dose of early 20th century alarm.
Never mind that his presidency is being met with a record level of dissent and protest, including spotty inaugural attendance, a boycott by nearly one-third of Democratic lawmakers and nationwide marches against him, including violent clashes in Washington D.C. on Friday and a massive women’s march in Washington (with satellite marches around the country) set for Saturday; and that he is being rejected out of hand by nearly every quarter of American culture, from the arts to entertainment, including on his big day. Polls show that twice as many Americans object to Trump as approve of him. And there are few signs that a majority of Americans are quietly acceding to his vision of a kleptocratic, nationalist kakistocracy in place of a normal Republican administration, however one might object to the policies of the latter.
And yet, however jarring the spectacle of an anything-but-peaceful transition, or how outrageous his actions or those of his nominees—many of whom flouted or simply ignored the ethics rules normally attendant to joining a presidential cabinet—and no matter how many threads emerge tying Trump and his team to Russia’s autocratic regime, it is Democrats who are being challenged for straying from the norms of acceptable political behavior.
By boycotting the inaugural, nearly one-third of all DemocraticHouse members or planning (or even considering) congressional obstruction, it is Democrats who are said to be departing from what is permissible in a democratic system. More acceptable: the scenes of grinning Democratic and Republican lawmakers giggling with Trump and his grandkids over presidential signing pens, or standing soberly by as Trump basks in the forced adulation of Washington.
Trump, for all the division he has sowed, is being force-fed into a narrative of utter normalcy.
His ascension is being placed in the perfectly ordinary context of presidential succession, despite the fact that he is the first American president to enter the White House under the cloud of foreign intrigue. No other president has been dogged by the suspicion that he bought his office through clandestine machinations with an adversarial power. Imagine Thomas Jefferson becoming president with his aides having had secret contacts with the French crown, or Franklin D. Roosevelt entering 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stained with spilled connections to Joseph Stalin.
Americans are locked into our traditions. It is uncomfortable in the extreme for people, and particularly for members of the press, to confront the notion that a president could be so far outside the bounds of tradition that he must be treated differently from his predecessors. There is a tick and a deep desire to normalize what we see; to make it fit what we’ve always known.
And so we hear endless parables about the “peaceful transfer of power,” but little more about Trump’s lewd and vulgar attacks on women; his belittling of African-Americans, his threats against Muslims or his racism against Mexican immigrants. All of that is allowed to quietly fade away, while Jon Voigt invokes Abraham Lincoln before a scattered crowd of 10,000 in Washington D.C. (versus 400,000 who came to hear Barack Obama’s pre-inaugural concert in 2009) with claims that the 16th president would rejoice in the colorblindness of his modern-day successor; a man once sued by the Nixon administration for housing discrimination against black New Yorkers.
Trump’s most outré advisers —white supremacist Steve Bannon or neo-Confederate attorney general nominee Jefferson Sessions, or murky adviser Chris Kobach, who authored the apartheidesque “papers please” Arizona [missing noun here?] law from his perch as the Kansas secretary of state and the “Crosscheck” system for rinsing the electorate in key states of names like Gonzalez and Jackson—all are blandly remarked upon and allowed to fade into the presidential portrait. It’s as if there is nothing unusual about an administration that invites praise from the Ku Klux Klan.
His cabinet of billionaires—a foreclosure king, a burger czar who prefers robots to human employees, an education secretary who refuses to foreswear privatizing our nation’s public schools and an energy secretary who once vowed to eliminate the Department of Energy, plus a secretary of state who is close enough to Putin to call him a friend; a friend with a pending $500 billion oil deal just waiting for sanctions to be dropped by the Trump administration—will soon be benignly referred to as well, once the fire of Democratic interrogation cools.
Reality show star Omarosa Manigault is casually permitted to construct a make-believe tableau of racial unity, stitched together with a fading football hero, a comedian, a troubled rapper and the uncharismatic namesake son of Dr. King.
But no matter how vigorously our collective media insist, it is all very unusual. Everything about this incoming administration is, at least in the United States. In some countries we’d just as soon not emulate, including Trump’s particular favorite (Russia), it is very much the norm. And the idea that America is capable of allowing itself to slide into the kind of autocracy that is business as usual elsewhere doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
And yet, those who decline to join the parade into which the black marching band at Talladega College and those Rockettes who found resistance impractical have been conscripted; who refuse to quietly salute the new commander in chief, are made to feel insane, as if they are fighting not a potentially lethal opportunistic infection, but the onset of a mild cold that’s easily cured by a nice, calming cup of tea.
It is said, with no trace of irony, that it would be wrong for Democrats to attempt to delegitimize the new president—as if Trump’s own birtherism against our first black president never happened; that Democrats should seek to work with Republicans and the new administration—as if record Republican obstruction against Obama never happened; and that the change of administrations, from Obama to Trump, is simply history working its benign will.
This as the Trump administration contemplates barring the press from the White House, and Trump muses about pushing his lackeys in Congress to drop the First Amendment shield protecting journalists from those they cover. This as Trump invents false realities on his Twitter feed with an alacrity that is at times breathtaking to watch, and his team fans out to media availabilities to do the same. This as Trump’s Justice Department stands poised to rip down the entire firmament of voting rights that invited three generations of African-Americans, along with Latinos and Asian-Americans and the young, at long last, to enjoy full citizenship. And this as Russia’s president trolls our incoming one with glib comments about his country having the very best ladies of ill repute.
Legendary New York journalist Wayne Barrett, who died the day before Trump takes the oath of office, and who covered Trump (and Rudy Giuliani and others) with a withering relentlessness, said it best: “We’re in the truth-telling business. Our job is to tell the truth.” That is to say, we who are lucky enough to have a voice through “the media” are not in the business of making the presidential transition appear warm and noble, or the American people feel comforted that all is well. Down that path is the road to a subordinate press that is ultimately powerless to help the people who need truth the most, and need to be heard. We in media erred long ago in ceding the notion of being arbiters of objective truth, in favor of pandering to people’s demand for endless, equalized choices, including choice in what facts to believe.
Freedom is neither guaranteed nor automatic; not even in the United States. Left unguarded, it can slip away like a thief in the night. Authoritarianism doesn’t fall on a nation like a book falling from a shelf and striking you in the head. It rolls in like a slow tide. Over time you simply get used to the height and warming of the water; until before you know it, you’re drowning.
With Trump, his family and his team of billionaires set to drastically reshape the course of this country, in ways that could make us unrecognizable to ourselves, it’s clear that we’re going to need to be better guardians.