After the physicist Richard Feynman helped to create the atom bomb, he spent a period of dazed depression wondering why anyone bothered to build anything when it was all going to be destroyed soon anyway.
That’s what most liberal Americans feel like right now, and have for the better part of a week.
No future presidential candidate is ever going to be compelled to release their tax returns. If asked they can always say, ‘President Donald J. Trump didn’t, and look: no one cared.’ After two or three elections go by, that transparency won’t even be an expectation.
At a minimum, the next four years will be like that but with virtually every aspect of the presidency and elected office.
I want to get out of the way that I don’t think the literal end of the world is likely, certainly not like they were in the 1950s through the ’80s with Cold War tensions. The country will survive, but not everyone in it will, and that’s what’s so upsetting to so many people.
Black Americans survived from the end of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era, but a lot of people got lynched. Mexican Americans survived the Great Depression, but the government expelled millions from the country, including those born in the United States who spoke nothing but English. Things can be survivable and still be awful; things can be awful and still be typical. When the Bubonic Plague swept through Italy, it was common enough for people to go to the countryside and tell stories to pass the time that Boccaccio used that as his frame story. Typical and survivable are not necessarily comforting terms, and not everything will survive this.
One of those might well be American liberal democracy.
Politics in a liberal democracy are by their nature hypocritical. The rules of so-called decorum are often arbitrary, used to keep out people who aren’t elite and don’t have experience in those circles. But it’s also a sheath to the sword of naked power. That blade slides out easily, but it doesn’t go back in without great, consistent, and consensus effort.
This is one of the lessons of the Roman Republic. It’s an easier decision to cross the Rubicon after Sulla has brought his army into Rome. People innovate much less easily than they imitate, even when their imitations far exceed their origin.
Things are still only unprecedented once, and then it gets easier.
Look, if Mike Pence were president, a Republican federal government still would enact many laws people on the left would abhor. But he’d do it in the normal way, the hypocritical way, with the sword mostly in the sheath.
A President Pence with Republican majorities in the House, Senate, and invoking rules to ram through extremely conservative federal and Supreme Court justices over minority filibuster is a result that would attack or undo many of the liberal gains of the past eight years. On issues like climate change, it would be at least four more years of ignoring or actively worsening the single issue of greatest importance to human life during the next century. On issues like human rights, women’s reproductive health would be badly jeopardized in many states. These are all bad things if you’re a liberal, so it’s important to remember the underlying structural problems in American democracy cannot be blamed on any one person.
But Trump is a different creature from anyone who has ever successfully captured the office of presidency, especially when compared only with those who have had unilateral control of nuclear weapons. Harry Truman bombed Japan without knowing fully what the literal and figurative fallout would be, but he also restrained using them against North Korea or the Republic of China.
I absolutely cannot imagine the things that Trump will actually do. No one can. He is someone so profoundly ignorant about the office of president that I do not think he could tell you how a bill becomes a law or anything about military strategy other than that World War II generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur were tremendous. I don’t think he’d be familiar with MacArthur wanting to nuke China and Truman removing him from command. I don’t know if he could pay attention to any adviser long enough to learn about it.
Some of his transgressions involve norms so ingrained, it would have been unthinkable that anyone would flout them previously. Will he live in the White House? Will he sell presidential pardons? Will he pardon Chris Christie so Christie can continue to serve in his administration? Will he make decisions based on Russian intelligence over U.S. intelligence? Nothing can be surprising because no one has any solid basis of expectations. He might make every decision primarily on how his company and family will benefit. We just don’t know, and Trump likely hasn’t thought enough time about it to know either.
What makes this situation uniquely horrible is that I don’t actually believe that military leaders would allow Trump to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack on Pyongyang. The problem is no one has the authority to say no to the commander-in-chief. When Richard Nixon was at his lowest point, drinking heavily and depressed, there were some unofficial checks to try to slow it down, but as he said, “I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.”
If someone formally declined to follow a direct order, they could be sacked for insubordination, and Trump could give the order to someone else who would obey. To avoid that, the military would have to throw off civilian command or engage in a coup where the best case scenario is something like Turkey where democratic elections eventually resume.
But things are only unprecedented once, and now the remedies are their own infection. Twenty or 30 years later a president might choose to end the nuclear weapons program and generals could decide that’s leaving the United States defenseless, so they have a responsibility to remove the president—just like before.
As of now, there exists the tiniest sliver of a liberal fantasy that the Electoral College will meet and decide to cast their ballots for the winner of the national and utterly meaningless popular vote. I remember people making the argument in defense of the U.S. system that not only does the Electoral College help rural populations matter (it doesn’t), it helps protect against a populist, authoritarian demagogue gaining power. Well, if that’s the case, there’s certainly no better time to prove it.
But that’s not actually going to happen, unless something even more awful than what is known comes out between now and December, and I’m not sure what that could be short of actually shooting someone on live television or going full Jason Russell. The remedy is even fully constitutionally legal, but the Electoral College isn’t going away, and the next time party elite decide to disregard the voters in their states, it’ll be easier despite the choices perhaps not being so stark.
That’s why this election will be a turning point in U.S. history, and therefore world history. Killing Julius Caesar didn’t save the Roman Republic, and neither would even non-violent means of removing Trump from power. As for those second amendment folks, a gunman’s veto of an election is a recipe to end elections, too.
I was wrong about a lot of things during this election, and some of them were in thinking that data, facts, and hard work based on that information mattered more than rallies and lies that felt emotionally good to be true. I don’t know why, but I thought that all of the reporting the unfairly maligned media did telling voters what sort of person and businessman and serial sexual assaulter Trump had been would matter more than a unspecific feeling that the system is crooked and anyone participating in it is crooked, too. I thought evangelicals would put their stated values above their tribal loyalty in their hierarchy of principles. I thought enough people who complained the road was too full of potholes would want to patch them up instead of pulling off into a ditch. So this may all be bullshit, and I truly hope my assumptions are wrong or that the man is brilliant and decent in ways contrary to all he has demonstrated throughout his life and campaign. But I think that scenario is less likely than any of the ones I’ve mentioned so far.
Richard Feynman was glad people continued building bridges in the decades after the atom bombs; so am I. We have to keep building things with others and cultivate our garden.
It took an incredible amount of work and not a little luck to make it so that attacking other countries with nuclear weapons felt abnormal and almost unprecedented. It will take at least that much work from the American electorate to make Trump’s words and actions, promises and lies, contradictions, hatred, and vacillation abnormal.
But probably, it’s not going away because history doesn’t repeat: it rhymes.
I’m scared of Trump, to be sure, but I’m terrified of what will rhyme.