Four years before the United States electorate voted for the continuous Donald Trump reality show, Jeff Daniels told us on HBO’s The Newsroom that the U.S. “is not the greatest country any more.” As Daniels elaborated in that speech written by Aaron Sorkin, "we [once] aspired to intelligence. We didn't belittle it. It didn't make us feel inferior."
Few want to confront our national inferiority complex—particularly when we’re also incredibly ignorant and arrogant—but the feeling of inferiority coupled with our arrogance and perhaps because of our ignorance (or perhaps because of our incarceration rate per capita) is what led to the cult of hate fomented by Donald Trump's candidacy.
Years ago, H.L. Mencken noted that the electorate “chooses his rulers as he buys bootleg whiskey, never knowing precisely what he is getting, only certain that it is not what it pretends to be.” With that in mind, the ascendency of Donald Trump can be seen as an inevitability in a country fed up with politics as usual but as a whole, either too ignorant or too disengaged from the process to choose wisely. If you’re looking for a proper metaphor, think about the last scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As the Grail Knight watches Walter Donovan shrivel up and turn to dust, he turns to Dr. Jones and says, “he chose poorly.”
Now, a year after the 2016 election, we have a president with historically low approval ratings. People worry about how their president feeds koi in Japan while mass murders continue to roll over us at a rate of one to two a week. Is there any doubt how well we govern ourselves?
Those who acknowledge every factual bit of evidence about Trump but still believe he is the lesser of two evils? That speaks horrendously for our Republic.
One of the hardest things to understand about Donald Trump’s election victory isn’t the fact that there are seemingly millions of people who believe whatever he says despite factual evidence of the contrary. It isn’t the White Supremacists who've been emboldened by Trump and it isn’t the billionaires who are aroused by Trump's tax, business and healthcare plans. It isn’t hard to understand Trump supporting and subtly encouraging a class wherein the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and it isn’t hard to understand how the rich manipulate events with wads of sweaty cash to grease the wheels of government on their behalf.
No, the hardest thing to understand about Trump’s victory are the millions of people who held their nose and pulled the lever thinking he was the lesser of two evils. Worse, it's those who acknowledge every factual bit of evidence about Trump but still believe he is the lesser of two evils. That speaks horrendously for our Republic.
Politics in the United States has devolved into an endeavor that usually attracts the wrong people for the wrong reasons. This is The New Normal that we don't want to face publicly but dread privately. It is the politics of hate. It is the politics of fear, ignorance, arrogance and the blatant worship of symbols without any dedication to the ideas behind the symbols. It is the politics of “divide and conquer.” We are a house divided against itself and that is an untenable position as history shows us.
There seems to be little to ameliorate the situation. Even as he travels in Asia, taunting North Korea, encouraging our allies to work with him, Trump continues his one-man Twitter litter tirades, making fun of some, encouraging others and always keeping himself in the news as much as possible without discussing the real issues.
Into that fray we have Robert Mueller hacking away with his investigators, trying to determine exactly what happened a year ago. There is conclusive evidence of Russian meddling and purveyors of social media have been called on the carpet before Congress, with the likes of SNL alum Senator Al Franken questioning how they could have any doubt that Russia purchased advertising on their platforms when they were paid in rubles.
We sit in the middle of a maelstrom created by our president in the most divisive times of my life, fostered by the man elected to lead our nation.
Those in the media who question him are “enemies of the people.” Those who oppose him are to be vanquished. He screams for using the reins of government in any way he sees fit, for any reason he sees fit.
This is not the United States of America I learned about in civics class. I learned about this iteration of the U.S. in history class—studying Hitler’s Germany. Today, the U.S. is a pale shadow of itself cast into a parallel reality where up is down and down is up.
On Monday, I strode into the West Wing with the president out of town and took a deep breath. The halls were empty. The very young presidential press staff was busy going about their clerk-like duties. It was unnaturally calm for the Trump White House. Peaceful. Restful. I remembered the history of where I stood and took a breath to consider where we are now.
We sit in the middle of a maelstrom created by our president in the most divisive time of my life, fostered, fed and encouraged by the man elected to lead our nation. He would rather tweet than unify. He’d rather point fingers than encourage. He has convinced a slowly eroding number of people that only he can solve our problems, many of which he would loathe to admit he's had a hand in creating.
Across the aisle sits an opposition party chewing itself apart while the GOP fractures into sharp splinters. In the year since the election, Trump has named a Fed Chair, appointed a Supreme Court judge, withdrawn us from the Paris Agreement, dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, launched 59 missiles into Syria and threatened North Korea. Those are his concrete achievements.
As a byproduct, both Democrats and Republicans are gnawing at their own legs, engaged in political cannibalism that is frightening at worst, entertaining at best and soul-searching overall. As Americans, what do we want in our government? Surely if we want a decent representative government, we have the means to accomplish that—if enough people are educated and involved.
Recognizing the problem is the first step in solving the problem, Jeff Daniels said on his fictional television show. But the sentiment is no fiction and we are no longer the greatest nation in the world.
But we can be. It remains up to us. And the Mueller investigation continues.