Michelle Obama has observed that being president does not change who you are. It reveals who you are. The same could be said of the nation: that its president does not change who we are but reveals who we are. And what Donald Trump has revealed about America has taught us sobering lessons about ourselves.
The United States is a highly segregated society, not only by race and class but also by politics. So little respectful conversation occurs across political lines, so few circles of friendship contain citizens of differing views, that many Americans have remarked in these last four years on how little they understood their own country.
What has been uncovered is shocking and worrisome, but it can also be constructive if the revelations inspire a curriculum for self-improvement. The test of any society, its capacity for self-correction, has been passed by the United States repeatedly, if erratically, over two and a half centuries. Win or lose next month, Trump will have presented the country with its next challenges. Here are some of the major lessons:
The Fragility of Democratic Values. When Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, he should be instantly disqualified in the mind of every American citizen who understands that nonviolent transition is the linchpin of democracy, setting free societies apart from dictatorships. No president of the United States has ever before raised such a question about this hallowed principle. He was finally dragged into a begrudging “yes, I will” under tough questioning at last week’s televised town hall, then seemed to add a condition: “But I want it to be an honest election.” He attacked its honesty in advance with fabricated stories of discarded and altered ballots. No president of the United States has ever before campaigned against the legitimacy of the electoral process. And while impediments to voting have plagued this democracy since its founding, the Republican Party’s national strategy to silence the people’s voices through myriad means ought to be cause enough for alarm and rejection.
That Trump’s dismissal of democratic norms has not decimated his support suggests that some 40 percent of Americans who still register their approval have blind spots to the essentials of a pluralistic political system. They seem either not to recognize the threats it can face or not to value it in the first place. The lapses extend into the Republican establishment. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are,” Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah tweeted on October 8. “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Does it need to be said that liberty cannot be preserved without democracy? Evidently so.
The warning sounded by Judge Learned Hand in 1944 is relevant: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”
The Resilience of Racial Bigotry. The election of Barack Obama confused some Americans into imagining that the country had entered a post-racial era. Instead, Obama’s very presence in the White House stimulated a backlash in certain quarters, which Trump then exploited. During his campaign and once in office, he fractured the veneer of propriety. After a long period in which submerged prejudices were largely encrypted and expressed obliquely, Trump’s words and attitudes have given permission and legitimacy for explicit bigotry. Latent racism has been reanimated, hate crimes have risen, people of color have encountered increased hostility in casual encounters with whites, and white supremacist movements have been emboldened. Trump has tapped a deeper well of racial animosity than many Americans realized still existed.
A hopeful counter-current of anti-racism has been produced among whites, demonstrated by the tens of thousands who have turned out to protest against police brutality in support of Black Lives Matter. Not since the civil rights movement has the conscience of white America been so mobilized. Still, Trump’s 40 percent support suggests a broad indifference or even hostility to the ideal of racial justice. And his ban on “sensitivity training” by federal agencies and government contractors that want to create safer workplaces for minority employees could retard racial progress.
The Susceptibility to Propaganda. With the help of a vast propaganda network that includes Fox News and conservative talk radio, Trump has used smears, lies, and exaggerations to create false narratives, manipulate perceptions, and thereby expose a widespread lack of critical thinking among Americans. This disconnection from facts comes in an internet era when it is both easier and harder to get accurate information: easier because of the multiplicity of sources to rapidly check what you hear, harder because of the multiplicity of sources whose reliability is unknown. Yet the numbers of citizens who believe the falsehoods suggests little schooling in how to sort fact from fiction, do basic research, and resist believing only what confirms your opinions.
The Power of a Personality Cult. It is unusual for so many Americans to practice a kind of idol worship of a president, but Trump has managed to excite just such a phenomenon among millions. His narcissism at the expense of larger public interests subtracts surprisingly little from his support. In addition, the Republican Party has been readily co-opted into the adoration. Like the shell of a political party in an autocratic system, the Republicans of 2020 did not even write a policy platform at their convention, instead simply endorsing whatever Trump wishes as he goes along. This deference to a person rather than to policy or principle is a warning sign for any democracy, especially if another Trump arrives who is smoother and more sophisticated in broadening support by avoiding the coarse, insulting behavior that characterizes this president.
The Indifference to Personal and Governmental Ethics. Trump’s personal immorality in his manner toward women, his self-dealing in his businesses at taxpayers’ expense, his tax avoidance, his sale of governmental favors to friends and associates, his insults of military men and women, his narcissism, his practice of nepotism, and the like have provoked little outrage except on the left. Conflicts of interest abound in his administration, and his cavalier discarding of ethics rules has ruffled no feathers among his party or the citizens who support him. His is the most corrupt administration in modern America. The country’s threshold for indignation has been raised so high that it now defines an expansive field of wrongdoing that will probably be tolerated by much of the public going forward. “Defining Deviancy Down,” Pat Moynihan used to say.
The Politicization of the Law, Science, and Governing Institutions. Trump is not the first president to ignore the rule of law, install loyalists in regulatory positions, or use the Justice Department for political purposes. But his ability to find and recruit people who are as intellectually corrupt as he indicates the existence of a wide scope of brazen, self-serving citizens with no moral brakes and no regard for traditional limits of behavior. That part of the political class prides winning above preserving the credibility and professionalism of government institutions. The interference with expertise in medicine, the environment, and foreign policy has provoked a hemorrhage of skilled professionals from government, damaged public health, and undermined public confidence in science. The damage, which has made hardly a dent among his core supporters, will long outlast him.
The Nonchalance About Hostile Foreign Influence. Republicans, once hyper-vigilant about national security, now shrug off attempts by Russia, China, Iran, and possibly other countries to exacerbate Americans’ domestic divisions and distort elections. They have been called Vichy Republicans, an overdrawn allusion to the French government that collaborated with the Nazis under German occupation. Their posture raises the troubling question of how soft a target the United States could be for undue interference in the future. Other countries have learned what Americans have learned about the society’s fissures and vulnerabilities.
Hatred. As each side of the political spectrum vilifies the other, the common ground is eaten away. Trump’s vulgar rhetoric, predated and now amplified by that of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other inciters, has driven in wedges that will not be easy to dislodge. Just as radio was used in Rwanda to incite the 1994 genocide, mass media are being used in the United States to mobilize hatred. Rightwing demonization of liberals, cleverly begun by Limbaugh many years ago, has now ignited an opposing denigration by liberals of conservatives. Consequently, a national crisis no longer unites, as it did after September 11, 2001. It splinters America.
All this will leave the United States with an ongoing burden of problems even if Trump loses the election. Some could be addressed by improved secondary schooling. Many students are obviously not taught enough about democratic principles and institutions, the history of racial stereotyping and discrimination, or given the skills to research carefully and think critically. Such other tasks as mitigating poverty, facilitating voting, improving governmental ethics, and reconstructing the common ground essential to repair our civil society will require intense thinking and creative work. That’s the silver lining to this gloomy specter: defects are out in the open, and seeing problems is the first step in solving them.