Donald Trump has already broken America.
In the weeks since Trump became the president-elect, millions of Americans have spent billions of hours in shocked disbelief that this is actually real, that we’re going to spend four years with Donald Trump as president.
The dangers that Trump poses, to the republic and to the world, are real and present. But in worrying about the future, it’s easy to miss the sweeping damage he has already done, even before he swears the oath of office.
At the top of that list: the fact that the majority of America has now lost whatever faith it had in the country’s core institutions.
This was a process, like most catastrophes, that happened slowly and then quickly. It began in the wake of the financial crisis, with the rise of the Tea Party, and then gradually metastasized to take over essentially the entire GOP. I look back now to five years ago, when I wrote a post about the global crisis of institutional legitimacy, and there atop the parade of horribles was, of all people, Rick Perry. A man who is positively harmless, at least in comparison to Trump.
Still, I wasn’t wrong when I called Perry a “harbinger and prime example of the way in which mistrust in federal institutions has moved from the fringe to the mainstream.” As anybody who watched the Republican primary debates could tell you, there was no one defending government as something that makes people’s lives better. Republican ideology has become oppressively, relentlessly negative in recent years, and The Government has taken the place of Russia atop the list of enemies to be fought. Indeed, mistrust of government is pretty much the only defining right-wing belief: Everything else seems to be pretty optional, depending on where you situate yourself within the right-wing archipelago.
In any event, the sequencing is pretty clear. First, the Tea Party, with its deep mistrust of all elites, effectively took over the Republican Party. Then, it teamed up with the right-wing media to use whatever institutional legitimacy the GOP still retained to persuade half of America that Barack Obama was not their president; indeed, that he might not even be American. The echo chamber stretching from Fox News to Breitbart to Facebook loathed both Obama and Hillary Clinton with a fire so hot that it burned any semblance of truth or reason.
And then there was the most shocking tactical victory of my lifetime: the electoral college win for Donald Trump in 2016. The win was so stunning that it overshadowed the bigger strategic context: that even before the election, half of America no longer had any faith at all in the nobility and institutional gravitas of the presidency. Or of just about any other government institution, for that matter.
What is this thing that was lost? I’ll tell you a short story.
A couple of months ago, in Dallas, I was finishing up an interview and called an Uber to take me to my next appointment. As I walked out of the house, the owner noticed that a couple of her friends were walking up the driveway. One of those friends was former First Lady Laura Bush.
Mrs. Bush had greeted the Uber driver as she was walking past him, and he in turn had asked for a photo, which her friend took. Then he waited while the ladies and I exchanged pleasantries. (Texas is very polite, it’s one of the things I love about it.) In any event, after a minute or two, I got into the car and we were on our way. And the driver was shaking. He's an immigrant from West Africa (I don't know where exactly), and he was so unbelievably excited to have met the First Lady, for the entire length of our trip he could barely control himself. He couldn't stop talking about how he had met the First Lady and how he was going to print out the photo and frame it, and how nice she was, and so on. He told me he was going to vote for Hillary in this election, but this had nothing to do with party politics, this was just a natural excitement about being right up close with Laura Bush.
It was a very short interaction, but it drove home to me the popular power of the presidency. Laura Bush is a lovely person, but in order to explain my Uber driver’s reaction you need much more than that. You need an incredible level of institutional aura. And the fact is that aura is now gone. Here’s a thought experiment for you: How many Trump voters would tremble with excitement after having met Michelle Obama? How many Clinton voters would tremble with excitement after having met Melania Trump?
Because while it took the best part of a decade for Republicans to evolve to a point where they viewed the presidency with anger and cynicism, it took only a single evening–the evening of November 8–for the same thing to happen to Democrats.
Donald Trump is utterly unqualified to be president, and every single Clinton supporter knows it. What’s more, this is not some kind of syllogistic conclusion that they can be reasoned out of: It’s a foundational premise, and will be the main lens through which they see the government and the world for at least the next four years. In the eyes of the people who supported the candidate who got the most votes in the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s presidency is predestined to be a garbage fire that deserves zero respect.
The result is that among voters–who are the people who really matter, in a democracy–almost no one respects the presidency anymore. Half of them loathe the 45th president; the other half voted him in with the express intention of seeing him throw bombs and tear down the very institutions of governance that created whatever level of peace and prosperity America currently enjoys.
In this context of debased institutions, Trump is going to have enormous power but much less legitimacy. So the question then arises: What is he going to do with all that power? And remember, this is a man who can unilaterally obliterate life as we know it. A hawkish bully with zero foreign-policy expertise has his finger on the nuclear trigger; on top of that, a bombastic billionaire with zero economic expertise is now in charge of the U.S. economy, which in turn will set the macroeconomic tone for the entire planet.
Trump, it’s important to remember, does not have allies. In politics, he was supported by almost no traditional power brokers until the very end; in business he has a long history of doing badly by his contractors, lenders, and the like. For Trump, life is a zero-sum game with winners and losers, and unless someone else is losing, he can’t be winning. This doesn’t bode well for anybody, inside or outside the USA, whose name isn’t Trump.
Trump is, however, motivated by self-interest. And in a world where the choice is between appalling and disastrous, this weirdly counts as good news. His voters voted for a chaos monkey who would deport millions of immigrants, start a war with Iran, decimate global trade, and make America unspeakably racist again. A vote for Trump, in other words, was a vote against freedom and prosperity and equality.
Trump is capable of implementing all of those policies, should he want to. But he is also an extremely rich man who is in the process of putting together a cabinet of unprecedented wealth, from Betsy DeVos to Steven Mnuchin to Wilbur Ross and Todd Ricketts. For these people–and for Trump himself–a global descent into protectionist chaos would be, let’s say, suboptimal: They would lose not only vast amounts of money, but also much of the status they so expensively enjoy.
In this sense, Trump’s multitudinous global conflicts are the main thing keeping him from going completely off the rails. The Trump Organization has operations all over the world, and will probably expand considerably over the next four years. If those countries do well under Trump’s presidency, then Trump will be making billions of dollars from his presidency–a calculation that goes double for the United States.
By nominating a series of oligarchs to his cabinet, Trump is betraying the grassroots movement that elected him. Given their druthers, those oligarchs will start slashing taxes, starting with the corporate income tax and the inheritance tax, and might well take aim at much government expenditure, to boot. Their policies will be deeply and rightly opposed by liberals and by anybody who considers rising inequality to be a problem. Once they get enacted, those policies will hurt many of the people who voted for Trump in the first place.
But that’s how democracy works: Sometimes the electorate gets it wrong, and then they have the opportunity to change their mind at the next election. The way that democracy doesn’t work is when a demolition derby in human form gets elected and promptly goes about dismantling the national and international institutions that gave him power and authority in the first place.
Never stop reminding yourself: This is not normal. None of this is normal. And in a world where the worst-case scenario is worse than anything we’ve seen from any president, of either party, since Andrew Jackson, it might be time to hope for the simply atrocious. If, in four years time, we can say that Donald Trump wasn’t much worse than any other Republican would have been–in that case, we’ll have gotten off lightly. Even if it means that a small group of corrupt kleptocrats got very rich in the process.