I write this in a state of disbelief. I’m less astonished that Hillary Clinton lost the election, and more that she lost to someone so entirely contrarian to the fundamental values of the American democratic system as Donald Trump. This election was no ordinary one, and I believe to think otherwise is tragically ignorant and shortsighted. As president, Trump corrodes the very character of our government.
This election was marked by a series of failures. Broadcast media, in its false equating of the candidates and focus on insults and scandals rather than policy implications, failed. Coastal elites, living in their own echo chambers and self-assuring data and polling bubbles, failed. The Washington political apparatus, by marginalizing those Americans who felt left behind and disillusioned, failed. The Republican Party, by cravenly normalizing, justifying, and enabling the aspiring authoritarian in its midst, failed. The Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign, in their maneuvering, scandals, and questions of transparency and accountability, failed. And a significant portion of American voters, by handing a crass, careless, completely inexperienced, and foul-mouthed demagogue the Oval Office, failed. This last failure is the most serious.
With Trump elected, there are no longer disqualifying characteristics or attributes for future presidents. Experience, temperament, track record, and character no longer matter. Truth, accuracy, and objectivity in campaigning and public speaking no longer matter. If Trump can say what he’s said, and do what he’s done, and still win the White House, what does a future candidate have to do before they’re ineligible? How much of a campaign can be hyperbole and exaggerations and lies that shouldn’t be taken seriously for the most powerful office in the world? The conspiracies, divisiveness, and vitriol of Trump’s campaign will not magically disappear by January 2017, or by 2020.
Of course, I’m deeply concerned over the domestic, and foreign, repercussions of the impending Trump presidency. But what troubles me most is the rhetoric and behavior that have now been made acceptable and ordinary in our politics and public discourse. The president-elect and his campaign have openly used language and imagery that is racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic, nationalist, conspiratorial, and vitriolic. The same quotes that are common refrains in press coverage of post-Soviet republics and troubled democracies in the developing world are now repeated with a straight face in American media. How can we now condemn and object to this language and behavior as wrong and immoral if our commander-in-chief and elected lawmakers use them so unabashedly themselves?
To be honest, I find the optimism about unity, reconciliation, and mutual understanding circulating on social media to be naïve and misplaced. Trump, and many of his supporters, have repeatedly demonstrated that they don’t care to cooperate with or include certain individuals or groups, consider alternative points of view, or tolerate criticism or scrutiny. Only a few days ago, Trump was condemned as a threat to our constitutional democracy. Today, we hear calls to open our hearts and ears to him in a spirit of unity. The Facebook and Instagram posts you see about coming together and enacting change, as Americans united as one, are taking place in the same bubble that the American electorate has largely rejected. The Great America imagined by Trump and his supporters ideally does not include many of us.
Faced with this outlook, we rely on what we’ve been taught about the rule of law, separation of powers, and the benevolent functioning of our government. Yet the American institutions we rely on, the checks and balances we depend on, the governmental restraint we reassure ourselves of—all depend on the people elected into power. And many of these people have supported Trump, whether in their activism, apathy, or obliviousness. Trump and his party will now control the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and a wide array of state and local legislatures. Trump has already expressed his displeasure with protestors and his disgust with journalists and news media, calling for violence, libel lawsuits, and crackdowns. Where will we stand together if we can no longer assemble? Where can we speak out and up if we no longer have a voice? Do we simply hope for the best, and that Trump’s statements were only words?
Trump supporters seemingly miss that our politics is a collection of shared expectations, norms, and values. This is where the core failure of Trumpism lies. Trumpism holds that by subverting or discarding those values, they will somehow miraculously remain intact into the future. Trumpism ignores the actual track record and ingrained habits of its figurehead and absurdly maintains that these will change once he wields unparalleled power.
And this reveals the fundamental tenet of Trumpism—trust. Trust that he won’t ruthlessly exploit the unprecedentedly powerful executive branch. Trust that he won’t follow through on his horrific and repressive campaign promises. Trust that a man who cannot handle a Twitter account on his own can handle foreign diplomacy and national security matters. Trumpism promises everything and nothing simultaneously, and asks you to trust that it will deliver something. Trumpism only requires an untenable trust, a literal “wait and see,” a reliance on the unpredictable whims of one man.
I don’t trust the Trump administration for many reasons—as a gay man, a believer in science, a journalist, a person of faith, a descendant of ancestors who experienced religious discrimination. I don’t trust that Republicans, who couldn’t unify to oppose or control candidate Trump, will somehow be able to rein him in as president or restrain themselves in Congress. I don’t trust Trump’s dubious team of advisers and surrogates. I don’t trust Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who has an appalling record on LGBT rights and issues. And I don’t trust President-elect Trump to be successful because of what his success would entail. Telling me not to worry, that it couldn’t happen here, that things move too slowly, is telling me to put the same false trust in Trump his supporters do.
The social media posts and optimism may comfort us for now. I wholeheartedly agree that activism, engagement, critical coverage, and truth-telling are needed now more than ever, and I am hopeful that the tide will eventually turn. But the cruel reality is that Trump is the leader of our country for at least the next four years. I deeply fear a Trump presidency. Yet even more, I fear the lasting effects of the rhetoric and platform that Trump has normalized, and now, institutionalized.