One of the most baffling aspects of U.S. politics over the past four years has been the continued and ongoing failure of American professional, media and academic elites to rise to the existential challenge that Donald Trump poses to the United States’ very existence as a democratic republic. As seriously as the United States’ political class takes Trump – and pretty much everyone worth listening to agrees that he’s bad news – one is left with the sense that even after four years of his increasingly unhinged and unshackled behaviour, they’re still not taking him seriously enough.
I’ve had that thought many times over the past four years, but it came to mind again this morning when I came across Ben Mathis-Lilley’s Slate article titled, “Remove Trump now.”
Because Mathis-Lilley is absolutely, 100%, obviously correct. Of course Trump must be removed from office immediately. He is a clear and present danger to the American political and social system and to the international order. Police brutality against blacks long predates Trump, but Trump is obviously making things worse.
No, that’s not quite right. He’s not just making things worse; he’s threatening to deploy the U.S. military against Americans. (Which he has a lot of leeway to do, even under current U.S. law.) That’s so obviously insane coming from a supposedly democratic country that it hardly bears mentioning. He’s goading the demonstrations along and he could very well irreversibly damage the U.S. political system. Once the military is in play against their own people, all bets are off.
And we’re not even talking about how many Americans have died because of his botched handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Until he’s removed from office, the United States will continue to suffer needless deaths from the pandemic and, likely, continued police-on-civilian violence and protests.
What’s striking about Mathis-Lilley’s clear-headedness, though, is how unusual it is to actually read, in a major U.S. publication, a call for Trump’s removal, when it’s so obviously and bleedingly necessary, and has been for years.
Where are the calls for Trump to resign? Where are the calls for Senators and Trump’s Cabinet to do their duty and remove him? Where are the Democrats’ ongoing investigations into every aspect of Trump’s obvious and ongoing criminal behaviour?
I’m not completely sure about why so few influential Americans have not been calling for Trump to resign, although I have a theory that it’s partially explained by demographics. Basically, if you’re white, male, professional and economically secure – and that’s a whole swath of the professional class right there – the more likely you are to see Trump as dangerous, but not as an extraordinary or existential threat. If you’re none of those, you’re closer to the line of fire, which helps to clarify things immensely.
To take a small example, when Run the Jewels released RTJ 3 on Christmas Day 2016, I very briefly wondered how Killer Mike and El-P (and especially Killer Mike) had been able to turn around an album that so ably captured the current mood, since so few people were predicting a Trump victory. Of course, I quickly realized that Mike and El didn’t have to do much themselves to capture the current mood, since Blacks in America were no strangers to the stress that White Americans now felt themselves under. There’s a reason why Charles Blow has been the most stridently anti-Trump New York Times columnist.
The blind spot, in general, runs deep, and every day offers a new example of how badly so many smart Americans are misreading the room. In today’s Globe and Mail, David Shribman (an American who currently teaches at McGill) acts as if the problem with Trump’s reactions to pervasive civil unrest is that he hasn’t heeded the lessons of his predecessors. In other words, he’s offering advice to a president (“These are the low-hanging fruit of the White House history gardens – reading ripe for the picking. Mr. President, gather ye rosebuds of wisdom while ye may.”) when it’s the president that’s inflaming the situation, and has been unceasingly for four years.
He is the problem. He has been the problem. He will continue to be the problem. Offering advice to Trump is a nonsensical strategy and a waste of time. It’s also the kind of advice you only offer if you don’t fully grasp the true danger of the situation.
In contrast, Gary Mason, also writing today, has the advantage of foreign eyes. He sees clearly that “Mr. Trump is a divider, not a healer. … With a long, hot summer still ahead, and an unstable bigot in charge, the country is entering times more perilous than I can remember.” That’s just about right.
So what are you going to do?
There’s a defeatist and somewhat smug cynicism to the four mantras that excuse all action to deal with the root of the problem. The Republicans control the Senate, and they won’t go against Trump’s base, so impeachment’s off the table. He’s surrounded by sycophants and relatives who would never turn on him. Plus, the House tried impeachment already and it didn’t work (see excuse #1). And – my favourite – Americans can throw him out in the election, five months from now (plus two more months during which time he’ll still be in power).
Leave aside the damage that an increasingly desperate Trump can do in seven months. These are cynical reasons because they pretend a political wisdom they don’t possess, the wisdom of the pundit that treats politics like a game played under the disinterested gaze of those for whom these events lack any significant weight.
They miss two crucial facts about politics, and what it means to be a citizen. The first is that everything can be bought into play. In politics, supposed inevitabilities are not laws of nature. Pressure can be brought to bear to change outcomes. Every one of those four excuses can be changed through the application of political pressure. And despite all its flaws, the U.S. political system is just about the most amenable in the world to political change.
In the quest to seem wise in the ways of the world, many observers have forgotten the second fact about politics and protests generally, which is that you don’t protest because you know you’re going to win, but because it’s the right thing to do. You do it because an injustice is taking place, and you have an obligation to do your best to remedy it. You do it to be able to keep your self-respect. You do it because it is how you stand up for your values.
Do you want to avoid normalizing Trump? Well, this is exactly how to do it: By refusing for an instant to accept that he is in any way qualified, capable or legitimately entitled (due to his numerous crimes and violations of his presidential oath) to be the U.S. president. Demand his resignation ceaselessly. Insist that those with the power to remove him do their jobs.
The United States is in an epic moment that will be recounted for generations, not just by historians, but by playwrights and storytellers. The Trump administration will get its Shakespearean measure of justice in the fullness of time. And while Shakespeare 2256 is writing his play about a fool king and the downfall of a once-proud country, people are going to look back at this moment and wonder why Americans were so complacent.
Time to #OccupyDC
As a Canadian and sometimes-scholar of U.S. politics, I usually focus on how U.S. policies affect Canada and global politics. It’s bloodless sport for a foreigner to point out the many, many, many foibles in U.S. politics when you don’t have any direct skin in the game. But I also live in the country next door, and Canada is the country most likely to bear the brunt if events go completely pear-shaped.
So take this advice, from a not-disinterested observer, for what it’s worth. Academics, op ed columnists, pundits, everyone with a platform: Please start demanding Trump’s resignation or his removal, not so much because you can make it happen now, but to create the conditions that can make it happen, and so you don’t come off too badly in the eyes of history and your children. Because it’s the only thing that will end your current nightmare and allow you to deal with the other ongoing nightmares like climate change, police brutality, income inequality, and so on.
Everyone else: Again, this is a suggestion from a White Canadian guy, so take it for what it’s worth, but channeling the current protests into a March on the White House could be a useful way to move from protest toward action. Call it #OccupyDC. It’s the perfect time for a long-term protest. The weather’s great, the economy’s shut down, and students (the engine of so much social change) will be doing their classes online in the Fall.
Surround the White House. Come up with a short list of, say, five demands (Demand #1: Trump’s resignation.), and stay there until they’re met. If you can’t make it to the White House, target every non-Romney Republican in the same way. Change the political facts.
That’s a big ask, and its success is far from guaranteed. But so long as Trump is in power, things will only get worse.