On November 6, 2016, my family and I drove to a place called the Garden of the Gods in southern Illinois. The Garden of the Gods is a geological wonderland of rocky cliffs soaring above a forest of green, red and golden trees. It is in the heart of Trump country, and as my kids climbed on boulders and hiked trails, they did so next to people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, who greeted me with a smile.
In the months before Election Day, I drove my children to historical sites every weekend. I wanted them to see the wonders of our states alongside other Americans, who despite political differences, wanted their kids to see them as well.
I took my children to the Dred Scott courthouse in St. Louis where the rights of slaves were debated; to the estate of President Ulysses S. Grant and his slave quarters; to the Trail of Tears state park commemorating the deaths of Native Americans; and to the homestead of Daniel Boone, the celebrated frontiersman and slave-owner. My youngest did not understand; my oldest knew enough to recognize the incongruity between virtue and cruelty. How could political leaders betray what were supposed to be national values? How could brutal practices be embraced by ordinary Americans?
Or, as she put it, “Why did no one stop people from doing bad things?”
The answer you’re supposed to give to children – one I heard myself as a child – is “That’s just the way things were.” You’re supposed to say “Lots of good people owned slaves” or “It was legal then.” You’re supposed to pretend that historic injustices have either been resolved or that they were never that bad, that they didn’t linger and structure the politics of the present.
You’re supposed to normalize cruelty, and in doing so exonerate those who practiced it.
But as I tried to answer her questions, my mind flashed forward to what my own children might be asking thirty years from now, when their children are trying to figure out what happened in 2016. How did white supremacist groups rise from the shadows into the spotlight, promoted by the mainstream media? How did a billionaire break so many of the norms associated with the presidency – refusing to divest from his businesses, release tax returns, or refrain from attacking private citizens – without consequence? How could a politician show more respect to a Russian dictator than to US veterans and civil rights leaders, yet still be considered a statesman by his party?
We are living in a rupture
These questions are no longer theoretical: Trump has won, and the US has changed irrevocably. We are a day from an inauguration marred by an investigation into Russian interference, in which multiple intelligence agencies and political leaders have stated the president-elected is a Kremlin asset utilized to undermine the democratic process.
We are days away from having a cabinet with men whose presence benefits Russia more than it does US citizens, and who often have a record of bigotry and cruelty so vile they were refused past appointments. Journalists are being threatened, protesters have been deemed “economic terrorists”, intelligence agencies are on the verge of a purge, ambassadorships are being left unfilled; and wealthy international white supremacists – Le Pen, Farage – are being flown to a golden New York tower to hone their faux populism stateside.
There is no “That’s just the way things were” to answer the question of what happened in 2016. It’s “That’s the way things became”, as century-old norms were disregarded by a president-elect whose deepest loyalties appear to lie with a foreign power. There is a difference between institutions weakening, as they have throughout the wars and economic turmoil of the 21st century, and institutions that protect personal freedom and national security being purposefully disregarded as irrelevant by the president himself.
We are living in a rupture, and we might not make it back.
This in no way helps the country
The history of the US is riddled with leaders betraying in practice the laws sanctified on paper. Centuries-old injustices over race and class are frequently glossed over in textbooks that seek to inspire with tales of heroism instead of to scare with the truth of the disregarded.
But in the past and recent present, US leaders struggled to hide or justify their misdeeds, afraid of public accountability. They did not always uphold the values of our founding documents but they knew they were supposed to try. They knew there could be penalties if they were caught in immoral or criminal behavior, such as humiliation, a lost election, or even impeachment.
In contrast, bigotry is blatant; laws are broken; patriotism is sham that seems to amuse them. What is unprecedented is not that a president is doing bad things, but that he does not bother to pretend to be good. This malice is not an indicator of liberating honesty, as contrarians have framed it, but a signpost on the road to humanitarian catastrophe.
Policies Trump has embraced include eliminating healthcare for millions of Americans, using nuclear weapons, supporting Russian imperialism, rounding up ethnic and religious minorities, and making lists of federal employees who study climate change or gender equality, in seeming anticipation of a mass firing and an attack on science and freedom. These authoritarian moves do not benefit any US citizen, including those who voted for him. That these policies are being proclaimed openly, and in several instances blatantly favor Russian interests over those of the US, implies that traditional penalties for betraying the electorate are gone.
As anyone who lives in an authoritarian state knows, once authoritarians get in, it is very hard to get them out. Politicians looking at 2018 and 2020 fail to comprehend that authoritarians rewrite rules, that laws are only as good as the people who uphold them, that the constitution is a piece of paper unless it is honored in practice.
So long as the majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to cower to the new administration, it becomes increasingly unlikely that democracy will hold.
Had Clinton won, we would still have problems
Trump will enter office not only with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in history, but as the sole president suspected of colluding with a foreign power in order to carry out anti-American objectives. This unprecedented situation has prompted both soul-searching and simplifications: did Russia rig the election? Or is Russia being used as a scapegoat to gloss over domestic problems?
The truth is that the these factors are inseparable. The election on November 8 was a singular event in that it put executive power into the hands of an unstable, vengeful kleptocrat, but that day was not what changed American values or weakened institutions. Those institutions were weak before Trump launched his campaign. Extreme partisanship and rapid technological shifts had made US values uncertain. The US was primed for manipulation by a domestic demagogue and ripe for exploitation by a foreign power. Russia exacerbated tensions that were already building, and Trump – despite being briefed on Russia’s motives – has not condemned the Kremlin’s actions but embraced them.
2016 would have remained a dark turning point in US history regardless of the electoral outcome. Had Hillary Clinton won, we would still be dealing with Russian interference: a non-partisan threat dating back years that affects national security and sovereignty. We would still be struggling with the white supremacist movements that were stoked by Trump’s campaign; with an economy of underemployment and wage stagnation; with a media that is financially weak and morally corrupt; with extreme and dysfunctional partisanship. We would likely be facing a continuing assault from Wikileaks and other organizations that aided Trump, obstructionism from the GOP on every appointment, and attempts to delegitimize Clinton as a leader.
But while the election would have never brought resolution, it is only with Trump that it may have brought dissolution. US history is beset with partisan divides, but we have never been ruled by a man whose only loyalty beyond himself and his family is to an authoritarian foreign power.
So what do I tell my kids?
I don’t know if my children will remember much of the America I knew. I tried to teach them while I could, so they would know the difference between a deeply flawed democracy and a country that ceases to be a democracy at all.
I tried to show them how practices like slavery which were accepted as “normal” in US history are today considered an incredible shame, and that rationalizing cruelty was what allowed them to last for so long. I told them to never consider cruel policies normal, no matter what politicians and pundits say.
I tried to show them our country was always vulnerable, always flawed, but that good people persevered in order to preserve our union. We survived due to self-criticism and sacrifice, a willingness to examine our flaws and try to fix them. We survived because Americans finally answered the question “Why does nobody stop people from doing bad things?” with resolve to stop doing them. The ability to even ask that question in public, much less act on it, may soon be in jeopardy.
In mid-November, as both Trump’s destructive plans and foreign ties became formally announced, as pundits and politicians played down the crisis and asked us to “just give him a chance,” I said to a friend, “I don’t know who has it worse – the people who understand what is going to happen, or the people who don’t.”
Her answer was simple: “Neither of them: it’s the kids.”
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