Lessons Learned by Surviving the Trump Era

| Present

We have been through an unprecedented and, frankly, horrifying time in our nation’s history. We have seen mobs of pro-Trump rioters storm the Capitol (at Trump’s instigation), cause the work of the Congress to grind to a halt, bring about injury and death to fellow Americans, the calling up of the National Guard, the second impeachment of the President, and the surrounding of the District of Columbia by a massive law enforcement presence.

It might be said, by some of us, that our nation is surviving only by the grace of God.

Now that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have stepped into the highest offices in the land – and as Democrats take control of both the Senate and the House – we must take stock of what we have learned over the past four or five years. We must not lose momentum in our quest for healing and progress, even though we are dog-tired of the chaos, lies, hatred, racism, prejudice, and attempts to bully us back to the Dark Ages. We Americans are often adept at forgetting and forgiving, but we must remember what Winston Churchill wrote: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

When we inaugurated this website, our first blog post focused on the common good. We have periodically revisited this concept for the past five years. What are some lessons learned from the Trump era if examined through the lens of the common good?

Electoral College. We have seen how grossly inadequate and undemocratic the Electoral College is in choosing our President and Commander-in-Chief. The common good is not well-served when this basic process in our system (which is not used by any other advanced democracy in the world) allows for the election of a severely disturbed man who cares only about himself, has autocratic and authoritarian tendencies, is a pathological liar, and is responsible for the deaths of over 400,000 citizens due to inaction, denial, callousness, incompetence, and more. The common good will be much better served if one of the most powerful people on earth is elected by the majority of votes cast. The Electoral College must be reformed – and preferably eliminated.

Flouting norms: several examples

We have seen how weak some of our traditions and norms really are in the face of a demagogue who is willing to go to any length to enrich and empower himself.

Conflict of interest. The ethics watchdog organization, CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), founded in 2003, has been tracking Trump’s massive conflicts of interest from the start of his administration. CREW has documented 3,400 such incidents, that is, the blurring of the line between the Trump Organization – his private financial interests – and his public obligations. The long list of examples can be found here, but the main point for us is that these conflicts gravely endanger the common good. American taxpayers, largely against our will, are helping to enrich Trump and his family when we need our hard-earned funds much more than he does. Furthermore, his conflicts conceivably put our national security at high risk: “By granting immensely valuable trademarks to Trump’s companies, foreign governments can buy their way into the good graces of the President of the United States in the way he likes best.” Lawmakers must seek ways to tighten conflict of interest rules so that a future President cannot get away with such egregious behavior.

Attacking the press. A report in early 2020 from the Committee to Protect Journalists maintains that Trump’s and his allies’ attacks on the press, such as calling them “the enemy of the people,” ending daily press briefings, attempting to punish reporters he does not like, and directly insulting individual journalists, have “dangerously undermined truth and consensus in a deeply divided country.” Protection of an independent free press is one of the hallmarks of our democratic republic: the very first Amendment to the Constitution prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.” Trump, however, has created a dire situation in which millions of Americans, primarily Republicans, do not believe reporting in mainstream media; in the words of Paul Steiger, former editor of The Wall Street Journal and founder of ProPublica, ”the best news, most fact-checked news is not being believed by many people.” As of October 2020, Trump had made over 22,247 false claims in 1,316 days, according to the Washington Post, or more than 50 per day. When the mainstream media – trained and generally professional journalists – have tried valiantly to refute these misrepresentations, their reports are called “fake news” by the (now former) President.

The damage to the common good is enormous: when so many citizens do not have the same factual starting point on a myriad of issues, we cannot have civil discussions, we cannot solve our enormous social and economic problems, and we witness violence when citizens become riled up. We have learned a huge lesson in the ease with which Trump has attacked the press. Because a President’s words always have great power, they can influence and have influenced the financial markets, our relationships with our allies and adversaries, the military, law enforcement, and so on. When a President’s words are not true yet are allowed to have free reign, our republic is in grave danger. Our country – our social discourse – must be based on trust, especially trust in our elected officials; pathological and constant lies destroy this trust, to the detriment of the common good.

Abuse of social media. Closely related to the attacks on the free press is Trump’s vast use of social media, especially Twitter. No other President has had such an enormous and immediate public megaphone to disseminate his opinions, grievances and even policies. Many of the lies he has promulgated were sent by Twitter – and were reached by millions of people. We saw the literal deadly results of Trump’s use of Twitter and the like on January 6 at our Capitol: the evidence is overwhelming that Trump’s many Tweets helped incite his supporters to march on Washington to deny Joe Biden the Presidency.  What would have happened if Twitter had closed down Trump’s account years ago, rather than after the carnage had taken place and left five people dead? Obviously freedom of speech, as we have just noted, is a vital hallmark of our society – but rampant abuse of this freedom by a person with great power and influence, as the President is, cannot be any longer allowed.

The aforementioned mainstream media are highly regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and other government entities and have been for years; Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and Reddit are not. For-profit companies like these are reluctant to regulate themselves – their main goals are making money, of course – and thus resist being regulated by the government (although they might provide guidelines for use). The lesson learned is that the US and other governments around the world must now consider and pass strong, fair and enforceable laws. The “sacred” goal of companies and their executives making huge profits must no longer come at the expense of the common good.

Attacking political foes. Most politicians find ways to verbally attack their adversaries. Trump, however, has taken this to an unprecedented – and very dangerous – level. In stunning acts of psychological projection – the defense mechanism of denying one’s faults and attributing them to someone else – Trump called Hillary Clinton a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin;  “claims without evidence that [Joe] Biden is hiding medical and mental problems that make him unfit to serve as president,” even as Trump routinely botches his own speeches; and disparaged the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona as “not a war hero” because McCain had been captured by the enemy. Trump egged on supporters to chant “lock her up,” first against Hillary Clinton, then against Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who the FBI says was targeted in a foiled kidnapping plot.

Among the worst of the attacks, of course, are Trump’s relentless complaints that the 2020 election was “rigged” against him; his futile attempts to convince even judges whom he appointed that states’ vote counts were fraudulent; his further futile attempts to stop the validation of Electoral College votes on December 14; and, of course, his incitement of the January 6 Capitol riot. Lesson learned: a President with nefarious intentions, including the enormous desire to hold onto power, can find multiple ways to overturn and flout centuries’-old norms – especially when his/her media partners remain unfettered. The potential damage of riling allies up to harm political foes in any way is completely counter to the bettering of the common good; we must be able to disagree with one another, but we have no right to encourage violent persons to take the law into their own hands or make threats to others’ safety.

Attacking the judiciary. Another example of Trump’s flouting of longstanding norms is his grotesque verbal (and Tweeted) attacks on judges and the judicial system. Michael Conway, in an NBC article from February 2020, notes, “President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to improperly influence federal judges in pending criminal cases and misuse the Justice Department to protect cronies accused of crimes has been audacious enough that it prompted the Federal Judges Association to schedule an emergency meeting of its executive committee on Wednesday morning [February 19] and more than 2,000 former Justice Department officials from both parties to call for the resignation of Attorney General William Barr.” This action came after many other occasions in which Trump has taken aim at judges all over the country, starting in 2016 when he publicly questioned US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s impartiality as he presided over the class action lawsuit against Trump University; Trump called him a “‘hater’ and a ‘Mexican,’ even though the judge was born in Indiana.” Trump attacked Republican-appointed US District Judge James Robart, “as a ‘so-called judge’ who ‘put our country in peril’ when he temporarily enjoined Trump’s first executive order to ban travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.” (These examples, of course, demonstrate Trump’s underlying, insidious racism.) Last February, Trump complained in Tweets about reasonable sentencing recommendations by prosecutors in the Roger Stone case. Sadly, this led to the Justice Department’s reducing Stone’s sentence and, even worse, the “very public resignations of four career prosecutors from the case.” What lessons can we learn from these incidents (which are only the tip of the iceberg)? Again, the words and actions of a President determined to retain power and enrich himself and his allies at all costs are so wide-reaching and influential that they cannot easily be rebuffed or softened merely by other words and mass resignations of respected actors. Once again, one of the most effective ways to reduce this risk – for the sake of the common good – is to pass stringent and fair laws to monitor and regulate the content of social media.

One last thing: character

Finally, in addition to lessons learned about the inadequacy of the Electoral College and the many ways in which Trump has flouted norms, to the detriment and eroding of the common good, we can mention the issue of character. We must ask ourselves a serious question about the type of person we want to entrust with the enormous power, visibility and influence of the Presidency of the United States. What are our preferred personality traits in anyone, for that matter – honesty? Trustworthiness? Conscientiousness? We can start by admitting that none of us is perfect, and there is probably no one running for this office (or any other) who does not have some flaws.

Then the next question might be, to what degree should our political ideologies take precedence over bad character? That is, if we are against abortion, do we vote for and support a person of despicable character – someone who is a pathological liar, a con artist, who repeatedly cheats his debtors (and cheats on his wives), and someone who lacks conscience or concern for others – including the unborn!) – just because he might claim to hold to that same ideology? Or do we shun that person and support a different candidate who shares our ideology but demonstrates a much more reputable character? How much do we as a nation – do we as voters – sacrifice decency for ideology?

In the 2020 election, over 74 million people voted for Donald Trump, even after four or five years of revelations about his complete lack of character, not to mention his complete disregard for the rule of law. As we have seen, Trump’s ability to use social media to promote himself alongside a negative image of anyone who opposes him has been demonically brilliant. But it must also be noted that, had more American voters been truly discerning about character in the years leading up to the 2016 election – and had Hillary Clinton’s character not been so consistently and unfairly besmirched by the right for years – we would have known the true nature of this man before one vote was cast.

Lessons learned? There are almost too many to list! As we move into the Biden-Harris era and, in many ways, put the Trump era behind us, we must never forget what we have been through, even though it is painful. Except for a small percentage of people, mostly on the far right, who want to wreak havoc and even cause violence, we can hope that the vast majority of Americans presumably want peace, prosperity and an even better future going forward. This means paying attention, always learning, and always striving for the common good.