After he is nominated at a pared-down Republican convention next week, President Trump will make this argument to the American people: Things were great until China loosed the novel coronavirus on the world. If you reelect me, I will make things great again.
Seeking reelection in the midst of the worst public health crisis and sharpest economic downturn of our lifetimes, this may, realistically, be the only argument left to him. But, fittingly for a president who has spoken more than 20,000 lies during his presidency, it rests on two huge falsehoods.
The 21st century, like the one that came before it, has seen the emergence of a fateful struggle over the nature of human governance. Regimes founded on democracy and human rights, which 25 years ago appeared to have triumphed, now face a grave challenge from a resurgent authoritarianism, which employs new technologies to refashion the tyranny that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union could not sustain. At stake is not only which nations will dominate global affairs, but also whether individual freedoms — of expression, of assembly, of religious faith — will survive.
President of the United States is a special office. Unlike the constitutional monarchs or prime ministers of European and other systems, the president is neither head of state exclusively nor head of government, but performs both roles — fusing two aspects of national leadership, symbolic and substantive, in a single person.
The Founders of this country anticipated, in short, that the president would not just execute national laws but also set a national tone.
The great fear of these early Americans was that the presidency could fall into the hands of a demagogue: someone like the current incumbent, Donald Trump, whose impact on the nation’s political culture over the past three-plus years has been, if anything, more damaging than his impact on public policy.
President Trump thinks he knows better than anyone, but not because he actually knows very much. His 2016 campaign was run from the gut, under the explicit rationale that “experts are terrible” and that whatever someone with a degree and years of experience could do in any area of government, he could do better relying on instinct. His White House has conducted itself according to this philosophy, to devastating effect.
From debt to taxes to renewable energy to trade to jobs to infrastructure to defense, the president has declared himself the best informed in all the land. What need, then, for a science adviser — a post Mr. Trump left vacant for 19 months? Why worry if more than a third of senior positions in the Pentagon or Department of Homeland Security have no confirmed appointee? Why not drive out most of the workforce of the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, as the administration did, intentionally, by abruptly moving the agency to the Kansas City region?
The best sort of expert, in Mr. Trump’s view, is the kind with no independent judgment at all.
Without the assent of Congress, President Trump has remade almost every major facet of America’s immigration system over the past three-plus years, slashing levels of legal and illegal arrivals; refugees and asylum seekers; Muslim and Christian migrants. He has sought to strip citizenship from naturalized Americans and subject “dreamers” raised in this country to deportation. He tried to deter illegal border crossings by sundering families, thereby traumatizing migrant teens, tweens and toddlers. If reelected, it is likely Mr. Trump would do more of the same in pursuit of a Fortress America hostile to newcomers — a goal radically at odds with the nation’s long-term interest and the views and wishes of most Americans.
“Drain the swamp” was a signature promise of Donald Trump’s first campaign: He would uproot corruption from the capital and install a government that served ordinary Americans, not the special interests. That pledge has not merely gone unmet, like most of his campaign promises. It has been shattered by a president and an administration unprecedented and unapologetic in their mingling of public and private interests. In an unfettered second term, the self-dealing would be epic.
President Trump promised in 2016 that he would protect the Constitution’s “Article I, Article II, Article XII.” (There is no Article XII.) Instead, he has shown how fragile the constitutional order can be when a president does not respect the rule of law. He has not grown into the office; instead, he has learned how to more effectively abuse its powers. The damage of a second term might be irreparable.
A president’s core responsibility is to use the awesome power of his office fairly and with neutrality. Mr. Trump has shown that he has a different understanding: The law is a weapon with which to reward loyalists, punish enemies and frighten everyone else to fall in line.
If President Trump is defeated in November, much of the damage he has inflicted on the political system and on U.S. international alliances can be reversed. Joe Biden could restore past norms of presidential behavior and revive ties with traditional U.S. friends. But one part of Mr. Trump’s toxic legacy will likely persist: his degradation of truth as a common currency in public life.
Democracies cannot function if ideological differences are compounded by the circulation of conspiracy theories and falsified data; established facts are the foundation for policymaking and legislative compromise. Mr. Trump has greatly accelerated what was already a drift by elements of the Republican Party toward rejection of science and other hard reporting. His incessant lying — from inflation of the crowds at his inauguration to the course of the coronavirus pandemic — has led many of his followers to beliefs that are provably false and, in some cases, are the product of disinformation campaigns by hostile powers.