The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans have long been blind to future disasters. But we see this storm coming.

President Trump speaks to reporters outside the White House on Friday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The founder of modern Germany, Otto von Bismarck, purportedly said of our country, “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards and the United States of America.” Perhaps that good fortune explains why American leaders so rarely see the coming of cataclysmic events.

The 9/11 Commission famously concluded that of all the U.S. government’s shortcomings before the al-Qaeda attacks, “The most important failure was one of imagination.” A similar conclusion was reached after the arrest of Bernie Madoff. A financial trader’s decade-long crusade to expose Madoff’s billion-dollar Ponzi scheme was repeatedly ignored by the Securities and Exchange Commission. These experts could not fathom that a former chairman of Nasdaq would be capable of such treachery. Six months before the Challenger explosion in 1986, a lone engineer warned in detail of how design flaws on the space shuttle were a disaster in the making. Those warnings also fell on deaf ears.

The problem is the alarms are very often false. Former U.S. national security official Richard A. Clarke, who detailed numerous examples of modern-day Cassandras in his 2017 book “Warnings,” concludes that most of these crusaders were ignored because “many prophets are wrong, giving the others a bad reputation.” The paranoid style of modern American politics has created an environment where a stream of false and frenzied warnings has numbed voters to the dangers of coming political threats.

George H.W. Bush was painted as a racist president who was a drug-runner while in the CIA; Bill Clinton was accused of being a murderer by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.; the smearing of George W. Bush as a fascist was so widespread that I could barely walk a block through my Upper West Side neighborhood in New York without seeing the 43rd president’s image superimposed on Adolf Hitler’s body.

But wait. There’s more.

Glenn Beck accused the next president, Barack Obama, of being a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for White people.” And I spent eight years being mocked by relatives for pushing back on claims that Obama was a Muslim who wanted to replace the U.S. Constitution with sharia law.

Forty years of dire predictions from both sides played to Donald Trump’s benefit as he assumed the presidency. The day after Trump’s 2016 election victory, Obama dismissed “the sky is falling” prognostications and declared that he and Trump had shared goals.

The White House is considering President Trump holding an address to the nation on race and unity. Columnist Dana Milbank says he's already given it. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/The Washington Post)

“We all want what’s best for this country,” he said of his successor.

Obama’s presumption of good faith was shared by many prominent Washington figures, in part, because they had little choice but to hope for the best, even if they had feared Trump’s election. Plenty of them were willing to help, for the good of the country.

Trump quickly proved himself allergic to wise counsel. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other advisers who tried to present the 45th president with objective facts were soon replaced by apparatchiks who mindlessly played to Trump’s worst instincts. As Hannah Arendt observed in her landmark 1951 work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the most talented are pushed aside by autocrats and “invariably” replaced “with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

Within a month of walking into the White House, Trump questioned the federal judiciary’s legitimacy, used Joseph Stalin’s “enemy of the people” slur to attack the free press and directed top aides to declare to national audiences that the powers of the president “will not be questioned.”

Masha Gessen observed in “Surviving Autocracy” that Americans have always granted incoming presidents a presumption of good faith because, until Trump, “no political actor sought to destroy American government and political systems.” If that conclusion seems as overwrought as the claims cited above against Obama, Bush and Clinton, consider what Trump has offered up publicly: that Article II of the Constitution gives him unlimited power; that he trusts Vladimir Putin’s word more than that of the U.S. intelligence community; that the transcript of his call to a foreign leader was “perfect” even though it proved he was blackmailing a foreign country to dig up dirt on his political rival; and, of course, that U.S. military leaders were “losers” and “pussies.”

Americans should heed poet Maya Angelou’s warning that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them the first time. Over the past four years, Trump has told the world that he loathes constitutional limits and will do anything to maintain power — whether that means accepting political help from foreign countries or attacking America’s democratic process as “rigged.”

We know the storm is coming. The question is whether we will be prepared for America’s next cataclysmic event.

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