Last month, Simon Kuper wrote in his Financial Times column that he was applying for French citizenship. His wife and children, Americans all, had already done so. They live in Paris, so they are not leaving one country for another, but the column made me wonder if I could ever do anything similar. The quick answer is no, but President Trump has put my relationship with my own country on the rocks. Some days I think I don’t know it anymore.
Trump’s reaction Saturday to the Charlottesville hate-fest is an example of what I find so troubling. I never thought a president of the United States would hedge his bets when it came to denouncing racists and anti-Semites. There is abundant boilerplate for these incidents, whole attics of cliches, but Trump could utter not a one. Instead, he pushed out some mush about an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
On Monday, the president toughened up. “Racism is evil,” Trump said, no doubt at the urging of his aides. He denounced “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Nice try, but three days late and many dollars short. The stain of the original statement cannot be removed. It is the authentic Trump — the genuine embodiment of a president who has both identified a rage in part of the American electorate and validated it.
America has had these moments before. The reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy comes to mind. He was a lying opportunist who exploited a Red Scare to ruin lives and careers. But for all his villainy, he was just a senator and, in due course, the Senate took care of its own. It censured McCarthy.
Trump, however, is vastly more powerful. His tweets dominate the news cycle. His claim that 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton and deprived him of a popular-vote victory has seeped into the Republican electorate. The Post last week reported that about half of Republicans would support postponing the 2020 presidential election until the problem is fixed.
That the problem cannot be fixed because it does not exist is almost beside the point. More important is the blatant disregard for both the Constitution and tradition. We hold presidential elections every four years. Always have. The president’s term is set by the Constitution. Look it up.
Simultaneous with the delegitimization of the electoral process has been a subversion of truth. It has been reduced to just another thing — something like an alternative to the “alternative facts” of Kellyanne Conway’s invention. Trump’s incessant attacks on the press have taken a toll. The so-called mainstream media has for years been a GOP whipping boy, but now it is not merely in opposition, it is also corrupt. “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing,” Trump said during a rally in October in Grand Junction, Colo. “They’re doing everything, these people right back here.” He was pointing to the press section.
Grand Junction, in fact, is where Peter Hessler of the New Yorker found that Trump’s message of anger and intolerance has not only taken hold, but also metastasized. The local GOP, always conservative, was nonetheless taken over by even more conservative Trump supporters. The local newspaper, the reliably middle-of-the-road Daily Sentinel, has lost subscribers and is under siege for its moderation. Grand Junction has its problems, and it is not all of America. But it ain’t anywhere else, either.
Beliefs that used to be found only on the fringe of the far right have entered the Republican mainstream. The furious and unbalanced hatred of Clinton, the conviction that the election was almost stolen — all this and more have been given such legitimacy by Trump that neo-Nazis can march in Thomas Jefferson’s home town, confident that they have Trump’s support. They were wrong. They only had his indifference.
The ultimate question is whether the name Donald Trump will be attached to an era — whether he will so change America that it will never be the same afterward. The answer, I think, lies with members of the president’s own party, Republicans who so far have been loath to confront the president.
Maybe Charlottesville will be a turning point. Maybe the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer will produce the realization that she may not be the last to be killed by hate. Others may follow because the president of the United States winks at hatred and responds to a hate march with a pudding of a statement. It was not what he initially said, though, that was telling. It was his total lack of outrage. Maybe that’s his America. It’s not mine.
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