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Shit Happened

How a democracy regains self-respect after Trump

There’s a phrase that Donald Trump used throughout his presidency: “It should have never happened.” He used it many times to express his impotent rage against “the China virus,” which he saw as a deeply unfair assault on his own political fortunes. “It was sent to us by China,” Trump said in September. “Should not have happened, should never have happened. This is a disgusting, terrible situation that was foisted upon us.” When he was under investigation for collusion with Russia, Trump said Robert Mueller “should never have been chosen” as special prosecutor, and after Mueller’s report he said “this should never happen to another president again.” When a college student in Iowa was killed in 2018 by an immigrant, Trump said at a rally: “Should have never happened.” He even used the phrase after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

It was always directed at something Trump believed he had no responsibility for; the “should never” carried his singular style of counterfeit moral judgment. When applied to a global pandemic, the statement put his own judgment in competition with that of Divine Providence: plagues and disasters, the preachers tell us, are part of God’s plan, and are often sent in response to human sinfulness.

Trump’s pet phrase is now the perfect epitaph to his presidency.

Notably, Trump was unable to bring himself to say the Capitol riot of January 6 should not have happened. On the afternoon when he was pressured to call for the rioters to disperse, he told them, “We love you. You’re very special.” A few days later he claimed his speech that sparked the mayhem was “totally appropriate.” The fact that he was unable to say “it should have never happened” about the violence that resulted in five deaths betrays his guilt—his awareness that he caused this event. And, of course, anything that is the work of Trump can never be bad. There can be no regrets and no apologies.

But for so many of us, Trump’s pet phrase is now the perfect epitaph to his presidency. How could someone so vile have occupied the White House for the last four years? So much corruption, incompetence, dishonesty, and belligerence. He choked the political system with his verbal effluent. He became an effective superspreader of political viruses: white nationalism, conspiracism, paranoia, anti-democracy. He never won majority support, in ballots or polls. His administration began and ended with impeachable crimes. It should have never happened.

Political failures are a given in any presidency. But the Trump administration was a spectacle of death. Historian Greg Grandin observed three years ago that “Trumpism is a death cult”—one that, he wrote, revered such figures as former Arizona county sheriff Joe Arpaio, who “tortured the poorest among us,” and that discounted the lives of African Americans, Latino migrants, and refugees. In the last year, “death cult” has become a ubiquitous phrase, although not among leaders of the white evangelical movement, who clung to the notion that Trump was somehow a “right to life” president. He kept them happy with proclamations like the one he made this week that January 22 would be National Sanctity of Human Life Day—a Republican tradition launched by Ronald Reagan in 1984. It was almost entirely concerned with protecting “every innocent and unborn child.”

Yet to witness Trumpist goons beating police officers with flagpoles and hockey sticks[*] and rampaging through the Capitol like play-acting Jacobins calling for the hanging of Mike Pence was to see again the way violence and death pervade the Trump cause—just as it did in 2017 at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when one of his “very fine people” drove a car into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer. The latest violence was denounced in the usual rote way even by the most complicit Republicans. As Melania Trump intoned in her farewell video, “Be passionate in everything you do, but always remember that violence is never the answer, and will never be justified.” Meanwhile, getting much less media attention than the January 6 riot, the Trump administration rushed through thirteen federal executions in its final six months. In a strong dissent to the most recent case that came before the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the government had “executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.” Because at least two prisoners had plausible claims they were not mentally competent, “their executions may well have been illegal,” Sotomayor wrote.

And, of course, during the pandemic we have been racking up what public health statisticians call “excess deaths.” In a normal year, about fifty to sixty thousand people die each week in the United States. By last April, that number shot up to almost seventy-nine thousand, and has remained above the historical average ever since. By Trump’s final weeks in office, there were an estimated four hundred seventy thousand more deaths since March than in an average year, according to a New York Times calculation published on January 14. The Times noted that there are secondary effects to Covid-19, in which some death statistics go down (such as highway fatalities) but others go up (as when hospitals are overcrowded and people avoid seeking health care). But overall, deaths are way up. As Thomas Meaney noted in the London Review of Books in November: “If Trump can make any claim to uniqueness, it may be that, once his record on Covid-19 is factored in, he is the only postwar US president whose administration is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than foreigners.” Like Trump always said: America First!

It’s become hard to even imagine having a rational discussion with a partisan Republican about all this. And yet, we can hear the voice of the devil’s advocate: Why blame the president of the United States for the effects of a worldwide pandemic? Other countries have intelligent and balanced leadership, and they’ve seen spikes in pandemic deaths, too. How can you say any leader “is responsible for the deaths” in a plague year?

Trump famously said “I don’t take responsibility at all,” when challenged at a press conference last March. But it is in his disinformation campaigns throughout the spring that you see the fateful leadership decision he made: he would fight the virus as the mouthy New Yorker he’s always been. He would talk it down; the people would then go forth in confidence instead of panic, and the country would get about its business. It was leading by lying.

I think back to those bizarre performances last April when Trump was holding daily televised briefings on the efforts of the coronavirus task force. Everyone recalls his riff on April 23 about how ultraviolet light therapy could kill the virus and about the possibility of injecting “the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute.” The unintentional comedy of Trump pretending to understand medical science became intentional comedy when Sarah Cooper’s lip-synched version magnified Trump’s audience many times over.

With a barrage of bullshit, he was usually able, in his real-estate career, to get people to stand down or surrender, or at least to get out of his way.

What fewer people remember is his remarks from the previous day, which were just as foolhardy but perhaps more revealing. Trump came into that press conference irked by a comment Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control, had made to the Washington Post. Redfield had said that the coming fall and winter could be more “more difficult and potentially complicated” if the ordinary influenza season coincided with the return of Covid-19. Trump claimed Redfield was “totally misquoted.” He called Redfield to the lectern, but Redfield couldn’t bring himself to say he was misquoted. The best he could do was to claim the Post’s headline was misleading because it said the “second wave of coronavirus is likely to be even more devastating.”

That off-message and downbeat prediction (which we now know was justified) was what set Trump off. For the next half hour he explained to reporters, with his delicate hands flapping and with multiple digressions about “fake news,” why Redfield was wrong. “We may have some embers, and we’re going to put them out—of corona,” he said. “But we may have a big flu season. But that’s different; flu is very different from corona.” Later: “We may not even have corona coming back, just so you understand.” He turned to Dr. Deborah Birx for confirmation: “And Doctor, wouldn’t you say there’s a good chance that Covid will not come back?” “We don’t know,” she said. “The great thing is, we’ll be able to find it earlier this time. . . . we would be able to stay in containment phase.”

Trump kept referring to “embers” of the coronavirus and insisting that the worst was behind us. “If it does come back, it’s not going to come back—and I’ve spoken to ten different people—it’s not going to be like it was. Also, we have much better containment now. Before, nobody knew about it. Nobody knew anything about it. We understand it. Now, if we have little pockets, a little pocket here, we’re going to have it put out. It goes out, and it’s going to go out fast. We’re going to be watching for it. But it’s also possible, it’s also possible it doesn’t come back at all.” And on and on he went, finally wrapping up with news the United States would be re-opening national parks and public lands. “We want [Americans] to satisfy their family that safety is going to happen, and it will happen, and maybe even at a level like never before,” he said.

Of course, Trump had the whole story ass-backwards. He felt fine about the prediction there would be an ordinary flu season in the fall. But don’t speak of corona. As it played out, the flu season was milder than usual (with almost two hundred million doses of flu vaccine available) and the Covid-19 spike has been worse than it was in the spring.

This has been Trump’s method all along. With a barrage of bullshit, he was usually able, in his real-estate career, to get people to stand down or surrender, or at least to get out of his way. Then he found out it worked well in politics, too—until it didn’t. We saw the long-practiced technique in his hour-long phone call on January 2 to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump seemed to expect that his concocted evidence of election fraud, spun this way and then that way, would overwhelm Raffensperger. “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong,” Raffensperger said mildly, in one of the few moments he had to respond. He might as well have been speaking to Trump in a foreign language.

It would have been a momentary satisfaction if Biden had worked the phrase “it should have never happened” into his Inaugural Address, along with an energetic denunciation of the American carnage Trump presided over. But Biden predictably stayed with his usual platitudes about national unity. Even so, to say horrific events should not have happened is to dodge the necessary work of asking why something happened, which is part of taking responsibility for it. The questions we are left with are too big for a ceremonial speech by a conventional politician. Why did Trump rise to power? And, how do we confront the enduring malignancy of Trumpism?

There will be no honest answers from prominent leaders of either party, because both parties are so deeply implicated in our democratic deterioration. Anyone who has been paying attention should have been aware that during the Reagan years, the Republican Party was assembling a coalition between the reactionary corporate elite, the white mostly Southern evangelical movement, and was using racial appeals to divide the working class. By the 1990s, Republican extremism was voiced by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, and what we now know as Trumpism was taking shape. And yet, throughout these years the Democratic Party missed every opportunity to address both the political and the cultural reasons the Republicans were able to win so much governmental control with so little majority support.

The Trump years made that problem clear enough: one party is fueled by delusions about deep state conspiracies and the supposed dangers of diversity, the other lost in delusions about the possibility of moving back toward bipartisan comity. But the other part of addressing “why did this happen?” means recognizing the structural rot that allows dangerous men to disgrace traditional American ideals.

No country that fancies itself a democratic beacon for the world should tolerate what the United States presidency has become. Even in the best of times, the presidency functions as a cult of personality. In the worst instances, it is a place where it is nearly impossible to answer crimes with enforcement. Nixon said straight out that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” When Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon so he could have a peaceful retirement in San Clemente, California, he confirmed that we regard our presidents as above the law.

One party fueled by delusions about deep state conspiracies and the supposed dangers of diversity, the other lost in delusions about the possibility of moving back toward bipartisan comity.

But for four years we have had to wrap our heads around this awful truth: a consummate liar with a history of corrupt dealings had found his way into the place of greatest immunity. Once he gained that office, he was protected from any consequences of financial self-dealings (such as the use of the Secret Service and the White House to enrich himself and to promote his campaign for reelection), from his many conflicts of interest, from his wider family’s enrichment from public office, and even from blatant disregard of Congressional attempts to hold him accountable, as when he and members of his administration refused to comply with legal subpoenas. There are multiple instances that could be construed as obstruction of justice, right up to one of his final acts when he issued a pardon to Steve Bannon.

His long habit of lying about whatever he felt the need to lie about was also intensified by his becoming president. When he was a bullshit artist in the 1980s, people often were on to him. But the very nature of the presidency is to bestow an aura of authority, so that outright lies are not treated that way. They are amplified and given credence. What a precious gift! It was as if he made a magical transition; a scam artist was transformed into a person who was presumed to be an honest authority. Even though many informed citizens are aware that “all presidents lie,” and most educated people know we’ve had liars such as Nixon and Clinton in the office, and that even those who by nature are honest have had to keep secrets and make routine deceptions as president, even though we know all this, we also know that as soon as the person who is called The President of the United States stands in front of a lectern with the presidential seal on the front and makes a statement it is given not just credence but power. 

We have laws for ordinary people, for the little people, but the Constitution’s bad gambit was that a president could be held accountable, if necessary, by Congress, through the power to impeach and convict. This was the idea as expressed by George Mason at the Constitutional Convention: “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice?” Trump saw that the answer, under the usual circumstances, could be yes.

When Trump first shocked the political establishment in 2016 by dispatching experienced Republican candidates in the party’s primary and then vanquishing Hillary Clinton even while losing the popular vote, we had one of those American moments when we searched for explanations. Among observers on the left, a prescient warning from philosopher Richard Rorty circulated widely. In a lecture given in 1997, Rorty noted worries that that in “the old industrialized democracies . . . populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.” When things came to the breaking point, Rorty predicted,

The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.  

After the election result in November, I went back to the book, Achieving Our Country, that contains that lecture. But as I revisited his arguments in their full context, I began to feel it was no longer the “strongman” quote that spoke most powerfully to the moment. The animating force of Rorty’s thoughts in the mid-to-late 1990s had to do with whether the left in America might play a role in steering things away from the rancid populism that became Trumpism. And what Rorty was saying in Achieving Our Country is that the disgust we have for the failures of this nation to live up to its creed is one of many stumbling blocks for the left.

It made me think again about what a dead end it is to say of Trump’s reign that “it should never have happened.” We also know that the wars of the Bush-Cheney years should never have happened. Vietnam should not have happened. The atomic bomb should not have been dropped. The country should not have expanded through genocidal policies toward Native Americans and then structured itself as a slaveocracy. The Constitution should not have set us up to be subject to a chief magistrate with the emotional development of a pre-teen and the cunning of a con man, who disregards the rule of law for a full four years with no effective accountability. And on and on.

For these years many of us have lived with a quiet sense of shame and embarrassment that Trump was in office. I’ve hardly ever been able to even say or write the words “President Trump.” And yet there was a confusion to that emotion. If we believe the American civic faiths have always been bosh, why not laugh at the humiliation of our “American exceptionalism”? If we know that the presidency has, more often than not, been held by dishonest if not disreputable men, why should it have been painful to see the leader of the United States specializing in adolescent invective and expressing himself with the vocabulary of a grade-schooler—saying things like “safety is going to happen, and it will happen, and maybe even at a level like never before”?

If we hate this country, it should have all been a grand romp. But Rorty, as a self-confessed man of the Old Left, is harkening to a kind of leftism that refuses to be disgusted and detached. “Insofar as a Left becomes spectatorial and retrospective, it ceases to be a left,” he wrote. He makes the case that “national pride” should have some kind of hold on those of us who are angry and repulsed by seeing this nation at its worst. Such pride is always tempered and chastened by reality, he wrote, but “nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect.”

That’s not a bad thought for this period of political relief, when we can breathe a little easier that a wholly unworthy and unsuitable man failed to hold on to power.

Rorty’s larger argument about the need to build a reform-minded left is also one that gave me a moment of optimism—for the very reason that it feels slightly dated. His concern that the American left had become almost entirely given over to academic obfuscation and a determination “to give cultural politics preference over real politics” was a 1990s concern, perhaps related to the political complacence and stasis of the Clinton years. Now, more than two decades later, it feels something has shifted.

If we believe the American civic faiths have always been bosh, why not laugh at the humiliation of our “American exceptionalism”?

The reformist left has been trying to reassert itself. Through the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and with emerging leadership in Congress by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Jamie Raskin, Katie Porter, with new reinforcements such as Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Rev. Raphael Warnock—not to mention the many unsung organizers and labor activists around the country who work both in electoral and non-electoral politics—there is hope for an American left that is anything but spectatorial.

The Democratic Party gerontocracy either is afraid of it, or doesn’t care to understand it. Bidenism will frustrate the left in the coming years whenever it assumes those on the left wing of the party are a liability instead of the source of energy that has the potential to answer Trumpism. Rorty understood that part of the left’s mission is to fight the sadistic element in American politics—and that involves getting drawn in to the “culture wars.” But the reformist left has to organize against the selfishness and greed that can be most effectively addressed by using government power for the wider good. “It would have to talk much more about money,” Rorty writes.

But also to find a “rhetoric of commonality”—which James Baldwin was searching for when he imagined (in The Fire Next Time) our duty “to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country.” Biden, in his halting way, is seeking that kind of rhetoric, though most likely only to enliven the usual cautious and conventional centrism. I’ll take Rorty’s kind of hope, which gave me an encouraging thought in November as I almost got stuck on the smoldering fury that the Trump presidency should never have happened. “You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning,” Rorty wrote. “Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.”



[*]  Correction: A previous version of this article stated that a police officer had been beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. Early reports to that effect may have been inaccurate. Video evidence does not prove that the officer who died the next day, Brian Sicknick, was the same officer who was hit in the head with a thrown fire extinguisher.