Donald Trump cheapens, degrades, demeans and corrupts almost everything he touches. With little regard for the law and societal norms, with massive regard for his own status, fortune and future, the president has made many of our most honored institutions and traditions mere masquerades. He’s thrown a sheen of legitimacy over a rot of self-dealing, like gold plate over decaying lumber.
Trump and his acolytes have done this in dozens of ways, big and small. These are just a few recent examples.
The State of the Union address has long been a time of great gravity – an opportunity for the executive to report on our nation’s condition, appeal for unity and action, and propose a vision for the future.
This tradition began to slide when Ronald Reagan adopted the theatrics of inviting and recognizing guests, usually exemplars of some policy initiative, seated in the gallery. Succeeding presidents from both parties followed suit.
But Trump took it to an extreme in his address this year, turning the occasion into a reality TV episode and putting on a show of authoritarian benevolence: granting a girl a scholarship (which she didn’t need and didn’t seek) and surprising a soldier’s wife with her husband’s return. It wasn’t a State of the Union; it was “Queen for a Day” crossed with “This is Your Life.”
Those weren’t the worst bits of vaudeville Trump pantomimed that night, however. He also recognized the cancerous Rush Limbaugh, who set the mold for right-wing talk radio hate, and then and there presented him with the Medal of Freedom. This honor has been reserved for recognized figures in science, humanities and the arts – people whose stature and contributions were largely uncontested in society. By honoring Limbaugh, a racist, misogynist and demagogue, Trump has turned the medal into a token for rewarding personal and political friends, devaluing the medal’s significance for past and future recipients. It may never mean as much as it once did.
Then there are the recent pardons Trump handed out to former political and business figures whose crimes damaged the public’s confidence in government and industry. Few of those absolved have shown remorse, with former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich even proclaiming himself a political prisoner – a horrific comparison when one thinks of how real detainees like Nelson Mandela suffered.
Previous presidents – usually on their way out of office – have pardoned political friends, but Trump has reduced it to a new low and injected a disturbing element, granting exoneration to those with the best public relations campaigns and Fox News presence. For example, pundits, commentators and relatives all lobbied the president on air for Edward Gallagher, the unrepentant Navy Seal who posed with bodies and bragged about his war crimes. It worked: Over the objections of his own military advisers, Trump pardoned Gallagher, who undoubtedly will be on stage this summer at the Republican National Convention. The president has converted the pardon power from a demonstration of mercy to an episode of “The Apprentice.”
These impulsive partisan and personal acts are serious, but not as damaging as Trump degradation of the country’s justice and intelligence systems.
Trump started attacking the Justice Department almost as soon as he became president, demonstrating a willful ignorance of its role in equally enforcing the law. But more recently he has publicly denigrated its prosecutors and questioned their judgment, undermining public trust in the system. He found a willing accomplice in his second attorney general, William Barr. Thanks to Trump’s malice, the public will never again be sure that prosecutors are pursuing justice fairly and equitably. The nation will never be the same.
Similarly, Trump has rotted public faith in the judiciary with groundless personal attacks on judges who ruled against him and his administration. Even the chief justice of the Supreme Court has chided the president, noting that there are not “Obama Judges or Trump judges,” but jurists doing their best to apply the law. Meanwhile, the Republican Senate has approved nominations of unqualified, partisan and extreme federal judges, abetting the president’s corrosion of Americans’ confidence in their courts.
And now the intelligence community. The job of the director of national intelligence is to coordinate, collate and report on information from agencies across the government, delivering unvarnished assessments of threats to the United States. The director’s office is obligated to inform Congress, a coequal branch of government, about those threats.
But when directors have fulfilled those duties, reporting that virtually the entire intelligence community agrees that the Russian government sought to influence the 2016 and 2018 elections – and is doing so again this year – Trump has lashed out. He has insisted on information tailored to his worldview and ego and removed directors who instead hewed to the facts and did their duty by sharing that information with Congress. Now he wants to appoint a sycophant who’s willing to hide the truth and bury objections, endangering our democracy.
The latest demonstration of systemic incompetence and disregard for expertise, of course, is the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Trump dithered for weeks, downplaying the threat and largely discouraging preparation for when the virus surely would come to our shores. Now he’s playing catch-up and still spewing misinformation while doing his best to blame others.
There are so many other ways Trump has reduced the federal government’s integrity and global standing – dismissing and ignoring science and evidence, bungling the census, allowing voter suppression, demanding personal loyalty rather than fealty to the constitution and the country’s citizens – that I could go on for days.
We can remove Trump this fall – if we ignore outside influence, give everyone the chance to vote and overcome a lopsided Electoral College system. But the damage he has done to our democracy will take decades to repair – if it’s even possible.
by Tom O’Donnell