On November 4, 2020, I was one of the 82 million Americans who was very excited to – as quickly as possible – forget the name that had come to so perfectly symbolize political putrefaction: Trump. Before 2015, to me and most Americans, Trump was just the wacky “You’re Fired!” guy from a somewhat popular reality show. In fact, going into the 2016 election cycle, even after eight years of the cultural force-to-be-reckoned-with that was the Obama presidency, I still said that the office of the POTUS was really no more than a (very effective) bully pulpit; I would tell people that as unqualified and awful as a Trump Administration might prospectively seem based on his absurd ramblings, the office of the POTUS just wasn’t as almighty as everyone wanted to give it credit.
“The most powerful person in the world.” Sure, individually, maybe, but we have a lot of institutions – at local, federal, and international scales – that would check that one person’s effective power. Thank God that those institutions exist, because my estimation of the damage he was capable of was grossly deficient.
Before we knew of his tyrannical bend, his supporters (who were yet to be revealed as bona-fide White supremacists but were already identifiable as a “basket of deplorables”) would parrot the same tired refrain: “We need a private businessperson in the White House. That’s what it’s been lacking. That’s why nothing ever gets done in government.”
Thing is (and trust me, I studied public administration), one of the hallmark defining characteristics of public service is that it is not, in fact, private. The juxtaposition of public and private service are intrinsic parts of their nature. The private sector is driven by the market – what’s profitable. Strategy and decision-making are guided almost exclusively by what makes the most money. If profit weren’t the main driving force, then why would the field of corporate social responsibility even exist? It would all be implicit. But it isn’t. Because profit doesn’t correlate to the public good. So there’s a gap. A gap that’s filled with – you guessed it – public agencies. Entire institutions funded by the coercive power of taxation (money collected from all for all for the provision of goods and services that can’t – or shouldn’t – be provided privately). Agencies that are built with the fundamental understanding that their operations will not be economically efficient (the point at which supply and demand meet and pricing structures can be built to generate profit), but will provide some sort of public good. Private businesses are efficient because efficiency is baked into their operations; public organizations aren’t because – necessarily – bureaucrats must squabble over how those taxed funds are used because they are not economically efficient organizations.
But when a dubiously successful real estate mogul from New York won the presidency in 2016, as appalled as I was that he was able to grift half the electorate, I wanted him to succeed. I knew that he would try to run things more like a business and that in doing so he would meet inevitable failure because of the diametrically opposed nature of public and private management. But I hoped that his failure would be tempered by our institutions and that by 2020 we would be ready to show him the door. Like any red-blooded American, I wanted what was best for the country, and so I hoped he would rise to the occasion.
He did not. Every time we thought he had shown us rock bottom, he would take out a sledge hammer and mine his way to more profound and astonishing depths. He and his cronies destroyed decades of social progress at home, stoked the flames of the kind of conservatism that dances dangerously around fascism, dismantled international alliances and partnerships and agreements that had endured since the end of WWII, all while promulgating hate and ignorance. Trump’s reign of terror was pornographic in the scope of its depravity. His commitment to malice was carnal. And, boy, was it addictive!
A new scandal almost hourly. Remember when he almost created a 21st century missile crisis with North Korea? Or when he deconstructed NAFTA (the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada) and replaced it with the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement? Or when he got friendly with all the strongman bad guy presidents around the world? Or when he called a mob of racists “fine people”? Or when he threw paper towels at Puerto Ricans left homeless by a hurricane? Or when he had law enforcement use tear gas on peaceful protesters so he could hold up a bible next to a church? Or when he enacted a Muslim ban? Or when he was twice-impeached and saved only by lawmakers who conceded he was guilty but confident that he had learned his lesson? Or when he threw out the manual on pandemic response only to botch his response to a pandemic? Not to mention his unhinged late night Tweets… #Covfefe?
It was like watching a 60-car pile up happening on the highway. Brutal. Merciless. But you can’t look away. The sheer lunacy of it all was so detached from reality that taking it all in, learning to survive despite the onslaught of wretchedness pouring out of the White House every day, conditioned what – for me and many others – I think could be described as euphoric despair. So incredulous was the horror that it became an addiction. How will the late night hosts find a way to make us laugh at the absurdity? Will we live to see another day or will we be at war? Are we really about to repeal civil rights? I clung to OpEds, news stories, editorials, Tweets, comment threads… trying to stay afloat in the riptide of euphoric despair.
I was so eager for it to end. I rejoiced as Amanda Gorman intoned hope for renewal. I want to celebrate the major victories of Biden’s first year, even if he has faced unprecedented obstacles to executive success. But every day when I open my WaPo and NYT and NPR newsletters, that profane name still haunts my headlines: Trump. Trump. Trump.
Like an addict, I can’t stay on the wagon. Trump – click, read, euphoric despair. Trump – click, read, euphoric despair. Trump – click, read, euphoric despair. I do want to leave that behind. And if it were carnal and pornographic and inconsequential, maybe I might be able to. But the consequences are still so tangible.
Late Night with Stephen Colbert has held to their creative and witty policy of not stating TFG’s name in their script. If only not invoking his name could erase his shadow. But still he looms.
To ignore him would be to ignore the chasms of corruption and deficiency he revealed in our system. To leave him to history’s dustbin would be to play right into the grand scheme of the Grand Old Party – their wicked plot to desensitize us to legitimate trauma so they can move the needle gradually toward their twisted dream of a plutocracy.
As painful as it is, we must keep talking about Trump. He must continue to be the villain of the news. Because we must be reminded what villainy is! Trump has made it clear that he is not done with us, so scouring though it may be, we cannot be done with him yet either, or with everything he represents.
I’ve said it before – he is not the cancer of the modern conservative movement, but he is one of its most repugnant tumors. It is our unfortunate duty to biopsy this pestilent mass and do our best to diagnose the root of its evil and then excise it. As we stare down a threatening midterm season, we must not let the evil metastasize.