After President Barack Obama took office eight years ago, conservatives were reminded that, to quote Adam Smith, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.
The right-wing depiction of Obama’s America was fantastically apocalyptic, but often drew upon truths. When Paul Ryan warned that Obama would plunge the country into a Greece-like debt crisis, he was completely wrong, and honest experts across the ideological spectrum said as much, but the claim resonated with Obama’s political foes because budget deficits in the aftermath of the Great Recession were very high.
When Republican members of Congress and others warned that Obama was going to inflict socialized medicine on the nation, just like the health systems in sluggish, left-wing European countries, they were being both dishonest and confused. But Obama and many Democrats really do think the United States should have a more comprehensive welfare state than we do, and would happily draw upon lessons from Europe to get us there.
The idea that this amounted to ruin in a nation has always struck liberals as ridiculous, but true to the original meaning of the expression, the ruin persisted throughout the Obama years, and America survived.
The Trump presidency has been a source of wider-spread and more well-founded alarm than the idea of the Obama presidency. The mixture of incompetence, extremism, and erraticism Trump brings to the White House elevates the risk of genuine national destruction to an uncomfortable level.
Ten days into President Donald Trump’s administration, liberals are wondering whether the nation can endure four years of the kind of ruin the president is already inflicting. The challenge is to not replicate the Republican habit of mischaracterizing, intentionally or otherwise, every offensive thing Trump does as a threat to national integrity. It is in sorting through the mess of policies, pronouncements, leaks, and other unassorted chaos to distinguish between bad policies or mismanagement and genuine threats to the constitutional order—and then to imagine what the country will look like after four years of it all.
Even under great strain to resist hyperbole, the picture that emerges is ugly.
It took one week for the president to be successfully sued, after he attempted to promulgate a version of his Muslim ban through executive order. The order itself was sloppily written, and almost, if not entirely, unvetted. It resulted in not just refugees being denied entry or reentry into the United States, but lawful permanent residents, as well.
After multiple federal judges temporarily enjoined parts of the order, it quickly became unclear whether the Trump administration was attempting to enforce it anyhow (committing contempt of court and potentially an impeachable offense) or whether Border Patrol agents essentially were taking law into their own hands by denying lawyers access to their clients detained at airports.
Even if Trump follows through on his plan to “again be issuing visas to all countries once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days,” the damage he has done will be lasting.
The notion that the U.S. would even consider reneging on commitments made to refugees and green card holders is a permanent scar on the country’s credibility. If, for even just 90 days, the American government uses religious conviction as part of its decision-making process regarding who can or can’t enter the country, suspicions about our national character will long outlast Trump’s presidency.
Likewise, law enforcement officers who revel in the impunity Trump offers them will be with us for years after he’s gone. It might be a stretch to say that the rule of law broke down within 10 days of Trump taking the oath of office, but not by much, and 10 days is a very small amount of time. To the extent that the damage the order inflicted on the organs of democracy was limited, it was mitigated, in the words of the legal writer Benjamin Wittes, “chiefly—and perhaps only—by the astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction.” This left a nakedly bigoted and quite possibly unconstitutional policy more exposed to immediate legal challenge than it otherwise might have been.
These are the unsettling projected consequences of just one heedless, power-mad action, but there’s every reason to believe similar depredations are to come. The Washington Post has reported that the administration sought input on the order from Trump’s designated attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Should the Alabama senator be confirmed as expected, he will have enormous influence over the executive actions Trump takes and every intention of turning a blind eye to Trump’s lawlessness.
The Sessions Justice Department will likewise oversee a witch hunt Trump has ordered into voter impersonation fraud in states Hillary Clinton won. Vice President Mike Pence told Republican members of Congress that the administration will “initiate a full evaluation of voting rolls in the country and the overall integrity of our voting system in the wake of this past election,” after which Sessions could feasibly attempt to purge legally registered voters in Democratic precincts.
Trump is questioning the legitimacy of an election he won, to claim more public backing than voters gave him. Should the groundswell of opposition to his presidency sustain itself through his first term, and cost him a bid for reelection, it is easy to imagine him calling the validity of the returns into question and refusing to initiate a transition process. That Trump managed to win this election despite a huge popular vote deficit has both prolonged our reckoning with his threat to the integrity of our democratic elections and given us new reasons to suspect he will make good on that threat.
The danger confronting democracy in the U.S. hasn’t been this great in nearly a century, but despite all this ruin, the situation is not hopeless. The impeachment power is still plenary, even if Republicans are unlikely to invoke it. The 25th Amendment to the constitution empowers the vice president and cabinet to temporarily wrest control of the executive branch away from the president and force the House of Representatives to settle the question of whether he is fit to serve. (Yes, the case for optimism is premised in part on the assumption that Trump is mentally ill.) Irrespective of Congress, this past weekend proved that our democratic and civil society institutions, however flawed and weakened, are still working. Trump did something illegal. Civil libertarians challenged it. Every court agreed with them. The new secretary of Homeland Security responded accordingly.
Assuming Trump serves out his first term in its entirety, it’s important to remember that lost esteem can be reclaimed quickly. America was widely despised around the world after eight years of the George W. Bush administration—then voters elected Barack Obama in a landslide, he reversed some of his predecessors worst affronts, and global impressions swiftly changed. Trump won under very unusual circumstances. If he is defeated soundly in 2020, the U.S. would send a strong message to the world that his time in power was an aberration.
But these reminders are small consolation. Almost no presidents are removed from office, and most presidents are reelected. The dispassionate case for pessimism is strong.