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Our Frightening Moment Was Years in the Making

It's comforting to think that 2020's first week of chaos is the fruit of the Trump era, but this has been a long time coming.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

We are one week into the 2020s and the last year of Donald Trump’s first term, which will see both the third-ever impeachment trial for an American president and an election that is already wracking the country with anxiety. Ominously, we were ushered into the new year on Friday with the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, a move that prompted an Iranian counterattack on Tuesday evening. Briefly on Monday, it seemed Soleimani’s killing had also set in motion a true end to the war in Iraq—a letter notifying the Iraqi government that American troops would be withdrawn from the country materialized but was soon disavowed by American officials, who said it had been released by mistake. The shock of the past several days was captured by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that night:

A lot of truly horrible things have happened under Donald Trump as president. Nearly 3,000 of our fellow Americans died in Puerto Rico after the administration’s weak hurricane response. Thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents kept in cages; dozens of immigrants, including children, have died in ICE custody. But a brand-new war run by this corrupt, incurious president, that is the ultimate fear. A fear that looks very close right now to being a reality. In the wake of his ordering the airstrike of the number two figure in Iran, millions of people marching the streets in Iran, Trump is now tweeting the way he always tweets, making outrageous declarations and threats. But now the difference is this. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be.

The stakes are indeed high, but for all the anxieties and uncertainties of this moment in the Trump presidency, it should be said that we already know, or ought to know, where many of the situations we face came from and where they are likely to lead. The Senate’s impeachment trial, whenever and however it begins, will end with Trump’s acquittal, an outcome guaranteed by the Constitution’s supermajority requirement for conviction and Trump’s durable popularity within the Republican Party—which would imperil any Republican Senator voting against him, assuming, optimistically, there were a meaningful number willing to do so on the merits of the case to begin with.

The matters to which Hayes referred were, even if not fully predictable, certainly prefigured. The Trump administration’s shoddy response to Hurricane Maria parallels the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina as a reminder of what can befall nonwhite Americans who live at the periphery of our national attention. It was also a reminder, for those open to one, of Puerto Rico’s subjugated status, a legacy of colonial aspirations reinforced by policies like Promesa, the Obama administration’s attempt to force fiscal austerity on the territory at the hands of unelected administrators. Trump’s immigration policies immediately followed, and were partially informed by, the Obama administration’s efforts to deport millions of the undocumented, which also broke up untold numbers of families.

Trump’s assassination of Soleimani, of course, has its own antecedents. War with Iran has long been feared because it has long been plausible, an outcome that, even if it occurs at Trump’s direction, will have been set in motion by decades of American foreign policy. To the extent that Trump has discernible objectives with Iran, they are the very same goals that have guided our relations with the country for years—preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power and further challenging American interests. Hawks and most doves alike would like to see events in the region proceed in a direction maximally convenient for the United States, which makes economic, diplomatic, and military interventions inevitable.

It is notable that most mainstream criticisms of Soleimani’s assassination have been centered around questions of strategy—the wisdom of taking out a monster the way Trump did at the time he chose to do it. The questions of prerogative have been all but settled, the last administration having already established that the U.S. can summarily kill almost anyone abroad that the president considers sufficiently dangerous, up to and including American citizens. Similarly, while Trump’s threat to bomb cultural sites in Iran has been denounced widely, easily, and rightfully as a threat to commit war crimes prohibited by international law, that phrase has only ever been fitfully applied to our torture and abuse of military detainees or our efforts to materially aid Saudi Arabia’s ongoing slaughters of civilians in Yemen. There has long been bipartisan ambivalence, overall, about the legal limits of American military activity and aid, and the present tensions have been crafted not only by Trump but by members of the American political establishment. This is why it was unsurprising to hear, as The New York Times has reported, that the killing of Soleimani was pushed aggressively by Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—two men who were fairly ordinary Republicans before the Trump administration and will be ordinary Republicans again when it ends.

The great fear taking hold as Americans watch events in Iran and Iraq unfold is that history might repeat or outdo itself. Pence’s dishonest invocation of 9/11 in defense of the assassination, for instance—the Vice President falsely claimed in a tweet that Soleimani had helped the hijackers travel to Afghanistan—echoes for many the period before the Iraq War, when toppling Saddam Hussein was justified on similar grounds, and enthusiasm for a large, meaningful conflict wholly eclipsed skepticism and reason. But it is estimated by military experts that it would take about 1.6 million troops to capture Tehran—a number that outstrips our current military capacity and could well demand the conscription that was the subject of perhaps thousands of half-ironic social media posts in the immediate wake of Soleimani’s death. This is a political impossibility. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration held far more credibility among the American public than Trump holds now—more, in fact, than any president is likely to hold again in the near future given the deepening of partisan polarization. Iraq-style regime change seems less likely than an ongoing tit-for-tat. This would certainly be risky for American troops but, as has been the case for decades, far riskier for civilians in the region who will suffer and die just outside the corner of the public eye.

To anticipate something more cataclysmic for Americans here—such as World War III, as some breathlessly speculated over the weekend—is to believe that the presidency of Donald Trump, and his election in 2016, have brought us into a world of chaotic possibility, a world where the unlikely ought to be expected here and abroad. Much has happened over the past few years to reinforce this impression—from Trump’s unpredictable ravings on social media and at his rallies, to the outbursts of political violence in 2017 and 2018.

But we can, and should, think about the Trump era in a different way—we should understand that cruelties and catastrophes that appear senseless have been made possible by long-standing conditions and factors which have accrued over time. This is one of the central divides in American political thought today—the gulf between those who believe Donald Trump is an agent of chaos and those who believe Donald Trump is an agent of history, pulling us further down a path already laid by previous action, our political institutions, and stratifying power dynamics, including class oppression, white supremacy, and sexism. The latter view has been memefied as the “big structural change” perspective on the 2020 campaign trail, but its implications are more profound.

For instance, the endless and often tiresome contretemps over the 1619 Project—last year’s examination of slavery’s centrality to the American story in The New York Times Magazine—is essentially reducible to a disagreement over whether our country is defined by a set of founding ideals, now and then betrayed or undermined by bad actors, or by a set of structural forces that have materially shaped our political and societal outcomes. The idealist spirit, which once drove the Times’ David Brooks to criticize Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing on race for “excessive realism”—an extraordinarily telling phrase—typically prevails in American politics for reasons that are often chalked up to the complexity of structural and historical analyses and the public’s lack of civic education.

But the critiques politicians receive whenever they do try to get the public to dig deeper also matter. On Monday, New York magazine ran a profile of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that contained this fairly innocuous passage:

I asked her what she thought her role would be as a member of Congress during, for instance, a Joe Biden presidency. “Oh God,” she said with a groan. “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”

In democracies across the globe, left-wing politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and politicians closer to the center like Biden do, in fact, often find themselves in different parties. The coalitions that make up the two major American parties are, by comparison, relatively broad, owing in large part to the design of our particular system. But Ocasio-Cortez’s remark was taken by some as a petty and purely personal slight against Joe Biden and others in the party. Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams, for instance, tweeted that she had offered an example “of why people can’t stand Washington.”

These were reactions born of a political discourse that centers individual virtue and conscious agency, a dynamic that has influenced everything from the remarkable argument, earlier in the primary, over the propriety of mildly criticizing the Obama administration from the Democratic debate stage, to the perennial conversations about whether it is fair to ascribe racism or prejudice to those who support racist or prejudiced policies without clear evidence of personal hatred. We are always far more interested in the personalities of particular people than we are in the ground under all of our feet.

This makes it easy for many to view Trump, himself, as the locus of all that ails America and his election as an extraordinary event. That is the perception currently sustaining Biden’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination. In a Politico piece Tuesday, reporter David Siders described an event for Biden in Iowa where the audience had already well internalized his warning that Trump’s reelection would “fundamentally change the character of the nation.”

At a Biden event at the minor league baseball stadium in Davenport, a man asked, “Can America survive Trump in office for another year?”

A collection of answers rang out from around the room: “No.” And before Biden addressed the crowd, Scott County Supervisor Ken Croken cast the weight of the upcoming caucuses in equally somber terms.…

He said, “I fear that our democracy will not survive four more years of the imperial Trump presidency with his lack of understanding and respect for the Constitution.”

It’s fairly likely that no matter who wins the 2020 presidential election, and no matter what happens over the course of the next presidential term, the U.S. will exist at the end of 2024. Trump, obviously, has no respect for the norms that have governed his office, and his abuses of power have been deeply troubling. But the greatest extant threats to the functioning of American democracy today are structural—the disproportionate and growing influence conservative regions hold in the Senate and electoral college, for instance—or involve attempts to undermine the democratic process, including Republican efforts to strip the vote from African Americans. Biden has pledged to protect the vote but has also pledged, sincerely or not, to leave some of the major disparities in our political system untouched even if given the opportunity to reform them and even as they continue to confer power upon politicians who share Trump’s beliefs and have been willing to tolerate his behavior.

That accrual of power, of course, would be aided significantly by a second Trump term. This, again, speaks to what is so structurally troubling about Trump as a political figure and his potential reelection. The Trump presidency, whenever it ends, will have done much not just to worsen the American political situation but also to set us further along the road that brought us to him to begin with—and that may lead us to worse places still. As disorienting as any given moment in what remains of the Trump years may feel, promises for a return to comfortable stability should be rejected in favor of a recognition that we cannot return to a status quo that we never truly left.