WASHINGTON — Even for those of us who braced for catastrophe, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency was worse than expected — more divisive, mean-spirited, erratic, unhinged, incompetent and egomaniacal than could have been imagined. Any glimmer of hope for a better Trump after the election, any speck of it once he took his oath of office, all that is now extinguished.
Sure, there are glimpses of the seemingly reasonable guy beloved by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the one who on Tuesday says he’ll “take all the heat” on immigration, who wants to sign a “bill of love.” Do not be fooled. He is a chimera. By Thursday he will have vanished, leaving you feeling slimed and gaslighted. Graham was right the first time: Trump is a “kook” who is “unfit for office.”
Even after all that came before, this presidency does not lose its power to horrify. Nothing — not even the Trump campaign and Trump transition — truly prepared us for a president who behaves as Trump has. The biggest lie ever told by a candidate to the American people came from Trump, repeatedly, during the campaign: “At the right time, I will be so presidential, you will be so bored.” Now we know: He is characterologically incapable of fulfilling this vow.
But it is important, as we steel ourselves for Year Two, to identify what is so extremely, so uniquely wrong with Trump’s presidency.
It is not ideology. Whatever his own political convictions, if any, Trump has governed, mostly, as a conservative. And so many true conservatives reconcile themselves to swallowing Trump’s outrages by pointing to what they consider his achievements: The confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch and a record number of conservative appellate judges. The move to dismantle or loosen rules across the regulatory landscape. The passage of a major tax cut. The withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. The repeal of the individual mandate to purchase health care. The crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
It is important to remember, as we fume about Trump, that any Republican president, enabled by a Republican House and Senate, would have done most if not all of these things. People like me may disagree with those actions, but they are the natural result of having elected a Republican president. Don’t conflate or confuse Trump outrage with outrage over run-of-the mill Republican policies. Elections have consequences.
Likewise, it is not, or not only, about temperament, as expressed in tweets and similar outbursts, and in the unceasing eruption of untruths that spew forth with no hint of embarrassment. These are unnerving and unseemly. That we are having a national parsing of the invisible distinction between “hole” and “house” illustrates how much Trump has degraded the office. And when it comes to provocations like “Little Rocket Man” and boasts about button size, Trump’s tantrums may be affirmatively dangerous.
The mantra among Trump-reconciled conservatives is that while the tweeting may be unfortunate and regrettable, it is fundamentally irrelevant and should be ignored, like an unsightly rash. This approach is essentially correct. Trump’s tweets offer a cyber-billboard for his narcissism and ignorance. But the tweeting alone, along with other displays of emotional incontinence, does not get to the essence of the Trump problem.
Which is two-fold, a short-term threat and a long-term one. The immediate risk is to national security: Will Trump provoke or instigate war with North Korea, or dangerously mishandle some other international crisis? It is little comfort to conclude that our best hope lies in the rationality of Kim Jung Un and the steadying influence of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
The longer-term and greater danger is that Trump does not believe in American ideals and institutions. He does not believe in a free press or free speech; left unconstrained, he would crack down on both. He does not believe in the rule of law, a Justice Department free of political interference, the separation of powers or an independent judiciary. He does not believe in the United States as a beacon and example to the world. My continuing confidence remains that our institutions can withstand this assault and that our national reputation has been so well-earned that others will understand: Trump does not reflect who we are.
“Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny,” Bruce Springsteen sang. No, we won’t, not with Trump. What we can hope — and what we must pray — is that we will look back on the Trump presidency as a blot on our nation’s honor, an aberration from our history and a moment from which we emerged, not unscathed, but more resolute for having endured it.
(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group