With Donald Trump away vacationing at one of his golf resorts, the rest of us may have a chance to relax. But in truth it’s more like a short break in a continuing nightmare. Just enough time to turn on the light, look at the clock and ponder where we are, before the nightmare envelopes us again.
What can we ponder that will make all of this a bit less frightening? For one thing, it could be far worse. Trump could have fulfilled his campaign promises to repeal Obamacare, lock Hillary up, build a wall, and throw out all immigrants without papers.
By now he might have confused so many Americans about the truth that most of us would believe the words coming out of his mouth. Hell, by now he could have incited another civil war.
Actually very little has happened. He’s huffed and puffed, threatened and fumed, yet almost none of it has found its way into concrete laws. And it may not: The typical “honeymoon” enjoyed by new presidents is over for him. His first hundred days came and left, almost without a trace.
Another thing is Trump’s “favorables,” as pollsters call them, continue to tumble into territory never before seen at this stage of a presidency. Only about a third of the country still supports him; the opinions of the rest range from bad to awful. And his credibility is shot.
Even Republicans in Congress are now more willing to buck him (some are even talking about fixing what needs fixing in Obamacare). Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury with the power to subpoena Trump’s financial records. Didn’t Trump hint he’d fire Mueller if he did this? Wouldn’t firing Mueller be the beginning of the end?
Trump has also ignited a prairie fire of grassroots activism, almost all of it against him. Across the country, people who were never politically active are rolling up their sleeves and getting involved – attending congressional town meetings, writing letters to the editors of their local papers, organizing for the 2018 midterms. Some are even running themselves.
This outburst of political effort resisting Trump has no parallel in recent history. John F. Kennedy asked Americans to ponder what they might do for America; Donald Trump is getting them to actually do it.
In the middle of the night one’s thoughts also turn to where we are in life. Trump was born in 1946, the same year Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Robert Mueller and, coincidentally, Clinton’s own special prosecutor, Ken Starr were born. And yours truly. We are all, shall we say, beyond our prime. There’s only so much damage a septuagenarian can do from here on.
To put it another way, a few weeks from now I’ll be returning to the classroom and a new crop of college freshmen. They were born in or around 1998. Chronologically, they’re as far removed from Trump and the rest of us early boomers as we were, when we went to college, from Americans born in 1912. Which is to say, a very long way.
So unless Trump brings on a nuclear war that ends life as we know it on the planet, he is unlikely to have much influence on the lives of my upcoming freshmen. His first (and perhaps only) term in office will be over when they’re just 22. Think of being 22 years old and having your whole life ahead of you, without Trump.
At the same time, Trump has been a boon to ethicists, moral philosophers, and the rest of us who tend to wake up in the night and think about big scary things. Trump has brought the nation back to first principles.
Most presidents spur debates over things like whether the economy needs a more stimulative fiscal policy, or whether America should support the expansion of NATO to the Baltic states. Trump has made us debate whether the U.S. economy can exist separate from the rest of the world, and whether we should even belong to NATO.
Some presidents get us talking about civil rights and civil liberties. Trump has got us talking about democracy versus tyranny.
I don’t mean to minimize the damage he’s already done. I don’t remember America so angry and divided – not even through the battles over civil rights and Vietnam. Trump has also demeaned the office of the presidency, licensed bigotry, appointed absurdly incompetent people to his cabinet, violated every ethics and conflict-of-interest rule imaginable, reduced America’s influence and moral authority in the world, and may even have conspired with a foreign power to rig a presidential election.
That’s a lot in just under seven months. He deserves a vacation.
But taking the slightly longer view, the nation is still functioning. Our democratic institutions have so far stood the test and remain strong, just as the founding fathers intended. Presidential power is checked and balanced so the current occupant of the Oval Office is hemmed in. Plus, our friends and allies around the world understand that our condition is temporary. America will be back.
It has been an incredibly stressful time, but most of us are OK. In fact, I’d venture to say most Americans remain optimistic – especially my upcoming college freshmen, who have their whole lives ahead of them.
First published on RobertReich.org.