As I sit down to write this final column of the Trump presidency, it strikes me how exhausted and emotional those years have left me.
In the more than five years since I first turned to then-candidate Trump, I have reported a moral and political catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions that, as we saw on January 6, the U.S. executive branch -Government has been captured by gangsters and wannabe fascists. We have seen the advancement of mob politics and the promotion of deadly conspiracy theories. We have seen shameless, unforgivable demagogy and sycophancy. And we saw the perfection of a Big Lie policy that Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels would have understood all too well.
During the 2016 primaries and rallies, I interviewed Trump supporters who advocated the execution of Muslim Americans. A few years later, it was revealed that Trump wanted to shoot migrants in the legs as they tried to enter the United States and wanted alligator-filled moats on the southern border. How can I explain these “ideas” from the early half of the century to these grandchildren or great-grandchildren in my old age? How do I declare a president who calls a deadly white supremacist mob adorned with a series of Confederate, neo-Nazi and contemporary fascist flags and insignia against Congress? How do I declare a president who whipped up armed vigilantes to confront state governments trying to take public health measures to contain the deadliest pandemic in more than a century? How am I going to explain a president who wanted to condemn the military against racial justice protesters and who glorified the police shooting of journalists covering these protests? How am I going to explain a president who tweeted about nuclear threats in regimes he considered his enemies, who mocked democratically elected leaders around the world, and went out of their way to face some of the most notorious autocrats in the world?
I hope my soul will at some point recover from this agonizing, humiliated political moment – but it will be a long road to recovery. In all honesty, what has developed in America since 2016 has deeply drawn me and in a way that I have not yet fully articulated myself, it has shaken my faith in humanity to the core to generally do the right thing.
I say this to not get the focus on myself and not to imply that my experiences in the Trump era are extraordinary. On the contrary, I suspect tens of millions of Americans – and countless others around the world – feel the same way. We can all breathe out now, after holding our breath for four long years. But we already know that the damage will be great.
Trump was crazy, rude, bigoted, narcissistic, awkward, and criminal … but he was also bizarrely adept at getting large numbers of people to buy his bullshit and spreading that anger in society. All of this was disheartening and exhausting for those who could see through his smoke screen, who could see the evil creature hiding in the strong man reality tv character he had so carefully crafted. It was exhausting reading his nightly Twitter tirades and then reading the streams of threatening hate mail sent by his messianic followers after I wrote about those tirades. It was also exhausting to listen to his political makers in his cabinet, in Congress, in state houses and in local governments who mimicked his monstrous lies and apologized for his monstrous pull to violence.
Large numbers of Americans have suffered far more than me on the most intimate level during these bastard years: people separated from parents or siblings or children or spouses or lovers by ICE agents and whimsy executive orders aimed at banning this Land versus immigrants. Individuals who have had thugs online – and more recently in person – unleashed against them by the President. Officials whose careers have been ruined for telling the truth to power. Workers whose rights have been violated. Members of the LGBTQ + community whose legal protection has been undermined. Victims of hurricanes and forest fires that turned federal emergency aid into political football. Pandemic victims ignored by a president who appeared to believe he could make Covid-19 go away by simply refusing to speak to the nation about this terrible disease with any urgency, compassion or scientific understanding.
These last few years have been a collective stress test. How do we deal with relentless irrationality and relentless cruelty from on high? How do we navigate a landscape poisoned by Twitter trolls and mobs? How do we deal with the streams of undiluted poison, death threats, and other nonsense that the Trumpists have thrown at those they disagree politically with? How do we create the context for such a dizzying slide from rationality to cultism?
At noon on January 20, Trump becomes a private citizen again. Perhaps the wickedness of his presidency will subside and the feeling of pervasive chaos will dissipate. Perhaps America’s torn moral fabric will be mended in the months and years to come. Perhaps social media will really continue to mute Trump, leaving him no choice but to crawl back under the rock he came from. Perhaps the systems Trump tried so hard to break have the last laugh that survived a president and his inner circle who expressed nothing but disdain for the idea of rational, knowledge-based leadership.
Maybe … but don’t expect grace, decency, or humility from Trump. In retirement, the ex-president is likely to be at least as obnoxious as he was in office. He will continue to love the sound of his own voice and will likely continue to upset his mob. It will be a long time before we are cured of Trump’s dire presidency. But his shameful departure from Washington after his drubbing by voters and the collapse of his attempt to orchestrate a judicial and then a mob-fueled coup is at least a start.