Last December, when he was still president-elect, Donald Trump celebrated in his narcissistic style by quibbling with his Time magazine cover as “Person of the Year.” First, he complained about not being “Man of the Year.” He suggested that he was denied that honor because we are now in an age of political correctness. His complaint implied that only males should be included in the competition for the designation. He also was not happy with the subtitle on the cover that referred to him as “President of the Divided States of America.” Trump grumbled about how he could not be the source of the division because he was not yet president. He missed that a person who ran a historically divisive campaign might deserve that appellation.
Now Trump is president. He is as clueless as ever, whether in suggesting that Frederick Douglass is still alive, or in thinking that it is okay for the president to bully Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s fashion line.
He is also still hell-bent on lying, about millions of “illegal” immigrants voting for Hillary, about the inauguration crowd size, about refugee terrorists and much more.
Yet it seems Trump is no longer the Great Divider. Now he is the Great Unifier, though this is unintentional. Trump is uniting the country in opposition to everything he does. The level of protesting and demonstration in response to his actions is unprecedented. It is historic.
It is not just about crowd size (at the protests). Interestingly, Trump is bringing leftists and liberals together around the project of defending the traditions and institutions associated with liberal democracy. Trump has done something nobody previously could: he has made us all conservatives. Well, at least for now.
Admittedly, people may well be defending liberal democracy now, so they can later go back to complaining about its imperfections. They may be doing it only temporarily so they can return to debating whether to work within the system or try to transcend it to something better. Nonetheless, for now, they are willing to work together to oppose Trump as a real and profound threat to liberal democracy.
Trump’s presidency has given us a lightning bolt of clarity. It has shown the country what a constitutional crisis actually looks like. People are recognizing that this not a time for indecision. Everyone must decide which side are they on: are they for protecting the existing system of liberal democracy or are they willing to allow it to go in the dustbin of history. Most people are choosing the former. That means standing up to Trump now in unequivocal terms.
In just a few weeks, Trump has proven beyond any doubt whatsoever that his presidency is hell-bent on overturning our existing system of governance. He is not your ordinary disrupter interested in shaking things up to get better results. He wants to burn the whole house down. Trump’s frenetic activity of the first days of his presidency have impressed upon growing numbers of people that he has the biggest of ambitions for regime change, right here at home.
Trump has shown he believes we need not liberal democracy but iron-fisted autocracy. His early actions have all the hallmarks of autocratic rule.
First, he repeatedly says that only he knows what should be done and only he can do it. Witness the series of dramatically staged signings of executive orders, memos, and proclamations.
Second, his actions most often have no basis in fact, rational argument or even popular support. His administration is fact-free or, as his surrogates have demonstrated, wedded to alternative facts and fabricated incidents.
Third, the president persistently lies about all kinds of things, large and small, even when he must know that everyone else knows he is lying. He almost never retracts his lies and misstatements, and persistently doubles down about even the most outrageous untruths and disprovable assertions spoken by him and his staff. He expects people to live with his lies or suffer his retribution.
Fourth, the president incessantly rails against the press, especially when it calls out his lying. He impugns just about anyone who resists, be it union leaders, members of Congress, the civil service or even state legislators. He is the demonizer-in-chief.
It is increasingly clear, to more and more people, that the president is warming up to defy the limits that our system of government has placed upon the power of his office. People are not yet willing to give up liberal democracy and turn it over to a mentally unstable autocrat. Instead of giving up, they are rising up.
It turns out that people want to protect the basic principles of free speech, a free press, the public’s right to check power, and the rule of law, including the idea that no one, not even the president, is above that law. It turns out you can get people to show up to defend political fundamentals.
It might sound quaint, but people are increasingly recognizing that liberal democracy creates the basis for our ability to work for something better. People are demonstrating that they want the pillars of liberal democracy to persist. They prefer conservation of our traditions and institutions to Trump, with his lying and his megalomania. They want him gone, rather than the flawed traditions and institutions that protect our ability to dream of something better.
Here’s hoping the people get their wish.