February 1, 2017

KOWALEWSKI | It’s Happening Now

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The grim spectacle of Donald Trump’s campaign has transitioned into the grim spectacle of the American  presidency. A mere two weeks have elapsed since President Trump’s inauguration, and already the nation has settled into a routine of expansive executive orders and subsequent corresponding outrage. The vulnerable are under attack, shame is a forgotten concept and the White House seems devoted to the personal aggrandizement of the president above all else.

We are in an accelerated America hurling through history. And there are sickening indications that our potential destination is a familiar one. When Trump speaks of an “American carnage” that can only be solved through his agenda of putting “America first,” he is making deliberate allusions. The author of these words, Steve Bannon, knows the history of the America First movement. He’s well aware of its racist connotations. Indeed, behind Trump’s confused attempts at governing is a man with a clear vision.

Already, Steve Bannon has emerged as the key figure within the corridors of the West Wing. His nationalist — and yes, white nationalist — ideology has been the driving force behind the early moves of the Trump administration. It is motivated by an active desire to return the United States to a more Christian, more white past. If Trump’s nostalgic calls to Make America Great Again were deliberately ambiguous, Bannon has begun the job of articulating them into policy.

Moreover, Bannon has also been candid that he seeks to advance these goals through the destruction of the current political system. In this context, the administration’s chaotic strategy makes sense. The White House intends for this rapid bombardment of new policies to overwhelm the political conversation, and they do so with  little concern for the opposition it might encounter. They are drawing broad contrasts with the existing order, appealing to the same base that ushered Trump into the White House.

Nonetheless, the fact that such a strategy exists does not mean it will succeed. It is tempting to craft narratives of a puppet president guided by his shadowy mastermind. As of now, such a narrative would appear to be correct. But this is a premise, not a conclusion. Avoid giving Bannon, and Trump, too much credit. Even if their attempts to foment unrest are intentional, we are also dealing with a situation of profound incompetence.

The Trump administration is remarkably devoid of any previous governmental experience. Every bureaucratic mess and nonsensical Trump statement is not a stroke of subtle genius. Resist the urge to interpret every negative story as a distraction from the “real story, ” whatever that may be. Trump and his allies are not great at what they do. However, they don’t necessarily need to be.

Donald Trump enjoys a Republican-controlled Congress that has no desire to check or investigate his power grabs. Despite choosing a disturbing mix of incredibly unqualified and extremely radical cabinet nominees, almost all of them appear likely to be confirmed. His blatant, ego-driven lies continue to be repeated by the media. Further, while his approval ratings are already underwater, Trump has never commanded a majority of the electorate. This might just be sustainable.

 

Trump certainly believes it is. After all, we have never had an administration with less faith in the American people. The president openly proclaims the failure of our country. Many of those who work for Trump are devoid of the capacity for genuine public service, and they project their failures onto the public. They believe that their lies do not matter and that their hypocrisy can be ignored. These are the people, such as Bannon, who have wrestled their way into the most powerful positions of our country. We must reject their vision of citizenship.

Fortunately, the public is rising to the occasion. Beginning with the Women’s March, the single largest day of protest in this country’s history, Trump has spurred unprecedented mobilization. With a stroke of a pen, he spontaneously transformed airports into the newest venue of political solidarity. All around the country, a sense of mutual obligation is developing. This is a crucial aspect of resilience to the Trump administration.

Further, our shared empathy should be wedded to an understanding of sacrifice and service. What does this mean? Take simply the example of Sally Yates, the former Acting Attorney General under President Trump. Facing the pressure of the most powerful man on Earth, Yates was not afraid. Fully aware of the consequences, she declared that she would not defend an unconstitutional executive order.

Yates was fired. The White House declared that she had “betrayed” the Department of Justice. But her heroic actions can serve as an example for the rest of us, particularly those who hold positions of power. These times will present us with deeply uncomfortable decisions, and we must be prepared to make them.

This is not hypothetical. These decisions are happening now. Remember that authoritarianism is not necessarily spectacular. If it becomes a reality in the United States, it will set in subtly. Free speech will wither not through the burning of books, but through self-censorship. The separation of powers will not die through constitutional upheaval, but by an executive branch that continually pushes and expands the boundaries of its power. Hate and discrimination will rule quietly as marginalized groups are targeted, one by one, unprotected by the majority.

That’s what could happen. It doesn’t have to. And if these opening days mean anything, it won’t. This administration is ambitious and cruel, but it is still weak. Those opposed to its designs on our country must be keenly aware of how high the stakes are, but also firm in our confidence that we can change things. In these next few years, everything is possible. May that be the warning to us all, and the promise we make to each other.

 

Kevin Kowalewski is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at krk78@cornell.edu. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.