Since his election, Donald Trump has been a mirror, held up to us Americans and propelling us to ask: How did we get here?
I am the son of an Air Force brigadier general and served myself to the rank of colonel. Of my 57 years drawing breath, I’ve spent 51 of them directly or indirectly serving this once great nation. So, as you might imagine, I found myself on Nov. 8, 2016, more than a little dismayed at the news we had elevated Donald J. Trump to the nation’s highest office — a man so clearly unfit to lead America.
But over time I’ve come to appreciate Trump in ways I did not expect. Now, I am thankful that we elected Trump. Because Donald Trump is exactly what America needed. Trump is a mirror, a warning, and ultimately a catalyst for change. Reflected in Trump is all that is wrong with the United States: the injustice of our broken social contract, the crassness of our politics, and the cruelty of our economy. Trump is also the shock that a mature democracy needs for action. To use a timely metaphor, Trump and his supporters are a virus, and they have activated our democratic antibodies. What we are seeing in the streets is the body fighting the infection.
America was the first modern nation, created of, by, and for the people — supposedly a nation with no class structure, where anyone could reach their potential. But that was a myth. America had classes: slaves at the bottom — treated not as people but property — then poor and working-class whites, and atop it all our original aristocracy of landed gentry and traders in the South, merchants and industrialists in the North. We fought a civil war to end slavery but failed in its aftermath to establish the more perfect union mentioned by our Founders. What we are seeing in our current moment is not only a race war but a class war. America must confront systemic racism to move forward, but it also must acknowledge that we have created a permanent underclass of all colors (though mostly Black and brown). We are a society where your melanin content and your zip code determine your future.
Beginning with Newt Gingrich in 1994, Republicans stopped trying to govern and instead began accumulating power. McKay Coppins writes in his profile of Gingrich in the Atlantic, “… few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise.” Effective governance requires compromise, trust, and mutual respect. Gingrich’s new version of Republican had no interest in that. He destroyed the bipartisan structures for governing and even resorted to name-calling and conspiracy theories — over the line at the time, but in hindsight presaging Trumpism.
A straight line can be drawn from Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to the tea party in 2009. Another outsider movement characterized by distrust of government, expertise, and experience, the tea party helped elect a rogues’ gallery of loathsome lawmakers — I’m looking at you, Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas). Trump’s dystopian vision of America is the ultimate flowering of the outsider, populist, anti-government thinking that has metastasized in the Republican Party over the past decades.
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