That was the beginning of the end.
The end may take six months, or 18, or two years, or three and change. God forbid it could take longer. But that press conference opened a new door.
The door leads to the grim place where no person in a position of responsibility in this country can now deny Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency.
This is the president of the United States we’re talking about. A president is supposed to make an effort to comfort. Say unifying things. Try to reach for words that can help mend the fragile civic fabric. Whatever their failings, Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and every one of them, at least in the television age, tried to speak healing words at moments like this.
Trump gathered up the civic fabric, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire.
Hard to know where to start. Probably with his defense of the Friday night protesters. They were “protesting very quietly.”
This is what Friday night looked like:
And no, it’s wasn’t exactly “quiet,” either:
It was orderly. I’ll give them that. But it was neo-Nazis! Hundreds of white supremacists. At night. Carrying torches. We have a president for whom that scene sets off no historical alarm bells. For whom that Friday night march through U. Va., where participants mixed “You will not replace us” with “Jew will not replace us,” was no different from people marching for the right to vote or a decent wage.
The ignorance, the demagoguery. Yes, we’ve seen them before, but not quite like this. “Are we gonna take down statues to George Washington? Thomas Jefferson?”, Trump asked Tuesday.
No, ignoramus. We are not. They owned slaves, yes. But George Washington made the republic possible when he resigned his military commission in 1793, thereby spurning a mob that wanted him to become dictator; and Thomas Jefferson wrote the first all-encompassing statute for religious freedom in the history of the world—which covered, by the way, not just Christians but Jews and Hindus and “Mohametans,” as Muslims were sometimes called back then.
Washington refused absolute power, something few men in history have ever done, and something Trump sure would never understand. Jefferson was the author of religious liberty (which included equal liberty for the non-religious, by the way). They were great men. They were flawed as all men are. The way we as a society have decided to deal with is that Monticello is finally opening up Sally Hemings’ room next year. But we’re certainly not taking statues of them down.
Trump hasn’t the slightest idea of any of this. To equate those two men with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who decided (in Lee’s case reluctantly, but he decided) to fight for the Confederacy is staggeringly stupid.
But most of all it was his tone, his imperious, shut-up, eff-you tone. Alt-left, just as violent as the supremacists (ponder that: he equated white-supremacist protesters with white supremacists!). . That “I’m not finished, fake news” (presumably to CNN’s Jim Acosta). That petty little shot at John McCain, over his health care vote. Twice. And most of all, that “when I make a statement, I want to have the facts.” Facts? Facts?!? Mr. Birther?
When I said “the end” above, I don’t necessarily mean the end of the Trump presidency. I do mean the end of any pretense of Trumpian legitimacy—the end of the period of time when any person, as noted above, in a position of responsibility in this society has to stop pretending.
What we saw today was different from anything we’ve seen before. Which is saying something, I know, but it’s true. For example, I might have written three or 12 months ago that it was my view that Trump was capable of empowering people who want a race war. People could have poohed-poohed that then. After that performance, no one can wave that possibility away.
It’s all too real. With this performance, the supremacists armies who might have been deflated by Trump’s relative even-handedness Monday are re-stoked. They’re going to do this again. Counter-protestors are going to show up. Can anyone now doubt that Trump could well choose words that would make things worse?
People have to start thinking about how much of this they can abide. Cabinet officers, can you continue to serve in this man’s cabinet? Jeff Sessions, when will you tell this president no, the president does not tell the Justice Department what to do? Sarah Huckabee Sanders, how much longer can you stand up there at that podium? Republicans in Congress, how much longer are you willing to pretend? Corporate leaders, when will you say what you know to be true?How much longer can they all pretend?
I’ve been reading a lot of 19th-century history lately. We had many terrible presidents. They were weak men, mostly, because of the way our party systems worked then. Both parties—whether Democrats and Whigs in the mid-1800s or Democrats and Republicans later—were ideologically divided within themselves, so the presidential candidate they settled on was often a kiss-your-sister compromise choice. They felt intra-party pressure from right and left, and it left them paralyzed.
So they were bad in a kind of passive way. Later presidents were bad because they weren’t up to the job. Warren Harding just wanted to drink and play cards with his buddies. (I can relate!)
But they weren’t bad in this way. Very few—no; none, not even Nixon—were bad in the Trump way. Nixon at least was intelligent about history and the world. Trump combines Nixon’s malevolence with staggering ignorance with toxic hatred in his soul for anyone who doesn’t hail him with the emotional armature of a five year old. But most five years olds don’t have millions of white supremacists (David Duke loved Trump’s press conference) and a powerful media network behind them.
Today, Trump made his own illegitimacy clear. But that doesn’t end his presidency, or the damage he can do.