“Don’t you want God to show up and say He’s kidding?” Louis C.K. asked Stephen Colbert on The Late Show a couple of weeks back.
Of course we do. Instead, during these past 100 days, God seems to have doubled down on the prank. Although optimists predicted that once he faced the reality of governing, Donald Trump would be thwarted and even tamed into a more conventional politician, and although the media scoff at Trump’s claims of unprecedented presidential accomplishment, for once Trump may almost be right when he boasts, with his customary mangling of English, “I don’t think that there is a presidential period of time in the first 100 days where anyone has done nearly what we’ve been able to do.”
While Trump’s legislative achievements have been less than meager, he has nevertheless succeeded in doing something profoundly consequential. Call it the Great Inversion. In just 100 days, he has turned America and the world upside down, so much so we may never be able to right ourselves again.
Many of us suspected that this would be the consequence of a Trump presidency. I wrote here the morning after his election that the idea of America had died. We didn’t just think that he was wrong on policy, though he was. We didn’t just think that he was psychologically unfit to occupy the White House, though he clearly is. We weren’t just afraid that he was an incurious lout who made decisions based on what fed his ego at the moment, though he is and does. And we weren’t just terrified at the political havoc he would wreak, though he has. We felt that he posed a mortal danger to everything that forms of the basis of our modern world, everything that knit us together as a society: reason, logic, language, values, science, history, common decency, community and democracy. And he is.
Donald Trump hasn’t just sought to destroy these bonds that united us, however tenuously; he has sought to invert them, to create a world in which each of these has been replaced by its opposite so that we can no longer tell up from down or day from night or truth from lies. Trump, using the buzzword of contemporary business, promised to disrupt the country. He has. And more.
But he has not disrupted the system, if by “system” you mean the prevailing social order. If anything, it is more ensconced than at any time since Calvin Coolidge, more in the hands of the rich and powerful. His disruption has been of the epistemological and moral sort. Not for nothing is the key adjective of Trump’s new America “fake,” as in fake news, fake history, fake photos, fake charitable contributions, fake promises and fake achievements.
We used to be bolted to certain verities. We used to agree on the idea of truth, the verifiability of facts, even if we disagreed on what constituted each. We used to agree on the basis of morality, even when we disagreed about particulars. We knew that groping women, leering at little girls, lying, stealing, bullying, hurting people whose only crime was powerlessness — we knew these things were wrong, and we gave them our opprobrium. Our society could not have existed without this general consensus.
Now Donald Trump has blown the bolts off the verities that anchored us. And in doing so, he performed his inversion, elevating lies over facts and bluster over moral values. That is a lot to accomplish in 100 days — to shatter not only what made us proud Americans, but what also made us human.
The counterargument, I realize, is that Trump’s 100 days have exposed him. He is historically unpopular — an aberration rather than a turning point.
People, we hear, are already regaining their senses. Even some Republican officeholders are distancing themselves from him, and the recent special elections — basically referenda on his early presidency — have indicated a sharp turn toward the Democrats.
I fear, however, that this is wishful thinking. Trump could be an aberration and a turning point. You cannot unring a bell. You cannot pretend that Trump was just some oddity or mistake and that we can and will expunge him from history once buyer’s remorse sets in. We now know an awful truth: It can happen here. It has.
So, yes, Trump is historically unpopular, but before you get too sanguine, he still has the allegiance of nearly 90 percent of rank-and-file Republicans, many of whom also don’t seem to regard those old verities as terribly significant. He is only a nuclear attack on North Korea away from seeing his popularity soar, and only a terrorist attack away from being granted near-dictatorial powers.
This is how he has changed our bearings. Progressive friends of mine pray for his impeachment, even though that means elevating a rabid homophobe and an antediluvian to the presidency. Trump makes Pence imaginable in the Oval Office because he himself is so unimaginable. His transgressions have even managed to rehabilitate George W. Bush, who, a friend confided, doesn’t seem so bad by comparison.
And, yes, you may think we can return to some sanity, some moral revivification, if and when Trump leaves the presidency. But consider this: It has taken us decades to make the progress we have made in stigmatizing racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, nativism and homophobia. Slow but steady. That progress led us to hope that three or four generations from now, perhaps, these might even vanish, the hatred in the American soul might be extirpated and we would be the country we purport to be.
This didn’t mean we had all undergone some miraculous transformation. It simply meant that social censure — yes, even that dreaded political correctness — compelled us to be better than we wanted to be until the day came when that compulsion would no longer be necessary. And therein lies a terrible sadness: Trump’s most heinous accomplishment in my estimation is that he has removed that social censure. Acts of hatred have spiked, and we don’t have to look very far to see why. Trump has normalized the very worst in us. He has inverted social censure so that hatred is not only acceptable; it is considered a form of honesty.
And that is the real tragedy and danger of these 100 days and of the 1,300 of his presidency to come. Trump didn’t change who many of us were. He revealed it. He showed that there were, indeed, millions of Americans for whom the flipping of sense and values took precedence over their own interests, and they will not give him up — even if, as he once famously said, he shot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue. Can there be any more damning indictment of his supporters than that, any more damning indictment of the country he rules?
These 100 days have prompted some of Trump’s opponents to perform odd contortions in coming to terms with the inversion. As I wrote here last week, The New York Times has added a climate change denier to its op-ed page as a way of making a truce with the non-Trump right, though if we have learned nothing else these last 100 days, we have learned that the notion of a serious conservative is a chimera, like a unicorn. The Times got a goat with a horn on its nose. And others, like Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, protest that we must embrace Trump supporters, woo them, because they are our neighbors. To which I say that there were neighbors in Germany and Cambodia and Bosnia and Rwanda, too.
Still, all is not lost. The resistance movement has been surprisingly effective. And the people who have campaigned successfully to rid the airwaves of the noxious gases of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly give one hope that there is some vestige of decency left, even if the spur for expulsion had less to do with revolting behavior than with nervous sponsors. And yet, without Trump’s own inexcusable behavior, these facilitators might not have been smoked out. There are now tens of millions of people fighting the good fight to resuscitate those verities Trump has upended. Theirs isn’t only a political resistance. It is a resistance of conscience and character and coherence. The world may be broken, but there are thankfully plenty of people who are intact and who know what truth, facts and morality are.
Which leaves us with this: God isn’t kidding. Our country is a parody of a democracy, our leader a parody of a president. We live in a nightmare. Nothing is the way it was. Trump only wins, though, if he and his cohorts manage to normalize this abnormality, to make the Orwellian seem commonplace. I think he may have already done so. Tens of millions of good Americans seem to think he hasn’t. I hope and pray they are right.