The XX Factor

“We’ve Survived Worse Than Trump” Ignores the Presidency’s Life-and-Death Effects

How many AIDS patients might have survived Ronald Reagan’s presidency if he’d taken steps to protect them?

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There’s a line of thinking that has emerged since Donald Trump’s election that’s meant to plant seeds of hope in a time of widespread desperation and disillusionment. Our country has made it through some truly ghastly periods in history, the narrative goes, so let’s not get our knickers too bunched up over the frightening promises this one president-elect has made.

Trump may consider nuclear war a viable foreign policy strategy, and he may have installed a white nationalist as his chief strategist, but we’re strong enough to withstand any damage he could do to our nation or world. “Most Presidents wind up being utterly forgettable, and the nation still stands when they blow out of town or get tossed on their asses,” promised Uproxx in a list of America’s “worst presidents.” “We have survived from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement,” wrote a New Jersey radio host on Election Day. “We have gone from women not being allowed to vote to a woman now a major party candidate. We have endured natural disasters, economic depressions, social unrest, terrorism, and everything else fate has thrown at us.”

Well, yes, America as a nation and system of government has endured all of those things. But that should offer little comfort to anyone familiar with the human fallout of disasters, depressions, and terrorist attacks that hit while the country is helmed by people with skewed priorities. As my colleague Rebecca Onion wrote last Wednesday, the “we” who survived state-sponsored wars, slavery, internment, and genocide, are a privileged bunch. “We” didn’t suffer the worst effects of political negligence or atrocities driven by racism; “we” were either extraordinarily lucky to escape those effects or be shielded from them by systems—racism, capitalism, sexism—that transmit unearned power.

And in many cases, “we” survived because “we” were the ones committing or benefiting from those atrocities. “We” survived the Jim Crow era because we didn’t speak up when our white neighbors terrorized our black ones. “We” survived the Vietnam War because we went to college, letting a young man without access to higher education take that spot on the front lines. “We” survived the war on drugs because we weren’t redlined out of the neighborhoods where police let residents be. “We” got our land because our president forced native peoples out of it.

With some notable exceptions, the historical accounts we turn to for assurance in times like these were written by the lucky ones, the members of the sociocultural demographics and institutions that survived. The tens of thousands of people, mostly gay men, who might have survived the AIDS epidemic if not for Ronald Reagan’s refusal to speak or act; the New Orleans residents who could have survived Hurricane Katrina if George W. Bush had exhibited a lower tolerance for black suffering; the hundreds of thousands of families that could have remained united if not for Barack Obama’s relentless waves of deportations—these people aren’t around to say “hey, not everyone survived” or “yeah, y’all survived, but at what cost?”

There’s still 67 days—but who’s counting?—until Trump takes office, so all there is to do at this point is speculate at who will and won’t survive his presidency. How many transgender people will be beaten, killed, or left homeless because the Trump administration axes civil rights protections and refuses to prosecute hate crimes? How many women will perish seeking underground abortions? How many immigrants, Muslims, and people of color will die at the hands of Trump supporters emboldened by his hate? How many cities will ISIS tear apart, and how many civilians will it brutalize and kill because our commander-in-chief, a thin-skinned egomaniac who’s ready to commit war crimes, will exacerbate the global threat of terror? How many people around the world will be displaced from their flooded homes, starved by drought, drowned by hurricanes, and victimized by terrorist groups because Trump, the leader of the second-worst emitter in the world, doesn’t believe climate change is real? In all likelihood, our republic will survive Donald Trump’s term in office. How many people, here in the U.S. and the world over, won’t?