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On Jan. 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump welcomed us to his presidency, and to his worldview. In a 16-minute inaugural address delivered to a nation still surprised by his election, Trump gave a speech about the “American carnage” that was hollowing out the country. In some respects, the carnage he described that day was real: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” But in many ways, he was depicting a dark hellscape of an America that was not really congruent with reality. Nor did it seem to bother itself much with the notion of constitutional checks, or with the basic promise of equality, justice, or oversight, or the rule of law. Instead, it was a populist promise to invisible Americans: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump said. “We are one nation—and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success.” No more would Washington insiders abandon the inner cities to fester in “crime and gangs and drugs.” America would be returned, finally, to “the people.”
For those of us who didn’t quite recognize the shattered ruins of a once-great country that the president described at the time, it’s now arrived on our doorsteps. Even without the juddering trauma of a coronavirus that has closed streets and schools, and asphyxiated the economy, and killed thousands, the world he painted then ended up becoming our world now, but with his response to this crisis, it’s grown ever worse. “For too long,” he warned in 2017, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth.” Today we watch as his son-in-law’s attempts to help himself and others profit off the coronavirus, as the federal government strangles states’ efforts to purchase protective equipment. We watch, horrified, as the president fires the inspector general hired to oversee the $2 trillion stimulus package; we watch as our taxes pay for his golf junkets; we watch as his businesses profit from pay-to-play lobbyists and elected officials; and as his cronies profiteer from an immigration policy that stuffs money into the pockets of private prisons.
In that speech, Trump promised that above all things, at the center of his presidency lay a “crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” And yet, as the United States has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world, its citizens wait for tests, for hospital beds, and for relief. Jared Kushner insists that stockpiled emergency equipment that should go to front-line workers in fact belongs to the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been hollowed out by Kushner’s disaster hobbyist cronies, and the federal government is backing out of its testing support by week’s end. States unwilling to bow and scrape for supplies don’t get them, while craven politicians use access to Trump to game the distribution channels. This nation is not serving its citizens. It is offering mealy-mouthed promises that private interests will magic up cures, and supplies, and websites, and vaccines while its citizens die and unemployment soars. Federal officials who are supposed to serve citizens have clocked out, even as they gut federal laws that would keep the air clean, and emissions lowered, and environmental degradation at bay. Meanwhile, Trump’s administration is muzzling health officials and distorting public information, such that the American people are left in the dark in the middle of the most devastating public health disaster we’ve seen in a century. The invisible people are no longer merely invisible. Now they are invisible and dying.
In his inauguration speech, the president promised that “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” And yet, this government is not controlled by the people; it is controlled by a single, seemingly drunk and increasingly deranged party that is hellbent on cashing in on this pandemic, using it to harm women and the poor, and decimating the right to vote. The party that controls the government is using the excuse of the pandemic to cram judges onto the courts and build a metaphoric wall between the United States and Mexico. Having used his inaugural address to insist that there were no parties, only people, the president has gone on to vilify his own military, his own intelligence apparatus, and his own Justice Department. He spends his daily briefings trashing Democrats and everyone who votes for Democrats. There is only one party left, in his universe, and it’s the party of him.
In 2017, Donald Trump promised that America would flourish again under him:
America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.
America is not winning. It has been among the least prepared of the developed nations for this pandemic. Keeping the total number of deaths below 100,000 is not winning. America’s economy, operating on a razor-thin margin, was never going to be able to handle an event like this, but the federal government’s lackluster response to keeping people afloat is not winning, either.
Above all, Trump’s inauguration speech promised unity. Everyone needed to pledge patriotism and in exchange, he vowed, “we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’ ” And yet in Donald Trump’s America, as people suffer and die, the only patriots left are those who show fealty to Donald Trump. Everyone who is disloyal, well, they deserve what they get. No matter if that group includes high ranking military officers, all New Yorkers, Asians Americans, hospital workers, blue-state governors, the media, his own inspectors general—in fact, that’s the whole point.
Donald Trump is not responsible for the American carnage we are now facing. But he is wholly responsible for his failure to prepare for it, to respond to it, to rise to it, and to deal honestly and even-handedly and effectively with it. Instead, he and his confederates and cronies will profit from it, while blaming those who suffer the most for failing to show appropriate gratitude. If you didn’t recognize the country he described in 2017, you’ll see it now. That first inaugural was less a diagnosis of what had come before than a pledge of what was to come. Today’s American carnage transcends rusted out factories and inner cities and gangs. We are all American carnage now.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.
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