(I first wrote this piece at the end of 2017, but held it back: too strong, I thought, for too many readers. Now [August 2019], in the wake of the President’s truly grotesque trip to El Paso, it seems as fitting a time to go public with it as there will ever be.– It was published in the newspaper, with the title changed to “How did Trump come to wield the powers of the presidency?”)
Power is usually what gives people the ability to shape the course of history, and thus the world. And in many situations, the human qualities that can lead to power are ugly. Too often, those who have ascended the throne have been moral monsters who got there by wading through the blood of their rivals.
In the past century, we have witnessed a number of human monsters bringing nightmares upon their societies. Among them: Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, Mao in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Idi Amin in Uganda.
America’s founders understood well the dangers of power falling into evil hands. They knew the history of injustice at the hands of unchecked rulers. With their Constitution, our founders sought to solve the problem of power, for example:
- using power to control power—e.g. giving Congress the power to remove from office a President who threatens the integrity of the system.
- limiting the permissible uses of power—e.g. protecting the rights of citizens to free speech, press, and religion, and requiring the state to observe due process against those it accuses.
- giving the people to power to choose who would wield power over them.
By such means, America’s founders spared us the kind of nightmares that, over the millennia, so many of our fellow human beings have had to endure.
That system has worked well: Over the course of more than two centuries, America had 44 presidents without any whom one would be tempted to call “monster.”
These 44 presidents had human frailties, of course. But none were so wholly ruled by their dark places that they were altogether given over to destruction.
But now, for the first time, America has a president so defective in character that he really is a kind of monster– a habitual liar, a bully who picks fights and is contemptuous of others; who cares only about himself and disrespects the laws and norms that would constrain him from doing whatever he wants.
It is true, and fortunate, that Trump is not consumed by the murderous impulses we see in some of the most grotesque of history’s monsters. Nonetheless, Trump is extraordinary in the sheer number of moral defects he regularly displays — dishonesty, corruption, sadism, selfishness, arrogance, self-delusion, ignorance, narcissism, greed.
So complete is this President’s apparent lack of interest in advancing any true human good in the world that, like those other monsters in power, Trump truly does seem possessed by the spirit of destructiveness:
- He has widened the gap in America between the richest and the rest.
- He has made the United States the only nation in the world not party to the global agreement on climate change.
- He has sacrificed the security of the nation, coordinating with America’s main adversary to help himself gain power, and thereafter refusing to take any steps to safeguard America from further such attacks on our democracy.
- He has inflamed hostilities between races and ethnic groups.
- He has ripped young children away from their parents.
- He has opened the gates to industry enriching itself even in ways that injure the future of the nation and its people.
- He has sought to undermine the independence of the instruments of justice, and to dismantle the rule of law.
- He has demeaned this nation’s friends, and undermined our main alliances, in service of the interests of our main adversary.
So how did it come to pass that, after more than two centuries, such a monster of a human being has come to wield the powers of the American presidency?
This nation could hand power over to a monster only if enough of the people either could not see, or did not object to, the monstrous qualities on display.
It’s not as though, as a candidate for the presidency, this man had hidden his basic human qualities. Anyone with eyes to see could witness that this man who would be President was a liar and a con man, a bully who takes pleasure in humiliating people, an ignorant man who boasted of knowing more than anybody about just about everything.
Nonetheless, with all that before their eyes, enough Americans liked what they saw to hand such a man the powers of the presidency.
So America has entered previously uncharted territory. For the long-term health of American democracy, it is necessary not only to deal with the immediate threat to the nation. We also need to look deeply into how there came to be so many Americans willing to make such an unprecedented choice.