I have a confession to make: I never saw this coming.
Four years ago this month, Donald Trump stood at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol and delivered an inaugural speech that centered on “American carnage.” Besides the dark theme of the speech (which George W. Bush later described as “some weird shit”), the whole affair had a bad vibe. There was still residual disbelief at Trump’s election, talk of Russian interference, and a boycott of the ceremony by a sizable number of Democrats. The battle lines were drawn.
And yet, despite my distaste for Trump and the fact that I didn’t vote for him (he lost me with the MAGA slogan; since when did America stop being great?) I gave him a break. I put aside his juvenile and disrespectful behavior during the campaign (the insults to John McCain, Carly Fiorina, Megyn Kelly and many more people). He’ll grow into the role, I told people. Now that he doesn’t have to campaign, he’ll focus on the real work and maybe having a businessman in the White House will be a good thing for economic growth. Hey, I’m an optimist; things could always be worse.
Time went on. The Russia thing wouldn’t go away and the tweets were weird and sometimes shocking (not to mention unpresidential). But making corporate tax rates more competitive with the rest of the world was long overdue. The unemployment figures kept falling. He tore up the naïve and misguided Iran treaty (too bad he couldn’t get back that $400 million). We started to see some signs of a U.S. manufacturing renaissance, there was a long-overdue repatriation of capital, and America became a net exporter of energy. So there was some legitimate reason for optimism. Plus, he was kind of entertaining.
There was the impeachment spectacle, which seemed like a weird, off-brand version of the Sopranos. By the time acquittal came, it (and Adam Schiff) had ground us all down.
Then that rough beast of a pandemic came slouching towards the world and everything turned upside down. To me, this was the conversion moment — the cavalier dismissal of the threat, the blatant disregard of science (bleach and light, are you kidding me?), the abdication of leadership peddled as a deferral to states’ rights. Death has a way of focusing one’s attention.
I’m not bragging, but I predicted a strong Biden win. A lot of friends were wringing their hands, certain that Trump would march to reelection. I just didn’t see it. I imagined Trump as Jacob Marley, dragged down by balls and chains, the accumulation of four years of vindictive narcissism. Ultimately, common decency won, and Trump lost.
Like many Americans, I was ready for a return to “normalcy.” A narrative emerged about Trump not leaving the White House, overturning the election, calling in troops to retain power. I dismissed it as a far-left dystopian fantasy. I predicted to everyone that Trump would squeal about the election for a week or so, then concede and get on with the business of governing, what Roy Blunt called the “commonplace and miraculous” tradition of the peaceful transition of power. I said in the end he would be as gracious to Biden as Obama was to him in 2016.
Boy, was I wrong. That prediction ranked right up there with one made by Dr. Dionysys Larder, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College London, who said in 1800 that “Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
Or the dim bulb at Western Union who wrote an internal memo in 1876 saying “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”
The “carnage” that Trump described on the steps of the Capitol in 2016, which I couldn’t see at the time, actually came to pass in 2021 on the very same spot. There’s no other way to describe it. One of my coping mechanisms over the past few years was a hashtag, #YCMTSU — you can’t make this shit up. I used it a lot, mostly as a humorous gesture. But this past week? You really can’t make that shit up. And yet, it happened. I’ve experienced a lot of sadness in 2020, but this was something different, on the order of 9/11. It is a deep, existential sadness and profound disappointment in my fellow Americans who cloaked themselves in Buffalo horns and faux-patriotism but who were, in the end, just a bunch of cosplaying, media-obsessed thugs and vandals.
I hope they throw the book at ‘em.
It’s been a political epiphany for me, and a humbling one. But it’s also been something of a personal epiphany. Optimism is no longer my base camp. Given my Scottish-Irish roots, it’s a wonder I ever was an optimist. (The difference between a Scottish pessimist and a Scottish optimist? The pessimist says “Things couldn’t get much worse,” to which the optimist replies, “Oh, sure they could!”)
So I’m shifting from optimism to optimalism, which is sort of like a martini on the rocks instead of straight up. Actually, it’s a school of philosophy, which you can read about here, that assumes a willingness to accept failure while remaining confident that success will follow. Optimalists accept failures and also learn from them, which encourages further pursuit of achievement (Steve Jobs was probably an optimalist). I’m through being a sucker (an optimist) and henceforth will be a constructive realist (an optimalist).
So to all those who predicted this is how the Trump presidency would end, mea culpa: you were right and I was wrong. But to paraphrase The Who, I won’t get fooled again. I’m moving forward with a big heart, but with eyes wide open, an incurable optimalist.
So sorry it all had to come to this. I had a deep suspicion it would and I don’t think it is over. Good summary
Great piece, Russ. I too felt that the post-election denialism by the president and his supporters would certainly fade as the reality of his loss cracked through his narcissistic veneer. Having spent 17 years in DC is was wrenching to watch the assault on the Capitol — and even in the midst of it, members still voting to overturn the election. I do believe he will go down in history as our country’s worst president without much serious historian debate. But the damage he has wrought, and his enablers, will be longstanding, and only though time and the courage of true believers in the sanctity of our institutions and Constitution will the country get back to its rightful place on the world stage. Thanks for writing this. All best to you, David
Amen, brother. History won’t take long to judge this presidency.
Russ, a great interpretation of the feelings we have also experienced here in Finland (as solid guardians of democracy) in recent days and throughout Trump’s presidency. Never before have we followed U.S. domestic policy as intensely as we have recently. Take care.
Many of us failed to predict the unpredictable. Not all of us. Having ruminated on this a lot during the last four years, and especially the last one, I found this Foreign Affairs piece to be the best FA piece of 2020: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2020-06-30/how-great-power-falls-apart
We all need to practice “analytic alienation.” Best regards to you