The phone calls and emails from my Pacific Rim associates have become more apoplectic since January 20th. As they watch CNN International or BBC, they cannot understand how a society as prosperous and smart as the United States—a beacon of stability—could drive itself into the ditch. As I prepare for my next trip to Asia, I find myself politically exhausted.
In less than two months, the administration of Donald Trump has completely gone off the rails, taking the nation with it. However, I should tell you that the concern is far deeper overseas. They worry that the current administration seems to be more concerned about settling personal scores than setting national policy. One outrage trumps the next.
Many of my colleagues who live in these huge Pacific metropolitan centers have lived through their own dark times, where the existing political structures tumbled into the ground. Some lost their fortunes while others paid with their lives. Some, long into their twilight years, stayed alive during the last World War, whose faint echo still rumbles in the distance. Others found themselves on the wrong side of a coup and became political refugees.
Our conversation inevitably pivots toward the current political situation and they wonder if Americans have lost their collective minds. They are stunned by the complete lack of adult supervision in the West Wing. Phrases like “Alternative Facts” or imagined events like the “Bowling Green Massacre” often find warm comfort in authoritarian regimes that have long overstayed their welcome, not in some new American administration in its first months.
Each new outrage has a way of obscuring the junk pile that has built up before it. The outrageous comments about the Khan family, the hatred tossed at Hispanics, and of course, Pussygate seem like ancient history, so 2016, when compared to the past month. A friend in Tokyo was struck by the fact that the American diet for self-debasement appears endless when it comes to political scandal. It reminded him of the one Twilight Zone episode where a vengeful boy with special powers terrorizes the adults into submission.
Those who have protested since Trump’s inauguration have done so peacefully. There has also been a professionalization of those who are protesting. When the “Travel Ban” was announced, hordes of attorneys descended upon the nation’s major airports to begin to unlock the process which detained so many. Those very same lawyers were able to draft and win a temporary stay. American business leaders have reacted strongly to the “Travel Ban” and some corporate leaders, who were on the receiving end of Trump’s abuse a week earlier, are now able to return fire.
One thinks that within the next month, Senators McCain, Graham, and Sasse might not be standing alone. Perhaps the spines of others in Congress might stiffen to face a national challenge.
In the end, elections have consequences and Americans have to deal with this fact. However, those who live beyond our shores can only watch and worry.
Thankfully, there are no tanks in the streets. There are no paramilitary “goon squads” on the loose. Peaceful protest is an important element of American political dissent. Without that outlet, our political structures would be in big trouble.
Donald Trump wrecked the norms of presidential behavior when he ran for the White House, dispensing a litany of sins far too numerous to list. His anger, his mean-spirited approach, his threats to jail his opponent, and his comments about women should have finished him off in the early primaries. We should not be surprised that as President, he might want to wreck more than our national norms but destroy the global alliances that have kept us safe since the dawn of The Cold War.
One hopes that a Rouge President will magically surround himself with seasoned advisors, the ones who will keep him from resorting to his worst impulses. However, when matched with a rogue staff, it signals a bumpy ride ahead. Democratic institutions find out how strong and enduring they are in tough times; this might be a stress test for the ages.
We all know the famous Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” In my time, I have heard enough interesting stories to last several lifetimes. However, I also believe that the most compelling part of “American Exceptionalism” is our ability to stand up and ensure that our democratic heritage is preserved for the future. That is both our test and our testament.
As my Pan-Asian colleagues and friends watch nervously, they will learn something else about America: we will peacefully stand up for our Democratic traditions in a way that will make our Founding Fathers and Mothers proud.