(TL;DR version: if the big idea you have for 2017 would be identical under a Clinton Presidency, it’s time to adjust your frame of reference.)
There’s an old saying about bankruptcy: it happens “slowly at first, then all at once.”
America’s capacity for democratic self-governance has been going bankrupt slowly for years. Republican elected officials spent eight years obstructing everything, under the theory that they would never be punished for it by the voters.
They were never punished for it by the voters.
Fox News and conservative talk radio pushed the boundaries of generating false outrage, while traditional news organizations laid off reporters. Economic inequality has grown to staggering heights, and is now mirrored by a Congress that represents the interests of the wealthy over the interests of their median constituents. Each of these is a wicked problem, developing over years, with no simple solution on the horizon. In the parallel universe where a couple hundred thousand Hillary Clinton voters lived in slightly different states, these civic trend lines would still be driving us toward an impending crisis-state.
But as Donald Trump’s inauguration nears, I think it is critical for us to grapple with the unique threats we are about to face. We’re going to need fresh thinking, new institutions, and bold leadership that adapts to a political landscape that will change radically and fast. The all-at-once bucket of threats is not merely an extension of the slowly-at-first bucket. It is a phase shift.
Questions of how Donald Trump managed to get this far tend to cluster within the “slowly at first” bucket. Donald Trump is manifestly unqualified for the presidency. We knew this on election day. How did this happen? Millions of pixels have been devoted to the question. You can focus on the failures of the media system, or on new technologies, or on economic inequality, or on resurgent white ethnic identity, or on institutionalized sexism and racism, to name just a few. These are real social problems ― ones that would have been just as real and troubling had 100,000 voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan voted another way. They are long-term trends that require long-term solutions.
But facing the threat that Trump will likely pose for our democracy is not simply an extension of these problems. I expect that Donald Trump will, at minimum, take the following unique and aggressive actions:
- Establishing a quasi-state media apparatus. There’s already talk about stifling the White House press corp. He has already declared that CNN “fake news.” Is there really much doubt that he will elevate Breitbart.com and other havens of the alt-right while threatening and shutting out independent journalists?
- Weaponizing the justice department and (possibly) the IRS. Jeff Sessions has a long history of targeting organizations that register poor and minority voters. We should expect him to continue if he is appointed Attorney General. If the Justice Department stops defending free-and-fair elections and starts targeting civic associations that do the critical work of registering voters, then Trump’s administration will become increasingly immune to public opinion.
- Redirect foreign policy to benefit the Trump organization and its allies, increasing the hazards of potentially catastrophic global instability. We still don’t know what’s in Trump’s taxes. We still don’t know what his ties to Russian oligarchs are. He still has not placed his holdings in a blind trust. And meanwhile, Trump has expressly signaled that he prefers Putin to NATO.
I produced an eleven-point list of threats on November 9th. The intervening months have done nothing to assuage my fears. Think of these as emblematic of the “all-at-once” bucket of threats. None of them were part of our public conversation in October 2016. None of them would have been present if Hillary Clinton (or, hell, even Marco Rubio/Jeb Bush/Scott Walker) was about to take the oath of office. They are unique. They are terrifying. And they are coming very, very fast.
I was reminded of this distinction last week, when I had the opportunity to attend a convening at the Institute for the Future about the “Future of Democracy.” Among the roughly 100 attendees, I heard a great deal of conversations about slow problems. (“How do we fund local journalism in the 21st century?” “How do we restore social trust and reduce the perils of partisanship?”) Only a handful of the attendees were, as I saw it, appropriately freaked out. Russia may have kompromat on our incoming president. Let’s hit pause on the conversation about local journalism that we’ve been having for the past decade, alright?
For the time being, I think it is helpful to behave as though we are living in the darkest timeline. We live in a universe where Donald Trump will be president. There are other imaginable universes where Trump isn’t president. Those universes seem much more plausible than the one we are, in fact, living in.
If we are going to get through this, we are going to need to focus on getting through this. And that means refocusing attention away from the very real problems that got us into this bizarre mess. We’re going to have to fix those problems too.
But Donald Trump is unique and unprecedented.
I don’t know how we solve the threats posed by Donald Trump. But I know that this is a new threat, and requires fresh eyes.
And that, I think, is a start.
This piece was first published on Medium.