How did it get to be like this? Every opinion piece, every school pickup chat, every group text eventually settles back to the same question. How did we fall this far? How did it come to this? And most worrying, what’s next?
People have different theories about what moment was most decisive. I could be convinced that Mitch McConnell’s refusal to vote on Merrick Garland was the decisive moment. Things were contentious before, and they were contentious afterwards, but that moment announced clearly: your democracy is no good here. We will put our finger on the scale, and we will win.
Others go much further back, all the way to the 90s, when CSPAN allowed cameras in congress. That decision led to firebrands like Newt Gingrich, who realised they could deliver barn burner speeches to entirely empty congressional chambers that played well on national television. And election ads. He was one of the first to realise it, but soon we were all Newt Gingrinch, politicians across the spectrum and people too.
Others go further back from that and blame the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which had previously required that differing viewpoints get equal airtime. These critics see a direct line between the rulings in 1987, further loosening in 2000, and their final repeal in 2011 and our fragmented and disorienting media landscape of today. I’m inclined to believe them.
But I think the biggest moment, the one we’ll look back and point to in the history books of the future, is also the most obvious. It’s hiding in plain sight. Yes, we’ve talked about it at length, and it will probably eventually eclipse World War Two as the most written about and talked about series of events in modern history, but that doesn’t mean we’re overselling it. On the contrary, I think the death of Donald Trump in 2020 is being undersold and not analysed deeply enough. Hear me out.
The broad brush strokes are pretty well agreed on, of course. Donald Trump got COVID in early October, along with many others in his administration. Unlike others in his administration, he had to go on a ventilator, eventually succumbing to the illness on October 6th. Mike Pence was sworn in as president that day, then won election over Joe Biden a month later. Pence hasn’t had the same cult of personality as Trump, which has weakened his standing amongst die-hard Trump supporters but also weakened the attacks from the political left. And now here we are, the Covid emergency is over, the 2024 elections are taking shape, the stock market seems to be rebounding, and things seem ok overall. Certainly less chaotic than when Trump was alive. So what’s the problem? Let’s imagine how things might have gone differently.
It used to be that the left wanted peace and the right was more likely to want to spread democracy, which is why Russia’s romp in Ukraine was such a shock to see. Putin placed a big bet on the idea that America was tired of being the policeman of the world, and he was rewarded handsomely for it. Crimea was a warning shot, and the annexation of Ukraine shows that the kind of peace we took for granted for decades may not return for a generation for more.
As of this writing, Taiwan is still self-governed. It helps that they’re such a powerhouse for chips, something that no one can afford to disrupt. But check in with me in five years. We’ll draw a direct line from Trump to Pence to Kiev to Taipei in the future, mark my words.
Biden had a steep hill to climb to deliver on his climate promises. First he had to win the presidency, which obviously he did not do. Then he’d have had to win the Senate, which was always out of reach. Then he’d need to swing the House, which we saw wasn’t achievable either. Then he’d have to start the hard work of actually governing the big tent that makes up the modern Democratic Party.
But assuming he had run the table and actually gotten into a position to deliver on climate change, his Build Back Better plans were swinging for the fences. Even if he had gotten 80%, or heck, 50% of what he wanted, it’d have marked a monumental shift in how America addresses the economy of the future, and climate change. Pence, surprising no one, hasn’t made this a priority. So we lose another 4 or 8 years on a challenge we’re already not meeting.
The Supreme Court
Roe v Wade was always going to be struck down, no matter who was president. But swapping an old far-right judge for a young, and much more radical one was only possible with a Republican Senate and White House. (Or, let’s be clear, a Republican Senate Majority Leader who is comfortable openly defying the constitution and the president, as we do) The split on the Supreme Court is now 6-3 and as radical as it’s ever been. I don’t expect this to change in my lifetime. Worse, I expect to see 8-1 instead.
The cult of Trump continues
Trump has become the new JFK. Worse, he’s become the new messiah. Before Trump’s death, his followers were fervent. Somehow they’ve found a new gear, and they seem ready to make him a much bigger figure than Reagan ever was. It’s not uncommon to see Trump posters hanging beside Jim Morrison, Snoop Dogg, and Kurt Cobain. At first I thought they were ironic, but now I’m not so sure. Trump seems destined to be remembered as more James Dean or Johnny Rotten than anything resembling who he really was in life. That won’t end well.
I haven’t even touched on Waco, the Unabomber, the 2000 election, Hillary Clinton’s emails, or dozens of other moments in history that led to where we are and where we’re heading as a country and planet. We can quibble over which was worse for the republic, Benghazi or Whitewater, Nader or Bernie, the far left or the centrists, or hundreds of other things. But for my vote, the death of Trump in 2020 moved the world from tottering and precariously balanced to something far darker. We’ll feel the reverberations as long as we live.