The present arrives out of a past that we are too quick to forget, misremember, or enshroud in myth. Yet like it or not, the present is the product of past choices. Different decisions back then might have yielded very different outcomes in the here-and-now. Donald Trump ascended to the presidency as a consequence of myriad choices that Americans made (or had made for them) over the course of decades. Although few of those were made with Trump in mind, he is the result.
Where exactly did Trump come from? How are we to account for his noxious presence as commander-in-chief and putative Leader of the Free World? The explanations currently on offer are legion. Some blame the nefarious Steve Bannon, others Hillary Clinton and her lackluster campaign. Or perhaps the fault lies with the Bernie Sanders insurgency, which robbed Clinton of the momentum she needed to win, or with Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and Low-Energy Jeb, and the other pathetic Republicans whom Trump trampled underfoot en route to claiming the nomination. Or perhaps the real villains are all those “deplorables”—the angry and ignorant white males whose disdain for immigrants, feminists, gays, and people of color Trump stoked and manipulated to great effect.
All such explanations, however, suggest that the relevant story began somewhere around June 2015 when Donald Trump astonished the political world by announcing his intention to seek the presidency. My aim here is to suggest that the origins of the real story are to be found much earlier. The conditions that enabled Trump to capture the presidency stemmed from acts of commission and omission that occurred well before he rode down that escalator at Trump Tower to offer his services to the nation.
Here’s the sad part: At each step along the way, other alternatives were available. Had those alternatives been exercised, a Trump presidency would have remained an absurd fantasy rather than becoming an absurd and dangerous reality. Like the Cuban missile crisis or the Vietnam War or 9/11, Trump qualifies as a completely avoidable catastrophe with roots deep in the past.
So who’s at fault? Ultimately, we—the American people—must accept a considerable share of the responsibility. This is one buck that can’t be passed.
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
So what follows is a review of roads taken (and not) ultimately leading to the demoralizing presidency of Donald Trump, along with a little speculation on how different choices might have resulted in a decidedly different present.
1989: The Fall of the Berlin Wall. As the Cold War wound down, members of Washington’s smart set, Republicans and Democrats alike, declared that the opportunities now presenting themselves went beyond the merely stupendous. Indeed, history itself had ended. With the United States as the planet’s sole superpower, liberal democratic capitalism was destined to prevail everywhere. There would be no way except the American Way. In fact, however, the passing of the Cold War should have occasioned a moment of reflection regarding the sundry mistakes and moral compromises that marred US policy from the 1940s through the 1980s. Unfortunately, policy elites had no interest in second thoughts—and certainly not in remorse or contrition. In the 1990s, rampant victory disease fueled extraordinary hubris and a pattern of reckless behavior informed by an assumption that the world would ultimately conform to the wishes of the “indispensable nation.” In the years to come, an endless sequence of costly mishaps would ensue from Mogadishu to Mosul. When, in due time, Donald Trump announced his intention to dismantle the establishment that had presided over those failures, many Americans liked what he had to say, even if he spoke from a position of total ignorance.