As I sit down to write this last column of the Trump presidency, it’s hitting me just how exhausted and emotionally spent these years have left me.
In the more than five years since I first turned my attention to then-candidate Trump, I have reported on a moral and political catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions, one in which, as we saw on January 6, the executive branch of the US government was captured by gangsters and wannabe-fascists. We have seen the advance of mob politics and the promotion of lethal conspiracy theories. We have seen shameless, unforgivable demagogy and sycophancy. And we have seen the perfection of a Big Lie politics that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels would have understood all too well.
During the 2016 primaries and caucuses, I interviewed Trump supporters who favored executing Muslim Americans; a few years later, it was revealed that Trump wanted to shoot migrants in the legs as they attempted to enter the United States and wanted alligator-filled moats on the southern border. How, in my old age decades from now, will I possibly explain these “ideas” from the early part of the century to my grandchildren or great-grandchildren? How will I explain a president inciting a deadly white-supremacist mob, bedecked in an array of Confederate, neo-Nazi, and contemporary fascist flags and insignias, against Congress? How will I explain a president who whipped up armed vigilantes to confront state governments attempting to implement public health measures to curb the deadliest pandemic in more than a century? How will I explain a president who wanted to sic the military on racial justice protesters and who glorified the police shooting of journalists covering those protests? How will I explain a president who tweeted nuclear threats at regimes he deemed to be his enemies, who mocked democratically elected leaders around the globe, and who went out of his way to pal it up with some of the world’s most notorious autocrats?
My soul, I hope, will eventually recover from this excruciating, degraded political moment—but it will be a long road to recovery. For, in all honesty, what has unfolded in America since 2016 has profoundly scarred me, and has, in ways I haven’t yet fully articulated even to myself, shaken to the core my faith in humanity to generally do the right thing.
I say this not to turn the focus onto me, and certainly not to imply that my experiences in the Trump era are exceptional. To the contrary, I suspect that tens of millions of Americans—and countless others around the world—are feeling the same emotions. We can all now exhale after holding our collective breath for four long years. But we know already that the damage will be extensive.
Trump was inane, coarse, bigoted, narcissistic, unhinged, and criminal… but he was also bizarrely skilled at getting huge numbers of people to buy his bullshit and spread that rage throughout society. All of this was dispiriting and exhausting to those who could see through his smokescreen, who could discern the foul creature hiding inside the strongman, reality-TV persona that he had so painstakingly created. It was exhausting to read his middle-of-the-night Twitter tirades, and then to read the torrents of threatening hate mail sent by his messianic followers after I’d written about those tirades. It was exhausting, too, to listen to his political enablers in his cabinet, in Congress, in statehouses, and in local governments who parroted his monstrous lies and excused his monstrous lurch to violence.
Vast numbers of Americans have, at the most intimate level, suffered far more than I during these bastard-years: people who have been separated from parents or siblings or children or spouses or lovers by ICE agents and by capricious executive orders designed to lock down this country against immigrants. Individuals who have had online—and, more recently, in-person—goons unleashed against them by the president. Civil servants whose careers have been destroyed for speaking truth to power. Workers whose rights have been trampled. Members of the LGBTQ+ community who have had their legal protections undermined. Victims of hurricanes and forest fires who have seen federal emergency assistance turned into a political football. Pandemic victims ignored by a president who seemed to think he could make Covid-19 vanish simply by refusing to speak to the nation with urgency, compassion, or scientific understanding about this horrific disease.
These last years have been a collective stress test. How do we cope with unyielding irrationality and unrelenting cruelty doled out from on high? How do we navigate a landscape poisoned by Twitter trolls and mobs? How do we deal with the streams of undiluted venom, death threats, and other nonsense the Trumpists have showered on those with whom they disagree politically? How do we provide context for such a vertiginous slide from rationality and toward cultism?
At noon on January 20, Trump will become a private citizen again. Perhaps the viciousness of his presidency will fade and the sense of omnipresent chaos will dissipate. Perhaps, in the months and years ahead, America’s shredded moral fabric will be repaired. Perhaps social media really will continue to mute Trump, leaving him no choice but to crawl back under the rock from which he emerged. Perhaps the systems Trump tried so hard to break really will have the last laugh, outlasting a president and his inner circle who expressed nothing but contempt for the idea of rational, knowledge-based leadership.
Perhaps… but don’t expect any grace or decency or humility from Trump. In retirement, the ex-president will likely be at least as obnoxious as he has been in office. He will continue to love the sound of his own voice and will likely continue to rile up his mob. It will take a long time for us to heal from Trump’s dismal presidency. But his ignominious departure from Washington, following his drubbing at the hands of voters and the collapse of his attempt to orchestrate a judicial and then a mob-fomented coup, is at least a start.