In the years to come, we’ll look back on Donald Trump’s terrifying first weeks as president and see that it was either the beginning of the end of American democracy—or the beginning of its resurgence.
By the evening of his inauguration, Trump had signed an executive order intended to hobble the Affordable Care Act. In the next few days, he froze new federal hiring and regulations, gave the green light to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, prohibited international groups receiving US aid from talking about abortion, and directed multiple federal agencies like the EPA to essentially cease communicating with the public. The president also spent his first week fighting with journalists over the size of the crowd at his inauguration, while his scowling, irascible chief strategist, Steve Bannon, branded the media “the opposition party” and told it to “keep its mouth shut.” Trump then stunned the national-security world by removing the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the National Security Council while adding Bannon, a political adviser. On Holocaust Memorial Day, which the administration marked with a press release that didn’t mention Jews or anti-Semitism, Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries. When the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, declined to defend the ban, saying she was unconvinced of its legality, Trump promptly fired her.
So much for the theory that Trump would somehow be improved by the gravity of the job, or the fantasy that he wouldn’t act on his worst campaign promises. Since the election, he’s assembled a cabinet of plutocrats and incompetents, appointing swamp creatures instead of draining the swamp. It should be noted that Trump was quick to make good on his most xenophobic and divisive campaign promises, while ignoring his vow to fight Wall Street and corruption. This blizzard of first moves—the executive orders, appointments, diktats, tweets, and lies—was blinding. It was meant to be. But we cannot afford to be blind.
And yet, despite promises to fiercely fight Trump’s nominees and policies, the Democratic opposition seemed blinded in the first few days of his presidency. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand distinguished herself by being the only Democrat to vote consistently against all of Trump’s nominees save one (she voted for Nikki Haley for UN ambassador). Even progressive stalwarts like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown disappointed admirers by voting to confirm the utterly unqualified Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development—in both cases, because Carson made private promises to protect a few of the department’s core functions. But Carson should have been rejected by every Democrat, and more than a few Republicans, as absolutely unfit for the job. The soft bigotry of low expectations, applied to Trump, will only normalize him and give him too much credit for appointees who aren’t David Duke.