By Tom Robotham
If I had to choose one event of 2019 that symbolizes the year now winding down it would be the near-collapse of Notre Dame after a fire broke out in the cathedral last April.
For me, and for millions of other people, it was a heartbreaking day. (See my essay, “What Remains,” published in the May 2019 issue of VEER.) The sense of shock and loss ran deep, not only because of the beauty and historical magnificence of the building itself, but because the fire served as reminder of our civilization’s vulnerability.
In recent weeks, I’ve felt that sense of vulnerability all the more acutely. Early last month, for example, former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev told a BBC interviewer that current tensions between Russia and the West are placing the world in “colossal danger” because they increase the possibility of nuclear war.
But that is not the only threat we face. Others are more insidious. Consider, for instance, that our president and his Republican sycophants in Congress are steadfastly refusing to take the science of climate change seriously.
There is yet another threat, however, that is more immediate—and it has nothing to do with physical destruction. Rather, it is Donald Trump’s war on “observed reality,” as Garry Kasparov put it in a recent opinion piece for CNN. Kasparov grew up in the Soviet Union and recalls how its leaders distorted the truth on a daily basis.
“It was increasingly obvious back then,” he wrote, “that what we were being told didn’t match the world we saw around us.”
Kasparov went on to express alarm that he sees echoes of this Soviet-style war on the truth in Donald Trump’s America. He noted, for example, Trump’s dismissal of any and all criticism as “fake news,” and his repeated declaration that journalists are the “enemies of the people.”
During the impeachment hearings last month, meanwhile, Trump once again expressed his hostility toward the Constitution and the rule of law. In addition to refusing to honor subpoenas, and blocking some key witnesses from testifying, he engaged in real-time witness intimidation via Tweet while US Ambassador Marie Yovanovich was speaking before the House Intelligence Committee.
Perhaps most alarming of all was Trump’s claim several months ago that Article II of the Constitution gives him the “right to do whatever I want as president.” Whether he said that out of utter ignorance, or in the cynical knowledge that his base will believe anything he says, is hard to determine. Either way, it’s frightening.
As we saw even more recently, during the NATO summit, Trump has become a laughing stock among other Western leaders.
But this is no laughing matter.
AS WE PREPARE FOR THE DAWN of a new year, we must be mindful the American experiment itself is every bit as vulnerable as Notre Dame cathedral.
Indeed, 2020 may turn out to be as pivotal as 1776 or 1860. I know that will sound like hyperbole to some folks, but I sincerely believe it to be true.
Early in the year we will likely see an impeachment trial in the Senate. It is essential that this take place; for if ever there was a president who deserved to be impeached and removed from office, it is Trump.
There are those who argue that his now notorious phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky is not incriminating because Trump made no overt threats. As many commentators have pointed out, however, this view ignores the realities of power dynamics. Trump has enormous power over Zelensky, and when someone in a position of power asks for a “favor” it is tantamount to a demand. Indeed, on that phone call, Trump sounded exactly like Don Corleone. He might as well have told his Giuliani, his consigliere “I’m going to make Zelensky an offer he can’t refuse.”
At any rate, whatever you think of the call, Trump’s subsequent attempts at obstruction of justice are crystal clear. Reasonable people may disagree about the way in which the House leadership has handled the process, but it is nevertheless within their power under the Constitution to proceed as they see fit.
It is, of course, highly unlikely that the Senate will also vote against him. Which leads us to the other monumental event on the 2020 calendar. If Trump is not removed from office by the process of impeachment, he must be removed at the ballot box. (So, by the way, must Mitch McConnell.)
Consider that Trump has already made significant headway in changing the Supreme Court, rolling back environmental regulations, and cutting programs for the poor. He even rolled back rules protecting residents of nursing homes. We need to call that what it is—an act of cruelty, pure and simple.
If Trump is reelected, and retains power in the Senate, there’s no telling what he will do to further these regressive policies—but you can be sure they’ll be horrific. Legislative initiatives aside, he will continue his gaslighting, telling us that what we can plainly see isn’t real; he will continue to alienate our allies, while cozying up to dictators and borrowing their tactics such as calling journalists “enemies of the people”; he will continue to play to both the ignorance and the racism that is so glaringly evident at his rallies. In short, he will continue his wholesale assault on everything that makes America potentially great.
Trump’s true believers will no doubt respond to such arguments as they usually do: If you hate America, why don’t you leave?
I’ve thought about it, believe me—and if I had the financial means, I might consider it. In the end, though, I don’t think I’d go. The truth is, I love this country, in spite of all of its flaws. As a young adult, in fact, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in American Studies. I didn’t do so for any practical reasons; back then, I had no plans to teach. I did so simply because I was fascinated with the beauty of the American experiment: its founding ideas in the Declaration and the Constitution; its vibrant racial and cultural diversity, our progress toward the goal of social justice—and, of course, the beauty of the land in which this experiment in democracy has taken shape.
For all of these reasons, I worry about what may happen next November. On a regular basis, I listen to my fellow Democrats ponder which candidate has the best shot at beating Trump. On one of those occasions recently, I remarked that the debate was based on the quaint assumption that we will have a fair election. Trump will do anything to win, I remarked. No dirty tricks—no acts of corruption—are beyond the pale for him.
Still, I have hope. Our nation has endured many crises, after all. Moreover, world history teaches us that at times, what once seemed inconceivable can become reality. The miraculous triumph of Nelson Mandela is a good example.
We will never emerge from the Trump nightmare, however, unless we recognize the seriousness of the moment. The next election truly will be one of the most important in our nation’s history—and because we remain the preeminent military power, it will be pivotal for the entire world as well.