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The Sorry Legacy of the Trump Era

With the inauguration of Joe Biden, the swearing in of three ethnically iconic democratic senators, the expulsion of Trump from the White House, and the demoralization of various delusional millenarians, there is much cause for celebration, even for elation. The darkest times are indeed over, and you may have caught a whiff today of how the grass looks greener, the sun shines brighter, and the fields smell sweeter. And yet, the Toteboard would also understand if you still feel a bit traumatized by the abuse we all suffered over the last four years, and that it just might take a little bit of time, and a little bit of healing, before we can really recover from the destruction that Trump perpetrated, and crawl out from the rubble he left behind. Unfortunately, the Trump era will go down as more than just a dysfunctional asterisk on American presidential history, as the crises the psychopath-in-chief ignored or exacerbated, the social tensions he inflamed, and the disastrous policies he enacted, have all inflicted lasting damage on our country.

And so, the Toteboard presents here the “bottom ten,” i.e., the ten most painful, depressing, and sometimes overlapping aspects of Trump’s legacy. And no, this is not just an masochistic exercise in anhedonia. Think of it instead as the first steps of an exorcism, of a reckoning, of facing honestly the wounds from which it will take a profound collective effort to recover.

10. The Exacerbation of Economic Inequality

It’s really a testimony to just how much Trump fucked up during his four years in office that the economy, i.e., the perennial issue at the top of voter motivators, barely squeaks into the bottom of the list. But make no mistake, from his top-heavy tax reform, to his crusade to benefit his big business cronies and absolve them of responsibility and accountability, not to mention his politicizing the economic wreckage from Covid, Trump has done everything humanly possible to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. It’s especially maddening that Trump still tries to take credit for whatever economic momentum the Obama administration had set into motion, while he actually did everything in his power to dismantle the sources of that momentum.

9. The Perversion of the Adversary System

One of the most brilliant (though not completely flawless) aspects of the American legal system is the right for someone accused of a crime or on one side of a civil dispute to have an advocate, to have someone representing their best interests, with the understanding that someone else will be advocating just as strongly for the other side, and that the dispute will be adjudicated by neutral arbiters. But the system only works in a healthy manner when the participants operate in good faith, i.e., when the principals argue their positions honestly, out of a genuine interest in a fair and just outcome, not when one side simply engages in the automatic gainsaying of anything the other side says. And regardless of whether we’re talking about sexual harassment cases, business lawsuits, impeachment trials, or election challenges, Trump’s advocates do not operate in good faith. They simply deny, or lie outright, or seek to demonize or humiliate their opponents, often with the hope that they can simply jam things up in redundant litigation until their opponents run out of money, patience, or endurance. Trump’s agents are not even really “counselors” in any reasonable sense of the term. They are simply grown-up versions of the unjustifiably self-confident student who incessantly argues his or her (usually his) grade until you literally have to throw him out of your office. And by the way, it’s only those on one side of the aforementioned economic divide who have the luxury to game the system like this without risking bankruptcy or ruin.

8. The Normalization of Sexism

The issue is not simply that Trump is a sexist pig – that much is obvious, with his boys clubs and trophy wives and gendered insults of female public figures and history of sexual abuse. It’s the way he has authorized or normalized the kinds of behaviors that are still widespread but are at least theoretically the subject of public disapproval (actually, normalization of the despicable is a recurring theme throughout this list). With every smirk and leer, Trump told every male in America that he too can use his dick as a ticket to privilege, that he too can denigrate and harass women with impunity, and that he too to stick his hands in women’s pants just for the hell of it and still become president of the United States. Note: This issue does not appear higher on the list because of such strong counter-currents in the country, like the Me Too movement, the high-profile prosecutions of powerful serial abusers like Epstein and Weinstein, and (not insignificantly) the election of Kamala Harris as vice-president.

7. The Inflaming of Racism and Xenophobia

From his birther-ism to his Muslim immigration bans, from his cozying up to white supremacists to his invocation of a “China virus,” Trump has never passed on an opportunity to spew racist and xenophobic rhetoric, or to construct policies that match the rhetoric. But more than that, never before (at least not in recent memory) has an administration so aggressively pit Americans against one another, and so shamelessly declared that the American pie has only enough slices for so many, and that we should view those who don’t deserve a bite as envious parasites worthy of contempt and suspicion. It’s indeed a sorry state of affairs when the president is promising to rescue suburban housewives from (so-called) predatorial ethnic lowlifes, and his brain-dead senate sycophants are calling BLM a terrorist organization.

6. The Bungling of the Covid-19 Crisis

If calling Covid-19 the “China virus” was Trump’s worst misstep in handling this unprecedented global health crisis, it would already have been bad enough. But as the Toteboard noted back in November: “The onset of the pandemic could have been a real pivotal moment in American history. It was an opportunity for a socially and ideologically divided country to make common cause, to work together for the public good, even if that would entail some modicum of shared sacrifice. And Trump had his chance to make that happen. He could have leveled with the American people immediately. He could have assembled a transparent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon team of experts to get out in front of the science and devise an informed and flexible plan for getting the pandemic under control. He could have created a series of specific task forces charged with getting medical supplies to hospitals and Covid tests into communities, partnering with educators around the country to re-imagine and support Covid-era learning, coordinating with small businesses to avoid a complete economic meltdown, providing relief to those with housing insecurity, and figuring out ways to repair broken supply lines, so food wouldn’t be rotting on farms and animals wouldn’t be needlessly euthanized while people in cities skipped meals or stood in line at food pantries. And then he could have kept the public informed at every step of the way, so people would learn in real time what the scientists were thinking, what resources were available to them, and what to expect in the coming months.” But of course, that’s not what happened, as Trump bungled it from first to last, starting out with a denial of scientific consensus, and culminating with a sloppy and poorly coordinated distribution of vaccines. We’re projected for well over a half-million deaths, and counting.

5. The Abdication of Environmental Stewardship

Trump’s failure to heed medical advice about Covid is just one example of his penchant for ignoring science when it doesn’t serve his interests or appetites. Trump’s guiding life-principle is rapacious consumption and self-gratification, with utter disregard for who gets injured by his predations or who gets stuck cleaning up his mess, and so it’s hardly a surprise that Trump would treat the environment with the same rape-and-pillage attitude he brings to his pitiful human interactions. Unfortunately, cleaning up this particular mess will require considerably more than simply flipping a few light switches or signing a few executive orders. The Times recently published a truly disturbing article about how it may take the Biden administration years just to reverse Trump-era regulations, let alone reverse the damage Trump caused during his untethered four-year rampage.

4. The Corruption of an Independent Judiciary

As the Toteboard has discussed at length in the past, Trump and his republican enablers “abandoned even the merest pretense of an independent judiciary, as they labor to manipulate the court with the same conscienceless rapacity they bring to partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other abuses of power too numerous and depressing to articulate fully.” Trump has done so much to mangle the courts that this topic practically deserves its own bottom-ten sub-list – his role in blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination, his elevating numerous unqualified litmus-test ideological hacks to upper and mid-level appointments, his eleventh hour rush to replace RBG while her family was still sitting shiva – and the effects will be felt for at least a generation. But most sadly, Trump brazenly, and cynically, made it clear that he would employ the courts as just another concentration of political power, i.e., as something he could manipulate for personal or ideological ends, and his party stooges in the senate all went along with him without even trying to conceal their gleeful winks and nudges. Try looking up “conscienceless” in the dictionary, and see if “republican” appears yet as a synonym. Folks born after 1973 might also want to look up “back alley abortion” while they’re at it.

3. The Devaluation of Truth

Where does one even begin on this one? The phony baloney promises Trump made on the campaign trail five years ago? The tens of thousands of outright lies fact-checkers have chronicled since the asshole took office? The intentional spread of malicious misinformation about political opponents? The outright contempt for journalists, academics, scientists, and anyone else charged with safeguarding the factuality of the public record? The willingness to concoct and propagate false narratives about a stolen election in his maniacal drive to maintain power? Even before his upset victory over Clinton, America was already suffering from a crisis of authenticity (more on that in a future Toteboard), and Trump has since then so normalized (there’s that word again) contempt for the truth and the embrace of “alternative facts,” that it really seems at times like reality itself is under assault. As Orwell wrote, “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.”

2. The Abuse of Power

The term “abuse of power” is actually too generic to capture the level of malignant corruption embodied in the Trump administration. When an older sibling gets to dictate which television channel to watch, that’s an abuse of power. When a supervisor tells her secretary to pick up her dry cleaning, that’s an abuse of power. And when a teacher takes home a few pencils and paper clips, that an abuse of power (as well as petty theft). But this is not something quite so innocent. This is a case where someone was handed the awesome responsibility for ensuring the public good, and he chose instead to employ that power for nothing beyond his own self-aggrandizement and expansion of power, with complete and utter indifference to the people he gored or the ethical norms he flouted. And it really was one depravity after another: profiting personally from government actions, rewarding crooked loyalists, soliciting election interference from foreign governments, purging officials who dared speak the truth, issuing pardons to cronies and sycophants, inciting followers to violence, attempting to steal elections. This is truly the stuff of banana republics and post-colonial dictatorships. We just lived through a creeping fascism, as well as a fascist creep.

1. The Collapse of (the Myth of) American Exceptionalism

The belief in American Exceptionalism is one of those things like the belief that there exists a non-obvious being dwelling in the heavens who created the universe and stands in judgment of humankind, i.e., it’s something that any American politician hoping to get elected to the most insignificant office is obligated to proclaim as though it were utterly self-evident – to state the opposite would be treated as heresy – regardless of how well such an assertion can or cannot withstand rational intellectual scrutiny. And surely, any thought that America possesses a unique moral standing is readily contradicted by the monumental failures that litter the historical record: slavery, witch trials, Native American genocide, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow, the Chinese and Asian Exclusion Acts, the denial of basic rights to women, WWII internment camps, McCarthyism, the persecution of gays and lesbians, environmental destruction, animal abuse, war crimes (the Toteboard apologizes for any significant omission here). In fact, it might be argued that the doctrine of American Exceptionalism is one of the main impediments to many Americans even acknowledging when the country fails to live up to its own ideals. And yet . . . . the Toteboard confesses that in some naïve (infantile?) way, it really has expected more of America. For one, America has consistently (if sluggishly) demonstrated an ability to be self-correcting – à la MLK’s profound understanding that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We may not yet have faced up in the most well-adjusted way to our often cruel history, or yet made the appropriate reparations, but it really means something that there’s a general consensus that all (or most, anyway) of the failures listed above stand as sources of national shame, as perpetual reminders of our fallibility and responsibility to do better now and in the future. And second, there has long been a public mythos that despite the carnage and malice baked into our collective memory, there were still some things that just couldn’t happen in America. Like a presidential candidate stalking and physically threatening his opponent during a public debate. Like the president of the United States lying incessantly to the citizenry and branding the press “the enemy of the people.” Like the president playing hostile foreign forces against his own domestic rivals. Like the president embracing white supremacists and egging on a violent attack on the legislature. Like the president trying to steal an election and thwart the peaceful transfer of power. But now it’s clear that these things do happen in America, and in the current moment it’s hard to imagine that the mechanism of self-correction will ever kick in, when 47% of the voters actually wanted to extend the term of that sorry excuse for a human being, when three quarters of rank-and-file republicans still believe that Trump really won the election, and when we can’t find even a dozen republican congresspersons willing to acknowledge the extent to which Trump has violated the public trust. So yes, the Toteboard reflects on Trump’s legacy with anger, and with outrage. But perhaps most importantly, with grief.

And so there you have it, the bottom ten stains of the Trump era. As for now, only the coming days and weeks and months will determine what kind of healing we will see. A Biden presidency, bolstered by a newly democratic senate, faces unprecedented opportunity and possibility, but also unprecedented challenges. Let’s all hope the inauguration and the Georgia runoffs represent not merely a deceptive January thaw, but the beginning of some better days when the colors truly will grow brighter.


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