A tale of two images and the time of Trump
Two photos taken from the same view. All that is different is the passage of time, the time of Trump.
The first photo is of inauguration day 2017, the first day of the presidency of Donald John Trump. The Capitol Building is bright, festooned with bunting and American flags. Soldiers stand at attention, the crowd seated in neat rows. It is a picture of the republic’s long tradition of the orderly transition of power.
President Trump, speaking, was inheriting a nation that in the prior eight years had elected, then re-elected, the first Black president. The U.S. Supreme Court had recently ruled that government had no right, in issuing marriage licenses, to decide what two adults could or could not legally and emotionally commit to their love of one another. Young adults, the “dreamers,” smuggled into the country as children through no decision of their own, had been given legal protection to pursue jobs and higher education previously denied them due to their undocumented status.
It was a nation which, about a decade earlier, had been on the brink of a second great depression, but had recovered to see steady economic and job growth. More citizens had access to health coverage than at any time in the nation’s history, under the Affordable Care Act.
There were problems, of course. The gap between rich and poor had continued to widen. The middle class was squeezed. Persistent inequalities in the enforcement of laws and of opportunity frustrated Black Americans and other minority groups.
White Americans without higher education had seen their job options shrink as manufacturing moved overseas. Their hard work, many in service jobs, only got them from paycheck to paycheck. Many made too much to get help from the government — not that they wanted it — too little to feel secure.
Many saw Democrats as the party of minorities, gays, illegal immigrants, welfare recipients — but not them. A party with elitist disdain for religious devotion, one which wanted to take away their constitutional rights to protect themselves as they saw fit.
They had been instrumental in electing Trump.
The second photo is of Jan. 6, 2021, almost four years later, the last days of the Trump presidency.
A haze of tear gas obscures the view of the U.S. Capitol. A large crowd of angry Trump supporters — fueled by lies from the president himself that the election was being stolen that very day — overwhelm Capitol Police and swarm the shrine of American democracy.
Inside, Trump idolaters ransack offices and smash their way into the House and Senate chambers, disrupting congressional certification of the results of the Nov. 3 election that, when order was finally restored, would confirm Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. as the next president.
The most prominent icons in the photo are not U.S. flags, but large Trump banners. Many in the mob are festooned with Trump symbols. It is a scene of absolute chaos and disorder, of total disdain for rules and process, fueled by devotion not to a principle but to a man, Trump. It is profoundly un-American.
Make America great again, huh? Make America hate again seems more like it.
A demagogue, Trump had achieved the presidency by finding targets for his supporters to blame for their struggles. The list was long. The swamp of powerful special interests that Washington catered to. The undocumented immigrants who crossed the southern border — rapists, drug dealers and gangs in his depiction — bringing crime and competing for jobs. The environmentalists whose regulations strangled business. The “failing” cities with their struggling minority populations.
“Disgusting, rat, and rodent infested mess,” tweeted Trump about Baltimore.
His administration did not deliver on blue-collar jobs or relieve middle-class struggles. The number of Americans without health insurance rose by 2.3 million from 2016 to 2019, including 726,000 children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Trump oversaw the fastest increase in the debt of any president — almost 36% from 2017 to 2020 — much of that attributable to massive and needless tax cuts, targeted largely toward the rich, with no corresponding offsetting spending cuts.
As a result of his administration’s mishandling of the pandemic, America leads the world with more than 363,000 coronavirus-related deaths. The crisis, and the failure to better manage it, ended the economic recovery.
But Trump managed to keep the anger at a high level and to translate any attack on him as an attack on those who revered him.
The Big Lie was reserved for his election defeat. The extent to which Trump’s devotees have been willing to accept the lie, to embrace outlandish conspiracies to avoid the reality of the president’s defeat, and the willingness of too many Republican leaders to feed the lie for their own political purposes, is the most troubling thing I’ve witnessed in a lifetime of following U.S. politics.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength,” Trump told those followers before they attacked the Capitol.
“Take back our country” from those people.
Two pictures, four years, a changed country, and the future image dim and hard to see.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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