American carnage

The farewell party.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as president the tumultuous Trump years have come to an end.

As a book reviewer I can testify to the truly awesome amount of ink that has been spilled trying to describe, explain, and understand the last four years. And over the course of the next year I’m sure much more will be added to the pile, including post mortems on the 2020 election, the COVID-19 debacle, and the final, fiery attack on the Capitol by an angry mob. I look forward to what will be said.

What kind of a snap judgment can be made now, however? Many are debating whether Trump will be considered the worst president in U.S. history. The prior point, arrived at more easily, is that he was the worst person to ever be president (including the slaveholders, per David Frum). To this I would agree. There has simply never been someone so mendacious and corrupt, or as lazy, ignorant, and vicious to hold the office. Defenders may point to such generic accomplishments as tax “reform” and flooding the judiciary with “conservative” judges — developments bound to happen under any Republican administration, and with which Trump seems to have been uninvolved. Trump’s own interests in being president were restricted to obsessively following his own media coverage, grift, and using the shield of the office to keep himself out of jail.

In a way, America was lucky he was such an incompetent buffoon. Someone with all of Trump’s bad qualities, matched with intelligence and charm, might have signaled the end of the American experiment in government. One hopes, without much confidence, that something will have been learned, just as lessons will be taken from the COVID disaster, which we were lucky was not even more deadly. How many such bullets can be dodged?

One discouraging conclusion to draw from the Trump years is that institutions will not preserve any part of the existing order. The center did not hold for four years in the U.S., with the Republican party caving completely to Trump and his manifold outrages during that time. Peace, order, and good government (those Canadian virtues) are hanging on everywhere by a slender thread.

Will Trump be back? I doubt it, given his age, health, and the miserable note his presidency ended on. But stranger things have happened. Of greater concern is the fact that Trump was just a symptom, or at most a catalyzing agent, of a deeper rot. And the conditions that gave rise to him are not going away. In fact, they are almost certainly going to get worse. The anger and hate that Trump both stoked and embodied is the product of various trends — political polarization, growing inequality, social media — that I can’t see getting better anytime soon. Trump may be on his way, but someone else is bound to come along who will harness that anger. This is not the end, but the beginning.

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