Donald Trump being elected President of the United States in 2016 came as a complete shock to me as it did to many people across America. It was a harsh, cold slap of reality across the face after what I felt were a pretty good eight years. We had emerged from a terrible recession, the economy had been expanding for the longest stretch of time in modern history, and more people were insured than at any other time in this nation’s history – and still a man had just been elected who talked about blowing up the whole thing.
I just didn’t get it.
I had hoped that with a strong enough resistance from elected Democrats and from American citizens across this country that we might be able to minimize the damage of a Trump presidency, that we might be able to resist his worse impulses and protect our democracy. At the time, I believed that it was this hope that carried me, along with that of a million other activated citizens, to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March in January 2017. In retrospect, if I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure that it was just hope that carried us there.
I think a lot of us who marched that day had something more of a mixture of yes hope, but also some lingering, almost indescribable fear as well. We had just witnessed an egomaniacal narcissistic man who showed little regard for the norms, traditions, and history of this country, and even less interest in trying to bridge the gaps that divided us, elected to be the most powerful man in the world. A man who showed a blatant disrespect for anyone who he did not agree with and a willingness to win at any cost, even if that cost were truth or decency.
In the four years that followed many of us who marched that day witnessed most of our worst fears realized. I could go through all the outrages: the Muslim ban, the separation and orphaning of children at the border, Charlottesville, Shithole countries, and so forth. Yet my time to do so is limited, and my patience to dedicate anymore outrage at the past four years is minimal. I am quite simply too exhausted to rehash the seemingly endless barrage of outrages we were forced to endure and so I will focus on the one that I believe is the most damaging, hardest to fix, and most enduring legacy of the Trump presidency, which is his assault on truth.
The assault started the day after his inauguration when he made Sean Spicer, his Press Secretary, lie to the American people about the size of his inaugural crowd. It was such a childish thing to care about and something that was indisputably, demonstrably false. Yet it gave us a window into not just his narcissism but also his willingness to bend the truth to fit a narrative he desired. The next day, one his advisors named Kellyanne Conway went on national television to perpetuate the lie and suggested that their judgment of the crowd size was the result of “alternative facts,” which was honestly a laughable expression. Her remarks were rightly called out by the media. Obviously, there is no such thing as alternative facts. Facts are facts, if something is true, it’s true, if it’s not, it’s not. An alternative fact is quite simply a lie.
What I don’t think anyone quite realized at the time however was how willing President Trump, his administration, and his enablers, would be to rely on alternative facts to create an alternate reality for his supporters to believe in. Furthermore, I think the amount of people who realized how dangerous such a loose association to facts and reality could be, or how corrosive it would be to democracy, were even fewer. I think a lot of us just said, “Alternative facts? Okay, whatever”, laughed at how dumb the suggestion was, and moved on with our lives.
Since that day four years ago however, truth has, for the most part, fallen prey to alternative facts, especially for a large segment of Americans who rise and fall on every word Trump speaks or tweets. The absolute barrage of dishonesty, over 30,000 statements by the President alone that were either deemed to be completely or at least partially false by the Washington Post, have been tweeted, spoken, repeated, and disseminated countless times across our society. This assault on facts and truth has been brazen, relentless, and continuously more damaging in its scope and effects.
The lies started small and rather inconsequential, such as that about the inaugural crowd, and continued to grow ever larger and more damaging as time went on. The President seemingly testing the bounds of truth and perpetually stretching it further and further each time his faithful bought into each successive lie. Each lie was a conditioner for the next lie. Each lie building upon the last. Each lie successively bigger, told and repeated even more relentlessly than the last so that if he needed to tell a bigger lie his followers would be ready to believe it.
Trump’s assault on truth was aided by a progressively more splintered media universe in which certain media companies were less committed to the truth than to profits. These companies were willing to dispense with facts in order to cater to the specific tastes of its consumers who sadly showed a startling propensity to desire only information that reinforced what they already believed to be true. Having bought into Trump’s initial small lies, his followers became increasingly indoctrinated to Trump’s version of reality and less susceptible to alternative facts, which were in reality the truth that Donald said was a lie.
This process of indoctrination and eventual radicalization was accelerated exponentially by social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter who created algorithms that almost ensured users would only be exposed to people and pages they already agreed with, while seemingly not taking into account at all how dangerous and damaging misinformation could be.
In this hyper-segregated media and social media environment truth itself became a casualty of the Trump administration for many Trump enthusiasts. Journalists were dismissed as enemies of the people and purveyors of “fake news”. For many, truth became confused with the lie, facts replaced by beliefs, data dispersed for feelings, and reality fell prey to fantasy.
Donald Trump preyed upon our worst fears, exploited our insecurities, exacerbated our differences, and divided this nation in pursuit of his own interests. The gradual but consistently accelerating impact of these accumulating lies created a country that became more and more divided over the last four years. A populace unwilling, and often times, unable to come to agreement on even the most basic and readily apparent of facts drifted further and further apart.
We couldn’t agree on racism. We couldn’t agree on science. We couldn’t agree on wearing masks. We couldn’t agree on social distancing. We couldn’t even agree on how many people were actually dying from the pandemic, a number that will reach 400,000 by Inauguration Day. Generally accepted norms of decency, decorum, and democracy were demolished by a demagogue who weaponized lies willingly for his own perceived benefit.
So it was no surprise that when Trump lost one of the most free, fair, and secure elections in the history of United States he decided to weaponize one last massive lie in order to try to somehow overturn the results, while failing to realize that eventually the democratic guardrails that he pushed and pushed against throughout his presidency would finally push back. He brazenly claimed, against all evidence to the contrary, that the election had been stolen from him. When all of his legal efforts came up short, and it seemed that he had finally run out of options, he told one last lie to his true believers that they could force Congress to overturn the results of the election.
What ensued, the storming of the Capitol and attempted overthrow of Congress by a mass of domestic terrorists that President Trump whipped into a frenzy in front of the White House, is one of the saddest days in our nation’s history. It is a day that will surely live infamy along with Pearl Harbor. While the loss of life that occurred on January 6, 2021 can in no way compare to that lost on December 7, 1941, what was lost is something that the attack on Pearl Harbor gave us: a sense of common purpose. A belief that we were all in this together, that if we had enemies, that they lay beyond our borders and not in our own neighborhoods.
However divisive the past four years had been, I believed however naively, that after some time had passed that we would come back together as Americans and choose to see past our differences and work together to move this country forward. After the events of last week I am not sure of that fact today.
The cumulative impact of Donald Trump’s assault on truth in this country came crashing down upon our most sacred house of democracy in the form of a violent mob who had been lied to and made to believe things that were simply not true. Lies told by a man who cared more about his own interests than the country he was elected to serve. The America I live in today looks a lot less like the one whose capital city I marched in four years ago.
There will be no jubilant crowds at the inauguration this year, nor protestors who would have otherwise been there as well to express their First Amendment rights to peacefully gather and protest. A “peaceful transition of power” will take place on the steps of a Capitol recently besieged by domestic terrorists overlooking streets not filled with citizens celebrating the renewal of their democracy, but by troops standing as the last line of defense between our democracy and further democratic decay.
The light of that City Upon a Hill, the most enduring the world’s democracies, seems to shine a little less bright today than it did even a couple weeks ago. Days seem shorter, the skies grayer, the colors on our flag no longer look as crisp as it swirls in the winds of change as they once did. Countries that we once lectured about democracy are now laughing at us and telling us to get our own house in order.
Our people are dying, our allies are scared, our neighbors suspicious.
This is the true cost of the Trump administration.
This is what happens when a narcissistic demagogue endears himself to people whose interest he only cares for in so much that they serve his own. A man who lies in service of no one except himself.
This is the cost of truth diminished.
I still have hope, however dim its light may be. The insurrectionists failed. Congress completed their Constitutional duties. Donald Trump was impeached, again. Joe Biden will be President of the United States on January 20th. Kamala Harris will become Vice-President that day as well.
Maybe my fears about the seemingly unbridgeable divides that the last four years have created are unfounded. Maybe we’re not as divided as Trump wishes us to be. Maybe this will all be a blip, an anomaly in the long history of our nation. Maybe it will be another time that we look back upon from the future and say “You know what? We were tested and we passed the test.”
Maybe, just maybe everything will be okay.
Maybe that nagging fear I had on that day we marched four years ago, that has only grown in intensity over the past four years is, after all, unfounded.
Maybe the weight of all the lies will come crashing down and truth will prevail and begin to heal this nation.
But then again, maybe your neighbor is a terrorist.
This, is the America that I feared.