On Election Day four years ago, I wrote a column I assumed would never run. It was, as you have easily guessed, about the election of Donald Trump, and it was the back-up plan. The real column, the one I expected to share with readers, maybe save for the future grandchildren, celebrated the election of the first female president.
The frame for my Trump column derived from the Jewish liturgy for Saturday morning, the prayer for our country — a prayer that, until Trump’s alarming candidacy, felt like boilerplate, asking God’s blessing for wise leaders and “all who exercise just and rightful authority.”
“Teach them insights from Your Torah that they may administer all affairs of state fairly,” the prayer beseeches, “that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.” It speaks of banning “hatred and bigotry,” of safeguarding “the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country,” of the United States as “an influence for good throughout the world.”
The column is painful to reread. I never imagined how terrible the next four years would be. My tone was alarmed, but, it turns out, not alarmed enough. The column underestimated not only how appallingly Trump would behave and how poorly he would perform, but also how consistently spineless the leaders of his party, in particular the elected leaders, would behave in the face of his cruel excesses and deadly incompetence.
About Trump’s behavior, of course, we had more than foreshadowing — we had ample evidence of who he was and how he might govern. The candidate who couldn’t bring himself to denounce former Klansman David Duke became the president who saw “very fine people, on both sides” of the protests in Charlottesville. The candidate who launched his campaign with the warning that Mexican rapists and other criminals were flooding across the border became the president who separated migrant mothers from their babies. The candidate who denounced “fake news” became the president who accused the media of being the “Enemy of the People.”
The candidate who complained about the “rigged” election became the president who refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. The candidate who led “lock her up” chants about his 2016 opponent became the president who asserted that his 2020 opponent, his opponent’s son, his predecessor and his previous opponent should all be thrown in jail, and who criticized his own attorney general for failing to be aggressive enough in going after these political enemies.
The candidate who praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “strong” leader, and dismissed intelligence community assessments about Russian efforts to meddle in the election, became the president who in Helsinki accepted Putin’s absurd claims of innocence.
There was fleeting hope that Trump, after he was elected, might have toned down the ugly rhetoric and taken office with at least a modicum of the seriousness it deserves. After all, he told us he understood how to be presidential, that he would be so presidential we would beg him to be less boring. The glimmer of graciousness that Trump managed to display on election night yielded quickly to a dark inaugural full of talk of carnage and then to delusional claims about crowd sizes.
Trump didn’t ramp down; he revved up, drunk on the power of being called “sir” and ordering around “my generals.” He abused his pardon power to reward his cronies and protect himself. He turned his Justice Department into an instrument of personal revenge and self-protection. He politicized the machinery of intelligence to his own benefit. He lined his emptying pockets with taxpayer funds. He treated the co-equal congressional branch as a mere nuisance, disdaining legitimate oversight, and treated the professionals in the executive branch with similar derision and hostility.
This is astonishingly easy to forget, in light of what has transpired since: He tried to extort a foreign leader to provide dirt on a political opponent, was impeached for it, and remained unchastened. He lied, lied and lied again. The list is long, familiar and stomach-churning.
All this before Trump’s handling of the pandemic, the greatest and most costly dereliction of duty in the history of the presidency. Trump failed to prepare. He ignored the severity of the threat. He propounded dangerously wrong advice. He ignored his own scientists in favor of quacks.
Gross negligence would have been bad enough. But Trump was not just grossly negligent; he was actively malign. He didn’t just fail to urge mask-wearing, and refuse to model it; he mocked those responsible enough to wear masks. Even as cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise, he is seeking to con the country, yet again, into somehow believing that we are “rounding the turn.” He turned his own infection and recovery into supposed proof that the disease is benign — this with more than a quarter-million Americans dead.
They are on Trump’s conscience, or would be, if it existed. He is guilty, morally if not legally, of reckless endangerment of the nation he was supposed to protect. The next president — and God willing, it will not be Trump — will shoulder the burden of trying to stem the damage Trump helped create.
It will take years to recover from four years of Trump. And if he manages again to confound the polls and win, it will take more than prayer, no matter how fervent, to save us and our democracy.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.