In the classic movie “Annie Hall,” the narrator tells the timeless joke of the two friends at a Catskills resort bemoaning the poor quality of the restaurant. “The food at this place is really terrible,” one observes. “I know,” replies her friend, “and such small portions.” Americans living through the dumpster fire that is Donald Trump’s presidency are rightly worried about whether our country will ever truly recover from it, and they confront a similar conundrum: Is it more precise to characterize this administration as loathsome or a disgrace?
Last week did not make the choice any easier. It featured a president whose signature character traits were on vivid display: The lying, the infantile personal attacks and the bullying interruptions triggered a national gag reflex, exactly what Americans want to experience watching their leader.
But that was only part of it.
Trump boasts about being a brilliant businessman and professes concern for working Americans. However, not so much, as all but the most ardent of Kool-Aid drinkers could have predicted. During his debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, he babbled nonsense in response to questions about The New York Times’ reporting on his tax returns — the returns he has fought to keep hidden while assuring the uber-gullible that he intends to release them during this lifetime. Those returns confirm that Trump has been an astonishing business failure; owes unidentified creditors over $400 million; and has stiffed the Treasury by paying no federal income taxes for 10 of the last 15 years and only $750 each in two other years. Why anyone would imagine that someone who has so consistently stiffed students, contractors and employees wouldn’t stiff Uncle Sam in spectacular fashion remains unclear.
But perhaps nothing stimulated collective waves of nausea more than the president’s warnings that he was urging his supporters to storm polling places to “watch” for “election fraud.” For starters, there is no election fraud and no reason to believe there will be any, as the president’s own FBI director has himself reaffirmed. That fact matters not at all to a president whose assertions of fraud are themselves fraudulent. Moreover, the conduct he is urging his supporters to engage in is egregiously illegal. We also saw a president who yet again refused to condemn white supremacists, comprising his most rabid base of support. Challenged to implore one group of supporters, the neo-fascist Proud Boys, to renounce their violence on American streets, Trump instead instructed them to “stand by.” He took pains to underscore his threat. “This is not going to end well,” Trump warned twice. “This is not going to end well.”
Meanwhile, the president who refuses to agree to honor the results of an election that he loses is reinforced by allies determined to discourage or outright prevent Americans from voting, knowing that keeping citizens from expressing their will is Trump’s best shot at retaining the presidency. In Texas last Thursday, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott directed counties to permit only one drop-off box for absentee ballots. This means that in large counties, including the state’s most populous one, voters may have to drive dozens of miles to hand-deliver those ballots. On the same day, two right-wing operatives were charged by the Michigan attorney general with a fraudulent robocall scheme by which 85,000 Black voters in Detroit were warned that voting by mail could subject them to arrest, debt collection and forced vaccination.
By the weekend, the president, who had torpedoed efforts to protect Americans from COVID-19, was hospitalized with it. Two hundred and ten thousand Americans have been killed by the pandemic he decided it was in his interest to ignore. “He did not just downplay the virus,” noted historian Douglas Brinkley, “he paraded around like a peacock, making fun of those who took it seriously.” The presidency that the country appears poised to flush away has left the America we thought we were in pieces. Putting it back together will be a tall order.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.