The world has gone crazy. How do we count the ways? Politics. Social media. Pandemic. So much is coming at us on a daily basis that it is difficult to sort it out. But that does not mean we should not try.
Take Los Angeles Times writer David L. Ulin: He has embarked on the first step toward a post-Trump presidency recovery — by admitting what many have not: Trump Derangement Syndrome is a genuine phenomena. “For five years I believed — I still believe — that Trump represented an existential threat to the republic,” Ulin writes. “One way or another, though, we’ve all been traumatized by the Trump administration and the lawlessness and cruelty it encouraged or enacted as policy.”
Donald Trump’s participation in the “Save America” rally on January 6, 2021 confirmed worst fears: that the former President would not abide by a peaceful transition of power, a crucial element in a democratic Republic.
In a presidency marked by controversy, the Capitol breach stands apart — and rightly has been broadly condemned. Few supporters, for that matter, deny that the stream-of-consciousness Tweeting Trump often dug his own pits into which to fall. Time and time again, Trump departed from the usual presidential speechwriters and handlers to directly engage the public in unscripted, fact-check free, off-the-cuff remarks. For all his criticisms of “fake news“, he apparently has never met a TV camera or a microphone he did not like — all of which qualifies the former president as a loose cannon in the truest sense of the word. Still, there comes a time when one must step back. A new administration has been ushered in. And yet before we can move on — in order to move on — a less emotionally-charged look at the Trump presidency is in order.
For leaders who are looked upon more favorably, the long view of history may nonetheless bring to light significant, yet lesser-known, failings. In Donald Trump’s case, however, no stone has been left unturned in effort to call out his many flaws in real time. Consequently, recovery from TDS requires the counter-intuitive: Refrain from giving Trump more credit — power — than he deserves.
How do we deescalate tensions and make good on President Biden’s call for unity?
By reconciling how many existential threats were named versus how many have been claimed.
While it must first be stressed that it is within any reader’s prerogative to dislike and distrust a public figure for any reason, real or imagined, we must not underestimate the role of American media to amplify the threats they so often attributed to the former president. Americans have been subjected to ’round-the-clock claims that the proverbial sky is falling with little consideration for whether such threats pan out. Consider the bizarre beef many in media took with Trump’s early administration claim of having been spied upon prior to taking office. Reporters took to social/media to split semantic hairs even as the existence of an FBI counter-intelligence investigation into then-candidate Trump was not in dispute. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrants were obtained on members of Trump’s campaign staff to do, as the Court’s name suggests: Spy.
A Political Rorschach Test
TDS is two-faced malady: Coming from detractors, it functions as a fusion between Left-leaning partisan groupthink and the psychological phenomena known as catastrophizing. Coming from supporters, it is a fusion of Right-leaning partisan groupthink and idealization. Simply put, supporters can see no evil, detractors can see no good.
Does either one of these polar opposites represent “truth”?
News reports before and after Trump took office promoted TDS as a groupthink contagion, a revival of yellow journalism for the clickbait era. Journalists jettisoned best practices to lead Trump-dominated news cycles with thinly-veiled #Resistance. To cover the president objectively, they argued, was to “normalize” the abnormal. To counteract this threat, media gatekeepers leaned heavily upon anonymously-sourced allegations, weasel words (scandals couched in if-true caveats), speculation and the alarming assertions of political leaders who have repeatedly floated one conspiracy after another. Broadcast personalities and cable news pundits, similarly, have scraped the bottom of the barrel in attempt to outdo each other’s attempts at dastardly historical comparisons. In this way, Trump became a “Rorschach test presidency”. You name it, the character assassination attempt stuck: “Putin pal“, narcissist, builder of cages for kids and dictator, to name but a few.
Characteristic of TDS, there is no such thing as a bridge too far. “Trump is as destructive a person in this century as Hitler, Stalin, Mao in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were,” former Duke Psychiatry Chair Dr. Allen Frances opined to CNN audiences.
Mind reading is another hallmark of TDS. Trump launched a trade war, we were told, for no other reason than to advance discredited protectionism. It mattered little that President Trump’s stated policy focus was not to destroy trade but to re-balance it. After 30-plus years of outsourcing jobs, any other president could have made the case that “Globalism Version 1.0” was deserving of an overhaul — but no such benefit of the doubt flowed to Trump. There was but one mainstream media-sanctioned interpretation for his actions: Irresponsible.
Did American media grill the Obama administration with tough, similarly adversarial, questions? Hardly. In a single year, ~70,000 children purportedly crossed the Southern border alone, yet it never occurred to mainstream media to challenge the Obama administration’s claim that parents voluntarily separated from tens of thousands of “unacompanied minors“. By contrast, the Trump administration’s short-lived zero tolerance policy provoked outrage — but little of that public awareness was channeled into productive ends: reforming the broken immigration system that has left more than one American president with untenable choices. Despite the essentially permanent nature of border crisis, Trump was falsely accused of building cages for kids, breaking norms he more often borrowed or bent.
Burying what was perhaps the most under-reported revelation of Trump’s presidency constituted yet another attempt to exercise undo influence over public perception: According to an October 2020 declassification from then Director of National Intelligence, John Radcliff, former CIA Director John Brennan briefed then-President Obama on a Clinton campaign plan to project Russian interference in the 2016 election on Trump — an apparent attempt to deflect from the FBI’s mishandling of the Clinton email server investigation. While Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 election were genuine, allegations of collusion, as conveyed by the Steele dossier, hardly served to boost to the Trump campaign. Trump had committed “treason” Obama’s then-CIA director repeatedly told news audiences. Irony was in short supply among those who promoted presumptions of presidential guilt: If Russia was guilty of sewing discord for the purpose of undermining faith in our institutions, what could possibly serve that purpose more than the uncritical promotions of collusion against a sitting president — a level of political division Vladimir Putin’s troll farms could scarcely dream of?
When all was said and done, media should have issued an apology patterned after the lessons of the post-9/11 terrorist attacks. Instead they doubled down. Despite Bush-era efforts to promote false links between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — and an Obama administration history of crossing lines to target opponents — media worked overtime to promote the impression that Trump was in a class by himself. Trump-Russia collusion set a speculative tone from the early days of his presidency, even as the latter days of his term were characterized by open election meddling attempts on the part of social media companies to suppress news that reflected poorly on Trump’s 2020 presidential election opponent.
Repeated claims that Trump is an autocrat, if not a dictator, served as a rhetorical tool to drive home shaky “common good” arguments: Demonization set the stage to rationalize an unprecedented level of Big Tech-Corporate Media-Political Establishment collusion to exert what might otherwise qualify as undue influence over the 2020 presidential election. As a TIME Magazine article, aptly titled “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign that Saved the 2020 Election“, put it: “The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted.”
Shadow campaign participants, egged on by a TDS-afflicted social/media climate, believed the ends justified the means: Americans required the help of an unseen hand in the voting booth.
It is said that American memories are short, but they should not be so short that the Trump presidency is amenable to any and all manner of revisionism. President Obama, for however personable, rational and reasonable he appeared in contrast to Trump’s abrasive, mercurial reputation, nonetheless saw fit to investigate and/or jail more journalists and whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. It was Obama, not Trump, who inspired more than 50 journalism groups to protest his excessive press controls — describing his administration as the least transparent in modern history despite the largely favorable press he received!
The point is not to paint former President Obama with a nefarious brush but to better contextualize Trump along a spectrum filled with gray zones. Even Trump’s early efforts to open dialog as a means to keep the United States out of wars with adversaries, such as North Korea, were portrayed in the worst possible light: The sanctioned explanation was that of “an admirer of dictators“, not that he may have rationally preferred diplomacy to war. We would also be remiss to forget the many contradictory reputations Trump earned: Trump wished to abandon NATO, we were told; instead he urged greater buy-in among European allies. He was simultaneously tarred as a “Putin pal” — even as he replaced his predecessors “blankets to Ukraine” with armaments and stiff sanctions aimed at Russia for their annexation of Crimea.
Critics, similarly, point out that Trump broke international norms, preferring little more than to bully our allies. Even when Trump was supportive of an ally, as was the case with the UK’s BREXIT efforts, the former president was tarred for being on the wrong side of an issue UK voters had already decided. Four years later, we learn that more than one of our ostensibly Trump-offended allies rose to the former president’s defense when Big Tech moved to silence his use of social media following an alleged incitement to insurrection. French President Emmanuel Macron recently took it a step further by designating the importation of “woke” American identity politics as a threat to France — a far cry from the MAGA-inspired white supremacy our gatekeepers would have us fear closer to home!
Does this sound like the expected responses from allies Trump is said to have alienated?
Nobody honest will argue that Trump is or was perfect nor, for that matter, particularly presidential. His use of Twitter tested patience, his willingness to insult a Gold Star family broke faith and his decision to attend supporter’s “Save America” rally only reaffirmed critics’ fears about his refusal to abide by a peaceful transition of power. Still, for the many dastardly accusations levied against the “existential threat” that was the Trump presidency, there is a dearth of evidence by which to confirm the litany of charges.
Why did it become a near-impossibility to separate Trump’s talk from his walk, his press from his policy?
When it comes to any other American president, we acknowledge the good with the bad. Former President Carter is frowned upon for his handling of the economy and the Iranian hostage crisis, yet went on to found Habitat for Humanity, ultimately winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his international work. The late President Reagan remains a hero among Conservatives, yet presided over disastrous policies in Central America. Richard Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal and kept an “opponents list“, yet signed Title IX into law, initiated desegregation of Southern schools and founded the Environmental Protection Agency. John F. Kennedy, beloved by many Americans, set our sights on the moon, yet presided over the disastrous Bay of Pigs. Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, yet went down in history as a racist. Abraham Lincoln shepherded the nation through a bloody Civil War to end slavery, but is tarnished by his treatment of Native Americans.
It is not a dishonest exercise in whataboutism to acknowledge reality — nor is it an excuse — but a reminder that civil society requires that we first and foremost humanize one another, lest we become so utterly incapable of putting anyone or anything in context that we descend into a bottomless pit of hysteria, paranoia, hubris and abuse.
When the dust settles on this divisive period, will the Political-Media Complex accept any responsibility whatsoever for fear-mongering their way deep into the American psyche?
Consider the many ways the former president has been skewered in ever-more fear and anger-promoting ways: While taking flack this time last year as a xenophobe after imposing the earliest pandemic travel restrictions in the West — at a time when American media was actively downplaying the novel coronavirus threat! — media praised the pandemic management skills of later-disgraced governors, while insisting that Trump uniquely mismanaged a pandemic that has tarred leaders the world over.
Our would-be dictator exhibited anything but in his handling of the pandemic: Did the former president fire Dr. Anthony Fauci for handicapping his administration’s early response to the pandemic — after admonishing Americans as recently as March of last year that there was no need for the general public to don face masks? Did Trump shoot down “two weeks to slow the spread“, among other so-called lockdowns — or autocratically force schools to remain open? Did Trump respond to the pandemic in by threatening State governors for failing to follow dictatorial, one-size-fits-all edicts? Did he muzzle the Centers For Disease Control and Health and Human Services — or instead put the Coronavirus Task Force front-and-center? Did he fail to invoke the Defense Production Act or refuse hard-hit States Navy hospital ships? Did he fail to imagine cutting vaccine development time down from ~10 years to ~10 months as part of Operation Warp Speed — or insist on adhering to regulatory roadblocks that served to prohibit private labs from stepping up after the CDC’s initial COVID-19 test rollout failed? Was it Trump who held up stimulus to struggling Americans before the 2020 election — or Speaker Pelosi, who calculated that her own COVID-19 relief obstructionism may cost Trump the election?
Did the former president, similarly, make good on threats in 2020 to send in the National Guard over the objections of State and local leaders who were under siege in Portland and elsewhere during “mostly peaceful protests“, which nonetheless caused over $1B in record-breaking insurance losses? Did he fulfill Hillary Clinton’s 2016 warning that he was “temperamentally unfit” and would launch a hot war, as often claimed? Did he take up the cause of his neocon advisors, such as John Bolton and former Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, by embarking on still more nation building efforts — or did he instead endure relentless attacks for attempting to expel advisors who attempted to go down a liberal interventionist/neoconservative warpath? Did he exhibit “white supremacy” by launching Opportunity Zones, which prior to the pandemic had attracted over $10B in investment into poor and minority communities? Did he prove his alleged anti-Semitism by cutting off his Jewish son-in-law and daughter, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — or by being nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize, most recently in recognition of the Abraham Accords?
Over and over again Americans have been urged to accept, at face value, that President Trump has assaulted democracy. The charges against the former president have been speculative, often hyperbolic, sometimes paranoid, missing on-the-record sources, reliant on selective editing of his words and frequently lacking in substance and specifics. It was not Trump, after all, who proposed untested policies such as defunding police. It was not Trump who, within hours of his inauguration, went where no prior administration had gone before: a record-number of executive orders to enable, among other things, undocumented individuals with criminal records to remain in the United States, free from fear of deportation, as is now the case.
The Trump administration did not get everything right, nor did the Obama, Bush, Clinton and now Biden administrations. Acknowledging this reality is important because absent that awareness, politicians and media gatekeepers are free to manipulate emotions and push buttons. Sufferers of TDS must begin to reconcile that for every unorthodox impression Trump may have left upon them, many of his policies — not to be confused with his personality! — would have been perceived in a conventional context were they to have occurred under past presidents.
No honest person can offer an unassailable defense of the former president. What we require now, however, is not more proof of an ex-president’s guilt — or his voters’ presupposed threat — but a reaffirmation of our individual sanity and collective humanity as Americans.
We owe ourselves that much.
Talking Ourselves Down from Ledges
The first step in recovery from TDS is the most painful: Owning our roles as co-creators of a Trump-shaped problem.
Crackdowns on speech, social media deplatforming and talk of “reeducation camps” attest to the desire to eradicate Trumpism, yet tellingly embody the very authoritarian characteristics attributed to Trump.
Pursuit of one’s political enemies is not the American way.
If a leader represents such a grave threat that resistance is necessary, what else might that justify? Could the anti-democratic threats many Americans spent the past five years attributing to Donald J. Trump instead arise from the ashes of a still-ravenous orange obsession?
Where will it end?
Groupthink is successful because it arises from and self-reaffirms popular opinion. Consensus, much like correlation, is not proof that shared perceptions are reality (causation).
Even if popular opinion were to qualify as “Gospel truth”, how much collateral damage can we afford to inflict in attempt to compel still more public consensus?
We are best equipped to resist groupthink when we understand our history not as a series of black-and-white morality tales, our politics not as pseudo religion, our daily news not as good vs. evil narratives — but as humbling reminders of the “mixed bag” that is human nature. If that sounds like whataboutism, it is — and for good reason: Whataboutism reminds us that the world and the people who occupy it are more nuanced and complex than we may wish to acknowledge. While emotional judgments come naturally to us, reason serves the critical role of keeping us grounded. The ability to self-check irrational, counterproductive thinking is not a weakness. It signifies a capacity to make distinctions between words and deeds, between personalities and policies and to better appreciate where our own fear, frustration and insecurity ends and the intentions and motivations of others begins.
Did Trump do bad? Yes. Did Trump do good? Yes. Did he wield more power than past presidents? No. Will he go down in history as a figure deserving of attempts by the FBI to “stop” him, much as the so-called Deep State did to a cultural influencer of an earlier era, the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr? Unlikely.
How might history be different if the Puritans of 1692 Salem, MA, of Salem Witch Trial fame, had the wherewithal to distance themselves from the whirlwind of accusation arising from their shared fear of the devil’s work? Had the community not relied so heavily upon public consensus, they would not have availed themselves to the real work of evil: to falsely accuse and murder their neighbors.
We need only reflect on history to appreciate why we owe it to each other to challenge the paths of least resistance: Revenge may be sweet, but it will not send the MAGA doctrine sailing into the sunset. It cannot shore up democracy. It does not demonstrate that we are more enlightened than those we find morally or personally reprehensible. And it does nothing to heal a divided Republic.
Banishing Donald J. Trump to the cornfield does not alter a simple truth: Recovery begins with us.