In the terror-struck and vertiginous days after Donald Trump’s election a year ago, as I tried to make sense of America’s new reality, I called people who lived, or had lived, under authoritarianism to ask what to expect. I wasn’t looking for concrete predictions – one of the disorienting things about that moment was that no one, no matter how learned, had any idea what was happening – but for insights into how the texture of life changes when an autocratic demagogue is in charge.
A secular Turkish journalist told me, her voice sad and weary, that while people might at first pour into the streets to oppose Trump, eventually the protests would probably die out as a sense of stunned emergency gave way to the slog of sustained opposition. The Russian dissident writer Masha Gessen warned that there’s no way, with a leader who lays siege to the fabric of reality, to fully hold on to a sense of what’s normal. “You drift, and you get warped,” she told me.
They were both right. The country has changed in the last year, and many of us have grown numb after unrelenting shocks. What now passes for ordinary would have once been inconceivable. The government is under control of an erratic racist who engages in nuclear brinkmanship on Twitter. He is dismantling the State Department, defending the hollowing out of the diplomatic corps by saying, on Fox News, “I’m the only one that matters.”
He publicly pressures the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents. He’s called for reporters to be jailed, and his administration demanded that a sportscaster who criticized him be fired. Official government statements promote his hotels. You can’t protest it all; you’d never do anything else. After the election, many liberals pledged not to “normalize” Trump. But one lesson of this year is that we don’t get to decide what normal looks like.
Last month Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, took an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who later had a number of his rivals, including a Trump critic, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, put under arrest. In The Washington Post, David Ignatius described Kushner’s talks with Prince Mohammed this way: “The two princes are said to have stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, swapping stories and planning strategy.” A year ago, that sentence would have been unintelligible as a description of American diplomacy, even as a wry joke.
But this nightmare year has upended assumptions about the durability of the rules, formal and informal, governing our politics. There’s a metaphysical whiplash in how quickly alarm turns into acceptance and then into forgetfulness. It was astonishing when Trump installed Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, a man who had previously run a white nationalist tabloid; now it feels like ages ago that he was even in the White House. (He’s been gone less than three months.)
It was staggering when credible evidence emerged that one of the president’s former national security advisers, Sebastian Gorka, was a member of a Nazi-aligned Hungarian group called the Vitezi Rend, and even more staggering when that revelation didn’t immediately end his White House career.
Hannah Arendt once wrote of the role vulgarity played in undermining liberalism in pre-totalitarian societies: “The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.” I thought of this when I saw Ted Nugent, who on several occasions called for Barack Obama to be killed, grinning in a photograph taken in the Oval Office, or Kellyanne Conway appearing on television to urge America to buy Ivanka Trump merchandise. In this administration, crassness has become a weapon, annihilating social codes that once restrained political behavior, signaling that old standards no longer apply.
Lately, the pace of shocks has picked up, even if our capacity to process them has not. Trump’s former campaign chairman has been indicted. One of his former foreign policy aides has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his attempts to collude with Russia. His commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, turns out to have retained a stake in a company with business ties to the son-in-law of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board once claimed that our air is “too clean for optimum health.” USA Today recently reported that the president has nominated several members of his clubs to federal jobs. Never in modern history, it said, “has a president awarded government posts to people who pay money to his own companies.” In another administration this would have been a major scandal. In this one it barely registers.
How can America ever return from this level of systematic derangement and corruption? I wish there was someone I could ask, but we know more about how countries slide into autocracy than how they might climb out of it. It’s been a year, and sometimes I’m still poleaxed by grief at the destruction of our civic inheritance.
In moment of optimism I think that this is just a hideous interregnum, and that in a brighter future we’ll watch prestige dramas about the time we almost lost America while members of the current regime grow old in prison. But in my head I hear the song that closed out Trump rallies like a satanic taunt or an epitaph for democracy: “You can’t always get what you want.”