The dominoes in Donald Trump’s life are starting to fall in rapid succession. His long-time lawyer Michael Cohen is going to jail, his family foundation was shut down by the New York State attorney general yesterday, and his former National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, got a tongue lashing yesterday from a judge and a delay in his sentencing hearing for lying to the FBI and “selling out his country” to foreign (Russian and Turkish) interests. The Mueller team had suggested that Flynn get no jail time in exchange for his valuable cooperation with the special counsel’s investigation, but it looks like he’ll go to prison after all. There are increasing whispers in the GOP leadership about Trump’s viability as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2020, and even some right-wing journalists and commentators are now calling Trump to account on Fox News, his favorite television channel.
Among the majority of Americans who detest Trump, spirits are rising along with a growing hope that his horrible presidency and all the damage it has done to the United States at home and abroad might soon be over. Trump is facing investigations into his real estate dealings, particularly in Moscow, and the new Congress is going to investigate his tax returns (which no one has seen). At present, Trump is the subject of over one dozen legal investigations, and it’s hard to imagine that more than a couple of these will not soon bear fruit. It’s increasingly likely that Trump will not serve out his entire term, and if it is proved that his entire campaign was corrupt and his victory dependent on foreign interference, we might well see the unprecedented annulment of an American presidency.
Trump’s has been the most scandal plagued presidential administration in the history of the United States, even surpassing that of Richard Nixon, who resigned as impeachment proceedings loomed in 1974. It’s hard to grasp how we got here. For eight years, we had the least scandal plagued president in a generation (Barack Obama), who faced constant criticisms and attacks from the right for bizarre things, such as wearing a tan suit. If Trump had been a Black president, he would not have lasted beyond the first couple of months of his first year in office. Obama’s character was constantly taken to task by a Republican leadership that now dismisses Trump’s involvement in payments to porn stars and numerous financial improprieties as no big deal. At the end of the day, Trump’s administration, and all that led to his arrival to the Oval Office, is an indictment of the American people and the damaged American political system.
Among those on the Left, a constant refrain is “how could people be so stupid as to vote for, and continue to support, a racist and greedy liar like Donald Trump!?” Clearly, a lot of Americans lack critical thinking abilities and prefer to remain ill-informed about domestic and international affairs. A democratic society cannot endure without the participation of an informed and concerned citizenry. Between the toxic effects of big money swaying elections and gerrymandering that prevents lively and plural political participation, the American political system is at death’s door. Trump did not cause this, but he certainly benefited from it.
As an educator, I’m fascinated and horrified by the lack of informed decision-making and critical thought among a large swath of the voting public. If anyone wants to know how and why Russian operatives were able to play with people’s fears and anger, they need look no farther than the abysmal state of civic education in the United States. When I was in high school, civics classes were mandatory. By the age of 15, we had to understand how the U.S. government worked at the local, state, and federal levels. We knew the different functions of the three branches of government – legislative, judicial and executive – and how bills were made and laws passed by Congress. For a nation that boasts that it has a government “for, by, and of the people,” the United States is in a sorry state, as well as in deep denial about how the system actually works – or, better stated, doesn’t work.
Although there are no easy answers to the question “how did we get here?”, education is a key problem. I teach at an elite university that is very particular about the students it admits. My classes are full of students who were the very smartest in their high schools across the United States, but I’m constantly amazed that they don’t know the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives, or how bills are made, and lack awareness of what is in the Bill of Rights or the difference between the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Clearly, no one is taking civics classes in high school now. Nor are they learning to write well or think critically. Students might excel at taking standardized tests and gathering lots of information, but processing and evaluating data is not their forte.
And this is the situation among the American elite. Travel out to the heartland, to states like Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas, and Indiana, among others, and you will find communities devastated by the ravages of a globalized capitalist economy that has seen the flight of industry and manufacturing to countries where environmental regulations and fair pay are not impediments to profit-making. Public schools have suffered, social services are minimal, and the ravages of opioid addiction are taking young people’s lives at an alarming rate. Despair reigns in middle America, so perhaps it is not surprising that this same demographic found Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” so appealing. Trump’s nativist ravings are the opiate of the people who are not taking actual opiates in Middle America.
Numerous scholars and commentators have long noted that poor white Americans tend to vote against their interests, but the extent to which so many people bought into the hoaxes and illusions Donald Trump peddled in the 2016 campaign should scare and concern all Americans. Friends who teach at universities in the Midwest scold me for saying that people in the heartland might now be too stupid to qualify for voting. And one must acknowledge that the educated elite on the east and west coasts are uncaring and conceited, and deaf to the concerns and real suffering of people in the heartland. The avid support of the neoliberal candidate Hilary Clinton over Social Democrat Bernie Sanders in 2016 was an index of the Democratic elite’s inability to think critically or process facts. There really are two (or more) Americas now, divided by income, life chances, and health outcomes. The middle class is disappearing, and corporate America’s focus on rewarding share-holders no matter the cost to workers and the American public has to be confronted squarely. The only candidate who raised these deep structural issues in 2016 was Senator Bernie Sanders, and I believe that, had he been the candidate facing Trump in 2016, he could have won the election. Russian interference in the 2016 elections would not have been so successful if there had not been real doubts and dissatisfaction with the Democratic candidate.
The corporate and banking elite who have stripped so many Americans of their wealth and hope are pleased with their success in getting Americans to vote against their own interests. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are far too deferential to the anti-democratic forces on Wall Street. In the end, we are all responsible for enabling Donald Trump to sit in the Oval Office. We’ll have to do a serious accounting of our political and moral failings to recover from the immense damage of the last two years.