“A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank”
—The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
Feb. 3, 2018. I write from jail. President Trump hasn’t signed a single bill into law. That’s not just because Vice President Pence would probably do the actual signing, anyway, if there was anything to be signed. True to his prediction, President Trump leaves the day-to-day work of the presidency to Pence, who has, of course, embraced this unprecedented role. The fact is, there has been no legislation. The Republicans took heavy losses in the 2016 election but didn’t achieve the 60 votes necessary to overcome Democratic filibusters. The six-member Supreme Court has stopped meeting.
That’s the good news.
Before he was the toast of Broadway, Hamilton and the Founding Fathers fashioned checks and balances that have, so far, survived even the election of this man. But America has changed, in ways more profoundly than new laws or regulations could change it.
The man who said he’d protect us, and make America safe, has actually made America a more dangerous place for all of us, and a much more dangerous place for some of us. A darkness of the collective national soul spread like a poisonous fog across the country from the inaugural podium and, in its wake, many found in their pockets a license to act on their worst impulses, rather than a call to act upon their best.
A license to grope.
A license to hate.
A license to discriminate.
That license was promised to us with every statement the president made during his campaign, and in every aspect now of the Trump Doctrine. The message was (sometimes) shrouded in code, but was always very clear: “down with political correctness” meant “let me discriminate and hate,” “there are too many business regulations” meant “higher profits are worth the risk of poison food,” “religious freedom” meant “just the opposite” and on. These messages were pounded home with both metaphorical and actual fists and intimidation. The campaign bullied women, bullied black and brown people, bullied gays, and — ironically and cynically — the poor. It threatened the press and anyone who disagreed.
In the end, it even bullied voters. People won’t say out loud that intimidation by Trump gangs necessarily caused his election, but even if it didn’t, the message was loud and clear. That message was that the weak and the different are in jeopardy. They are in jeopardy because, in fact, it’s the weak and different that need the government, it’s protection and the promise that the American Idea had made for generations. The president’s team touts the administration’s efforts to lower taxes, deregulate business and unravel health care reform. This is, and has always been, Darwin’s Plan for America: healthy, wealthy business owners (and those very few who realistically can become one) thrive. As do their heirs. The America that needs reliable public transportation, roads and public utilities that work, safe public schools and health insurance, don’t.
In the best of times, under presidents even arguably acting in good faith, trickle-down economic policy wrecks families and the economy. But these are ordinary arguments in a functioning Democracy about how to run an economy. Reasonable minds could differ. That is not what this is about now. This is about something worse. This is about something nightmarishly and unforgivably un-American. America, if it ever truly was, is no longer a safe place for those outside the metaphorical wall Trump and his enablers have already built.
Trump hasn’t had to sign a single bill into law to give license, comfort and even a defense to those who now make America unsafe. Unsafe for the brown-skinned immigrant. Unsafe for women. Unsafe for the young black man. Unsafe for the gay man or woman. President Trump’s election turned the nation into an angry permanent Trump campaign rally. When we aren’t actually encouraged to assault and abuse these Others — which has happened — we at least understand that it’s not only OK, but may, in fact, be an act of patriotism. No one will be prosecuted for Making America Great Again.
Those who deny this new reality have never been on the business end of an actual or metaphorical beating. Long-disenfranchised groups who had made progress asserting and enjoying their rights as Americans and humans have been told to know their place, which is behind real Americans. The lawsuits — against women for complaining about assaults, against the media for reporting the truth, against rights groups and other opponents — have been effective, for sure. The physical attacks — in broad daylight and in the dark of the night — more so. Each unpunished attack emboldens more. People who aren’t Donald Trump or like him one way or the other are afraid. They should be. Trump hasn’t made America Great Again. He’s made it 1956 again.
Violence is now everywhere. Violent and unmeasured rhetoric enforced with a repressive and reactionary — and armed — response — has caused riots. Along the border. At abortion clinics. In cities where there have been police shootings. People are arming themselves in response.
Internationally, the world is also less safe. Geopolitics, as it happens, is not much like building a hotel, after all. Alliances borne of centuries of history have been cast aside or threatened, and exchanged for new ones that seem like a good idea at the time. Fragile nuclear non-proliferation agreements and understandings have been replaced by actual encouragement, in some cases, by the Trump Administration and Secretary of State Newt Gingrich to proliferate, nuclear-wise. Americans are as unsafe abroad as they are at home, because we are all hated. And pitied.
In President Trump’s United States one does not now ask what he can do for his country. One asks, rather, only that his country keep the Other away from him. It is no longer a shining city upon a hill, but rather a cheap McMansion in a gated community. And you’re not invited.
I’m advised I won’t be in jail for long. The Committee on Treason and Sedition accepted my apology and promise to refrain from criticizing the president in my usual manner. I lied. Life During Wartime. •
Marc Murphy has drawn The Courier-Journal’s political cartoons for nearly 10 years. He was raised in Eastern Kentucky, served as a captain (judge advocate) in Germany and Central America, was Louisville’s chief prosecuting attorney and now is a trial lawyer in Louisville.