The last four years have inflicted carnage on American democracy. The Trump administration’s shattering of presidential norms, attacks on the free press and insistence on unwavering loyalty has ultimately led us to what has been dubbed the most divisive era in American history.
In the days leading up to the 2016 Election Day a Washington Post columnist published a piece titled: “Calm down. We’ll be fine no matter who wins.”
As Trump began to shift from what many perceived to be a publicity stunt to one of the most autocratic leaders America has seen, we’ve become desensitized to the numerous scandals plaguing the government and our reputation abroad. News story after news story depicting the outrageousness of Trump’s actions, each one more ridiculous than the last, lead to more and more people becoming disenfranchised with politics.
Many were shocked by the attempted siege on the capitol amidst the certifying of the electoral college votes on Jan. 6 — including capitol police and other officials who failed to prevent rioters from breaching the capitol building. But can we really be shocked? Nearly every rally, every speech and every policy put forward by the Trump administration has been carefully curated to the climax of the internet-dubbed “guy in a chewbacca bikini” leading an invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
So let’s take a look into the origin of the Trump presidency, and what led to its violent conclusion. What things did we miss — or simply ignore — that caused the near-fall of American democracy as we know it?
The Era Before Trumpism
Despite what many perceived as Trump randomly joining the group of presidential hopefuls, Trump had tossed around and even ran for the nomination multiple times before his 2016 bid. He first floated the idea around in 1988 to run as a Republican, however his first campaign was in 2000 when he eventually dropped out from seeking the Reform Party nomination.
While Trump had been involved in the political landscape during the 2000s, President Obama’s campaign for a second term seemed to be when Trump gained attention. In 2012, Trump didn’t invent — but instead amplified false and racist claims that questioned the validity of Obama’s birth certificate, falsely claiming Obama was born in Kenya when in reality he was born in Hawaii.
This claim was perhaps the first to gain media attention and sparked the McCarthy-esque playbook that would eventually become one of the leading strategies of Trump’s relationship with the media.
In a phone appearance on CNBC in 2012, Trump suggested, “A lot of people are questioning his birth certificate … They’re questioning the authenticity of his birth certificate.”
Linguistically, Trump offers a vague idea to his audience that “a lot of people” or “many people” hold a belief. He never quantifies how many “a lot” is, and it took media outlets a long time to figure out how to cover these fictitious Trump claims. His falsehoods instill doubt in our institutions, ultimately causing further than distrust.
As evidenced by his false claim against Obama, Trump positions the media in an impossible situation because of the media's insistence on objectivity. If the media says Trump is lying, they remove themselves as a passive voice that shares what happened, and instead play an active role in deciding our reality. If the media just says there is a “controversy” surrounding the claim then they make it seem like both stances are equally valid, even though that is not the case.
Trump systematically manipulated the media by throwing out ridiculous assertions and forced the media to make a decision. When the media decided to start calling out Trump’s false claims, he then claimed the media was out to attack him. At this point, Trump had convinced a significant chunk of the population to believe in his false claims. Then, when the media identified his tactics, Trump mobilized his followers to defend him against what they now believe is a war against the media.
We as writers want to be careful with how we portray Trump compared to other historical leaders, however it is important to analyze some key similarities between him and populist figures.
In the years leading up to WWII, American media covered Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as “objective journalists.” John Brioch, a professor at Case Western Reserve University argues that Mussolini was a “darling of the American press,” as many articles skewed neutral or positive in tone.
Eventually, the press referred to Hitler as “the German Mussolini,” which in itself suggested the same positive connotations of Hitler that Mussolini had already garnered. Brioch argues that the press had portrayed Hitler as a “nonsensical screecher of wild words.” American press believed that eventually Hitler would start to behave like normal German politicians, and his campaign was simply a way to mobilize voters.
This is eerily familiar to the early days of Trump’s campaign. The media did not take him seriously as a candidate, and continually had expectations that Trump would be “more presidential” even though seemingly every day he committed another outrageous act of unprofessional behavior.
Ripe for the Picking
Unlike his failed bid prior to 2016, however, Donald Trump developed a new style when confronting the public. The previous bid in 2000 was largely forgotten in the public eye in favor of his TV persona in the Apprentice and for his displays of vast wealth.
Much like many of the great orators of the past, Trump had a legitimate talent — whether it may be malevolent or not is beside the point — to tap into a reservoir of deep-seated resentment and malcontent with the general population. He recognized a common grievance among the working class of America and used that to his endless advantage.
In recent decades, the stereotype of the corrupt politician benefiting off of the public’s struggle has pierced the mind of millions of Americans. After disasters such as the Great Recession and ensuing political debacles, a significant portion of the American public became fed up with the traditional ways of politics and began to search for alternatives.
This was the beginning of the sort of environment in which a personality such as Donald Trump could thrive. An atmosphere filled with partisanship and a longing for an “everyman” to be at the helm helped propel Trump to become an unlikely candidate in 2016.
However, as he thrived in such an atmosphere, he had to foster it in a similar manner as to prolong his time in power. In playing up the political division to benefit his brazen style of politics, he further widened the gap between ordinary Americans when it came to politics. He fed off of partisan hatred, and sought to make an enemy out of anyone who did not support his bid.
During both the Primary and Presidential debates of 2015 and 2016, Trump embraced a style of debating that was unlike any of his peers. It was essentially devoid of legitimate debate tactics and favored name calling and interruptions instead. To the disillusioned of the public, this was a breath of fresh air and reminded them more of an ‘Average Joe’ than a career politician.
After the success of such a strategy during the Primary Debates, Trump adopted it full-time and it became his signature style of brutish mockery over intelligent reproof. He revelled in this modern myth which painted him as a self-made man and as a product of a can-do attitude and of the wonders of capitalism. No matter how far it was from the truth, it certainly played to this new base which seemingly went beyond the lines of red or blue. Like it or not, it was a movement sweeping lower and middle class America on a platform which touted malformed ideas one might find in a locker room, to borrow his infamous cop out.
He captivated the disillusioned of the American people with appeals that seemed to speak to the very heart of their objections. Many at the time predicted, based on history, the likely outcome of fervent nationalism and burgeoning xenophobia, but at the time it was decried as outrageous.
Looking back on it, however, they were vindicated in their assumptions and the division that spawned from the Trump Administration will last far longer than his mere one term presidency.
Needless to say, on his platform which asserted ‘America first,’ Trump skated into a Presidential victory in 2016
“Donald Trump is my President”
The newly elected President Trump wasted no time in beginning to implement his vision of an America put before all others, and one of which only his supporters would benefit from.
In January of his first year as president, Trump sent out an executive order which would in fact ban migrants from Muslim countries for 90 days. The outrage was extensive and many saw it as a xenophobic attempt to halt non-Europeans from entering America.
As expected, the outrage morphed into formal litigation as the ACLU ran to the aid of Muslims being denied entry upon their arrival, as well as multiple federal judges blocking the order temporarily.
It was one of the more hypocritical moves made by the Trump Administration, which seemed to be a bit paradoxical. On the campaign trail, he would tout the “America first!” standpoint loudly from his pulpit, while also trying to appeal to minority voters and immigrants. Just in 2019, he called for the “largest numbers ever” in legally entering the US. However, at every turn, he made it inaccessible for many to enter under the Muslim Ban. It is evident that Trump wanted their support and placated them on a superficial level while actively working against immigrants looking to enter America.
Seemingly drawn to controversy, just months later in June, President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. Under such an agreement, the main objectives were to lower the emission of greenhouse gases that were creating drastic climate change and lower the global temperature to stall such change. The US was meant to be a main member of the agreement, as the US is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China who releases double that amount.
On top of all this, the rallying cry for his supporters during this period was “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Yet, when faced with legitimate scientific research, Trump fell back on his own beliefs and perhaps prejudices to inform his actions as President.
Packing the Courts
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy retired from the Supreme Court after serving for 30 years, leaving his seat vacant to eventually be filled by Brett Kavanaugh. After hearing of the news regarding Kavanaugh’s nomination, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford — a California professor of psychology who met Kavanaugh at a high school party — wrote a letter and later testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing under penalty of perjury that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a gathering in the early 1980s.
The nomination of Kavanaugh speaks to the continued dissolve of character exuded by Trump’s Republican Party. Rather than avoid toxic political figures, Republicans over the last decade have continually cozied up to them.
At the time of Kavanaugh’s nomination, the population of the United States was about 326 million. Denying Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, according to Sen. Lindsay Graham, would have “destroyed [his] life.” If not serving on the Supreme Court destroys a person’s life, then there are 326,000,993 American lives ruined.
This gaslighting and practice of anti-cancel-culture, by claiming that the mere act of holding people accountable for their actions is a threat to Americans everywhere serves as a weak way to excuse Trump’s actions.
Following in his Supreme Court judge’s footsteps, 26 women, as of 2017, had accused Trump of varying levels of sexual misconduct. While Trump faced backlash for this, his core base of supporters ignored and frankly didn’t care about offensive and degrading comments Trump made, such as “grab them by the pussy.”
Surely if Trump and his allies are painted negatively by the media every single day, the media must be “out to get Trump,” right?
Another notable prelude to later years of the Trump era revolving around the Supreme Court were claims made by G.O.P Senators in 2018.
Sen. Graham, at a forum with The Atlantic said, “I'll tell you this — this may make you feel better, but I really don't care — if an opening comes in the last year of President Trump's term, and the primary process has started, we'll wait until the next election.” Yet another promise made that was not kept at the end of it all.
As the Trump presidency continued, so too did his endless campaign. The Trump administration held their final press briefing of 2019 on March 15 of that year. Instead of facing the media, Trump chose to share details of his presidency through the 22 campaign rallies he held and of course, his (now banned) Twitter account.
The year opened with Trump setting another record, when the longest government shutdown in history concluded at 35 days on Jan. 25. Then, after forcing the confirmation of Attorney General William Barr, Special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report identifying Russian interference in the 2016 election along with the possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
Mueller’s investigation charged 34 people, many with relations to the Trump campaign, with charges related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
At a Judiciary Committee hearing following Mueller’s report being submitted, he testified about his findings.
“And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” said Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-NY.
“No,” said Mueller.
The newly confirmed Attorney General Barr then released a heavily redacted version of the report to the public, which makes it largely unclear as to what the actual conclusions made by the Mueller report had been.
In the time after fallout from the Mueller report, Trump continued his practice of allying himself with some of the absolute worst people. In April, Stephen Miller, a white nationalist, was installed as a White House adviser who was put in charge of Trump’s immigration policy.
Miller’s “policy” — although it doesn’t deserve the dignity of being called a policy, moreso a horrid recreation of Japanese internment camps during World War II — was to separate families at the U.S.-Mexico border where children were locked in cages and continue to be incarcerated today.
As the year closed, Trump was impeached for the first time after a transcript of a phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was released which exposed that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden and find campaign dirt on them.
Trump had called on his supporters to “read the transcript,” which he drew on his earlier rhetoric during the Mueller report to argue his “total exoneration.” This was far from the truth, as Trump directly asked Zelensky to investigate the Biden family as payment for an increase in military aid the U.S. would offer to Ukraine.
By this point it was true, nothing Trump did mattered. He knew that he could get away with anything, as he predicted while campaigning for his 2016 election.
By demonizing “cancel culture,” Trump spent the year following the Kavanaugh hearings in an accountability-free environment. He could benefit from Russian interference in an election, coerce a foreign government and eventually incite a deadly insurrection all without facing punishment. Trump managed to convince enough people that the biggest fear was not the myriad of crimes he had committed before and during his presidency, but instead the notion that somehow people would be no longer entitled to second chances.
Trump had his second chance, and it will likely end the same as his first one — impeached for committing crimes against the United States, yet will face no consequences since apologists like Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) will argue that he’s “learned his lesson.”
The Final Year of Trump — “Four too many”
As we entered into the final year of Trump’s presidency, “World War III” seemed to be the biggest fear for the upcoming year. On Jan. 2, Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, leading to fears of another armed conflict in the middle east.
Through February, fires ravaged California and Australia. Trump was acquitted in the senate for his high crimes and misdemeanors in relation to the Ukrainian phone call. He fired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, adding yet another respected member of the military to the growing list of Trump adversaries after the earlier resignation of Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis. The Coronavirus erupted throughout China, and in March the United States was forced to shut down due to the virus all but ensuring the year would quite frankly never get any better.
Trump’s government failed to provide for its everyday, average Joe citizens facing economic challenges due to its own in-action. Instead, some American’s would receive an one-time $1,200, and wouldn’t receive further aid until a $600 check passed in late December.
While American’s received approximately one month of rent over the roughly nine month span of the pandemic and over 574 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, Republican legislators were sure to provide a $500 billion program to award loans to businesses at the direction of the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with no oversight.
In June, the New York Times reported that Russia had been offering bounties for the killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to the Taliban, and Trump eventually told Jonathan Swan in the infamous Axios interview from July that, “I have never discussed it with [Putin] ... frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
No credible source had called the report “fake news.”
The most decisive actions the Trump campaign took over the summer didn’t relate to the Taliban bounties. It didn’t have to do with the pandemic that had caused almost 180,000 deaths by the end of August. It wasn’t about the murder of George Floyd and the protests surrounding police brutality that took place throughout the following months.
Instead, he tried to ban TikTok, a social media app that some suggest played a role in the embarrassingly low attendance at Trump’s Tulsa rally in June, where campaign advisors touted potentially one million people would show up. That number, in actuality, was estimated to be 6,500.
On Nov. 3, over 81 million Americans decided that they’d had enough of Donald Trump. Ironically, Biden beat Trump by the same margin in the electoral college that Trump defeated Clinton with in 2016, of which the ex-President referred to as a “landslide.”
Following the election, Trump and his legal team fabricated lies about the integrity of this election while providing no evidence to support their bogus claims. Around 86 judges — some of which were Trump appointees — rejected one or more lawsuit filed by Trump and his allies.
On Dec. 14, the states certified their electoral college votes, confirming the 306-232 win Biden held over Trump, although Trump’s challenges to the election absurdly continued despite having no legal basis for those claims.
Instead, members of the congress again fabricated falsehoods alleging voter fraud with no evidence in an effort to overturn the will of the people who had just elected them to office. On Jan. 6, despite the efforts of rogue congressional members, the electoral college results were certified: Biden was officially declared the winner of the 2020 election and was set to be sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021.
But perhaps the most egregious violation of the will of American people took place on Jan. 6 as Trump held a rally that ultimately encouraged people to storm the capitol building and organize a violent coup in an attempt to seize control of the government.
This was a blatant intelligence failure by the capitol police and government officials who were unable to protect themselves from a violent militia. While intelligence is still being gathered, Democratic members of congress have alleged that Republican lawmakers had given tours of the Capitol to supporters of Trump in the days leading up to the attack.
The way Trump’s presidency ended shouldn’t have come as a shock. Hillary Clinton knew what would happen when she said he would accuse the election of being rigged if he lost. Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling knew what would happen when he asserted that “Someone's going to get hurt, someone's going to get shot, someone's going to get killed,” because of Trump.
We need to start to do better and recognize these red flags that arise when politicians are speaking. If someone had said in 2016 that Trump losing would lead to him encouraging a coup, they would have been called an alarmist, just playing into the media’s hysteria.
Trump Era Passes into History
It’s been a long four years. While the Biden presidency will not save us, it should bring some much needed sanity to the White House. It’s important to analyze the history of what just happened to our country, so as to recognize the signs of a populist seeking the presidency. Donald Trump shattered the integrity and reputation of the United States, and got as far as inciting a terrorist mob to occupy its Capitol building for hours.
As Trump leaves office and historians analyze the effects of his presidency, we can only be hopeful that nobody like him comes near the Oval Office again. Trump certainly was not the start to all of the problems America is facing today, but he played a critical role in exacerbating them.
Joe Biden is inheriting a deadly pandemic, an economic deficit and one of the most divisive eras in American history — largely due to the actions Trump took during his presidency.
We don’t have the knowledge and expertise to claim Trump was the worst president this country has seen. That is for the historians to decide. That being said, Trump has made some stains that will tarnish this country for decades, and may be irreversible if we don’t radically change the direction of the actions taken during his presidency.
Riley is an Opinion Editor at The Daily Cardinal and a Junior studying Computer Science and Journalism with an emphasis in Reporting. Ian-Michael is an Opinion Editor at The Daily Cardinal and a freshman studying Political Science and Journalism. Do you think another autocrat could pose a threat to American democracy? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ian-Michael Griffin is an Opinion Editor for The Daily Cardinal, and a member of the Editorial Board.