In addition to the ceaseless and tiresome lies that issue from his mouth (e.g., he did not do “very well” in New Hampshire. He lost. That’s a trivial example, but it illustrates – again! – that he can barely open his mouth without a lie falling out), the other thing I think I find most discouraging about our current president is his insistence on defining the US in divisive, ugly and harmful racial and tribal terms – and projecting that identity to the world.
In a magazine piece from a few weeks ago, Jonathan Chait describes the odious effort and its results so far very well (emphasis added). These are just a few snippets; the whole piece gives you a more depth.
His message of tribalism is his most successful and dangerous accomplishment.
Measured in traditional terms, Trump’s accomplishments as president have been meager. He made a series of popular campaign promises, such as replacing Obamacare with something terrific, negotiating more clever trade deals, and building a wall on the Mexican border, that require technocratic aptitude to deliver and thus have mostly floundered. But traditional measures do not capture the most profound changes he has wrought.
Where he has defined Trumpism most clearly is in his sharply distinguished theory of race. Race is the unifying idea Trump has used to recast not only his party’s place within the country but his country’s place in the world. It is where his administration has been most passionate — and also most effective. Unlike economic or health-care policy, which requires dealing with Congress, Trump’s ethnonationalist program can be carried out by Trump and his tight band of loyalists on their own. And while Trump has foundered at the complex work of policymaking, he has succeeded at the simple work of tribalism, precisely because it is so simple. In both words and deeds, the White House has established the federal government as the defender of white power in America, projecting a blunt-force message of zero-sum dominance. Trump has done little to change the country’s policies, but ten weeks into his tenure, he has already made the United States a very different place and positioned himself to reap the terrible rewards that will follow.
That is a dangerous formula. Race has unique power to tear apart the bonds that hold together even an apparently harmonious society. In democratic India in 2002, Hindu nationalists slaughtered more than 2,000 Muslims, and Narendra Modi, the nationalist political figure linked to the murders, was elected prime minister in 2014. Serbian nationalists turned once-peaceful, multiethnic Sarajevo into a tribal bloodbath. If these comparisons sounds inconceivably dark, you may not fully appreciate the darkness of the vision animating the minds surrounding the president.
In 1990, former president Ronald Reagan gave a speech commemorating the end of the Cold War. At its conclusion, he delivered a few lines of mom-and-apple-pie pabulum that if said today would come across as pointed defiance of the president. “I wonder yet if you’ve appreciated how unusual — terribly unusual — this country of ours is?” Reagan said. “I received a letter just before I left office from a man. I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did. He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan, and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.”
Reagan’s notion of American identity was hardly a matter of unanimity throughout American history. (Ask the Know-Nothings.) But over the course of the 20th century, America’s identity as a uniquely permeable culture settled into the consciousness of the country and the world. That is the idea Trump has set out to change.
And to a significant degree, he has already accomplished his goal. For all his legislative struggles, Trump has always had a talent for loudly communicating simple concepts. His ethnonationalist redefinition of American identity has broken through. Travel companies have reported a drop in interest in international tourism to the U.S. Applications to American colleges from overseas have also dropped. Jaganmohan Reddy, the father of one of the men murdered in Kansas, told the Washington Post, “The situation seems to be pretty bad after Trump took over as the U.S. president. I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the United States in the present circumstances.” In ways that are impossible to quantify, the message has been heard: by law enforcement, by people defacing Jewish cemeteries and shouting slurs at minorities, by people around the world. These are all straws in the wind that is emanating from President Trump’s mouth.