Columns, Opinions

Mitra ’18: Lessons from a lost year

By
Opinions Editor
Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Exactly a year ago today, the unthinkable happened. Donald Trump — real estate magnate, creator of birtherism and self-confessed “pussy”-grabber — was elected 45th president of the United States. In the months since, his administration has treated us to a whirlwind of scandals, headlines and even threats of nuclear war. It has also inadvertently given us a live-action civics lesson on how not to run a democracy and revealed much about the fabric of this country in the process.

So what have we learned in the last year?

We’ve learned that norms once thought to be inviolable can be violated after all. Two years ago, we could not have imagined electing a president who refused to release his tax returns, insulted a Gold Star family and boasted about sexually assaulting women on tape. We would not have given credence to a candidate who blatantly reaffirmed stereotypes about minorities in his rhetoric and policy proposals. We would not have tolerated a president who threatened to lock up his opponent after the election. In the last year, we have seen respect for critical values and the rule of law crumble before our eyes.

We’ve learned that a hostile power has the ability to interfere with a cornerstone of this nation’s identity: the electoral process. We still don’t know the full extent of Russia’s involvement in the elections, but we know that it launched a coordinated campaign to infiltrate our social media feeds and spread misinformation; hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s servers and released emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign; and seemingly had direct contact with members of the Trump campaign. Yet, incredibly, the president’s voter fraud commission seems more focused on disenfranchising Americans and undermining his erstwhile opponent than protecting this democracy.

We’ve learned that the worst elements of American history, elements we thought were all but eradicated, have silently persisted on the fringes of society. We have seen these elements enjoy tacit support from a morally deficient White House and seen them pour into the streets in violence. Hate-mongering, race-baiting and chauvinism now have a voice in the highest echelons of this government, and I worry that their presence will never be completely eliminated.

And we’ve learned that the governing party is unequipped or unwilling to address these concerns. There have been a few exceptions: U.S. Senators John McCain, Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker. But they have been drowned out in a sea of conformers who have blatantly prioritized their political standing over their self-respect. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has been plagued with division, dissent and general toothlessness. No, our politicians have not exactly been beacons of hope in the era of Trump.

On the flip side, we’ve learned that this country can withstand a Trump presidency — something that I, for one, wasn’t at all sure of a year ago. Thus far, the system of checks and balances has proven strong enough to push back against the worst ideas and policies. The courts have consistently upheld the values they were created to protect, a few principled voices in Congress have stymied the president’s most ludicrous plans and state and local governments are pushing back harder than ever. The fourth estate, too, has risen to the challenge of a government that has very little respect for independent media or transparency. In a time when the central leadership of this country is in disarray, many of its institutions have stood their ground.

We’ve also learned, bizarrely, to be grateful for this slow, bureaucratic and conflict-ridden political process: In some ways, this sluggishness has protected many of us from the worst of the Trump administration’s follies. If this government was more efficient and amenable to change, we might have seen a quick-fire Obamacare repeal, the passage of regressive tax reform and the construction of a wall on the Mexican border without substantial pushback. As it stands, these policies have been held back — for now.

But perhaps the most hopeful lesson of all: We’ve learned that, far from being apathetic, citizens are more engaged with the political system now than at any other point in recent memory. We have seen large swathes of the population mobilize, from the Women’s March in January to the large-scale activism before the Senate healthcare bill came to vote. Local organizing has risen to the forefront of national political discourse, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood are receiving more donations than ever before and Google searches on things like the Emoluments Clause and judicial review have spiked. Inspiringly, more women than ever are running for office at every level of government. And just yesterday, Democratic candidates won Governorships in New Jersey and Virginia. As we look forward to the 2018 midterm elections, we can take heart in these trends and remember that this phase is only temporary. As Haruki Murakami once wrote, “Where there is shadow, there must be light.”

We will learn much more about the Trump administration and the strength of this democracy in the months to come. I don’t pretend to know what to expect or how to brace for it, but I am clear on one thing: We are experiencing history. The real question is whether we’ll put these lessons to practice, or erase them from our memories and face this same moral crisis again.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.