It’s hard to put a finger on where his campaign of contempt for American institutions began, but Donald Trump’s years-long allegation that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States of America is as good a place as any. In addition to the fact that it was a lie from beginning to end and racist at its core, Trump’s birther campaign was elementally contemptuous of Obama the man and the presidency itself and shows breathtaking contempt for everything associated with the very heart of our national political life.
To say over and over and over again in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the man the American people elected to be their president not just once but twice was not a legitimate president because he wasn’t born an American citizen shows contempt for the people who went to the polls and cast their votes for Obama; contempt for the Congress and the courts that accepted Obama as president and presided over his inauguration twice; contempt for nations around the world that accepted the Obama presidency by establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations with him; contempt for the institution of our elections process itself; and perhaps most egregious of all, contempt for the belief of the citizens of our nation that by electing our leaders and endowing them with the powers granted by the Constitution, we can actually achieve the self-governance guaranteed therein.
Trump’s contempt for political norms was evident from the moment he and his wife grandly descended the escalators into the gilded lobby of his own home in Manhattan to announce his candidacy for president. Not for Trump the stage of a community college in Miami like his rival Jeb Bush, or a town near his home in New Hampshire like Mitt Romney or a YouTube video like Hillary Clinton. Trump surrounded himself with gilt and marble and mirrors and chandeliers and actually hired extras from a PR firm to imitate a crowd of supporters in the lobby of Trump Tower, an exhibition of fakery so outrageous no one could quite believe it at the time.
It wasn’t merely exaggeration as political symbolism, it was a middle finger jammed straight in the face of the political and media establishment, at once a dare to catch him at his scam and his answer: I don’t give a damn about the way things have been done in this country. I don’t care what you think about me. I’m Trump. I’m going to turn the place upside down.
Right from the start, people loved everything about Trump and his contemptuous lies. They loved the outrageously tacky glamor of Trump Tower itself, a piece of the Vegas strip right in the middle of Manhattan. They loved the over-the-top-ness of his rhetorical lies: Mexico was “bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.” The country’s GDP “was below zero. Whoever heard of this? It's never below zero.”
The website to sign up for Obamacare? “Five billion we spent on a website, and to this day it doesn't work. A $5 billion website.” He had big plans: “I would do various things very quickly. I would repeal and replace the big lie, Obamacare. I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I'll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” As for the military: “I will find the General Patton or I will find General MacArthur, I will find the right guy.” He had new ideas about public assets: “You know, we're building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Old Post Office, we're converting it into one of the world's great hotels. It's gonna be the best hotel in Washington, D.C. We got it from the General Services Administration in Washington. The Obama administration. We got it. It was the most highly sought after, or one of them, but I think the most highly sought after project in the history of General Services. We got it. People were shocked, Trump got it.”
He made big promises: “Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts.” As for the American future: “Sadly, the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.”
A gigantic, outrageous, in-your-face contemptuous lie from beginning to end. People loved it when his “thousands” of supporters in the lobby of Trump Tower were reported to be fake; when Mexican “rapists” were shown to be women and children and families in need; when below-zero GDP was proved to be 2 percent GDP; when his “General Patton” turned out to be General Flynn; when the Old Post Office building down the street from the White House turned into Trump Hotel and the first of his many plans to profit from the presidency; when saving Medicaid “without cuts” turned into cutting it by $800 billion; when the death of the American dream turned into contempt for the dream itself. His supporters loved his lies, his contempt for the truth, his very contempt for the conventions of adulthood. He was a child throwing a tantrum on the mall, and people loved it.
He didn’t stop there. He showed contempt for norms about electoral politics by bragging about the size of his penis and calling his opponents childish names. He told outrageous lies about his opponents and showed his contempt for Hillary Clinton by accusing her falsely of espionage; he advocated her arrest and prosecution and “locking her up.” He showed his contempt for American electoral laws by seeking out and using the help of a foreign government to defeat his rival. He went about transforming his contempt for America’s founding principles into votes, and he won.
In office, he showed his contempt for legal norms by writing and signing illegal executive orders banning immigration based on religious belief. He showed his contempt for the press and the First Amendment by declaring the press enemies of America and advocating prosecuting and jailing reporters. When the time came for him to insulate his presidency from his business interests, he showed his contempt for what every other president in history had done by declaring that the law allowed him to do anything he wanted, and he gave White House jobs to members of his family and allowed them to use their positions to profit in their businesses. When he met with the leaders of foreign nations, he showed his contempt for democracies like Germany by refusing to shake Angela Merkel’s hand and affection for autocracies like Turkey, the Philippines and Russia by yukking it up with dictators and their representatives.
When given opportunities to show empathy for the poor and the dispossessed, he showed instead his contempt by calling them losers and advocated stripping programs which benefitted them. When choosing his cabinet, he showed his contempt for the actual business of government by hiring billionaires and multimillionaires from Wall Street and gigantic corporations and enlisting the enemies of the environment and education to run departments devoted to them. He showed that his contempt for his predecessor hadn’t died by tweeting lies about him. When the press and the congress began to investigate his campaign machinations and involvement with Russian spies, he gave voice to his contempt by calling the investigation a “witch hunt,” “fake news” and “a hoax.” When his FBI director refused to pledge allegiance to him, he showed his contempt for the man’s adherence to his constitutional oath by firing him. When given the choice daily between telling truths or telling lies, he showed his contempt for reality itself by lying over and over and over again, lying so many times it was impossible to keep up with the lies, lying so grandly the lies could hardly be contemplated.
People loved it. They loved every contemptuous tweet, every contemptuous lie. Trump is doubling down on his contempt for political and legal norms by firing the director of the FBI, the man in charge of investigating him. He is setting up a “war room” in the White House and hiring high-priced legal talent and public relations experts to hinder the investigation and broadcast his contemptuous lies. Now we will see if Trump’s contempt for the law is more powerful than the law itself. Trump is doing what he has always done. He has built a life and won a presidency on contempt for American values, for America itself. Everything will depend on how much longer people will love Trump and his nasty contempt for the values that have set this country apart and made it great.