Enough has been written and said about this president for a hundred lifetimes. The sad, obvious truth is that we’ll never be free of him: After you and I are dead and after our children are dead, that guy will still haunt America, grinning godhead of everything we politely avoided talking about but ultimately could not be suppressed.
But enough has been said already. As somebody once put it, the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it. Donald Trump is many things: an ignorant buffoon, a classic example of failing upwards under capitalism, a low-rent criminal, a hilarious historical accident, a repository for all the bottled-up racist hatred and paranoid delusions festering in the sub-cellar of white America.
We clearly do not all agree on the question of Trump’s importance, which is both crucial and perhaps, for the moment, oddly irrelevant. If I believe that Trump is the symptom or result of a lengthy historical process, and you believe that Trump is a reversible anomaly — a glitch in the code, rather than a hardwired ghost in the machine — that disagreement has profound political consequences.
But perhaps we can agree to set aside that disagreement for now and face those consequences later. There is ample historical precedent for what can go wrong if we do not. At the risk of being tiresome, communists and social democrats in Weimar Germany viewed each other as the real enemy, right up to the Nazi seizure of power. To say that was a fatal mistake is not a metaphor.
Here is what else we know about Donald Trump, in addition to the descriptions listed above. He is a tyrant. He is a killer. The American people must deal with him accordingly. The fact that he is not especially good at those things and possesses no actual ideology, although it muddies the water considerably, is no excuse.
I know what that sounds like. I thought carefully about those words before I wrote them. I do not mean through lethal violence. That would not be effective, and would certainly only make things worse.
Those on the far left who play-act at revolutionary violence are, first of all, a tiny and insignificant group, not one-tenth (or one one-hundredth) as frightening as those on the far right who do so — and who have a slightly better idea how to pull it off. We shouldn’t waste our time on scolding them or repudiating them; that will also make things worse. That kind of childish zealotry only feeds the paranoid imagination of the right, and the both-sides “moderation” of the crumbling establishment.
The facts of the case are not complicated. We have a president who co-opted Washington’s Fourth of July celebration and turned it into a third-rate totalitarian display. That sodden spectacle would have embarrassed any real dictator with any sense of perspective, down to the level of Nicolae Ceausescu or Papa Doc Duvalier. Donald Trump’s fans and camp followers — the infamous “deplorables,” a strange mixture of the downtrodden, the brainwashed and the deeply-high-on-their-own-supply — loved it. They love him. Whether they love Trump qua Trump, or whether they understand that he is a fictional character or a signifier, and love him for what they have projected onto him, is another of those disagreements we can set aside for now.
We have a president who has created concentration camps along the border to house desperate refugees who have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to get here, often facing dangers few Americans can even imagine. I would say that the pearl-clutchers about the term “concentration camps” have definitively lost the battle, but call them whatever you like. Call them “freedom management facilities.” Call them “indoor beach volleyball camps,” except without the sand or the volleyballs. Call them Le Déjeuner sur le fucking Herbe.
There is widespread consternation and confusion about this and, to be fair, a general feeling that something ought to be done besides putting human beings in cages. But American leftists or "liberals" are so demoralized and divided, and our collective sense of morality and reality has been so downgraded and corrupted, that there is not yet widespread outrage, or any widespread recognition that this has been done by our government in our name and we must stand up to resist it.
I believe those members of the Jewish community, in particular, who have made a point of standing up and resisting — rooted in their unique and painful understanding of history — are true heroes of this moment. They have put the rest of us to shame.
We have a president who has done everything possible to roll back civil rights protections for black people and LGBTQ people. We have a president who has specifically attacked women’s rights, women’s equality and women’s bodily autonomy (and has been credibly accused of sexual assault by numerous women). We have a president who has empowered and emboldened white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Christian nationalists, after a period when their movements appeared to be withering away.
We have a president who has actively, even eagerly, sought to reverse the minimal progress we have made to slow the climate crisis. (Which was not even close to being adequate.) As many younger people around the world have become aware, this issue arguably dwarfs all the others. When those the age of my teenage children ask why the generations who came before them have so badly failed to halt this planetary suicide, what will we say? Trump did not create this crisis, of course, and arguably can’t make it that much worse either. But when we look at his grinning, blithe, madman’s denialism, we see our own reflections, a death's head in a distorted mirror. That is exceedingly painful.
(I have not even mentioned the peculiar circumstances surrounding the 2016 election, or the president’s obvious and relentless obstruction of justice, or anything about Robert Mueller’s report. Honestly, that’s another matter we can agree to bracket.)
Whether any of these things represent Donald Trump’s actual convictions, or are simply matters of political calculation or political convenience, is a stupid question. Or rather, it’s another of those things we can set aside for future historians to hash out, if there are any future historians, or any future at all.
One of our two political parties has drunk deep from Trump’s poisoned Kool-Aid, and will follow him into the abyss with delight. (I refuse to get distracted by Joe Biden’s forecast of Republican “epiphany.” I think it’s clear where I stand.) The other one has expressed nominal opposition to most of his so-called policies, but continues to advise patience, prudence and caution. We must wait and see, leading figures in the Democratic Party tell us. We must gather more information — more than the volumes of evidence already assembled. We must see which way the wind blows, and shift course accordingly.
None of that is surprising: The Democratic Party has become institutionally incapable of moral leadership, and must be forcibly dragged toward any firm position. I except, of course, its new generation of leadership, which continues to grow more impressive daily. In my reading, if Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (my congresswoman!) is clearly the political leader and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is the moral firebrand, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan may be the strongest intellectual force. A subject for another time.
So it’s up to us. One party is bent on self-immolation, while the other gazes at the moon and rehearses Prince Hamlet’s monologue. Whether defeating, destroying and neutralizing Donald Trump is enough to defuse his movement — whether the snake will die, in other words, if we cut off its head — is not a question we need to answer at this moment. He must be shamed and exposed at every opportunity. His policies must be resisted without hesitation, apology or hint of compromise. His supporters must be told in no uncertain terms who they are and what they have done. Not in the name of dialogue or “civil discourse,” or in hopes of provoking shame and repentance. But simply because it is the truth.
Trump must be impeached and forced to defend his indefensible conduct in a trial before the United States Senate. Yes, that will be a disgraceful and hypocritical exercise, but that too is important. If the Democratic Party refuses to do that, it must face the consequences. They won't be pretty.
Of course Trump must also be defeated at the polls next year, and conclusively so. Jumping ahead into the argument I just said we wouldn't have, that won't be enough and won’t be easy. There are significant disagreements about how to do that and who can do that. But let’s agree about one thing, if we can: Cowardice and caution will not get it done.
There is no further need for earnest debate and deliberation, for “thinkpieces” about what the Democrats should do or whether the Republicans can be redeemed. We require no more condescending anthropological surveys of Trump voters in tariff-stricken farm states or woebegone Midwestern towns. Their suffering is of no consequence. Their hero is a tyrant and a killer. He must be contained, neutralized, resisted, defeated and, if possible, humiliated. By any means necessary. If that can be done, we can figure out later whether we still have a country, and whether it can be saved.