Monday was MLK Jr. Day and we inaugurate Donald Trump as President on Friday. The squirrels in Fourth Ward Park, where I sit writing this, are scampering around, oblivious to the monumental shift our world is witnessing. The past two years it seemed inevitable that he would lose. But he won, and I have only begun to fathom the pain that his tenure will produce. More importantly, we have all been forced into a position where we must hope that he will succeed.
Already our healthcare is being gutted, press and journalism threatened, ethics committees compromised, lies blatantly propagated, heroes denounced, women’s health compromised, foreign interference confirmed, and the beginnings of confirmation for wildly unqualified candidates to key cabinet positions, sometimes without completed ethics reviews, begun. He, or his potential cabinet members, have defended war criminals and denied war crimes. We’re facing a world that needs empathy and morality and intelligence and competence with an administration that lacks all four. Trump himself is in violation of nepotism and emoluments laws and almost every other imaginable conflict of interest legislation. Even if you do argue that it’s all legal based on technicalities, you should then be kindly reminded that no public servant is a true public servant if he or she is reduced to arguing technicalities to confirm validity of the most core moral aspects of tenure.
His potential Secretary of State’s claim to fame is leadership of one of the world’s largest oil companies. His potential Secretary of Education has never worked in a public school, advocates creationism, and does not know the difference in “proficiency” and “growth.” Having grown up in a family of educators with both parents serving stints in Title One schools, this is particularly terrifying. His potential candidate for Attorney General was vehemently opposed years ago by Coretta Scott King. Other cabinet nominees are equally horrendous.
More importantly, Trump does not seem to understand the concept of empathy, much less care about it. In some respects this is better, as someone who pretends to project empathy is often more dangerous than someone who at least is honest about his or her total disregard for it. He certainly does not wish to learn, even remotely, about his job. He is the highest public servant, but he hasn’t and would not actually deign to serve his country or his community as such. It seems that the only conceptual understanding Donald Trump has of the term “servant” is the one that he can hire.
He has no record of any genuine philanthropy, serving only himself almost all of the time. These things are easy to write about and easier to shove to the side until you really take the time to see America and see its people and realize that there is absolutely no way he recognizes the gravity of the situation or cares about the lives he is impacting. Imagine the most recent moment of community that touched your heart- for me it was this video of everyone on an early-morning metro ride singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow– and place Donald Trump genuinely in that moment, participating in a communal human experience greater than himself.
I drove to Atlanta a few months ago and became wholly overwhelmed, as I always do when driving into cities, by the sheer responsibility of just Atlanta- you drive in on the freeway, the buildings growing taller and taller in front of you like shards of a modern glass castle, and you know that every window represents a life, a narrative, an experience, you know that there are more than a thousand tragedies per square mile, know that it has seen the best minds of its many generations destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, a city smote by urban blight and poverty, at once wrought from oppression and yet a Mecca for the oppressed, pride and poverty and pain braided together into beautiful complicated intricate vibrant Atlanta, home to My Life Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair progress, a bastion of We Shall Overcome endurance. Donald Trump could care less about this reality, driving into the city with blacked-out velvet windows, flown into the airport in a private jet lined in gold.
There is no pressing flesh with Donald Trump. His world is wrought for him, all “problems” imagined and “solutions” concocted with no eye to implementation or reality. He does not care about the plights of Urban America.
I was driving through Virginia to get to Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, and I had the same feeling. Instead of buildings gradually engulfing me with their sharp silver corners, the dilapidated, beautiful farmland spread before me for miles and miles, old manufacturing towns downtrodden and broken, farmland leaning on the grace of God. A humble, provincial culture surrounded me, one of Southern hospitality with a side of rural ignorance. Bridges sprinkled soft rust into the shallow rivers as I drove over, John 3:16 billboards beckoning me to believe in a lifeline that would offer me solace. Donald Trump does not care about the plights of Rural America, either.
I had the strong feeling on both occasions that it is impossible for one person to wholly understand the whole of the United States. But the attempt to do so, to acknowledge all experiences as valid and all narratives as worthy of recognition, the simple acceptance that history has knitted a story here (and everywhere), is vital. Every community holds both warranted and unwarranted prejudices and false notions and illusions. But the true or false nature of these prejudices does not eliminate our need to empathize, to recognize that fear of loss and fear of instability and an inability of caregivers to support families is a significant part of the problem. In fact, the false nature of most prejudice only emphasizes that access to education and to opportunity is integral everywhere if we are to provide a true movement towards progress.
Obama may have failed in some regards, but one cannot deny that we were led with a guiding sense of empathy, a good heart, and an intelligent mind for eight years. At the core of Obama’s understanding of the world is, I think, an innate sense of narrative. Policy naturally cannot be individualized- but it must be crafted with an eye to individual application.
For most of us, this just hurts. So many daily narratives, so many kind people- rural or urban, rich or poor, young or old, people are people are people are people and most are so kind. To see so much love collectively sabotaged by such an astoundingly powerful wall of hate is very painful. I question my understanding of people I once admired for their kindness and humility when I realize they voted for this man. I can compromise on fiscal theory when presented and defended pragmatically, but I absolutely refuse to compromise on the basic human rights of an individual. I will not endorse racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, or the denial of life to those who cannot afford it. I can compromise and discuss foreign policy intelligently, but I refuse to enable someone who breaks every diplomatic rule and has utter disregard for the very real consequences his ignorance can (and no doubt will) cause. Ignorance and incompetence caused Iraq and the ensuing policy catastrophe, but whatever you say about George W. Bush, you cannot say that he did not have a heart.
Imagine what damage might be done by a President both incompetent and lacking a heart.
I understand that the president is one person. If Donald Trump were to die tomorrow, Pence would be there to take the spot. And then someone else. And then someone else. On and on and on until all public servants have been expended- such is the way of the American system. As my dad has aptly observed, “the monuments will still be there.” Certainly they will. But Trump gives power to hate, he legitimizes discrimination, he engenders a culture of “the first among equals in the…family of peoples” mentality (a phrase pioneered by Alexandr Shcherbakov, one of Stalin’s chief propagandists), a mentality that is dangerous at best and tragic at worst.
I was depressed about the world during Obama’s presidency, but his hope and genuine attempt to progress allowed me a sense of hope as well. Humanity has a habit of engendering its very worst at the hands of a very few, while still emulating the very best of itself through the hearts of the many. Obama, whatever his policy faults, always embodied the latter. It is very hard to be depressed about the world and still maintain a sense of hope when your leader lacks even one ounce of empathy for the fate of the billions that will be affected by his tenure.
One beautiful thing about American democracy is the ability to move on. From the ranks comes an individual to Lead a People, to step down when the time comes, a modern Cincinnatus returning to the fields, ashes to ashes, having served his or her time well, with the best interests of the people at heart. The problems arise when you have someone who will not let go, who cannot serve well, and who cannot understand, won’t acknowledge, and certainly will not see the best interests of the people in the heart that he does not seem to have.
That is terrifying.