Four Years After The Worst Escalator Ride In History
Four years ago, Donald Trump began his campaign for President. What has followed has been as bad as could have been predicted that day.
It was four years ago today that we started down the road toward what has become the most bizarre, divisive, controversial, and dangerous period in recent American history. I am referring of course, to the now infamous escalator trip of one Donald John Trump that served as the backdrop for the opening of his Presidential campaign, complete with a speech that set the tone not only for his entire campaign but for the Presidency that followed.
Going into a lengthy discussion of everything that has happened since then, every outrage, every lie, every time the President has violated a norm, would be both repetitive and make this post far longer than it needs to be. Suffice it to say that, on that day, Donald Trump laid bare everything that we needed to know about him and the kind of President he would be if elected. It was during that speech, after all, that he made the claim that the Mexican government was deliberately sending rapists and other criminals to the United States. It was during that speech that he first started putting together the idea of a “big, beautiful wall” on the southern border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico that Mexico would pay for. It was during that speech that he first uttered those inspiring words “the American dream is dead.” And it was during that speech that he set the tone for what turned out to be the most negative, anti-immigrant, xenophobic campaign and Presidency this nation has ever seen.
When it all first started, of course, few people believed that he would actually stay in the race very long. As he had done in 2011 when he flirted with the idea of running for the Republican nomination in 2012 while simultaneously pushing the racist conspiracy theory that former President Obama was not born in the United States, something that was ultimately definitively disproven by the Obama White House. Instead of running back then, of course, Trump returned for another season of Celebrity Apprentice, making clear that the flirtation with running was little more than a publicity stunt to promote Trump and his “brand.” Many observers, present company included, believed at the start that the 2016 bid would be the same sort of thing and that Trump would eventually drop out of the race.
As was the case with many of the predictions about Trump during the course of that campaign, that prediction did not come through. Not only did he stay in the race but he soon vaulted to the top of the polls, leaving behind seemingly credible challengers such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush even as his rhetoric and actions became more and more outrageous. Looking back on it now, it seems clear that any effort by his challengers to unseat him from his perch on top of the polls was doomed to failure and, in any case, by the time that challenge came it was far too late to stop him The same thing happened during the General Election, especially after the release of the Access Hollywood tape and the credible accusations made by nearly two dozen women regarding sexual harassment or assault by Trump in the past. While some Republicans distanced themselves from Trump at the time, in the end, the party stayed loyal behind him.
The unhinged attacks and controversies that followed were inevitable. During the course of the campaign, he unleashed attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, disabled people, a Federal District Court Judge who happened to be Mexican-American and a Gold Star Family who happened to be Muslim. He attacked John McCain’s military service thus beginning a feud that has continued, and become even more juvenile on the President’s part, even after McCain died. He also attacked women like Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, and Heidi Cruz in the crassest and most demeaning manner. In his campaign speeches, he would encourage his supporters to engage in violence against Trump critics and protesters and demonstrated utter disdain for the Rule of Law and Freedom of the Press.
Under normal circumstances, a Presidential candidate who acted the way Trump did would be expected to crash and burn. Instead, he went on to defy the odds and win. He won the majority of the delegates for the 2016 Republican Nomination and more than 14,000,000 votes during the GOP primaries. Then he went on to win nearly 63,000,000 votes and 309 Electoral Votes, including the Electoral Votes of states that had been reliably Democratic since at least the 1992 election. While this came as a shock at the time given the state of the polling, it quickly became apparent that, despite his divisive rhetoric and abnormal behavior, Trump had struck a nerve with a segment of the electorate that many people assumed would stay loyal to the Democratic Party as it had been in the 2008 and 2012 elections. As a result, we found ourselves with the unexpected Presidency of Donald J. Trump.
The two and a half years that followed have gone about as one would have expected. With minor exceptions, Trump’s actual legislative achievements have been minimal at best. He and the Republican-controlled Congress failed in their effort to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act. They have failed to follow through with promises to reform the nation’s immigration laws. They’ve increased spending to the point where we are headed back into an era of trillion-dollar budget deficits after more than half a decade in which, under President Obama, the deficit fell from the highs it had reached due largely to the revenue shortfalls that resulted from the Great Recession. He has failed to deliver on infrastructure reform, and he has largely failed on the foreign policy front. On the success side, there only seems to be the tax cuts passed at the end of 2017 and judicial nominations, including the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Other than that, Trump’s Presidency has been nothing short of a disappointment.
In addition to the policy failures, Trump’s behavior as President has been entirely consistent with what we knew about him even before he began to speak on June 16, 2015. He has continued to use his Twitter account to launch increasingly bizarre attacks on political opponents in Congress and the media. He actively sought to undermine a legitimate investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and is now engaging in a stonewalling strategy that is clearly designed to prevent Congress from conducting legitimate oversight over his Administration. In response to the racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the death of a young woman, he sided with the far-right protesters in a manner that set the tone for his Administration.
In his initial response to that Charlottesville incident, Trump blamed ‘both sides’ for the violence, referred to the participants in the rally as “very fine people,” and refused to directly condemn groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was present at the rally, or the broader so-called alt-right movement whose supporters made up the vast majority of the participants. The outrage over these comments was sufficiently broad, even from fellow Republicans in Washington, that the White House was compelled to have Trump deliver a follow-up comment the following Monday that was more measured and emphatic than what he had said before. Whatever damage had been repaired by that statement, though, was short-lived, though, because less than twenty-four hours later Trump repeated his ‘both sides’ argument in a press conference at Trump Tower in New York and then repeated it again a month later in the wake of a meeting purportedly intended to discuss race with Republican Senator Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate. Last year, near the one-year anniversary of the incident, the President doubled down on his assertion that his initial reaction was the correct one. He continues to maintain that position to this day. More than anything else, that incident revealed the truth about him and his supporters.
In other words, Trump has been exactly the kind of President he said he would be during that speech four years ago today. The fact that the American people let it happen says as much about them as it does about him. Trump has been a disaster and an embarrassment as President. He has spit in the face of our most important friends, neighbors, and allies while cozying up to dictators in Russia, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. He has demonstrated behavior in public and private that can only be described as bizarre, inappropriate, and potentially indicative of a man with a serious problem. He has started ill-advised trade wars that threaten the health of the American economy. And, perhaps most significantly, poisoned the well of American politics in a way that will likely have an impact long after he leaves office. And it all started with a ride down an escalator at Trump Tower four years ago.
On the day that Trump was sworn into office, I wrote this:
Our nation has faced many challenges over the past 228 years, including a war that divided the nation and threatened to destroy it even before it turned one hundred years old. It has faced dangers from overseas, including a war that was fought on two fronts and involved millions of deaths and casualties, and a quieter Cold War that threatened to unleash forces of destruction capable of making the planet essentially uninhabitable for hundreds of years. It has endured scandals and corruption in all three branches of government, racial, ethnic, and gender-based prejudice, and political polarization that was, as hard as it might be to believe, even worse than what we are dealing today. It has faced economic downturns that forced millions of people out of work and into seeming hopelessness, natural disasters, and political assassinations. Through it all the nation has survived, and it will survive Donald John Trump no matter how long he ends up serving as President of the United States.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t stand up and speak out when the new President does something we disagree with, of course. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and that means it is the responsibility of each of us to speak out and to act within the system when our leaders are headed down the wrong path. I fully expect that I will be critical of President Trump far more than I will be accepting of the policies he will advocate in the coming years. Of course, that was true of the man who just left the Presidency and the man before him as well, so that’s hardly a change. At the same time, though, I’m going to try to remember that America will survive this just as it survived everything else we’ve faced over the past two centuries. The damage that is done, though, will depend largely on how vigilant men and women of conscience on both sides of the aisle are and whether they’re willing to speak out when necessary. Donald Trump is our President, words that still astound me even as I type them, but he isn’t our King and he isn’t President for life. So remain vigilant, and try not to be too melodramatic about the future no matter how tempting it might be.
Despite everything that has happened, I continue to believe this is true. Hopefully, the American people will be up to the task that history calls on them to undertake when the next election comes around.