Remember when the President of the United States gleefully embraced baldly racist propaganda promulgated by a subversive, universally-condemned British hate group, causing our most historically-valued ally to openly debate whether to disinvite the President from a state visit?
Remember when the President “honored” the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of unequivocal American heroes, by making crudely racist jokes about his political opponents? Remember how it was all carefully staged beneath a portrait of Andrew Jackson, a man who was proud of the nickname “Indian Killer,” and who was responsible for the Trail of Tears?
Remember when, a full week ago, F.A.T. upped his attack on the Fourth Estate, bitching and moaning that CNN International – an utterly indispensable source of light in the world’s darkest corners – was “a major source of (Fake) news”? Remember when the rogues gallery of dictators and thugs of the world seized on this proclamation from the U.S. President, and gleefully cited “fake news” to dismiss CNN’s reporting on their atrocities?
We’ve been living this cycle for more than a year now: President Trump does something extraordinary in its callousness and ignorance, something historically disturbing and damaging to our democracy, and we respond, appropriately, with outright outrage. But the outrages come so fast and so furious, the erosion of norms and basic American values is happening so rapidly, that we become disoriented, we lose track.
This is President Trump’s entire game, his only game. Those among us who hoped he’d be “changed” by the immense responsibilities of the presidency could not have been more wrong. This is an individual who can’t and won’t change, who thrives on chaos and the innate recognition that if he buries us in outrages, he will eventually wear us down. And it’s working.
There are those who take this dynamic – the reality that F.A.T. seems to relish, and thrive in, the daily chaos and enmity he creates – and argue that we should try our damndest to just ignore the President’s lunacy, that we should tone down the outrage lest we play into his hands. I believe many of these folks (although to be clear, not all), make this suggestion in good faith, but I also believe it to be terribly misguided. If anything, our outrage is already too muted, inadequate in the face of the immense gravity of this national disaster, and to scale that outrage back would be – in my mind, and I suspect in the mind of our howling toddler President – a surrender.
But we do need to recognize that our outrage is wasted on the President himself. He will not change, and so we need to do our damndest to refocus our outrage, not on the needy, unhinged, narcissist who occupies the White House, but on the people who are so eager to enable him.
In the early days of the Trump presidency, a lot of folks sought comfort in this clip from Mister Rogers:
In times of peril, Fred reminds us, “look for the Helpers.” It’s a wonderful sentiment, one from which I have drawn succor in recent months. And to be very clear, in this dark hour, there are an inspiring number of “Helpers” out there right now, fighting, screaming, resisting.
But I suspect Mister Rogers (or his mother for that matter) could not possibly have imagined our present nightmare, where we’ve got a house being consumed by angry flames, where there are, indeed, everyday heroes, “Helpers,” running headlong into the fire, but where the goddamn fire department is sitting on the curb, denying there’s any fire at all.
And that’s why – with utmost respect to a wise man and his wise mother – it’s probably not the best idea to draw too much meaning from advice offered to children, when we’re facing the most serious existential threat to our country since the second World War.
The writer Dhalia Lithwick wrote a sobering piece last week, observing that we may well be deluding ourselves if we believe that Robert Mueller can save us. “It seems as though,” Ms. Lithwick observes, “truth and law are forever losing ground in the footrace against open looting and overt totalitarianism. The more abjectly deranged Trump’s behavior and the more Republicans in Congress cover for him, the less likely it is that anything Mueller can magic up in his underground hall of justice will matter.”
We are desperate to believe that there are “adults” out there, ready and able to save us, sober, decent, well-meaning people with their hand on the wheel at all times. And as much as it’s nice to repurpose Mr. Rogers’ words as a celebration of everyday “Helpers,” that’s really his premise too: if something bad happens, find a responsible adult, they’ll know the right thing to do, and they’ll guide you through any storm.
It’s great advice for kids, and maybe even great advice for the first 240 years of our democracy. But we’re through the looking glass now, living in a world where the adults who should be responsible – the Republicans in Congress who have, via the Constitution, both the power and prerogative to be essential “Helpers” in this dark moment – seem more eager to profit from this President’s unique and destructive malevolence, than they are to do anything to curb it. In that world, one where shamelessness, and blatant bad faith, have been politically weaponized, we have to grow the fuck up and recognize that simply “looking for the Helpers,” simply trusting that the “adults” will step in before it gets too bad, is not enough.
Our outrage is lost on Donald Trump, he will not change. But our outrage, powerful and righteous as it is, is hardly worthless; we just need to figure out how to channel it towards the ones who refuse to help. Every time the President shatters a norm or shreds American values, we need to acknowledge that Trump (and embodied within him the angry, resentful tides of Trumpism) is the fire. The true outrage here are the people who have all the tools to put the fire out, and won’t.