"We are moving big and we are moving fast,” Stephen K. Bannon, chief strategist to President Donald Trump, recently told the New York Times. “We didn’t come here to do small things.” For once, a member of the new administration was telling the truth. The first weeks since Trump’s inauguration have been a frenzy of activity and controversy, a mix of extremism and ineptitude that has already vindicated many of the darkest suspicions about how he would govern. There can be no denying the threat his administration poses to both the common good and constitutional government. These are not normal times.
Every day brings new outrages or misdeeds. Any of the stories flitting across our screens might have been enough to dominate the news for days or weeks during previous presidencies: continuing investigations into Russian interference in the election, shameless lies by the White House staff, unhinged statements to the press, saber-rattling tweets, unvetted cabinet nominees, Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns, and surreal exchanges with foreign heads of state. Surely one element of Trump’s strategy is to exhaust his critics and divert their attention, making it difficult for ordinary citizens to focus on what really matters or even keep track of what is actually happening.
Terms like “autocrat” and “authoritarian” are being used by thoughtful observers to describe Trump, and not without reason. His executive order banning entry of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, among other draconian measures, is only the most prominent example. Reliable information on the inner workings of the Trump White House is hard to come by, but there are credible reports that the legal advice of Homeland Security officials was ignored during the executive order’s drafting, and that congressional staffers who had to sign nondisclosure agreements also were involved. When the new policies were abruptly put into effect, chaos ensued at airports around the country, drawing thousands of protesters who expressed solidarity with those stranded and afraid, and sparking criticism worldwide.
The fate of the order is now being fought out in the courts, but its motivation is clear: bigotry and fear-mongering, not empirical evidence. Rudolph Giuliani, a close Trump ally, admitted the president asked him how he could impose a “Muslim ban” legally. Tough vetting procedures established during the Obama presidency were already working; since 9/11, no one in this country has been killed by a terrorist from any of the seven countries on the order's list. Trump is now attacking a Republican-appointed judge who suspended the ban, describing him as a “so-called judge” and decrying the ability of the courts to thwart his will. Dangerous terrorists could be pouring into the country, Trump warned, suggesting it would be the judge who has blood on his hands if the worst happened. Just weeks into his presidency, Trump is assaulting the independence of the judiciary and chafing against the separation of powers.
There are other ominous signs. Bannon has been given an unprecedented seat on the National Security Council. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House put out an inept statement that neglected to mention Jewish people at all. The administration forges ahead with plans to build a wall on the Mexican border. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a proponent of executive overreach as long as the president is a Republican, almost certainly will be the next attorney general. Protestors and the media, along with “cosmopolitan elites,” have been targeted as the enemy.
In all this, Trump has been aided and abetted by Republicans in Congress. They have been Trump’s willing partners, excusing his inflammatory rhetoric and actions in exchange for a free hand to cut taxes, dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and undermine public schools and teacher unions. It is uncertain if or when Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will check Trump or hold him accountable. For now, they continue to disgrace themselves. Whatever happens, congressional Republicans will be responsible for a large measure of it.
The task ahead is clear: extreme vigilance and, wherever necessary, resistance. As the Russian-American dissident Masha Gessen has warned, in situations like the one now confronting the United States, “politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral.” The “corrupting touch” of autocracy will forever stain the reputations of those who are co-opted by Trumpism. Congressional Democrats must do nothing to enable this administration, and everything they can to minimize the damage that it causes. Trump is showing us exactly who he is, and the disturbing vision he has for the country. Don’t get distracted.