The great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once wrote, “All imagined futures are but projections of lived pasts.” It is the lenses of our experience that color the possibilities of our visions.
We can evaluate a second Trump presidency either by looking backward or imagining forward, or both. By Kierkegaard’s standard, the two will look similar, not because the future is pre-ordained, but because that is the only way we can see it from here. Still, the stakes are so high, it's worth trying to steal a glimpse.
Let’s start with the past and the present, the jumping off points for the future. What do they tell us about Trump and his worthiness to lead us? We’ll try to stay as clinical and empirical as possible.
The U.S. is last in the world in how it has responded to the coronavirus. It has 5% of the world’s population, but 20% of the world’s deaths. It has double the number of deaths as does India, a developing world country with four times the population of the U.S. Trump knew in January how deadly and transmissible the virus was but lied about it. We still do not have a national strategy to deal with the virus, though the Trump administration has apparently adopted the strategy of “herd immunity,” without having told anybody. Success with herd immunity will require the deaths of millions more Americans.
While the pandemic rages, Trump is doing all he can to kill the Affordable Care Act as he promised he would when he ran in 2016. The ACA made insurance available for the first time to more than 20 million people. They will lose it. Killing the Act would take away protections for pre-existing conditions that affect more than 120 million people. Despite having four years to come up with a replacement, Trump has offered nothing.
Trump will be the first president in history to leave office with fewer jobs in the economy than when he started.
In the second quarter of this year, the economy suffered the greatest collapse in recorded history, falling 32% on an annualized basis. More than 56 million people filed for unemployment, another record. More than 30 million people are still without work. The national debt exploded by $3 trillion in only six months, three times more than it had reached in the all of the first 204 years of the republic combined. More than 8 million additional people fell into poverty and as many as 40 million face eviction. Trump will be the first president in history to leave office with fewer jobs in the economy than when he started.
We have the worst race relations in over half a century. The president encourages white supremacist groups and rationalizes right-wing terrorism when it is carried out against peaceful, legitimate protests of police brutality. Trump aggressively attacks democracy itself, spreading lies about the dangers of mail-in voting, despite there being no credible evidence supporting those lies. He has repeatedly refused to agree to a peaceful transfer of power, the simplest, yet most profound affirmation of a respect for democracy. We could go on.
Reflecting on all of this, Trump gives himself an A+ for his handling of the nation’s affairs. This is important because it is a reflection of his capacity for dealing with reality. He lies all of the time, about almost everything, more than 20,000 documented lies recorded to date. Pathological liars, by definition, cannot deal with reality—that’s why they have to lie all the time. Trump lives in a fantasy world of his own making where, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, he is the greatest president of all time. You decide.
What can this admittedly cursory glimpse at the past tell us about the prospects in a second Trump term? First, we need to understand some of the tectonic challenges facing the country. Only then can we tell whether Trump is up for them. Again, we’ll try to be as clinical as possible.
We face a climate crisis that we have very few years to get ahead of before it becomes auto-escalating and wipes out half of all the life forms on earth. That’s what the scientists say. It is already inflicting hundreds of billions of dollars of damages a year on the economy. That’s what the insurance companies say. We see it in forest fires ravaging the west, hurricanes battering the south, floods drowning the Midwest, and record cold waves freezing the east. The polar ice caps are melting while the oceans and the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the world,” are dying. It will only get worse. Crops will begin failing, victims of excessive heat, a dearth of water, and mass die-offs of pollinators, like bees.
At the same time, the world is in the midst of a once-in-a-century transition of the energy system that powers industrial civilization. For the past century, fossil fuels were that energy system, but they are implicated in the climate change mentioned above. There can be no solution to the climate crisis without changing the energy platform on which civilization operates. Civilization must move to renewable energy in order to reduce the amount of carbon it pumps into the atmosphere. China leads the world in renewable energy, both its use and the technologies used to generate it. That brings us to the third tectonic challenge facing the country.
Within the next five years, China will become the largest economy in the world. That ascension, together with the U.S.’s licentious issuance of debt, will undermine the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. That means the U.S. government will not be able to continue writing an infinite stream of hot checks to pay its bills. That is how we currently fund our record annual deficits and cumulative national debt: by selling Treasury securities that everybody knows will never be repaid. Without such an “exorbitant privilege” as Charles de Gaulle called it, interest rates will skyrocket, making reconfiguration of the economy to deal with climate change and the new energy paradigm highly problematic, if not impossible.
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While all of this is going on, new technologies, especially robotics and artificial intelligence, are reconfiguring the workplace, forever. They will displace tens of millions of jobs, especially those of low-skilled, poorly educated workers. For example: very soon, self-driving long-haul trucks will decimate the ranks of one of the largest fields currently employing poorly educated white males. This will exacerbate the seething rage borne of downward mobility that lies at the heart of Trumpism. Artificial intelligence will cause similar displacements to befall many formerly “pink collar” jobs for women.
Finally, amidst all of this tumult boils two of the most virulent social evils the country has ever faced: a repressed, centuries-old racism that poisons social relations and destroys trust in the police; and economic inequality that erodes democracy. These two evils portend widening divisions of the country along racial and class lines, making it all but impossible to congeal a broad-based social consensus on almost any meaningful issue. Without such consensus, democracy will fail, leaving authoritarianism as the only working government model. In the worst case, civil war looms, followed by the fascist imposition of force to restore order.
In other words, the nation faces profound challenges in the fields of climate, energy, economy, technology, and civil society. None of these challenges can be avoided, though some might still be able to be kicked down the road a little further. None have been engaged in the past four years, a loss of valuable time when time might just be the most valuable commodity available to us, after effective leadership.
To deal with these challenges, the country will need a leader of extraordinary vision, discipline, empathy, intellect, and resilience. It will require a person of incomparable integrity, sufficient to elicit immense sacrifice from individuals and groups, for none of these changes will come for free.
It will require a deeply empathetic person who can build coalitions across the warring factions in the county that will be needed to carry out wide-spread change. We need a builder of alliances, one who can work domestically and internationally alike, for the first four of these problem areas cannot even be solved by any single nation alone.
Such a leader will not be able to govern by fostering hate, division, and isolation, but must heal the divisions that have rent our social fabric and unify the country, creating common purpose and shared resolve among all. (S)he must be a person of conscience rather than corruption, be able to wield wisdom more than conspiracy theories, purpose more than recrimination, principle more than paranoia, and science more than ideology.
The needs of the time require a span of attention that vastly exceeds the next news cycle or the last tweet and, in fact, reaches through multiple future generations with a deep compassion for others, even though they will not yet be born. Such a person cannot be craven and self-dealing but must be of impeccable, irreproachable character. Otherwise, the people will not follow, for they can recognize a fraud, a scoundrel, and a conman.
In other words, the times require the intellect of a Jefferson, the commitment to unity of a Lincoln, the empathy of a Roosevelt, the integrity of an Eisenhower, the vision of a Kennedy. Intellect, unity, empathy, integrity, vision. Are those traits we associate with Donald Trump? If so, then he may well be our man.
But if not, if we don’t associate Trump with intellect, or unity, or empathy, or integrity, or vision, then he is not the person we need to lead us through the impending storms.
Indeed, if the next four years besiege the country as did the last four, our problems will be immeasurably worse, for they will only fester, mutate, magnify, and multiply. Our suspicions for one another will only putrefy and amplify. Our institutions will be even more damaged than they have been by the last four years. And our spirits will be grievously wounded, perhaps fatally so.
But, Kierkegaard and the past notwithstanding, it doesn’t have to be.
I invite you to judge for yourself, by either the record of the past or the needs of the future—or both—whether Donald Trump should be our next president.