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January 23, 2017

We are in a strange time.

A large part of America is living on tenterhooks. The incoming president is quite unlike every president in our lifetime. He is a conman who cheats in business, seems quite incurious, holds grandiose estimate of his own knowledge, dismisses information he dislikes, even when it comes from government agencies whose purpose is to provide that, is quick to belittle those who criticize him, or even those just weaker than him, tosses aside national tradition, appeals to people’s worst prejudices, and is infamously thin-skinned. Character conservatives are appalled. While one can point to similar weaknesses in past presidents, none combined those to such a degree, and always were balanced by other internal resources, by sense of duty, and by staff they respected. Combined with today’s political environment, it is easy to imagine Trump’s election as the start of a dire turning point. Or just that an intemperate statement or act creates a crisis.

There are three ameliorating responses: Trump is not as bad as he seems, and even if he is, he will get better, and even if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter that much.

The first seems fantasy to me. The best case for it is that his public persona is largely an act, and that behind the truly ugly facade is someone smarter and more gentle, who just knew he had to play something approaching a fascist to win the voters he needed. If many of us find that hard to believe, it’s because as Kellyanne Conway complains about us, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.” What makes this possibility seem remote is that con artists rarely have hearts of gold.

The second possibility is that Trump will grow into the office. The weight of the presidency no doubt changes its occupants. In this regard, it was hopeful to see how quickly he backed away from handing Kennedy any role in studying vaccines. His inaugural speech, though, was a doubling down on what got him elected.

The third path has the most resonance, but admits multiple readings. On the optimistic side, the US president doesn’t act alone. He acts with and through a host of public institutions. These constrain, supplement, and channel. These may provide some balance to even the most intemperate personality. There is a strong case to be made that business will grow, lives will improve, and America will continue its generally upward trajectory, almost regardless of who is president. Politics often doesn’t matter as much as we hope and fear.

On the pessimistic side, the new president’s personality may matter far less than the partisan sweep he led. On this reading, we didn’t march into the debacle of the Iraq war because of George Bush’s personal failings, as much as because he brought into power Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the other neocons who set us on that course. Politics matters, and it matters more than the personality of the president. So, the rise of Breitbart and the alt-right, the success of talk radio and right-wing websites in giving Republicans their own “alt-facts,” and the ever more authoritarian trend in the GOP is more important than the fact that it was Trump who swept in to take advantage of all that.

Perhaps, as this n+1 article projects, Trump will be a disjunctive president. The thing about historical patterns is that they last. Until they don’t. Sitting in the present makes it hard to scry whether today’s polarization will seem overblown, from a perspective two decades hence, or necessitating some historical break soon to come and not yet clear. Peter Leyden offers a speculative and optimistic reading of the recent election as but a bump in a positive social evolution, where California is leading the way. In eery parallel, Peter Thiel explains why it might be the GOP that nudges California out of the union, as a means of securing their power. The best hope, of course, is that America comes to its senses and sweeps Trump’s Republicans from power in 2018 and 2020.

Perhaps this apprehension will prove no more substantive than waking in the night because of a swing on the anchor. The next three months might unroll a reasonably normal presidency. That just doesn’t seem likely right now.

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