Richard Ford on Donald Trump's America: The string of calamities seems too much to absorb

One year on: Under Trump, I’ve experienced a loss of attention to what’s going on in America

Having Donald Trump as my president is a lot like letting my kids hang out with the wrong people (the kids, in this analogy, being the American voters). Under corrupting influence, children will almost certainly do something bad, possibly irreparable, maybe ruin their lives. But it's the underlying risk that's pernicious, if less immediately demonstrable.

The worry is that bad and doing bad will come to seem normal, acceptable, even good to the children. And, because of this fusion of good and bad, they will lose their way, jettison their moral compass forever.

Assessing the bad changes President Trump has so-far visibly wrought upon America and the world is fairly easy to do – in one way.

He's blurred the boundary that distinguishes what did happen from what did not

In 10 short months, he’s put the US back on to a course destined to wreck the globe’s environment; he’s sought and found common cause with violent xenophobes and moronic race-haters; he’s attempted – though momentarily failed – to jerk vital healthcare away from millions of Americans who need it; he’s made the threat of nuclear war tantamount to a board game played by feckless rich guys; he’s made compulsive lying about virtually everything standard governmental procedure.


And while doing all this he’s blurred the boundary that distinguishes what did happen from what did not – the precious calculus by which our citizenship maintains its footing.

Beyond these assaults, he persistently threatens to disengage women from governance over their bodies; he’s championed ignorance of our constitution rather than comprehension – thereby vitiating the constitution’s safeguards against: (1) the denial of equal protection and habeas corpus; (2) the establishment of a theocracy; (3) the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment against our most fragile citizens. (I’m just cherry-picking here.) Plus – in his braggart’s way – he regularly insults and denigrates our few, genuine military heroes, mocks scientific discovery when its outcomes don’t seem convenient, and has filled his cabinet up and down with incompetents and industry stooges who want to run government like a business.

President Trump regularly blusters that his record of first-year “achievement” is unmatched by any of his 44 predecessors. And in a leeringly skewed way, this may be the one truthful claim he’s ever made.

Like I said, the demonstrable part of the Trump legacy is easy to work out.

This business model qua political philosophy is what you might call the "commodification of American democracy"

This, by the way, is what it means to “run government like a business” – the Republicans’ favourite public policy aria: first, you treat tax-paying constituents like childish and anonymous stockholders who need to be lied to; then you personalise leadership so that whatever’s “good” for the chief executive is automatically deemed good for the country; after that, you make winning the only goal, no matter who – other than you – wins or loses; finally, you proclaim yourself infallible because you’re rich.

And when you’re tired of the whole shebang, you bankrupt the company (that is… our country), notch the losses off your taxes and your short-term memory, and treat whoever’s left holding the bag as pitiable losers. This business model qua political philosophy is what you might call the “commodification of American democracy”.

The mask of office

Since Donald Trump’s been our president, I’ve experienced a considerable loss of attention to what’s going on in America. I read the papers less closely. I tune in to the nightly news with only one ear cocked. This string of calamities just listed seems a bit too much to absorb. A bit unbelievable.

Reality has become “reality”. Like on TV. What opium is instilled in disaster! Emerson wrote. “It shows formidable as we approach it, but there is at last no rough rasping friction, but the most slippery sliding surfaces. We fall soft on a thought.” This thought – disaster – doesn’t quite hold one’s notice, the way you’d think it would.

It’s no one’s fault but mine, of course – the same as got my country into this mess a year ago: the lulling inattention of the classic liberal’s surety that we’re right about things, that clowns can’t become president. Except, clowns can. We’ve brought one in already – larking and gamboling about, making big mischief.

Americans have always embraced an inattentive and uninformed attitude toward government – especially the federal one. Even the most progressive of us want government mostly out of sight and out of the way – though not necessarily out of the other guy’s way, since he’s always wrong about everything and needs close watching.

It's not always apparent behind the façade of super-nationalism, but America is a country preoccupied by self redefinition

Life, liberty, the thoughtless pursuit of happiness – these benefits are granted to us by our Declaration of Independence. No? So, kindly just stand back so I can lay claim to mine. Progressives turn out to be not much different from right-wingers when it comes to government. We just ignore different facts.

President Trump has made our congenital governmental nonchalance more perilous by painting the walls ‘n ceiling with the most garish of lies. He won the popular vote (well, no… he didn’t, actually); he’ll provide the best healthcare ever (not really); voter fraud runs amok on our land (apparently it doesn’t); D Trump’s “really smart” (except he never acts smart; he acts kinda loony).

And, oh, by the way, climate change is a hoax, the middle class will make out like bandits under this new tax bill, Islamics hate Americans, and Barack Obama was born in Kenya. For the right kind of person, such lies suppress curiosity rather than ignite it. We now seem to be that kind of person.

It’s not far from here to the point of wondering if any of this nuttiness matters at all. We Americans seem to be in an uphill phase of our democratic sine curve, wherein we’re waiting to learn if it matters and how. As if maybe someone were going to tell us. And, of course, someone will.

It all seemed to matter when Obama was president: probity, dignity, human-fallibility-owned-up-to, pursuit of truth, not grabbing women’s privates. But if that counted for so much how the hell, then, did this happen two seconds later?

Maybe it doesn’t matter if the president’s a childish liar, is delusional, inept, petty, vicious, perhaps even casually traitorous. Maybe behind the mask of office is nothing at all. In which case, who cares about who gets to wear the mask? Bring in the clowns.

It’s not always apparent behind the façade of super-nationalism, but America is a country preoccupied by self redefinition. This can be seen as a function of protean, regenerative optimism – a restless strength. But just as plausibly it bespeaks an insecurity about who we are and how we like ourselves and each other (not so much, it appears).

Our vast and diverse land mass, alone, would make you think coherent national identity was unlikely. All those busily frictive states, all those immigrants streaming in barely noticed. Plus, our uncomfortable history perpetually needing to be ignored on behalf of whatever’s shiny and new.

The complexer life gets in the US, the more our careless nature tempts us to fall soft upon the thought of it, and the more a demagogue’s easy, scarily-romanticised, untrue declarations of who “we” really are threaten to blend into our national languor.

So that like those benighted kids whose parents let them hang with the bad crowd, eventually we begin not to recognise the truth when it’s right in front of us, and to lose our way altogether.

  • Richard Ford is the author of seven novels, including The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and three collections of stories. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Independence Day and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction.