Donald Trump will go down in history as the most American of presidents.
His relentless racism, unearned wealth, despotic greed, and unmitigated bullying — the way he could get away with doing or saying whatever he wanted — has made the 45th president an all-consuming presence in American lives. And for many of Trump’s admirers, these traits make him an enthralling embodiment of white American ideals. His orange mask, the illiteracy reflected in his speech, the unnerving audacity of his inexperience, and his legion of lies made Americans revere or detest him, with no in-between.
In 2016, Trump won 62,985,106 votes — 45.9 percent of all ballots cast — to win his one term. Four years later, though Trump failed to clinch reelection in his incumbency, 74,223,744 Americans voted for him. Of course, Biden received millions more votes than his opponent, in an election with the highest turnout in a century. But Trumpism’s base grew markedly: Almost 12 million more people voted for Trump after living through what even his former GOP allies and aides have described as a dumpster fire presidency. Almost 12 million more people purchased a ticket for the second season of the carnival.
And no matter what they might insist, it will never come. On the morning of January 20, dozens of people will work tirelessly to convert the White House for a new beginning. As Joe Biden raises his right hand to take the presidential oath of office, staffers will be switching out family portraits, replacing furniture, adding fresh floral arrangements throughout the mansion’s quarters and realigning the feng shui to suit a new first family. This transformation will suggest change. But it will take more than new draperies and busts in the Oval Office to remake the fabric of American culture.
America’s record in addressing its deep moral failures is sullied by amnesia, centuries of pain and truth locked away. The test before the United States now is how it handles Trump’s legacy. The country can either launch a campaign to forget — or pause to reckon with how it birthed Trump and continues to nurture him and the dangerous supporters he has mobilized.
We are so prone to want to forget, we may soon shrug off reminders that Trump abused, endangered, and then nearly killed America.
Trump bent the truth. He didn’t bother to read intelligence briefs. He played enemy to the Constitution with a coup.
Trump shocked us: He confessed to falling in love with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, and pretended he wasn’t only the third president to ever be impeached — now, the first to be impeached twice.
Trump terrified us: He helped the Saudis cover up their killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as he pressed for a multibillion-dollar deal with the Middle Eastern power.
Trump made us laugh, too: The country found humor in the toilet paper stuck to his shoe as he boarded Air Force One, in his infamous “covfefe” tweet, and in the moment he placed a chocolate bar atop a young trick-or-treater’s head.
Then Trump embarrassed us: The UN General Assembly outright guffawed when he boasted about what he had accomplished in his first two years.
Until he was unceremoniously banned with just weeks left in his presidency, he kept his Twitter feed fresh, a form of emotional terror for some. He withdrew the country from the Paris agreement, rewriting the fate of the planet’s climate. Hundreds of migrant children still don’t know where their parents are. America’s soil has made room for more than 350,000 bodies from the Covid-19 pandemic — people who might have lived if Trump had a speck of compassion.
Through all the horror, there were crowds that cheered him on at giant arenas, members of Congress who did his bidding, and flacks that protected and defended his word. They saw his transgressions as wins. They called him savvy when he paid just $750 in taxes in the first year of his presidency and resourceful when he played golf amid crises. They said he was strong when he called a woman “horseface.” Downplaying the threat of the coronavirus made him a lone truth-teller in the eyes of his supporters.
People who lived through Trump’s presidency will argue that it wasn’t that bad, that America made it, that we should all move on. The country will only be further divided by another period of impeachment proceedings, lawmakers have already argued. But those who didn’t survive aren’t here to testify to the worst of it.
Trump successfully undermined idealistic notions of American democracy, but he is not an anomaly. His strategies are American. He may be more brash, insipid, petty, childlike, and crude than most other American leaders, but the foundation of his platform — white power, white rage, white privilege, white nationalism — has lived in America, and with its leaders, for centuries.
Until Ulysses S. Grant, US presidents — with the exceptions of only John Adams and Abraham Lincoln — owned enslaved people. Colonizers who settled in America led a genocide against Native Americans, and Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren precipitated their brutal displacement through legal orders like the Indian Removal Act.
In 1854, Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law, allowing for popular sovereignty on slavery’s extension into certain territories. Bleeding Kansas was the result, a seven-year stretch of violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces that presaged the Civil War. James Buchanan legitimized slavery when he influenced the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott case, which decided Black people could not claim US citizenship.
Again and again, American presidents have summoned racism, violence, and xenophobia, unafraid of what it would mean for their legacies, for doing so is practically the nature of the presidency.
In contemporary history, Franklin D. Roosevelt established Japanese internment camps to forcefully confine American citizens during World War II. In 1970, Richard Nixon expanded the war effort in Vietnam, a costly and imprudent battle that took the lives of millions between the United States and Asia. In the ’80s, Ronald Reagan operated with elegant racism. (As his trusted strategist Lee Atwater put it, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”) In 2003, the US invaded Iraq under George W. Bush in an effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime amid the “war on terror” and recover weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.
White America doesn’t look back, the status quo a set of blinders. If it looked back, it could see that Trump’s presidency was only an outgrowth of what it had already sowed.
On January 6, two weeks before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, thousands of Trump supporters descended on Washington, DC, to play out a fantasy they had been dreaming up in the weeks since Trump’s fraudulent claims of election malfeasance began.
The cloudy DC day foreshadowed what was to come — an insurrection that brought civilian guns and Confederate flags into the US Capitol and nooses to the seat of US democracy, and replaced American flags with Keep America Great Again emblems. Five people died in the revolt. This was their American revolution, their 1776, participants exclaimed. They were the victors, they said, because they managed to breach the headquarters of America. They had received instructions hours before.
“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” Trump told them at a rally. He added, “You’ll never take our country back with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” There was no mistaking what he meant.
Law enforcement used a limp hand with the almost exclusively white rioters, a departure from the strong-arming they used with Black Lives Matter protesters in the very same city in summer 2020. In that recent past, police beat protest organizers with batons, pepper-sprayed them, used tear gas to clear them from Lafayette Square for a Trump photo opportunity, and shot them with rubber bullets. Yet this month, police literally held the hands of Trump supporters to escort them down the Capitol’s steps and held the door open for them after they were done desecrating the halls of Congress. The DC National Guard was deployed hours later, a clear sign that, to Trump and his establishment, there was no emergency.
Shock cannot be the reaction to what transpired. The day was planned in plain sight — insurrectionists wore sweatshirts that stated there would be a Civil War on that date; men carrying zip ties hung out on the Senate floor; officials found crude bombs and ammunition in the area.
Officials standing by, complicit while whites terrorize people of color and threaten the rule of law, is hardly new in modern American history. In Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, a mob of white supremacists — many of them neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan and the far-right street gang the Proud Boys — invoked Trump as they scuffled with and menaced counterprotesters, killing one with a vehicle. Reports show police failed to keep order even though they knew in advance that white supremacists were planning to be violent. Trump, meanwhile, called the far-right agitators “good people.”
In 2014, hundreds of armed anti-government extremists engaged in a standoff with law enforcement at the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy. Though Bundy was in violation of federal law for illegal cattle grazing on federal land, law enforcement threw up their hands for fear of being harmed by Bundy and his supporters. After white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, the police handled him delicately during detainment and even took him to get a meal. Of course, our elected officials and those who write the story of America want us to forget.
Observers called the January 6 riot a violent end to Trump’s presidency. Though Trump’s presidency will indeed end, the hate at its core won’t just dissipate. Trump was never its origin.
Much like Trump’s so-called patriots, a mob of white men made history a century ago. Like those who flooded the Capitol this month, they wanted to preserve a status quo that preserved them. In a racist rampage, the men stormed a Black business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, burning down blocks of homes and shops and killing 36. The massacre never rose to collective consciousness. There were no consequences for the murderers, no apology from America, no reconciliation.
Commentators, scholars, and journalists have already started positing that Trump won’t really be remembered, but relegated to just a small figure in history books. He was just a one-term president, journalist Steve Inskeep wrote for the New York Times. “Someday the clamor of his tenure will fade,” the author and NPR Morning Edition host said. “One term is not long to influence a country so large and dynamic.” This is how it always seems to go.
Convenient amnesia — dismissing racism and violence as “clamor” — is the American way. In the past few years, liberals have rehabilitated the image of George W. Bush, the man who spearheaded a war that cost the lives of tens of thousands of people and whose indifference when the levees broke in New Orleans led to the deaths of nearly 2,000, because he’s more normal in comparison to Trump. The country keeps trying to make slavery a distant memory — real action on reparations has been dormant for decades — though its effects live on.
Herein begins the erasure, the amnesia of the deluded. It’s superficial and naive to ignore how Trump has forced mass hate out of hibernation, how he has liberated white supremacy. Trump’s presidency, which 12 million more people green-lighted from the 2016 to 2020 election, underscored how much white people are still unwilling to confront white rage.
Most troubling is how the incoming Biden-Harris administration has addressed the moment. In a January 6 speech, Joe Biden spoke out against the violence but manipulated and gaslighted listeners. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are,” Biden said. “What we’re seeing are a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness.”
This is a grave mischaracterization. The mobsters believed themselves to be the patriots, and some law enforcement officials regarded them as such. Whether obliviousness or willful disregard by Biden, they do represent America. America as seen in Charlottesville; America as seen beating up counterprotesters at Trump rallies; America as seen in the early 20th century when lynch mobs expressed their fury and animosity toward free Blacks by hanging them.
And then there’s the subset of Americans who see themselves as above the insurrectionists. They see that Trump and his minions are America’s greatest threat and are hence eager to have him expelled. Such a rush to get back to “normalcy,” unwilling to address how they’re part of the problem. They would have the country believe that the insurrectionists aren’t their neighbors, pastors, law enforcement officials, or real estate brokers, and that their indifference doesn’t allow extremists to operate in plain sight. For these white moderates, reforms that can actually change America just go too far. This special kind of denial keeps America unable to reckon with the sin of white supremacy.
In times of crises, white America retreats to Disney-like falsehoods to feel warm. Trump wanted to build a wall (and he built hundreds of miles of one) at the border, but America needs to erect a giant mirror. Looking in could be the start of accountability for violence and denialism. What would America, the world’s supposed beacon of freedom and hope, have to lose?
Fabiola Cineas covers race for Vox.