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Iron and Rust

Coming to grips with a Donald Trump presidency


I've spent the past week or so trying to wrap my head around the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. As hard as I try, I can't come up with a coherent perspective.

The largest part of me is instinctively repelled by the bald antagonism of his campaign, which contained almost nothing consistent with what anyone of good conscience could align with our loftier ideals as a country, let alone common decency. That's not a political argument, it's a pure human reaction. Donald Trump is not a person I would want to be seated next to on a plane, standing behind in line at a grocery store or stuck in an elevator with. His arrogance, mean-spiritedness and naked aggression make him someone I would take pains to avoid at a party. I wouldn't let my children spend time in his company.

A smaller part of me, the part that majored in history in college, recoils at what we know happens when leaders with a deconstructionist agenda are installed. Wreckers of institutions seldom achieve the totality of their agenda, but they always do at least some grievous damage. At the core of Trump's ideology is a howling nihilism that transcends politics. It's a sneering negation of empathy, a self-centered obsession with short-term gain and the rejection of complex thinking as weak or suspect. Trump is the amygdala gone wild, fueled by an insatiable need to tear down anything that might present cognitive dissonance.

Like Commodus, the second-century Roman emperor who succeeded his father, philosopher king Marcus Aurelius—the latter widely considered among the most intellectual and effective emperors in Roman history—Trump is a showman. Commodus killed preselected opponents in the Roman Coliseum to roars of public approval. Trump fired people on Celebrity Apprentice to the delight of millions of weekly viewers. Commodus believed he was Hercules reincarnated. Trump believes his superlatives encompass business acumen, fashion sense, sex appeal and oratory—"I know words. I have the best words." Both used ostentation to cover lack of substance, bombast to stand in for strength, and Commodus turned Rome's "empire of gold" into one of "iron and rust," as Cassius Dio wrote at the time.

Still another part of me understands how Trump was elected. Rural communities have been left behind economically, and income inequality gaps are actually wider today than at any time since the Gilded Age (by some counts, it's even worse). Our infrastructure is failing at a rate embarrassing among industrialized nations. Our health care system, despite historic efforts toward reform, doesn't work for a great many of us.

Fears for the future and resentment held toward political, financial and media elites by broad swaths of Americans are real, justified and go back decades. However, fed on a diet of hyper-partisan, factually dubious and—thanks to our social media-driven consciousness—near-constant rhetoric, these reasonably felt grievances have morphed into a noxious stew of nativism, isolationism, racism, misogyny and general intolerance masquerading as "conservatism." It's far from conservative. It's radical. It rejects incrementalism, looks askance at balanced judgement and fears compromise as signifying a lack of will. Attacks on "political correctness" in this environment are more often than not cloaked justifications for denying the common rights of those who look, live or think differently. In the glare of Trump's demagoguery, we may be witnessing the heat death of large-scale community feeling in this country, and those who fear his presidency, even if they weren't specifically targeted by him during the campaign, are right to do so.

Yet one more part of me feels like I shouldn't worry too much. Admittedly, this is a small part; still, it's there. It tells me the forces that helped propel Trump to the White House have been a feature not only of the makeup up of the United States, but human civilization as a whole, since the beginning. Beyond a divide between our political parties, we're experiencing a resurgence of tribalism in our society. Identity politics, not the politics of Republicans or Democrats, defined this election cycle and, while they may have played well on the campaign trail, they are no basis for governance. While there is nothing "normal" about the ascension of Trump to global leadership—and any attempt to say so is naive at best and dangerous at worst—all I can hope for is the complexities of his office will necessarily temper Trump's (many) lesser instincts. The signs aren't great this will happen. Already Trump has surrounded himself with of personalities who hitherto ruled empires of disaffected commenters in the bitterest depths of the internet, but I can't conceive someone like Steve Bannon—the virulent racist, anti-semitic, homophobic and misogynistic ex-president of alt-right "news" site breitbart.com, whom Trump appointed chief strategist on Nov. 14—will last long in the corridors of power. I'm not entirely sure Trump will find himself equal to the job after a year or two.

I hope (maybe against hope), that he'll find his eliminationist policy ideas and personal brand of outrageous offense and hyperbolic petulence don't serve anyone—not even himself. Which, like Commodus before him, is the axis on which his worldview turns. Otherwise, our empire of "iron and rust" may be closer than we think.