The Catalytic President

When I was a newspaper reporter we got a new editor one year who came from the Associated Press. He was a stocky loudmouth from New Jersey who summoned us with an authoritative whistle and tried to make his points by leaving threatening memos in our office mailboxes. He showed us no loyalty, but pandered to the powerful. He would breeze through the newsroom eating snacks off people’s desks, and, on several occasions, took someone’s last chocolate or pretzel, stuffing it into his mouth before anyone could get their bearings enough to protest.

He was so uniformly awful that he turned what had been a comfy living-room atmosphere of a newsroom into a brittle battleground. Reporters and editors left. He wasn’t just a jerk. He was a catalyst. 

This guy didn’t mean to be a catalyst. He really believed in what he was doing, it seems — eating all his underlings’ chocolate. Watching YouTube in his office all day. Making powerful friends. But his spiked-bat personality left many of us with no choice but to budge up and move on. And, for many of us, it was time.

He reminds me a lot of the president. Donald Trump is similarly awful, but infinitely more powerful. He has made the United States presidency into a National Lampoon’s spoof of politics, only with much grimmer results: deportations, greater numbers of uninsured Americans and a rise in open racism. Everyone, except his loyal fan base, is on edge, wondering what terrible thing he might do next. The comfy living-room atmosphere of the nation has become a brittle battleground.

Trump, too, is a catalyst, and he also doesn’t mean to be one. He believes in — well, maybe not actually building a wall Mexico pays for, but in saying he’s going to build a wall Mexico pays for. He believes in striking terror into the hearts of immigrants nationwide while spending his weekends golfing at Mar-a-Lago.

I will never make an argument that Trump should be president. Hillary would have made an infinitely better one. A smarter one. A saner one. A stabler and kinder one. But I do think Trump’s awfulness has evoked a livelier response from a complacent nation than Hillary ever could have. We are watching someone who serves an extreme-right, fringe group of Americans occupy the most powerful seat in the world. We are getting a taste of fascism, and it’s impossibly bitter. Trump’s acrimony has permeated us so thoroughly that we are taking to the streets. We are defending women, Muslims, and Black Americans, which mainstream Americans didn’t care much about a few years back. Democrats are grooming strong political candidates and winning. Even in small towns, previously-silenced Democrats are rising up, running for office, writing letters to the editors and engaging with people who agree with Trump when he says he doesn’t want immigrants from “shithole” places like Haiti and Africa.

Racists are being called out and sexual assailants toppled. Signs are being made, impassioned speeches written and arguments are being argued, rather than avoided for the sake of politeness. The subjects of religion and politics were once considered off-limits. Now there’s little else worth talking about.

Trump is forcing us to ask ourselves who we are and, if we don’t like the answer, inviting us to do something about it. He, of course, has no idea. He is eating Big Macs and tweeting the thoughts and ideas of a puerile madman. 

And it is infuriating. It is infuriating enough to make us speak out and speak loud for what’s right in a maelstrom of wrong. He is our mirror, and it is too small, bitter and narrow for our tastes: now that we see who we are, we can choose to be something different.

Cover Photo by Saint Hoax