If 2017 had been even remotely normal, the improving economy and tax reform, North Korea’s growing nuclear threat or the hurricanes that ripped across Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas and the fires still raging over California would be strong contenders for story of the year.
Locally, we could point to development issues in downtown Raleigh, movement toward creating a master plan for Dorothea Dix Park and Larry Wheeler’s decision to retire from the North Carolina Museum of Art after helping transform it into a world class destination.
But 2017 wasn’t normal. Decades from now, when historians want to know what occupied our hearts and minds – the topics that dominated dinner party conversation because that’s all that people talked about or was the elephant in the room they ignored in the name of civility – they’ll find the answer in a single name: Donald Trump.
The president may be a narcissist, but his opponents spent the year indulging in a strange form of anti-hero worship, interpreting every story through the lens of Trump – a reverse Mao. If a sparrow fell to the ground, he must have been responsible.
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Trump, of course, is the first president his opponents have tried to impeach since the month before he took office. Taking a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach, they have proffered the Emoluments Clause, the Logan Act, sexual harassment, obstruction of justice, mental instability and treason through his alleged collusion with Russia as grounds to overturn the election and remove him from office. Stay tuned for more!
Despite relentless efforts to brand Trump a fascist, he hasn’t taken any actions that threaten the Constitution. His major policy efforts – the travel ban, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, tax reform, deregulation and failed efforts to repeal Obamacare – are mainstream Republican positions. When the courts have challenged his orders, he’s abided by their rulings.
Since Trump’s policies fall within the norm, what explains the abnormal push to delegitimize the president? What makes Trump Derangement Syndrome so much more severe than the Clinton, Bush and Obama varieties of the syndrome?
Sure, he can be vulgar, coarse and impulsive; palpably un-presidential. But the better answer is Trump’s status as the Holden Caulfield of American politics. One of the few true outsiders to win the big prize, he merrily skewers the powers that be as phonies, challenging not just their power and position, but something that means even more to them: their belief in their own virtue and intelligence.
His incendiary Tweets and unscripted comments often take on the sacred cultural cows of the left – especially on issues of race and gender. Calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” because she helped her career by falsely claiming a Native American heritage raises questions they don’t like about a progressive hero who may have gamed affirmative action programs.
Pointing out that both white supremacist marchers and Anti-fa demonstrators were responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, challenged what his opponents considered to be their right to define the narrative – that America’s greatest problems involve racist white men, exploitative capitalism and patriarchy.
In response, Trump’s opponents took the moral low-ground, branding him as a Neo-Nazi and Klan sympathizer. For his part, Trump has done nothing to elevate the conversation.
Trump has taken even more fire – from establishment Republicans and Democrats – for his attacks on America’s “deep state” and the global order represented by the United Nations, the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement. He has defied political etiquette and protocol by calling out the failures, falsehoods and cronyism of the ruling class – a critique voiced not only by millions of Americans but people across Europe who believe their leaders take care of themselves first.
Yes, Trump is an imperfect vehicle for this argument, but he voices legitimate and festering concerns that cannot be bullied away simply by calling him a fascist and a liar. In America, it is beyond ironic to hear left-wing voices that have long been suspicious (and rightly so) of the FBI, CIA and NSA to cast his critique of those agencies as a threat to our system of government. Politics certainly does make strange bedfellows.
Of course our politics have been marked by ugly, give-no-quarter division at least since the Reagan era. But a fair-minded person will admit they took a deep and nasty turn in 2017. We are no longer chiefly debating policies and priorities but deeper questions about who gets to shape and define reality.
I’m afraid I’ll be able to write this same column a year hence.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.