Opinion: Learning the Right Lessons from Trump’s Presidency

2020 Presidential Race

Since the departure of our endorsed Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders from the race, Mass. Peace Action members have expressed a range of views about the presidential race.  This is one of a series of opinions written by members on the race as it stands now.

by Brian Garvey

For a few weeks in late February and early March it seemed possible, even likely, that Bernie Sanders could be the next president of the United States. For millions of people, especially the younger generations, it seemed there was a real chance to put the highest office in the land into the hands of an activist, someone who openly challenged the establishment of the Republican and the Democratic parties. To peace activists, it was a chance to make a man who challenged our bipartisan consensus on foreign policy the Commander and Chief. In a country that for decades has given more and more responsibility to the executive branch, it seemed like a shortcut. By giving power to someone with a desire to make change, and a record to prove it, there was a chance to make dramatic changes quickly.

The rapid consolidation of the Democratic Party’s moderate (corporate) wing dashed those hopes in a matter of days, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of activists and making Joe Biden, a candidate whose campaign had once seemed to be on life support, the presumptive nominee.

It’s hard not to see this upcoming general election as a repeat of 2016, swapping one representative of the Democratic establishment, Hillary Clinton, for another, Joe Biden. The former Vice President has been on the wrong side of a litany of domestic issues. His support for NAFTA, a crime bill that led to mass incarceration, banking deregulation that led to the financial collapse of 2008, immigration policies that earned his boss the moniker “deporter-in-chief,” and his treatment of women and girls (at best cringeworthy and at worst criminal) all deserve criticism.

On foreign policy, Biden’s support for intervention, increased military spending, and sanctions are anathema to the peace movement. His position on the Iraq war, the biggest blunder in modern American history, was even more egregious than Clinton’s. Then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden used his position to cheerlead Bush and Cheney’s rush to war. He even bragged about convincing his Democratic colleagues to support the war. We cannot pretend that this record does not exist. Donald Trump will make it an issue in this campaign, without a hint of shame or acknowledgement of his own hypocrisy.

Yet, for all his failings, there are reasons Biden is preferable to Trump. Our current president is dangerous, unpredictable, and impulsive. His tyrannical aspirations and his open support for authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, and the Philippines (to name a few), encourages disrespect for human rights around the world. He casually threatens wars of annihilation and reneges on international agreements that foster cooperation and peace. Trump’s statement that the existential threat of climate catastrophe is “a hoax” threatens to break the world consensus, slow though it may be in forming, that something must be done to save our planet. His open prejudice and corruption embolden and normalize the racism and graft that have long been a thinly covered rot at the core of our country. The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the consequences of having a president that puts his own popularity over the well being of the American people, resulting in 100,000 deaths and an economic crisis that threatens the livelihood of millions.

Still, it would be a mistake to pretend that there are no benefits to Trump’s presidency. “In a democracy, people usually get the leaders they deserve.” I would attribute this quote to someone but it seems, like so many maxims, to be apocryphal. Embarrassing though he may be, Donald Trump is a fitting president of the United States. He openly promotes nationalism and has made “America First” a centerpiece of his campaign and movement. Perhaps the ultimate example of the “Ugly American,” Trump is racist, xenophobic, self-centered, thoughtless, inconsiderate, ignorant, hateful, venal, quick to threaten violence, and the subject of mockery in much of the world. Though it may be painful to admit, these qualities do describe “America,” a country so arrogant that it claims as its own a term that rightly describes two continents and dozens of independent nations.

It is too easy to dismiss Donald Trump as a complete buffoon or to label him as the most dangerous threat to peace and freedom since Adolf Hitler, so easy that his opposition seems to do both at the same time. Unfortunately, neither assessment answers what should be the most important question: why did Donald Trump, a game show host who was never elected dogcatcher, become our President? The answer is not foreign interference or racism, but a warranted dissatisfaction with the elites of both parties. The realization that life is getting harder for most Americans led more than 60 million people (not a majority but enough to get elected) to vote for a man with no experience at all. “Make America Great Again” is an appealing message to an electorate that sees that there is something wrong with this country.

In his criticism of Donald Trump, Joe Biden mourns the loss of American leadership on the world stage. For the peace movement, “leadership” in the form of our ubiquitous presence, with a military command on every continent and 800 foreign military bases, is exactly the problem. Instead of strengthening our society by investing in education, healthcare, and 21st century infrastructure we have spent trillions on foreign wars and intervention with little to show for it but disillusionment and mistrust both at home and abroad.

It is my hope that come the end of January 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be the President of the United States, but greater still is my hope that we learn the right lessons from his time in office. A return to the normalcy of pre-Trump America is not sufficient. To meaningfully improve our society, we must first admit that we have a problem, and that problem is deeper than Donald Trump. The cure to what ails us is not his removal from office, but a sustained movement for peace and justice.

—Brian Garvey is Mass. Peace Action’s full-time organizer.