The present arrives out of a past that we are too quick to forget, misremember, or enshroud in myth. Yet like it or not, the present is the product of past choices. Different decisions back then might have yielded very different outcomes in the here-and-now. Donald Trump ascended to the presidency as a consequence of myriad choices that Americans made (or had made for them) over the course of decades. Although few of those were made with Trump in mind, he is the result.
Where exactly did Trump come from? How are we to account for his noxious presence as commander-in-chief and putative Leader of the Free World? The explanations currently on offer are legion. Some blame the nefarious Steve Bannon, others Hillary Clinton and her lackluster campaign. Or perhaps the fault lies with the Bernie Sanders insurgency, which robbed Clinton of the momentum she needed to win, or with Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and Low Energy Jeb, and the other pathetic Republicans whom Trump trampled underfoot en route to claiming the nomination. Or perhaps the real villains are all those “deplorables” — the angry and ignorant white males whose disdain for immigrants, feminists, gays, and people of color Trump stoked and manipulated to great effect.
All such explanations, however, suggest that the relevant story began somewhere around June 2015 when Donald Trump astonished the political world by announcing his intention to seek the presidency. My aim here is to suggest that the origins of the real story are to be found much earlier. The conditions that enabled Trump to capture the presidency stemmed from acts of commission and omission that occurred well before he rode down that escalator at Trump Tower to offer his services to the nation.
Here’s the sad part: at each step along the way, other alternatives were available. Had those alternatives been exercised, a Trump presidency would have remained an absurd fantasy rather than becoming an absurd and dangerous reality. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War or 9/11, Trump qualifies as a completely avoidable catastrophe with roots deep in the past.
So who’s at fault? Ultimately, we — the American people — must accept a considerable share of the responsibility. This is one buck that can’t be passed.
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
So what follows is a review of roads taken (and not) ultimately leading to the demoralizing presidency of Donald Trump, along with a little speculation on how different choices might have resulted in a decidedly different present.
1989: The Fall of the Berlin Wall. As the Cold War wound down, members of Washington’s smart set, Republicans and Democrats alike, declared that the opportunities now presenting themselves went beyond the merely stupendous. Indeed, history itself had ended. With the United States as the planet’s sole superpower, liberal democratic capitalism was destined to prevail everywhere. There would be no way except the American Way. In fact, however, the passing of the Cold War should have occasioned a moment of reflection regarding the sundry mistakes and moral compromises that marred U.S. policy from the 1940s through the 1980s. Unfortunately, policy elites had no interest in second thoughts — and certainly not in remorse or contrition. In the 1990s, rampant victory disease fueled extraordinary hubris and a pattern of reckless behavior informed by an assumption that the world would ultimately conform to the wishes of the “indispensable nation.” In the years to come, an endless sequence of costly mishaps would ensue from Mogadishu to Mosul. When, in due time, Donald Trump announced his intention to dismantle the establishment that had presided over those failures, many Americans liked what he had to say, even if he spoke from a position of total ignorance.
1992: President H. Ross Perot. In the first post-Cold War presidential election, H. Ross Perot, a wealthy entrepreneur and political novice, mounted an independent challenge to the Republican and Democratic nominees. Both parties, Perot charged, were in bed with lobbyists, insiders, and special interests. Both were enthusiastically presiding over the deindustrialization of a once dominant American economy. The rich were getting richer, the national debt was growing, and ordinary citizens were getting screwed, he contended. His charges were not without merit. Yet when Perot lost, Washington was back to business as usual. We cannot know what a Perot presidency would have produced. Yet such a victory — the American electorate, in effect, repudiating the two established parties — might have created powerful incentives for both Republicans and Democrats to clean up their acts and find ways of governing more effectively. Had they done so, Trump’s later vow to “drain the swamp” of corruption and self-dealing would have been beside the point.
1993: Gays in the Military. Bill Clinton ran for the presidency as a centrist. Even so, once elected, he immediately announced his intention to remove restrictions on gays serving in the armed forces. This was, to put it mildly, anything but the act of a centrist. Outraged senior military officers made clear their intention to defy the new commander-in-chief. Although Clinton quickly backpedalled, the episode infuriated both cultural traditionalists and progressives. Within 20 years, a different generation of senior officers decided that gays serving in the military was no big deal. The issue instantly vanished. Yet the controversy left behind a residue of bitterness, especially on the right, that worked in Trump’s favor. Had the generals of 1993 suppressed their insubordinate inclinations, they might have ever so slightly turned down the heat on the culture wars. When the heat is high, it’s the tub-thumpers and noisy haranguers who benefit.
1998: The Lewinsky Scandal. When President Clinton’s sexual encounters with a young White House intern became known, Hillary Clinton stood by her man. The first lady’s steadfast loyalty helped her husband avoid being thrown out of office, providing cover for other feminists to continue supporting the president. Imagine if she had done otherwise, declaring his conduct unacceptable. The pressure on him to resign coming from those who had been among his strongest supporters would have been intense. This much is certain: had evidence of infidelity, compounded by prior allegations of abuse toward women, forced President Clinton from office, Donald Trump would never have had a chance of being elected president. In all likelihood he would never even have considered running.
2000: Cheney Picks a Veep. When George W. Bush wrapped up the Republican nomination in 2000, he tagged Dick Cheney, his father’s defense secretary, with the task of identifying a suitable running mate. After surveying the field, Cheney decided that he himself was the man for the job. As vice president, Cheney wasted no time in stacking the upper ranks of the administration with likeminded allies keen to wield American military muscle to smite “evil-doers” and expand America’s empire. Bush had promised, if elected, to pursue a “humble” foreign policy and forego nation-building. Had he not surrounded himself with Cheney and bellicose companions like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, he might possibly have stuck to that course, even after 9/11. Instead, urged on by the uber-hawks in his own administration, he embarked upon a misguided “Global War on Terrorism.” No single action played a greater role in paving the way for Donald Trump to become president.
2000: The Supremes Pick a President. If, in choosing a president on our behalf, the Supreme Court had given the nod to Al Gore instead of George Bush, might they have averted that never-ending, never-contracting war on terrorism? No doubt the 9/11 attacks would still have occurred and some U.S. military action would have ensued. But Gore did not share the obsession with Saddam Hussein that infected members of the Bush-Cheney axis. Arguably, a President Gore would have been less likely than President Bush to insist on invading a country that had played no part in the al-Qaeda conspiracy. Had the U.S. not embarked upon a preventive war against Iraq — had this Original Sin of the post-9/11 era not occurred — a Trump presidency would have been far less likely.
2003: Congress Rolls Over. To its perpetual disgrace, Congress assented to Bush’s demands to invade Iraq. It did so less because its members, including presidential aspirants like Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, were persuaded that Iraq posed a threat to national security (it did not) than because they sought to insulate themselves from the political consequences of opposing a president hell-bent on war. For decades, Congress had allowed presidents to encroach upon its constitutional responsibility to declare war, but this would be the last straw. Supine legislators became complicit in a disaster that to this day continues to unfold. A Congress with gumption might have averted that disaster, recovered its cojones, and left us with a legislative branch willing and able to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities.
2003: GM Kills the EV1 Electric Automobile. In the 1990s, General Motors produced the first viable electric car. Drivers loved it, but GM doubted its potential profitability. Shareholders were more likely to make money if the company focused on manufacturing vehicles powered by gasoline engines. So in 2003, GM executives killed the EV1. The effect was to postpone by at least a decade the development of a mass-produced electric car. Had GM persisted, it’s just possible that the EV1 might have jump-started the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy and offered humanity a leg up on climate change. Instead, politicians spent years bickering about whether climate change was even real. More than a few Republicans made political hay by denouncing those waging a “war on coal” or inhibiting crucially needed oil exploration — bogus charges that Trump adroitly exploited for his own purposes. Perhaps if the EV1 had fulfilled its potential, anyone mounting a presidential campaign while denouncing global warming as a hoax would have been laughed out of town instead of capturing the White House.
2009: Obama Bails Out Wall Street. President Obama entered the Oval Office with the U.S. economy in free-fall. His administration took prompt action to prevent systemic collapse — that is, it bailed out Wall Street. Meanwhile the little guy got clobbered, with millions of Americans losing their jobs and homes. A billionaire complaining about the system being “rigged” might otherwise have tested the outer limits of irony, but for Donald Trump the government’s handling of the Great Recession was a gift from the gods.
2010: Presidential Twitter Accounts. Huge numbers of Americans have willingly surrendered their lives to social media. I’m guessing that there are more vegans and curling aficionados in the United States today than there are non-subscribers to Facebook. So it was perhaps inevitable that politicians would hoist themselves onto the social media bandwagon, keen to use direct, unmediated electronic communications as a way of mobilizing their followers. Yet the resulting impact on American politics has been entirely negative. The space available for reasoned exchanges has shrunk. Political discourse has become increasingly corrosive, its apparent purpose less to inform than to obfuscate, trivialize, and create division. This development was probably inevitable and will no doubt prove irreversible. Even so, it was not inevitable that the presidency itself should succumb to this phenomenon. In 2010, when Barack Obama “made history” by sending the first presidential tweet, it was as if the Pope had begun spending his idle hours hanging out at some corner saloon. Even if only in barely measurable increments, the dignity and decorum associated with the presidency began to fade and with it the assumption that crude or boorish behavior would automatically disqualify someone for high office. Donald Trump, a first-class boor and maestro of Twitter, was quick to take notice.
2010: Mitch McConnell Chooses Party Over Country. With the nation still in the midst of a devastating economic crisis, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell declared on behalf of his party that the denial of a second term to President Obama was “the single most important thing we want to achieve.” To hell with the country, the GOP wanted Obama gone. McConnell’s troops fell obediently into line and the last vestiges of bipartisanship disappeared from Washington. Of course, the president won reelection in 2012 anyway, but in effect McConnell refused to recognize the result. So when Obama exercised a president’s prerogative to nominate someone to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, McConnell ensured that the nominee would not even receive the courtesy of a hearing. An environment rife with hyper-partisanship presented the perfect situation for a political outsider skilled in the “art of the deal” to offer himself as the antidote to persistent gridlock. Congratulations, Mitch! You won after all!
It’s time to look in the mirror, folks. Blaming Trump for being Trump simply won’t do. Like Lenin or Franco or Perón or dozens of other demagogues, Trump merely seized the opportunity that presented itself. Our president is a product and beneficiary of several decades worth of vainglory, cynicism, epic folly, political cowardice, missed opportunities, and a public not given to paying attention. In present-day Washington, no one can deny that the chickens have come home to roost. The biggest fowl of them all has taken up residence in the White House and, in a very real sense, we all put him there.
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author, most recently, of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.