On Monday night, Obama spoke at the pro-Clinton rally outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was one of his best speeches. Here was the Obama of 2004 and 2008, but wiser and tougher, less naive though still optimistic. The President was funny (his joke about Donald Trump’s phone was a few days old, but a recycled joke can still be a good joke), and he was partisan. “Gridlock,” he said, “is not mysterious; it’s not something that happens because both sides are being equally unreasonable.” Clinton spoke next. She was pretty vague throughout, except when defending herself against insults better left forgotten and ignored. I had the ominous sense that Clinton’s team had not quite understood their own campaign. Obama is a hard act to follow—over the last eight years he has persuaded many Americans that a successful President must also be a great speaker. This was wrong, I think, but it turns out not to have mattered. Obama’s is not an act Clinton will have to follow at all.
Over the last eight years, Obama has brought a light touch to the most inane and onerous and somber rituals of presidential politics. Obama at the White House Science Fair, laughing at the kids and their experiments; Obama and his daughters at the Easter Egg Roll; Obama in Charleston, or Sandy Hook, or Roseburg. On Tuesday night, as the little blue line on the New York Times graph started to plunge to below 50 percent, I began to imagine President-elect Trump performing these same rituals: Trump embracing the parents of grieving servicemen and servicewomen; Trump greeting a Girl Scout troop on the White House lawn; Trump consoling his fellow Americans after an act of terrorism; Trump dedicating a new national park (before privatizing it); Trump walking through the Colonnade with Obama following their transition meeting. The unlikeliness of these images isn’t any less acute, painful, or destabilizing a few days later.
The theater of the American presidency is meaningless compared to the horror of what is to come over the next four—I hope it’s fewer than four—years. There’s no reason to think that the nihilism of Mitch McConnell’s Party won’t find in Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence a vehicle for its path of destruction. The worst ritual of all, then: Trump sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, signing bills into law that Reagan-era Republicans—and even W.-era Republicans—couldn’t have dreamt up. Trump surrounded by corporate executives, by flunkies of the Religious Right, by pro-torture lawyers and anti-worker lobbyists, by sadists in military uniform. Of any scenes Trump will have to perform, these will feel the most natural—for decades, he has done little but sign documents in front of patriotic backdrops. He may not ever realize that now it’s for real—but we will. Outlawing abortion; cracking down on women’s rights; crushing LGBTQ rights; abolishing marriage equality; repealing Obamacare; tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran; pulling out of the Paris climate accord (for a start); doubling down on the national security and carceral states; aggressively expanding deportation programs; declaring war on press freedom; organizing a massive assault on the lives of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Muslim-Americans. In victory, Trump has issued a license for jubilation and fervor. It is open season.
As I write this Trump is meeting with President Obama to discuss the transition. Over the next few weeks he will announce his cabinet appointments. On January 20, he will be inaugurated at the Capitol, where he will pose for photos with Barack and Michelle Obama and First Lady-elect Melania Trump. Like the Convention and the debates and his victory speech, each of these rituals will normalize Trump, will dull the edges from a dangerous, stupid, irresponsible, fascist man elected by a minority of a minority to lead the United States. The consequences of Trump’s rhetoric—his theater—were visceral and immediate from the first moments of his presidential campaign. I remember reading, last September, a teacher’s description of her Honduran immigrant student’s horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency. A year later, social media has been flooded with reports of hate crimes, bias incidents, and simple cruelty. As photos of the President-elect are printed and distributed to federal offices across the country, as Obama’s transition team conducts nuclear war-games with the new administration’s team, everything is about to get palpably worse. We must do everything we can to mitigate the damage.