On Jan. 20, under a spitting sky with crowds of supporters cheering him on, Donald J. Trump faced Chief Justice John Roberts and swore to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States. As the 45th president uttered the phrase, “so help me God” and lowered his hand, a new era dawned in American history and politics. While former President Barack Obama, who minutes ago had been the most powerful man in the world, sat behind him, Trump rebuked not only his legacy but also his entire governing philosophy. Painting a dire picture of a country in decline, Trump claimed that the federal government and politicians worked against the interest of the American public.
While Trump’s victory shocked pundits and pollsters, it fits firmly into the narrative set by recent events. A tidal wave of far-right populism swept across Europe this summer, with referendums and elections leading to the rise of far-right parties which threaten the European Union’s very foundation. The same beliefs that animated the rise of these European parties — a distrust of international institutions, belief that global trade has harmed the middle class and fierce nationalistic rhetoric — contributed to Trump’s election. As candidates once considered extreme gain support, centrist parties have found themselves squeezed by both the far left and right. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook enable people to surround themselves with news that confirms their beliefs and aided the rise of a new generation of web-driven media outlets who favor quantity over quality and high click counts over fact-based reporting. Mainstream media sources have followed suit, increasingly resorting to sensationalism instead of facts in search of disappearing profits.
While the crime-ridden, jobless, corrupt country that Trump described in his address may not exist in reality, it certainly seems real for those who receive their news from sources such as Breitbart, which has published headlines ranging from “Hillary Clinton Received Secret Memo Stating Obama Admin Support for ISIS,” to “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.” Trump embraced these sources, re-tweeting articles with questionable accuracy and even appointing Breitbart’s former head Steve Bannon, who recently stated the media should “keep its mouth shut,” as chief strategist and a replacement for top generals on the National Security Council. Meanwhile, he repeatedly threatened outlets investigating him, dismissing The New York Times as “fake news,” revoking the access of Washington Post reporters to his campaign and insulting reporters who stood feet away from him at rallies. Trump subscribes to an alternate vision of American politics, where elected officials check the power of the media rather than vice versa.
This distorts Americans’ views and prevents necessary policy discussions and debates to address serious problems. Contrary to Trump and his supporters’ beliefs, the United States is not a nation in decline. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. saw a record 75 months of job growth, climbing from one of the worst recessions in history to full employment. The rate of uninsured Americans dropped to a new low, crime rates fell and the United States continues to spend more on its military than the next eight nations combined, in contrast to Trump’s claims of a “depleted” military.
The facts don’t support Trump’s alarmist rhetoric on refugees or immigrants either. Since 2009, the total number of illegal immigrants in the US remained largely constant, and those here are no more likely to commit crimes than US citizens. In the past 40 years, the number of fatal terrorist attacks in this country by foreign refugees remained at a steady zero.
This is not to say our country faces no problems. Income inequality is at record levels, leading to the wealthiest one percent of Americans controlling the greatest percentage of US wealth since 1928. A combination of international trade and automation led to the decline of American manufacturing jobs, with 5 million disappearing since 2000. However, it is far from clear that the knee-jerk reaction of slapping tariffs on foreign goods and withdrawing from trade agreements leads to better outcomes. International trade caused rises in living standards for the vast majority of Americans, boosting the US economy by over $1 trillion since 1945. Across the world, trade gains become even more pronounced. The rate of international extreme poverty was halved between 1990 and 2010, in large part due to trade liberalization. While trade and technological innovation benefit the economy as a whole, more action is needed to insure the gains are distributed to the subset of middle class workers whose manufacturing jobs were outsourced or automated. Ultimately, as more and more low-skilled jobs are replaced by technology, innovative policies to address the growing inequality this creates must be implemented.
Ironically, despite the hyper-partisan media environment that enabled his rise, Trump may be in a better position than any previous U.S. president to reach across the aisle and pursue solutions. Unlike the Washington insiders Trump criticized in his speech, he showed a genuine ability to connect to voters this election, bringing together a coalition ranging from die-hard conservatives to disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters. His ideas for increased infrastructure spending and belief in universal health coverage, despite the flaws in his plans, show a willingness to buck traditional Republican ideology.
Trump won the election by seemingly breaking every political rule and defying commonly held beliefs. If he listens to policy experts, Trump could leverage his populist power to address problems from crumbling infrastructure to bankrupt entitlements to a broken tax code traditionally seen as third rails in Washington politics. This is the route our president would take if he truly wants to “Make America Great Again.”
Unfortunately, this looks closer to a pipe dream than reality. Trump appears content to bask in the glory of his victory, continuing his tirade of Twitter insults while pursuing deeply divisive policies such as his wall and refugee ban that scapegoat the most vulnerable members of our society instead of addressing real issues. Meanwhile, an emboldened Republican majority in Congress pushes through partisan bills such as a repeal of Obamacare and a gutting of financial regulations. These policies disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans, while harming the same middle-class demographic Trump claims to care so much about. This country and its citizens deserve better than that.
If Trump supporters truly wish to create the positive changes they believed their candidate would bring about, they must pressure our president, whether through protests or the social media platforms he values so much, into abandoning his divisive bigotry-filled rhetoric, respecting the media instead of waging war on it and pursuing actual solutions to America’s problems instead of distractions that only serve for good optics on Twitter. This may seem like too much to ask for. But for a president who promised to upend politics, serve as the people’s voice and cut through the gridlock and partisanship in Washington, it is the only option.
Those who opposed Trump may be tempted to sit back and cynically observe events instead of pushing for real reform. But those people ignore a critical reality: Trump is our president for the next four years, and his failure is our failure.
Andrew Kliewer is a College freshman from Dallas, Texas.
Correction: (2/12/2017 8:44 p.m.) This op-ed originally stated that Donald Trump was inaugurated Jan. 7. He was actually inaugurated on Jan. 20.