How to Talk About the Trump Years.
Or, "What the Fuck Just Happened??"
Summary: While the ink is still wet on the Trump era, we’re going to talk through what the real legacy might be before revisionists get a hold of it one way or another, and navigate how we can have productive conversations about this period which still divides us. To many of us on the left, the mystery remains as to why anyone with a conscience would have voted for such an abhorrent, pugnacious, racist, misogynist, lecherous pufferfish like Trump. So we should dissect the man and his rhetoric before we attempt to determine where he fits into history. And we’ll offer some (hopefully) useful advice on how to talk to your (still) Trump supporting friends.
The New York Times ethicist answered a question about how to deal with a friend’s husband who has become increasingly radical and conservative on social media. Though the pair steers clear of politics in social settings, the tension is palpable, and it’s straining the relationship in their group. Sound familiar? Welcome to America in 2021, buddy. As we emerge from our COVID hibernation, these situations are playing out all over. It’s uncomfortable. Suddenly, everyone's an expert in all things political, and the social angst hangover from the Trump years is still very real.
The Times ethicist offered some reasonable advice:
“You write as if there are only two options here—tolerating his views in silence or cutting him off. Here’s a third option: Stick with this fellow but speak up for your politics. Encourage him to do the same. When we stop talking even to people we know and like because of political disagreements, we’ve abandoned the deliberative-democratic project of governing the republic together.”
Okay. Reasonable. But easier said than done. Each of us is holding onto our own facts. Our own interpretations. Perspectives cultivated from our experiences, our surroundings and the information we choose to consume. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about tribalism these days, as well. Tribalism, identity politics, and such. And there’s truth to that as well, but even this is a bit reductive.
Distilling our differences down to tribalism might explain the extremes, but it does little to explain the large swath of the voting public that’s just getting on to get on. To me, there’s no difference between the dickbag at a Trump rally who lives on Social Security and Medicare and calls for tax cuts on the rich because they think taxes are socialist, and the self proclaimed anarchist who lives on Social Security and Medicare and calls for tax cuts for the rich because they don’t want to fund your stinking war machine, man.
Let’s start with one of Trump’s final rallies just prior to the 2016 election. You can view it here on C-SPAN (minutes 24–26), but for expediency, I’ve listed the slew of campaign promises he offered. Forget everything you know about him personally or the way he conducted himself in office. Just focus on the promises:
Save Social Security and Medicare
Protect religious liberty
Rebuild the military
Take care of our veterans
Offer school choice and end Common Core
Protect the 2nd Amendment
Appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court
Apart from his normal race-baiting and media-shaming meandering present in every rally, there was always a moment when he stopped to hammer home these same points over and over again to close the “show.”
Would he rile them up with calls to beat up members of the media? Call Mexicans rapists? Mock persons with disabilities? Make horribly sexist comments? Demean, degrade, debase anyone who would oppose him? Yes, all of it. But Trump voters had these primary points above all of the bluster to stand on, and the Democrats just didn’t get it. They put up an establishment candidate who was in public service too long to hide her prior misdeeds and those of her husband.
But instead of relitigating Trump versus Hillary, I want to focus on the issues for a second and ask where exactly he might have lied or fallen apart.
He lowered taxes (mostly on the rich)
Didn’t touch Social Security and Medicare (though he tried)
He eliminated regulations through executive orders (since mostly reversed)
He fought for religious freedom (at least in terms of his narrative)
He gave a massive increase to the military and even increased spending on veterans
He appointed Betsy DeVos to promote charter schools and school choice
He blamed Black Lives Matter for riots and defended police and law enforcement on the whole
Nothing happened to the 2nd Amendment (because nothing ever happens with it)
And he absolutely made good on his promise to appoint conservative justices
So when people talk about promises, it’s hard to argue that he broke his primary campaign promises. I’m talking about the big stuff, not the salacious, race baiting stuff. For fun, we’re going to go through a few that were indeed broken, but in terms of the issues that mattered most to his supporters or even those who just voted for him, the man kept his word. If you’re going to argue against the Trump years, saying he’s a liar and that he broke his promises isn’t going to get you very far.
Listen, I know this sucks. But if you want to beat a Trump supporter and turn them around, you have to think like them. There were plenty of lies and misdirects, but on the whole, this was the Trump they voted for. They didn’t watch the opposition channels like MSNBC or read the fucking New York Times. They weren’t getting an earful of Russia-Gate bullshit, kids in cages, shit-talking our allies. And they for shit sure weren’t reading books without pictures. And as hard as the corporate media on the left tried to tear this guy down, the other side was building him up and they had shit to stand on.
Now, to assuage your anger, let’s go through a litany of Professor Orange Von Fucknugget’s actual broken promises and absurdities to lessen the pain before we get centered on how to really talk about the Trump years. This part is more fun, but as we’ll show, it was all much ado about nothing.
Build the Wall
Wall’s not built. In fact, the Trump administration repaired approximately 83 miles of fencing that was already there. For reference, the land portion of the southern border is 700 miles. Oh, and Mexico did not pay for the repairs.
“I Won’t Take Vacation”
Look. It’s a stressful job. Most presidents take off a healthy amount of time. Before taking office, Trump routinely criticized President Obama for the number of vacation days he took. Well, during his time in office, Donald Trump took off about 40 more days than Obama. Of course, that’s in half the time, since Obama served two terms. So, like, more than double.
The average American with a full-time job gets about 20 days off per year. The only president to do that? Jimmy Carter, who took only 79 days over four years. So, for the record, Trump took almost five times the number of vacation days as Carter.
Bring back manufacturing. Giving credit where it’s due, the U.S. added about 430,000 manufacturing jobs since January of 2017. Those were pre-pandemic figures, as we wound up losing about 200,000 from where we started. But pre-COVID, we added hundreds of thousands of jobs. Of course, before Trump fans do any cartwheels, that’s still about 5 million fewer manufacturing jobs than we had on Jimmy Carter’s worst day.
(By the way, I like using Carter as a reference point because he’s so universally shit on and, in my opinion, unbelievably underrated.)
Only the Best People
The fact that 88% of Trump’s cabinet turned over and only 10 senior White House officials made it through—two of whom were related to the President, by the way—should have been kind of terrifying. And of those that were jettisoned from Trump’s orbit, most left in spectacular fashion with several writing tell-all books. Half a dozen were indicted and found guilty of serious charges, some were fired unceremoniously like he was still hosting “The Apprentice,” and some just left like a fart in the wind. So 10% stayed, and I’m not sure if anyone would consider Ivanka, Jared Kushner, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos and Stephen Miller the “cream of the crop.”
Throughout his initial campaign, Trump promised to eliminate the national debt by increasing the growth rate of the GDP. The CBO said it was impossible. Wall Street knew this was fantasy. Even Fox News hosts called bullshit on this.
Even before the multi-trillion dollar pandemic bailout, this administration was running a trillion dollar budget deficit. In simple terms, we were spending a trillion dollars more than we brought in. And it was during a market boom and full employment. So, in reality, this was the single most fiscally irresponsible administration in the history of everything.
(Note: It should be stated that this isn’t as big of a deal as people make it out to be. Stay tuned for our essay on Modern Monetary Theory.)
And then there’s the big lie. No, not the new big lie, the original big lie.
Repeal and replace Obamacare was a central theme of Trump’s campaign. He made progress on the first part by chipping away at it. Not so much on the second. Pre-pandemic, the net result of his efforts was about two million fewer Americans with health insurance. As a result of the pandemic, we added about five million and growing to that number.
Most normal countries would be having a much larger discussion about the merits of employer-based insurance. The United States? No such luck. Even the Democrats refused to take up Medicare for all or anything that resembles a single-payer system in their 2020 platform.
Business As Unusual
So it’s clear that he did break campaign promises, right? But the point here is that these ones were his throwaway promises. The ones he made to get elected. Hire the best people and run the country like a business. Get rid of the “disaster” that is Obamacare. Build the fucking wall. Work harder and golf less than Obama. Eliminate the national debt and bring back manufacturing.
He knew full well these were bullshit and never going to happen. The only people that actually believed this shit (or cared) were in attendance at his rallies. It’s what makes the moment in each rally when he stays on script and reads the teleprompter so important. That was the real message, and it didn’t belong to Trump. It belonged to the establishment—on the left and the right. That’s who we really are as a nation.
But we were consumed by his behavior and his tweets. We were so busy following his bouncing ball, we forgot to listen to what he was really saying.
He broke all Washington norms. Ate fast food. Served fast food for Christ’s sake.
In terms of policy, he also did the following:
Repatriated a small amount of corporate tax dollars (meh)
Exchanged love letters with dictators (bad)
Made it harder to bank terrorist funds (good)
Took away food benefits from 750,000 poverty-stricken Americans (bad)
Made it more difficult to get overtime pay (bad)
Helped rid the world of spam robocalls (good)
Refused to condemn white supremacy (evil)
Eased banking regulations to help small and medium sized businesses and individuals obtain loans (good)
Rolled back most of the important environmental protections we have from emission standards to drilling rights (bad)
Supported American farmers with a substantial increase in subsidies and punitive tariffs (depends on how you look at it)
Implemented a number of anti-China business policies to make America more competitive (good)
Enacted tariffs that actually made China more competitive (bad)
Repealed protections for ethnic minorities designed to encourage home ownership (bad)
Modernized a significant portion of the military in a shift away from prior conflagrations to new battles ahead in technology and dirty wars (depends on how you look at it)
If you read between the lines, it was indeed “America First.” But more like “white America First.”
So if you’re a white American who eats fast food, maybe lost a job to China, can’t afford solar panels, don’t really know that many Black people, and watched this guy thumb his nose at Merkel and Macron…oh, and only watch Fox News…you don’t feel misinformed, you probably thought he was funny and shit kind of went your way.
You can get lost in the details easily because the Trump years were marked by blistering attempts to divert our attention. We moved from one dumpster fire to the next, with the media breathlessly trying to stay ahead of Trump’s tweetstorms. For their part, the media ate it up as ratings went through the roof, and with them, profits. Policy gave way to conspiracy. A historic number of Americans became politically engaged on social media, and one’s alignment on social issues became a litmus test of citizenship and patriotism.
The nation became wholly bipolar under Trump, with little consideration for consistency. “America First” shouted isolationism, and yet we increased our entanglements. The American flag became an icon for racism and poverty shaming instead of freedom and acceptance. If you believed Black lives mattered, then you were anti law enforcement. Don’t denigrate the flag unless it has a blue stripe on it, in which case that’s okay. The swamp was drained of career politicians and filled to the brim with lobbyists and special interest groups. Precious little legislation was passed, replaced by mean spirited executive orders designed to galvanize a base of Americans around the very promises we highlighted in Trump’s rally speech.
It was governance by order and command.
The pandemic laid bare all of America’s sins. Countries with strong men leaders, part of the neoliberal alt-right wave such as the U.S., Brazil, India, Russia and UK, fared far worse than most other nations in the world, save for the ones that were hit hard early. The U.S. led the way with more than 600,000 deaths, and yet half of the country still thinks we did a great job, and that wearing masks probably killed more people than the virus.
In this way, the virus simply attacked the underlying condition that affects Americans: ignorance.
One of the reasons we primed this essay with a takedown of Rupert Murdoch is that even he created a Frankenstein media landscape that turned against its creator, especially during the Capitol riots. And on that note, beyond Russia-Gate, the Steele Dossier and pee tapes, impeachable threats for twisting the arm of a foreign nation to do political bidding at home, the Capitol riot stands alone as the single most obvious and pitiable display of criminality that should have united us all against the destructive force that was Donald Trump.
And yet, just months after a moment that should have awakened us all to the reality that this demagogue was in it only for himself and literally no one else, we once again succumbed to collective amnesia, with those on the right absolving the sins of their brothers and sisters who tried to burn down what’s left of our democracy and those on the left shrugging with a sigh of relief that it’s over.
When you go through the Trump years, it’s like experiencing whiplash all over again. But when the smoke clears, it should be apparent to Unf*ckers that we were once again conned.
“The (Other) Talk”
So how do we talk to our friends, our co-workers, our loved ones that love Trump? How do we even talk to those who hated him, but are missing the larger picture that Trump was just a pimp? How do we help people understand who the devil is and how to spot him?
Start by killing the thing both sides hold dear in their hearts. The guy the “middle left” love to love, and the right loves to hate. One of the best salesmen the world has ever seen. Here to help us along is Cornel West from a Democracy Now! interview:
“How do we come to terms with Obama and his legacy? Because it’s clear that hardly anyone wants to critically examine it. You can’t say too much about the Wall Street bailout explicitly; you can’t say too much about the drones; you can’t say too much about the wars in Libya and Somalia and the bombs in Yemen; you can’t say too much about the very ugly Israeli occupation; you can’t say too much about the ugly Egyptian authoritarianism—though they are tied to the Obama administration. So the Democratic Party is in a very tough situation because you’ve got Democrats who are in love with our dear brother Barack Obama, and we know he’s a zillion times better in many ways than Trump in the White House right now, but, on the other hand it wasn’t a Golden Age.”
It’s overused, but one of the phrases I love most about the Trump years is that Trump simply said the quiet parts out loud.
If we’re to have an honest conversation about the Trump years, it’s important to benchmark them against a norm. And because Obama is considered the standard bearer for the Democratic Party and the ultimate foil for Republicans, it’s the best place to start. Much of what we despise about Trump was eerily similar to the Obama years. It’s almost like he is Obama’s Id. Trump was the thing the establishment burped up. Or as many have said, the symptom of the disease.
Don’t get lost in who’s the better man. The better husband and father. While I think these are important characteristics, we elect these people to run the nation, not marry us and raise our kids. I’ve covered before how if you take Obama by the numbers, he should be considered the greatest Republican President in modern American history insofar as his policies more closely mirror the stated GOP platform.
Trump was bellicose. Obama was silent but deadly. Like a seeping fart in the backseat of your father’s station wagon with the windows rolled up. Don’t think so? Ask the civilians of Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia who lived under the constant buzz of drones overhead.
Trump promised to close Wall Street loopholes, repatriate multinational taxes and fight for the little guy. Then he did an about face and gave away the store to corporate America. But tell me how that differs from Obama? Apart from the tax cuts on the wealthiest, the economic policies under both men are nearly identical.
Obama had the political mandate to create a universal healthcare program to cover all Americans, and instead used the conservative Heritage Foundation plan as a model to collaborate with insurance companies and hospitals to create a system that enriched corporations. During the good years, it was masked by strong economic performance that placed more people on policies or disaster insurance, and Medicaid was indeed expanded. But the cover of Obamacare and our system of health insurance-driven coverage was unmasked horrifically during the pandemic.
And on and on. Now, you can blame Mitch McConnell for a great deal of this, but much of the inaction that plagued the Obama years was a deliberate attempt to improve current systems and make changes on the margins instead of implementing wholesale structural changes to a broken system when they had the fucking chance.
These policies have a tendency to look great when the economy is strong but, again, as we’ve covered, our system as it's currently configured is designed to retrench and dissolve into chaos every ten years or so.
That’s why no one at the bottom can get ahead. Not when your net worth is wiped out every decade.
So here’s how you catch Trump supporters when they criticize Democrats for hot button issues. I’m going to offer three conservative talking points that we’ve all heard before and demonstrate how to flip an argument on its head to help align our priorities as human beings and citizens of a proper democracy. The goal is to lower the temperature by actually hearing them and acknowledging their position, which has been beaten into them over years of misinformation from Rupert Murdoch.
Then, you want to carefully bring them into the fold by creating a true equivalency to policies created by Democrats. Once you have established these tactics, you can begin to move the conversation and focus on the real underlying issues and point out who is really to blame for a particular situation, most notably, wealthy corporate oligarchs. Then, if you can, offer a potential outcome or solution that takes their grievances into account but squarely focuses on tangible policy, the topics we cover here on Unf*cking the Republic:
Step 1: Acknowledge. Start by acknowledging the issue and giving credence to the argument.
Step 2: Align. Create a hard parallel under Obama.
Step 3: Shift. Shift the blame and refocus the center point of the issue.
Step 4: Improve. Outline a better outcome.
Ready? Here we go.
The Setup: People are fleeing across the border and taking our jobs. At least Trump had the balls to stand up for Americans and do what’s right.
Acknowledge: I don’t love the way he went about it, but I do think that Trump was able to put attention on a critical and dangerous development on the border. I have to give him credit for that.
Align: What drives me nuts about Democrats is that they refuse to admit the fact that Obama was the one who built those cages and created the separation policy. I mean, Obama deported way more immigrants and asylum seekers than Trump, but somehow Trump’s the bad guy?
Shift: What also drives me nuts is that the media ignores this as well because they hate Trump so much. And both sides are ignoring the real problem. The left never talks about Obama’s failure to contain immigration and the right refuses to acknowledge why they’re coming here in the first place.
Improve: We’re cutting our nose to spite our face. In shutting down all immigration, we’re excluding people who are doing the real shit work, the ones that go back and forth every year to work farms and do menial seasonal labor. That has really fucked a lot of small businesses in America. And the ones who stay and pay into Social Security but never get the benefits because they’re not citizens; we’re fucking ourselves on our Social Security because the media has us arguing against each other. I don’t want to pick oranges, so now produce prices are through the roof. It’s bullshit. I think we can both agree that it would be better to stop overthrowing governments and pouring weapons into South and Central America forcing people to flee to the U.S. It’s so fucked up that the liberal media never talks about this shit. Amirite?
“Defund the Police”
The Setup: Fucking libtards want to defund the police and let criminals and Antifa roam free on the streets. Back the Blue!
Acknowledge: Right? Wild. Boy did the left fuck that one up. Defund the police. As if any society has ever gotten along without law enforcement. All the mass shootings under Obama, mass incarceration of Black people under Clinton, arming local police stations with military equipment and no training under Reagan, and somehow this is all Trump’s fault?
Align: Everyone knows that Black people commit crime at the same rate of white people. Only true racists think otherwise. Right? But more Black people are charged for crimes in the system and are given harsher sentences because our system is broken and rich white people buy their way out of trouble. And who winds up paying for all these people in prison, overtime for cops, tanks and riot gear for departments? You and me buddy. You and me. Thanks, Obama!
I just wish Trump hadn’t turned it into a race thing by refusing to condemn white supremacist groups. It’s almost like he was trying to distract us from the shitty things that Clinton and Obama did. But power protects power, right? I swear, sometimes I think Trump is no different than these guys.
Shift: Instead of defunding the police, we should be trying to protect the police by not having them babysit everyone and their mother. It’s ridiculous what we make them do. You know how I would back the blue? I would back them by saying that they shouldn’t have to be daycare providers. We take away school meals, take money away from housing and infrastructure, take fathers away by putting one in five young Black males in prison for smoking weed while we let Wall Street douches snort cocaine out in the open. And then when all hell breaks loose, the cops are expected to fix it and go into dangerous situations with desperate people? It’s fucking bullshit.
Improve: I wish people would actually shut up and listen to the cops and the working class for once instead of wealthy Sean Hannity or ivory tower Rachel Maddow. They don’t know what it’s really like for people like us. The left doesn’t want to hear what cops have to say, and the right doesn’t want to hear what working class people have to say. But when you listen, they’re saying the same things. If we just took care of our own then maybe we could protect our police and our citizens.
The Setup: Biden’s a fucking socialist and Democrats want to turn us into Venezuela and give away my hard earned money.
Acknowledge: You’re a fucking idiot. Jesus Christ, read a goddamn book for once in your life you mouth breathing reprobate. Biden’s no more a socialist than you are a Rhodes Scholar.
Fuck. My bad. Let’s try that again.
The Setup: Biden’s a fucking socialist and Democrats want to turn us into Venezuela and give away my hard earned money.
Acknowledge: Right? Always with the taxes, those damn Democrats. How much more can they expect us to pay? We have enough socialism in this country, and we worked damn hard to get it. Leave my Social Security, Medicare, public schools and national transportation infrastructure alone. That’s the only socialism we need, thank you very much.
Align: What kills me is how Biden, Trump, Obama and Bush created socialism for the fucking rich people. You and I have to pay taxes, but Jeff Bezos doesn’t and Amazon gets billions of dollars of our tax money to build warehouses where people turnover more than Biden gets facelifts? All those wealthy industrial farms in the midwest that aren’t even owned by real farmers anymore get billions of socialist subsidies, but I have to pay property taxes? How stupid do they think we are?
Shift: You know what we should do? Raise taxes on all of these fucking corporations that are stealing our money and lower taxes on all of us. Leave the rich people that worked hard to get where they are alone. Help the middle class. Help poor people. But take on the mega-corporations that Obama didn’t have the cajones to stand up to.
Improve: We need a system that takes care of hard working Americans, cops and firefighters, teachers and electricians. People who pay their fair share and stop these fucking corporate welfare babies from stealing what’s ours. Because that’s capitalism. Amirite?
You get the picture. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the same revelation toward the end of his life. It’s pointless to talk about race in the United States until we tackle poverty. Poor white people have been taught to blame Black and Brown people for everything that is wrong with their lives. This was deliberate. This was an actual strategy. The rich poverty shame the working class and poor white people blame Black and Brown people because they’ve been told that it’s them, and not the rich, who are responsible for their lot in life.
It’s up to us to take back the narrative from the monied class and align the interests of working class people in the nation against the corporate oligarchs.
The Trump years were a nightmare, but not for the reasons the corporate media want us to believe. He was gross. He fucked up nearly everything he touched. But be careful when you try to paint him as someone who broke his core promises because on the whole, things worked pretty much like he promised they would and, as much as we all hate to admit it, pretty much the way they’ve always worked. It’s just that it was all out loud. So loud, in fact, that most people couldn’t hear above the noise.
So take this moment of boring silence under Biden to recalibrate, reconnect and resume.
Recalibrate the conversation to focus on what really matters. Reconnect with those who stand opposed to everything you believe. And resume the hard work of fighting for progressive policies.
Our Pissing in the Ocean to Warm It Up (PITOTWIU) moment and Tyson Principle are aligned in this respect. If you think that having this out on social media is making a difference, it’s not. Armchair warriors espousing political opinions are indeed PITOTWIU. The Tyson Principle is to get offline and start to engage in person. The battle to turn the tide against our corporate overlords isn’t happening on social media and won’t even happen in the streets. It’s at backyard barbecues. In the parking lot after a school board meeting, wherever you worship or at the ball field. Take back the conversation and shift the narrative to help others question the real authorities.
Fuck Rupert Murdoch. Don’t just hear, listen. Take the fight to them with love.
Here endeth the lesson.
Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).