It has been 17 months since Donald Trump descended the golden elevator in Trump Tower to announce, before an assemblage of applauding actors paid $50 apiece, that he would run for the presidency of the United States. His presidency has yet to commence, but his campaign has left a blemish on American history as ugly as any since the Civil War.
Yet even the smoke from what has now become a nuclear dumpster fire can have a silver lining. Everything positive, from this conservative’s perspective, falls into a single category: Trump’s victory has taught us a great deal about the country in which we dwell.
First, and most obviously, up until Trump came along, the anger and alienation of the white working class had been hidden from the view of comfortable coastal elites (the ones who, yes, include me). Even if the solutions Trump dangled before this demographic — high tariffs, high walls, seizing Iraq’s oil and bombing terror-ridden zones into submission — are precisely the wrong way to go, politicians of both parties will not again ignore these voters. They have spoken.
Given that this cohort brought us Trump, they might conceivably lock us into permanent division. That need not be the case. A significant majority of Americans, polls show, do not want the draconian Trumpian approach of deportation of millions and all the special police forces and deportation camps that would entail. Trump may be president but he is still a man with no convictions: as recently as 2011, he was openly supporting amnesty for some undocumented workers. His ability to reverse himself, sometimes within minutes, suggests that we might be spared the worst.
Trumpism in power will also compel any remaining sane leaders to do what has for too long been neglected: articulate the case for policies that for seven decades have served the country well, such as free trade as a path to prosperity and alliances as the path to security, and explain why Trump’s brute-force approach to counterterrorism would not only fail but also backfire. Defending America from Trumpian recklessness is now the urgent duty of every decent American.
But we have also learned that we cannot count on the Republican Party to stand up for our country. Only a handful of GOP leaders followed Mitt Romney’s call to reject as a “con man” and a “fake” the purveyor of Trump Steaks and casino-bankrupting founder of Trump University. The party leadership — Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Reince Priebus — stuck with their man through every bigoted, racially charged, misogynistic step down into the gutter and will now rise with him to a stained and squalid White House.
Republican officials up and the down the power structure put party before country and followed the example of Sen. Marco Rubio, who endorsed a man he had labeled unfit to serve as commander in chief. Trump deserves gratitude for exposing the GOP as a collection of power-seeking cowards, a termite-ridden structure that tumbled at his touch. The terrifying fact is that the party of Lincoln has now become the party of Breitbart and the alt-Right.
The rise of Trump also put America’s faith communities to a severe test. The results are revealing. For once, the reflexive liberalism of American Jews served them well; Trump attracted only a handful of prominent Jewish supporters. America’s Muslims, facing a ban on entry, had no choice at all. Mormons, confirming their status as America’s model minority, said a polite no thank you to Trump’s bigotry. The country’s Catholic leadership, both clerical and intellectual — with resistance to nativism in their genes — stood on conviction and rejected the GOP nominee for his “vulgarity,” “oafishness,” “shocking ignorance,” “demagoguery” and as “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States” — words from a statement signed by many of America’s most prominent conservative Catholic thinkers.
Unfortunately, the leaders of evangelical Christianity did not fare quite so well. The Rev. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, who last month memorably observed, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about,” was the brilliant exception to the rule. More typical was Pat Robertson. “You inspire us all” was the opening lyric of his paean of praise to Trump, with Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., Ralph Reed and dozens of other corrupted churchmen chiming in to hail a champion of immorality as America’s savior.
At the grassroots, as William Galston has noted, recent years and quite possibly the appeal of Trump himself have encouraged a momentous shift in opinion among white evangelicals, many of whom no longer appear to believe that personal morality needs be “consistent with an ethical performance of official duties.” The moral majority, which two decades ago pilloried President Bill Clinton for illicit conduct behind closed doors, now seems quite willing to elevate Trump’s braggadocious brand of depravity to the White House.
That depravity includes Trump’s boast of grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly planting his repulsive lips on theirs. Together with serial sexual predator Roger Ailes as Trump campaign adviser and alleged wife-beater alt-right Steve Bannon as Trump campaign CEO, America has gotten quite an education in how a certain kind of man behaves.
Trump’s campaign of hatred and division has made many of America’s problems worse. One shudders to think of what is to come next and to what depths our country will descend. For opening our eyes to the dark potential of America, President-elect Trump deserves one hearty cheer.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account. Follow him on Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld