Being Canadians there are some unique experiences that we have compared to other countries around the world. Living next to the United States has always been one of those, one of the few experiences that we can honestly say unites Canadians from all over the country. Yes, most countries have neighbours on their borders, but most don’t live next to the largest superpower of the 70 years. It’s an experience that is uniquely ours at the best of times.
But these are not the best of times. If you somehow managed to put the COVID-19 pandemic aside, the past three and a half years of the presidency of Donald Trump have brought in those worsened times. We’ve seen a President in the White House who has consistently lashed out against other countries, more so towards allies like us than enemies like Russia. And while other allies like the United Kingdom and most European countries have a luxury of some distance and other closer allies to lean on, we don’t have that. We’re right next door with a massive, unprotected border and oceans between us and our other natural allies.
So naturally, we pay closer attention to the rumblings of what happens to our south. You know, that old “Mouse living next to the Elephant” chestnut. Being an election year in the US and the grousing from Trump that raise a lot of legitimate questions about what might happen if/when he loses, I can’t help but pay that much more attention. It’s with that in mind that an interview that Axios’ Jonathan Swan did with Trump, which aired yesterday, came into my Twitter feed. And folks, it’s one that says a lot:
Over the past four years we’ve somehow become numb to so many of Trump’s rantings because of the constant flow of his attacks and conspiracy theories, so it becomes more difficult to spot an interview of his that’s worth paying attention to. As a colleague of mine likes to say, it’s a bit like trying to pick pepper out of fly crap. But this interview is surely one of those pieces of pepper for a few reasons that stand out. There were many moments in the interview that really made me stand up and take notice, which is saying something in this context. The first comes from an exchange on how the United States is doing dealing with the pandemic:
At this point we know that Trump likes to live in his own alternative reality, so you had to expect him to try to spin some of that into this interview. But what made this different was the polite incredulity that Swan showed and Trump’s cries of “You can’t do that” when pointing to the fact that more Americans per capita have died than anywhere else in the World. I mean, that should go without saying when a country that makes up 4% of the entire population of the planet is making up about 25% of the deaths from COVID-19 that they are in big trouble.
You can call into question the numbers from some countries, but that still wouldn’t change that percentage that much. Also, when you see Trump trying to cast doubts on the numbers from South Korea of all places, that’s not just the sign of someone who is losing the argument but might also be losing his grip on reality. That was a theme that came through in this interview and it did nothing to stop the talk by many observers that this President is losing the plot. The next moment of the interview that jumped out at me also spoke to that and was disturbing in its own right:
That folks is a sitting President of the United States doubling down on well wishes to an alleged child sex trafficker. Let that moment swirl around the mind and think just how crazy that would have been just 5 years ago. Now add to that insanity the fact that in his defense of his well wishes to Ghislaine Maxwell that he then gave credence and oxygen to conspiracy theories around the death of Jeffrey Epstein. That’s not the act of a rational person and is downright dangerous from an elected official. And to hear him say it, it was all about not wishing anyone any ill. He said that he doesn’t wish anyone ill in front of the law. But then in the very next question he was asked about Portland and Black Lives Matters protests, and here is where that “not wishing anyone any ill” went:
It seems to me that Trump had a lot of ill to wish towards those protestors and the entire movement that’s been happening. It should be noted that when talking about those protests, he did refer to them at one point as “terrorists”, language that you just don’t causally throw into a conversation. But the contrast couldn’t be more stark; Trump wishes an alleged child sex trafficker who just happened to run in the same social circles as him well, yet when it comes to those who exercise their constitutionally protected rights to protest and free speech, he seems them as “anarchist” and “terrorists”. It’s not shocking given what he’s said in the past and how he’s acted his being elected, but it’s stark given the circumstance we’re in today and the contrast it makes. And speaking of circumstances, there was one last piece of this interview that really jumped out for all the wrong reasons and said a lot about the man who occupies the White House for the time being:
We know that Trump is selfish, and we know that he is petty. He’s shown us this time and time again, so the act itself shouldn’t shock. But still so many of us still have this suspended belief that even in the most logical and important moments that he would put that aside. The death of Rep. John Lewis is surely one of those moments and given everything that’s happened with the protests around the country, this would have been an easy moment to say a few kind words and leave it at that. He didn’t need to be an expert on Lewis’ past, story, and legacy to pull that off. He really didn’t need to do much to come off as mildly empathetic in that moment.
But no, he couldn’t even bring himself to do that and he made it all about himself. He couldn’t say anything about Lewis’ importance or his history, but he didn’t forget to say a few times that Lewis didn’t go to Trump’s inauguration. He also went onto denigrate Lewis by suggesting that while Lewis did work, so did so many others. It was bad, but it looks even worse when put in context with what Trump said just before that:
That folks was Trump again saying that he’s done more from African Americans than Lyndon B. Johnson, the President that passed the Civil Rights Act. And then Trump goes onto throw shade at the Civil Rights Act, dismissively asking “How did that work out?”. Seriously, that just happened in 2020. That just makes the Lewis comments he made that came after as that much worse.
The incredulity on Swan’s face more than a few times in that interview was surely a reaction that so many of us had, which is part of what this interview so illuminating. There are many ways that you can look at this but for me there are two takeaways that I have that I cannot escape. The first is that I’m not sure what’s more dangerous here; Trump’s mental state in this moment or how that interacts with his unique blend of selfish self-interest and unpredictability. It’s a toxic brew that could make for very dangerous results, especially when you consider his continued comments on mail-in voting in this interview, which Swan expertly dealt with too:
The second takeaway for me is that unfortunately things are likely to get worse for our American neighbours before they get any better, which means being in the difficult position of uncomfortably living next door while this all plays out. It’s far too late in the game to legitimately hope that Trump will turn things around, change his ways and suddenly start to act Presidential. Sure the hopes of that were very slim before this interview, but please let this be the final nail in that coffin.
I’m usually not one to jump to the more extreme conclusions of the potential worst-case scenarios, but I think in this case, in this time, we need to start thinking about what they might be and preparing accordingly. We haven’t lived on the doorstep of a potentially failed state since the American Civil War and sadly this feels like the closest we’ve legitimately been to that since then. Trump has made it clear that he has no time or taste for the typical norms of democracies but so far, the only saving grace that Americans have had is that he hadn’t run out of options before now. It’s clear that he sees his options dwindling away and it’s as easy to see his rants about mail-in voting and delaying elections as crazed rants as it is to see them as laying the groundwork for worse. And that is the danger in this moment; at this point, we can’t tell which it is or if it’s both. 2020 has already been a year for the books for all the wrong reasons. But we still have six months to go and it’s starting to feel like without any changes in course, the end of 2020 could by that much worse for the very idea of democracy.