Nearly every organization President Trump has led in the past decade is under investigation — his administration, campaign, transition, private business and inaugural celebration. They are all either under federal or state scrutiny, subject to a lawsuit, or are being exposed by the press in ways that may put him in future jeopardy. On Tuesday, Trump closed down his personal charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, amid allegations from New York’s attorney general, whose investigation found “a shocking pattern of illegality” at the foundation.
The way things are progressing, Trump’s lawbreaking may be the foremost thing he is remembered for. But we must avoid making the same mistake committed after Watergate, by emphasizing the illegality above everything else. People remember Richard Nixon’s role in that scandal, and rightfully so — but surely fewer recall that he helped pioneer the “Southern Strategy,” the national appeal to racism upon which Republicans like Trump still rely. Likewise, Trump’s most enduring harm may come from actions that were legal, despite the fact that he and his administration appear to be drowning in their own criminality.
From exacerbating climate change to the slowly-but-surely regressing economy that now feels the weight of his unnecessary tax cuts to heartless immigration policies that have destroyed lives, these will be the real lasting legacy. Earlier this month, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who migrated to the United States with her father, died while she was in Customs and Border Patrol custody. She didn’t receive emergency medical care for 90 minutes after showing symptoms of severe dehydration, and hospital officials said that Caal Maquin likely died of sepsis shock.
Homeland Security is investigating, but Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen already more or less brushed away any accountability for Jakelin’s death. After expressing token sympathy during a Fox News interview, Nielsen said, “We’ll continue to look into this situation. But again I cannot stress how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.”
The federal bureaucracy was no shining star before Trump started running it, but he has treated it with all the seriousness and ethical standards of a former casino boss with a string of bankruptcies. Trump sees our government, primarily, as two things: an ATM, and a phallus. Laws, it seems, do not prevent him from using it as either. Like any of the corrupt governors and mayors we see as cautionary tales, the president treats public service like a hustle and his constituents like marks.
This is a common theme throughout Trump’s career. Supplementing its earlier investigation into the shady sources of Trump’s wealth, the New York Times revealed on Saturday that a scheme the future president and his siblings devised to skim profits for themselves from their father’s real-estate sales also allowed them to increase the monthly rents on rent-regulated apartments.
The consequences outlived the Trumps’ ownership of the buildings in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island; the rent hikes have been baked into the New York City system. “As a way to appreciate the scope of the impact, a one-time $10 increase in 1995 on all the 8,000 apartments involved would put the total overpaid by tenants at more than $33 million to date,” the Times reported.
Virtually every American will feel what those tenants feel, if we don’t already. As with those inflated New York rents, the worst thing will be if we allow his perversion of the system to endure unchecked after he is long gone. He has damaged an already weak American system of government, in the same way that a chronic illness might weaken an immune system. Rather than make America “great,” he has set it up for failure, politically and morally.
Provided that Trump finishes his term in office before losing in 2020, we’ll never get back the four years that we spent watching him willfully speed up climate change or wreck Obama-era policies designed to promote equality in areas like housing and education. Gone forever are the years and lives lost while Trump mishandles Afghanistan, Niger and Yemen, among other war theaters. We’ll never get back the talent that would have been brought to our country by the immigrants he’s repelled with his laws and rhetoric. The person who Jakelin would have become, had she been given asylum and a chance to grow up here, is lost.
The government won’t get its time back, either. Trump’s reckless appointments of amateurs to Cabinet offices and judgeships will have consequences that outlive this administration. They even will outlive Trump himself, unless the nation decides that its systemic issues are not inherently partisan, but instead national weaknesses that we need to get more serious about.
“I think that what Trump has done, by approaching the government with this radical ignorance, is essentially awakened this society to the need for a civics lesson,” said The Fifth Risk author Michael Lewis during a recent CNN interview. “None of us really know what these places do. We’ve been afforded the luxury of ignoring them for a long time.”
Lewis is correct, and it would be to our benefit if Trump’s abuses of power led Americans to examine anew how much we need government to be competent, expert and efficient. But even despite our experience with Nixon, we have no idea how to rebound from having a know-nothing crook in the White House. It sounds simple: elect someone who is fundamentally everything Trump is not — an intelligent, empathetic and experienced person willing to use government powers to challenge and repair an unfair system, not to exploit it to conceal illegal and incompetent actions. That may quickly rectify the damage to the presidency’s veneer, but it would merely be plastic surgery for a disfigured office.
This isn’t about some saccharine notion of national healing. Remedying a country scarred by Trump will require a revolutionary mindset, and that thinking is already late. Just as the world’s economies must make some radical pivots to stem the effects of climate change, American culture must also undergo some exhaustive modifications if we are ever to get right. The worst things that Trump has done don’t violate our laws so much as they penetrate the open wounds that were already there. I don’t know if it national civics lessons fix that, but it wouldn’t be a bad place to start.