What if Donald Trump were smart?
It is likely not a question you’ve given a lot of thought. After all, the urgency of our ongoing disaster leaves little time for speculation. One is too busy tallying up the damage that’s happening to worry about the damage that could.
But maybe it’s time we did.
Tyrannies, we tend to think, are things that happen in other places at other times to other people. We like to believe the strength of our institutions, of our character as a people, ensure that, “It can’t happen here.”
Well, if Trump’s rise proves nothing else, it proves that it could happen here. It even shows how. Meaning that, more than any other single event, his presidency has forced us to see our vulnerability to new media manipulation and disinformation. Tweet by agonizing tweet, he has embodied the frightening possibilities of this new idea that truth can be whatever you need it to be.
As Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily put it last year in an essay published in the Journal of Democracy, Trump has “figured out that incendiary language could command attention or shift the narrative.” The title of Persily’s piece was fitting: “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?”
The saving grace in all of this — relatively speaking, at least — is that Trump has no fixed ideological moorings. He doesn’t believe in any particular thing outside of his own underappreciated greatness. Even his bigotry is lazy and unfocused, producing — with the exception of the ill-fated Muslim ban — no hard and fast policy proscriptions.
But what if Trump were smart?
More to the point, what if there arose some future demagogue who combined Trump’s new media savvy with a toxic ideology? It’s not far-fetched to wonder if Trump is not simply writing that individual’s playbook, showing her or him how easily a stable democracy can be subverted.
So even as we grapple with the daily outrages of this presidency, it would be smart to begin inoculating future generations against one that could be worse. Now, then, would be an excellent time to push even harder for Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter to find better ways of purging their platforms of false news and hate.
Now would also be an excellent time for schools to beef up their teaching of philosophy, history, civics, social studies. Teach those things as a means of helping people to think critically, value truth and internalize the ideals that are supposed to make America America.
The hope — in the end, the only real hope we have — is that people who do all that will be less susceptible to toxic ideologies.
Consider that, even lacking a real ideology, toxic or otherwise, Trump has already inflicted damage. It is hardly coincidental that the New York City Anti-Violence Project just reported that 2017 saw an 86 percent spike in hate crime killings of LGBTQ people. Or that the FBI arrested a Michigan man a few days ago after he allegedly threatened to murder CNN reporters for reporting, as Trump calls it, “fake news.” Or that the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of nations expressing confidence in America sank from 64 percent to 22 percent in the first months of the Trump regime. Or that the percentage of Americans expressing confidence in their government has dropped 14 percentage points to just 33 percent over the last year, according to an annual survey by Edelman, a communications marketing firm.
All this and much more has been done to us by someone who is not smart.
What do you suppose might be done to us by someone who was?