As efforts to normalize the president-elect continue, one slogan making the rounds online is particularly direct: “We Survived Obama and You’ll Survive Trump.” There’s even a Facebook group by that name.
Along with a smug whiff of condescension implying that Trump’s opponents are freaking out over nothing, that motto suggests that the election of Barack Obama—who won in 2008 with 52.9 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes—is somehow on par with the election of Donald Trump, who won the election while losing the popular vote by 2.5 million votes and counting. Let’s pretend for a moment that’s not a laughable false equivalency and concede that some of the liberal hysteria since Nov. 8 has been overblown.
The #NotMyPresident thing online in the days following the election was mostly a lot of noise, for example, while the suggestion that Trump won because of ignorant racists was a considerable overgeneralization. Then there’s the recount effort in Michigan and Wisconsin. Given the president-elect’s unsupported claims that millions committed voter fraud in a contest he still managed to win, examining the vote is most certainly in the best interests of democracy, even if the final result is unlikely to change. And yet there are enough Russia-hacked-the-election conspiracy theories on the left to make it sound like Putin sent Boris and Natasha to rig voting machines in Eau Claire so that Trump would win. Sure, maybe. But probably not.
Those things are essentially distractions from the numerous reasons that a Trump presidency really is alarming, especially for people who aren’t straight white men in good health. Conservatives’ fears about Obama were almost entirely self-generated conspiracy theories: that he planned to confiscate their guns, or wanted to impose sharia law, or establish death panels to determine who would receive medical care, or nationalize their private retirement accounts, or use routine military exercises as a smokescreen to stage a coup. None of those things has come to pass, of course, and Obama never indicated that he planned to do any of them.
Trump, on the other hand, has already said and done a lot of things to stoke fear. He has advocated torturing terrorism suspects and murdering their families. He’s in favor of profiling Muslims in the United States. Last week, he suggested jailing or revoking the citizenship of anyone who burns an American flag, just one of the many ways he’s apparently unfamiliar with the U.S. Constitution. He has said he’d love to have the power to hack into opponents’ private communications. He spends an inordinate amount of time on Twitter scapegoating the media. He doesn’t take climate change seriously, despite abundant scientific evidence that it’s real. His tax plan favors the ultra-wealthy at the expense of lower-income Americans. His transition team is a mix of his kids and corporate lobbyists, and his appointees so far include an assortment of billionaires and millionaires, Bush administration veterans and a strategist who declared Breitbart News a safe haven for white nationalists.
Trump’s prospective secretary of education pushed a law in Michigan that allows failing charter schools to expand, and helped block legislation that would have established standards for identifying and closing failing schools in Detroit, according to the New York Times. Trump’s pick for attorney general was denied a federal judgeship 30 years ago for having made racist remarks. The president-elect’s choice for health secretary opposes reproductive rights and has been a staunch supporter of Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” doctrine: repeal Obamacare, and replace it with something that has “fewer consumer protections and more freedoms for doctors,” says the Times. Trump’s pick for treasury secretary, a Goldman Sachs alum, headed a group of investors who bought out a failing West Coast bank, foreclosed on more than 36,000 mortgages and then flipped it for a profit of $1.5 billion.
So much for draining the swamp. Or looking out for the little guy. So far, in fact, it seems like the people who will most benefit from Trump’s presidency are the Trumps. The New York Times has detailed the dizzying array of potential conflicts of interest around the world between Trump’s financial interests and his presidency. And though the president-elect has tweeted that he’s working on a plan to “take me completely out of business operations,” it’s anyone’s guess what that actually means (and it seems unlikely to include giving up ownership).
So while conservative publications like National Review keep pushing intellectually dishonest bullshit about Obama’s “imperial presidency” (an emperor would have probably filled that Supreme Court vacancy by now), Trump is essentially using his new job to shore up his empire, at public expense. The hand-wringers on the left have noted that “kleptocracy” is another word for this sort of behavior, and they’re not wrong: there’s not much to stop the Trump administration from becoming one big grift. For starters, Trump owes hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to foreign banks, which has unpleasant implications for national security.
Domestically, he will oversee the National Labor Relations Board, which last month ruled against him and in favor of employees at a Las Vegas hotel he owns. He’ll oversee the General Services Administration, which leased the Old Post Office in Washington to Trump for development as a hotel, effectively making the president-elect both landlord and tenant. (Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tom Carper of Delaware have made an official inquiry into that particular state of affairs.) And protecting the president may require the Secret Service to lease two floors at Trump Tower in New York, at a cost of $3 million a year, which means the Trumps would be collecting rent from yet another agency that’s part of the executive branch.
Trump backer Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, has said the media have a tendency to take Trump literally but not seriously, while his voters take him seriously, but not literally. Could be. But as the writer Liel Leibovitz said on NPR 10 days after the election, there’s no reason not to take the president-elect and his supporters at face value. “Treat every poisoned word as a promise,” Leibovitz said, relating principles he absorbed from his grandfather, who fled the Nazis in the 1930s. “Don’t try to analyze, overthink it, kind of really try to get down to the bottom of things. If someone says hateful, horrible things, if someone threatens hateful, horrible actions, believe them.”
That brings us back to “We Survived Obama and You’ll Survive Trump.” Yes, we will survive, in the literal sense that Stalin-esque purges seem improbable over the next four years. But America’s democratic institutions aren’t going to fare so well as the Trump administration hollows them out from within. “Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right,” Adam Gopnik wrote for the New Yorker in May.
What’s perhaps most telling about the “We Survived Obama” slogan is surely unintentional, but it’s a tacit acknowledgement that conservative panic over Obama’s presidency was irrational, if not plain cynical. The problem is that after spending so long crying wolf, they’ve lost the ability to recognize one when they see it.