As the saying goes, you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry: This deeply aberrant presidency threatens to cost the nation much more than even some of Donald Trump’s harshest critics may realize.
From 1988-1992, I was The Washington Post’s correspondent in Buenos Aires, covering all of South America. It was a time when countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Chile — emerging from years of authoritarian rule — were struggling to re-establish democratic norms, and I learned one important lesson: It’s easy to lose the habits and values of democracy, but incredibly hard to get them back.
Perhaps most difficult of all is to recover lost faith in the rule of law. That is why Trump’s very public desire to use the legal system as a weapon against his political opponents is so damaging. “Lock her up" is more than a call to imprison Hillary Clinton. It is, potentially, a tragic epitaph for the consensus view of our legal system as a disinterested finder of fact and dispenser of justice.
In the countries I covered, military rulers had imprisoned, exiled and assassinated their internal foes. It was understandable that democratically elected governments would struggle — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to find ways to hold the murderous generals and admirals accountable. Decades later, however, the pattern still persists.
Trump and his family have refused to divest themselves of their businesses or even draw more than a flimsy veil between their official actions and the impact those actions have on their personal finances. Does the administration’s policy toward Panama really have nothing to do with a bitter dispute over the Trump-branded hotel in Panama City? Does the administration’s tough new attitude toward Qatar really have nothing to do with that nation’s refusal to invest in Jared Kushner’s debt-laden real estate company?
It’s not the potential answers to those questions that are so corrosive; it’s the questions themselves. As in many countries whose governance we scoff at, Americans must now wonder whether policy is being tailored for our leaders’ personal gain.
When the rule of law and financial probity can no longer be assumed, the vacuum is filled with conspiracy theories. The president himself is a conspiratorialist par excellence; he was, after all, the chief purveyor of the birther nonsense. Since neither his words nor those of his press office can be believed, it is natural — but incredibly damaging — to assume that the real story is being hidden from us, for reasons that must be nefarious.
Despite his recent joke about making himself president-for-life, Trump won’t be around forever. But the damage he is doing will remain — and it may take years of hard work to repair.
Contact Washington Post Writers Group columnist Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.