I never expected how researching the US government’s doomsday plans would thoroughly prepare me for the threat of Donald Trump. I’d spent the five years before Trump’s election researching and writing what I saw as a fun—even lighthearted—history of the Cold War and the nation’s secret plans for Armageddon. Trump’s arrival in the White House made the once-historical seem, on too many days, like modern-day prologue.
Early on, there were the months of “fire and fury” threats with North Korea—including the January 2018 false incoming missile alarm in Hawaii—that made nuclear war seem real and possible for a generation of Americans who had never been subjected to “duck and cover” drills in elementary school. More recently, these last few weeks have brought to the fore swirling questions about presidential succession and the 25th Amendment as Covid-19 sidelined entire ranks of US government leaders.
Yet, more than any one incident, the most troubling aspect to me of Donald Trump’s presidency is his ongoing assault on what doomsday planners during the Cold War eventually determined to be the heart of the United States.
The rise and evolution of nuclear weapons forced government planners, in decade after decade of secret plans known as “continuity of government,” to wrestle with how the US would weather a nuclear Armageddon that could come within hours and, later, even minutes. There were hard choices about who would be saved and what would be rebuilt afterward. Determining how you “preserve” America in a catastrophe quickly became a rather existential and almost spiritual conversation: What was “America”? Was the United States made manifest in its president? In the three branches of government? What did you need to save in order to establish not just the continuity of leadership but the continuity of a country?
The answer turned out to be the most fascinating insight into American government I’ve ever found. America, planners realized, was first and foremost an idea. The president can die, Congress could be lost, our temples of democracy in DC might crumble, but as long as the idea that is America lives, America itself lives.
That meant preserving the totems of that idea that have bound us Americans together generation after generation. In a country without crown jewels, scepters, thrones, or embroidered coronation vestments, what America has is its founding—the idea at the heart of our country. And so through the Cold War the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Park Service developed their own set of doomsday plans to save that very idea from nuclear annihilation—plans to evacuate the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, a ranked list of documents to save like George Washington’s military commission, the Gettysburg Address, famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and others, and even in Philadelphia a specially trained team of park rangers stood by ready to evacuate the Liberty Bell.
The insight at the core of these doomsday plans was that America was larger than any one person or style of government. What America had to hand down to future generations were the ideas, traditions, and institutions that previous generations have built, tended, and expanded upon—the relentless quest to live up to our founding creed of a nation where all are created equal and have the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Traditions and ideas like the rule of law and a free press, the freedom of religion and the idea of co-equal branches of government restricted by checks and balances form the core of who we are as a country. These traditions and ideas are not just a key to America’s history and success, but the key. As long as we continue to believe collectively in our country and our ideals, America lives. These are what we, as citizens, are tasked with stewarding.
And yet over the past four years, we have watched Donald Trump attack, time and again, those very ideas and institutions.
As any crisis communications person will tell you, reputations are hard to win and easy to lose.
The assault on the sanctity of these institutions began first with his attacks on the independence and nonpartisan nature of the Justice Department and the FBI; then came attacks on the US press as “enemies of the people.” Then there was his attempt to politicize even as basic an idea as the objectivity of weather reports and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This year has seen assaults on the independence of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a year-long attempt to stymie the accurate decennial count of the US Census—an unrecoverable theft of an ideal that affects not just appropriate federal funding and congressional apportionment in the short-term, but an outrage against future generations who rely on the accurate,
comprehensive work of the Census to study everything from macro societal trends to micro individual family genealogies. Donald Trump’s actions and assaults on our government steal not just from this generation of Americans, but all future generations of Americans.
He’s assaulted the independence of the director of national intelligence, politicized the Voice of America, and undermined the US Postal Service, an agency literally created by founder Benjamin Franklin that helps unite the disparate nation into a common entity. Along the way, Trump has also perpetrated numerous outrages against other entities like the EPA and turned his back on the nation’s history in ways big and small—even decreeing that the next Air Force One should be repainted from its iconic Kennedy era blue-and-white scheme to match the coloring of his own Trump planes. Then there have been his assaults on international institutions like NATO, and on our long-term alliances with countries like the United Kingdom or Germany that have been cultivated by diplomats, administrations, and presidents over decades, even centuries. It hardly seems a coincidence that Donald Trump’s targets through this year have been the same three agencies that Pew Research found were most respected by the American public: the Postal Service, the CDC, and the Census.
Many of these stories come and go with little attention, lost amid the chaos of Trump’s circus. It’s easy, for instance, not to understand the significance of the continued resignations of career prosecutors protesting what they see as the weaponization of the justice system to aid the president’s allies and harm his political enemies. It can even be hard to understand incidents like the president’s actions regarding Burisma and Ukraine, which ultimately led to his impeachment, as part of a larger attack on democratic principles and not just Donald Trump being the impulsive, self-centered commander in chief that he is. And yet each of these episodes undermine the foundational belief that we are a nation of laws, not men.
Most recently, he even continued his pillaging of the central thesis that the White House belongs to the people—not to a man. From his still shocking summer address to the Republican National Convention on the south lawn, amid billboard-sized campaign signs, to his Covid-19 rally earlier this month, where the “President’s Own,” the Marine Corps band, appeared at what was by any objective measure a campaign rally, Trump has politicized the symbolism of the residence that has housed 44 of the nation’s 45 presidents—men of varying parties and widely divergent beliefs, leaders in war and peace, prosperity and struggle, who have been united only in their commitment to the nation’s service.
Each of these stories is its own problem—its own attack on our ancestors who built these institutions and fought for these traditions—but collectively Donald Trump has waged personal war against every citizen who has ever believed in the idea of America, the radical notion that we are governed by laws, not men, and that inherent in the promise of the country is that we collectively work to leave our nation better than we found it. Make no mistake: This is all America truly is—a loose assembly of people bound together by words and ideas. Unlike almost every other country in the world, we were not founded on an ethnicity or religion. Instead, it’s our collective optimism, desire for freedom, and our promise, E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one—that we have to gift future generations, the knowledge that our institutions, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, stand as “the lengthened shadow of one man,” ready to be passed on.
Donald Trump’s final target is now clear: undermining our tradition of free and fair elections and a peaceful transition of power. For the first time, we have a president (and vice president) refusing to accept in advance the premise of a legitimate election and a normal transition. He’s being aided in his attack by an attorney general who is set to bend the rules and allow the Justice Department to take actions that would interfere with the election itself. For a country founded in direct rejection of a monarchy and one that has for more than 240 years carefully abided by George Washington’s model to step down humbly from office and return to his life as an ordinary (albeit exalted) citizen, it’s hard to imagine an outrage more un-American than Donald Trump’s repeated waffling over his behavior should he lose in November.
For 244 years, America has believed that our nation is larger than any one American. We’ve repeatedly rejected the idea that the power, tools, and authorities of the presidency are fair to be wielded against political foes. And, amid the most tumultuous moments of our history, we’ve always agreed to share power as the voters dictate. As Donald Trump enters the final two days of his bid for reelection, each citizen and voter must weigh an important decision: Will the very idea of America that previous generations have built, fostered, and tended survive and outlast Donald Trump?
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