In a commencement speech years ago, author David Foster Wallace told this story: Two young fish are swimming along, and they pass an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a while. Then one looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?” Wallace noted the point of the story was that “the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” And that may describe American politics at the moment. President Donald Trump has brought about a profound crisis that is undermining the nation’s democratic system, and it is so pervasive and encompassing that it is not being fully acknowledged. It is the water.
The crisis is not rooted in Trump’s advocacy of conservative policies—the Muslim ban, tax breaks for the wealthy, hollowing out the State Department, killing climate change action. Nor is it triggered by his rude and classless behavior, as he spends long hours watching cable news, consuming Diet Coke, and rushing to Twitter to attend to petty grievances, instead of working diligently to advance the interests of the citizenry. The country can survive bad policies and an immature and erratic commander in chief (unless, of course, his recklessness leads to nuclear war). What the United States faces this holiday season is an unparalleled, widespread, Trump-inspired assault on the principles, norms, and purpose of democratic governance.