Despite a haunting score (“Good Thing Going”) and droll lyrics, Merrily We Roll Along endures as Stephen Sondheim’s beloved failure. Lasting only 16 performances on Broadway in 1981, the musical has inspired regular revivals by directors who naively believe that they have transcended the show’s structural flaws.
The problem is that the musical, based on a 1934 George Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy, runs backwards. Each scene is set earlier than the last. And told in reverse, the story of the downfall of a mercenary and cynical Broadway composer remains difficult for audiences to embrace.
That is analogous to the challenge of looking back on all of 2017 from the safe harbor of December. After 11 months of Donald Trump’s attempt to play the road company version of Vladimir Putin, it is almost impossible to mentally return to the innocent days when the ball came down in Times Square with Barack Obama still president.
Maybe the only thing that matters about 2017 is that American democracy—a bit battered, a bit wobbly on its feet—endured its greatest challenge since the dark days of the Depression when even prominent liberals like Walter Lippmann were talking about the need for a dictator.
Three events in January 2017 defined both the threat posed by a Trump presidency and its inherent weakness. The 45th president combines the temperament of an authoritarian with the competence of Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits. And both sides of that Trump equation were clear by end of the first week of his residence in a white building that he has privately called “a real dump.”
Friday, January 20: A few minutes into Trump’s inaugural address, the new president demonstrates that he would not be tamed by either the daunting weight of the office or the demands of objective reality. The key line was Trump’s thundering declaration, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
The only problem was that crime has been plunging for a quarter century. But Trump’s strategy for governance depends on him posing as the tough guy taming the Republic of Fear. Take away the phantom threat of gang violence on every corner and Muslim terrorists lurking under every bridge and you lose the rationale for bequeathing the presidency to a former reality-show host.
Thursday, January 26: Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, visits the White House to warn White House counsel Donald McGahn that Michael Flynn, the president’s new national security adviser, could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. As Yates explained, Flynn had been lying to the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, when he claimed that his December 2016 meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak had been innocuous.
In a normal administration, Flynn would have been escorted from the White House grounds faster than you can say, “Omarosa.” Instead of responding with alarm, the clueless McGahn asked Yates why the Justice Department cares "if one White House official lies to another White House official.”
Flynn, who recently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Robert Mueller investigation, may have been the most compromised national security official since Alger Hiss. Yet Flynn survived in his job—where he was privy to virtually all national secrets—until February 13, which was 18 days after Yates’ warning.
Depending on your perspective, this baffling incident either illustrates the blithering ineptitude of Trump officials or their mystifying indulgent attitude towards all things Russian.
Friday, January 27: Another watershed moment as Trump’s shoddily-drafted initial Muslim ban is unveiled—an executive order blocking entry of passport holders from seven countries. Until stayed by the courts, this executive order also applied to green-card holders and those who had already obtained valid US visas.
Given Trump’s fear mongering about the Muslim threat, the executive order, in hindsight, should not have been surprising. But what was unexpected was the outpouring of protests against the ban at major international airports. USA Today estimated that sign-waving demonstrators—measuring in the thousands—flocked to airports in New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.
There were, of course, other larger protests, such as the counter-inauguration. But this was the first manifestation that every affront to civil society under Trump would inspire a passionate counter-reaction.
In a sense, everything that has happened since January fits the template of these three events. The Trump act—dripping with bile and contempt for democracy—is not playing beyond the reach of Fox News. When you have a president whose approval ratings are so underwater that he can spy giant squid, you know that something isn’t going right for the Trump brand. And, in case you have forgotten, the new senator from Alabama is a Democrat.
Sure, Trump can point to political victories such as the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, the evisceration of federal regulations and the approval of a tax cut. But while the details might have varied, any GOP president would have wanted to put a conservative on the Supreme Court, dialed back regulations and slashed tax rates for the wealthy and corporations. In these areas, for all the vicious tweets and attacks on “fake news,” Trump has been behaving as a generic Republican.
But in other—more dangerous—areas Trump has been the Phineas T. Bluster of the modern presidency. Whether it has been rewriting immigration law, building a wall or curtailing press freedoms, Trump has been all talk and no action. Despite fears and threats, even Mueller’s investigation looks like it will make it into the New Year.
None of this should argue for complacency in the face of the first president in history (James Buchanan and Warren Harding included) who appears to have no respect for democracy itself. But, so far, the coalition of the decent has prevailed against Trump’s worst excesses. And that is even without the Democrats taking over the House and possibly the Senate in 2018.
During the French Revolution, liberal cleric Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès was one of the leaders of the National Assembly, which seized power from King Louis XVI. But Sieyes was imperiled when the revolution lurched far to the left under the Jacobins. After the Reign of Terror, he deftly summarized his experience, saying, “I survived.”
It is certainly not my intention to claim parallels between Trump and the French Revolution or more recent events in Europe. But at the end of the first year of Trump’s government by tantrum, I think that we can all collectively exhale and say, “We survived.”
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.