I am the son of an Air Force brigadier general and served myself to the rank of colonel. Of my 57 years drawing breath, I’ve spent 51 of them directly or indirectly serving this once great nation. So, as you might imagine, I found myself on Nov. 8, 2016, more than a little dismayed at the news we had elevated Donald J. Trump to the nation’s highest office — a man so clearly unfit to lead America.
But over time I’ve come to appreciate Trump in ways I did not expect. Now, I am thankful that we elected Trump. Because Donald Trump is exactly what America needed. Trump is a mirror, a warning, and ultimately a catalyst for change. Reflected in Trump is all that is wrong with the United States: the injustice of our broken social contract, the crassness of our politics, and the cruelty of our economy. Trump is also the shock that a mature democracy needs for action. To use a timely metaphor, Trump and his supporters are a virus, and they have activated our democratic antibodies. What we are seeing in the streets is the body fighting the infection.
America was the first modern nation, created of, by, and for the people — supposedly a nation with no class structure, where anyone could reach their potential. But that was a myth. America had classes: slaves at the bottom — treated not as people but property — then poor and working-class whites, and atop it all our original aristocracy of landed gentry and traders in the South, merchants and industrialists in the North. We fought a civil war to end slavery but failed in its aftermath to establish the more perfect union mentioned by our Founders. What we are seeing in our current moment is not only a race war but a class war. America must confront systemic racism to move forward, but it also must acknowledge that we have created a permanent underclass of all colors (though mostly Black and brown). We are a society where your melanin content and your zip code determine your future.
Beginning with Newt Gingrich in 1994, Republicans stopped trying to govern and instead began accumulating power. McKay Coppins writes in his profile of Gingrich in the Atlantic, “… few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise.” Effective governance requires compromise, trust, and mutual respect. Gingrich’s new version of Republican had no interest in that. He destroyed the bipartisan structures for governing and even resorted to name-calling and conspiracy theories — over the line at the time, but in hindsight presaging Trumpism.
A straight line can be drawn from Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to the tea party in 2009. Another outsider movement characterized by distrust of government, expertise, and experience, the tea party helped elect a rogues’ gallery of loathsome lawmakers — I’m looking at you, Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas). Trump’s dystopian vision of America is the ultimate flowering of the outsider, populist, anti-government thinking that has metastasized in the Republican Party over the past decades.
Under both political parties, America has rolled back regulatory guardrails and created a volatile economy that values the wrong things. Executive compensation packages for publicly traded companies show that our current economic model rewards short-term financial performance, placing little value on the broader social landscape. It also encourages risky and complex structures that are susceptible to wild swings and disastrous crashes. When bailouts are needed, it’s not the wealthy who pay. The system helped create the greatest wealth disparity in the United States in 100 years. As wealth is concentrated at destabilizing levels, our tax system, according to leading economists, is increasingly regressive, pushing the burden of taxes onto the shrinking middle class.
Over the same period, we dismantled the meager social safety net we had. We have reduced access to food aid, job training, and unemployment insurance. Meanwhile, the cost of health care and higher education has skyrocketed, placing both out of reach for many Americans.
Now for the good news.
Everything wrong with America is manifested in Trump. The hunger for power, the vile derision of people who don’t look like you, the cruelty, the privilege, the gleeful ignorance, and mendacious narcissism. Our revulsion at Trump is causing Americans to ask: How did we get to this place? And how do we get out? That will take time and hard work by well-intentioned people from every corner of American society.
But the process has started.
What is happening in our streets is how open, progressive societies improve — fitfully, imperfectly, frustratingly, sometimes tragically. But we do improve. So, thank you, President Trump. Thank you for showing us what we were becoming and helping us find the courage to confront it. We are going to be OK.
Col. Curtis Milam served 26 years on active duty and has over 4,000 flight hours in the C-130. He has served tours at the Pentagon, NATO HQ, and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, Hungary.