At this very moment, Congress is busy with important issues like campaign fundraising, schmoozing with lobbyists, and, say, considering a resolution to make Dolly Parton’s chest a national monument. So they might have missed the major headline: The election of 2016 changed everything. It’s not just that the internet played an outsize role in the results, since that was true also in 2012, but that social media conferred a new title on our current president, one with implications significant enough to demand serious action from Congress.
That title is: Troll-in-Chief. Mr. Trump was the first person to succeed in the presidential sweepstakes by combining social media, shocking dishonesty, and naked personal ambition in order to make our electoral process a grease fire. There has been much discussion about whether he is a “genius” or just a manipulative, self-absorbed bag of bum dust, but it matters not how you describe it. The results are in. The world is a different place now.
In the past, national political figures had to earn their stripes, garnering notoriety usually by winning progressively more prominent political offices, championing successful actions that improved the lives of constituents, or through long and distinguished military service. This kind of pay-your-dues, gritty ground game is what has given us ALL of our presidents, from Washington to Obama. As they say: Let that sink in. But the internet has radically changed the dynamics of our national life, and we cannot hope to get that Clairol for Men back into the bottle.
We now live in a political world in which an expert troll such as Mr. Trump can have it all his way. He can spew out the most bile-soaked lies on social media, and do it with impunity. He is untouchable in the sense that if readers who disagree with him are silent, they are in effect complicit, accepting his remarks. If readers jump in and call him out on his lie, it only creates more attention for him—attention which is the coin of the realm of social media. He can’t lose, as long as he has a base of frontal-lobe-impaired supporters who accept what he says as gospel. There seems to be no shortage of these in America today.
In the land of free speech and easily-duped voters, Congress can’t actually stop demagogic con men like Trump, certainly not by imposing internet censorship. But there are important steps they can take right now to limit the damage he and those who will certainly come after him might inflict. These are things that in the past no one thought to mandate by law, since our presidential candidates were considered above reproach. The current president is barely above the oil slick he leaves on the ground, yet is untouchable only because there are no statutes to contain him. No one imagined someone could become president through a tweetstorm of bluster, insults, and lies. Surprise! An American nightmare.
First step in preventive action: it’s about tax returns. Congress needs to mandate that all candidates for higher office—including the presidency– release their current and five previous years’ returns. If we’re going to risk having a huckster in the presidency, we should know where his money comes from, where it is, and how it’s been used. You will recall that Mr. Trump said he would release his returns, then said he couldn’t because of an IRS audit that the IRS itself dismissed as an invalid reason for not releasing them. Then he went silent on the subject.
Second: we need a law requiring the president to divest her/himself of all assets through use of a blind trust. Americans should not have to accept even the appearance of impropriety when it comes to the possibility of the president profiting from her/his position while in office. It’s not just shady bad taste—it’s a security risk.
Speaking of security risks, consider point number three: banning nepotism in the West Wing. Ivanka and Jared as “senior advisors” to the president? It’s a slap in the face to the pool of bonafide, skilled policy experts, yes, but also an automatic destabilizing influence in the White House. With a properly-crafted law, much stiffer than the existing one, Congress can improve outcomes (How is that Middle East peace plan coming, Jared?) and remove potential security risks—not to mention preventing a U.S. president being spoken of in the same breath as the rulers of Azerbaijan, Venezuela, and Iraq.
We no longer have social check points that can prevent demagogues from gaining higher office, but Congress has the power to create an environment in which the demagogue loses his license to take us all for a ride. Are we there yet?