Helaine Olen: 2018: The year hope began to triumph over Trump’s nihilism

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump announces that he is nominating William Barr as his Attorney General, on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington. Barr, once questioned the effectiveness of a border wall similar to the one the president now wants to construct. Barr was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush when he was asked in a 1992 interview if he supported a proposal from Republican challenger Pat Buchanan to erect a barrier of ditches and fences along the Mexican border to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Barr described a side-to-side barrier as “overkill.” (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

The Trump administration is ending 2018 by engaging in another wanton act of destruction. Late last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would begin the process of rolling back Obama-era rules limiting mercury emissions by coal-burning plants. The health gains to the population, the EPA declared, may not be worth the cost to businesses. Those improvements included less brain damage to children and, for the entire population, fewer asthma attacks and 11,000 fewer premature deaths each year.

Most of us would say better health for a decent number of Americans is a good thing. But not the Trump administration and the Republican Party. They consistently value the short-term self-interest of a wealthy few more than they value our collective future.

It's more than simple selfishness. Last week's action was one of the many instances of what can only be described as nihilism from President Trump, his administration and the Republican Party. Their motto for 2018 could be summed up by the words on the back of Melania Trump's infamous jacket: "I really don't care, do u?" They starve the government of the resources it needs to carry out its basic duty to keep the American public safe from harms both predictable and unpredictable. At the same time, they promote a mean-spirited fictional version of a past national greatness, one that mainly offers racism, sexism and a skimpy social safety net.

That's the bad news. The good news: Americans are getting wise to what is going on. And, to be clear, what is going on is ghastly.

Trump is presiding over a drop in the life expectancy of Americans, one fueled in part by record-breaking numbers of people dying of drug overdoses and an uptick in the suicide rate. The Republicans in Congress opposed the Affordable Care Act and have made numerous efforts to do away with and undercut it, while offering all but nothing as an alternative. An imposition of work requirements on people receiving Medicaid in Arkansas - supposedly done in the name of restoring the dignity of work - has led to thousands getting kicked out of the program, often because they can't navigate the state's convoluted bureaucracy.

Nor do Trump and the Republicans care much about the catastrophic threat of global warming to our future. Instead Trump calls the threat to the planet and all of our lives a "hoax" perpetuated by the Chinese, and something we don't need to worry about because the climate "will change back again." Even when his own administration issued a report detailing a massive hit to our gross domestic product if climate change goes unchecked, he said, "I don't believe it."

Then there is the current partial government shutdown, which Trump claimed credit for before it even occurred, before blaming it entirely on Democrats. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are working without paychecks, and hundreds of thousands more are furloughed. Garbage is piling up at national parks. Yet many lame-duck Republican representatives who are not returning for the next session didn't even bother to show up for the end of their terms in Congress.

There's more: the situation at the Mexican border, where the Trump administration forcibly, cruelly and pointlessly removed migrant children from their parents, with little care taken to how they would reunite them. There is the all-but-manic rollbacks and attempted rollbacks of almost anything President Barack Obama promoted, for seemingly no reason other than, well, Obama promoted it. Beefed-up student lunch standards? Gone. Improved retirement-advice rules? Demonized and also gone.

Then there is the ever-increasing evidence that the Trump campaign may have colluded with Russia to help win the election, and Republicans in Congress and in Trump's administration now seemingly are attempting to assist in minimizing the scandal or covering it up. If you are willing to sell out your country for personal or political gain what, exactly, do you stand for? The answer, most likely, is nothing at all. It is the politics of meaninglessness.

Yet there is hope.

Voters pushed back hard in 2018 against the dystopian world that the Republicans would inflict on our nation, and began to triumph over it. The students of the United States responded to the high school massacre in Parkland, Fla., not by embracing the Republican call to arm teachers and other school personnel, but by taking part in mass protests across the United States. The Republicans' inability to articulate a meaningful alternative to the Affordable Care Act, or to otherwise fix the many problems in our health-care system, is causing a large share of Americans to embrace Medicare-for-all. And finally, the Democratic Party gains in the House of Representatives and other political races around the country were fueled by millions of Americans - often women - who wrote letters, made calls and knocked on doors to get out the vote.

This new Democratic majority in the House will begin to investigate the many corrupt scandals of the Trump administration, all the while pursuing a vision in which laws and regulations work to benefit the many, not the few.

So here's to 2019, and to a return to government and the United States as a positive force in the lives of people. We can make it happen.

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen is a contributor to Post Opinions and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.