Editorial: Reflections on 2017 – “Was it all connected to Trump, or did it just seem like it? “

Following the traumatic elections of 2016, it is no surprise that 2017 was a year fraught with chaos, protests and change. Trump was at the political center of much of that chaos as he sought to carry out promises made on the campaign trail, including banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the U.S., repealing the Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax code, pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord and passing regulations that favored big business, big banks and the fossil fuel industry.
Those strident political actions were met by an equally strident crowd of protesters, who have denounced Trump and this Republican Congress at each step of the way. It started right from the get-go.
Trump, the oldest and wealthiest person ever elected as president, and also the first to have never held public office or serve in the military prior to being elected, was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017 with a crowd estimated at 300,000 to 600,000; about a third of the size of President Obama’s first inauguration. The next day the Women’s March drew three times as many protesters as had attended Trump’s inauguration with an estimated 5.25 million protesters in more than 400 marches across the country. In Washington, D.C. alone, 440,000 to 500,000 people protested Trump’s election, and specifically his crass comments about women he made on the campaign trail. The protests in D.C., which busloads of Vermonters attended, were the largest single political demonstration in the nation since the anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s. The color pink, pussy power and pussy hats became a mocking symbol of rebellion. It was a stunning repudiation of a newly elected American president.
In many ways, those protests and Trump’s reaction to them were a harbinger of things to come.
First came the Trump’s team’s infamous declaration that their exaggerated estimates of the crowd size were “alternative facts,” rather than bald-faced lies. Since then Trump has launched a consistent assault on the truth via Twitter with his allegations of “fake news,” and is telling an average of 5.5 falsehoods a day, which is on track to reach almost 2,000 lies in just his first year in office.
Why all the lies? It’s part of Trump’s game plan. “Fake news” has been Trump’s weapon to undermine truth and to reinforce the message (called propaganda in any other country) he wants his supporters to believe. And Trump’s right-wing media supporters have provided the cover he needs to keep his supporters confused and in the fold.
Then there’s the investigation about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia meddling in the election, Russia’s influence over Trump, his potential obstruction of justice, grounds for impeachment and on and on. But enough about Trump. The pattern is set: He will push through what he can and the political pendulum will swing back the other way with an opposing force in the 2018 elections. How far the pendulum swings will be measured by how far askew Trump and the GOP take the country.
In Middlebury, the big news was the demolition of rail bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row and the construction of two temporary bridges. That step was the first in a four-year project that is slated to create a 21-foot high clearance under the two bridges and build a tunnel between them.
The $52-million project is not without controversy and opponents have maintained a consistent appeal to Gov. Phil Scott’s administration and the Vermont Agency of Transportation to reduce the 21-foot clearance to its current 18-19 feet — a move that could remake the project, saving tens of millions of dollars and significantly reduce the proposed three years of disruptive construction downtown. Whether that alternative plan has wings is a battle that will be played out in the first few months of 2018.
Elsewhere in Middlebury, the new Middlebury College park was built at the intersection of College and Main Streets; and Porter Hospital officially merged with the University of Vermont Health Network in mid-February, and would later open a new Express Care facility on campus. The transition has been smoother than many anticipated and the results have brought greater stability and profitability to the hospital — a big contrast to the tumultuous year Porter Medical Center experienced in 2016.
In other business news, Vermont Gas would finish its natural gas line into Middlebury and Vergennes — after a couple years of protests and construction delays — and begin residential and commercial hook-ups. However, with renewable energy becoming less expensive, and the carbon footprint of natural gas being compromised by the extraction process, as well as the higher-than-expected cost to lay the pipeline to Middlebury, this project may be among the last sections built in Vermont. Vermont Gas had originally planned to extend the pipeline to Rutland, but that prospect has dimmed over the past year.
A bombshell would hit Middlebury College in early March as college students protested a speech by controversial author Charles Murray. Students turned their backs on Murray in Mead Chapel as he began to speak and then shouted him down with chants that prevented him from delivering his remarks. Insult turned to injury, however, when some protesters in black hoods covering their face, along with students, physically threatened Murray and an accompanying professor and college official as they left the college facility to get into a waiting car. The incident — which added fuel to the fire in the national debate over racism, hate speech and the open exchange of ideas on college campuses — put Middlebury College in the national spotlight for weeks and will serve as a historical footnote in what became a resurgence of white supremacist  views spurred on by Trump and some of his extremist supporters throughout much of the year.
The culminating event was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in mid-August. That rally attracted white supremacists representing the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and self-proclaimed white nationalists and various right-wing militias. The marchers chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and carried semi-automatic rifles, swastikas and Trump-Pence signs (as well as Trump’s Make America Great Again hats and t-shirts) as they marched through the University of Virginia with burning torches. Counter protesters confronted them at times and fights broke out causing several injuries. Tragedy occurred when one of the right-wing protesters ran his car into a crowd of counter-protesters killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Trump was not only slow to respond to the tragedy, but was widely condemned for suggesting a false equivalency between the white supremacists and counter protesters. Several moderate Republicans openly condemned Trump, including Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, and former President George W. Bush. In the aftermath, Trump has backed off his race-baiting rhetoric, but the black community is more galvanized than ever against him, as was demonstrated by the election of Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore for the U.S. senate in Alabama.
In other statewide news, Gov. Phil Scott’s main initiative in his first year has been to spearhead cost-cutting measures in the state’s public school system. With declining student enrollments in many schools and escalating costs, it is the number one issue for state and local governments.
News is more pleasant at the community level because the focus is on making the most of what we have — and we have a lot for which to be grateful: a relatively pristine and beautiful environment, wonderful communities (see the story of how a town found a dog by Doug Anderson on the front of today’s paper), reasonably good public schools and communities that care to make them better, world-class recreation, low crime, a vibrant platform for charitable giving and the good that comes from that, a growing arts and entertainment scene, a great place to raise a family and, in general, a high quality of life.
The goal in 2018 is simple enough: To build on those blessings and do our part to change the national dynamics in ways that reinforce the values we have in abundance in Vermont.
Happy New Year to all.
— Angelo Lynn

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