Lately I’ve been binging on Trump: The Race for the Presidency, increasingly nauseated but unable to stop.
It’s a hell of a show: edgy, unpredictable, full of outrageous characters and shifting alliances . . . Who knows what will happen next? Maybe Trump will bitch-slap Rubio for the “small hands” comment, or kick that rhetorical rope-a-dope thing he does up to the next level: Did lynching have its points? I don’t know . . . But I love the blacks, OK? I love the blacks. They’re supporting me in tremendous numbers, amazing numbers.
How low can it go? Stay tuned. Maybe he’ll double-down on his Japanese internment camps comments (But I love the Chinese, the Japanese . . . all of ‘em. They’re supporting me in tremendous numbers.), or light a hijab on fire on the stage. Who knows where this is going? I mean, after that Secret Service dude went all WWE on that guy from Time Magazine in the last episode, I was like, whoa!
Beneath the meta-madness, beneath the surreal spectacle of a reality-TV star holding a press conference with ‘real’ reporters - a performance that itself parodies the toothless, friction-free shows that actual ‘press conferences’ under Republican presidents have become . . . underneath all this is the secret pleasure of payback: The high-speed crash of the American Right is occurring right before our wondering eyes, and it feels good.
Though the media seems to have settled on Hosea 8:7 - “For they have sewn the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” - as the Biblical verse to beat into the ground, I prefer a slightly saltier maxim: Careful, or it’ll turn around and bite you in the ass. And so it has, with gusto! Having courted the Know-Nothings for decades, confirmed them in their ignorance and fed their resentment, the Grand Old Party has now lost control over its core constituency; the conservative establishment can scream ‘frog’ all it wants – these folks ain’t gonna jump. Grown accustomed to cheering the lie (even when they know it’s a lie), the angry and the ignorant have found a better liar to cheer. And all that Mitch McConnell and Co. can do is watch.
There’s a deep, atavistic pleasure in watching the Frankensteins flail as their Creation turns on them. This is what the phrase ‘poetic justice’ was coined for. “You built this, you bastards,” you want to yell. “How does it feel now? From Ollie North yukking it up in front of the Senate Select Committee at the Iran-Contra hearings to Colin Powell lying to the Security Council to Sarah Palin slinging red meat to the mob, you created the climate from which this man could emerge. So, hey – enjoy!”
There’s a kind of cheesy, video game quality to it. There he is, stomping across the land, racking up the numbers, chewing up lesser (though no-less despicable) liars like Rubio and Cruz whose establishment missiles explode harmlessly on his armor-plated carapace. He’s doing it without spending money, contradicting himself as they’ve contradicted themselves, lying through his teeth as they’ve lied, raging, clowning, preening as necessary, playing the media and the mob as easily as Steph Curry dribbles basketballs.
Except that he’s not Steph Curry dribbling basketballs, and this isn’t a show we can turn off. The Republican Party’s tactics since Reagan may be responsible for this toxic mess, but we’re all in it now and only eight months from a possible Trump presidency, and if you think that’s unlikely – I still do - consider how likely it seemed that this scowling fraud would become the presumptive Republican nominee. The impossible is becoming the norm - which is how it usually goes, I suspect.
It’s at times like this that I wish I could sit down with my father again. I’d like to ask him what he makes of all this.
My father knew something about politics, and I’m not talking about his Ph.D. in Political Science. He was fifteen when he watched Hitler’s motorcade come through his home town in Czechoslovakia, the Fuhrer, visible only as a visored cap, standing up in his limousine. He was seventeen when he joined the resistance without telling his father, who had himself joined without telling his family. He was twenty-one when, as a cub reporter for Lidove Noviny, he was forced to report on the political executions in the main square.
In short, my father (as well as my mother), understood that politics have consequences, that democracies can turn, that there’s nothing in particular preventing buffoons and idiots (or charismatic charmers) from turning into tyrants and that once power has shown its hand, you’ll watch, amazed, as those you expected to hold the line fight to kiss the tyrant’s feet.
It’s because of this – because my parents had witnessed first-hand the havoc that the political process can wreak - that politics were never just a special interest in our house. They mattered, supremely, despite (or maybe precisely because of) the shallowness, the propaganda, the compromises, the inevitable bullshit involved. A person’s political beliefs, I was taught early on, were not an adjunct to their identity but an expression of it, a window onto their deepest-held beliefs about what constituted fairness, say, or how a decent society should be arranged. To be asked to check those views at the door, therefore (as was the case in America, maybe because Americans confuse debate with conflict), was like being asked to check your brain, your heart, your history: What was left? Your opinion on lawn furniture?
This is what I think my father (whose appreciation for the human comedy never descended into cheap cynicism, whose sense of justice remains my true north) would tell me today: ‘Be careful. It should still work out: American pluralism and the free press, however compromised, are still powerful things; the white blood cells of the body politic, so to speak, will probably clean this mess up, but be careful. This man, with his clowning, his bombast, his disdain for truth, his authoritarian instincts and his shape-shifting opportunism, has the stench of the dictator about him. Above all, don’t forget that it’s never the man himself who matters – alone, he’s nothing - but the people he activates: he gives them life, they in turn make him, and eventually he’s just running in front of the mob – feeding it, distracting it - to keep from being run over.’
By the time you get to that point, he’d explain, the process doesn’t even require new laws; it’s self-propelling, self-perpetuating - a contagion of belief. Fueled on slogans, it plays out on a micro-scale – in the Jiffy Lube waiting room, the dentist’s office, the local bar - a million points of patriotic hate.
‘This is the fire your Mr. Trump is playing with,’ my father would tell me. ‘Who knows if he understands what he’s doing; in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Once unreason begins to roar, it’s hard to stop.’
You want to make it real? This is how it would work.
It’s the fall of 2017. President Donald Trump, having begun to tack to the center immediately after locking down the Republican nomination, has been in the White House for ten months, swept into office on a tide of generalized outrage and a vague yearning for ‘change.’ Shocked by his numbers, sensing where the political advantage lies, a majority of the members of Congress have fallen in line. The stacking of the judiciary has begun.
Not surprisingly (as early as the winter of 2016 Trump had signaled that he favored strengthening libel laws to make it easier to sue the press), the opposition is demonized. Reacting to the anger of its readers, bleeding subscribers, the press quietly begins to censor itself.
Meanwhile, the “low information” voters who swept Trump into office, many of whom believed that immigrants should be deported en masse, that Islam should be declared illegal and gays prevented from entering the United States, have identified the enemy, and the enemy is anyone who criticizes the man who would make America great again.
It feels good to hate, especially when a lot of other people agree with you. It gives you a sense of community. And hope.
Things are so much clearer now.
As for the rest of us – the majority of us, anyway - well, not that much has changed. Unless we go out of our way to deliberately call attention to ourselves, we’re ‘free’ to do pretty much all the things we did before: go to work, have a beer on the porch, upgrade to that new phone.
All we have to do is watch what we text. It’s only common sense.