“That was some weird shit,” surmised our forty-third president, George W. Bush, as he departed the inaugural of our forty-fifth, Donald J. Trump. Four years on, the American carnage visualized by Trump at his inaugural—his “weird shit”—has been realized in full. We descended, slowly but surely, into his tangled web of threats that he carefully crafted to assure the manifestation of his psychopathy as our collective doom.
Would he become presidential, transformed by the traditions and honor of his office? No, he would not. Would he be cajoled and contained by veterans of American exceptionalism? No, he made short shrift of them; one crisp dark blue suit at a time. In the end, he was left with Mr. Pillow, the last and lowest of his sycophants, save America’s (former) mayor, Rudy Giuliani.
Cormac McCarthy could have written it, but none of us would have believed him. The Road, a feat of dystopic eloquence, feels too real today. Hardscrabble America, as the playwright Sam Shepard celebrated, was an early victim. That America belonged to Trump too. Remember, “Trump Loves Coal!”? He promised them deliverance from their fears of falling into irrelevance, or worse. But, dying of whiteness became a thing. Deaths of despair eviscerated rural America; MAGA hats clasped upon their chests as they were lowered into the cemeteries of their ancestors.
It seems we have slipped on every step as we stumbled toward peril; as if the edges of each riser were glazed in black ice. An empire lost. Generations of toil and sacrifice butchered at the altar of a malignant narcissist as his insatiable appetite raged; a gluttonous monster. “America First” was, in truth: Trump first, last, and always.
Today, we are left looking over our shoulders as we attempt to live our lives. The web of threats we face strangle us with demonic ire. Invisible death lurks in the contrails of each human exhalation we pass. Some families have grown deeper in their conviction to each other, while others have been lost. Communities and companies and churches struggle to remain united behind the glassy indifference of Zoom screens. Children, whose memory banks are naturally low, struggle to remember what happiness is. Despair has taken up residency in the soul of America.
We have hit bottom, or damn close. Weird shit, indeed. Will God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea? It seems unlikely today, but who knows? For the moment, most of us have survived what has been a monumental challenge—to evade the gangrenous rot of Donald Trump. While there are those who still dangle, tethered by their stubborn sense of denial—continuing to support the madness Trump hath wrought—their tentacles will eventually wither in the sunlight of truth. We may no longer count them as friends or family, or possess the mercy to catch them as they fall, but it is what it is. Life is an onward proposition.
It will be a long road out from this purgatory. We must resist the notion of sudden deliverance or redemption. It will take all of our strength and resources. Hard work and hard love. Time. We were crossed by a madman, but that too is our responsibility. Determination must supplant compromise for now. Those who continue to suckle the nipple of deceit must be relinquished of their authority; banished from further consideration. If we are to save America from treasonous Americans—whether Proud Boys, QAnon, or members of the United States Congress—we must do so with the disposition and strength of a grizzly bear. The stakes are simply too high.
Our first president, George Washington, warned us in his farewell address that
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetuated the most horrid enormities, is itself frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.
We have lived through Washington’s warning; we must never forget this lesson again.
May we find strength and resolve in our memories of those who preceded us, and inspiration and hope in the promise of those who follow.