Steinberg: Inauguration Day — a hard rain’s gonna fall
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Harry Truman was an angry man, given to firing off unwise attacks. Richard Nixon was vindictive and paranoid. Andrew Jackson was a hater. Warren G. Harding, a featherhead who surrounded himself with crooks.
We’ve had flawed presidents before. Though never have all these negative qualities and more been bound up in a single individual, such as the one who will put his hand on a Bible at noon Friday and swear to uphold the Constitution.
The tendency is to point, horrified, at the latest offense. My God, he’s slurring civil rights icon John Lewis! He’s carping about Saturday Night Live, days before his inauguration!
And I’m glad someone is keeping score. Though, to me, there is a futility in professing shock when somebody behaves exactly as he always behaves. Given Donald Trump’s track record as a liar, a bully and a fraud, each new instance of lying, bullying and fraud can hardly come as a surprise. The hope that his getting elected would change anything vanished in the past months of serial pettiness. The presidency will not elevate Trump; he will degrade it, and us. I don’t believe that slapping your forehead every time he says something grotesque will do anything but give you a bruised forehead. It sure didn’t keep him from being elected.
Paying attention to his words is deceptive. When Trump promised “insurance for everybody,” hope fluttered — maybe, in his eagerness to please, he would tack the other way. Nixon went to China; maybe Trump will usher in the medical system found in every industrialized nation on earth but ours. Maybe he will put undocumented workers on the path to citizenship and call his program “The Wall.”
Then I realized. “Oh. More lies.” It’s easy to recognize lies when you disagree. But a lie that plays to your hope goes down easily. We’ve seen that, big time, haven’t we?
Our nation pinned its hope on a fantasy of how this country once was. Make America Great Again. Words have become unmoored and flap around like something in “Alice and Wonderland.” Like any con artist, Trump tells his audience what it wants to hear. The man who has been vigorously driving wedges into the country’s divisions will mouth many a soaring phrase Friday about greatness and unity. Then Saturday he’ll be back on Twitter.
No matter. This isn’t about Trump. He’d disagree because, to him, everything is about Trump. So I’ll say it one more time. He’s a symptom, not a cause. The Republican Party meticulously laid the groundwork for him over a quarter century, starting with Ronald Reagan’s cheery jihad against government, given steel by Newt Gingrich’s deeply cynical use of Orwellian buzzwords. Calling Democrats traitors began as a tactic. Then they began to believe it.
So focus not on Trump, but the nation that conjured him. Fix it, and he’ll be powerless. Trump didn’t create hate, he exploited it. It was already there. If I thought this moment is the low point, that in four or eight years the nation would come blinking out of the tunnel and start chugging upward toward daylight, I’d be happy. But nobody has a clue where this will take us. Trump could be a buffoonish interlude, the clown who comes out between acts. Or he could be Charon, rowing us across the River Styx to our new home, Hell. There could be worse to come.
For now, bad days ahead. The vindictive millions will have their season of carnival, high on hate. It’s already started. Good folk will suffer. Some will protest, though my fear is that protest might help Trump more than it hurts him.
Either way, now the hard rains come. The people on the hilltops will do alright, as the well-positioned tend to, soaked and scared but essentially OK. The ones in the valleys will flail in the swirling waters and some will drown. When the flood recedes, we’ll see what’s left of this country we love. If I thought shaking my fist at the rain every day would make it stop, I would. But it won’t.