Two thousand years ago, in Greece, the biographer Plutarch assessed the legacy of Cleon, an infamous Athenian demagogue who wreaked great havoc on that ancient democracy.
Plutarch on Cleon:
“Vulgar and audacious…buffoonish and reckless… he stripped political oratory of its decorum, setting the fashion of yelling when addressing the people, and imbuing politics with a triviality and contempt for propriety that soon after would ruin the entire state.”
The pomp and hymns and religious homilies could not mask the historic shame of this Inauguration Day. As former George W. Bush speechwriter and steadfast conservative David Frum tweeted earlier today, Trump is “the worst human being ever to enter the presidency, and I include all the slaveholders.”
He said it, not me.
What we endured, for a blessedly brief 16 minutes, was a populist primal howl that could’ve been delivered virtually word for word at an airport hangar in Dubuque in the heat of the campaign. Yes, there were a few rote attempts at Kumbaya — Trump actually said that we should “debate our disagreements honestly,” which was hilarious, coming from an unparalleled practitioner of dishonesty — but mostly what we got was darkness at noon.
I’ve purposely borrowed that phrase from the novelist Arthur Koestler, whose famous book “Darkness at Noon” chronicled the ravages of Russian totalitarianism. This seems appropriate, because prince of darkness Vladimir Putin — Trump’s bro crush, the guy who helped Trump eke out his Electoral College win by pumping Russian-directed propaganda into the campaign (an invasion still being investigated by at least six federal agencies) — is surely celebrating some of the stuff that Trump said today. This, for instance:
For many decades, we’ve…subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own…But that is the past. And now, we are looking only to the future. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision…on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
Decoded: The heck with NATO. The heck with the postwar global alliance led by America to deter foreign aggression.
Decoded: If a foreign power does something aggressive — if, for instance, Russia moves against the Baltic states, like Estonia — we won’t necessarily respond by honoring our NATO commitments.
And the reason is, we’re gonna be too busy eradicating our own “American carnage.” Reprising the dark picture he painted at the Republican convention, he went on about “the crime and the gangs and the drugs,” but there’s no point in fact-checking Trump, no point in reminding everyone that the murder rate, for example, has been on a generally downward slide since 1990, that property crime rates are the lowest since 1996, and so on, because facts and context are out of fashion in Trumplandia. Truth is what the Leader decrees it to be, unless or until his political fortunes slide.
And that could happen. Trump sure did promise a lot; he set up his fans for bigly disappointment. The crime and the gangs and the drugs will magically go away (“this American carnage stops right here and stops right now”). The factories will magically return to the Rustbelt (oh really?). The nation will be magically festooned with “new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways” (financed by tax dollars? from this Republican Congress?). And despite his polarizing conduct, we will magically be united as One: “A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions…whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”
Wait a sec. Think about the last thing he said. Don’t be surprised that if black or brown people refuse to “heal,” they’ll be assailed as unpatriotic. What I saw today was not an olive branch extended in friendship, but a clenched fist — which he literally raised when his remarks were finished. Even gut-fighting Dick Nixon managed in his ’69 address to plead for us all to “listen to the better angels of our nature.” But Trump’s fealty is only to the 46.1 percent of voters who put him in power, and to the Kremlin accomplice who heard Trump’s paen to isolationism as music to Russian ears.
The resilience of our institutions, which too often we take for granted, will arguably be tested as never before. Republican strategist John Weaver tweeted it best soon after Trump stopped talking: “Dark, scary, authoritarian. Legally the president, not legitimately. We outnumber if band together. Resist what isn’t normal.”
Say it, bro.