Ah, but no. We are admonished from doing that. This is America, and it is special, and it does not swoon for demagogues. It has gone through hard times, sure — the Civil War and the Great Depression and the Red Scare following World War I and the Russian Revolution, and the McCarthy period following the onset of the Cold War. It has done terrible things to the Indians, enslaved blacks and thereafter remained exuberantly racist both in custom and law. It incarcerated U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent and, for a time, was so deeply anti-Semitic that it turned its back on frantic Jews fleeing extermination. But overall — and especially when compared with lots of other countries — we have been downright marvelous. And so we insist.
But did you see Trump at his rallies in Tampa and in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.? The usual litany of lies and invective and the standard slander of the press were upped a notch. This time it was more personal. “Horrible, horrendous people,” he said of reporters in Pennsylvania. “Fake, fake, disgusting news,” he said of their product. CNN’s Jim Acosta was menaced by the crowd in Tampa. It stood behind him chanting “CNN sucks” and the president not only did not call for order — did not, in other words, act presidential — but also later when his son Eric tweeted a video of it all, Trump retweeted his approval.
There has never been anything like this in America. We have suffered the occasional regional or third-party fool running for president — the racists Strom Thurmond and George C. Wallace come to mind. But American presidents were there to thwart them, to bottle them up. No president has ever held the rallies Trump has. The outpouring of venom, the toying with violence gives them an old newsreel cast. We have seen such faces here, contorted in the ecstasy of hate. Yes, in 1957 when nine black kids enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High School. Yes, nine years later when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took his movement to Chicago. It has taken Trump to revive the face of American hate.
The president’s party has fallen into line. His press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to say if she agrees that the media is “the enemy of the people” — Trump’s term of deep totalitarian provenance. But from much of the GOP came cowed silence. Trump has transformed the GOP into an updated Know-Nothing Party — anti-immigrant, for sure, but anti-science as well. Few dare criticize him. Those who do face defeat in primaries, and those who don’t vie for his endorsement. Northern liberals once trafficked with Southern segregationists, but this is different. This is now.
Look at Trump’s comments on the prosecution of Paul Manafort. He has tweeted that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.” It is the Trumpian version of Henry II’s “who will rid me of this troublesome priest,” which led to the murder of Thomas Becket. Who will be surprised if Trump pardons Manafort? No one can stop him. Paul D. Ryan would make a face, and Mitch McConnell would mildly denounce it, but the rest of the GOP would roll over, puppy-like, so Trump could scratch its stomach.
Trump has debased the presidency. He has removed America from its moral and practical leadership role in world affairs. Like a bratty kid, he has spitballed foreign leaders — Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron — mocking them for their principles. Yet, he has nothing bad to say about Vladimir Putin, the neo-Romanov ruler of Russia and soon, maybe, of the “Little Russians” as well. Ukraine, beware.
He has resumed the exploitation of the wilderness and the pollution of the environment. Above all, he has polluted our politics. The swamp he vowed to drain is now fetid with even more lobbyists and rancid with his lies. He said he would make America great again, but he has reduced it in influence and conducted his presidency in a manner we have never seen before. Donald Trump is a new kind of American president, the sort the Founding Fathers feared. America once again has a mad king.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.