Fear itself

I’m old now. I’m not old old — I’ll be 61 before the month’s out — but I’m old enough to remember a lot of things that have faded into history. I remember 1968, when MLK and RFK went down to assassins, and protesters in Chicago got beat down by the city’s finest. I remember Uncle Walter reciting the latest Vietnam death numbers on the evening news that year. I also remember the Cards blowing the Series to the Tigers — but that’s another story for a different time.

What I mostly remember from ’68, though, is the fear. I was only 8 years old but I could still feel it. I was afraid of the rioting I saw on TV. I was afraid of what I saw from Chicago, back in the days when every station carried the political party conventions wall-to-wall. I was afraid of everything still going on in the South, where it appeared old times would most certainly not be forgotten. And mostly, as a child, I was afraid that everything was coming apart.

But I grew older and things grew calmer and that kind of fear receded. I felt that America had legitimately matured and improved, with a lot of the old stupid prejudices at least fading, even if they hadn’t been put down. I was a young adult, and young adults are allowed to be naive.

It was then that I first heard of Donald Trump. He was this cartoon character/real estate developer type who emerged amid 1980s excess, and I mostly knew of him through my Spy magazine subscription. They hated him with the heat of a thousand suns, but he still became a man of the era. He was a swaggering playboy with bad taste in suits and architecture, his marriages always were blowing up and he was forever fighting with bankers. Still, he was weirdly entertaining. You had to be completely unplugged from pop culture to be unaware of him.

But that era ended and he faded in importance and visibility. I thought it was hilarious when “The Apprentice” picked him up years later — I hadn’t thought about the guy at all for years, and he seemed the very definition of a Z-list celebrity — and I didn’t put any focus on him until he came up with the birther nonsense. That got him a regular gig on Fox News, and suddenly his pop culture star started rising. Then he comically announced a presidential bid in 2016 (an effort considered so un-serious that Saturday Night Live gave him a hosting gig after his announcement).

You all know what happened from there. He started talking about the Magic Wall to Keep the Brown People Out, and a giant field of little-known-to-the-public GOP candidates started consuming each other while he focused on those very special fears I felt when I was a child. The reactionary media-entertainment complex knew a good earner when they saw one, and they latched on. His talk got bolder and meaner and more detached from anything resembling reality. The weirder it got, the more he was rewarded. Next thing we knew, he was getting sworn in as president.

I already wrote about his bleak, depressing inauguration speech — easily the most uninspiring and frightening address of its kind in my lifetime. And then things got even weirder right away.

There’s no need to recap the subsequent four years, which lurched between comical incompetence and genuine menace. What frightened me the most, though, was the cult-ish political rallies, with Trump nudging on crowds who sure seemed like mobs-in-training to me. When I thought these couldn’t get worse, they became superspreader events in a pandemic — one of many times I would fail to measure rock bottom in this presidency.

Still, enough people wised up and Trump got his ass well and truly kicked in the general election. Incumbent presidents just don’t lose by this much any more. Only Jimmy Carter has caught a beating like this in my lifetime, and that was 40 years ago. This happened even as the down-ballot Republicans had a truly great election, and that should have told some of his folks something.

It didn’t. Post-election, we got Trump’s finest tinhorn dictator imitation, with ridiculous doomed election challenges and various opportunists (and worse) on Capitol Hill raising untold millions of dollars. Every moment I thought that he’d finally back off, he’d actually double down. You could feel the spring winding ever more tightly.

That brought us to Wednesday. I absurdly assumed the whole rally thing would be an opportunity for a release valve to be triggered. Trump could be adored one more time, his most ardent supporters could vent and promise not to go away, maybe a few scuffles would break out and we could all try to move back to what passes for normalcy now. But he lit the match instead.

Now five people — including a police officer — are dead. The symbolic center of modern democracy has been sacked. People who thought they were surrounded with a magical Trumpian shield are being arrested, and some will do time.

I’m waiting for the person who started this bonfire to be held responsible. Meanwhile, that old creeping fear has returned.

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