Two of the world's most unpredictable leaders are meeting in Singapore, each with an olive branch in one hand, a nuclear missile in the other. Our Narcissist-in-Chief cozies up to autocrats while he alienates our natural allies. The country and the world are tip-toeing along the edge of a treacherous cliff. The United States is bracing for the possibility of a dangerous, even irreversible transformation. Some look forward to it with anticipation. Others of us live in dread.
I hear ominous echoes of words and events from a century ago, almost to the year, in the poem by W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming," which I've reproduced at the end of the post.
We are a country built on a constitution and a system of laws, but they aren't enough to hold us together. We depend on the gravitational pull of societal customs and norms to keep us from falling prey our worst tribal, anti-democratic instincts. With Trump's constant stream of lies and half truths, with his condemnation of every branch of government which isn't under his absolute control, with his willingness to go it alone without guidance from governmental traditions or responsible advisors, he is pulling us ever further from our gravitational center.
If Trump and his enablers continue to spiral out of control, carrying us further from the established norms of the executive branch, they will break free from the force which binds this country, as imperfect and as wrong-headed as it often is, together. Lincoln's appeal to the better angels of our nature, the great president's plea that we use the Constitution to help us form a more perfect union, will become so many pretty words piled on the ash heap of discarded ideals.
The center is barely holding. We're falling apart, with no way of knowing what form the shattered bits and pieces of our country will take when they're reassembled.
When I write these T.H.R.E.A.T. Watch posts, which I began the week after Trump's election, I watch the comments section fill with paeans to Trump and his accomplishments and scorn for anyone who thinks differently. The passionate intensity of Trump's supporters jumps off the page with an untamed energy which makes a response nearly impossible. Most readers who agree with what I write remain silent. A few try arguing with the Trump acolytes, but they find themselves shouted down. They're left with the choice of swapping insults with the Trumpists or leaving the field.
Democratic leaders oppose nearly everything Trump stands for, yet they seem flummoxed. They don't know how to respond. Instead of expressing outrage at Trump's excesses, they issue passionless, hyper-logical statements devoid of the kind of conviction which springs from Trump's supporters. The only people who scream like their hair is on fire are the Never Trump Republicans, those writers and analysts and ex-campaign managers who remain true to their conservative Republican convictions, which they see being blown to pieces by something that calls itself the Republican Party but has morphed into the Party of Trump. Occasionally an elected Republican joins the unelected Never Trumpers. Our own Jeff Flake is one of them, speaking and writing often about his fear of the direction Trump is taking the country. Most recently he responded to the way Trump trashed Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and reneged on the G-7 summit agreement, tweeting, "Fellow Republicans, this is not who we are. This cannot be our party." From his sick bed, John McCain tweeted in kind: "To our allies: . . . Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t." Both are men of conscience, though they might not be willing to speak as forcefully if they planned to run for reelection.
President Reagan spoke of the vision of the United States as a "shining city on a hill." It's an overblown image — I prefer Lincoln's aspirational goals to Reagan's sense that we have arrived at our glorious destination — but it's a lofty, uplifting image. A bald eagle soaring overhead would complete the picture. Trump's imagery has nothing to do with shining cities or better angels or more perfect unions. His chosen image is the swamp. He has turned himself into some kind of rough beast, a creature moving in the shallows, his reptilian body lumbering through the muck, its human head just above the water line, searching for prey.
W. B. Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, which was called "the war to end all wars," a phrase that has taken on an ironic meaning which wasn't intended at the time. Yeats was also living through a struggle for independence in his native Ireland. The world's future looked dark. In its early form, his poem had specific historical references, but he removed them as he revised, giving the finished product the timeless quality which has made it among the most quoted "modern" poems.
What I've written above is a very loose, contemporary paraphrase of Yeat's words and images, but my translation isn't really necessary. The message of his century-old poem, below, is all too clear, and all too appropriate to this moment in history.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?