The Roman god of portals was the two-faced Janus. With sets of eyes on both sides of his head, he was capable of looking both backward into the past and forward into the future. On this election day 2020, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on these past four years of the Trump Administration and offer some insight, for what it’s worth, as we move together into the next four years regardless of who wins the presidential election
“Teflon Don” is a nickname that has often been applied to President Trump. Seeing how so few of the numerous controversies with which he has been associated have failed to “stick” to him or to alienate many of his supporters, it is clearly an apt moniker. If I’m being honest, however, many of the so called controversies never should have risen to the level of serious discussion. Based upon my long experience as one who appreciates, teaches, and regularly employs metaphorical language, I think an even more appropriate comparison for President Trump than a Teflon pan is a child’s toy, the Etch-a-Sketch.
At whatever point Mr. Trump began to aspire to political office as a Republican, he already owned a long history of promoting liberal causes and candidates. His Democrat-leaning past was in dire need of erasing. Therefore, with both hands, he gripped the Etch-a-Sketch on which his past was drawn, shook it violently, and rode down the escalator inside of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy as a blank slate. This time, however, he kept his own fingers off of the directional knobs and abdicated the responsibility for filling it in to each of us, which allowed him to surface from the lead filings as a sort of shape shifter. He became whatever each of us wanted or needed him to be: a wall-building savior for some but a fascist-leaning demagogue to others. The truth is that we are all much better at defining ourselves in opposition to others, elucidating what we are not, than we are at simply proclaiming whom we are. Trump used this tendency to his advantage and rode it to the highest office in the land.
In the course of his life prior to his presidential aspirations, President Trump had exhibited little, if any, adherence to unshakable bedrock principles. In Dante’s Inferno, upon death, people like Trump are assigned to the vestibule of Hell, an anteroom reserved for “Neutrals,” people who, in life, were never really in or out but chose to never take a stand to which they could be pinned down. They are doomed to forever chase a white flag symbolizing, not surrender but the lack of devotion to any one thing or cause. These Neutrals endure being constantly stung by hornets and wasps that cause blood and pus to ooze from their wounds and to create a shallow pool populated by maggots and worms at the sinners’ feet. The pro-life, free market, promoter of family values, and supposedly god-fearing Trump of today is a far different manifestation than the pro-choice, big government-supporting, skirt-chasing, and irreligious Trump of his not-so-younger days. He is now, nor will he ever be, more or less than that which is projected upon him. He is being used by both his followers and his haters as much as he is using them, but he is the only one laughing on the way to the bank.
As a result of his lack of firmly-held values, his supporters (Evangelicals, One Percenters, blue collar Joes and Janes, conservatives, xenophobes, and racists) create a portrait of Trump that is a persona, not a real person, onto whom they project many of their own hopes, dreams, and visions of what America should be, or he is the Etch-a-Sketch on which they draw the version of a leader they most desire. The same is true, however, for those who revile the man (socialists, the poor, Dreamers, liberals, service workers, feminists, and supporters of alternative lifestyles). He is the bogeyman of their personal creation, a hyperbolic embodiment of all their fears and their nightmare visions of a dystopian America.
I remember in the aftermath of the 2016 election, I earnestly asked a Trump-hater acquaintance to at least give the newly-elected president a chance. After all, I reminded him, Abraham Lincoln was rejected by a majority of the electorate, loved by few, and downright abhorred by many. He was thought to be an unsophisticated country rube with no qualifications for the presidency, yet he became one of the greatest presidents to ever occupy the White House. Looking back, I was certainly overly-optimistic in my hopes for competency from the oval office, but my friend was equally wrong in denying the President the benefit of the doubt, and he must also assume a modicum of the blame for Trump’s failures, for a leader can only be as effectual as those under his charge are willing to be led. And, please don’t get me started on the tit-for-tat of Republicans showed the same recalcitrance and spewed even worse vitriol towards President Obama’s agenda. We can do better.
This chameleon-like ability is both President Trump’s genius – although I hesitate to use the word because I do not believe he is conscious of his own modus operandi – and simultaneously his Achilles heel. At some point, he will be more like the emperor who realizes he is naked than the Lion, Tin Man, or Scarecrow who learns the virtue they sought was inside of them all along. Just as Martin Luther KIng said the arc of history bends toward justice, that arc leads to a reckoning.
Although President Trump has done much to fray the seams of the fabric that has kept Americans and their institutions together for over two hundred years, he is certainly not solely responsible for the coming apart of the American quilt. Even from a proud liberal thinker like myself, it would be a bit disingenuous to blame him entirely for his perceived shortcomings and faults or for the fractured state in which we find ourselves. Employing the often-used twist on Commodore Perry’s famous post Battle of Lake Erie communique, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
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