Historians may mark the moment that best captured the America that now dangles from a cliff as the day when the president of the United States bragged that he had "aced" a dementia screening exam requiring him to name the current month and identify an elephant -- and then refused to disclose the test results. If nothing else, President Donald Trump's unreassuring defense of his cognitive skills spawned the marketing of an impressive array of "Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV." merchandise.
But there are so many moments to choose from that are fully capable of giving that one a run for its money. Each week provides Trump's countrymen a fresh supply of reasons to be frightened, repulsed or both by a leader not merely flagrantly corrupt but dangerous. Last week was another one.
With his popularity tanking, a debacle of a campaign rally in Tulsa and one in New Hampshire called on account of disinterest, Trump re-upped his threat to reject the results of any election in which he is defeated. "When somebody's the president of the United States," he informed us recently, "the authority is total, and that's the way it's got to be." This fullthroated embrace of totalitarianism caused no stir among Trump's defenders, who increasingly resemble the wait staff in a Berchtesgaden bunker. Trump has openly proclaimed that there are no limits to what he believes he can do if he wants to do it. Fox's Chris Wallace asked him whether he would adhere to the most basic precept of democratic government: that leaders who lose elections voluntarily and peacefully turn power over to the winner. "I have to see," replied Trump. "No, I'm not going to say yes. I'm not going to say no."
The president doubled down on his utterly bogus claim that the upcoming election will be "rigged," the sort of proto-fascist rubbish that could plunge the nation into our worst internal crisis since the Civil War. Credit Donald Trump: He knows that a sizable chunk of America won't be the slightest bit disturbed by the jettisoning of hitherto fundamental American norms.
With the election approaching, Team Trump resurrected the so-called "coronavirus briefings," which, in actuality, are riff sessions at which the president uses the White House backdrop to air grievances and make stuff up. After months deriding the pandemic as a "hoax" that was nothing to worry about, and after it had infected 4 million Americans and taken 145,000 American lives, Trump announced that he was "in the process of developing a strategy" to address it.
Equally jarring was the president's friendly shoutout to Ghislaine Maxwell, charged with running a child sex-trafficking operation for Trump playmate Jeffrey Epstein. "I just wish her well, frankly," said our president to Maxwell, accused of transporting minors across state lines for sex with Epstein and his buddies. "I've met her numerous times over the years. But I wish her well." It required neither imagination nor cynicism to infer that Trump knows that Maxwell knows what he does not want others to know, and that Trump was making the same "keep quiet" reach-out he has made to convicted felons and Trump confidantes Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
Trump has boasted of a lifetime committing sexual assault with impunity, and there is a video of Epstein and him leering at women at Epstein's Florida mansion, as well as numerous photos of them together. It is true there's no direct evidence that Trump availed himself of more than Epstein's friendship. But it is likewise true that when a waterfowl waddles like a duck and quacks like one, what we probably have is a duck. Trump's warm wishes to the keeper of Jeffrey Epstein's secrets brings more than the faint outline of a duck into relief, as well as the discernible sound of something quacking.
There is no gainsaying that what with pandemic, recession and a disaster in chief, Americans find themselves in a deep hole. The good news is that we soon have a chance to climb back out of it.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.