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Mourning in America

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As I write these words, the world’s hollowest man is literally leaving the White House, for what we can only pray will be the last time.

The sheer pettiness of Trump’s departure today is of a piece with everything else about him. One thing that no one who is both marginally honest and marginally intelligent can say is that anything that Trump did while in office, including inciting a seditious lynch mob to invade and ransack the Capitol, was in any real sense surprising.

Donald Trump has always been exactly what he has always appeared to be: The world’s hollowest man is also its least mysterious. As many people have noted, Trump constantly did things right out in the open that would have been considered administration-destroying scandals if they had been done in secret, and then exposed.

There was no exposure, really, during the Trump years: there was only constant open shamelessness. (The Spanish term sinverguenza, which can be translated roughly as “someone who constantly flaunts his utter lack of shame to the world” is a better description for Trump than any English word).

We’re going to hear a lot today about how Trump didn’t “really” reflect who we are as a nation. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” said Joe Biden on January 6th. But they did and they do. 74 million Americans voted for Trump in November — 11 million more than four years earlier — even though again no one can honestly claim that what Trump did on January 6th was in any way even slightly surprising. It was completely in character for Trump to manipulate a violent mob into attempting to lynch his political opponents and even his own vice president.

That happened because nearly half of the American public that bothered to vote are either deeply indifferent to Trump’s total depravity, or more often actively approve of it. “What we’re seeing are a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness,” Biden went on to say. This statement is typical of the soothing lies we tell ourselves about how this isn’t who we are as a nation. But it is, and that won’t change because Donald Trump is, at least for the moment, gone.

One good thing emerging from the Pandora’s box of the last four years is a lot more pushback against nonsensical claims about American exceptionalism, and our magic Constitution, and the awe-inspiring spectacle — seen nowhere else in the world apparently — of the “peaceful transfer of power.”

True patriotism — the genuine love of one’s country — is never based on the belief that your country is great, but rather on the acceptance of the fact that it is yours.

John Ruskin observed that the Florentines did not love Florence because she was beautiful, but strove to make her beautiful because they loved her. That sentiment is utterly alien to grotesque ethno-nationalism that put Trump in the White House, and that will still be very much with us four hours and four years and four decades from now.

Americans, or more precisely the kinds of Americans who have always run this country, are good at forgetting the past, and replacing it with an imaginary narrative that only mumbles about or omits altogether all the parts of that past that we and especially they would prefer to forget.

Donald Trump is every bit as characteristic an American figure as Abraham Lincoln. Developing the ability to keep both those thoughts in one’s mind at the same time is pretty much the whole point of a liberal education, which is why the right wing in this country hates universities so much.

So today is a day to both celebrate and mourn. It seems likely that one day people will look back on it as the beginning of the end of something. Just what that something will end up being remains up to us.

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