After watching the second presidential debate last night—and it wasn’t easy to stay tuned—it occurred to me that almost aside from everything that was said, the real takeaway from this insult fest was the singular creepiness on display. And here I am referring not to the sometime creepiness of Hillary, though there is something of that in her, but the unparalleled creepiness of Donald Trump. The Drumpf is a really creepy human being—if, in fact, he even qualifies as human. This is what sticks in mind from last night’s debate: The Donald prowling the stage in his overly large blue suit and red power tie, flaunting his straw hair and paunchy gut and floridly pockmarked face, sniffing repeatedly as if with a stuffy nose, and generally creeping out everyone nearby; with Hillary trying to get as far from him as she possibly could, and even the moderators, Martha Radatz and Anderson Cooper, indicating from their body language and constant frowns that they too hoped he wouldn’t get any closer. The man is a walking disease—though I am quite happy to admit that the latest bombshell to hit his campaign, the release of his obscene gloating with one of the little Bushies about his ability to molest all the beauties he encounters because as a star he is allowed to even grab their pussies—may have had its influence. I mean, who would want to be within even hearing distance of such a creep?
And yet, he is the presidential candidate of one of the two major parties. And yet, his popularity ratings continue no matter what he says or does. How is one to understand this? To what can it be compared?
In a way, to make any reasonable comparison to the possibility of such a creep becoming president, one has to go back to the Romans. I mean the Roman emperors like Tiberius and Caligula and Nero. To be sure, it was Augustus who initiated the damage; or perhaps it was Caesar before him; the damage being the discarding of the ancient Republic in favor of an empire ruled by an Emperor. Absolute rule, in other words, with the Senate as simply a rubber stamp. But Augustus more or less tempered his dictatorship with the democratic traditions he grew up with. Not so his successors. With increasing savagery, Tiberius and Nero and Caligula introduced a barbarism, a licentiousness, a cruelty and perversion that mass audiences became familiar with in the PBS dramatization of Robert Graves’ hit, I Claudius. I don’t know, perhaps Donald Trump himself watched and was inspired by the show (perhaps that’s where he got the idea of prosecuting Hillary once he’s elected, something dictators do routinely to their political opponents). Or perhaps he’s just naturally a megalomaniac, a homegrown, dyed-in-the-wool creep. However it happened, Trump’s creepiness, on full display last night, can only be compared to those ancient Roman creeps who cemented the full and total abandonment of democracy in ancient Rome and ushered in the imperial debauchery that has since become our standard for the unbridled government power that corrupts absolutely.
Beyond just the nausea, though, what also occurred to me is that, like Claudius, we may be witnessing the ‘hatching out’ of all the imperial poisons that have been growing in our own alleged democracy in recent years. Trump may be the emblem, the representative, the payback for all the sins of our fathers, in other words; sins that, though long denied by the national myth, have become increasingly apparent. Far from being conceived innocently as the great “shining city on a hill,” that is, the United States of America was founded on slaughter and slavery. The slaughter of the native Americans encountered by those intrepid colonists at Plymouth Rock and Boston seems every day more clear and irredeemable (see the recent book by Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America). Nor did it end with the New England wars, King Philip’s War and the Pequot War, both of which ended with the few surviving Indians enslaved and shipped to Caribbean sugar plantations. The wars against native Americans lasted well into recent history, culminating only a few years ago with the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. As to the slavery, that has not ended either—even with the Emancipation Proclamation—but only shifted emphasis, first to the horrors of Jim Crow in the South, and then morphing into the Drug Wars of the 1980s that solved the ‘problem’ of black men by putting most of them in prison. But instead of solving the problem, the endless cultural disease spawned by slavery has only come back to haunt us again and again. Not even a black president has made a difference; on the contrary, the Obama presidency seems only to have stoked the fires of white racist resentment to burn even hotter in recent years. And in response to accusations that unresolved racism is behind the commonplace police killings of black men, we get even more resentment and racism, now openly expressed on the internet, which is itself sanctioned by the thinly veiled racism of a major presidential candidate and his openly racist followers. And it is truly creepy.
So this is what last night’s debate left me—and, I gather, many others around the nation—with: the need to take a long, hot, disinfecting shower. The need to distance myself and those I love from this creep who is pretending to the presidency. I’m not sure if some of the citizens of Rome or those in the Weimar Republic had this same feeling. But I would guess they did. What alarms me is that neither their numbers, in either case, nor their revulsion and disgust were enough. The creeps in ancient Rome and the little creep in Germany were able to con sufficient numbers (by redirecting the wrath of the masses at convenient scapegoats) to reach the heights of power, at least for a time. Trump, even wounded as he is, may be able to do the same—especially if large numbers of us respond to the creepiness by casting a pox on both their houses and refusing to vote at all. That would be the fulfillment of Republican hopes and strategy, and the great mistake of all time, but I fear in this season of amazing improbables, it may be possible. And that is a truly terrifying thought.