The presidents were not all men of greatness. The briefest stroll through the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's exhibit on the presidents confirms that. There was dim party tool Warren G. Harding and crony catspaw Ulysses S. Grant. The feckless and imbecilic James Buchanan and the tragically twisted Richard Nixon.
You couldn't be blamed for thinking, "Donald Trump will fit right in with these clowns."
But I didn't think that. Instead I fought off creeping dread by focusing on the pillars of greatness: George Washington offering his resignation when he could have been king (told that Washington was returning to private life, George III quipped, "If he does that, sir, he will be the greatest man in the world.") Abraham Lincoln holding the nation together with his honesty and his Biblical eloquence. "All men are created equal."
Britain pulled out of the European Union my first morning here. The news filled with the spectacle of a nation submitting to xenophobia and fear, leaping off a cliff at the behest of mavericks who had no plan other than to trash the system and see what happens next. It's like burning down your home to marvel at the pretty fire.
And I couldn't help but feel: we're next. It's in the air, madness. Like before a war. "The lights are going out, all over Europe."
Usually it's a thrill. This time, it was scary to walk through these wide federal plazas, with their gleaming beige stone buildings. To think, "This is the Department of Commerce that Donald Trump will be responsible for. This is the White House where he will live."
With the bad news from Britain, as the country, in an act of collective derangement it instantly regretted, voted to be a smaller, more cut off and less prosperous nation, it was easy to suspect we had now entered a world gone mad, that the populist rage that has for so long simmered under our politics had truly exploded. Angry people don't weigh their best interest. They knock over lamps.
Brexit is strike two -- strike one was the Philippines electing that murderous madman, Dutarte. Will Trump be strike three? Intelligence is out of favor. Sacrifice is out of favor. Patriotism, the cheap veneer zealots spray paint over their un-American acts. Trump's jaunt to inspect his property, his crowing that the collapse of the pound will help drive tourists to him, would look exaggerated in the Onion. I would have thought that such a performance would send Trump's fans away, shaking their heads. No, they love him even more, for being so self-centered, just like they would love to be, if only they had actual selves of their own to center around.
That sounds alarmist, maybe even hysterical, and probably is. I hope it is. But the vendors are selling Trump t-shirts on the mall. A Trump sign is on display at the Smithsonian already. Vanguards of his arrival, perhaps, and reminders that he is already here, now, running somewhere. Donald Trump is a fact of history now. Even if he is—please God—defeated, he still ran. No so deep a shame, really. Nobody walked around mourning that Barry Goldwater ran as the Republican nominee in 1964.
But it could be worse. Maybe will be worse. Definitely could be.
The British leaving the European Union shows that people will act contrary to their self interest if you poke at their fears. The prospect of having some Turks move in down the street was enough to make regions opt out of something that was giving them economic benefit now, and they are only now realizing it, in what has to be the worst hangover ever.
The Washington Post ran this tragic paragraph Saturday:
Polling showed the areas that had the most to lose and the least to gain from the Brexit are precisely those where the referendum saw the most support. In other words, the places — the most export-heavy regions —most hurt by the economic disruptions caused by Brexit could be the places that pushed hardest for it...The people who will be hurt most by Donald Trump — the uneducated, the poor — are those who most want him to wave his wizard's wand over their problems and make them go away. Like those who got health insurance through Obamacare and still hate Obama, their passions and fears overwhelming everything else.
This is probably the last time I'll be in DC before the election. And I don't want to give the impression that I stumbled through the place in an agony of dread over Donald Trump. I had fun, as I always do. But those Trump t-shirts, and the enormous "TRUMP" sign outside the old Post Office, being developed into yet another one of his properties, no doubt using someone else's money. They seemed like warnings. The smart money says he'll give us all a good scare and then go away, leaving 53 percent of us sadder and wiser. But then, the smart money also said that Britain would stay in the European Union.