Lately, when people ask me whether I sensed what was coming while covering the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s inauguration, I bellow, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
It’s never good when Monty Python’s most outlandish lines accurately describe the status quo.
But this week I’ve been rereading what I wrote then, from the first spurts of Trump’s campaign to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to the inauguration, and marveling at how unprepared we were as a people and a nation for the danger Trump presented.
I’ve known that the United States is eligible for the same disasters that befall other nations: wars, pandemics, coups, dictatorships and momentary national desires to dance the Macarena. I’ve written about these possibilities, arguing that our wealth, freedom and history of lucky and seemingly endless advancement was no guarantee of future results. I’ve believed we have to be vigilant in protecting these graces and energetic in expanding them, here and around the world.
But either I was just saying these things to say them, or I expected a prospective dictator to advertise himself as such, because I never guessed at this.
"Yeah, I’m running for the first term hoping for your vote, but after that, if I win … well, what would we need with more elections once you have me?" would have been a helpful campaign message, but democracy makes aspiring tyrants so bashful.
Four years ago this week, a colleague and I explored Washington, taking in the weight and nobility of what all its monuments and buildings and our history aspired to, however flawed the results. We could not believe that Trump would not be similarly moved.
We got to D.C. days earlier, hunting for the vibe, and what I remember was the endless walking and gawking. It is a wonderful city, full of energy and purpose and aspiration.
So many presidents have shared feeling the weight of all that, and the role they assumed, and how it changed them. George W. Bush for instance, nobody’s idea of a statesman when he took office, has spoken with unusual insight about how the office affected him, and that transformation has been visible to the nation.
At the GOP convention, we looked for "the pivot" that would turn Trump presidential. Instead, he accepted the nomination with a dark and divisive speech that had journalists frantically trying to convey this unprecedented man to the nation.
Then, at the inauguration … fooled again, just as we had been fooled into believing the nation would never elect a man who belittled war heroes like John McCain or bragged about sex crimes in an "Access Hollywood" tape.
Trump, expected by many to finally make it clear that he now understood his responsibility for the whole nation, kicked off his presidency with his "American carnage" speech, setting the tone for his term.
And now, in response, the nation has elected Joe Biden, a good and kind and imperfect man whose love of country burns visibly. If anyone can restore unity in this nation, it would be him.
But it’s an extraordinarily tough assignment, and many would rather stand in Biden’s way than ease his path.
Danger persists, but perhaps we have learned that our greatest threats will not be advertised as such, that aspiring dictators can twist patriotism and tribal loyalty into divisiveness and hatred.
We must always be on the lookout.
We’ve lost any right to the naiveté that told us for so long that it could never happen here.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.