It was the most consequential ride in American history since Paul Revere, and as I write this it happened exactly four years ago — June 16, 2015. But doesn’t it feel like it was 14 years ago, or maybe 40, when Donald Trump stepped onto that escalator at Trump Tower, his glam wife Melania a few steps ahead of him like an extra from a Robert Palmer video, as the pirated version of Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World" blasted from the speakers?
Who even remembers what Americans talked about or what CNN covered (A missing jet? The cruise from hell?) on June 15, 2015, or all those other days leading up to Donald Trump’s announcement of his presidential campaign — punctuated by slurring Mexican migrants as “rapists” and by the TV pundits clucking that this was a ploy to get more money to stay on NBC’s The Apprentice?
There was definitely big-time symbolism — but like everything else in America these days ... whose symbolism? To Trump and the cult he was initiating at 11:05 a.m. that day, a leader was finally descending from the (faux) billionaire heavens to lead his people to the promised land. To me — and I sense that I’m not alone in this — it felt that escalator was just the first stage of an endless descent downward, Dante’s Inferno as drawn by M.C. Escher. Just when you thought you’d reached the basement, you turn a corner and there’s another down escalator. To infinity, and beyond.
Remember how the ride was going to end after just a few weeks, on that day that Trump dissed John McCain because “I prefer people who weren’t captured"? I was dial-flipping not long after that and caught the conservative Chris Stigall on WPHT and he was all, “Oh man, I know you listeners like Trump but you just can’t do that.” To paraphrase Springsteen, Trump’s still there, Stigall’s long gone.
Next level down. After a few months, when the pundits realized that Trump wasn’t going anywhere, the game switched to just enjoying the ride. Even the so-called liberal MSNBC couldn’t stop covering every minute of every Trump rally, cutting away from the boring and predictable Hillary campaign events because one minute The Donald might talk about how terrible the airports are in Kuwait and the next minute he was threatening to ban Muslims. Soon the networks and so many viewers were so hooked to this reality show they started broadcasting just his plane sitting on the tarmac, and the TV executives said they’d sure miss ratings when Trump’s campaign ended, as it surely would, on Nov. 8, 2016.
Next level down. Trump’s campaign didn’t end on Nov. 8, 2016, and these next few months after he won are a time I remember oh so well, because it was a lost era when it was still possible to feel genuine shock and awe at the things that rolled off the president-elect’s tongue or his late-night Twitter fingers. On Nov. 27, 2016, I wrote a piece entitled “Donald Trump just told America his biggest lie yet.” The web producers put it at the top of the home page, and it got a ton of traffic. Surely you remember Trump’s biggest lie ever, don’t you?! Actually, me neither. (It was that he only lost the popular votes because “millions of people voted illegal” — a canard that’s been repeated many times since.)
Next level down. After Trump became president on Jan. 20, 2017, it became easy to forget Trump’s biggest lie because the next one was usually bigger and because there were just so damn many of them (now well past the 10,000 mark). The crazy part was that the lies weren’t so much a problem as the times that the 45th president said the truth of what he really thought, whether it was that firing the FBI’s Jim Comey would make “the Rusher thing” go away, or his belief that African nations are “shithole countries.”
But as the escalator kept going down, something changed. The outrage machine that Trump had generated was clearly running out of juice. Oh, the component parts still worked. The president’s “shocking” tweet or statement of the day still sparked hours and hours of cable TV blather, including a parade of congressional Democrats who were concerned or saddened or what not. They called Trump’s worst acts impeachable offenses, but then nobody impeached him. They said Trump was unpresidential, but the next day he was still president. The sound waves of outrage were expressed and then floated into nothingness, as empty as the deep void of space.
Still going down. Last week was supposed to be rock bottom, after Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he’d accept foreign dirt on his opponent (which, as the chair of the Federal Election Commission pointed out a short time later, is illegal) while suggesting that calling the FBI is for schmucks. It was all of the things — outrageous and unpresidential and impeachable. The TV apparently covered it for hours — and I didn’t watch one minute, because I knew by now what everybody would say and that not one thing of substance would happen before we simply moved on to tomorrow’s outrage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted that Trump’s “invitation of further attacks is dangerous & a violation of his oath of office.” If only there was something the House of Representatives could do about a president who violates his oath of office, right? The last time I checked there were 27,000 responses to Pelosi’s tweet, and this time the outrage felt real, raw. “Yeah no (bleep),” wrote the DC-area activist Kristin Mink. “Are you starting impeachment proceedings or just gonna keep tweeting?”
I feel the same way — angry and sick and so very tired of this escalator ride that no one seems to know how to get off, even after four years. The phony emptiness of these gestures of oppositional outrage has become simply unbearable. And the worst part is the part they barely cover on TV — how Trump every day is becoming more and more of an unchecked dictator who makes unauthorized arms deals and unilaterally imposes tariffs or doles out billions to swing-state farmers or declares nebulous “states of emergency” or edges us closer to war with Iran while ignoring subpoenas and court orders and various laws. Why wouldn’t he when he sees that no one will stop him?
Turning off a runaway escalator isn’t rocket science. The people can take a hint from Hong Kong and get off their couches and out into the street. The media can stop looking for that other hand and start taking the dire threat to American democracy more seriously. And Congress can realize that the Constitution not only allows for the impeachment of a president who routinely abuses his power and violates his oath, it demands that forceful of a response.
Until then, this out-of-control contraption is making me nauseous. And whatever we’re rockin’ right now, it’s sure not a free world.