Bear with me, okay? I’ll get to the part about Trump fiddling in a moment.
The thing is, I wouldn’t be writing this piece if it weren’t for “Coffee Talk”. It’s not a newspaper column or morning radio show, just a few friends who meet for coffee every Tuesday morning. We’ve been doing it for years now. We talk. We listen. We have more questions than answers.
Talking is how normal people socialize, sympathize, and solve problems. Screaming and shouting is a sign of problems with no solution.
We don’t agree on everything but nobody gets red-faced and blows a gasket. What we do all agree on is that facts are facts and science is life-and-death serious.
It’s a convivial circle with very different backgrounds. One is a native of New Zealand, one lived in various foreign capitals as the child of a career diplomat. One, a doctor, is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in the Medical Corps; another is also a retired physician who served in Vietnam and plays a mean clarinet. One attended Union Theological Seminary. One is a retired railroad executive who (surprise!) knows a lot about trains.
The conversation is typically engaging. The topics range far and wide from ancient history to modern art, from Keynes and economics to music and Artie Shaw. One member of the group was a child prodigy who mastered the violin by age nine or ten.
Membership has nothing to do with politics and has changed over the years due to moves, dropouts, and, sadly, deaths. Our meetings are not like seminars but that’s how they often proceed. There is no agenda and no discussion leader. It’s not a book club but books often come up. We never run out of material.
In normal times, politics hardly ever dominates the discussion. We don’t deliberately avoid politics but we normally have a lot of other things to talk about. These are not normal times, however.
Lately we’ve been talking a lot about politics. Not arguing, shouting either other down, haranguing, or trying to prove a point. Talking.
As it happens, talking about complex problems of public policy in a context where everyone at the table respects each other and behaves accordingly often leads to a meeting of the minds. Which is where Donald Trump comes into the picture: It is inconceivable that this president, or anyone with a similar personality, would ever be invited into the group.
Not because he’s a Republican, because he’s really not, of course. He’s nothing. Never was. Never will be. Which is why he saw fit to ruin and tear down the Grand Old Party (GOP) and replace it with his own personal party.
Without him this newly minted party has no identity. It’s existence is coterminous with his existence, politically.
That’s what dictators all do. They create a cult of personality and a party that consists of adoring followers and rapturous fans who show up at rallies and give the leader all the love he lives for.
What got me to thinking along these lines was something that happened during our last meeting. One of the guys pointed to an interesting parallel between the Roman Empire, its rise and fall, and present-day America. I asked him to write down what he said and send it to me. A few hours later it was in my inbox.
There are, he wrote, “. . . three figures in history who remind me of our President.”*
The first is Mussolini. Just like Mussolini our President is bombastic and arrogant.
The second is Hermann Goering, head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Like Goering, our President is crass and corrupt and corpulent.
However, the greatest similarity is the Roman Emperor Nero. Like Nero, our President was born into power and privilege. And like Nero, he is a lover of excessive and often crass luxury. (Nero’s expenditures almost bankrupted the Roman Empire). Finally like Nero who thought himself one of the greats of all times, Trump has a fantastical and distorted view of himself. He [Nero] sponsored huge events where the guests had to listen to and somehow tolerate his performances and according to the Roman historian Suetonius, his dying words were, “Oh. What an artist dies in me!”
Of course, Donald Trump is not Mussolini or Herman Goering or Nero. I can’t imagine Trump playing a violin or any other musical instrument. But he definitely fiddled while COVID-19 burned a gaping hole in the lives of the American people, especially the most vulnerable. Black lives. The halt and the lame. The poor.
For that failure alone, history and the world will hold Donald Trump accountable. It’s up to all of us to do what we can to end this Dark Age. And to vote like America’s life depends on it. Because it does.
*The author of these words, who prefers to remain anonymous, strongly agrees with Mark Twain’s observation that history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.
Note: An abridged version of this article appeared in the Sunday edition of the Topeka Capital-Journal (08/23/2020).