Sometime probably during the latter part of 1997 (or thereabouts), as I was browsing through a national newsmagazine (I think it was US News and World Report, but I can’t say for sure), I came across a particularly poignant photo of Ronald Reagan. He’d been out of office for more than eight years, and almost three years had passed since his open letter alerting the country to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He’d retreated from the public stage—a purposeful effort to endure his inevitable deterioration privately—when on a summer’s day in July of 1997, while sitting quietly and undisturbed on a park bench, he was recognized by a young boy and the boy’s grandfather, and agreed to have his photo taken with the boy.
My contempt for Ronald Reagan during his presidency was visceral, and it remains so to this day. Despite his aw-shucks manner and his “Morning In America” sloganeering, Reagan’s cold-hearted social and economic policies ushered in the current era of Republicanism—an era which seems dedicated to the brick-by-brick deconstruction of America’s middle class—and for that I have always resented him.
Still, when I came upon that photo from 1997, my antipathy toward Reagan gave way, in that moment, to a more immediate sense of sadness. Looking fragile and a bit confused, wearing a golf-type cap that looked perhaps a smidge too big for his head, he seemed at once familiar yet different—partially present, but mostly absent—a shadow bereft of any mass. In that moment, as a human being, my scorn for Reagan the politician turned to sympathy for Reagan the fragile, confused, dying shell of a man.
I recount this story now because as furious as I presently feel about the absurd and dangerous horror that is the Donald Trump presidency, I can’t help but likewise feel that I am bearing witness—that we are all bearing witness—to the real-time, painfully public descent of a man into the abyss of terminal madness. I point this out not to excuse any aspect of Trump’s past or present behavior—he is now, as he has always been, a vulgar, nasty, chiseling, lying, cretinous, bullying, hateful, insecure, incompetent, gluttonous blowhard of a man, a being so vile and undeserving of pardon as to make Richard Nixon’s creepy malevolence seem almost sunny.
Nevertheless, as I listen to his rambling rallies and interviews, where partially formed thoughts are chaotically expressed in a blender-like mishmash of half-uttered sentences, made-up words, self-interruptions, and countless non sequiturs; as I hear him utter falsehoods so blatant and preposterous as to be explainable only in the context of delusion; as I witness his confusion, if not outright forgetfulness, about such grade-school-level factoids as Frederick Douglass’s place in history, or the connection (or, more properly, the lack of connection) between Andrew Jackson and the Civil War; as I read one after another of countless inexplicable tweets—paranoid tweets, cruel tweets, bombastic tweets, self-aggrandizing tweets; indeed, as I contemplate the very notion of the planet’s most powerful human being impetuously tapping 140-character screeds into his smartphone at five o’clock in the morning—I can’t help but think of that picture of Reagan, enfeebled and disoriented, a man “there,” but also not quite “there.”
To my admittedly untrained, pedestrian eyes, Donald Trump, too, appears to be not quite “there.” He appears to be slipping helplessly and inexorably into an incoherent haze—a physiological detachment from reality—no less serious than Reagan’s, and perhaps from the same cause (let’s not forget that Trump’s father succumbed to Alzheimer’s), but spiced with all the recklessness and outlandishness of Trump’s earlier years, and dangerously weaponized with resentment, paranoia, impaired judgment, and, most frightening of all, the enormous, unmatched power of the Presidency of the United States.
When I came upon that photo of Reagan from 1997—a harmless old man sitting passively on a bench, the candle of his awareness growing dim—my reflex reaction was sorrow. Reagan’s damage was done—he could no longer do any harm. Clearly, when his candle burned out, the scene would be solemn, dignified, and peaceful.
As I watch what appears to be Trump’s descent—an angry old man, pounding his chest and pointlessly flailing as the candle of his awareness seems likewise to grow dim—my reflex reaction is angst. The antipode of a solemn, dignified, peaceful man, if Donald Trump remains in office as his candle burns out, we’d better hope he doesn’t take us all with him.
[Author’s Note: I’ve not included the Reagan photo in this post as I’m uncertain of its copyright status, however a small version of the photo can be seen on this link from The Toledo Blade.]