Last night, no joke, I had nightmares about having to explain Donald Trump to my children.
Just a year ago it was reasonable to hope that they might never have to know about that late-twentieth-century celebrity and twenty-first-century TV star, Donald Trump the alleged billionaire businessman. And if he did come up, well, that Trump would be easy enough to explain: he was the living embodiment of the worst of our shallow, wealth-worshipping, cruelty-loving culture. I couldn't fathom how his toxic narcissism and insecurity had failed to cut into his popularity, especially when it was (or ought to have been) well known that any less-than-worshipful media coverage provoked him to send ugly threats to journalists in his own handwriting. (Let the record show that I once declared him "pretty terrifying" for that reason alone.) But I still believed people would eventually tire of his phony political posturing. He would never actually run for president.
To be fair, one of the reasons I thought he'd never do it was because I was sure he wouldn't release his financial documents and let the world see precisely what he's worth. It didn't occur to me that he'd get away with just not doing that. Still, I was certain he'd never actually get the nomination. Even as support for his ugly, resentment-based, policy-free campaign swelled, I still believed there were grownups somewhere in the GOP who would stop him from actually being the nominee.
Last night he stood triumphant, and although he has never hidden what he is, he made it more explicit than ever.
His message: America is in a crisis that no one but Trump -- "I alone" -- can save it from. To do so, he will claim unchecked power. We'll let him have it, and in exchange, he will protect us. He'll fix all of the country's most intractable problems "quick." He'll punish all who oppose him. Don't ask how, just believe him.
This is the kind of thing that American democracy is supposed to prevent. It's an explicit promise to bring about the kind of government that conservatives most abhor. Voting for Trump is voting for a strongman with no apparent interest in the details of the government we currently have, with no real sense of how far the power of the executive office extends and what checks are in place to limit it. It is putting power into the hands of a man manifestly unfit to wield it.
Even if Trump loses the election, as I am still fairly confident he will, what happened last night is something we will all have to answer for someday. In my nightmares I saw myself, decades hence, trying to explain to my children what it was like to endure the campaign season we're about to live through. That's assuming he loses and they don't start asking questions until they're studying recent American history, perhaps in high school. (Don't ask me, even now, to tell you much about the politicians who did not win the presidency in the years before I started elementary school.) Even in a best-case scenario -- which for me looks something like: Hillary wins and somehow turns out to be much better than I expect, and wars actually end and Guantanamo closes and police reform happens and so on -- even if we somehow end up in a uniformly prosperous, united, happy America fifteen years down the road, they will have to ask, eventually, "My God, how could it have gotten so bleak?" And I don't know how to answer. It's already hard enough for me to give them a pre-school-level picture of our country, and what a government is, and what the president does, without being painfully conscious of all the nuance I'm leaving out. When, at primary time, my oldest son asked who was running for president, I could hardly get Trump's name out. I didn't want it in his ears.
That same child, just turned five, woke me from my frightening dreams last night because he had had one of his own. Ordinarily, waking from a nightmare is a relief -- it wasn't real; it was all a dream. But last night I woke up to the realization that the worst aspects of my dream were bald fact. Donald Trump really had clinched the Republican nomination and accepted it with a speech that made me understand what it must be like to see a country turn fascist and not be able to stop it. He really did it, and afterward the cable news anchors tried to fit what was happening into their usual framework for covering elections; and the most craven Republicans cheered for Trump as though he somehow fulfilled, rather than destroyed, all of their long-cherished principles; and the ones who saw what was happening with clear eyes and troubled consciences mostly just stayed away and kept quiet.
"I came in here because I'm afraid of the dark," my son said in the middle of the night. That makes two of us.