When Donald Trump was 57 years old he was washed up. The company known as Trump Casinos and Resorts had just gone bankrupt. The company would file for bankruptcy twice more in 2009 and 2014. It eventually became a subsidiary of Icahn Enterprises in 2016. Since then, all of the company’s properties have been closed and sold.
But 2004, the year Donald Trump turned 57, is also the year he drew his very first real paycheck. It was the year he was hired for the TV show “The Apprentice.” It was the year that television created the fictional character known today as “Donald Trump the great businessman.” For many, fantasy became reality, darkness became light, entertainment became news. The fine line between insanity and sanity became blurred.
No one would have guessed that a character, a work of fiction, could climb out of the television, step into reality and become president of the United States. But that’s what happened. And today many Americans believe that this work of fiction, this loser dressed up as a winner, this bankrupt clown made whole and heroic by a duplicitous media is not only a man of substance but a kind of saviour, a second coming. And what a second coming! “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”
When Trump noticed in 2014 that his ratings were sagging he conceived a notion. What, he thought, if he ran for president of the United States? Surely he’d lose, just like he had before. But think of what such a move would do for the ratings of his show!
He would have an advantage no other presidential candidate ever had. He could say anything he wanted because he didn’t care if he won or lost. In fact, he very much didn’t want to win, because then he’d have to give up his TV show and, for the first time in his life, he’d actually have to work for a living.
Worse, being president meant living in a glass fishbowl, and people would finally figure out what he and only a handful of people really knew: that Donald Trump was a complete phoney, a liar, a failure, a loser, a nobody dressed up to look like a somebody. What’s more, he was a criminal, and all his crimes would come spilling out on the floor.
You could see it written on his face and the faces of everyone around him in November of 2016 the day he realised he had won. The worst possible outcome had happened. He won. Somehow, he won. He knew the illusion would soon shatter. Everybody held their breath. But it never happened.
Somehow, some way, Donald Trump made it through a whole term as president without losing his gullible, stupid, drooling, idolatrous base. They wanted to believe the fantasy so they continued to believe the fantasy. It was just that simple.
And because they believed, Republican leaders were forced to pretend that they believed too. The emperor stood naked before the entire world and enough of them refused to acknowledge his nakedness, enough of them proclaimed the lie as truth to give him power. It became a kind of heresy to proclaim his nakedness, and anyone who dared to proclaim it lost their jobs.
The putrid mess we are in today is the result. Calling a fool a hero and a criminal a saint isn’t just stupid, it’s also deadly dangerous when it happens on the world stage.
Today, as I write this, America stands on a precipice. We’ve stood here before and survived. This is the same ground we stood on in 1862 and 1962, in 1917 and1941. Every so often, Americans are put to the test, and every time we have shown ourselves to be equal to that test.
Whatever the outcome, we will not just survive, we will prevail. If we triumph today it will be thanks to our tradition of survival. If today is a disappointment then we will find a way back from the abyss. Because that’s who we are. That’s what we do. We march to the sound of gunfire. We survive. We are Americans. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.