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BY MAX BURBANK | Here’s a kind of interesting thought I think you’ll enjoy: In preparing to write a column on Donald Trump’s first year in office (well, since his election), I was reminded of that time back in 2004 when the History News Network surveyed 415 prominent historians asking who the worst president in American history was. A significant majority agreed it was George W. Bush!
Isn’t that cute? Oh my God, how was the world ever that young? It’s like looking at that Polaroid of myself in the ’70s with the puka shell necklace and bell-bottoms. More like that picture from the ’80s with the mullet, in that my nostalgia is tinged with revulsion and not a small amount of self-loathing.
It’s been a little over a year since I stayed up all night re-writing what was supposed to be my last regular feature for the NYC Community Media publications, such as this fine one you happen to be reading. I’d been hired to write a satirical column on the election called “Stump Speech.” For 11 months I covered it all — Iowa, Super Tuesday, the bizarre transformation of Donald Trump from sideshow attraction to nominee, the conventions, and the debates. At first it was easy and fun, like slamming cartoon villains with a frying pan and enjoying the way their heads would be frying-pan-shaped for a second before popping back to normal. When Trump won the nomination it was definitely unsettling, but I thought, you know, silver lining: A ringside seat to the collapse of the Republican Party.
My editor asked me to live tweet both conventions. My daughters had to set up my account and teach me how — because not only am I old, but I’m also something of a caveman when it comes to operating the computer machines. It was fun at first. I got up to speed, learned the Twitter ropes, and poked Twitter fun at Chachi (which is like shooting a tuna-sized Twitter fish in a very small Twitter barrel with a Twitter grenade launcher).
And then it got not fun.
I don’t even mean the Grand Old Party of Nuremberg’s “Down Home Convention Rally and Ol’ Time Flag-Fetishizin’ Tent Revival Medicine Show.” All that dystopian dog-and-pony crap is to be expected. Melania’s uncanny valley teleprompter cover version of Michelle Obama was welcome comedy relief, and even Laura Ingraham’s spur-of-the-moment Nazi salute was funny in a sort of jaw-dropping, audience-at-the-opening-of-“Springtime for Hitler” way.
It was late when Trump finally lumbered out. I was wearing headphones so as not to wake my family. And his voice. That voice.
There’s a villain from the 1940s Captain Marvel comic, Mr. Mind, a chubby little talking worm. And Captain Marvel was a kid’s comic. Simple drawings, bright colors. “Shazam!” Light stuff, right? Mr. Mind was a goofy, silly villain. Except he wasn’t really. He was a repulsive, slimy little leech with glasses. He slimed into your ear while you slept, and scooched down right up against the drum like a sentient snot, and whispered directly to your brain. He told you to believe terrible, evil stuff. And you didn’t want to. But you did.
Because of the headphones, Trump was in my damn head, and the speech lasted weeks! America as Hellscape, our lives a horror of relentless trauma, terrible savage brown people coming to tear our children to pieces as we watched, helpless — and he alone, HE ALONE could save us. Jesus President, deigning to descend a golden escalator into Armageddon to pull the white and righteous up from the mire!
When it was over, I was sick. Not metaphorically. For days afterward, I felt as if I’d been dragged behind a truck. I haven’t listened to him since. Oh, sure, I hear snippets on the radio. I’ve read thousands of pages of transcripts. But I can’t listen to his voice. It’s like Pennywise talking out of the storm drain, if Pennywise was (and I’m quoting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson here) “a f**king Moron.”
So yeah, my column got harder, but it was all good, because I knew how the series would end. My last column was going to be about the election of America’s first female president — a woman who, whether she was your first choice or not, you had to admit was totally prepared, smart as hell about the kind of things a president needs to know, and who worked harder in a day than any of us did in a year. Well. Harder than I do in a year, anyway.
A year ago I felt like I’d been given a hard shove and when I looked up, there was black-and-white TV Rod Serling talking to an invisible audience about how I was rewriting my column. Talking like I wasn’t even there. “I can hear you, Rod! I’m right here!”
I wanted to scream. I didn’t. My family was asleep and I didn’t want to wake them up to the world I was writing my column in.
Pick your metaphor: A year down the rabbit hole? 365 days in The Upside Down? Like the “Annus Horribilis” season of “Star Trek: Voyager,” the only tolerable season the show had and, let’s face it, still not that great? We promised not to normalize any of this, but in the end if something goes on long enough, isn’t that the very definition of normal?
Think about this, though: The wall is unbuilt. Obamacare didn’t get repealed and replaced. Trump’s clearly racist travel ban has been knocked down by court after court. All that happy, crappy “on day one” Kool-Aid turns out to be bullshit-flavored. And then of course there are the November 7th election results, a tiny little crack but one that, nonetheless, let’s us see a little Goddamn sunlight. Without that, this column would have been so depressing I’d have recommended column euthanasia. Seems like when Trump said, “I alone can save you,” he meant, “As long as you slavishly do every single thing I tell you to.” Hell, he can’t even get his base to do that, let alone the remaining 70-some-odd percent of the rest of the country.
So maybe it’s time to stop saying, “This isn’t normal.” Maybe it’s time to start saying, “This normal blows. I hate this normal. This normal can kiss my resistant ass,” and we can fight like hell for a new normal where next year, at this very same time, the orange hue of a certain treacherous, elderly fat man isn’t the work of an ill-applied spray tan. It’s a damn prison jump uit.