Long before Donald Trump became the most dangerous, unstable, and unqualified presidential nominee in American history -- that is, back when he was just vying for that distinction -- it became necessary to look around in search of something, anything, that might explain his rise.
Faced with the prospect of President Trump, the people who get paid to try to make sense of such things -- in politics and especially in the media -- began looking to the past. What was it in our collective psyche that could allow this to happen? Was there something in our history that presaged the rise of a racist, xenophobic, reality-TV-star-turned-demagogue?
These questions sent the pundits and cultural historians back to works, mostly from the 20th century, that explored dark forces and sinister personalities in American politics. There's Elia Kazan's extraordinary 1957 movie "A Face In The Crowd," which the Washington Post called "The movie that foretold the rise of Donald Trump." And Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here," with its account of a populist-nativist senator who ascends to the presidency with disastrous results, which Salon called "the novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump's authoritarian appeal."
But looking at the destruction Trump has already wrought even since his nomination, I think we can reach for something more recent: Harry Potter. This past week the Harry Potter universe was all about the most recent addition, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I'm thinking back to an earlier work. Of all of J.K. Rowling's unforgettable inventions, there's one in particular that speaks to this election on a deeper level. Call it spiritual. As Trump continues to insult and offend his way to the bottom -- most recently with his unspeakably vile and sustained attacks on the family of a fallen American soldier -- I'm reminded of the dementors, which make their first appearance in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Dementors, for the uninitiated in the Muggle world, are the guards of the Azkaban prison. Here is how Professor Lupin, Harry's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, describes them: "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them."
In fact, that's how the dementors exercise their power -- by sapping their victims of their warmth and vitality, leaving them cold, emotionally shrunken and diminished. "Get too near a dementor," warns Professor Lupin, "and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself . . . soulless and evil."
Sound familiar? Does that ring a bell about anybody currently on the campaign trail -- someone no doubt insulting some American hero or trashing some bedrock American principle as I write this (it's hard to keep up)? If what happened in Cleveland didn't suck every good feeling out of the air, the Dementor-in-Chief who was crowned there has been working hard at it since.
But the worst thing a dementor can do, what Professor Lupin calls "its last and worst weapon," used against those the dementors "wish to destroy utterly," is the Dementor's Kiss. Here "they clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim," Professor Lupin explains, "and suck out his soul."
And look at the growing list of victims of the Dementor's Kiss. One of first to receive it was Chris Christie, whose soul seemed to depart from him on live television as he stood -- silent and morose -- behind Trump in that unforgettable post-endorsement press conference.
Then came Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump in an op-ed in a Wisconsin newspaper in June. He said he and Trump had talked "at great length," and the meeting was "very encouraging." He then talked about his vision of America. "Donald Trump, can help us make it reality," he said, as his soul officially left him.
Back in his 2012 speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination, Ryan declared that "these times demand the best of us." Apparently times have changed, or Paul Ryan's "best" is not so good. In response to the despicable comments by the man Ryan thinks should be the President of the United States, Ryan's best was an 82-word statement. "As I have said on numerous occasions," the statement read, "a religious test for entering our country is not reflective of these fundamental values." So, in essence, Paul Ryan is willing to support a president who breaks the fundamental values of the United States.
On Monday a group of House veterans wrote a letter to Ryan urging him to withdraw his endorsement of Trump. "As veterans who previously served on active duty, we are horrified by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's slander of parents whose son died serving our country," the letter read. Ryan's response? There was none from Ryan himself - he had his spokesperson refer back to his previous statement. The Dementor's work is finished here.
Then there's Mitch McConnell. When he endorsed Trump he spoke of how Trump presented "the opportunity and the obligation to unite our party around our goals."
In the weeks following the brave Senate Majority Leader refused to answer whether he even thought the man he'd endorsed to be president was actually qualified for the office. "I'll leave that to the American people to decide," he said. "You know, he won the Republican nomination fair and square." Excuse me, Mr. Majority Leader, but I believe you've got a slight kiss mark on your forehead there.
And Ryan and McConnell are hardly alone. During the campaign Senator Marco Rubio called Trump "dangerous," a "con man," too "erratic" to be given "the nuclear codes of the United States," and "the most vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency in terms of how he's carried out his candidacy."
One kiss later, there he was endorsing Trump, saying he'd be "honored" to help that same person win the presidency.
A month after that endorsement, Rubio was asked by The Weekly Standard if he still believed Trump was unfit to serve as commander-in-chief and whether he was still too erratic to be given the nuclear codes. "I stand by everything I said during the campaign," Rubio replied.
And even this past week, after Trump's revolting attacks on Captain Humayun Khan's Gold Star parents, Rubio said that "we have to make sure that Donald wins this election."
Clearly, the Dementor is powerful, robbing all who go near him of their humanity, conscience, and self-respect.
Meanwhile, Trump's campaign has emboldened other dementors, including hate groups long confined to the margins of American society, that feel they have found their champion. To look back to Greek mythology, it's the equivalent of opening Pandora's Box.
"I think what we really find troubling is the mainstreaming of these really offensive ideas," Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times last month. "It's allowed some of the worst ideas into the public conversation in ways we haven't seen anything like in recent memory."
As The Times' Nicholas Confessore wrote, "Mr. Trump's campaign electrified the world of white nationalists. They had long been absent from mainstream politics, taking refuge at obscure conferences and in largely anonymous havens online." However, with Trump's rise, "This year, for the first time in decades, overt white nationalism re-entered national politics."
Online forums, not surprisingly, have been gathering places for the ugliness. But Trump's influence can be seen not only in the dark corners of the internet, it can be seen right out in the open. Consider that David Duke -- the white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader Trump notoriously refused, at first, to disavow -- has announced his plans to run for senate in Louisiana. As Dante Ramos wrote in The Boston Globe, "When David Duke crawled out of his swamp and jumped into a US Senate race this month, he was only responding to tremors in the political landscape." And Duke has explicitly linked his senate run to Trump's popularity, saying in a campaign video, "I'm overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I've championed for years."
In the wizarding world, there is an antidote, something that makes the dementors flee. It's called a Patronus, a powerful and positive countervailing force that can be summoned with the Patronus Charm ("Expecto Patronum"). The Patronus will sometimes take the form of an animal -- in Harry's case, the Patronus he summoned came in the form of a stag. Hermione calls it "very, very advanced magic."
In the Muggle world, our Patronus can be summoned at the ballot box. And while there's unfortunately no magical phrase that will make the Dementor go away, and undo the damage he's already done to the country, there are steps that could be taken right now to minimize the chances of the entire country losing its soul to the Dementor. At the White House this week, President Obama urged Republicans to withdraw their support from Trump. "I think the Republican nominee is unfit to serve as President," he said. "I said so last week, and he keeps on proving it. The notion that he would attack a Gold Star family that had made such extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our country, the fact that he doesn't appear to have basic knowledge around critical issues in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, means that he's woefully unprepared to do this job."
This can't be dismissed as blind partisanship. For a sitting president to call on an opposing party to drop a nominee is, yes, unprecedented. But completely warranted -- because having such a dangerous, unstable, and corrosive presence one step away from leading, and potentially destroying, our country is also unprecedented.
But the most powerful use of the Patronus will not come from Democrats, but from Republicans. It's those Republicans -- elected officials or prominent party leaders -- who have publicly put country before party who can do the most to put a wall between Donald Trump and the White House. The roll call of those who have explicitly rejected Trump so far is small, but growing. So special Patronus kudos go to Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mark Kirk of Illinois, Representatives Richard Hanna of New York, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Mike Coffman of Colorado and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida in the House, as well as George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, former RNC chair Marc Racicot, Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, longtime aide to Jeb Bush Sally Bradshaw, Republican strategists Stuart Stevens, Rick Wilson, former aide to John McCain Mark Salter, and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.
But unfortunately, a lot of erstwhile principled people around Trump and the Republican Party have lost their souls to the Dementor's Kiss. There's still time to get them back, however. They should ask themselves not just whether they want to spend the next 95 days answering for every appalling attack their endorsee launches, but whether they want to be answerable to history for every bit of damage he would wreak if he became president.
Or, as Khizr Khan put it: "It is a moral obligation -- history will not forgive them."
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