In the mid-15th century, a brutal leader in Transylvania earned notoriety for how he dispatched his enemies. Vlad III Dracula had a penchant for violence that stood out for its creative cruelty, even by the brutal standards of his day. This passage is from Richard Pallady’s entry on Vlad in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “His penchant for impaling his enemies on stakes in the ground and leaving them to die earned him the name Vlad the Impaler…. He inflicted this type of torture on foreign and domestic enemies alike: notably, as he retreated from a battle in 1462, he left a field filled with thousands of impaled victims as a deterrent to pursuing Ottoman forces.”
That chilling passage stands as testament to the murderous direction which a single immoral, bloodthirsty leader can bend the institutions of state once he has reached a pinnacle of power.
One hundred years later, in Russia, Czar Ivan IV vastly expanded his country’s territories through a reign of terror against perceived enemies, both domestic and foreign. He beat family members to death during his paranoid rages, blinded enemies, used the Oprichniki (his vast secret police force) to terrorize political opponents and seemed to thrive on ever more creative ways of inflicting torment on those who got on his bad side. History remembers him as Ivan the Terrible.
Such is the stuff of nightmares: medieval tyrants, drunk on power, believing they were installed on the throne by the helping hand of God. Such people believe they are “chosen ones” not bound by the moral codes that bind others. As rulers they seek, like Machiavelli’s Prince, to instill pure fear as the glue holding their governing structures in place, to banish morality from considerations of governance. They are willing to do whatever they deem necessary in order to cement their power in place, appease their followers and cow their opponents. Amoral to the core, they believe that their violent means are necessary to secure the ends they crave.
And now, more than half a millennium after Vlad the Impaler’s death, we read that a 21st century American president, who is on record as stating he believes he is a “chosen one,” wanted his border patrol agents to deliberately shoot would-be-migrants in the legs and his southern border wall to be lined with spikes designed to impale anyone who tried to climb over it, and got his advisers to work on cost estimates for building moats along the border filled with alligators and snakes to kill desperate immigrants trying to swim to the “land of the free.” And instead of instantly resigning and sounding the alarm about these draconian proposals, those advisers apparently started to seriously sound out how possible the building of such a monster-filled moat might be.
Let’s be blunt here: This isn’t about politics; it’s about a race-based, terroristic, totalitarian vision of the United States and of American identity. One doesn’t talk about shooting desperate, destitute migrants from poor countries to the south, if one in any way, shape or form values migrants’ lives, due process or the rule of law. One doesn’t fantasize about impaling immigrant children and feeding asylum seekers to alligators if one has an ounce of empathy, morality or human decency. This is the sort of fever-dream the Argentine Junta concocted when they got the bright idea of taking political opponents in airplanes and helicopters to drop them into the ocean.
In this fractured, hallucinogenic political landscape, old terms still float around uncomfortably in the ether, as commentators and public alike try to wrap their heads around the new world of which Trump is both a cause and consequence. Terms like “leader of the free world” still occasionally pop up in the discourse. But, hypocritical as those terms may have been in the past, think about how utterly fallacious, how entirely devoid of meaning they have become today as these reports pour out: The wildly egotistical “leader of the free world” is engaging in fantasies of violence that come straight out of medieval archives and mid-20th-century fascist playbooks.
Children in schools across the country are taught to sing a national anthem about a “land of the brave” and “home of the free,” and look to the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol. And yet, ensconced in the White House, a man entirely devoid of moral feeling stews about immigrants and plots evermore astoundingly violent means of deterring them from seeking refuge, safety and opportunity within the United States.
How dare he? How dare his enablers, his sycophants and his fellow bloodthirsty fantasists? How dare the GOP congressional leadership continue to defend this man while simultaneously claiming to be the party of family values and moral stewardship? How dare Trump’s cheerleaders in the conservative media claim that those who criticize this president are purveyors of fake news?
This isn’t only about politics or parties jockeying for pole position. This is about the survival of decency and moral agency in a period that the full bureaucratic might of the world’s most powerful country is under the control of a torture-fantasist; a period when a man with a killer’s cold-blooded temperament sits atop the U.S. political system.
Years from now, a whole bunch of people who supported Trump through thick and thin, I suspect, will try to distance themselves from the full moral catastrophe of moment by either denying that they ever supported Trump in the first place or saying something to the effect of “we didn’t know.” Well, to pick a particularly uncouth but piquant phrase used by the president himself in a tweet on Wednesday – “BULLSHIT.” Don’t anyone dare say at the end of this nightmare that they didn’t know. For the evidence is out there in plain sight, and history will judge Donald Trump, supporter of shooting down and impaling desperate migrant families, for the Dracula that he is.