Tag Archives: Goodman Brown

A Chilling Question

I’ve been mulling over a question posed by Garrett Epps in a New York Times column awhile back.

There were actually a number of questions raised by his column–can we really return to the political/cultural environment we occupied before the election of Trump? Could a Democratic president ever trust Mitch McConnell, et al, sufficiently to negotiate with them in good faith? Can voters learn to trust their government again? Have Americans believed a lie all these years? Have we bought into the “we are exceptional” rhetoric and absorbed a highly selective history in which–despite some unfortunate mistakes we needn’t dwell on– we were the good guys?

Epps starts by referencing a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorn in which “Goodman Brown” is visited by Satan, who opens his eyes to the sinfulness of Brown’s pious neighbors:

how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral …

Brown is never sure whether what he has seen was a dream, or whether “the placid and pious life of his neighbors is merely a pretense.”

Epps proceeds to draw a parallel, suggesting that the admirable democratic norms we thought Americans live by have really just been a “shell game for suckers.”

As Trumpism took hold in the nation in 2015, it was regarded as a kind of temporary madness. But time has revealed that this vulgar spirit is no aberration. It was there all along; the goodly veneer was the lie.

Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies….

These are not victims crazed by “polarization” or “partisanship” or “gridlock” but cool-headed political actors who see the chance to win long-sought goals—dictatorial power in the White House, partisan control of the federal bench, an end to legal abortion and the re-subordination of women, destruction of the government’s regulatory apparatus, an end to voting rights that might threaten minority-party control, a return to pre-civil-rights racial norms. The historical moment finds them on a mountaintop; all the kingdoms they have sought are laid out before them, and a voice says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”

Epps accepts that Trump is more likely than not to be defeated in 2020, and that in any event, he’ll leave office at some point. But then comes the chilling question–a question to which I still don’t have anything near a satisfactory answer.

What then? Like young Goodman Brown, can Americans unsee the lawless bacchanal of the past three years? Can they pretend it did not happen, and that the fellow citizens who so readily discarded law and honesty never did so?…Can we go back to the world before Trump—and before Brett Kavanaugh and Mitch McConnell, before Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani, before an invasion of a secure facility at the Capitol, before babies were torn from their mothers and caged, before racist rhetoric from the White House and massacres at a synagogue and an El Paso Walmart—to a world of political cooperation, respect for norms, and nonpolitical courts?

How?