I’m thinking of Greek mythology. Specifically, the story of Mother Earth’s revenge against Zeus for sending her sons, the Titans, into Tartarus. She sent two enormous monsters against him, Typhon and his mate Echidna, and even mighty Zeus fled in terror. As told in “D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths:” “Typhon’s hundred horrible heads touched the stars, venom dripped from his evil eyes, and lava and red-hot stones poured from his gaping mouths. Hissing like a hundred snakes and roaring like a hundred lions, he tore up whole mountains and threw them at the gods. Zeus soon regained his courage and turned, and when the other gods saw him taking his stand, they came back to help him fight the monster.
“A terrible battle raged, and hardly a living creature was left on earth. But Zeus was fated to win, and as Typhon tore up huge Mount Aetna to hurl at the gods, Zeus struck it with a hundred well-aimed thunderbolts and the mountain fell back, pinning Typhon underneath … Echidna, his hideous mate, escaped destruction. She cowered in a cave, protecting Typhon’s dreadful offspring, and Zeus let them live as a challenge to future heroes.”
“Zeus let them live as a challenge to future heroes.” This line always struck me, as a child, as wrong. Why wouldn’t you kill the monsters when you had the chance, Zeus? Who leaves monsters behind to wreak havoc in the world? But on a deeper level, it made sense to me as a child, and it makes sense now. Each of us, on our own hero’s journey through life, requires struggle. As part of coming into ourselves as adults, we need to figure out which monsters are ours to vanquish. As Seneca, the Roman stoic philosopher, wrote, “Excellence withers without an adversary.”
Maybe the ancients also have something to say about the challenge we all face together as part of our body politic. I see democracy as the future hero described in the myth, and leaders who don’t like the constraints of democracy as the monster. We’ve been dealing with a monstrous adversary for the past four years, never more undeniably so than after the events of yesterday, when a sitting president stage-managed a wannabe coup of his own legislative branch. It feels predestined. It couldn’t have ended any other way. It feels like Zeus left us with baby monster Trump sucking at Echidna’s teat in order to test the limits of our democratic experiment in ways no one could ever have predicted. But the center held. Democracy is battered but not broken.
The scene at the Capitol yesterday also reminded me of a more modern myth. As I watched news coverage turn from the preordained goings-on inside the chambers to the preordained rebel incursion transpiring outside, I felt like I was watching the zombie White Walkers breach the wall on “Game of Thrones,” if the episode had been made on a budget of five hundred dollars and the White Walkers hadn’t yet had their coffee.
When Trump finally, at long last, leaves, where will he have left us?
A mob casually breaching and desecrating the Capitol — and thus succeeding where Al Qaeda, on September 11th, failed — seems a fitting and logical nadir to the waste-laying that Trump concerned himself with since the day he was inaugurated. Anyone could tell, on that first day, that he really cared about the size of the crowd at his shows. It soon became clear that that was all he cared about, and he was willing to break any role, toss any norm, upend any precedent, so he could have a bigger crowd than the other guy at his shows.
Republican senators and congresspersons had to have seen that his interests and attention span extended only as far as his next rally or appearance on “Fox and Friends.” You’d think any public servant of average intelligence could have seen, in short order, that he’d never give the tiniest crap about our welfare as a country. But they’d already made their deal with that devil. In exchange for letting him spend his days indulging his bottomless narcissism, he’d give them conservative judges, ease taxes on business or rich people, and undo all the regulations they didn’t like.
And, through four years of his being permitted to spend the bulk of each day indulging his narcissism with increasingly dangerous lies and theories — surprise, surprise — Donald Trump is now entirely consumed with indulging his narcissism. I bet he wept with gratitude as he watched his thugs break down barriers, scale walls, break windows, and steal senators’ possessions in his name. Things unfolded precisely to plan for him yesterday. “We love you,” he told the seditionists. It was the show his 2017 inauguration address foreshadowed. He said back then, “…today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”
That his enablers in the executive and legislative branches of government didn’t see essentially this exact series of events coming, for months, is just not plausible. How else was this going to end? Did they imagine he’d concede with regret, he’d wish his opponent Godspeed, he’d oversee a thorough, responsible, orderly transition of power? What in his background led people to believe he would be capable of any of that human decency or competence? Did they really think he — after having paid zero cost for inviting a foreign power to dig up dirt on his opponents, paid zero cost for threatening state officials if they didn’t rig the vote in his favor, paid zero cost for spreading vicious, dangerous conspiracy theories and lies for five years, paid zero cost for indirectly causing, through inaction and inattention, the deaths of thousands and thousands more people than need have died due to COVID-19 — would now, at the eleventh hour, miraculously “learn his lesson,” in the immortal words of Susan Collins?
Trump never saw the functions of government, the actual job of governing, as his purview or responsibility, except insofar at it furthered or hampered his brand. And there is clearly no one in his life, no family member, no advisor, no lawyer, no friend, who ever had the power to help him come around to the task.
Trump has been a hell of an adversary for our fragile, excellent democracy. We have surely been challenged. I hope and pray that yesterday was rock bottom. I hope now we can turn our attention to assessing and cleaning up the damage, and putting safeguards in place to help us confront the monsters yet to come.