STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. - There was a time you could be sure. You knew America. Of course you did. Like the back of your hand. So did I.
In this whole world there was only one individual who truly knew America. Only one man who could annihilate what was good about it. What was great about it. Only one man who could resuscitate the very worst in it. Only one man who could virtually overnight bring the most powerful nation the world has ever known, under a spell. Force it to its knees, con it to its worst self, make it go insane. Make the America which no power on Earth could kill, take its own life.
This week, the flag was lowered to half-mast for America itself.
All over, they lowered the flag. Everywhere. Because of John McCain. But not only. Everywhere, even in gun country, southern strategy country, Trump country, there was reverence, a moment of stepping back, an expression of respect.
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Every place but one.
The man who bought the White House with Russian rubles, began his business week by having the flag outside raised to its full height. His first official act of the first week after John McCain's death was to spit on him, in living color.
I was in western Massachusetts when Trump raised his flag. I had just been to the Norman Rockwell Museum, where the late illustrator had created images of the America which America dearly wished it was. I had been there before. But in the age of the monster in the White House, the paintings, no less than the flag at half-mast, had taken on an unexpected weight, the pull and the mystery of loss.
Before this election, we believed that we knew America. And we thought we knew Trump as well, as much, or as little, as it seemed there was to know: shallow, two-dimensional, scumbag, sadist, fame-stricken, untrustworthy.
What did we know?
How could we have known how low he'd sink? How his vindictiveness toward a rival like John McCain would take precedence over the most basic expression of human decency. How first, over the entreaties of everyone on his staff, he could not bring himself to acknowledge the service of a man who, while acknowledging his many failings, had sacrificed for his country and for his comrades as had perhaps no other American in recent memory.
And that made the man in the White House livid. Mad enough that when his staff forced him finally to lower the flag and issue a statement, the text began with a reminder that McCain, already terminally ill, had committed the unforgivable transgression of publicly disagreeing with his president.
The president, meanwhile, had already moved on.
He was otherwise occupied, secretly sewing up the Evangelical vote in a back-room meeting, even as he displayed inexcusable disrespect for a fallen veteran. He had moved on, hinting darkly at a conspiracy against him at the hands of Google, crowing over the primary victories of Republicans who had done nothing more than defeat other Republicans.
How could anyone have known that he was a carrier? That he was a vector of plague. That no one is immune. That he would thrive as America sinks deeper into an epidemic illness for which there is as yet no known treatment, let alone any prospect of a cure.
It begins with the death of decency. It ends with the death of common cause that comes with the end of mutual respect.
"Decency?" the American military's ranking general muses in the Trump-era film "The Shape of Water." "Doesn't really matter. We sell it. But it's an export. We sell it because we don't use it."
Who could have imagined this America? Canada and Mexico, and Western Europe as enemies. The Kremlin as savior. The president as brat.
The one thing we've learned, often to our horror, is this: He knows how to show respect when it's in his interest.
There won't be a soul surprised on the day Putin dies, and the president goes out onto the White House lawn to lower the American flag to half-mast, all by himself.