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Why the US might be tough to recognize after your summer vacation abroad

Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Banana Republics’ is a cautionary tale

Headlines on three daily newspapers in New York report the latest indictment of former President Donald Trump.
Headlines on three daily newspapers in New York report the latest indictment of former President Donald Trump. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Returning to the United States after a few days on foreign soil can be as bewildering and disorienting as Caribbean rum.

An American Airlines flight made the usual bumpy landing at Reagan National Airport on a recent Friday around 1 p.m., as the pilot slammed the brakes on the short runway. The Airbus 321 airliner swerved side to side, the Capitol dome weaving at a distance on a steamy summer day.

How fitting.

A five-day stay in the sweltering Caribbean heat made the plane’s fishtailing motion feel less than pleasant. But it was nothing compared to the shock of catching up on the late-July news cycle. And the bewilderment has not exactly waned since the flight crew opened the cabin door.

Your correspondent’s reentry befuddlement did not begin with a negative exchange at a customs booth. Rather, it came a few hours later, while learning about new state education guidelines in Florida that downplay slavery. Nor did it end Thursday, when former President Donald Trump’s motorcade entered Washington, D.C. — and instead of heading to the White House, as it did so many times during his term, took the defendant in chief in the opposite direction, to the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in the shadow of the Capitol to face four fresh federal criminal charges.

The Florida education guidelines include a section to “examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural, work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” The revised section features this clarification to the curriculum: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

That prompted up-and-coming Republican Rep. Byron Donalds, who is Black and hails from the Sunshine State, to call the state Education Department’s overall product “good, robust, & accurate.” But he also posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter: “That being said, the attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery is wrong & needs to be adjusted. That obviously wasn’t the goal & I have faith that FLDOE will correct this.”

Not surprisingly, a search for the Florida slavery curriculum on X produced more than a few posts about a country music song from an artist named Jason Aldean. The song basically threatens all liberals and non-Republicans, Black people, Antifa members and anyone who has protested anywhere, one must conclude, except outside — and inside — the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Here’s a sampling that made your correspondent wonder if his American Airlines flight had time-warped back to the 1960s: “Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk. Carjack an old lady at a red light. Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store. Ya think it’s cool, well, act a fool if ya like. Cuss out a cop, spit in his face. Stomp on the flag and light it up.

“Yeah, ya think you’re tough. Well, try that in a small town. See how far ya make it down the road,” Aldean continues. “Around here, we take care of our own. You cross that line, it won’t take long. For you to find out.”

It doesn’t take much of a mental exercise to quickly determine the definition of “our own” — especially for natives of Southern states.

We’ve also learned of the plot, allegedly including Trump, in Michigan to create fake documents with signatures from fake electors in the conservative effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. It’s one thing to fire off fraudulent documents to the Senate, which they did, but no one takes official papers more seriously than the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). The illegality of the act, and hubris that drove it, was yet another reminder of the blind loyalty millions still have for Trump.

Then there was a brief effort to read into the questionable social phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer,” somehow conflating a movie about a children’s doll with one about an atomic bomb. That was quickly ended, for various reasons, including because the mental hard drive needed free space for the endless deluge of Trump investigations, Truth Social rants and other news.

The country over the past two weeks was once again on red alert — MAGA red, that is, for the latest edition of “Trump Indictment Watch,” this time waiting for charges in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his antics before the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. That came on Tuesday evening, with four fresh federal criminal charges against Trump.

The former president, in a Wednesday fundraising email blast, noted he is facing 561 years in prison, and counting. A little over 24 hours later, inside that D.C. courthouse, he was cuffed and stuffed, in the broadest possible legal manner, for the third time in four months. Before taking his private airliner to Washington, Trump seemed proud of all his behavior spelled out in the indictment, not denying a word or allegation. He even seemed to cheer on other prosecutors investigating him, posting that one more arrest would land him a second term.

This is not normal stuff in the supposed land of the free and home of the brave.

“I want voters to listen to this,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN on Sunday. “It is most likely that, by the time we get on the debate stage on Aug. 23, the front-runner will be out on bail in four different jurisdictions: Florida, Washington, Georgia and New York. Out on bail.

“This is a guy who’s putting himself before the country,” Christie added. “You can’t put America first with Donald Trump — because it’s Trump first.”

Yet, Trump’s mounting legal woes have made him, somehow, anything but politically toxic to GOP voters. He is running in a dead heat (43 percent to 43 percent) in a hypothetical general election rematch with President Joe Biden, according to a Siena College-New York Times poll released this week.

What’s more, 74 percent of GOP voters say they do not think he has committed serious crimes — even though he has directly and indirectly admitted conducting the actions laid out in state and federal charging documents at political rallies, on social media and during media interviews. Oh, and he is on tape doing some of the things prosecutors are alleging.

No matter for GOP voters, many of whom see the former president as the victim of, in the words of signs they hoist skyward at his rallies, a “witch hunt.” Trump is on a glide path toward becoming the GOP nominee for a third time.

Fox News focused on a question in that Siena College-Times poll that found 46 percent of the Republicans who said they were backing Trump were also “considering other candidates.” So maybe there’s an opening in the GOP field, but it’s still hard to imagine Trump won’t be the nominee when he led his closest challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by nearly 38 percentage points in a FiveThiryEight average of multiple surveys.

Returning to the endless culture wars and criminal investigations of a former president and early 2024 election narratives is enough to drive one to turn to one of America’s great philosophers, one familiar with that searing Caribbean sun — and banana republics. Not that the U.S. is sliding toward that status, but perhaps crooner Jimmy Buffett’s tune bearing that very name might offer some insights.

“Down to the Banana Republics. Down to the tropical sun. Go the expatriated American. Hopin’ to find some fun. Some of them go for the sailing. Brought by the lure of the sea. Tryin’ to find what is ailing,” Buffett sings. “Living in the land of the free. Some of them are running to lovers. Leaving no forward address. Some of them are running tons of ganja. Some are running from the IRS.”

Others are likely running from the news cycle ahead of an unprecedented campaign. But can they outrun it?

“Expatriated American feelin’ so all alone. Telling themselves the same lies. That they told themselves back home. Down to the Banana Republics. Things aren’t as warm as they seem,” Buffett warned. “None of the natives are buying any secondhand American dreams.”

That will be doubly true after the coming 15 months of a brutal campaign and multiple trials about espionage and insurrection. Pass the rum.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.