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When leaders reveal themselves, the next step is ours

Trump long has wanted an 'us vs. them' America

Former president and presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at the New York Young Republican Club's 111th annual gala in New York on Dec. 9.
Former president and presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at the New York Young Republican Club's 111th annual gala in New York on Dec. 9. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Even if you’ve never read any of Maya Angelou’s books, even if you have no idea who the late author is, you know that quote. It’s the go-to “told you so” to admonish anyone surprised by terrible behavior from someone with a record of behaving terribly.

It’s the phrase women use to comfort the girlfriend who swore she could succeed in reforming her “bad boy” boyfriend when the relationship predictably crashes and burns.

And, in the time of Donald Trump and his march to the Republican presidential nomination and maybe back to the White House, it has been repeated so often, it’s cliché.

So why is the not-so-shocking realization that Trump means what he says about retribution and a coming dictatorship greeted with a shrug?

OK, that’s not strictly true.

A few saw the endgame from the time Trump morphed from reality TV star to politician. And now, a rash of articles and books are warning that he means exactly what he has been saying all along.

But for those just now seeing the malevolence behind the bluster, it sure took a long time and a genuine insurrection for the amusement to turn into disgust.

After Angelou’s words have proven true time and again, no sensible person should doubt her wisdom. Yet, many continue to make excuses, insisting that anyone who takes Trump’s words and record seriously is being ridiculous and that American voters need not take a closer look at the phony wizard behind the curtain.

Will an empowered President Trump yank the country out of NATO, blowing up longtime global alliances? Will he weaponize a Justice Department newly staffed with cronies like Jeffrey Clark, the attorney general-in-waiting whose desperate promotion as a means to keep Trump in office after his 2020 defeat was foiled only by threats of mass resignations? Will Trump obliterate the Constitution by imposing religious tests and demanding loyalty oaths to determine who is and is not truly “American”?

Kash Patel, a former Trump administration adviser who is likely to return if Trump does, was giddy when he announced plans to go after perceived enemies in the media with criminal and civil prosecutions. His friendly podcast interviewer was pardoned-but-hardly-chastened Steve Bannon.

Imagine what disgraced and pardoned former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn unleashed would do. Might he reactivate his plan to send the military to run elections again — after voting machines that delivered the “wrong” result have been seized?

Jaw-dropping? Maybe only to some.

That’s the scary part.

Trump and his true believers have been making a case to transform the country into an us vs. them struggle. But perhaps a growing number of Americans understand what Angelou meant, and simply like what they hear and see.

As Trump indictments pile up, and people who want to take charge of the country are showing who they are, polls suggest a lot of Americans approve of or are, at least, open to the possibility, as long as they are on the inside, aligned with the ones calling the shots. Why else would Trump’s strong standing hold?

Listen to the chuckles and applause after Trump buddy Sean Hannity lobbed softballs to the man who would be king, practically begging him to deny that he really wants to be a dictator. Trump’s speech at the New York Young Republican Club’s gala doubled down on what he called his “righteous crusade.” Among the honored guests at that fancy event were, the secretary general of an Austrian political party founded by ex-Nazis and Rudolph Giuliani, still telling lies about two Georgia election workers he is on trial for defaming.

In the Republican Party, former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney is a pariah, making the rounds for a book I’m not sure will convert anyone to her view that Trump is a danger to democracy. In it, she also calls out current Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana as a hypocrite.

Johnson went all in on the “big lie,” actively working to keep a defeated Trump in office. Now, Johnson is “Moses” on a mission in his caught-on-tape speech to the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, a group with a plan for America that locks out those who don’t share a certain worldview — theirs. Johnson preferred his words were kept secret; he’s smart enough to know how un-American a theocracy would be.

He’s learning, though, that showing his private face publicly might not make a difference, since he seemed only slightly uncomfortable with announcing his plans to blur the filmed faces of rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

It’s not about righteousness or making America great; it’s about who has to follow the rules and who gets a pass.

Just look to Texas for the blueprint, as leaders there are showing just what they think of those not willing to play along. State Attorney General Ken Paxton, elected and reelected despite yearslong legal trouble, is not the criminal. No, save that label for a woman seeking to follow her doctor’s advice when it comes to health care decisions. The case of Kate Cox lets Texans and the rest of us know that it’s all about power and punishment.

That could be the motto for what Trump and Republican leadership wish for our country’s future.

While most know the first part of Angelou’s quote, the rest of it is equally telling: “People know themselves much better than you do. That’s why it’s important to stop expecting them to be something other than who they are.”

Better listen and learn fast, though. Maya Angelou, who recited one of her poems at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, the first woman and African American to do so, is high on the list of banned authors in America.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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