If the run-up to the festive season is a nightmare for ordinary folk, spare a thought for how it might be for the beleaguered President of the United States.
Stave one: Cohn's ghost
That Cohn was dead must be distinctly understood, or no sense can be made of the events I’m going to describe.
Trump should’ve been happy. He’d escaped from that “real dump”, as he called the White House, to Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach winter palace. He was surrounded by his kind of people – white billionaires and servants. And it was Christmas.
But Trump wasn’t happy. And each time he heard “Merry Christmas, Mr President” – and he heard it from everyone he encountered – his mood soured further. He’d fulfilled the destiny his father chose for him: “You’re a killer; you’re a king.” (Trump had grasped early in his ascent that you can’t be one without being the other.) He was closer by far to being the uncrowned King of America than any of his predecessors. Each week, he and his lawyers challenged the constitutional constraints on the president and extended their assertion of his sovereignty.
He was the most powerful man on Earth, yet every day, he was ridiculed and condemned by the fake-news media. Every day, the Democrats, that traitorous coalition of otherness, inched closer to putting him on trial. Every day, there was another show of disrespect, like those smarmy pretty boys, Trudeau and Macron, laughing at him behind his back.
Trump did what he always did to make himself feel better: he retired to his bedroom, that blessed Melania-free zone, popped a Diet Coke, ordered a couple of cheeseburgers and switched on Fox News. Sometime before midnight, he fell into a sleep punctuated by strange, fragmentary dreams.
He awoke, disoriented. The TV was still on but that wasn’t Lou or Sean or Tucker on the screen, peddling their soothing blend of disinformation, propaganda and Trump-worship. This face was also familiar – there was no mistaking those hooded, unnaturally pale blue eyes, that gangster glower. Familiar and unsettling.
Roy Cohn: the McCarthyite attack dog who became New York’s pre-eminent fixer and hardball deal-maker. Consigliere to Mafia bosses, anti-Semitic Jew, homophobic homosexual, of whom it was said, “You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.” Cohn, who’d drummed into Trump the cardinal rules of survival and success in a dog-eat-dog world: never settle, never surrender; counter-attack immediately; no matter how deep the muck, claim victory, never admit defeat. Cohn, who died of Aids – disbarred, disgraced, impoverished.
Cohn’s Ghost raised his arms to show he was handcuffed. “I wear the cuffs I forged in life,” he said. “Of my own free will. I’m here to warn you, Donald, that you have a chance of escaping my fate.”
“Thank you, Roy.” Trump’s words rasped from a tight, dry throat. “I always appreciated the way you were vicious to others in protection of me.”
“Look where it got me,” said the Ghost sardonically. “Look where it gets everyone who does your dirty work. You will be haunted by three spirits, Donald. Without their visits, you cannot hope to avoid an end like mine.”
There was a crackle of static and the death’s-head countenance receded to a pinprick of light. Groaning, Trump dropped his head back on the pillow.
Stave two: The first of the three spirits
The First Spirit couldn’t have been less like its harbinger. It took the form of Trump’s older brother, Fred Jr, but in his handsome youth, not the pitiable figure, diminished by paternal and fraternal contempt and ravaged by the torrent of alcohol that swept him into an early grave.
“Fred?” cried Trump. “Is it really you?”
Fred smiled his gentle smile. “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“I’d say ours, but it wasn’t really mine. Your past, Donald.” The Spirit approached the bed. “Come with me.”
Trump took the Ghost’s hand. He experienced a dizzying sensation of weightlessness, like going up 100 floors in a high-speed elevator. When he reopened his eyes, they were standing in front of a handsome brick mansion.
“I know this place,” exclaimed Trump. “It’s where we grew up.”
It was indeed the 23-room Trump family home in the ironically named Jamaica Estates neighbourhood of the New York borough of Queens. Ironic because you could wander Jamaica Estates from dawn till dusk without seeing a non-white face. (Donald remembered it as an “oasis” when much of the rest of Queens was, in his estimation, anything but.) Ironic, too, that their father, Frederick Christ Trump, should’ve chosen a neighbourhood named after a Caribbean island given that, as a young man, he’d been arrested after taking part in a Ku Klux Klan march.
Trump’s early life passed before his eyes like a video on fast forward: doing his paper run in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac; being taken away from his prep school because the teachers couldn’t constrain his brattish, bullying behaviour; being sent to a junior military academy in upstate New York where, if you weren’t a bully, you were a victim; observing his father prosper through an artful combination of bribery, manipulation, loophole exploitation, tax dodging and murky networking.
Trump watched his younger self deliver a eulogy at Fred Sr’s funeral, enjoying how he made it largely about his – Donald’s – achievements, the far-from-subtle implication being that he’d surpassed the old man. And that was 20 years ago. Look what he’d accomplished since.
The Spirit touched his arm. “Remember him telling you to stay in Brooklyn rather than take on Manhattan?”
Trump smirked. “Who was right? I conquered Manhattan.”
“So it would seem,” replied Fred. “Did anyone tell you to stay in New York rather than take on Washington?”
Trump gestured dismissively. “Lots of people. I proved them wrong, too.”
“The tale is not yet told,” said the Spirit. He vanished, and Trump found himself back in his bed in Mar-a-Lago.
Stave three: The second of the three spirits
Trump returned from a trip to the bathroom to a surprise as unwelcome as having Cohn take possession of his television: sitting stiffly in an armchair, a spectral aura adding lustre to his threadbare silver hair, was Senator John McCain.
“You banned me from your funeral,” snarled Trump, “so what the hell are you doing here? I mean, those others were trying to warn me – as if a very stable genius needs advice about anything. Why would you care?”
“I don’t give a damn about you,” snapped McCain, prickly as ever. “But I’m a patriot, something you know nothing about. I care what happens to my country.”
“Spare me the sermon, loser,” said Trump, getting back into bed. Before he could pull up the covers, though, he was violently plucked from the bed, a far less agreeable experience than the earlier elevator-ride sensation. Next thing, he and the Spirit were swooping low over the countryside like a pair of drones.
They passed over torchlight processions of men, mainly young and burly, all white. Some waved swastikas, others brandished assault rifles, as they chanted, “You will not replace us, Jews will not replace us.” They looked down on refugee children huddled in cages and parents weeping for the children who’d been taken away from them. They swooped through family homes where festive dinners were being ruined by rancorous disputes setting husbands against wives, parents against children, sibling against sibling. They flitted through the Kremlin where Vladimir Putin and his cronies clinked glasses and toasted “Russia’s other president”, laughing uproariously. They watched political hacks and media rabble-rousers evoke, with unseemly relish in some cases, the prospect of civil war.
“This is where you’ve brought us,” said the Spirit. “This is Christmas in America now.” He beckoned a boy and girl from the shadows. Trump recoiled. These children were hideous: meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish.
“The boy is Hatred,” said the Spirit. “The girl is Fear. They are your children as surely as Ivanka and those reptilian sons are. Every day, you bring more like them into the world while barring innocents and victims who won’t poison our future as these two and their ilk will do. Stop before it’s too late.”
With that, the Spirit and the wretched children withdrew into the shadows. Moments later, Trump landed, with a thump, back in his bed.
Stave four: The last of the spirits
Trump’s final visitation came in the form of Richard Milhous Nixon, the disgraced 37th president of the United States.
“There’s nothing I can learn from you,” said Trump belligerently. “You let them run you out of the White House; I’ll never do that.”
“I’m the Ghost of the Future,” said the Spirit. “The others showed you the known. I can show you the unknown.”
With a petulant sigh and muttering complaints, Trump followed the Spirit down to the Mar-a-Lago ballroom where a New Year’s Eve party was in full swing, complete with a tuneless rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
The Spirit led him to a far corner where a group of old men were joined in earnest conversation, leaning in to each other, speaking in low tones. Trump knew them all: fellow billionaires, lavish donors, Republican office holders and powerbrokers.
The party noise died away, allowing Trump to eavesdrop.
“He could bring us all down,” said a senator.
“Worse still,” said a billionaire, “he could put the socialists in power for a decade.”
“But the base loves him,” said a bigwig. “They’ll turn on us like rabid dogs if we abandon him.”
“They can’t do much if we act as one,” said the most senior politician. “If it comes to a choice of sinking with him or swimming without him, I know what I’ll be doing.”
There was a murmur of assent.
The Spirit turned to Trump. “Why so shocked, Mr President? You, of all people, should understand that, when you see others purely in terms of what they can do for you, it’s the work of a moment to discard them when they’re no longer of use.”
In the blink of an eye they were transported to what was unmistakably a prison. They walked down an endless, antiseptic corridor. Finally, the Spirit stopped at a cell door, opened the peephole and invited Trump to look inside.
A figure – a substantial figure by the looks of it – lay on a bunk, covered by bedclothes. Not completely covered: some tufts of hair protruded. Panic rose like vomit in Trump’s throat as he remembered a scurrilous so-called comedian’s disgusting claim: that Trump’s hair and an orange orangutan were the only things in nature of that precise colour.
He whirled around but the Spirit was nowhere to be seen. And he was back in his bed.
Stave five: The end of it
Trump opened the curtains; the Florida sun streamed in. It was Christmas morning, not that he felt remotely merry. He felt frazzled and headachy, as if he’d hardly slept.
Where did those crazy dreams come from? Anxiety, he supposed. It was always hovering, even though there was nothing to worry about. Repent and save himself? That would be the day. There was no need: everything was under control.
He wouldn’t be impeached. Those craven Republican senators wouldn’t dare betray him. Re-election would be a slam dunk and then nothing could stop him. He could make himself president for life. In fact, why stop there? He could make America a hereditary monarchy.
And if, for some bizarre, unforeseen reason, the election was looking too close for comfort and couldn’t be fixed, he’d pardon himself. And if that proved problematical, he’d resign and Pence would pardon him. Better yet, he could dump that sanctimonious rube, make Ivanka vice-president, then resign and she’d pardon him. And he could leave this pain-in-the-ass existence behind and resume his old, fabulous life, doing whatever he pleased to whomever he pleased without the fake-news media making a hue and cry.
And if the worst came to the absolute worst, there was always the promise that Vladimir repeated every time the interpreters left the room: “We’ll look after you.” Seeing out his days in a villa on the Black Sea wasn’t Trump’s preferred option, but he’d take it over Sing Sing. Any day.
This article was first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.