Still on the runway

The good news is it looks like Trump will probably leave office. The bad news is he hasn't yet.

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Whenever I’m covering a dangerous situation somewhere—riots, conflict, a major disaster, what have you—I have a little rule for myself regarding my exit procedure. It’s easy and natural to let your guard down while you’re leaving a rough place; to let your mind wander to better things. That makes it in some ways the most dangerous moment—when you’re most likely to get sloppy. So I make sure to stay vigilant until I am really out.

Ah, but when am I really out? To my mind, it is not when I’m on my way to the airport, nor at the gate, nor even I’m in my seat aboard the plane with the door closed. I don’t really allow myself to breathe a sigh of relief and start moving on until we are safely in the air. I call it my “wheels up” rule.

I bring this up because many of us, especially liberals whose full theory of power is the totemic power of elections, are celebrating way too soon. This includes the president-elect:

I don’t know what that means exactly. (Who is back? Back where?) But the triumphal tone is as as clear as it is mistaken: We are not wheels up in America, even as far as Donald Trump’s abortive presidency is concerned.

First of all, a fascist kleptocrat is still president, officially, for another 54 days. That is 54 days in which he can continue plundering the U.S. Treasury, use his pardon power to protect himself and his friends, and apply the full force of the U.S. executive to eroding democracy from within. (He will surely keep trying to hold onto power by overturning the election, though I’m pleased to say all his schemes seem to be failing on him.)

It’s 54 more days—almost two full months—in which the most incompetent American president since Herbert Hoover remains in charge of the most catastrophic act of wanton negligence in the history of modern public health. We are closing in on 13 million estimated cases of COVID-19 in the United States and approximately 264,000 deaths, according to the New York Times database. We’re seeing roughly the equivalent of ten to twelve Boeing 737 crashes with no survivors every single day.

And it’s 54 more days in which Trump—who will already leave with a blood-soaked record that includes the slaughter of civilians in Iraq and Syria, a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, record numbers of bombs dropped on Afghanistan, and murderous drone war in Somalia—can start, or at least lay more of the groundwork, for an even bigger war. Today’s drive-by assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist could be a taste. (Fans of the dystopian BBC series Years and Years might recall that the Trump-ordered nuclear strike against China occured in the final days of his mercifully fictional second term.)

My only point here is to stay vigilant. (This also goes for COVID, which, annoying as it is to say or think this, is worse than it has ever been and is not going away anytime soon.) Laugh at the man at the tiny desk, but don’t pretend like he’s gone. Watch him. Looting and breaking shit on the way out the door is what autocrats do.

Once he has left the White House, at noon on January 20, we can sink back in our seats, crank up our headphones, and take that well-earned collective sigh—several thousand feet in the air, hurtling precariously through the weather, toward whatever is coming next.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book will trace the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

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