In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story “Young Goodman Brown,” an upright citizen of 17th-century Salem journeys into a New England forest on a dark night and finds himself among fellow Puritans—“faces that would be seen next day at the council board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land”—who are summoning Satan himself to bless their revels.
When the Prince of Darkness appears, he tells Brown that he will at last learn the truth about his neighbors:
how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant's funeral … It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other.
Brown’s wife, Faith, is led to Satan’s altar. Brown cries out in despair, “Faith! Faith! … look up to heaven and resist the evil one!”
Brown wakes to find himself alone in the woods. But from that day forward, he is never sure whether the demonic sabbath was an evil dream, or whether the placid and pious life of his neighbors is merely a pretense.
Hawthorne is appropriate Halloween reading, and especially this year: American society is living through its Goodman Brown moment, a moment when many of the norms we have been taught to admire have been revealed as a shell game for suckers. As Trumpism took hold in the nation in 2015, it was regarded as a kind of temporary madness. But time has revealed that this vulgar spirit is no aberration. It was there all along; the goodly veneer was the lie.
Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies.
The last incident, I think, sums up the horror of what the nation has learned about many of its leaders. It seems likely that Kavanaugh’s self-abasement was not the impulse of a desperate man, but a conscious choice made because, unless he showed himself willing to fight back viciously, he risked losing the support of the president. That choice had the desired effect. Trump embraced Kavanaugh, and used his tirade to move supporters to the polls that November.
This is the point. These are not victims crazed by “polarization” or “partisanship” or “gridlock” but cool-headed political actors who see the chance to win long-sought goals—dictatorial power in the White House, partisan control of the federal bench, an end to legal abortion and the re-subordination of women, destruction of the government’s regulatory apparatus, an end to voting rights that might threaten minority-party control, a return to pre-civil-rights racial norms. The historical moment finds them on a mountaintop; all the kingdoms they have sought are laid out before them, and a voice says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
One by one, they have bent the knee.
This episode, as all things must, will someday end. It may even do so without the erection of a full-blown autocracy on the grave of the American republic. Trumpism may be rejected in a fair national vote, and Trump may in fact leave office. A semblance of rule of law may be preserved.
What then? Like young Goodman Brown, can Americans unsee the lawless bacchanal of the past three years? Can they pretend it did not happen, and that the fellow citizens who so readily discarded law and honesty never did so?
Trump has, one way or another, changed our national life irrevocably. When one side of a political struggle has shown itself willing to commit crimes, collaborate with foreign powers, destroy institutions, and lie brazenly about facts readily ascertainable to anyone, should the other side—can the other side—then pretend these things did not happen?
Some Democratic leaders are proclaiming that we can go back to the world before Trump—and before Brett Kavanaugh and Mitch McConnell, before Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani, before an invasion of a secure facility at the Capitol, before babies were torn from their mothers and caged, before racist rhetoric from the White House and massacres at a synagogue and an El Paso Walmart—to a world of political cooperation, respect for norms, and nonpolitical courts.
Assume new national leadership in 2021. What leader worth voting for would negotiate with Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy and believe either will keep his word; what sane president would turn over sensitive documents to Republican-led committees; what Democratic president would simply accept that the federal courts are now the property of the opposition, and submit issues of national policy to them, in the confidence of receiving a fair shake? After this night in the forest, can I, or any sane person, ever believe in these people and institutions again?
For Hawthorne’s young Goodman Brown, the vision in the woods came to define his life. “And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”
Our republic may not be in its dying hour, but if it awakes from its nightmare, the knowledge Americans will have gleaned from these years is gloomy indeed.