There is a story—which is usually described as a poem but is more precisely a muddled version of a song written by the jazz singer Oscar Brown Jr.—that Donald Trump delights in reading to crowds at his campaign rallies. Trump refers to it as “The Snake” and his fans know it by that name. “Who likes ‘The Snake’?” Trump asked a crowd in Pennsylvania according to the Washington Post. “Has anybody heard ‘The Snake’? Not that many! Should I do it again?”
And then Trump tells the story of a woman who, upon finding a snake near death beside a frozen lake, brings it into her home and nurses it back to health. The snake is grateful for the help, but then bites the woman anyway. As she dies, poisoned, the snake hisses a last taunt at her. Here’s what it sounds like when Trump says it:
When Trump started performing it, props were involved; there’s video taken during the days before the Iowa caucuses back in January of 2016 in which Trump puts on some reading glasses and recites it from a piece of paper before leaning into the story with his typical honking diction and avant-garde emphases. The story quickly became a staple of Trump’s performances. Trump delights in repeating himself, and his acolytes delight in his repetitions. Trump knows nothing of its origins, although he has cited one of the artists who covered Brown’s original song as its author; Trump identified that version, which was released in 1969 by Al Wilson, as having been popular “in the ‘90s.”
Brown was a black artist with radical politics, and his song was not written as the crude anti-immigrant parable that Trump makes it. The lesson at the heart of it is old enough not to really have an author; the version of the proverb that I heard as a child, probably in synagogue but possibly from some uncle making some uncle-y point or other, involves a scorpion and a frog. That one ends with the scorpion stinging the helpful frog giving him a ride across a river. It’s a suicidal act, but the scorpion is helpless in the face of his nature. He is a creature that is built to sting, doing only what he knows even when he knows it will kill him. In that version of the fable, everyone drowns.
The President of the United States just fucking sits there and watches television all day long, in large part because he is on television a lot now. He is either pleased or displeased by what he sees, and he shapes his actions—and, more or less by accident, the scope and tenor of our broader national politics—in response to what he sees. Some unlucky but mostly invisible people suffer greatly as a result. Some even unluckier people might even die. They may be dying now. They may in fact be dying right outside, right now, but the program is in commercial break at the moment. William Devane is telling the people at home about gold. An octogenarian former game-show host the color of a walnut is explaining how a reverse mortgage works, kind of.
None of this troubles the loop. Trump watches and emotes; he excretes and consumes. That a great and greatly conflicted experiment in self-government has come to this—a whole nation trying to talk a shitfaced trust-fund lout into a cab so that he won’t mow down everyone on the sidewalk, and then talking about what a fantastic job he did barfing in the ashtray—is one thing. It’s many things. But none of those things are complicated.
Everything, everything, about Donald Trump’s two-year war against the NFL, which took its latest oafish turn when the president disinvited the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles from a White House visit that the team seemed less than eager to accept in the first place, has been predictable. The only people who could not have seen it coming are the very people who did not see it coming—the plump defective oligarchs who run the NFL, many of whom gave millions of their own dollars to Trump’s rancid failed prank of a campaign. They believed that Trump was their peer or their friend or anything but what he is and has always so blaringly been, so they tried to make some sort of deal with him on the player protests against police violence and impunity that Trump identified as something that could be weaponized in his favor.
Because NFL owners are quite stupid even by the water-brained standards of the ultra-rich, they devised a strange sort of tiered non-compromise compromise on the protests in the hopes that Trump would stop ranting about their league and the ungrateful, un-American, subhuman thugs who are both its labor and its product. They did this without the consent or even the input of the players, which displeased the players. And Trump, because he is Trump, did not accept the deal. He’s a man who only knows how to do a couple of things, but one of those things is to find a bruise and then push and push on it. He does that very well.
Trump told the owners this, directly, but they didn’t believe him. “You can’t win this one,” Trump reportedly told Jerry Jones in a phone call. “This one lifts me.” The owners thought, despite that, there was a solution that could lift everyone—a nice deal that lets everyone continue to do their respective looting in happy parallel. In that, they fundamentally misread the situation and misunderstood their counterparty. They haven’t listened to the people mounting the protests, of course, but they somehow misjudged Trump, too.
The people mounting the protests have made the same simple and humane points for years and have been answered only with the laziest umbrage and bad faith, which is more or less the response that such protests elicit in America. But Trump also hasn’t changed his broader position; he is not listening or learning or changing, because those are not things he does. He is pushing and pushing and pushing at this issue because that is what he does, and because he is nothing without something to push against. There is no compromise to make. Trump wants to become the world, to erase and expunge everything from it that is not him or about him. A generation of the worst and most hard-hearted people that this country has ever produced are lined up outside the church he has opened, and they are willing to leave everything outside in order to gain entry. It’s the only way in. It’s the only way there will be enough room.
There is no reason to assume that Donald Trump even knows the words to the national anthem. He definitely does not know the words to “God Bless America.” Because these songs are not about him, there’s no real reason to believe Trump really cares about them much at all. What matters about the mild and respectful protests that NFL players staged during the playing of that anthem, to Trump and everyone lined up behind him, is how it can be used. He understands that because it is about him and can be used to his benefit, so he cares about it a great deal.
Trump doesn’t honor anything on Earth more than himself. The republic for which all this stands is an abstraction in which he transparently has no interest, or anyway nothing that he’d put above even his pettiest personal or business interest. He is not sincerely offended by black or brown players performing an act of protest during a song so much as he is offended—affronted, sure, but more deeply threatened—by their disobedience in doing so after having been very clearly told that it bothered their betters. He is not alone in this, but here as elsewhere Trump has backed into being a perfect avatar. He is not the only person who believes that people protesting against unrelenting, unjust, unaccountable state violence are doing so primarily to be annoying, but he is the only one who can get those other disordered people to pile into a convention center to listen to him interrupt himself and complain about it for a couple hours.
Trump doesn’t understand loyalty in any meaningful way, because he is not capable of it in any meaningful way. There is no other person on Earth who really seems to mean much to him outside of what they say about or could potentially do for him. But he definitely has an understanding of loyalty, and that is roughly as something that an employee owes an employer—as a thing that runs up and only up, and is non-negotiable, and is in the end about always and without complaint doing what you’re told. Among Trump’s many strange rhetorical tics is using “like a dog” as the most devastating of insults, which is weird enough when you consider how awesome dogs are but which seems more significant in light of the fact that his understanding of what loyalty looks like is otherwise synonymous with what dogs show their masters.
He is not the only person that understands it this way, either. It is a very easy and very lazy and fundamentally worthless way of valuing loyalty, and as such it is very useful to the people who tend to line up behind Trump and figures like him—the little authoritarians who see or want to see themselves as sitting naturally atop an important hierarchy, who very deeply believe themselves to be owed things that they don’t really feel like they owe anyone else, and who also do not appreciate being smarted-off to by their lessers.
This population tends to have just about the racial and class characteristics that you’d expect, but at a fundamental level what binds it together is the belief that you and your personal comfort are the most important thing in the world; the politics that follow from this are callous and cruel in the most casual and checked-out way imaginable. It is a worldview that allows for unimaginable suffering and injustice precisely because it refuses even to imagine that suffering and injustice or the people broken under it. It greets every inconvenience or perceived slight against the individual with a foot-stamping demand to speak to a manager, and everything else with a shrug, or at most with some half-reasoned hand-waving in the direction of justification before changing the subject back to what really matters, the only person in this universe who is actually real—the man in the armchair, feeling it all.
This is the thing that comes after politics, a tangy slurry that fills the vacuum with ancient and inchoate and unreasoning grievance. Trump and his people believe themselves to be, separately but not in any meaningful way together, synonymous with America. Everything and everyone outside their understanding—which is, respectively, a lot and basically everyone—is something else, something smaller and other. An abstraction, but also a distraction from What Really Matters—not you, but me, me, me. There is no deal to make with people like this, because there is no limit to what they want.
NFL owners are selfish; their unwillingness or inability to prioritize anything about their league over their own avarice is, much more than one rancid grandpa’s gummy slurs, the thing that most urgently threatens to kill the NFL. This makes it stranger that they whiffed so hard on what Trump is, and what he’s about. They thought he was selfish like them, but they were only right about the first part.
The owners still seem to believe that they can give Trump what he wants, but that’s not on the table. He wants more than they can give and no less than that. The owners, like the cultists and cynics who have fallen all over themselves to serve Trump, still seem not to know what they’ve invited in. They have misidentified the snake.