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"The words of a man who has been there and doesn't want to go back."

As our home slowly ages, more and more workmen arrive at our door, many of them having emigrated here for a better life. They’re always interesting to talk to, though my basic ignorance of foreign languages usually obviates any long discussions.

Last Friday’s appointed arrival presented no such difficulties. The man had been in this country for decades, having emigrated from eastern Europe when it still struggled under Communist control. He had lived in a country where nationalism was rife, and where the government spied on people who tried to maintain their individuality. I knew enough about world history and about totalitarian rule not to have been surprised by his stories, and I thought I might hazard a comment when he finished—that there are plenty of people in America today who would be happy if our government did more of that. He shook his head and mentioned the “clown in the White House” and we were off to the races.

He had read Dostoevsky as a youth and it had left an impression on him. “His novels are full of soulless characters,” he said, “and the president is just like them.” We talked about the little girl who died in Texas (and about whom I wrote previously) and how only people without a soul could abide such a horror. We lamented the ongoing, relentless damage to the environment and the assault on the essence of this country by people we’ve never heard of doing things that never make the headlines. “One by one they go to jail,” I said, but he shook his head. The damage has already been done.

About authoritarianism he was blunt: “They say it can’t happen here,” he said. “Believe me, this is how it starts, and when nobody says anything, it’s hard to stop.” He’d argued with friends and even abandoned some of them who refused to understand. As for me, I’ve never lived in any other country. I think I know America, and by that I mean I understand the changes and variability of a country this vast led alternately by two conflicting philosophies. It has always survived and balanced out. But for someone who has witnessed totalitarian rule to issue a warning like his was disquieting.

In the end, we didn’t talk that long: he had work to do and I had another check to write. But if you think our country is stumbling down rutted paths we’ve never taken before, and if there are times when you sense an inevitable doom emanating from the Trump White House, you’re not alone. It’s not a liberal truth or a Democrat truth—it’s just the truth.

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