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Meridian Country

What one of Aesop’s fables and a Mississippi city have to tell us about Donald Trump

Let me tell you one of Aesop's fables, "The Farmer and the Viper." In the story, a farmer comes across a snake outside, during the deepest part of winter, catatonic from the bitter cold. The farmer takes pity on the snake, puts it inside his coat to warm it up, and takes it home. When the snake is then revived by the warmth, it wakes up and bites the farmer, who dies while cursing himself for letting a poisonous snake into his house. What did he expect?

Like any fable, the moral of the story is open to interpretation. But I think the intended meaning is that you shouldn't expect someone to act contrary to their essential nature. In other words: When people show you and tell you who they are, believe them.

Here's another story. This one's about Meridian, Mississippi. Stay with me here.

There's only a small handful of reasons you may have heard of Meridian if you're not from that part of the South. Perhaps you once learned that it was located at the intersection of two major railroad lines, and as such was strategically important during the Civil War. The Union won a battle in Meridian in 1864 and captured the city. Before leaving, Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered his troops to "wipe the apportioned meeting place [Meridian] off of the map." His army destroyed the railroad and burned down much of the city.

After the war, Meridian was rebuilt. One hundred years later, black Meridian native and civil rights worker James Chaney was on his way into town with a couple of white colleagues when the KKK accosted the group, lynched them, and buried them in an earthen dam. Lynchings happened all the time in the South, and civil rights workers had disappeared before. But because two of the victims were white, and because someone from the Department of Justice was monitoring the civil rights movement in the area, these murders became a huge national story.

A third reason that you might have heard of Meridian is that Al Wilson was born there. A few years after the murders, the singer released his first single, which went on to become a big hit. It was called "The Snake." Yes, that snake, the one from Aesop's fable. In Wilson's version of the story, the male farmer is now a woman, and the snake has a voice. The snake asks the woman to take him home, and the woman obliges. When the snake bites her, the woman plaintively says "... you've bitten me, but why? / You know your bite is poisonous and now I'm going to die."

In the next line of the song, the snake gives his answer. "Oh shut up, silly woman," said the reptile with a grin / "You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in."

Donald Trump read from "The Snake" from the podium repeatedly during campaign rallies. In classic Trumpian fashion he introduced it as a song from "the '90s" that he'd heard and liked. (How anyone could listen to a recording of Wilson's "The Snake" and situate it in the '90s is beyond me.) In any case, Trump then read the lyrics as if they were a poem. He meant it as an allegory illustrating why we shouldn't let refugees into the country, even though they could die if we don't.

In a cosmic sense, though, the song was clearly about Trump. He was unintentionally warning us, in his own fumbling way, about himself. And on his 100th day, he revisited it.

It has been 131 days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America. That never gets less weird to say, hear, or think. It's still hard not to just go around in slack-jawed shock, taking arbitrary strangers by the shoulders and shouting "Donald Trump" in their faces over and over. Not just any kind of shout, either, but that toneless cry that people emit after an explosion has temporarily knocked out their hearing so they don't know how to modulate their voice.

To me, by far the most amazing thing about Donald Trump's presidency is how utterly predictable it's been. In some ways, Trump ran one of the most transparent presidential campaigns of all time. Nobody can say that they were caught by surprise or that they weren't warned.

He warned us that who he was during the campaign was who he was. He did this with specificity. For instance, his refusal to release his tax returns should have been a signal that he would not be clear about the way his presidency and his businesses would be entangled. His habit of declining to pay workers the agreed-upon amount for work they had done warned us that he would use power to enrich himself, even though he is already wealthy.

But he warned us in more general terms about what he was. His bilious ego, his proud ignorance, his publicity hounding, his poisonously symbiotic relationship with the media, his reflexive lies, the incompetence of the people he hired and their constant leaks, the exhausting maelstrom of chaos that surrounded his campaign. It was Trump telling us what he was going to do when he became president.

So there's nothing truly surprising about any of this. We should not be surprised that a billionaire socialite with little interest in policy has produced a health-care plan and a budget that enriches the wealthy on the backs of the less fortunate. We should not be surprised that a campaign that likened refugees to snakes that will kill us because their essential nature is to kill would try to institute a draconian ban on their travel.

And we should not be surprised at the blood shed by people taking Donald Trump at his word. In the country of Meridian, we should not be surprised that a hate that many thought had been tamped down and stamped out has reared up once more. Neither should we be surprised at the courage of good-hearted people, in Portland in 2017, as in Meridian in 1964, who laid down their lives standing up to it.

Donald Trump told us what he was. America showed us what it was.

This post has been updated to correct an error; Meridian is in Mississippi, not Tennessee.