Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition -- or President Trump

Roosevelt, Lincoln and Washington would be shocked by the prospect of President Trump.
Top of the Ticket cartoon
(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

With that phrase, used in several comedic sketches during a TV show in September 1970, the brilliant knuckleheads who were the writers and cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus created a meme that has periodically popped up in popular culture ever since. In its original context, it was employed to introduce and ridicule a trio of red-robed, 15th century inquisitors who stood in for fanatics of all ages.

If there was a deeper thought behind the inspired silliness — and there likely was, given the intelligence of Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese and the others members of the comedy troop — it is that, indeed, no one did expect the Spanish Inquisition or any of the innumerable calamities that periodically befall human societies. Ancient Romans did not expect the Visigoths. The native tribes of North America did not expect the Europeans and the deadly germs they brought with them. Europeans did not expect an Austrian archduke’s assassination to spark a horrific world war, nor a mediocre artist who served as a corporal in that Great War to morph into the German dictator who killed six million Jews.


It is not easy for humans to accept the possibility their pleasant lives can be completely upended by ominous rumbles on the dark horizon. Denial is much more comforting. That is why so many Americans choose to believe climate change is a hoax concocted by godless scientists and that glaciers and polar ice caps are melting for no particular reason. 

And, on a less monumental scale than all of these — we hope! — no one expected that Donald Trump might become president. To most of the smart people in the media, he was a clown who would boost their ratings and readership for a few months and then go away. For liberals, he was a perfect opponent, so flagrantly unfit that he would guarantee a Democratic landslide. For mainstream Republicans and traditional conservatives, he was a boorish nuisance who could not possibly be taken seriously by their constituency.

Now, though, members of the news media fear they have helped create a monster that won’t die. Liberals are watching in horror as the Democratic nominee struggles to cope with her adversary’s potent brand of asymmetrical political warfare. And much of the Republican establishment is simply aghast at the possibility that this unprincipled amateur could be commander in chief.

During the Republican primaries, a contingent of respected conservative analysts contributed articles to an issue of National Review devoted entirely to detailing the dangers and demerits of a prospective Trump presidency. In August, 120 veterans of Republican administrations sent an open letter to the Republican National Committee asking that all party funds be taken away from the Trump campaign because he looked like a certain loser who displayed nothing but “divisiveness, recklessness (and) incompetence.” About the same time, 50 prominent Republicans with extensive credentials in foreign affairs banded together to warn that Trump “would be the most reckless president in American history.”


In recently disclosed emails, Colin Powell, secretary of State under Republican President George W. Bush, called Trump “a national disgrace and an international pariah.” Conservative writer Thomas Sowell, who cannot stand the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency, nevertheless calls Trump “the oldest man who has never grown up.” Sowell fears that American lives would be endangered by the “reckless decisions of a volatile, ill-informed, immature and self-absorbed president in a nuclear age.”

If American politics were driven by reason, the torrent of warnings from eminent conservatives and Republicans would sink Trump’s candidacy. But political choices are seldom rational. They are driven by gut feelings, misinformation and hot-blooded passions and there has never been a presidential nominee who has based his campaign so completely on just those things.

It seems to be working better than anyone expected, including Trump himself. Then again, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition — or a President Trump.

Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter


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