I am never, ever running for anything, so with the blood of Las Vegas freshly spattered across the nation, I feel quite free to ask: what is so great about the Second Amendment?
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
I know that that provision is in the constitution, and that if you are a public figure and you breathe a word about any sort of restriction on any sort of firearm, the National Rifle Association will attack you for attacking it, because you hate freedom.
So it is by way of forfeiting forever my chance to be elected to anything, anywhere that I confide: As I look at the Second Amendment through the lens of yet another Columbine-dwarfing massacre, it strikes me as a particularly unfortunate combination of fossil and grenade. The first half, as I read it, provides for “well-regulated” state militias that have had little bearing on American security since the War of 1812 was a gleam in Henry Clay’s eye. And the second half – that final “shall not be infringed” flourish in particular – has allowed for a parade of atrocities that have, in my view, served to inhibit American liberty much more than to foster it.
I know that upon reading that, many gun-rights zealots would declare me a traitor; a snowflake; a no-good something that rhymes with “blunt.” But I also know that there are many good, moral, highly intelligent people who view the Second Amendment as the cream -- and the caffeine, and the whole darn bean -- in the coffee of our political system. They further seem to equate the most recent, prodigal Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment as synonymous with the amendment itself. Thus, their response to Las Vegas, as to all its bloody antecedents, is to portray this unconscionable mode of American death as inseparable from any acceptable mode of American democracy.
As I sit here typing, it is with these non-nuts that I imagine myself engaging, and from whom I would really welcome some engagement for real.
Meanwhile, Second Amendment absolutist arguments, as I’ve experienced them over recent years, are in italic. My own responses are in plain.
It’s what the framers intended.
Far be it from me to denigrate the framers of our constitution, whom I truly worship almost as if they were gods. Almost.
Even before DNA testing became possible, it was well established that the framers were actually people. Thus, their transcendent document bore the marks of its time. At that time, the Continental Army had been disbanded, but no standing army had yet come into being. Even in the most established communities, real police forces lay a solid half-century in the future. Formed in the total absence of an army, navy, air force, marine corps, coast guard, national guard, FBI, DEA, DHS, ICE, and 911, it seems fair to say that their sense of urgency about the “right to bear arms” had deeper roots in reality than Wayne LaPierre’s.
Nonetheless, you can’t be too vigilant about guarding liberty. You never know when it will be time to take up arms against government tyranny.
Thinking about this one in light of last week’s comparatively-quaint NFL dustup, I must admit to doing a little double-take: how is it that so many of the same people who most forcefully condemn Americans who fail to stand in honor of the symbols of our nation, are also those who most fervently defend their own right to stockpile arms in preparation to defy the nation itself?
More important, though, I think that nearly 230 years into life under the constitution, it is fair to consider the past to be prologue. In the history of the United States, has there ever been a domestic armed anti-government uprising that has enhanced the American experiment more than it has sullied or even imperiled it? Honest to God, from the Whiskey Rebellion onward, I can’t think of a single one.
In terms of our own day, can someone honestly imagine a scenario involving even the most heavily-armed American civilians going up against the might of a U.S. government truly determined to crush them, in which the civilians prevail? I can’t. (I mean, really: Americans are supposed to rest assured that their armed forces can kick North Korea's ass -- yet keep the faith that if needs be, a hardy band of modern-day minute men could show central command who's boss?)
By contrast, none of us has to imagine situations in which variously-armed civilians have convinced themselves that they can, indeed, defy the government by force. Every so often, this actually happens. The only result is a gut-wrenching standoff, about which the only question that arises is at what point the authorities will resort to how much violence to resolve the matter.
Granted, some Americans may and do regret the fact that there can no longer be such a thing as a fair militarized fight between spontaneously-formed bands of “we, the people” and any armed agency – let alone the aggregate armed agencies -- of their elected government. Those are not the Americans whose lead I wish to follow.
Lose the Second Amendment and we all lose our guns .
Even today, as Congress responds to reprised apocalypse with noises about stock bumps, otherwise-rational people I know have jumped directly from “thoughts and prayers” for Las Vegas to hoots and hollers against a confiscation of all personally owned weapons that not even I am suggesting.
Nor is anyone (well, hardly anyone) except me even entertaining impure thoughts about the Second Amendment. But even if three-quarters of the country were clamoring for it:
Abolishing the right to something is not the same as banning it. Clearly, Americans constantly acquire all kinds of things to which they have no constitutional right: cars, credit cards, doughnuts, Easter bonnets, health insurance. But of course, placing conditions or restrictions upon a good or an activity is easier when it’s not a right. This is precisely why gun advocates are so eager to enshrine arms-bearing as right numero uno – and why the rest of us ought to stop handing them the heart of the argument.
Freedom, freedom, freedom, I need my freedom!
This isn’t a thought, but a very powerful feeling: this feeling that gun-rights folks have, deep inside, that even if they can’t name a reason why any civilian should want to exercise a right to stockpile machine guns, the seeds of tyranny lie in the urge to abridge that right. They’ll insist (correctly) that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are sane, responsible citizens, but scent oppression in any but the lamest measures aimed at distinguishing them from the small but mighty contingent of wackos.
In fairness, it’s not as if there are no such impulses on the left. For example, although the issues are very different, there are plenty of people who just will not countenance any discussion of any legal restriction on any form of abortion, as if this would automatically destroy the rights of all women.
So I ask respectfully, but I do ask:
Why does your favorite constitutional right get to squeeze out all the others? For example, how did the right of Dylann Roof to bear arms affect the right of the congregants of the Emanuel A.M.E. church to worship freely? How did Stephen Paddock’s right to bear an amazing array of arms affect the right of those country music fans to peaceful assembly? How about all the Americans who weren’t present for these or any other mass shootings, but now find themselves thinking twice about what kinds of lawful activities they will pursue; what kinds crowds, in what kinds of venues, they feel safe to join?
How about freedoms that are harder to define?
At what point does your freedom to acquire the arsenal of your choice begin to infringe unfairly upon my freedom to enter a concert, theme park or shopping mall without worrying that I could be next?
How free do young children feel as they learn the shelter-in-place protocols now routinely taught against the possibility that madness might descend on their school some day?
From the right’s own perspective: what kind of libertarian paradise are we building that we have to allow authority figures in more and more everyday settings to dig through our personal belongings so as to lower the odds of a bloodbath?
Of course, so many gun deaths are tragedies. But them’s the breaks, kid! Part of the price we must pay to live in an open society.
What a price we pay for treating the right to bear arms not only as a constitutional right, but one that extends to individuals and includes firearms of almost any kind.
It’s not just the Columbines and Virginia Techs, the Sandy Hooks and the Las Vegases. It’s what might now, scarily, be termed the mini mass shootings – the much more frequent picking-off of three, four, five people that don’t seem such a big deal anymore. It’s the weaponized street gangs, who kill not only each other, but innocent bystanders and the random folks who serve as scalps for their initiations. It’s the garden-variety crooks who shoot just one or two people at a time. It’s the arrests that turn into fire fights because the suspects have guns, and the police encounters with ordinary citizens that turn into altercations because officers reasonably fear that a given citizen might have a gun. It’s the instantly-successful suicides and fatally escalated domestic-violence disputes. It’s the toddlers accidentally killing each other. It’s the billions and billions of dollars in medical costs, lawsuits, death and disability payouts, and all the rest of it.
And for what? For the kind of pop-up state militia we haven’t needed since Winfield Scott was hot stuff? For people to feel safe from a non-existent threat that they won’t be allowed to hunt or have a handgun?
Look, I know that the political impact of my whole line of thinking will be exactly zero and in some ways, that’s a good thing. I know that a Democratic presidential candidate who says “boo” about gun control is a Democratic presidential candidate who hands Florida right back to Donald Trump. I know that any public figure who actually questions the Second Amendment will be answered with retirement.
I know that the Second Amendment is safe.
This does not mean it’s sound. Not anymore.
If the conscientious kneelers of the NFL care as much about social justice in this country as they say they do, they will stop trying to play football – at least the political football that comes from making the gridiron (or baseball diamond or basketball court or NASCAR track) the backdrop for pronouncements about police brutality, free speech, and whatever else may attach itself to the national crisis over the national anthem.
The real game the #TakeAKnee contingent needs to be playing is Capture the Flag – or rather, Recapture the Flag, from the race-baiting jackass who has stolen it.
Of course, the need for this is ridiculous.
Of course, it is painfully ironic that a draft-dodging, Putin-coddling, tax-return-withholding shyster should score political points by questioning the patriotism of anyone.
Of course, it is ridiculous – not to mention notably counter to the erstwhile free-enterprise values of the Republican party -- for the president to pressure private-sector business owners to forbid their employees to do something with which the owners themselves proclaim they have no problem.
Of course, it is galling to take the “let-them-have-free-speech-on-their-own-time” guff from tissue-white Trumpsters. Watching Steve Mnuchin spout that line on This Week was a retina-flaying flashback to the bad old days, when talented blacks were specimens, not citizens, who were supposed to dazzle, not matter; strictly to be marveled at while performing on field, court or stage, not listened to when speaking in the public square.
Of course, it is absurd to attach such national import to a mild pre-game ritual that the NFL didn’t even adopt until 2009.
But of course, if one feels any urgency about the need to stem the Trumpist tide, none of that counts.
Whether one takes one’s national anthem kneeling down, standing up, zoning out or flipping over, what counts is this:
In pulling this latest stunt, President Trump is not trying to divide the country into blacks and whites, or racists and non-racists. He is trying to divide the country into people who respect America’s most sacred national symbols and people who don’t. In our national politics, there is absolutely nothing to be gained – and a great deal to be lost -- by becoming the people who don’t.
What is lost has nothing to do with the votes, hearts or minds of the kinds of folks who cheered Trump’s “sons of bitches” crack at last Friday’s Alabama rally, thus adding leaping flame to Colin Kaepernick’s theretofore-modest fire. Those votes, hearts, minds and marbles are long gone.
What’s lost does, however, have something to do with the votes, hearts and minds of the kinds of folks who may find Trump rallies off-putting, even repulsive -- but aren’t too thrilled at the sight of Old Glory being dissed, either.
Now, here is where my fellow liberals are apt to do exactly what the president wants them to do, and get into the myriad facts of the matter: Kaepernick and company aren’t dissing the flag, the anthem or the country; they just want the country to live up to the flag and the anthem; they have the right to free speech; what about Trump's sympathy for union-bashing Confederate symbols and the thugs who revere them, and so on. Intellectually, these are valid points. But if the rise and resilience of Donald Trump can be attributed to any one phenomenon, it is his knack for separating the emotional power of an issue from the intellectual components of it, and then deploying the former against the latter. Time after time after frustrating, forehead-slapping time, Trump gets away with this because he knows that 9.99 times out of ten, emotion wins.
Interestingly, it may be that knowing this is the only trait that Trump has in common with all great political figures. They don’t, after all, achieve big things by convincing millions of people to favor sound factual analysis over their deepest, strongest feelings. They achieve big things by fitting sound factual analysis snugly into millions of people’s deepest, strongest feelings. Unfortunately, Trump skips the factual-analysis part. But where his opponents downplay or denigrate the emotional part, he wins anyway.
This is extremely well worth bearing in mind when considering the current flag/anthem spectacle, which is, for most Americans, an almost one hundred per cent emotion-only issue.
In fact, I’m one of those Americans. For me, as for millions of others, there’s just something….wrong….with disrespecting, or seeming to disrespect, cornerstone American symbols and institutions per se at any time, for any reason. Unlike the president and his minions, I don’t dispute anyone’s right to do it, and I often sympathize with the impulses behind its being done. But in my bones, I almost always wish it weren't happening.
I brought that little inner conflict to my initial view of Kaepernick’s first kneel-down, which I intellectually understood but emotionally disliked. Similarly, when the president invited-and-disinvited the Golden State Warriors to the White House, I felt (for the millionth time) that he had behaved like a bum. And yet, it somehow bothered me that LeBron James addressed him as such in that tweet. (And yes, I realize that in this post alone, I myself have called the president a jackass and a shyster. See? It's not logical.)
All that said, “sons of bitches” has me on the brink of ordering Kaepernick jerseys for the whole family. But if all this red-white-and-blue business stirs so much ambivalence in an anti-Trump, Black Lives Matter-ish liberal like myself, it might not be the worst idea in the world for "the resistance" to think about how it is playing out in the minds of true swing voters.
Even swing votes, though, are not the most precious things lost when Trump claims the flag and the anthem. Those would be...the flag and the anthem! True, the flag is just a symbol and the anthem just a song. But what a powerful symbol. What a resonant song.
Of all the disgust stirred in me by the president’s antics over the NFL, what rankles most is the idea that Donald Trump just might succeed in appropriating the American flag and the national anthem as stand-ins for himself. I feel queasy with apprehension that protestors might start to see kneeling down before the flag as a way of standing up to him. Or that thoughtful, well-meaning Americans may start to see more of a discrepancy than a consistency between standing for the values that the flag represents, and standing for the flag itself. I shudder to imagine a division opening up between those who salute and those who speak out.
If that kind of thinking starts to set in among those who oppose the Trump administration, then let’s all chip in to send the White House a giant Fraser fir right now, because Christmas will be coming early for the president, along with a very harsh winter for the American ideal.
Trump and his crowd of crazy Confederates would like nothing more than for their opponents, from Colin Kaepernick to yours truly, to spit on the American flag. That’s precisely our cue to seize it.
Thankfully, something like this process has already started. Already this past weekend, the country fairly burst with examples of Americans finding their own ways to embrace the nation while acknowledging its failings. There were the two performers who went ahead and sang the national anthem, then knelt down at the very end. The baseball rookie and military son who knelt, cap on heart, through the anthem, then rose to accept a hug from his white teammate. The numerous military veterans who tweeted that they fought for exactly the rights being exercised by the players on their knees. The sports veterans, too: almost everybody on Sunday’s Fox Sports panel came out swinging against Trump on this, but it was doughy, twangy Terry Bradshaw you could practically see reaching into the corn-chip bowl and the conscience of every old white guy watching.
That’s all great, but it’s not enough. Nor is it enough to assert, as many have, that seeking social justice can go hand in hand with patriotism. An effective message has to communicate that seeking social justice is patriotism. That message has to be delivered in every bit as visceral and vivid a style as any “Build That Wall” or “Lock Her Up!” that Trump has ever come out with.
If professional athletes really want to promote equality for black Americans, they are much better off finding a way to do so in the context of revering, not rejecting, the flag of all Americans.
This is not an easy needle to thread. Fortunately, the NFL is not new to branding, and its employees are not new to competition. These guys know how to win.
They’ve just got to start playing the right game.
Like a bowl of Lay’s potato chips, Steve Bannon’s 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose was so full of attacks, you can’t stop at just one. Bannon attacked the Catholic church. He attacked Hillary Clinton. He attacked “establishment” Republicans and Democrats and their donors and their “idiot” national-security apparatus. He attacked people who helped get Trump elected, such as Chris Christie, and people who are trying to help Trump govern, such as Gary Cohn.
So it is only in the spirit of starting on a relatively-unsung note that I begin with Bannon’s attack on American history.
It comes pretty early in the interview. Not surprisingly, it’s wrapped in an attack on immigration.
Charlie tees it up in that winding-road, thinking-cap way of his.
"America was, in the eyes of so many people -- and it’s what people respect America for – it’s that people have been able to come here, find a place, contribute to the economy,” he poses. “And you seem to want to turn it around and stop it.”
“You couldn’t be more dead wrong,” Bannon retorts.
For a split second right there, I actually think Bannon is going to go good immigrant/bad immigrant, and say that what Rose has wrong is the impression that Bannon wants to curtail the economic benefits of immigration, rather than address its costs. But no: he means to pretend that, even historically, there have been no economic benefits at all.
“America was built on her citizens,” he states, with dead, sky-is-blue certainty.
Unlike me, Charlie is able to keep from slumping over with his mouth hanging open.
“We are all immigrants,” he gently essays, “… except the native Americans – "
“Don't -- don't -- don't get...This is the thing of the left,” Bannon sputters, waving off the remark as if it is a fly getting too close to a sandwich. “Charlie, that’s beneath you.”
Wow: The massive, multi-century reality of immigration as a basic, foundational feature of American ascendancy in the world is a “thing of the left”? A thing that is “beneath” the dignity of a television interviewer to mention?
Only here comes the really scary part, though, because to the millions of people who undoubtedly slept through this unit in middle-school social studies, Bannon actually sounds kind of learned.
“Look at the 19th century,” Bannon urges. “What built America is called the ‘American System', from Hamilton to Polk to Henry Clay to Lincoln to the Roosevelts...a system of protection of our manufacturers, a financial system that lends to manufacturing, ok? And control of our borders. Economic nationalism. It’s what this country was built on!”
Now, if it so happens that you stayed awake through middle-school social studies, that little riff alone is full of fun little ironies, such as American System godfather Clay’s eminently un-Breitbart nickname (“the great compromiser”) and his mortal enmity with Bannon/Trump hero Andrew Jackson, whose virulent opposition thwarted key elements of the System. But that’s all beside the point, which is that if you look for five seconds at American economic development in the 19th century, you will see Bannon’s portrayal of it as the very picture of fantasy.
Let’s take just three quick, gigantic examples.
In 1804-06, was it an American citizen who crucially enabled – and more than once saved from fatal catastrophe -- the great, national-economy-forerunning expedition of Lewis and Clark? Or was it a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, ably aided in the translation department by her French-Canadian husband-owner Toussaint Charbonneau?
During the glorious “Canal Age” that brought the American System to life with its commerce-linking waterways, was it primarily U.S. citizens who did all that digging, dumping and draining? Or was it badly paid German and Irish immigrants -- the Catholics among whom, in a foreshadowing of the drubbing later to be taken by Muslims, were widely denigrated as papist plotters?
Decades on and further west, was it U.S. citizens who built the transcontinental railroad? Or was it overwhelmingly Chinese laborers who blasted tunnels through mountains and had themselves lowered over cliffs in baskets so as to chisel the rock by hand? Not only were these people non-citizens at the time that they performed this death-defying, economy-establishing work. They were affirmatively barred from becoming citizens for many decades thereafter.
Bonus question: By 1900, some three-quarters of the exploding U.S. urban population was comprised of immigrants. Were they mostly lying around, snacking on schnitzel? Or were they putting their backs, shoulders, arms, legs, hands, feet and eyeballs into maximizing the newfound industrial potential of “our” manufacturing?
None of this is to suggest that all immigration has been good, wonderful immigration – far from it-- or that fine people can’t disagree on how to control immigration today. But that’s a hard problem, and it’s not going to be solved by folks who dispute the indisputable, starting with: if the building of America had been left to American citizens, America as we know it would not exist.
Of course, it’s not just the building of America that Bannon has got so wrong. It’s the being. From Squanto to Lafayette to Roebling to Schwarzenegger to the dreamers now having nightmares, the United States has never, ever been the tightly-sealed Ziploc storage bag of a country that the Breitbart set seem to idealize. No matter what inanities they speak or cruelties they clamor to inflict, it’s never, ever going to become that, either.
How pathetically sad to have to state such an obvious fact. How singularly repulsive to do so in response to such a highly-placed figure’s so boldly and breezily denying it. How gravely distressing to know that he dares to do so on behalf of the resident of a White House that was built by African slaves, the most egregiously exploited non-citizens of all.
It sickens me to say this, but you know something? As naked, narrowly self-interested political calculations go, I’m not so sure that Donald Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville was a bad one.
I want to believe the exact opposite. I want to believe that his serial roll-out of repugnancies damaged Trump politically as much as it indicted him morally. I want to believe that the moment when the President of the United States lustily defended those gathered for an explicitly-advertised white extremist rally partially on the grounds that “they had a permit!” was the moment when some giant light bulb switched on in the collective head of his non-Nazi voters, casting into utter darkness the notion that swallowing such bile is a payable price for a conservative Supreme court and (maybe) tax reform, or whatever. I want to believe that by choosing to praise the imaginary mild-mannered Robert E. Lee statue enthusiasts he claimed to see at that rally rather than reassure the real Americans terrified by the marauders who were actually there, he severed some critical vein of support.
In short, I want to believe that enough has finally become enough. But the truth is: I don’t.
Maybe I’m just over-correcting for how extremely wrong I got everything back in November: how grossly I underestimated the number of people who thrilled to Trump’s rise, and overestimated the powers of reason and revulsion to quell it. Maybe, after crediting too many polls that turned out to be too full of bull, I’m falling too far on the side of skepticism that any of the curtains-for-Trump approval-rating data is really data. But in my gut, I just can’t join so many others in the assessment that with last Tuesday’s Maine-to-California projectile vomit, the president finally went “off the rails” and into some state of political purdah. In my gut, I fear that while he may well have hurled the Republican Party into a gorge, Trump has kept himself right on track.
Think about it:
For any incumbent, the first task of getting re-elected is to retain every single vote garnered in the first place. For Trump, as for anyone else, that means constantly feeding, watering and flattering the truest of the true believers, and fanning out from there.
To start with the truest of Trump’s true believers, it is, alas, possible to start right there in Charlottesville. Of course, it’s not only the proudly pro-Trump Nazi-flag-wavers on parade. It’s also people who either like something about that kind of spectacle, or aren’t any more upset about it than they are about lots of other developments that they consider disturbing, such as the election of Trump’s Muslim-Kenyan-communist predecessor. These people aren’t quite fanatics themselves, but they clearly find some kind of affirmation or comfort in Trump’s ease among fanatics. They might never carry a physical torch at a rally, but they always carry an emotional one for a past they picture as simpler, more abundant, less fraught with diversity and its demons. These are the people who spent the whole campaign taking Trump’s bursts of misogyny and Muslim-baiting as refreshing dips in the pool of “authenticity.”
Of course, It’s hard to know how many of these folks exist. But seven months into their hero’s tenure on top of the world, it is well past time to stop thinking of them as a crazy little handful. Needless to say, the whole Charlottesville episode has done nothing but burnish his brand in their eyes.
Widening the circle, we arrive at a separate but equally-committed category of the Trump base. These are the hard-core, vineyard-toiling ideological conservatives who might dislike Trump’s antics regarding race, but not nearly as much as they love his actions on their core issue or set of issues – the fight against abortion, perhaps; the rollback of business or environmental regulations, or the promotion of their concept of “religious liberty.” On some of those things, week in and week out, the Trump administration has been quietly rocking out and locking in a further layer of support.
Granted, most of these activists would be perfectly thrilled for a magic wand to be waved that turns Mike Pence into their president. But absent some independent force – i.e., Robert Mueller -- that makes that happen, they will stick with the guy who’s using every tool that is truly at his disposal to make their long-held dreams come true. So weaving further fibers into Trump’s safety net, there is a substantial, sure-to-vote, conservative-activist cohort that is not going to abandon their president because he has drawn a gross moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and liberal counter-protestors, whom conservative media have been trying to morph into one big, scary ball of antifa from day one.
How about the bigger pool of less fervent, more moderate Republicans? Is there no significance to be read into the fact of GOP elected officials falling all over themselves to emphasize how they hate the KKK even more than they love tax cuts? Isn’t it amazing, unheard-of, unprecedented for lawmakers of a president’s own party to question his stability, morality, competence, as several senators did on Thursday? Sure. But don’t forget the reason why so many other GOP elected officials have failed to chastise Trump over Charlottesville or anything else: their constituents. If race-baiting were some sort of a deal-breaker among the Republican rank-and-file, Trump wouldn’t have made it out of the gate in the primaries. Sanity-based GOP members of Congress have spent almost two years now enduring the push-pull of dreading Trump while representing his fans. By now, the lot of them have come to resemble nothing so much as a bunch of hostages who arranged their own abduction. Having gone into cahoots with the shady crook in order to split the ransom loot later, they are suddenly horrified to realize that the guy is really crazy and has no qualms about killing them. So here Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the rest of the crew are all stuffed in the trunk of Trump’s limo, hoping against hope that somebody will come along to save them before they suffocate or careen off a cliff. But who, pray tell, would that be? The voters in deference to whose fevered Trumpophilia they made this catastrophic deal in the first place? The president who got elected in large part by promising to "drain the swamp" they dug? I know that this very, very late-breaking wave of opprobrium feels like the turn of the tide, and perhaps it is. Still I wonder: exactly how is Trump mortally wounded by being rejected by an establishment he made a great big show of rejecting first?
Oh wait a minute, I know: Things have changed since the campaign. Now that Trump is actually governing, he needs his friends in Congress to pass the big GOP agenda.
Pardon me for chuckling, as I always do when anyone says that, because it’s so cute. Newsflash, cupcake: Trump is Trump’s agenda, and he often seems to think he serves it best by skinning his allies – let alone his enemies -- alive. Yes, it will be a political disaster if, despite its total control of the federal government, the GOP hits the broken-promise trifecta and fails to deliver on health care, tax reform, and infrastructure. But given the fact that as of today, Trump remains (astonishingly, breathtakingly) more popular among their voters than they are, his Congressional colleagues still have more to lose from shunning him than he has to lose from shunning them.
So much for Republicans. How about the all-important swing vote? That mysterious blend of Rust Belt Democrats and independents who voted for Obama, perhaps even for Sanders -- but then, high on some mix of craving change, crushing on a reality-TV billionaire, and hating Hillary, voted for Trump? Hasn't this turned them off, once and for all ?
Possibly. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Unlike many of my fellow liberals, I have always thought it was wrong to brand all Trump voters as bigots. That said, they are, by definition, capable of tolerating an awful lot of bigotry in a leader. I would hope that, particularly for undecided-type voters, an actual president defending a gathering of actual Nazis should be enough to shoot the needle on the unacceptably-racist meter from “meh” to “oh my God!” Then again, I used to think that a presidential candidate who spent five years peddling birtherism would end up as an asterisk.
Look, maybe everyone is right. Maybe this time really is different from all the other times. Maybe this time, Trump has finally fallen so far that he can only keep falling. But just for the heck of it, imagine what has now become unimaginable. Imagine that when disaster struck in Charlottesville, our president had done the absolute right thing. Imagine that he had come out with an immediate, heartfelt condemnation of the whole disgusting spectacle. Imagine that he had lambasted the right-wing protestors who love him and defended the left-wing counter-protestors who don't. Imagine that he had dropped everything, flown to Charlottesville, locked arms in unity with a multi-racial line of civic and political leaders, and walked in lockstep with them toward a future of harmonious diversity. Would I have praised the president for doing that? Would I now be writing, “Wow, generally speaking I think Trump is the very definition of disaster, but today I have got to admit: he really rose to the occasion”? Yes. Would I thus consider voting for him? Not in a hundred million years.
Now imagine how that alternative scenario might have played to the base to whom Trump clearly fancied himself appealing with his actual disgraceful display. Not just the supremacists, but the Trump voters two or three ripples out from that. The people who don’t consider themselves at all racist, but like to point out that there’s no such thing as white history month. Who hate the feeling that no matter what struggles or indignities they suffer, they need to atone for their “skin privilege.” Who love Trump for shoving “political correctness” and revel in the permission his presidency seems to give them to shove it, too. Had Trump done what everyone else considers to be the right thing, might some of those voters have considered it wrong? Might some of them put it together with the survival of Obamacare and the lack of brick one in The Wall to conclude that maybe Trump isn’t so different after all? That maybe he’s just another media-minded panderer, cow-towing to coastal elites' demand that he denounce and decry some of his most loyal followers until they say he can stop? Might just a few of them start to think about sitting out his rallies and, eventually, his re-election? I think they might.
And don't forget: for Trump voters, racially-charged and not, there's another form of bigotry at play here. It's the bigotry that flows toward Trump himself; the one that his once-maligned, now fondly-missed predecessor, George W. Bush, called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
If Donald Trump has succeeded at anything in the first seven months of his presidency, it is in lowering the bar for himself so far that he could trip over it. At this point, “non-impeachment” or “absence of nuclear winter” feels like something of a moon shot. Against that backdrop, imagine the following:
Charlottesville starts to wash away in a series of fresh news cycles, as even it will do. Awful subsequent race riots take place, but some of them gift Trump with images of violence from the lunatic far-left and thus shifting some of the focus from the fascist dabblings of the president to the criminal excesses of his beloved “both sides.” Over weeks and months, Democrats and the media somehow start to come across as overplaying the hand of moral outrage; as refusing to “move on” from Charlottesville to jobs and whatnot.
Meanwhile, no thanks to him, the winds of economic recovery remain at Trump’s back. Barely-noticed administration initiatives aimed at boosting employment or vanquishing opioids bear modest fruit in a couple of strategic spots on the electoral map. Robert Mueller concludes his Russia investigation without recommending criminal charges against Trump personally, which the right-wing media trumpets as sterling vindication; proof that the whole thing was a witch hunt. An elderly Supreme Court justice takes his or her leave, allowing the administration to produce Gorsuch: The Sequel. And proving that there is a first time for everything, Trump goes three days straight without causing a major apocalypse, thus allowing his supporters to fancy him "growing into the presidency."
Even if all this were to happen, I would still think that Trump is vile, inept, divisive and unfit. But I have thought that all along. What would the bulk of his own voters – base and beyond -- think? Beats me.
As a test of Trump’s basic moral worthiness to lead the American people, his reaction to Charlottesville has been an irretrievable calamity. But as a pure political calculation pertaining to himself and himself alone?
Again, it sickens me to say this. But I am not sure.
President Trump will probably have pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement before I finish typing this post. But whatever the president does and whenever he does it, the whole matter will still have left me with one big, entirely non-environmental question, begged by the following points:
It’s not just the Europeans whom Trump dissed on his big trip who are pledged to the Agreement, it’s the Gulf Arabs whom he embraced.
It’s not just the environmentalists Trump ridicules who have urged him to keep the U.S. in, but the fossil-fuel industrialists he claims to champion. Crucially, they are doing so on the grounds that participation in the accord would help keep U.S. energy companies globally competitive…which is, one might think, right in line with one of Trump's main objectives.
It’s not just sworn enemies of the President who will be bummed big-time by a pullout, it’s his very most credible defenders: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
All this has been completely clear for months. Yet, as the clock ticks toward the moment of decision, the right-flank warning keeps rising and getting redder: if Trump announces that he intends to keep the U.S. in, millions of his most loyal supporters will feel betrayed and there’s no telling what revenge they might exact. In other words, forget climate-change geeks, Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans, the whores of the media, the leakers of “the deep state.” If President Trump heeds his own, hand-picked military and diplomatic advisers; foreign allies who love him, and the job creators in one of his favorite economic sectors, he will enrage “the base.”
Which leads to the aforementioned, and lingering, question: completely apart from the merits or demerits of the agreement itself, who does Trump's “base” really consist of, and why won't they give their own team a win?
I can’t believe I miss Dick Cheney.
Remember the good old days when the opposition riff was that President George W. Bush was the figurehead and Vice president Dick Cheney was the force? That Bush was an amiable, pliable idiot and Cheney his evil tutor, plotting wars, enriching cronies, and knifing nemeses behind the scenes? Along with Karl Rove, Cheney was often characterized as Bush’s brain, but culturally speaking, he also served as Bush’s Bannon.
Today, alas, that scenario brings just two words to mind: If only.
W. was often derided as a puppet, but these days that is looking like a term of praise. Having been a governor and an old hand on his father’s campaigns, he knew that governing is the ultimate maze, and installed someone who knew all the turns.
By contrast, to call Trump a puppet is an insult to marionettes everywhere -- for they, at least, allow agile hands to pull their strings.
Faced with a White House overrun with media-monger monkeys eating one another, one actually pines for a White House run by a strong, silent predator who could eat them all.
Forced to contemplate an administration that takes one of the very few simple, straightforward issues in the whole of U.S. foreign policy and injects it with needless difficulty, as Trump has just done with NATO, one feels positively nostalgic for an administration that at least got things wrong vis-à-vis questions, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, that were, and are, legitimately hard to get right.
Amid high-level corruption that is so innate and yet so flagrant, one finds oneself with something of a soft spot for corruption that was cool and corporate, along the lines of the no-bid war-services contract awarded to Cheney’s old confreres at Halliburton-cum-KBR, in which case there was at least an argument that there weren’t a million competitors at the ready for that undertaking. And at least there, you could sort of see who was profiting and how. Apart from the low-hanging, if poison, fruit that has long been dangling in plain sight – the hotel down the street from the White House, the speed-approved Chinese trademarks and so on – Trump’s conflicts and potential conflicts remain hidden because he does not deign to show them.
(Come to think of it, I miss Hillary’s brothers Hugh and Tony Rodham, too. Remember when they caught holy hell for that hazelnut-distribution deal in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia?)
Veritably waterlogged by leaks that are disturbing in their incidence, their profusion, and their revelatory content, one dreams of a White House pervaded by that special mix of fear, loyalty and trust that (mostly) seals the faucet.
Opening the papers to an allegedly-proposed “back channel” to Russia whose creation was, if news reports are one-quarter correct, broached with less finesse than that involved in your average Verizon Fios installation, one retroactively salutes a transition run by a man who would never allow prospective appointees to try and circumvent U.S. intelligence unless they knew how.
As for the whole issue of Russian meddling in a U.S. election, one might fall short of the former vice president’s characterization of it as “an act of war.” Yet compared to the current crew’s “fake news” take on the whole thing, his concern is refreshing.
Of course, Cheney supported Trump from early on and for all I know, he still does. But I can’t help picturing him crouched in a custom-built bunker out in Wyoming somewhere, snickering and slapping his forehead, right along with the rest of us.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump visited the Vatican and all we got were those odd, vaguely Addams Family photos: black-swathed Ivanka and Melania with their long veils and long faces; Donald grinning a grin that managed to be dopey, yet chilling; Jared doing his usual mug shot for GQ; and last but not least unsettling, Pope Francis looking uncharacteristically sour and flattened, as if the Father and the Son had conspired to suck the Holy Spirit straight out of him.
No, wait, the photos weren’t all we got: there was also came the commentary-cum-hilarity about the epic awkwardness that was obvious at the photo op and safe to assume about the two men’s private meeting. That was no surprise, given the shots they took at each other during the campaign and the depth of their differences on climate change, poverty, immigration and more.
For American political purposes, though, the biggest issue of all went largely unremarked, and it is one on which the Holy Father and the unholy president most definitely agree: abortion.
The Francis certainly does not seem to like The Donald. But an awful lot of American Catholics do like him — or at least they did, as of November. Catholics were absolutely key to electing Trump and they will be absolutely key to re-electing him, or not. In fact, Catholics will be key to electing U.S. presidents long after Trump exits the stage, whether he does so tomorrow or in January 2025. For all the attention that evangelical Christians perennially garner as a voting bloc, they are concentrated in the deeply red south, which means that they don’t get courted past the primaries. Once the major party nominees are settled upon, the big religious vote that is up for grabs is that of Catholics, who dominate in such places as the Rust Belt. Crucially, insofar as they vote on moral or religious grounds, Catholics tend to be much more liberal than their evangelical counterparts on one economic and social issue after another — except, oftentimes, when it comes to abortion.
Not, of course, that Catholics march in lockstep on this or any other issue. Pro-choice advocates love to say this, and it’s true: Not all Catholics oppose abortion rights, and even those who do often weigh up all the issues and vote for pro-choice candidates anyway. A majority of Catholics voted twice for the pro-choice Barack Obama, and of course Hillary Clinton tapped a proud product of the Jesuits, Tim Kaine, as her running mate.
Here, though, is something that is also true: There are millions of American Catholics who are deeply, morally troubled by the words and deeds of the Republican Party in general, and the Trump administration in particular, toward immigrants, toward Muslims, toward the poor and the working class, and as regards the environment. Many have absolutely no problem with government policies that buck the Church’s teachings on birth control, as a majority of American Catholics themselves do. Virtually none of these folks could be counted as natural political allies of those Protestants on the religious right — not all Protestants on the religious right, to be sure, but a notable subgroup — who openly describe Catholicism as a cult and the Pope as a puppet of Satan. In short, these Catholics should fit right in to the Democratic Party. Yet, if they oppose or even favor limitations on abortion — including limitations that would amount to less than those existent in many states already — the Democratic Party — yes, the party that is down two-thirds of the statehouses, both houses of Congress, and the White House — is actually engaged in a real debate over whether or not they should be allowed in.
Astonishingly, significant powers in the party are adamant that the answer is “no.” Pro-choice advocates in particular seem to sense an invisible but alarming problem of too many Americans flocking to the Democratic fold, upon whose gatekeepers the utmost vigilance must thus be urged. Just in May, NARAL Pro-Choice America actually reprimanded “Unity” tourists Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison for rallying with Heath Mello, a thirty-something Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, because he was pro-life. It is hard to imagine what reproductive liberty was served by easing the re-election of Omaha’s Republican mayor, and easy to imagine what Democratic aims could be stifled by other versions of this playing out in multiple, more consequential settings.
Finding himself at the start of a truly vertical electoral climb, freshly-minted DNC chair Tom Perez should not also find himself stuck in a life-or-choice tar pit, but there he's been since day one: first declaring that the party cannot demand perfect fealty to its platform on every issue…only to turn around and state that yes, it must demand fealty (“speak with one voice”) on the choice issue…the fallout from which then obliged him to set up a meeting where he could hear the “voice” of Democrats for Life. Meanwhile, red- and purple-state Democrats, such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, warn and warn against the self-defeating folly of demanding that candidates and office holders who are 80 or 90 per cent on board with the Democratic agenda — and often 60 or 70 per cent on board with the Democratic reproductive-rights agenda — should be thrown out for not being on board enough.
Look, I get the purists' argument: women’s rights are inextricable from reproductive rights, and (much less convincingly) reproductive rights which fall short of being absolute do not count as reproductive rights at all.
That, of course, is a point of view to which people are absolutely entitled, and for which its holders deserve credit, at least, for putting principle before politics. Way, way before, in fact, when you think about who swing voters are and where they live. Democrats have every right to tell all but the very most liberal Catholics to go jump in a lake. But they should not kid themselves: no matter how this Pope may scowl at this president, that’s a real problem, because the lake in question just might be Michigan. Or Erie, Superior, Huron, Ontario…any major swing-state body of water will do.
President Trump is flying off to the Middle East — and I'll bet, as far as the Arab Gulf states are concerned, straight into a warm bath of esteem and approval.
This assumption dates from my own, now-ancient stint in the region (2001-2004). But it has been only strengthened by a lunch I recently had with a very smart, very well-connected friend from the United Arab Emirates.
When I asked my friend — who is, as you might expect, Muslim — how Trump was viewed by the powers that be back home, he responded at length and in detail. But basically, his take boiled down to three words:
They love him.
The Gulf states love Secretary of State Rex Tillerson because he really understands the oil business. They love General Jim Mattis and feel hopeful that the likes of him will help resolve what they view as their number one problem: the raging civil war on their doorstep in Yemen. They hate Iran, they double-hate the Obama-brokered nuclear deal with Iran, and are thus delighted with the advent of an American administration that hates and double-hates those, too.
What about the Muslim ban — or, okay, the Trump administration’s proposed temporary moratorium on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries? Surely it is one thing to be vigilant about oil riches and regional realpolitik, another to have one’s religion tarred with what Trump never tires of calling “radical Islamic terrorism?” How can that label, and the executive order clearly born of it, be felt as anything other than a stinging slap to the nations that constitute the cradle of Islam and pride themselves as its chief stewards? “We do that stuff all the time,” my old pal shrugged, at the practice of denying or revoking visas from a given place or group, often including subgroups of Muslims. “We just don’t announce it.” No matter how abruptly taken, the thinking goes, such actions fall into the category of any sovereign government’s absolute right to secure its borders in any way that that sovereign government sees fit. They do it, they see no reason to fault Trump for doing it.
Admittedly moving down a few rungs on the ladder of outrages, I wondered about the other ban, announced in March, on laptops and other electronic devices on flights to the U.S. from ten airports, including those in Riyadh, Qatar and Dubai. Given the tremendous degree to which the business of the Gulf is business, doesn’t that, at least, earn a few demerits for The Donald?
“Nah, the airlines are already offering laptops to passengers to use for the duration of their flights,” my lunch companion said. “Bring your own data stick, you’re fine.”
Readers of this blog know that I am no fan of our current president, nor of his foreign policy — to the extent that he has one. Nor do I consider glowing reviews from the masters of the Gulf to be any great recommendation for the leader of the free world. But even — no, especially — for those of us who are experiencing this presidency as one cataclysm after another, it is important to remember that there is a whole world out there. And Donald Trump is by no means hated by everyone in it.
Recent though it was, this lunch took place before the FBI director was fired, the special counsel was hired, and key Republicans in Congress were starting to shift uncomfortably in their boots and distance themselves from the president in a way that could, in theory, mess with his mojo in heretofore-supportive capitals. So as I was typing this post, I texted my friend: “Scale of one to ten, how much do you think anyone in the UAE cares about the Russia investigation?”
He’s just texted back:
So now the big word is “Nixonian.”
To recap: President Donald Trump recently fired FBI director James Comey, who was subsequently reported to have written a memo alleging that the president had asked him to shutter an investigation into the Russia-related activities of General Michael Flynn in his capacity as a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, but previous to his being hired for, then fired from, the post of national security advisor. In typical knee-jerk, media-frenzy fashion, this has everybody screaming “Watergate!” and equating Trump with Richard Nixon, the only one of his predecessors who resigned from his office rather than face impeachment for abusing its vast powers.
This is ridiculous. There are numerous key ways in which Trump bears absolutely no resemblance to Nixon, and it is a disservice both to historical record and current debate to ignore the distinctions. To name just a few:
Nixon had tremendous intelligence. As a high school senior, he received a full scholarship to Harvard, and later a full scholarship to Duke Law School. Throughout his life, he was routinely described by friend and foe as “brilliant.” Of course, many people criticized many of Nixon’s policies. But no one ever suspected him of an inability to grasp what policies were or how they came to be made.
Nixon was a truly self-made man. Notwithstanding that scholarship, Nixon didn’t actually go to Harvard, but rather to the far less illustrious Whittier College, close to home. His family simply couldn’t pay for his trip from California to Massachusetts, nor his living expenses once he got there. By many accounts, this disappointment seeded a lifelong bitterness and resentment that came to darken his character and perhaps to foster future misdeeds. But it also indicates just how far Nixon came in life, entirely on his own steam.
Before becoming President, Nixon had serious government experience. By the time he entered the White House, Nixon had served as a Congressman, a U.S. Senator, and a two-term vice president, in which capacity he had traveled to Asia, Africa, South America and the Soviet Union; informally debated Nikita Khrushchev, and helped to get the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate.
For much of his presidency, Nixon led a highly effective White House. Until he sunk it in scandal in his second term, Nixon’s White House worked, both in the sense of functioning and in the sense of achieving. The left may never forgive Nixon for giving Henry Kissinger the keys to U.S.. foreign policy. The right still hates him for placing the domestic-policy playbook in the charge of then-nascent Democratic lion Daniel Patrick Moynihan. One may love, hate or otherwise argue about the Environmental Protection Agency, affirmative action, Title IX, a vastly expanded social safety net, the normalization of relations with China, the desegregation of schools, the war on drugs, the war on cancer, or any number of other things that Nixon did as president. But one cannot remotely equate him with a chief executive who, from day one, by dint of his own missteps and misstatements, has prevented himself from doing anything.
Nixon had moments of real personal integrity. Although it would make for a convenient contrast with Trump, I'm not counting the fact that Nixon was married to the same woman for 53 years because a) bad marriages can happen to good people and b) for political reasons he bragged about keeping Pat in crummy cloth coats. But how about this: Having been born a Quaker, Nixon could have opted out of military service in World War II. Instead, he joined the Navy and ended up in the South Pacific. Can you imagine a young Donald Trump doing that?
Needless to say, these and all of Nixon’s admirable traits were compromised by years of red-baiting and dirty tricks, and then totally crushed under the weight of Watergate. All that intelligence, all that experience, all those achievements and potential achievements were washed away in a criminally paranoid sea.
That’s the great tragedy of Nixon: He allowed his negative characteristics so completely to overwhelm the many aspects of his public life that were inarguably positive.
The tragedy of Trump, by contrast, is that he seems to have no positive characteristics, at least as it relates to the presidency. Then again, in the classical sense, that can hardly be called a tragedy, for that would require a great moral height to fall from. Technically speaking, then, it's mere abomination.
Unable to bring myself to salivate at the prospect of the demise of any American president, I still hope against hope that there turn out to be no grounds to impeach this one. I still hope against hope that there will surface some reason, at some point, to applaud him for something. But so far, Trump has demonstrated much in the way of paranoia, little in the way of smarts. He is alive to every personal slight, yet blind to political nuance. His is a grimace without gravitas.
So yes, Donald Trump is very much like Richard Nixon —- without the trip to China.
Wait, wait, wait: Is Comey the good guy now?
It’s so confusing. As a Hillary Clinton supporter, I had gotten so used to viewing the FBI director as the errand boy of doom. It was, after all, he who was so widely said to have thrown sacred apolitical precedent to the dogs by announcing the reopening of an investigation into Clinton’s e-mails just before election day. In so doing, Democrats from Hillary on down have been insisting ever since, Comey had effectively thrown the election — and, by extension, all hope for humanity — to Donald Trump. Moreover, the contention went, he had done so not out of some tone-deaf Boy Scout scrupulousness, but to appease a nefariously anti-Clinton clique in the Bureau.
Now, this lowlife has been fired and in the eyes and cries of many who have fervently maintained all of the above, it’s a threat to the republic.
Don’t get me wrong. In its context, its pretext, and its timing, Comey’s termination is the soul of suspicious. In its manner, it is the definition of demented. In its rank deracination of a relatively independent, if problematic, investigatory figure, it is the apex of ominous. And in its status as merely one of the crisis-level shocks that this country has been obliged to absorb since January, it is a measure of the mess that Trump apparently wills his presidency to be.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that if Hillary Clinton had gotten elected and proceeded to axe Comey out of sheer spite, the reaction from some of the same quarters would have been of a rather different, “you go girl!” variety.
It’s become par for the course. Every development — scandal, Syria, FBI-director-sacking — is evaluated strictly in terms of its immediate effect upon clearly delineated political heroes and villains, and whatever clash they happen to be having.
Of course this tendency has existed forever, but it keeps getting more entrenched in our politics and no one seems to mind.
I mind. Don’t you?