Oh, for crying out loud: I was going to write about the whole Oprah-or-Noprah question that spun out of the Golden Globes, but now we’re all in the shithole, all the time.
This, I find, is the absolute bane of tries-to-be-thoughtful-blogger existence in the time of Trump: something happens in the realm of politics or policy, you take a minute to decide whether you have anything to add to the reams of commentary that instantly spring out of it -- and by the time that minute is up, the president has set his next fire, sending your original topic up in smoke.
It’s very frustrating. But from here on in, dear reader, I will just reconcile myself to being like one of those little old ladies in New York City who hauls her weekly groceries home in a metal cart. Lights will change, sprightlier pedestrians will jostle, taxi drivers will curse, but I will just move along at my own slow, deliberately deaf, pre-Twitter pace.
Anyway, my reaction to Trump’s, er… take… on Africa and Haiti is not entirely unrelated to my reaction to the phrase “Oprah 2020.” If there is anything that illustrates the downside of personality-based presidential candidacies, it’s the specter of Mr. Personality spreading verbal excrement at the White House, thus across the globe, followed by the specter of everybody else scrambling to wipe it up.
Not that Oprah would occasion anything of the kind. Whatever other shortcomings a President Winfrey might have, it is impossible to imagine her hurling insults – or, come to think of it, hurling anything -- at anyone. That’s one of the many things I love about Oprah. Others include: she’s brilliant, eloquent, truly self-made, and legitimately, deeply relatable to everyone from pregnant teens to billionaires to women who have struggled with their weight. Best of all for those of us who long to turn back Trump and the angry forces of his rise, she’s a black woman whose greatest power is the power of empathy. Win or lose, hers would be the singular presidential candidacy that could lay claim to both healing and groundbreaking.
But that’s just it: after a year in Trump time – any one of which has got to equal 20 in regular politics time -- I don’t want to break another thing, not even new ground.
Right now, I don't want salvation. I don't want inspiration. I want peace and quiet.
Honest to God, I'm like some war-weary peasant, who once swore fealty to the struggle, but now just wants something to eat and a sufficient absence of chaos to eat it in.
I wasn’t always like this. Politics has never been croquet, but it has always been my favorite sport. Battling, dueling, sparring – whatever the euphemism, the fighting was the fun.
Now that the country is bleeding, burning and being looted, however, I find I enjoy that stuff a lot less.
I used to disdain the old, standard-issue climbers up the rungs of national politics – the Mondales, Bushes, Doles, Gephardts, Gores – as meh, blah, so-so; not even worth a real adjective. Now I’d kill for the half-a-loaf likes of them to return.
Once almost smug in my assurance of another American Century, I now feel positively nostalgic for a time when presidents swore only in private.
When millions of Americans disdained our public discourse because it was boring, not because it was repellent.
When, if some associate of some major leader turned out to be a quack or a crook, that person would be considered a liability, not a hire.
When the appearance, let alone the fact, of ignorance was something to avoid, not to seize upon (insultingly) as a sign of solidarity with ordinary Americans. In the 1976 presidential debate, when Gerald Ford badly bungled a question about then-Soviet domination of eastern Europe, it was counted a major gaffe. Today, Ford supporters would take to Twitter defending him on the grounds that the Warsaw Pact was not something your average Joe hashes over down at the bar – if the Warsaw Pact, having been mentioned on CNN, could even be sure to exist.
Ah, Gerald Ford. A man who could put America to sleep even as he was ending its national nightmare with Nixon – which was fine, because America could sleep soundly, knowing that the president neither was, nor somehow saw fit to act exactly like, a complete lunatic.
Then again, America has done little of late to earn a good night’s rest. There was no shortage of meh on the menu in 2016, and as our cheerless leader never tires of pointing out, he beat them all. Indeed, he beat the conciliatory, reality-based guys by the most. It wasn’t Jeb “let’s get together and fix immigration” Bush or John “you can’t reform the health care system with the support of zero Democrats” Kasich who came in (a very distant) second. It was Ted “I’ll filibuster us into a government shutdown because I need to show GOP primary voters how much I hate Obamacare” Cruz. As for Democrats, many mistrusted their own nominee as the woman who knew too much, weirdly viewing Hillary Clinton’s firm mastery of policy the same way they viewed her slippery relationship with ethics: warily. That legendary eagerness to go "into the weeds" of substantive detail was something to be sucked up, not celebrated. It was Bernie “what’s foreign policy? free college for everyone!” Sanders who captured the left-wing imagination.
Wait, wait: false equivalence alert: By virtue of its having enabled, elected and sustained by far the worst president the United States has ever had including Andrew Johnson, the pro-Trump right is overwhelmingly to blame for the damage currently being done to this country. The answer to this, however, is emphatically not for equal and opposite damage to be done by the anti-Trump left.
I hope and pray that pundits are right to be predicting an anti-Trump “wave” election in 2018. But I still shudder to ask: a wave of what?
Even – no, especially – as a liberal, I don’t, God forbid, want any version of a “Tea Party of the Left.” I don’t want Chelsea Manning – a barely-old-enough candidate whose main experience is treason -- within four hundred miles of the U.S. Senate. I don’t want to overthrow capitalism, abolish white men or pretend that there’s nothing any kind, smart or open-minded person could find objectionable about illegal immigration, runaway entitlements, or any form of abortion, affirmative action, or Islam as currently, and very politically, practiced in numerous places.
I want America to do eminently doable things that, incredibly --- sickeningly, in fact -- will not be done if we simply bat control of the country between extremes. Those things include: keeping capitalism from destroying itself in the process of destroying everyone who is not already rich. Ensuring that every American has equal rights, responsibilities and recourse to justice, period. Hammering out broad, humane and realistic solutions – or even approaches -- to long-standing, infinitely complex problems such as immigration and health care. I want to be able to choose from a healthy variety of aspiring leaders who want to do those things, too.
No question, there are times when our nation needs shaking up. But right now, we are in much more desperate need of settling down.
Enough with the disrupters and the bomb-hurlers, the stompers and the snake-oil salesmen. Let’s try a nice, normal crop of politicians who refrain from language and conduct for which one would reprimand one’s child. Who can identify three major foreign countries on a map and muster some reaction other than “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” about all of them. Who are aware that, on any given day, roughly half the country will likely oppose whatever is their own position on something, and that it is equal parts stupid and undemocratic to try and govern as if those people don’t count. Who recognize that firecrackers make sense for an hour on the Fourth of July, not 24/7, all damn year long.
Like many others, I find grounds for hope in Alabama’s recent special election for the Senate – but my grounds may be less glorious than others'.
My main reasons for praying, literally and frequently, that Doug Jones would beat Roy Moore was that Jones wasn’t a superannuated bigot/child molester who’d twice been booted out of public service. I also admired Jones’ latter-day prosecution of the Klansmen who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. But almost as much, I liked that Jones didn’t wave a pistol at rallies, or ride his horse places you ought to walk or take the car, or seem to regard himself generally as God’s other son. When those molestation allegations hit, I liked that he was smart and self-possessed enough not to leap on those and jump up and down on them non-stop, but knew to stick largely with “kitchen table issues.” Especially against Moore, I would have rooted for any Democratic nominee. But when Jones turned out to be a man who frequently spoke in clean, grammatical sentences that reflected a basic recognition of reality…that’s when I swooned.
So go ahead, my fellow Americans. Keep shooting adrenalin into our political system and then feigning shock at the convulsions that come next. I’ll be home with a bowl of oatmeal, an issue of the always-worthwhile Oprah magazine, and my freshly minted mantras:
Calm is the new charisma.
Compromise is the new (and very stable) genius.
Sanity is the new sex.
Wouldn’t it be great if this country got some?
In suddenly recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Donald Trump set forth his vision of American foreign policy: it exists solely for the purpose of fulfilling his own domestic political desires.
There is no other explanation for Wednesday’s declaration, in which Trump congratulated himself for making an historic change and then emphasized that everything is going to stay the same. For purposes of international relations, the whole exercise is, at best, a stunt.
For purposes of Trump’s domestic goals, though, it’s borderline brilliant. This announcement supplies yet more red meat to a right-wing base that must be in massive need of Lipitor at this point. It particularly stirs the hearts of hard-core evangelicals, whose Alabama cohort now holds the key to electing Roy Moore. It provokes a surefire reaction of rage across the Arab world and thus sets Trump's favorite crazy-scary Muslim bogeyman freshly spinning in the American mind. It draws the eyes of the world away from Robert Mueller. And best of all for a guy who likes to govern from the golf course, it’s all bull.
“We are not taking a position on any final status issues,” Trump intoned some way in to his remarks, “including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”
So President Guts is recognizing Jerusalem, but not saying what Jerusalem is, nor ruling out the possibility that one day, the Palestinians might make a capital within the borders of their part of Jerusalem.
What a declaration: It’s clear, yet blurry. Inflammatory, yet meaningless. Provocative, yet vacant. In a word, Trumpian.
In fairness, one can’t blame Trump for a problem that is just about as old as he is, and almost as maddening. The president is perfectly correct to note the ritual absurdity of his predecessors calling, as candidates, for the embassy to be relocated, knowing full well they would do no such thing if elected. But the honorable maverick move here isn’t to follow through on the empty promise. It’s to refuse to make that promise in the first place.
That said, any violence springing from the announcement should count as the fault of the idiots committing it, not the idiot who handed them a pretext. And given the peace-process boilerplate that some grownup managed to tack on to the end of it, the statement won’t, God willing, wreak as much havoc as some critics fear. But it does do several obvious harms:
It tears the final fig leaf off any notion that the U.S. can preside over a remotely impartial peace process. Trump not being the only one with a political base to consider, it automatically weakens the hand of Palestinians who might favor a pragmatic model of co-existence, and strengthens that of the “drive Israel into the sea” crowd. It makes it unnecessarily difficult for U.S. allies in the Arab world to function as U.S. allies, and thus needlessly complicates the American ability to do anything at all in the Middle East that requires the cooperation of anyone other than Bibi Netanyahu. It potentially compromises the safety, and definitely erodes the credibility, of U.S. representatives in the region, though not nearly as much as it will do if and when the embassy actually moves. And for what?
For the advancement of Donald Trump’s immediate domestic political goals, of course. In those terms, these down sides are just up sides in bare disguise. Eroding American primacy to the peace process? No problem. Having castigated predecessors for “leading from behind”, Trump has shown nothing but distaste for the idea of leading at all. This heir of Reagan clearly adheres to the, um, counterintuitive belief that the secret to accruing American power is to abdicate it. From ditching the Paris Agreement to trashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership to dissing NATO to picking stupid fights with every non-dictator head of state he comes across, the president applies an almost entrepreneurial zest to the business of creating power vacuums for other nations to fill.
Arabs enraged? Fab! For purposes of Trump’s cornerstone Islamophobia, the more Arabs caught on camera shaking their fists, hurling rocks (or rockets) and burning American flags, the better. Of course, not all Arabs are Muslims, and the leaders of Christians actually living in Jerusalem begged Trump not to do this. But not being registered Republicans, those are not the Christians he cares about.
As for the well-being or effectiveness of Americans abroad, Team Trump has long since made abundantly clear their view that the only good U.S. diplomat is a U.S. diplomat who has died in circumstances politically embarrassing to Hillary Clinton. A president who starves, guts and shames the State Department is not a president who values its personnel or mourns the death of their efforts.
For almost all of pre-Trump American history, it was said that politics stopped at the water’s edge. Not anymore. In our time of Trump, politics knows no bounds.
Politically speaking, the absolute easiest call is for national Democrats to pressure Al Franken to resign. He’d be replaced by someone appointed by the Democratic governor of Minnesota, who would then have at least as good a shot as Franken at getting elected in his own right. If Franken resisted said calls to resign, the Senate would face the possibility of expelling him -- which, in light of the horny skeletons undoubtedly frolicking in both their closets, would be a problem for both parties. Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment could echo anti-Roy Moore Republicans and say, “Oh all right, we've made our objections clear, we leave it up to the voters of his state,” who would then almost certainly choose Franken or someone ideologically akin to Franken.
Yes "almost": Though it is far from unimaginable for Minnesota to elect a Republican, it is more so today than it was in 2016, when Minnesota was the rare Rust Belt state that went for Hillary Clinton. But even if the seat were somehow to go to a Minnesota-shade Republican Democrats would gain a crucial line of attack in the sexual-assault wars: "Hey, GOP, go ahead and harp on Bill Clinton. Today, we reject our gropers. You protect your child molesters."
Morally and practically, though, the question remains: If everyone, in and out of politics, who has ever, at any point, done what Franken is currently known to have done were to be found out and fired….would that be a good thing or a bad thing? I’m honestly not sure. But now that two out of three network morning-news hosts, numerous titans of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, a significant swath of the Catholic clergy, and a whole roster of big names in both political parties including at least one president each have been credibly accused of much worse, it would certainly be a shattering, an unraveling, a societal convulsion to the core.
Can somebody please tell me what the big brouhaha about John Conyers is all about? I know that the Michigan congressman is embroiled in some sort of big-time scandal but I never get to the meat of it because I can’t get past an item of biographical info that always appears high up in the coverage.
The Congressman – and until Sunday, the ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee -- Is 22 years into qualifying for full Social Security retirement benefits. He is 18 years past the mandatory retirement age for most civil servants and more than three decades older than the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company. If Conyers were a member not of the U.S. Congress, but of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals – not a group known for its youthful vim and vigor – he would have been required to hand in an automatic, age-based resignation letter in 2004.
Experts agree that successful aging involves maintaining a network of human relationships. So I guess it’s good for Conyers that, as a major Democrat for whom 80 candles on a cake means “don’t retire!” he has loads of company. At 84, Senator Dianne Feinstein has announced that she is seeking re-election, thus envisioning herself in high office until she has hit the big nine-oh, at least. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are both entertained as 2020 presidential prospects when they would take office at 78 and 79 respectively. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi just might get the Speaker’s gavel back in 2019 – thus becoming not only the first woman ever elected to that office, but the oldest person by nearly a decade.
Make no mistake: Both as a left-of-center American and as a relatively sane one, I would rather have Biden and Pelosi running the country while popping Xarelto and looking for their teeth than Donald Trump and Paul Ryan running it under any circumstances. But honest to God, are those the only options?
There are so very many reasons to hope not, most of them far beyond the oft-cited problem of optics. Nor is it simply a question of individuals’ personal fitness to serve. Even if every elder were the strongest of statesmen, it would be a terrible idea to keep everyone younger (read: under sixty) in an endless holding pattern. For every leader who strives to forge gloriously on like Queen Elizabeth, there have got to be twenty talented, ambitious would-be successors who are sick and tired of waiting around -- and being seen to be waiting around -- like poor Prince Charles.
And let’s face it, not every elder is the strongest of statesmen and thank you in advance for the hate mail. If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, the question of any increased likelihood of decline on the part of the people eligible for Social Security has got to be the third rail of American conversation. To hint that anyone might to be too old for anything is to be labeled “ageist!” and pelted with examples of nonagenarian marathoners, mountain climbers, authors, scientists, titans of industry. No question, some people do maintain their brilliant sheens right into the shadow of their centennials and I, for one, could not be more grateful that Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems to be one of them. Somehow, though, this doesn’t seem quite true of Conyers. It certainly wasn’t true of Senators Robert Byrd or (Republican) Strom Thurmond, both of whose service would have been better if briefer.
Nor can it be true of all the old friends we have in high places. Well...I suppose it is possible to believe that notwithstanding a lifetime of rubber chicken, air travel and industrial-grade stress, an amazing proportion of U.S. politicians are like some much-studied subset of hundred-year-old hill people; truly capable of flourishing for decades beyond the norm. Otherwise, just on the statistics, one can't accept current levels of super-seniority without accepting at least one pretty dubious proposition. One could, for example, reject the idea that to hold elective office is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. Alternatively, one could accept that the office holder is merely a figurehead, most of whose actual work can be done by unelected staffers. Or one can calculate that despite showing the normal amount of wear and tear, a given incumbent’s hanging on to the job is better than its being ceded it to somebody new.
This last one seems most on point – and off the wall. The question for any incumbent, at any age, ought not to be “why should they have to go?” but rather “why should they get to stay?” This only becomes more true with time. It is fine to think that Feinstein, for example, can still do her job. What’s toxic, though, is the implicit notion that nobody else can. And it’s poisoning the party not to let anyone else try.
I’m not remotely hoping that the old guard just shrivel up and disappear. On the contrary, the peaceful transfer of power is a difficult miracle to work – yes, “work.” It’s a major effort, into which the party’s most seasoned politicians ought to be throwing themselves with brio. Rather than gaming out their own last hurrah’s, these folks ought to be helping to plot the party’s next ones. If, for example, Pelosi deserves her reputation for political savvy – for an ability to muster troops in the Congress and frame issues for base voters outside it, not to mention the storied fundraising touch -- she should be transferring all those skills, all that support to a well chosen heir or three. If she truly cherishes the idea of a Democratic takeover of the House in 2018, she will show her leadership by handing her leadership position to someone whom the Republicans haven’t spent the last twenty-odd years (unfairly but effectively) branding a Bolshevik.
That’s just the politics. Don’t forget the policy side of this, which is huge.
Ours is a time of epic mismatching. For so many people, skills don’t match existent jobs, income levels don’t match expected lifestyles, actual social status doesn’t match theoretical legal status, and so on. This goes for chronological age too: it’s so much harder now to fit a person’s age to anything else about him. it’s no longer shocking for a twelve-year-old to be fluent in Spanish, Mandarin and three kinds of code – or for a thirty-year-old to live in his parents’ basement. Women contemplate childbirth in their forties, but even if they never have kids, they can now color, blow bubbles and go to sleepaway camp with people their own age. Many more millions of people than ever previously imagined now live into their eighties and nineties. Of course this is all great!
Well, no, come to think of it, it’s not all great – but it feels so wrong even to type that. When it comes to the ups and downs of increased longevity -- as with so many other developments -- Americans insist upon seeing only the “up.” For purposes of the culture, then, super-seniors are either miracles of eternal vigor, or objects of pity. Admirable, or invisible. Energetic, hilarious and wise, or silent. Amazingly functional, or functionally dead.
Given all this, no American wants to compromise with age – least of all top-tier politicians, who hate to compromise with anything. Thus, the people in charge of grappling with these issues on behalf of the nation, are the very people who refuse to do so for themselves. From health care to Social Security to the economy:
How can leaders address the myriad issues arising from the fact that America is aging, while in such absurd denial of the fact that they are aging, too?
This just in from God above: Democrats are never, ever going to be let off the hook for Bill Clinton. The central, most defining Democratic Party figure of the late 20th century was an adulterer, a predator, a sexual harasser – and despite incontrovertible evidence of all of the above, plus a possible rape, his supporters flipped basic decency the bird and stuck by him to the triumphal end of his political life. Therefore, no Democrat will ever have any right to say “boo” about Roy Moore or Roger Ailes or Donald Trump or any other right-wing perv who may eventuate anywhere on the face of the earth as long as it’s still turning. At least that’s what Republicans have been shouting since the 1990’s, loudest and proudest at scandal-soaked times like the present.
If you would rather drink your own urine than revisit any particulars of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, please understand: I feel exactly the same. But if we can both eschew the fetid flask long enough to go through some points from that sorry political moment, we may arrive at some painfully relevant insights into the current one.
As someone who did not take 19 years to arrive at the opinion that Clinton should have resigned the moment the world learned the word “Lewinsky,” I am the first to admit that the Republicans’ all-purpose “what about Bill Clinton?” deflection of all GOP problems penile has an essential ring of truth. But at this moment of “reckoning,” it seems worth pointing out….albeit for the three hundred millionth time….just a couple of its false notes.
It is not true, for example, that Democrats enthusiastically elected and re-elected a man they knew to be a pathological lech. In 1992, most thought that they were voting for a good but flawed person who -- somewhat refreshingly, compared to all the other philanderers who had been running the world forever -- didn’t pretend to be perfect. In those innocent, pre-Internet days, Clinton’s famous admission, offered to 60 Minutes while seated beside his wife, that he had “caused pain in his marriage,” was enough for people to gather that he had cheated plenty. Few desired names, dates and fetishes.
Incidentally, the Clintons did not sit down with 60 Minutes because allegations of Bill’s extramarital adventures had gone blithely unnoticed by the wanton satyrs of the Democratic primary electorate. They did so because those allegations threatened to destroy him in the eyes of that electorate. At the time, Clinton’s sole public accuser --- unlike the multiple accusers of Roy Moore – had shot her credibility by selling her story to Star magazine, later to peddle it to Penthouse. Meanwhile, along with Clinton’s reputation for skirt chasing, the public was becoming acquainted with another, even more pronounced feature of his personality: that of the ultimate political animal; someone who had coveted the presidency since boyhood.
All of this together led to a general consensus as follows: whatever Clinton had done in the horndog department, it was personal, it had cost him, and it was in the past. Hindsight geniuses love to roll their eyeballs at this, with an “oh come on!” as if only an idiot could imagine that Bubba had ever put a stop to his womanizing. Perhaps – but it was anything but obvious that going forward, he’d risk his presidency for it.
In retrospect, of course, he did just that. But for six years, the public saw no sign of that coming. By the time the cases of Monica Lewinsky – and the related testimonies of Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey -- came to light, Clinton was halfway through his second term. Granted, Paula Jones did bring the underlying sexual-harassment lawsuit in 1994, but she was so aligned with such blatant enemies of the president that her credibility would have been strained, even at our own #metoo moment.
While we’re at it, let’s call out another decidedly alternative fact: the assertion that all throughout the Lewinsky scandal, the liberal media did nothing but try to preserve, protect and defend their darling Clintons. What a load of elephant dung. Love them or hate them, the Clintons spent those years in such a blinding glare of scrutiny, it’s amazing either one of them emerged with an intact retina. As for the leniency of the pundit class, read the contemporaneous writings of Michael Kelly, Christopher Hitchens, and Maureen Dowd, remove the hydrofluoric acid that will have flown off their words onto your face, and then we’ll talk.
One could go on about the other things that Republicans get wrong about the defense of Bill Clinton. But what ought to trouble them now is what they get right. It is true that even after his unforgivable transgressions became clear, most Democrats didn’t just forgive him. They supported him, defended him, in many cases lionized him.
Bear in mind, this wasn’t automatic on the part of Democratic leaders. When it first became clear that the Lewinsky stuff had actually happened, many Democratic politicians and pundits frankly assumed, off the record, that the president was done; it was just a matter of what form his doneness would take. (Would he actually resign, or hobble to the exit as the lamest of ducks? Had he merely committed political suicide, or killed the whole party? How radioactive was he? That kind of talk.) But within weeks – or was it days? -- these same figures were rallying around their shamed yet emboldened chief. Why? Because that’s what the rank-and-file were doing. As it turned out, right or wrong, Democratic base voters cared more about the actions that the president took toward them, in his public capacity, than about the actions he took toward women in what many still viewed as a private capacity. Having voted for him twice, they supported his agenda and didn’t want to sink it. Deep down, they still just liked the guy – and they hated his critics, whose ranks their elected leaders then hesitated to join. Clinton-era Democratic officials thus faced a very unsavory choice: Should they voice their moral revulsion and thus incur the wrath of a still-powerful president, the party apparatus he still controlled, and the voters he still held in the palm of his hand? Or should they swallow their objections, rationalize the greater good of saving the country from Newt Gingrich, and ride it out? Most went with door number two.
Hey, Trump-era Republicans – does that whole dilemma sound at all familiar?
It certainly should. No one should be more understanding of Democrats who once defended Clinton than Republicans who currently defend Trump. Conversely, then, Democrats placed in an impossible position by Clinton in the late 1990’s should feel real sympathy for Republicans similarly stuck by Trump. In fact, at this point, they should feel nothing short of pity.
Clearly, both parties have made Faustian bargains with their respective problematic-yet- popular leaders. But Republicans have made theirs with a much darker, more diversified devil. Let’s (very generously) concede, for the sake of argument, that Trump’s sexual misconduct starts and ends at the level of “locker room talk,” in contrast to Clinton’s deplorable (ha!) acts. That still leaves an endless list of unprecedented transgressions with which Trump supporters will forever be associated.
Right now, of course, Republicans are making the most of this:
“Roy Moore preyed on girls.”
“What about Bill Clinton? He nailed an intern in (well, near) the Oval Office.”
And let them, because 2018 and many years after are going to be full of this:
“Democrat A has a conflict of interest.”
“What about Donald Trump? He didn’t even release his tax returns, he never separated himself from his businesses, his daughter got three Chinese trademarks the day she dined with Xi Jinping...”
“Democrat B has made these outrageous patronage hires of totally unqualified people.”
“What about Donald Trump? He gave his son-in-law the Middle East.”
“Democrat C is lazy as sin and dumber than a bag of hair.”
“What about Donald Trump? He plays more golf than a retired dentist and didn’t know that health care was complicated.”
“Democrat D said something unbelievably offensive.”
“What about Donald Trump? He said…well, how long have you got?”
Honest to God, there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to delineate easy, inevitable examples. There may not even be enough alphabets. The central, most defining figure in the Republican Party at the dawn of the 21st century is a turpitude savant: an eerie knack for debasement is in his DNA. Even discounting anything yet to come from Robert Mueller….even laying aside any policy position, no matter how destructive, his administration may take…the case still stands: Trump has taken a wrecking ball to all recognizable standards with regard to bigotry, corruption, national security, international diplomacy, the tone of political discourse, the value of expertise, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the existence of objective fact. That wrecking ball is going to be swinging back on his supporters forever.
So yes: Twenty years later, Democrats are still paying for the illicit sexual acts of Bill Clinton. How many years will it take for Republicans to atone for the explicit, manifold misdeeds of Donald Trump?
In the end, Trumpsters can keep right on ranting and raving all they want about Hillary. For them, posterity is going to be the real bitch.
So far, the absolute worst Mueller news for the White House -- and the absolute best news for its opponents -- is the setting of prosecutorial sights on top D.C. Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta.
Of course, it looks – and for all I know, may be -- bad for the brother and business partner of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman to be somehow associated with the foreign adventures of Paul Manafort. And of course, for the rabid right, there’s no “may be” about it. Whether or not there is any legally actionable fire in any Podesta activity, the smoke is already being sucked into every vortex -- commercial, social, and anti-social – of pro-Trump media, then volumized and blown back out in billows, in the hope of suffocating Democratic (or any other) support for the special counsel’s inquiry. Meanwhile, what Trumpsters are really choking off is the oxygen of their own main argument: the contention that this investigation is a partisan witch hunt launched by Robert Mueller and his pack of “deep staters” who, like their elite masters, just can’t accept that Trump won.
As Fox News and friends keep insisting, neither the charges against Manafort -- nor, presumably, any potential charges against the likes of Podesta -- necessarily touch the Trump campaign, let alone the president himself. The real dynamite is in the hands of the freshly-famous Collusion Kid, George Papadopoulus, and whatever other “proactive cooperators” Mueller and his team may turn. In order to unearth and expose all that evidence in all its glory, the investigation has to continue unfettered, and its ultimate findings have to be believed.
For those purposes, the more Democratic fat cats that get caught up in Mueller’s web, the better.
On a separate but related front: it is obviously ridiculous to equate the pumping of Russian sources for damaging information about one’s domestic political opponent with the soliciting, let alone procurement, of materials illegally obtained by the Russian government for the shared goal of defeating of one’s domestic political opponent. Not too ridiculous, however, for Team Trump to equate away between allegations of Trump campaign collusion with the Russian state and its criminal hacking of DNC e-mails, versus (absurd) DNC funding of the privately, if ickily, obtained document that is “the dossier.” But this false-equivalence-drawing, too, has an enormous silver lining for Democrats and democrats alike. Every time Trumpsters kick and scream at something – even something imaginary -- that Hillary did to help the Russians influence the American election, they discredit their own, unbelievably reckless insistence that the Russians did nothing.
Finally, arriving in tandem with the charges against Manafort, the possibility of trouble for Podesta seems to have sent a shock wave through K Street. Conservative, liberal, or just agnostically greedy, the lobbying denizens of D.C. are now said to be scrambling to get their acts together in terms of registering as agents for foreign entities and so forth. Who knows? Maybe some of them are even thinking twice about raking in really big bucks from really bad guys.
If Tony Podesta engaged in criminal activity, he is a criminal. If he did not, he is a casualty. Either way, in the grander scheme of things, he is a force for the greater good.
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.