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?
Oh, look, the White House is lit up blue! And the Empire State Building, and Niagara Falls! And the Israeli Parliament Building, the Emirates Spinnaker, the Panama Canal…It’s World Autism Awareness Day, and as the mother of a child with autism, I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to see so many world landmarks take on the color of liquid laundry detergent.
No, really: I’m not kidding. I can’t tell you what difference it makes, because I have never been able to figure it out myself. I’m sure it must make some difference or everybody wouldn’t be so thrilled about it every year. But if World Autism Awareness Day 2017 turns out to be anything like World Autism Awareness Days 2010-2016, my own experience of autism will remain remarkably unchanged before and after the light show.
Of course, there's more to it. World Autism Awareness Day is just the kickoff for National Autism Awareness Month, and for the seven years since my son was diagnosed, this has meant that I slip into the role of Autism Awareness Mom. Just as I pull out the ornaments before Christmas or the flags for the Fourth of July, I dust off my trusty sheet of facts and statistics about my nine-year-old, moderate-to-severe son’s condition. I pick out a few choice items from this year’s collection of personal anecdotes — harrowing, hopeful, hilarious; it’s quite a drawerful. I dutifully reiterate that autism is not caused by vaccination or liable to be cured by any vitamin, tent, or horseback-riding regimen (though many things have turned out to help alleviate some symptoms in some people, which is why so many parents try so many things.) And I blend it all into an article or series of articles designed to do the familiar job: raise autism awareness in people who, unlike me, have not had autism awareness instantly, permanently and pervasively raised for them.
Every other year, this has struck me as a necessary, worthy endeavor, one that ideally blends with countless other efforts to foster general understanding and, better yet, to raise money. No doubt in 2018, I will get right back to it.
This year, though, I want to go another way. Rather than tell the world about autism, I find myself wanting to say what autism has given me to know about the world.
You see, awareness works the other way, too.
Like a thousand other facts of life that anyone could name — chronic physical conditions for sure, but all kinds of other challenges too — autism is a shock-and-awe variety of invader. It can creep up little by little or hit like a burst of bombing. But once it is in your life, it is your life.
At first, the occupation is cruelly totalitarian. Autism dictates whether you sleep and what you dream. It shreds your plans, strains your relationships, exhausts your energy, grabs your money by the fistful and gobbles it right up. At times, it treats you like laundry: douses you, spins you, then hangs you out to dry.
Then it settles, or you do. In some elemental way, you give up — not on your child, but on the idea that this is a bump in the road; that just as your child is “delayed,” you are too, but sometime pretty soon, you’ll snake around this three-car pileup and both be on your way. You don’t simply accept that the pileup may be permanent. You realize that there is no road. You see, more clearly than you could see before, how very many people in the world are walking along without any road; how you can probably walk without one, too. How you’re going have to.
This is terrible, but also somehow fortifying. It’s an autism ambivalence; one of the many of which your life comes largely to consist. The whole thing goes from feeling tragic to feeling tricky. Like the condition itself, living with it gets better — but also worse. Yet better. It forges you full of iron even as it shoots you through with holes. You come to feel that your child’s autism isn’t making or breaking you. It is making and breaking you.
At least, autism has done all that to me. So of course it has changed how I see.
This month, hard as it will be to pull myself away from pondering all things Trump, I am going to devote Knickertwist to a series of reflections on what autism has made me aware of about our society, culture, and politics. These reflections will not, for the most part, be shaped in terms of how our society, culture and politics — in other words, how we — deal with autism per se. After all, that is just a function of how we deal with everything.
For starters, I’ll go back to what bothers me, ungrateful though it must seem, about all this lighting-up of the world in autism-awareness blue.
Over the years I’ve lived in the world of autism, I have become keenly aware of the limits — the dangers, even — of awareness itself. It is not very nice to view millions and millions of wonderfully well-intentioned Americans as a nation of awareness whores, but it has come to feel pretty accurate. Give us a lapel pin and a dream, and we’ll do awareness with just about anyone. We have racial awareness, gender-equality awareness, LGBTQ awareness, environmental awareness, ACLU awareness and of course, myriad disease-and-disorder awarenesses of which autism is just this month’s headliner. We have awareness-triggering Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and celebrity spokesmodels. We have awareness days, weeks, months and years. Of course, it's hard to say a word against this: obviously, apprising people of a problem is an essential first step to solving it.
Sometimes I wonder, though, whether putting quite so much emphasis on this step one actually makes it easier to forget steps two, three and beyond — the steps through which the issue, once duly illumined, must proceed in order to be addressed. Sometimes, it feels as if by “raising awareness” we aren’t so much moving toward a solution as buying ourselves a certain comfort level with the problem; pricking our consciousness, and our consciences, for a designated moment, then dulling ourselves right back into unawareness until next year.
Very few people will say, or even think to themselves, “I don’t care about autism/hunger/cancer/cystic fibrosis.” But an awful lot of us, I think, do essentially say, “Of course I’ll buy a ribbon! But don’t ask me to give up anything I value.” Not real money, not real time, not real political or ideological sticking points, not our own real standing in the pecking order of priorities, not real patches of our communities, not real space in our heads. Not anything of value.
I mean, honestly: at this point, is someone unaware of homelessness? Of poverty? Of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease? Of course not. The problem with such challenges is almost never that we don’t know they exist. It’s that we don’t care enough to develop anything like a humane, comprehensive, systematic approach to addressing them.
When it comes to autism, I truly thank President Trump for turning the White House blue on Sunday. But I’d be unspeakably delighted to trade that for a single tweet from him recanting the anti-vaccination panic he has helped to revive. I’d also prefer a rethink of a budget that will effectively slash already-pitiful services for people with autism, not to mention various forms of broader assistance to their families, many of whom have been financially decimated by this disorder.
That’s not even counting the matter of research. I am sure that among the Americans who will very kindly be giving donations to autism-related charities this month, there will be some who cheer on the budget hawks whose moral and fiscal principles have brought us such drastic developments as the government shutdown of 2013 and the sequestration that is still biting today. Three cheers for ideological purity. But so far at least, these folks haven’t halted Obamacare. They haven’t de-funded Planned Parenthood. But thanks to the effect of their actions on the National Institutes of Health alone, they sure have scuttled a nice bit of research into why my son is struggling. They sure have tossed some scientists to the curb, and they sure have deprived other scientists of the runway they need for their work to take off. How many autism-puzzle-piece bracelets and tee-shirts are we going to have to sell to make up for that? And how many other families dealing with how many other bio-medically based challenges can ask the exact same question?
Please understand, my point is not that all awareness should lead to stratospheric levels of government spending. My point is that all awareness should lead to something: some meaningful determination of what does and does not deserve to get funded, codified or otherwise acted upon; some way to protect that determination from falling victim to whatever politician feels like throwing a tantrum (lookin’ at you, Ted Cruz!); some honest acknowledgment of what that determination means for the people most affected. As it is, “awareness” too often serves as a decoy that allows all of us, right and left, to sashay around fights we’d rather not have, priorities we’d rather not clarify, choices we’d rather not make. Indifferences, perhaps even cruelties, that we’d rather not admit to.
In the spirit of the awareness game, think of it as a fun run. At the starting line stands a huge crowd of sunnily optimistic participants who are edifyingly aware of autism-cancer-violence-against-women-hunger-you-name it. Then the race begins, and not a quarter-mile into it, runners are asked to peel off if they mind the fact that more resources for this month’s worthy cause will mean fewer resources for next month’s. A little further on, participants are told to stop if what they support today is on course to clash with something they will oppose tomorrow, whether it’s the harvesting of stem cells in connection with the biomedical research they’re running for, or the building of alternative-energy windmills along their summer seascape to slow the global warming they’re running against. Presently comes the point where the politicians in the pack need to drop out if they're prepared to sacrifice the cause in question to whatever comes to constitute their short-term self-interest. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the race is set upon by a whole bunch of random disruptions -- a natural disaster, an uptick in terrorism, a celebrity's misfortune suddenly sexing up some other malady -- that no one even imagined at the start, but that could ruin the whole event. And on and on to the finish line, where almost nobody is left except a handful of zealots fighting over tangents.
Don’t get me wrong. If you are someone who could ignore autism but choose to make yourself aware of it, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Even so, I can't help what's going through my mind: awareness isn’t everything. In fact, once an issue has been around awhile, it’s barely anything.
I’m painfully aware of that.
Here’s the deal that could save The Donald:
Trump should call up Chuck Schumer — or better yet, publicly tweet him. The president should tell the Senate minority leader that he really does not want to get into a nasty, filibuster-y confrontation with a nuclear option and whatnot. To avoid this, he will voluntarily withdraw the nomination of his Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch and re-nominate Barack Obama’s own Merrick Garland — on the condition that Senate Democrats agree to vote for Gorsuch when Trump re-nominates him, which he will pledge to do on the occasion of the next Court vacancy. Conveniently for Trump, this vacancy would likely materialize as soon as Garland failed to be confirmed by a Republican Senate. But even if Garland somehow got through, the deal would still work for Trump.
What, you ask, am I smoking? Do I not realize that Trump owes his presidency in no small part to a Republican right that was palpably energized by the death of Antonin Scalia, and that would have a collective coronary at the very thought of such a move? (Didn’t I in fact emphasize Trump’s debt to the right wing in a profile of Kellyanne Conway that appears in the April issue of Elle magazine, on your newsstands now…?) Am I so blind that I can’t see how such a call would unite movement and moderate conservatives against the president, as surely as the GOP health-care bill failed to unite them for him? And looking at it from the other side, am I so naive as to believe that even if Trump were to make such an offer, Democrats — emboldened as they are by that health-care fiasco — would even entertain it, let alone honor it?
Points all taken, but think about it.
To recap: Garland is a well-known moderate jurist who could conceivably have been nominated by a president of either party. Because he was nominated by a Democrat, Senate Republicans blocked him, citing imaginary grounds that Obama was in his last year of office and therefore somehow stripped of executive authority vis-a-vis the Supreme Court. This infuriated Democrats but should have infuriated everyone. Now, Senate Democrats are poised to do anything and everything they can to block Gorsuch — and thanks to the sinister stylings of Mitch McConnell and his Screw-Democracy Band, they have unassailable, wholly non-ideological reason to do so.
I didn’t vote for Trump but do accept that as president, he is entitled to his own Court picks. I will, however, be damned if Republicans are going to be allowed to deny that same right to Obama simply by having stuck their fingers in their ears and gone “lalalalala” until the clock ran out on his second term. I’ll be double-damned if I’m going to sit still for that while also taking regular right-wing lectures on the sacrosanctity of the constitution.
Granted, I’ll be triple-damned if I’m going to vote for Trump in 2020 no matter what he does short of shucking his whole personality and reversing all his policies. This leads to the question of what's in it for Trump to pull a self-checking stunt like this. Would swapping out Gorsuch for Garland somehow redeem Trump in the eyes of his enemies? Would it cleanse any of his top two hundred sins, from the unreleased tax returns to the budget from hell, with so very many in between?
Absolutely not. But here’s what it would do:
It would instantly, clearly and substantively set Trump apart from the Washington Establishment in whose defiance he was elected — and do so in the course of demonstrating far greater respect for the institutions of democracy than that Establishment itself has done. It would thus force a wide cross-section of critics to admit that on this occasion, if on no other, Trump had gotten one very big thing very right. (Even if Gorsuch did end up being the next Supreme Court justice, the sheer act of the Senate's going through the motions with Garland would destroy the evil precedent of denying any nominee the advise-and-consent process -- a worthy undertaking, with which Schumer and Trump would both do well to be associated.) It would trigger an avalanche of shocked-yet-not-horrified mainstream media coverage, which Trump both needs and craves, no matter what he says. It would reassure Trump Democrats that despite all early indications, their hero is not trapped under a large object labeled “Heritage Action,” but is actually capable of thinking and acting like the free agent they thought he was. This, in turn, could check the free fall of his approval ratings.
At a moment when Democrats have every reason to think that their fortunes lie simply in auto-thwarting all things Trump, they would have to think again. And just by getting a tiny handful of Democrats to consider working with him on a tiny handful of things, Trump would lessen his total dependence on his Republican majority to get anything done — a dependence that hasn’t been working out so well for him lately.
Of course, the stunt would also enrage Congressional Republicans and grass roots activists. But what are the House and Senate folks going to do to their president? Block the tax-reform legislation they’re writing for him? Threaten to quit coming through for him the way they’ve been doing? As for the activists, sure, they could abandon the guy who, in every other instance, is turning out to be the man of their anti-abortion, anti-regulation, anti-social-spending, pro-gun, the-hell-with-diversity dreams. But then what? A primary for the president? A let-him-lose-to-the-left approach to the general election?
I swear: I haven’t been smoking a thing. I know that Trump will never make any such deal. As someone who prays that he is headed for a Democratic Congress in 2018 and defeat in 2020, I hope he doesn’t. But for his own sake, he should.