Hell seems to be making a habit of freezing over in Ireland.
On May 25, still fairly fresh from becoming, in 2015, the first country to legalize gay marriage by referendum, the overwhelmingly-Catholic nation voted roughly two-to-one to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the 1983 constitutional provision which bans abortion.
If that lopsided result came as a surprise, the reactions to it have not. Reproductive-rights activists are rejoicing. Anti-abortion activists are mourning. And, as usual when it comes to this issue, I am weaving back and forth between the two. I am willing to bet that many of those who voted in Ireland – where I lived from 2007 to 2015 – have been doing the same. Landslide or not, I doubt that the Irish people have suddenly fallen in love with abortion. Rather, they’ve come to know and loathe the consequences of outlawing it.
In this, they are treading a morality-reality line that, I think, millions of Americans are treading too, and that American activists on both sides need to consider if the U.S. is ever to achieve any measure of peace with this issue.
As it happens, it was through living in Ireland that I achieved some measure of peace with it myself.
Emotionally, morally, culturally, and instinctively, I have always been pro-life. Yet, had I voted in Ireland, I would absolutely have voted “yes” to repealing that ban. There is nothing like living in a foreign country that forbids abortion to make a fence-sitter come down on the side of permitting it back home.
This is not because I have come to believe that abortion is a health care issue like any other. With all due respect to my many pro-choice friends who consider this whole issue a no-brainer, I will never come around to seeing abortion as the moral equivalent of a mammogram or colonoscopy.
Nor can I manage the easy, “you-say-potato-I-say-potahto” sort of division between personal belief and public policy position that seems to come so easily to many others. To believe that human fetuses are human beings is to find it impossible to be A-OK with the notion that their moms have the absolute right to kill them. That’s not idiocy or misogyny. It’s rationality.
This, of course, leads to the question of how to allow for the fact that any pluralistic society is going to feature a variety of views as to when human life begins – a question that I am going to lay aside, and not just because there is no good answer to it. For me – and, I am willing to bet, for plenty of Irish “yes” voters – the issue of legalizing abortion or not comes down to a much simpler formulation:
If abortion kills people, banning abortion kills more people.
Many analysts have taken the Irish referendum as a sign that the power of Catholic church is on the decline in Irish society, while the power of women is on the rise. Both are undoubtedly true. But don’t forget a third, more prosaic factor: unlike their American cousins, the Irish have not been imagining, praying over, or speculating about this ban. They have been living with it. They have seen for themselves that it has been a disaster.
For decades now, the pro-choice movement has set forth two basic arguments: One, regarding abortion and everything else, women have the ultimate right to determine what they do with “their own bodies.” And two, as a strictly practical matter, the outlawing of abortion not only fails to curtail the practice, but both causes and correlates with all kinds of other problems.
No matter how one feels about the first proposition, Ireland has turned out to be Exhibit A that Team Choice is absolutely right about the second.
First, when abortion is illegal, women can and do die for no other reason than that abortion is illegal. This is not a pro-choice scare tactic. It is the truth – and not only in terms of those women who may feel driven to "back-alley" terminations. The case of Salvita Halappanavar seared the soul of Ireland, and it bloody well should roil the conscience of the world.
Halappanavar was a 31-year-old Indian-born dentist who had emigrated to Galway with her husband and small child. In 2012, some four months into her second pregnancy, she felt horrible back pain and sought help at University Hospital Galway, where she was told that she was in the process of having a miscarriage. She was also told that even though the pregnancy was hopeless, it could not be terminated so long as a fetal heartbeat could be detected. Her family begged for an abortion, but to no avail: the well-trained, well-meaning medical personnel, working in a modern, Western hospital, were not willing to risk jail to save her. Seven days later, Halappanavar died of an utterly preventable blood infection – strictly and solely because it was illegal to prioritize her life over that of a child who had no chance of being born.
This case was singularly appalling. Equally compelling, in the aggregate, were the numerous real stories told by real people of the real danger into which this ban had placed real women: the legal and logistical hurdles that women have had to jump through in order to end once-welcomed pregnancies that had turned on them. Contrary to pro-life lore, these were not people who were looking for some easy way out of some fetal unpleasantness. They were wanted-to-be parents searching for the safest, least-dreadful resolution to one tragic revelation or another, and being obliged to wait for the lawyers to weigh in on if, when and how that resolution could be effectuated.
Clearly, whenever that scenario played out in Ireland, it was awful. If it were to play out in the U.S. it would also be ironic. It is, after all, the GOP that champions the pro-life cause. And it is a GOP article of faith that government interference automatically equals catastrophe. Whether the context is the smallest business or the biggest idea, Republicans reflexively (and sometimes accurately) equate government involvement with sloth, delay, ineptitude, illogic. Yet, when it comes to pregnant women who may find themselves in dire straits, these same folks seem to have total faith that the government is suddenly going to become the soul of humane efficiency. Isn’t that odd?
Second, even embracing the perspective that abortion is a pure, straight-up evil, the fact remains that banning abortion does not, in many cases, extinguish that evil. It offshores it. The Irish people are well acquainted with the fact that should one of their countrywomen face a pregnancy that is merely unwanted, as opposed to traumatic, she does not say “oh, that’s illegal, I guess I need to have the child and then either learn to love my little boo-boo or arrange an adoption.” She hops over to the U.K.
Likewise, in the U.S., should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and thus strip abortion of its constitutionally-protected status, unhappily-pregnant women would travel to the states that still allowed abortion, and failing that, to Mexico, Canada, and any number of other countries. Thus, banning abortion would not end the slaughter of innocents, as my pro-life friends and family might put it. It would simply ensure that the slaughter occurred someplace else.
Of course, one can argue that shooing murder abroad is better than tolerating it at home. But it doesn’t sound quite so heroic, does it?
Any abortion ban effectively applies only to those women who lack the wherewithal to skirt it: namely, the poor and those whose particular circumstances, from physical infirmity to abusive partners, might otherwise preclude them from traveling. In other words, the less able the woman to cope with the arrival of an unwanted child, the greater the odds that she would be forced to do just that.
Now, in theory, a pro-life person could and would argue that it is worth saving the lives of any unborn children, whatever the circumstances of their availability to be saved; and that it is an especial disgrace to tolerate the killing of children on the grounds that they would be economically inconvenient or socially undesirable.
If remotely serious about ushering that theory into practice, however, one would have to establish – or at the very least advocate for -- a society replete with caring, costly and sophisticated supports for such children and their parents.
Here, the cases of Ireland and the U.S. diverge.
Ireland is by no means a utopia for struggling mothers and children. But there is a general consensus in favor of providing for them. By bizarre contrast, the American pro-life movement has tethered itself to an ideology that prides itself on providing for nobody.
I’m not accusing Republicans of cruelty, but simply citing their philosophy: the less government, the fewer social programs, and above all, the lower taxes, the better. That’s a perfectly valid world view – until it is twinned with a policy of obliging over half a million women annually to bear children they do not want but for whom they will be left to fend, at which point it becomes too weird for words.
Just last year, in the original version of their tax bill, the Republicans in Congress actually tried to cut the tax credit for adoption. How can anyone possibly believe that, if their pro-life dreams come true, they are going to find additional billions for the fetuses (and indeed zygotes, and fertilized-but-yet-to-be-implanted eggs) they have required to become children?
Now customarily comes the cry that it isn’t the cold, hard government that would be called upon to care for such children. It’s warm, cuddly families and churches and charities….all of which would require even more massive government funding and tax-empting than they receive now.
Let me emphasize: I certainly know pro-life people who really walk their talk; who don’t just work against abortion, but for life. These people are heroes and angels and workhorses rolled into one. They don’t merely donate diapers and cribs, but truly help pregnant women in crisis, sometimes to the point of fostering or adopting their children, who might well be drug addicted or developmentally challenged. The question isn’t whether such people exist. It’s where to find hundreds of thousands more of them every single year.
Given all of the above, it is impossible to square a genuinely pro-life moral position with any existent political option. Here’s the closest I can get:
I will never believe in abortion.
In part for that very reason, I believe in widely-accessible birth control and full, frank sex education from an appropriate age, which these days is about four.
For that matter, I believe in plain old education. After years of spouting statistics that show the clear connection between higher levels of education and lower rates of poverty, mother-and-child mortality and all kinds of other horrors around the globe, I now find it sadly urgent to reassert that connection at home.
I believe in publicly funded health care, day care, pre-k, and all that Scandinavian-socialist-sounding stuff that conservatives equate with tyranny, but that struggling families often equate with the difference between doing OK and drowning.
The current crop of Republicans believe in none of this.
Understand, I say “current crop” because I know that there are some moderates, feminists, libertarians and pragmatists still standing in the GOP, and the last thing I want to do is knock them down. But as for the right-wing ideologues who now control the party: their "plan" is to guarantee an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies and then require that those pregnancies result in children, whom they will later vilify for failing to pull themselves up by bootstraps that these same jokers are working hard to abolish.
Sometimes, I put all that together, and it makes me want to call the current crop of Republicans a lot of things.
“Pro-life” is not one of them.
Last Monday’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem featured prayers that provoked, just because of who said them. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, merited a front-page headline in the New York Times for having expressed the view that “Jews are going to hell.” John Hagee, a famous televangelist out of San Antonio, once speculated that perhaps the holocaust was God’s way of getting His chosen people back to Israel.
When that last remark was unearthed in 2008, it caused then-presidential candidate John McCain to reject Hagee’s endorsement. A propos of the embassy opening, McCain’s successor, Mitt Romney, tweeted his view of Jeffress as a “religious bigot.” And of course, the Internet responded by producing a greatest-hits list of horrifying quotes from both men.
That’s fine. But for any American of any other religious disposition, the main worry about the likes of Hagee and Jeffress is not their bigotry. It’s their eschatology. It’s not what such ministers may have said, half of which is easy for them to wash out in the waters of "context." It’s what they and their sizable flocks believe, in combination with the political power that they currently exercise.
“McCain and Romney: both losers,” you can practically hear Trump hit back at all the opprobrium. For once, he’d have a point.
Prior to Trump, the last Republican to win the White House was George W. Bush, an Evangelical who had seen his father lose the presidency by losing the support of Evangelicals and whose entire tenure reflected his determination not to make the same mistake.
Like W., Trump came into office under a cloud of questionable legitimacy, but had none of the advantages W. enjoyed both as a born-again Christian and as a favored Establishment son. So Trump has done what any survival-minded reality-t.v.-star president would do. He has boiled his governing philosophy down to the hook of a hit single. To quote Meghan Trainor, albeit with a small spelling twist at the end:
It’s all about that base.
For Trump, "that base" is, first and foremost the Christian right— a catch-all phrase that causes all kinds of problems for anyone who tries to write about it. Even as the bulk of their brethren continue to hail Trump as a perfectly serviceable messiah, a vocal minority of conservative Christians has railed against him. Meanwhile, extra-Trump developments, ranging from the various faith paths of younger Evangelicals to the failure of the world to end in 2000, mean that there is much more to the "Christian right" picture than the part I am about to paint. That said, it’s a pretty important part: a hard-core fundamentalist Christian cohort that remains extremely motivated, extremely organized, and extremely loyal to the president – which makes it extremely powerful.
Enter Jeffress and Hagee. Crucially for purposes of Jerusalem, both believe in dispensationalism, a doctrine that has long been of existential centrality to millions of Americans, yet somehow fails to register with almost everybody else.
Whether it’s being revered or ridiculed, dispensationalism is widely portrayed as a direct product of the Bible. But though it draws its references from the Old Testament, it didn’t take shape until the 1800’s. Since then, it has generated various versions whose adherents differ on a number of particulars, which I apologize for blurring here. But by and large, they believe that human history is divided into segments, in the course of which God tests His people and, so far, has flunked them. The last and most important of these “dispensations” will be the end of the world, which may or may not be at hand right now. At any moment, in the mind of the dispensationalist, Jesus Christ could initiate “the rapture” by coming through the clouds and summoning the “saved,” who will meet him in midair before all ascend to heaven. Unbelievers will be left behind to face the wrath of God in “the Tribulation”. (Hence the “Left Behind” series, which sold roughly 80 million copies.)
Next, Christ and his righteous army will return to earth to join a literal, physical battle against the forces of evil, led by an anti-Christ who will first have presented as an agent of peace. When this battle has ended, the winners will revel in the reign of their triumphal Lord, and the losers will fall into a fiery pit.
Again, there is some variety of opinion on exactly when and how all this will happen, but there’s no disagreement as to where. It all goes down in the land of Israel, the protection and promotion of which is therefore held by dispensationalists to be a matter of eternal life and death.
Faith is so funny. It makes total sense to the people who hold it and strikes everybody else as stark raving mad. As hard as it is for me to imagine taking all this Armageddon stuff literally, it is easy to imagine how crazy Catholics like myself probably strike dispensationalists with our notions about, say, bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. Given this, I absolutely respect the right of any American to proclaim a dispensationalist view. The question is: should all Americans be represented by a Middle East policy that reflects it?
This is not a new question. In fact, nearly twenty years ago, I spent a good while asking it, for a piece that appeared in National Journal. To their credit, numerous then-leaders of the Christian right, including Jerry Falwell, Sr., were absolutely clear in their answer: yes! Falwell and company proudly expounded upon their belief not only that an end-of-days scenario would come to pass, but that U.S. policy toward Israel and the (distinctly less favored) Palestinians should unfold accordingly. I remember a top right-wing religious radio host assuring me, when I asked what should be done about the decidedly-temporal issue of any Palestinian refugees God might expel from the promised land, that they’d all fit fine in Jordan. Not long before, various of these sources had entertained the possibility that Bill Clinton, given all his years peddling the Oslo Accords, might have been the anti-Christ. Not long after, speculation turned to the thought that it might be Saddam Hussein. But speculation there was, and none too idle.
Unsurprisingly for a group that measures its policy positions against the yard stick of eternity, dispensationalists have not altered their point of view. What has changed, however, is American politics and their place in it. One need only compare Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to their sons Franklin and Jerry Jr. to get the hint: for political purposes, the Christian right, with dispensationalism at its heart, has only become more strident. And under President Trump, it has only grown more powerful.
Of course, it was Ronald Reagan who forged the big modern alliance between the (white) reverends and the Republicans. But as Frances Fitzgerald points out in her recent masterwork, The Evangelicals, Reagan turned out to be so popular with such a wide variety of Americans, his political survival in no way depended upon Falwell and friends. The exact opposite is true of Trump. He needs these folks desperately, and he knows it.
In a way, it’s almost comforting to view the Trump presidency through the lens of this very simple reality. It explains everything.
OK, not everything, but Trump’s eagerness to please the Christian right explains an awful lot. It explains why he has not merely done the bidding of the right-to-life movement, but consistently exceeded its expectations. It is why, back in July, he tweeted his intention to ban transgender people from the military without bothering to consult the military. It is why, since the fall of 2017, his administration has moved to expand the scope of the religious grounds on which federal employees, private enterprises and NGO’s can base how they do business, and with whom (read: not the gays.) It is why any fight with any Muslim, from the nice mayor of London to the nefarious mullahs of Iran, is a fight that he positively wants to pick. And it is definitely why, in complete isolation from any related development in what the snowflakes over at State used to call “the peace process,” he has yanked the embassy out of Tel Aviv and plunked it square in the middle of the Christian Zionist dream.
“Hang on a second,” you might rejoin. “It’s not just dispensationalists…or even Christians… who wanted to move the embassy to Jerusalem. How about Jared, and Ivanka, and all the Jews around the globe who rejoice in that decision? How about Bibi Netanyahu? How about the secular neocons, hawks, and hardliners? How about all those Congressional Democrats and Republicans who have been voting for the Jerusalem Embassy Act since the 90’s? For crying out loud, how about Chuck Schumer?”
Fair point. These actors all had their own reasons for supporting the embassy move, and they have all done their own happy dances about it.
Consider, however, the following:
If you are a member of Congress who has been voting for the Jerusalem Embassy Act, assuming that the relocation it requires would never happen, you will now have to base any future analysis on the reality that it has happened.
If you are a neocon who has been arguing that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is just the sort of bold move that will snap regional players into getting serious about fixing the damn place at long last – or, on the other hand, a peacenik who has been arguing that it will do the opposite -- your argument now stands to be evaluated, and possibly altered, in the light of whatever happens next.
But if you are a devout Christian who sees the embassy move as a divinely ordained step in your dispensationalist progression, there neither is -- nor can there ever be -- any such adjustment. It doesn’t matter whether the Palestinians retain or repel Hamas, or what the Israeli public might decide to go along with, or who else in the region is willing to start or quell what kinds of trouble based on what points of self-interest. The end game is the end of the world. There’s no earthly reckoning with that.
Of course, the exact same could be said of the God-given visions for the Middle East that are cherished by subsets of Jews and Muslims, who are now celebrating and decrying the embassy move for their own faith-based reasons. But they are not calling the shots now.
For most of the American experiment, it has been considered essential that church and state not be allowed to call each other's shots. Not anymore.
In 1960, to remain viable as a Roman Catholic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy famously used the power of television to reassure Americans that his religion would not determine his actions in office. In 2018, Donald Trump routinely uses the power of policy to reassure the furthest right-wing Christian Americans that their religion does dictate his actions in office.
In that sense, the embassy opening in Jerusalem was perhaps the most purely honest moment of the Trump presidency thus far. Here the president had taken major action in the name of the entire United States of America, in a setting of deep significance to three major world religions. By elevating Hagee and Jeffress in that setting, the president signaled the totality of his fealty to a segment of Americans who, though numerous, still comprise but a fraction of U.S. Christians. Of course, Trump is very happy to make common cause with the other Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, (maybe a couple) Muslims and atheists when the planets of taxes or immigration align. But when push comes to shove, as far as the president and his spiritual entourage are concerned, all those other folks can, quite literally, go to hell.
Then again, some of us feel as if we’re already there.
Surprise, surprise: the White House has withdrawn Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson from consideration to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.
From the moment that President Trump nominated his personal physician to head the VA, Jackson faced major opposition based on his spectacular lack of the experience necessary to run such a large, complicated, and screwed-up agency. But that objection was soon drowned out by the outcry over the record Jackson did supposedly have: a record for dispensing unprescribed prescriptions, sexually harassing women, and passing out drunk on the job.
If puerile precedent holds, the matter will now pretty much drop. Jackson will fade from the headlines, but his reputation as an inebriated lech and pill pusher will follow him forever. Nonetheless, he will continue as a highly ranked naval officer and the president’s doctor, and no one will much care anymore.
Talk about “normalization” of a rank absurdity.
If the allegations against Jackson are remotely true, he deserves to be fired and, very possibly, prosecuted. As important, serious punishment must befall any officials who greenlit, then failed to revoke, his access to and ultimate responsibility for three U.S. presidents.
If, as he continues to insist in the most emphatic terms, the allegations are untrue, Jackson deserves to be vindicated, and the public should demand an explanation as to what the hell just happened.
Not that it’s never happened before. Au contraire. Damning personal accusations have never properly been a function of politics. But long before Donald Trump dreamt of becoming president, it had become a Congressional-confirmation commonplace to treat them as such.
That is terribly, terribly wrong – no matter whose nominee Jackson is, or rather, was.
God knows I am rarely inclined to agree with Kevin Williamson, the conservative writer recently hired, then almost immediately fired, by the Atlantic. I certainly do not share his views on abortion. Yet, when I ponder the revelation over which Williamson was fired – that of having stated publicly, emphatically and more than once his belief that women who have abortions should face major punishment, up to and including the death penalty – I find myself amazed that this can possibly have been considered any revelation at all.
As anti-abortion positions go, Williamson’s ought to come neither as a surprise nor as an outrage, but as a given. From any contention that an action should be illegal, there flows, naturally and necessarily, the contention that people who take that action deserve to be prosecuted. As concerns the action of murder, it is to be hoped that offenders will be convicted and severely punished; and in the case of conscious, willful, premeditated murder, more severely punished still.
Therefore, provided one favors the death penalty, as many anti-choice Americans do, it isn’t Williamson’s view that women who have abortions should pay, possibly with their own lives, that is truly stunning. It is the fact that the pro-life movement has gotten away for so long with a strategy of pairing volcanic hostility toward abortion with a policy of complete impunity for the women who choose it. In fact, in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump stated that women who had abortions ought to incur “some kind of punishment,” it wasn’t us feminazis who had the biggest coronary. It was Trump’s newfound fans in the pro-life leadership, who hastened to quash one of the only rational remarks their hero has ever made.
Understand, I am not addressing here the question of whether abortion ought to be legal, but strictly the operating logic of those who argue most passionately that it should not be.
By that logic and the rhetoric it unleashes, abortion is murder most foul. Doctors who perform abortions are butchers. The clinics where they perform them are slaughterhouses. Planned Parenthood is a slaughterhouse and a distributorship for discarded baby parts. Public figures who favor – or even tolerate -- abortion rights have the blood of the innocent on their hands. Yet, bizarrely exempt from any accountability whatsoever are the mothers who, in this scenario, choose to kill their own children.
Abortion being an intrinsically wrenching subject, it is routinely discussed, by both sides, in terms of its most wrenching examples. In real life, though, those examples illustrate far more exception than rule. Most abortions are not had by minors or the mentally incompetent; nor by victims of rape, incest, or coercion, nor by mothers anywhere near the brink of giving birth, nor by women who would otherwise die. Most abortions are had in the first trimester by adult women who choose to terminate their pregnancies. Whether such women experience their own abortions as terrible tragedies, as no big deal, or as one of the millions of possibilities in between, it is fair to assume that just about all of them know exactly what they are doing. After all, having an abortion is not like flying into a rage, speeding through a red light at a crosswalk, or killing a person one had merely meant to rough up. If a fetus – or indeed, to adopt the current pro-life perspective, a zygote -- constitutes a human life, then an abortion is purposefully intended to end that life. This abortion needs to be requested, scheduled and paid for. It will not be performed on a patient who turns up intoxicated. Therefore, whether or not it is an atrocity, an abortion is not an accident.
All this leaves pro-life advocates with only three non-Williamson frameworks in which to fit any women who may manage to have abortions, should their movement succeed in making the procedure illegal. One: abortion, though wrong, is actually a much more complicated moral-hence-legal proposition than flat-out murder, and therefore it should not be treated as such. Two: abortion is flat-out murder, but pregnant women should be assumed to lack the intelligence and moral rectitude to realize this, and thus be spared the consequences of defying the law. Three: abortion is murder, women ought to know this full well, and therefore, women who opt for abortions should, if caught, be punished -- but, at least for the time being, saying anything like that could alienate tons of swing voters, so nothing like that must be said.
Clearly, framework number one requires a nuanced, shades-of-gray discussion of the whole issue, in which activists show zero interest. Framework number two requires that grown women be treated as moral wards of the state, a concept which, should it ever be spelled out, stands to repulse lots and lots of ladies. So it seems safe to conclude that today's dominant pro-life strategy reflects number three: a politically convenient, morally and intellectually preposterous positing of abortion as a heinous crime that is not committed by the woman who seeks, schedules, very often finances, and undergoes it. Like him or not, Williamson is right to expose this for the absurdity it is. Meanwhile, the likes of NARAL and Planned Parenthood should hope he does so every chance he gets. For whatever lefty pressure may have led the Atlantic to toss Kevin Williamson, it’s not the pro-choice movement that his very cold, very clear reasoning on abortion stands to harm.
Forget about Joe Kennedy III’s Chap Stick. You know what kills me about the Democrats?
Time after time after time, they fight the battles Republicans pick, on terms that Republicans dictate.
This is a different problem than the problem, apart from the weird lip-shine, that critics professed to have with Kennedy’s State of the Union rebuttal. Detractors carped that this was the trotting-out of the same old liberal talking points, voiced by the same old monied Massachusetts K-words, lacking a positive, integrated economic vision for the future. But the wrong-battlefield problem is closely related.
Immigration is a perfect example. By fighting on Republican terms, Democrats have not only allowed the GOP to define the issue, but to cut it out of the broader economic narrative into which it must be tightly sewn if Democrats are to win, on this or anything else.
For years now, Democrats had been walking straight onto an immigration debate stage set by the nativist wing of the GOP, which has also written a now-familiar script:
Republicans: We’ve got to get these illegals out of here and keep any more from coming in!
Democrats: They’re not ‘illegal’, they’re ‘undocumented’, and this country was built on immigrants!
Republicans: Not on illegal immigrants it wasn’t.
Democrats: But they’re here already! They’re working, studying, contributing to their communities…
Republicans: Damn straight! They’re taking our jobs, siphoning off our social services, and killing and raping and…"
Democrats: You’re racists!
Republicans: We’re not racists, we’re realists. This is America. We have to put our own people first.
Democrats: These immigrants are our people.
Republicans (salivating; scenting victory ) Exactly. Africans, Haitians and Hispanics with no respect for the law are your people. Americans who play by the rules are our people.
Given the many sharp, moving parts of this issue and the unexpected ways in which those parts can jut out and whack politicians of both parties, it’s anything but clear that Republican hardliners will win by keeping this dialogue going. But they come much closer than their opponents ought to let them. After all, the above debate leaves an awful lot of room for nice, average people to scratch their heads and go, “Sure, I feel sorry for people coming here, but I’m here already, struggling for the basics, and no one is doing a thing for me.” Or, given some of the recent left-wing effusions about welcoming everyone: “hang on a second, shouldn’t there be a difference between the way the government treats a legal immigrant versus an illegal one? Or a citizen versus a non-citizen?” Best of all for the GOP, it also gives those asking such questions occasion to resent being considered racist for doing so.
All the while, the Republicans are getting away with policy murder. For years now, they have been allowed to roll merrily along, convincing millions of people that whether one regrets or revels in the harsh stance they take on immigration, that stance is going to lead to an America whose abundance will grow, then flow, above all, to Americans. This is total hogwash. The glaring fact of the matter is this: If the Republicans really wanted to make good on what they present as the promise of their vision for immigration, they would have to jettison their vision of everything else.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s forget about the racial, humanitarian, logistical, short-term economic and long-term actuarial implications, and adopt the hard-line GOP immigration ideal as our own. (And I use the term “hard-line” advisedly; obviously, some Republicans have far more nuanced views, but they are not the ones driving the bus.)
So our goal is: the US will have zero illegal immigrants, and only the most strictly limited, stupendously beneficial trickle of legal ones. Nobody succeeds in sneaking across the border. Nobody overstays a visa. No crimes are committed, jobs taken, families formed or benefits claimed by anyone who hasn’t been born here or practically begged to come by dint of their uniquely fabulous skills. It’s all native-born Americans, plus a few independently wealthy foreign geniuses, nobody else, from sea to shining sea.
Anyway, if that’s the dream, then yes: it makes sense to super-secure the borders, put the pedal to the metal on “extreme vetting,” and brace for mass deportation. Lord knows, the GOP has thought of all that. But there are other requirements too, and they’re ignoring -- if not actively thwarting -- those.
Let’s start with the magic four-letter word: jobs.
Logically, if the goal is for the best jobs in America to go to Americans and only Americans, a two-pronged strategy should be in full force.
One: In the immediate term, make sure that the most educated, brilliant, employment-generating Americans can really strut their stuff here.
Two: Produce massive numbers of Americans capable of doing the best jobs likely to be generated in the future. Needless to say, if this ultra-Americanization of work in America were to take root within decades as opposed to centuries, this mass production of massively productive citizens would not be a small matter -- a little high-school STEM funding here, some computer-based “transition” courses for displaced factory workers there.
Remember, the current H1-B visa controversy exists solely because there are more jobs being generated in burgeoning sectors, such as tech, than there are Americans fit to fill them. There is dispute over how big that gap really is, and whether some skilled Americans are being bypassed in favor of foreigners willing to take lower salaries. But no one seriously disputes that the skilled-Americans/available-jobs gap exists, and that it’s set to get larger. Even to approach closing it would require a domestic Marshall Plan for education, particularly the education of engineers. If this plan were to have both a hope of elevating working-class folks, white and otherwise, and also a hope of keeping America at the forefront of the world economy, its tentacles would have to reach from (obviously universal) pre-kindergarten through grad school.
On part one, the Republicans seem to understand the concept of value retention when it comes to money. They’ll never tire of celebrating the repatriation of corporate billions wrought by their recent tax bill, and that’s fine. It’s great, actually! But the concept seems to elude them entirely when it comes to minds. The extreme GOP respect for capital-capital is weirdly coupled these days with outright contempt for intellectual capital. To see this, just contemplate how much economically-salient intellectual capital currently resides in the field of science -- a field with which the Republican party has seen fit to wage all-out war. The political reasons for this may be obvious, but if Democrats played their cards better, the economic ramifications would be too. If the goal is to leverage the best of the best brains in America for the sake of tapping one of our time’s richest veins of employment, defunding and denigrating scientific research while staking the future on fossil fuels is a very odd way to go about it.
As for part two, the Democrats leave plenty to be desired in the education-for-innovation department. But they’re not the ones who are pretending that the economic salvation of the average Joe hinges on getting rid of immigrants. And at least Democrats seem appropriately chagrined by the irony that has stymied and embittered a generation: the more necessary a college education is to succeed in America, the more difficult it is for ordinary Americans to afford one.
And speaking of ironies, how about this one: Anti-immigration types want to crack down on student-visa holders who wish to remain in the U.S. beyond their courses of study, on the grounds that they then displace American workers. Pro-immigration types counter that that merely deports the benefits of a first-class American education. What often gets lost is one reason that foreign students have come to figure so prominently in U.S. higher education: there aren’t enough Americans who can both do the work and pay the full freight.
The reasons for this are myriad and complex, but for an “America First” diehard, at least some countermeasures should be clear. Immigration hardliners should be be clamoring to make college affordable for every qualified native-born American. No one should be more eager than the nativist crowd to flood state schools with funding, expand Pell grants and other scholarship opportunities for lower-income students, reform the system of indenture that college loans have become. Instead, by and large, they are doing the exact opposite.
There’s a cultural side to this, too, and it merits a much more careful treatment than I am giving it here. But just because a point of view may carry emotional resonance or political clout doesn’t make it economically wise. Propping up the coal industry, fighting to make creationism and Confederate revisionism welcome in curricula, lampooning expertise rather broadening access to it…no party truly intent upon building a giant American workforce for a roaring American economy would choose to engage in any of that. Today’s GOP is enmeshed in all of it.
So much for the home front. Now, very briefly, for the “shitholes”:
Although sadly resigned to America's inability to accommodate all, I could not be more appalled by the so-called-conservative threatening, hectoring and demonizing of desperate people who come here in flight from poverty, violence or persecution. But again, just for the sake of argument, let’s adopt the mindset from which such vitriol flows.
If the U.S. abhors the idea of absorbing refugees, shouldn’t the U.S. be doing everything it can to ensure that as few people as possible become refugees in the first place?
Or, to put it in the "tough language" that everyone seems to find so compelling at the moment: If we can’t bear to have the human shithole-sludge washing up on our clean American shores, isn’t it squarely in our national interest to have some serious strategies in place to prevent quite so many “shitholes” from forming?
If the most powerful nation on earth were serious about reducing the number of “low-skilled” immigrants seeking asylum within its borders, it would bring major, varied and constant resources to bear on assuring that fewer people needed asylum to begin with. It would pride itself, for example, on maintaining an excellent sense of the elements that, time and time again, breed misery and unrest abroad, and do its utmost to keep those elements from rising at all, let alone boiling over. In this light, any famine, war, drought or dictatorship abroad would be seen as a major problem at home, if only for its potential to send streams of unwanted wastrels our way.
Of course, America’s chronically-pathetic levels of foreign aid would markedly rise, as would rigorous oversight mechanisms designed to keep that aid both honest and effective. But more than that, every U.S. policy would be evaluated partially – not entirely, but partially – in terms of its global effects. No farm bill, for example, would go anywhere without a full airing of its impact on food prices in Africa. In the area of trade, at least some “losing” would be allowed for, on the grounds that countries that never "win" on any level have a real knack for bursting into flame. And for those occasions when refugee crises did nonetheless arise, the U.S. would strive to be at the center of the response, teaming with allies to distribute the burden of intake and promote the conditions for eventual return.
OK, fantasy or no fantasy, one mustn’t get carried away.
Clearly, there is a strict limit to how much even the most outward-looking, globally-minded America could do to influence the events and conditions that impel people to flee their homelands, or to entice other countries to coordinate their aims with ours . But the Trump-led GOP absolutely prides itself on making no effort whatsoever.
It’s not just the continuous starving and scalping of the State Department, nor the bizarre shunning of the kinds of relationships necessary to achieve such aims. It’s the whole conception of all international policy as a zero sum game. To hear this administration tell it, the ideal international policy consists of unlimited funding for the military, and nothing but derision for everything else.
NAFTA puts it in a nutshell. Even to the (limited) degree that the president has a point when he excoriates that agreement for “sending jobs to Mexico,” he seems totally unaware of what ought to be a huge upside for himself and his anti-immigrant base: those jobs then get done by Mexicans who therefore, y'know, stay in Mexico.
Of course, that's no more comfort to the U.S. worker losing a job than is the tone-deaf globalist's pointing out that macroeconomically, it's fine, because for every job NAFTA kills in one part of the country, it creates three in another, or whatever. But no policy invested in that worker’s well-being would try to hide him from the fact of globalization. It would concentrate on finding ways for him to weather its perilous storms, and for his kids to ride its wave (see above)
No question, Democrats blast Republicans all the time on income inequality, college affordability, and shirking of global responsibility. But for some reason, they fail to knit all that right into the debate on immigration, where it so clearly belongs. I cannot for the life of me figure out why Democrats stick so doggedly to a formula of compassion and racial enlightenment, plus maybe a little sprinkling of immediate economic benefit (the tech people from India can come in and spur employment for the construction people in Indiana, and whatnot.) I don't know why, on such a central issue, they aren't constantly calling the Republican hardliners' bluff.
Lord knows I’m not a Democrat looking to get myself elected. But if I were, and some America-Firster were trying to paint me as anti-American for being pro-immigrant, this is what I would say:
“If the right were to get anything like its way on immigration without seriously altering its views on education, trade and foreign policy, the U.S. population would, as they seem to hope, consist proportionally of many more native-born white Americans. But they’d be native-born white Americans forced to struggle economically while watching the rest of the world pass them by.
Is that really the sense in which the GOP wants to grow its base?”
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.