I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”
My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.
I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.
Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.
But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.
The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”
For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.
During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.
One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.
We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.
And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?
“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”
We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.
If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is about to get his moment in the wacky spotlight of U.S. Senate confirmation politics.
Barring some last-minute change of heart, something never to be dismissed in Trump World, the president of the United States will nominate to the Federal Reserve Board a guy whose ethical and financial baggage would have immediately disqualified him during any other time in modern history. In the past, would-be cabinet secretaries or senior administration appointees have seen their appointments collapse for lesser transgressions than those hovering around Trump’s latest ethical outrage.
It seems almost quaintly secondary that Stephen Moore, a frequent Fox News gabber and Trump idolater, is also demonstrably unqualified for the job of overseeing the U.S. banking system and assuring the economy remains sound.
If Trump goes through with Moore’s appointment, Crapo will preside over his confirmation before the Senate Banking Committee and we’ll see how the mild-mannered Idahoan straddles the stupidity of the president’s nominees and the senator’s fealty to the big banks and financial interests, whose water he carries and whose campaign cash he hordes.
Will Crapo go with Trump and the Tea Party wing of the GOP or will he stand with the sane, sober financial realists who openly scoff at Moore’s lack of qualifications to serve on the Fed, not to mention his long record of incompetence?
Let’s review the “accomplishments” of the man who could be a heartbeat away from chairing the Federal Reserve by acknowledging that Moore is no Alan Greenspan, no Paul Volcker, no Ben Bernanke and certainly no Marriner Eccles, the Utahan who presided over the central bank during the Great Depression.
Rather, Moore owes $75,000 in back federal taxes and was held in contempt for failing to pay $330,000 in spousal support to his ex-wife. As the New York Times noted, “In 2013, (a Virginia) court ordered him to sell his home to raise money to pay the debt and forced him to set up an automatic bank transfer each month. After Mr. Moore paid $217,000 toward the debt, Ms. Moore asked the court to revoke the order to sell his home, which it did.” Moore calls his dispute with the IRS “a misunderstanding.”
So much for ethics. How about competence? Economics columnist Catherine Rampell assembled a “greatest hits” list of Moore’s crazy theories and predictions, including the old favorite that big tax cuts pay for themselves. The Congressional Budget Office said recently that the Trump tax cut, supported enthusiastically by Crapo, would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit during the next decade.
During the Great Recession, Moore predicted runaway hyperinflation like that visited on Weimar Germany in the 1920s, with people needing “wheelbarrows full” of cash to visit Albertsons. Moore was a principal architect of the disastrous tax policy implemented in Kansas in 2013, a policy he promised would miraculously lift that state’s economy, but instead slowed economic growth and crashed the state budget. As Rampell has suggested, Moore has been wrong so often — he’s not an economist by the way, but merely plays one on Fox — that he obviously doesn’t know how to use Google to check basic facts.
Moore was so often wrong in his pronouncements about the Kansas economy that he was banned from the editorial pages of the state’s largest newspaper. His lack of political independence was on full display when he said Trump deserved the Nobel Prize in economics. You can’t make this up.
Moore’s appointment comes, of course, in the wake of Trump’s continuing assaults on Fed Chairman Jerome “Jay” Powell, a respected conservative who seems determined to continue the Federal Reserve’s long struggle to remain independent of the kind of partisan meddling the president has raised to an art form. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Trump, who has publicly contemplated firing Powell — he legally can’t fire Powell who serves a fixed term — criticized the chairman on three different occasions recently before mumbling to Powell in a phone call, “I guess I’m stuck with you.”
Outside of the Fox News echo chamber, few people who know anything about the Fed and the economy think having Moore on the job makes any sense.
“Steve is a perfectly amiable guy,” says Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, “but he does not have the intellectual gravitas for this important job.” Before Trumpers dismiss Mankiw as just another pointy-headed Ivy League academic, we should note he is a conservative Republican who worked for both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
But back to Crapo’s dilemma. In a normal political world, a senator in Crapo’s position — the conservative Republican chairman of the Banking Committee, a favorite of Wall Street and big banks, the 15th most senior member of the Senate — would have everything to say about this kind of appointment. A genuinely powerful chairman might even be expected to have his own candidate for the Fed, perhaps a trusted conservative economist with a track record of real accomplishment. There must be a few hundred of them available.
A real power in the Senate would have quietly signaled the White House that spouting sound bites on television just wasn’t adequate preparation for such an important job. A senator with a shred of independence would have never allowed a Stephen Moore to get in front of his committee.
All Crapo has said is that it’s a priority to fill vacancies on the Federal Reserve and he would not prejudge Moore’s nomination, while giving “it prompt attention.”
Maybe Crapo will yet head off this economic train wreck, potentially one of the most consequential, indeed disastrous of all Trump appointments. Or maybe he’ll do what Idahoans have come to expect of him and he’ll go along to get along and, in the process, further concede senatorial power and prerogatives to a man Crapo once said was so abundantly unfit for the office that he couldn’t support him for president.
(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on April 5, 2019)
The journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken was made for the Trump era. Unfortunately Mencken, a guy given to using words such as buncombe, knaves, fanatics and fools in his Baltimore Sun columns and magazine articles, died in 1956, no doubt convinced that a Trump-like character was in the country’s future.
“As democracy is perfected,” Mencken wrote, “the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
We have arrived.
Not many Americans remember Mencken these days even though he was once the best-known journalist – and the most full-throated cynic – in the country. Mencken was an equal opportunity basher of politicians. One suspects he would have loved the daily business of scraping the hide off our current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls and he would have had an absolute field day with our deranged national tweeter.
In 1920, while Republicans and Democrats jockeyed for position and the chance to succeed President Woodrow Wilson, Mencken took on the entire field. He might have been writing about Beto or Biden or Bernie.
“All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form,” Mencken wrote. “This is to say, they are all extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job; the necessary equipment of unescapable issues, immutable principles and soaring ideals can wait until it becomes more certain which way the mob will be whooping.”
We can only imagine what the Sage of Baltimore would have made of Trump and the president’s whooping mob, but charlatan was one of his favorite words. Fraud was another of his prized descriptions.
I got to thinking about Mencken this week after the most powerful man in the world spent most of last weekend attacking a decorated Vietnam veteran, prisoner of war and one-time Republican presidential candidate on social media. “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be,” the man with many grievances told us once again, seven months after most decent people came together, at least for a moment, to mourn one man’s courage and patriotism.
Thoughts came again of Henry – Franklin Roosevelt, who detested the writer for his barbed takes on the New Deal and FDR’s patrician privilege, called Mencken by his first name hoping to diminish him – when the Tweeter-in-Chief took time out from ravaging American agriculture with his tariff policies to assault the husband of his White House counselor as “a total loser.” The reality show presidency has morphed into “real house husbands of D.C.”
Henry would have mocked such idiocy, such buncombe, such complete claptrap.
What would one of America’s great social critics have made of the president’s daughter working in the White House while piling up patent approvals with a country we’re engaged with in a trade war? And what of the president’s grifting son-in-law, denied access to state secrets because he’s so clearly susceptible to – there’s that word again – fraud. And what of a political system that tolerates the nation’s chief magistrate maintaining a government lease on a gaudy hotel where every shade of influence seeker pays the rent knowing that their dollars flow directly to the cheater, the conman at the top? What a load of unmitigated rubbish.
Henry Louis Mencken often bemoaned the American predisposition to be hoodwinked by shameless scoundrels. A favorite target was a prominent populist blowhard of his day, William Jennings Bryan, although unlike our own prominent populist blowhard Bryan had some genuine principles. Nevertheless to Mencken the three-time presidential candidate “was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted … [and] ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.” He could have been writing for tomorrow’s paper.
“A culture,” the conservative writer Peter Wehner wrote this week in The Atlantic,“lives or dies based on its allegiance to unwritten rules of conduct and unstated norms, on the signals sent about what kind of conduct constitutes good character and honor and what kind of conduct constitutes dishonor and corruption.” By those standards, or better yet by the decline of standards observed long ago by a Mencken, we have ceased to progress as a culture. We’re settling for buncombe when we might better demand brilliance, or at least competence.
Often H.L. Mencken reserved his most scathing takes on American politics not for the fools and knaves who occupied the hallowed halls of government, but for the gullible voters who put them in power. “The whole aim of practical politics,” Mencken once wrote, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” And to think he didn’t even know about the make belief “invasion” of the southwest border, or the “witch hunt” or the “fake news.”
“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” Mencken once wrote. Cynics aren’t often the best judges of the overall direction of things, but our current tomfoolery is such that we’re left to a long-dead cynic to remind us that eventually “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”
“The nation has become spectacularly meaner, to the point that George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the Republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population.” – Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker
Former President George H.W. Bush is being fondly remembered as a man of character and kindness, a president who certainly made serious mistakes (don’t they all), but one who also exercised power with – to use one of his favorite words – “prudence.” The remembrances make the contrast between the late president and the current one all the more stark.
Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a fierce critic of Donald Trump and author of a scathing critique of the modern Republican Party called The Corrosion of Conservatism, wonders “how, in the space of a quarter-century, did we go from President Bush to President Trump?” The answer is complicated, as one suspects Bush 41 understood. He could be a self-reflective president, unlike the current one.
Mr. Rogers and John Wayne…
The comedian Dana Carvey made a mini-career of impersonating Bush on Saturday Night Live, exaggerating the preppy president’s gestures and speech for comic effect.
After hearing of Bush’s death, I watched Carvey’s surprise White House appearance toward the very end of his presidency – H.W. had just lost to Bill Clinton – and came away thinking it takes a comedian to begin to understand the ying and yang of Bush. The 41st president was a genuinely brave Naval aviator, an aristocratic New Englander remade into a Texas oil man, a failed Senate candidate, a fierce partisan, a CIA director, a loyal vice president and a man who ruined his presidency by doing the right thing.
Perhaps Bush should have known that a new breed of Republican disrupters – read Newt Gingrich – would never cut him slack for raising taxes in service of reducing the deficit. Unlike the rest of the GOP, Bush never forgot that cutting taxes almost always leads to bigger deficits. Voodoo economics is not fake news. The moment marked a turning point away from responsible, bipartisan governing.
Carvey said his Bush voice was a mixture of Mr. Rogers – “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” – and John Wayne, a certain clipped, confident shorthand that often saw Bush mangle a phrase, but still convey his essential meaning. In a way Bush governed – evidence of his better angels – like Fred Rogers. He was prudent, careful and kind. He signed the Americans with Disability Act, a landmark piece of legislation that showed the country and its politics at its best. Bush, surrounded by adults like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, presided over a peaceful end of the Cold War, a moment we now take for granted that might have gone horribly wrong. Bush knew that an international coalition was needed to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and also knew that a contained Saddam, as thuggishly brutal as his regime was, was better for the region than the decades of turmoil his son unleashed by engaging in regime change.
Prudent isn’t a bad epitaph.
But, if Bush governed like the essentially decent, pragmatic, mostly moderate Republican he was, he campaigned as something else. After losing the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bush embraced, or at least accepted, the sharp, divisive, negative style that came out of the election cycle. We remember the Reagan landslide (with Bush as his vice president) as a major turning point in American politics, but that election also featured the first widespread use of the independent expenditure campaign. Exploiting the liberalization of campaign finance limits, independent campaigns went on the attack in a major way in 1980. Reagan benefited, but so did a new generation of political operatives, including Paul Manafort, Roger Ailes, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater. Their essential negative tactics, constructed of fear, division and, yes, racism, continue to shape GOP campaigns, conservative media and the current occupant of the White House.
When Bush got his own shot at the White House in 1988 he campaigned like John Wayne, all American flag factories, assaults on the ACLU and race baiting with the infamous Willie Horton references. Horton, an African-American convicted of murder, raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while on prison furlough, a program in place in Massachusetts when Bush’s opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, was in office.
Technically the Bush campaign didn’t run the “Willie Horton ad,” but left that dirty work to something called the National Security Political Action Committee, an independent expenditure campaign supposedly independent of the Bush campaign. Bush did, however, repeatedly invoke Horton on the stump and Atwater, his campaign manager, really did say: “If we can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.”
Bush insisted to his biographer Jon Meacham that the references to Horton and the furlough issue were about Dukakis being soft on crime and none of it was meant as a race-based “dog whistle” to fire up the increasingly white base of the Republican Party. Yet as Meacham notes, “In truth, in the tangled politics of that difficult year, as so often in American life, [the references] ended up being about both.”
Dukakis, of course, was a perfectly awful candidate – remember him riding around in a tank with a funny looking helmet – and Bush won that election decisively, if not altogether honorably. Bush recorded in his diary, as Meacham reports, that critics would long complain that he had taken the low road to the White House. Bush, ever the pragmatist, wrote simply: “I don’t know what we could do differently. We had to define this guy [Dukakis].”
When the pragmatic Bush tried to compromise with a tax and budget deal his “prudent” approach was rejected by many in his party, none less than Gingrich, who cared less about governing and the nation’s future than he did about a generation of political power for the political right. It’s ironic that while people across the political spectrum praise Bush’s style and basic decency, one of his signature accomplishments – the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – is daily trashed by the current non-governing Republican Party. In the end, Bush – Willie Horton and all – was too much the pragmatist, too much a pro, too much a policy wonk for a party owned now for a man as far removed from Bush as decency is removed from vulgarity.
“How different is Trump’s Republican party from Bush 41’s? George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disability Act in 1991. Donald Trump mocks the disabled. George H. W. Bush summoned a coalition of 35 countries for the first Gulf War. Donald Trump attacks even our closest allies, England and Canada, and talks about NATO like it was a deadbeat tenant. President Bush negotiated the original North American Free Trade Agreement. Donald Trump calls Mexicans ‘rapists’ and brags he has ordered armed U.S. troops to respond with deadly force to brown people throwing rocks at the border. George H. W. Bush celebrated charity and kindness. Donald Trump mocks a ‘thousand points of light.’ George H. W. Bush enlisted at 18, the Navy’s youngest pilot, in civilization’s last great battle against tyranny. Donald Trump dodged military service multiple times, celebrates tyrants and defends Nazi’s as ‘good people on both sides.’”
Let’s remember Bush then as a man in full, a Mr. Rogers with a John Wayne side.
By all accounts Bush loved being president and he was at his best when making friends. As the greatest political journalist of our age, Richard Ben Cramer, wrote in one of the best political books of our age, What It Takes, Bush was once asked what made him think he could be President? The answer: “Well, I’ve got a big family, and lots of friends.” Indeed he did and I for one won’t quibble with the statement that his was the most successful one-term presidency in American history. It would be prudent.
But the man also badly, badly wanted a second term in 1992 and was willing, as Cramer wrote to do what he had to do to win. Bush actually told interviewer David Frost that he would, in fact, do anything – whatever it took – to win again. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot had different ideas and Bush lost.
And we are left to wonder how we got from the man with all those friends, the guy who wrote the thousands of thank you notes and befriended, of all people, his old opponent Bill Clinton, the prudent guy, how we got from that guy to this guy.
Part of the answer has to be that leaders of the Republican Party, as well as the conservative media echo chamber created by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes, have been telling their supporters, at least since Bush 41, that compromise is bad, moderation is capitulation, Democrats are evil and that fear tactics in the service of winning elections are acceptable, indeed necessary. Part of the answer is also that the Republican Party has now fully bought the Trumpian notion that politics is about “feeding the angriest instincts of his base.”
So much for Mr. Rogers.
It is a complicated story and the man being remembered this week was, too.
Note: My column this week in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune
Just when it seems that our politics can’t possibly produce yet one more head spinning moment we get one.
An amazing thing happened this week. The world laughed at the American president. While he was making a speech. At the United Nations.
Oh, I know, Trump fans will discount the importance of a spontaneous outburst of chuckling from the world’s diplomats. European elites, they will scoff. A reaction coming from African nations that are, well, it rhymes with lit holes.
While it’s tempting to toss off yet another Trump moment as just the latest Trump moment the reaction to the president of the United States boasting about his greatness at the U.N. is really a symptom of a larger, more serious problem for the United States and the world. At the same time the United States has retreated from a position of international leadership we continue to suffer a difficult to correct deterioration of democratic practice at home. Unfortunately we are not alone.
As Edward Luce, a writer for the Financial Times, notes in his brilliant little book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary.)” Luce is, of course, using the term “liberal” in the classic sense: liberal democracies encourage people to vote in free elections, they welcome dissent, they value a free press, they respect differences and find ways to compromise in the cause of an unruly, yet broadly universal understanding of progress.
Yet, the prevailing momentum in the world is not toward greater equality either political or economic. By one recent estimate, a third of the world’s people now live in democracies in decline. All the energy from the British exit from the European Union to new U.S. trade wars is in the direction of isolation, retrenchment and conflict. We see the telltale signs of this new world order playing out in real time. For 70 years the NATO alliance has provided security for Europe, Canada and the United States, yet the current administration, apparently ignorant of that history, picks fights those allies and plays nice with a Russian dictator. Rather than thoughtful engagement with China – Ed Luce calls the emergence of China as world power “the most dramatic event in economic history” – we apply time dishonored methods of tariffs and taxation that will soon enough hurt Idaho potato growers, Montana wheat farmers and Iowa soybean growers. China, meanwhile, consolidates its influence across the Pacific basin, while we tax ourselves thinking we will bring them to heel.
Americans are badly, one hopes not fatally, distracted at the moment. The constant political turmoil, the blind partisanship, the disregard for fundamental political and personal decency is part of a pattern across the globe. As the European scholar
Anne Applebaum put it recently, “Polarization is normal. More to the point … skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”
Ask yourself a question: How much of what you hear and read about politics today do you really trust?
Authoritarians like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey have mastered manipulation on public opinion, they control the sources of information if they can, intimidate those they can’t and dominate and denigrate the rest. Democracy does not thrive in spaces where leaders label as “fake” or a “hoax” that with which they disagree. But demagogues do get ahead in societies where distracted citizens come to believe that nothing is real, that there are versions of the truth. More and more political leaders, even a candidate for governor in Idaho, seem comfortable with their own versions of Trump’s “fake news” mantra.
It used to be that political leaders, real political leaders, practiced the old political game of addition. How do I add to my support? How do I bring people together? How do we solve problems even if my side can’t prevail completely? How do we strengthen the often-fragile norms that define acceptable behavior? How do we strengthen the rule of law rather that assault it? Those were the days. Now it is all about juicing the base or perhaps even worse, depressing the vote.
The retreat of western liberalism is happening at precisely the moment the United States is fighting to lead the retreat. At a moment that demands American leadership, fresh thinking about old problems and a commitment to pluralistic societies, we are hunkered down building walls and denying climate change. And the world is laughing at words like, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Ironically, Donald Trump’s moment at the United Nations this week is, like so much of the man’s story, a fulfillment of his own expectations. Trump “has always been obsessed that people are laughing at the president, says Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution. “From the mid-’80s, he’s said: ‘The world is laughing at us. They think we’re fools.’ It’s never been true, but he’s said it about every president. It’s the first time I’m aware of that people actually laughed at a president.”
The laughter is on us, as is the future. It is nowhere ordained that American democracy will forever flourish and carry on. In fact the opposite is true. Modern world history is the story of one democracy after another – Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s and Poland, Brazil and India today – facing internal turmoil, political polarization, decline or worse. We are not immune.
Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher put it succinctly, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
The President of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounds himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound. He is manifestly unfit for the job. Who knew? Everybody did.
Masha Gessen, The New Yorker
I am not inclined to read the new Michael Wolff blockbuster that purports to detail how utterly unfit for the presidency is Donald J. Trump. Why read the book? We’ve all been watching the play for nearly two years.
The fact that Wolff’s “revelations” have been widely described as an “open secret” among Washington reporters and members of Congress tells us a good deal about how perilously screwed up our politics have become. Virtually everyone knows the president of the United States is a dangerously unbalanced narcissist, hard pressed to control his instincts whether he is eating a second Big Mac or tweeting his daily insult.
Is anyone really surprised? No, of course not. Because we see it all with our own eyes every time we turn on the television. Trump has an attention span to match his tiny hands. He doesn’t read anything – ever. He can hardly string together a coherent thought. His grasp of the details of the most difficult job in the world are way, way beyond him. His grasp of history begins with his birth and ends with The Apprentice. And the president’s court enablers are a shameless collection of hacks, bootlickers and family members and, as is increasingly obvious, there is a lot of corruption in this crowd.
No one save Trump and his sleaziest current operative Stephen Miller – well, OK Sarah Sanders too, but she hardly counts since she has been appropriately cast as the Trumpian Court’s chief prevaricator – is really denying the essentials of the Wolff book. Quibble over the details, if you will, and bemoan Wolff’s own self-importance and his sloppy copy editing, what he writes still has the overwhelming stench of truth. We’ve all seen it for months. Who you gonna believe? Donald Trump or your lyin’ eyes?
The essential truth is this: Trump is not up to the job. He’s not even remotely intelligent in the way leaders must be. He lacks a shred of empathy and Trumpian self-awareness is as rare as a degree from his phony university. The man is a world-class con man who by virtue of a political fluke became president of the United States. To say that Trump is out of his depth is to say that Lincoln was a “political genius.” Neither label does either man justice.
The fact that our political process cannot provide the information and action to correct this disgusting and dangerous show is the real story here. Good for Michael Wolff, I guess, for making a bundle while pointing out the obvious.
Still, this mess – yes, it is a bigly one – does beg a few ongoing questions. I know it is difficult to sort out what really matters from the daily barrage of nonsense, so here goes.
There are increasingly serious questions concerning Trump’s cognitive decline and the fact that we have no realistic way to deal with that issue. A medical doctor, James Hamblin, recently wrote a piece every member of Congress – and the public – should read. Hamblin carefully avoided passing medical judgment on Trump’s mental state, but he did note several issues that raise serious questions.
For example, consider Trump’s practice of repeating and repeating and repeating the same point, while rarely articulating substantive – or coherent – thoughts:
“If Trump’s limited and hyperbolic speech were simply a calculated political move—he repeated the phrase ‘no collusion’ 16 times in the Times interview, which some pundits deemed an advertising technique—then we would also expect an occasional glimpse behind the curtain. In addition to repeating simplistic phrases to inundate the collective subconscious with narratives like “no collusion,” Trump would give at least a few interviews in which he strung together complex sentences, for example to make a case for why Americans should rest assured that there was no collusion.
Or there is this from James Fallows writing recently in The Atlantic: “We have something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more limited someone is in reality, the more talented the person imagines himself to be. Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger put it in the title of their original scientific-journal article, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”
Trump World has festered into a steamy swamp of tawdry, ludicrous craziness that keeps most of us – and the political press – on edge, all the time. It’s hard to see the forest for the crazy trees. The white nationalist joker Steve Bannon is the latest case in point.
Elevated first by Trump who made Bannon his chief campaign strategist, then brought into the White House where every D.C. reporter vied to be the one to see the chicken scratches on his “strategic” white board – remember this disheveled clown actually sat for a while on the National Security Council – then dismissed by Trump only to re-emerge as the political genius behind Roy Moore’s campaign in Alabama.
Having directly contributed to the loss of a safe Republican Senate seat by embracing a credibly accused child molester, Bannon returned to his click bait, conspiracy theory peddling “news” site to troll Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and preach the old populist gospel of white nationalism, protectionism and retreat on the world stage. Finally, Bannon gets, temporarily one assumes, his comeuppance thanks to Michael Wolff’s word processor.
But wait! Bannon has now, as the Washington phrase describes such things, “walked back” his criticism of Donald Trump, Jr. and kind of apologized. He did not, however, say he was misquoted by Wolff, but instead that he was really trashing a guy under indictment (Paul Manafort) as opposed to the president’s son who will soon be under indictment. For the record, Bannon did not “walk back” his portrayal of Trump he just changed his story in hopes of changing the story.
The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg said it perfectly. “Bannon is a common character in Washington: a megalomaniac who made the mistake of believing his own bullshit.” Anyone in politics for any length of time encounters characters like Bannon – full of themselves, full of BS, and totally devoid of accomplishment, other than, of course, self-aggrandizement. In a curious way, Trump and Bannon deserve each other: two classless, clueless “smartest guys in the room” who wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in a responsible corporate board room or in a serious political office.
And, yes, the D.C. press corps, which should be able to spot this kind of charlatan as far away as “K” Street, has been utterly complicit in Bannon’s rise and now fall and soon his resurrection. It is so completely telling that Bannon offered Trump his faux mea culpa about the Wolff book though the daily newsletter of Axios’ Mike Allen rather than using his own “news” organization. Allen is Washington’s prime example of an access journalist who values nothing more than being the transmission belt for the kind of B.S. Bannon and the White House dish daily. And like Trump, Bannon craves the attention of the establishment that he works so hard to dismiss as evil.
Prediction: And you heard it here first, Bannon will successfully patch things up with Trump. He has to. And Mike Allen will be the first to report it. In order to survive Bannon needs to breathe the same oxygen Trump inhales. Any little slice of this absurdity is all the proof you need that the White House is, as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said before he subsequently lost his nerve, “an adult day care center.”
So, nothing – nothing – you have read or heard or shook your head about over the last several days represents any shocking new surprise. There are no revelations here really. We’ve seen this level of incompetency, bizarreness, craziness and danger for months and months. And it will get worse.
There are only two questions left to ask: how badly will this end and why does anyone with an ounce of integrity or a thimble full of honor work in this carnival funhouse?
The answer to the second question can only be that power or proximity to power, status or the perception of status, and money or the prospect of making more money are powerful motivators. It may be a circus, but it least the clown suit fits.
But how to explain a Rex Tillerson, a H.R. McMaster, a John Kelly? Serious people, apparently, who one must conclude are just hanging on to keep this runaway train more or less on the tracks. Explaining Congress is easier: Unprincipled, unbridled opportunism is an old, old American political trait.
Still, imagine telling your grandkids: the highlight of our professional life was working in/with the Trump Administration! The grandkids will return the Christmas presents.
The answer to the first question is more difficult – how will this end? Instability breeds instability. Madness begets madness. The immediate future is more instability beset with more madness.
As Masha Gessen says in a New Yorker column, “A year in, the Trump Presidency remains unimaginable. To think that a madman could be running the world’s most powerful country, to think that the Commander-in-Chief would use Twitter to mouth off about whose nuclear button is bigger or to call himself a ‘very stable genius,’ verges on the impossible.”
But, it has become possible. This entire tragic circus exists no matter how defiantly Congressional Republicans avert their eyes or White House aides or Cabinet secretaries abet the emperor with long ties, but no clothes. We are headed for the inevitable Constitutional crisis over Russia – yes, there will be collusion uncovered and money laundering and likely a good deal more – or, perhaps even sooner, we will be forced to confront Trump’s unfitness in some other way. It will happen.
My wish for the New Year: As long as we are going to have a Constitutional crisis let’s get it over with.
“They were careless people. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The convergence of two monumental political events – a Democratic victory in a weird Senate election in Alabama, of all places, and the emergence of the remarkably cynical and damaging GOP tax bill – bring into stark focus the degenerate state of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
In the Alabama election, the leader of the Republican Party made it clear that he was all in for a reliably accused child molester, while slandering the eventual Democratic winner for being “bad on crime.” The guy who won the Alabama Senate seat, Doug Jones, is a former prosecutor who convicted the Ku Klux Klan murderers of five little girls in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Doug Jones is bad on crime like Donald Trump is good on the facts.
While Trump touted the creepy Roy Moore – the New York Daily News called him “teen-loving Moore” – holding a rally, tweeting and recording robo calls, the rest of the Republican Party, with very few exceptions, sat on its duff, unable to rouse even mild indignation at such moral degeneracy.
As conservative commentator Charlie Sykes put it: “At every stage of the run-up to this special election, Republicans could have resisted, pushed back, or drawn lines, but their failure to do so led them inexorably to this moment: the defeat of an unreconstructed bigot and ignorant crank who had the full-throated backing of the president they have embraced and empowered.”
To assert that the modern GOP – and the man-child heading it – lacks an intellectual, moral or ethical foundation is a little like observing that the décor at Mar a Lago is a bit overdone. The reality of where the new GOP and its supreme leader have taken the country – and increasingly the world – has become difficult to fathom, and that is a major part of our problem. There is so much turmoil, so much wrong, so much corruption and degradation – where to start?
As the country we once knew slips ever closer to authoritarian kleptocracy – and worse – the enablers of this increasingly dystopian nightmare pass tax cuts to enrich themselves and their donors and refuse to bestir themselves to offer even the most tepid condemnation of behavior that just months ago would have produced universal rejection.
We are caught in what the military and diplomatic historian Tom Ricks recently called the tragedy of a Trumpian America, where lying has become governance, where reckless ignorance masquerades as policy and where demagogues are unconstrained and therefore empowered. For the first time, Ricks says, and I agree, we fear for our country, a country were things are bad and all too likely to get much worse.
Ricks wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “People stuck inside tragedies often make the mistake of thinking they are nearing the end when they are only in Act I. And that is where I think we stand, still at the beginning of this long ride. All around us, the selfish and malevolent are thriving, flatterers are rising, and good people feel simply powerless.”
Let’s Cut Taxes for the Wealthy…
The GOP controlled Congress will pass a tax bill this week that violates almost everything the president said about taxes during the last campaign. His supporters, enablers and political functionaries are lapping it up. Lies have become policy.
The tax legislation is not directed at the middle class, as Trump said it would be, but at corporations and the wealthiest among us. After saying the tax legislation won’t benefit him we now know it certainly will, likely to the tune of millions of dollars due to a last minute slight of hand that helps real estate investors. The president’s children benefit, too, of course. Fiddling with the estate tax made sure of that. This is the kind of self-dealing enrichment that we once might have condemned in a third-world country presided over by a tin horn dictator. Rather than preventing this type of corruption, the GOP is writing it into law. And our tin horn dictator, feared by timid Republican souls who don’t dare risk the wrath of his Twitter habit, daily corrupts a government he knows little about and cares about even less.
But, hey, the tax cutters are getting what they dream about. Cutting taxes is, after all, what Republicans do and damn the consequences.
For years we’ve heard Republican politicians – guys like Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a very conservative, Harvard educated lawyer – take to the stump to howl about exploding annual deficits and warn against the dire consequences of a ballooning national debt. Back in 2011, Crapo said, “The single greatest issue facing the nation is the ever increasing federal deficit. Congress, and particularly the Senate, needs to engage fully on a course of bold and productive actions to end the debt crisis in America that is stifling the economy and stalling the fragile recovery.”
That was then. Now Crapo, who once endorsed the work of the Simpson-Bowles Commission to comprehensively fix tax and revenue problems, is embracing a tax bill that will do precisely what he has spent the last decade warning against. Various estimates say the GOP legislation will add a cool trillion or maybe two trillion to the debt. No remotely sane economist says, as Republican lawmakers do, that the tax cuts will pay for themselves.
Meanwhile, the debt ticker runs on Crapo’s website, while he regularly accumulates a political war chest courtesy of the people he really works for – high rollers in the financial services industry who handsomely reward his service on the Senate Finance and Budget Committees.
The conservative National Review generally praised the GOP tax handiwork, while ignoring the obvious self-deal in the legislation, but even the heirs of Bill Buckley had trouble with the debt issue. “Most Republicans say that the tax cut will generate so much extra growth that it will increase revenues,” the NR said in an editorial. “No economic model of the tax cut, not even any of the models produced by conservative economists, backs this claim. It is convenient, though, in letting Republicans offer tax cuts to various constituencies without having to impose any restraint on spending.”
Crapo, in perhaps the most secure Senate seat this side of Alabama, is surely going to get away with this breathtaking display of intellectual gymnastics now that deficits don’t matter again. Or perhaps we should just mark this type of intellectual rot as the perfect example of the school of “I can say and do whatever I want since alternative facts are all that matter in Trump’s America.” And, of course, “the base” – the folks who voted for Roy Moore – will believe the Fox News spin and all will be good.
GOP tax bill writers ignored the experts, ignored corporate CEO’s who said they would give their new tax breaks to investors rather than workers, and they ignored basic facts. Their legislation doesn’t simplify the tax code, doesn’t address vast income inequality, won’t jump-start the economy and won’t improve wages for middle class workers, but it will please the GOP donor class. Give Republicans credit: once they are bought they stay bought.
Congress or the Russian Duma?
If the policy specifics of the tax legislation don’t give you pause then consider the process used to pass the legislation. In the not to distant past the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee would have produced separate proposals developed during long hours of hearings and committee mark up. The two houses of Congress would then act. There would be ample time for amendments and real debate and the differing versions of legislation would be hashed out in conference.
This process would have seen expert witnesses brought in to discuss issues like whether giving a tax cut to corporations currently sitting on trillions of dollars in cash would really do anything for the economy or for workers. Reducing income inequality, now at the worst level since the Great Depression, might have been discussed and policies incorporated into the legislation to provide a boon to middle class spending, which would really boost the economy. Factual information about how few Americans are impacted by reducing the estate tax might have been brought to light. Perhaps even one Republican would have expressed discomfort in passing legislation that would directly benefit the president and his family. Perhaps even one Republican would have said it would be appropriate to see a certain someone’s tax returns before voting.
None of that happened.
There were no hearings. The slippery Orrin Hatch slipped in sleazy provisions benefiting individual members of Congress and the president of the United States at the absolutely last minute. The conference committee met, but there was no debate or voting on a true conference report. That was all settled out of sight of public or press scrutiny. This isn’t legislating; it is how the Russian Duma makes “laws.”
It requires a willful suspension of common sense to undertake massive cut taxes, while unemployment is low and the economy is in pretty decent shape and while we continue to pile up enormous debt. Only a crackpot economic theory would support such idiocy. Welcome to Trumpian America.
In at least one important respect the Trump presidency has succeeded. The congenital liar has degraded common sense, common decency and common purpose. What a set of accomplishments. His is the tool kit of the authoritarians and his handy enablers are helping him not only enrich himself in the most flagrant manner, but to denigrate the whole public square. It would be shameful if it were not so frightening.
Trump didn’t start us down this path of fact free public policy, but his rants against “fake news” and the steady erosion of public ethics that have been the by-products of his consistently abnormal behavior have now succeeded in polluting an entire political class. It only took a year. That is why we are only in Act I of this tragedy. Or as Tom Ricks writes, “things can get far worse than we ever suspected, and end horribly.”
Fasten your seat belts: The worst is yet to come.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote about them in a novel in the 1920s. The careless people. They are now fully in charge and this is no fiction.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Donald J. Trump Inaugural Speech, 2017
“We trust what we know in our hearts to be right,” he said. “We trust our freedom. In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want.”
Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association.
The American politicians who enjoy support from the National Rifle Association (NRA) are not bad people – well, at least most are not bad people – but they are scared. Scared of the gun lobby, scared of their constituents, scared to confront the reality that the types of guns that would not be out of place on an Afghan battlefield have no place in a Las Vegas high rise hotel.
Fear – unbridled, unreasoning fear of unreasonable political forces – is a very, very powerful thing. The NRA has made fear a lucrative business and arguably the most powerful lobby in the country.
Yet I suspect in the wake of the latest horrific mass murder, in which the gunman used a modified automatic weapon, there is also something else at play with those politicians who have sold their souls to the NRA. They are embarrassed; embarrassed by the immorality of their nation – alone in the world by the way – that tolerates frequent mass murder and catastrophic injury by guns.
As the Washington Post noted in a gruesome story about the gun shot injuries suffered by the victims of the Las Vegas massacre: “Gun deaths are this nation’s third-leading cause of injury-related fatalities, with the most recent data showing that firearms accounted for more than 36,200 deaths in 2015. Over a nine-year period, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 971,000 people were hurt or killed by firearms in the United States — with a just-released study finding that such injuries cost nearly $25 billion in hospital emergency and inpatient care from 2006 to 2014.”
Imagine being a member of Congress whose only response to the deaths of 59 fellow Americans and the horrible injuries to hundreds more is to say, as South Dakota Senator John Thune said: “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions to protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try to stay safe. As somebody said — get small.”
No other aspect of American political life, no other amendment to the Constitution is as off-limits to debate, reflection or reform as the gun amendment – The Second Amendment. The NRA and its wholly owned minions in Congress and the White House – the NRA spent $30,000,000 to elect Donald Trump and $27 million to support GOP senators who vote with the organization – remind me of the pre-Civil War defenders of American slavery. For years prior to the unraveling of the nation due to the Civil War a “gag rule” prohibiting talk about slavery was in effect in the House of Representatives. The rule, instituted in 1835 decreed that “all petitions, memorials, or resolutions regarding slavery should automatically be tabled and that no further action be taken upon them.”
The NRA’s gun restriction “gag rule,” enforced through a massive political war chest and an ability at a moment’s notice to mobilize a grassroots army of gun right fanatics, now prohibits all but the most cursory discussion of the national disease of gun violence.
As Esquire columnist Charles P. Pierce noted this week: “We hear serious arguments about all the other parts of the Bill of Rights: that the First Amendment has limits on what T-shirts high-school students (“Bong Hits 4 Jesus!”) can wear; that the Fourth Amendment has limits that allow wiretaps without warrants; that the Fifth Amendment has limits that allow drug-testing without cause; that the Sixth Amendment has limits that allows the states to poison convicts to death. But only with the Second Amendment do we hear the argument that the only tolerable limit on its exercise is that there are no limits. Only with the Second Amendment do we hear that the price of freedom is the occasional Stephen Paddock, locked away in his own madness on the 32nd floor of a luxury hotel and casino, deciding coolly whose brains he will blow out next a few blocks away in the 273rd such unfortunate exercise of Second Amendment rights this year.”
The NRA has largely succeed through propaganda, political intimidation and encouragement of social division – the organization regularly promotes conspiracy theories about the inevitable need for a gun toting population to rise up against an authoritarian government – to regularize the murder of little children in classrooms, movie fans at a cineplex, church goers in a sanctuary, people at a nightclub and music fans at an outdoor concert.
In the aftermath of the worst mass murder in modern American history the NRA appears ready to entertain a tiny, tiny tweak of gun laws by endorsing a move to regulate so called “bump stocks” of the type that turned the Las Vegas shooter’s guns into fully automatic weapons. This would constitute the most modest step away from the NRA’s absolutist doctrine, but perhaps it is an indicator that the gun lobby can read the polls as well as the rest of us.
Most Congressional Republicans have willingly embraced the Faustian bargain that demands unflinching support for an incompetent, dangerous president. In the glaring light of the post-Las Vegas massacre it remains all too clear that the NRA, through fear and intimidation, has succeed in creating another awful bargain for the GOP.
As my friend Bob Mann wrote recently in the New OrleansTimes-Picayune: “The NRA has persuaded its members and many politicians that nothing can be done about mass killings. Forget the other tragedies and calamities we have addressed. Stopping gun violence, it seems, is an impossible feat for a great nation that eradicated polio and put men on the moon.
“As someone observed on Twitter the other day after a gunman in Las Vegas murdered 59 people and wounded another 527: ‘American can-do vanishes when the @NRA check arrives.'”
In the beating heart of every politician, well almost every politician, is something most of us live with every day – a conscience. In the privacy of their conscience – in their hearts – it must be a daily embarrassment for these people to repeatedly make excuses for the inexcusable.
I have rarely – as in never before – thought of the televised Emmy award show and at the very same moment also reflected on Aldous Huxley’s 85-year old novel Brave New World.
Sean Spicer, yes that Sean Spicer, provided the connecting tissue between the glitz, phony seriousness and absurdity of the Emmy’s and the stunning relevance of a book written when Herbert Hoover was in the White House.
Spicer, the truth challenged former White House press secretary who shamed himself with six month’s worth of daily prevarications from behind the White House podium before finally resigning when The Donald brought The Mooch into the White House, was the talk of this year’s Emmy show.
How far, how very far, we have fallen.
Spicer, as everyone on the planet no doubt has seen by now, made a surprise appearance at the top of the award show pushing his podium on stage. It was all part of an elaborate inside joke, the kind that both Washington, D.C. insiders and celebrity A-listers find so irresistible. (Politics is show business for ugly people, as they say.)
Spicy was, it was pointed out, poking fun at himself from behind the same kind of moveable podium that Melissa McCarthy and Saturday Night Live used to make him, a political hack in service to a political disaster, into a national celebrity. By delivering a slight variation on his lie about the size of Trump’s inaugural day crowd and applying it to the Emmy broadcast, Spicer was apparently hoping that poking fun at his lying would remove the stink of his White House tenure. It was as if he were hoping that joking about being a lying joker would be as good as a confession before Saturday Mass.
As Mark Leibovich wrote in the Times, Spicer “for all his professional sins, achieved something far more pertinent to the current environment: In the space of barely half a year, he became the most famous White House press secretary in history, hands down. After a while, the celebrity itself becomes the thing. Spicer’s embattled narrative became its own subplot in the greater Trump reality show. How long could he last? How much could he take? How low would he go? People tuned in to watch his briefings in record numbers.”
Yet, now a small time political operator who made White House “alternative facts” the new normal has a visiting fellow gig at Harvard and a seat next to Jimmy Kimmel on late night television. And he’s a “star” posing for photos with complete strangers and lining up speaking engagements like someone who might have something important to say. He doesn’t.
Spicer is alive and well on national TV and on the lecture circuit even if he is not yet quite settled into a well padded sinecure on cable TV. None of this is because he has done anything significant or great and not because he’s a thoughtful fellow (who just happened to lie and bluff his way to the top of the Trump heap), but simply because he’s now considered amusing.
Postman, who died in 2003, was a professor at New York University and perhaps our most authoritative analyst of the intersection where modern communication collides with culture and politics. Our great national reality show has prompted a wide revisiting of Postman’s prescient work, to read Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Age of Trump is to come face-to-face with the perilous nature of our times.
Postman’s great subject thirty years ago was television and its role in shaping and diminishing American life. His 1985 dissection and critique of the vast wasteland of the blinking tube amazingly applies perhaps even more to our present Facebook/Internet-centric age. Television remains a huge force in modern lives, but the new sinister force that daily wads up truth and sends it to the trash lurks not in the corner of our living rooms, but on our laptops, smart phones and tablets. Spicer and his former boss remind us daily – hell, minute by minute – that distraction, diversion and decidedly fake news are always just a click away.
”When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” Postman wrote in the 1980s, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” This is where we are, my friends, starring down the national vaudeville act that threatens everything from the rule of law to the law of common sense.
Neil Postman didn’t really predict that America in the second decade of the 21st Century would place a faux billionaire whose real claim to fame was hosting a reality television show in the most important job in the world, but he would not have been surprised. He predicted the enthusiastic embrace of ignorance that inserted Donald Trump into a role that he is demonstrably unfit to manage let alone master.
Postman, predicting our appetite for stupid over substance, would not have been surprised that Trump actually declined to fire Sean Spicer earlier this year because the guy “gets great ratings.” Postman would not have been shocked that the president of the United States began his Tuesday by delivering a juvenile and disjointed rant before the United Nations – praised by his “base,” of course – then ended Tuesday with a tweet bemoaning the poor ratings for the aforementioned Emmy awards show.
“The fundamental inability of people to differentiate fact from fiction has always been a critical problem,” Plothow wrote recently. “The percentage of any population with highly developed critical thinking skills has probably always been low. When technology allows the spread of ‘alternative facts,’ and altered or invented ‘photographs,’ and it makes possible the viral proliferation of sources that intentionally spread fiction, the stakes are magnified beyond even Postman’s imagining. It creates a circumstance in which a man can be so convinced that a presidential candidate is operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria that he appears at the restaurant armed and ready to act. Amusements are so readily available that families sitting at a restaurant table may be more engaged with their smart phones than with each other. Taken separately, these are troubling. In aggregate, Postman would consider these circumstances a grave danger to our very survival.”
Trump’s great triumph was not his improbable and unprecedented winning of the White House (while losing the popular vote) it is rather the success he has had in destroying objective truth among a significant number of Americans. And, of course, the president has succeeded in replacing facts and most all political norms with chants of “lock her up” and “Make America Great Again.” He can call for terminating the internationally supported Iranian nuclear agreement without ever really grappling with the substance of the deal or what might replace it. He lobs Twitter barbs at North Korea’s “rocket man” with no apparent attention to the real world dangers that bombastic miscalculation might have on literally millions of people.
Sean Spicer, a small man with a small brain always so obviously on display is just one of a thousand exhibits in Trump Museum of Mendacity. The president of the United States lies about everything and trivializes all things. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has been keeping track and records 588 lies (and counting) of varying seriousness since January. Meanwhile the Trump “base” and Republicans in Congress, most of whom really do know better, just keep smiling, amusing themselves en-route to the mid-terms.
Trump Tweets a short, fake video where he appears to drive a golf ball into Hillary Clinton’s back. He brags that the economy has never been stronger. He boasts that he has had the most productive start of any president, ever – period. The Russian election interference is “fake news” and, oh yes, his opponent last year is the “crooked” one.
It is all a show, a roiling, distracting, disgusting show of trivia and piffle, a show that Neil Postman, God rest his soul, forecast a generation ago. These smiling idiots, Postman warned, will destroy the very nature of democratic culture, which brings me back to Huxley.
Postman’s book is in some ways an analysis of the two great 20th Century dystopian novels that dealt with our communication culture – George Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932. Postman correctly concluded that while Orwell’s book was supremely interesting Huxley’s was spot on correct.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one,” Postman wrote. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
Andrew Postman, the professor’s son, wrote recently in The Guardian about the renewed interest in his father’s thinking about our willingness to replace relevant reality with phony amusement. “While fake news has been with us as long as there have been agendas, and from both sides of the political aisle, we’re now witnessing – thanks to Breitbart News, Infowars and perpetuation of myths like the one questioning Barack Obama’s origins – a sort of distillation, a fine-tuning,” Andrew Postman wrote.
Postman continues: “’An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,’” my father wrote. ‘Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
“I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by ‘technopoly.’ It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.”
There is no easy solution to a political culture rotting in real time. Obviously, as my publisher friend Roger Plothow has shown, we must begin to foster a more media literate citizenry. This starts early with education and must include a genuine recommitment to education in the humanities, particularly courses in basic civics and American history. We all need to burst out of our bubbles and be willing to confront information – and facts – that we find uncomfortable and at odds with our own well-baked views. And we must engage, all of us, in citizenship. Put the country first. Think and behave with inclusion in mind rather than tribalism. In other words, act like a citizen who deserves a place in a society that was created around the ideal that all are created equal.
Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in European history, reminds us in his tiny and profound book that 20th Century history holds great lessons for our time. “Believe in truth,” Snyder writes. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then it is all spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Failure of the world’s most important and enduring experiment in democracy is not a laughing matter, yet we confront the very real possibility that we are permitting the essential fact-based, serious work of citizenship to be perverted simply because we don’t care enough to keep from being amused to death.
Sean Spicer doesn’t matter. He really doesn’t. What he represents matters a very great deal.
“We were party to a very big lie…Seemingly overnight, we became willing to roll back the ideas on the global economy that have given America the highest standard of living in history. We became willing to jettison the strategic alliances that have spared us global conflict since World War II. … We gave in to powerful nativist impulses that have arisen in the face of fear and insecurity. … We stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power. … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
“Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked. Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense. … It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and to stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.”
Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, from his new bookConscience of a Conservative.
Let us now praise Senator Jeff Flake.
Loyal readers know that I have been using this space for months to worry and wonder when an elected Republican would really speak candidly about the abomination occupying the White House and taken over the Republican Party.
Never Trumpers like Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol and Steve Schmidt have had the president’s number for a long time, but the elected Republican willing to speak to “the base” about Donald J. Trump has been as scarce as tenure in the White House communications shop.
Now comes Flake with a new book (written quietly and without, he says, the knowledge of his political advisors) and a scathing piece in the most inside of inside D.C. tip sheets, Politico. Flake has taken the title of his book from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 tome – The Conscience of a Conservative.
The book should be widely read and vigorously debated. It may or may not mark a turning point in our long national nightmare, but it is siren call to real conservatives about what they and Donald Trump have done to their party and the country.
“Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process,” Flake writes. “With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.”
The senator’s musings amount to a profoundly damning indictment of the party’s Congressional leadership, particularly Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. These Republicans, Flake says, have made “a Faustian bargain” with a man most of them secretly despise in order to try and gain some short-term policy and political advantage. “There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty,” Flake says, “that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party.” He mentions Republicans like Lugar, Baker and Dole, while condemning current leaders who lost their way “and began to rationalize away our principles in the process.”
In some ways Flake, a very conservative first termer from Snowflake, Arizona, is an unlikely Trump truth teller. He barely won election in 2012, has never been particularly popular at home and faces an almost certain primary challenge from an Arizona Republican who will claim Flake’s consistent criticism of Trump makes him a RINO – a Republican in Name Only. Flake also regularly votes the way the White House would have him vote, a fact that has led some to call him a hypocrite for not using his position to stop the Trump agenda. This is misplaced criticism and is precisely the kind of political nonsense Flake is condemning.
Flake’s easy path would be to do what the vast majority of elected Republicans are doing and go along with Trump in order to get along with his followers. The fact that he isn’t and won’t will likely earn him a place along side the one-time Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who had the courage in 1950 to call out her party over Joe McCarthy’s antics. Smith called her famous speech A Declaration of Conscience. Flake is hitting similar notes.
In reality Flake has basically been here for a while; at the head of the line, for example, working for bipartisan immigration reform, while Trump wants to build his silly wall. He says Trump is wrong about NAFTA and Flake has blasted “the Muslim ban.” When Trump took after Muslims on Twitter, Flake and his wife, who are Mormon, visited a mosque in Arizona and spoke about the importance of religious freedom.
Criticism of Flake from the left – and even more incoherent yelling from the right – miss what I think is Flake’s essential point. He is not arguing policy. He is saying the Trump lies, the demonization of opponents, the wholesale abandonment of conservative thought and democratic norms is the real issue and Republicans own the mess they have made.
In making his case Flake has done something that few other Republicans have had the guts to do – maybe Ohio Governor John Kasich is in the same company – namely call out the intellectual rot that has hollowed out the soul of the grand old party and paved the way for the grand old demagogue. And Flake’s stinging indictment bears all the more credibility simply because it comes at a time when it could and probably will cost him politically.
New York Times columnist David Brooks correctly says Flake knows the stakes of this moment in American history. “The Trump administration is a moral cancer eating away at conservatism, the Republican Party and what it means to be a public servant,” Brooks wrote recently.
He quotes the Arizonan asking the correct questions about just some of the things Trump has said or done: “Is it conservative to praise dictators as ‘strong leaders,’ to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents …? Is it conservative to demonize and vilify and mischaracterize religious and ethnic minorities …? Is it conservative to be an ethno-nationalist? Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue?”
I’ve wondered for months if any Republican would really risk a political career by calling out the failings of the party and its hijacker. Jeff Flake may well lose his Senate seat because he has told the truth. Trump is already positioning to support a primary opponent. Yet, it seems Flake has decided this is a small price to pay for trying to save the country.
In an insightful piece recently in The Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins wondered if Flake was too nice for the Senate. He related a telling anecdote from a Flake town hall earlier this year. The senator was repeatedly and rudely booed and interrupted through the event, but he soldiered on unlike most of his colleagues who avoided town halls to avoid engaging with their constituents.
Finally, as Coppins wrote, “One constituent—a friendly guy who would later reveal himself to me as an MSNBC connoisseur—leaned in to deliver Flake a parting message. ‘Even if you disagree with us on legislation and everything, when the president says these insane things, if … [you] can just stand up and go, ‘We don’t all believe that’—that’s all we’re asking. Just stand up.’
“Flake nodded affably. ‘I appreciate that,’ he said, smiling. “I’ve tried to do so.”