I didn’t get why everybody was so mad in “Network,” either.
Just to examine the other side of the coin…
My last post quoted a Trump supporter on the subject of his detractors, saying “I just don’t get it.”
Well, far be it from me to let on to be wiser than others when I’m not. (As a Twain protagonist said, “I was born modest; not all over, but in spots.”)
The thing is, I don’t get Trump supporters. Oh, I can cite this or that overt reason that they give for holding the views they do. But I don’t have a good grip on what an editor I used to work with called “the emotional center.” And normally, I would.
After past elections, I’ve pretty much understood what happened, on most levels. Not this time. I read about people having (some of) the same reservations about Trump that I did, and voting for him anyway. And with some of those folks, I understand the underlying emotion — they really, really hated Hillary Clinton. I consider it rather intemperate and unwise to hate anybody that much, but I don’t doubt the force of that impulse.
But there’s something bigger than that going on, something at the root of the nihilism I kept writing about during the election (much to the irritation of some of you). Something that caused people to feel they wanted to blow it all up, regardless of the consequences. Something that made them want to give a grossly unqualified, deeply unfit man the most powerful job on the planet. Something they were just fed up about.
At this point, Doug is jumping up and down, saying, “I knew it! I kept saying you didn’t get it!” But I do get that the impulse was out there. What I don’t get — not being a cynic like Doug — is the rational basis for it.
I hear about “economic dislocation.” But that seems inadequate. I’m a white male who is as economically dislocated (the position I worked my whole life for, and performed very well, has ceased to exist) as anyone, and I strongly suspect that a lot of Trump voters, quite likely most of them, have higher current incomes than I have.
I see the anger is there, and I see it as key to what has happened (it certainly didn’t happen for calm, rational reasons). But I can’t connect to it.
And the feeling is familiar. I felt the same way back in the 1970s, when I saw “Network.”
To this day, I have no idea what Peter Finch’s character was on about when he kept babbling, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” (In the larger sense, I mean — the immediate cause was that he was getting fired.)
Mad as hell about what?, I kept wondering. It made no sense, yet in the film, he turned out to be perfectly in sync with America. The viewers loved it. And that’s the tough part, see. I understood that Howard Beale was unhinged. But why did it strike such a chord?
I thought people running to their windows and shouting about how mad they were about some nonspecific “this” was absurd. I still think that.
I’ve heard all sorts of explanations as to what the Trump voters were mad about beyond the economic stress thing. And I fully believe in some of them — such as the feeling of being ignored and mocked and insulted by coastal elites. That I can dig; it’s based in something real. I can also understand frustration with the mess the parties have made of our politics — but electing Trump always seemed to me the surest way to make things worse, not better. And even if you take every ostensible cause and double it, and add them all together, and throw in Doug’s powerful disgust at government in general, it just does not add up to a justification for what just happened, and keeps happening every day.
It just doesn’t.
And yeah, it may seem stupid for me to try to explain a visceral phenomenon in rational terms, but I do try. I just don’t arrive…
There’s just this enormous cognitive gulf, and we’ve apparently made little progress in bridging it.
Most of us who would never, ever have dreamed of even joking about voting for Donald Trump see his daily insanities, and think, All those people who voted for him have to be regretting it all now.
But the truly shocking thing is, apparently they’re not. Apparently, these folks and their philosophical forebears had been waiting for a president just like this for the last 228 years. Ever since the election of 1788, we’ve seen a progression of presidents who were serious, well-informed individuals who approached the duties of the office with respectful decorum and dignity and hewed mainly to more or less intelligent policies that served the national interest. And most of us thought that was a good thing, and disapproved of those who in one way or another strayed from the norm, such as James Buchanan and Andrew Jackson.
But apparently, these folks didn’t want qualifications or gravitas or depth of understanding or honesty or any of those other qualities in a president at all. They wanted — a Reality TV star.
(Remember that exchange in “Ghostbusters” when Sigourney Weaver says “You know, you don’t act like a scientist,” then Bill Murray, taking it as a compliment, says, “They’re usually pretty stiff,” and Sigourney slam-dunks that by saying, “You’re more like a game show host?” Well, this is kind of like that, only without Murray’s goofball appeal as a protagonist.)
So they’re happy with what they got — if The Post has it right, but remember, the media are the Enemies of the People — and they can’t imagine why the rest of us would be so critical of their guy. They assume that it’s about being sore losers or big babies, or having nasty ulterior motives or something. As one supporter puts it:
“There’s such hatred for the man,” she said. “I just don’t get it.”
And that’s a huge problem, the not getting it. If none of the chaos we’ve seen out of the White House since Jan. 20 has clued these folks in yet, if this in fact is what they want, then there’s little hope of Republicans in Congress seeing the kind of movement in polls that would embolden them to initiate proceedings to get rid of this guy. (And yeah, some of y’all will say I’m getting ahead of myself even thinking that way, but hey, I see a problem of this magnitude and I immediately start looking for the solution, whether everybody else is ready for it or not.)
It would be poignant, if it weren’t so awful for the country. As the Post says of these folks:
Many of President Trump’s most dedicated supporters — the sort who waited for hours in the Florida sun this weekend for his first post-inauguration campaign rally — say their lives changed on election night. Suddenly they felt like their views were actually respected and in the majority.
But less than one month into Trump’s term, many of his supporters say they once again feel under attack — perhaps even more so than before….
It’s almost enough to make me feel bad for them. But not quite, because, you know, they’re getting their way. And it looks like they will continue to do so for quite some time….
Well, I couldn’t read the Times piece because I’d exceeded my free reads for the month, and I have no intention of subscribing. But I was able to read this response from another recipient of the email — someone who you can see is obviously a Democrat (and someone I’m not going to name because I have no indication he meant it to be published):
An answer: do not normalize the Administration in any way whatsoever.
An answer: daily resistance.
An answer: reorganize the left-of-center ship—and well, frankly, be organized—and call failed leadership to account.
An answer: approach 2018 as if the everything is on the line (it is). It’s time to stop playing backyard croquet campaigns.
An answer: Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans. (I can’t even believe I live in a state where that is necessary to type.)
I responded thusly:
I agree with [the gentleman] that Trump must not be normalized, and that he must be resisted daily — which I certainly do on my blog.
I disagree VEHEMENTLY with his apparent assumption that the answer is more partisanship… Especially his assertion that “Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans…”
There is nothing MORE likely to normalize Trump than to treat this problem as just another inning in the absurd left-right, Democratic-v.-Republican game.
You really need to get out of that “left-of-center” rut and recognize that Trump is a phenomenon that has no place on the left-right spectrum. He is a unique problem, unlike anything this country has ever seen.
And conservatives — real conservatives — are just as capable of seeing that as liberals. If not more so — at least they can see this is not about the usual partisan games.
You need those people — and people like me who reject the whole left-right thing altogether (and are fed up with it) — on your side in the matter of Trump.
This isn’t about winning the next inning of the perpetual game in 2018.
This guy has to go. And you know who has to reach that conclusion? Republicans in Congress.
Yep, we’re a long way from that happening right now. Republican members are tiptoeing around as though in a minefield.
But you and I and everyone who understands what a threat to the nation Trump truly is should do anything and everything we can to give them room to reach the right conclusion.
And every time a Democrat tries to make it about party, that makes Republicans more likely to close ranks. In other words, it normalizes the situation.
You know where you could start to make the situation better? By supporting and encouraging Republicans who have the guts to stand up to Trump. Sure, it’s just Graham and McCain so far, and writers such as Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens. But the more of this bad craziness that Stephens wrote about today that we see, the more likely others are to wake up.
… IF the rest of us don’t chase them back into their partisan comfort zones. Which I see too many Democrats are eager to do.
MORE of the partisan nonsense that has turned off people across the political spectrum, from Sanders’ supporters to Trump’s, is most assuredly NOT the answer to this national crisis.
It’s time to rise above, and help all Americans, not just those of your own ideological ilk, to see what’s at stake…
I wrote all that in response to an email thread on Jan. 31. Since then, I’ve seen more and more instances in which Democrats act like this is business as usual. For instance, there is talk of pulling out all the stops to try to block Neil Gorsuch from the Supreme Court. Which is insane. It shows that these Democrats completely fail to understand what is going on — or, they don’t care.
Gorsuch is a highly qualified nominee and representative of the kind of judge that a mainstream Republican would nominate. If Democrats waste what tiny amounts of political capital they have left (were it gunpowder, they’d hardly have enough for a firecracker) on this, then they’re saying Trump doesn’t pose any sort of extraordinary problem for the nation — because they’d do the same with any Republican president.
It’s hard to think of a better way for Democrats to normalize Trump than to fight Gorsuch with all their might.
Bottom line, it just looks increasingly unlikely that the Democratic Party is going to play any kind of constructive role in helping the country out of this mess. Which leaves it up to the rest of us.
Editor’s note: I wrote most of this early in the week, and never quite finished or posted it. So it may seem a bit dated, but here you go:
I saw the second Sean Spicer skit on SNL over the weekend, and it was funny. But I found myself wondering, OK, I get why they did this gag once. Spicer was way over the top in that first performance on Saturday, Jan. 21. It was a bizarre situation, with Trump sending him out with specific orders to go on the attack with a bunch of silly, obvious lies. But is he still like that? Hasn’t he calmed down?
In other words, is this not overkill? Is the joke still relevant?
Well, how would I know? I work. How would I know what the daily press briefings are like? I’m not one of these people who does nothing but watch cable TV all day (or ever, these days).
… Q Earlier this week. You say the — this is in context of Nordstrom and not about what she was counseled about, but about something she said to CNN earlier this week, is that the President doesn’t comment on everything. And so I want to contrast the President’s repeated statements about Nordstrom with the lack of comments about some other things, including, for example, the attack on a Quebec mosque and other similar environments. Why is the President — when he chooses to —
MR. SPICER: Do you — hold on — because you just brought that up. I literally stand at this podium and opened a briefing a couple days ago about the President expressing his condolences. I literally opened the briefing about it. So for you to sit there and say —
Q I was here.
MR. SPICER: I know. So why are you asking why he didn’t do it when I literally stood here and did it?
Q The President’s statement —
MR. SPICER: I don’t understand what you’re asking.
Q Kellyanne’s comments were about that the President doesn’t have time to tweet about everything.
MR. SPICER: Right.
Q He’s tweeting about this.
MR. SPICER: Right.
Q He’s not tweeting about something else.
MR. SPICER: I came out here and actually spoke about it and said the President spoke —
Q I’m talking about the President’s time.
MR. SPICER: What are you — you’re equating me addressing the nation here and a tweet? I don’t — that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.
Q I’m talking about an attack on Nordstrom on —
MR. SPICER: Okay, I’m done. This is silly. Okay, next.
Q — and an attack on people, and you’re equating —
MR. SPICER: Thank you. You’ve asked your question. Thank you.
Q Does that not diminish the language that you’re using?
MR. SPICER: Thank you. Go ahead [to another reporter]…
It’s not exciting; it’s not funny like throwing a big wad of half-chewed gum across the room, but the very unfunny alienation comes across. So is the fact that there is little communication going on.
The bits where he dismisses reporters with undisguised irritation (“Okay, I’m done. This is silly. Okay, next…”) are very uncomfortable to watch. Although maybe the weirdness of the interactions is not as noticeable unless you’ve been journalist. And of course, if you’re a Trump supporter, this undercurrent of hostility and alienation is just what you want to see. You don’t want to see a professional interaction. You want to see someone giving journalists a hard time.
But if you’re someone who cares about having functional politics, it’s distressing. Government can’t work this way. Trump may think he’s the Tweeter of the world, but bottom line, most people are going to get most of their information about this administration, directly or indirectly, from the people in that room. It helps everybody to have a smooth dialogue going.
And I invite Trumpistas and others who take a dim view of the press to note that the demeanor of the reporters asking questions does not match the stereotype of the howling mob — and is generally more respectful of Spicer than he is of them.
Television has created a misleading impression. A reporter spends a long, frustrating day trying to get a certain question answered. Maybe a lot of that day has has involved trying to get various people on a cell phone while standing in a mob of other frustrated media types. Then, suddenly, the person who can answer the question — possibly the only person on the planet who can answer it — gets out of a car in front of the reporters and walks in into a building, which means you have maybe three or four seconds to get your question answered, and you know that odds are against your even being heard. So yeah, you very urgently and insistently call out your question, desperately trying to be heard over the rest of the gaggle.
And those two seconds when you’re calling out the question, and your competitors are calling out theirs, is all that people who only get their news from television (which they shouldn’t) will see of you trying, against the odds, to do your job.
I’ve had thousands of interactions with newsmakers over the years, and can count on two hands the number of times things got unruly. (Of course, most of that time I was an editor, not a reporter.)
But all that aside — for all my interactions, I’ve only attended a White House press briefing once. But it was at a pretty tense time for the press secretary. It was in 1998. I had gone to Washington to talk to Strom Thurmond in person and try to get an impression of his mental state, since he was declining to meet with our board in that election year. (Yeah, newspapers had money to do stuff like that then.) And since a South Carolinian, Mike McCurry, was Clinton’s press secretary, I arranged to go by and interview him for a column. The interview was set for after the daily briefing.
On my way in from the airport, I had noted a bunch of TV news trucks outside a federal courthouse, and my cab driver — who was probably from one of those countries Trump would rather people not come from — simply explained in a heavy accent, “Monica Lewinsky.”
The scandal was at its height. And the White House press corps was in no mood for having their questions deflected. There were moments that would fulfill the stereotype of the howling mob, if one didn’t know what was at stake. At one point, the lady next to me jumped up, practically climbing over the seat in front of her, to roar, “Aw. COME ONNN, Mike!” Everyone else around me was doing something similar, but I remember her in particular.
For his part, McCurry smiled disarmingly — sort of a specialty of his — and braved his way through a session in which some of his answers were less than entirely satisfactory. Hence the yelling.
But before and after the yelling, there was a cordiality and a congeniality that stood in marked contrast to what seemed to run through that Spicer briefing on Feb. 9. At the start of the briefing there was a little ceremony for a member of McCurry’s staff who was leaving for a different job, and the reporters all applauded politely and congratulations were offered. There was real friendliness.
Republicans and other media detractors will say, “Of course it was congenial; it was a room full of liberals.”
But no — the atmosphere in that room (except during the outbreaks of yelling) was more typical of normal interactions between the media and their subjects regardless of party. Normally, there is a mutual recognition of each others’ humanity. A topic I’ve written about quite a few times.
You’ll note that even when the aggressive young woman next to me seemed like she wanted to put her hands around McCurry’s throat and throttle the truth out of him, she still called him “Mike.” Which is normal.
Whereas the interactions between Spicer and the press are not quite normal. And the weirdness seems mostly to be on his side. Of course, if I had his job, trying to sell the world on Trump’s version of events, y’all might find me acting pretty weird, too.
In the end, it’s not funny. And it’s not healthy, either…
Once I settled in at the Red Cross and starting pumping the red red krovvy, I started watching something on Amazon and forgot all for the moment. But then, in my second hour, the wifi started acting up, so I switched to reading stuff in The Washington Post that I had missed earlier in the day.
And it seemed that everyone who had stopped to think made the obvious comparison.
Remember Hillary Clinton’s email server? Something I thought was really stupid and insecure, but — unlike what a lot of you out there thought — not quite a disqualifier for office, especially if the alternative was Donald J. Trump?
Well, a lot of very serious folk did think it was a disqualifier. Much umbrage was taken at this criminal carelessness. Congressional committees gathered to investigate, and so forth.
Well, what was that to taking a call about a North Korean missile launch at a table at the Mar-a-Lago club, and dealing with it then and there, discussing the matter and shuffling classified documents in full view of the club’s other guests, the Japanese premier, and the waiters and bus boys? Doing all so openly so that the other guests could give a full account of the proceedings to CNN?
Chaffetz thought Clinton’s use of a private email server threatened national security. But over the weekend, Trump proved more brazen: He plotted his response to North Korea’s latest missile test from the main dining area of his Mar-a-Lago Club. Club members posted photos on Facebook of Trump and Japan’s Shinzo Abe discussing the matter and poring over documents in proximity to waiters, club members and guests.
In this open-air situation room, Trump spoke by mobile phone and aides used their cellphone flashlights to illuminate papers — not the textbook way to handle sensitive information. One club member posted photos online of the nuclear “football” and its minder….
Oh, but wait, wait; this just in: Sean Spicer assures us that “no classified material was discussed publicly at the Mar-a-Lago resort over the weekend.”
Whew! That’s a relief. Because you know, he never gets anything wrong.
So, never mind. I’m sure everything’s fine. Aren’t you?
President Trump provides neither coherent nor conservative leadership on policy. He creates foreign policy fiascoes. He has not resolved his conflicts of interest and still arguably operates in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. When, irate Democrats and some Republicans plead, will Congress do something about him?
Well, I’m not saying this is enough by a long shot, but it’s a start. This is from Lindsey Graham:
Bipartisan Group of Senators Introduce Legislation establishing Congressional Oversight of Russia Sanctions Relief
WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of Senators today introduced legislation, The Russia Sanctions Review Act of 2017, which provides for congressional oversight of any decision to provide sanctions relief to the Government of the Russian Federation.
“Russia has done nothing to be rewarded with sanctions relief,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). “To provide relief at this time would send the wrong signal to Russia and our allies who face Russian oppression. Sanctions relief must be earned, not given.”
“If the U.S. were to provide sanctions relief to Russia without verifiable progress on the Minsk Agreements, we would lose all credibility in the eyes of our allies in Europe and around the world,” said Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland). “Since the illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2014, Congress has led efforts to impose sanctions on Russia. We have a responsibility to exercise stringent oversight over any policy move that could ease Russia sanctions.”
“The United States should not ease sanctions on Russia until Putin abandons his illegal annexation of Crimea, verifiably and permanently ends Russian aggression in Ukraine, and fully implements the Minsk accords,” said Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida).
“The Ukrainian community in Ohio knows firsthand the dangers of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “Lifting sanctions now would only reward Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy – from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to our own U.S. election. This commonsense, bipartisan legislation will give Congress – and more importantly, the constituents we answer to – a say in critical national security debates.”
“Easing sanctions on Russia would send the wrong message as Vladimir Putin continues to oppress his citizens, murder his political opponents, invade his neighbors, threaten America’s allies, and attempt to undermine our elections,” said Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). “Congress must have oversight of any decision that would impact our ability to hold Russia accountable for its flagrant violation of international law and attack our institutions.”
“Vladimir Putin is a thug bent on tearing down democracy—and Russia’s meddling in U.S. institutions is a threat to our national security,” said Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri).“Any decision to roll over on sanctions needs to meet a high bar in Congress.”
Before sanctions relief can be granted, The Russia Sanctions Review Act requires the Administration to submit to Congress:
A description of the proposed sanctions relief for individuals engaged in significant malicious cyber-enabled activities, those contributing to the situation in Ukraine, and those engaged in certain transactions with respect to Crimea.
Certification that the Government of the Russian Federation has ceased—
Ø ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, supporting, or financing, significant acts intended to undermine the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, including through an agreement between the appropriate parties; and
Ø cyberattacks against the United States Government and United States persons.
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will have 120 days to act — or decline to take action — on any proposed sanctions relief. During this period, the President may not waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from, or otherwise limit the application of sanctions with respect to the Russian Federation. After 120 days, if both the Senate and House have not voted in support of a Joint Resolution of Disapproval, sanctions relief will be granted.
A word cloud of Trump’s Tweets from the past week.
E.J. Dionne’s latest column (“The issues all Trump foes can agree on“) reminds me of a thought that’s run through my head a few times in recent weeks, but which I’ve neglected to write about. Here’s the pertinent part of the column (but I recommend you go read the whole thing):
And Trump’s critics don’t have to agree on a single policy to bemoan his crude and sloppy use of language and to see this as a genuine obstacle to honorable politics and a well-functioning government. He doesn’t just want to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bars religious organizations from getting involved in elections. He wants to “destroy” it. He lightly threatens war with Mexico to go after “bad hombres” and undermines our relationship with Australia by recklessly accusing one of our very closest friends of wanting to export the “next Boston bombers.”
And just this weekend, Trump showed his disrespect for the rule of law by denouncing the “so-called judge” who blocked his administration’s travel ban. In an interview for broadcast Sunday, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly described Vladimir Putin as a “killer,” and Trump astonishingly but off-handedly replied: “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
As George Orwell taught us, how people talk offers a clue about how they think and what they value. Our language, he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He added: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Pretending that there is something “brilliant” or “populist” about how Trump communicates is one of the worst forms of elitism because it demeans ordinary citizens who have always appreciated eloquence, as our greatest leaders knew. And please don’t compare George W. Bush to Trump on this score. We poked fun at Bush’s ability to mangle sentences, but he respected the need to find words that could move and unite the nation….
Some of my friends still have trouble getting just what is so awful about Trump. And while the correlation is far from perfect, I’ve noticed that there’s something of a tendency for such folks to be more number people than word people.
Maybe that’s totally off-base, but it seems a handy way of explaining a phenomenon that has amazed me from the moment last year when Trump started winning primaries. All this time, I’ve thought:
How could anybody possibly consider a guy who talks like that for any sort of leadership position, much less president of the United States?
It’s not just what he says, although he says some pretty awful things. It’s the way he says them. The man’s a Wharton graduate, but he communicates like someone who never made it to high school — and probably didn’t do too well in English in the lower grades, either.
Being a skilled and subtle communicator is so obviously a prerequisite for the presidency that it’s tough for me to understand how anyone could even take the first step toward considering him, given the way he expresses himself. Just watch five minutes of him in those early debates, and you’d immediately put him in the “unqualified” bin, regardless of what he was talking about at the time.
But I’m a word guy. Not everyone is. And those who aren’t are likely not only to dismiss what I’m saying as rank snobbishness, but to toss it out as irrelevant.
And maybe my analysis is completely off. But there is some reason why there’s such a gulf — nay, an ocean — between me and people who could ever have contemplated voting for Trump.
And this seemed like one possible explanation. So I thought I’d share it…
When will we see some life out of the legislative branch — you know, doing stuff rather than just saying stuff?
I know they’re out of practice. And I know that a lot of the stuff they would do would be stupid — like repealing Obamacare without replacing it with something that actually leads to at least as many people having good coverage. But hey, “stupid” is relatively, and they can’t possibly look as bad on that score as the executive branch — can they?
If you’d like to soothe your jangled nerves with an interesting intellectual take on WTF just happened to America, you might want to read this piece in Foreign Affairs by Walter Russell Mead, Columbia native and “radical centrist.”
Here’s the short version: We Hamiltonians and Wilsonians (going by Mead’s descriptions, I’m kind of both, which is unsurprising) have pretty much defined America’s prevailing values and role in the world for the past 70 years. We thought this was the natural, proper order of things, and the way everything was trending as well. But while we were thinking globally and in terms of universal principles, there was… I suppose one would call it discontent… at home. The Jeffersonians (a category that includes Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, which clues you in that I’m not one of them) thought this was a wave they could ride to power, but they reckoned without the way the Jacksonians ran in and grabbed the nation by the throat with all the thoughtfulness and refinement of the backwoodsmen who trashed the White House after the original Jackson’s inauguration. (Some of the editorializing in that last sentence is me, not Mead. In case you wondered.)
But now that it’s happened, and now that this latter-day Jackson is trashing not just the White House, but practically every aspect of rational U.S. policy in the world, this seems like a good time for a deeper look into what has happened, and is happening.
An excerpt from Mead’s piece:
The distinctively American populism Trump espouses is rooted in the thought and culture of the country’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson. For Jacksonians—who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base—the United States is not a political entity created and defined by a set of intellectual propositions rooted in the Enlightenment and oriented toward the fulfillment of a universal mission. Rather, it is the nation-state of the American people, and its chief business lies at home. Jacksonians see American exceptionalism not as a function of the universal appeal of American ideas, or even as a function of a unique American vocation to transform the world, but rather as rooted in the country’s singular commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens. The role of the U.S. government, Jacksonians believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home—and to do that while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique.
Jacksonian populism is only intermittently concerned with foreign policy, and indeed it is only intermittently engaged with politics more generally. It took a particular combination of forces and trends to mobilize it this election cycle, and most of those were domestically focused. In seeking to explain the Jacksonian surge, commentators have looked to factors such as wage stagnation, the loss of good jobs for unskilled workers, the hollowing out of civic life, a rise in drug use—conditions many associate with life in blighted inner cities that have spread across much of the country. But this is a partial and incomplete view. Identity and culture have historically played a major role in American politics, and 2016 was no exception. Jacksonian America felt itself to be under siege, with its values under attack and its future under threat. Trump—flawed as many Jacksonians themselves believed him to be—seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for its survival….
As you can see, his tones are measured as he describes this resurgence of anti-intellectualism in our politics. That’s what I’m talking about when I say you may find reading the piece soothing. Then again, maybe you won’t…
Mead writes politely of the Jacksonians, but Foreign Affairs paired his piece with this image of them celebrating on Election Night. Even I’m nicer to them than that…
So Trump nominated someone last night for the Supreme Court, and it looks like he had good advice and listened to it for a change: I’ve seen no indications at all that this Gorsuch guy is anything other than a qualified jurist. Which means that, in a rational world — barring currently unknown problems coming to light — his confirmation should be routine. Which would be welcome; we have enough turmoil in our public life at the moment.
But then, I read this main story (there were many sidebars) about the nomination in The Washington Post:
President Trump nominated Colorado federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, opting in the most important decision of his young presidency for a highly credentialed favorite of the conservative legal establishment to fill the opening created last year by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia….
WHAT? “The most important decision?” In what way, in what sense, in what universe completely lacking in any sense of proportion?
To keep it simple, let’s just consider three things this “young presidency” has done that are much more far-reaching in likely effect:
Pulling out of TPP. This has disengaged America from the Pacific Rim, and invited the accelerated rise of China, in a way that is likely to have staggering consequences in this century both for us and for the billions of others affected — economically, strategically, culturally and almost any other “-ly” you care to name.
Sticking a finger in the eye of every Muslim on the planet. Never mind the momentary unjust treatment of 90,000 or so individuals from Muslim countries, or the unconscionably inhumane “no” to refugees. This has indelibly engraved in a billion or so people’s minds that America regards them and their faith as the enemy, the one impression that our last two presidents have gone out of their way to avoid giving, even as they prosecuted the War on Terror.
Naming Gen. Mattis as defense secretary. Just as Gorsuch’s appears to be, this was one of Trump’s rare good calls. Deciding upon such a qualified leader for our military at a time when the world is so unsettled and there are so many places where things can go really wrong really quickly was of the utmost importance. But it was also an historic precedent, since we had avoided naming recent generals to that post for my entire life. (By contrast, presidents have named LOTS of Supreme Court justices who have come and gone in my life, and none of them held immediate sway over the immense power of the U.S. military.)
Speaking of Mattis — despite the semi-Constitutional issue his nomination raised, an issue worthy of respectful consideration, but not one that should have been an obstacle in light of his qualifications, and of the nation’s desperate need of some qualified people at this point in our history — all but one senator had the good sense to confirm him.
And if our nation had good sense, something similar would happen with Gorsuch. Will it?
The coming fight over his Supreme Court nominee will be fiercer than before.
Yes, it will. Else we would all be shocked. (I, for one, would be pleasantly surprised.) And what is likely to happen will be an utter waste of energy in a time when political capital needs to be saved for so many other more important battles.
My attitude toward Gorsuch is exactly the same as it was toward President Obama’s pick for this seat, Merrick Garland. They were both qualified for the job. They had already been vetted; they had already proved themselves. They had the requisite knowledge and experience, and reputations for probity and good judgment. There were detectable differences in judicial philosophy — differences that in a calm, proportional world would matter only to legal scholars. But both were qualified for the job — far more qualified than most people elected to Congress, for instance.
Whether one or the other was confirmed is not the Ultimate Issue. It’s not Armageddon.
Here’s the way I see it: The vast, vast majority of times the Court decides cases with wisdom and with ultimate respect for the law and for our civilization. Most decisions are unanimous — which seems remarkable to this layman, since the court deals mainly in matters lower courts were unable to settle conclusively. This has been the case over the decades, no matter whether the majority of the court is labeled “liberal” or “conservative.” Controversy exists only in a minority of cases, and most of those are at least decided intelligently, even if not the way you or I would prefer.
This has been true my entire lifetime.
To me, this testifies to presidents and senators having done a phenomenal job of picking good, qualified justices. The political branches have a much better record in this than in any other area I can think of.
Am I unhappy with some of the decisions? You bet. My opposition to Roe v. Wade is well documented here. I object not only to its legalization of abortion, but to the devastating effect that decision has had on our national politics — specifically, to exacerbating the very problem that I’m on about in this post.
(Considered logically, I am if anything even more opposed to the absurd precedent upon which Roe is based — the Griswold decision, which magically “discovered” an absolute right to privacy hiding in the shadows of the Constitution, a right that had somehow gone unnoticed in the nation’s previous 189 years.)
Today, in part because of Roe, we have vast numbers of people — thousands, if not millions of Americans will vote for a president based largely if not entirely on the basis of what sort of justices he or she is likely to name — “liberal” or “conservative.” Which is insane, given the far more immediate and far-ranging powers of the presidency. A president has the power, at every morning of every day, to make decisions that could lead to the destruction of all human life on this planet — and yet people will actually let their vote be decided on a narrow range of factors involved in a decision the president might make once, or maybe twice, in a four- or eight-year period.
It’s ridiculous. It’s far out of rational proportion.
Of course, since I’ve described the devastating effect of that one decision on our nation’s politics, you might say judicial nominations should be treated as seriously as they are. But no. That decision was an aberration. The number of bad decisions made by presidents in the same period of time since, say, Plessy v. Ferguson or Dred Scott is far, far vaster. Which argues that we ought to devote more of our attention and political energy on the 99.999 percent of what a president does, and less on this one.
Maybe Dan Balz and other experienced observers are wrong — just as they were wrong about Trump’s electoral chances.
Maybe the enormity of what Trump is doing in virtually every other area within his authority will shock our political players into having a sense of proportion. Maybe they’ll save their powder for the big battles that must be fought, some of which (who knows?) might even be won by the forces of reason. Maybe this confirmation will be as routine as it should be, as most of them should be.
But I doubt it. There is a vast infrastructure of political advocacy out there that exists purely for fights such as this one. And both political parties are closely wedded to those interest groups, and fearful of not doing their bidding with utmost zeal.
Kudos to The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens, who is continuing to keep the heat on Donald J. Trump, even as some others on the paper’s editorial page — who also know better — seem to have lost the will to do so.
His piece today, headlined “The Wrong Kind of Crazy,” plays off of the Nixonian global strategy — the “madman theory” — of keeping adversaries in the dark about what you might do in a crisis, which theoretically causes them to tread lightly. In the hands of grounded figures such as Nixon and Kissinger, the approach made some sense. But that was in the case of rational actors — the “madman” part was that you wanted your adversaries to want to act in ways that would keep you rational.
It doesn’t work so well when your president is an ignoramus who basically doesn’t do rational, or at least doesn’t do it any more often than a stopped clock states the right time.
Which brings us to the present day, of course, since this is the first time in our history that we’ve been in such a situation.
Stephens says Trump has done one thing so far that — against a background of Nixonian stability and pragmatism — could have fit in the “good crazy” category: throwing China off-balance with that phone call with the Taiwanese president. As he wrote, If Beijing wants to use ambiguous means to dominate the South China Sea, why shouldn’t Washington hit back with ambiguous devices of its own?”
Unfortunately, practically all of Trump’s brand of nuttiness is “the wrong kind of crazy: capricious, counterproductive, cruel and dumb:”
So much was evident with the president’s refugee ban on Saturday. And with Steve Bannon’s elevation to the National Security Council, and the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s demotion from it. And with the announcement Wednesday that Mexico would pay for the wall. And with the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on Monday and the aggressively protectionist themes of his inaugural. And with his performance at CIA headquarters. And with his incontinent fixations on crowd size and alleged voter fraud….
That’s quite a list, isn’t it, describing the insane things done by an administration that’s only 11 days old? (And that’s a nice phrase: “incontinent fixations.”)
Just take one item: Replacing the head of the Joint Chiefs with Breitbart’s Bannon on the National Security Council would by itself be enough for me, were I a member to Congress, to start looking into impeachment procedures. That’s just beyond gross.
Anyway, I appreciate that Stephens isn’t going all wobbly…
The theory is, there’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy.
Here’s what she posted on Facebook over the weekend from the Dubai airport where he is stuck (and thanks to Mark Stewart for pointing this out):
I normally don’t write long posts or any kind of political or religious comments.
I apologize in advance and I don’t expect my friends to read this long long past!!
But today I just couldn’t hold it any longer. Friday 1/20/17 started like any other normal day. I was excited about my trip to Tehran. After all I only get to visit them once a year. I was excited and anxious at the same time. I was worried about my little puppy but I couldn’t wait to see my mom…
It was an uneventful trip. I made him home on Monday 1/22/17, after around 28 hours, exhausted but so so happy. We were all happy. I was going to eat lots of delicious Persian food and make tons of great memories and go back to my life in the US. But the happiness didn’t last that long. On Wednesday, we started hearing rumors about new executive orders that will change immigration rules for some countries including Iran. Soon we started reading drafts like everyone else. I might be banned from going back?!?! No that can’t be true. I’m not gonna let that ruin my trip. But then it got serious so fast. Before I knew it, it was actually happening. Even though I didn’t want to leave my family, I quickly booked a ticket to get on the next flight back. Only a few hours after the order was signed, I got to the airport, got on a plane and made it to Dubai. After waiting in the line to get my documents checked and after 40 minutes of waiting, I was ready to board the plane to Washington, only to have officers ask me to live the boarding area. “For security reasons your boarding is denied.”!!! Yes after almost 7 years of living the the United States, I got deported!!!
No one warned me when I was leaving, no one cared what will happen to my dog or my job or my life there. No one told me what I should do with my car that is still parked at the airport parking. Or what to do with my house and all my belongings.
They didn’t say it with words but with their actions, that my life doesn’t matter. Everything I worked for all these years doesn’t matter.
I just had to say it…
In his farewell address to the nation in 1989, President Ronald Reagan told the story of a Navy sailor patrolling the South China Sea who came upon a “leaky little boat” crammed with refugees from Indochina trying to find a way to America.
“Hello, American sailor,” a man in the boat shouted up to the Navy vessel. “Hello, freedom man.” Reagan couldn’t get that moment out of his mind because of what it said about what the United States meant — to those who live here and to the rest of the world….
Well, as of the election of Donald Trump, that’s not what America means — to the world, or to Americans. “America” is what we used to be. At least at the moment, we’re not that any more.
Which raises the question: If we’re no longer America, what should we call ourselves?
Here are some possibilities, if we can get around any copyright considerations. I’m going with names that already have certain connotations in the public imagination, in order to speed up the branding process:
Lower Slobbovia — This one has a certain feel to it that seems to capture where Trump is determined to take the country. It was coined by Al Kapp of “Li’l Abner” fame, and as Wikipedia notes has come to invoke “a place which is underdeveloped, socially backward, remote, impoverished or unenlightened,” or “any foreign country of no particular distinction.” You know, a place that is in no way exceptional. Which seems perfect, if we can get the rights to it.
Rufus T. Firefly dreaming up fresh mayhem for Freedonia.
Freedonia — In “Duck Soup,” this was the insignificant country governed by a crude, ill-mannered clown named Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). I’ll leave it to you to draw the parallel. Also, this should appeal to the Tea Party crowd, since early on, some Americans actually considered calling this country by a variant of that name.
Elbonia — The fictional country from “Dilbert” is “ruled by presidential dictatorship,” and its main export is mud.
Bizarro America — Inspired by Superman comics. The Bizarro World is a place where everything is the reverse of what it is on this planet. Up is down, wrong is right, etc. Again quoting Wikipedia, “‘Bizarro World’ has come to mean a situation or setting which is weirdly inverted or opposite to expectations.” The name would announce to the world that America is now the opposite of what it was.
Tomainia — That’s the country in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” But since this was a satire about Hitler’s Germany, we’ll probably have to avoid it so that people don’t start yelling “Godwin’s Law!” at us, the way they always do.
Forget dumping TPP, “alternative facts,” threats to bring back torture, the Wall, the admiration for Putin, “grab her by the p___y,” Alicia Machado and all the rest.
Try to imagine that up to now, Donald Trump has acted like a perfectly normal, grounded, mature human being.
This one interview would be enough to make you say, “This guy’s lost it!”
The way President Trump tells it, the meandering, falsehood-filled, self-involved speech that he gave at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters was one of the greatest addresses ever given.
“That speech was a home run,” Trump told ABC News just a few minutes into his first major television interview since moving into the White House. “See what Fox said. They said it was one of the great speeches. They showed the people applauding and screaming. … I got a standing ovation. In fact, they said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl, and they said it was equal. I got a standing ovation. It lasted for a long period of time.”
The most powerful man in the world continued: “You probably ran it live. I know when I do good speeches. I know when I do bad speeches. That speech was a total home run. They loved it. … People loved it. They loved it. They gave me a standing ovation for a long period of time. They never even sat down, most of them, during the speech. There was love in the room. You and other networks covered it very inaccurately. … That speech was a good speech. And you and a couple of other networks tried to downplay that speech. And it was very, very unfortunate that you did.”…
President Trump began recasting America’s role in the global economy Monday, canceling an agreement for a sweeping trade deal with Asia that he once called a “potential disaster.”
Trump signed the executive order formally ending the United States’ participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the Oval Office after discussing American manufacturing with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room. The order was largely symbolic — the deal was already essentially dead in Congress — but served to signal that Trump’s tough talk on trade during the campaign will carry over to his new administration….
“This abrupt action so early in the Trump administration puts the world on notice that all of America’s traditional economic and political alliances are now open to reassessment and renegotiation,” said Eswar Prasad, trade policy professor at Cornell University. “This could have an adverse long-run impact on the ability of the U.S. to maintain its influence and leadership in world economic and political affairs.”…
Yeah, well, that’s not all it can do, and probably will do.
We’ve heard a lot of nonsense in the past year about TPP, most of which had little to do with what was actually at stake. There was a good piece summing up the situation fairly neatly in the NYT in November after the election. First, it explained, “the deal, between the United States and 11 Asian and Pacific nations, was never just about trade.” So what was it about? Serious, sweeping, grownup-level geopolitics:
The agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was conceived as a vital move in the increasingly tense chess match between China and the United States for economic and military influence in the fastest-growing and most strategically uncertain part of the world. The deal, which excluded China, was intended to give those 11 nations more leverage in that strained match by providing them with a viable economic alternative. And its defeat is an unalloyed triumph for China, the country that President-elect Donald J. Trump castigated repeatedly over trade…
Now, instead of Pacific Rim nations gathering under American leadership, growing closer in the face of increasing lawless aggression by China, we have China moving to do much the same deal under its own leadership, freezing us out.
And we’re not just talking about weak-kneed nations in China’s geographic shadow, or some of the usual suspects in our own hemisphere, where the Chinese have been steadily wooing friends for a generation:
Australia said on Wednesday that it wanted to push ahead with a Chinese-led trade pact that would cover Asian nations from Japan to India but exclude the United States. Peru has opened talks with Beijing to join the agreement as well. Even American business leaders are positioning themselves for the potential opportunities in Asia…
Of course, none of this matters a bit to Mr. America First, who likes to grumble at China but will hand Pacific leadership to it in order to curry favor with his isolationist, xenophobic base.
We’ve been in danger on this issue all year, with gratuitous populism washing over both ends of our political spectrum.
Some of my interlocutors here like to excuse Trump now and then by castigating Hillary Clinton for this or that. Everyone has his or her favorite Hillary sins to cite. Well, you know what I think is the most reprehensible, unprincipled thing she did in the past year?
It was turning away from TPP. And it was the worst because she knew better. Sanders and Trump didn’t but she did. And she lacked the confidence, security and character to stand up to the Feel the Bern crowd, even as the grownups in the Obama administration were working double tides to salvage sound policy.
So we were headed toward the wrong door either way. The only hope was that she might have hesitated when it came time to kill this “gold standard” (her words) agreement outright.
Trump, who is not burdened by knowing better, did not hesitate for an instant. And now, no doubt, they’re breaking out the Maotai in Beijing, because an advantageous position for the cause of freedom in the world just got flipped upside-down….
Trump preening in front of Langley’s Holy of Holies./Still from CBS video.
Before I even knew what he said Saturday, I cringed at the image: Donald Trump… who has likened our intelligence community to Nazi Germany for its sin of having told the truth about Russia injecting itself into our election on his behalf… standing in front of the wall at Langley that honors CIA officers killed in the line of duty.
That, alone, was grotesque. But hey, maybe that’s not Trump’s fault. Maybe the CIA people set it up for him to stand there. Move on…
Then I learned what he said while he was there. He was there to mend fences — and good for him wanting to do that, and making it a priority. But he dishonored those assembled and even more those on the wall by spending a huge portion of his time moaning about the awful media and how they lie all the time.
What would be the pettiest “lie” for him to focus on? Yep, he claimed that the turnout for his inauguration was greater than it was, and lambasted the media for reporting it accurately.
He went on and on about it. To some who were there, it seemed he spent most of his time talking about his grievance with the media rather than mending fences with the CIA. That’s not quite the case. Here’s a transcript of his rambling, hard-to-follow monologue (no, President Trump will not be any more coherent than the candidate was). I went through and tried, as well as I could, to separate the “CIA” parts from the “me, me, ME!” parts. My rough division came up with 1,450 words in the CIA sections, and 937 words that were purely moaning about himself and the media.
Still, pretty bad. And worse if you consider that he finds it hard to talk about the CIA without self-aggrandizement showing up in the same sentence. An example:
You know, the military and the law enforcement, generally speaking, but all of it — but the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military. And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. (Laughter.) But I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks. (Applause.) We’re all on the same wavelength, right? He knows. It took Brian about 30 seconds to figure that one out, right, because we know we’re on the same wavelength.
But we’re going to do great things….
Maybe I shouldn’t have included those 114 words in the “CIA” file, since it’s so “me, me, me.” But hey, that’s how this guy reaches out to people. The basic form is, Wow, I am so great and awesome, and I know you appreciate that, so you’re great, too. I include you in my awesomeness.
So it’s hard to know what to put in the “focusing on others” category, and what is purely “focusing on me.”
A side note about the part about him and the media: He mentioned one actual error that one reporter had committed (a TIME reporter failed to see the bust of MLK in the Oval Office, and reported it was missing) — and then corrected right away as soon as he knew it was wrong. Which is what reporters do, immediately, when they report things that aren’t right. Trump, of course, uses the incident to suggest that this is but one example of the dishonesty of the media. (At least, that seems to be what he’s saying. As usual, it’s a bit hard to parse. At one point, he’s excusing the mistake; at another, he’s attaching universal significance to it.)
Note that Trump couldn’t even tell this anecdote without an extensive, childishly pathetic digression about how awesome he is: “So a reporter for Time magazine — and I have been on there cover, like, 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time Magazine. Like, if Tom Brady is on the cover, it’s one time, because he won the Super Bowl or something, right? (Laughter.) I’ve been on it for 15 times this year. I don’t think that’s a record, Mike, that can ever be broken. Do you agree with that? What do you think?” Just, wow.
And how were the media being dishonest? By truly reporting a simple fact: The crowd that turned out for Trump’s inauguration was smaller than those for Obama in 2009 and 2013. This is obviously, clearly true, whether you go by photographs or Metro ridership. Here’s the 2009 crowd, and here’s the 2017 crowd. And it’s no big deal. Only the most fragile and insecure of men would be bothered by such a fact being reported. Hey, it was raining — so who cares, right?
Trump cares. Trump cares bigly. And therefore, so do his people.
That same day, we were treated to what may have been the most extraordinary White House press briefing in history — and hey, this was just the press secretary’s first outing! He marked the occasion by fuming at the reporters that lies were truth and truth was lies. His lies were patently obvious ones, easily refuted. And after spouting these lies, he stormed off without taking questions, which would have been remarkable in itself.
Already, this guy has made us nostalgic for the honesty, affability and quiet reason of Ron Ziegler.
OK, so a new administration’s rookie press secretary gets up and makes a jackass of himself in his first at bat. So you acknowledge it and move on, right? You hope to do better in the next game.
Nope. Not this team. The media’s refusal to embrace this lie about how many people attended the inauguration is, in their minds, the first crisis of the new administration, and calls for lashing out and circling the wagons.
Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that.
And she was serious about that! Watch the video below.
OK, so now you have it: This new administration that was going to “Make America Great Again” spent its first weekend in power engaging in a full-court press insisting that a lie was true. Insisting adamantly, because this utterly trivial matter is of the highest importance to this crowd, because anything bearing on his fragile ego is of the highest importance to the new president!
And that the new president kicked off this farce while standing in front of a monument to patriots who died in the darkness, without credit or acclaim, transforms what might otherwise be low comedy into obscenity.
The saddest thing I saw this morning was United States Marines saluting as Trump arrived at the White House. All these years they kept their honor clean. Now this. Not their fault, of course. They’re doing their duty as always. But as someone would say: Sad!
Initially, I saw this in the Post this morning:
John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president; Ronald Reagan, the first actor and also the first to have divorced; Barack Obama, the first African American….
And was going to Tweet, “And today we swear in our very first idiot president.” But if I Tweeted it, it would also be seen by the politer souls of Facebook, and there could be hurt feelings. And Jesus told us that “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Which should most certainly give us pause. And my wife, my conscience, really doesn’t like it when I call people idiots, however richly they have deserved the honor.
So I’m trying to dial that back. Today sorely tries that resolution, but I’m trying to keep it nonetheless. As I type this, I’m listening to some Donovan in the hope that will gentle me, or at least serve as a soporific, something to numb me (Season of the Witch, indeed! So strange..). We’ll see if it works. Laudanum would probably work better.
But back to that Post story about the precedents being set today. A few examples from the list of what Donald J. Trump is:
The first president to have never performed public service, either by holding public office or serving in the military….
At age 70, the oldest man to be inaugurated president. (Ronald Reagan was 69.)…
The first president to be the subject of a Comedy Central Roast….
The first president to have not disclosed his tax returns during the campaign since the tradition began in 1976….
The first president to have hosted a reality show.
And the first to still hold the title of executive producer of one….
The first president to appear on Howard Stern’s radio program. Repeatedly. And brag about his sex life and discuss women’s appearances….
I’ll stop there, as I may have exceeded the bounds of Fair Use already. But I should set straight one “first” that is not. The story notes that “He will not be the first to be married to a former model. Betty Ford also modeled. However, he will be the first to be married to a former model who posed topless.”
So we have that to celebrate.
For their part, the folks at The Wall Street Journal protested that “Mr. Trump isn’t wholly unique.” Perhaps not wholly. For instance, they note that “Mr. Trump likes to play golf, a pastime many past presidents relished.”
So there’s that, too, but it’s thin stuff. And in the end, in the Journal story as well, it’s the departure from all that this country has previously experienced that stands out. We were blessed for so long, and being flawed humans, we didn’t properly appreciate it…