Americans have, in recent years, managed to secure for themselves a false and therefore undeserved reputation as a people so politically polarized that we can’t agree on even the simplest things anymore. That seems to me a bit unfair.
True, red-staters are puzzled by the concerns of those in blue states, and sometimes you can hear them mutter: “Y’all say ‘gun homicide’, ‘teen pregnancy’, ‘infant mortality’ and ‘morbid obesity’ as if those were bad things!”
While those in the blue states have yet to appreciate the culinary joys of a deep-fried Snickers bar and a Coke for breakfast, or the many laudatory human virtues invoked by the flying of the Confederate flag.
So, yeah, we have our problems. But it’s wrong to suggest that we can’t ever collaborate. As a matter of fact, right now we are witnessing enormous cooperation across the political spectrum in the great national project of destroying the republic. And, thanks to such widespread support, I can report that it’s going quite swimmingly indeed! I think the events of November 8th leave little doubt about that...
In that spirit, I thought it might be useful at this juncture to catalog some of the major contributors to this great national unraveling. There are in fact so many that the list is quite endless. Some of them are tangential and/or inadvertent—like, say, globalization or technological development—and so probably should not be included herein. Others—for instance, Donald Trump’s own campaign for the presidency—are too obvious to merit a mention.
That leaves a handful of players, however, who deserve full recognition for their important contributions to the present catastrophe.
High on this list one would obviously find the grandees of the Grand Old Republican Party. To be honest, though, I almost hesitate to include them, because their role has been so obvious. Nowadays, they don’t really even quite bother to pretend anymore that they’re serving some sort of national interest. It’s like the old bit about prison lifers who have told the same jokes so many times that they just refer to them by number, then all bust up in laughter. It’s just that it’s so not funny. This is the root-menace to any post-Neanderthal America one might envision, and we should never forget just how we got to this ugly place now called home.
Nor should we ever forget the road not taken. The basic storyline is a simple one. Beginning in the 1950s, following the massive mutual sacrifices required to get through the Depression and the War, certain segments of American society began demanding a little more mutuality when it came to the benefits of that society as well. First African Americans, then women, Native Americans and Latinos, and most recently LGBT folk, have successively risen up to demand respect, dignity, equality of legal standing and political power, and a fair share of American prosperity.
Let’s be honest. Never were more reasonable demands made upon a society, and the movements presented politicians with a simple choice to make: Which side of history do you want to be on, the right one or the wrong one? Do you want to be the guy who opposed independence in 1776, the Constitution in 1787, ending slavery in the 1850s, and fighting fascism in the 1930s? Or do you want to be the guy we revere in the history books were doing the right thing at the right time, often at substantial personal cost?
It’s a very rare thing for me to write a single sentence that includes both the words “politician” and “courageous” between the dots, and there’s a damn good reason for that. But let’s give credit where it’s due. When the chips were down, many Democrats—and certainly their leader, Lyndon Johnson—took serious political risks in order to get on the right side of history, and courageously advocated on behalf of out-groups who had little other voice within the system. Notwithstanding the incredible sacrifices made by millions on the street in order to realize civil rights goals, we should never forget how different America would look today had somebody else been in the White House in the 1960s, and had both political parties opted to stand by silently and watch these movements be crushed by indifference and backlash.
Nor should we forget the Newtonian complement to the political courage, sheer decency, and moral vision of Johnson and the Democrats. While they were doing the hard work for all the right reasons, over on the other side of the aisle we saw an equal and opposite reaction from the Republican Party, which continues down to this day. Their decision was to oppose legal equality, moral dignity and societal inclusion every step of the way, following a blueprint in which they literally labeled the approach as their “massive resistance” strategy.
"I am literally hard put to imagine many greater acts of sheer cynicism and repugnant human behavior than the Republican Party’s track record over the last 60 years."
Readers should pardon my naïveté, but I am literally hard put to imagine many greater acts of sheer cynicism and repugnant human behavior than the Republican Party’s track record over the last 60 years. This is especially true because I doubt seriously that elites within the party are themselves essentially all that racist, sexist and homophobic at their core. My guess is that a lot of them are actually pretty agnostic to these questions, and indifferent to the answers. But what they know is that these are powerful emotions that can be politically weaponized, and that is exactly what they did for the last half-century, using the denial of the civil rights of one group to appeal to the insecurities of another, so that they could meanwhile pick the pockets of all of the above, which was their only real goal. Seriously, are there lower forms of life than people who would do this? Yeah, but now you’re pretty much talking about slave-traders, sex-traffickers, or war criminals.
As mentioned, there was always a specific target audience for this cynical manipulation. Call it Cracker Nation if you like, though in some ways that’s a bit unfair. In truth, these (white, straight) Men Who Used To Be Kings have suffered some genuine setbacks over the decades. If they’re lucky, their standard of living has merely stagnated since 1980. If they’re less lucky, the good job they once held now resides somewhere in Mexico, or more likely—since even Mexican labor is now too expensive—in Vietnam or Malaysia. They have every right in the world to be angry at the hand they’ve been dealt, and I don’t for a minute begrudge them those sentiments.
Where we depart from one another is in the domain of analysis and action. People should feel free to be as politically ignorant (which is almost always a polite way of saying lazy) as they want on their own nickel. But if you’re getting it dramatically wrong, and if you’re willfully doing so at the expense of other people, your laziness has now become a criminal act. This is where Crackers have earned their reputation for idiocy and brutality. Get up off of the sofa and spend ten percent of the time now devoted to following the NFL or stock-car races, and any fool can figure out that the real reason he’s getting poor is because the One Percent is getting richer, not because some immigrant from Guatemala stole his bedpan cleaning job. But if you’re just lazy and angry, and you like being lazy and angry, then you’re going to play a big role in putting Donald Trump in the White House. And just think about how much their lives will improve once Herr Fury has succeeded in deporting 10 or 12 million illegal immigrants. All those Trump supporters will then have the privilege of paying more for their meals when they dine out, paying more to get their lawn mowed, paying more for the care of their parents at nursing homes, paying more to get their pickup truck washed, and so on. It’s tempting to say “Congratulations, Tools!”, but in fact they will be happy campers. It’s not really about standard of living for these folk. It’s about social status. What Trump gives them is the satisfaction of seeing some brown person’s ass get kicked, and reminding them that there are folks lower on the totem pole than they are. And, at the end of the day, that’s what they really want.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are least as much to blame for the catastrophe of Trump as are Republicans, starting with Hillary Clinton herself. In reality, Clinton was so morally compromised a candidate, and so lacking any serious rationale for her candidacy other than her own self-aggrandizement (as leaked documents revealed, even the campaign couldn’t figure out what their appeal was supposed to be), that the only serious asset she brought to the campaign was having Trump as her opponent. I mean that quite seriously. Had the Republicans nominated anyone without the astonishing baggage that Trump carried, it’s hard to imagine that Clinton would have ever had even a remote chance to win. In the end, even going up against a gigantic voter-insult machine wasn’t enough, and that tells you something right there. If you’re so morally freighted a candidate that you can’t even beat the guy with sixteen built-in self-destruct buttons (including being an admitted sexual predator) who is tweeting out messages that chew through alienated groups as fast as his thumbs will allow, you must be one hell of an abysmal candidate. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you Hillary Rodham Clinton!
It is true, that the Clintons have been subjected to the boundless dishonesty and destructive appetites of a genuine vast right-wing conspiracy. However, for every false scandal imputed to Bill and Hillary, there’s a real one that’s equally bad. They’re just sleazy at the core, and they’re breathtakingly self-interested. They’re disgustingly entitled and dishonest, and Hillary the nominee came by her record-setting low favorability ratings more or less, er, honestly. Of course she was lying when she concocted a reason for not releasing transcripts from her bazillion dollar Wall Street speeches, and of course it came out when they were leaked that she was saying something entirely different to the Lloyd Blankfeins of this world that she was saying to the rest of us. Moreover, she admitted right in the middle of one of those speeches that she had one face for insiders, and one face for the rest of us. Quick, which audience do you think got to hear from the real Hillary, Big Money or Stupid Voters?
Clinton also lost a lot of progressive supporters by voting for George W. Bush’s Iraq war resolution, as well she should have. In fact, she should count yourself lucky that she’s not sitting in some civil or criminal court, or both, to answer for that crime. The lie that she’s offered in the form of some jive apology only compounds the sin of the original lie. Iraq, which had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, was no threat to America in 2003, and in fact wasn’t even making threatening noises in our direction. Weapons inspectors were on the ground, finding nothing, and begging for a few more weeks to finish their job. Moreover, plenty of countries in the world had weapons of mass destruction at that time, and nobody talked about launching an invasion against China or Russia or even North Korea. And yet Clinton, who never even bothered to read the intelligence dossier presented to Congress, voted for the war resolution. Why? Everybody knows the answer to that. She desperately wanted to be president and feared—perhaps especially as a female candidate—that a no vote would make her look weak on national security. So, now, somewhere between 100,000 and one million Iraqis, Americans and others are dead, all lives sacrificed on the altar of the personal careers of American politicians like Bush, Kerry and Clinton. Again, please forgive my naïveté, but I just don’t know how somebody like that sleeps at night. To be honest, it seems to me that only a full-blown sociopath could live with themselves, having traded so much human misery for their own pathetic career ambitions.
Barack Obama also has fingerprints all over these election results, even though most Democratic voters will never figure that out, and he is therefore likely to go on down the years being a heroic icon to these people, just like Bill Clinton has been for over a decade now. (Regrettably, liberals can be virtually as dogmatic and irrational as conservatives on these questions, and Clinton is Exhibit A. No one—Reagan and Bush Jr. included—did more harm to the American middle class and to the Democratic Party than did Clinton, for which they love him to this day.) In any case, Obama set this election result up, just as skillfully as the Weimar Republic set up the Nazis coming to power through the ballot box in 1933. In my lifetime, I doubt there has been an occupant of the Oval Office with more pure intellectual firepower than Barack Obama. But I also doubt whether there has been one with anything remotely close to Obama’s total lack of understanding of the presidency itself, even at the end of two terms holding that office.
Don’t believe me? Take a quick pop quiz, and you’ll see what I mean. I’ll name a president, and all you have to do is shoot back two or three big ideas or projects that president went to the mat to fight hard for, and with which that president is indelibly associated. Okay? So, if I said FDR, you’d say saving the country from the Great Depression, fighting a global struggle against fascism, and building America’s social safety net. If I say Ronald Reagan, you say cutting taxes and fighting the Soviet Union. If I say Lyndon Johnson, you’d say civil rights and expanding the country’s social safety net. If I say George W. Bush, you say cutting taxes, fighting terrorism, going to war against Iraq. See how this works? You may not necessarily agree with all of these policies—I certainly don’t—but, all of these were highly successful presidents on their own terms. In other words, they got what they wanted, and they got it because they articulated so clearly what it was they wanted, why it was (supposedly) urgent, and they did so over and over and over again, incessantly, marshaling a full national campaign in order build massive pressure for achieving their goal. Fair enough?
Now try it with Obama. Go ahead, I’ll wait. No, really, give it a shot. Drawing a blank? Yeah, me too. Maybe you could say “Obamacare!”, but remember that while that was happening he more or less never once articulated a vision for what he had in mind. All we knew was that he wanted to do something with healthcare. And he sure as hell never sold it to the American public before, during and after its absurdly protracted and tumultuous legislative process. But what else is there? Gun control? Yeah, for about five minutes. Civil rights? That’s a laugh. Jobs? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him speak the word.
Stop and think for a moment about what we’re saying here. This is the Seinfeld presidency. It’s a presidency about nothing. That’s not to say that Obama didn’t do a few good things, especially using his executive powers, but by January 21 next year those will all be wiped out anyhow. More importantly, even on issues where he has something of an admirable track record, like climate change, he did absolutely nothing—nothing!—to move public opinion and build a solid national ethos and a public willingness to fight for something important.
The American presidency, as compared to other chief executives in other democracies, is actually a relatively weak institution. What makes it strong, and what successful presidents understand makes it strong, is effective use of the bully pulpit. You have to lead. You have to persuade. You have to be proud to have the enemies you do, and you have to punish them publicly for their intransigence, their obvious self-interested motivations, and their hostility to the public interest. You have to show some courage. You have to be thematic. You have to demonstrate that you really, really care about something, and explain to the public why they should really, really care about it too. This is not a job for the aloof. Cerebral golfing philosopher kings need not apply. They may get the office, but they’ll never get success.
Obama never understood the slightest bit of this, and his presidency has been a woeful failure relative to the challenges of our times, in huge part because of his lack of insight. And the cherry on top of that cake—make no mistake about it—is Donald Trump. When Obama came to office in 2009, people were being crushed economically. Responding to their plight, no matter what obstacles got in his way, should have been his first, second and third priorities for his first two years in office. He should have presented a clear and comprehensive solution to the crisis in people’s lives and pitched it relentlessly. We should have gotten sick of constantly seeing him fighting so hard for us. He should have never skipped a waking hour in pointing out the (true) fact that his opponents to national recovery in the Republican Party were putting personal politics above the survival of the American people in a midst of a crisis. They should’ve been made to pay dearly for their cynical intransigence.
"People want action and leadership from their president, they want passion and a narrative, and they want the issues that affect their lives to be addressed. If you don’t give it to them, they will look further and further afield until they find it."
But he did none of these things, instead bringing to Washington an astonishing combination of arrogance and historical naïveté. Of the latter, I was struck right from the beginning by the degree to which Obama and I seem to have lived different realities for the past thirty years. Looking back, I saw little but a wake of sheer institutional destruction to the fabric of American democracy in the years of Reagan, Gingrich and Rove. Obama, instead, just seemed to perceive some very nice men, having good patriotic intentions, with whom he just happened to have a few minor policy differences. He never understood his adversaries in the slightest, but boy did they understand him. And then the bizarre arrogance thing kicked in, because he also seemed to believe that he was the Kid Jesus figure who could come to Washington and finally bring the (equally guilty, equally intransigent) warring parties together over his holy body, and heal all the wounds of the American Republic. No doubt Valerie Jarrett told him he could do it (which pretty much seems to have been the totality of her job in the White House) and so, hey, it must be true! In fact, no president has ever been more completely rolled by the opposition than Barack Obama, ultimately culminating in having his Supreme Court nomination shoved back in his face while he haplessly sat on the sidelines whimpering (again) for an entire year, knobby tire tread marks all over his body.
I mention all this in part because of the anger I feel towards this buffoon who wasted eight years of opportunity, and who crushed the hopes of tens of millions who believed in him. But mostly because this wholesale meltdown calling itself the 44th presidency had so much to do with allowing a civilizational catastrophe like Donald Trump to waltz into the White House. People want action and leadership from their president, they want passion and a narrative, and they want the issues that affect their lives to be addressed. If you don’t give it to them, they will look further and further afield until they find it. I’m not sure there’s a more succinct way to explain Election 2016 than these last two sentences. So, thanks Barack, and thanks especially for the smug reminder that the sun will come up again tomorrow, even as you welcome into the White House the very man who did more than anyone in the entire world to delegitimize your presidency through disgusting racist innuendo. Really, is there anything anyone can say to or about Obama that might make him even slightly fighting mad? Evidently not.
So here we are, quite likely at the edge of some sort of apocalypse. And, no, I don’t use the term lightly. Scholars of the American presidency are sometimes loath to look for explanations of behavior and outcomes in personality traits, but the more I observe, the more I believe these factors are just about everything. In particular, so many people who seek this office are really seeking badly needed attention and validation which presumably eluded them in their childhood years. I couldn’t imagine trying to understand, for example, the George W. Bush presidency without understanding the sheer neediness of a guy who’s family (correctly) told him all throughout his life that he was a no-good piece of crap. And look at how the whole world had to pay with incalculable amounts of blood and treasure to satiate the needs of that one boy-man whose parents dropped the ball sixty years ago.
"I genuinely believe that the American republic as a system of government, built on a fabric of certain political norms and social trust, is deeply imperiled for the first time in my lifetime."
That’s why, just to begin with, Trump scares me as much as he does. As astrophysicists will tell you, any human being theoretically more needy than Donald Trump would, according to the laws of physics, have to implode into a black hole singularity, sucking some large chunk of the universe in with it from the sheer gravitational strength of its neediness. If you could stuff Silvio Berlusconi’s incessant compulsion to seek attention and control into Vladimir Putin’s power matrix in Russian government, you’d be getting pretty close to where Trump will go if he can. It is not hyperbolic, for example, to imagine the First Amendment and the entire American tradition of free speech and a free press hanging in the balance. As we speak, Donald Trump is now attacking the cast of Saturday Night Live and the musical “Hamilton” for daring to speak to him. Imagine the pressure real media organizations are going to come under, especially if they start reporting the rampant corruption that will ooze out of every pore of this administration, and especially if some national security ‘emergency’ is used for cover in order to attack them as insufficiently patriotic when troops are in the field. We could go on and on here, but you get the idea. I genuinely believe that the American republic as a system of government, built on a fabric of certain political norms and social trust, is deeply imperiled for the first time in my lifetime. And even if that is not the case, the destruction of the last half-century’s hard-fought gains in equality at home seems highly likely, and the potential for international wreckage—perhaps based on some perceived slight by some foreign leader toward El Jefe—is almost limitless.
And, there will be almost no opposition. This will be far worse than even the Bush years during the run-up to war. Trump, this joke being played upon us by a sadistic cosmos, will have control of every branch of government, and already he has called a meeting to lean hard on the press for ‘lying’ about him, when in fact their greed produced almost wall-to-wall coverage of him throughout the campaign and was hardly surpassed as a factor in helping him get elected. Remember how quickly they folded when Bush/Cheney/Rove hit town, and how the ‘liberal’ New York Times even abetted the administration in selling its dirty little war? The sheer potential darkness of this moment cannot be overstated.
In this context, nothing is more disheartening than the insane discussion by Democratic Party elites of finding issues on which they can cooperate with the new Trump administration. Even if this wasn’t a complete fool’s errand, in which these punks will be used and discarded like so much spent toilet paper, the idea of cooperating with these people on anything is noxious beyond belief. This administration has delegitimized itself by the very campaign that it ran. It is corrupt, it is dishonest, it is racist, is sexist, it is predatory, and it is antithetical to core American values. If the Democratic Party had the slightest shred of integrity left to it, it would spend the next four years relentlessly probing and publicly assaulting this administration on all these fronts, never once tainting itself with any association of any sort.
Heck, maybe Satan himself has a redeeming quality or two—the stylish swish of his tail, or the warmth of his breath on a cold winter night. I don’t know.
But I do know that if you cooperate with him, you legitimize him, you assist him, and you abet him.
And—ultimately—you are him.