My two-cents on Trump and the political discourse in the United States
When Donald Trump campaigned in 2016, he said: What do we have to lose? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.
Trump promised winning — but I’m not able to discern a lot of it. He’s relentless in self-promotion but his claims seem to be farther removed from reality with each day. He went to Florida — which now has 100,00 more cases of the Coronavirus than New York, and double the tally of hard-hit Italy — and said the United States is the envy of the world when it comes to virus-control and testing. Well, the United States has 25% of the world’s virus cases and deaths, and Americans are currently barred from entering Europe. So, no, the US is not the envy of the world.
The eroding power of the American passport signifies this moment of malaise, Trump presiding over it as a presidential Nero igniting fires and delighting in the chaos. Once the world’s most coveted, the American passport is today a useless document. Under JFK the US sent a man to the moon; in 2020, Americans can’t even go to Canada. Trump promised a beautiful wall — but I don’t think most people foresaw they’d be trapped within it.
Trump liked to say, during his campaign, that other countries were laughing at America. That is doubtlessly true right now, as the world gazes with pity at the bizarre and inept virus response in the US. And it’s especially true within the walls of the Kremlin. Trump stood in front of the world and heaped praise onto Vladimir Putin while trashing his own intelligence agencies. I’m not convinced Trump was colluding with any Russians during his campaign — but if nothing else, he’s an unwitting stooge of Vladimir Putin, what the KGB might call a useful idiot, cultivated, knowingly or not, to aid in their cause. Even conservative Republicans have spoken out about Trump being easily manipulated and flattered by world leaders far more experienced and psychologically apt than him — that adversaries can’t wait to engage in direct negotiations with inexperienced, easily-impressionable negotiators who have little understanding of statecraft. That is quite a difficult position for the US to be in.
Trump is onto something with China — for too long, they’ve stolen American intellectual property and engaged in economic bullying. However, his retreat from the international stage leaves a vacuum for China to fill. His presidency has empowered China and given it more freedom to impose its worldview on others as America has looked inward. He has eroded a post-WWII world order built by the United States — one that has delivered enormous benefit to many nations. And in doing so he has sent a message that, perhaps, America is less reliable than it used to be. This is particularly dangerous; while statistics and numbers are important, a sapping of confidence is no less so and takes much longer to heal.
So, on what planet, in what galaxy, has Trump earned another four years? Europe has its own failures, but it has more-or-less moved on from the virus, whereas the United States is drowning in it. What Europe did right was: national strategies, not up to local discretion; they closed early, and opened gradually; and science was much less politicized and subject to the perversion of conspiracy theorists. It’s difficult to dispute that on a relative basis, the US government has been less effective in its response to the virus. Trump didn’t necessarily cause this buffet of misfortune — but he certainly made it worse, particularly, in his politicization of science and masks, and his rhetoric against his own government’s guidelines, to “liberate” Michigan and liberate “Minnesota.”
A failure on this grand a scale cannot be attributed to one person — I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around, among Republicans, and Democrats. To be fair, I think the US would have had a tough time battling a pandemic under any president. But it’s hard to imagine a disaster of similar scale under a more disciplined leader, as Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama. Both of them are dignified, steady people, with some sense of duty outside of self-promotion.
There’s a tendency to blind fidelity to a political party; perhaps we should judge a candidate more on his or her judgment, integrity, competence. Bill de Blasio — a Democrat — is a woefully feckless and deeply unpopular mayor of New York City; he’s not only ineffective but also annoying and uninspiring. AOC, for all her fame and acclaim, does not seem to have a firm grasp on economic risk/reward, in my estimation; I think Amazon’s headquarters in Queens would have been a positive, particularly now, with such astronomical unemployment. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were both unsuccessful; Reagan and Clinton, arguably, better. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is widely considered a capable governor of Maryland. What has worked, in recent decades, is someone passionate but pragmatic. Bill Clinton’s triangulated third-way of politics was never perfect — perhaps, that’s the point — but it was effective, and the 1990s was one of the best decades in the United States in modern history.
I understand the appeal of Trump as someone who disrupts the system. The benefits of globalization and economic growth in the past few decades have accrued in big cities, and not really, in West Virginia or Arkansas. For too long, those who work for a living have gotten the shaft. No one party is responsible for this; under Reagan the US went from 1st to 13th in wages. While Trump may not be an expert in governance, he certainly has a good political instinct. He understands how the average person thinks. He’s a brilliant marketer, if not, a brilliant manager of government. When people are angry and disaffected, they’re going to vote against the establishment — even if those who most need government programs vote for politicians who wish to scrap them. Often, it’s more about instinct and emotion, for many voters, than actual policy, and that is something that Trump comprehends. He’s always tried to lift himself into the elite that he now derides — but he’s always been more comfortable around, average folks. Thus his success in professional wrestling.
I, too, have an aversion to political correctness, cancel culture, and the excesses of the left flank of the Democratic Party. I think, all of that, has gone too far, and good intentions have run amuck. Not everyone is going to agree with you. There’s no natural law or constitutional right to be free from offense. The world is complicated. Very few things are black and white. Dogmatism is often counterproductive, hypocritical, and alienating, a sort of McCarthyism of ideological purity. We can’t go on being offended by everything; hearing something we don’t agree isn’t the end of the world. Boycotting everyone who disagrees is not going to solve many problems. Ideological and political intolerance have become the norm. I would imagine that the United States is the only advanced country where face masks and even black beans are political statements.
Trump is willing to say things that others won’t. But at what cost? Trump takes it too far. He sends the wrong message: that it’s OK to bully, it’s OK to be cruel, it’s OK to lie. There is some social value in speaking the truth, or telling a joke, even if it’s politically incorrect, even if it’s unsavory to some, even if it’s unpopular. Not everything you hear in life, you’re going to like. But Trump’s Twitter feed could be easily mistaken for your deranged uncle. He Tweeted, on Kim Jung-un, “I tried to be his friend.” He criticized the parents of a slain soldier even though he, himself, dodged the draft. He said an Indiana-born judge couldn’t properly adjudicate a case because he’s of Mexican descent. He mocked a disabled journalist. He’s condoned violence against political opponents. And the most foul, perhaps, is this cycle of birtherism, first used against Obama, and now repurposed for use against Kamala Harris. This promotion of a blatantly racist conspiracy theory lays bare a man with few ethics, someone who will scorch the earth to get elected. And in doing so, Trump erodes the credibility of the important institutions and traditions, in saying, don’t trust anything, or anyone, other than me. In saying that there is no difference between fact and fiction, up and down, he’s taking all of us down a long, strange trip into the end of social order, and functioning democracy. None of that is left or right, it’s just wrong.
And so, I understand the urge to vote for someone who rejects propriety, coastal arrogance, censorship, conformity — although, I would argue, he’s an imperfect vehicle for that. People perceive Trump as authentic — indeed, he’s unscripted — although it depends on how you measure authenticity. He purports to be against abortion although anyone familiar with him in New York knows he’s probably been responsible for a few of them.
Let’s be fair, and thoughtful. Not everything Trump has done is bad. Trump is onto something with China — they’ve stolen American intellectual property, and the Chinese Community Party enabled the Coronavirus to spread beyond its borders. It’s unlikely China will be punished for their gross misdeeds because their economy is so large — and unfortunately, economic considerations usually trump human ones. There’s nothing racist about saying the Coronavirus began in China and the Chinese government failed to contain it — that’s a fact. Too often, those pushing censorship, trigger warnings, and safe spaces elevate sensitivities over truth and fact. And Trump benefits from this, and uses this for political effect, in pushing culture wars on the 35% of the population who’ve chosen to participate in his cult of personality. I suppose, what Trump utilizes better than any other politician in modern history is the simmering indignations in society. Wounds may heal, but old resentments lurk beneath the surface.
The recent deal between the UAE and Israel is a huge step forward for those involved, and for those who aren’t. As Biden once said, it’s a big fucking deal. Trump deserves credit for what he’s done well. And I certainly appreciate Trump’s support of Israel. There is a lot of hypocrisy among those on the left, too often shouting in groupthink, without much knowledge of history or circumstance, about Israel’s alleged misdeeds. No country is perfect. War and conflict is messy. Smart people make mistakes. But it is in plain sight that Israel is unfairly singled out and that criticism of Israel is — not always, but sometimes — intertwined with prejudice against Jews. Most of the naysayers probably don’t know — and don’t care to know — that there are half a million Palestinians living in Lebanon, mostly in refugee camps, not entitled to Lebanese citizenship irrespective of their place of birth, barred from practicing law, barred from owning property, obviously, barred from voting — while the third-largest political party in Israel is an Arab one. That’s not to mention that in Iran, people are executed for drinking alcohol, or that in China, a million Muslims have been forcibly put into “political reeducation” camps and sterilized. Somehow, outrage at the nefariousness of the Chinese Communist Party only percolated when a toxic fog spread from China to the United States. No country is free of fault in a long-simmering conflict; the issue with certain very-dogmatic forms of activism is that its facilitators too often wish to spray ammunition and delight in the chaos — choosing volume over thoughtfulness, rejecting pragmatism in favor of simplified passion — mirroring a tactic employed with great effect by Donald Trump.
I appreciate Trump’s support of Israel, but I don’t think Trump is particularly beneficial for the Jewish community in America. It’s likely not a coincidence that rising anti-Semitism has coincided with Trump’s rise. Trump looks for conspiracy theories under a mattress — and it’s inevitable that Jews will be implicated in some of them. That’s an unfortunate and inescapable reality of history, the instinct to blame Jews for social problems. Over time, whenever political discourse has taken a nativist tone, Jews are somehow caught up in it; “America for Americans” is not going to benefit the Jewish community.
There are many societies in history that have risen, and fallen. Nothing is permanent. Society is delicate. Acrimony, partisanship, division, manufactured outrage — all these things, are more dangerous in the aggregate than they may appear on their own. Those on the left, and the right are responsible. Trump is a symptom, not the cause, but he certainly takes it much further than anyone else. People have become desensitized to behavior that gradually diminishes the guardrails of civility in society — and supports the playbook of Russian (and other) actors trying to foment chaos and division.
There was a time when respect was accorded to people with experience and knowledge: John McCain, as opposed to, Sarah Palin. Arguably, when McCain thrust Palin onto the national stage — a decision, according to many, that he came to regret — she spoke to a portion of the country that found it more appealing to be governed by the first hundred people in a phone book rather than those with the experience and knowledge required to be competent. Palin didn’t act like a politician because, it turned out, she didn’t know much about what politicians were expected to know, at least, by the standards of 2008. The less she knew, the better she was for it. She paved the way for Trump, and appealed to the same disaffected voters that he appeals to. The issue with all this is, to run the United States isn’t a job for someone whose life experience is far removed from government — especially when, as Trump does, you think of yourself as the smartest person in the world and thus don’t listen to any advice or advisors.
Some have posited that Americans don’t really like being told what to do. I would count myself among those people. So, I understand, the desire to be left alone. There are many instances where government edicts unnecessarily infringe on daily life. There are many dumb laws that push onto others a subjective moral code. But, the definition of freedom, as related to the mask-wearing debate, seems to be: freedom from civic duty, freedom from mutual responsibility. The debate around masks — and the absurdity of it — reminds me of an interview given by a former KGB agent some years ago. He defected from the Soviet Union and took refuge in the West. He spoke about a KGB strategy known as Active Measures, basically a form of psychological warfare. It’s the slow process, to change the perception of reality, of every American, to such an extent, that despite an abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves and their communities. I just wonder, who is really the champion of this psychological warfare today. Vladimir Putin has certainly tried to turn America on itself. But the real champion of this effort is Trump — who, perhaps, unwittingly and incidentally, is serving as Putin’s instrument, championing his own iteration of ideological subversion for short-term political effect.