A personal reflection on American political culture. I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking... Joan Didion
July 15, 2017 The Education of a Credulous Liberal
Incredulity, followed by shock, followed by anger, followed by numbing acknowledgement: the sequence of emotions experienced the late evening of November 8, 2016. Immediate tasks: comforting the wounded, the collateral damage, as it were, listening, consoling, reassuring spouse, son, friends.
As the days passed the evolving more enduring state was one of being blindsided, gob smacked, sucker punched. I didn’t see it coming. This reaction was not the result of a naive faith in party, polling or political analysis, it ran a lot deeper, more fundamental. My essential assessment of the values that I shared with my fellow Americans was shaken, had perhaps always been mistaken. The impossible had happened. 63 million Americans had voted for a candidate who, never mind political, ideological, and policy differences, had violated the root, bedrock values and norms of American civic culture.
I found myself reaching out, more and more, to literary sources to explain my shock. I felt as if the entire nation had gone down the rabbit hole with Alice, the Mad Hatter was now in charge. Passages from Jose Saramago’s Blindness came back to me, how one by one an entire nation had gone inexplicably blind. Historian-teacher by profession, I found myself reaching back to the past looking for parallels and precedents, the rise of fascism in the 30’s, the 1978 Jonestown massacre. Sales of Orwell’s 1984 soared. Suddenly people rediscovered Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.
Had we not all watched the candidate descend on an escalator in June 2015 and characterize an entire national group as drug dealers and rapists? Had we not all cringed together in November 2015 as the candidate mocked a reporter with a disability? Had we not all listened to a tape in October 2016, of a presidential candidate bragging about his ability to commit sexual assault at will, “…when you’re a star, they let you do it.” That this particular man had flouted the basic civic norms upon which our society rests neither shocked nor surprised me. The past twenty years had presented endless examples of his total disregard of societal norms. In fact, he has often celebrated this essential trait… “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” I knew there was an audience for these remarks, and for the underlying arrogant “in your face” attitude behind them. I am not that naive. But 63 million Americans had approved or dismissed or rationalized or otherwise choose not to care about this candidate’s fundamental moral unsuitability for the world’s most powerful office.
Through my study of history and my experience in the classroom, I have always been impressed by our ability to hold two diametrically opposed beliefs in our mind simultaneously without consciousness of their incompatibility. Likewise, how our conscious regard for rational thought often does not inform our actual behavior. My students would hold their heads in disbelief as they studied the history of compromises that preceded the Civil War. “Mr. Moore, that does not make any sense, what were they thinking?” Indeed! They weren’t thinking.
I am sure most individuals who voted for Trump do not consciously condone nor practice on a personal level the immoral behavior and values he has celebrated. But their anger and resentment brought them to a place where they could, at least for a time, deny or disassociate themselves from their core beliefs. We are at a dangerous impasse. “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”* Let us hope John Adams was mistaken.
*John Adams, The Letters of John and Abigail Adams
July 10, 2017 The Not So Wise Men In November of 1960 the Kennedy transition team, seeking cabinet recommendations, reached out to several members of the Washington foreign policy establishment. These were men that Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas would later memorialize as “The Wise Men.” Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett and John McCloy, among others, were centrists and pragmatists who avoided ideological constraints in favor of consensus and moderation. They would become, in Isaacson’s words, the “architects of the American Century.”
Comfortable in their origins and establishment connections, they were certainly not the men to consult if John Kennedy had wished to satisfy the more populist strand in America's political culture. These were internationalists who had dedicated themselves to establishing order out of chaos in the post war world. They honored public service in the classical sense of those who had fared well in America and owed much in return. In consequence they sought very little in return for themselves, and correspondingly felt unconstrained by the populist fervor of any one moment.
It is hard to imagine a more different situation as we enter the first summer of the Trump administration. As November of 2016 unfolded we watched a never ending procession of potential cabinet members parade through the foyer of Trump Tower. The drama and glitz reminded one of the walkway at the Oscars, a photo op for the connected. These were not the quiet secretive meetings that Kennedy held in Georgetown that November long ago. This reality show promenade eventually produced a cabinet which was outstanding only in its selection of individuals who were dedicated to the evisceration of the departments they would lead. But there were several exceptions which fed the hope that at least in foreign policy there were old hands which might provide constraint and moderation. Surely James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and later H.R. McMaster would counter any impulsive miscalculations and provide continuity in our international relationships.
What has evolved couldn't be more different. In diplomacy, it is predictability, continuity and trust that are the hallmarks of successful foreign relations. What has emerged is an incoherent foreign policy that at one moment can reflect traditional centrist values and the next an incoherent melange of ideological constructs that borders on an apocalyptic vision of the world order. The recent G20 meeting provides vivid examples of both. It is clear that this lesson was not lost on the rest of the world’s leadership. The G20 became the G19.
In any one series of administration pronouncements you can infer the influence of a Mattis and then later a Stephen Bannon or Stephen Miller. Rather than Isaacson’s sage Wise Men we now have a coterie of family members, in-laws, political operatives, ideological hacks, all of whom vie with one another for the ear of a man who has a notoriously short attention span and little interest in delving into the details of policy. Whose vision is guiding our nation as we construct a response to North Korea’s nuclear testing or Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea? The truth is we don't know. Therein lies the danger, for us and the world.
This past Friday evening, while awaiting the beginning of the G20 plenary session , The President of the United States sat alone. This quiet, symbolic moment signaled a seismic shift in the 70 year old system of alliances that has sustained peace in Europe and helped secure worldwide economic stability. With both US intransigence on the Paris Accords and US protectionist threats on their minds, the world's leaders signaled that a page has been turned in their understanding of where their interests lie. It was lost on no one that while they were working on climate issues, Ivanka Trump sat in for the absent Donald who was holding a private parlay with Putin, apparently agreeing to let bygones be bygones. In an ironic twist, Europe and Asia, in accordance with American wishes, may indeed spend more of their stretched resources on climate change and defense, but it will be outside the sphere of American influence and leadership. Trump has gotten his wish, it will be America First, but it will be America Alone as well.