Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Kelly's Heroes

Donald Trump and John Kelly

We’re all Civil War re-enactors.  As the most dramatic and consequential chapter in our tortured racial history it compels our concern and provokes our passions. But we seem unable to deal with it maturely. Instead of facing it and learning from it, we succumb to its distortions and lies. Instead of settling it, it unsettles us. We fight it every single day, and it always wins. And on October 30, White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly recklessly threw himself into that fight, responding to a question about Civil War monuments by saying:

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now where it’s different today. But the lack of the ability to compromise led to the Civil War and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand with where their consciences had them make their stand.

But this is monumentally foolish. The entire history of the American republic before the Civil War is one of endless compromises aimed at reassuring the South that slavery would not be disturbed. The precipitating cause of the war was the election of a profoundly conciliatory and compromising president who merely wished to prevent the expansion of slavery into new territories, and promised to leave it alone in the states where it already existed.  We compromised our ideals for decades, but that ultimately proved incapable of preventing war with people prepared to fight to the death to maintain such a monstrous evil. And apparently we need to be reminded that General Lee (who was a gallant soldier, but a brutal slave-master) led an army intent on destroying the United State in the service of that evil.

But why do we need to be reminded? How does an intelligent person like Kelly manage to overlook such glaring truths? The easy answer from liberals is: deliberate racism. In this view Kelly finds Confederate generals admirable because they’re the heroes of white power over black bodies. Maybe he even likes slavery!  But this is cheap and irresponsible; there is no evidence that beneath Kelly’s bland exterior there beats a cold racist heart. Indeed, there’s a better, a more subtle explanation, and it’s the reverse of the liberal accusation. It’s not that Kelly admires men like Lee because of their white supremacy; it’s that he goes easy on their white supremacy because he admires them.  And he admires them because it’s too painful not to. That is, to admit Lee’s evil is to admit American evil and that’s something a conservative can never do. Slavery and racism are central to the American story, and the inability to accept that is central to American conservatism.

And what’s true for Kelly is true for the millions more – in the South and elsewhere – who perceive the Civil War in the same way. Some of them are indeed motivated by outright racism, but most are simply unable to concede that America committed such grievous crimes. It’s probably true that most people in most countries are similarly unable to face up to their own national sins. But Americans find it particularly painful, since we invest such emotion in the view of ourselves as noble and enlightened crusaders fighting for democracy and truth. How can the shining city on the hill have a rotten foundation?  Downplaying American racial sin to preserve American idealistic self-image is older than the republic itself.

Rutherford B. Hayes, who ascended to the presidency
in 1877 by agreeing to a backroom deal that ended the
federal guarantee of the rights of African Americans
It’s because the Civil War presents a direct threat to that self-image that we continue to fight over it so bitterly. And in the period after the war, known as Reconstruction, we dug ourselves deeper. When the South lost it faced a profound moral choice: either concede the horrible wrongness of its war aims, or preserve its self-image by pretending it fought for other more respectable reasons, and by suppressing the ex-slaves as lesser creatures whose rights need not be respected.  We all know what it chose. And, crucially, it asked the rest of the country to share its mythology. Or rather, it demanded widespread acceptance of that mythology as the price for white reconciliation. In effect, southern whites presented northern whites with a choice of their own, “Side with us or with our ex-slaves; you can’t have both.” And we all know what they chose. The mythology became the consensus, and black Americans paid the price.

Kelly, and the millions who agree with him, are still making that same choice. They callously disregard and minimize the death and destruction visited upon black people under slavery, Jim Crow, and even now, all to preserve white unity and white pride. But unsurprisingly, callousness is not a constructive strategy. It’s what impels conservative denial about the continuing harsh reality of black life in America today. It pushes whites toward white identity politics, even white nationalism, even outright racism. Its suppressed guilt makes conservatives bitter, defensive, resentful, angry.  It allows them to be manipulated by malevolent hucksters like Donald Trump. Conservative denial is the very poison that is killing us.

But liberals are immune because they’ve opted out of the old consensus. That’s what makes them liberals! Starting in the 1950’s and 60’s they determined to expand the New Deal economic and social success story – which had until then been limited to whites – to include all Americans.  In effect they rejected the white southern Reconstruction-era choice as a false one and determined to side with everyone.  But southern and conservative whites refused – even at this late a stage – to honestly face their historical and current crimes, and liberals, in frustration and desperation, gave up the project of shared prosperity.  After the Civil War, northern whites reconciled with southern whites and blacks suffered.  But now white liberals side with blacks and reconciliation suffers. We’re all Reconstruction re-enactors.

But that’s partly because liberal reluctance to surrender American unity has turned into wild-eyed enthusiasm.  Liberals are happy to see themselves as the good guys, the protectors and allies of black people, and even happier to see conservatives – particularly southern white conservatives – as the embodiment of all American evil. Increasingly, liberals see America itself as so essentially compromised by racial evil that anyone would be foolish and naive to bestow upon her any hope or loyalty. But liberal racial sanctimony, like conservative racial denial, is really about unresolved guilt, about attempting to remove oneself from American sin. Conservatives childishly pretend it doesn’t exist; liberals face it but project it entirely onto the political Other. Conservatives hold onto American idealism by denying it’s less than ideal, liberals hold onto it by psychologically and politically removing themselves from America. The liberal response is more forgivable, of course, since they do face the truth, and they do hold onto their idealism. But they do so at the cost of alienation from their own country, that is, from themselves. And that detachment makes it too easy to indulge the darker aspects of that idealism and go crusading against conservatives like Puritan ministers railing against Satan. But unsurprisingly, shaming is not a constructive strategy. But it is an inevitable one when you’ve concluded that the only way to hold onto your idealism is by rebuking your own country.

And that’s how we’ve hardened into our two sad, familiar camps, defined by our respective dysfunctional reactions to the horrible contradiction between our national ideals and our national crimes. But callous denial and aloof sanctimony are not our only options.  The only hope, and it’s a slim one, is for liberals to see the damage they do when they so fundamentally deplore their fellow countrymen. Liberals, as the conscience of America, must be the more mature party here. If they can face up to American sin, can’t they face up to their own? It’s true that many conservatives are still outright racist, but most are not, and calling them all racists and labeling them as essentially evil does enormous harm to our national life. It degrades the discourse and increases mistrust and resentment, it hardens people in their resistance.  It confuses the symptom, racial resentment, with the disease, national pride, and it angers people who simply want to believe in themselves and their country. It plays into the hands of white nationalists and unscrupulous politicians. Conservatives have foolishly conflated believing in America with believing America has never really done anything wrong, and they badly need to educate themselves on the distinction. Many, out of stubbornness or animus or ignorance, never will.  But many could, and liberals need to give them the space to do so.

And as liberals, the only effective way we can educate is by example. We can do all three things at once: hold onto our ideals, squarely face our country’s sins, and honestly accept that they’re our sins, that we’re inextricably American too. Honest judgment of American history will never get a fair hearing if it’s not joined to a deep commitment to America itself, since no one will hear criticism from someone they don’t trust. And we can be a little more forgiving of those who find it so difficult to hear.  If liberals cannot transcend their own misunderstandings, if they cannot graduate to a more mature and constructive engagement with our terrible history, if they can’t accept that redeeming America means redeeming actual Americans, and if they can’t meet them as equals and as fellow Americans – if they can’t do all this they won’t be honestly addressing our deepest problems; they’ll only be perpetuating them. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Staying True

The Oval Office emptied for cleaning

Donald Trump is not President of the United States.  Legally and technically he is, of course.  And O. J. Simpson is legally and technically innocent of murder.  What’s legal and what’s true are not always the same thing.  And it’s not just because Trump failed to win the popular vote.  As ridiculous as the Electoral College is, it is our accepted mechanism for choosing the president, and it did so in keeping with law and tradition. But even though he lacks the democratic legitimacy we demand of every other elected official – even dog-catcher and county judge – that’s only the beginning of what’s missing in our present presidential vacancy.  Things have felt very strange since Inauguration Day, and it’s a feeling of something disordered, something uneasy, and – most strikingly – something lost.  America no longer has a leader. 

American presidents nurture and protect the institutions of American democracy. This one attacks anyone or anything who dares hold him accountable or constrain his power. He calls the media the “enemy of the American people”; he pressures CNN to remove some of its anti-Trump commentators; he accuses the intelligence agencies of acting like those in “Nazi Germany”; he attempts to delegitimize a federal judge (appointed by George W. Bush) by calling him a “so-called judge”, and blames in advance the entire federal judiciary for any terrorist attacks yet to come.  When Congressman John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King and was brutalized by racist policemen, criticized Trump, Trump characterized him as “all talk”.   There seems to be no democratic or moral authority he respects.

American presidents make informed decisions, consult with experts and vet policies through appropriate agencies. This one signs amateurish executive orders composed without legal expertise, with no outside consultation of Congress or federal departments, and implements them carelessly, with predictably confusing and chaotic results. He rarely attends national security intelligence briefings, and may not be paying attention even when he does!  He doesn’t read and requires information be brought to him in small, easily digestible bits, with lots of charts and maps.  He believes everything he sees on pro-Trump conservative media like Fox News, or right-wing propaganda sites like Breitbart; and he irresponsibly passes on their stories, including those unsupported by evidence or reason.

American presidents take clear policy positions and stand behind them.  This one changes his positions weekly, daily, hourly. He’s even been all over the map on his signature issue: controlling immigration.  On healthcare, he ran on the promise of repealing Obamacare and replacing it with “something terrific” that would cover more people and cost less. But at one point during the campaign he expressed support for the Obamacare individual mandate, as well as other provisions of the law, such as coverage for those with existing conditions. But once elected he called for abolishing the individual mandate, while inconsistently promising “insurance for everybody”.  And now he has finally spelled out principles constituting the vague outlines of an alternative plan, though hardly a terrific one, since it would cover fewer people at higher cost.  At the same time the White House is failing to endorse a Congressional Republican replacement plan based upon exactly those principles!  And only now, nearing the end of this very long process, has he suddenly discovered what every remotely informed person has known for years: that health care policy is “very complicated”. Was he aware of any aspect of healthcare policy before this earth-shattering insight?  Is he aware now?

American presidents are confident and articulate, able to communicate and persuade. This one spews word salad, and whines about negative coverage.  He exposes his staggering, pathetic need for approval in front of the Washington press corps and the entire world, as in his embarrassing meltdown of a press conference on February 16, humiliating himself in what one commentator called a “seventy-seven-minute emotional striptease”.

American presidents disclose their business dealings by, for instance, publicly releasing their tax returns. This one, during the campaign, claimed his taxes were being audited by the IRS and he could not release them until the audit concluded, though the IRS denied there was any legal constraint on releasing them. He promised that he would make his taxes public after the audit finished, but after the election he (through an aide) simply denied he had any obligation to do so, and, of course, he hasn’t.  He’s denied he has any business connections in Russia, for instance, but such connections are well documented. It’s reasonable to wonder if he doesn’t release his taxes because either they would reveal the depth of his financial entanglements with the corrupt Russian oligarchy, or they would reveal he pays little or no taxes.

Receiving delicate national security information in public
American presidents don’t use their power and connections to profit themselves financially. This one uses the presidency to expand his hotel empire in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia.  He pressures department stores to stock his daughter’s clothing merchandise.  He frequently stays at Mar-a-Lago, his own private club in Florida, which is now charging higher prices for customers hoping to buy access.  American presidents put their business interests in a blind trust, so their positions and policies won’t be influenced by the desire for profit. This one put has put his interests in a trust administered by his own immediate family, doing nothing to eliminate conflict of interest, and probably violating the Constitution’s Emoluments clause.

American presidents protect the democratic process from interference by hostile foreign governments.  This one has done nothing in response to Russian disruption of last year’s election.  His campaign was awash in connections to Russia and its unscrupulous leader Vladimir Putin, and his administration is as well. But multiple American intelligence agencies have concluded that during last year’s election technical experts with Russian intelligence hacked Democratic Party computers, found information there embarrassing to the Democrats, and released it through willing accomplices in Wikileaks, and certain sections of the FBI, with the intent of helping Trump win.  And all that occurred while his advisors kept ongoing communications with Russian intelligence, and while the candidate himself publicly called on the Putin government to release additional damning information they had on his political opponent. He has eased some of the punitive sanctions his predecessor recently applied to Russia in response to their election interference, and may ease other sanctions against them.  Reasonable people can be forgiven for wondering if there was any direct collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, though such collusion would be tantamount to treason.  But these worries aren’t exactly allayed by Trump’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge that Russia hacked the election, or to voice even the slightest criticism of Putin or his government (though that may be changing), or to call for an investigation of this mess.

American presidents have a mature understanding of how the world works. This one indulges in the most baseless and laughable conspiracy theories. For years he indulged fever dreams about Obama’s place of birth.  In office, he has claimed that Obama is behind his administration’s constant leaking; that as president Obama personally ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower; that he only lost the popular vote because millions of illegal immigrants voted against him; that anti-Trump protestors are paid Democratic operatives.

American presidents sometimes lie; sadly, it’s a job requirement. But this one lies all the time!  He lies about pathetic things, like the size of the crowds at his inauguration, the size of his Electoral College victory, or how many times he’s been on the cover of Time magazine. And he lies about important things, like how many non-citizens were detained under his travel ban, whether rescinding the ban would allow refugees easy access into the country, whether he offered to send American troops into Mexico or yelled at the Australian Prime Minister.  He’s lied about crime statistics, New York Times subscription rates, cutting spending on military aircraft, Obamacare coverage numbers, etc., etc., etc. Et freakin cetera!

The dishonesty deserves particular consideration, because the dishonesty is at the heart of the Trumpian madness. It’s not just that Trump and his underlings lie promiscuously and indiscriminately. It’s not even that they lie without the slightest compunction or accountability, though that is deplorable.  It’s they have no respect for even the notion of truth; to them, the truth is whatever they want it to be. They just say whatever will help them win. And ultimately it isn’t even winning that matters to them, it’s appearing to win. All the other pathologies flow from this essential dismissal of reality for the sake of appearances.  The disregard for democracy, competence, dependability, consistency, transparency, public-mindedness, patriotism, maturity, the truth – it all comes from one simple position: that no principle can distract from the overwhelming, unquenchable need to appear to be always winning.

But the American president should care about democracy, competence, dependability, consistency, transparency, public-mindedness, patriotism, maturity, and the truth.  Obviously many presidents have failed to sufficiently defend these principles. But most cared deeply about them.  And the ones who didn’t still made great pains to pretend they did. That is, they understood that we, the American people, care deeply about them.  It’s the widespread popular commitment to those principles that has made American democracy work for so long.  And we shouldn’t accept as president a strutting ego-on-stilts who flagrantly flouts and mocks them, who clearly doesn’t give a damn about them.  It’s not clear if he even understands them!  In its open contempt of those values, the Trump presidency represents a clean break from our past. And even if we never have another president like him, he very well may do them permanent damage. 

And that’s why it matters that Trump is incapable of “being presidential”.  When he steps up to the microphone and lies, and whines, and accuses, and equivocates, and rants, and brays like a jackass, he’s betraying what’s best in America. It may seem that his demeanor isn’t important, but it reveals who he is and what’s missing in him. Being presidential doesn’t just mean conforming to outdated notions of propriety or formality. Approaching the job with sobriety and circumspection shows that the president takes seriously the grave responsibility of leading America, of protecting and shepherding our republic through our very real troubles. The president has the power to build and the power to destroy, and the nation and the world are right to expect that power to be in the hands of someone of maturity and responsibility.  That this needs to be said at all reveals the depth of our crisis. 

It has fallen to us, the honest citizenry, to hold our democratic values tight. We take our lives and our children’s lives and our country’s future very seriously, even if Trump’s every utterance proves he does not.  We need to keep our standards high, we need to keep loudly criticizing Trump when he violates those standards, and we need to keep reminding those of our fellow citizens who have momentarily forgotten, just how vital those standards are. That’s how we stay who we are.  A rather strange set of circumstances has landed Trump in his current job, but he is simply not worthy of it, nor worthy of us, and all the Electoral Votes in the world cannot make him so.  And our duty as honest Americans for the next four years is to keep that firmly in mind.