It is the birthright of every American to have an opinion about the president—however indifferently the holder of that office may be loved or loathed. But with President Trump, it’s different. The birthright has become a bounden duty. Our opinions about Trump, for or against (as the prevailing mood tolerates no middle ground), are demanded of us in even the most mundane social interactions as a kind of identity card—a passport among fellow travelers in a fierce brand of tribalism not seen since the Civil War.
I have been living outside the United States, now, for over two years—since right about the time Trump descended the escalator in his Manhattan tower and completely blew everyone’s mind forever. Today, whenever I meet a compatriot in some far-flung corner of the world, within the first fifteen minutes the same intricate ballet occurs between us: the gently rolled eyes, the shaking of the head, the casual remark punctuated by the well-timed sigh until we have sussed out each other’s politics enough to declare, in unison, “Isn’t Trump just awful!”
So far that has been the prevailing view—even among the few people I meet who admit to voting for him. If you are an American living in America, you likely have had more frequent occasion to declare your feelings about Trump than to show your driver’s license. It is only natural, then, that I should publish my own views—not just about Trump, whose myriad flaws are well cataloged and seemingly on permanent display, but about how we got to this truly remarkable place in American history and where, pray tell, we might be headed from here.
First, in a salaam to the new tribalism in which “reality” has become less a matter of fact than opinion, like a gradient of water colors laid down in broad, fuzzy strokes according to one’s preference in cable news shows, I offer the reader full disclosure. Who am I, and what is my tribe? From what corner do I come presuming to lead anyone along the path of reason out of the psychosis that has gripped America since Donald Trump arrived in Washington?
I voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016 and Barrack Obama in 2012, which, believe it or not, says really nothing about me. I come from a long line of New Deal Democrats, but I was too young to be nostalgic for FDR. I first became a Democrat because John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert—the beau ideals of youthful American manhood when I was a boy—were Democrats, and because no boy ever wanted to be Richard Nixon (including Nixon, as it turned out).
In 1968, with the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., fresh in memory, I had the distinct sense that the world was spinning out of control when news came before school one morning that Robert Kennedy had been shot. I promptly became a (ten-year-old) Humphrey man. In 1972, undeterred by Humphrey’s electoral massacre four years earlier, I signed on as a foot soldier in George McGovern’s groovy army, wearily pacing all day outside a precinct in Towson, Maryland, holding a placard of epithets against Nixon, only to weep and mourn with the hippies back at headquarters when McGovern lost in a landslide. In 1976, as the editorial page editor of my high school newspaper, I endorsed Jerry Brown in the Maryland primary (he won), then cheered when the peanut farmer from Georgia rose to an improbable victory in November. But then came Carter’s “malaise” speech, needlessly reminding the nation of something it already knew in the same ill-advised way a man tells his wife that, yes, she does look fat in that dress. What hope we had left was lost when the helicopters sent for the Iranian hostages crashed in the desert, leaving Americans with an indescribable feeling of national impotence we were only too happy to believe a plainspoken cowboy from Hollywood could banish.
Like millions of others I found much in Reagan to admire, but the effect in my case was short-lived. I first learned to distrust Republicans when, as a law student, I was offered a summer internship in Ronald Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency. Like many kids who came of age in the seventies—the era of Earth Day, Foxfire books, “The Waltons,” and Euell Gibbons—I was a lover of wilderness and eager to have a role in preserving it. Being an “environmental lawyer” sounded like the coolest of jobs. I applied for the internship at EPA headquarters in Washington and spent precious funds buying a cheap polyester suit at Foley’s Department store in St. Louis before flying out for the interview. I was offered the job on the spot and told to report the following summer. After scraping up the money for another plane ticket from St. Louis and making arrangements to share an apartment with a college pal for the summer, I arrived in D.C. in May, ready to start work. With horror and embarrassment, I listened to the same people who had offered me the job months earlier dishonestly deny that any such offer had been made. There I was, low on money and options, having turned down other offers from firms in St. Louis to fly half-way across the country for what had become, literally, a “dream” job. My small plight was due, I darkly and grandiosely assumed, to the Reagan Administration’s determination not to add a farthing to the EPA’s share of the federal pie. Fearing I would be unable to pay my way through the next year of law school, I took a page from Woodward and Bernstein and went to a reporter at the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with my story. After one call from the reporter, my position at EPA mysteriously reappeared along with apologies for the “misunderstanding.” That, to a naïve twenty-four-year-old law student, was the essence of speaking truth to power, and I never forgot it.
But my time as an intern in the Office of Legislation at EPA taught me an unexpected lesson in government. The highly paid career bureaucrat whose office I shared that summer slept at his desk in the afternoon. As I walked through the halls in EPA headquarters, I struggled to make sense of a dizzying array of sub-departments and offices, many with some indistinguishable variation of the same name and the same mission, over-stuffed with civil servants engaged in varying degrees of what might charitably be called busy-work, joylessly performing the Lilliputian tasks laid before them without any observable drive, sense of urgency, ambition, or connection to the whole. It seemed to me a wilderness of soul-sucking minutiae. The summer of 1982 I spent at EPA was my last job in government and the reason I spent the entire thirty-one years of my career as a trial lawyer in private practice.
While still in law school in the fall of 1983, I saw in Colorado Senator Gary Hart the kind of “new” Democrat that neither Humphrey nor Carter had been and that Walter Mondale could never be—principled but practical on social welfare and the environment; smart but tough on defense. I signed on to be the Gary Hart campaign contact on campus. Unfortunately, Gary saw something else entirely in Donna Rice, and in an episode that seems almost quaint by today’s standards, decided to suspend his campaign before he and Monkey Business became a circus sideshow.
By 1988—the year Vice President George H. W. Bush ran for the presidency on the Republican ticket—I was a member of the Texas Bar with my own practice, a staff of employees, and a sizeable monthly payroll. Self-employment was the occasion for my rude introduction to the “self-employment tax.” For the privilege of creating paying jobs for myself and my employees, my marginal tax rate was raised from 28 to 41 percent—cutting not just into my income but into the funds available to me to hire new employees. I was there at the hotel in Houston when Bush announced his presidential campaign in October 1987. I heard him say, “I’m not going to raise your taxes, period!” When he famously repeated that pledge at the convention in August 1988 with the words, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” I decided to give him my vote. When he surrendered to George Mitchell and Tom Foley and abandoned his promise without a shot fired early in his short presidency, I decided to give him a piece of my mind. It was the only letter I’ve ever written to a president, and it was not a gracious one. Bush, a consummate letter writer, did not respond, but the voters did when they threw him out of office and elected Bill Clinton in 1992. It didn’t matter that Bush had good reasons for raising taxes. Those same arguments were well known when he made his pledge. To the public he became just another example of a politician who would say one thing to get their vote and do another when he got elected.
I’ll end my partisan resume there, if that’s alright with you. Suffice it to say I am a Democrat today for a narrow range of reasons—chiefly because I don’t believe women who choose not to follow my pregnancy advice should be imprisoned, and because I trust Democrats more than Republicans to preserve America’s remaining wild places. The older I get, the more the world appears to me in shades of gray than black or white. I have lost some of the naiveté of my youth but not, I hope, my ideals. I am hardly a Republican loyalist, but neither do I burn with zeal for the sacred totems and selective outrages of the New Left. In that regard I suspect I’m like most Americans my age. And like most Americans, I stare in wonder at the circus that has come to Washington.
CNN shouts from our TV screens every day like a carnival barker on the midway: “Step right up to the Russian collusion hoop toss! You can’t miss, kid! A new felony with every throw!” Meanwhile, under the big top, Donald Trump is P. T. Barnum—“really rich,” as he crassly reminds us, smiling in a spray-on tan, leering at the girls in sequined bikinis riding a parade of elephants into the Oval Office. It’s the Weirdest Show on Earth, but how on earth did it come to this?
Like all good therapy sessions, let’s begin ours by agreeing on at least one unassailable truth: Whether you voted for him or not, it is astonishing to see someone like Trump standing behind the presidential seal. In fact it’s jarring. He appears to represent a disturbance in the natural order. Presidents, as we have known or read about them for two centuries, do not speak or act as he does. He’s more than a little gauche. He revels in his ignorance of policy. He often is not just inarticulate but disjointed and incoherent of thought and speech to a degree that seems medically significant. He is not just brash and unconventional but peevish to a degree that seems pathologically adolescent. His juvenile tweets against political opponents all sound like some variation of “Your mother wears army boots!” But gravely, there is more.
While standing on a stage before thousands of cheering supporters, he exhorted the crowd to “knock the crap out of” and “beat the hell out of” anyone they saw getting ready to throw a tomato his way. At another rally he waxed nostalgic, as a protester was being removed by police, for the old days when such people would have been “carried out on a stretcher,” adding that he would like to “punch him in the @#$ @#$ @#$#” himself. (I can’t say for sure what Trump wanted to punch, because the words were too crude to be broadcast on TV.) All that is old news by now, I know, but stay with that thought for a moment. It’s so easy with Trump, the human five-alarm fire, to rush along with the water buckets to the next conflagration and forget the one before. Instead, just let “knock the crap out of him” sink in a bit. Ask yourself: when did words like those become anything other than ipso facto disqualifying for any presidential candidate? Who in national political life would ever be so bereft of tact and judgment to say such a thing? I’ll tell you who—the same guy who stood on the stage of a nationally televised presidential debate, watched by astonished millions around the world, and reassured them about the size of his penis. Yes, that really happened. And yet he still won. No wonder the staff at The New York Times are losing their minds.
To dismiss Trump simply as a jackass and a one-off who ran against an exceptionally weak candidate in a fluke election is dangerously naïve. President Knock-the-Crap-Out-of-Him and Grab-Them-By-The-Pussy could not have won unless an unseen, epochal shift in the tectonic plates of the American psyche had occurred first. Look more closely and you’ll see that Trump didn’t so much upend the natural political order as successfully exploit changes that were occurring long before he arrived on the scene.
Many on the left would say that the debasement of American political life began with Nixon and Watergate, but that would be unfair to Nixon, who after all was punished spectacularly in a way that Bill Clinton was not. Nixon’s humiliation and political death reinforced the national consensus at the time that no man is above the law, whereas Clinton’s narrow escape and political resurrection established exactly the opposite consensus twenty-five years later—with corrosive effect on the nation’s moral sensibility.
I, for one, find the first seeds of America’s current political dysfunction not in Watergate but in the sands of Chappaquiddick. People still remember the bridge on that island where Teddy Kennedy drove off the road in the summer of 1969, sending Mary Jo Kopechne, a young volunteer from his brother Robert’s presidential campaign, to her death. People still recall the news that after freeing himself from the wreckage and swimming to the surface, Kennedy walked past several lighted houses on his way back to Edgartown without stopping to call the police, choosing to swim back across the channel to his hotel in Edgartown in the dead of night and crawl into bed. He never, in fact, called the authorities and gave conflicting statements about whether he even informed his friends of what had happened. He was in Edgartown on the phone to his advisors to plan damage control the next morning when by chance, two fishermen spotted a car deep in the clear water under the bridge. A diver was summoned who retrieved Mary Jo’s body and then Kennedy’s car, where the diver found evidence Mary Jo had lived by breathing an air pocket in the overturned vehicle for two hours or more after the initial plunge—easily enough time for him to have reached her alive if he had been called promptly the night before. Many suspect she slowly suffocated to death, alone and cold in the darkness, no doubt believing to the bitter, frenetic end that help was on the way, if only because no decent man would fail to summon it.
Kennedy, who at the time of the accident had just come from a private bash in a friend’s cottage hosted in honor of Mary Jo and other “Boiler Room Girls” of his brother’s campaign, received a suspended sentence merely for leaving the scene of an accident. Despite evidence sufficient to convict him of manslaughter, he served no jail time for a crime that has put lesser mortals behind bars for years. But he didn’t just escape justice for his recklessness; he went on to be reelected to the United States Senate by the credulous citizens of Massachusetts in a landslide the following year and in every election for the next thirty years. He was lionized over the remainder of his career by a Democratic Party increasingly desperate for heroes and by Republicans eager to profit from his friendship. You can be sure, when the “Lion of the Senate” roared forth his moral condemnations at each gathering of the Democratic faithful, no one in the press or the party dared mention the past unpleasantness.
Without condoning for a moment Trump’s many contemptible outrages, you tell me: what should bother voters and preoccupy members of the press more—a man who once fat-shamed a Miss Universe contestant, or one who abandoned a woman to a slow, agonizing death while he went home to plan his political future? Think voters don’t pay attention to such things? I think many did and still do. Americans watch and learn from their leaders like children watch their elders. Most of them can spot a phony a mile away. The problem is that when Americans look around the political landscape, lately, phonies are increasingly all they can see. And the more they watch, the more cynical they become.
Of course, the bonfire of America’s political vanities didn’t stop with Chappaquiddick. What more could possibly be said of Bill Clinton’s shameful tenure in the national spotlight? We need hardly speak of the allegations of perjury, rape, attempted rape, intimidation and harassment by several women in accusations, counter-accusations, lawsuits, and investigations so convoluted it would take a Ken Burns docudrama to explain them in full. We need hardly speak of the bald faced lies about Monica Lewinsky, the enlistment of unwitting cabinet members to defend his lies, and a suspiciously timed military intervention overseas that seemed part of an effort to cover up, distract and deflect from those colossal acts of hubris. Yet in all this the Democratic Party leadership was hardly a profile in courage. On the contrary, many barely blinked at the charges and cheered when Clinton beat impeachment on a partisan Senate vote. Remember Bill Clinton’s triumphal, cinematic entrance at the 2000 Democratic Convention? There he was—the disgraced lawyer, his law license soon to be suspended, having been found in contempt and fined $90,000 by a federal judge for lying under oath, the only president to be impeached in more than a century and one of only two in American history—striding triumphantly toward the stage through a tunnel, clapping and smiling for the camera like a winning quarterback about to take the field. Can I get a WTF? Where was the humility? Where was the lesson to millions of Americans that the same rules apply to everyone—that when you break the rules spectacularly and publicly there will be spectacular and public consequences, and that if only by the partisan wheedling of your friends in the U. S. Senate you manage to escape those consequences, the least you can do is have the decency not to spike the football.
But for all that can be said of the shadowy depths to which Bill Clinton took us, George W. Bush more than matched him atop mountains of political stupidity. What more can be said of the Iraqi invasion than what General Colin Powell, Bush’s chief apologist at the time, revealed in his memoir, It Worked for Me: that the president led the world into a senseless, catastrophic war on the strength of an unverified report of weapons of mass destruction in mobile van launchers that our allies had already dismissed as bogus, given to him by a single, un-vetted CIA informant tellingly code-named “Curveball.” Indeed, what more can be said than the words conservative commentator George Will used to describe Bush’s invasion: “the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the country.”
The people around President Bush regarded themselves and asked us to regard them, like those who had served under President Kennedy, as “the best and the brightest.” These were the Brahmins, the A-students, the experienced foreign-policy hands that Americans were told knew how the world worked. Bush and his team were going to bring Jeffersonian Democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, but they failed because they knew less about Islam and the centuries-long history of tribalism in those regions than a high school student might have gleaned from a casual reading of Marco Polo’s Journal.
Bush was wrong about Iraq, yes, but more to the point, he and his enablers in the Republican Party were (and remain) unrepentantly wrong. The exhibit on the Iraqi invasion in the George W. Bush Presidential Library reads like a child’s bedtime story, with a courageous president rescuing the Iraqi people as a white knight would free a princess from the castle tower. When the former president was interviewed by Bob Schiffer at CBS, years after the WMD threat had been revealed as a ruse and amid the ensuing debacle that has now destabilized the entire region, Bush incredibly could not bring himself to say he regretted his decision to invade. Jeb Bush’s hesitation to concede the same obvious point was chiefly the reason for his early implosion in the 2016 presidential campaign. By contrast, Donald Trump’s willingness to loudly and unambiguously acknowledge the terrible tragedy of that decision—albeit at no political cost to himself, as he hadn’t made it—was one of the reasons for his early rise. America can take failure. Admitting and overcoming failure is deep in the national DNA. But Americans won’t stand for lying and prevaricating and excuse-making about failure.
There are some echoes of Vietnam in the nation’s disillusionment over Iraq, but there are important and disturbing differences. Very quickly after the humiliating defeat in Vietnam, America’s political class acknowledged the mistake of that war and the failure of political leadership and foresight that got us into it. In 1974, well before the last American helicopter had left during the Fall of Saigon, President Ford granted conditional amnesty to thousands of American draft dodgers and deserters. On his first day in office, President Carter removed any further moral ambiguity about opposition to the war by making amnesty unconditional. Our entire society had embraced and was changed by the ethos of the anti-war movement within two years after we left Vietnam. What had been the counter-culture quickly became the culture. The nation has seen nothing like that kind of public candor and clarity and remorse from George W. Bush and his fellow establishment Republicans even now, fourteen years after the Iraq invasion—and it desperately needs to.
The deficiency in Jimmy Carter’s leadership and political skills notwithstanding, Americans’ enthusiastic support for his election in 1976 represented a hopeful response to the tragedy of Watergate and Vietnam and—most strikingly in contrast to the election of Trump—a turn toward the public morality, rectitude, spirituality, and social consciousness that Carter exemplified. Sadly for our times, the election of Trump seems to represent a much more cynical turn toward just the opposite impulses—moral indifference, vulgarity, materialism, a zero-sum, we-win-you-lose isolationism, and me-first selfishness. Why is this so?
Through examples far more numerous than those I have recounted, here, our leaders have gradually taught us not to expect, in public life, what Benjamin Cardozo once defined as justice: “the synonym of an aspiration, a mood of exaltation, a yearning for what is fine and high.” Certainly Hilary Clinton, with her constant prevarications during the 2016 campaign and seeming utter inability to take personal responsibility for anything until it was foisted upon her, usually by subpoena, did nothing to alter that impression.
I wish I could say President Obama’s election was a ray of hope amid the gloom if not a contrarian trend. Obama made huge mistakes during his tenure, but they were more often mistakes of policy, ideology, and naive utopianism than hubris or malice. Even most of those who fiercely disagreed with him still regard him as a decent and honorable man, driven by his ideals, who did nothing overtly to embarrass himself or his nation during his eight years in office. But the singular enthusiasm of millions of voters in both parties for the election and re-election of the first black president so overwhelmed all other factors in his support as to make it difficult to draw broader conclusions about American society from his victories. If Barrack Obama had not run in 2008 we almost certainly would have welcomed President Hilary Clinton that year, and for reasons I trust are now obvious even to her supporters, she was never the vanguard of a new era of candor and moral clarity in American politics.
With the euphoria of Obama’s victories now a distant echo, the message from the American people to conventional politicians and their enablers in the press is clear: we don’t believe you anymore, we don’t care what you think, and all things being equal, we’d just as soon elect a candidate who feels as we do. Contrary to much of the conventional punditry that sees Trump’s election as an uprising of “the working classes” against “the elites,” I expect Trump’s support is much broader across upper income and education levels than anyone supposes. Contempt for the political classes is not the sole franchise of the poor. Plenty of people with graduate degrees think the system is a sham and that the politicians desperate to maintain their place within it are self-interested hucksters. Viewership of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” where political hypocrisy and selfish intrigue are served up in heaping helpings each week, is highest among New York Times readers. The catastrophic polling errors of the 2016 election could not have been possible without hoards of affluent, college-educated voters publicly denying the support they gave Trump in the privacy of the ballot box.
Wither, then, O Ship of State? It has been said that character is destiny. If so, Trump’s destiny is not a happy one, but his destiny need not be ours. The journey back from the precipice begins with acknowledging the wisdom of Pogo: “I have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The American people have an endless optimism and capacity for renewal. We have come to this sad junction because our leaders have brought us here. Trump is not the cure but a symptom of the disease and the natural evolution of the cynicism of our politics. He can be beaten, but only by the truth, not by posturing and name-calling and fear mongering about Russia and rigged elections—all sports at which he has Olympic abilities.
Whose truth, you ask? We could start with George W. Bush at the podium of the next Republican convention, finally beginning to heal the nation with the words, “I made a terrible mistake in invading Iraq, with disastrous consequences for America and the world,” followed by a conversation about why we should ever again trust a member of the Republican establishment with our foreign policy.
We could start with Hilary Clinton at the podium of the next Democratic convention, revealing “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” to be the dangerous and appalling lie it is,” and apologizing for the decision to invite Michael Brown’s mother, who stood by her husband as he incited a group of rioters in Ferguson with shouts of “burn this bitch down,” to stand on stage in a place of honor at the 2016 convention —as if Brown’s robbery of a convenience store, his fatal decision to assault a police officer, and the subsequent looting and burning of a Midwest town said something instructive about the modern black experience in America. Americans well know there is racial injustice as well as police brutality, but the Democratic Party has sought to trade on the cynical falsehood that police departments across the nation, today, disproportionately target black suspects with lethal force. A public repentance for that cynicism would begin to show voters in both parties that Democrats are actually serious about solving the pressing problems of the nation, not just stoking grievances for political gain.
In short, all we need to ignite the next American Renaissance are leaders willing to tell us the truth—even if it seems at first that the truth will cost them their political viability. It is precisely because candidates have so long been willing to lie to them that voters see no downside in electing a charlatan like Trump. If politicians will but tell the painful truth, they or those that follow in their footsteps will succeed beyond their wildest dreams. In so doing, they will teach voters a new code of optimism, charity and fraternity to replace Trump’s jungle code of one-upmanship, insults and reprisals. Most of all, we are in need of a model to follow whose conduct and character we can emulate in returning to a vision for America that is fine and high. Let’s hope she is already on her way.