Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sunday Reading

One Year In — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

Living as we do, on what is—as hard as it may be to believe—the first anniversary of Donald Trump in power, we find ourselves caught in a quarrel between Trump optimists and Trump pessimists, and one proof of how right the Trump pessimists have been is that the kind of thing that the Trump optimists are now saying ought to make you optimistic. Basically, their argument amounts to the claim that the stock market remains up, the government isn’t suspended, and the President’s critics aren’t in internment camps. In the pages of The Economist, as in the columns of the Times, one frequently reads some form of this not-very-calming reassurance: Trump may be an enemy of republican government, and a friend to tyrants, while alienating our oldest friends in fellow-democracies, but while he may want to be a tyrant, he isn’t very good at being one. This is the Ralph Kramden account of Trumpism: he blusters and threatens and shakes and rages, but Alice, like the American people, just stands there and shrugs him off sardonically.

Those in the Trump-pessimist camp are inclined to point out not only that the final score is not in yet but that the game has only just started. In real life, as opposed to fifties sitcoms, the Ralph Kramdens tend to act on their instincts. Trump’s Justice Department has already reopened an investigation of his political opponent, after he loudly demanded it—itself a chilling abuse of power. And if, as seems probable, Trump tries to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel on the Russia investigation, we will be in the midst of a crisis of extreme dimensions.

But, even in the absence of overt criminality, Trump pessimists may also point to how degraded our discourse has already become—how the processes variously called “normalization” or “acceptance” or just “silent stunned disbelief” go on. We know that Trump fired James Comey, the F.B.I. director, because he wanted him to stop investigating contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia—and Trump announced this fact in public, despite having had subordinates come up with more plausible-sounding rationales for him to cling to. And surely no one can doubt that, had Hillary Clinton become President and, say, a meeting had then been discovered to have taken place between members of her campaign and a mysterious visitor from an autocratic foreign power offering information designed to subvert democracy, with an accompanying e-mail from Chelsea Clinton saying “Love it!,” we would now be in the midst of Clinton’s impeachment hearings, with the supposedly liberal press defending her faintly, if at all.

Meanwhile, the insults to democratic practice continue. In any previous Administration, reports that the resident of the White House had paid off a porn star to be silent about an alleged affair would be a defining—and, probably, Presidency-ending—scandal. With Trump, Stormy Daniels hardly registers at all as a figure, so dense and thick on the ground are the outrages and the indignities, so already bizarre is the cast of characters. (It’s as if we have been watching some newly discovered season of “The Sopranos,” what with the Mooch and Sloppy Steve. Who now can even quite recall poor Sean Spicer?)

Worse still, in a sense, is the degradation of memory that this circus enforces. Not long ago, Bret Stephens, who left the Wall Street Journal for the Times and has been an admirable mainstay of the anti-Trumpist movement among conservatives, wrote a touching piece about his father, and the decency of the values that he exemplified, especially when it came to the treatment of women, in the workplace and outside it. “Our culture could sorely use a common set of ideas about male decorum and restraint in the 21st century, along with role models for those ideas,” Stephens wrote. “Who, in the age of Trump, is teaching boys why not to grope—even when they can, even when ‘you can do anything’?” But nowhere did Stephens acknowledge that, less than a year ago, America did have, in President Barack Obama, a near-perfect model of male decorum and restraint, who in his own behavior and words taught boys how to be men who honored and respected women.

The point is not that what Obama did was necessarily always admirable, but that amnesia about even the very recent past has become essential to the most decent conservative politics; only by making the national emergency general and cross-party can it be fully shared rather than, as it should be, localized to the crisis of one party and its ideology. In plain English, it becomes necessary to spread the smell around so that everyone gets some of the stink on them. This is why we have to read so much undue hand-wringing about our national crisis in civic values and family piety rather than recognize the abandonment of republican values that began when the mainstays of the conservative party decided to embrace Trump instead of—as their French equivalents had done, when confronted with the same choice between an authoritarian nationalist and a moderate centrist —reject him. It is always appealing rhetorically to insist that all of us are at fault. We’re not. The attempts to pretend that the Trump era is part of some national, or even planetary, crisis, stretching out from one end of the political spectrum to the other, obscures the more potent reality. Had Mitt Romney and the Bushes not merely protested, or grumbled in private, about Trump but openly endorsed Hillary Clinton as the necessary alternative to the unacceptable, we might be living in a different country. For that matter, if, during the past year, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell had summoned patriotism in the face of multiple threats to the norms of democratic conduct, then we might not be in this mess. They didn’t, and we are.

Needless to say, the degradation of public discourse, the acceleration of grotesque lying, the legitimization of hatred and name-calling, are hard to imagine vanishing like the winter snows that Trump thinks climate change is supposed to prevent. The belief that somehow all these things will somehow just go away in a few years’ time does seem not merely unduly optimistic but crazily so. In any case, the trouble isn’t just what the Trumpists may yet do; it is what they are doing now. American history has already been altered by their actions—institutions emptied out, historical continuities destroyed, traditions of decency savaged—in ways that will not be easy to rehabilitate.

And yet there are grounds for optimism. Institutions may crumble, but more might yet be saved. Restoration may be no more than two good elections and a few steady leaders away, as long as the foundational institutions of democracy—really, no more than fair voting and counting, but no less than those, either—remain in place. Political results are far more often contingent than overdetermined, much more to do with accident and personality than with irresistible tides of history. This is what makes them controllable. After all, not long ago a rational woman won the popular vote for President, rather easily, and only a bad electoral system prevented her from taking office. Part of the power of tyrants and would-be tyrants is to paralyze our self-confidence. The famous underground societies of the Eastern European countries, built under Soviet tyranny, were exercises not in heroism but in normalcy: we like this music, this food, these books, and no one can tell us what to think about them. What has happened is worse than we want to pretend. But it happened for highly specific and contingent causes, and the means of remedying them have not yet passed.

Meanwhile, our primary obligation may be simply not to blind ourselves to the facts, or to compromise our values in a desperate desire to embrace our fellow-citizens. Any anti-Trumpist movement must consist of the broadest imaginable coalition, but it cannot pretend that what we are having is a normal national debate. The reason people object, for instance, to the Times running a full page of Trump-defending letters is not that they want to cut off or stifle that debate; it is because the implication that Trumpism is a controversial but acceptable expression of American values within that debate is in itself a betrayal of those values. Liberal democracy is good. Authoritarian nationalism is bad. That’s the premise of the country. It’s the principle that a lot of people died for. Americans never need to apologize for the continuing absolutism of their belief in it.

One Year After the March — Lena Felton in The Atlantic.

More than 100,000 protesters showed up on a warm, sunny day in New York to celebrate the anniversary of the Women’s March protests that followed Donald Trump’s inauguration as president last year. But in contrast with last year’s events, this year’s gathering was optimistic, almost celebratory. The pink pussy cat hats were out; so were the signs (“A Women’s Place Is in the Revolution,” “Grab ‘Em By the Putin,” “Shed Walls, Don’t Build Them”). Couples danced to a brassy tunes floating from somewhere down the block.

Last year, more than 400,000 protesters clogged Fifth Avenue and descended upon Trump Tower, according to the Mayor’s Office. That event was just one of the hundreds that comprised one of the largest single days of protest in U.S. history, with more than 3 million people estimated to have participated, according to crowd-size experts. No matter that the Women’s March on Washington, the original event, was borne from a single Facebook post and organized entirely ad-hoc. People then were coming together for one reason: to protest the election of Donald Trump. This year, more than 300 towns and cities across the U.S. have registered for events.

The president, for his part, needled the protesters with a tweet.

“Beautiful weather all over our great country, a perfect day for all Women to March,” President Trump tweeted. “Get out there now to celebrate the historic milestones and unprecedented economic success and wealth creation that has taken place over the last 12 months. Lowest female unemployment in 18 years!”

But for the protesters, these Women’s Marches aren’t just about opposing the president; for many, they’re about joining in a moment of cultural upheaval around issues of sexual abuse. When I spoke with Winnie Whitted, who attended the march in Austin, Texas, last year, she put it like this: “I think that #MeToo is the reason why women are coming together this year. This is now really a women’s march.”

The #MeToo movement, which was sparked by the revelation of multiple rape and sexual harassment allegations against the powerful Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, continues to be a central part of the national debate over sexual abuse.

Since Weinstein’s downfall, many other prominent figures in media and entertainment have faced allegations of sexual abuse and harassment as women across those industries have spoken up about their experiences. It’s no surprise, then, that #MeToo and #TimesUp signs featured prominently amongst the anti-Trump ones at the march. One protester, Kirsten Herman, was holding a large black one above her head when I spoke with her. She didn’t come to last year’s march, because she “has lots” of crowd anxiety. “But I knew I had to come this year,” she said. Harassment “is such a universal thing that women have to go through all the time, and we’re done with it.”

I asked Sarah Sibilly, who marched last year, what had changed from last year to this year. “Definitely more men,” she said. “They’re probably here in solidarity more than anything.”

Daniel Robinson was one of those men. He didn’t participate last year, but said that #MeToo was the galvanizing factor this time around. “I didn’t necessarily recognize [the issue of sexual harassment] to the same degree,” he told me. “But there’s a lot more understanding of what’s going on, and realizing the importance of it really brings everyone to the forefront.”

Cindy Brummer brought her husband, Bob, along with her to the march, which neither of them attended last year. Trump “brings out the feminist” in her, she told me. She thought she had seen the end of the fight for women’s rights in the seventies, but looking at the younger generation now, she says, makes it clear that the fight is far from over.

Others I spoke with cited the nation’s current sexual-harassment reckoning as an even greater reason to protest the president, whom 19 women have accused of sexual assault. Whitted called it “crazy” that men in Hollywood, the media, and politics were getting fired while “this guy is still in office.”

Where last year’s marches were simply a rejection of Trump, this year’s events were electorally focused. The Women’s March on Washington anniversary event planned for Sunday in Las Vegas, Nevada, is being billed as “Power to the Polls” and aims to get people to register and vote ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Virtually everyone I spoke with said Democratic success in the midterms is their biggest political goal in the coming year, and see the march as a good starting point to start encouraging people to show up to polls.

Following last year’s marches, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote, “The political future depends on where Trump opponents focus their energy and whether they are adept at expanding their coalition.” This year did indeed see more women than ever before sign up to run for office, and a record 28 women were elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in the November 2017 elections. New public-opinion research conducted by SurveyMonkey also shows that Trump is losing ground amongst women—regardless of race or class—who previously supported him, a trend which will likely be consequential in the 2018 congressional midterms if it holds up.

The crucial work for the marchers still lies ahead; it’s unclear if the momentum will hold. But protesters were still hopeful: “Here we are a year later, doing it again,” one marcher, Emma Saltzberg, said. “It shows we’re here to fight and we’ll push for people to vote. You have to if you want to see change in the future.”

Charles P. Pierce:

In other political news, the Charleston City Paper informs us that Stormy Daniels is visiting a strip club in Greenville tonight:

The club is promoting the event as part of Daniels’ “Making America Horny Again Tour” days after the Wall Street Journal reported that candidate Donald Trump paid her $130,000 through a shell company one month before the 2016 election to cover up an alleged 2006 affair. Daniels is said to have signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of the alleged payoff, but years earlier she reportedly spilled all the salacious details to InTouch Magazine about having sex with the future president…”He saw her live. You can too,” reads one poster for the event posted on The Trophy Club’s Facebook page, referring to President Donald Trump’s alleged sexual encounter with the porn star. A YouTube video promoted by the club says “The Twitter Storm Sensation” is visiting for a “one-night performance.”

The first day of the government shutdown is also the anniversary of the inauguration of the president*, and if that doesn’t convince you that a Higher Power is running things, and that the Higher Power has a sense of humor best described as perverse, I don’t know what to tell you. A year ago, he stood before an embarrassingly small crowd on the steps of the Capitol and gave the worst inaugural address in American history, even worse than the one that actually killed William Henry Harrison. A year ago Sunday, he sent his press secretary out to lie about the size of the crowd, and we were pretty much off to a year of actual American carnage.

The most striking thing about the extended burlesque in the Senate as Friday night became Saturday morning was the almost complete lack of urgency in the chamber. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, now presiding over his second government shutdown, held the cloture vote on the House’s continuing resolution open for hours after it had clearly failed, and in a resoundingly bipartisan manner.

As minutes became hours, ad hoc bipartisan groups of senators—Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake, Maggie Hassan and Elizabeth Warren?—gathered and dispersed, like small flocks of birds, but there was no real sense that a real emergency was going on around them. There was an endless trail of rumored deals—A two-week CR? Three weeks? Pledges to deal with the Dreamer kids later?—and an equally endless train of broken promises.

“The bottom line is that time only matters if there’s will,” said Lindsey Graham, as he briefly held out hope for a three-week funding compromise that he was pushing. “I may live to eat these words, but the Congress is beginning to realize that the American people expect more of us. Between the soldier in the field and the DACA recipient, we have some real-world reasons to get our act together and grow up, I may be wrong, but I think we’re getting there.”

He was wrong. According to Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, the last real chance went a’glimmering on Friday when he spent a lot of time negotiating with the president*, and even offered a substantial concession regarding the president*’s stupid wall, only to have White House chief-of-staff John Kelly call him to tell him the framework under discussion was too liberal.

What became clear was that a) that there is a serious faction that wants the Dreamer kids out of the country, and that this faction includes Kelly, who apparently has been appointed President For Immigration Matters, xenophobic madman Stephen Miller, and Senator Tom Cotton, the bobble-throated slapdick from Arkansas, and b) that the president* himself has decided to decide by not deciding, and to lead by not leading, and that he believes the essence of being presidential is agreeing to deals that Kelly will talk him into reneging the first time he gets the president*’s ear.

Maybe gushing about a guy just because he once was a general wasn’t the best idea professional pundits ever had. Kelly’s tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security, during which he unleashed ICE to run amuck, should have hipped us all to that. As for the fact that the president* has abdicated his obligation to lead, and that his word in negotiations is not to be trusted, hell, everybody’s used to that by now. Which is probably why nobody seemed to be in any rush to get anything solved.

So, no deal was reached. Nothing happened. McConnell finally closed out the vote. And, as Saturday dawned, both Houses remained in session. The president*, or someone like him, got out the electric Twitter machine.

So the “DACA kids” are now “illegal immigrants,” and the guy who killed at least two deals in the past 10 days is complaining about how nobody wants to negotiate with him. His alleged former inamorata is doing a VIP show at a strip club not far from the godfearing campus of Bob Jones University And we have had a year of this now, a year in which we’ve all been living in what the nuns used to call, “the near occasions of sin.” Things are looking up!

Doonesbury — Worth a shot.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. I understand he’s now pouting about missing his one-year celebration party in Florida (where he has gone a third of the time in office – which we’re paying for). So he’s glued to the tube and watching reruns of his greatest hits in which he accuses Barack Obama of a failed presidency. Over and over again. “Let those guys in Congress deal with the shut down . . . I’m busy”.

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