Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sunday Reading

“Inoffensive” — Masha Gessen in The New Yorker on Trump’s assault on reality.

Donald Trump’s Fourth of July address was most remarkable for the things it did not contain. Immediately afterward, commentators noted that Trump didn’t use the opportunity to attack the Democratic Party, to issue explicit campaign slogans, or, it would appear, make any impromptu additions (with the possible exception of the claim that American troops commandeered enemy airports during the Revolutionary War). The President was so disciplined on the occasion of the republic’s two hundred and forty-third birthday that Vox called his speech “inoffensive.” Slate gave the speech credit for being “not a complete authoritarian nightmare.” The Times noted that Trump called for unity, in a gesture uncharacteristic of his “divisive presidency.” The word “tame” popped up in different outlets, including Talking Points Memo, which concluded that, thanks to the President not going off script, “the whole thing was pretty standard.”

Campaign slogans and glaring Trumpisms were not the only things absent from the speech. Immigrants were missing. Trump’s most recent predecessors presided over Fourth of July naturalization ceremonies. A rhetorical link between the holiday and immigration has long seemed unbreakable. During his last Independence Day as President, Bill Clinton chose to speak in New York Harbor, against the backdrop of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. “Perhaps more than any other nation in all history, we have drawn our strength and spirit from people from other lands,” he said. “On this Fourth of July, standing in the shadow of Lady Liberty, we must resolve never to close the golden door behind us, and always not only to welcome people to our borders, but to welcome people into our hearts.” In a much-criticized series of Independence Day events in 1986, President Reagan lit the torch of the Statue of Liberty and noted the swearing in of twenty-seven thousand new citizens across the country. He also referred to the “immigrant story” of his then new Supreme Court nominee, Antonin Scalia.

That immigrant story is, of course, the story the Trump Administration has demonstratively abandoned. Last year, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. That phrase, like most foundational myths and more than some, obscures much of the country’s history: the first immigrants would more accurately be described as settler colonialists, who brought Africans here as slaves. But this was not why the Trump Administration deleted the phrase. Trump has retired the myth of America as a nation of immigrants because he staked his election campaign and his legitimacy as president on the demonization of immigrants—and on mobilizing Americans for a war against immigrants.

Trump’s American story is the story of struggle, “the epic tale of a great nation whose people have risked everything for what they know is right,” as he said in the address. Over the course of forty-seven minutes, Trump enumerated American military conquests and the branches of the U.S. armed forces. A quick listing of civilian achievement—medical discoveries, cultural accomplishments, civil-rights advancements, and space exploration—was thrown in at the beginning of the speech, but the master narrative Trump proposed was one of wars and victories, punctuated by the roar of airplane engines for flyovers and the songs of each armed-forces branch.

The narrative was also one of fear. Trump spoke like the leader of a country under siege. The President and the people who joined him onstage were in a fortress of their own, a clear protective enclosure that, streaked with rain, made for an incongruously melancholy sight, as though we were watching them through a veil of tears.

Trump extolled the strength and battle-readiness of American troops but named no current threat. He promised only to strike fear into the hearts of America’s enemies. But his audience knows who the enemy is. North Korea or China may go from enemy to partner to friend on a whim, but there is one enemy whom Trump has consistently, obsessively described as an existential threat: the immigrant.

Two days before the July 4th celebration, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General issued an urgent report on the conditions in migrant detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. Photographs in the report showed children and adults in crowded cages. Other pictures showed people in extremely crowded holding rooms raising up signs in windows, apparently attempting to attract the attention of government inspectors. The document reported “serious overcrowding” and prolonged detention that violated federal guidelines. Children had no access to showers and hadn’t been provided with hot meals. At one facility, the report said, adults were held in standing-room-only conditions. “Most single adults had not had a shower . . . despite several being held for as long as a month,” the report said. A diet of bologna sandwiches had made some of the detainees sick. The report left no doubt that “concentration camps” was an accurate term for the facilities it described. On the eve of Independence Day, the media reported the story, which looked obscene among other stories. How could we read, write, or talk about anything else?

The President responded in a series of tweets in which he blamed the Democrats and the immigrants themselves. “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!” he tweeted. Most of Trump’s tweeting day, though, was spent on other issues: railing against the Supreme Court’s decision not to allow a citizenship question on the census, for example, and hyping expectations for his Fourth of July extravaganza. In the Trumpian universe, immigrants pose a superhuman threat but are themselves of subhuman significance. Through his tweets, his attacks on the media, and his lying, Trump has been waging a battle to define reality to the exclusion of documented facts. In Trump’s reality, it’s not just that the Administration refuses to be held accountable for running concentration camps—it’s that the camps, and the suffering in them, do not exist.

The July 4th celebration, inspired by Trump’s visit to France during Bastille Day festivities in 2017 and informed by his affinity for the sabre-rattling tyrants of the world, was a high point in the President’s battle to command reality. With the possible exception of rain streaks, the pictures from the rally are his image of himself and the country. Following his speech, Trump kept retweeting images of his own limo leaving the White House, of fighter jets flying, of the red stage and a strange cross-like formation of red elevated platforms, and of himself speaking. In these pictures, Trump is the supreme ruler of the mightiest military empire in the history of the world and his people are with him in the public square. Nothing else exists.

A common maxim of the Trump era has it that two Americas exist, each with its own media and consequently limited view of the world. In fact, though, in one America there is only Trump, his tanks and planes and ships. In the America that a majority of us inhabit, however, there are concentration camps—and Trump with his flyovers. In this America, it is increasingly clear that concentration camps and the public spectacle of mobilization are not in contradiction: one is, in fact, a consequence of the other. It is also clear that the omissions of Trump’s speech are not accidental. In addition to not mentioning immigrants, Trump didn’t mention the complexity of the American project. Until two and a half years ago, Republican and Democratic Presidents regularly reminded the American public that this country’s democracy is a work in progress, that its guiding principles are a set of abstract ideals that continue to be reinterpreted.

“This union of corrected wrongs and expanded rights has brought the blessings of liberty to the two hundred and fifteen million Americans, but the struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is never truly won,” President Gerald Ford said on July 4, 1976. “Each generation of Americans, indeed of all humanity, must strive to achieve these aspirations anew. Liberty is a living flame to be fed, not dead ashes to be revered, even in a Bicentennial Year. It is fitting that we ask ourselves hard questions even on a glorious day like today. Are the institutions under which we live working the way they should? Are the foundations laid in 1776 and 1789 still strong enough and sound enough to resist the tremors of our times? Are our God-given rights secure, our hard-won liberties protected?”

Forty years later, in a much more casual celebration on the White House lawn, President Barack Obama said, “On a day like this, we celebrate, we have fun, we marvel at everything that’s been done before, but we also have to recommit ourselves to making sure that everybody in this country is free; that everybody has opportunity; that everybody gets a fair shot; that we look after all of our veterans when they come home; that we look after our military families and give them a fair shake; that every child has a good education.”

In less than three years, as our senses were dulled by the crudeness of the tweets, the speed of the news cycle, the blatant quality of the lies, and the brutality of official rhetoric, Trump has reframed America, stripping it of its ideals, dumbing it down, and reducing it to a nation at war against people who want to join it. These days, that is what passes for “inoffensive,” “tame,” and “standard.”

No Thanks, David — Jeet Heer in The Nation on dumping the never-Trumpers.

David Brooks wants your pity. As a New York Times columnist and best-selling author, Brooks has all the worldly success anyone could want, and yet he feels increasingly alienated from American politics, a self-described moderate rendered homeless by the polarization of the Trump era. The Republican Party has been captured by a belligerent oaf, while the Democrats, thanks to the leadership of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are moving to the left.

“I could never in a million years vote for Donald Trump,” Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times column. “So my question to Democrats is: Will there be a candidate I can vote for?” Alas for Brooks, he’s not sure that the Democrats will give him the moderate candidate he wants, since so many of the contenders are aping Sanders and Warren by talking about the need for universal health care and making a broader critique of the power of big business.

“Democrats have caught the catastrophizing virus that inflicts the Trumpian right,” Brooks complains. “They take a good point—that capitalism needs to be reformed to reduce inequality—and they radicalize it so one gets the impression they want to undermine capitalism altogether.”

Instead of capitalism, Brooks believes Democrats should be talking about civility. “Trump is a disrupter,” Brooks states. “He rips to shreds the codes of politeness, decency, honesty and fidelity, and so renders society a savage world of dog eat dog. Democrats spend very little time making this case because defending tradition, manners and civility sometimes cuts against the modern progressive temper.”

One could object that Brooks is overdrawing the lesson. After all, there is only one Democratic candidate, Sanders, who calls himself a socialist; even Warren insists she’s a capitalist, albeit one that feels the system needs a serious overhaul.

The best thing about Brooks’s column is his frank use of the first person singular. Although he makes gestures to other hypothetical moderate voters, he is candid that the question is whether the Democrats will nominate someone “I can vote for.” This “I” is honest, since Brooks is speaking for a tiny faction, Never Trump conservatives, who twice demonstrated in 2016 that they were a powerless rump minority in the real world of politics. Never Trump conservatives failed to stop Donald Trump from getting the Republican nomination. They then failed to mobilize a sufficient number of voters to support Hillary Clinton and keep Trump from his Electoral College victory. Yet the humiliation of these defeats has done nothing to hamper their self-confidence in offering political advice.

Although minuscule in numbers, Never Trump conservatives have an enormously outsize voice in the American mainstream media. They beloved by mainstream outlets that want to present a balanced editorial voice, but are also horror stricken by Trump’s vulgarity and corruption. Besides Brooks, the New York Times op-ed page has two other conservatives who are mortified by Trump, if not always Trumpism: Bret Stephens and Ross Douthat.

Stephens himself wrote a very similar column, although unlike Brooks he pretended to be the voice of a hypothetical average voter who was turned off by the alleged extreme leftism of the Democrats.

The Democrats, Stephens claimed, are “a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.” He added, “They speak Spanish. We don’t.” This was an allusion to the admittedly faltering efforts of Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker to say a few words en español (and the marginally better fluency of Julian Castro).

As often with faux populism, there’s an element of playacting in these pronouncements. Stephens himself was born in Mexico and speaks Spanish fluently. Moreover, he didn’t object in 2015 when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spoke Spanish during the Republican debates. Would the hypothetical nativist Republican who is so offended by the Spanish of Democratic candidates ever switch parties?

The Never Trump theory that they are the crucial swing voters who will decide presidential elections was already tried and tested in 2016. It failed miserably.

During that election, Hillary Clinton made an ardent effort to win Republican voters, especially foreign policy hawks worried about Trump’s alleged isolationism. She praised her friend Henry Kissinger; she used neoconservative dog whistles like “American exceptionalism”; and she even attacked Trump on occasion from the right, indicating he was a little too evenhanded on Israel-Palestine and not tough enough to confront Russian and Chinese leaders. Moreover, just as Brooks recommends in his column, Clinton highlighted Trump’s assault on civility, his personal crudeness.

Clinton’s pursuit of moderate suburban Republicans, what we might call the Brooks vote, paid some small dividends. She actually did better than Barack Obama with this class. But this victory came at an enormous price: It demobilized many traditional Democrats, especially working-class voters of all sorts (both white and African American).

As Princeton University history professor Matt Karp noted in a compelling post-mortem written right after the election, “In pursuit of professional-class Republicans, the Clinton campaign made a conscious decision to elevate questions of tone, temperament, and decorum at the expense of bread-and-butter issues like health care or the minimum wage. This wasn’t just a tactical move away from some culturally distinct group of ‘white working-class’ voters. It was a strategic retreat from the working class as a whole.”

Karp cites Clinton’s final ad: “Clinton’s final TV commercial exemplified the spirit of her campaign. Planted sedately behind a desk in a comfortable, well-furnished room, the Democrat condemned ‘darkness’ and ‘division’ as the camera slowly zoomed inward. Her gold necklace and bracelet twinkling in the softened light, she spoke for two full minutes about work ethic and core values without ever uttering the words ‘jobs,’ ‘wages,’ or ‘health care.’”

Clinton ran a David Brooks campaign in 2016 and tore apart the Obama coalition. She suffered the worst Democratic Electoral College results since 1988. Fortunately for the Democrats, Trump has governed as a far-right Republican, sidelining most of the economic populism he ran on, which allowed him to shave off some Obama voters. As a result, Democrats were able in 2018 to regain many of those lost voters (doing much better than Clinton in rural areas) while also holding on to the suburban voters Clinton had brought to the party. The 2018 victory was also fueled by the party’s decision to focus on a genuine economic issue, health care, rather than bemoan Trump’s personal grossness.

Never Trump conservatives like David Brooks are an interesting intellectual curiosity and often worth reading for their critiques of the Republican Party. But as political advisers they’ve had their day. Democrats don’t need their votes—and should work on motivating and energizing the base they already have.

Doonesbury — It is what it isn’t.