In reviewing pieces I had written many years ago, I…
President Donald Trump, Enfant Terrible
February 23, 2017
Donald Trump has been president for a handful of weeks, and it has already been frustrating, excruciating, exhausting, and enraging. The purpose of this essay is to examine why I am so angry, how I can control that anger so it does not drive me crazy, and to make a rational plan for the next four years and how I can react best to the problem that is President Donald Trump.
Off the top of my head right now I can list several major sins of Trump in his campaign and presidency so far:
- For years being one of the leaders of the risible “birther” brigade, accusing President Obama of being born outside of the country and therefore ineligible to be President, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
- Accusing Senator John McCain of being a faux war hero for being captured by the North Vietnamese;
- Making fun of U.S. Army Captain Humayun S.M. Khan’s (died in Iraq war) family after they criticized Trump;
- His wife Melania’s plagiarism of her Republican Convention speech;
- Refusing to release his tax return forms, as all major presidential candidates have done for as long as I can remember;
- Trump’s recorded comments about “grabbing women by the pussy” and “getting away with it as a celebrity”;
- Claiming to not respect the results of the election, if he lost it;
- Flirting with the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, holding him up as more of a model for America and Americans than Barack Obama;
- A poorly thought out and hastily rolled out travel ban (later struck down by the courts) that created chaos (and protests) in American airports;
- Caught in lie after lie in public pronouncements as president, in a sort of milieu of “alternative facts” that do not bear up under scrutiny.
Clearly Trump has contributed much to the coarsening of American public life. I am sort of amazed that anyone would vote for Trump after so many missteps and gaffes. Many candidates have suffered political death for less.
A friend of mine who likes Trump said to me, “We live in the Kardashian era of reality TV in America. Trump is necessary therefore in order to beat Hillary in the general election. The ills Trump brings are survivable and worth it to win. We are not electing a pope.” Alas. We shall see how this Faustian bargain some conservatives have with Donald Trump works out over the next few years. “He might be a bully and a world-class narcissist, and I wish he would get off Twitter and shut his mouth sometimes, but he will give us conservative pro-2nd amendment judges and an immigration crackdown!” These Republicans have sold their souls to Donald Trump. We shall see how that works out in the end.
I am not given to intemperate political engagement. I like politics to be moderate and consensus-seeking. I am a radical centrist. I am no provocateur, shaking my fist at my political opponents. But Trump seems to have brought that out in me like no president in my previous 49 years. It angers and steals energy from the rest of my life. On a daily basis. I don’t expect politicians to be “sexy” or “cool” or to “fix everything.” I want them to responsible – the “adults in the room” – and to serve the public as well as possible through the democratic process. I expect them to be thus. Trump goes against all that. He is a divisive, dark figure. An authoritarian blow-hard who makes problems worse, not better. A “cultural warrior.” A bully. Trump is a political novice and new convert to the deeper ideas of others, but his real skill is to bring to an audience in an entertaining manner the gloss of these ideas. As a political leader, Trump himself is out of his depth. The brains behind Trump’s rightist-populism are Stephen Miller and Stephen Bannon. Trump offers simple solutions to complicated problems with himself as the cure. “I’m the cure! They are the problem!”
It is for the same reasons I detest leftist firebrands like Michael Moore, Cornel West, and Bernie Sanders: simple solutions offered to complicated problems via public spectacle. But at least those men truly believe their agitprop performances. Trump, a relative newcomer to politics, is just aping the ideas of others to place himself in the spotlight at the center of the show. The Founding Fathers are weeping, happy at least that that the constitutional checks and balances they instituted limit the damage of a Trump. “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” James Madison warned. Indeed.
It is maddening to me in a way that I have not been made mad before.
I have searched on Google for ways to keep my mental health in the Age of Trump; I did not find much that was helpful, so here I am trying to work it out for myself in prose. How to not allow this poison to enter into my personal life? To keep my equilibrium? To not become rigid, embittered, exhausted, and brittle? To not watch Trump damage relations with our long-term allies and to act like a wrecking ball to valuable national institutions (like the presidency)? To not despair for the future of the Republic?
So far all of President Trump’s many crises have been self-inflicted. What will happen when an external crisis arrives from abroad and the nation needs good judgement and a firm hand in an emergency – to choose wisely between a bad and a worse choice? “Trump will have experienced advisers to help deal with that,” my conservative friend would say. But in the end Trump will have to decide: the buck famously stops at the president’s desk. That scares me to no end. There is much at stake.
It can be overwhelming.
I have sat back to reflect on the bigger picture. Without success so far.
And the anger which Trump has brought out in the left has also angered me. In response to a move to deport more undocumented immigrants (sometimes known as “illegal aliens”), Latino activists have decried the government’s powers to deport almost anyone. I know next to nobody who wishes to deport the children of undocumented immigrants who have spent almost their entire lives in the United States (DACA recipients; “Dreamers”), and I don’t get upset much about immigration. But anyone in the country illegally who is caught up in a violent or otherwise serious crime? They should be deported! Yesterday. In fact, most American Latinos would agree with this when if you pushed them on it, but in the present climate the urge seems to be to circle the wagons and concede nothing to the other side. I was not opposed to the millions of deportations performed by the Democratic Obama Administration, but now many oppose the same measures when done by the Republican Trump Administration. The United States has the power to deport anyone in the country found there illegally, as do all other countries. It would take a lot of gall to argue that Mexico could/should not deport me back to the United States, if I was found to be there illegally.
Maybe it is just a natural law of polarized politics that it moves arguments to the emotional extremes where nuance is difficult and compromise impossible.
What to do?
President Trump will come and go. Hopefully, he will not do irreparable damage while in office. Most likely, he will do a lot of bad, and probably even some good (maybe inadvertently). Voters looking for radical change voted him into office, and if he takes a big shit in Washington D.C. and leaves a mess – well, that is what they wanted. And who knows? Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised by President Trump.
But I will certainly be paying attention. And voting.
But with contemporary technology via social media it is easy to never not be paying attention. 24/7 the Trump emergency via social media on the smartphone in your pocket. Nonstop and always with you. Four years – maybe eight – with so much of my time and energy occupied by Donald Trump is unhealthy. That much is perfectly clear.
I must make a conscious plan. Purposefully moderate my life with respect to time and energy spent on Trump.
Because Trump likes prompting anger and relishes a fight. He is Nixonian in playing to the divide. To the extent that Trump enrages the opposition, his political base fully approves. Trump likes to see protesters in liberal America squirm and wiggle and scream and spit into TV cameras, as do his die-hard supporters. I know conservatives (like my father) who hate liberals more than they like Trump, so they enjoy watching liberals quiver in rage and frustration because of him: this is the dark nature of American politics today. Trump himself has little interest in trying to bridge differences or build consensus. Most politicians I have idealized, like Abraham Lincoln, are cautious not to go out of their way to antagonize others unnecessarily. Trump seems to specialize in it. Abraham Lincoln was extremely careful in his use of words in a polarized Civil War America, but Donald Trump is the anti-Lincoln in this and in most other respects. Even if 52% of American disapproves, Trump can throw a political rally where his ego is assuaged by his base showing up and feeding his ego. With tens of thousands chanting your name inside a stadium, it is easy to forget the millions outside who hate you.
It is as if America elected that blowhard demagogue Huey Long president in 1936 instead of FDR!
So what to do?
How to live an ethical and decent life with my family and fellow citizens on a daily basis? How to be an engaged citizen without becoming enervated by negativity? How to pay attention to the world at large without becoming overwhelmed by the bad I see in it?
First of all, I will keep it as positive as possible. No more easy snarkiness about Trump or his supporters in private or in public. No more venting spleen just to vent spleen.
And then to clarify exactly what it is about his authoritarian, ham-handed tendencies in foreign affairs, trade, and domestic affairs which I abjure (ie. Vladimir Putin, unilateralism, anti-trade, divisiveness, press-baiting, narcissism, incompetence, swaggering arrogance) and to argue them clearly.
The cure to Donald Trump is not to be found in the spleen. It is to be found in clearness of thought. In the ability to articulate exactly what is happening, and to argue for a better course of action. And to work towards that end.
There were plenty who objected to Huey Long, Francis Coughlin, and others like them during the Great Depression. They argued their case. Time passed and the fever cooled. They eventually prevailed.
Time to do the same.
And I am not alone.
The same social media that has bedeviled me with political invective has allowed me to find similar souls in the “Never Trump” camp – Senator John McCain, Evan McMullin, Max Boot, Bill Kristol, Matt Bai, George Will, Josh Barro, and Bret Stephens.
To live unleavened by negative emotion in opposition to President Trump. To not become embittered. To live my life, raise my children, teach my students, and strive to be able to say in the year 2030 that I was proud of how I conducted myself in this difficult time for the United States. To try to set a good example for my daughters and students. To be right, in retrospect. And to retain my sanity.
Putin is watching. Other countries are watching. In a sense, democracy is on trial in America right now. History is watching. My daughters are watching.
Some might say a better way would be to take to the streets and to scream. (I never scream; nobody listens to those who scream: I learned this as a husband to a wife, father to two daughters, son to my parents, and teacher to many students.) Critics might respond, “Easy for you to say you will not allow anger to consume you. You are not going to be deported back to Mexico!”
But giving in to anger and negativity in one’s response to one’s political opponents will lead to nothing but further anger and negativity into perpetuity. Politics as combat is what got us into this mess. Donald Trump is its logical endpoint. It is the sick dance that a person like Trump on the right and his opposite Bernie Sanders on the left do. In this, I will not dance.
An inflamed body politic is given to polemic and rage. I will not contribute.
It is like Abraham Lincoln claimed 179 years ago when he argued in a divided United States of America the following:
“They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.–Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.”