President Trump refused to back down on Friday after his White House aired an unverified claim that Britain’s spy agency secretly monitored him during last year’s campaign at the behest of President Barack Obama, fueling a rare rupture between the United States and its most important international partner. …
“We said nothing,” Mr. Trump told a German reporter who asked about the matter at a joint White House news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.” He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”
The eerie similarities between Donald Trump and Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development have already been documented. One Lucille moment came to me recently, as I absorbed the latest whiny tweets and self-pitying/antagonistic statements from the purported president and his obedient surrogates, that I thought was clarifying:
“Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer.”
In the episode “My Mother, the Car” of season 1, a whole web of Lucille’s lies is slowly revealed, and she’s finally pinned by her frustrated children who are yet again having to deal with the collateral damage of their narcissist mother’s deceit and wanton self-aggrandizement. “I just want my children to love me,” she says, in a rare moment of vulnerability.
“Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer,” Michael replies. After a pause and a moment of clarity, Lucille admits: “I’ve been a horrible mother.” But the siblings, having previously discussed how when she’d said that in the past they didn’t have the heart to confirm that realization, instead fall in for a group hug and validate Lucille, says in fact she’s been a great mother. And the old glint in her eye returns, the moment of clarity dissolving.
When I see Trump huffing about inauguration crowds and whining about protestors and complaining “the media” isn’t being very nice to him, I think of that quote: “Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer.”
So much of Trump’s wounds are self-inflicted due to his total lack of self-control and paper-thin skin. It’s why he lashes out at the faintest hint of someone not toeing his line, whether it’s Angela Merkel or John McCain. If he were able to let himself achieve a semblance of maturity, he’d be able to see why this is a bad thing.
“It’s not that Trump is wrong about how those people in society don’t respect him — he’s right about that,” writes conservative blogger Rod Dreher. “But it’s that he gives them so much power over him. And this is going to be his undoing. Character is destiny.”
(Which means we’re really screwed.)
It’s not that hard, man. If you stop lying (or repeating falsehoods or brazenly asserting things that are certifiably false or whatever you want to call it), the people who don’t like you might slowly stop assuming you’re a liar. If you treat your opponents (and allies) with respect rather than tweet insults at them, perhaps they’ll be more inclined to see you as a decent person with differing views, rather than a greedy egomaniac who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
But once you’re surrounded by sycophants and a degraded political apparatus unequipped to offer even a modicum of restraint, that chance for a moment of clarity dissolves into nothing.
He is disordered, and disorder is what he is bringing. Not just to immigrants, but to all of us.
Just after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, I wrote a reflection about George W. Bush’s place in my life as “the president of my youth.” I was a junior in college then, and had just voted for the first time. It was my first and only vote for Obama (I voted Libertarian in 2012), but the Obama presidency nevertheless will have spanned most of my twenties.
There’s no proof of this, but I assumed throughout the long 2008 primary campaign that Obama would win. Even when he was down double-digits to Clinton, I got the sense he would pull it out. With John McCain yoked to George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were in the 20s by the end of his administration, I knew he’d have a better chance than Clinton, whose unfavorables would be a liability in the general. (Which was confirmed eight years later.)
The 2008 election was unforgettable: “I inhaled frequently”, Obama winning Iowa, his Philadelphia speech, the “Obama’s an Arab” McCain rally lady, all the SNL skits, the economy crashing, and then Obama finally winning it. I didn’t go down to Grant Park for the victory rally like a lot of my fellow students; I watched the returns in my residence hall lounge, and realized as soon as California and Oregon came in that he had won. And it wasn’t even close.
Also unforgettable was the state of the economy when Obama entered office. *insert “freefall into abyss” emoji\* It’s usually true that presidents get too much blame when the economy is doing badly and too much credit when it is doing well, but the record shows how different the economy looks now compared to how it did then. I’ll leave it to the hacks and wonks to decide how much credit and blame Bush and Obama deserve for the state of their economies, but I’ll take the 2016 numbers over the 2008-09 ones any day.
The rest of Obama’s public record is widely available, thanks to the boom of social media and the ‘Net over the last decade and a half. His presidency was covered more than any other, and his persona was everywhere. Every moment I remember of him can be recalled on YouTube in an instant, sick burns and gaffes and all.
But I think the Obama I’ll remember is epitomized in this clip from a PBS town hall, answering a loaded question about gun control:
I imagine in his head he’s screaming “FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME I’M NOT TRYING TO TAKE YOUR GUNS”, but as usual, he takes a cerebral approach to a complicated issue, acknowledging the questioner’s concerns and offering a clear, thoughtful response. I happen to agree with him on this one, though that isn’t always the case. It’s his temperament and intellect that impress me. Ever aware of his position as the first black president—at once a role model and lightning rod—his self-discipline, calm demeanor, and introspective nature were noteworthy.
For some, his temperament was a liability: he was too cool, too wonky, too meek to be an effective president. But I’d venture it was a significant reason why “No Drama” Obama’s two terms were largely scandal-free compared to the Clinton, Bush, and (hooboy…) Trump White Houses. Certainly it got him into trouble at times, whether in his negotiations with Congress during the Obamacare fight or when navigating the imbroglios in the Middle East. But back in 2008, those qualities were immensely appealing compared to the impulsive Texan swagger of the Bush years that did so much damage at home and abroad. That contrast has once again become evident, given the borderline-unhinged personality of the incoming administration.
As with politics in general, it’ll be hard to fairly assess Obama’s administration for a while, until we can see from the bird’s-eye view how the ripples from his actions affected the water. In the meantime we are left to bob in the wake and decide whether we enjoyed the ride or just felt queasy. I could go down the line of consequential events that happened during his tenure and grade his performance, but I suspect every good thing would have its own but. He spearheaded the Affordable Care Act’s needed reform, but yike$. He drew down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but ISIS. He and Hillary took the high road against Trump in 2016, but lost.
So it goes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the place where Obama nevertheless has remained by all appearances a loving father and husband, an avid reader, and an admirable public servant. Here at the dusk of one administration and the dawn of another, that is what I’ve been grateful for, and hope against hope to see in the future.
As a reader, librarian, and citizen, I’m going to miss this “reader in chief,” as John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chroniclecalls him:
As is amply manifest in his writing, Obama is someone who has done a lot of thinking about his place in the world, his upbringing, his uniquely American story. And, as president, he has proved himself to be just as reflective, viewing the world, as he says, in shades of gray, with nuance — qualities enhanced by a lifetime of reading.
It’s been really nice having a president who not only knows who Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, but can have intelligent, in-depth conversations with her and him. (It’s also really nice to have a new Librarian of Congress now, rather than next year or beyond. Don’t want to think about who PEOTUS would have nominated.)
And what of Obama’s successor? McMurtie:
Despite all the books that bear his name, the next president, in fact, seems to care very little about books. He tweets obsessively, at all hours, about the most trivial matters, yet he claims he doesn’t have the time to read.
“I’m always busy doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post in July. “Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”
When asked by Megyn Kelly of Fox News to name the last book he read, he answered, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters. I don’t have the time.”
“His political experience had been restricted almost exclusively to one state, and his knowledge of national and international affairs was limited to what any reasonably curious New Yorker might cull from local newspapers.”
“His nomination had been entirely unexpected, and was commonly interpreted as a device for placating the most opprobrious forces within the GOP.”
“His presidency was almost unanimously dreaded. There were those, however, who contended that he would change dramatically once he found himself in the White House.”
“It is out of this mess of filth that he will go to the Presidential chair.”
“It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.'”
Oh, you thought I might be referring to our incoming forty-fifth president? Good guess. But these quotes were instead written about Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first president and the subject of the latest presidential biography I decided to tackle: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves.
Why Arthur? I remember reading in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which is about the assassination of James Garfield, about how as Garfield’s vice president and successor, Arthur was considered a corrupt spoilsman, a GOP hack subject to the whims of nefarious party strongmen. He’d never held public office before being named vice president as a consolation prize for his wing of the Republican Party. He was New York’s quartermaster general during the Civil War but otherwise hadn’t served in the military. His sudden ascension to the presidency was greeted with a mix of dread and low expectations, and yet when he became president he managed to surprise everyone with his dedication to reform and respectability.
Hope, then, is why Arthur and why now. After the 2016 election I wanted to learn more about the man whose presidency made a good many people scoff and wring their hands in despair, yet who proved them wrong by being better than he had been—or at least clearing the low bar that was set for him.
The comparison only goes so far. Arthur practiced law, was involved in GOP politics politics for years, and proved a capable and well-regarded quartermaster during the war. He wasn’t the moral vacuum his 2016 successor is, though he also didn’t leave much time for family and was an unabashed beneficiary of the privileges his positions afforded. If anything the current president-elect compares just as much to Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child, had hired a convict as a “substitute” in the Civil War, and was “supposed to have enjoyed hanging two criminals” while serving as sheriff in Buffalo.
(Hints of Obama surfaced too: Arthur was accused by rivals of being foreign-born, first in Ireland, then later in Canada, and thus ineligible for the presidency. He also had to retake the oath of office after having first done it with a New York state judge at 2 a.m. the morning after Garfield died.)
More an exhaustive overview of Gilded Age politics than an Arthur biography, the book often felt like Reeves was more interested in tariff debates and who got appointed to which middling position than in talking about Arthur, who admittedly isn’t the most rousing historical subject. It felt a lot longer than it was, though it did drop some interesting Arthur Nuggets™ like:
He was one of a few first-generation presidents: Jackson, Buchanan, and Obama’s fathers and Jefferson, Wilson, and Hoover’s mothers were foreign-born
He spoke at the capstone ceremony of the finally completed Washington Monument in December 1884, which had been under construction since 1848
His younger sister Mary served as First Lady because his wife had died before he entered office
As Reeves writes, the presidency during the Gilded Age did not have the power it now has. Congress controlled the political movement of the day; the president was a vetoer and just kept the federal machine running by filling positions with supporters and other eager office-seekers. There also weren’t the cascading foreign crises we’re used to presidents having to manage today. “From Appomattox to the sinking of the Maine,” Reeves writes, “the nation was preoccupied with its own internal developments.” Moreover, Arthur didn’t really want the job. He was forced into it and surprised everyone with how he handled it.
Someone who understood this at the time was Julia Sand, a young disabled woman from New Jersey who began writing to Arthur after Garfield was shot to encourage him and offer unsolicited political counsel. She knew Arthur’s reputation, but eloquently implored him to overcome it:
Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims. It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time—when you have given reason for it—the country will love & trust you. … It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.
Just over a year ago, I was lying on a hotel bed in Peoria, Illinois, after a day of attending sessions at a library conference, and planned to finish off my evening reading. But instead I turned on the TV (always a big mistake) and was immediately thrust into the Select Committee on Benghazi’s marathon grilling of Hillary Clinton. Watching the final two hours of this grotesque circus, I realized then that I was seeing the future.
Clinton, congenitally unable to be honest yet enduring the pressure with aplomb, battling a Republican Congress, congenitally unable to be sane. I knew then that the “Learn Nothing, Do Nothing” Republicans would hound her, right or (mostly) wrong, to infinity and beyond. I also knew then that Clinton would be our next president.
Back in March I was fairly determined not to vote for either Clinton or Trump and laid out my reasons why. I stand by them now, but wished circumstances had remained the same. In the seven months since I wrote that, the primaries concluded, leaving us with the most unqualified presidential candidate the republic has yet seen. One who, since the general election began, has proven that point over and over and over again.
So I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m not happy about it, but I’m also OK with voting for the first female president and one who is at least attached to reality. It’s cold comfort for what will be in store these next four years, which won’t be pretty, but will be a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
Tonight I was standing in a private room of a restaurant for a party when a middle-aged Asian woman in a kimono entered the room and approached me. She was holding a stack of leaflets and shoved one in front of me.
“I’d like to talk to you about who to vote for on Tuesday,” she said.
“Actually, I voted last week,” I said.
Disappointed, she continued. “OK, well, who did you vote for?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “But who did you want me to vote for?”
“Trump!” she said, quite pleased.
“There’s no way,” I replied.
She folded her arms and in an animated fashion, as if she’d prepared for this, said, “Really? Give me one reason why not.”
“I have thousands,” I said.
And at this, she turned away and walked out of the room, disappearing back into the restaurant.
Because other people around me saw me talking to this woman, I can confirm that she was not in fact an apparition or my imagination run amok. But it does make me wonder: was she the extent of the Trump campaign’s ground game in Illinois?
If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, “Goodbye cruel world.” But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.
Here’s what I do get about the Trump phenomenon: it’s real and legitimate and not to be denied. The part of it that isn’t baldly racist/sexist/etc is a well-deserved comeuppance for the policy of establishment Republicans (and Democrats, though they felt the Bern of their comeuppance) to believe the people work for the Party and not the other way around. I’m as surprised as anyone that Trump has gotten this far (just checked… yep, he is actually, literally the Republican nominee), but he didn’t arrive in a vacuum, and any political movement as potent as his demands attention.
Here’s what I don’t get: why anyone, despite all of the aforementioned reasons, would nevertheless choose to pull their voting booth’s metaphorical lever for an egomaniacal, bullshitting pig like Donald Trump to be president of the United States.
Not one of the voting blocs Trump currently finds support from would benefit from his presidency. Do low-income whites hurting in the Rust Belt actually think he’ll bring all “the jobs” back from the very places he’s made money from overseas? Do anti-immigration hardliners actually think stopping Muslim immigration is at all feasible and not blindingly unconstitutional? Do “evangelical” “Christians” actually think Donald J. Trump gives one damn about Christianity and won’t immediately throw religious freedom under the bus the moment it’s convenient?
[Also: He doesn’t want to be president. He probably didn’t expect to get to the primaries, let alone the convention, and is now as usual making it up as he goes, flitting around and stumbling into success because the rotting carcass formerly known as the Republican Party was too dead-eyed to fight off the contagion of Trumpism. This is The Producers come to life. He just wants to be on TV and will hire Roger Ailes to make it happen as soon as possible.]
Again: I get it. If you hate Obama or can’t find a job or find Black Lives Matter distasteful or want to give the finger to Mitch McConnell, Trump is the train to hop on this year.
The man is inherently, self-evidently unfit for the presidency. Denigrate Hillary Clinton for her beliefs and character flaws and hawkishness and subservience to corporate interests, but don’t say she’s unfit for the office, or God forbid, that she’s “just as bad as Trump.” A former senator and secretary of state versus a blabbering reality-TV man-child? Give me a break.
I ain’t voting for Clinton. Like Alan Jacobs quoted above, forced at gunpoint to choose between Clinton and Trump I’d choose Clinton and then pull the trigger myself. But my greatest hope this year is that Clinton demolishes TrumPence in November and becomes our first woman president. I’m sure that means more Middle East invasions, Clinton family scandals, and who knows what else. But it won’t be worse than President Trump.
I applaud the prominent conservatives and Republicans who have spoken out against their party’s nominee and the toxic cloud trailing his campaign, knowing and even hoping to damage Trump enough to prevent his election. Whether moved by principle or political calculation, it matters. They are on the record, as are the ones who have cast their lots with Trump.
People that now panic about incipient caudillismo and the dangers of a nationalist demagogue didn’t care when Bush expanded the security state, trampled on the Constitution, or launched an unnecessary war of aggression, and people that yawned at the steady expansion of government and creation of new unfunded liabilities under Bush are now supposedly alarmed by Trump’s lack of fidelity to the cause of limited government. They correctly identify many of Trump’s flaws, but refuse to acknowledge the fact that the party was already killed (or at least severely wounded) years ago during the disastrous Bush era. It was that period of incompetence and ideologically-driven debacles that shattered the GOP, and for the last seven years the vast majority of die-hard Trump foes have refused to recognize that and have chosen to learn nothing from it. They lost to Trump, but the part they can’t accept is that they deserved to lose because of their role in enabling the GOP’s past failures. Now they’re touting their abandonment of the wreckage they helped to create as if they deserve applause for running away from their own handiwork. If it weren’t so serious, it would be quite comical.
This is one of the many things that worries me about Trump’s baffling GOP takeover: that the Republican establishment types, as historically amnestic as the rest of the body politic, will blame Trump for the chaos he’s wrought upon the Party, and not the very establishment who readied this bitter harvest. They’ll write this election off as a freak accident, the result of bad timing or sour national mood or misinformed voters, and mend not one bit of the destruction from the Bush years.
In reality, though, they were toast in 2012, after Obama won re-election. I wondered then if the GOP would react to a decisive defeat with a reformist self-reckoning or with more of the same denial, delusion, and demagoguery.
If Clinton and the Democrats manage not to screw up this golden opportunity for victory (which I’m not terribly bullish on, given Clinton’s baggage and Trump’s irrational success), they too will have a reckoning and a choice to make. Bernie Sanders didn’t get this far on a whim, and what he represents to people isn’t going to disappear. In fact, in another Goldman Sachs Clinton administration, it’ll only get stronger. Who will be 2020 or 2024’s Democratic Trump? (Maybe Trump again, given he’s actually a Democrat?)