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America Politics

4 lessons from the Trump years

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/64/Donald_Trump_Greenville%2C_South_Carolina_February_2016.jpg/800px-Donald_Trump_Greenville%2C_South_Carolina_February_2016.jpg

It’s been a tradition on this blog since its inception to do a kind of presidential postmortem for the outgoing commander-in-chief (see Bush and Obama), assessing both the political takeaways and my personal life during their administration. (I planned to publish this on Inauguration Day, but as the actual end date of the Trump administration is now up in the air I figured I’d just let it fly now.)

On the personal front, the Trump years coincided with a very consequential period of my life. I had a baby. I bought a house. Like everyone else I saw my life transformed by a pandemic. For those reasons alone this epoch will remain very memorable.

As for the politics and public happenings, well, I have hitherto not been secretive about my thoughts on the soon-to-be-former president. But as this exercise is meant to take a bird’s-eye view of things, here are four lessons from the Trump presidency.

1. Hypocrisy is cheap

Accusing someone of hypocrisy is very satisfying. The problem is it doesn’t achieve the intended goal of shaming someone into changing their beliefs or behavior. Instead it does the opposite, making the accused feel defensive and therefore much more likely to double down on their beliefs regardless of the facts—and probably just deploy whataboutism, one of many cheap logical fallacies for people who lack any affirmative argument for their own stance.

Pointing out that Mitch McConnell was a hypocrite for allowing the nomination and vote for a Supreme Court justice in an election year (an election week!) might be true, but so what? Like he cared? Similarly, pointing out Joe Biden’s history of inappropriate sexual behavior and Kamala Harris’s criticism of this before becoming his Vice President are hypocritical to their anti-Trump message was unlikely to sway most like-minded supporters against voting for them.

Perhaps this comes off as pessimistic, but it’s just a realistic understanding of human nature. Politics is people. Accusations of hypocrisy, however tempting, are just not effective for persuading your ideological opponents to help you achieve a political objective.

2. Presidents should tweet more (but better)

Hot take: it’s a good thing Trump used Twitter so actively.

To be clear, I’m not talking about his actual tweets, which were occasionally anodyne but most often downright deranged and completely unbecoming a head of state—so much so they got him rightfully banned from Twitter.

Rather it was the act of tweeting itself that represented a sea change in how to adapt the presidency’s traditional “bully pulpit” to our globalized, tech-infused zeitgeist. Trump wasn’t the first president to use Twitter, but he was the first to weaponize it.

We didn’t have to wait to hear the president’s thoughts filtered through press secretaries and sanitized speeches; we often got it straight from the source, immediately and with vigor. This is a trend outside of politics as well, with celebrities and athletes using the direct nature of social media to cut out meddling middlemen and control their own message as far as they’re able.

The downsides to this change are obvious. It’s not good for anyone—let alone the president—to be Too Online and so easily distracted by, as Spiro Agnew would put it, the “nattering nanobs of negativity” on social media. And when the president uses said bully pulpit to spew insane conspiracy theories, spearhead crusades against opponents (and just as often allies), sling obvious lies, and foment insurrection against his own government (!), it’s easy to see why it’s not worth any of the potential upside.

But with a more salutary person and message behind it, this strategy can benefit more than just a politician’s addled ego. It can show the country and the world that the president is paying attention to what’s happening and intends to use their influence to affect change—hopefully for the better.

Certainly this won’t happen in the Biden administration, as his campaign’s key (and clearly successful) strategy was to remain on the defensive and avoid social media squabbles. But odds are the next president who isn’t a senior citizen will take their tweeting to the next level.

3. Federalism is good

This isn’t something I learned under Trump, but I did appreciate it anew. Federalism is generally defined as the balance of power divided between the federal government and the states. Critics will point to how “states’ rights” has historically been used as a coded justification for perpetuating unjust laws (e.g. slavery, segregation). This is indeed unfortunate for many reasons. But the concept of states’ rights is, on the whole, good, and the proof of this is the 2020 election.

Though I’m sympathetic to arguments against the Electoral College, I think every patriotic American should be grateful our elections are administered and certified by counties and states rather than a centralized national authority. Can you imagine the executive branch being in charge of elections? Especially this executive branch?

When you extend that reasoning to other issues, you can see why it’s valuable for states to act as built-in safeguards against very real autocratic threats against our very fragile democratic system. The reason Trump tried so ardently and pathetically to cudgel Georgia’s Secretary of State into committing voter fraud (to cite one of many documented examples of his malfeasance) is because as president he legally can’t do anything else.

Cheers to federalism!

4. The presidency is broken, but it still matters

I wrote early in this term about the position’s inherent brokenness. A lot of what was controversial about Trump’s actions as president happened not only because of his decisions but because the existing infrastructure around him—or rather lack thereof—allowed it. “Norms”, after all, are only useful as guardrails against wrongdoing until someone abnormal or shameless comes along and completely ignores them.

And even then, since Congress only applies its accountability powers selectively and on partisan terms, anti-corruption laws that do exist are rendered moot if those in charge of enforcing them lose their nerve. As such, Americans are very often at the mercy of executive action.

(As fake Abraham Lincoln says in Lincoln: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”)

Thus the presidency becomes what its occupant makes of it—for good and ill. There were many examples of this during the last four years, but the response to Covid-19 was the perfect synecdoche for all of them. This was an instance where lack of executive action proved severely costly in lives and livelihoods.

Covid-19 really was the perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to shine. He’s very anti-China, very germaphobic, and very enthusiastic about closing borders and keeping out foreigners. Even unpopular leaders in other countries saw their approval ratings rise due to their strong responses to combating the coronavirus, and yet Trump’s cratered and most likely cost him reelection.

It’s important to point out that the economic and medical devastation related to Covid-19 in the United States is not solely Trump’s fault. We know lots of factors contribute, as even other countries that were much more responsive have struggled to contain it. But his indifference, even contempt, toward basic preventative public health measures and the idea of helping anyone who didn’t profess sufficient fealty to him indicated severe myopia at best and destructive nihilism at worst.

This abdication of leadership has contributed to (as of today) over 375,000 American deaths and a record-high 81 million votes against him in 2020. Combine that with all the ways Trump chose to actively wield his executive power for ill—or for his own financial gain—and he becomes the perfect archetype for the kind of person who should never be in any position of power, let alone the presidency.

Grand Old Covfefe

The Trump presidency was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. I largely agree with everything David Frum wrote about the good that came out of this administration. To ignore that is to deny reality, which is something I’ll leave to the “Trump won the election” mob.

I sincerely hope this is the last time I feel compelled to write about Trump, either Donald or any other. I’m sick of his depravity, stupidity, the braggadocio mixed with impotence, and most of all the malice. Over the last few years I have called him (or quoted someone calling him) a cancer on the republic, chaotic and vapid, playing havoc with our lives, a “marvelously efficient acid bath”, and more.

Over and over again I have, sadly, been validated. Words from “Your Obedient Servant” from Hamilton come to mind (directed, notably, at another American insurrectionist):

I stand by what I said
Every bit of it
You stand only for yourself
It’s what you do
I can’t apologize because it’s true

Trump will soon be gone from his presidential perch. But even then he will remain the summum bonum of the GOP, what was once a functional conservative party but is now, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “a paranoid, delusional personality cult.”

I greatly respect the conservatives and Republicans who have dissented from this delusion, who have seen Trump for what he is and proclaimed such at great cost. These people retain the conscience of the once Grand Old Party, but unfortunately not the control.

Categories
Music

Favorite Albums of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and films of the 2010s.

Listed alphabetically by artist, here are the albums from the last 10 years that sustained and entertained me:

Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge. Favorite track: “City of Refuge”

The Book of Mormon Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “You And Me (But Mostly Me)”

case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs. Favorite track: “Atomic Number”

Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong. Favorite track: “A Little Bit of Everything”

Good Old War, Come Back As Rain. Favorite track: “Amazing Eyes”

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “One Last Time”

Ingrid Michaelson, Songs for the Season. Favorite track: “Auld Lang Syne”

Joe Pug, Messenger. Favorite track: “The First Time I Saw You”

John Mayer, Born and Raised. Favorite track: “Queen of California”

The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain. Favorite track: “Jack Sparrow”

Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams. Favorite track: “Ends of the Earth”

Lucius, Wildewoman. Favorite track: “Turn It Around”

The Okee Dokee Brothers, Through the Woods. Favorite track: “Walking With Spring”

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Favorite track: “First Snowfall”

The Tallest Man On Earth, The Wild Hunt. Favorite track: “Troubles Will Be Gone”

Categories
Arts Music

Hamilton and what makes a healthy republic

My wife’s surprise typewritten handiwork. I’m a lucky guy.

The Show

Ready for a hot take? Hamilton: An American Musical was really good.

I assumed I wouldn’t see it for years, as tickets are prohibitively expensive in Chicago. But it was a surprise anniversary gift from my wife (musical theater tickets are the traditional Year 3 gift, right?) along with a special ticket she made to stand in for the digital ones. Best of wives, best of women!

It was a funny thing to finally see before my eyes what for years had only streamed through my ears. Since the cast recording basically is the whole show, I knew the plot and what to expect from song to song. But I also knew the staging would add a whole new layer to the story the music itself tells so well. It definitely did.

Several songs were even better on stage. “It’s Quiet Uptown”, which I usually skip over on the album, was devastating in its simplicity. And “The Reynolds Pamphlet” made kinetic use of the double-turntable floor, the pamphlet props, and the whole cast and chorus.

Special shout-out to Jamila Sabares-Klemm, who played Eliza with stunning range and vocal power, and Colby Lewis, who played LaFayette and Jefferson with a delightful flair.

The Book

After seeing the show I checked out Hamilton: The Revolution from the library. It’s essentially book-length liner notes accompanied by essays about the cast and creation of the show. The highlights of the book are the lyrical annotations by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He clearly delights in paying homage to the artists and works he quotes in the show, and adds great insight to his creative process. (“Farmer Refuted” is a short but brilliant burst of layered lyrical ingenuity.)

He also calls attention to certain lines that deserve a deeper reading. I know it’s easy for me to lose the meaning of words I’ve listened to a lot unless I really try to think about them. That was the case for the excerpt from Washington’s actual Farewell Address, featured in “One Last Time”:

I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.

The benign influence of good laws under a free government are, I realize now, an excellent triad of ideals that characterize a healthy republic.

An unhealthy one, conversely, would be an oppressive government that institutes bad laws with malignant influence on its citizens. What exactly constitutes oppression and bad laws and malignant politics is a debate as old as America itself, as Hamilton so brilliantly shows. Particularly in Act II with “The Room Where It Happens” and “Cabinet Battle #1” and “The Election of 1800”.

Ron Chernow rightly calls the show “American history for grownups” because it doesn’t sanitize the people in it, nor their methods for achieving their political goals. I’m so glad I got to see it, and recommend it if you ever have the chance to see it somewhere near you.

Categories
Film

Who Tells This Story

I remember reading the Hamilton-Burr chapter of Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis at least ten years ago and thinking, How is this not a movie yet? The inherent drama of the story, a true one at that, begs for one. I didn’t expect at the time that story would find its (gargantuan) acclaim ten years later as a musical rather than a film. Assuming the Hamilton musical is being developed for the screen, I would still like to see a non-musical film dedicated to the duel specifically. The version in my head would be directed by David Fincher, and star Michael Fassbender as Hamilton and Paul Bettany or Rufus Sewell as Burr. Sewell played Hamilton in the John Adams miniseries, but I think he looks more like Burr, and his role in The Man in the High Castle demonstrates his strong ability to balance humanity and nefariousness.

Get on it, Hollywood.

Categories
America Politics Presidents

How to Win My Vote

south-park-vote

My first presidential vote was in 2008 for Barack Obama. It’s a vote I will never regret, despite the mixed results of the Obama administration. But in 2012 I didn’t vote to re-elect Obama, despite being generally supportive of his presidency and against the prospect of Mitt Romney. I voted for the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson—largely for the reasons Conor Friedersdorf laid down at the time—and wrote-in my deceased grandfather for some of the smaller offices.

All this to say: winning my vote in 2016 has become an uphill battle for the major parties. The specter of Hillary Clinton from the Democrats and (vomits) Donald Trump from the Republicans has further galvanized my already enhanced reluctance to vote for either corrupt, craven, duplicitous party.

Being a resident of a solid-blue state, my vote won’t count for much come November. But here are my (non-exhaustive) conditions for each party if they want it. I await their thoughtful reconsideration of misguided priorities having to pick between a douche and a turd.

Republicans

Stop clinging to your guns. I’m a hunter; I get it. I’ve shot and killed deer and ducks, and felt the awesome power of a gun’s blast. To a certain type of person it’s intoxicating. But saying “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” completely misses the point, which is that people are dying needlessly and at a historical rate because of them. Your Baracknophobic obsession with owning guns and proselytizing for them has become pathological. You’ve lost touch with reality, which is that literally the only purpose of a gun is destruction. This reality supersedes the cultic devotion you’ve imbued in the Constitution, which believe it or not has not existed forever and was not chiseled into stone on Mount Sinai. Besides, the Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment.

And religion. America is not a Christian nation. I say that having been a Christian all my life, one who’s frustrated with the corporatization of religion and unjust wielding of power from the pulpit. You’re not helping people of faith by crying martyr and holding hands with Kim Davis. And you actively hurt people of other faiths or no faith at all, who are citizens deserving just as much representation as you do. I strongly support religious liberty and gladly practice it, while at the same time acknowledging that other religious people around the world experience actual life-threatening religious discrimination.

Start actually, you know, conserving. Treating the earth like a garbage dump is not conservatism. Laughing at climate science is not conservatism. Bowing down to the Koch brothers is not conservatism. How about let’s just work on those three things before moving on to advanced concepts like “Oil is not a renewable resource” and “Snow does not prove global warming is a hoax.”

Acknowledge that black lives matter. “But all lives matter!” Yeah, no. Maybe in your utopian dreams. In reality, where deeds matter a whole lot more than words, black lives have been enslaved, oppressed, incarcerated, ignored, and killed a whole lot more than others. The first step to changing this is admitting that’s a problem.

Don’t nominate Donald Trump. Which is a sentence that in saner times would seem self-evident, but alas. I started writing this post in the summer of 2015, when the campaign was still young and uncertain and when Trump seemed like a fad scripted by late-night comedy shows that would eventually burn out. Now here we are in March and Trump has the Republicans by their Grand Old Parts. Part of me wants him to get the nod, just so he can push the red button on the GOP implosion and hopefully begin the process of restoring the party to something resembling respectable. But if we’re looking at the big picture, having a short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office would most decidedly not make America great again.

Democrats

At least pretend like abortions are bad. Because they are. Regardless of the circumstances that lead to the pregnancy, abortion is the gruesome slaying of a nascent life. Trying to defund Planned Parenthood is a stupid, short-sighted gambit by the Republicans, but the spirit behind it isn’t. Stop treating abortion as if it’s like ordering a latte and maybe its opponents won’t have to make such desperate, futile, attention-seeking ploys to stop it altogether.

Stop treating religious people like they’re all Sarah Palin. Because they aren’t. Dan Savage likes to call quiet, non-polemic religious folk NALTs, as in “Not All Like That”—like the Palins and Cruzes and Santorums of the world, who lack any discernible shade of grey in their worldview. To the skeptical outsider, a global religion like Christianity may look like one big blurry ball of bigoted buffoons; but anyone who assumes that, and can’t or won’t see the spectrum within, isn’t qualified to say so.

Put down your pitchforks. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a great primer on the internet’s outrage-industrial complex and the irony of low tolerance among well-intentioned liberals who preach tolerance themselves. However sympathetic I am to historically oppressed people getting a voice, I cannot get behind any ideology prone to stridency and self-seriousness. Take a breath, and stop tar-and-feathering technocrats and small-town pizzerias.

Acknowledge that police lives matter. I wouldn’t want to be a cop; would you? Every one of those police shooting videos sickens me, and I almost always sympathize with whoever was the victim of overreaching power. But I never forget how fraught with danger the lives of law enforcement are, that they chose to be the person called when something bad could be happening. Please: let’s get the bad ones off the street and restrict their use of deadly force, but never forget their humanity.

Don’t nominate Hillary Clinton. I’d love to vote for a female president. Just not this female. Sure, she’s qualified and acts the part: like everyone, I loved watching her own the Republicans during the Benghazi circus of cynicism hearings and imagine we’d see a lot of that Hillary during her presidency. But that’s the problem: I prefer presidents whose lives aren’t telenovela-level public dramas, and have at least a few core beliefs they stick with even when it’s inconvenient. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton: when all is said and all is done, Sanders has beliefs; Clinton has none. (And no, I don’t “feel the Bern”… I just don’t want to climb the Hill.)