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America Politics

4 lessons from the Trump years

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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
Politics Presidents

The broken presidency

I love John Dickerson for the Slate Political Gabfest and his presidential history podcast, and now I love him for his recent cover story in The Atlantic about how the office of the presidency is broken and was so way before Trump:

His central thesis is something I’ve thought about for a while: that the job of being president has become too big and darn near impossible. Long gone are the days when the president could go hiking with John Muir for long stretches without an entourage (Theodore Roosevelt) or go on a golfing vacation during a natural catastrophe without getting excoriated for callousness (Eisenhower).

The unwritten job description has bloated so much that our collective expectations for the position have become absurdly high. Dickerson interviews lots of former White House staffers from recent administrations and captures a visceral sense of the ever-increasing workload and expectations they and their presidents had to deal with.

Though this problem has been growing since the latter 20th century, I noticed it acutely during Obama’s terms, which coincided with the emergence of social media as a new means of instant mass communication and the exacerbation of an already vacuous news cycle.

Here’s Dickinson on what Obama had to deal with immediately before and after the secret meetings about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011:

an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya.

Obama is a smart guy who is capable of compartmentalizing, but this is an insane workload. And that was just one week. Missing are all the speeches after mass shootings, campaigning, and other attendant trappings of the modern office.

And then came Trump:

The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

So far Trump has upended a lot of the assumptions we’ve laid on the office of the president. In some ways this has been bad and downright nefarious (*insert about 724 scandals here*), but in another way I think it could be a blessing in disguise.

The presidency needed to change. That would have been true even if Clinton had won. Now that we’re stuck with this new reality, I think it should compel us to rethink a lot of what we’ve come to expect from the presidency.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to help with hurricane relief if he’s just going to swoop in for a photo-op.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to have a fully formed position on every domestic and foreign issue.

Maybe we shouldn’t treat the occupant of the presidency like the country’s surrogate daddy or CEO who’s untouchable by the rule of law.

This does not excuse Trump’s inexcusable behavior, which is well documented on this blog. Instead, we can view it as the straw that finally broke the presidency’s back. We ought to take this opportunity to reset our expectations about the office.

Dickerson has some ideas on how to do that: among them a non-pliant Congress, a strong Cabinet, empowered White House staff, a patient news media, an understanding public, and a self-possessed president.

If that lists strikes you as unrealistic or even absurd, you’re half right. Things change whether we expect them to or not. Here’s hoping changes to the presidency come to good.

Categories
America Politics Presidents

Trump’s Razor

Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.

— Thomas Friedman

Trump’s Razor: when presented with competing hypothetical answers to the question of Trump’s behavior, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.

Which means: Once you realize the possibility that Trump is deeply compromised, his behavior makes so much more sense.

And this, for me, is the root of our present crisis. Beneath the “America First” president totally uninterested in defending America’s democratic integrity, the businessman running a chaotic and vapid administration, the “deal maker” with no poker face whatsoever, the demagogue with no ideology but himself—beneath all that is a man in a (presently) invisible prison of his own making. Who also happens to be president of the United States.

Happy Presidents Day, everyone!