OUR MAN IN AMERICA

(This article first appeared in Jackal magazine in London.)

The longer I live, the more mystified I become. You’d think it would be the other way around. The more times you’ve circled the sun, the hipper you would be. That ‘s not how it’s working out.

When I was young, I was a veritable Pangloss, living in the best of all possible worlds. I was factory worker’s boy, the grandson of immigrants. We had a house, a lawn, a car. The land I lived in was free and powerful, and best of all, good. My parents said so, and my teachers and priests agreed. I was a little boy, but I knew my place in the cosmos.

Later came the larger story. The failings of the men we admired. The lies they told us. The entrenched racism that undergirded the whole society. The exploitation of workers and resources.

And yet somehow, I never lost faith. Things would work out. And maybe Pangloss was right—what did work out was the best that could have been worked out. We needed to stop whining, and get on with things.

But every week, President Trump comes out and rubs our faces in the worst of America.

The most recent example was that of Mr. Rob Porter, a staff secretary in the White House, and by all accounts, an effective manager who made a significant contribution to whatever good order was maintained in this famously chaotic administration. Unfortunately for Porter, it was revealed that he had beaten not one but two of his now ex-wives, and that the FBI knew about it, and had informed the White House. Ordinarily this type of behavior would prohibit an applicant from serving in the White House, and someone should have stopped it. Instead, he served for about a year, and the administration was embarrassed.

Big deal, right? A mistake was made. People get embarrassed every day. You swallow your medicine and move on. Except in this administration. Instead, President Trump made a public statement about this staff error.

“We wish him well,” Mr. Trump said of Porter. “He also, as you probably know, says he is innocent. . . .He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career.’
It’s not the worst thing for a president to give the benefit of the doubt to someone in trouble. In Trump’s case, a pattern has emerged: the doubt has been offered to the wife beater, a child molester, neo Nazis and Vladimir Putin, and withheld from immigrants, protesting football players,, residents of Haiti and El Salvador, American intelligence agencies, and the officials of the FBI. President Trump is quite selective about who benefits from his open mind.

But far more dismaying than Trump’s lack of integrity is that displayed by his party in Congress. For nearly all my life, the Republican Party was the scowling, serious, adult party. We Democrats were the optimistic party, the ones who thought money could solve everything, and we relied upon Republicans to be the grown ups about spending (just as they relied on us to have some heart.) But under their new tax plan enacted by the Republican Congress, , the United States is shouldering a $1.5 trillion deficit. It’s an astonishing wager, unnecessarily dumping debt onto future generations in an effort to stimulate growth in an economy that was already chugging along at close to three percent a year.

But even more than deficits, Republicans were hostile to Russia. Even Nixon, who pushed a policy of Détente, threatened to use nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union intervened in the Yom Kippur War on behalf of Egypt and Syria. Suddenly today’s Republicans have accepted the news of Russian interference in our elections with lassitude usually reserved for a rainy day. “Oh, well, too bad. I guess I’ll pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow.’ ‘ And they’re greeting the ever-mounting indications that the Trump campaign was complicit as an excuse to level mindbending accusations against the FBI.

For three quarters of a century, it was easy to be proud of being an American. We helped beat the Nazis, and then engaged in a long Cold War with a totalitarian power, and managed to steer that conflict to a peaceful end. We helped rebuild Europe after the war, and perhaps chastened by what we saw of hate run amok in Germany, we went home and struggled to address our own racial problems.

But now I see my country as though in a funhouse mirror, with up turned down and in turned out, and with every scar and blemish and wart and wattle magnified a thousand times, eclipsing all that we remembered. It is a heartsickening time to be alive.

THE SUMMER OF TRUMP

DonaldMany people were surprised that Donald Trump shot to the top of the Republican presidential polls (in an NBC poll today, he has 19% percent, to Scott Walker‘s 15% and Jeb Bush‘s 14%), but that’s only because they allowed their own tastes to prevent them from getting an accurate view of this gargantuan personality. Trump is large and comical figure–vain, blustery, selfish, self-indulgent, a bully, a baby–but he is also smart, articulate, rich, very good at calling attention to himself, at grandstanding, at making more out of whatever little or much he has accomplished. And he has accomplished a great deal–longevity, for one thing. He has been a front page of the tabloids public figure since the eighties, which is no mean feat; what few peers he has, like Madonna and Al Sharpton, are mostly jogging in place while he is riding high. He has written a bestseller, been the star of a highly rated television show, and built big buildings and casinos and golf courses. He knows how to dish it out and how to take it, and he is not afraid to mix things up. He knows, as Warren Zevon said, “the name of the game is to get hit and hit back.” Among his media spectacles, he has made a number of blatantly fraudulent runs at public office that all seemed to evaporate whenever he had to get serious.

This one might still get evaporate, although it has gone on longer and gone deeper and created more furor than any of his previous stillborn efforts. He has owned the summer. His outrageous comments about Mexicans and his nasty, ignorant comments about John McCain have done nothing but catapult him to the crowded, splintered, directionless herd of Republican contenders. More than anyone in that field, he has a real constituency, a real claim to a body of voters.

And they are a potent group. They are the Tea Party group, an angry, aggrieved bunch of mostly working class white people who don’t like what progress is looking like in the mid-early 21st century. They have been a formidable group. They have won a lot of local races, and ousted a lot of middle of the road Republican officials. Because they are decentralized and committed, they can have a disproportionately large influence in primary elections and caucuses. I have already predicted that Trump will go deep into the primary season; the truth is, I see no reason to believe that he cannot win the nomination. The longer he sticks around, the more credibility he will develop. The more people vote for him, the more other people will find him acceptable. He will pass through the membrane of legitimacy.

One of the problems is that there is no one in the field who seems to match up well against Trump. Jeb Bush still seems like a reluctant candidate; I have never seen a presidential candidate with less passion. He never seems to be enjoying himself. One could see Trump having a bit of a rough time with people like Rick Perry and John Kasich, meat and potato governors whose in the trenches experience contrasts with Trump’s glamorous gunslingerism. But they have not broken through. One can see people like Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham, like sharp-tongued picadors scoring points against him, but they can only bloody Trump, not beat him. There is no august personage who can flatten him, no Ronald Reagan who could just chuckle at him and make him irrelevant. Nor is there a high road that can work, nor a low road. Trump is the product of belief–a focus group of New Hampshire Republicans done by Bloomberg found them echoing Trump’s own line on himself: his presidency would be `successful” and “classy”; he “speaks his mind;” he is “one of us.” They are responding to his style, and like all things involving style–clothes, music, decor–you can’t persuade someone who likes it that it’s wrong. You can only wait for them to like something else. You can only run as hard and as smart as you can, and hope to be there when tastes change.