Day 34: Filth

I watched the entire presidential debate because my husband said it was our duty. I wanted to turn it off because the president was so disgusting. His speech and his manners were completely indecent. The polish he used to affect for the sake of “appearing presidential” was missing, exposing a loathsomeness (and screwiness) operating with disturbing force.

What we have in Trump is an imposter-in-chief. And the more Americans look into him, the more they discover what a despicable and self-interested con artist he is. The man who claims to have built up his own fortune was first and foremost the beneficiary of a multi-generational tax dodging scheme. His whole life has been devoted to skirting laws to the greatest extent he can. His ethos is deeply antisocial, in that it subordinates everything, including the presidency, to the goal of enriching himself and his family. The presidency isn’t an honor to Trump; it’s an urgently needed shield against legal prosecution. (Turns out, the White House is the safest place for a crook to hang out.)

Americans are beginning to get the facts. They are reading the nasty things he’s said in private about the military being “losers” and “suckers” and they are aghast. They see him failing to disavow white supremacy, instead giving a shout-out to fascists and throwing over black Americans. As support for Trump dwindles, his coffers thin and poll numbers slump. The closer he gets to losing the election, the more fearful, fantastical, and hostile he becomes.

Which produced the filthy spectacle I witnessed last night. A rude moron, who is supposed to be serving the nation and protecting its welfare, instead shirking his responsibility and spouting lies. Making wild promises about delivering a COVID vaccine. Claiming he has helped people get health insurance when he is taking it away. Claiming that he cares about making the air and water clean, after rolling back every environmental regulation he can. Insulting his opponent by taunting him and trying vainly to dispel his dignity. Trump’s heart is a cesspool. When this nation needs a hero, he turns coward–and doesn’t even have the tact to be ashamed.

This is the president: he can’t accept facts; he can’t follow simple rules; he can’t concentrate; he can’t empathize with suffering, he can’t handle dissent; he can’t be a good sport; he can’t be just; he can’t tolerate rivalry; he can’t admit unpleasant realities. To have such a person heading up our nation, which is premised upon compromise, openness, and interdependence, is, as Bob Woodward put it, a calamity.

Trump is dragging the nation through an existential crisis, daring us to figure out how to get free of a person so arrogant, so inept, so deceitful and vile.

RELATED:
“People who follow Trump’s advice and hang around watching polling places will be prosecuted, Nevada’s attorney general says.” (Business Insider)
“The People v. Donald J. Trump: The criminal case against him is already in the works — and it could go to trial sooner than you think.” (NY Magazine)

The Second Democratic Debates

Last night, I evaluated the Democratic candidates participating in the presidential debate less on the basis of their positions than on their demeanor and how they behaved. Relative to the previous night, this was a more ill-assorted group of presidential hopefuls.  Many of them showed an unappealing side.  I was particularly struck with the unbecoming way some of the aspirants chose to behave toward the putative front-runner Joe Biden.

Biden, despite his lead in the polls, is unlikely to become the party nominee.  He has served his country and his party tirelessly.  He was a marvelous vice president for eight years, he has a good heart, he identifies with others, and in the past he has been a riveting and incisive stump speaker.  Sadly, though, the old Joe Biden is no longer much in evidence; he is no longer at the top of his form, no longer brimming with humor and confidence.

Though many Democrats admire and trust Biden more than they do the other candidates, I think that he will net many fewer votes than expected when primary voters actually go to the polls.  In my view, the decline of Biden’s presidential prospects is inevitable, though presently some 30 percent of likely Democratic voters are telling pollsters that Joe would have their vote if the election were held today.

If I am right, there is no predicting who will end up at the top of the field, for, as Joe’s lead is redistributed, one or more contenders now at the bottom of the heap could rise to challenge the second and third most popular candidates, who happen to be the progressive standard-bearers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden’s eventual inconsequence supplied a lens through which I assessed the behavior of the trailing wannabes.  Which of the other candidates looked presidential, remaining calm and far-sighted, and which yielded to the temptation to go after Joe Biden?  I was appalled to see several of the more junior figures on the stage tearing into a seasoned veteran instead of respecting his service and what the Democratic Party during his era managed to accomplish.  The behavior of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and (surprisingly) even squeaky-clean Kirsten Gillibrand toward Biden came off as desperate and mean.  I loved how Biden pointed out to Gillibrand that “you thought I was fine until you wanted to be president.”  The words “Et tu, Brute?” came to mind as I reflected on this ugly scene.  It’s sad that, in their eagerness to cast themselves as in the vanguard of change, these candidates have opted to trash their own party and denigrate one of their own most popular leaders.  It shows an inauspicious lack of prudence and restraint.

Though Gillibrand otherwise had some good moments, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang owned the night, standing out as bright, positive, and self-disciplined.  Yang stayed focused on his big-picture agenda and refrained from back-biting.  Gabbard proved herself an able contender who could gain traction.  She scored off of Kamala Harris, reeling off several accusations against Harris’s conduct as California’s state’s attorney without losing her cool or seeming to have an axe to grind.  Gabbard also came across as a sincere defender of the environment, peace, and national sovereignty.  Though I dismissed her chances back when she announced her candidacy, I now view her as a sleeper candidate, whose prospects could brighten as those of her more irascible and immoderate rivals dim.

Julian Castro‘s advocacy of open borders makes him unelectable, while Bill de Blasio came across as a snob whose inaction with respect to the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City police dooms him to fail.  I appreciated Michael Bennet‘s conduct and ideas but his lack of charisma makes me doubt whether he can make much headway this time around.  Jay Inslee presented himself as a single-issue candidate with an opening statement focused solely on climate change.

Image: from this source.
In 1848, supporters of the popular Whig senator, Henry Clay, were outraged
when their party passed him over to make General Zachary Taylor their presidential nominee.
The cartoon shows a crowd of prominent Whigs conspiring to stab Clay in the back,
as he reads the Tribune in his drawing room.

Getting To Know The Democratic Field


I had barely walked in the door from a long car trip when the second round of Democratic presidential debates began.  So I grabbed the nearest note pad and sat down to begin assessing the candidates in the Democratic field.  Unlike the first round of debates, which were too dizzying to make sense of, the presidential candidates are beginning to come into focus in this second round.

Most Americans are centrists, so it was heartening to see several of the lesser-known candidates pointing out the dangers of falling into line behind the so-called “progressive” policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  To my mind, at least, these two appeared to function last night less as rivals than allies, a relationship visually reinforced by their position together at center stage.  The main axis of the debate, no matter what topic the candidates were discussing, had to do with whether the policies Sanders and Warren are advocating are either fair or achievable, or genuinely appealing to Americans at large.  Particularly controversial is their embrace of Medicare for All, which in their formulation would do away with the nation’s current reliance on private medical insurance.

As the night wore on, Warren, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and John Hickenlooper all drifted lower in my estimation, partly because the challenges that Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, and Tim Ryan mounted against Warren and Sanders were sensible and to my mind represented the interests of a wide swath of the electorate.  These more moderate and pragmatic candidates circled back time and again to the issue of what was achievable and what kinds of government help the public will truly appreciate and need.  Whereas Warren and Sanders thundered away, waving their arms and insisting that nothing but radical change could rescue the nation, Klobuchar, Ryan, Delaney, and Bullock voiced innumerable objections, in some cases questioning the desirability of the outcomes; in others, skeptically probing progressive assumptions; in still others, arguing that progressive policies were unworkable and would fail.

Governor Bullock of Montana, who entered the race only belatedly, made a good impression, if only because his presence reminded viewers of how important it will be for Democrats to choose someone who can do well in the “new West” and in purple states.  Amy Klobuchar improved over her first debate performance, exuding confidence and holding to a spontaneous style.  She easily eclipsed Beto O’Rourke, who was trying too hard to look and sound presidential, and Pete Buttigieg, who, in trying to differentiate himself from the competition, ended up marginalizing himself as a niche candidate representing the young.  Some viewers were turned off by Klobuchar’s touting her own record of electoral achievement, but others will take to heart her underlying message, which is that, to beat Trump, Democrats will need to nominate someone who can capture more votes in the moderate Midwest than Hillary did.

John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland, came across as accomplished, thoughtful, and in command of the facts.  I was glad to see him standing up to Warren and Sanders and objecting to plans that will pull the Democratic party completely off the rails.  He managed to stay calm and listened politely while Elizabeth Warren lectured and whined her way past rules meant to prevent any one candidate from hogging an undue portion of the available time.

Which brings me to Marianne Williamson, who, despite not being an ideologue, perfectly articulated the central ideal of republican government both on the debate stage and in a post-debate interview with CBS.  She comes across as an authentic voice for using government to help individuals reach their full potential, which can only happen when the political class remembers that its job is to help “the people.”  Though she is not likely to become the party’s nominee, her impassioned and spontaneous riffs on environmental injustice and the dark psychic force of hatred that Donald Trump is unleashing stirred listeners’ hearts as nothing else did.  Somehow, this off-beat outsider is channeling the old soul of the Democratic party, delivering jeremiads to the complacent and prodding Americans everywhere to “stay woke.”  I found her refreshing and wouldn’t be surprised to see her star burning brighter for a while.

Could Donald Trump Become President?

Trump being interviewed after the 5th GOP debate.

Could Donald Trump become president?   The most recent GOP debate left me wondering.  Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in.  Now, I have my doubts.  Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.

Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious.  For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing.  Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.

Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  But what if that isn’t true?  What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead?  Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible.  Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.

In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people.  In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity.  Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly.  As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.

Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror.  Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.

Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy.  A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense.  Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.

So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president?  Like it or not, the answer is yes.  Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign.  Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?

For a transcript of the debate, click here.
For a fact-check of the debate, click here.

Good TV is the front-runner, for now

Montage of GOP candidates.

People are asking what I think of the GOP race. I think the GOP lacks a strong candidate and that any analysis failing to factor in the entertainment value of the debates is seriously flawed.

The candidates are in a phase of competition now being referred to as the ‘virtual primary.’  This is rather insulting to voters, because the virtual primary doesn’t involve any voting. Instead, the media scrutinizes other measures extraneous to the democratic process to report on how candidates are supposedly faring, consulting betting pools, Nielsen ratings, fund-raising tallies, and public-opinion polls.  By these measures, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are said to be gaining. Figures like Jeb Bush and John Kasich are said to be fading, to the point of being on ‘life support.’

Significantly, however, none of the fifteen remaining GOP candidates has dropped out since Scott Walker ended his bid on September 21.  Many commentators had predicted a rash of drop-outs from among the supposedly trailing candidates come November 1.  Yet, for now, all the candidates have chosen to stick around, possibly sensing that the supposed front-runners are unelectable and that the state-by-state primary votes will check the speculative nonsense of the virtual primary.

If, in fact, Republicans vote en masse to make a character like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Marco Rubio their nominee, it will spell another stage in the decline of the GOP.  Old-style Republicans who believe in collaboration and the preservation of tradition will begin drifting away, looking for a way to regain their rightful preeminence as a political force.  Go-it-alone candidates like Rubio and Cruz and fringe candidates like Trump and Carson do not enjoy the support of the party mainstream.  (See David Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times on October 13, which elicited a deluge of assent from readers disappointed in the direction of the GOP.)

In the meantime, we are witnessing proof of the entertainment value of politics.  We can’t resist the cattle-call debates, because let’s face it, they’re damn good TV: ‘good’ in the sense of being unpredictable, juicy, and tangentially relating to matters of momentous seriousness.  These are the very elements that define great drama.  The debates have a circus-like atmosphere and are analyzed in the same performative terms that the commentators would apply to a boxing match or a new theater production.

The televised competition among the GOP candidates is entertaining, fantastical, and engrossing.  The possibility of an outlandish figure like Donald Trump becoming president presents a wild challenge to our collective political imagination.  Notwithstanding his red ferret-like face and ridiculous blond comb-over, Trump demands that we take him seriously.  He plays a wild card, rudely blustering and defying political convention.  His behavior, seen in purely dramatic terms, delivers a catharsis that many disaffected Americans find refreshing.  Trump also embodies attributes that citizens long to see in a political leader: certainty and a conviction of being competent to ‘reign.’  His style is the antithesis of candidates who are ruled by dweeby advisors and focus-group wisdom.

Trump’s intrusion into politics gives us something to ponder: for, were this particularly entertaining figure to become president, the effect on our political culture would be profound.  Yet my sense is that Americans don’t want cartharsis every day.  For now, Trump and the other candidates supply a unique form of entertainment–one that will dwindle in significance as audiences turn into voters and go to the polls.