“Am I Ready To Be President?”

A child with an adult looking face and seated in a fine carriage.

“Am I ready to be president?”  An alarming number of Americans are asking themselves this question, and, after a quick look in the mirror, deciding that the answer is yes.  It is a large legion of astonishingly raw talent whose names we’ve never heard of and perhaps can’t pronounce.

They can’t wait to throw their hats in the proverbial ring.  A bell goes off in their heads, and they begin forming exploratory committees.  Losers from lower-level races imagine finding redemption as presidential wannabes.  From tweets and selfie videos come presidential contenders.  In no time, they are on the royal road, schmoozing the nameless kingmakers of Iowa and holding hands with Stephen Colbert.

 

Image: “Our future president” (c.1867),
from this source.

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Political To-Do

Both houses of Congress assembled for the State of the Union.
Convince Americans that the two parties are hopelessly broken and obsolete.

Unify everyone in the political universe who objects to Trump.

Restore the broken connection between the people and their federal representatives.

Create an entirely new political party organized around relevant and forward-looking governmental goals.

Neutralize corrupt actors, including all those who lobby or influence elections with money.

Convince disenchanted voters to support a new third party.

Cultivate a new generation of knowledgeable citizens and public-spirited leaders.

Lure decent moderates back into politics.

Turn off the television.

Cultivate national self-love.

Image: Both houses of Congress assembled for President Trump’s first State of the Union address, January 2017.

Russia’s Patsy

What Americans know without further investigation is that their president is a fool.  President Trump is a laughingstock in the eyes of global sophisticates and rival nations.  His vanity and naiveté combine to keep him from realizing how ridiculous he is.

What we know about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign is that Russians wanted to see if they could manipulate Trump and his people and found that they could.

Donald Trump is all the more a patsy if his protestations of innocence are true.  Given his vanity, he could well have failed to recognize how blatantly the Russians were playing his team.  He has yet to acknowledge the wrong he committed in surrounding himself with people willing to serve parochial or rival interests rather than those of the United States.  Whether Trump colluded with Putin’s hirelings has yet to be established, but, by leaving the nation open to a sort of embarrassment that amounts to a dangerous vulnerability, Donald T. Rump showed a gross incompetence that is incontrovertible.

What prompted Trump to select Michael Flynn, as his national security advisor?  Flynn was an embittered army general intent on getting even with the US by selling his services to dubious foreign clients.  Even after the acting head of the Justice Department warned Trump that the Russians could manipulate Flynn by threatening him with exposure, Trump postponed Flynn’s dismissal, leaving him in a highly privileged position for nearly a month.  Trump’s stubborn loyalty to a man who mattered far less than our security interests must have filled the Russian establishment with glee.  While the president ingenuously bragged to high-ranking Russians about the quality of American intel, their compatriots were probably busy hacking the NSA.

Which is worse: having a grandiose bumbler in the White House instead of a person who, as the Founders intended, represents the best of America; or knowing that the President is incapable of serving the nation in accordance with his oath?

Image: Screen shot of Russian officials laughing,
as Putin jokes at the Americans’ expense (May 2017).

One Day More: The Ground

Washington DC (Low aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

We set back our clocks, adding an extra hour to an already interminable election cycle, suspending for just a few more minutes the climactic process that will end tomorrow.  At last, there will be an end to a certain kind of theorizing.  Election Day will produce a snapshot of national sentiment.  A new political adventure will begin.

The presidential race has generated abundant evidence pointing to the topsy-turvy condition of the country, its leadership and parties.  On the PBS NewsHour, Mark Shields noted the strange inversion that’s occurring: whereas ordinary blue-collar Americans used to tip the scale Democratic in national elections, the Democratic Party has become the ‘upscale’ party, while blue-collar America is flocking to Trump.  David Brooks noted that the nation was already divided at the outset, but that those divisions have become more calcified in the campaign.  He went so far as to say that ‘people are just going with their gene pool,‘ an unfortunate measure of how ‘identity politics’ and a growing reliance on demographic categories (common in the social sciences) are encouraging evenly highly intelligent people to adopt an essentialized and racist view of American voters.

Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, captured the incipient re-alignment that appears to be happening.  She argues eloquently that the people Trump represents are not a ‘wing’ of the Republican Party, but a huge constituency that has broken off from the Republican Party already.  The Republican Party was living on borrowed time even before Trump came along, with events of the past fifteen years rupturing the identity of belief that used to unite the party’s base with its leaders.  The party will either have to reunite around a new constellation of ideas or end up in pieces.  Meanwhile, the Democracy, formerly the party of change, is now the party of cozy continuity.  While Sanders’ challenge to Clinton should have been a wake-up call to the party, it’s difficult to imagine its ideology changing much under a Clinton presidency.

Whether Trump wins or not, his candidacy has established that voters who want to stick it to the establishment and ‘the system’ are nearly a national majority.  As my husband put it, a ‘Republican revolution’ is happening.  Whatever Trump’s personal destiny, his views on trade, immigration, terrorism, and the need to push back against an overreaching government will likely be taken up and refined—in fact, if Politico is to be believed, they already are.  Ideologues who have the patience to tune ideas to the times should be listening to the electorate, which is clamoring for a form of small-state protectionism that neither the Republican nor the Democratic party currently affords.

Image: Aerial of Washington DC in November
by Susan Barsy

Day 32: The Tribune’s Endorsement

Looking down toward Tribune Tower, © 2016 Susan Barsy
Late last week, the Chicago Tribune endorsed Gary Johnson for president, an action that, while indicative of the uneasy response the leading candidates trigger, also shows a remarkable failure of nerve.

In 2016, a measure of bravery is involved in committing to either of the two top presidential candidates, especially given the invective that they have inspired.  The vituperative nature of the campaign has left mud clinging to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  The shame heaped on Trump, in particular, has had a tendency to slide off and besmirch his followers, whom Clinton contemptuously dismissed as ‘a basket of deplorables.’

One wonders whether this, the risk of guilt by association, will deter voters from voting, or whether it is inhibiting likely voters from honestly declaring their intentions to friends, or to the strangers who call on the telephone, conducting voter surveys.

How many people are ‘shy’ Trump or Clinton supporters, but will not risk saying so out of a dread of conflict or embarrassment?  Will there be many people who lie about their vote, or who will absolve themselves of future responsibility by casting no ballot on Election Day?

How childish it would be to shirk one’s duty.  But then look at the action of the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board.  If its members intend to follow their own recommendation and vote for Gary Johnson, I will be astonished.  If they are not personally going to vote for Gary Johnson, their recommendation was an act of prevarication.  They deliberately threw away any chance of influencing the outcome of the campaign.

When a group of highly educated, rational, and conscientious journalists cannot bring themselves to declare for one or the other of the candidates who is certain to win the election, it’s likely that something similar is happening in the more obscure corners of our nation, too.

It is very difficult to resolve to vote for a deeply flawed nominee.  It leaves a bad taste, to give power to someone you do not trust, you do not agree with, or you do not admire.   To vote this year is to take a risk.  How many Trump voters will lie about it?  How many ambivalent souls will stay at home?

Image: The Tribune Tower on a good day
© 2016 Susan Barsy

 

Day 56: Hillary Has Pneumonia

day-56
On Thursday, I took about 300 aerial photographs and re-watched All the Way, the HBO film about LBJ, on the plane.  I turned up the volume just as LBJ is entering the Capitol to make his first public remarks as president before Congress.  Still absorbing the fact of Kennedy’s assassination and his own sudden elevation to the presidency, Johnson, played by Bryan Cranston, is the cynosure of all eyes, cameras and former colleagues turning toward him in a swirl of suspenseful curiosity.  Meanwhile, the memory of a recurrent nightmare from childhood spools through Johnson’s mind.  In it, he hides in terror under the floorboards of a house during a Comanche raid.  Cowering in the dark, yet certain of his eventual discovery and death at the hands of an unseen enemy, he intones with grim conviction, “It’s only a matter of time before they haul me up into the light where their knives gleam.”

On Sunday, I caught the nightly news, which showed footage of an obviously unwell Hillary Clinton leaving a 9/11 ceremony and collapsing while trying to get into a car.  It came out that she had been being treated for pneumonia and dehydration.  Shortly after her collapse, Clinton re-appeared, waving at the crowd and asserting that she was just fine.  Having known since Friday that she had pneumonia, Clinton later justified glossing over it, saying “I just didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal.”

Part of me wants to believe that the electorate is capable of understanding what’s entailed in recovering from this common but dangerous ailment.  Hillary must rest, independent of a time-table; doing so needn’t have any ill effect on the prospect of her winning.  Let her surrogates fill the gap.  Let Hillary herself stay at home and wage a modern-day front-porch campaign.  Behaving commonsensically could be a path to victory.

But what if Johnson’s murderous vision of American politics is more realistic?  Will Hillary’s untimely illness destroy her chances?  As All The Way ends, Johnson’s dark vision of politics dogs him, even as the 1964 election validates his claim to the presidency.  As the adulation of devoted friends and supporters washes over him at his victory party, still that inner voice murmurs its grim prophesy:

But the sun will come up, and the knives will come out.  And all these smiling faces will be watching me, waiting for that one first moment of weakness.  And then they will gut me like a deer.

Trump’s rise signals a full-blown political crisis

American primitive (La Brea diorama), by Susan Barsy
We are living through the 2016 presidential election.  Someday, perhaps next year, perhaps decades from now, we will try to recall just what it was like.  What was it like, when Donald Trump, in his bid for the presidency, claimed the Republican nomination and precipitated widespread political turmoil?

This is an experiential question, historical yet subjective; it’s not a question of fact, social science, or policy.  Therefore we will each be entitled to our own truths, however aberrant or incompatible.

Meanwhile, the very multiplicity of our views, which will never agree, adds to the confusion of what we are experiencing, the uncertainty of how it will all end.  Where is the nation heading?  What will happen to its party system?  Whose judgments and actions will prove to have been most insightful and right, a question whose importance will grow retrospectively, furnishing a yardstick for identifying who in our generation is most discerning, most trustworthy.

Watching and listening to a Trump-obsessed nation and being part of that nation ourselves, nets some insight into past political upheavals, particularly rise of Hitler in early 20th-century Germany.  The abiding mystery of Nazism is how the German people could have empowered someone so aggressive and hateful.  How could they have been so mistaken as to repose trust in someone so utterly inhuman, so indifferent to world order and prevailing norms?  From the perspective of August 2016, it’s more understandable how masses of citizens could end up giving too much power to a dangerous leader.

Something similarly unpredictable is happening in American politics, something for which we all bear responsibility, yet we aren’t completely sure what it is or how bad it will be.  And we don’t agree on what we should do.

Three conditions are combining in the United States, creating widespread and practically leaderless confusion.  Together, they amount to a dangerous political crisis, threatening a constitutional government we normally think of as stable and strong.  A disillusioned electorate cognizant of its powerlessness and vulnerability, a weak unresponsive leadership class, and the appearance of an unknown but charismatic ‘political savior’: there you have the recipe for political catastrophe.

All three elements—the frustrated expectations of American citizens, an outmoded and out-of-touch political establishment, and Trump’s charismatic authority—must be addressed to move beyond this dangerous political crisis.  Unfortunately, a rotten political system is difficult to replace or reform overnight.  Our parties are filled with self-seeking prima donnas.  Creatures of party, they’ve lost touch with the people.  They farm out the task of deciding what they believe in, relying on experts to formulate their positions.  Collectively, in their quest for personal power, the leaders of both political parties are failing the people of the United States.

Anti-Trump forces comfort themselves with the notion that, if only Hillary Clinton will win, the United States will ‘be okay.’  Thank goodness the people who are demanding change at any price are not quite a voting majority!  This theme organizes much political discourse.  The experts, who deliver so much in the way of political anesthesia, tamp down our anxiety with a never-ending stream of surveys and polls.  Meanwhile, Trump, with his stark directness, soldiers on defiantly, feeding his electrifying certainties to millions of mesmerized followers.  Trump and the popular discontent he energizes will remain a threat until his opponents unite and respond to the people’s needs by forging an appropriate yet superior ideology of change.

Image: A diorama showing
the inimical relation between two extinct species
at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles.
Author photo.

The rude power of the vote: Brexit

morning-after-brexit

A popular vote to decide the UK’s place in the world: In retrospect, David Cameron’s idea of putting the question to the people appears more and more extraordinary.  This is not how countries (at least representative democracies) are normally led.  Normally, populations delegate power to political leaders, trusting in their competence and relying on their superior agency and expertise.

The US has never held a national referendum.  Here, referenda are technical measures.  They are used at the state and local level, to amend constitutions or see if a policy innovation is agreeable to the people.  Our national votes are reserved solely for filling the presidency.  The Brexit vote represents a high-water mark of democracy that one hopes the US will never reach.

Presidential elections are often described as referenda, but this is usually hyperbole.  The motives that determine the citizens’ choice between two candidates can seldom be reduced to a vote for or against a single policy.  One exception is the election of 1860, when the ensuing breakdown of the Union justifies our concluding that voters saw Abraham Lincoln’s victory as determining the future of slavery.  They were so sure his election spelled the end of it that they didn’t even wait for him to take power: secession conventions formed and slave-holding states began to leave.  Then, as with Brexit, the losers doubted the outcome’s legitimacy.  A minority with a lot to lose discovered a majority it couldn’t bear.

Inspiration in a deep-dish pizza

Writing in Slate, Osita Nwanevu argues convincingly that Cameron came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating a Chicago deep-dish pizza at O’Hare.  He was heading back to London from the 2012 NATO summit, which Chicago hosted that year.  While waiting for his flight, he and British foreign secretary William Hague reportedly went into a classic Chicago eatery and came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating local food and rubbing elbows with a bunch of ‘nobodies.’

The summit itself crystallized globalism’s discontents.  Its massing of elite power drew thousands of ‘pro-democracy’ protesters to Chicago, along with a few would-be terrorist bombers.  While the leaders of the western world met to chart the future of democracy, massive crowds clogged the streets, charging NATO leaders with betrayal and insisting that their governance ignored the people’s urgent needs.  Did Cameron metaphorically ingest some of the democratic forces assailing him from all sides?  Certainly, his belief that the UK’s internal divisions could be reconciled through a popular vote represented a conversion to democratic faith.  He expected, however, that the people would ultimately strengthen the leading class’s hand.

The transcendent power of a multi-national economy

In the 1990s, I attended a forward-looking talk given by the late Harold Perkin, a historian who studied long-term class developments in England society.  His subject was the powerlessness of nation-states relative to multinational corporations.  Already, he argued, capital flows and the far-flung operations of such businesses were eroding and transcending the bonds that had previously constrained and united inhabitants of geographically defined countries.  Whereas previously the upper, middle, and lower classes in a country like Britain had been bound together legally and economically, those interdependent ties were weakening.  Increasingly, the economic elite were creating a world with rules that they, as capitalists and corporate titans, were entitled to define.  Since then, the trend that Perkins so presciently defined has grown more pronounced.  Now the professional classes are used to this world, and they don’t think the lower classes should be allowed to curb it, certainly not with the rude club that the right to vote furnishes.

The problem afflicts the US as much as the UK.  In the States, growing economic inequality has gone hand-in-hand with geographic and social changes whose tendency is to limit ordinary connections between Americans of different classes.  Increasingly, well-educated and well-off Americans raise their children within ‘bubble-worlds’ populated with others of their type.  This is very different from the earlier hierarchical class structure of American communities, where the right of an elite to exercise leadership was still connected to their position within a locality.  This vanishing social structure promoted empathy and upward mobility, while rooting elite influence in something like popular sanction.  Whether in religion, neighborhoods, or the economy, there are few traces of these old face-to-face relationships, which fed a spirit of interdependence and reciprocal obligation.

Meanwhile political leaders cede their power to ‘the people.’

Paradoxically, American politics has at the same time become increasingly democratized, with leaders instigating changes designed to give ‘the people’ more sway.   It’s a trend that’s been underway for at least a century, since the Constitution was amended to allow for the direct election of US Senators, giving citizens a power previously seated in state legislatures.   Candidates for national office make their appeals directly to the people, for, with enough popular support, they can thumb their noses at the other pols whose help they once needed.  Likewise, the nominating conventions, where delegates were empowered to attain consensus authentically, are increasingly lifeless affairs, determined solely by rules and by votes the people cast in the primaries.

As the people’s rage rattles the laissez-faire globalism that an elite indifferent to their sufferings universally favors, the elite may well begin to ask, Too much democracy?

Columbia Has Her Eye On You

A modern Columbia reminds American women to vote

A very modern-looking Columbia, dressed in a becoming flapper style, adorns the cover of Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on October 2, 1920.  Her message?  “Don’t Forget!  Columbia has her eye on You and expects You to vote for the Good of the Nation”  (Columbia being the traditional female personification of the United States).

Her message had special meaning, given that women had gained the right to vote just months earlier, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified on August 26.  Women were about to cast ballots in a presidential election for the very first time, the fruit of an epic political struggle that American women began way back in 1848.

Over the decades, myriad arguments had been advanced both for and against women’s suffrage.  Some opponents to suffrage argued that political participation would degrade the female sex; others worried it would quickly lead to a government by females.  And of course it was argued that woman suffrage was contrary to the vision of the Founders, as laid out in the Constitution.  Americans of the Progressive era understood that the female vote would inevitably alter the dynamics of American politics–they just didn’t know how.

Suffragists responded partly by arguing that women would have a civilizing effect on political life, an attitude that Leslie’s get-out-the-vote appeal was eager to prove.  As it turned out, newly enfranchised women voted in far smaller numbers than did men.  Not until 1980 would the size of the female vote exceed that of males.  Even today, it’s unclear how the female vote as such will influence the outcome of the current campaign.

Don’t forget!
  Cast your vote for the good of the nation this Super Tuesday.

Image: Drawing by [William] Haskell Coffin
from this source.

The Feminist Gap

There was something poignant (and grotesque) about the ‘scolding’ that Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem gave younger American women this week.  The subject was Hillary and the support that female voters—as women—supposedly owe her.  The tone was dire yet dismissive.  Madeleine Albright, revered for her achievements as a diplomat, essentially threatened wayward women with punishment, warning that if they didn’t ‘help’ Hillary they would go to hell.  Gloria Steinem, now a shocking 81, relied on sexual stereotyping to explain why some young women have chosen to vote for Bernie.  These women, she claimed, care only about ‘where the boys are’—lemming-like, they have gravitated to Sanders because ‘the boys are with Bernie.’  In other words, young women in Sanders’ camp suffer from an out-of-control sex drive!  Both Albright and Steinem asserted in different ways that young women had forgotten their rightful duty, which, in the eyes of older feminists, is to practice sex solidarity.  This tenet, so central to first-generation feminism, is outmoded and deeply unpalatable.

The desperate awkwardness of these protests points up a problem that Hillary is having.  How does her sex, how does the women’s movement, figure in her campaign?  Hillary never was much of a bra-burner; she never wasted much time railing against society’s constraints or male tyranny.  Instead, she crossed over early, believing that doors were open and assuming that full equality and freedom were hers.  She carved out a remarkable path, relying more on her own grit and talents than on the dictates of feminist ideology.

In some profound sense, Hillary is not free to tell her story, which is that of a woman who has been more in the public eye for more of her life than any other woman in American history.  Contrary to Steinem’s assumption about the fate of women, Hillary has not ‘lost power’ as she’s aged.  Instead, Clinton is one of the most well-known and powerful women on the face of the globe.

As Clinton has grown more unusual, more distinguished, and more famous, her capacity to pass as a representative woman has inevitably waned.  The fact is one to reckon with in the remaining campaign.