I will probably stop writing about politics soon enough -- I mean, start writing about other things.
Winter blew in on Friday, many weeks late here in Minneapolis: the morning rain turned into spitting snow, and the temperature fell, permitting a crust of ice crystals to linger on the sidewalk grates around the boulevard trees, the window-ledges, the corners of windshields. Saturday morning as I started this post, I was wearing a warm hat and a scarf and a double layer of light jackets, lingering over my fourth pour of coffee and considering buying a pot of ginger tea to rent my booth a little longer without adding caffeine.
One of the reasons why it's so difficult to pin down the worries about the incoming presidential administration is that there is so damn much that is wrong with it. Every time I have written a post I look back on it later, annoyed with myself for leaving out some point that might even be more important than the ones I remembered to mention.
During campaign season, I didn't mind at all telling people that I thought both frontrunners had disqualified themselves, for completely different sets of reasons that made comparison a pointless exercise. At the very end I decided to promote Bad Candidate over Insane Candidate (as the French said in 2002 about the Chirac-Le Pen matchup, "Votez l'escroc, pas facho") although, confident that Mrs. Clinton's supporters would win Minnesota without my help, I voted third party.
(I was more confident than I should have been, but I wasn't wrong.)
Campaign season was pretty terrible, what with people arguing over which of two very bad candidates was the worse. Now it strikes me that we are still -- sort of -- having a "which is worse?" argument.
Which attribute of President Trump will be the worst thing about President Donald Trump?
We are having this argument, implicitly if not explicitly, because we are wondering which battles to pick. Which of the appointees, for example, are relatively good news -- the best we can expect, or someone who will temper President Trump's excesses, or genuinely qualified people in a position to do some good? Which are bad news? Which are really bad news? We can't know the answer without knowing which of Trump's faces is likely to be the biggest problem. And that means... we won't know the answer until we get there. Which is too bad, because we do have to pick those battles. The Republican-controlled Senate is going to approve most of the appointees. They might oppose some of them, if we press hard enough on them. But which ones should we press about?
A subjective list of the faces of President Donald Trump (still forcing myself to write it out every time) which large numbers of people will oppose:
President Trump, the Republican. Allow me to indulge myself, conservative readers, in identifying this as something that many ordinary people consider to be a problem in more normal times; that is why there are so many straight-ticket Democrat voters, because a lot of the country doesn't like Republican policies. Allow me to indulge myself, liberal readers, in identifying this as the smallest of all the potential problems with Donald Trump: the likelihood that he will advance a number of subjectively wrong-headed policies that are ordinarily associated with Republican presidents. (I say this knowing that different readers will identify different sets of said policies as wrong-headed.) He isn't the first president called a Republican and he (probably) isn't going to be the last.
President Trump, the liar who would promise anything to get what he wants. Not going to lie, over the next few months I and many others will be relieved to see some of the worst campaign promises turn out to have been lies to get elected. I wish we knew in advance which ones would go down easy, and which would go down without a fight. But the greater lesson of Candidate Trump the Liar is that he will turn into President Trump the Liar. I am glad that he could not be trusted to immediately press to jail his political opponents. Will we remember that he cannot be trusted to do anything else that sounds good to enough supporters? Will we get too exhausted to keep pointing out every falsehood he blathers because it is what he thinks people want to hear? Does the truth even matter?
President Trump, the admitted assaulter of women and otherwise apparent moral reprobate. As dismaying as this is, in terms of affecting the presidency it is largely over as an issue. The damage is already done. The battle has moved into more private spaces: into the Republican party, which now has an uphill battle to recover what is left of its image; into Christian communities, where, to put it as neutrally as possible for one with a dog in the fight, bitter divisions have been revealed; into families, where our children will mature four to eight more years with a proudly homewrecking pussy-grabber as a head of state that was welcomed by many self-styled moral leaders.
President Trump, the white nationalist, or at least the exploiter of white-nationalist undercurrents in the American social fabric. I am tired of people arguing about whether Trump is or isn't personally sincerely racist, as if it matters. I don't think the man has a personally sincere bone in his body about anything. Whatever he himself thinks, he has extended a hand up to the white nationalist elements of the United States. Every one seems to have taken a step forward from the margins in a giant game of "Mother May I?" Vague feelings of resentment have become considered opinions, private opinions have become voiced ones, and safety-in-numbers means that real harassment and threats become normalized -- not to mention violence and property damage. On the one hand, I suppose it is better to be aware that white nationalism and antisemitism are still here and that real people are still really hurt by them. On the other hand, the less we are aware of them because social pressure drives them underground everywhere, then (I think) the less there actually will be. Anyway, this face of Mr. Trump is a truly dangerous one, and to the extent that any of his appointees carry a whiff of white nationalism, we must call on the Senate to oppose them.
Note: Here I am not talking about ordinary Republican policies that we might view as detrimental to minority groups, but to overt white nationalism (remember the pick-your-battles lecture from earlier?) To give an example, I am as opposed to the War On Some Drugs and to mass incarceration as anyone, and I believe systemic racism is a huge part of the foundation on which that folly rests -- but it's not in the same category as white nationalism. It probably has more victims and needs to be opposed, but opposed through ordinary political action because (sadly) it is an ordinary policy, in the sense that many ordinary policies have bad consequences. Overt white nationalism is dangerous in an entirely different way.
President Trump, the ignorant and incurious about the way government works. This renders him vulnerable to becoming somebody else's useful idiot, and weakening American interests as the state is captured to serve foreign interests or enrich someone. In theory this problem could be mitigated if good people step up to serve in a Trump administration and if opportunists or additional ignorant people are rejected; there remains considerable hope of this outcome, especially if the Senate does its job with the "advice and consent."
President Trump, the corrupt businessman, currying favors from foreign governments and corporations. This appears already to have started in Argentina and Scotland. Even if President Trump does not ask for favors, deals will be offered to him without him having to ask. And he doesn't appear even to understand why he should avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests, let alone why he should want to. This idea of his children running his businesses in a "blind trust?" It is not blind if your children are running it, and it is definitely not blind if the people running your business come to meetings with you and foreign leaders.
President Trump, the narcissist desperate for his regular supply of adulation, hungry for respect and fawning admiration. This is the source of the childish temper tantrums at everyone who dares to criticize him, from Broadway creatives to CNN and the New York Times. He can't abide criticism of any kind, and he can't interface with any reality that contains criticism of him. Maybe he thought the power that came with the presidency would mean people would not dare to criticize him. He aims, I believe, to shape a future in which people do not dare to criticize the President of the United States. And that brings us to...
President Trump, the authoritarian. If I had to guess, I would bet money that this is the most dangerous face of President Trump (although it stems immediately from the narcissist). All of the above are bad; all could cause considerable suffering directly and indirectly, but in the worst case scenario, each problem would pass into history at the end of a President Trump's first term. Authoritarianism, however, is a cancer which threatens to spread at all times within our government. The revelations of NSA domestic spying without sufficient civilian oversight is just one example of the violation of popular sovereignty and of limited government that has surfaced during the previous administration (to choose one that has bipartisan appeal). President Trump will have entered office, in part, on a strongman's promises, praising foreign strongmen. Build the wall (no mention of legislature involvement), appoint justices who will certainly overturn Roe v. Wade (no mention of the inappropriateness of pre-screening members of the judiciary based on how they promise to rule in specific instances), lock up his political opponents... all of this is bad news, no matter what party it comes from. And it's worrying that he came into office in part by firing up a large segment of the population with excitement about Constitutional violations.
Good and bad policies come and go. People with integrity, and people stained with corruption, come and go. Even different intepretations of American ideals like fairness, equality, and justice -- right ones, and wrong ones -- can come and go. Authoritarianism threatens to carry its gilded throne into the halls of government, seize on some excuse like the need for security and order in these dangerous and unpredictable times (all times are dangerous and unpredictable), and never leave again. I think Fascist President Trump is the worst President Trump. Fighting that also has the advantage of being, potentially, a bipartisan effort.
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I told you this post was going to be about picking battles. None of us can fight all of them. Maybe the most important thing for me to do in the next 4-8 years is just to teach civics to the approximately eight kids I can expect to tutor over that time period, especially inculcating a respect for the protective effect of not-always-intuitive features of the Constitution. Donate some money to local organizations that support refugees and other newcomers to the U. S. Donate some money to organizations that litigate for First and Fourth Amendment rights.
I think it is about time I put some thought into how I live online, too. It is not virtual. It is a real part of my life, where I interact with real people, disseminate ideas, listen to ideas, take some personal risk. I dislike virtue-signaling of all kinds in the outside world, deliberately don't sport bumper stickers on my actual car, avoid talking politics in person. I don't like the way political differences have often turned into fear and distrust towards one's neighbor, but at the same time I acknowledge that fear and distrust is only a symptom sometimes of serious problems that aren't being addressed.
What to do? What to do that will make a difference instead of just satisfying the urge to look like making a difference? What battles to pick, or to eschew battles at all and find a different sort of good to do?