Bobo wants someone to come up with “A Gift for Donald Trump,” and he frets over what to give the man who has everything. “Ross McLaurin” from Houston, TX will have something to say… In “Preserving the Sanctity of All Facts” Mr. Cohen says in a new era of “alternative facts” and the talk of “fact-based” journalism, the simple truth is under siege. Prof. Krugman, in “When the Fire Comes,” says we should get ready for the inevitable presidential power grab. Here’s Bobo:
If you could give Donald Trump the gift of a single trait to help his presidency, what would it be?
My first thought was that prudence was the most important gift one could give him. Prudence is the ability to govern oneself with the use of reason. It is the ability to suppress one’s impulses for the sake of long-term goals. It is the ability to see the specific circumstances in which you are placed, and to master the art of navigating within them.
My basic thought was that a prudent President Trump wouldn’t spend his mornings angrily tweeting out his resentments. A prudent Trump wouldn’t spend his afternoons barking at foreign leaders and risking nuclear war. “Prudence is what differentiates action from impulse and heroes from hotheads,” writes the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville.
But the more I thought about it the more I realized prudence might not be the most important trait Trump needs. He seems intent on destroying the postwar world order — building walls, offending allies and driving away the stranger and the refugee. Do I really want to make him more prudent and effective in pursuit of malicious goals?
Moreover, the true Trump dysfunction seems deeper. We are used to treating politicians as vehicles for political philosophies and interest groups. But in Trump’s case, his philosophy, populism, often takes a back seat to his psychological complexes — the psychic wounds that seem to induce him into a state of perpetual war with enemies far and wide.
With Trump we are relentlessly thrown into the Big Shaggy, that unconscious underground of wounds, longings and needs that drive him to do what he does, to tweet what he does, to attack whom he does.
Thinking about politics in the age of Trump means relying less on the knowledge of political science and more on the probings of D.H. Lawrence, David Foster Wallace and Carl Jung.
At the heart of Trumpism is the perception that the world is a dark, savage place, and therefore ruthlessness, selfishness and callousness are required to survive in it. It is the utter conviction, as Trump put it, that murder rates are at a 47-year high, even though in fact they are close to a 57-year low. It is the utter conviction that we are engaged in an apocalyptic war against radical Islamic terrorism, even though there are probably several foreign policy problems of greater importance.
It’s not clear if Trump is combative because he sees the world as dangerous or if he sees the world as dangerous because it justifies his combativeness. Either way, Trumpism is a posture that leads to the now familiar cycle of threat perception, insult, enemy-making, aggrievement, self-pity, assault and counterassault.
So, upon reflection, the gift I would give Trump would be an emotional gift, the gift of fraternity. I’d give him the gift of some crisis he absolutely could not handle on his own. The only way to survive would be to fall back entirely on others, and then to experience what it feels like to have them hold him up.
Out of that, I hope, would come an ability to depend on others, to trust other people, to receive grace, and eventually a desire for companionship. Fraternity is the desire to make friends during both good and hostile occasions and to be faithful to those friends. The fraternal person is seeking harmony and fair play between individuals. He is trying to move the world from tension to harmony.
Donald Trump didn’t have to have an administration that was at war with everyone but its base. He came to office with a populist mandate that cut across partisan categories. He could have created unorthodox coalitions and led unexpected alliances that would have broken the logjam of our politics.
He didn’t have to have a vicious infighting administration in which everybody leaks against one another and in which backstairs life is a war of all against all.
He doesn’t have to begin each day making enemies: Nordstrom, John McCain, judges. He could begin each day looking for friends, and he would actually get a lot more done.
On Inauguration Day, when Trump left his wife in the dust so he could greet the Obamas, I didn’t realize how quickly having a discourteous leader would erode the conversation. But look at how many of any day’s news stories are built around enmity. The war over who can speak in the Senate. Kellyanne Conway’s cable TV battle du jour. Half my Facebook feed is someone linking to a video with the headline: Watch X demolish Y.
I doubt that Trump will develop a capacity for fraternity any time soon, but to be human is to hold out hope, and to believe that even a guy as old and self-destructive as Trump is still 0.001 percent open to a transformation of the heart.
And there’s probably a 0.001% chance that I’ll see pigs flying past my house. Here’s what “Ross McLaurin” had to say:
“Sure, and if only Hitler had been more like Mother Teresa, Hugo Chavez the benefit of a degree in economics and Nero a fire extinguisher.
On what rational basis do you expect a 70 year old man whose well publicized and ill advised business and personal dealings over many decades will change? My recollection is that he has been involved in over 3500 lawsuits as he attempts to bully or weasel his way out of his dealings. Why would you possibly have any transactions with such a person?
He is an artist when it comes to convincing the gullible. As good a writer as you are, you are not in that category and I don’t know why you are trying to convince me or yourself that their exists the slightest possibility that Trump will transform into someone totally different that the “Donald” that he has been parading around for decades.”
Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
Fact-based journalism is a ridiculous, tautological phrase. It’s like talking about oxygen-based human life. There is no other kind. Facts are journalism’s foundation; the pursuit of them, without fear or favor, is its main objective.
But in this time of President Trump’s almost daily “fake news” accusations against The New York Times, and of his counselor Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” and of untruths seeping like a plague from the highest office in the land, there’s increasing talk of “real” or “fact-based” journalism.
That’s ominous. Fact-based as opposed to what other type? To state the obvious, fake news websites fed by kids in Macedonia to make a buck are not journalism. These sites use fabricated stuff in journalism’s garb to further political ends.
There’s a targeted “Gaslight” attack on journalists designed to make them doubt their sanity. It’s emanating from the White House and aims to drag everyone down the rabbit hole where 2+2=5.
Velocity trumps veracity. That is the puzzle and the menace of our age.
Speed and disruption have more psychological impact than truth and science. They shape the discourse. The debunking of a fake news story is seldom as powerful as the story itself. Trump says “X.” Uproar! Hordes of journalists scurry to disprove “X.” He moves on, never to mention it again, or claims that he did not say it, or insists that what he really said was “Y.”
People begin to wonder: Am I imagining this? They feel that some infernal mechanism has taken hold and is dragging them toward an abyss. The president is a reference point; if he lies, lying seeps deep into the culture. Americans start to ask: Will we ever be able to dislodge these people from power? What are they capable of?
Simon Schama, the British historian, recently tweeted: “Indifference about the distinction between truth and lies is the precondition of fascism. When truth perishes so does freedom.”
The enormity of the defiling of the White House in just three weeks is staggering. For decades the world’s security was undergirded by America’s word. The words that issued from the Oval Office were solemn. It was on America’s word, as expressed by the president, that the European continent and allies like Japan built their postwar security.
Now the words that fall from Trump’s pursed lips or, often misspelled, onto his Twitter feed are trite or false or meaningless. He’s angry with Nordstrom, for heaven’s sake, because the department store chain dropped his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line! This is the concern of the leader of the free world.
I was struck by how Paul Horner, who runs a big Facebook fake-news operation, described our times in The Washington Post: “Honestly people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
We’ve never seen anything like it because when hundreds of millions of Americans are connected, anyone, clueless or not, can disseminate what they like with a click.
Horner came up, during the campaign, with the fake news story that a protester at a Trump rally had been paid $3,500. It went viral. We’ve had fake news accounts of how Hillary Clinton paid $62 million to Beyoncé and Jay Z to perform in Cleveland, and how Khizr Khan, the father of the Muslim American officer killed in Iraq, was an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Fake news — BREAKING! SHOCKING! — swayed the election.
Now we have President Trump suggesting that the real fake news is his negative polls — along with CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and any other news organizations that are doing their jobs: holding his authority to account and bearing witness to his acts. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s man of the shadows, thinks the media should “keep its mouth shut.” We won’t.
Sometimes I try to imagine what Trump’s Reichstag fire moment might be. In February 1933, a few weeks after Hitler became chancellor, fire engulfed the parliament in Berlin — an act of arson whose origin is still unclear. A recent New Yorker article by George Prochnik quoted the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig on Hitler’s savage reaction: “At one blow all of justice in Germany was smashed.”
From a president who loathes the press, who insults the judiciary, who has no time for American ideals of liberty or democracy, and whose predilection for violence is evident, what would be the reaction to a Reichstag fire in American guise — say a major act of terrorism?
We can only shudder at the thought.
Facts matter. The federal judiciary is pushing back. The administration is leaking. Journalism (no qualifier needed) has never been more important. Truth has not yet perished, but to deny that it is under siege would be to invite disaster.
And now here’s Prof. Krugman:
What will you do when terrorists attack, or U.S. friction with some foreign power turns into a military confrontation? I don’t mean in your personal life, where you should keep calm and carry on. I mean politically. Think about it carefully: The fate of the republic may depend on your answer.
Of course, nobody knows whether there will be a shocking, 9/11-type event, or what form it might take. But surely there’s a pretty good chance that sometime over the next few years something nasty will happen — a terrorist attack on a public place, an exchange of fire in the South China Sea, something. Then what?
After 9/11, the overwhelming public response was to rally around the commander in chief. Doubts about the legitimacy of a president who lost the popular vote and was installed by a bare majority on the Supreme Court were swept aside. Unquestioning support for the man in the White House was, many Americans believed, what patriotism demanded.
The truth was that even then the urge toward national unity was one-sided, with Republican exploitation of the atrocity for political gain beginning almost immediately. But people didn’t want to hear about it; I got angry mail, not just from Republicans but from Democrats, whenever I pointed out what was going on.
Unfortunately, the suspension of critical thinking ended as such suspensions usually do — badly. The Bush administration exploited the post-9/11 rush of patriotism to take America into an unrelated war, then used the initial illusion of success in that war to ram through huge tax cuts for the wealthy.
Bad as that was, however, the consequences if Donald Trump finds himself similarly empowered will be incomparably worse.
We’re only three weeks into the Trump administration, but it’s already clear that any hopes that Mr. Trump and those around him would be even slightly ennobled by the responsibilities of office were foolish. Every day brings further evidence that this is a man who completely conflates the national interest with his personal self-interest, and who has surrounded himself with people who see it the same way. And each day also brings further evidence of his lack of respect for democratic values.
You might be tempted to say that the latest flare-up, over Nordstrom’s decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, is trivial. But it isn’t. For one thing, until now it would have been inconceivable that a sitting president would attack a private company for decisions that hurt his family’s business interests.
But what’s even worse is the way Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s spokesman, framed the issue: Nordstrom’s business decision was a “direct attack” on the president’s policies. L’état, c’est moi.
Mr. Trump’s attack on Judge James Robart, who put a stay on his immigration ban, was equally unprecedented. Previous presidents, including Barack Obama, have disagreed with and complained about judicial rulings. But that’s very different from attacking the very right of a judge — or, as the man who controls 4,000 nuclear weapons put it, a “so-called judge” — to rule against the president.
The really striking thing about Mr. Trump’s Twitter tirade, however, was his palpable eagerness to see an attack on America, which would show everyone the folly of constraining his power:
[Trump’s tweet, which I can’t figure out how to get in here, reads as follows:
Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!]
Never mind the utter falsity of the claim that bad people are “pouring in,” or for that matter of the whole premise behind the ban. What we see here is the most powerful man in the world blatantly telegraphing his intention to use national misfortune to grab even more power. And the question becomes, who will stop him?
Don’t talk about institutions, and the checks and balances they create. Institutions are only as good as the people who serve them. Authoritarianism, American-style, can be averted only if people have the courage to stand against it. So who are these people?
It certainly won’t be Mr. Trump’s inner circle. It won’t be Jeff Sessions, his new attorney general, with his long history of contempt for voting rights. It might be the courts — but Mr. Trump is doing all he can to delegitimize judicial oversight in advance.
What about Congress? Well, its members like to give patriotic speeches. And maybe, just maybe, there are enough Republican senators who really do care about America’s fundamental values to cross party lines in their defense. But given what we’ve seen so far, that’s just hopeful speculation.
In the end, I fear, it’s going to rest on the people — on whether enough Americans are willing to take a public stand. We can’t handle another post-9/11-style suspension of doubt about the man in charge; if that happens, America as we know it will soon be gone.