Trust (IV)

I had hoped, at this point in the examination, to start exploring ways of rebuilding our institutions — and so rebuilding our trust in them. We need better protective mechanisms: circuit breakers, tripwires; some sort of fail-safe that will spare future generations the havoc of the last four years. I had hoped: I’m looking forward to a day — some time soon, please — when events no longer move faster than my meager 70wpm. But the announcement — by tweet, of course — that negotiations on a second major relief bill would be suspended “until after I am reelected on November 3rd” sent the markets (predictably) downward; the hours-later tweet demanding congressional action on a relief bill did nothing to allay anyone’s anxiety.

Trust makes the world work. But let’s shrink that just a little bit. Trust makes a relationship work, a business work; it makes local government work; it makes a country work: a citizen’s trust that the institutions of government won’t get everything right, and won’t execute perfectly, but they’ll get more things right than wrong and will operate as a brake on excesses attempted by (just for example) an out-of-control executive. A citizen’s trust that government’s word is its bond, and that policies won’t change at whim, that any course correction or major alteration will be the result of carefully considered facts and subject to rigorous debate. (The individual’s trust extends to diplomatic relations, too: allies want reliable and rock-steady partners, not erratic and unreliable fair-weather friends.)

The Trump tweets — like everything Trump — put on display, again, the open contempt not just for facts and reality but for his fellow citizens (including his bafflingly steadfast base). He insults our intelligence with his non sequiturs, nonsensical pronouncements, and nonproductive “solutions” to the actual problems of real people. But such is the unplumbable depth of the narcissist’s self-delusion, that the history of the universe is significant only because it culminated in his spiritually, emotionally, and financially impoverished existence.

The Biden presidency — and we must hope and pray, all of us, that there will be a Biden presidency — will take on several difficult tasks from the very start. Rebuilding public trust in government and the institutions of government is both the base and summit. Some trust in government can be rebuilt by the steady and competent execution of a plan to restore public health and recover something resembling our long-ago normal lives. The experts have been right all along: “It’s the economy, Stupid” is good electoral strategy, but when a deadly and highly contagious pathogen is in the air then the economy must take a back seat. Mask-wearing isn’t a matter of personal choice or personal virtue, it’s a matter of good policy for this moment. It’s worth noting that on any given day in the last week there have been more new cases of Covid-19 in the White House than in all of New Zealand or Taiwan.

Leadership matters: “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” A leader leads: at a critical moment in history he doesn’t take his people where they want to go, but where they need to go. Moses led us through the desert; Kennedy started us on a journey to the moon and the stars. Trump doesn’t lead so much as blunder about, a human pinball content to rebound off the bumpers forever, in any direction whatsoever so long as our attention is on him. “I’m a leader and I had to lead,” he says. “Churchill didn’t stay in his basement.” Yes, he did. A true leader can lead from anywhere; the charlatan needs the crowd far more than they need him.

The leader, to paraphrase JFK, charts a particular course not because it serves him but because it serves all. It isn’t easy, especially when the road is a difficult and possibly unpleasant one; but it is necessary. It’s the hard road; the high road; the road to redemption.

Trust (III)

“Trust is what makes the world work.” Right now, the world is not working for too many people in America. There is widespread distrust of government. Only the ruling class benefits when political gamesmanship takes the place of statesmanship: people busy with their lives, people trying to make ends meet, have neither time nor inclination to analyze the reasons; they know only that their needs are not being met, they tune out the politicians, and they don’t show up at the polls. The ultimate consequence of this systemic voter suppression is to make nearly every seat a safe seat; and so the pols respond not to the real needs of their constituents but to the loudest voices: those who exercise their voting rights. And though it might serve the elected officials well, by keeping them in office — lifetime sinecures, really — it amounts to the death-spiral of democracy by discouraging ever larger numbers from bothering to vote.

Trust makes the world work: in education, in commerce, in finance, in government. If we can’t trust our institutions to do their jobs, they fail us and all future generations. Cronyism and baksheesh are the ways of desert tribes and banana republics, not the beacon of the free world. In the United States today we see that virtually no one trusts government institutions: if it isn’t a deep distrust born of police excesses, systemic injustices, and income disparities that affect every aspect of life; then it is wild conspiracy theories about vaccines, school curricula, voting rights, and climate science. The market for tinfoil hats has never been stronger.

As I write this, reality has finally caught up with the reality-show president. After six months of denying the threat, doubting the science, denigrating public health professionals, Trump has tested positive for Covid-19. It is surprising that it has taken this long given his refusal to take the basic precautions recommended by public health officials around the world, as if an acknowledgement of vulnerability to disease (by wearing a mask, for example) is a sign of personal weakness. “I learned a lot about Covid,” he says glibly. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” So ten months after the first warnings from our national security apparatus we are supposed to believe that he “gets it” because he has the disease. Warnings weren’t enough; briefings weren’t sufficient; 210,000 American deaths (and over 1 million worldwide) made no impact. As he has his entire adult life, Trump sees himself at the center of everything. Unless he is sick, a global pandemic has no real meaning.

We have gone from a government that many simply didn’t trust, to government that no one can trust. The reasons for past mistrust of government are many and varied, and help explain (in part) how we came to our present predicament. The reason nobody can trust today’s government is quite simple: when it is impossible to know whether anyone is speaking the truth it is safest to assume that none of them is. Some of the lies are obvious; some are outed as falsehoods soon after they are uttered; and still others might not be known until days later when they are flatly contradicted by the next statement of alternative fact.

The problem, of course, is that this is real life. We find ourselves now living not in the world where “up” and “down” are clear directions; instead we inhabit the conspiracy-driven dystopia of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s good entertainment but an abysmal alternative to science and the rule of law.

Empathy

Decades ago Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy kicked off a cold civil war; Ronald Reagan kept it going with his apocryphal story of a Welfare Queen, George HW Bush had Willie Horton, and George W Bush had the duplicitous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the 1990’s Newt Gingrich weaponized “traditional values” in congressional elections and the culture wars, begun thirty years earlier (by Goldwater acolyte Phyllis Schlafly) were fully joined.

Trump isn’t the disease. He’s a symptom. He is the apotheosis of a cynical process begun by Schlafly and Roger Ailes, continuing in a straight line through Gingrich and Palin and on to Jim Jordan, whose feverish House speechifying would be hilariously funny were it not so scary: if he believes even half of what he says he is simply incapable of coherent thought and critical analysis; if he doesn’t then he is a proven liar.

So if Trump and all these others are symptoms, what is the disease? Why is our congress deadlocked, our legislative pipeline gridlocked? Why is our political discourse coarse? If politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, why is even the smallest compromise seemingly impossible? It comes down to one single word: empathy. There has long been an empathy gap in American politics: Republicans have none, Democrats a surfeit. (This might be a good time to point out the misleading way many polls are reported: breaking results down by political affiliation might seem useful but it has the effect of elevating the Republican Party to a status it does not enjoy. Independents and Democrats each outnumber registered Republicans.)

Politics is the art of the possible: compromise. But compromise is impossible in an environment where one party routinely engages in the most toxic rhetorical excess, demonizing policy differences and branding them as an Enemy who is seeking no less than the destruction of the nation. Compromise requires empathy, and a willingness to view the world — just for an instant —through someone else’s eyes. Before you judge a man, it is said, you should walk a mile in his moccasins.

The signal event in the transformation — or disintegration — of the Republican Party was the rise of Newt Gingrich to Speaker in 1995. What began as an election device to demonize the Other became, in Gingrich’s hands, a weapon of legislative havoc, a wrecking ball aimed not just at New Deal and Great Society programs but at the people who would preserve them and their legacy. Empathy is rhetorically conflated with sympathy, and both are denigrated as signs of weakness. That demonization is, ironically, itself a sign of weakness, the kind of professed certainty and absolutism that betrays fanaticism. (“The fanatic,” wrote John LeCarré, “is always concealing a secret doubt.”)

The transformation of the GOP into the POT is complete: there are no scruples (only “winning” is important), there is no objective truth (only “alternative facts” are allowed), and there is no actual leadership (only a bloviating void determined to airbrush failure after failure). Perhaps, in a few years, a new center-right party will emerge to honestly debate the things that must be debated. Everybody wants to win; but winning doesn’t mean somebody has to lose. Compromise used to be possible; it will be possible again when empathy is properly embraced as a political tool and a sign of strength.