I don’t know what to tell you. Honestly.
One of the hallmarks of an unfree society is a lack of narratives to make clear sense of the government’s behavior — especially the government’s preferred narratives.
But this government has no narratives; no coherent, meaningful story to tell to us, the governed; no clear philosophy. We only neurotic and self-serving prevarications that shift as quickly as the ground beneath the lie-manufacturers.
America is in a crisis, and the America that eventually emerges will not be one any of us — liberal, conservative, urban, rural — will much recognize.
In the future, in this space, I hope to piece together some occasional narratives of this decline, accounts that can perhaps put America’s crisis in a useful context. But this week, a month into the most inept, malign, dishonest, infantile, hateful government administration I have witnessed in my lifetime, all I can do is try to pluck out a few waypoints on our rapid ride down the cliff.
For us mere mortals, there have been too many outrages to track, which is probably as close as Donald Trump’s inner circle comes to a strategy. They are prone to crisis and deceit, so they make crisis and deceit perpetual, until the populace adapts to it — like the stench of an unemptied garbage pail in your own home.
As my Pennsylvania-Dutch great-grandmother used to say, “If you hang long enough, you get used to it.”
This week, Michael Flynn, a simple soldier whose lifelong genius for connecting dots and acting on the picture they produce may have worked in an Afghan village but not in a bureaucracy designed to protect 319 million Americans, lost his job as national security adviser, and that is a good thing on its face.
Flynn’s unpardonable sin, per the president who hired him, is not that he spoke before Trump’s inauguration about election-tampering sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador, but that he lied about it to the vice president of the United States.
That is a jumbled, nonsensical timeline that begs a thousand questions.
Why did Flynn lie when he must have known U.S. authorities would record his call to a Russian diplomat? Why did Trump pretend, when asked by reporters on Air Force One, that he was unaware of Flynn’s lie, even though the Justice Department had informed him of it right after his inauguration? When Mike Pence told America on TV last weekend that Flynn assured him sanctions weren’t mentioned in his call, how did the vice president not know what the president already knew?
Why did Flynn have the “full confidence” of Trump just hours before he was forced to resign, according to prevaricating administration proxy Kellyanne Conway?
Only one clear answer emerges from the flaming heap of Flynn’s career. Absent investigative reporting by the “disgusting” media, absent an inflamed sense of justice motivating some career FBI and intelligence professionals to share what they knew with “fake news” outlets (like CNN and The Washington Post and The New York Times) the administration would not have cut Flynn loose.
And they would not have to answer questions about its ways of doing business.
The administration still may slip loose of hard questions, since Republican leaders on Capitol Hill — particularly Jason Chaffetz and Devin Nunes — refuse to investigate anything this administration does.
Not the Trump’s broken promise to divest himself of his many conflicts of interest or his already voluminous billing of taxpayers for Secret Security expenses when Donald or Melania or the kids take frequent jaunts, for work and play, to South America, the Middle East, Mar-a-Lago and New York.
Not the addition of political adviser Stephen Bannon, the certifiably power-mad Breitbart propagandist, to the National Security Council.
Not Trump’s refusal to release any of his tax returns, an unprecedented act of opacity and cynicism even in American politics.
Not his administration’s repeated lies, usually laced with racial innuendo, about phantom voter fraud in an election he won.
And certainly not the ties of Trump’s campaign and White House staff to Russian government officials or intelligence assets or hackers or money launderers or what-have-you.
Congressional conservatives, some of whom worked on Whitewater and the Clinton impeachment two decades ago, spent the past eight years looking in vain for gross corruption in a terribly conventional Democratic White House. They spent millions to investigate Benghazi in dozens of venues. They screamed about emails.
Oh, the emails.
They grilled Hillary Clinton with questions in one public hearing for 11 hours and never got the “gotcha” sound bite they sought. They gave the third degree to the Clinton Foundation — not a squeaky-clean organization, but by no means the bloodthirsty leviathan it was made out to be by shrill online fever swamps of resentment, stirred by Trump’s coterie.
And that would all be fine, if only Congressional Republicans would lift a finger to challenge its pathos-in-chief. Perhaps they yet will — after they edit Obamacare, “gun-free zones,” and corporate and capital gains taxes out of existence.
In the meantime, we will have more Putin-style televised news conferences, substitutes for the spectacular back-bitings of reality TV that clearly puts The Donald in his natural element, lying to all and entertaining some.
Trump browbeat a Jewish reporter as “unfair” for asking about the rise of anti-Semitic attacks nationwide, told a black reporter to set up a meeting between himself and the Congressional Black Caucus, pretending that 306 electoral votes make him a triumphant second coming of Ronald Reagan — a president who, like Trump, was not especially popular upon his inauguration, but who, unlike Trump, met deep skepticism with charm, calm and professionalism.
Personally, I did not care for most of Reagan’s policies or staff. But he charted out a philosophy, a direction, and a sense that his decisions affected 250 million Americans and billions more people abroad. He also abhorred nuclear weapons and sought to reduce their cloud over humanity.
Trump is no Reagan. Trump is no Ronald McDonald.
Republican indifference to this nasty, brutish — and hopefully short — regime’s myriad offenses against democracy is starting to take hold in a plurality of the populace, too. Just as Hill conservatives’ attitude seems to be “As long as I get my tax cut,” Middle America seems to have adopted “As long as I get mine” as its new mantra and ethos.
Money and revenge on our enemies, that’s all most of us want anymore. Trump was not the cause of this phenomenon, but he is its logically absurd endpoint.
We have elected our own id impulses. There is an ever-present danger — at least among white men of a certain age like me, whose existence or livelihood or bodily integrity is not immediately threatened by Trump’s wobbling whims — that we may tolerate (or even embrace) Trump, because his rule by id validates our own impulse to act on our darkest, ugliest urges.
America’s system was built by its designers to keep these impulses in check, to adapt them to public reason, to remember that government exists not to make us all the same, but to manage our differences.
That America is one that challenges us to know better, do better — and moderate our antipathies and subordinate our id-impulses for the common good.
But now we have elevated our lowest impulses to the highest office. I fear that, in place of electing a president, we have ordained an id-priest. I fear his ministry works well on a populace as broken as ours.
And if it doesn’t work in the long term, he will have broken us even more, perhaps beyond repair, before much longer.