What we’ve learned

The last few days have been among the most consequential and remarkable in American history. On Tuesday, President Trump’s campaign chairman and his personal attorney each were found guilty of multiple felonies, with an hour of each other. In pleading guilty to felonies of campaign finance reform, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s attorney, declared that he had committed his crimes at the behest of and with the full knowledge of the President.

I hardly need say that this series of events is essentially unprecedented. It feels much as Watergate felt; disorienting, terrifying, and heartening in equal measure. The word everyone seems to be using is surreal. Commentators and friends alike have invoked Lewis Carroll. We’re going down a rabbit hole, we’re behind the looking glass, our only companionship a mad hatter, and a Cheshire cat. It is indeed brillig, and slithy toves are gyring and gimbeling their frantic lives away. Fortunately, our vorpal blades have one last charge in them. We can’t just beware the jabberwock. We have to kill it.

During Watergate, amidst the daily revelations of Richard Nixon’s utter contempt for the rule of law (and remember that he, no less than Trump, ran under a ‘law and order’ platform, promising to restore American stability after the chaos and disorder of the late 1960s), we were reassured to see the basic mechanisms of governance stepping up and providing a counterbalance to Nixon’s cynical and lawless power grab. First, the press investigated and published daily revelations of misconduct by Nixon and his associates. Congress launched an investigation. The Justice Department, in the event known as the Saturday Night Massacre, gave us the stellar examples of integrity Elliott Richardson and William Ruckelshaus.  Special prosecutors did their job, as did the Supreme Court. Above all, Republicans in Congress only stood by their man up to a point. When party loyalty became untenable, they ended their support for the President. Had he not resigned, he would have been impeached and removed from office.

The system worked. Not perfectly, not smoothly, but eventually, the right people stepped up and did their job. A Nixon henchman, John Dean, flipped. (Just as Cohen, fingers crossed, seems to be doing). Sam Ervin investigated. Woodward and Bernstein became American icons of investigative journalism. America survived.

The Trump situation strikes me as different. I have no crystal ball, no prophetic powers, but I remember Watergate vividly, and this is different, and a good deal more dangerous. The gatekeepers envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution seem enervated, or corrupted, or cowardly. We’re in this alone now.

For one thing, the press is not the force it once was. The great echo chamber of the internet has reduced the power and impact of good journalism. There’s great journalism being done, of course, dedicated reporters and editors trying their best to sort out what’s actually going on and what it all means. But it feels at times like they’re in a losing battle. Powerful forces prefer obfuscation to fact-based revelations, and the most powerful man in the country most especially profits from nonsense. Donald Trump has emerged not just as a moral relativist–we always knew that–but as an ontological relativist unmatched in the history of solipsism. Or rather, as the ultimate cynic, as someone perfectly willing to distort absolutely any notion of facts or reality. “Truth is not Truth,” said Rudy Giuliani (Trump’s astonishingly pliable attorney-spokesman: remember when he was looked up, admired?) recently. Any revelation inconvenient to this most astonishingly narcissistic of Presidents becomes ‘Fake News.’ And the internet enables the proliferation of fantasies, conspiracy theories and outright lies because it is built on a foundation of pure subjectivity, absolutely democratic. It is our collective subconsciousness, and from time to time, on social media, its true hideousness–the hideousness we learn, to our horror, of which our fellow citizens are capable–comes spewing out. 4chan, incels, the alt-right, Infowars, Breitbart, QAnon.  At its worst, the internet is pure chaos, unmediated and without any underpinnings in any worldview or moral stance, including the ones we learned as children: don’t lie. Liars are bad people. Presidents, however, are patriots. They’re here to protect us. Not anymore.

(“What is truth?” the oh-so-sophisticated Roman Pilate asked Jesus, and then dismissed the possibility of an answer. He could have answered it himself, though. Truth is power. “I am the Truth and the Light,” would have struck Pilate as absurd. Truth: a prisoner executed on a cross. How absurd).

So the Press is trying. But there are alternative voices ceded equal authority by many, even when they’re clearly and obviously lying. Congress, meanwhile, is under control of a Republican party that has abdicated, completely and thoroughly, any pretense of paying anything but lip service to Congressional oaths of office. They want their tax cut fraud, and they want nutjobs in the Supreme Court. Which is about to be joined by a man who has opined in the past that Presidents are above the law. In fact, that’s likely the reason Kavanaugh was chosen.

Some of us hold out hope that rule of law will yet prevail, and cling to the integrity and patriotism of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller. His fight is an uphill one, however, with a President willing to fire and pardon his way out of trouble. That leaves us. We, the People. And we have to win in November. That’s what this comes down to; we have to win. We have to prove the basic decency and patriotism of the American people. And in my opinion, it won’t do just to win back the House. We need to win the Senate too (a much tougher challenge), and we need not just to win the House, but obliterate Republican candidates for the House.

But here’s what I keep coming back to. What, actually did we learn this week? We learned that Donald Trump’s closest associates are hopelessly corrupt and dishonest, and that not just his associations, but his fundamental understanding of the world is that of a criminal. (John Dean is ‘a rat.’ Flipping witnesses should be illegal.)  But didn’t we already know all that? We learned that the Trump campaign went out of its way to keep the American people ignorant of the most unsavory sexual escapades of their candidate. Nothing new there. We learned that Trump hasn’t the faintest idea what is legal and illegal when campaigning for national office. No big revelation there: he knows nothing, and has no interest in learning anything, at all, ever.

Slate Magazine recently published an article by William Saletan arguing that we don’t actually need any new revelations of kompromat or sex tapes or money laundering to prove that Donald Trump betrayed the United States. All the evidence is already out. He puts the story together convincingly–of course Trump has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. We know that; it’s obvious. We don’t need further Mueller revelations to prove it, though of course we want the Special Counsel to keep after it, and we do anticipate a lot more criminality to be revealed. Still, argues Saletan, the case has been made. The evidence has been provided. Haven’t we always known Trump to be what he is now revealed to be? A conman and a grifter, a career white collar criminal, a racist and a sexual predator, and the most arrogant ignoramus imaginable? How is any of that news?

Our country remains in a state of emergency. The story is racing towards its conclusion, and unlike Hollywood, there’s no guarantee the good guys will win. If we love our country and its freedoms, this next election may well be our last chance to save it. Sorry, but it’s so. This guy’s instincts are all authoritarian. We can only keep our Republic if we fight for it. Vote, call, give rides, give money, post. Do what you’re able to.


2 thoughts on “What we’ve learned

  1. Daniel

    Hello. Is your mother Mary Samuelson, who taught me sixth grade at Child’s Elementary in Bloomington? Can you send me her email?!

    1. admin Post author

      Yes, that’s my Mom. Unfortunately, my Mom is incapacitated by Alzheimer’s, and not capable of reading or responding to email. I’m sorry. I’ll see her today, though, and will pass on your greeting.

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