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Thursday
Jan262017

A Jaded, Hopeful Recap

Little more can or should be said about the 2016 presidential election. It somehow came to pass that of the tens of millions of Americans who are at least 35, natural-born citizens and otherwise not disqualified from holding the office, the winnowing process gave us two “choices” most of us, even in our soberer moments, would elect to send on a one-way trip to the Kuiper Belt and not consider it poor stewardship of public resources to have done so. The hows and whys of its having come down to a basket of two deplorables have been overdiscussed to no avail, as nothing about the system that set before us Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich (Google the South Park reference if necessary)–again–will be modified or done away with, and it will grind inexorably onward. It is for this and other reasons too numerous to list that every time I see the handiwork of democracy in action, I get down on my knees to thank the living Lord that I live in a republic with separation of powers which are, at least in theory, constitutionally limited.

It was the founding generation of this very republic that was near universal in its disdain for political parties, which the leading lights of the era more often referred to as “factions.” We see concern over looming factionalism, and the clearly expressed desire to thwart it, sprinkled throughout the Federalist Papers and much of the personal correspondence of the Constitution’s principal architects. While in general I revere these giants, I used to think they were all wet when it came to this particular concern. The formation of parties seemed to me natural, inevitable and not necessarily objectionable. 

Suddenly I’m less sure of myself. Factionalism in the 2016 election cycle has led to some curious behavior, even degrees of what can only be described as lunacy I once would have thought unlikely in many leading pundits and power brokers I erstwhile respected. To the lifelong student and ever fascinated observer of human nature, things keep getting curiouser and curiouser. I speak, it should be noted, from the sidelines–as one who would have been more or less equally aggrieved by either outcome, albeit for different reasons in each instance. The reversion to tribalism is surprising, even if it probably shouldn’t be. I see lifelong, committed “movement” conservatarians now enthusiastically supporting and defending Trump despite his ideological malleability/schizophrenia/flakiness, and even if their support started out very tentative as his lock on the nomination looked increasingly likely. I see them contorting themselves into verbal and rhetorical pretzels defending most of what he does and says, which often includes the plainly indefensible. On the other side, I see formerly sane Democrats losing their ever-loving minds and speaking in apocalyptic terms, never mind that Trump spent his entire adult life prior to roughly late 2015 harboring views which, with the lone exception of seriously entertaining Obama “birther” nonsense, made him largely indistinguishable from many of those very Democrats.

The unlikely Trump victory and the upheaval that followed track almost perfectly, at least in an analogical sense, with a memorable bit from one of Chris Rock’s standup routines wherein he discusses the O. J. Simpson verdict and concludes that black people were too happy about it and white people were too upset. Rock noted that he hadn’t seen white people that upset since they cancelled MASH, and described us milling about in a funk, shouting, “This is BULLSHIT!” Whereas blacks were elated, shouting, “We won! We won!”, to which Rock retorts, “What the f--k did we win? Every day I go out to the mailbox to look for my O. J. prize, and NOTHING!”

The aftermath we’re now witnessing, in all of its jubilance, triumphalism, anger, fear and strained relationships, exposes certain oddities of human nature which are probably long overdue for airing and examination. A necessarily imperfect description of what we’re seeing is that it’s the fallout from the emotional investment people tend to place into “their” candidate once they’ve stopped dithering and have gone all-in. It is at this point that, far too often, a mentality takes hold that “my” guy can do no wrong, while “their” guy can do no right. Having now made it to the other side of an election that (leaving aside third parties) forced us to choose between major party candidates worse than any two in living memory, now may be the best opportunity any of us have yet seen to take a hard, critical look at the electoral tribalism that so bitterly divides us.

In fairness I should say I’ve often been as guilty of this as the next person. With a few noteworthy exceptions, I was too uncritical of Dubya. He was “my” candidate from “my” (former) party. I questioned many of his decisions, but never his motives or intentions. He’s a humble, Christian guy with an unassuming, aw shucks demeanor. I was relatively certain he meant well most of the time. He almost always got the benefit of the doubt, even when that doubt was substantial. Many were drawn to Obama in a similarly personal manner. They found him winsome. He comes across as cool as a trout, confident (if somewhat aloof, even arrogant), bright, in control and steady at the wheel, above it all. I was never impressed, but only a fool would deny that the man possesses a wealth of charisma and natural gifts. Both he and Bush 43 strike me as likely better men than they were presidents.

The error in this approach, with its emphasis on personal appeal, magnetism, presence, “gravitas”–whatever one wishes to call it–is that none of us should be judging any president or presidential candidate on the basis of who s/he is, as this is ultimately unknowable at the level of interaction any of us is capable of having with the politician in question, and just as ultimately irrelevant. We should judge any president of any party as we would periodically assess an employee. That’s what the president is; not our leader, monarch or fuhrer, but our employee. Like virtually any employee, each president presents us with a collection of strengths, which should be praised as and when they manifest themselves, and weaknesses, which should be criticized and never ignored. In business management, I’ve been slapped more than once with a painful reminder of the great folly in coddling employees whom I personally like, letting things slide with them that would not be tolerated in another. It’s not an entirely apt comparison, of course, because employees in the ordinary sense are people we actually know. The absurdity of defending a president who is “our” guy lies in the fact that he really isn’t, doesn’t know any of us, and probably couldn’t give a damn about any of us as individual human beings apart from the voting constituencies we represent. Thus we should judge the president solely on what he does. We should praise him when he does right and give him no quarter when he does wrong, whether through a mistake in judgment or some darker motive. Such is the trade-off for the immense power and privilege the office bestows upon him. Actions, not intentions; performance, not personality. If no other good comes from a Trump presidency, perhaps it will bring this idea into sharper focus. Politicians are never what they seem to be in any case. Their wives and kids know them; YOU do not. You know their public persona. The attachment you form to them, and the hopes and aspirations you place with them, are comforting illusions you alone nurture. There’s nothing objectively real about them.

Trump will do some things right, and we should acknowledge when he does. He will most assuredly do plenty of things wrong, as he already has. In either case, we should strive to ensure we’re gauging Trump the chief executive, not Trump the man. We should continue to do this with his successor, and every successor thereafter. 

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