Saturday, October 31, 2020



Sharknado Goes to Washington


  • Oct. 30, 2020

WASHINGTON — When I was growing up, my brother Michael took me to see old movies at the American Film Institute.

“An American in Paris.” “Shane.” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” “Casablanca.”

The films shaped my image of America. We were Gene Kelly, the exuberant hoofer who could dance and romance better than the French. We were Shane, the laconic gunfighter who never used his gun unless he had to. We were Jimmy Stewart, the idealistic senator who fought the corrupt forces in our government. We were Humphrey Bogart, who pretended to be cynical when he was really a lovesick patriot. And there was the wonderful Jean Arthur in two of those movies, showing what a strong, saucy woman could do.

The nuns took us to new movies, like “Lilies of the Field,” where I learned that we were Sidney Poitier, the jack-of-all-trades who helped immigrant nuns in the Arizona desert build their dream chapel.

We were the winners, the good guys. We had swagger and vitality and an endless sense of possibility.

America wasn’t perfect, God knows. I was raised here in the heart of the white patriarchy, where the Washington Monument was an apt symbol.

But our aim was to brashly move forward toward a more perfect union. All that rhetoric about us being a mosaic and a quilt and a shining city on a hill and a beacon for the world? I bought it. I came from a family that wore uniforms — police uniforms, military uniforms — and growing up, I was proud of that.

I went to the Lincoln Memorial at dawn the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration. Maybe it was sappy. But after living through the ’68 assassinations and riots, Watergate, Vietnam and the Iraq war, I wanted to celebrate the idea that our sense of possibility was back, that we could be proud, smart and respected again in the world.


I imagined traveling to France on President Obama’s press plane and watching him come down the stairs, with his cool sunglasses and graceful lope, showing the French, who had correctly scorned our stupidity and cozening on Iraq: Never mind Gene Kelly. Look what we’ve got now.

I often wonder how we got from that moment in only a dozen years, from my little champagne celebration at the Lincoln Memorial to a state of such despair and jitters that we don’t even know if the president will use the Supreme Court, midwifed by Mitch McConnell, to purloin the election.

The most bizarre fact that sticks in my head is this: In 2015, Donald Trump was agonizing over whether to go for the role as the president in “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” or to run for the actual presidency.

How did we go from Abraham Lincoln to a “Sharknado” reject?

It is not only Trump’s fault. He is the Rosemary’s Baby of pernicious trends in this country over decades.

I have seen a lot of Republicans use bigotry to lure racists, scare Americans and win the White House. But with Trump, it is more blatant because he cuts out the middleman. He doesn’t hand it off to capos.

For years now, image has replaced substance and achievement as a path to power. But Trump — aided by a soulless, rapacious Silicon Valley that keeps torquing up the algorithm for conflict and conspiracy — has relentlessly tried to obscure our ability to tell the true from the false.

Truth has been Balkanized.

Social media and the former reality star have entwined to make cruelty and fake news central elements of the nation’s discourse. Who could have conceived of a president calling a vice-presidential candidate from the other party, a respected senator and groundbreaker for women, “a monster”?

This fog of fakery peaked with Covid-19, with Trump politicizing the mask and turning Democratic governors and his own health officials into the enemy.

“Trump has turned fact and decency into a partisan concept,” said Jake Tapper. “So that journalists who are skeptical of both parties, and Republicans like Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake who are not total sycophants, become antifa to 35 percent of the country, while all the other Republican lawmakers who know better sat back and let it happen.”

Walter Isaacson, the historian, observed, “What we have lost is the sense that we are one nation, all in this together. Donald Trump is the first president in our history who has sought to divide us rather than unite us. We will heal once he leaves, but the scar will endure.”

I know, because of my family, that all Trump supporters are not cult members or racists. But our conversations are harder. They are anti-abortion and anti-regulation and got the conservative Supreme Court they wanted. They see Trump as a man who has kept his promises, with a playful sense of humor.

But liberals feel that Trump has no humor and that they have lost their own. It’s exhausting to be this outraged all the time.

Although the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was always pretty lame, even before President Trump put the kibosh on it, I learned a lot from hearing presidents deliver humorous speeches — or try to.

I loved writing features about wacky aspects of White House power — like the national security official under Bush senior who got nicknamed “the Ferret” because of his ability to sprint across the Oval Office rug and jump into pictures with the president.

Carol Lee wrote an amusing feature for The Wall Street Journal about the little red fox that sashayed around the colonnade outside President Obama’s Oval, a memory that Obama evokes in his new memoir. Journalists don’t write those kinds of funny, human stories about Trump and his enablers. The president’s spiral into lawlessness is too repellent — and frightening — to allow levity.

I checked back with Jon Meacham, the presidential historian, who marveled to me in 2016 that it was “as though Trump blew up the science lab, exposing the raw nerve of America’s stream of consciousness.”

He told me about a long Negroni-and-pizza lunch in the early Clinton years with his old boss, the legendary liberal editor of Washington Monthly, Charlie Peters.

“Charlie Peters defined intellectual honesty as the ability to say something good about the bad guys and bad about the good guys — to call them, in other words, as you saw them,” Meacham said. “Trump blew that up, and part of the restoration drama we need is a return to a semblance of this kind of reason-based politics.

“The Republican Party chose to abandon the entire Enlightenment project of evidence-driven reality sometime between the escalator and Covid, choosing a kind of Hobbesian total war of partisan, even cultish, passions rather than an ethos that would have been recognizable, at least in outline, by every president from F.D.R. to Obama. A Biden presidency won’t bring the Kingdom of Heaven to pass, but it could, at its best, make America remotely rational again.”

Just as I found it hard to walk past the Supreme Court after the partisan travesty of Bush v. Gore, I now find it hard to walk past the nest of vipers that is this White House. There have been sex scandals and family grifting before. But the pervasive immorality (kids separated from parents and put in cages, endless lies, siphoning government money for the Trump family business, people like Omarosa Manigault Newman and Stephen Miller running around), and the Republicans’ blind eye to it all, makes it hard to see the White House the same way.

“Unfortunately, what the Trump presidency has shown is how far someone with a lust for power and contempt for democracy can go within our system,” said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian. “Never has the expression ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ been more resonant. We have to go back to our founding period and demand of our government to be the best that it can be. Sadly, now when people say that, it’s almost with an unhappy, bitter laugh. But the founders did not say it with an unhappy, bitter laugh. They said it with hope and expectation, and we should, too.”

Even if Joe Biden wins, it’s not going to be easy to restore what has been lost, or to forge a new American identity.

Fortunately, the younger generation is more tolerant, open and committed to justice. And taking the megaphone away from Trump will lower the volume of lies and incivility, even as he will most likely continue to be revealed as a fraud in investigations and lawsuits when he loses presidential immunity.

“It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work, not just by Biden but by all of us, to put our country back together,” said Leon Panetta, the former Obama defense secretary. “The only pillar of our democracy I haven’t wavered on is our sense of trust in the American people. Tuesday is going to tell me a hell of a lot about whether that sense is well placed.”

He muttered, “Dammit, I hope we never make that mistake again.”

But we might.

The Friendships Trump Pulled Apart


The Friendships Trump Pulled Apart


  • Oct. 30, 2020



Many of my oldest friends are voting for President Trump on Tuesday.

They’re supporting Trump despite the arguments my pundit colleagues and I have been making — or perhaps because of them. My pro-Trump friends and readers complain that the mainstream media are biased against Trump, and thus they tune us out for being unfair and piling on.

“The picture painted by the media is a caricature of the person,” said my high school buddy Dave Richardson, who voted for Trump warily in 2016 but is supporting him enthusiastically this time.

The conundrum for those of us trying to change minds is that the more urgently we shout, the less we’re heard. “We’re not stupid, gullible sheep,” one reader, Frank J., complained. “Be fair and balanced in your reporting and it would have more power.”


My childhood friend Mary Mayor likewise supported Trump and is turned off by coverage that she regards as hostile. “I’ve never known a president who has gone through so much scrutiny, overlooking all the positives he has done,” she told me.

I understand why people like Mary voted for Trump. The loss of well-paying jobs devastated places like my hometown, Yamhill, Ore. Mary spent seven years homeless, lost four relatives to suicide, and herself once put a gun to her own head, before she pulled herself together with the help of a local church. Trump talked about bringing jobs back and helping ordinary workers — so she voted for the first time in her life, for Trump.

“We hoped Trump would help boost the economy and jobs,” my old friend Jani Sitton said, explaining her vote for Trump in 2016.

The challenge for opponents of Trump like myself is that our denunciations of the president sometimes backfire and help him, just as polls suggest that impeachment increased support for him (Gallup shows him with his highest presidential approval numbers after being impeached). As Jani said: “The condescension from very loud and aggressive Trump critics has contributed big time toward conservatives feeling sympathy for him.”

So in my last column before Election Day, let me explain as respectfully as I can why I’m so worked up about this election.

It’s partly because I believe that Trump is a charlatan who preys on my friends who trust him. Trump’s own sister has said he is a liar with “no principles,” and his former chief of staff Gen. John Kelly reportedly referred to him as “the most flawed person” he has known.

So if I’m passionate, it’s because I feel he has exploited my friends and then betrayed them with his policies.

How can a president be called “pro-life” when he has presided over the deaths of more than 225,000 Americans from Covid-19 and still doesn’t have a strategy to fight it? Trump is also working to take away health insurance from my friends: Already, the number of Americans with health insurance has dropped by 5.2 million since Trump took office, and he is trying to completely overturn the Affordable Care Act right after the election.

I’m a great believer in community, in the idea that what makes countries strong is “social capital” — the web of relationships, beliefs, trust, decency and identity that make a society work. Trump has taken this social fabric and acted as the Great Unraveler.

He replaces accepted facts with lies, baseless accusations, support for QAnon and even a conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama had SEAL Team 6 killed instead of Osama bin Laden. In both supporters and opponents, Trump nurtures hate. He is what Proverbs 6:19 calls “a person who stirs up conflict in the community.”

Trump has been a corrosive acid on America’s social capital. He has cost us trust. He has dissolved our connectivity.

I understand now why kindergarten teachers sometimes want to remove a loudmouth bully who disrupts the class and leaves it dysfunctional. That is what Trump has done to our democracy.

For much of my career, I’ve written about national security, from Afghanistan to North Korea, China to Iran. But great nations more often rot from within than suffer defeat from outside, and Trump is exacerbating longstanding divisions and weaknesses in this country.

So to those who think I suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” let me explain — with respect, but also urgency — that my intensity arises because I see Trump as not just a phony but also a threat. He has left the United States a more turbulent and divided nation, one close to war with itself.

Today the greatest threat I perceive to America’s national security isn’t from Qaeda terrorists, Russian cyberattacks or Chinese missiles. As I see it, it’s from Trump’s re-election.

This is when conversations with friends become awkward. I may think that Trump bamboozled my pals, and they may think I’m manipulated by leftist propaganda, but we all have agency — and we each think the other is using that agency to endanger a country we all love.

I doubt I’ll change many minds. But the only thing I can do is reach out in a good-faith effort to undecided voters.

Sometimes it works. Jani, a committed Christian, has worried about Democrats and abortion. But this time she will vote for Biden because she’s appalled at Trump’s policies toward migrants, Black Lives Matter and health care, and because “God cares about oppression, justice, the voiceless.”

As Jani goes, so, I hope, will the nation.


The Opportunities We Lost Under Trump


  • Oct. 30, 2020



In the original Greek the term “apocalypse” refers to an unveiling, the gray rain clouds of the everyday world torn away and something long hidden finally revealed. The political apocalypse of 2016, when Donald Trump improbably vanquished the establishment of both parties, fits this ancient definition perfectly: It was a moment when all kinds of uncomfortable truths about American life were suddenly exposed, when the hidden realities of our country and our coalitions were suddenly dragged up into the light, when the failures in both parties and every faction were laid bare.

So when we talk about what’s been lost in the four years of Trump’s administration, we should start with the lost opportunities to address what was revealed in 2016. These failures aren’t universal; there has been some reckoning with what the last presidential election meant, some attempts at treatment in response to a “that’s why you got Trump” diagnosis.

But there has also been a widespread retreat from revelation, let alone from any subsequent conversion, and a rush back to the comforts of one’s preconceptions and one’s tribe.


For the right, the major revelations of 2016 were threefold. The celebrity bombast of Trump’s campaign revealed how much the right’s media-entertainment complex, envisioned as an adjunct to conservatism’s political program, had instead swallowed up the movement. His birtherism and race-baiting revealed that white-identity politics had more potency, more support within the larger right, than many conservative intellectuals had ever wanted to admit. And the success of his America First arguments on economics and foreign policy exposed the gulf between the actual sentiments of Republican voters and the hawkish, limited-government orthodoxies of Reaganite conservatism in its decadent phase.

For the center, the revelations of 2016 were about policy failures that had been mostly invisible until Trump came along — above all, the way that center-left and center-right visions of post-Cold War “openness,” to free trade or low-skilled immigration or ever-greater-integration with the People’s Republic of China, simultaneously failed to achieve their geopolitical goals and hollowed out communities across the American heartland, creating a deadly, demagogy-ready vacuum where work and church and family used to be.

For the left, the revelations were about how its own victories within the Democratic coalition, the triumph of social liberalism over cultural conservatism, had forged a party that no longer connected with a lot of white, working-class voters (and more than a few Hispanics) no matter how much new federal spending it promised. Like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Social Democratic parties across Europe, the Democrats’ shift leftward in the 2010s accelerated their transformation into a party of the professional classes, culturally separated from many of the struggling blue-collar voters they claimed to represent.

So how did right, left and center respond to these revelations? Sometimes with recognition and adaptation, but more often with denial.

On the right, this denial took the form of a concerted attempt to just ignore Trump’s Twitter feed, to play “hear no evil” with his toxic rhetoric while steering his administration back toward precisely the stale orthodoxies that his campaign had rejected. For every figure who tried to make something substantive out of Trumpism (Josh Hawley) or repudiate its moral turpitude (Mitt Romney), there were many more Republicans who behaved as though Mike Pence had been elected president, answering Trump’s excesses with a public shrug and an off-the-record lament, and governing as though they had been given a mandate to do just the Republican usual — cut taxes on high earners while pretending to cut spending, with Trumpian populism reduced from its initial economic ambitions to a constant owning of the libs.

In the center, any sustained reckoning with the failings of the neoliberal era was eclipsed by a self-flattering narrative of liberalism desperately imperiled, authoritarianism on the march, that allowed pundits and ex-officials to posture as Resistance leaders and pretend to be pontificating in the shadow of a 1930s-style putsch. The major centrist project of the Trump era wasn’t a sustained reassessment of where its leaders had gone wrong; it was the hysterical overhyping of the Russia investigation, in a paranoid style that made seedy Trumpian malfeasance out to be a vast Kremlin conspiracy, the casus belli of a new Cold War.

Finally, on the left there were some attempts, via the Bernie Sanders movement, to build a left-wing politics responsive to the appeals of right-wing populism. But the gravitational pull of the cultural left was the stronger force, dragging Sanders away from his economics-first message, his skepticism of identity politics, toward a woke socialism that appealed to neither the white working class nor the African-American voters who ultimately made Joe Biden the Democratic nominee. And with Sanders’s defeat, the left turned decisively toward the easier opportunities afforded by its power in elite institutions and bureaucracies, in which class politics took second place to the promise of corporate H.R. departments assigning intersectional reading lists, forever.

Of course, all the lost opportunities I’m describing owe a great deal to Trump’s own presidential conduct. Had he governed as he campaigned, had he dropped into Washington trying to cut infrastructure deals with purple-state senators instead of letting Paul Ryan run domestic policy for the first two years, it might have forced real policy adaptation on both parties. Had he been less Mafioso-like in his rhetoric, less brazen in his financial self-dealing, it would have forced centrists away from their Resistance poses and into a more constructive stance.

Likewise, when the pandemic and the economic crisis and the George Floyd protests came along, he had an opportunity to make use of the two big ideas that emerged on the right in response to his initial victory — so-called state capacity libertarianism and common-good conservatism, overlapping perspectives that stressed the importance of effective institutions and socioeconomic solidarity, against the tendency of limited-government conservatism to decay into anti-government individualism.

Instead — unsurprisingly — Trump embraced precisely that decay. His management of the pandemic has been a case study in what you might call state-incapacity libertarianism, his handling of racial protest was deliberately polarizing rather than unifying (and not even successfully polarizing, since it left the majority on the other side), and his early push for sweeping Covid relief spending gave way to indifference and distraction as the autumn phase of legislation stalled.

Overall we can say that Trump enacted the fantasy (or nightmare, from a liberal perspective) of a populist government but never figured out how to translate that image into political or policy reality, which enabled other factions to persist in their ideological bubbles and self-flattering fantasies as well. And now that reality has taken its revenge of Trump’s incompetence, the whole exhausting experience has made the idea of a simple reset, a return to the before-times of 2014 or so — a “kill switch” on the virtual adventure of the Trump era, as the Portuguese writer-diplomat Bruno Maçães put it recently — much more politically potent than it might otherwise have been.

Which is one reason that Biden is likely to be his successor in the White House, as the aging avatar of the pre-Trump establishment, even as Trump’s own party girds itself for a return to its circa-2014 positions.

After so much failure and derangement, there are worse things than a reset. But it’s still the case that too many of the figures, Republican and Democrat, who are poised to be restored to their prior positions on the chessboard resemble the restored Bourbons after Napoleon, having “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” across the last four years. Which suggests that what we’ve lost above all in the Trump years is the chance not to repeat the experience soon enough.

Trump Has Made the Whole World Darker


Trump Has Made the Whole World Darker


  • Oct. 30, 2020


There is no escaping it: America is on the ballot on Tuesday — the stability and quality of our governing institutions, our alliances, how we treat one another, our basic commitment to scientific principles and the minimum decency that we expect from our leaders. The whole ball of wax is on the ballot.

The good news is that we’ve survived four years of Donald Trump’s abusive presidency with most of our core values still intact. To be sure, the damage has been profound, but, I’d argue, the cancer has not yet metastasized into the bones and lymph nodes of our nation. The harm is still reversible.

The bad news is that if we have to endure four more years of Donald Trump, with him unrestrained by the need to be re-elected, our country will not be the America we grew up with, whose values, norms and institutions we had come to take for granted.

Four more years of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a TV network without integrity, and the cancer will be in the bones of every institution that has made America America.

And then, who will we be? We can explain away, and the world can explain away, taking a one-time flier on a fast-talking, huckster-populist like Trump. It’s happened to many countries in history. But if we re-elect him, knowing what a norm-destroying, divisive, corrupt liar he is, then the world will not treat the last four years as an aberration. It will treat them as an affirmation that we’ve changed.

The world will not just look at America differently, but at Americans differently. And with good reason.

Re-electing Trump would mean that a significant number of Americans don’t cherish the norms that give our Constitution meaning, don’t appreciate the need for an independent, professional Civil Service, don’t respect scientists, don’t hunger for national unity, don’t care if a president tells 20,000 lies — in short, don’t care about what has actually made America great and different from any other great power in history.

If that happens, what America has lost these past four years will become permanent.

And the effects will be felt all over the world. Foreigners love to make fun of America, of our naïveté, or our silly notion that every problem has a solution and that the future can bury the past — that the past doesn’t always have to bury the future. But deep down, they often envy Americans’ optimism.

If America goes dark, if the message broadcast by the Statue of Liberty shifts from “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to “get the hell off my lawn”; if America becomes just as cynically transactional in all its foreign dealings as Russia and China; if foreigners stop believing that there is somewhere over the rainbow where truth is still held sacred in news reporting and where justice is the norm in most of the courts, then the whole world will get darker. Those who have looked to us for inspiration will have no widely respected reference point against which to critique their own governments.

Authoritarian leaders all over the world — in Turkey, China, Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and elsewhere — already smell this. They have been emboldened by the Trump years. They know they’re freer to assassinate, poison, jail, torture and censor whomever they want, without reproach from America, as long as they flatter Trump or buy our arms.

I asked Nader Mousavizadeh, a former senior U.N. official who now runs the London-based consultancy Macro Advisory Partners, what he thought was at stake in this election. He said: “It’s the sense that ever since F.D.R., despite all kinds of failures and flaws, America was a country that wanted a better future — not just for itself but for other people.”

While that may seem like a banality, he added, “it is actually unique in history. No other great power in history has behaved that way. And it provided America with an intangible asset of immense value: the benefit of the doubt. People across the world were willing to give America a second, third and fourth chance because they believed that, unlike any other great power that had come to impact their lives, our purpose was different.”

Of course, America has at times behaved in cruel, nakedly self-interested, reckless and harmful ways toward other nations and peoples. Vietnam was real. Anti-democratic coups in Iran and Chile were real. Abu Ghraib was real. Separating children from their parents at our southern border was real.

But they remain exceptions, not our modus operandi, which is precisely why people all over the world, not to mention Americans, are so enraged by them — while shrugging off Russia’s or China’s abuses.

It’s because they know, added Mousavizadeh, that historically “America’s intent, if not always its practice, has been to exhort not extort other nations; to export not exploit; to collaborate not dominate; and to strengthen a global system of rules and norms, not overturn it in order to focus exclusively on its own enrichment.

“Four more years of Trump’s America, and no one will have cause to give us the benefit of any doubt. The disillusionment will be shattering to our standing and influence — and only when we are received around the world as Russians or Chinese will we know what we have lost, for good.”

Was everything Trump did wrong or unnecessary? No. He provided a valuable corrective to U.S.-China trade relations. A useful counterpunch to Iranian excesses in the Middle East. And he sent the needed message, albeit crudely, that if you want to come into this country, you can’t just walk in, you have to at least ring the doorbell.

But these initiatives were nowhere near as impactful as Trump pretends they are, precisely because he did them alone — without allies abroad or bipartisan support at home. We could have had a much bigger and sustainable impact on China and Iran if we had acted with our allies; we could have had a grand bargain on immigration if Trump had been willing to move to the center. But he wouldn’t.

I fear that this inability of Americans to do big, hard things together anymore — which predated Trump and the pandemic, but was exacerbated by them both — has led to another loss. It’s a loss of confidence in democratic systems generally, and versus China’s autocratic system in particular.

Over the last pandemic year, the legendary investor Ray Dalio wrote in The Financial Times last week, China’s “economy grew at almost 5 percent, without monetizing debt, while all major economies contracted. China produces more than it consumes and runs a balance of payments surplus, unlike the U.S. and many Western nations.” Even Tesla’s best-selling Model 3 car, he wrote, “may soon be made entirely in China.”

Makes you wonder if the Trump presidency will be remembered not for making America great but for China’s great leap past America. If you’re not worried about that, you haven’t been paying attention these last four years.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman  Facebook

The President Has Made Selfishness Our National Credo

 The President Has Made Selfishness Our National Credo 


  • Oct. 30, 2020 

Back in the early 2000s, an academic named Robert Sampson did one of the better-known studies in urban sociology of the past 20 years, discreetly dropping thousands of stamped and addressed letters all over the streets of Chicago. What he was looking for, essentially, was to see which neighborhoods would be most diligent about dropping those letters in mailboxes rather than allowing them to collect footprints on the sidewalk and turn to pulp. 

What he discovered was intriguing. One of the best predictors of a letter’s fate had to do with how high a neighborhood measured in what Sampson called “moral cynicism,” or the notion that laws and informal rules weren’t really and truly binding. How he measured moral cynicism was straightforward: He asked thousands of Chicagoans to agree or disagree with a short list of statements. 

Laws were made to be broken

It’s OK to do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone

To make money, there are no right and wrong ways anymore, only easy ways and hard ways

In hindsight, Sampson recently told me, one of the weirdest and most chilling things about staring at that list is to see how easily it could double as a declaration of Donald Trump’s worldview. “You know, the idea that it’s all dog-eat-dog,” he said, “or that you’re a chump to care about others.” 

Our president has basically spent four years telling an entire nation not to bother dropping lost letters in the mail. 

It is cliché at this point to note that Trump has laid waste to our norms and customs, and in so doing, eroded our trust in institutions whose reputations were already in sharp decline (the media and federal government instantly come to mind), as well as our trust in our fellow Americans. 

But what Sampson was describing was somehow different, and I think more profound. He was articulating the price of that lost trust: generosity. As a nation, we’ve lost our sense of altruistic and moral purpose, a collective will to do what is decent and right and, as sociologists like to say, “other-regarding.” Instead, we’ve been living in a state benumbed and a benumbed state, in which nihilism prevails and corruption oozes from the very top. 

Another way to think about this might be to say that we’ve been living in a noir film. Or that we’re enacting the zero-sum values of reality television. What is it that contestants are so fond of saying? I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to win

But the point is: Trump has normalized selfishness. 

This moral cynicism has not been healthy, and I don’t just mean this in the psychological or spiritual sense. Our lost generosity has cost American lives. A once-in-a-century pandemic strikes, our public health experts eventually tell us all to wear masks for the commonweal, but the president tells us that mask-wearing is one of those rules not to be followed (like paying taxes, like the emoluments clause, like campaign finance laws, like obstructing justice). And so we, an extravagantly wealthy nation, suffer from an extravagant number of deaths. 

An altruistic culture, in other words, could have been “its own form of nonpharmacological intervention” in the fight against Covid-19, says Nicholas Christakis, a doctor and sociologist and the author of “Apollo’s Arrow,” a delightfully readable new book about the culture and the coronavirus. 

What makes this crisis of generosity all the stranger is that moral cynicism — also sometimes referred to as “legal cynicism” — is generally associated with high levels of poverty and racial isolation, according to Sampson’s work. Yet Trump’s life has been marked by neither. It has in fact been marked by the very opposite: overabundance. 

Then again, you could argue, as Kurt Andersen recently did in “Evil Geniuses,” that a certain breed of wealthy American now also thinks that the rules do not apply to it, and that this gang has been enshrining greed-is-good into custom and statute for the past 50 years. 

How this particular horseshoe got forged — where the poorest people of color and the most affluent white Americans both came to believe the same thing — could fill its own book. For now, though, it suffices to say that there’s a significant difference between what underlies their moral cynicism. The residents of Sampson’s cynical neighborhoods had understandable reasons to be mistrustful of certain laws and institutions. (Police brutality, lopsided prison sentencing and eviction disparities instantly spring to mind.) The Trumps of the world do not. They are loosening the yoke around their own necks while tightening it around others’. 

There is, actually, an argument to be made that the rich were profiting shamelessly from deregulation and small-government reforms at around the same time the epidemic of mass incarceration began. 

I came of age under presidents who spoke of our differences as bridgeable, resolvable things. Bill Clinton told us that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” George W. Bush defined himself as a “compassionate conservative” and “a uniter, not a divider.” Barack Obama made his national debut with a keynote address that declared, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states” and “we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” 

These lines may always have been a fiction, or at least a partial fiction. During their presidencies, jails filled, factories shut, and the nation spun off a breakaway republic of the 1 percent. Maybe it was only a matter of time before a president like Trump came along who took such a Hobbesian view of humanity. Moral cynicism “taps the darker side of human nature,” as Sampson wrote in “Great American City,” his book about the importance of community culture in defining neighborhoods. 

But the tension between preserving individual prerogatives and the common good is as old as America itself. Our sense of moral purpose, while fragile, has generally proved recoverable enough for us to make progress. 

What’s so agonizing now is that we’re all waiting to see whether it is again. Joe Biden has staked his entire campaign on his decency, his moral vision, his old-fashioned belief that one should love thy neighbor as thyself. A Trump campaign adviser may have sneeringly compared the former vice president to Mister Rogers during the candidates’ dueling town halls a couple of weeks ago. But it is Fred Rogers’s words that are repeatedly — at this point tiresomely, almost embarrassingly — invoked during times of national crisis. “Look for the helpers,” he urged children to do when they’re frightened. “You will always find people who are helping.” 

If Trump and his allies disdain the idea of a man who believes in the human capacity to help, it says all you need to know about them. And if we, as a nation, choose a man who’s reminiscent of a beloved minister to be our next president, it’ll say something desperately needed — and at long last reassuring — about us. 




Trump is consistent: There’s no issue he won’t take both sides on

From covid to immigration, the president says whatever will stop tough questions.


By Jill Filipovic


Jill Filipovic is a journalist, lawyer and the author of "OK Boomer, Let's Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind."

Oct. 29, 2020 at 10:14 a.m. CDT

Last weekend, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows delivered an alarming — and confusing — message in a CNN interview. “We are not going to control the pandemic,” he said, telegraphing American surrender. But he also claimed, “We’re going to defeat it.” He hadn’t gone rogue, either. President Trump himself embraces the contradiction. Trump frequently says that his administration has the virus “under control,” and that the virus is “not under control for any place in the world.” In the final presidential debate, Trump told Americans, “I take full responsibility” and, in the same breath, abdicated it, saying, “It’s not my fault that it came here.” He wants to inhabit both sides of the argument at the same time. 


This inconsistency is perhaps the most consistent thing about Trump’s presidency. From the coronavirus to border enforcement to health care, he refuses to commit to a coherent position. Often this has the feel of ignorance (as when he professed, and then did nothing about, an intention to withdraw American troops from Okinawa unless Japan paid more) or dishonesty (as when he takes credit for an economy he insists is booming even now). Both are among his signature attributes.


But there’s something else going on as well: The president is a chicken. He’s too afraid to stake out an actual view on most issues, because he craves the kind of mass approval that could be compromised by asserting — and sticking with — strong convictions. Above all else, he seeks veneration and the power it brings. And, well, he has few real convictions anyway.


In a simpler political time, candidates who were ideologically inconsistent (or who simply changed their minds after being presented with additional information) were branded “flip-floppers,” a designation that may have cost Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) the presidency in 2004. Ditto former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012. The public and the press seemed to value predictability, even over nuance and evolution. The penalties for perceived flip-flopping still attach to some politicians, including former vice president Joe Biden, who is dinged for making “confusing remarks” about issues like fracking, for example, which don’t lend themselves to five-second sound bites.

For Trump, though, adaptability is the only constant, and it responds only to the president’s perception of his approval ratings. Lack of political conviction and commitment is such a hallmark of his leadership style that it doesn’t stick as a critique, because the president’s motives are so transparent and his base so willing to follow along with anything he says. He will do whatever he has to in order to get the praise he believes he deserves. He’ll lie. He’ll deflect. He’ll bully. And he will adopt nearly every possible position, believing that voters will take him at his contradictory word.


Take Trump’s brutal immigration policies. He brags about his “big, beautiful wall” and, even after his administration’s family separation policy was the subject of global outrage, said it successfully discouraged would-be migrants because “if they feel there will be separation, they don’t come.” But he also appears to grasp that the program horrified people, including undecided voters, which is why he accuses Democrats of being too tough on immigration. Trump frequently blames the Obama administration for policies of his own making, saying in the last debate that “they built the cages” that his administration used to detain children. Are child detention and family separation good or bad, effective deterrents or shocking cruelties? The answer is whatever is most politically expedient in the moment.


Then there’s abortion. Before running for president, Trump claimed to be “very pro-choice.” In 2016, it was clear that he didn’t care about abortion rights one way or the other but was trying to find his footing on the religious right — unfamiliar terrain for a Manhattan Republican. That year, he said that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who terminate their pregnancies. But by saying that women, not doctors, should face prosecution, he made a misstep: A huge majority of Americans oppose criminalizing women who get abortions. After a swift backlash, Trump realized that the politics of his punish-women comment would hurt him, so he quickly abandoned that stance and lined up with the punish-doctors view held by many antiabortion groups. 


Or take the Affordable Care Act. Trump ran in 2016 and runs today on gutting it; he describes it as a top-to-bottom disaster, and his Justice Department is attempting to do away with it in court even now. “I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand-new, beautiful health care,” he said at the last debate. But support for the law has only grown stronger as Trump has threatened its demise, and registered voters are particularly enthusiastic about its guarantee of coverage for people with preexisting conditions. The president is at least sophisticated enough to realize that his anti-Obamacare stance is a liability. So he vows, again and again, to devise a law that will lower premiums and preserve the protection for people with preexisting conditions. These are, incidentally, the two main goals of the Affordable Care Act.


Trump has offered similarly wild swings when it comes to crime. He hammers Biden for supporting the 1994 crime bill and crows about his own criminal justice reform efforts. (“Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump,” he says, with the possible “exception of Abraham Lincoln.”) At the same time, he’s running a “law and order” campaign rife with thinly veiled racism. As Black Lives Matter protests cohered across the nation this summer, the president called demonstrators “thugs” and threatened them, tweeting, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He’s described the very phrase “Black Lives Matter” as a “symbol of hate,” accuses protesters of destroying American cities and has defended the young White man who shot three people at one demonstration, killing two of them. Trump knows he’s not supposed to appear racist but doesn’t quite grasp which policies will earn him, or insure him against, this designation. So he casually asserts his egalitarianism even while espousing unequal views: At the debate, he called himself “the least racist person in the room” while sharing the room with Black journalist Kristen Welker.


His statements on climate change are more of the same. He calls it a hoax, and early in his presidency, as blizzards pummeled the Midwest, he begged global warming to “please come back fast, we need you!” He pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords, balking at any commitment to lower carbon emissions in line with international standards. More recently, as wildfires raged across California, the president told officials in that state that “it’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” When they responded that the science doesn’t support that promise, Trump replied, “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.” Yet in front of an American public that believes climate change is real and increasingly wants the government to step up to reduce its effects and protect our air and water, he sings a different tune, telling viewers of the first presidential debate that he does believe human behavior causes a changing climate “to an extent.” By the final debate, he was practically claiming to be an environmentalist: “I do love the environment, but what I want is that cleanest crystal-clear water, the cleanest air.” He said — falsely — that “we have the best lowest number in carbon emissions.”


This phobia of commitment is even visible in his personal life. He has married three women and doesn’t seem to take his wedding vows seriously: In addition to his plural marital dissolutions, he is widely reported to have carried on extramarital affairs and allegedly paid women for their silence. Fidelity to ideas or people — staying true even when it’s tough, living up to his promises, being honest — is just not in his repertoire.

Trump doesn’t even have the courage of his vanishingly few convictions, if you can call them that. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that the president has a handful of deeply held grievances. He dislikes immigrants (not just immigration), regulatory bodies that tell businesses what they can and cannot do, and African Americans, whom he seems to regard alternately as criminals or indigents. Those grievances, he realized four years ago, are widely shared among conservatives. But after four years in power, complaints about what’s going wrong in America don’t have quite the same salience. Still, his thirst for popularity prevents him from committing to any affirmative position that might invite a backlash from the public (or, as he sees them, fans) he perpetually courts.


Luckily for Trump, enough of them — along with the party he heads — excuse his incoherent impulses. The Republican Party didn’t even publish an original platform this year; instead, it reprinted the one from 2016 and resolved to “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” The GOP and many Republican candidates claim to be running on “conservative values”; they’ve all but given up on campaigns of ideas. Now, it’s the party of Trump — who has fully ceded the idea that consistency and principles are of any value at all.


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