Friday, January 13, 2017

The President-Elect Through an Alamogordo Glass Darkly

The President-Elect Through an Alamogordo Glass Darkly

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. Corinthians 13:12

Long before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate he was a well-known public figure with a reputation for grandiosity and insensitivity to people affected negatively by his real estate projects, casinos and entertainment franchises. In the year 2000, The Simpsons set a story in the future that showed the aftermath of a Donald Trump presidency. It was a joke because no one believed then he had the temperament, the knowledge or the skills for high political office. In those long ago days, before the recent US election campaign, one could feel fairly certain about this. The problem now is that the anti-Trump outrage has reached such a fevered pitch that all reporting about him has become unreliable. Everything he says or does is being interpreted in the most negative light possible, backed up by gross exaggeration, rumors and lies fed to a mass media that has lowered its standards for fact-checking.


The rage against Mr. Trump has become so personal and irrational that now, contrary to the modern ethic against bullying and discrimination, Mr. Trump’s mental and physical attributes are fair game for ridicule. One example is the constant ridicule of the way he speaks. His inarticulateness is said to be a sign of his inferior thought processes, but this contradicts what we are supposed to say about people with language impairments. We are told all the time that such people are otherwise intelligent and capable of many great things. One would think that after Mr. Trump got himself elected as president of the United States, his opponents would have stopped underestimating his intelligence.
Another example of distortion became apparent when it turned out that video of him “mocking a disabled man” was framed to make him look bad. The gestures in question were actually part of Mr. Trump’s idiosyncratic hand gestures, which themselves have been mocked endlessly.
In fact it is Mr. Trump’s quirky gestures and character traits that seem to draw the most criticism. In a column in Alternet the writer said Mr. Trump could not be trusted because he doesn’t drink and has never used illegal drugs, and so this shows he has a fear of losing control.[1] The writer lists seven quirks of his personality that suggest he has functioned all his life with a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thus the suggestion is that anyone who is a little “quirky” or who has ever suffered from a common mental health problem should be disqualified from holding public office. It’s an unusual argument to hear from the progressive left.


Russel Brand: My hope is that this victory for this sort of absurd and ludicrous character who said these outrageous and offensive things... my hope is that we will recognize that we have to provide an alternative. People have to provide an alternative. It’s not enough to say, “Look, here’s Hillary Clinton. Be grateful. Shut up.” People have had enough.


In spite of all the shady things everyone learned about Mr. Trump during the election campaign, sixty-million people were ready to forgive, perhaps because they could see he was just a regular sinner like everyone else, and certainly not much different than hundreds of other politicians. As Meryl Streep said in defense of Margaret Thatcher, excessive criticism is unfair because she “withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, ... [of] a public figure who was not a mass murderer after all.”[2]
As several media outlets published stories about unconfirmed intelligence reports smearing Mr. Trump, only ten days before his inauguration, Glenn Greenwald described the peril of this frenzied revolt against Mr. Trump:

... legitimate and effective tactics for opposing Trump are being utterly drowned by these irrational, desperate, ad hoc crusades that have no cogent strategy and make his opponents appear increasingly devoid of reason and gravity. Right now, Trump’s opponents are behaving as media critic Adam Johnson described: as ideological jelly fish, floating around aimlessly and lost, desperately latching on to whatever barge randomly passes by...
[This trend] can harshly backfire, to the great benefit of Trump and to the great detriment of those who want to oppose him. If any of the significant claims in this “dossier” turn out to be provably false ... that will forever discredit—render impotent—future journalistic exposés that are based on actual, corroborated wrongdoing. Beyond that, the threat posed by submitting ourselves to the CIA and empowering it to reign supreme outside of the democratic process is... an even more severe danger. The threat of being ruled by unaccountable and unelected entities is self-evident and grave. That’s especially true when the entity behind which so many are rallying is one with a long and deliberate history of lying, propaganda, war crimes, torture, and the worst atrocities imaginable.[3]

Perhaps the most serious example of motivated reasoning against Mr. Trump has been on display in the many articles expressing fear about what he might do once he gets command of a nuclear arsenal. The Internet is suddenly full of images of Mr. Trump’s scowling face with a mushroom cloud in the background. In an ironic way, it is good that Mr. Trump was elected because it has brought much-needed attention to a problem that the public ignored previously. In fact, there is a long list of travesties that people of good conscience should have been protesting during the Barack Obama presidency, but they were ignored when the elegant speechifier in chief was in power. Now it looks like people are finally going to protest, and Mr. Trump will be the patsy taking the blame for all that is wrong with the country.
The risk of an intentional or accidental nuclear war has existed since the 1950s, and the decision to launch, for any arbitrary reason, has always been left in the hands of a single individual—the president, and America has always prided itself on being a land where anyone could become president. In contrast, in the Soviet system the president, the minister of defense and the chief of the general staff had to agree to launch the weapons.[4] When all is considered, there is no reason to believe the risk increased significantly when Mr. Trump was elected. Recall that it was Hillary Clinton who wanted to risk a conflict with Russia over Syrian skies, and Mr. Trump who wanted a new detente with Russia.
An article in Mother Jones expressing panic about Mr. Trump with his “finger on the button” illustrates how much his critics are straining themselves to portray everything he has ever said in the worst light possible. In Does Donald Trump Believe Nuclear War Is Inevitable? the author David Corn finds that, based on comments he made between 1990 and 2004, Mr. Trump has a dangerously fatalistic view about the inevitability of nuclear Armageddon.[5] It is good that Mr. Corn found these old quotes from long ago that give us insight into Mr. Trump’s thinking about nuclear weapons, but his interpretation and conclusions don’t stand up.
David Corn is also now famous for a series of articles that have tried to dig up dirt on Mr. Trump. He was the first to write about unconfirmed reports that a “veteran spy has given the FBI Information alleging a Russian operation to cultivate Donald Trump.”[6] For some reason, this story didn’t gain any traction until ten days before the inauguration, after the electoral college passed up a chance to reject him. Fitting with the new journalistic standards, this report belongs with all others that consist of a fabricated story concluding with “If true, these allegations would be...”
Mr. Trump’s thoughts about nuclear weapons are no different from those of millions of people who have worried about nuclear war and fought to have nuclear weapons eliminated. If we didn’t know whose words these were, we might notice that while the speaker doesn’t talk about the subject as well as someone with a degree in the history of the nuclear age, his thoughts are similar to those of millions of people who have contemplated the implications of a world stocked with thousands of nuclear weapons:

Mr. Trump in 1990:
I've always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it's a very important element in my thought process. It's the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody's focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It's a little like sickness. People don't believe they're going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people's believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
It's like thinking the Titanic can't sink. Too many countries have nuclear weapons; nobody knows where they're all pointed, what button it takes to launch them.
The bomb Harry Truman dropped on Hiroshima was a toy next to today's. We have thousands of weapons pointed at us and nobody even knows if they're going to go in the right direction. They've never really been tested. These jerks in charge don't know how to paint a wall, and we're relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow. What happens if they don't go there? What happens if our computer systems aren't working? Nobody knows if this equipment works, and I've seen numerous reports lately stating that the probability is they don't work. It's a total mess.

Mr. Trump in 1995:
If Hitler had the bomb, you don't think he would have used it? ... I mean, you have people that are sick and they are now having nuclear arsenals, and I think it's one of the greatest problems of the world… So it's always tough to say—I mean I like to project for the future but really live very much for the present. And I like to learn from the past, but it's very, very fragile, life is so fragile.

Mr. Trump in 2000:
My uncle John Trump was an MIT professor and a brilliant man. He had a clear and compelling view of the future, including a strong belief that one day the United States might be subjected to a terrorist strike that would turn Manhattan into Hiroshima II. I always respected Uncle John, but sometimes found myself wondering if maybe he wasn't exaggerating just a bit. Today we know that John Trump knew exactly what he was talking about. So what are we doing about this threat? Are we getting tough with people who would wipe us out in a second? Hell no.

Mr. Trump in 2004:
I don't think any building will be here—and unless we have some very smart people ruling it, the world will not be the same place in a hundred years. The weapons are too powerful, too strong. Access to the weapons is getting too easy, so I think the landscape we're looking at will not be the same unless we get smart people in office quickly.
I had an uncle who was a great professor and a brilliant man—Dr. John Trump, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His whole life was devoted to the study and eradication of cancer, and sadly, he died of cancer. But he was a brilliant scientist, and he would tell me weapons are getting so powerful today that humanity is in tremendous trouble. This was 25 years ago, but he was right. The world is rocky, and some terrible things are going to happen. That's why I lead the life I do. I enjoy it. I know life is fragile, and if the world looks like this a hundred years from now, we'll either be very lucky or have found unbelievably good leaders somewhere down the line.

David Corn concludes from these comments that Mr. Trump expresses a terrifying fatalism about nuclear warfare being unavoidable. He does concede, however, that Mr. Trump has at least thought about this problem over his lifetime and made nuclear policy a priority, and that he obviously considers himself to be one of the smart people with a “very good brain” who could solve the problem. Yet Mr. Trump’s concern with the danger counts for nothing in the final conclusion:

Trump's campaign comments about nuclear weapons and the possibility of using them have not been reassuring. His previous remarks suggesting he believed nuclear war was all but inescapable are the stuff of nightmares.

People of a certain age may remember that similar things were said about Ronald Reagan in 1980 as his political opponents feared that his literal belief in scripture would self-fulfill and hasten the arrival of Armageddon. It turned out that he was devoted, in his own roundabout, reckless way, to a world free of nuclear weapons, and he ended up making progress in that regard when he had a Soviet counterpart who was more than equally committed to the goal.
We must also remember that much of this outrage, and even awareness of nuclear risks, has been absent in the years since G.W. Bush abrogated the ABM treaty in 2001, thus eliminating Russia’s trust and interest in continuing nuclear arms reduction talks. The issue has essentially been off the table as far as China and Russia are concerned because they have no interest in living in a nuclear-free world in which America has a vast supremacy in conventional weaponry. But that’s another issue Americans, and even nuclear disarmament groups, don’t want to face.
The outraged voices were also silent when Barack Obama approved the trillion-dollar upgrade of the nuclear arsenal, a decision that is now being unfairly attributed to Mr. Trump just because he wrote a tweet supporting the continuation of the policy. Where was the outrage and concern before the bogeyman rose to power? And would there have been any outrage if Hillary Clinton had won and continued the hawkish foreign policy, the erosion of civil liberties and the neoliberal policies that worsen economic inequality?
This question brings us back to the quote from the Bible embedded in the title of this essay. The glass could be both glass to see through and mirror to reflect. It suggests that we do not have a perfect understanding of ourselves, of others, or of the world we observe, but by the act of looking humbly at the glass we should strive to see clearly. In straining to see evil in everything Mr. Trump does, the liberal elites have darkened the glass further. They have decided to not look inward, not look at the nature of their country, and not look for any humanity in the object of their revulsion.
The entertainment world that is so terrified of Mr. Trump could recall some insights from long ago. Neil Young knew “even Richard Nixon has got soul,” and we might recast Sting’s lyric from 1985 as “I hope the Donald loves his children too.” One hopes that Sting was being ironic when he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too,” but it’s hard to tell. It was a sign of the idiocy of the Cold War that people had to seriously wonder about this question. Russians? Love their children? Is it possible? Of course they loved their children as much as anyone, while they also matched the irrationality of their adversary by risking nuclear annihilation to protect them.
Just as Cold War paranoia viewed Russians then and now, Mr. Trump’s critics refuse to credit him with having any humanity. Liberals who would argue for prison reform and rehabilitation of the worst criminals fail to see that Mr. Trump, in spite of his flaws, seems to have friends and family that he loves, and that is something that they could build on. Is it safe to assume Mr. Trump loves his children and has no desire to see their world destroyed? There is in Mr. Trump’s character, as Jimmy Carter noted, some malleability, and he has announced some progressive foreign policies that stand in sharp contrast to the rigidity and hawkishness of the Republican Congress that has been elected.[7]
If Mr. Trump has said anything crazy about nuclear weapons, it is only a reflection of ourselves and the situation we are all in. Everyone who has ever contemplated a nuclearized world has had dark thoughts about its fate. The Noble laureate Bob Dylan (would you trust the genius American poet with his finger on the button?) declared, at the height of his fame for anti-war songs, that Hard Rain was about “some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.”[8] And just as Mr. Trump wanted to enjoy life to the fullest during an era of nuclear dread, so did Jim Morrison when he told rapturous fans in a performance of American Night, “I don't know what's gonna happen, man, but I wanna have my kicks before the whole shit house goes up in flames.” Such thoughts have been in a lot of people’s heads since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any generous interpretation of Mr. Trump’s thoughts about nuclear weapons would show that there is nothing unusual in what he said as an ordinary citizen, long before he ever thought he would have the responsibilities of the presidency.
As most of the American political and entertainment elite fell into line with a boycott of Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Jimmy Carter, the most liberal of former US presidents, was one of the few who declared early that he would attend. He hasn’t explained his reasons, probably because he considers them self-evident. He ascribes to a traditional belief system in which one should strive to love those who are most difficult to love. Or perhaps he just sees honor in returning the respect shown to him at his own inauguration. At the very least, opponents might begin to realize what the Japanese have understood ever since they were defeated, occupied and forced to live as a vassal state of America. It is rather unsubtle and counter-productive to pursue one’s goals by antagonizing the adversary. The demon at the gate, cornered as he is in his own precarious hold on power, must be fed and humored. If you are worried that the demon cannot be trusted with his finger on the button, then it makes no sense to be constantly poking him through the bars of his cage.

DISCLAIMER

Many writers who take a contrarian stance and refuse to join the backlash against Mr. Trump and “populism” feel obliged to pre-empt criticism by noting his faults and declaring non-endorsement, but I hesitate to submit to such pressure. I’m not even American, so perhaps I shouldn’t even be interfering in the sacred American democratic process, hermetically sealed as it must be from all foreign influence. I will instead endorse this passage written four years ago in an essay by Phil Rockstroh:

There exists one requisite trait needed to face evil: The knowledge of one’s own capacity for embodying the trait. Inseparable, treachery and redemption arrive together. The human heart, capable of both cruelty and kindness, provides the arena where one’s better nature might gain the upper hand against one’s destructive inclinations. And this is precisely why I eschew being a “pragmatic” predator drone-apologist liberal or a purity-swooning conservative: A compulsion towards partisanship serves to censor the disorderly dialog of the heart, and thus compels one to remain locked within an ego-fortified structure of imprisoning platitudes and self-serving rationalizations.[9]

More on this theme: 

Tom Slater, "What's Scarier than Trump? The Elite Revolt Against Him," Spiked, January 20, 2017.

Notes


[1] Janet Allon, “Seven Disturbing Facts about Donald Trump’s Personality,” Alternet, December 22, 2016.
[2] Ben Child, “Meryl Streep praises Margaret Thatcher as ‘figure of awe,’” The Guardian, April 9, 2013.
[4] Richard Rhodes, Twilight of the Bombs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 85.
[5] David Corn, “Does Donald Trump Believe Nuclear War Is Inevitable?Mother Jones, December 8, 2016.
[7] Greg Bluestein, “Jimmy Carter is the only ex-president to commit to Mr. Trump inaugural,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 24, 2016.
[8] Jonathan Cott (Editor), Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), 7-9.
[9] Phil Rockstroh, “Atomized America of Late Capitalism,” Consortium News, August 15, 2012.

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