Thursday, January 19, 2017

An outright moron

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

— H.L. Mencken, On Politics

I am not altogether certain that Mencken was right in his initial conditions.  That is, I don't think that democracy has been perfected.  If anything, we have gotten ourselves off track with regard to democracy.  And his approach seems rooted somewhat in the ahistorical belief that our political institutions were set up, in those heady days of 1787, primarily to avoid "mob rule."

I have no doubt that the highly educated men who wrote and debated and instituted our great Constitution were rightly suspicious of the uneducated masses.  They were fearful of the great mass of people who, lacking resources, obtained no great measure of book-learning beyond that necessary to work and pray, which in most cases was none at all, and they did not want those people pulling the levers of government directly in any sense.

But, even then, politics and horse-trading were afoot.  The Electoral College exists, it was said in those days, and specifically in Federalist No. 68 (authored by the now-popular Alexander Hamilton), as a bulwark against mob rule by interposing an erudite, discreet body of the best qualified individuals between the easily inflamed passions of the people and the Presidency.  That was, however, merely the sales pitch.  The real motivation behind the Electoral College was to ensure that smaller states received outsize say in the election, in exchange for their support of the new Constitution.

In No. 68, Hamilton also argued that the existence of the Electoral College "affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." Rather than the popular choice, the body is designed to produce the right choice, the definition of which Hamilton kindly provided.  "The true test of a good government," Hamilton said, "is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration."

In No. 63, James Madison, writing about the Senate (but in any event talking about government generally), said:

Thus far I have considered the circumstances which point out the necessity of a well constructed senate, only as they relate to the representatives of the people. To a people as little blinded by prejudice, or corrupted by flattery, as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary, as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought in all governments, and actually will in all free governments ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth, can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens, the hemlock on one day, and statues on the next.

It seems Madison knew his posterity better than we know ourselves. But what he and Hamilton and the others could not have anticipated is the degree to which people of such defective ideology as the Republicans are vomiting out these days might, through gamesmanship and subterfuge, gain absolute control over the levers of power and use them to implement a bastard form of tyranny—a tyranny of anarchy (except, of course, in the bedroom).

And that brings us to Mencken.  What Mencken got right is that as we progress through our long descent into self-destruction, the "people," not a majority of us, but the loudest among us, would see the fulfillment of their apparently highest desire:  A President who lacks any reasonable qualifications and whose basic functional intent is to monkeywrench the government—or, as Mencken put it, an outright moron.

It has been said before that we were already there.  Ronald Reagan was no great shakes in the brain department, but he could say his lines and hit his marks.  George W. Bush spoke and acted like a moron until the gravity of events pulled him into a regular orbit.

But nobody tops Trump, at least not in the category of "outright moron."  (I shudder to think of who might outpoint the Fascist Cheeto on that score. Thankfully, Justin Bieber is Canadian and therefore ineligible to serve.)

And here we are, less than 24 hours away, and that outright moron will be the President of the United States—together with his record-low approval rating, his "work when I want to" attitude, his insistence on personal loyalty instead of competence and expertise, and his cabinet of idiots and sycophants.  I'll side with Hamilton:  The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration—and all signs are pointing to "unmitigated disaster."  So much for the protection of the Electoral College.  Thanks a lot, Hamilton.

I will leave it to others to hope for the best.  I believe that the ship has sailed on "the best," and if we can simply survive the next four years, that will be yuuuge.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A bit unmoored

I've been feeling a little bit unmoored lately.

On a personal level, I really couldn't be more happy.  Things are going well for my businesses.  I'm working on 20 years of marriage, and it still feels just right.  I really can't imagine anyone better to share my life with.  I've also got new friends in my life, and that's afforded me the opportunity to spend time doing things I really like to do, but haven't been motivated to do in recent years.  I'm busy at work, but the "work-life balance" has dramatically improved.

On the other hand, 2016 was a pretty tough year for a lot of people who are close to me.  A man I counted as a good friend and a family member by marriage died suddenly this summer.  The father of one of my oldest friends also died suddenly a few weeks ago, and that was merely the worst of several tragedies she had experienced.

Not to mention, 2016 was an utter disaster for the country.  Every time I think about what's about to happen, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I think a big part of the disconnectedness I'm feeling at the moment has to do with the simple fact that my mind will not allow me to process the reality of the words "President Trump."

To be candid, those words make me shudder most of the time, and when I'm not shuddering, I'm filled with furious anger at the people who made that happen.

But this is not about those people.

I'm not especially comfortable with talking about it--I think it's sort of a Southern thing; we're taught to be humble, to do our talking on the field, so to speak--but I've spent most of my 41 years as the smartest guy in the room.  Not always, of course--I've met and been awed by my intellectual superiors many times.  I also believe rather strongly that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that intelligence is difficult to measure in any instance.  But it would ring false for me to deny that I've got an awful lot of brain power on board.

I have always tried to use that aspect of myself for good purposes.  For me, the mark of a good person in my situation has always been having patience for others, a heart for teaching (and, more specifically, for educating, for that word's Latin root means "to draw out"), respect for others as individuals regardless of their status, and dedication to getting the fine details of things right.  I value these traits over everything.  It's great to be smart, even smarter than most of the people you meet--but that means nothing if you're an insufferable jackass who lords his intelligence over everyone else.

If anything, then, I suppose the root of my disappointment with the November election is that it feels like a repudiation of my most heart-felt principles.

After all, from my perspective, Hillary Clinton has spent a lifetime working the same plan I've been trying to work.  She is, by all accounts, the smartest person in virtually every room she enters, but she seems to work very hard at those principles I laid out.  She's a professional in every sense of the word. 

By contrast, Donald Trump:  Not especially smart. Not patient. Not a teacher.  No respect for others. No attention to detail. No professionalism at all.  Sets embarrassingly low goals for his personal conduct, then consistently fails to meet them.  Lies, cheats, steals, rapes.  Has no sense of decorum.

Most importantly, he's an insufferable jackass.

In any reasonable world, it would not have been a contest at all.  We'd be celebrating a huge milestone in our development as a nation:  the first female president.  Instead, a minority--a motley collection of racists, underachievers, religious hypocrites, and short-sighted non-thinkers--used an electoral quirk to put this colossal failure into power, on the theory that ignorance is as good as knowledge, novicehood is as good as experience, peace is as easy as war, and lies are as good as the truth.

I suppose that if you believe these things don't matter, then it would be easy to fall into the trap of believing that any change is good.  Never mind that all of Trump's biggest campaign promises were lies.  They were lies because they had to be.  They were the equivalent of you telling your aunt Mildred that the ugly sweater she spent a month knitting for you is beautiful and that you'll wear it every day--a lie meant to soothe, even as you know you'll never be called to account for it.

That wall he promised Mexico would pay for?  It won't be built, but even if it were, it wouldn't do anything to stop undocumented aliens from entering the U.S.  And the only way Mexico will pay for it is if we horse-trade them something else that will break another Trump promise.

You Trump voters--you bought it.  You took the bait, and put him in, and now you'll be the dinner--and you won't get anything you were promised, and everything else that's good will be taken away.

In the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film The American President, there is an exchange between Michael Douglas's character (the President) and Michael J. Fox's character, one of his political aides. The two are arguing over how Douglas should respond to attacks from his reactionary Republican opponent. Fox says, "People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."

Douglas's response is something I've never really understood, until recently.  He says, "Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference."

More than 20 years after I first heard that line, I finally know what he's talking about.

And I find that dreadfully, heart-rendingly, sickeningly disappointing.