Unplugged

I recently returned from a week-long trip to paradise—Martha’s Vineyard, to be exact—and while I was there, I did something that, for me, was both unthinkable and unprecedented.

I kept away from social media and the news.

That’s right.  From the moment our ferry cast off from shore, I ceased all contact with my Twitter feed and didn’t reconnect until after returning to the mainland.  For good measure, I also generally avoided Facebook, the New York Times and cable news, opting to remain as ignorant as possible about what was going on in the parts of the universe not directly in front of my nose.  For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I just didn’t want to know.

Now, maybe tuning the world out is the sort of thing most normal people do to relax at their favorite summer getaways.  But as a prototypical millennial news junkie, I can scarcely imagine being walled off from current events for more than a few hours at a time, vacation or no vacation.  Since acquiring my first Droid in the summer of 2010, I’m not sure I’ve gone a single day without checking my social media apps at least once.  You know:  Just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

Having lived under the tyranny of Zuckerberg and Bezos for so long, I’ve realized with ever-growing acuity that I am every bit as addicted to the little computer in my pocket—and the bottomless information it contains—as the good-for-nothing Generation Z teenagers I’m supposed to feel superior to.  More and more, I recall Jean Twenge’s terrifying recent Atlantic story, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and I wonder whether any of us—of any age group—are going to emerge from this era better citizens and human beings than when we entered it.

So it was that, on the occasion of my annual sojourn to my favorite summer retreat—an island I’ve visited annually since before I was born—I decided I needed to find out whether I’m capable of cutting myself off from the GoogleTube cold turkey.  Whether—if only for a week—I can bring myself to live as I did for the first 23 years of my life:  Without constant, hysterical, up-to-the-second news flashes from every corner of the globe and, with them, the instantaneous expert (and non-expert) analysis of What It All Means and Where We Go From Here.

Mostly, of course, I just wanted a week without Donald Trump.

Did I succeed?

Kind of.

Yes, I still read the Boston Sunday Globe (mostly for the arts pages).  Yes, I still listened to my favorite NPR podcast while riding my bike.  Yes, I still posted pictures on Facebook before going to bed.  And yes, I still allowed my cable-obsessed bunkmate to watch a few minutes of Morning Joe before we headed out to breakfast each day.

All of that aside, I nonetheless fulfilled my core objective of not actively following world events closely—if at all—and believing, to my core, that nothing in life was of greater concern than which ice cream flavor to order at Mad Martha’s and whether to wear jeans or shorts while hiking at Menemsha Hills.  (The answers, respectively, were butter crunch and jeans.)

So I didn’t get the blow-by-blow of President Trump’s meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un.  I didn’t hear the early reports of children being snatched from their parents at the Mexican border.  And I didn’t see that raccoon scaling the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota.

What’s more, I noticed that as the week progressed, I grew increasingly less bothered by how out-of-the-loop I was in my little self-imposed cone of radio silence, and it got me wondering whether I couldn’t keep up this stunt indefinitely.  Whether, in effect, I could become a beta version of Erik Hagerman—the Ohio man, recently profiled in the New York Times, who severed all ties with society on November 9, 2016, and hasn’t looked back since.  Dubbing him “the most ignorant man in America,” the story left little doubt that Hagerman, in his calculated obliviousness, is probably a happier and more well-rounded individual than three-quarters of his fellow countrymen.

Of course, Hagerman is also extremely white—not to mention extremely male and extremely upper middle class—and there is no avoiding the uncomfortable fact that choosing to ignore the daily machinations of the Trump administration is a direct function of white privilege (as countless Times readers pointedly noted at the time).  To be white is to be insulated from Trump’s cruelest and most outrageous policies; thus, there is little-to-no risk in not keeping a close eye on them every now and again.

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” said Jimmy Stewart, with great scorn, in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.  As a member of the privileged class—in my whiteness and maleness, if not my disposable income—I recognize the profound moral failing of even thinking of mentally tuning out an American society in which virtually every racial, ethnic and cultural minority finds itself under threat.  Silence is complicity, and I very much doubt I could live in happy ignorance knowing, deep down, that a great deal of preventable suffering is occurring just beyond my immediate line of sight.

But it sure was nice while it lasted.

Advertisements

Trump Goes to Korea

So what happens if Donald Trump solves North Korea?  What happens if the economy continues to hum along without crashing?  What happens if Robert Mueller’s investigation returns no smoking gun?

What happens, in other words, if Donald Trump wins?  And what happens—heaven forbid!—if America wins along with him?

It’s a thought few liberals have deigned to contemplate seriously for any length of time, having convinced themselves Trump is the most singularly bumbling, ineffectual chief executive in recent decades—a man whose modus operandi remains (to quote Benjamin Wittes) “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”

After 15 months on the job, the incompetence speaks for itself—on a daily basis, in increasingly jaw-dropping ways—as, for that matter, does the malevolence, be it through Trump’s contempt for institutions like the press and the Justice Department or through executive actions against Muslims, immigrants or planet Earth itself.

What the left (and much of the right) hasn’t counted on, however, is the prospect that, in between all the bloopers, boners and practical jokes, Trump would stumble his way into some genuine achievements, succeeding both despite and because of the character traits that made him so undesirable—and unelectable—in the first place.

It’s easy enough to call President Trump a liar and a crook—not to mention an adulterer, a racist and a third-rate conman.  Just ask Michelle Wolf.

Far more compelling than Trump’s obvious faults are his less-than-obvious strengths, of which the most pertinent—at the moment, anyway—is his ability to so freak out America’s enemies that they decide bargaining with him might be preferable to war.

Such appears to be the case with Kim Jong-un, the murderous dictator of North Korea who surprised just about everybody this month by meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, during which the two leaders floated the idea of formally ending the Korean War, among other extremely promising developments.

This came shortly after Kim’s equally-surprising overture to Trump, who, with nary a moment’s hesitation, agreed to a similarly bilateral summit at some point in the near future, presumably to reconcile Kim’s nuclear ambitions with Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea—“with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—should those ambitions be realized.

At this tentative juncture, we cannot help but wonder:  Did Trump’s bluster lure Kim to the negotiating table, as no previous U.S. strategy did?  Was this all a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” at work—an elaborate game of “good cop, bad cop” with Trump playing both roles?  Will these extraordinary meetings produce a durable, long-term settlement that all sides can live with?  And if so, will Trump deserve credit as a great—albeit unorthodox—statesman and peacemaker?

Admittedly, by asking these sorts of questions, we are anticipating future events that may never materialize, with a cockeyed optimism that may be entirely without merit.  Amidst all the positive activity on the Korean Peninsula, we should never forget Donald Trump’s bottomless, lifelong capacity to get in his own way, coupled with his rank inexperience in all manner of foreign policy.  And that’s before factoring in Kim Jong-un, who presumably has his own nefarious agenda and may well be playing Trump and Moon for fools.

And yet—and yet, I say!—there has undoubtedly been enough forward movement with North Korea to give us a modicum of hope that a nuclear exchange is not the imminent danger it was during, say, the summer of 2017.  We owe it to ourselves—and to civilization as a whole—to root for some kind of accommodation that averts war and establishes a relatively stable relationship between the Kim regime and the rest of the world.  I haven’t the slightest idea what that deal might look like—nor, it would appear, does anyone else—but then history often hinges on moments that seem impossible until they suddenly become inevitable.  Just ask President Hillary Clinton.

Supposing the Korean standoff ends well and Trump emerges as the grand dealmaker he’s always claimed himself to be, what, pray tell, are American liberals to do with themselves?  More broadly, what would a truly empowered—and truly successful—President Trump mean for America as a whole?

Most likely, in my estimation, it would mean Nixon 2.0.:  A profound scumbag who, through luck and pluck, lodges several major policy breakthroughs but nonetheless remains a scumbag and is eventually brought down by the weight of his own corruption.

It certainly has a nice, odd symmetry to it:  Nixon goes to China, Trump goes to Korea.  Nixon is investigated for covering up interference in a presidential election, Trump is investigated for the same.  Nixon is forced to resign after the discovery of incriminating tape recordings.  And Trump…well, we’ll always have Twitter.

The essential thing, in any case, is to keep a sufficiently open mind to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time—in this case, the idea that Donald Trump is both a wretched human being and, potentially—indeed, perhaps only on this one occasion—the right man in the right place at the right time.

In other words, we must be prepared to give credit where credit is due, knowing all the while there will always be a fresh new pile of blame just around the corner.

The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.