The Better Letter: Up Is the Way Forward

How do we get past our wrenching divisions?

A large swath of the country fell under the thrall of a demagogue.

One of our two great political parties gave itself over to authoritarianism. The other seems more than a little susceptible, too.

The institutional guardrails and norms we revered turned out to be dependent on the good character of men and women, which suddenly went in short supply.

A number of people I had once respected rallied — either abjectly or gleefully — to the banner of a man they knew to be dangerous.

Others tried to maintain their political viability by focusing on the flaws of those who opposed this would-be tyrant.

Still others walked away from the most important fight of their lives, high-mindedly insisting that while the president might be bad, he was too clownish to be a real threat. Or, instead of joining the fight, they stated an intent to remain umpires, standing above the grubby back-and-forth, calling balls and strikes.

We’re paying for that lack of character today.

President Trump lost the recent election handily but will not go gentle into that good night. He will rage, rage against the dying of the light.

With Mr. Trump, it always gets worse. He’s clever in the way bullies and attention-seekers are clever. He’s a reality show and social media genius, but utterly devoid of substance. It’s as if Biff Tannen became president.

Beginning in 2015, Donald Trump has claimed that any election he doesn’t win is rigged. Since his decisive loss ten days ago, fraud claims by the Trump team have been incessant, with the supporting details always elusive and shifting. Remember the lost Sharpie votes?

When one false claim is debunked, another, wilder one appears in its place. The details don’t matter. It’s the Bannon principle at work: “Flood the zone with sh*t” to try to keep the results from being certified to try to get an activist judiciary (that Republicans used to excoriate) to step in. Even then, they don’t really expect it to work, they merely want to keep the myth of the stolen election alive to keep Mr. Trump in charge of the GOP, to keep the base enraged, and to keep the money rolling in.

Yesterday, the Bannon sh*t hit the fan with the most incredible “news” conference I’ve ever seen. The Trump legal team — claiming “elite strikeforce” status — was supposed to lay out the evidence of a stolen election. The Washington Post summarized the best (worst?) of the insanity. 

“What we are really dealing with here and uncovering more by the day is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States,” [Sidney Powell] began. She linked voting systems used in several states with a company founded by a former Venezuelan dictator (despite there not being any actual link) and declared that computers were humming along rigging the election for President-elect Joe Biden until it encountered a level “so overwhelming in so many of these states that it broke the algorithm,” necessitating the fraud that [Rudy] Giuliani alleged. Oh, and this all somehow tied back to financier George Soros and the Clinton Foundation, of course.

It's easy to laugh at the whole enchilada of crazy. It will be impossible to parody, although many will surely try. For example, the audio of the live stream was interrupted by a pair of tech types saying: “Can they hear us on the stream…. I guess not…. See f*ckin’ Rudy’s hair dye dripping down his face?”

Powell got one thing right, if unintentionally: “This is stunning. Heartbreaking. Infuriating. And the most unpatriotic acts I can even imagine for people in this country to have participated in any way shape or form.”

All of the various claims made in yesterday’s exercise in fan service by the Trump legal team have been made before and rejected by courts except two. As best as I can tell, the first is that there was a multi-national and high-tech communist plot, masterminded by Hugo Chavez (who is dead but, when alive, was so stupid he drove an oil-rich country into bankruptcy), involving China, Cuba, Venezuela, and more, to infect voting software so as to make Trump votes disappear. Somehow.

Maybe the Democrats paid for service. It’s unclear. 

It is also not explained why these voting erasures didn’t turn up in the (Republican-led and controlled) Georgia recount, which hand-counted every ballot and confirmed the initial conclusion. The hand count should have revealed many more Trump votes if the magical software had, indeed, made the tallies disappear.

Anyway, the crooks are said to have gotten it wrong and somehow “broke the algorithm.” They must have gotten some mundane detail wrong.

That failure required an additional multi-state conspiracy by Democrats to create tens of thousands of phony ballots sufficient to defeat the president but (bizarrely) insufficient to gain control of the Senate, avoid losing seats in the House, or gain control of more state legislatures. It is unclear so far how the Democrats heard from the communists about the broken algorithm to know how many new ballots they needed to manufacture or even that they needed new ballots.

Together, these actions are said to have undone a yuge Trump landslide. The claims that had previously been made failed in court due to insufficient evidence. We'll see if any evidence for the new claims is presented, but don’t hold your breath. The performance yesterday was even a bridge too far for Trump toady Tucker Carlson.

This crock of crazy is both ridiculous and deadly serious. If the “elite strikeforce” — which looks and sounds much more like the Keystone Cops…

…than anything elite — were somehow correct, it would be the greatest crime in American political history by a country mile. If false, as it all appears to be, the damage the Trump team has done to the electoral process is incalculable.

All of this has been enabled by gutless “Stalin’s chicken” Republicans who, for five years, have been unwilling or too terrified to admit that this entire nonsense smells to high heaven (Bannon again) and to remove the source of the smell. We have all read reams of stories from the “mysterious hordes of Republicans” who say they are well aware of and unalterably opposed to President Trump’s many grievous failings. They remain greatly distressed but it seems that they have all kept their jobs and their car service and continue to act as Trump collaborators. I get that we all have to pay the mortgage and that risking one’s career for what’s right becomes exponentially harder when it is no longer hypothetical.  

Even so, the line of people who were shocked…

…shocked to find out the Donald Trump was a lot worse than they thought is a very long one: James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Richard Spencer, John Kelly, Ann Coulter, Scott Adams, John Bolton, Tom Bossert, Gary Cohn, Ty Cobb, Rex Tillerson, Michael Cohen and many, many more.

Trump may primarily be a Republican problem. But he is not exclusively a Republican problem. Our situation has also been enabled by Democrats who dramatically claimed that the 2016 election was “stolen,” who overstated the extent and impact of Russian collusion, who reflexively opposed everything Trump did or proposed, and who kept insisting there was no evidence of voter fraud in 2020 (there’s always fraud; the question is whether there is enough to overturn enough votes to change the election result). It was further enabled by a press corps incentivized in every way to act as partisans rather than as journalists. 

If I hear one more hack (I’m looking at you, Mollie Hemingway) say that everyone should be concerned about free and fair elections, that any fraud should be investigated, and that more than 70 million Trump voters will doubt the integrity of our electoral progress unless and until this travesty plays out, I fear I’m going to lose it. Those claims are entirely fair on their face and when offered without context. That’s why they are so insidious. But we’re in this spot because President Trump has spent five years priming the pump — claiming that any election he loses is rigged — and because so-called conservative media has played along with every bogus fraud charge to this point without question and without commenting on the stench.

Besides, does anyone think the president will ever do anything other than whine that what was his was stolen? Worse, on his way out the door, he will sabotage President-Elect Biden and, not coincidentally, the United States of America. It was never going to end well.

Ronald Reagan began his first inaugural address by lauding America’s unmatched tradition of transferring authority in an orderly way and praising outgoing President Jimmy Carter for his gracious cooperation toward that end.

As ever, Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.


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Up Is the Way Forward

My darling bride teaches fifth grade. She opens each school year with Wonder, R.J. Palacio’s rare gem of a young adult novel (and recently a major motion picture). It’s beautifully written and populated by characters who linger in memory and heart. It features August Pullman, a 10-year-old boy who likes Star Wars and Xbox, ordinary except for his jarring facial anomalies. 

Homeschooled all his life, Auggie heads to public school for fifth grade and he is not the only one changed by the experience – something we learn about first-hand through the narratives of those who orbit his world. At the new school, Principal Dyer teaches an important lesson, emphasized by Mr. Browne to his students on the first day of school, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

Moreover, as Carl Richards has noted, nice costs less and provides better returns. Principal Dyer’s precept is even consistent with the ethos of Road House.

After an opening section narrated by Auggie, other characters pick up the story. All treat Auggie poorly, some dreadfully so, but all have their reasons, if not justifications.

People treat Augie deplorably. We’re all deplorable. Perhaps we’re cruel and hateful. Or perhaps we’re smugly superior.

Today, too many people choose stupid, violent, and mean.

We must do better. We must choose kind. The only way forward is up.

As Michelle Obama said, more aspirationally than accurately, “Our motto is, ‘When they go low, we go high.’” 

“Anger may feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to move the ball forward,” she later added.

The need is great.

America is wildly divided and polarized.

Politics and social media are a toxic brew. They are devouring families.

Meanwhile, 8 in 10 Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists while 8 in 10 Democrats believe the Republican Party has been taken over by racists.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans now have “just a few” or no friends at all across the political aisle, with the differences between the sides cast in increasingly moral terms. “It made me sick,” one representative political combatant explained. “If this is his core ethics, I don't want that kind of person in my life.” 

“Democrats are a little bit more likely to say they'd end a friendship” over politics, Jocelyn Kiley of the Pew Research Center noted. “But Republicans may be less likely to say they have friends on the other side. So, it may not be all that differential.” In an entirely secular world, politics is elevated to the status of religion.

According to Tania Israel, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a little more listening to understand, a little less trying to convince, and a lot more intellectual humility would do everyone a world of good. “The only useful comment that you can make on somebody's social media post is ‘Can we find a time to talk about this? I'm interested in hearing more,’” she said.

Troll less. Smile more.

It seems likely that my inability to understand is more a failure of imagination than a lack of rationality in those I oppose.

But what are we to do about it?

Light of the world, shine on me | Love is the answer | Shine on us all, set us free | Love is the answer

It’s not my job to judge people. Or to change people. My job is to love people, to offer a generosity of spirit, what Aristotle called “a greatness of soul.” Doing so begins with kindness – caring about others more than about being right.

As the poet Christian Wiman wrote, without love, “all arguments about God are not simply pointless but pernicious, for each person is in the thrall to some lesser conception of ultimate truth and asserts not love but a lesson, not God but himself.”

More Jesus, less me.

These principles were enunciated best by America’s greatest writer in his finest piece of writing.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Up is the way forward.


Totally Worth It

Foxes and Fossils, America’s best cover band, debuted “Telling Me Lies,” Wednesday. Give it a listen. 

Heroine. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is…oddGreat ad, even in French. Supersonic baseball cannon (the super slo-mo is unreal). The most amazing thing I saw this week. The most fun. The snarkiest. The coolest. The most cynical. The most ironicCrazyCrazierCraziest.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Benediction

Since we desperately need Truth to march today, this week’s benediction features the United States Army Field Band and Choir performing, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”


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Issue 39 (November 20, 2020)