Strength and Power; Courage and Cowardice

On days like today – and there will be more days like today – it is important to remember, both for good and for bad, that none of this is indicative of Donald Trump’s “strength.”

Today House Republicans passed an extraordinarily regressive, morally bankrupt “healthcare” bill that will unequivocally be bad for America.  God and the Resistance willing, this monstrosity never gets any closer to becoming law; G&R willing, the Narrative of Republicans’ actions in the coming days adequately reflects the depravity of both the bill itself, and the profoundly dishonest way in which it was passed, before we hail this as a “much needed ‘win’ for President Trump.”

But even if the “win” Narrative prevails, it’s important to keep grasp of the fundamental truth that President Trump is still the same hapless, small, insecure, narcissistic, uninformed, socially and intellectually arrested, man-child lunatic that he was five days ago, when he did this.

This is not a “strong” man, this is not a man that is “finally becoming president”…

This is not a “strong” man, this is not a man that is “finally becoming President,” and this vile House bill – which President Trump pushed for, aggressively – reflects that lack of basic strength.  This bill shatters every promise President Trump has made on health care, it does profound harm to the people and nation he ostensibly leads, and it stems from no discernable principle or belief system, aside from a desperate need to stroke this President’s ego.  This bill was rushed through the House, without a scintilla of public debate, because the President balled up his fists and demanded a “win,” even though no one can articulate what the fuck the “win” here is. That is not leadership, that is not “presidential,” that is not “strength.”  That is pathetic, and weak.

So we can and should take some solace in the fact that he is still the same staggeringly weak man he has been all along, and that, more than anything else, we can point to Donald Trump’s profound personal weakness as the cause of his early failings.  The presidential historian John Meacham has been repeating the mantra, “character is destiny,” when it comes to the presidency.  President Trump’s character is so clearly and profoundly lacking – his skin so thin, his mind so narrow, his soul so vapid and unmoored – that we should hold out some hope (as well as a hearty dose of existential fear) that he will, more often than not, and due to his profound lack of true strength, fail.

But we also need to be careful, in acknowledging this president’s profound weakness, to recognize the decided difference between strength – something internal, personal, which is built and earned and maintained through hard work and sacrifice – and power, which certainly can be earned (typically through strength), but can also be granted, acquired, inherited, seized and stolen.  While President Trump lacks strength, he has, simply by virtue of the position he holds, an enormous amount of power.  And the chief enabler of our mad President’s power, in this moment, is the Republican Party.

We are in the troubling habit of cursing our fractured politics, of blaming the “system,” the “swamp,” the “damned politicians” for the problems we face.  But if we are going to defeat this profound threat, we need to recognize that one side of the political equation, the Republican Party, spawned this disaster; that one side, through years of craven behavior, has perfected the art of valuing cheap power over hard-earned strength; and that one side was so willing to throw America under the bus today, in order to give our boy President his “win.”

. . . . .

Two guys, Lionel and Bob, get into an argument at a bar, a little pushing and shoving ensues, and they agree it is high time to “step outside.”  They do just that, maybe exchange more shoves, a few punches, but it becomes quickly clear that Lionel, who just tossed Bob into a pile of plastic trash bags, is the “stronger” of the two.  So Bob retreats back into the bar, emerges a beat later with a gun, shoots Lionel dead.  There’s no telling of that story in which Bob is the “stronger” of the two men; Bob is, I would hope in the eyes of any objective observer, an irrational hothead, a weakling, a coward.  But Bob, with his gun and his unchecked willingness to use it – no matter how atrocious and criminal the act – is just as objectively the more powerful of the two.

This is also, not un-coincidentally, the theory of power adhered to by the dictators whom President Trump so admires…and that the Republican Party has so recklessly (albeit with undeniable levels of success) utilized over the past decade.

This is the theory of power that Donald Trump subscribes to: not power earned via true strength, but power seized by a willingness to do anything, to violate any and all principles and laws, to plant your foot squarely in the face of whomever you need to, in order to “win.”  This was the hallmark of Mr. Trump’s “success” in business, it was his only discernable “strategy” in the 2016 election, when he gleefully trampled every norm of basic decency, and he has carried it over, to shocking end, every goddamn day of his presidency.  This is also, not un-coincidentally, the theory of power adhered to by the dictators whom President Trump so admires, and this is the theory of power that the Republican Party has so recklessly (albeit with undeniable levels of success) utilized over the past decade.

In that regard, Donald Trump is hardly blazing new trails in American politics: the Republican Party has, since at least the day Barack Obama was sworn into office, built its now-substantial political power by abandoning any semblance of belief or value or principle, in favor of adherence to one simple, craven tactic: if you’re headed to a fist fight, bring a goddamn gun, and be eager to use it.

The Republican Party has, again and again, shattered our most fundamental political and democratic norms.  Republicans have been willing and eager to lie –  blatantly and without shame – directly to the American people, to leverage America’s standing in the world and play chicken with our economy, to make a Faustian bargain with the worst (and yes, deplorable) segments of our society, and to openly and gleefully move to prevent Americans from voting.  Republican obstructionism during the Obama presidency was unprecedented in its scope, its ceaseless intensity, and its depravity, and it was, ultimately, undeniably successful.

It was also – just like Bob bringing a gun to what he and Lionel had agreed was supposed to be a fair fist fight – a gutless power grab.  The Republican Party, in the face of President Obama, stopped trying to acquire power through true, earned, strength, to rally a durable majority behind classic conservative ideas or principles.  Instead it became the party committed to tactics, to cheating, lying, obfuscating, to breaking every single rule, to violating basic human decency, all in the service of obtaining power.  It became a party of utter cowards, and now pats itself on the back because, too often, cowards win.  That I likely have neighbors, even friends, who see this as a virtue – who have become convinced that “winning” and obtaining power by any means necessary, even when it means abandoning every sense of honor or principle or basic decency, somehow adds up to strength – breaks my heart.

. . . . .

But in a functional democracy, the type of spineless opportunism that has come to define the Republican Party should have limits, and we can see those limits in this monstrosity of a “health care” bill.  The Republican Party (and its leader President Trump), did not craft this bill out of a place of strength.  They did not rally America behind the bill, they did not argue passionately for the merits of this bill, they made no effort to convince those that were dubious or scared of what this portends.  And so they’ve created a bill that is reflective of that: universally loathed, ideologically aimless, and very likely to harm millions of Americans.  We are, in this moment, a minority-governed nation; in a functional democracy, there would be a dramatic course correction, and it charms me (and gives me hope) to hear seasoned political professionals speak so confidently about a massive swing election in 2018.

…it bears repeating that the Republican Party has, for the past eight years, done everything in its power to stop our democracy from functioning.

But this type of certitude regarding the Republicans’ imminent demise presumes that we are still a functional democracy.  I truly hope that is the case, but it bears repeating that the Republican Party has, for the past eight years, done everything in its power to stop our democracy from functioning.  The same Republican Party that has become downright boastful about successful efforts to gerrymander and stifle voting rights of Democratic voters – the same Republican Party that has brazenly dedicated itself to undercutting our democracy as a cowardly but successful tactic for continued minority rule  –  now possesses more power than ever, and is led by a President who does not even pretend to value democratic principles.  So while I appreciate the certitude regarding a blue wave in 2018, forgive me for fearing that these gutless cowards will go as far as they have to, and then further still, to further their own power.

. . . . .

Assuming though, that we are still a somewhat functional democracy in 2018, we will still have an uphill fight on our hands.  We will be fired up and angry, we will not forget that the Republican Party passed a cruel, stupid bill under cover of darkness in order to fluff Donald Trump’s ego.  But we will be straining against that old standby Narrative – that sweeping, cliff notes generalization that will worm its way into an enormous chunk of the voting public’s minds – that it’s really “Washington” that is broken, and, shucks, in the end “both sides” are to blame.  Republicans have leaned on that Narrative, and played it like a fiddle, for decades: it’s not about party (why do you have to be so partisan?)  It’s about “gridlock” and a “broken Washington,” all of those “damned politicians.”  Donald Trump won the presidency by riding the “both sides” Narrative to its darkest extremes: no matter how vile and depraved his candidacy, no matter how puny his qualifications, intellect, and basic decency compared to HRC, America surrendered to a Narrative of two “terrible choices,” an election where “both sides are so bad, what does it matter who I vote for?”

I’d like to think (or at least hope) that outside of President Trump’s sturdy 40 percent, that particular false equivalency can be put to rest after 100+ days of a Trump presidency, but regardless, the “both sides” Narrative is a corrosive, creeping virus that all of us are at risk of catching.  When politics comes up at work, or with your in-laws, or over Thanksgiving dinner, the easy, non-confrontational play is to throw up your hands and say “damn politicians, I’m sick of the whole mess!”   I’ve done it, you’ve done it, it’s a social expediency that saves everyone a lot of time and social discomfort.

But we no longer live in a world where we have the luxury of social expediencies.  I appreciate the soothsayers who predict a Republican political bloodbath in 2018, but I fear, even in a semi-functional democracy, that the insidious creep of the “both sides” Narrative will stem that tide.

There is no fair-minded, honest assessment of our recent political history in which “both sides” are responsible for the nightmare we are only just beginning.

So if we’re going to hold them responsible, if we’re going to change that easy, socially acceptable “both sides” Narrative, we need to understand that the Narrative is a goddamn ocean liner, and it takes some heavy lifting to shift its course.  Every single conversation is an opportunity to push in the right direction though, and we need to be prepared to push back, passionately, every time the “both sides” Narrative rears its  head.  We need to steel ourselves, politely decline to be polite and non-confrontational, and be prepared to grow the fuck up and speak the truth:

One side has violated and corrupted all of our political norms;

One side has attacked the fundamental right to vote, and the concept of a representative democracy, for its own political gains;

One side defies the Constitution and the basic principles of inclusiveness and opportunity America was founded on;

One side denies science, and climate change, and the very concept of undeniable fact and truth;

One side engages daily in stunning hypocrisy, and feels no shame in promulgating blatant lies;

One side has embraced and emboldened ugly, hostile, openly racist parts of our society;

One side has, unequivocally, declared war on the fundamental rights, economic freedom, and self-determination of women;

One side created the cesspool out of which Donald Trump emerged;

One side supported Donald Trump for president, and stayed silent as he ran roughshod over our political process and national sense of decency;

One side is propping Donald Trump up, protecting him, shielding him, while every goddamn day he undermines the very premise of American exceptionalism and American values;

And one side, just today, passed a “health care” bill that will have the effect of crippling the American health care system, that will strip millions of Americans of their health coverage, and that will, without question, cause Americans to suffer needlessly and die, all to stroke the ego of our sad, weak, but horrifyingly powerful, President.

It will, I’m sorry to say, make for some uncomfortable beats and silences.  But the “both sides” Narrative has allowed one side to engage in a cowardly, thuggish seizure of power, and we need to destroy that Narrative every chance we can.  There is no fair-minded, honest assessment of our recent political history in which “both sides” are responsible for the nightmare we are only just beginning.  And if our friends, family, co-workers can’t acknowledge that, if they insist on blindly bashing a “broken Washington” without understanding who broke it, then we need to do everything we can to convince them to grow the fuck up, and start paying attention.

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