Trump’s Charlottesville Response Should Change Everything — and Will Change Nothing

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Trump delivers a statement in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Monday, August 14, 2017. Photo: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is there to add to the acres of pixels deployed to understand this past week?

A few thoughts. This should change everything and will likely change nothing. It remains a fact that 67 percent of Republican voters back Trump’s disgusting response to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. That’s 34 percent of the country — which is only a little below where Trump’s current polling lies. Close to 80 percent of GOP voters approve of Trump’s presidency as a whole. Over the last week or so, in fact, Trump’s disapproval has dropped somewhat and his approval stabilized. Yes, it’s still dreadful by historical standards — but still enough to ensure that the loyal base will still intimidate the Republican elite into passivity.

We know now — even more indelibly — that no one can control Trump. His unprompted presser was his own impulsive revolt against his own aides’ caution — just as we now know, his tweeted ban on transgender service members was also a function of a temper tantrum. There are no guardrails in place if his temper were to start a war or civil unrest.

We know that new chief of staff John Kelly can’t control the staff. Steve Bannon’s call to Bob Kuttner was, in many ways, worse than Scaramucci’s to Ryan Lizza. And Kelly was supposed to end all of that.

We know that even Trump’s belief that “fine people” marched alongside Nazi thugs in Charlottesville will not prompt Gary Cohn or James Mattis or Rex Tillerson or Kelly to resign. We know that even in that no-brainer context, almost no Republicans in Congress, including Paul Ryan, will criticize Trump by name. This incident in some ways inoculates Trump. If they let him survive this, they will let him survive anything.

Impeachment could make things worse, not better. If Mueller’s final indictment is not tightly connected to the president’s own collusion with Russia, but involves more general criminality in Trump’s business records or coterie, Trump would have an easy case to make to his base, and one he recently dusted off in his West Virginia rally. He could say that the Establishment is out to get him, and that impeachment is simply a way to nullify a fair election. Such a message will resonate. Even if a post-2018 House voted to impeach, I seriously doubt the Senate could find enough Republicans to reach the 66-vote threshold for conviction.

As for the solution offered by the 25th Amendment, this week was also instructive. If the cabinet cannot act after the president has destroyed America’s nuclear credibility and has claimed to have seen “fine people” marching alongside Nazis, they will never act. And again, this escape hatch is equally shut off by the populist maneuver — against the cabinet itself. We know, in other words, that these people will act only after a catastrophe has occurred, and not before.

I also suspect that Steve Bannon is not insane to be buoyant. If our politics in the near future is dominated by race — and especially by the question of Confederate statues — Trump will win. In culture wars, those who initiate the battle tend to lose it, and a campaign to remove statues across the country would be seen as just such a provocation. A poll this week that Cory Booker and Nancy Pelosi should take to heart reveals that 62 percent of Americans favor leaving the statues alone. Even a plurality of African-Americans — 44 to 40 percent — wants to keep them in place. That’s why Trump has pivoted to that ground.

And he has one more advantage this fall. He will have Hillary Clinton back as a foil, as she promotes her new book, whining about her electoral loss. Trump has no greater ally than Clinton. She won him the presidency; she could well sustain his presidency.

I wish I could be more optimistic. And surely I should be more optimistic after a president gets on the wrong side of a debate about Nazis. But there remains a deep darkness in America. And we should not be blind to Trump’s genius at exploiting it.

The thing I most miss about Barack Obama is his temperament. I think a lot of us underestimated how much it calmed us for eight long, fraught years. Nothing, it seemed, could ruffle his sleek, water-resistant feathers. He always gave the impression that everything was going to be okay, even if quite clearly it wasn’t. His response to crisis was always no drama. His reaction to tragedy was instinctively humane, and occasionally inspired (just think of his eulogy speech after the Charleston massacre). He never seemed to suddenly shift gait or look clumsy or swiftly change moods. He glided like a steady-cam through his own presidency. America, for Obama, was the preeminent world power and didn’t need to prove its strength every day. His political opponents — even those foul racists who questioned his citizenship — were irritants to him, not mortal foes. The Republican fever would break eventually, he assured us. Nothing, it seemed, could get under his skin. His long game would work (and perhaps it will).

But there was, looking back, a cost to this serenity. There was always a touch of complacency about it. He could get cocky and a little careless at times. In his coolness, he could easily underestimate what were, in fact, serious threats, such as the emergence of what he first called the “JV” team of al Qaeda, ISIS, or the potential for the Syrian civil war to ripple forever outward, or, more pertinently, the candidacy and possible election of Donald Trump.

He first mocked Trump relentlessly at that infamous 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner: “Obviously we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example … no seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership, and so ultimately you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf, you fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir.” Even at the same event, in 2015, Obama could say, with evident amazement and contempt: “And Donald Trump is Here. Still. [Laughter.] Anyway. [Laughter.]”

Who exactly is laughing now? Last year, Obama simply stated as fact that Trump was not going to be president, period, fatally misreading the political tea leaves, and causing complacency on his own side: “I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be president, and the reason is because I have a lot of faith in the American people.” His supreme confidence somehow persuaded him to back his defeated former opponent, Hillary Clinton, over his vice-president, Joe Biden, as his successor. For someone whose long game was critical to his success, this was a catastrophic misjudgment.

And when Obama’s intelligence services came to him last year and told him that Vladimir Putin was directly attempting to undermine the American election by trying to tilt it toward Trump, he did not hyperventilate. He didn’t ring the alarm and go public, and risk being seen as, in some way, an agent of Hillary Clinton. He didn’t want to intervene and polarize an already polarized country. He didn’t want to give Trump ammunition in the middle of a campaign (proof either that Trump had gotten into his head or that his complacency about Clinton was deep). And so, under his watch, the most sacred and vital ritual in our public life, the election of a new Congress and president, was compromised by a hostile foreign power. And before the election, his only clear action was to tell Putin, in a summit aside, to “cut it out.”

This was, it must be said, far too cool a response. He was president. An attack on our electoral system was an act of war against American democracy. And he kept the attack secret, and let it happen. Everything would be okay, as the Obama doctrine had it. Hillary was going to win anyway. But we now know it was not okay. And we live, in part, with the consequences of Obama’s complacency.

I wonder, as our national crisis deepens, if there might be some way for Obama to return to meet the challenge of the moment his complacency, in part, facilitated. So far, he’s taken a very George W. Bush position on being a former president. And there’s a dignity in this — in normal times. But these are not normal times. Perhaps Obama is shrewdly hoarding political capital so he can deploy it if the country degenerates into worse civil unrest or even a new Korean war. His favorable ratings are now very high — 61-36. He could be a leader who could rally the anti-Trump majority. Obama’s tweet after Charlottesville quickly became the most liked in the history of Twitter, as if Americans were desperate for some relief, some gravity and perspective. There is a void here — and no other Democrat seems capable of filling it.

But I fear his coolness and sense of propriety may keep him more passive than he should be. This, in my view, would be a mistake. He fatally underestimated Trump before and must not do so again. We need him — to guide his party away from the siren calls of the identity-obsessed left, to remind us how a president should act when tragedy strikes, to join perhaps with the Bushes, Clinton, and Carter to offer some moral authority as this nightmare unfolds week by week, year by year.

Where have you gone, Barack Obama? A nation turns its teary eyes to you.

Here’s a paragraph that made me sit up straight. It’s from the Washington Post, in a column by David Rothkopf: “Testosterone is the most effective solvent for human brain tissue. Just a drop or two can render a perfectly functional human cortex completely stupid. As evidence, I offer all of human history.” Maybe this was an attempt at a parody of what Rothkopf believes James Damore, the fired Google dissident, argued. I can hope. And Rothkopf is absolutely right to argue for greater efforts to ensure equality of opportunity for women across the globe. But seriously. Half the human race is inherently stupid — and this has been proven through all of human history?

Imagine the same column replacing testosterone with estrogen. Would it ever be published? Would a columnist who wrote that be employed the next day? There’s an assumption here: that the way to prevent negative generalizations about groups who have been historically oppressed is to make negative generalizations about groups who have historically been powerful. This, it has to be repeated, is not an escape from past prejudice; it’s merely a perpetuation of it in reverse. Is it not possible to agree with the fact of past injustice while attempting to construct a liberal order in which no group is stigmatized and discriminated against henceforth? If South Africa has been able to make this move, why can’t America? Or is racial payback the new “civil rights”?

These broad, smug generalizations are not only on the left, of course. Here, for example, is an interview with a traditional Southern Baptist theologian, Andrew T. Walker, who has a new book providing moral guidance on the transgender issue. Walker cites Paul’s condemnation of swindlers, thieves, drunks, homosexuals, and adulterers as apposite to the transgender experience: “There are practices and lifestyles that, if left unrepented of, can prevent someone from inheriting — that is, having a place in — the kingdom of God. To live as a Christian is to accept God’s authority over our own. Transgender identities fall into that category — they are not compatible with following Christ.”

Notice the sleight of hand here: a behavior is utterly conflated with an identity. I understand, and have long contested, the argument that gay people are somehow immoral because we have non-procreative sex. But I cannot understand how trans people are damned simply for existing. How do you repent for being yourself? Walker doesn’t listen or inquire into individual trans people; he simply conflates them with “transgenderism,” the fashionable nostrum that somehow everyone chooses their gender and sexuality, and that the male and female of our own species are nothing but social constructions. I find “transgenderism” an intellectually incoherent mess; but that has no effect whatever on what I think about transgender people and the dignity and respect they deserve. One wonders what Walker would think of intersex people. Are they also damned simply because of who they are?

These lazy bigotries of right and left may not be morally interchangeable. Ranting about how all men are intrinsically evil is different than damning a minuscule number of marginalized people from a position of relative power. Yes, context matters. But surely we can manage to resist either version of dehumanization — and to see human beings as individuals, worthy of our empathy and understanding, rather than groups who need to be condemned.

The great challenge of our time is that this classic liberalism is under assault by the left and this vision of Christianity is under attack by the right. To which one can only respond: Resist!

See you next Friday.

Trump’s C’ville Response Should Change Everything — It Won’t