interesting times

Welcome to Act III of the Trump Tragedy

It’s an emergency. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

When is the moment we can say that Trump has clearly gone over the line in erasing democratic and constitutional restraints on his personal power?

I’d say declaring a national emergency when there isn’t one to fund a project he can’t get through Congress pretty obviously qualifies. Wouldn’t you?

He couldn’t manage to get his wall funded when his own party controlled the entire government. He even turned down a bipartisan offer to build a “wall” in return for a path to citizenship for Dreamers last year, because he wanted a reduction in legal immigration as well. He petulantly refuses to accept greater funding for border control and immigration enforcement if his symbolic wall isn’t part of the package. He says he intends to use the military to do what a civilian border force is constitutionally designed for. He even intends to seize private land in order to construct the Great Wall of America, using a military version of “eminent domain.” And he says he has the power to do all this anyway and is only negotiating with congressional leaders because he feels like it. His benchmark for when an emergency begins? When Nancy Pelosi refuses to budge. Which is proof that this “emergency” is pulled out of his giant, shapeless ass.

And for all this, he has shut down much of the federal government as leverage to get his way, jeopardizing public safety and health, disrupting the lives (and now paychecks) of millions.

The words he has used to justify all of this are an assault on liberal democratic norms and the rule of law. Emergency powers do exist in the event of a national security crisis — but, as David French has noted, they only apply in an actual national emergency that “may require” the use of the military and even then only for “already authorized” construction projects “essential” to “national defense.” These laws were designed to restrain the executive through the law, not to give him carte blanche to appropriate funds Congress has designated otherwise. The laws were never designed to enable the president to do things the Congress had never authorized (the 2006 funds for border fencing have already been used up), and which the Congress actively, indeed strongly, opposes.

There is indeed a crisis at the border — caused by a big increase in the numbers of families with children from Central America applying for asylum. But they are not trying to evade a wall, and even if they were, you couldn’t build one fast enough to stop them. Regular economic migration from Mexico is way down. The overwhelming majority of drugs come through routine ports of entry, not the open border, or, like fentanyl, through the mail from China. Almost everything the president has said about all of this is a lie — from his disgusting demonization of illegal immigrants as criminals and animals to the alleged record number of apprehensions at the border this year to his ludicrous insistence that he never actually said that Mexico would directly pay for the wall. He just wants his goddamn wall, and he will shut down the government and violate the Constitution if he cannot get it.

Look: I’m not against fortifying the southern border. I would have given the man his funds to start his beloved wall a long time ago, as part of a package that would also provide much more funding for immigration courts, detention facilities, more judges, and a path to citizenship for so many caught in the horrible DACA limbo. I have no problem slowing the pace of legal migration either. I don’t think construction of more wall through legal means can harm anything but the local environment, the cost is trivial in the grand scheme of things, and in many ways, the symbol of the wall has become an obstacle to much more effective ways to stem illegal immigration. I also think that Nancy Pelosi’s constant declaration that a border wall is an “immorality” is absurd, condescending, and politically stupid. But she just won an election, and Trump has to deal with her.

It’s also vital to see this in a broader context. The Executive branch has been getting more and more powerful and unilateral for a long time, through Bush’s torture program up to Obama’s unconstitutional moves with respect to DACA. But Obama resorted to that in part because tribalism had spiraled, especially on the right, and what should have been complicated but manageable compromises became impossible. Our system has broken down. The Congress is effectively not functioning, elections merely rearrange the tribal deadlock, and reasoned discourse has been tweeted out of existence in the wider public space. This democracy has no effective means to govern itself, except through bitter paralysis or executive fiat.

Now we’ve added an instinctive tyrant to this equation, and the last two years have been blinking bright red for constitutional corrosion and collapse. And now we’re seeing Trump’s tyrannical instincts in a new, post-midterm light: another party controls the House. It was bad enough when he was fighting his own party, his own Cabinet, and all of our allies. Now he’s lost the House and fired everyone who disagreed with him in his own Cabinet. He runs the country by impulsive, often contradictory diktat, and grips other tyrants— from MBS and Sisi to Putin and Bolsonaro — more closely to his chest. With the Mueller report pending, a docile new attorney general in the wings, and a majority on the Supreme Court inclined to give the executive the benefit of the doubt, we are about to enter Act III of this tragedy.

We all knew this was coming. Our liberal democracy is in abeyance. We now wait to see what the replacement will be. It could come sooner than we think.


The Pathologized Male

The American Psychological Association’s summary of its first-ever guide to treating boys and men begins with an apology. Men, according to the author Stephanie Pappas, especially white men, have been the subject of psychology and psychiatry forever. Why bother now to treat them separately at all?

After that somewhat defensive and dismissive start, the answer is that men, when they follow what the APA called “traditional masculine ideology,” hurt themselves and others, and this is a problem for men and everyone. Hence the need for psychological intervention. And we quickly arrive at this statement: “Traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful.” Men should presumably learn to be the opposite: emotionally inconstant, collaborative, submissive, and passive. If that’s the kind of man you want to be — much more like a sexist stereotype of a woman — an army of psychologists is ready to help you.

Men and women, for the APA, are not intrinsically or naturally different: “When researchers strip away stereotypes and expectations, there isn’t much difference in the basic behaviors of men and women.” As you keep reading, you begin to realize just how saturated psychology has now become with critical gender theory, and its profound rejection of anything we might call “nature.” Because biology has no influence on sex and gender at all, and testosterone is thereby irrelevant in understanding the psychological nature of men (it is never mentioned in the report), everything is a social construct, and social constructs — a function of patriarchy and white supremacy — can be changed. “If we can change men,” one psychologist tellingly admits, “we can change the world.” If this sounds more like a political project than a guide to therapy, you’re not wrong.

At the very start of the document, for example, this “traditional masculinity ideology” (TMI) is deemed the reason why men commit 90 percent of murders (and always have in every culture and every moment in history). That’s an extraordinary claim, and presumably requires urgent intervention. If a terrorist group, defined as adhering to an ideology, were to kill more than 15,000 Americans a year (the total number of murders committed by men in the U.S. in 2017), we would surely respond with a deep sense of urgency.

What is TMI? The definition varies throughout the document, as it flings various slurs at half the human race. Here’s one such definition: “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” Just weigh that list for a minute — and how expansive it is. Men are exhibiting a dangerous ideology when they seek to “achieve” things, when they risk their lives or fortunes, when they explore unfamiliar territory — and these character traits are interchangeable with violence. As you read the guidelines, you realize that the APA believes that psychologists should be informing men that what they might think is their nature is actually just a set of social constructs that hurt them, murders thousands, and deeply wounds the society as a whole.

TMI ideology tends to “limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental health and physical health.” TMI is also bound up in white supremacy: “It was historically predicated on the exclusion of men who were not White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and privileged.”

The role of psychology? So far as I can tell, it’s indoctrination in critical gender theory: “Psychologists can help clients develop awareness of systems that assume cisgender masculinity expression is the expected norm, and identify how they have been harmed by discrimination against those who are gender nonconforming. Given the connections between sexism and other forms of prejudice, psychologists may find it useful to link oppressions as a pedagogical strategy, especially when working with boys and men in groups.” Good luck with that.

And, yes, the ideological misandry is unmistakable. Check out the equivalent guidelines for women and girls, issued in 2007. Where stoicism is a bad thing for men, especially black men, here’s how it works for women: “In therapy, teaching, research, and supervision, psychologists are encouraged to become aware not only of the challenges that women and girls have faced, but of the resiliency and strength that women and girls have shown in response.” For men, “assertiveness” is part of a pathology; for women, it is a virtue.

Although biology is absent in the guidelines for men, and minimized in the guidelines for women (women are understood primarily as victims of patriarchy/racism/sexism, etc.), there is some concession to the idea that the female body is actually different: The psychological response to menarche is included in a way that a psychological response to puberty for boys is absent. More to the point, where the guidelines for men take it for granted that TMI is a problem, with women, psychologists should “strive to make unbiased, appropriate assessments and diagnoses by considering multiple relevant aspects of the experiences of girls and women.”

I could go on. So many of the humanities have surrendered to critical race and gender theory, erasing the individual and denying any natural differences between the sexes, that it might seem foolish to expect psychologists to be any better. But for those of us who strongly believe in the importance of psychotherapy, and think that many men are far too reluctant to seek help and support, the decision by the APA to pathologize half of humanity is terrible news. There are indeed issues that men today need a help with, and emotional repression is definitely part of it. Aspects of maleness — aggression without virtue, glorification of violence, difficulties with communication and collaboration — are worth understanding better if men are to grapple with an economic and social environment where they are increasingly being left behind.

But this? It felt demeaning to read. To tell you the truth, it reminded me of the way psychologists used to treat gay men: as pathological, dangerous, and in need of reparative and conversion therapy. As homosexuals, we learned for a long time to be very wary of psychologists and psychiatrists because they routinely saw us as individuals whose nature and behavior needed to be fundamentally altered — for our sake and for others’. What once was used against gay men, is now being used against all men. If this document were designed to encourage men to seek psychotherapy, it is a catastrophe.


The Winning Charms of AOC

Am I allowed to say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is likable?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. She has an easy, open demeanor, fun-loving smile, stunning good looks, and an ability to make arguments few others are brave enough to make. She’s manifestly sincere, charismatic, and, despite her occasional factual overreaches, engaging the issues that really matter. She can dance! She once went by “Sandy.” And when conservatives like me — or even Ann Coulter — are revisiting the question of tax redistribution in a society that is being torn apart by late capitalism, she makes a kind of sense. She is still a little wet behind the ears, and will doubtless mature in office, but her energy, good humor and, yes, charm are integral to her appeal. They help her persuade people of her arguments. There’s a reason some Republicans are owning themselves with their AOC obsession: They can recognize a deadly talent when they see it.

When you think of the last two Democratic presidents, Bill and Barack, you see the same thing: They both have charisma and, yes, likability, that they deployed to get elected and reelected. That’s how Kennedy beat Nixon; it’s how Reagan defeated Carter. And this is not a gendered thing. When I think back to the modern Democrats who lost, they all have something in common. They regard their unlikability as a kind of achievement, proof that they can win on substance alone, that the media is obsessed with trivia, and that most people are dumb and easily bamboozled.

So the Democrats saw Reagan’s smile and decided … yeah, Walter Mondale is the ticket! Next up: that dazzling Dukakis. Then … Al Gore, for Pete’s sake. Gore had by far the better case, had a popular incumbent president behind him, a booming economy, a budget surplus and rising wages, knew foreign policy cold, and was a visionary on climate change. He should have won in a landslide. But there is and was something so deeply strange about him, so stiff and pious and condescending, so stilted and entitled, he managed to turn the contest into a dead heat. Listening to my own inner Paul Krugman, I know he should have won. But within five minutes of his debate with George W. Bush in the fall of 2000, I knew he’d lose. The idea that Americans would voluntarily agree to have that dude lecturing them for four long years was absurd. And Kerry? That droning bore? I supported him, but feared it was over before it began.

The same, I’m sorry to say, with Hillary. But this time, any suggestion that she was actually charm-free, could not relate to ordinary people, couldn’t give a good speech, never ran an effective competitive campaign in her life, and made half the country’s skin crawl … well, we were all a bunch of misogynists, weren’t we? And maybe some were. But we were right, weren’t we? Which is why I have to say right now — in fear of God knows what — that I cannot see the tiniest chance of Elizabeth Warren winning the presidency, for the same reasons as Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and Hillary. If the Dems want to put their huffy principles above their need to win elections, they’re welcome to. Just don’t call everyone who actually wants them to win a misogynist, okay?

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Welcome to Act III of the Trump Tragedy