interesting times

The Moment of Truth for Brexit and Trump

Photo: Erin Schaff/AFP/Getty Images

The year 2016 was a watershed in Anglo-American politics. Brexit narrowly passed; Trump, while losing the popular vote, still legitimately won the U.S. presidency. Both countries were deeply and rather evenly divided over both epochal events, and the bitterness and polarization has only deepened since.

But how epochal have they actually been? Three years later, Brexit remains elusively over the horizon, somehow slipping further from view the closer you get to it. Trump, still in his first term, somehow survived the Mueller Report, including clear evidence of obstruction of justice, but has failed to shift immigration policy legislatively, build the wall, win a trade war, or get growth above 3 percent, even with massive unaffordable tax cuts. Yes, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh — but only after ending the judicial filibuster, and then with a profoundly polarizing nomination, in Kavanaugh. And, yes, judges in general. But any GOP president would have nominated the same crew.

In some ways, then, both 2016 turning points have been on hold since. Brexit may still never happen; Trump, as this week’s huge news shows, may not even be able to run for president in 2020. Or Brexit could happen in a month’s time, and Trump could get reelected handily. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that both 2016 shifts are now entering a critical phase. Brexit, already postponed, is now scheduled for October 31, which the prime minister and the E.U. say is the absolute deadline, even as Parliament is insisting that it be extended once again. Boris Johnson’s government no longer has a majority at all, keeps losing votes in the Commons (this week a majority actually refused to allow a brief recess, as is routine, for the Tory Party Conference), and is begging to be put out of its misery by an election. Meantime, the opposition refuses to vote for an election until Johnson betrays his electoral promise and postpones Brexit again. Which he won’t. Because Leave voters would abandon him and empower the Brexit party. And so deadlock. But also tick-tock.

In the U.S., the Congress has effectively long stopped legislating, and the president has almost nothing on his agenda that has any realistic chance of becoming law, including the NAFTA update. And now, of course, we have discovered devastating evidence that Trump has indeed been colluding with a foreign government to intervene on his behalf in the next election, but this time as a sitting president and with Ukraine, not Russia. The revelation has prompted an impeachment inquiry that will force the Senate GOP, at some point, finally to choose if they back the president or the rule of law. It’s crunch time.

And so the tension mounts. The strategies of both Johnson and Trump are very similar: Keep demonizing the elites as trying to nullify the results of the referendum and the last presidential election, play hardball with opponents, rally the right, and push constitutional restraints until they are at risk of breaking altogether. So far, it’s worked, but both Johnson and Trump are showing the strain. Trump’s approval numbers are in the low 40s. Johnson’s are in the upper 30s.

Boris, it now seems, was too hardball when he expelled 21 Conservative dissidents from the party earlier this month; his rhetoric, especially when he refused in the Commons even to sympathize with those MPs facing death threats, has been increasingly indecent; his speech at the U.N. this week was surreal and a little loopy, and another little scandal with yet another paramour hasn’t helped. He has a potentially winning hand — if the election were held now, he’d be a favorite to prevail. But he’s playing with a little too much fire to be so unafraid of getting burnt. He could still be a transformative prime minister of a post-Brexit U.K.; but it’s just as possible he’ll be responsible for the destruction of the Tory Party, the collapse of the British economy, and the end of the United Kingdom.

And Trump is melting down. This is a relative term, of course. He’s been mentally unstable and clearly addled for a long time. But this week, he seemed drained to me, dazed, depressed, delusional. His swift concessions to the Democrats — allowing a semi-transcript of his chat with Zelensky to be published, even though it was damning, and then releasing the whistle-blower complaint, even though that clearly makes matters much, much worse, and implicating his own attorney general and vice-president in a conspiracy — were signs of panic. Was this a strategy to appear innocent, with nothing to hide? If so, “delusional” doesn’t quite capture it, does it?

But I bet Trump does not even understand the high crime he committed — leveraging national-security policy to get a foreign government to smear a political opponent. Trump admires mafiosi, and always has. He has done his best to emulate them his entire life. Why would he not continue to do so? And a narcissist of Trump’s proportions is simply unable to act in the interest of something other than himself, or see his personal interests as different than or subordinate to his public duties. So his psyche is stopping him from seeing what a big deal this is, while his eyes and ears see potential catastrophe. This will not end well. And it didn’t help that Rudy Giuliani kept popping up on cable news, like a whirling dervish in a skull mask, digging his client into a deeper and deeper political grave.

Yesterday, Trump’s manic tweeting was close to clinical evidence of a narcissist’s decompensating and dangerous rage. While his own acting director of national intelligence vouched for the whistle-blower’s integrity and adherence to protocol — “He did the right thing” — Trump was lashing out, demonizing the potential witness, accusing him of partisanship and an alliance with spies around the president. Paranoid much?

Listen to him ramble on about the “transcript” of the Zelensky call in a private meeting with Republicans: “It was perfect. I could not have said or had a better conversation.” A few minutes of incoherent raging and reminiscing later: “I want to know who’s the person that gave the whistle-blower the information, because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right?” So someone should be executed for relaying a “perfect” conversation. The man is unwell.

The president’s only defense is that what he did was perfectly legal and appropriate, which has made watching Fox News this week so fascinating. Arguing that a president can legally collude with a foreign leader to influence an American election is one step up from their response to the Mueller Report, which was that it was obviously wrong but didn’t happen. More to the point, they are making this argument because they have no place else to go. No wonder a prominent Republican senator told Gabe Sherman: “This could unwind very fast, and I mean in days.”

Where will this end? The extortion is so obvious, and the cover-up so crude — they just stuck that particular tape into a top-secret drawer for some inexplicable reason — that it is easily comprehended by the general public. We’ll see how the polling shakes out, but the early signs do not seem good for Trump to me. Every poll has a plurality supporting impeachment, or a tie. Rasmussen even found 11 percent of Republicans believing that Trump committed treason.

Maybe another shoe will drop that Trump can exploit. Maybe the Democrats will screw it up again. Maybe Hillary Clinton can save Trump’s hide (she’s doing a media blitz next week). This is the beginning of an unpredictable process — but my gut this week tells me it’s more Nixon than Clinton. To allow a president who has brazenly abused his public office to continue in that office is to invite far worse abuses. Look what lesson Trump took from the Mueller Report! He made the Zelensky call the day after Mueller testified. Can you imagine what he would be willing to do if he got away with this again? Tyranny is dynamic, not linear. The one thing we know is that we have a president who has committed almost the definition of an impeachable offense (bribery, treason), and keeps upping the ante. That’s a huge risk to take, even for Republicans.

And so we’re moving suddenly — and sooner than I expected — to a moment of truth. It can’t be postponed in either country for much longer. No resolution will be unifying, I suspect, for either country. If Trump and Brexit go down, we should be worried about a more radicalized and potent far right. If Trump or Brexit prevail, the elites will not take it lightly. So strap in — this is it. In so many ways, that’s a relief.

The Pathos of Greta

The case of Greta Thunberg is a fascinating one. Some argue that she is being used; that children should not be spearheading political movements; and that her Asperger syndrome is propelling her fixation on the climate crisis. Others see her as a brilliant and charismatic truth-teller, a Joan of Arc for the climate crisis. A new memoir by her family in the voice of her mother, not yet translated into English, tells a story of a remarkable young woman with a great deal of anxiety. Paulina Neuding, Quillette’s European editor, explains the background to Greta’s current passion:

Greta is eleven years old and has gone two months without eating. Her heart rate and blood pressure show clear signs of starvation. She has stopped speaking to anyone but her parents and younger sister, Beata. After years of depression, eating disorders, and anxiety attacks, she finally receives a medical diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism, and OCD. She also suffers from selective mutism — which explains why she sometimes can’t speak to anyone outside her closest family. When she wants to tell a climate researcher that she plans a school strike on behalf of the environment, she speaks through her father.

Thunberg, mercifully, attends a school for children with special needs, and seems to have channeled her acute fear and panic to good ends. Her mother “stresses that her daughter has never felt better than during her campaign for the climate. Greta herself has said that realizing that she could do something about climate change has helped her recover.” The question is whether what Greta describes as her own personal “fear and panic” should be the basis for a global campaign for radical change to protect the climate. And there are aspects in the book that make one worry about her parents’ influence. Neuding notes: “The book posits that oppression of women, minorities, and people with disabilities stem from the same overarching root problem as climate change: an unsustainable way of life.”

I don’t know Swedish, but I have no reason to doubt Neuding’s reading. And I don’t think the climate crisis is integrally related to any other social phenomenon than the merciless wheels of capitalism and wealth creation, which have improved the lives of countless millions over the past couple of decades, but devastated the planet at the same time. But watching Thunberg this week, and absorbing the intensity of conviction she brings to arguably the most urgent crisis humanity faces, I didn’t care about these picked nits. I found her spell-binding, her rage utterly justified, her fear genuine and rational.

What if it takes a 16-year-old with Asperger’s to address this subject with the urgency and seriousness it deserves? There’s a striking clarity and brilliance to some people on the spectrum of autism. Unintimidated by social cues, they can blurt out the truth. This past week, we got yet another report from the world’s scientists that the pace of change is accelerating, especially in the oceans, that a great mass extinction is already well underway. I’m sorry but the excuses for inaction have now gone far beyond legitimate skepticism toward grotesque collective irresponsibility in the face of a huge problem that will plague every human being who comes after us. The face of disgust and loathing that Greta directed toward president Trump when their paths nearly crossed at the U.N. this week was more than justified.

I get her anger; her speech at the U.N. rang completely true to me; the generational injustice is massive. There is no evidence that she is being coerced into this. In fact, her autism-related capacity to focus obsessively on what is in front of her nose is better than the denial, forgetting, and apathy of the rest of us. There is suffering in this. You can see it in her eyes. But there is suffering behind anyone truly, implacably dedicated to changing the world. And the suffering she is trying to halt — of future generations of humans, and of animals and plants over which we humans have dominion — is on a different scale entirely.

Yes, she deserves some privacy, some space to take care of herself, and I hope she has the support to do that. Yes, she is young. Yes, her crusade has touches of masochism and self-sacrifice. But rather than criticize a teenager for leading this fight, or her family for supporting her, we might do well to ask ourselves why those far older than she have done so little for so long. And seem to suffer nothing.

The Value of Fathers

Last Friday, on Real Time With Bill Maher, in a debate with Heather McGhee, I cited a statistic for how many African-American babies are born to an unmarried mother: “When 70% of African-American kids are born without a father or two parents, they aren’t supported … There is a real problem in African-American society about bringing up kids … It’s much more acute in that community.” I was referring to a statistic about kids born to unmarried mothers: The latest CDC data show a 69 percent rate of births to unmarried mothers among African-Americans, including mothers who live with their children’s father. The equivalent data for other groups are 52 percent for Hispanics, 28 percent for whites, and 12 percent for Asian-Americans. The average for everyone is 40 percent. Here’s another data set for children under 18 living in single-parent homes, or homes where their unmarried parents cohabit, based on the Census and the American Community Survey: 65 percent for African-Americans; 41 percent for Hispanics; 24 percent for whites; 15 percent for Asian-American kids.

McGhee implied that I was impugning the parenting of African-Americans, in the manner of Joe Biden’s remark in the last Democratic debate about the government intervening to help poor African-Americans to bring their kids up right. Touré also wrote a piece making a similar case, rejecting what he called “these mythological notions that the Black father isn’t at home and isn’t doing his job … It denigrates the character of Black men, supposing they’re not contributing to the well-being of their families.” He considered my worry about single motherhood as “one of the core tenets of racist thought.”

Allow me to say I am not judging the parenting skills of anyone else, let alone black men. I have no qualifications to judge anything of the kind. I’m just worried, as both Biden and Barack Obama have expressed, that this pattern of family structure gives black kids an objective disadvantage in life. The social science is unanimous: “Children who grow up with only one of their biological parents (nearly always the mother) are disadvantaged across a broad array of outcomes … they are twice as likely to drop out of high school, 2.5 times as likely to become teen mothers, and 1.4 times as likely to be idle — out of school and out of work — as children who grow up with both parents.”

This applies across all races, and increasingly among poor whites, whose family structures today are undergoing the same collapse that African-American families have already gone through. (As recently as 1960, only 22 percent of black kids were living without two married parents in the home.) Family is not the only factor, of course. The legacy of racism uniquely hurts black kids; relative poverty also explains a lot. But growing up in a stable household with two married parents makes a huge difference for future success, whatever your race and class, and that difference appears to be widening as time goes by.

Both McGee and Touré cite another CDC study, and it contains important nuances. I’m grateful for their pointing it out. It notes that black fathers who live in the same house as their kids tend to be more dedicated than fathers from other racial groups. For example: “A larger percentage of black fathers (41%) had helped their coresidential children with homework every day in the last 4 weeks compared with Hispanic (29%) or white (28%) fathers.” Or this: “Black fathers (70%) [who lived with their kids] were most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day compared with white (60%) and Hispanic fathers (45%).”

Black fathers who do not live with their kids are also more involved than other groups of absent fathers: “A higher percentage of Hispanic fathers aged 15–44 (52%) had not played with their noncoresidential children in the last 4 weeks compared with white (30%) and black (25%) fathers.”

But the core of the report is about the big difference between fathers of all races who live in the same house as their kids, and fathers who live apart. It’s understandably a very big difference. So, for example, 65 percent of fathers who lived with their kids talked to them about their day in the last four weeks; only 16 percent of fathers who lived apart did the same. Of those fathers with kids in the home, 81 percent had played with their kids in the last four weeks; of those fathers who did not live in the same home, it was 10 percent. Or take reading to your kids: Of fathers in the same home as their kids, 29 percent read to them in the previous month, while only 5 percent of those living elsewhere did. This difference unsurprisingly far outweighs any racial gaps.

And a key statistic in this study is that 24 percent of black fathers live apart from their kids, compared to 18 percent for Hispanics and 8 percent for whites. Touré and McGhee are right to stress that, in this study, a majority of black dads do live with their kids. But it’s also true that proportionally fewer do than any other racial group, and that most of the cohabiting fathers do not have the extra commitment of marriage.

I had no intention of disparaging black fatherhood, and I apologize if that was the inference. But it is wrong to think that, on average, black kids are getting the same benefits from growing up in a stable family as their peers in other demographics. We know that matters for future flourishing.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: The Moment of Truth for Brexit and Trump