interesting times

What We Know About Trump Going Into 2020

Photo: ERIN SCOTT/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is merit, at times, to thinking about what might have been. Counterfactual history can help us see what our factual history has actually told us.

So reflect for a second on the campaign of 2016. One Republican candidate channeled the actual grievances and anxieties of many Americans, while the others kept up their zombie politics and economics. One candidate was prepared to say that the Iraq War was a catastrophe, that mass immigration needed to be controlled, that globalized free trade was devastating communities and industries, that we needed serious investment in infrastructure, that Reaganomics was way out of date, and that half the country was stagnating and in crisis.

That was Trump. In many ways, he deserves credit for this wake-up call. And if he had built on this platform and crafted a presidential agenda that might have expanded its appeal and broadened its base, he would be basking in high popularity and be a shoo-in for reelection. If, in a resilient period of growth, his first agenda item had been a major infrastructure bill and he’d combined it with tax relief for the middle and working classes, he could have crafted a new conservative coalition that might have endured. If he could have conceded for a millisecond that he was a newbie and that he would make mistakes, he would have been forgiven for much. A touch of magnanimity would have worked wonders. For that matter, if Trump were to concede, even now, that his phone call with President Zelensky of Ukraine went over the line and he now understands this, we would be in a different world.

The two core lessons of the past few years are therefore: (1) Trumpism has a real base of support in the country with needs that must be addressed, and (2) Donald Trump is incapable of doing it and is such an unstable, malignant, destructive narcissist that he threatens our entire system of government. The reason this impeachment feels so awful is that it requires removing a figure to whom so many are so deeply bonded because he was the first politician to hear them in decades. It feels to them like impeachment is another insult from the political elite, added to the injury of the 21st century. They take it personally, which is why their emotions have flooded their brains. And this is understandable.

But when you think of what might have been and reflect on what has happened, it is crystal clear that this impeachment is not about the Trump agenda or a more coherent version of it. It is about the character of one man: his decision to forgo any outreach, poison domestic politics, marinate it in deranged invective, betray his followers by enriching the plutocracy, destroy the dignity of the office of president, and turn his position into a means of self-enrichment. It’s about the personal abuse of public office: using the presidency’s powers to blackmail a foreign entity into interfering in a domestic election on his behalf, turning the Department of Justice into an instrument of personal vengeance and political defense, openly obstructing investigations into his own campaign, and treating the grave matter of impeachment as a “hoax” while barring any testimony from his own people.

Character matters. This has always been a conservative principle but one that, like so many others, has been tossed aside in the convulsions of a cult. And it is Trump’s character alone that has brought us to this point. That’s why the editorial in the Evangelical journal Christianity Today is so clarifying. Finally — finally — an Evangelical outlet telling the truth in simple language:

[President Trump] has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone — with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders — is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused … To the many Evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve.

It is this profound immorality that made this week inevitable. Yes, inevitable. Put a man of this sort — utterly unprepared, utterly corrupt, and with no political or governing experience at all — into the Oval Office, and impeachment, if there is any life left in our democracy, is inevitable.

Yes, some partisan Democrats were out to destroy him from the very beginning and have merely been seeking a pretext ever since. Yes, some have overreached in their Russia fixation. And I’m not going to deny the troubling facts outlined in the Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s dangerously sloppy FISA requests when the Russia question first emerged in summer 2016. These are parts of the truth that demand inquiry and reflection. But they are largely irrelevant to the question in front of us.

The impeachment was inevitable because this president is so profoundly and uniquely unfit for the office he holds, so contemptuous of the constitutional democracy he took an oath to defend, and so corrupt in his core character that a crisis in the conflict between him and the rule of law was simply a matter of time. When you add to this a clear psychological deformation that can produce the astonishing, deluded letter he released this week in his own defense or the manic performance at his Michigan rally Wednesday night, it is staggering that it has taken this long. The man is clinically unwell, preternaturally corrupt, and instinctively hostile to the rule of law. In any other position, in any other field of life, he would have been fired years ago and urged to seek medical attention with respect to his mental health.

I fear the consequences of impeachment. I fear the resentment it might stir up, the divides it could deepen, the rancor it will unleash. But I fear more profoundly the consequences of not impeaching. And there is something clarifying — something that pierces the strongman atmosphere that now dominates Washington — about the sheer fact of it. We live in a republic whose forms have not completely degenerated into meaninglessness. Despite near-insane attempts to describe a constitutional process as a “coup,” despite senior senators declaring they will violate their oath to be an impartial juror in the forthcoming trial, despite machinations from Mitch McConnell that he intends to turn the trial into a damp squib, the Constitution’s mechanisms just worked. We now need to believe in these mechanisms, in the cooling process of constitutional norms, which are now in operation. The Speaker should not step on her own smart strategy and play games with the articles of impeachment. Send them to the Senate now. Then hold the Senate responsible for what it does with them.

And enough of the world-weary cynicism that all of this is futile! It is, in fact, deeply regenerative of the norms of accountability that we have allowed to erode too easily for too long. A Senate trial could further illuminate the damning fact pattern. Around 50 percent of the public already backs this process. Some Republican senators may wish to behave according to the Constitution and the rule of law — and if that gives us a small majority for impeachment, if nowhere near enough to remove him, that helps cauterize this experiment in one-man rule for the record. An already-impeached president may have more of an uphill fight to get reelected. There are glimmers of hope still around.

We can’t know the future. But we can know our duty. The only way past this is through it. And this is not a depressing truth. We can keep this republic. We can isolate this presidency as a cautionary tale. We can refuse to be gaslit. We can become Americans again — in the restless, querulous refusal to be any tyrant’s plaything and any con man’s mark.

J.K. Rowling Takes a Stand

One of the long-held principles of the gay-rights movement has been that it’s wrong to fire someone just because they’re gay. Now, one of the principles of the LGBTQ movement is that it’s fine to fire someone if they disagree in the slightest with every claim of gender ideology.

This shift from a “live and let live” to a “do what I say or else” movement is one reason I don’t identify with this activism any more. I loathe the idea of forcing people to say things they don’t believe, demonizing and ostracizing them for their dissent, and enshrining in law penalties for wrongthink. I am very happy to live alongside people whose faith makes them consider me a sinner. As long as they cannot touch a hair on my head or use the law to punish me for what I believe and how I live, I’m fine. But that pluralist worldview is anathema to the “social justice” movement, as it proves every single day.

Among the views now held to be self-evident by parts of the left is that there is no distinction whatsoever between a woman and a trans woman. In Britain, where there is no First Amendment and the cops can knock on your door and, in extremis, jail you for thoughtcrimes, a recent case shows exactly what this movement is now about. It involves a woman who dissents from this new orthodoxy and believes that biological sex is not the same as socially constructed gender and that, although you can change your gender, you cannot change your sex. Maya Forstater expressed this view on social media and elsewhere — and as a result was fired by a charity called the Centre for Global Development.

It’s vital to note that Forstater is prepared to treat any trans woman as a woman in real life, defends trans people’s rights to define themselves as they wish, has not been charged with any kind of harassment or in-person abuse, is happy to accept anyone’s adoption of any of a thousand possible genders, but simply refuses to say what she doesn’t believe: that sex can be chosen or assigned, rather than simply observed as a matter of biology. “I accept everybody’s gender identity; I just do not believe it overrides their sex,” she told the court. “I refuse to believe human beings can change their sex.” This view — almost universally held for millennia until five minutes ago, and rooted in the plain facts of science — is now, the court ruled, subject to legal sanction. Such a view is “incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others“ and “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” So anyone expressing an opinion like Forstater’s can be fired with no recourse.

This is how J.K. Rowling tweeted her support of Forstater’s freedom of speech: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?” This completely liberal viewpoint defending a distinction between sex and gender was immediately trashed by the Twitter mob with the vitriol usually reserved for, well, Martina Navratilova, who also defended women’s sports as defined by sex, not gender, and was subject to mass obloquy.

Note that the judgment against Forstater rests not on the idea that she is wrong but that her argument is fundamentally illegitimate and shouldn’t even be entertained, let alone accorded respect. It rests on the banishment of a valid viewpoint from all public debate on a highly controversial matter. When you study the actual judgment, though, you find a lengthy discussion of chromosomes, hormones, gender, and sex in a complex arena. It’s clear that this is a real debate, that we have only just begun to think it through, that there are some fascinating philosophical questions involved, and that more research and debate is needed. But the ruling determines that one side in that debate can participate only under the threat of punitive sanctions.

A society that lives by these rules is not a free society. Resisting this authoritarianism of the left is as vital to our liberal democracy as resisting the authoritarianism of the right. Yes, I stand with Maya. And, no, this is not a drill. It’s a fight for freedom of thought and empirical reality.

Oh Boy

I read with some interest Peggy Orenstein’s long essay on what’s wrong with boys. An in-depth study of a hundred boys, analyzing their problems and issues, seeing what makes them tick, seeing how the culture has changed them: It’s a fascinating topic. I kept reading and reading in the hope of discovering the point. I’ve now reread it and still can’t figure it out.

Orenstein reports the following facts drawn from her meticulous research: Boys brag to each other about whom they’ve had sex with and compete for girls, they boast about how they screw around on girls, they tend to admire jocks and athletes and mock those less active in sports, they try not to cry in public. They admire “Dominance. Aggression. Rugged good looks (with an emphasis on height). Sexual prowess. Stoicism. Athleticism. Wealth (at least some day).” Teenage boys may react to the notion that they should become vegans by saying something like, “Being vegans would make us pussies.”

More earth-shattering revelations: Boys find it hard to talk about their feelings, especially with their fathers. They tend to talk about these things with women — girlfriends, sisters, mothers. Many are jealous. One immediately broke off an affair with a girl when he was told she was cheating. In the locker room, male teens can be really gross: “It was all about sex,” one sensitive teen boy complained. “We definitely say fuck a lot; fuckin’ can go anywhere in a sentence. And we call each other pussies, bitches. We never say the N-word, though. That’s going too far.” These boys also saw socializing as instrumental: “The whole goal of going to a party is to hook up with girls and then tell your guys about it.”

It goes on and on in this vein. If there were a Pulitzer for the bleeding obvious, Orenstein would be a shoo-in. I went to an all-boys high school in the U.K. in the 1970s and 1980s and was reassured, reading the piece, that nothing much has changed — except that teen boys are now much more accepting of female equality and are less homophobic. The word fag just means “lame” these days, and the accusation of being gay carries far less of a sting. But the rest is timeless: Some of the sexual braggarts don’t know anything about sex, and, if they fail to do it right, can be mercilessly mocked by girls. And boys compete on everything as well as making dirty and outrageous jokes all the time. This, Orenstein implies, is some kind of crisis. But it’s only a crisis if you find the very idea of male culture as it has always existed somehow problematic.

Yes, there are downsides to this kind of maleness. There’s a reason men tend to die younger than women. And yes, it would be good to guide boys away from some of the extremes that teen-boy culture can generate. Among the ways to do this: more male teachers, more all-male schools, a fusion of the ideals of aggression and competition with an ethic of fair play. But “a sustained, collective effort on the part of fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches” to reprogram them into a way of life more similar to women’s? Please.

Orenstein — of course — has as a premise that masculinity is entirely a cultural or social construction that can be altered by reeducation. Hence the title of the piece, which refers to the “miseducation” of boys. But what if a hefty chunk of masculinity is not social or cultural but rather biological, genetic, crafted by hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection? What if so much of what she abhors — admiration of strength, envy of others’ ability to have sex with women, aggression, nonverbal forms of interaction, stoicism, risk-taking, mutual mockery, bawdiness — is intrinsic to being male? Because this possible alternative or complementary explanation is never raised in the essay, it is never argued against. If Orenstein could prove that men never used to be like this or point to a culture in which men are not like this, she’d be a lot more persuasive. Instead, you’re left with the sinking feeling that the essay is really simply a lament: that men are men, that they are different, that their world can be alien to women, and that their rituals and discourse and company are somehow inherently problematic in a way that women’s simply could not be.

There’s a poignant moment in the piece when Orenstein asks a teen what he thinks a good form of masculinity might look like. He answers, “That’s interesting. I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys.” And that’s almost entirely because today’s gender theorists cannot conceive of a masculinity that is anything but oppressive. Their default view is that men are the problem with the world. Far from challenging this, Orenstein’s approach merely compounds it. Jordan Peterson has a far better one — which is why he is regarded by today’s elites as beyond the pale. He actually likes men, admires them, and sees masculinity as integral to a healthy society. And some of them, in turn, like him.

The old sexism was simple: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?,” as Henry Higgins puts it in My Fair Lady. But feminism today is a kind of mirror of this chauvinism: “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?” Maybe because he doesn’t want to be. And maybe that’s perfectly fine.

See you in the New Year.

Andrew Sullivan: What We Know About Trump Going Into 2020