Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.
42:43there is actually a table in the Truman42:45White House where he played poker every42:47night and before he went to bed they42:49would actually put a cover on the poker42:51table to disguise the fact that Truman42:54was playing poker because it was bad or42:58seeing you know unfortunately I’m I’m43:00wondering in in light of this and in43:02light of this president um I used to43:04sort of respect the office of the43:06presidency and in in you know even the43:09ones that I disagreed with and that you43:11know several um now that we have seen43:15this guy you know go crazy on Twitter43:16and the potential for having colluded43:19with the foreign power which ruins me at43:22my core was in potential ruins me43:25I Corps do you ever see the sanctity of43:28office ever returning in the future yeah43:32I’m gonna actually shock you with43:33something because either the most43:35effective theme that was tested during43:37George Bush’s W Bush his run for the43:39White House the most successful themed43:42after compassionate conservatism which43:44actually really people believed it43:45bought it was restoring honor and43:47dignity to the White House because Bill43:50Clinton ran it like a frat house now I43:52think it’s gonna take a long time for43:53people to get back to a point where43:56probity and dignity look George43:57Washington he thought the most important44:00characteristic of a president was first44:02not to become a king but the second was44:04dignity and you got a guy upstairs rage44:07tweeting in the Oval Office are in the44:09executive bedroom every night you know44:11surrounded by a bed full of filet-o-fish44:12rappers and rage tweeting all night and44:15it’s hard to think of him as as you know44:19a dignified person you got a guy with a44:21gigantic chin waddle who thinks he’s44:23like babe meat and and he just the whole44:27effect of Trump is clownish and so that44:30makes it harder to believe in the in44:32that stature of the presidency so but44:34look it’ll come back there will be the44:37next person who’s president one hopes44:39will recognize that there’s a value to44:41be had by a president who shows dignity44:44and strength and quiet rectitude44:46sometimes as opposed to being a giant44:48rectum all the time so thank you hi44:54there hi I know that you have said that44:58you have friends in the administration44:59and that they call you to moan from time45:03to time from time to time yesterday was45:06a bad day I bet it was do they do they45:11seriously think because at some point a45:13credible conservative administration45:15will come back to this government is45:19anyone in the Trump administration short45:21of maybe Jim mattis should probably seek45:26employment at say a gas station45:28somewhere in the Midwest after this45:29because this is going to scar them and45:32mark them forever right I mean it it is45:35one of the predicates of the book and45:37it’s proving itself out time and time45:38they don’t even get credit for being45:41competent no and here’s the thing when45:43they call you what I tell them every45:45time for advice45:46quit walk out the door now and tell the45:48truth walk out the door now and say45:51what’s going on but moon do you shred it45:54we make him take you to court make him45:56make him go to discovery and and they45:59they a lot of these people that Trump46:01brought in let’s put it this way when46:04Trump sends us people to work in the46:06administration he’s not sending his best46:09thank you thank you46:13question out yes I wrote it down because46:16I can’t remember what I did 20 seconds46:19ago so I say this is someone a young46:25recently recent college graduate who’s46:28unemployed who probably makes Bernie46:31Sanders look like a centrist I actually46:34asked Noah Rothman this last year at an46:37event at my college and I was looking at46:42a University of Chicago poll that said46:45that a majority I think it’s 60% of46:48people aged 18 to 35 don’t see46:53capitalism the sort of core of46:55conservative conservativism as the thing47:00that can solve the most pressing issues47:02of our time and what I asked no last47:05year and I’d love to hear it from a you47:07know rock-ribbed conservative like47:09yourself what can you do to steer maybe47:14not people like me but maybe people47:16flirting with the idea or the left back47:19to the ideas one of the things is that47:22my party has to get its head out of its47:23own backside on crony capitalism because47:26what we’ve done for a long time and what47:28this tax bill did was take care of a47:31specific industry in the legislation now47:33I was told when Barack Obama was47:35president that picking winners and47:36losers was a bad thing the tax bill47:39picked 150 some winners on in the hedge47:42fund and wall street world and about 6047:44guys out there in the economy and they47:46got 85% of the benefits of a tax bill47:48that is that requires five percent47:51economic growth47:524.1% economic growth to sustain itself47:55it’s ridiculous we’re picking winners47:58and losers by protecting the coal47:59industry which but should be dead by now48:02so Republicans have not been a good48:04example of free-market capitalism in48:07Congress for a long time this goes back48:09before Trump I’ve been a critic of this48:11of my own party of this before Trump48:13where we have decided that free-market48:16capitalism is capitalism is great except48:18if a guy gave us a big enough donation48:20to the super PAC then we’re gonna make48:22sure that his industry including it48:24could be you know like a dead industry48:27industrial sector completely that48:29Congress says ok we’re gonna keep buying48:32buggy whips from the sky because you48:34know the buggy whip industry is the48:36heart of American commerce capitalism48:39works when it’s tried and you know48:43socialism often leads to people starving48:44and freezing in the dark so you know and48:47I know everyone’s you say oh then48:48Norwegian Nations ended our and and and48:50the scanty nations yes they’re lovely48:52but there be few examples of this that48:55don’t scale necessarily to macro48:58economies like ours but anyway it’s a49:00hard road and it’s gonna have to be49:01something that requires some some reform49:03and self correction side the GOP to get49:05back to a free market and free trade49:08capitalism system so thanks thank you I49:10right yeah BRIC big fan a great look49:14plus one all those lot yes49:17does the Trump administration have any49:19policy successes for the remainder of49:23the Trump administration except by49:26tearing down Obama you’re a regulation49:29well Donald Trump proved in the very49:34first weeks of his administration that49:36he can’t pass the legislation I mean the49:38the house and the Senate had Obamacare49:41repeal cocked and locked it was going to49:43be smooth they were going to jam it49:44through they were gonna day we’re gonna49:46as a leadership member said to me pull49:48up Pelosi and smash Obamacare repeal49:51through and then the giant man-baby came49:54in and started and started interrupting49:56and started saying things on Twitter and49:58then describing the billa’s meme and so50:02there’s a reason they’re sending Trump50:04bills to sign that are like50:06naming bridges and the post office50:09Reform Act you know it’s small ball50:11stuff because they don’t trust him with50:13the big important stuff so they’re gonna50:16keep doing policy changes they’re gonna50:18keep doing the pen and the phone that50:19they hated Obama for and they’re gonna50:22keep doing executive orders even though50:24conservatives used to scream their heads50:26off Barack Obama is acting like a50:28dictator because he’s passing you know50:30he’s signing these executive orders and50:34he’s got a limited portfolio of things50:37he can do I predict he’s gonna keep50:39trying to keep the coal industry thing50:41moving and the steel tariffs moving50:42because he believes those are the key to50:44the two West Virginia Pennsylvania Ohio50:49you know the whole pencil tucky region50:51there and all that so thanks excellent50:53great book thanks a lot thank you so50:55much a question I haven’t heard from50:57anybody is one about the Russians the51:01Russian money and the oligarchs what do51:04you have to say about that and where are51:06the Republicans on this there’s a sort51:09of let me give this sort of technical51:11description of that there’s a lot of it51:14he’s been taking it for a long time51:16well well beyond 2016 he is deeply51:21embedded with a whole bunch of Russian51:23mobsters and has been since the 80s when51:28they peel this back and there I’ll tell51:31you the reason Donald Trump lives in51:32absolute mortal terror where it’s like51:35strap on the extra diaper when he51:37mentions when they mentioned getting his51:39taxes because this is a man who knows51:42once they start peeling apart the51:43relationships with the banks and with51:45the Russian lending and the glown51:47guarantees from Russians from like the51:49Bank of Cyprus to Deutsche Bank and all51:51these other things and they’re by the51:52way they’re people who are experts on51:53this bike well beyond my knowledge Craig51:55ungar’s book is great about this but51:58we’re gonna learn that this whole I have52:01no business with the oceans I don’t know52:02any Russians we’re gonna discover that52:04that is a complete fabrication and and52:07and the behavior of their campaign yeah52:10look Paul Manafort is not a guy you hire52:12because you’re like I need someone who’s52:14really dedicated to clean government52:17he’s a guy you hired because he brings52:19in a bunch of money from his friends in52:21Moscow and the oligarchs have gotten52:23used to buying elections in a lot of52:24countries and they played a big role in52:26this one and I think you’re gonna see52:27that come out not only in the52:29investigations that peel back Trump’s52:31business and financial and tax records52:32but also in the mobile investigation52:34itself thank you52:34who are the Democrats strongest in52:37weakest candidates in 2020 that is a52:39great question and I’m not gonna answer52:41it I’m gonna tell you what they need not52:44who it is the Democrats in 2020 I’m52:47gonna give you a scale like a52:48thermometer scale right up here right up52:51here I’m gonna stand up low higher right52:52up here be great on TV kick ass on TV be52:57engaging smart witty funny take it to53:00Trump let’s just kick his ass on TV all53:03the time now so that disqualifies about53:0640% of all Democratic candidates we’re53:08thinking about it and of course Hillary53:11Clinton with the broken robot Act could53:13never be that charismatic person okay53:15second part raise a butt ton of money53:18cuz you’re gonna need it because Trump53:20is gonna get the same media vacuum he53:23got last time so you’re gonna have to53:24buy that exposure you’re gonna have to53:27get in that fight and buy it it sucks53:29it’s horrible but there’s a lot of money53:31out there opposed to Trump and that’s53:34the next part now let me give you the53:36important part about policy the policy53:37part voters didn’t vote for a policy53:41with Trump they voted for an emotion53:42that emotion was rage they loved it they53:46loved that whole act so the Democrats53:48need somebody that can activate their53:49people and who has great I fight on the53:53battlefield we’re gonna actually fight53:54on so I look at an Elizabeth Warren that53:58schoolmarm technocrat yeah you may love54:03her but make her secretary of the54:04Treasury or something you know54:07and I know people like Oh what about54:09avenatti maybe the guys got smack the54:12guys got he can shit talk like nobody’s54:14business and he’s under Trump’s skin so54:17far and you may find somebody else that54:19can do that there may be some otherwise54:21you start lookin beta or work wins in54:22Texas is a long shot that guy wins in54:24Texas he’s gonna be a rocket in the54:28Democratic Party he will be a guy who54:30can54:30he’s a giant killer and he’s good on his54:33feet and he’s smart and his answer the54:35other day on the on the anthem question54:37was as good I mean I sat there watching54:39that going I wish I’d written that damn54:42so thank you we have time for this one54:46last question all right54:47hook it up thank you54:51so I work in polling and I’m very54:54curious tell me who so I’m just curious55:06what you think where we’re going with55:08political polling for the next55:10presidential election and really how you55:13know I think from my work I’ve seen that55:15the general public’s trust in polling55:17has just been demolished based yeah yeah55:20I think you and I can both acknowledge55:21that that 600 sample national polls are55:24no longer effective as a tool you know I55:28I have a couple of researchers and firms55:33that I’ve used and helped put together55:34over the years and everything counts in55:37large amounts so we’re doing thousands55:39and thousands more interviews than we55:40ever have and we’re doing robo’s but you55:42know we’re overcoming the the inaccuracy55:44of it with just sheer volume sheer55:47tonnage I think we’re gonna have to55:51continue to merge polling with other55:53data a consumer data and behavioral data55:55and stuff we’re seeing online we were55:57able to get much quicker than we have in55:59the past but I think as a tracking56:03mechanism its god-awful56:05as a quantitative exercise it’s it’s a56:10train wreck but fortunately as a media56:14prompt there’s almost nothing that that56:17drives media faster during a campaign56:19season than a poll showing somebody up56:20down good bad so it’s a longer56:24discussion that we could have here and a56:25fairly technical one but I’m a big fan56:29of way more interviews and and I don’t56:33even care about the the the you know the56:35trivialities of the inside campaign56:37stuff it’s mostly junk these days so56:39thank you all right56:42[Applause]56:58you
Martha Nussbaum discusses her book, “The Monarchy of Fear” at Politics and Prose on 7/9/18.
One of the country’s leading moral philosophers, Nussbaum cuts through the acrimony of today’s political landscape to analyze the Trump era through one simple truth: that the political is always emotional. Starting there, she shows how globalization has produced feelings of powerlessness that have in turn fed resentment and blame. These have erupted into hostility against immigrants, women, Muslims, people of color, and cultural elites. Drawing on examples from ancient Greece to Hamilton, Nussbaum shows how anger and fear inflame people on both the left and right; by illuminating the powerful role these passions play in public life, she points to ways we can avoid getting caught up in the vitriol that sustains and perpetuates divisive politics.
Bringing the energy and hope to stare down Trump and his movement.
Nations, like people, may change somewhat, but not in their essential characteristics. The United States is defined by space and hope. It is an optimistic country of can-do strivers. They took the risk of coming to a new land. They are suspicious of government, inclined to self-reliance. Europeans ask where you came from. Americans ask what you can do.
The Declaration of Independence posited a universal idea, that human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans, then, embraced an idea, however flawed in execution, when they became a nation. Their government, whatever else it does, exists to safeguard and further that idea, in the United States and beyond.
President Trump, in the name of making American great again, has trampled on America’s essence. He is angry, a stranger to happiness, angrier still for not knowing the source of his rage. He is less interested in liberty than the cash of his autocratic cronies. As for life, he views it as a selective right, to which the white Christian male has priority access, with women, people of color and the rest of humanity trailing along behind for scraps.
Adherents to an agenda of “national conservatism” held a conference last month in Washington dedicated, as my colleague Jennifer Schuessler put it, “to wresting a coherent ideology out of the chaos of the Trumpist moment.”
Good luck with that. One of the meeting’s leading lights was Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. Lowry’s forthcoming book is called “The Case for Nationalism.” Enough said. The endpoint of that “case” is on display at military cemeteries across Europe.
Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Trump is a self-styled nationalist. The “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants at his rallies have chilling echoes.
Lowry holds that “America is not an idea” and to call it so is a “lazy cliché.” This argument denies the essence of the country — an essence palpable at every naturalization ceremony across the United States. Becoming American is a process that involves the inner absorption of the nation’s founding idea.
The gravest thing Trump has done is to empty this idea of meaning. His has been an assault on honesty, decency, dignity, tolerance and civility. On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable. He leads a movement more than he does a nation, and so depends on fear to mobilize people. Any victorious Democratic Party candidate in 2020 has to counter that negative energy with a positive energy that lifts Americans from Trump’s web.
I watched the Democratic Party debates among presidential contenders through a single prism: Who can beat Trump? In the end, nothing else matters because another five and a half years of this will drag Americans into an abyss of moral collapse.
Yes, how far left, how moderate that candidate may be is of some significance, but can he or she bring the heat and the hope to stare Trump down and topple him is all I care about. That’s the bouncing ball all eyes should be on, with no illusions as to how vicious and devious Trump will be between now and November 2020.
With reluctance, because he is a good and honorable man of great personal courage, I do not believe that Joe Biden has the needed energy, mental agility and nimbleness. Nor do I believe that the nation of can-do strivers I described above is ready for Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Forms of socialism work in Europe, and the word is widely misunderstood in America, but socialism and America’s essence are incompatible.
Elizabeth Warren’s couching of a campaign for radical change as “economic patriotism” is a much smarter way to go, and her energetic advocacy of ideas to redress the growing injustices in American life has been powerful. Still, I am not convinced that enough Americans are ready to move as far left as she proposes or that she passes the critical commander in chief test.
Kamala Harris does that for me. The California senator is a work in progress, with
- uneven debate performances, and policies, notably health care, that she has zigzagged toward defining. But she’s
- tough, broadly of the center,
- has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women, and has
- proved she is not averse to risk. She
- has a former prosecutor’s toughness and the ability to slice through Trump’s self-important bluster.
Last month Harris said Trump was a “predator.” She continued: “The thing about predators you should know, is that they prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who they do not believe are strong. And the thing you must importantly know, predators are cowards.”
Those were important words. It’s early days, but Trump’s biggest electoral vulnerability is to women. They have seen through his misogyny at last, and they know just where the testosterone of nationalism leads.