If We Had a Real Leader

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.

Rick Wilson, “Everything Trump Touches Dies”

42:43
there is actually a table in the Truman
42:45
White House where he played poker every
42:47
night and before he went to bed they
42:49
would actually put a cover on the poker
42:51
table to disguise the fact that Truman
42:54
was playing poker because it was bad or
42:58
seeing you know unfortunately I’m I’m
43:00
wondering in in light of this and in
43:02
light of this president um I used to
43:04
sort of respect the office of the
43:06
presidency and in in you know even the
43:09
ones that I disagreed with and that you
43:11
know several um now that we have seen
43:15
this guy you know go crazy on Twitter
43:16
and the potential for having colluded
43:19
with the foreign power which ruins me at
43:22
my core was in potential ruins me
43:25
I Corps do you ever see the sanctity of
43:28
office ever returning in the future yeah
43:32
I’m gonna actually shock you with
43:33
something because either the most
43:35
effective theme that was tested during
43:37
George Bush’s W Bush his run for the
43:39
White House the most successful themed
43:42
after compassionate conservatism which
43:44
actually really people believed it
43:45
bought it was restoring honor and
43:47
dignity to the White House because Bill
43:50
Clinton ran it like a frat house now I
43:52
think it’s gonna take a long time for
43:53
people to get back to a point where
43:56
probity and dignity look George
43:57
Washington he thought the most important
44:00
characteristic of a president was first
44:02
not to become a king but the second was
44:04
dignity and you got a guy upstairs rage
44:07
tweeting in the Oval Office are in the
44:09
executive bedroom every night you know
44:11
surrounded by a bed full of filet-o-fish
44:12
rappers and rage tweeting all night and
44:15
it’s hard to think of him as as you know
44:19
a dignified person you got a guy with a
44:21
gigantic chin waddle who thinks he’s
44:23
like babe meat and and he just the whole
44:27
effect of Trump is clownish and so that
44:30
makes it harder to believe in the in
44:32
that stature of the presidency so but
44:34
look it’ll come back there will be the
44:37
next person who’s president one hopes
44:39
will recognize that there’s a value to
44:41
be had by a president who shows dignity
44:44
and strength and quiet rectitude
44:46
sometimes as opposed to being a giant
44:48
rectum all the time so thank you hi
44:54
there hi I know that you have said that
44:58
you have friends in the administration
44:59
and that they call you to moan from time
45:03
to time from time to time yesterday was
45:06
a bad day I bet it was do they do they
45:11
seriously think because at some point a
45:13
credible conservative administration
45:15
will come back to this government is
45:19
anyone in the Trump administration short
45:21
of maybe Jim mattis should probably seek
45:26
employment at say a gas station
45:28
somewhere in the Midwest after this
45:29
because this is going to scar them and
45:32
mark them forever right I mean it it is
45:35
one of the predicates of the book and
45:37
it’s proving itself out time and time
45:38
they don’t even get credit for being
45:41
competent no and here’s the thing when
45:43
they call you what I tell them every
45:45
time for advice
45:46
quit walk out the door now and tell the
45:48
truth walk out the door now and say
45:51
what’s going on but moon do you shred it
45:54
we make him take you to court make him
45:56
make him go to discovery and and they
45:59
they a lot of these people that Trump
46:01
brought in let’s put it this way when
46:04
Trump sends us people to work in the
46:06
administration he’s not sending his best
46:09
thank you thank you
46:13
question out yes I wrote it down because
46:16
I can’t remember what I did 20 seconds
46:19
ago so I say this is someone a young
46:25
recently recent college graduate who’s
46:28
unemployed who probably makes Bernie
46:31
Sanders look like a centrist I actually
46:34
asked Noah Rothman this last year at an
46:37
event at my college and I was looking at
46:42
a University of Chicago poll that said
46:45
that a majority I think it’s 60% of
46:48
people aged 18 to 35 don’t see
46:53
capitalism the sort of core of
46:55
conservative conservativism as the thing
47:00
that can solve the most pressing issues
47:02
of our time and what I asked no last
47:05
year and I’d love to hear it from a you
47:07
know rock-ribbed conservative like
47:09
yourself what can you do to steer maybe
47:14
not people like me but maybe people
47:16
flirting with the idea or the left back
47:19
to the ideas one of the things is that
47:22
my party has to get its head out of its
47:23
own backside on crony capitalism because
47:26
what we’ve done for a long time and what
47:28
this tax bill did was take care of a
47:31
specific industry in the legislation now
47:33
I was told when Barack Obama was
47:35
president that picking winners and
47:36
losers was a bad thing the tax bill
47:39
picked 150 some winners on in the hedge
47:42
fund and wall street world and about 60
47:44
guys out there in the economy and they
47:46
got 85% of the benefits of a tax bill
47:48
that is that requires five percent
47:51
economic growth
47:52
4.1% economic growth to sustain itself
47:55
it’s ridiculous we’re picking winners
47:58
and losers by protecting the coal
47:59
industry which but should be dead by now
48:02
so Republicans have not been a good
48:04
example of free-market capitalism in
48:07
Congress for a long time this goes back
48:09
before Trump I’ve been a critic of this
48:11
of my own party of this before Trump
48:13
where we have decided that free-market
48:16
capitalism is capitalism is great except
48:18
if a guy gave us a big enough donation
48:20
to the super PAC then we’re gonna make
48:22
sure that his industry including it
48:24
could be you know like a dead industry
48:27
industrial sector completely that
48:29
Congress says ok we’re gonna keep buying
48:32
buggy whips from the sky because you
48:34
know the buggy whip industry is the
48:36
heart of American commerce capitalism
48:39
works when it’s tried and you know
48:43
socialism often leads to people starving
48:44
and freezing in the dark so you know and
48:47
I know everyone’s you say oh then
48:48
Norwegian Nations ended our and and and
48:50
the scanty nations yes they’re lovely
48:52
but there be few examples of this that
48:55
don’t scale necessarily to macro
48:58
economies like ours but anyway it’s a
49:00
hard road and it’s gonna have to be
49:01
something that requires some some reform
49:03
and self correction side the GOP to get
49:05
back to a free market and free trade
49:08
capitalism system so thanks thank you I
49:10
right yeah BRIC big fan a great look
49:14
plus one all those lot yes
49:17
does the Trump administration have any
49:19
policy successes for the remainder of
49:23
the Trump administration except by
49:26
tearing down Obama you’re a regulation
49:29
well Donald Trump proved in the very
49:34
first weeks of his administration that
49:36
he can’t pass the legislation I mean the
49:38
the house and the Senate had Obamacare
49:41
repeal cocked and locked it was going to
49:43
be smooth they were going to jam it
49:44
through they were gonna day we’re gonna
49:46
as a leadership member said to me pull
49:48
up Pelosi and smash Obamacare repeal
49:51
through and then the giant man-baby came
49:54
in and started and started interrupting
49:56
and started saying things on Twitter and
49:58
then describing the billa’s meme and so
50:02
there’s a reason they’re sending Trump
50:04
bills to sign that are like
50:06
naming bridges and the post office
50:09
Reform Act you know it’s small ball
50:11
stuff because they don’t trust him with
50:13
the big important stuff so they’re gonna
50:16
keep doing policy changes they’re gonna
50:18
keep doing the pen and the phone that
50:19
they hated Obama for and they’re gonna
50:22
keep doing executive orders even though
50:24
conservatives used to scream their heads
50:26
off Barack Obama is acting like a
50:28
dictator because he’s passing you know
50:30
he’s signing these executive orders and
50:34
he’s got a limited portfolio of things
50:37
he can do I predict he’s gonna keep
50:39
trying to keep the coal industry thing
50:41
moving and the steel tariffs moving
50:42
because he believes those are the key to
50:44
the two West Virginia Pennsylvania Ohio
50:49
you know the whole pencil tucky region
50:51
there and all that so thanks excellent
50:53
great book thanks a lot thank you so
50:55
much a question I haven’t heard from
50:57
anybody is one about the Russians the
51:01
Russian money and the oligarchs what do
51:04
you have to say about that and where are
51:06
the Republicans on this there’s a sort
51:09
of let me give this sort of technical
51:11
description of that there’s a lot of it
51:14
he’s been taking it for a long time
51:16
well well beyond 2016 he is deeply
51:21
embedded with a whole bunch of Russian
51:23
mobsters and has been since the 80s when
51:28
they peel this back and there I’ll tell
51:31
you the reason Donald Trump lives in
51:32
absolute mortal terror where it’s like
51:35
strap on the extra diaper when he
51:37
mentions when they mentioned getting his
51:39
taxes because this is a man who knows
51:42
once they start peeling apart the
51:43
relationships with the banks and with
51:45
the Russian lending and the glown
51:47
guarantees from Russians from like the
51:49
Bank of Cyprus to Deutsche Bank and all
51:51
these other things and they’re by the
51:52
way they’re people who are experts on
51:53
this bike well beyond my knowledge Craig
51:55
ungar’s book is great about this but
51:58
we’re gonna learn that this whole I have
52:01
no business with the oceans I don’t know
52:02
any Russians we’re gonna discover that
52:04
that is a complete fabrication and and
52:07
and the behavior of their campaign yeah
52:10
look Paul Manafort is not a guy you hire
52:12
because you’re like I need someone who’s
52:14
really dedicated to clean government
52:17
he’s a guy you hired because he brings
52:19
in a bunch of money from his friends in
52:21
Moscow and the oligarchs have gotten
52:23
used to buying elections in a lot of
52:24
countries and they played a big role in
52:26
this one and I think you’re gonna see
52:27
that come out not only in the
52:29
investigations that peel back Trump’s
52:31
business and financial and tax records
52:32
but also in the mobile investigation
52:34
itself thank you
52:34
who are the Democrats strongest in
52:37
weakest candidates in 2020 that is a
52:39
great question and I’m not gonna answer
52:41
it I’m gonna tell you what they need not
52:44
who it is the Democrats in 2020 I’m
52:47
gonna give you a scale like a
52:48
thermometer scale right up here right up
52:51
here I’m gonna stand up low higher right
52:52
up here be great on TV kick ass on TV be
52:57
engaging smart witty funny take it to
53:00
Trump let’s just kick his ass on TV all
53:03
the time now so that disqualifies about
53:06
40% of all Democratic candidates we’re
53:08
thinking about it and of course Hillary
53:11
Clinton with the broken robot Act could
53:13
never be that charismatic person okay
53:15
second part raise a butt ton of money
53:18
cuz you’re gonna need it because Trump
53:20
is gonna get the same media vacuum he
53:23
got last time so you’re gonna have to
53:24
buy that exposure you’re gonna have to
53:27
get in that fight and buy it it sucks
53:29
it’s horrible but there’s a lot of money
53:31
out there opposed to Trump and that’s
53:34
the next part now let me give you the
53:36
important part about policy the policy
53:37
part voters didn’t vote for a policy
53:41
with Trump they voted for an emotion
53:42
that emotion was rage they loved it they
53:46
loved that whole act so the Democrats
53:48
need somebody that can activate their
53:49
people and who has great I fight on the
53:53
battlefield we’re gonna actually fight
53:54
on so I look at an Elizabeth Warren that
53:58
schoolmarm technocrat yeah you may love
54:03
her but make her secretary of the
54:04
Treasury or something you know
54:07
and I know people like Oh what about
54:09
avenatti maybe the guys got smack the
54:12
guys got he can shit talk like nobody’s
54:14
business and he’s under Trump’s skin so
54:17
far and you may find somebody else that
54:19
can do that there may be some otherwise
54:21
you start lookin beta or work wins in
54:22
Texas is a long shot that guy wins in
54:24
Texas he’s gonna be a rocket in the
54:28
Democratic Party he will be a guy who
54:30
can
54:30
he’s a giant killer and he’s good on his
54:33
feet and he’s smart and his answer the
54:35
other day on the on the anthem question
54:37
was as good I mean I sat there watching
54:39
that going I wish I’d written that damn
54:42
so thank you we have time for this one
54:46
last question all right
54:47
hook it up thank you
54:51
so I work in polling and I’m very
54:54
curious tell me who so I’m just curious
55:06
what you think where we’re going with
55:08
political polling for the next
55:10
presidential election and really how you
55:13
know I think from my work I’ve seen that
55:15
the general public’s trust in polling
55:17
has just been demolished based yeah yeah
55:20
I think you and I can both acknowledge
55:21
that that 600 sample national polls are
55:24
no longer effective as a tool you know I
55:28
I have a couple of researchers and firms
55:33
that I’ve used and helped put together
55:34
over the years and everything counts in
55:37
large amounts so we’re doing thousands
55:39
and thousands more interviews than we
55:40
ever have and we’re doing robo’s but you
55:42
know we’re overcoming the the inaccuracy
55:44
of it with just sheer volume sheer
55:47
tonnage I think we’re gonna have to
55:51
continue to merge polling with other
55:53
data a consumer data and behavioral data
55:55
and stuff we’re seeing online we were
55:57
able to get much quicker than we have in
55:59
the past but I think as a tracking
56:03
mechanism its god-awful
56:05
as a quantitative exercise it’s it’s a
56:10
train wreck but fortunately as a media
56:14
prompt there’s almost nothing that that
56:17
drives media faster during a campaign
56:19
season than a poll showing somebody up
56:20
down good bad so it’s a longer
56:24
discussion that we could have here and a
56:25
fairly technical one but I’m a big fan
56:29
of way more interviews and and I don’t
56:33
even care about the the the you know the
56:35
trivialities of the inside campaign
56:37
stuff it’s mostly junk these days so
56:39
thank you all right
56:42
[Applause]
56:58
you

Martha Nussbaum, “The Monarchy of Fear”

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.

The Who-Can-Beat Trump Test Leads to Kamala Harris

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.