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.
He is not a liberal, he’s the end of liberalism.
A few months ago, I wrote a column saying I would vote for Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump. I may not agree with some of her policies, but culture is more important than politics. She does not spread moral rot the way Trump does.
Now I have to decide if I’d support Bernie Sanders over Trump.
We all start from personal experience. I covered the Soviet Union in its final decrepit years. The Soviet and allied regimes had already slaughtered 20 million people through things like mass executions and intentional famines. Those regimes were slave states. They enslaved whole peoples and took away the right to say what they wanted, live where they wanted and harvest the fruits of their labor.
And yet every day we find more old quotes from Sanders apologizing for this sort of slave regime, whether in the Soviet Union, Cuba or Nicaragua. He excused the Nicaraguan communists when they took away the civil liberties of their citizens. He’s still making excuses for Castro.
To sympathize with these revolutions in the 1920s was acceptable, given their original high ideals. To do so after the Hitler-Stalin pact, or in the 1950s, is appalling. To do so in the 1980s is morally unfathomable.
I say all this not to cancel Sanders for past misjudgments. I say all this because the intellectual suppositions that led him to embrace these views still guide his thinking today. I’ve just watched populism destroy traditional conservatism in the G.O.P. I’m here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is not a liberal Democrat. He’s what replaces liberal Democrats.
Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to
- John Stuart Mill,
- John Locke,
- the Social Gospel movement and
- the New Deal.
This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.
This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.
Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.
He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.
Liberalism celebrates certain values:
- intellectual humility and
Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different:
- bitter and relentless polarization, a
- demand for ideological purity among your friends and
- incessant hatred for your supposed foes.
A liberal leader confronts new facts and changes his or her mind. A populist leader cannot because the omniscience of the charismatic headman can never be doubted. A liberal sees shades of gray. For a populist reality is white or black, friend or enemy. Facts that don’t fit the dogma are ignored.
A liberal sees inequality and tries to reduce it. A populist sees remorseless class war and believes in concentrated power to crush the enemy. Sanders is running on a $60 trillion spending agenda that would double the size of the federal government. It would represent the greatest concentration of power in the Washington elite in American history.
These days, Sanders masquerades as something less revolutionary than he really is. He claims to be nothing more than the continuation of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He is 5 percent right and 95 percent wrong.
There was a period around 1936 or 1937 when Roosevelt was trying to pack the Supreme Court and turning into the sort of arrogant majoritarian strongman the founders feared. But this is not how F.D.R. won the presidency, passed the New Deal, beat back the socialists of his time or led the nation during World War II. F.D.R. did not think America was a force for ill in world affairs.
Sanders also claims he’s just trying to import the Scandinavian model, which is believable if you know nothing about Scandinavia or what Sanders is proposing. Those countries do have generous welfare states, but they can afford them because they understand how free market capitalism works, with fewer regulations on business creation and free trade.
There is a specter haunting the world — corrosive populisms of right and left. These populisms grow out of real problems but are the wrong answers to them. For the past century, liberal Democrats from F.D.R. to Barack Obama knew how to beat back threats from the populist left. They knew how to defend the legitimacy of our system, even while reforming it.
Judging by the last few debates, none of the current candidates remember those arguments or know how to rebut a populist to their left.
I’ll cast my lot with democratic liberalism. The system needs reform. But I just can’t pull the lever for either of the two populisms threatening to tear it down.
If I am so smart, why am I know winning.
You should build relationships with people you don’t like for the good of the mission.
If you don’t like someone, most of the time that is your ego.
do you talk about building or you talk about building relationships a lot at
work even when people whom you might not like even with people who mean you don’t
like have you always been this way or did you also feel difficult also
difficulty in wanting to build relationships with those people if the
latter what are the things that help you to actually want to build relationships
with him things so when I was a young seal
I was pretty typical young seal pretty typical young man meaning I thought I
was invincible I thought I could beat everyone in a fight cuz I didn’t know
jiu-jitsu so you just think you’re just gonna win but that you’re wrong I
thought I knew everything of course and I thought I was smarter than everyone
else kind of typical sometimes I would rub people the wrong way and the people
that I would rub the wrong way were especially people that I third thought
were not squared away in the chain of command so if you weren’t square if you
if you were my boss and I didn’t think you were squared away I was gonna rub
you the wrong way no cuz I was gonna be slightly offensive yeah as a matter of
fact I got an evaluation it’s one of the first evaluations that I got when I got
to a SEAL team and back in the day yeah you’d get you were rated 4.0 was the
highest you could get and it would go all the way down to whatever like one
but at this time basically everyone got four oh and everything right you
basically got four oh and everything and like you’d have to mess up you have to
mess to get deviate from the four so I got all four O’s and I got a 3.8 which
was like a major dig and the dig was in I think it was like in relation like I
don’t know what the word was but when I got debriefed on it what the
guy that gave me the 3/8 what he what he told me
which I actually was proud of because that’s how stupid I was
he’s like you you you’re too hostile with people that aren’t squared away
that’s literally and I was all like whatever you’re damn
right I am hostile towards people that aren’t square to go to war right just an
idiot that’s what that’s what the situation
was and you know it made me mad if a leader was weak and I would form these
antagonistic relationships with leaders if I thought that they were weak and one
of these bosses eventually that I fought I was better than right I thought I was
smarter I thought I was smarter than him right I thought that he was an idiot
sure I should have his job right how often do you think that right I should
have that guy’s job I’m smart and the more I showed this attitude the worse
our relationship got in the world and the less he listened to me and the less
influence I had over how we did things and therefore the the worse we did and
the and the the worse our ability to perform God because he was just doing
things the way he thought without any good input from anyone below him in the
chain of command mm-hmm all because I had formed this antagonistic
relationship with him which was bad because then he’s not listening to me
and then one day one day I said to myself if I’m so smart if I’m such a
smart guy why am I losing why am I losing if I’m so smart if I am so smart
why can’t I get this guy to do what I want him to do even though he’s my boss
doesn’t matter if I’m so smart yes they were smarter than him why can’t I get
him to do what I wanted me to do hmm why if I’m so smart how come I can’t
have more influence over the way we operate if I’m so smart and he’s so dumb
mm-hmm and that’s that’s when I realized that’s when I had an away
an awakening that instead of blaming him for being stupid I was the one who was
being stupid I had lost the ability to influence my boss because I was being
stupid and because of my ego I literally thought I deserved his job okay I
thought pretty much anyone could anyone in the platoon should have his job and
therefore since I thought that I I understand of supporting him they said a
building a relationship with him i undermined him now once I got humble and
I started to build a positive relationship with him instead of an
antagonistic one that started to change and because because then he started
listening to me he started to change some things and my influence over the
whole situation became better because I now had a relationship despite the fact
I liked the guy despite that fact I built the
relationship and the situation got better I had more influence and that
became kind of my standard operating procedure was to build relationships
with people even if I didn’t like them to build relationships with people so
that I could have more influence now does what does that sound like right
that sounds like I’m kind of this manipulative two-faced superficial
disingenuous guy yeah that’s that’s being devious and conniving not keeping
it real not keeping it real right but the fact is that is not true that’s not
that’s not that’s not who I am you don’t know who I am I’m a guy that’s trying to
accomplish the mission that’s what I am I’m a guy that is trying to accomplish
the mission who is putting my own ego in check to build a relationship with
someone that I don’t like that I don’t respect but what I’m trying to do is
improve our operational capability what’s more important to me trying to
arrange the situation build the relationship so that we do better not so
that I get promoted not so that I’m getting some accolades but so that we as
a team do a better job I put the little feelings aside because I want the team
to win so if you’re having having some trouble getting over your feelings and
getting over your ego to build relationships for the good of the team
ask yourself the same question I asked myself a long time ago
which is this if I am so smart why am I not winning and if you answer that
question honestly then you’ll put your ego in check
you’ll go build the relationships that will make you and your team accomplish
the mission and win hmm there you go
can’t help but agree with that one you know what’s funny is if you think
about like why you wouldn’t like someone mm-hmm what what causes you and not like
someone most of the time that’s your ego anyways most of the time that’s your ego
anyways yeah and so you know you had that story of the you know you were
consulting somebody it was like a big CEO of yeah like a lacrosse guy that
story is probably the most common story I mean the way you handle it different
yeah but that scenario that you started with with us are so common man
where ya they rub you the wrong way because right off the bat you see him as
some kind of competitive figure to you like they’re you know some you know
compare you know you’re competing with them in your own mind in whatever and
the feelings probably meet you a lot of the time you know see kids don’t like
each other you know one anything he says you’re you know you’re already defensive
but it’s weird man how you can how that happened like that’s happened to me
before not is it wasn’t as overt but just like yeah I don’t really feel that
guy you know I don’t like I would because I not only is he like when you
look at them whatever they’re kind of competitive with you but maybe they do
something just this much different than you you know like it’s just different in
philosophy or something like that I was like oh let me again second and then
they open their mouth and say one word to you and it’s real nice you’re like oh
I love that guy you know just one little thing just one little like hey I’m cool
you know I like you kind of thing and it’s like oh man yeah when they say
something humble to you yeah it disarms your ego and you’re all of a sudden
you’re bros yeah it’s so weird but if they don’t if they escalate the ego
situation which then it’s very problematic happens all the time I mean
really that’s the natural course of things because you do have to put on the
brakes on your feelings and be like okay let’s make a different kind of decision
than the automatic one I got to switch to manual real quick and then bling but
the bottom line is you’re gonna interact with all kinds of different people if
you’re in any kind of team want so ever which is most most human beings interact
with other human beings through their job through their life through I mean
you could apply this to your family too right
there’s someone in your family that you don’t get along with well what good does
it do does it make your family unit better when you let those emotions play
out and let your ego play out no it doesn’t you’re better off you’ll get
further and you’ll have a better you’ll have a better life in your family if you
put your ego in check and then say you know what I’m just gonna build a
relationship with this person it’s gonna make everything better and smoother but
it’s like man if you it I feel like you can take the place of any marriage
counselor by just saying that for real like all you have to do is in and they
got to do it but all you got to do is ask like is this gonna help the
relationship with my wife or my family whoever it is in your is this gonna help
the relationship if I do this or don’t do this or is it gonna hurt it and
that’s it that’s it that’s super general question or whatever but it’s it’s so
cut and dry most of the time yeah of course it’s exceptions but generally
speaking it’s pretty cut and dry okay and a lot of time just like I said it
has to do with like your ego or your you know this this sense of vengeance little
micro sense of vengeance because I can’t believe she doesn’t respect the fact
that I took out the trash you know she asked me to take the trash all the time
finally when I do it nothing you know like chilli its I was talking to a
friend of mine and we were talking about you know I’ve talked about the mutiny
that I had yeah yeah Co platoon but we had a mutiny we fight
we had a mutiny against uh our platoon commander we fired he got fired and then
the other guy that came in to take his place was like the best guy mm-hmm and I
was talking to a guy that worked with him much later when he was a senior
senior guy and I was telling him I was like oh when I talk on the podcast about
the platoon commander that was like the best that’s who I’m talking he’s like no
way and and this guy working with he’s a senior guy and he says you know when he
when I worked with him he would take out that he would take out the trash from
the office every day and he and I started laughing said that’s right and
I’d be look and he was saying like oh I look at him and be like sir you know you
don’t need to do that it’s like no no it’s not good you know someone’s got to
take out the trash I got it mm-hmm this is a seat a guy that shouldn’t have
been taking out trash for 25 years taking out the trash
well is he picking up breath picking up brass taking out trash you know that’s
that’s being humble yeah being humble goes a long way