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.
Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?
.. It was only by burrowing through books that I hated, books that provoked feelings of outrage and indignation, that I truly learned how to read.
Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.
As debaters know, sometimes you figure out your position only in opposition. All it takes is for me to read a book by Howard Zinn or Paul Johnson, each gleefully hate-worthy in its own polarizing way, to locate my own interpretation of history. This is what’s so invigorating about hate-reading. To actively grapple with your assumptions and defend your conclusions gives you a sense of purpose. You come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.
Conservatives said we agree with the general effort but think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.
.. “The question of which comes first, liberty or order, was to divide liberals from conservatives for the next 200 years.”
.. The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.
.. Over the centuries conservatives have resisted anything that threatened this sacred space. First it was the abstract ideology of the French Revolution, the idea that society could be reorganized from the top down. Then it was industrialization. Conservatives like John Ruskin and later T. S. Eliot arose to preserve culture from the soulless pragmatism of the machine age.
.. Then it was the state. In their different ways, communists, fascists, social democrats and liberals tried to use the state to perform many functions previously done by the family, local civic organizations and the other players in the sacred space.
.. They both fizzled because over the last 30 years the parties of the right drifted from conservatism. The Republican Party became the party of market fundamentalism.
Market fundamentalism is an inhumane philosophy that makes economic growth society’s prime value and leaves people atomized and unattached. Republican voters eventually rejected market fundamentalism and went for the tribalism of Donald Trump because at least he gave them a sense of social belonging. At least he understood that there’s a social order under threat.
The problem is he doesn’t base his belonging on the bonds of affection conservatives hold dear. He doesn’t respect and obey those institutions, traditions and values that form morally decent individuals.
.. His tribalism is the evil twin of community. It is based on hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust. It creates belonging, but on vicious grounds.
.. In 2018, the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.
.. At his essence Trump is an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear — the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.
.. You can’t do that rethinking if you are imprisoned in a partisan mind-set or if you dismiss half of Americans because they are on the “other team.”
Support for her cooled due to antic statements, intellectual thinness and general strangeness.
The president has been understandably confident in his supporters. They appreciate his efforts, admire his accomplishments (Justice Neil Gorsuch, ISIS’ setbacks), claim bragging rights for possibly related occurrences (the stock market’s rise), and feel sympathy for him as an outsider up against the swamp. They see his roughness as evidence of his authenticity, so he doesn’t freak them out every day. In this they are like Sarah Palin’s supporters, who saw her lack of intellectual polish as proof of sincerity. At her height, in 2008, she had almost the entire Republican Party behind her, and was pushed forward most forcefully by those who went on to lead Never Trump. But in time she lost her place through antic statements, intellectual thinness and general strangeness.
The same may well happen—or be happening—with Donald Trump.
One reason is that there is no hard constituency in America for political incompetence, and that is what he continues to demonstrate.
He proceeds each day with the confidence of one who thinks his foundation firm when it’s not—it’s shaky. His job is to build support, win people over through persuasion, and score some legislative victories that will encourage a public sense that he is competent, even talented. The story of this presidency so far is his inability to do this. He thwarts himself daily with his dramas. In the thwarting he does something unusual: He gives his own supporters no cover. They back him at some personal cost, in workplace conversations and at family gatherings.
.. He acts as if he takes them for granted. He does not dance with the ones that brung him.
.. Soon after, Mr. Trump called Myeshia Johnson, widow of Army sergeant La David T. Johnson, and reached her in the car on the way to receive her husband’s casket. Someone put the call on speakerphone. A Democratic congresswoman in the car later charged that Trump had been disrespectful. In fairness, if the congresswoman quoted him accurately, it is quite possible that “He knew what he was signing up for” meant, in the president’s mind, “He heroically signed up to put his life on the line for his country,”
.. Mr. Kelly, in a remarkable White House briefing Thursday, recounted what Gen. Joseph Dunford, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told then-Gen. Kelly in 2010, when Robert died: “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do. . . . He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were, because we were at war.”
.. It was unfortunate that when the controversy erupted, the president defaulted to anger, and tweets. News stories were illustrated everywhere by the picture of the beautiful young widow sobbing as she leaned on her husband’s flag-draped casket. Those are the real stakes and that is the real story, not some jerky sideshow about which presidents called which grieving families more often.
.. This week Sen. John McCain famously gave a speech in Philadelphia slamming the administration’s foreign-policy philosophy as a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”
.. There are many ways presidents can respond to such criticism—thoughtfully, with wit or an incisive rejoinder.Mr. Trump went on Chris Plante’s radio show to tell Sen. McCain he’d better watch it. “People have to be careful because at some point I fight back,” he said. “I’m being very nice. I’m being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.”
.. FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were pretty tough hombres, but they always managed to sound like presidents and not, say, John Gotti.
.. Mr. McCain, suffering from cancer, evoked in his reply his experience as a prisoner of war: “I’ve faced far greater challenges than this.”
That, actually, is how presidents talk.
.. I get a lot of mail saying this is all about style—people pick on Mr. Trump because he isn’t smooth, doesn’t say the right words. “But we understand him.” “Get over these antiquated ideas of public dignity, we’re long past that.” But the problem is not style. A gruff, awkward, inelegant style wedded to maturity and seriousness of purpose would be powerful in America. Mr. Trump’s problem has to do with something deeper—showing forbearance, patience, sympathy; revealing the human qualities people appreciate seeing in a political leader because they suggest a reliable inner stature.
.. the president absolutely has to win on tax reform after his embarrassing loss on ObamaCare. He shouldn’t be in this position, with his back to the wall.
But is Twitter really the problem?
.. Twitter is just a tool. With or without it, Trump’s conduct would be disordered and self-sabotaging. The Comey firing is but one of hundreds of examples.
.. The crude way Trump fired Comey — without the courtesy of a meeting or even a phone call — guaranteed a new and skilled enemy.
.. Twitter played no role in Trump’s blurting of classified information to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, or in his choice to slander Comey as a “nut job” to them. Twitter wasn’t implicated in many other blunders, such as undermining the NATO alliance by refusing to confirm our commitment to Article 5; praising the Philippine president for his extrajudicial murders of drug addicts and dealers
.. It is Trump’s inexplicable and insatiable appetite for conflict that keeps roiling the waters.
.. When the city of London has just endured another horrific terror attack, the decent thing is to express American sympathy and solidarity. Trump instead picked a fight with London’s mayor.
.. Trump is feuding with his own staff and even with his family.
.. This is a reprise of a campaign theme, perhaps the chief campaign theme. America, Trump argued, was being led by boobs and incompetents. “I alone can fix.”
.. But the truth is that he is the incompetent, and too vain and insecure to recognize his own faults. When he screws up, he blames those around him.
.. even the best people are diminished and tarnished by what Trump requires of them and does to them.
.. He makes liars of previously honorable men and women.
My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism.
.. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.
.. It was only by burrowing through books that I hated, books that provoked feelings of outrage and indignation, that I truly learned how to read. Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.
.. loathing is mixed with other emotions — fear, perverse attraction, even complicated strains of sympathy. This is, in part, what makes negative book reviews so compelling.
.. the authors were too credulous of certain research, and in ways that served their thesis.
.. It can be interesting, and instructive, when a book provokes animosity. It may tell you more about a subject or about yourself, as a reader, than you think you know. It might even, on occasion, challenge you to change your mind.
.. an even more stimulating excitement comes from finding someone else who hates the same book as much as you do