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In the Mean Times of Trump

Way back when we registered to vote as members of the Republican party on our 18th birthday it was the “party of Lincoln,” the Great Emancipator who preserved the Union by brutal means but then vowed to heal its wounds with “Malice toward none and charity toward all.” At this late date in our lives the Grand Old Party is the party of President Donald Trump, and we can’t help noticing the malicious and uncharitable turn it has lately taken.
Not just in the insult comic rhetoric Trump employs at his never-ending campaign rallies, or the mean-spirited and blatantly self-interested way he chooses to to enact even his most defensible policies, but also in our conversations with dear old Republican friends we used to consistently agree with. We used to agree on strict border enforcement policies, for instance, but these days we seem to disagree about whether the border laws can be strictly enforced without traumatizing thousands of children and perhaps losing track of hundreds of them, and whether that that pesky Constitution and its noisome judges and all those treaty obligations America has pledged its scared honor to in past administrations should have anything to do with it.
We’ve lately had a couple of conversations with conservative friends we have long known as good guys always willing to do a favor for a friend in need, and were surprised to hear them defending the family-separation policy even Trump had already disavowed and blamed on those darned Democrats. Neither had been informed by their favored news sources that the Trump administration is failing to meet a court order to reunite those those thousands of children with their parents, and and seemed to admit in sworn court proceedings that they weren’t entirely sure where all of those children were, and both of our friends were uncharacteristically callous to the fates of the children involved.
Both insisted all those Dickensian orphaned-by-Trump urchins of those sob sister stories in the mainstream media were better off than they ever were in the countries their parents had fled, and although the Trump administration isn’t letting anyone into the facilities where the children are known to be held they’re willing to take Trump’s word for it. They’re also both quite sure that almost all those people who made the perilous journey with their children to America to flee their undeniably dysfunctional home countries and apply for asylum according to America’s laws and longstanding sacred honor international treaty obligations did so to leech off America’s welfare system and join the notorious MS-13 gang. Neither was aware that Trump had “tweeted” a complaint about a formerly conservative Republican senator’s proposal to double the number of federal immigration judges in order to deal with a sudden backlog, and further groused that the existing law and the judges who enforced it and America’s longstanding sacred honor treaty obligations all had to go, and neither was much unsettled by our accepted assurances that it was from Trump’s own “twitter” feed and not “fake news” from their less-favored news sources.
Such is the state of “constitutional conservatism” in Trump’s Republican party.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric from the top of party is meaner yet. Last Thursday Trump regaled yet another large campaign rally crowd in Montana, ostensibly on behalf of a Republican Senate candidate he briefly mentioned, and he ratcheted up his insult comic shtick yet another notch. He got another big laugh be reporting his longstanding gag of calling Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is “Pocahontas,” based on her past dubious claims of having Native American heritage, and sneaked in a jibe about how he’d have to confront her ever so gently because “we’re in the ‘#MeToo’ generation,” which protests the frequency of sexual harassment and sexual in America. We’re no fans of Warren, but by the gag seems very stale, and although we believe every male or female citizen deserves a fair hearing in the courts of public law and public opinion, we can’t help noticing how eager even our longtime and gentlemanly Republican friends suddenly seem to dismiss even the most plausible complaints about about fellow Republicans grabbing women by their wherever.
More bothersome yet, Trump also aimed his insults at past Republican nominees we proudly voted for. Trump didn’t dare mention the name of Arizona Sen. John McCain, but the draft-dodging reality show star with a lifelong career of self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement got about 6,000 Republicans in lustily boo a dying war hero and past Republican presidential nominee who had devoted his life to often painful public service. The booing was about McCain’s decisive vote to not repeal and replace the hated Obamacare law, but the bill wouldn’t have entirely repealed Obamacare and certainly didn’t replace with the everybody-covered-at-a-fraction-of-the-cost replacement that Trump promised during his pie-in-the-sky campaign, and no matter what you think about McCain’s vote the boos rang unmistakably mean to our ears.
Past Republican president and bona fide war hero and lifelong public servant George H.W. Bush is also dying, and without mentioning the name Trump also ridiculed Bush’s “thousand points of light speech.” The phrase was from a famous speech penned by Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan about the thousands of individual and collective efforts of America citizens to provide charity to the country’s poor, and Trump scoffed that he never understood what it was talking about, and not nearly so clear in meaning as “Make America Great Again” and “America First.” This struck us as the fourth-grade vocabulary understanding of political rhetoric of Trump and his die-hard fans, and malicious and uncharitable and downright mean.
Trump didn’t bring it up during the Montana rally, but he’s also feuded with previous Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and previous Republican President George W. Bush, and he’s even dared criticize President Ronald Reagan’s North American Free Trade Agreement and embrace of amnesty for illegal aliens and failure to pick Trump as the guy to negotiate the end of the Cold War, and he’s clearly contemptuous of pretty much the entire pre-Trump Republican party.
Trump has given President Richard Nixon a pass, but he’s currently seeking to undo the world trading order and western military alliances that President Dwight Eisenhower nurtured. Trump seems committed to the same sort of Smoot-Hawley protectionism that President Herbert Hoover used to create the Great Depressions, although we doubt he’s aware of any Republican party history prior to his birth, or perhaps his hostile takeover.
Trump always refers to his party’s first nominee as the “late, great Abraham Lincoln” — always adding that “late” part in case you haven’t heard the bad news about Honest Abe — but he doesn’t seem much of a fan. He infamously told a friendly interviewer that Democratic party founder unrepentant slave-holder and unabashed racist President Andrew Jackson could have averted at all that Civil War unpleasantness that happened under Lincoln’s watch. We don’t doubt that draft-dodging Trump would have pursued the civil war with the same brutality of Lincoln, and not lost a moment’s night sleep over it, but we can’t imagine him proposing to restore the Union with malice toward and none and charity toward all. Even our most kind-hearted Republican friends don’t seem to have much interest in that these days.
Which is a shame, because we and our Republican friends can continue to agree that the Democrats are as bad as ever and getting even crazier left by the moment. A Republican resistance is more needed than ever, but one that spoke of malice toward none and charity toward all and a thousand points would be preferable to one that seems to revel in its meanness. Our conservative friends cite the meanness on the left, our liberal friends say they’re only responding in kind, and we miss the Democratic party of such centrists as Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Scoop Jackson and the Republican party that existed so long before Trump.

— Bud Norman

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Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 206th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, one those of providential events in America history, and it should be noted. The nation once celebrated the date with a national holiday, but the Great Emancipator was eventually downgraded to sharing a day with George Washington, the Father of Our Country, with the imprecise name of Presidents’ Day suggesting they might also share the honor with some of the lesser figures who have occupied the office, and the lack of attention paid is not only a show of national ingratitude but also indicative a dangerous lack of historical perspective.
Lincoln got some favorable publicity a couple of years ago when Steven Spielberg released a sympathetic bio-pic, which received mostly favorable reviews from conservative critics despite a screenplay by the liberal writer Tony Kushner, and a semi-scholarly history of his administration became a best-seller back when Barack Obama was first running for office and being touted as the new and improved version of Lincoln, but even all the hype attendant to a Spielberg release or an Obama campaign cannot elevate Lincoln to his deserved prominence. A friend swore to us that he had spoken with some young people at the local university about the Lincoln movie when it came out and was told that they liked most of us but were unpleasantly surprised at the end when the titular character was assassinated. Despite the daily reminders of his face on five dollar bills and pennies, and despite his name on cars and tunnels and logs and countless road signs, we suspect that by now most Americans are only slightly more familiar with the story of Lincoln.
There was another recent movie about Lincoln as a zombie hunter, but that probably didn’t fill in many gaps in the public knowledge, and the schools don’t seem to be doing much better. We suspect they’re probably too busy telling their empty-headed charges about Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Christine Jorgensen, and similarly significant historical figures who are more useful to the narrative of an America exceptional only for its racism and sexism and homophobia muddling along toward the liberal future only because of protest movements and higher taxes and bureaucratic control. To the extent that Lincoln is taught, the lessons are likely to come from Richard Hofstadter’s widely published essay “Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” which found the Emancipation Proclamation insignificant and preferred to focus on the speeches Lincoln made to deal with the racist realities he confronted in mid-19th Century America and how they fell short of the standards of late-20th Century liberalism. Such Lincoln-bashing has become something of an academic cottage industry, and is also common in the entertainment industry. When not axing zombies Lincoln can also be found in a trendy art-house flick from a few years back called “Confederate States of America,” which imagines an alternative history in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, and takes the boringly uncontroversial view that things would have gone badly, but with an unmistakable sense of moral superiority it portrays Lincoln, whose visionary leadership was singularly responsible for preventing that historical calamity, as a racist, a rube, a tyrant, and a coward. To our dismay, we have found this is a fashionable opinion.
One must somehow dismiss Lincoln, of course, to sustain that broader narrative about America being unexceptional except in its sinfulness. That narrative must be sustained, of course, to justify America’s retreat from the world and its apologetic unwillingness to bring any of its values to bear on the rest of the world. When the current occupant of the White House tells a prayer breakfast gathering that America should not “get on a high horse” when Islamist terrorists behead or crucify or burn alive their captives because a Christian America once had slavery, it is inconvenient to recall the far more eloquent and explicitly theological words that Lincoln used in his Second Inaugural address to explain a bloody war that ultimately abolished slavery. Because Lincoln cannot be denied credit for preserving the Union of these States, those who decry that outcome because it has failed to meet early 21st Century standards of liberalism must denigrate the accomplishment.
None of these critics are nearly so wise as Walt Whitman, America’s greatest poet, nor did they have the experience of the full horror of Lincoln’s war that Whitman endured as an ambulance driver in the bloodiest battles of that conflict, and neither do they have Whitman’s true vision of America’s once and perhaps future greatness. We’ll let Walt have the final words on this anniversary of Lincoln’s birth:
“This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute — under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.”

— Bud Norman

That Awful Speech

A few of the more irrationally enthused pundits have been comparing to Barack Obama’s second inaugural address to Abraham Lincoln’s. They must assume, probably with good reason, that the past many years of high school history classes have not required anyone to read Lincoln’s speech.
Lincoln’s second inaugural address is not just a masterpiece of political oratory but also of English prose, a speech of such simple eloquence and profound wisdom that it inspired a nation in its darkest hour. The Obama effort, on the other hand, was an overwrought and overlong bunch of hooey.
Lincoln forthrightly addressed only the issues that were of overriding importance at the time of his address, but Obama made just passing mention of the issues that most concern the Americans of today. With more Americans out of work than on the day he was first sworn in, and the sluggish economic pace slowing, Obama assured the nation’s unemployed that “Economic recovery has begun.” There was some lofty blather about investing in new technologies, but it seemed to be mostly about the “green energy” program that has already blown billions of dollars with little effect. He offered sympathy and scapegoats rather than solutions by noting that “we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do well and a growing many barely make it,” but if he believes that people have concluded the growing many are barely making it because the shrinking few are doing well he should have corrected that dangerous misunderstanding.
The nation’s debt has grown by 60 percent since Obama’s first inaugural address, and the second inaugural address made no mention of this problem. All that investing Obama wants the government to do will likely be quite expensive, and he also used his speech to engage in some characteristic demagogy against anyone who might suggest changes to the money-guzzling entitlement programs, so the omission seemed conspicuous.
Like Lincoln, Obama spoke of war, but where Lincoln spoke of “the progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends,” Obama simply declared that “a decade of war is now ending.” The speech did not make clear if the war is also ending for America’s numerous declared enemies, who seem to be as deadly as ever lately, or if America will simply be ceasing its efforts, and we would have liked to have had the point clarified. Obama attempted to reassure us neo-con warmongers that “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the world,” which should provide plenty of action for our shrinking military, and that America will “support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East,” but he did not explain how military aid to the Muslim Brotherhood will further this noble cause.
Most of what Obama did get around to in the speech was primarily of interest to his most doctrinaire admirers. He gave a shout-out to his homosexual voters, promised the ladies that he’d deal with their mythical wage discrimination problem, expressed outrage about all the illegal immigrant engineers that are apparently being “expelled” from the country, and did the usual fretting about the poor folk. Although Obama didn’t dare get so sternly theological as Lincoln did in his second inaugural address, he did make mention of God when going on about climate change. Lincoln was duly humble about evoking God’s name, noting that “The Almighty has His own purposes” and recognizing that he was right only to the extent “as God gives us to see the right,” but Obama was quite confident that God wouldn’t mind being used for the higher purpose of promoting a cap-and-trade boondoggle.
The speech was all wrapped up in red-white-and-blue bunting, complete with approving references to the founding fathers. There was even a line about how Americans “have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all of society’s ills can be solved through government alone,” although it was unclear if this was meant as a compliment or complaint. A recurring theme of the speech was that the Founding Fathers began a journey that will only be completed once the Obama agenda has been fully enacted and “all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hill of Appalachia to the quite lanes of Newtown know they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.” We took that to be a call for stricter gun controls, but we figure it will be a long journey indeed if it only ends when everyone is safe from harm and we hope that we’ll still be allowed to arm ourselves until journey’s end.
There was plenty of the usual highfalutin rhetoric, and although we only read the transcript we assume it was delivered with the usual sonorous baritone and upraised chin, but unless Obama gets all the educational reforms he hoped for it is unlikely that schoolchildren will find anything so rote-worthy as “With malice towards none, with charity toward all.” Obama struck a slightly similar note when he insisted America cannot “treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” but it rang rather hollow after winning his spot on the inaugural stand by slurring his opponent as a tax-cheating, woman-killing, dog-torturing, contraception-snatching square. All in all, we expect that the world will little note nor long remember what Obama said on Inauguration Day.

— Bud Norman

The Great #%@& Emancipator

That Abe Lincoln fellow was one foul-mouthed son of a gun. This is one of the surprising historical tidbits to be found in the new motion picture “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s much-ballyhooed biopic about the late president.

Or so we’re told by The Hollywood Reporter, at any rate. We haven’t actually seen the movie, partly because we’re among the tiny minority of Americans who are not enamored of Spielberg’s work and partly because Netflix isn’t yet able to mail it to our front porch, but the report seems plausible enough. It seems to be a rare flick these days that doesn’t have plentiful cussing, and there’s no reason that a supposedly serious tribute to one of the few remaining revered figures in American history should be an exception to that rule.

The Hollywood Reporter’s reporter found some disagreement among Lincoln biographers about the historical accuracy of the language in the movie. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the hottest Lincoln scholar ever since her “Team of Rivals” hit the best-seller list a few years ago, said she had no problem with it and that she even encouraged the screenwriter to include one of the president’s favorite ribald jokes. James McPherson, whose Lincoln scholarship includes a well-reviewed book about the president’s “Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” said it was unlikely that The Great Emancipator was prone to such frequent outbursts of profanity.

Such disputes cannot be definitively settled, of course, because until recent times writers rarely resorted to impolite words. People have always cussed, and it’s likely that a backwoods rail-splitter such as Lincoln would occasionally let loose with some saltiness, but his contemporaries would not have recorded it for prosperity. Our guess is that someone in Lincoln’s more rigidly moral times would have made note of it if he had made a habit of cursing in respectable circles, and we also note that Lincoln was a man of such legendary eloquence that he probably saved his cursing for only the most appropriate moments, but one never knows for sure.

There’s also no certainty that whatever cussing Lincoln did was comparable to what’s in the movie. Just as the rest of the English language has evolved over the past many years, for better and worse, cussing has also likely changed. The etymology of curse words is difficult to trace because of the lack of written citations, but we suppose that someone of Lincoln’s rural background was more prone to scatological rather than sexual language.

Although we have no objection to cussing in the movies whenever it is necessary for verisimilitude, such as in the fine “Patton” biopic of the famously salty general, it hardly seems necessary in a movie about Lincoln. The intention was probably to make Lincoln seem more human to modern audiences, but surely there were ways to do so that would haven’t provoked historical debates or kept younger children away from the movie. Spielberg has generally kept clean in previous movies, which may be one reason for his extraordinary popular success, and it’s hard to figure why he would deviate from that habit for a Lincoln flick.

Critics have been mixed about “Lincoln,” and the ones we trust most have panned it, but apparently the movie doesn’t try to portray the first Republican president as a 21st Century lefty of the spread-the-wealth variety. That’s a welcome relief, given that Hollywood routinely does sanitizes even the likes of Queen Victoria in biopics and that liberals have been trying to claim Lincoln as one of their since at least the days when the Lincoln Brigade went off to fight for the commies in the Spanish Civil War. If “Lincoln” had turned out to be another bit of Tinseltown agitprop, we’d have been cussing up a storm.

— Bud Norman