It was November 17, 1973 – it was a televised press conference with four hundred Associated Press Managing Editors at Walt Disney World in Florida – an oasis of pleasant make-believe in the Florida scrub – and it was Richard Nixon:
I want to say this to the television audience. I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service. I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
And he resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974 – because he had obstructed justice. And no one had called him a crook anyway. That was a long time ago. He had defended himself in that famous nationally televised Checkers speech – September 23, 1952 – broadcast from a studio in what is now the Avalon, a techno-pop dance-club a few steps north of Hollywood and Vine. This is the land of pleasant make-believe too. Back then, Nixon had been accused of accepting expensive gifts from some rather shady people, but he said there’d be no mink coats for the Nixons. He was “proud of the fact that Pat Nixon wears a good Republican cloth coat, and she’s going to continue to” – but the family would keep one gift, that cute little dog, Checkers.
That worked. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket. He got to be vice president – but two decades later that wasn’t going to work. There was no cute little dog, and he had obstructed justice. In all his years of public life he had never obstructed justice? That was catnip to the media. They’d check up on that. Bill Clinton said “I have never had sex with that woman!” It was the same thing. There’s always the opposite reaction. Don’t say that you’re not a racist, that some of your best friends are black. Why would you say that? People will assume the opposite. Why else would you say that?
And then there’s the current president:
During an impromptu news conference outside the White House in October, Trump told reporters – who hadn’t asked him about his education – “You know, people don’t understand. I went to an Ivy League college. I was a nice student. I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.”
On May 8, 2013, Trump tweeted: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure. It’s not your fault.”
And there was this:
Trump described Wharton as “probably the hardest there is to get into.” He added, “Some of the great business minds in the world have gone to Wharton.” He also observed: “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time – the super genius of all time.”
Why would you say that? People will assume the opposite, and why say that you’re the first president who has ever had the guts to say Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays? That video montage of President Obama saying Merry Christmas over and over, year after year, was easy enough to assemble. There’s always the opposite reaction. Don’t invite it.
Charles Mathewes, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, sees what is happening:
It’s that time of year again, when we hear about the profanity of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about Starbucks’ covert “war on Christmas,” run through their seasonal coffee cups.
He thinks that’s crazy and argues that shows the opposite of what is intended:
It’s increasingly difficult not to notice that the main threat to Christianity in America comes from American Christians themselves.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard a case from a baker who argued his Christian convictions led him to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Last week, we witnessed the spectacle of white Christians in Alabama who convinced themselves either that the man they hoped to elect as their senator was not so creepy around young girls as to get himself banned from a mall (fact check: he was), or that the behavior that got him banned is actually biblical in character, and therefore okay (exegesis check: it isn’t). In the end, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Moore.
That simply proves the opposite:
When we’ve reached a place where good Christian folk think it’s a matter of major theological principle not to sell pastries to gay people but are willing to give pedophiles a pass, I think it’s safe to say that American Christianity today – white American Christianity in particular – is in a pretty sorry state.
It’s not just that a vocal segment of white Christians can’t tell righteous leaders from sexual predators and overestimate the power of baked goods to communicate spiritual messages; our failures are wider and deeper and more foundational than that. We’re remarkably ignorant of the history and the current state of the world we inhabit, and no better with scientific knowledge either. We don’t believe the media, but we’ll believe the most incredible Twitter rumor or Facebook post, curated for us by Vladimir Putin. We are surprisingly ignorant about religion, not only other people’s religion, but even our own.
Mathewes is a Christian fed up with these people:
White Christians seem unwilling to be guided by the plain truth of our shared faith. Instead of forming judgments about how to live our lives based on how our religious convictions interact with real-life circumstances, we pass off irascible reactions as theological principles. White evangelical Christians like guns, for example, and do not especially like immigrants. Compared to other demographics, we’re excited about the death penalty, indifferent to those who are impoverished or infirm, and blind to racial and gender inequalities. We claim to read the Bible and hear Jesus’ teachings, but we think poor people deserve what they (don’t) get, and the inmates of our prisons deserve, if anything, worse than the horrors they already receive. For believers in a religion whose Scriptures teach compassion, we’re a breathtakingly cruel bunch.
Indeed it’s hard to know who we do feel pity toward, except ourselves – for we believe that we are the real victims in today’s world. Those among us who are evangelical Christians are especially paranoid: While Americans overall are twice as likely to say there is more discrimination against Muslims than against Christians, the numbers are almost reversed for white evangelical Protestants. And apparently things are getting worse: the percentage of evangelicals who said that religious freedom in the U.S. declined over the past decade rose from 60 percent in 2012 to 77 percent in 2015.
Mathewes sees a reason for this:
There are many factors – historical, social and political – that have helped shape white American Christianity into what it is today. But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. Theologians as well as psychologists will tell you that there is a spiritual peril in acting out of fear and a sense of danger. Fear drives us into patterns of “reasoning” that are far from reasonable, but more akin to reactionary patterns of cause-and-effect. And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity – love.
Mathewes also locates the specific problem:
The tyranny of fear in white Christian life is especially visible among white evangelicals, who stand out in their opposition to pluralism in America. While all other religious groups, like Americans overall, oppose letting small business owners refuse to serve gay and lesbian people – by margins of roughly two to one – white evangelicals, by 56 percent to 39 percent, say shopkeepers should be allowed to so discriminate. And Christians’ defensiveness is increasing: in 2012, 54 percent of white evangelicals supported giving preference to “traditional Judeo-Christian values”; that number rose to 76 percent in 2015
And that number is generating the inevitable opposite reaction to all this:
It may well be that it is Christians’ fears about losing control of the culture that have accelerated the rise of secularism itself. (This has been an open secret in the sociology of religion for almost two decades.) Consider the rise of the “Nones” in American public life – those adults, especially younger adults, who when asked about their religious affiliation, say “none.” For decades that number was very low, but then it began to increase rapidly in the 1980s.
Why was that? It seems to be caused by the tight alliance of Christianity, especially conservative white Christianity, with conservative politics over the past several decades – an association itself driven by prophesies of a rising tide of godlessness in America after the 1960s. Those prophesies about the 1960s were wrong, but they fueled the alliance of white Christians with right-wing politics from the 1980s forward, and that alliance has repelled many younger people from religion out of a distaste at seeing religion so eagerly bend the knee to short-term political gain. That is to say, Christians’ response to a misperceived crisis has become, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The national dialog about this has become clear. Be afraid, very afraid. Why? There’s always the opposite reaction.
The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus explores another aspect of this:
I have never respected a president less, nor loved my country more.
That’s a curious thing to say, but she has her reasons:
Candidate Trump diligently tilled the soil in which this hatred flourishes and, more appallingly, President Trump tolerated its deadly consequences in Charlottesville. “Very fine people on both sides,” indeed. Trump’s own secretary of state, when asked whether those comments represented American values, was moved to say, “The president speaks for himself.” How true, in every sense of that sentence.
This, then, has been a mess from the start:
Has there been a more embarrassing year for the United States? Thinking Americans cringe at what foreign countries and their leaders make of us and our president, with his reckless upending of international agreements, his bigoted and poorly executed travel ban, his unashamed ignorance, his reckless tweets, his endless susceptibility to flattery.
Moral Americans – and the Alabama Senate results suggest there remains, pardon the phrase, a moral majority – recoil at the president’s support for a candidate credibly accused of molesting a 14-year-old, at his incessant lies, at his (and his family’s) unabashed willingness to use government service as just another pocket-lining opportunity. This litany is made all the more disgusting by the complicity of so many members of his party.
This, however, is a good thing:
I am thankful for Trump in this sense: He has unleashed my inner patriot. I love my country, for all its flaws, and for its flawed leader.
It is worth the fighting for. I knew this, always, on an intellectual level. The Trump presidency has made me feel it, viscerally and passionately. The ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and implemented through the careful structures and capacious phrases of the Constitution do not merely compel our respect. In the Trump era, they require our passionate defense.
There’s always the opposite reaction:
Once we took for granted, as a given of American democracy, such fundamental values as freedom of the press, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary. Now we have a president who veers between failure to understand their importance and deliberate efforts to undermine them.
He is similarly heedless of the qualities that have always made America great, most notably its willingness not only to enshrine these values at home but also to play a leadership role in nurturing them abroad. Trump’s America is bristlingly insular and driven by zero-sum selfishness. Mine is welcoming, idealistic and generous – a shining city, not a walled fortress.
And there’s this:
There can be an off-putting, chest-thumping aspect to traditional, bumper-sticker patriotism: “My country, right or wrong.” “America, love it or leave it.”
George Washington, in his farewell address, advised fellow citizens to “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” It is hard not to recall that admonition when listening to Trump’s faux-patriotic posturing against kneeling NFL players and his demand that they show “total respect for our national anthem, for our flag, for our country.”
Real patriotism would be to recognize, as the Supreme Court did three decades ago in overturning a criminal conviction for burning the American flag that “we do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”
Trump did not intend that, or this:
Real patriotism would be not to denounce the “Russia hoax” but to insist that Congress – and for that matter, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III – get to the bottom of what happened in the 2016 election and, even more imperative, that the United States strengthen its defenses to prevent future meddling.
That is the patriotism Trump has awaked, in me and so many others. Because our fundamental fight is not against Trump. It is for America.
Trump never intended that. What did he intend? Andrew Sullivan says that may not matter:
What are we to make of Vladimir Putin’s first year in the White House? How has he done?
I’m only slightly kidding. Or rather I’m just channeling a CNN interview earlier this week with James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence. Here’s what Clapper said: “I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case-officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president. You have to remember Putin’s background. He’s a KGB officer. That’s what they do. They recruit assets. And I think some of that experience and instincts of Putin has come into play here in his managing of a pretty important account for him, if I could use that term, with our president.”
Clapper clarified his statement by saying he was being figurative, rather than literal. So let’s just ask a figurative question, shall we? How successful has the Kremlin’s figurative investment been this past year? Pretty damn impressive.
It was impressive:
Look at Putin’s domestic goals. His core concern, as with any despot, is the legitimacy of his pseudo-democratic autocracy – which means, in turn, discrediting the very different features of the liberal democracies of the West. And in this, he must be scarcely able to believe his luck. After decades of the West’s championing of liberal democracy, the American president has spent his first year attacking it. Trump has exhibited contempt for a free press, describing the bulk of Western journalism as “fake news,” words that have gladdened the hearts of dictators across the planet. He has minimized Putin’s assassination of critical journalists, saying that America has no moral standing to criticize. He has treated the judiciary either as instruments of loyalty – hence his packing of the federal bench – or as pests to be slandered or dismissed. He prefers total loyalty from law-enforcement officials to the actual rule of law. For good measure, Trump has legitimized Putin’s core model of governance – that of a benevolent cult hero of the nation, shored up by religious reactionaries – by plagiarizing it. As for the other critical aspect of Putinism – the looting of the treasury by oligarchs – I give you the latest tax bill.
And there’s this:
Then there is Russia’s permanent interest in deepening the racial and partisan divides in America – the better to force the United States to be more concerned with internal strife than with foreign affairs. On this, Putin’s success is even more impressive. What better propaganda could the Kremlin get than the Charlottesville horrors, the racial divide crippling the NFL, or the candidacy of Roy Moore? In the Cold War, the Kremlin constantly cited America’s racial strife as proof that, whatever its democratic pretensions, the country was still a bastion of white supremacy. Now, much of American academia and an entire rising generation agree with what the Soviets long argued. As for the stability and legitimacy of liberal capitalism, Putin could scarcely do better than the GOP tax proposal. When economic inequality is at record highs, undermining the social compact that undergirds capitalism, the GOP is making things far worse.
And there’s this:
Internationally, Putin has had an even bigger year. One of his central goals – the disintegration of the European Union and the entire concept of the West – has been advanced by Washington in ways never seen before. Trump backed Brexit, breaking the U.K. away from its European partners; he supported Marine Le Pen in France for the same reason; and he has routinely lambasted Merkel, whose power is now hanging by a thread. He chose Poland, where an authoritarian party is busy dismantling judicial independence, as the site for his major foreign-policy address. He has permanently undermined the core Article 5 commitment that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all of them, by being the first U.S. president to equivocate on it. America has also broken with its European allies by withdrawing from the Paris Accords on climate, threatening the Iran nuclear deal, and backing the ethno-nationalist extremists who now run Israel on the status of Jerusalem. Last week, the U.S. found itself utterly isolated at the U.N. on the question, and openly threatening all its allies with payback. In the Middle East, Russia has never been stronger – it is now the key player in the future of Syria, while Putin’s naked annexation of Crimea and sections of eastern Ukraine remains in place, unmentioned by the White House.
What more could Putin ask for?
America First! That’s what Trump said. He also said he’s really smart, a super genius, and also the first president who has ever had the guts to say Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays, and that he’s not a racist, and of course that there’s no one anywhere who respects women more than he does. Richard Nixon said he wasn’t a crook, and two decades later said that he still wasn’t a crook, and that he also had never ever obstructed justice. Clinton said he had never had sex with that woman. Why say such things? Everyone knows why.