Thanksgiving is that odd holiday that’s neither religious nor patriotic. It’s not about God or Country. Thanksgiving is secular and contemplative. Step back. Things aren’t that bad. Give thanks. Things could be much worse, and they aren’t, at the moment. It’ll be fine, somehow. Overeat. Watch some football. Of course the Christmas panic will begin the next morning, and politicians will resume screaming at each other again, but for one day forget any of that.
How? Things have changed. The weekend before this year’s Thanksgiving, in the News York Times Sunday Review, Sabrina Tavernise offers a feature article about a kind of national despair:
As the country catches its breath after one of the most acrimonious midterm elections in years, it would be easy to conclude that all of America is hopelessly divided – a land where two angry tribes are at each other’s throats and everybody thinks about politics all the time.
But the reality is far less extreme.
A deep new study of the American electorate, “Hidden Tribes,” concludes that two out of three Americans are far more practical than that narrative suggests. Most do not see their lives through a political lens, and when they have political views the views are far less rigid than those of the highly politically engaged, ideologically orthodox tribes.
That’s good and that’s also bad:
The study, an effort to understand the forces that drive political polarization, surveyed a representative group of 8,000 Americans. The nonpartisan organization that did it, More in Common, paints a picture of a society that is far more disengaged – and despairing over divisions – than it is divided. At its heart is a vast and often overlooked political middle that feels forgotten in the vitriol, as if the country has gone on without it. It calls that group the Exhausted Majority, a group that represented two-thirds of the survey.
Two-thirds of the country is befuddled:
“It feels very lonely out here,” said Jamie McDaniel, a 36-year-old home health care worker in Topeka, Kan., one of several people in the study who was interviewed for this article. “Everybody is so right or left, and you’re just kind of standing there in the middle saying, ‘What happened?'”
Two-thirds of the country is disgusted:
The ugliness of politics has turned some people off.
“I’m so upset, I feel physically ill,” Marsha Newman, 66, a school counselor in Chapmanville, W.Va., said on a rainy Election Day morning. “Just the ugliness of it all. It’s so heartbreaking that all we can do is bring each other down and cut into each other. I feel like I’m going to cry.”
The highly politically engaged tribes may have seized on the midterm elections as a victory, but for the Exhausted Majority it merely perpetuated a hopeless stalemate.
“It’s like World War I, where you’re pushing each other back and forth over the same quarter-mile of ground and nothing happens,” said Christopher Kershaw, 39, a logistics manager in rural New Jersey.
And two-thirds of the country wants no more of this:
Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard University, said the influence of the Exhausted Majority might play out in 2020 in another way: Fatigue with the noise of politics is so deep, he said, that it might strengthen the chances of candidates offering to be less nakedly partisan.
“For the last two years it’s been impossible to go to a bar on a Monday night and not have to talk about politics,” he said. “Most Americans are sick of that. I think you can win in 2020 by promising that if you become president, people can go back to talking about football.”
There’s much more – this is a Sunday Review feature full of other telling anecdotes and handsome photographs of those interviewed – but the essence of it all is clear enough. Two-thirds of the country is not thankful for Donald Trump – the man who likes to stir the pot. Two-thirds of the country is exhausted. They don’t want to be riled up. They don’t want to be told to be riled up. They don’t want to be screamed at by others who are now somehow all riled up. Can’t this Trump guy just give it a rest? Can’t this Trump guy stop talking about himself – about his awesomeness? That would be something to be thankful for this year.
That’s not going to happen. Michael Walsh reports this:
President Trump rated his performance in the White House an “A+” on Sunday. He offered this assessment during a wide-ranging interview on Fox News Sunday. Chris Wallace had asked Trump where he ranks himself among great U.S. presidents.
“Where do you rank yourself in the pantheon of great presidents? There’s Lincoln and Washington. There’s FDR and Reagan. Do you make the top 10?” Wallace asked.
“I think I’m doing a great job. We have the best economy we’ve ever had. We’re doing really well. We would’ve been in a war with North Korea if, let’s say, that administration continued forward,” Trump said referring to his predecessor, Barack Obama.
That last bit was nonsense, hypothetical nonsense not worth discussing, because no proof either way is possible, so Wallace moved on:
“So where do you rank yourself?” Wallace asked.
“I would give myself, I would – look, I hate to do it, but I will do it – I would give myself an A+. Is that enough? Can I go higher than that?” Trump replied.
Of course he doesn’t get to grade himself, but he can believe what he wants – it’s a free country (so far) – but the curious thing is that he gives himself this beyond-best grade because he does stir the pot, riling people up:
Trump said that had he been “more modified, more moderate,” he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish half of what he has in the past two years. He added it’s important for the president to have “a certain ability to fight back.”
In short, people want chaos and deep anger and outrageous nonsense. That’s why America elected him:
Whether the topic is politics, business or entertainment, it is not uncommon for Trump to give himself superlative marks or exaggerate his accomplishments. The president told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward last September that no other president in U.S. history has done as well as he has.
“Well, accurate is that nobody’s EVER done a better job than I’m doing as president. That I can tell you,” he said. “So that’s the way a lot of people feel that know what’s going on, and you’ll see that over the years.”
Based on polling, the American public does not appear to agree with Trump’s rating of his job performance. Gallup reports that his most recent job approval rating is just 38 percent, while the historical average for U.S. presidents from 1938 to 2018 is 53 percent.
But the man has a method:
In his 1987 memoir “The Art of the Deal,” co-written by Tony Schwartz, Trump attributed a large part of his success to playing to people’s fantasies, and said that “a little hyperbole never hurts.”
“People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole,” Trump wrote. “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
But sometimes nonsense is just nonsense:
The leader of Finland denied on Sunday that he’d ever told President Donald Trump that the small Nordic nation relies upon “raking” its forests to prevent wildfires – even though Trump promoted the dubious conservation method during a visit to flame-ravaged California over the weekend.
“You look at other countries where they do it differently, and it’s a whole different story,” Trump said Saturday, standing alongside Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom of California among the charred ruins of the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park in the town of Paradise.
“I was with the president of Finland, and he said, ‘we have a much different – we’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation,” Trump continued. “And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem. And when it is, it’s a very small problem. So I know everybody’s looking at that to that end. And it’s going to work out; it’s going to work out well.”
President Sauli Niinistö of Finland told Ilta-Sanomat, the country’s second-largest newspaper, on Sunday that he never discussed raking with Trump during their brief meeting in Paris last weekend, where the leaders attended various commemorations marking the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I.
Oops. And there was this:
While in California, the president was reluctant to blame the effects of rising global temperatures for a series of increasingly devastating wildfires. Asked by reporters whether his visit to the fire zone had altered his opinions on climate change, Trump replied: “No. No. I have a strong opinion: I want great climate. We’re going to have that, and we’re going to have forests that are very safe.”
Make the Climate Great Again? What? But he was on a roll:
On Saturday, the president continued to emphasize the importance of working with environmental groups to improve forest maintenance, and pledged to “take care of the floors, you know, the floors of the forest.”
“I think everybody’s seen the light, and I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent. We’re going to have to work quickly,” Trump said. “But a lot of people are very much – there’s been a lot of study going on over the last little while, and I will say I think you’re going to have – hopefully this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one.”
This was beyond truthful hyperbole. He made it all up. There’s not been a lot of study going on, on raking up under the trees out here, or anywhere else, and these were not forest fires anyway. Wildfires in California rip through the chaparral. That’s shrub land – not a tree is sight for miles – grasses and creosote bushes and sage that years of drought have turned into kindling ready to explode. Finland, in the northern latitudes, is covered by dense, boreal forest. Maybe they do vacuum under the trees there, but probably not.
All of this was absurd – as was Trump’s earlier suggestion that the answer to all the fires out here was approval of massive logging on all federal and state lands in California. There’d no fire problem in California if we clear-cut all the redwoods and giant sequoias and whatnot out here – no forest, no forest fires – problem solved.
No, the chaparral would still explode. It’s no wonder that two-thirds of the country is simply exhausted by all this. His truthful hyperbole isn’t even close to truthful, and sometime it’s just mean, and offensive. The Washington Post’s Paul Sonne and Philip Rucker cover that:
President Trump has long put the American military at the center of his presidential brand, tapping retired officers to serve as advisers, touting increases in defense spending, and citing support from troops and veterans as a sign of his success. But the commander in chief has risked alienating parts of the military community by escalating a fight with one of its most revered members, retired Adm. William H. McRaven, amid other recent remarks and decisions that have fanned controversy in the ranks and among some who served.
In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Trump went after McRaven, the retired Navy SEAL and Special Operations commander who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden and the capture of Saddam Hussein during his 37 years in the U.S. military.
It was more hyperbole:
Trump derided McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and an “Obama backer” before suggesting that the four-star admiral, who recently left his post as chancellor of the University of Texas amid a battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, should have caught bin Laden faster.
“Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn’t it have been nice?” the president said. “You know, living – think of this – living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan, in what I guess they considered a nice mansion, I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer. But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there.”
There’s more than a bit of exaggeration there, but Trump was just hitting back ten times harder:
The comments escalated a war of words that began last year when McRaven called Trump’s description of the news media as the “enemy of the people” the greatest threat to American democracy he had ever seen.
This past summer, McRaven went to bat for John Brennan, defending the former CIA director as a man of integrity in an article in The Washington Post, after Trump revoked Brennan’s security clearance.
In a rare moment of political candor, McRaven wrote that Trump, instead of putting others above himself and setting an example as president, had “embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
And now Trump was making things worse:
In a statement initially released to CNN and confirmed by the Post, McRaven said he didn’t back Clinton or anyone else in the 2016 presidential election and was a fan of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, both of whom he worked for while in uniform.
“I admire all presidents, regardless of their political party, who uphold the dignity of the office and who use that office to bring the nation together in challenging times,” McRaven said.
Two-thirds of the country was glad McRaven said that. Trump will now be outraged forever about this, but Sonne and Rucker note a larger underlying problem here:
The president’s remarks about McRaven came amid broader questions about Trump’s relationship with military matters. During a recent trip to France, the president didn’t attend a ceremony commemorating the centenary of World War I because of the rain, with the White House saying his helicopter couldn’t fly in the inclement weather and a motorcade would have caused too much traffic. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the ceremony.
Trump didn’t visit Arlington National Cemetery to mark Veterans Day this year because he was traveling home from France and didn’t go to the ceremony or hold any public events to honor U.S. veterans on the Monday holiday. Trump admitted he should have gone to Arlington National Cemetery to mark Veterans Day.
“I should have done that,” Trump told Wallace. “I was extremely busy on calls for the country. We did a lot of calling, as you know.”
Okay he was busy, but then there’s this:
The comments followed the president’s decision to thrust the American military into the center of a political maelstrom ahead of the midterm elections by sending thousands of troops to the border with Mexico in what critics labeled a political stunt to fire up anti-immigrant sentiment among his base. Trump said the move was a necessary measure to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection prepare for the “invasion” of thousands of migrants who he said, without evidence, included “unknown Middle Easterners” and “bad people.”
Ahead of the election, Trump said he was sending as many as 10,000 to 15,000 troops to the border, but the military said last week that the number of active-duty troops deployed in fact had peaked at about 5,900. An additional 2,000 members of the National Guard have been there since April.
Although Secretary of Defense Mattis defended the deployment as necessary support for the Department of Homeland Security and good training for troops, other members of the military community took offense at what they saw as a wasteful politicization of the armed forces.
Trump’s suggestion that soldiers would shoot migrants who threw rocks at them prompted retired Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to tag the mission as wasteful, while clarifying that men and women in uniform wouldn’t use disproportionate force.
And there’s this:
Trump, who attended New York Military Academy but avoided serving in the Vietnam War through draft deferments, also answered questions Sunday about why he hadn’t visited American troops serving in combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I think you will see that happen,” Trump said. “There are things that are being planned.”
But former and current administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, didn’t recall hearing about the possibility of Trump visiting troops in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria during his first year and a half in office.
But he loves the military. No president has ever loved the military more. And the military loves him. Our military has never loved any president more. Everyone knows this.
No one knows this. That truthful hyperbole isn’t even close to truthful either, and another issue came up:
Fox News host Chris Wallace went after President Donald Trump for his attacks on the news media in an interview that aired Sunday, telling the president he is “seen around the world as a beacon for repression” because of his rhetoric.
The “Fox News Sunday” host told Trump that while other presidents expressed frustration with the news media, none had gone as far as Trump, who called them “the enemy of the American people.”
“Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time, but he never said we were the enemy of the people,” Wallace said.
Damn, it was time for more hyperbole:
Trump said “nobody believes in the First Amendment more than I do” and attempted to clarify that he did not believe all media is the “enemy,” but only outlets which he considers “fake news.”
“But a lot of times, sir, that’s just news you don’t like,” Wallace replied. And he told the president that “leaders in authoritarian countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, now repress the media using your words.”
“I can’t talk for other people, I can only talk for me,” Trump replied.
Yeah, well, maybe that’s the problem:
Trump again tried to explain that his attacks on the media were only aimed at coverage he says is false and unfair.
Wallace told Trump that the president doesn’t “get to decide what’s fair and what’s not.”
“I can tell what’s fair and not and so can my people and so can a lot of other people,” Trump replied.
And at that point Chris Wallace gave up, at least on this issue. What’s the point in even talking with this guy? He doesn’t get it. And in other matters he doesn’t want to get it:
President Trump acknowledged the existence of an audio recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul but said he has not listened to what he called the “suffering tape” and dismissed a growing clamor among lawmakers for Saudi Arabia to face more serious consequences for the killing.
Based in part on the tape and other intercepted communications, the CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered last month’s killing of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi leaders and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post.
But Trump maintained in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that the crown prince had told him “maybe five different times” and “as recently as a few days ago” that he had nothing to do with the killing.
So the CIA must be wrong, or might be wrong:
Trump demurred when Wallace asked about Mohammed’s role in the killing and whether the crown prince may have been lying to Trump about his lack of involvement.
“Well, will anybody really know?” Trump said. “You saw we put on very heavy sanctions, massive sanctions on a large group of people from Saudi Arabia. But, at the same time, we do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.”
Will anybody really know? What is truth anyway? There is Pontius Pilate in Matthew 27:24:
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.
But that won’t wash:
The interview marks another instance of Trump openly casting doubt on the conclusions of American intelligence agencies. At a July summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump appeared to side with the Russian leader over U.S. intelligence officials on the matter of Moscow’s interference in U.S. elections. Trump further muddied his stance in later comments on the issue.
In the case of Khashoggi, the CIA concluded after examining multiple sources of intelligence that Mohammed ordered the assassination. The intelligence included a phone call in which the prince’s brother, Khalid bin Salman, urged Khashoggi to visit the consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents he needed for his impending marriage to a Turkish woman. Khalid, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, assured Khashoggi that he would be safe…
The evidence is overwhelming but will anybody really know?
The Exhausted Majority may no longer care. They’ll spend this Thanksgiving trying not to think about any of this. They’ll be thankful about other things – personal matters – but there are others who will spend Thanksgiving in their own local forest, raking up under trees, to prevent wildfires way out here in the California chaparral. They’ve moved beyond truthful hyperbole. Who knows what’s out there?