Crisis doesn’t build character or destroy it. No one is changed by a crisis, for better or worse. No one suddenly becomes a hero, or a cowardly villain. People are who they are. Crises do no more than reveal character. Winston Churchill was always Winston Churchill – stubborn and clever and oddly eloquent. Dunkirk revealed that. The Battle of Britain revealed that, and Richard Nixon was always a paranoid and resentful deeply angry man. And he was a crook. Watergate didn’t change him. Watergate simply introduced the real man to the nation. The nation told him to go away.
All of this has been said before. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t really make you stronger – only more careful. And there are no transformations. There are only reveals.
But these happen all the time. Anna Fifield reports on one of those. She’s the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief but this isn’t a China story. She has a BA from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a postgraduate diploma in journalism from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, so she’s a Kiwi working China, looking back home, at a crisis revealing character, and that would be this:
For the first 16 months of her tenure, Jacinda Ardern was feted around an increasingly populist world for being young, female and progressive.
The 37-year-old New Zealand prime minister, together with Justin Trudeau of Canada and France’s Emmanuel Macron, were celebrated by some as the antidote to Donald Trump. Vogue magazine ran a glamorous photo spread of her. She appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Sheryl Sandberg described her as a “political prodigy” when Ardern made Time magazine’s list of 100 “most influential people.”
A term was coined to describe the phenomenon: “Jacindamania.”
The sentiment only grew when she announced she was pregnant, becoming the second world leader to have a baby in office (Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was the first), and it grew again when she took her 3-month-old daughter to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Of course, back home, things weren’t great. She wasn’t very good at managing a large bureaucracy. A Texan would say she was all hat and no cattle. There’s no equivalent New Zealand expression, but folks were unhappy down there, and then circumstances changed:
Jacindamania has taken on a new and totally different dimension in the last few days, since mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch left 50 dead and 40 injured.
New Zealand has never experienced this kind of attack before, and it has shaken the country.
Many have lauded Ardern’s response. She swiftly labeled the attacks “terrorism” and bluntly called an Australian lawmaker’s suggestion of a link between Muslim immigration and violence “a disgrace.”
“Ardern’s performance has been extraordinary – and I believe she will be strongly lauded for it both domestically and internationally,” political commentator Bryce Edwards told Reuters.
What happened? Just something simple:
When she went to Christchurch on Saturday, a day after the attacks, Ardern visited members of the refugee and Muslim community. Dressed in black and wearing a Muslim-style headscarf known as a hijab, she tearfully told them that the whole country was “united in grief.”
Wearing hijab was “a sign of respect,” wrote Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian American journalist and commentator.
That worked. The small local Muslim community was relieved. The rest of the country was proud that she represented all of them as decent good people, even if they knew nothing about Islam and didn’t care to know anything about it. This was about common decency, and common decency that was more than talk:
It was not just her dress that won her more fans abroad. Many people also praised her pledge to cover the funeral costs of all 50 victims and offer financial assistance to the families, as well as her swift action on gun control. Her government will introduce gun measures in Parliament next week.
This was pretty straightforward. This is a problem. Fix it. Fix it right now. And they will fix it, but something has changed:
The fact that a world leader covered her hair to meet Muslims quickly became a symbol of Ardern’s approach. One particular photo captured the public imagination. It is a photo of Ardern, listening intently with an agonized look on her face and her hands clasped together. It has been shared widely on social networks, lauded as a portrait of a compassionate leader.
Faiza Ali, a community organizer in New York, tweeted the photo, calling Ardern a “remarkable leader.”
The Crisis Magazine, the official publication of the NAACP, also tweeted the photo, saying Ardern showed “Dignity. Grace. Courage.”
And that tweet ended with this: “Real leaders do exist.”
They were there all along, hidden until a crisis reveals them as real leaders, or reveals them to be useless as in this:
Other U.S. presidents have decried horror abroad as an affront to values shared among liberal democratic allies, but Trump has made no major address to mourn those gunned down last week as they worshiped at mosques in New Zealand. He has not condemned the professed white-supremacist motives of the accused killer.
Instead, Trump has spent the past few days, including the hours before and after a church service, rallying his most loyal supporters around his nationalist agenda against illegal immigration, attacking a familiar list of perceived enemies and adding new ones, all while casting himself as a victim of unfair attacks.
It was a weekend of nonstop grievances from the leader of the free world.
He didn’t exactly rise to the occasion, and Jennifer Rubin sees this:
Since President Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and the appointment of a special counsel, Trump’s mental and emotional health has seemed to fray. The pace of lies and nonsensical accusations, the resort to conspiracy theories and refusal to conduct himself like an adult (let alone the president) often pick up in the wake of bad news from the special counsel and widespread criticism of the president’s unhinged behavior. So it was this weekend following his refusal to directly condemn white nationalism in the wake of the New Zealand massacre and the defection of 12 Senate Republicans last week on the resolution repealing the emergency declaration.
And it wasn’t pretty, just a blast of smears:
Trump attacked deceased senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he falsely accused of leaking the Steele dossier and who he falsely said finished “last in his class” at Annapolis. (He finished fifth from last. Since Trump’s attorney went around allegedly threatening schools Trump attended, we have no way of knowing how Trump performed in school.) Anti-Trump activist Sarah Longwell observed that the worst part of this was “the way so many Republicans just let them slide or even cheer them. John McCain was tortured in a prison camp for five years in service to this country. The least his party could do is to defend him from Trump’s dishonorable smears.”
That’s beyond the moral capacity of nearly all elected Republicans these days.
McCain is the coward and loser and traitor now, and Trump is the war hero, or would have been, or something. Lindsey Graham, McCain’s best friend, and a Trump supporter, is still trying to get himself to say that. But he will betray his best friend sooner or later, for Trump. That’s how things are trending, and, by the way, a hijab has nothing to do with respect:
Trump also retweeted conspiracy theorists and griped that Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who suggested that Muslims who wear a hijab are anti-Constitution, had been taken off the air (for how long we do not know). He lashed out at other less-than-reverential Fox News hosts, at a “Saturday Night Live” rerun and at a leader of the United Auto Workers over a GM plant closing in Ohio. He seemed to be in a weekend-long temper tantrum…
Trump’s manic tweeting and wild accusations have George Conway, husband of presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, convinced that “his condition is getting worse.”
That’s a reasonable assessment, but not reasonable to all:
As usual, his Republican defenders claim it’s only words… they have essentially come to the conclusion that it’s of no consequence to them if Trump inspires right-wing nationalists, convinces our allies that he’s mentally unstable and trashes democratic norms. Hey, the rich got their tax cut, and the party got conservative judges, so what’s the big deal? There is nothing Trump could do or say that will shake the Trump cult’s defense, nor call into question its moral calculus in accepting monstrous behavior and words (no matter how racist, unhinged and dangerous) in exchange for its own financial gain, some “law and order judges” (judges must defend law and order, but not the president, I suppose) and delight in seeing other Americans mortified, frightened or endangered by Trump’s stirring of racial, ethnic and religious animosity.
That’s harsh, but Bill Kristol tweeted this:
To Republicans who’ve been inclined to acquiesce in a Trump re-nomination in 2020: Read his tweets this morning. Think seriously about his mental condition and psychological state. Then tell me you’re fine with him as president of the United States for an additional four years.
To that, Rubin adds this:
Most Republicans are fine with Trump, or say they are. They have tax cuts and some judges, so what do they care if the presidency is sullied, racial anger builds, the United States’ reputation in the world is damaged, decency and objective truth are obliterated, and none of our real challenges (e.g. income inequality, climate change) are addressed? Republicans will still tell you that they are victims of liberal elites. In their minds, Trump is just evening the score on their behalf.
And they’re fine with hating Muslims, as Jonathan Chait notes here:
The man who murdered 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, has hailed President Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity.” But Trump’s supporters piously deny he is any such thing. “If you find yourself using the tragedy in New Zealand to take backhanded swipes at conservatives in America – many of my colleagues already have – then you really have no shame and you are part of the problem,” complains Texas representative Dan Crenshaw. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appeared on Face the Nation to insist, “I don’t think anybody can say that the president is anti-Muslim.”
Chait finds that absurd, given recent history:
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration made a concerted effort to distinguish between the radical sectarians who carried out the attacks and the broader Muslim population. By the end of the Bush era, though, nativist hysteria was bubbling up from the grassroots, as evidenced by vivid scenes from McCain–Palin campaign stops in which delirious Republican voters voiced paranoid theories that Barack Obama was a secret Arab or Muslim.
During Obama’s presidency, control of the Republican line on Muslims unmistakably passed into the hands of the bigots. Trump, who led the birther crusade, played a key role in this change. While Trump usually confined his racist sentiments about the African-American community to private conversations, he regularly articulated slanders against the Muslim community in public. He spread the lie that thousands of American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks. He insinuated that Ghazala Khan, a Muslim-American Gold Star mother whose husband spoke at the Democratic National Convention, “wasn’t allowed” to speak publicly. He claimed “Islam hates us,” and has deliberately refused to recognize a distinction between radical Islamists and the broader population: “It’s very hard to separate, because you don’t know who is who.”
And one thing leads to another:
Trump naturally attracted and promoted the most viciously anti-Islamic figures within his party. His first strategist, Steve Bannon, calls Islam “a religion of submission” and has tried to build a global religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, made wild public claims like, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” They attempted to enact a Muslim travel ban, later couched in euphemism, as an effort to prevent a “multidimensional and multigenerational” threat from Muslim-American communities – enshrining into official policy the notion that Muslim-Americans posed an inherent security threat and could not assimilate.
And so there’s this:
The president’s enablers long for him to give them some plausible basis to claim that he is free and clear of animus against Muslims. But he has not bothered to hide his intentions. It is telling that the party’s response to this refusal is either to ignore the president’s undisguised bigotry or to lie on his behalf.
They’ll lie on his behalf. He’s really a fine fellow. He loves everyone. No. Peter Wehner sees a damaged soul and a disordered personality:
A culture lives or dies based on its allegiance to unwritten rules of conduct and unstated norms, on the signals sent about what kind of conduct constitutes good character and honor and what kind of conduct constitutes dishonor and corruption. Like each of us, our leaders are all too human, flawed and imperfect. But that reality can’t make us indifferent or cynical when it comes to holding those in authority to reasonable moral standards. After all, cultures are shaped by the words and deeds that leaders, including political leaders, validate or invalidate.
“To his equals he was condescending; to his inferiors kind; and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender,” Henry Lee said in his eulogy of George Washington. “Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.”
But the other reason we should pay attention to the tweets and other comments by the president is that they are shafts of light that illuminate not only his damaged soul, but his disordered personality.
Wehner says there’s no way around that assessment:
It doesn’t take a person with an advanced degree in psychology to see Trump’s narcissism and lack of empathy, his vindictiveness and pathological lying, his impulsivity and callousness, his inability to be guided by norms, or his shamelessness and dehumanization of those who do not abide his wishes. His condition is getting worse, not better—and there are now fewer people in the administration able to contain the president and act as a check on his worst impulses.
This constellation of characteristics would be worrisome in a banker or a high-school teacher, in an aircraft machinist or a warehouse manager, in a gas-station attendant or a truck driver. To have them define the personality of an American president is downright alarming.
Whether the worst scenarios come to pass or not is right now unknowable, but what we do know is that the president is a person who seems to draw energy and purpose from maliciousness and transgressive acts, from creating enmity among people of different races, religions, and backgrounds, and from attacking the weak, the honorable, and even the dead.
Donald Trump is not well, and as long as he is president, our nation is not safe.
One does not attack the dead:
Meghan McCain said Monday that President Trump is leading a “pathetic life” as she escalated her pushback against Trump’s weekend attacks on Twitter against her late father.
“He spends his weekend obsessing over great men, because he knows it, and I know it, and all of you know it, he will never be a great man,” McCain, a co-host of ABC’s “The View,” said of Trump during Monday’s episode.
Something is very wrong here:
She remembered how before his death nearly seven months ago from brain cancer, John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, would spend time with her and others in the family cooking, hiking and fishing on the weekends.
Upon seeing derogatory tweets about her father over the weekend, Meghan McCain said she thought “your life is spent on your weekends not with your family, not with your friends, but obsessing, obsessing over great men you could never live up to.”
And there’s this:
Abby Huntsman, Meghan McCain’s co-host on “The View,” voiced support for her colleague on Monday.
“Proud of my good friend @MeghanMcCain for staying so composed through this nonsense,” Huntsman said in a tweet. “The McCain family doesn’t deserve it and neither does this great country. Leadership and decency may not matter on a reality show, but it sure as hell matters when you’re running the free world.”
Leadership and decency do matter, but crises reveal character. Leadership and decency popped up in New Zealand. Jacinda Ardern had that in her, waiting for crisis that was sure to come. She showed who she was all along. And that’s what Donald Trump just did. He showed who he was all along, and that’s worse than anything anyone imagined.
Now what? We all can’t move to New Zealand.