Will and Ariel Durant wrote the eleven volumes of The Story of Civilization between 1935 and 1975 – their review of all of Western history, for the general reader, not the specialist – while they were living out here in California, in Pasadena. Perhaps all of Western civilization is best seen from the outside, but California is civilized enough. And it felt right to drop off the completed election ballot this year at the official drop box in front of the Will and Ariel Durant Public Library on Sunset Boulevard, just around the corner from the old Charlie Chaplin Studios where he filmed both Modern Times and the Great Dictator. That seemed like the civilized thing to do. That’s how one should vote (early) for civilization.
That may be what this election is about. In the last ten days before Election Day – which, as a specific day, doesn’t mean much now with all the early voting in all forms now complete – that’s how many framed this election. This election is about civilization itself, or at least about our civic life. Maureen Dowd, who won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, frames that this way:
During the Barack Obama comet streak in 2008, a lot of Americans were electrified by the idea of leaping into modernity with a brainy, young, Black cool cat.
Now a lot of Americans seem resigned yet relieved to step back in time with a sentimental old-school Irish pol who was born the year Bing Crosby topped the charts with “White Christmas.”
Back to a time when the president did not rubbish people like an insult comic. Back to a time when the president did not peddle his own lethal reality. Back to a time when the president cared about the whole country, not just the part that voted for him. Back to a time when the president didn’t dismiss science, treat the Justice Department like his personal legal defense firm, besmirch the intelligence community, and denigrate the FBI for not doing his bidding. Back to a time when the president behaved like an adult, not a delinquent.
You can only let King Kong, as Don McGahn, Trump’s first White House counsel, dubbed his former boss, smash up the metropolis for so long.
The man is just not civilized:
He began his presidency with an epic tantrum about pictures showing that his Inaugural crowd could not compare with Obama’s.
And now he could be ending his presidency with another epic tantrum about crowd size. After Lesley Stahl trolled him during a “60 Minutes” taping, saying, “You used to have bigger rallies,” you could almost see steam pouring out of the president’s ears. He stormed out of the interview a short while later.
He may be finishing right where he started, focused on himself.
And then there’s the other guy:
Biden’s appeal comes from his own struggles. He was a working-class kid who stuttered. He was an adult who suffered terrible losses. He was not coddled by a rich father who was always there to bail him out of a jam. Biden is an empath, Trump a sociopath.
Somehow Trump grew aggrieved buoyed by family money in a Fifth Avenue penthouse, while Biden remained optimistic despite the fates throwing down one lightning bolt after another.
“Biden feels others’ pain,” said the Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio. “Trump doesn’t even feel his own.”
And that makes civilization impossible. We have to understand each other’s pain, even if we don’t feel it – empathy, not necessarily sympathy – or nothing gets done for anyone. Charles Blow sees that in a specific way:
At the moment, Joe Biden is leading in the polls, but the fact that Trump is even close – and still has a chance, however slim, to be re-elected – is for a person like me, a Black man, astounding. I assume that there are many women, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans and people from Haiti and African nations he disparaged who feel the same way.
But it is what it is:
Trump is the president of the United States because a majority of white people in this country wanted him to be. Perhaps some supported him despite his obvious flaws, but others undoubtedly saw those flaws as laudable attributes. For the latter, Trump’s racism was welcome in the coven.
Still, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, more white people support Trump than Biden. This is primarily a function of white men who prefer Trump over Biden 57 percent to 36 percent. Most white women support Biden, which is a reversal from the last election, when a plurality voted for Trump.
That’s new, but that doesn’t change the situation:
The white racist, sexist, xenophobic patriarchy and all those who benefit from or aspire to it are in a battle with the rest of us, for not only the present in this country but also the future of it.
This is actually a clash of civilizations and Blow sees this:
Trump’s base of mostly white men, mostly without a college degree, see him as the ambassador of their anger, one who ministers to their fear, consoles their losses and champions their victimhood. Trump is the angry white man leading the battle charge for angry white men.
The most optimistic among us see the Trump era as some sort of momentary insanity, half of the nation under the spell of a conjurer. They believe that the country can be reunited and this period forgotten.
I am not one of those people.
No Black man should be:
Donald Trump is fighting for white power and white heritage – he mourns the loss of “beautiful” monuments to racists while attacking racial sensitivity training. He is fighting to keep out foreigners, unless they are from countries like Norway, an overwhelmingly white country. He is fighting for people to be foolish, like not wearing a mask in the middle of a global pandemic caused by an airborne virus.
But in an odd way that makes sense:
Trump is fighting for these people and they will continue to fight for him. Trump knows that. And he keeps them angry because he needs them angry. There is a strong chance that Trump won’t win the coming election, but there is also a strong chance that he will win a majority of white men.
The question then is how an angry Trump and those angry men will react to defeat and humiliation.
Will they be civilized and civil about it? Maybe they’ve already given up on civic duty. That’s what Philip Rucker and his team at the Washington Post report here:
The presidential campaign was roiled this weekend by a fresh outbreak of the novel coronavirus at the White House that infected at least five aides or advisers to Vice President Pence, a spread that President Trump’s top staffer acknowledged Sunday he had tried to avoid disclosing to the public.
With the election a little over a week away, the new White House outbreak spotlighted the administration’s failure to contain the pandemic as hospitalizations surge across much of the United States and daily new cases hit all-time highs.
Yes, they didn’t do their duty, and now they say they have no reason to do their duty:
The outbreak around Pence, who chairs the White House’s coronavirus task force, undermines the argument Trump has been making to voters that the country is “rounding the turn,” as the president put it at a rally Sunday in New Hampshire.
Further complicating Trump’s campaign-trail pitch was an extraordinary admission Sunday from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that the administration had effectively given up on trying to slow the virus’s spread.
“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said on CNN’s State of the Union. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigations.”
But that’s it. Forget masks. Forget social distancing. Forget all the testing to show who has what and where. And the reaction was swift:
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who regularly wears a mask on the campaign trail and strictly adheres to social distancing guidelines, sought to capitalize on the remark.
“This wasn’t a slip by Meadows; it was a candid acknowledgment of what President Trump’s strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away,” Biden said in a statement. “It hasn’t, and it won’t.”
We’re all in this together! No, we’re not! Well, it’s complicated:
The outbreak in Pence’s orbit comes roughly three weeks after Trump was hospitalized with the virus and a number of his advisers tested positive. Officials said the new list of those infected includes the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short; his top outside political adviser, Marty Obst; his personal aide Zach Bauer, known as a “body man,” who accompanies him throughout his day; and two other staff members.
Pence has been in close contact with Short in recent days, but spokesman Devin O’Malley said the vice president and second lady Karen Pence both tested negative for the virus on Saturday and again Sunday and have been “in good health.”
Some White House aides said they did not want attention on the outbreak because it would highlight the pandemic in the final week of the campaign and raise questions about the administration’s handling of it.
What people don’t know won’t hurt them? That seems to be the idea here:
The vice president continued Sunday with his heavy travel schedule, flying to North Carolina for an evening rally in Kinston. He told aides that he was determined to keep up his appearances through the week despite his potential exposure, irrespective of guidelines, officials said. Some aides said they would have preferred tele-rallies because if the vice president is infected while on the road in the final days of the campaign, it is likely to become a major news story for several days.
On Monday, Pence is expected to visit the Capitol to preside over the Senate vote to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Oh hell, let him infect the whole Senate. That seems likely now:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people stay home for 14 days following possible exposure and to socially distance at all times. The CDC allows an exemption for “critical infrastructure workers” who are not experiencing symptoms so long as they socially distance and cover their faces at all times.
Meadows defended the characterization of Pence’s campaign activity as “essential” work, and said the vice president had assured him late Saturday night that he would socially distance and wear a mask except for when he is delivering remarks.
He’s just the same as any doctor in an overwhelmed ICU trying to save lives? That seems a stretch. But it’s all a stretch:
New coronavirus cases in the United States reached an all-time high on Friday and hospitalizations have soared, surpassing the mark set during the summer as cases spiked across the Sun Belt in particular.
Cases this fall have been rising rapidly in a number of Republican-leaning states and counties, according a recent analysis of health data by Harvard University scientists.
Campaigning over the weekend, Trump tried to present an alternate reality. At a rally Sunday in Londonderry, N.H., Trump said the pandemic would soon end thanks to a potential vaccine, which he said was “going to be delivered fast.”
“That will quickly end the pandemic – it’s ending anyway,” Trump said.
No, it isn’t ending anyway:
Biden has made the pandemic the centerpiece of his campaign pitch and has tried to hammer Trump for mishandling the crisis.
“I told him at the debate, we’re not learning how to live with it. We’re learning how to die with it! And it’s wrong,” Biden said Saturday at a drive-in rally in Bristol, Pa., an outer-ring suburb of Philadelphia.
Politico takes it from there:
The U.S. hit a record number of new cases on Friday – 83,010 – as infections and hospitalizations climb across much of the country. Deaths are also beginning to rise again, to a seven-day average of almost 800 per day. In total, the U.S. has reported about 8.58 million infections, with the death toll at nearly 225,000.
But a Trump campaign official contended that Trump should not be judged on the number of cases, which are spiking everywhere in the world.
Even on Sunday, White House staffers were spotted without masks and Trump continues to hold massive rallies that flout state health guidelines.
“Until a vaccine, we take reasonable precautions and get back toward normalcy,” the official said on Sunday. “We won’t cower and let the virus dominate us. Joe Biden is a fear candidate, total submission – to the virus, and to China.”
What? No one may be buying that:
Pence, whose staff said he’d tested negative on Sunday, will continue to headline campaign events as is allowed for essential workers, according to his office. He has changed the way he campaigns – wearing a mask more often, keeping his distance from attendees, skipping local media interviews and traveling with fewer people, according to two senior administration officials.
This puts Covid front and center in the final days of the campaign, one outsider Trump adviser said.
“You have highlighted the most important issue of this campaign and offered no solutions, no sensitivity and made Americans think you don’t get it,” the person said. “Not smart.”
Yes, someone’s not smart:
On Sunday, Trump continued to talk about a litany of issues – from mocking Biden for not campaigning frequently, to his success in negotiating for an upgraded Air Force One – while campaigning in New Hampshire and Maine. When he did speak about the pandemic, he touted the administration’s successes and blamed the level of testing for the rise in cases.
“The president wants everyone to be safe and take precautions, but we cannot allow the coronavirus to drive us into the basement and lock the country down again,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director. “The president is the candidate who will continue to reopen the country and lead the ongoing comeback, while Joe Biden is the candidate of lockdowns.”
No, Sleepy Joe just wants to keep people alive. Someone needs to do that, to keep civilization alive. The Guardian’s Jude Rogers and Andrew Anthony interview key players about this, starting with Bob Woodward:
There is an atmosphere in Washington of high anxiety. Trump is melting down, to put it charitably. His campaign has been about lashing out, about wanting his former political opponents – President Obama and Joe Biden, who’s now running against him, of course – to be indicted then charged. Then there was his announcement that he is not necessarily going to accept the electoral result against him. The idea that the president would put in doubt the basic process of democracy and voting is not only unacceptable, it is a nightmare.
Now you have the added factor that Trump’s also had Covid-19 and he’s on steroids, saying things like, “It is a blessing from God that I got the virus”. I can’t think of anything more absurd, or crueller, than calling it a blessing from God. More than 210,000 people have died in the US. For the president of the US to talk like that is unbelievable, but I think people have become numb to it. The outrages pile up, in a way. People have forgotten the risks.
And that’s how civilizations end:
Trump is not sufficiently tuned into the attitudes and experiences of other people, which is an essential requirement of a leader. After George Floyd was killed, I asked him about the tensions ignited in this country not seen since the heights of the civil rights movement. I said we were men of white privilege, that we’ve got to understand the pain and anger black people feel in this country. That’s when he said something that astonished me: “Wow, you sure drank the Kool-Aid! I don’t feel that at all.”
He just rejected the idea that somehow white people have to understand the pain and anger of others. I think that’s one of his chief problems. He thinks in terms of his own pain and anger, and what he wants to do, which is to be re-elected.
And there’s this:
Looking to the aftermath of the election, Trump’s set the table to say that if he doesn’t win, he’s going to be suspicious of mail-in votes. I think the question is: if he loses, will his political party get together and go see him and talk to him, and say, you can’t do this? You can’t do it to the Republican party and most importantly you can’t do it to the country.
And there’s this:
We are sitting on pins and needles in this country about every moment, every action, every assessment, and it is draining. I think lots of people have got to the point where they are tuning Trump and the political situation out as well as they can.
Unfortunately, the impacts on people’s lives carry on, given the virus, given there’s no plan, or organized way of dealing with this. It’s all seat-of-the-pants impulsive decision-making. I can’t think of a time – and I’ve been a reporter for nearly 50 years – where I’ve felt more anxiety about the country and the presidency and the future.
And there’s Mary Trump, the psychologist and the niece of Donald Trump.
My theory about the way Donald has run his campaign is that he knows he’s in desperate shape, so he’s going to burn it all down, sow more chaos and division, because that’s where he succeeds. He knows that he’s losing – he’ll deny it mightily – and at some level he understands what’s at stake. If he loses, he’s probably going to prison. So, if he’s going down, he’s going to take us all down with him.
So, he’ll burn it all down:
I’ve always believed that deep down Donald is a terrified little boy. The amount of fear he’s feeling now has got to be unhinging him. Not only did he get sick with the virus, there’s the tax story and his prospects in the election looking really bad right now. He’s got to be absolutely panicked.
And he has no sense of civilization as we know it:
Throughout the campaign I thought that the absolute worst scenario would be for him to get the virus and then get well. I know that sounds awful. He’s ignored the severity of the pandemic all year because the idea of illness as weakness is so deeply ingrained in my family, that even an association with it is unacceptable, and that’s why now we’ve got 210,000 Americans dead. But now his statement – you can beat it, don’t be afraid of it – is going to result in more people becoming sick, and many of those will die. Even before he said that, I believed he was engaging in mass murder, but that sealed it for me. Anybody who’s capable of putting hundreds of millions of people at risk to avoid looking bad doesn’t care about you.
That is how civilizations end. And then there’s Anthony Scaramucci, the White House director of communications from July 2017 who lasted eleven days on the job:
In our country we’re so polarized now you have to hate the person you disagree with. But I don’t hate Donald Trump. If anything, I’m somewhat sympathetic to him because there’s obviously something wrong with him. There’s a screw loose and you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that. You just have to look at the manic behaviour, the absurdity, the lack of maturity. He’s not a fully developed adult. He’s out there doing ridiculous things and I fear for the world and I fear for the country. There’s something wrong with him and the people around him are too afraid of him to intervene on his behalf.
Fear for the world and fear for the country seem appropriate. It would be nice to save civilization, or at least some part of it. But this is going to be difficult.