It was a great man — OK, it was Barry Manilow — who famously said ... looks like we made it. Today is the last full day of Donald Trump’s presidency, and if the news accounts are correct, he’s cramping his right hand with his pardon pen, offering a get-out-of-jail free card to any and all members of his Friends and Family plan. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, because the Joe Biden era won’t be as boring as you want it to be.
Trump may have been a deranged narcissist, but it’s America that needs to look in the mirror
This column had better be good, because it’s been in my head for more than four years. There’s a lot of things I barely remember about 2016, like who was in the outfield for my hapless Phillies, but I still remember the pieces I fully expected to write on or about November 9 and 10 of that year. One was a warning to President-elect Hillary Clinton, that now that she’d become the first woman elected president in U.S. history, she’d better tackle problems like poisonous new oil pipelines, or face the 2020 wrath of leftists like me. The other, maybe more important one was to ask how America had come so perilously close to making a neo-fascist demagogue like Donald Trump the 45th POTUS.
I mean, whew! ... right?
Instead, history and more than 62 million angry Americans who lived in exactly the right combo of states caused me to wait an additional four years and two months to try to answer that basic question: What is the true meaning of Trump?
Frankly, I’d have preferred to have answered that question without the thousands of Americans who died needlessly because an inept, hostile-to-science U.S. government botched the coronavirus every step of the way, without the refugee toddlers torn away from their mothers, without the coddling of murderous foreign dictators, without the cruel late surge of state-sanctioned murder (a.k.a. executions), and certainly without the insurrectionist mob that shut down Congress and slowed the counting of the Electoral College vote while leaving five dead people in its wake.
True, the glass containing an American flavor of fascism is half-empty as Trump’s getaway jet idles at Andrews Air Force base, but it is also half-full. When you base your argument around the point that Trump wasn’t Hitler because he didn’t operate death camps, I think you’ve already lost. Whether Trump was Hitler or Mussolini or merely Silvio Berlusconi is a barroom argument, but in the reality-based world we’ve watched the fundamentals of American democracy — that the presidency isn’t there to enrich your family business, that the Founders didn’t mean the pardon power to apply to your cronies, that the Justice Department doesn’t exist to punish your enemies, that the winner of an election is the guy with the most votes — pushed to the brink. It’s not totalitarianism, but it’s definitely not keeping a republic.
In the end, the question that America needs to answer — when we’re finally ready to tackle the true meaning of Trump — isn’t about the nature of the delusional narcissist who travelled with the nuclear football these last four years, but about what’s going on with the 74 million folks who this November thought that giving this man the power to destroy Planet Earth was such a good idea in the first place. While Trump may be the dictionary definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, with his psychopathic obsessions with crowd size or TV ratings, it’s America that needs to be staring at a mirror.
After all, it’s pretty clear that Trump was just a bizarre and particularly aggravating symptom of the diseases — extreme patriarchy, white supremacy, xenophobia — that have been festering under the skin of American politics for decades. Only when his presidential campaign broke out so crudely in 2015 like a skin rash or a hideous boil did millions of folks belatedly realize it was finally time to seek medical attention. Trump may have groped or harassed two dozen women, but he didn’t start the fire of sexism in the workplace or around reproductive rights. The 45th president might have crassly cheered on police brutality, but he wasn’t in the Oval Office when cops gunned down Michael Brown or Tamir Rice.
Like any political demagogue — or real-estate huckster — Trump’s only talent was tapping into the status anxiety that was already there. The Rust Belt’s alienated, occasional voters paid no mind to Mitt Romney’s awkward “binders full of women,” but they packed arenas to chant, “Lock! Her! Up!” and “CNN Sucks!” Those dopamine rushes drove Trump’s converts to seek new ways to get high, like the conspiracy-on-crack of QAnon. Trump is (apparently) leaving the White House, but he didn’t leave a kill switch, or any other way — besides maybe the FBI’s handcuffs — to shut off the monster that occupied the U.S. Capitol for five hours on January 6.
What is the fix for the mess that Trump leaves behind? The best model we have is 1933, another moment when America’s situation seemed so bleak that some otherwise sensible people wondered if it was time for a dictatorship. Instead, Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal that — over time (and skewed toward white men, its fatal flaw in the long run) — built a prosperous middle class and sought creative ways to re-engage citizens including writers and artists, or nature causes like conservation, that restored faith in the American Experiment.
FDR’s home remedies are very much in line with what President-elect (for one more day) Biden should be doing in his first 100 days — building back the working class, whether it’s in Biden-voting North Philly or Trump-fried East Ohio, and looking at outside-the-box ideas like mandatory civilian national service that would help young people from red states and blue states find common cause. The only cure for a president who metastasized everything that’s wrong with America will be a massive shot in the arm of what’s right with America. Tomorrow can truly be a new day.
Yo, do this
The 1960s. Pro sports. Classic soul music. And a heavy debate about race and politics in America. If you asked an algorithm to create a Hollywood movie based upon the zeitgeist of The Will Bunch Newsletter, it would surely spit out the new One Night in Miami, streaming on Amazon Prime. The directorial debut of the multi-talented Regina King tells a fictionalized version of an event that really happened — the night in 1964 when the about-to-become Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight crown and celebrated with Malcolm X, crooner Sam Cooke and football’s Jim Brown. The unlikely foursome has just one thing in common — Black Power — and their struggles in how to make that work echo loudly some 57 years later.
A great song is one that jumps right out of your car radio, and I can’t think of an opening riff in the long history of rock ‘n’ roll any better than the electrifying first seconds of “You Get What You Give,” the 1998 smash by New Radicals. The group promptly disappeared for more than two decades, one-hit wonders of the 1990s — until now. Left-leaning music buffs were both stunned and thrilled to hear the group is reuniting Wednesday as the closer of a late afternoon, virtual “Parade Across America” that’s part of Joe Biden’s inauguration, replacing the traditional slog down Pennsylvania Avenue. If this is a preview of Biden’s ability to bring people back together, then maybe let’s start looking for extra room on Mt. Rushmore.
Ask me anything
Question: If you could talk to any political person in history right now and ask them their thoughts about what’s going on in this country right now who would it be and why? — Via @dandylionet on Twitter
Answer: As I write this on the night of January 18, 2021, it’s hard to think of anyone else beside the man America honored on that day, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Who could better cut through all the baloney about what the January 6 Capitol insurrection was really all about? Meanwhile, I was disgusted on Monday’s holiday with all the GOP politicians and even Trump’s ridiculous 1776 Commission insisting that King’s words on “the content of one’s character” meant he opposed affirmative action, when the civil rights leader was an ardent supporter of it.
They say lost causes are the ones with fighting for — but the reality is more complicated, right? I mean, the Confederacy and Donald Trump were both capital-letter Lost Causes, but ultimately immoral ones. On the other hand, there are some lost causes — think about Nelson Mandela’s journey from an island prison to the presidency of South Africa, or Václav Havel doing the same in Czechoslovakia — that restore your faith in humanity. Closer to home, the Keystone XL pipeline carrying Alberta’s dirty tar-sands oil to refineries and ports in Louisiana— backed by powerful economic and political forces in both the United States and Canada — sure looked like a fait accompli in 2011 when the Vermont-based environmental activist Bill McKibben organized a stunning protest that ringed Barack Obama’s White House and laid down the gauntlet: Stopping new. large-scale fossil-fuel projects, and the climate change they accelerate, was from now on a matter of life-or-death for Planet Earth.
The audacious protests worked, for a time — Obama used his authority to halt the pipeline in 2012 — but President Trump reversed that and greenlighted the project on only his third day in office in 2017. For the last four years, environmentalists have worked hard to tie up Keystone XL in court, in the long-shot hope of stalling until the election of a climate-friendly Democratic president. Add this to the short list of lost causes that paid off. This weekend, sources with the incoming Joe Biden administration let word leak: The 46th president will indeed take action to kill the still-unbuilt pipeline extension very shortly after taking office on Wednesday. It’s an acknowledgement of reality — increasingly, big banks are viewing these fossil fuel projects as dinosaurs — but also a green shoot of hope for a cleaner future.
Inquirer reading list
Perhaps oddly, I didn’t write a column last week about the president of United States getting impeached (again), maybe a commentary on how Donald Trump radically changed our expectations. But I did ruminate, in my Sunday column, about what it meant for the future of Congress that about 140 GOP lawmakers endorsed The Big Lie that Trump somehow won the 2020 election, and how some may have aided and abetted the January 6 insurrection. The insurrectionists must be expelled, and the liars must come clean.
This weekend, the 92nd birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me to think about the white supremacy that he died fighting, how it keeps bouncing back every time America tries to take a step forward on racial progress, and whether the nation can finally bend the arc of the moral universe a little closer to justice.
This week Philadelphia says a long overdue goodbye — for now, anyway — to one of the worst influences on civic life in recent years: Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney William McSwain. We’ll never know how many people died needlessly because of his unfortunately successful efforts to block a safe-injection site here, or how much energy toward fighting actual crime was squandered by his obsession with trying to score political points against progressive DA Larry Krasner. My colleague Abraham Gutman wrote a proper send-off to McSwain and begged the Biden administration to find “a partner, not adversary, in the city’s criminal justice reform efforts.” Do you want to hold public officials like McSwain to account? Subscribe to the Inquirer. It’s what we do here.