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Soundings

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Maureen Dowd, the long-time and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, raised searching and important questions and concerns in her column of May 4, 2019, as she discussed whether Robert Mueller had foolishly trusted in the integrity of his old friend and now attorney general, William Barr. Her column responded to a claim by former FBI Director James Comey in a recent Times essay:

Sorry, James Comey. You’re wrong again.

Donald Trump does not eat ‘your soul in small bites,’ as you wrote in a Times Op-Ed. He devours the entire thing in one big gulp.

The transformation of William Barr from respected establishment lawyer to evil genius outplaying and undermining his old friend Robert Mueller is a Grand Guignol spectacle.

At many of the most consequential moments in American history, I have watched officials bend over backward to be equitable, only to end up faltering and doing enormous damage to the Republic.

It is possible to be ‘fair’ in a way that is not at all fair.

It’s simply bad judgment, ceding the ground to malevolent actors who use any means to achieve their ends, including flattening and sliming the proponents of ‘fairness.’[1]

In that same commentary, Dowd likewise considered former Vice President Joseph Biden, who has predicated his presidential bid on the basis of an argument that not all Republicans are untrustworthy and ‘malevolent,’ but that it is Trump who is the problem and his narcissism, mendaciousness and cruelty.[2] In this view, the GOP can be dragged back from the brink of a catastrophe of its own devising by the defeat of its current leader, who has repudiated the very idea of integrity as well as all that his adopted Party has in recent decades held dear. In fact, it is difficult to know what Trump stands for today, except perhaps, ensuring his personal power via hatred, shoring-up the economic and political standing of those who possess great wealth, and supporting policies that will result in the persecution of vulnerable groups and the continued decline of the nation’s middle class. His party’s leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have nonetheless supported Trump vigorously, on the view, apparently, that he has the allegiance of most Republican partisans and that securing their own personal power requires such a stance.

In this same essay, while analyzing the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination debate in which Biden also figured and which she covered as a reporter, Dowd portrayed the then Senator’s view of the controversy as both craven and naïve, even as she analogously argued that Mueller was simply too decent in assuming the best of the Attorney General and should never have imagined that Barr would behave with anything other than the lack of integrity and unscrupulousness he has evidenced. Other analysts have criticized Biden as currently naïve as well and suggested that he just does not “get” that the nation forever shifted with Trump’s election. These commentators have argued that Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have called for sweeping change, with or without the GOP as partners, understand the electoral firmament far more deeply.[3]

While it seems to me that one surely could ask whether Robert Mueller was too trusting in the integrity of his long-time colleague or that Biden has for too long been unduly willing to offer the same trust to his Republican contemporaries more generally, I wonder if that is really the right question or the most important issue at play in this discussion. It certainly could be that Mueller misjudged the meanness and smallness of this administration and what it meant that Barr elected to join it. Nonetheless, that contention could be true and still not demonstrate that it would have been best for the polity had Mueller adopted a similarly tortured view of his role as Barr and undermined his hard won integrity, that of the institutions and Constitution he was sworn to uphold, and his personal trustworthiness in so doing.

For Biden, too, it is interesting to ask whether it is sufficient to excoriate him for seeking to contend as he seeks election that the United States remains one nation and not merely a barony comprised of tribes warring at the behest of otherwise fickle leaders. Even if one concludes that this situation really arose because Biden and Mueller and others were too trusting and too willing to assume the best of GOP officials, one should explore what it would be like to reside in a nation of social and political relationships characterized by the brutishness this argument implies. Indeed, in the extreme, one might wonder if one could have a society at all in such conditions, or whether it would descend into Thomas Hobbes’ postulated “war of all against all.”[4]  In any case, one surely could not operate our present economy absent the social trust that Dowd’s analysis suggests should not, at least in principle, be extended in politics, lest one be “used,” duped or worse.

There remains a deeper dimension to this argument and challenge: If Dowd and other analysts’ assessments are correct, there is little likelihood that the citizenry could respond to calls for alternative behavior. Instead, if a majority are “Trumplicans” (to use a term spotted on a T-shirt at a recent rally for the president) now, one may not argue that one can appeal to the electorate to change course, precisely because they are, by definition, incapable or unwilling to see any other as desirous. It would be useful to inquire why that was so, whether the result of fear, hatred, discrimination or some combination of these or other factors, but these causes suggest that a citizenry willing to support Trump and the GOP today would be unlikely to adopt a wholesale shift in its perspective simply because someone argued it was in their individual or, more importantly, collective interest to do so.

Nevertheless, I want to suggest that this need not be so. Trump’s politics is not so widely accepted or so widely perceived as appropriate, as Dowd’s contention assumes. He remains a minority-elected President and an unpopular one. The question may not be one of a changed, and now thoroughly Machiavellian self-interested majority, but instead one of how to mobilize non-Trump voters to the polls amidst their disaffection and incredulity at what their governance has become. It seems clear that the president’s enthusiasts will show up. The issue is on what basis Trump’s would-be opponents should press their campaigns to gain the support of the majority of this country’s citizens. I can imagine no worse foundation for such an effort than presuming that voters can only be mobilized on the basis of cruelty and hatemongering.  In sum, Dowd’s assumptions undermine the basis on which our regime was founded while simultaneously asking nothing of the country’s citizens to support those principles. That contention has matters exactly wrong in a democratic society and I hope at least some of our political officials of both major parties continue to make that plain and seek to appeal to the abiding significance of personal and collective integrity and to the idea of the nation in their daily dealings and as they craft their campaigns. As Abraham Lincoln rightly put this matter in his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[5]

Lincoln’s clarion call was a flinty understanding of the requirements of self-governance in the United States. One may hope we may still be able realistically to pursue it as one polity, as a citizenry fully aware of its awesome privilege and like responsibility.

Notes

[1] Dowd, Maureen, “Fair Play is no Match for Foul,” The New York Times, May 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/opinion/sunday/mueller-barr-dowd.html?emc=edit_th_190505&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=400875340505 Accessed May 5, 2019.

[2] Dowd, “Fair Play is no Match for Foul.”

[3] Goldmacher, Shane, “Biden thinks Trump is the Problem, Not all Republicans. Other Democrats Disagree,” The New York Times, May 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/us/politics/biden-trump-republicans-2020.html?emc=edit_th_190505&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=400875340505 Accessed May 5, 2019.

[4] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.

[5] Lincoln, Abraham, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/resources/president-lincoln%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%84%A2s-first-inaugural-address-1861 Accessed May 5, 2019.

Publication Date

May 20, 2019

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