Today is day 100 of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. And we’re all still here. While it’s a pretty silly exercise to try to evaluate the effectiveness of an administration in a hundred days, the last three months or so have certainly given us some things to think about. It’s a bit like the first drive of the Super Bowl. It’s not going to determine the outcome. But you get a sense of what the team with the ball thought was a good idea. And if they were able to do it. Continue reading “100”
On May 18, 1973, the United States Senate began nationally televised hearings on Watergate. Incoming Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson, recently appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, assigned former solicitor general Archibald Cox to serve as the Justice Department’s special prosecutor for the investigation. The rest, as they say, is history. 478 days later, amidst mounting evidence that he himself broke the law by authorizing illegal activities against the Democratic National Committee, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only man to resign the office of President of the United States of America.
At the time that the Senate Committee launched their hearings and Cox began his investigation, there was no public evidence that implicated President Nixon in those illegal activities. The election, held the previous November, was won by Nixon in one of the great landslides in presidential election history. He took just under two-thirds of the popular vote, a tally impossible to explain by any illegal activities. But he broke the law. And then he tried to cover it up. So he had to go. By all other respects, Nixon was at a minimum, a serviceable executive.
Lost in the scandal of it all and Nixon’s personal disgrace is the first world governance triumph that was Watergate. The most powerful man in the world broke a law that actually had no measurable impact on his claim to office or the effectiveness of his administration. But he lost power. Not because of his own personal honor. But because the institutions that firmly stood in place to limit his power insisted that he lose it. There was a legislative branch that acted independently of political goal. There was a judiciary and law enforcement entities that insisted on seeing it through. There was a free press that spoke truth to power. And there were Americans of character and principle in positions of authority.
On October 20th, 1973, it all came to a head on what’s since been called, the “Saturday Night Massacre”. With mounting pressure and evidence piling up against him, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire the special prosecutor Cox. Richardson refused. He was fired. His immediate replacement William Ruckleshaus also refused and resigned. Eventually, a third man, Robert Bork carried out Nixon’s order. But the damage had been done. Within a year, Congress passed the articles of impeachment. And Nixon was gone.
There have been and always will be inappropriate men who inappropriately seek power. There will always be outside powers looking to interfere in our wellbeing as a nation. But what has made us uniquely great, what has delivered 55 peaceful transfers of power and 2 percent per capita growth for 240 years, is the institutions and mechanisms that respond to them. The great risk of our times, is that perhaps now, they can’t. Or they won’t.
We’re about to inaugurate a man who has held no position of government in his life, a man who can scarcely point to a single aspect of service in seventy years, a man who capitalized on an ugly message of exclusion to mobilize a frustrated base of voters. But he’s not the real risk. It’s the Americans standing next to him and the institutions charged to check him that scare me the most.
We’re no doubt in for a very different experience. And perhaps the only person who could drive the needed change is someone like Donald J. Trump. But I’ll ask the question to his supporters. When am I allowed to be concerned? What does he say and what does he do that alarms you? Because you’ve shrugged off quite a bit already. And when the people who supported a man’s rise to power can’t be counted on to eventually tell him he’s gone too far, we’re left with the institutions to do it. When I think of those institutions today, it gives me grave concern. Who in Trump’s inner circle blows the whistle? Who on his cabinet resigns over principle? What Republican stands for no more in Congress. Who in the press will we believe? Who are today’s Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox?
Our most serious problem probably isn’t Donald J. Trump. It’s that the answers to those questions feel like the same ones that failed to check the truly dangerous leaders in history that hurt so many. And that’s new in America.
Listen to the people in your world that vigorously disagree with you. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t argue with them. Not yet. Not until you’ve listened. Just listen and seek to understand.
It’s a rare and difficult principle to maintain. I do try to get outside the echo chambers that agree with me as much as I can. But sometimes, I don’t know I’m in one until it’s too late. Recently, around October 8th maybe, I realized that I’d been in one for quite a while. It was one that told me that Donald Trump was personally too despicable to be president of the United States of America. Clearly I was wrong. Because I didn’t do that thing I just said to do. I didn’t seek to understand. I saw the man. And I dismissed him, with good cause to be fair. But I never dug down deep into understanding Trump-ism. I fought the man, never the idea. And that’s a problem.
So what is Trump-ism?
You can find the answer wedged somewhere between Scott Baio and Jerry Fallwell Jr. telling Yo Mama jokes at the Republican National Convention this year. A man named Peter Thiel spoke. Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley businessman who is one of the few men in the world who have founded multiple billion dollar corporations. He sits on the board of directors for Facebook. He counts people like Elon Musk as his partners and peers. And if there’s a Mount Rushmore of the modern “dot com” business ecosystem, Thiel is on it. You could write ten thousand words on what’s right and wrong with Thiel and still not be done. You could write another ten thousand on why he doesn’t fit any molds that we like to put people in. I’m not going to do that here. But I’m familiar with him. And as someone who works in the tech world and moves in the Silicon Valley circles, I can get you pretty far with a few sentences.
Peter Thiel has had success listening to what everyone is saying and doing, and going and finding something else, building it before anyone else does and winning before there is competition. He asks aloud in his books and speeches, and urges us to ask ourselves, what truth do you believe, that almost no one else does? It’s a hell of a question, especially in business. He is, after all, Silicon Valley’s contrarian. If you want to know more about him, Google him. There’s loads of stuff, much of it ugly and negative. But as far as this discussion goes, that stuff, is noise. Because it’s fighting the man again, not the idea. His ideas, though, are at the emotional center of Trump-ism, whether or not he ever intended them to be. They can be summed up in two Peter Thiel quotes:
“For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form.” Thiel is the anti-bubble.
People incorrectly believe that “If you don’t conform (to diversity), then you don’t count as diverse. No matter what your background”
I love it.
When I read those quotes as a business leader and someone who has worked on my own start-up, I get pretty fired up. It evokes emotion. It stimulates me. They are powerful words that speak directly to the psyche of change makers-people who want to drive to a better tomorrow. And when I posted those quotes and his name on my Facebook page without commentary, I got a very heavy dose of feedback about Thiel being a white nationalist and an anti-semite and a rape apologist and an opponent of the free press. All of which may be true. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the same room with the man. But none of the dissenting commentary addressed the ideas he had. Because in a vacuum, they are ideas that are nearly impossible to discredit.
We don’t live in a vacuum though. And right now, those words are being spoken in the Trump-ist echo chamber with great excitement.
So what exactly is that truth Trump-ists believe that no one else does? Except all other Tump-ists of course. Steve Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News and recently appointed chief strategist of Donald Trump’s administration can help explain it. Now, it’s possible that hearing the words Steve Bannon evokes a blinding rage in you and a need to spout out a laundry list of grievances about white supremacy, misogyny and maybe even a twenty year old arrest report for domestic violence. And that’s fine. But realize, you’re doing it again. That’s the man. The man is easy to beat. The idea, well, that’s another thing all together.
So here’s the idea in his words.
America is in “a crisis both of capitalism and the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.”
Bannon says that crony capitalism and globalization have eroded the stability of our country and weakened us to the point of crisis. Whether or not he believes it matters far less then what it means. Thiel and Bannon are Trump-ism. They form a combination of contrarian, anti-elite non-conformists, conforming together behind the belief that the key to restoring righteous capitalism is a focus on the return to a Judeo-Christian led world.
If not…it’s going to be China for a hundred years…
That’s the idea. And it comes in the form or a red hat, and a slogan.
It’s powerful idea. And it represents one side of the modern political argument in America today. You couldn’t have sent a worse champion than Hillary Clinton to strike it down if you tried. She was perfect if you were fighting the man. But she wasn’t fighting the man. She was fighting the idea. And she was powerless against it. Perhaps if we had taken the time to understand the idea, we may have thought differently. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic National Committee is in ruins, when most of us thought that it was the Republicans on the edge of oblivion.
That doesn’t mean Trump-ism is right though. In fact I believe it’s quite wrong. But it took a little digging and understanding to get there for me. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to divorce the ideas from the men saying them, especially since some of those men are only saying those ideas because they know they are the ideas that work right now. Because the ideas are not wrong because of the men saying them. The ideas, by themselves, on their own merit are wrong. Dangerously so. And we need to start screaming from the mountain tops why.
First, intended or not, the core argument of Trump-ism, Judeo-Christian leadership of the world, is a substantial part of the argument that white supremacist groups use to further their message. Trump-ism left off the part about racial superiority. Those groups gladly add it back in. And when you deliver the Trump-ism message, and you are willing to accept anyone who believes it, without strong condemnation of those specific groups that add racial superiority to it, it provides oxygen for them to grow and breed and start to normalize and call themselves things like “Alt Right”. And then they form groups that sound snappy like The National Policy Institute. Make no mistake about it.The National Policy Institute is a white supremacy organization. If you can’t get a couple hundred of your members in a room without a bunch of them throwing out Nazi salutes or yelling sieg heil, and the first Op-Ed on your pretty web page is about the folly of desegregation in schools, then you are a white supremacy group.
You can call yourself something else. And you can ooze into the room with lots of other dis-enfranchised people and tell them you are the same. But you aren’t. And unless the leadership of the new Republican Party denounces it and cast it out of their numbers, a dangerous political discussion is on the horizon. Because whether or not to denounce and eliminate from prominence groups that further white supremacist ideology cannot become a political debate.
Secondly, because frighteningly the first part isn’t enough, if the “Judeo-Christian” portion of your message really is the whole message, than that’s a problem. Because that’s not American. America, imperfect in her ways, has been defined by relative inclusivity. Our strength has come from differing people coming to us from places with their ideas and their drive to build something. And my opposition to Trump-ism is grounded on the belief that I’m not willing to give on that. Not because I’m full of love and togetherness and because I’m naive to those out there that want to do us harm. I’ve fought them all over the world in places you’ve probably never seen doing things you’ll probably never do. I’m not willing to give on that relative inclusivity because turning inward makes you weak. And ignoring the skills and ideas that others have, and forcing them to seek other places to have them, makes others stronger. My message of dissent is about making and keeping us strong.
It pretty simple for me. If that big idea that you have that no one else agrees with, that Peter Thiel disruptive change the world for the better idea, is that the words penned in our Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights are wrong, that all men aren’t created equal and that only some are born with liberties and the freedom to pursue their faiths, then fine, let’s have that debate. And let’s have it in earnest. The fact that middle America, my strong patriotic brothers and sisters that took up arms with me to fight Islamic fundamentalism and other ideologies that threatened our way of life appear willing to have it, hurts me. It hurts me down to my soul. Because I believed, and I still need to believe that we are better than that. And that the principles that I swore to defend with my very life didn’t only apply to me and people like me. They applied to everyone.
So let the debate begin.
The progress of humanity has taken many forms. From society to faith and religion to exploration and technology, we are beings in movement. We are defined by our movement. And though there are many streams of progress, the general path of man has been a slow, methodical march towards one world. Where we were once millions of families, we were then thousands of tribes, then hundreds of nations, then dozens of empires. And eventually we became a new world and an old. And now, connected by information technology and decades into our first truly global trade market, east and west, are collapsing into one. The journey, millennia in the making, is nearer to that end-one world- then perhaps many of us are willing to admit. That is the natural progress of man. And denying it doesn’t change it any more than drawing the blinds to block out the sun makes it night.
The natural progress of a person, one individual, is different though. By ourselves, we are inherently distrustful of outsiders and susceptible to having our passions raised by those who point blame towards the few among us that don’t fit in. And when our passions are high enough and we hurl that basic human instinct to turn inwards in the face of adversity against the natural progression towards one global society, we create friction. And sometimes if the friction is great enough, we stand still. But the halt is only temporary. Eventually, the tectonic plates of progress move forward, fueled by the man made powers of free markets, trade, technology and innovation. The longer we hold them in place, the more severe and unnatural the opposition, the more violent the eventual movement becomes. History teaches us this.
When economic and racial friction impeded the progress of abolition and the anachronism of slavery existed in post industrial revolution America, the snap back was violent. It cost us over a half a million lives and destroyed the economy of the south for a century. When ultra nationalist fascism existed in the culturally integrated melting pot of Europe, the friction it caused was the most devastating global war in the history of our species. The world lost 28 thousand people a day for six years to that violent end. This is the cost of resistance to the path of humanity. And as constant as the force of progress has been, the friction of that resistance has also been constant. The only variable is how long we allow the friction to halt it. And then, how violent the return to progress is.
ISIS, for the people of Iraq and Syria, is the violent end to a halt of progress hundreds of years in the making. BREXIT is the beginning of another one. And the 2016 U.S. election is another. Yes, the 2016 U.S. elections and ISIS and BREXIT are different flavors of a similarly structured message-trouble is coming, turn inward. And though they may feel like a failure of the liberal or progressive movements to continue the unfettered march towards social progress , they’re not. They are a failure of adherence to conservative principles.
Conservative government principles are about people limiting government through liberties. Not government limiting people through fear. And conservative ideology is not most effective when it halts progress. It’s most effective when it insists that progress is thoughtful and focused. We’ve forgotten those principles. Because we’ve lost our nerve. And when conservatives lose their nerve, fundamentalism, that troubled offspring of conservative thought that fills the vacuum created by the absence of courage, seizes us. The return to fundamentalism, is what precedes the pauses to progress that history teaches us, never end well.
I’ve heard, more times than I can count, that the result of the last election was was caused by the Democratic party losing touch with middle America. Well, it’s been a long time since the Democratic party was in touch with middle America. A more likely cause was that it was time for a return to conservative leadership after eight years of progressive executive movement. It’s damn hard to hold the White House for twelve years. And when the opportunity for change revealed itself, it found a people wandering lost among the prairies following voices on microphones over the airwaves and talking heads on their television instead of strong, conservative leaders of character. Absent were the men and women willing to take conservative approaches to solving the world’s problems instead of tucking their heads into the sand and walling off America from the outside world. Courage lives in the future. Fear and weakness live in a desire to return to the safer days of old.
We elected an American fundamentalist message masquerading as a message of strength. And so we shouldn’t be surprised when the team formed to deliver on the promise of that message is laden with American fundamentalists. Perhaps you’d hoped for different. Perhaps you should spend a moment to ask yourself why. Why did you think it would be different than what it’s turning out to be? You might find that perhaps your willingness to accept was less about optimism and principles and more about fear.
If you’re relying on the opposition to keep the surge of American fundamentalism at bay with sensational headlines of “white supremacy” and “misogyny” remember how well that worked in the general election. It’s easy to ignore the opposition. So that’s what America will do. As only a failure of American conservative leadership gives birth to American fundamentalism, so too is it true that only strong American conservative leadership can be its end.
Senate confirmations are coming for the newly selected cabinet of the president elect. The election is won. Silence is consent. And you don’t have any excuses any more to sit idly by and watch the conservative light fade into the distant memory of the American mind.
Be wary of who we trust our society to. Ideas like liberty and equality are exactly that. They are ideas. They are abstracts that have bound our people together. And they are powerful. But they’re not invincible. And they’re only permanent, if we believe them.
The world is watching.