Even Worse Presidents to Follow
This essay is an attempt to articulate my understanding of the American national crisis circa spring 2016, as we flail about in the throes of a presidential election that is forcing us finally to begin asking long-deferred basic questions. It’s past time that we considered the sobering possibility that we have no good options anymore, at least in terms of the America we’ve conventionally allowed ourselves to imagine. A big part of our American problem is that we’ve indulged in the slovenly habit of allowing ourselves to be led by the nose through the increasingly dreary and artificial cycle of political churn every four years. And related to that is the even bigger and deeper problem that we’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed, by a century’s worth of Hollywood movies and other ersatz culture, into feeling entitled to happy endings. We suppose that an election will happen, a new president will come into office, and that will be that. That’s the plot of the movie we’ve scripted, but reality doesn’t work like that. By the time you read this the election might well have been decided, but those basic questions are not likely to have been answered – are they?
Sometime in the mid-1990s, even before the Lewinsky fiasco was inflicted on us, a Canadian colleague in Bangkok remarked to me: “Clinton sets the stage for even worse presidents to follow.” He deserves credit by name: Tony McAuley. Tony gets more prescient with each passing year. And beyond the arguable merits, achievements, and failures of Bush and Obama, what’s salient is that a quarter century has now passed, three eight-year presidencies in a row throughout which the president, whoever and from whichever party he has been, has not been acknowledged as legitimate by all Americans. The office itself has thus been drained of much of its legitimacy, dignity, and authority. And the president elected in 2016 does not seem likely to reverse that trend.
The elephant in the national living room is the 2000 election, which no one talks about anymore. On Election Day that year, I was in Port-au-Prince. It was an instructive experience. That morning I hiked maybe half an hour under a tropical sun, uphill and across a busy arterial road, to a then-rare cybercafé to download the front page of www.nytimes.com on a very slow dial-up connection, finally to find out only that the result was no result. New information about chads and such trickled into Haiti over the following days, via print copies of the Miami Herald brought to the guest house where I was staying by Americans arriving on the morning flights. A word-of-mouth grapevine also emerged (the Haitian term is teledjol): “What’s going on in Florida?” Haitians for their part were bemused. Some days later a teenager asked me, as we sat chatting on the sea wall in the north coast city of Cap Haitien, “Which candidate do you support, Gore or Ti Bush?” In Haitian Creole “Ti Bush” means “Bush Junior,” but the word “ti” also means little.
Given the past quarter-century of disputed legitimacy, plus all the water under the bridge, what are we entitled to hope for? The American system is supposed to offer an optimal balance between fresh direction and continuity. So what were we offered in 2016? A moving target of bad options. First was the seemingly foreordained, dreary prospect of a staid and uninspiring clash between the Bush and Clinton dynasties. Then, for me, there was the fear of Scott Walker, who for half a decade had exerted a baleful Wizard of Oz-like dark mystique over the people of the hitherto famously nice and moderate state of Wisconsin. I even gave a speech, in my hometown of Oconomowoc in June 2015, that I titled “Wisconsin, Please Introduce America to Scott Walker.” The Walker scare turned out to be a false alarm, which was a relief because I had been girding my Wisconsonian loins to denounce him from coast to coast and apologize for him to citizens of the other forty-nine states. When Walker withdrew from the presidential race, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who had previously declared Walker a national disgrace, spoke for many when he said: “Scott Walker is still a disgrace, just no longer national.”
Then “mainstream” Republican candidates continued dropping like flies, until the choice on that side narrowed to a previously unthinkable one between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. As a non-Republican, should I have hoped for Cruz to win the nomination, in order to avoid the scary specter of Trump? Or vice versa? Should I have hoped for Hillary Clinton to prevail in November, in order to forestall them both? But what’s so great about Hillary Clinton, anyway? Not much, frankly. The best thing about her is that she’s not Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. And the best we could say for ourselves as a nation, if we ended up electing her, would be that we had dodged at least a couple of bullets, for now. And much damage would have been done, regardless. And who knows what further damage might have been done by the time you read this? And it’s a lot easier to inflict damage than it is to repair it.
I resent having only bad options. If you do too, then I have a suggestion: exercise your capacity for personal initiative to create good options, based on what risks you’re willing to take and within your own field of effectiveness. That’s what 22-year-old Tommy DiMassimo did when he jumped on stage with Trump in Dayton, Ohio on March 12. After Trump tweeted, on no evidence, that the stage invader had “ties to ISIS” (the familiar insinuation equating dissent with terrorism), George Chidi of The Guardian did what journalists are supposed to do and sought him out to find out who the guy actually was and what he might have to say. “I was going to take over the podium, make some remarks about Donald Trump and his followers and then get whisked away,” DiMassimo told Chidi. “He holds power because he’s a bully. To delegitimize his power, I have to bully the bully.”
“There are consequences that I hope to avoid but I’m prepared to accept,” he went on. “If someone wants to kill me for having an idea, and the idea is ‘Donald Trump is full of shit,’ then I feel bad for them.”
So who is this guy, anyway? “I was a white kid in a predominantly black middle school [in Atlanta],” DiMassimo said. “My father was a history teacher who gave me Alex Haley’s Malcolm X biography. That’s how I came to understand race issues. … With Donald Trump, the issue is so vast, I feel like every American regardless of race – a phrase I rarely use – has a right to say, ‘No, you will not be my president.’” He then echoed something that had been on my own mind for a while:
He’s making white Americans either look insane and violent and ready to bomb the world … or just sort of privileged and neutral … and that doesn’t save you either. The only way to secure a safe future for myself as a white American is to stand up to white supremacists like Donald Trump. … It’s insane. I don’t feel like I live in a sensible country any more that just has structural issues within its government. I really feel like I’m in some kind of Star Wars spinoff and Donald Trump is some kind of cheap, bad villain.
Young Tommy is a legit new American hero, the kind of previously obscure person who arises seemingly from nowhere, but actually from a still-living American tradition of free thought and action, to provide leadership by example just when it’s needed, if only others will heed it. Like DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Bree Newsome, and others in the Black Lives Matter movement (for example), Tommy DiMassimo is about citizens taking action because action needs to be taken, terms need to be redefined, and new options need to be created. And things need to be said. He understands that, while it might be well and good for most of us to grumble or make excuses or do what little we can quietly close to home, some resistance does have to be visible and audible. Sophie and Hans Scholl in their time and place understood the same thing. In 1943, when she was executed for high treason, Sophie was younger than Tommy was in 2016.
You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.