Tag: American Politics

On President Trump and Scrutiny

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”
― H.L. Mencken

I read this piece from The Washington Post today and it made me genuinely wonder how this political moment and the personality of this president is going to be viewed, both in a few years and further down the line. George W. Bush has gone from being almost universally derided to being seen as a gentle sort of man who probably wanted to the do the right thing but was perhaps not equal to the task. This is an enormously flattering take, in my opinion, but it exists. Barack Obama is increasingly seen as a idealistic and probably personally good man who fell short of his own ideals and disappointed many. What are we going to make of Donald Trump with his frankly brilliant showmanship and his seething grievance, his apparent privilege and his ever present resentment of scrutiny and criticism? I then realized something that I’ve been struggling to put into words about Mr. Trump that finally clicked into place. That’s what defines so much of his behavior and statements since coming into office: a reaction to scrutiny.

I joke about this a lot, but I don’t believe the sentiment is entirely true.

Mr. Trump is strange because he catapulted from celebrity into public life (which are NOT the same thing, just ask the Royal Family). Celebrity is a space where personality is everything, selling your own narrative arc to the public in the great public theatre of pop culture is part of the job. In this world, your foibles and failings can be winked at if not treated as actual assets. Mr. Trump cultivated shamelessness as armor against criticism and leveraged it into a successful brand. The only thing that matters is your fandom, they are your social leverage and quite often your marketing.

Public life is different. Shame is one of the great levelers in it and is supposed to act as a policing measure, something we are now watching fail in real time as an administration (far from one person or personality) copes with several scandals in any given week which would have ground most previous administrations to a halt or broken them. Fans are not the same thing as allies and in this world you need the latter. And yet, in this world, the glare of attention does not just come with adoration or outrage, it comes with scrutiny. That seems to be what Mr. Trump didn’t really expect and which he is coping with extraordinarily badly.

On just a personality level he simple doesn’t seem capable (or indeed interested) in behaving with the reserve we have historically expected of our presidents and insists on emoting publicly. I’m personally wrestling with the idea that this is something I’ve been clamoring for in men and masculinity for a long time. If we are going to insist on space for different emotional displays in women than what has been historically acceptable and encouraged, we must do the same in men. Does the president of the United States have a right to be petty in public? Maybe he does. But like so many of the gender changes we are going through as a culture, this is such a rapid shift that we are having to grapple with the fallout of it in real time. Some of this fallout is an omnipresent attention on the president’s emotional state. He finds this unflattering and unfair, but in many ways it’s a self created problem. More on that in a moment.

On a higher level, how dare his business life be looked into? How dare the movements and actions of his children be front page news? How dare his motives be questioned or his rants on Twitter be evaluated as statements of policy? In other words, how dare we the public (especially the unfriendly public whose votes he didn’t win) scrutinize him?

He didn’t seem to realize that this is literally part of the job. This is what being a president is. It’s often one half of the country hating you, and everything you doing carrying weight. He seems love and crave the attention while resenting it at the same time. He enjoys the spotlight, but that same spotlight is shining into areas of his life and business that he probably thought (with good reason) might not see the light of day and he’d rather it not.

I’m fascinated by reporting that focuses on his businesses because having worked in similar industries, I know how often those industries (while absolutely following the letter of the law in most cases and doing nothing illegal in the slightest) can be vehicles for transactions and behavior that the vast majority of the population finds distasteful at the very least. The business world of the very wealthy is one of the great engines of capitalism, but there are also a lot of shades of gray around the edges. In its most extreme cases, there is an awful lot of white collar crime that goes on that is simply never paid attention or prosecuted. I would not be surprised if the Trump Organization participated in this, what reporting is out there indicates that this is at least possible if not likely. But this sort of crime and behavior is so rarely punished. We kind of wink at it as a society–which is a whole topic in and of itself. Had he never won the presidency, it’s entirely likely to me that Mr. Trump could have continued existing in this probable space as well as his celebrity space very comfortably and profitably for the rest of his career.

But the office brings scrutiny and that’s fundamentally different from publicity. For better or worse, the office is different from the man and no matter how hard he tries to combine the two (which it really seems as though he is trying to do, which is also a topic for another day because I think this has interesting potential to affect our politics as a nation permanently), holding this office means that the stakes have changed and certain people or groups are going to hold him accountable for things he has never been asked to answer for. His emotional state is a matter of national interest. His business relationships may have security implications. His bad behavior is suddenly not a brand consistent foible, it’s a liability.

It may very well turn out that the Trump Organization did nothing illegal or even unethical during the campaign, especially with foreign interference. They sure aren’t acting like it, but it’s possible. It’s also possible that it never occurred to key people that the meetings they were taking may have been dangerous and unethical–I genuinely wonder this. Again, none of these people with few exceptions had engaged in public life before. Celebrity yes, but not public service. They may simply have not realized what a massive conflict of interest it was to take meetings with certain actors, how unethical and in appropriate it would seem for the office. Ignorance doesn’t make them less responsible or mean they shouldn’t be held accountable, but as an explanation it too is possible.

When I say I think Mr. Trump is unfit for the job, this is a big part of what I mean. He didn’t seem to understand some of these implications about winning the office and as he learns the implications in real time, he throws temper tantrums in public that are damaging to the country’s ability to govern itself domestically and abroad. I happen to think he’s brought a lot of drama on himself by making the Mueller investigation about himself when ostensibly it’s about Russian interference in the election–especially as he insists that it’s a topic that has nothing to do with him personally. This would not be the clown circus it is if he had kept a tighter reign on his Twitter temper. In fact, he probably would be under a lot less scrutiny overall if he himself hadn’t insisted on making various claims publicly over the years–the size of his fortune, various relationships, and so on.

Donald Trump, and frankly a lot of American electorate, have badly confused politics and entertainment for years now. He’s the public face of this phenomenon and depending on how this scrutiny on him plays out, he may be the most public victim of it…or its first great success. Either way, he doesn’t seem to be enjoying the ride. I have a strange level of sympathy for him on this point alone: I really don’t believe that he really knew what he was getting into when he won; he did not want and is not prepared (or possibly emotional resilient enough) for this level of scrutiny. I guess no one in his life or team prepared him for this reality, and if they tried he clearly didn’t listen. There are no stakes if you’re just playing role, after all, and he’s built his whole public persona on role playing until it all suddenly became very real. I believe reporting which suggests that he was terrified of his first year in office and is now just sort of winging it.

Because I don’t think Mr. Trump ever really wanted to be president. He just wanted to play one on TV.

ETA later this same day, the President tweeted this, once again changing the official version of this story. More intelligent people than me have commented about this but I am baffled by what he chooses to be defensive about under scrutiny and what he chooses to just blurt out to the world. For some reason, probably going back to the idea of shame as a public policing mechanism, our system seems totally unable to hold him accountable to what he admits publicly. If this had leaked or been revealed a la Nixon, it would be a scandal in any other administration. I suspect this confessional style statement will have precisely zero effects. 

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Self Care for the Perpetually Irritated

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

I’m a self-described news junkie who has followed several platforms and branches of the news media closely for my entire adult life. And as a current American expat, a former military brat with both current active duty and retired military family members, a staunch feminist, and someone who works in a field intimately influenced by the finance industry (to say nothing of international policy in dozens of countries on multiple continents)…there’s a lot to follow! I consume a lot of news and these days, as is well documented, a lot of it makes my angry, nervous, and downright pissed. As Solange put it, there’s “a lot to be mad about.”

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Me during my first morning news check in.

That being said, one of the things that I’m really concerned about in the current American and British political moments is outrage fatigue. I’ve mentioned this in some comment conversations before, so I know I’m not alone in this worry. Anger is amazing fuel, it’s carried me through more than one challenge in my life. But I don’t believe it’s a perpetually sustaining source of power; it burns out. And it can occasional burn people out as well, when the burden of rising to every piece of bad news with rage simply becomes emotionally unsustainable and politically un-organize-able. I’m genuinely concerned that there are vested interests in the US who are betting that if they keep up a constant stream of conflict and splashy actions, people like me will eventually burn out–i.e., cease the opposition, allowing those vested interests to get away with much worse.

On the flip side, I also don’t believe that outraged reaction as a policy position is terribly effective–at least not in a permanent way, though I think it can be marvelously effective in the short term on the part of the citizenry! It may surprise some readers, but I am not in favor of single minded obstructionist strategies on the part of the left right now. By which I mean that if the president proposed policy broadly aligned with liberal principles, I’d expect leaders to support it (the trouble is that at the moment, the president has yet to put forward a policy I support, but I remain theoretically open to the notion). I railed against obstructionist behavior when conservative stoned walled President Obama, it would be hypocritical of me to support such behavior now. Being consistently against something is not the same thing as having a proactive platform of your own, something that I believe played out to Democratic disadvantage in the recent election. Anger fuels revolutions, but it’s usually taken cooler heads to turn revolt into civic progress rather than a short dive into tyranny or chaos. It’s not enough to emote in response to government actions we find immoral or unlawful, you have to mobilize. That takes organization, articulation of proactive positions and not just reactive ones, effort, and long term commitment…all of which can be difficult to sustain if you are operating from a place of near or actual burnout.

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Me checking in during my afternoon news-and-tea break after a few hours away from the internet.

I know for a fact that I’m susceptible to outrage fatigue. And I also know that I plan on being more political involved and engaged than I have been heretofore. Meaning that I’m going to need a thicker skin, a longer battery life, and several recharging stations along the way. To that end, I’m more committed than ever to emotional self care practices and keeping my emotional energy well tended and focused. I’m still learning, but if like me you’ve stared responding to “BREAKING NEWS” signs with cringes and expletives, here are a few things that I’ve found that keep me even keeled when I want to panic or smash things.

Top Tips Thus Far From Someone Still Figuring it Out:

Don’t pick fights for the sake of fighting. Plenty of people are doing that already. If you feel so inclined to join the fray, have at it, but know that you’re expending emotional energy that may be better served elsewhere and that you may need later. Personally, at the moment I’ve given up trying to change a lot of people’s minds through arguing. Where I can find respectful conversations, I engage. Where I find flame wars, I avoid.

Don’t be afraid to enjoy frivolous things that bring your pleasure–and don’t let anyone shame you for it. Yes, there’s a lot of bad stuff happening all over the globe at the moment. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to enjoy and share small things that make you happy. I remember a criticism leveled at me waaaaaay back in the earlier days of my blogging where someone informed me that I couldn’t be a “real” feminist because I mostly wrote humor posts at the time. A couple of years later, I was called a “stupid/shallow” woman for talking about my love of fashion and beauty. At the time, these (fairly minor) critiques caused me a lot of self-doubt…which was precisely their intent. Today my response is a bellowing, “Nonsense!” As if it’s impossible to have a sense of humor, and like lipstick, and have thoughts about the wage gap, parental leave, and social constructs all at the same time. Everyday pleasures are important and people interested in shaming you do not have your best interests at heart.

Avoid toxicity. Sometimes we need to engage in hard conversations and go to tough places, usually because there is a reward to earn or a morally good fight to be undertaken. Sometimes, there is no discernible good in exposing yourself to certain platforms or people–sometimes being in those places can cause you damage. In those cases, do not give those people or platforms your time, attention, or money.

Maintain your internal bullshit barometer. We live in a consumer media world largely based on provocation and reaction, it takes effort to maintain a critical eye and perspective. Do not get worked up over, much less share information without vetting it first. If and when you find your control over your own perspective shifting to all-to-easily agree with the last article you read or pundit you listened to, it’s time for a break.

Actively seek out things that make you feel happy. Legal and innocuous, I stress! Whether that’s time with your partner or friends, reading a book, exercise, stand up comedy, podcasts, puppy videos…no matter. It’s ridiculously easy to feel like the world is a terrible place and the only logical course of action is to ball up in a corner by ourselves somewhere. Just remember,  that’s the argument that got us into our current political predicament! Go find things that spark joy and make them a part of your daily routine.

Unplug from time to time. Barring nuclear disaster (which, depending on your point of view at the moment may in fact be a credible threat), there will be more bad news coming down the pike shortly and, if you are committed to your cause, you will be required to act in some way in response. Allocate your attention accordingly.

Conserve your energy where you can. Not every tweet, pronouncement, or even action is a Defcon 1 level threat. In fact, some of the news right is laugh out loud ridiculous. Find the humor where possible, and allocate your energy where it’s needed.

 

What about you? What emotional habits have you had to cultivate in the 21st century news and political climate? What works for you and what doesn’t?