A liberal to the bone and a Democrat by convenience, my knee jerks leftward as much as anyones. But when I scan the headlines, I am tempted by my brothers and sisters on the left to tear (what’s left of) my hair out almost as often as I am by the antics of the dangerously clueless and corrupt Trump administration.
Seriously, there is a danger for us here. When we start sounding as kooky as an echo of World News Daily or Infowars, we are at risk not only of losing our sanity, but of losing what chance we have of breaking the trifecta Republican lock on the House, the Senate, and the White House.
So here is a liberal’s three-step guide to not letting Trump & Co. push us into tinfoil hat land.
1. Stop using the T-word. Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution. There’s a reason for that. The framers were keenly aware that “treason” was a charge that had frequently been levied against them by the Government of His Majesty, King George III. They understood that treason was a grave offense against a polity, an injury not merely to individual men and women but society as a whole. They took great care, then, to define it so that it could not be used lightly. According to the Constitution, “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
If proven, the allegations against Trump will likely constitute impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors. They may amount to violations of federal statutes that prohibit government employees from accepting money from foreign governments, which prohibit bribery, that concern truthful financial disclosure, that prohibit foreign financing of election campaigns, and many other laws.
Violations of these laws are serious enough. But they’re not treason.
Why should liberals care about the loosey-goosey use of the T-word? Because during the Iraq war, George W. Bush’s supporters claimed that people who opposed the war were committing treason. On the Interstates, one regularly saw semis with big signs plastered on them reading, “Support our troops whenever we go! No aid or comfort to the enemy – no way!” Because we liberals are the ones who actually care about the law. Because crying treason at every instance of possible skullduggery makes us seem unhinged. And because we’re the ones who live in the reality-based community, remember?
2. Enough with the 25th Amendment scenarios. Some luftmensches of the left imagine that Trump’s tortured syntax, impulsive and nonsensical tweets, raging narcissism, cable addiction, and refusal to accept objective reality will somehow persuade his cabinet to declare him unfit for office. Those folks are nuttier than Trump is.
In an essay for Politico entitled “A Liberal Fantasy Ripped from a Hollywood Script,” Jeff Greenfield outlines this particular delusion:
“President Donald Trump embraces one too many fever-swamp conspiracy theories, tweets one too many palpable falsehoods, threatens a nuclear attack on Mexico for not paying for the wall. A terrified Cabinet meets in Vice President Mike Pence’s home at the Naval Observatory, and, in a written declaration to the Speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate, [concludes] that the president ‘is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.’ And just like that, Trump is dispatched to Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago, and Pence becomes acting president of the United States. Right?”
No, not right, for the reasons that Greenfield lays out. The 25th Amendment’s inability clause has never been invoked. Not when a Watergated Nixon was wandering drunk through the White House halls interrogating the portraits of dead Presidents. Not when Reagan displayed early signs of Alzheimer’s. Not when George W. Bush declared that he knew how hard it was to put food on your family. Never.
There’s a first time for everything, you say? Well, yes, but the most fantastical thing about this fever dream is that it assumes that Trump’s hand-picked cabinet members lackeys and the docile Republican Congress are going to suddenly declare that Trump is unfit and send him packing. Not. Gonna. Happen.
Why should liberals reject this kookazoid fantasy? Again, because it makes us look batshit crazy. But more importantly, because it’s an adolescent rescue myth, with Mike Pence starring as the gallant knight who rescues the distressed damsel democracy from the vile Sir Tweetalot. The Penceman has this one! We don’t have to worry! The hard truth is that no one—least of all GOP cultists—is going to rescue our country except us. And that’s going to take, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a metric fuck-ton of bread, nyets, toil and beers.
3. Vladimir Putin did not elect Donald Trump. We Americans did that. Sure, it’s likely that Putin & the Oligarchs (great name for a band, no?) attempted to influence the outcome of the election. And it’s possible that Trump or people very close to him colluded in that attempt. But while Putin’s Department of Fake News and his selective releases of hacked telecommunications probably did some damage to the Clinton campaign, far worse damage was done by other people and institutions.
Five months ago, Democrats were up on their hind legs braying for the head of FBI Director James Comey. They were also upset that that formerly nice fellow, Julian Assange, released intercepted Clinton campaign emails. They were perpetually peeved at the media for giving Trump a billion dollars worth of uncritical press coverage. They were outraged at Debbie Wasserman-Schultz putting her finger on the scales in the primaries and tipping the nomination to Clinton. And many were dismayed by candidate Clinton herself, to the point where a large number of people unenthusiastically voted for her only because she was the only one who could stop Trump. After the election, Democrats looked at the results in horror. How could the Clinton campaign, which was supposed to have the best ground game in the biz, have missed the fact that the Midwest was turning Republican red? How could Clinton have failed even to visit Wisconsin in the months before the election?
The point is NOT to excuse Putin and his American accomplices for meddling in the election. Rather, it’s to admit that Clinton had a passel of problems that did far more serious harm to her election prospects than anything Putin might have ginned up. And it’s to admit that we, as a people, have so neglected to teach our children basic critical thinking skills that we allowed our most precious resource – democracy itself – to be trampled under the crush of an increasingly uninformed and uncritical electorate. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me again and again, shame on me and consign me to living under paleoconservative rule.
Why should liberals care about keeping Putin in perspective? Once again, broken record-wise, because of the nuttiness that comes out when otherwise intelligent liberals start imagining him as some kind of politico-criminal mastermind. Putin is not a power-mad dictator bent on global domination, a puppetmaster for whom the world dances. He is a typical Russian leader, the head of a faltering regional power who is pursuing age-old Russian foreign policy goals: destabilizing their immediate western neighbors and undermining more powerful countries such as the US. Just as imagining that the 25th Amendment is going to save us from Trump beckons us into complacency, so the notion that everything is a conspiracy run by an all-powerful Putin moves us closer to despair and inaction. We American voters can’t do anything about Putin.
These three fantasies – that Trump and his minions will be convicted of treason, that Pence and the cabinet will depose him, and that Putin and his gang are behind everything – prevent liberals from focusing on their own problems. “If liberals are so fucking smart,” asks Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom, “how come they lose so goddamn always?” These three fantasies are Exhibits A, B, and C in the answer to that. People who voted for Trump don’t care about the hobby-horse fantasies that some liberals imagine they will ride into power. The ones who are reachable, teachable, and turnable are concerned with bread-and-butter issues. And that’s where we need to focus.
As Lynyrd Skynyrd sings, “Now Watergate does not bother me; does your conscience bother you?” That doesn’t mean that corruption is excusable, but it does mean that accusations and investigations are secondary to bread-and-butter concerns. Those voters in sweet home Alabama are still pulling levers for the GOP 43 years after the song was written, despite the fact that their standard of living has declined in direct proportion to Republican rule. In part, that’s because we liberals haven’t offered them much reason to reconsider their party allegiance. Crying treason, conjuring up a constitutional coup, and blaming Putin for all our problems won’t move that needle at all.
Our strength as liberals comes from the idea that government is not an enemy to be destroyed; it can and should be a powerful force for the common good. Our potential lies in the fact that we, unlike the Republican Party as currently constituted, are grounded in the factual world. And that’s why these three myths are not helping us.