Over the past four years in my writing, I’ve only touched on politics at the margins, but with the witches coming out and only days from the final decision, it was time for me to discuss what’s happening for the record.
I’ll start off with two fathers, John and George. My father John was a musician who loved sports and lived a life that defied the typical 9 to 5 structure. Big George, on the other hand, was always much more practical: an electrician and property owner who has become a devoted grandfather and one of the most handy guys I know. At some points in the early 2000s, both John and George expressed insights about Donald Trump as a public figure that have aged perfectly. Around 2003, John explained to me that Trump had cultivated a reputation for wealth and success while mostly borrowing money as a route to capital and then walking away from projects while claiming paper losses after having lined his pockets. In recent years the New York Times and Trump’s niece Mary have confirmed and continued to add detail to this understanding of Mr. Trump and the chicanery that is his business model. Some years prior to that when Trump ran as a Reform Party candidate in 2000, he made noises to the effect that he and other rich people should pay more in taxes. I remember talking with George about it at the time, and he looked me right in the eye and said simply, “I wouldn’t believe a word that Donald Trump says.” That position turned out to be good advice. Twelve years later, when Trump engaged in a campaign of disinformation about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, I had a final confirmation that John and George had both been right about Trump and that he could never be trusted on any serious matter. So, as clichéd as it may seem, almost everything I needed to know about the current President was taught to me more than a decade in advance by my dads.
In the role of president, Trump has done the only thing he knows how to do: hollow the marrow and value out of everything he touches in order to make it into his own personal currency. Appropriately enough, before his January 2017 inauguration, he settled to pay 25 million dollars to people who had been the victims of his fraudulent Trump University. Then he installed his daughter and son-in-law in unpaid senior advisory positions for which they were unable to be cleared by the FBI in the normal course of vetting. The two of them have subsequently gained far more in capital in these positions with access to foreign loans and favors than they could ever have earned on a government salary. The most astounding aspect of the 2016 election for me was the fact that Trump had been chosen by some number of voters as a rebuke of corruption on the part of the Clintons. Four years later, the amount of self-dealing, bilking of money out of the Secret Service budget for Trump resort rentals, and acceptance of foreign money and profits in exchange for favorable policies have shown how this presidency and campaign have been a Trojan Horse for one family’s financial interests.
The pattern was set early on: a grand announcement or some spectacular break with norms that would eventually lead to not just abject failure but a worsening of the status quo. See, for example, the way in which Kim Jong Un used Trump to gain previously unimaginable photo ops for his own purposes and then went on to expand North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities. At the same time, the Affordable Care Act has been weakened with no remotely plausible Republican healthcare policy in the wings, and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has not notably increased the average American’s savings despite contributing to a record $3 Trillion budget deficit. Trump views everything in purely selfish terms, and he regularly misses the most important points. He sees Covid-19 not as a genuine public health crisis but as something that happened to his presidency and for which he deserves special accommodations. He believes that the economy is primarily the stock market. His thinking is so transparently simplistic that he has assumed that if the Dow Jones Industrial Average were to reach 30,000, it would guarantee his reelection, and so when the coronavirus began to spread in the United States, he sought to protect the Dow instead of the public.
I am in no way pretending that previous presidents such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton didn’t show highly problematic patterns of personal corruption. Neither am I ignoring the colossal failures of the George W. Bush administration nor the sometimes questionable decisions that came out of Mr. Obama’s presidency. However, these few years later with no less than three of Trump’s former campaign chiefs (Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, and Brad Parscale) either in jail or facing felony charges, it is embarrassing beyond words for the United States of America that we promoted and rewarded people this lacking in character to have sway over our republic. And of course, let’s not forget the pardons for unrepentant criminals like Joe Arpaio, Rod Blagojevich, and Roger Stone—a sideshow and warm-up act for when Trump and Pence may need to pardon members of the Trump family. Perhaps the most damning statement about Trump’s character comes very succinctly from his niece Mary in her book Too Much and Never Enough: “If he can in any way profit from your death, he’ll facilitate it, and then he’ll ignore the fact that you died.” When we examine his coded, mafia-like speech, his incitement of violence toward his opponents, and his handling of Covid-19, including externalities like the death of former presidential candidate Herman Cain, it’s clear that Mary Trump is not exaggerating.
In the 21st century, our globe has entered a phase of some truly problematic trends that will adversely affect food production, migration patterns of both animals and humans, the safety and security of an increasing number of habitats, and the financial security of people in a growing number of regions both here and abroad. Artificial intelligence and automation continue to disrupt the labor market without a clear endpoint or a counterbalancing set of innovations in our infrastructure, safety nets, or affordability of healthcare. American rates of disproportionate incarceration, gun violence, maternal and infant mortality all lag behind our Western peer nations. The opioid epidemic has reached staggering proportions, and to exacerbate these matters, we live in a world in which seemingly magical technology has helped to put false information into the minds of billions of people on an hourly basis. We do not have any more time for bad faith actors who were born into wealth and act only out of the narrowest self interest at the expense of public health and democratic solidarity.
We are living in a time of anti-police protesting, and there is a lot of commentary posted on social media about these protests with the outbreak of violence and destruction of property. A great deal of this commentary implies or states racially biased tropes and puts forth the old warhorse that Trump has been trotting out during his perpetual campaigning: the need for law and order. However, law and order is often another name for the war on drugs, which is the most spectacular policy failure in the history of the United States. The lack of a humane and honest policy for the use of psychotropic drugs and stimulants has gone hand in hand with redlining of neighborhoods, incentives for committing crimes, and policing strategies that are clearly detrimental in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Chicago among many others.
If we want to initiate a reversal of the dysfunctional behavior within communities and between people and police, it is imperative that we end this horrible policy of arresting people and criminally prosecuting them for drug offenses. Decriminalize it, legalize it, tax it, and regulate it. Pull the rug out from under this illicit market so that we can get to the business not of defunding the police but rather de-militarizing them and reimagining what the appropriate scope of policing should be. It will take years to fix these entrenched problems, but we can’t wait on the party of Trump anymore because they don’t support or budget for any meaningful reforms that would improve matters in these cities.
I want to pull back for a moment to look at a wider view and a more enduring perspective. In addition to the closest relatives whom I’ve lost, there are certain people whose deaths invoke in me the deepest questions and exhort me to insist on a better path in my life. Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and George Floyd all come to mind in recent years. In some cases, it might be actors or athletes like Patrick Swayze, Elizabeth Peña, and Walter Payton, whose deaths came from intractable illnesses as they were living the only lives they had. Most recently I have felt this kind of sympathy and inspiration about another great actor: Chadwick Boseman, a person whose Zen-like perspective and generosity of spirit outshone even his fantastic screen presence and craft. I think about the idea as Yogi Berra put it colloquially that it can get late early, so to speak, and given that this phenomenon can happen in one’s life itself, I want to spend my time in a world with leaders that at least have the potential to embody goodness and not this exercise in daily denial of what we all see to be true. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald speaks through Nick Carraway the expectation that people should be capable of standing “at a kind of moral attention” in the context of mortality and life-altering events. I think that a growing number of people in this country are feeling exactly that way.
One prominent bright side to this time for me is the incredible response of activists, neighbors, community leaders, and yes, a wave of newly emerging politicians from a variety of walks of life who care enough to engage in a massive movement that is fundamentally decent and future-oriented. I am speaking of U.S. Senate candidates such as former military pilot M.J. Hegar in Texas, astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona, and Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia among many others. Our U.S. House candidates from Texas show remarkable talent as well, including military veterans such as Gina Ortiz Jones and healthcare finance expert Julie Oliver. As someone who has voted for candidates of a wide variety of political affiliations over my lifetime, I am ready to go forward with Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris and this next generation of leaders and innovators. Make no mistake, I am going into this election in a guarded way because the evidence is overwhelming that the current president is acting completely in bad faith and attempting to poison our democratic process, but I am prepared for this test of our nation and its fraught aftermath. Having witnessed these last four years and what led to them, I know that it will take more than one election to fix the harm that’s been done and institute lasting change for the better. November 3rd is only the next essential step in that journey.