One Week Out: Not Funny Anymore:
When is it finally time to stop the joking around? It's a question I've wrestled with lately… but one I've wrestled with for a long time.
The doctor threading the inflatable balloon through my femoral artery up to my heart suddenly stopped what he was doing, and spoke sharply to the nurses and other assistants standing around my gurney in the cardiac catheter lab, telling them to stand away for a moment. “Compose yourselves, people,” he told them, and then, suppressing the last of his laughter, looked down and told me to choose between getting completely knocked out or knocking off the impromptu comedy act that was cracking up the room and putting me at risk of being roto-rootered to death.
Later, I was told that I wasn't the only who had reacted to the stress of a life-threatening experiencing with nervous humor, but that I was indeed the first person they'd ever had provide a reenactment of “Fantastic Voyage” complete with dialogue and sound effects to accompany the real-time scene of my angiogram unfolding on the monitor, before leading the nurses and doctors in a rousing version of “PTCA,” (the shorthand for the Percutaneous Transluminal Coronary Angioplasty procedure I was undergoing) to the tune of the Village People’s classic “YMCA.”
Which is to say that just because I make a lot of jokes doesn't mean the situation is funny; in fact, the inverse is true: Over the last year I’ve probably churned out more wisecracks and recycled more Trump jokes than anything else, in the face of a situation that is as serious as an invasive heart procedure.
One week away from the election, I have no more jokes left, nothing cute to say; the fact that this awful farce has gone on down to the wire without being revealed as an episode of Candid Camera only leaves me queasy. One would think we've hit the actual bottom of the bottom barrel, but there's still a week left, and given how the last year has gone, almost nothing new would surprise me. But the shallowness of the outrage over the truly outrageous — the failure to release taxes, the unrevealed ties to Russia, the repeated slurs, bullying, sexual abuse, outright lies and absence of policy substance, etc., etc., etc., — means nothing more can be said to dissuade the dissuadable or shake the faith of the inhabitants of Trump's echo chamber of alternate reality.
I've tried so hard to put myself in the place of those leaning towards or accepting of Trump — not any of the deplorables or despicables whose hearts are so poisoned by xenophobia, misogyny, racism, or abject hate and fear of Hillary Clinton to be instinctively drawn to him as maggots are to rotting meat — to understand how one can ignore appeals to logic or fairness, and conveniently forget the basics of our democracy and the complexities and realities of today's geopolitics. I don't believe these people are all stupid — though I'm certain that distribution of smarts among them is not as generous as it is in the general population — nor do I believe they are as heartless or self destructive as the evidence would imply. I can see how so many of them can remain immune to arguments, especially when they are delivered with the heaping portions of strident disdain I know I'm guilty of doling out, but I've come to understand how so many of these arguments remain irrelevant to the lizard-brain instincts that keep them unswayed.
The exercise of putting myself into the mind of a “reasonable” Trump supporter is exhausting, and in the end a failure of sorts, which for me is somewhat unusual, having spent a large chunk of my career as a persuasive communications professional on political campaigns creating effective (sometimes brutally effective) messages and strategies. In this case, though, no matter how many facts I can deflect, or how many benefits-of-the-doubt I can cobble together, there are some leaps I cannot make some thin spots where the light still comes through — and surprisingly, they have nothing whatsoever to do with the vomitous politics of the campaign, the frightening positions of the candidate or the scabrous scandals. And I can't imagine they don't appear as fiery bright red warning lights even to the talking heads who refute or deflect the ugliest revelations about their candidate.
They are so basic and so simple that I can't believe they hadn't come flying to the forefront before, especially to someone who has vetted candidates, uncovered and strategized ways to diffuse their flaws and protect their Achilles heels. Maybe they've been obvious to you all along, not because they are so huge that they loom over everything else, but because they are so frighteningly absent:
For all his bragging about what a superb businessman he he is, the absence of anyone else in the business communities corroborating such excellence is notable. Of course fierce competition may be responsible, but surely such an important figure as he poses to be would have plenty of former adversaries, partners and associates filling the stages and the airwaves for the billionaire. Even more telling: other than those paid for playing the part on reality TV, where are all the grateful people he's mentored who can attest to his brilliance as a pattern to be followed? I can't recall any such example coming forward in the last 15 months.
On the personal level, a successful political figure is a storehouse overflowing with personal relationships. During a campaign, scores of people, most without expectation of reward or compensation, are eager to step forward and be heard on behalf of the candidate they know. Most often it is not just the personal charisma inherent in some candidates that draws such people, but real, tangible experiences that have touched them and changed their lives. Following the Trump campaign, the absence of any boyhood friends, high school chums, fraternity brothers, fellow church members, or even neighbors or devoted employees being heard from or quoted creates a deafening silence that cannot be ignored. Literally, the best Trump could do from day one to today is the fawning testimony of his immediate family, including his wife's stirring words lifted verbatim from an actual adoring spouse. The lack of political substance seems easier to gloss over than this stunning personal hollowness.
The last most damning factor swirled for me like an uncategorized mist only to coalesce into substance during a trip I took a week or so ago to Washington, D.C. I had an opportunity to visit at the White House before the locks are changed, and I made a point of going there at this particular time because being there helps me focus through the fog of cynicism, and turn the clamor and cliches and cartoons of American government we carry in our heads — especially during elections — into tangible reminders of who we have been, who we dreamed to be and what we have overcome. Here, there is hard, real stone I can touch, carved into massive monuments and imposing statues and humble gravestones to honor men and women whose ideas and lives and sacrifices proved to have meaning; powerful words on parchment I can read with my nose only inches from the original ink, preserved in the reverence they deserve for having transformed the world, words crafted by men willing to put their lives on the line to ensure a refuge from tyranny and a haven for freedom; buildings erected to house the workings where laws were made to put ideals into realities, declarations of war made to not just protect our territory but to save the world from brutality and where decisions were made to challenge laws and customs to ensure our rights and freedoms and refine our democracy — where the governed send those they choose to govern them, and where power is transferred regularly without bloodshed or revolution.
Especially moving to me, and surprisingly so, was Arlington National Cemetery, where the endless rows of perfectly spaced headstones once only reminded me of our shameful national propensity for waging war and sacrificing our youth. Perhaps because I am now closer to a spot on the other side of similar sod, I was struck sharply by unexpected revelations here. Unlike other cemeteries I've been to, here there was no Catholic section, no Jewish section, no Muslim section, no Asian section, no White section or Black section… no rich section and no poor section. The only two special sections I made note of underscored the equality that death brings to those separated by culture and status in life: Although a Civil War made them mortal enemies, Confederate dead are also buried with dignity, but in a special area where they are only distinguished from other fallen Americans by the fact that their headstones — the same height and width and made of the same white stone as every other in Arlington — are not rounded on the top like every other, but come to slight point… and are all laid out in circles facing inward towards a Confederate monument. And on this same property was Freedman's Village — a camp of former slaves established by the government during the Civil War era where today, row after row after row of the same exact white headstones marking the graves of revered war dead mark here the graves of these men and women, beneath whose names are inscribed, rather than military rank, the single word “citizen.”
I really did start to appreciate the concept of sacrifice and the honor service brings — and never more so than seeing not just the eternal flame at the grave of JFK… but the graves on same hillside around him of his brothers Joe, Bobby and Teddy. I felt a strange sadness viewing these, mixed with a smoldering anger. These children of a wealthy family with a less than pristine past were not just about personal power, self aggrandizement and protection of their wealth, class and status at the expense of others; the only way Donald Trump or his offspring will ever deserve to have their names on these grounds, is if they buy the property and turn it into a casino.
While it is not an official or definitive answer, I asked several employees and guides, many who had served there for decades, whether to their knowledge Trump had ever visited there. Their answers were not surprising, at least to me.
I can't imagine that anyone would aspire to be President and ask to be entrusted to leadership of all this without a deep appreciation of these symbols and their meanings as well a deep understanding of the complexities of government, let alone a grasp of the basics that elude Trump. Days after I left, at the height of the campaign’s final push, Trump paid a visit to D.C. just blocks from where I stayed, but not to reflect respectively at any of the monuments honoring the greatness of Presidents past, or the memorials to the lives of men sacrificed in wars (including the one his privilege protected him from), or to read the original document he will, if successful, swear to an oath to preserve, protect and defend. No, his sole concern was a piece of real estate, yet another potentially doomed business venture, an eponymous erection that would be yet another monument to his ego.
Experiencing this weighty and real substance of history firsthand, feeling the permanence all around, helped assuage my worst fears that it would somehow come to an end and all be swept away on November 9 with as fatally flawed a person as Donald Trump conning his way into winning an election. We have survived bad presidents and worst… but only because at some point our cynicism and distrust of each other and the rest of the world was swept away by leaders who through their words and actions revive our faith and optimism and dedication to worthy ideals and the better angels of our nation.
Because a terrible, illogical and heartless philosophy has been given a voice and empowered in this election, we will be lucky if it can be kept from further spreading like a bad infection. Should Hillary Clinton win, this pernicious effect and poisonous presence may be the greatest threat to her effectively governing in a challenge-filled world; should Donald Trump win, it will define our government.