Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 July 2017

Nero of our Time


[For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
Have you ever wondered what it felt like to be a citizen of (ancient) Rome while Nero was emperor? Have you ever assured yourself “it can’t happen here!” in our bold, twenty-first century democracy?

Well, think again. It’s all here. In our supreme leader’s White House, loyalty flows only up, never down. His thinking process is so erratic and unpredictable that no one—not even his family or closest associates, and certainly not his aides in the West Wing—knows what he’ll Tweet or do next. No one knows whose head will next appear on the chopping block, nor why. The speech and actions of him who pretends to be the free world’s leader are as random and capricious as a summer storm, or a hurricane.

And yet . . . And yet . . . There are institutions. There are traditions. There are centers of power far beyond the White House. So the key question of our age is the same one the poet posed almost precisely a century ago, during humankind’s most senseless and damaging war: can the center hold?

There was John McCain. Half a century ago, he was a guest at the so-called “Hanoi Hilton”—a North Vietnamese prison camp for American POWs. He was beaten. He was tortured. Yet he refused to betray his country or his comrades in arms.

Because his family was prominent, his captors offered to free him before his fellows, but he refused. That single act of courage and empathy marked the start of his long political career.

McCain has had his ups and downs since then. He befriended Charles Keating, a prime mover in the Savings and Loan Crisis, the first big postwar financial panic. He ran a sordid and racist campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, but when he lost he accepted his defeat like a man and apologized. His name appears on our best attempt to curb money in politics by law, which our Supreme Court ideologues have gutted. He tried mightily to enact sensible energy policy long before fear and denial of global warming became religious obligations on either side.

So what happened today came as no surprise to me, although many in our capital and media were surprised. There was John McCain, bearing a scar from surgery that had discovered a possibly fatal melanoma, casting the deciding vote to shoot down a mean and mendacious attempt, seven years in the making, to deprive millions of people of practical access to health care.

The camera was behind McCain when he cast his famous “thumb down” vote. But you could almost see, from the cut of his head and the angle of his neck, the disgust and disappointment on his face as he shot it down. You could feel the rage in this honorable man at the base seven-year attempt to disguise political propaganda as policy. It’s not as if he hadn’t warned his colleagues: he had voted to permit debate, but he had warned in the clearest possible terms that the bill before the Senate was not doing the people’s work.

At the end of day, our much-vaunted Constitution is just a piece of paper. So is our Bill of Rights. Their actualization in the life of our nation depends on the men and women who serve in positions of public power and trust. It depends on people of principle, like John McCain, who will stand up for their values and our nation’s traditions, against party and pressure, when the chips are down.

We just escaped a severe health-care crisis by the skin of our teeth. But no one should rejoice that only three GOP Senators—two women and McCain—had enough backbone to buck their errant party and say “no” to an abomination of a bill, one wrought with no hearings, no committee deliberations, no time read it, no thought, no plan, and no goals but propagandizing, making the rich richer, and chalking up a “win” for our very own Nero.

These are, as they say, times that try men’s souls. Our ship of state is foundering. It has no direction but the whim of a puerile narcissist, the procedural bent of a catatonic, morality-free Senate Majority Leader who can’t seem to count votes, and the raw dogma of a House Speaker who seems to believe that this nation belongs to the most clueless rich because they fund his and his party’s campaigns.

We have been listing hard to the right for the nearly two generations, since a Grade B actor named Reagan took our helm. The brilliance, thoughtfulness and prudence of our Founders have vanished in a pall of partisanship, simplistic ideology, money worship, base celebrity, and selfishness.

How the hell could any legislator worthy of the name approve a bill on as complex a subject as health insurance with no hearings, no committee review, no time to read it, and only a few days to debate it? Are our representatives all as mad as Nero? Would an engineer build a car with no calculations or mechanical drawings? Wouldn’t the wheels fall off?

So competence matters. Principles matter. Character matters, now more than ever before.

Senator Lindsey Graham is another man who may have a backbone. Although he voted with the lemmings for the abomination bill, he has made clear the limits of his own tolerance. He will not abide our modern Nero firing his own hand-picked attorney general just for doing his job, especially when the president who fires him is quite properly under investigation.

We need more like him and McCain and like Senators Collins and Murkowski, the two GOP women who helped shoot down the abomination of a bill. We need them terribly. We need them if only because our Constitution gives us no way to remove our Nero lawfully just because he is a miserable excuse for an American and a human being and is doing a miserable job.

Unlike Britain and most parliamentary democracies, we can’t remove our Nero for simple incompetence, misfeasance, malfeasance, or capriciousness. We have to indict (“impeach”) him for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” and convict him in our Senate by a two-thirds vote.

It will take years to complete the detailed investigation and legal work required to do that, just as it did with Richard Nixon. My own estimate is that Trump will be out by the end of his third year in office. If I’m right, that means our national sufferance under the Nero of our time will continue five times longer than it has already.

That interval may seem an eternity in human affairs. In the meantime, the respect, power and wealth that our nation has enjoyed—and perhaps its survival—will depend on the courage of men and women like McCain, Graham, Collins and Murkowski to break from the crowd of partisan lemmings and do the right thing.

Institutions and traditions are fine. But just as our Constitution is only words on paper, so are they only abstractions.

At the end of the day, they are all just ideas. They are not self-enforcing; they need people of flesh and blood with insight and courage to make them real. As Jefferson is reputed to have said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Without men and women of principle and character to set us straight, our United States will follow their own Nero, just as Rome followed the original, down the slippery slope of decline to historical oblivion.

Endnote: The title of this essay is a deliberate pun on the title of an early-nineteenth century Russian novella by Mihkail Lermontov, Hero of our Time. Like much of Russian literature, that novella is nihilistic, fatalistic and depressing. And so may be Trump’s presidency—pointless and useless “leadership” for a cynical, selfish and inattentive Twitter age.

But just as we need not follow Russian nihilism, we need not let Russian meddling in our democracy seal our fate. We are now living a dark Russian novella authored in part by Vladimir Putin, whose hacking, fake news and other propaganda helped put our Nero into the White House. But how we react to him is up to us.

What we do will depend, more than anything else, on how many leaders of principle and character we still have among us, and how many are mindless lemmings unable to deviate from the partisan crowd. It will also depend on how we treat our so-called “minorities,” who are collectively becoming a majority, and keep our “melting pot” vibrant and bubbling.

Everyone from the Senate and House down to city councils will have to do his or her part if we are to emerge from this crisis of leadership and foreign meddling intact. Congress’ bill to impose sanctions on Russia that the President alone cannot remove is a good start; but it’s only the barest beginning.

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