We’re just a couple of days from inauguration, and then we will have President Trump. No, I still don’t like that fact any better than I did back in November and have seen little in the cabinet selections or policy promises to make me happier about our new executive branch leader or those he is bringing in with him. From an adviser who ran a racially biased, religiously intolerant, and misogynistic web site to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who doesn’t accept the reality of climate change to an ex-Dancing with the Stars contestant as Energy Secretary—and don’t get me started on what could happen to the Supreme Court—there will much to worry about in the coming four years. Foreign relations, trade wars, cyber espionage, health care, and the resurrection of failed economic policies/tax breaks are all important areas where I do not believe Trump will lead us in the best direction. (And that’s not even taking into account the actions taken so far by the Republican-controlled Senate and House.) But my biggest concern right now is that we will lose our focus and waste our energy going after the embarrassing, foolish, but ultimately not very important distractions of which we will now have an unending supply, when we should be directing time and effort to resisting that which will make our country worse.
It’s happened again and again over the past year: The substantial gets lost in the commotion surrounding a late-night tweet storm, some inappropriate remark at a rally, the revelation of a past interview filled with insensitive/sexist/racist comments, and/or clear evidence that a current position stands in complete opposition to the stand emphatically stated years ago. The important issues get dropped in the click-appeal of a new post, and then we’re all discussing how Donald met with Kanye. During the campaign when all we were doing was choosing who would be the next most powerful person in the world, this was bad enough; but now this powerful person will be taking all kinds of actions that matter to the world. We have to be able to differentiate between that which is just tacky, crass, and idiotic from those things which will impact our lives. Donald and his group are going to get away with way too much unless we learn not to allow our focus to be diverted from the significant by the stupid.
It is little solace that in our previous world of politics—just a few years ago—any one of those stupid things we now have to dismiss as frivolous would have probably gotten the politician who committed the sin immediately ejected from his position and party. Clearly that standard no longer applies: Instead, these stories now consume everyone’s attention for several days, flat denials (which everyone knows are lies) are aggressively pushed, statements are spun as meaning something other than what they clearly meant (and we’re asked to understand what’s in his heart rather than what he actually says), panels on news shows discuss the issue (always including at least one pro-Trump person on who tries to dominate the air time), and significant issues get scant attention. Suddenly, we all realize that those significant things have been resolved with little discussion, beneficial revision, or opportunity to challenge them. Whether this obfuscation is the product of evil genius or idiotic luck no longer matters. We all know what’s happening, and we must do a better job of sifting through low priority garbage to force adequate debate and opposition to coalesce against those things which could hurt people rather than that which hurts our image of how our country’s leaders should conduct themselves.
Of course how our leaders conduct themselves does matter, and the messages this prime example of America will send to our kids and the world will be problematic, probably for many years. Any time racism, intolerance, or misogyny appear, they set us all back and we have to confront them whenever we see or hear them. But we need to conserve our outrage for real instances of that which is divisive, mean-spirited, and cowardly, rather than go to the walls every time Donald reveals how impulsive and overly sensitive he is by lashing out. No matter what you think of him as a person, we can’t spend too much time worrying about his character flaws when his programs will have much larger, more harmful effects.
That Trump’s version of governance will be challenging to navigate is quite the understatement. But we have to hold him and his allies accountable for improving that which they have so vehemently attacked and obstructed for the past eight years. I’m not sure how much agreement and love is shared by the various wings of the Republican party—it now appears that Mike Pence will be the “calming” influence on getting established leaders like House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to play nice with Trump. That will take some effort, I would assume, and even that might not stop others in the GOP from rebelling against much of what Trump will push. He’s already shown a willingness to shift positions, and his discipline-by-tweet approach which got the Republicans to back away from significant restrictions on any Senate/House oversight by anti-corruption governmental investigators was both heartening and hysterical. That he will be able to exert influence through tweeting is another new thing we have to deal with—it sure doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop anytime soon. That, however, also plays into the hands of those who would prefer not to have their actions or decisions too closely examined or debated.
This week has been a good example of the focus shift we permit regularly. Top cabinet member nominees were to be questioned by Senate committees, as is the Senate’s responsibility under our Constitution. There is much which needed to be discussed with these potential appointees—with the leaders of departments such as Justice, Transportation, and State to be confirmed or rejected. Others are more qualified to comment on the problematic baggage most of Trump’s selections carry, but I did discuss my areas of concern for one of them, Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, based on my experience teaching for thirty-three years. But just as these dates approached, Meryl Streep made a moving speech at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, which was broadcast to millions. In it, she condemned Trump’s intolerance and urged everyone to reject it as well. I’m betting 99.9% of the people reading this know what happened next: Trump responded with tweets of how “over-rated” Streep is as an actress and that she was basically just a sore loser. He also criticized her in an interview with the New York Times. Suddenly the confirmation hearings were no longer being discussed as we all held our collective bated breath to hear what would happen next between Meryl and Donald!
It’s important to state emphatically that I’m not suggesting that Meryl Streep shouldn’t have said what she said. She had an important message and the forum to present it to a large audience. Those who claim that an awards show wasn’t the “appropriate venue” for such comments fail to understand how infrequently anyone gets that kind of chance to communicate with a bunch of people. If you believe what you have to say matters to lots of people, of course you go for it. And the better response from Trump would have been silence or at most an acknowledgement that he had heard Streep’s remarks and believed she would change her tune once she saw how “great” America would become under his rule. That, of course, would still have gotten a ton of coverage, but not the deluge that their supposed “feud” did. But anyone who’s been following how he’s operated over the years would have known that he would fire back with criticisms of his own, especially his opinion of his challenger’s worth and popularity. And, sadly, anyone who’s been following Trump coverage over the past two years would also know that once he fired back, those exchanges would suck the air of anything else’s importance, for 24-48 hours, time enough for the confirmation hearings to sneak up on everyone.
Yes, the Democrats also know how to put on a show, so you knew there’d be quite a few sparks to fly during those hearings; but they have to compete with who’s performing at the inauguration, the debate on how many quality inauguration ball gowns are still available (Trump claimed they were sold out while retailers pointed to plentiful stocks), and the inevitable new tweet feud based on an unflattering picture, Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on SNL, or how unfair he thinks the media is in its treatment of him. None of that, though, matters one scintilla as much as allowing a climate-change denier to be put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. We’re all going to have to be much better at ignoring the smoke in our quest to put out the fires this administration will keep lighting. The aforementioned Vice President Pence allied with Paul Ryan will be able to run rampant will little accountability over many programs and repeal rights which have positively impacted millions of people unless we can keep their actions squarely in the public eye.
And even if you agree 100% with the directions Pence and Ryan want to take the country, I would hope that you believe their arguments and evidence should be on full display for all to understand and analyze. If Republican ideas are better, then they should be examined openly with the goal of making these gems shine even brighter, if at all possible. Everyone has an interest in transparency and the power of reason as the driving forces of a thriving democracy. Present your proposal, debate it, modify it, debate it some more, and put it to a vote—that’s what we should demand. Not tweet something outrageous, counter attack with even more bizarre remarks when the press over-reacts to the initial comment, all while you enact reactionary laws that damage poor people’s lives or scratch the backs of your rich friends with little scrutiny under the cover of that public furor over your silly comments.
I can’t say I’m optimistic about our ability to downplay the stupid while forcing our Republican majorities to explain just how cutting taxes for the most wealthy in the belief that it will trickle down to the poor—a policy pushed since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and one which has been failing since that time—will somehow be successful in its current iteration. But we have to ferret out these real issues lest our air and water get dirtier, our individual rights (whether they be sexual orientation, birth control, voting, racial, or religious) vanish, or public education is starved of funding so already privileged parents can use their tax dollars to support private schools which won’t accept students with special needs. At the very least, minimize the time you give to the Trump sideshows so that you can devote more energy to the vital things. Above all—and this is the most important point—you absolutely have to…wait! I gotta go—Trump just called CNN “fake news” and is accused of being with Russian prostitutes! OMG, can you believe it? See ya…