I confess I fell off the gerbil wheel for most of last week. Yes, I had both my kids home for Thanksgiving, which is a rare treat. And, for one so fortunate as me, giving thanks for many blessings far beyond my just deserts felt like a full-time job, even more than the scribbling I compulsively do here.
In addition, certainly, I was gobsmacked by the election results. I’m still reading, thinking, seeking wisdom on what happened and what it portends, and will interrupt some future nap – of yours or mine or both – with the most honest and, I hope, useful insights I can dredge up.
I wasn’t even going to write for today, but then I read New Yorker Editor David Remnick’s piece, dated today and headed for inky publication soon I’m sure, but available online here, in which Remnick attempts to show us the recent events through the eyes of Barack Obama, who gave him a long interview, and others through the years. He also spoke to some others in the White House, who are quoted below, like David Simas, the White House political director.
I was blown away by how calm, smart and helpful the piece was, to me at least, and will offer only a few highlights, along with a recommendation to read the whole thing yourself. (If you do, and if you’re like me, you will be sadder than ever to see the current occupant of the Oval Office preparing to hand off power to the current president-elect.)
From the Remnick piece:
This is not the apocalypse,” Obama said [to the White House staff, and the remark reached Remnick}. “History does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.”
A couple of days later, when I asked the President about that consolation, he offered this: “I don’t believe in apocalyptic — until the apocalypse comes. I think nothing is the end of the world until the end of the world.”
How’s that for keeping things in perspective? Here’s more:
“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” [Obama political director David] Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago — about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women — his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices.
“Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal — that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”
As we rode toward the airport, Obama talked about Trump. “We’ve seen this coming,” he said. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”
I asked about Trump’s capacity to eliminate serially a long string of Republican contenders.
“Donald Trump beating fifteen people said less about his skills and more about the lack of skills of the people he beat,” Obama said. “But, obviously, he tapped into something. He’s able to distill the anger and resentment and the sense of aggrievement. And he is skillful at challenging the conventions in a way that makes people feel something and that gives them some satisfaction.”
“What I’m suggesting is that the lens through which people understand politics and politicians is extraordinarily powerful. And Trump understands the new ecosystem, in which facts and truth don’t matter. You attract attention, rouse emotions, and then move on. You can surf those emotions. I’ve said it before, but if I watched Fox I wouldn’t vote for me!”
Obama: “I have complete confidence in the American people — that if I can have a conversation with them they’ll choose what’s right. At an emotional level, they want to do the right thing if they have the information.” And yet in an age of filter bubbles and social-media silos, he knew, the “information” that reached people was increasingly shaped by what they wanted to be true. And that was no longer in his hands or anyone else’s.
This next passage, obviously, starts with Remnick speaking in his own voice:
Obama is a patriot and an optimist of a particular kind. He hoped to be the liberal Reagan, a progressive of consequence, but there are crucial differences. For one thing, Obama does not believe in the simplistic form of American exceptionalism which insists that Americans are more talented and virtuous than everyone else, that they are blessed by a patriotic God with a special mission.
America is a country that was established on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and improved upon not merely by legislation but also by social movements: this, to Obama, is the real nature of its exceptionalism.
Last year, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, and defined American exceptionalism as embodied by its heroes, its freedom fighters: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, John Lewis, the “gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York”; its Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo code-talkers, its 9/11 volunteers and G.I.s, and its immigrants — Holocaust survivors, Lost Boys of Sudan, and the “hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande.”
It’s a long piece, but I would have read more. Here’s the ending, in which Obama is talking, at first, about the men and women of the military. The passages in quotes are all from Obama, with Remnick narrating in between, and the last paragraph is all Remnick:
“It’s the example of the single most diverse institution in our country—soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coastguardsmen who represent every corner of our country, every shade of humanity, immigrant and native-born, Christian, Muslim, Jew, and nonbeliever alike, all forged into common service.” His sober cadences gave resonance to words that could have been rote. So did the awareness that just seventy days remained of his Presidency.
Here was the hopeful vision of diversity and dignity that Obama had made his own, and hearing these words I couldn’t help remembering how he began his victory speech eight years ago. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he said, “tonight is your answer.”
A very different answer arrived this Election Day. America is indeed a place where all things are possible: that is its greatest promise and, perhaps, its gravest peril.