Off the Grid

I spent a fair amount of time this summer off the grid. Ten days out on the Lewis and Clark trail, four days horse camping in the Little Missouri River badlands in western North Dakota, a week in London with a lousy US-only cell phone. Every time I came back, every time I came up for air, after days of news blackout, I learned that President Donald Trump had done or said something outrageous, that the left and much of the media had taken the bait and gone nuts over it, but that the Trump base defended his actions, no matter how disruptive (to use the new term of choice) to our national protocols and norms.

Yadda Yadda Yadda.

No matter how long you step off the grid, it’s the same story, sometimes identically the same story, when you come back.

I have just a few thoughts about this for today.

First, the Trump saga has become tedious. Americans are a restless people. Back in 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville said we clear a path in the forest, plant a crop, build a cabin, but before the roof is even on American pioneers light out for the territory to the west, to clear new land in a new place, because a hectic restlessness is the central fact of American life. We Americans need a constant stream of new stimulation because we are a people who refuse to be bored. The Trump habit of outraging one national norm after the next, and the left taking the bait every time, has been old news for a long time now. It’s like seeing the same episode of Seinfeld or Two and a Half Men over and over again until you just want to move on. Been there, done that.

Second, while we obsess about the surface carnival that is the presidency of Donald Trump, lots is happening under the radar that is more important to the future of the United States, but not nearly so sexy as President Trump’s antics. We all care about some of the same things and some different things. My own larger concerns are about the future of education, the future of our public lands, and the future of our national cultural institutions, among others, but yours might be about health care for our veterans or American trade policy. It may be that President Trump is deliberately distracting us with his outrageous dawn tweets so that we don’t take time to examine what his administration, with the cooperation of a Republican-dominated Congress, is doing below the radar, or he may just be a colossal narcissist who cares about very little except himself. Whichever it is, we all need to be focusing on what is happening outside the national circus tent.

Third, Thomas Jefferson believed in legislative supremacy, in a very modest executive branch. His philosophy of government can be summed up by his phrase, “a few plain duties performed by a few honest men.” He said once that his dream was that the national government would be so mild and sensible that there would be essentially nothing to report. He wanted America to be a fourth or fifth rank nation like what China was then or Canada today. He was in many respects a stealth president. His annual messages were so understated that his cousin John Randolph called them milquetoast. Most Americans did not know what Jefferson looked like. Only a handful knew what he sounded like. He never had a presidential news conference. He never traipsed around the country (as George Washington had done, once north and once south during his presidency). He never held a rally. He never made a campaign appearance outside of Albemarle County, Virginia, and then he merely showed up shy and diffident, clearly uncomfortable being there.

The idea that the President of the United States could be the central focus of our national experiment would have appalled Jefferson. Our national fixation on Donald Trump feels more like our obsession with the Kardashians or the British royal family than a small-r republican form of government. Think of how seldom we the people actually talked about President Obama or George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton compared to the national reality show we are now wallowing in day after wearying and tedious day. Jefferson spent his whole life trying to remain below the radar. This president loves being the center of our national attention. He would wither up like a petunia in a drought if we stopped feeding his ego every second of every day.

Elections matter. Donald Trump is our president. He has a right to move the country as far in the direction of his vision (if he has a vision) as possible within the broad boundaries of our system of checks and balances. He has a right to appoint life-tenured judges and justices of the Supreme Court. A midterm election is looming. It will be a plebiscite on the presidency of Donald Trump. It will determine if the American people are basically ok with the circus and the cult of personality Trump has created, or if they want something less chaotic, less disruptive, less narcissistic from their government. All elections matter, but this one may determine the future trajectory of the United States.

One final thought. If I were persuasive, I would convince everyone who dislikes Donald Trump, about 60% of the American public, to stop using the word impeachment or even thinking about such a drastic constitutional maneuver. What we want is checks and balances, serious oversight, accountability, not the insane drama of an impeachment crisis. The chances that any president would be convicted in an impeachment trial by the senate, where it takes 67 votes, not only approach zero but are actually zero. Besides, as a nation we need to listen to, respect, and accommodate the alienation and anger that elected Donald Trump, not chastise it, label it, dismiss it, and outmaneuver it by way of parliamentary procedure. People who are called “deplorable” seldom return to the table of civility. To put it in a nutshell, we need to heal the nation not touch off an actual civil war.

Let’s ratchet this thing down, turn away from the circus in disgust, take walks and read books, and stop regarding this as Armageddon. It’s not the Seventh Seal you hear opening up in the empyrean. It’s only the Second Seal. But stay tuned.