What if Donald Trump Was a Good Guy?

Hey Rebecca:

I’ve been wondering lately: What would the world be like if Donald Trump was a good guy and not a man of such transparently ill character whose corruption and classlessness infects all around him?

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A pause: I don’t like attributing character flaws to people with whom I disagree. Usually, they’re good — or good enough — people with different opinions! But with Trump, the crappiness of his character is key to the critique of him. It’s unavoidable.

Let’s apply the question to this week’s big scandal — the newly reported meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer he thought might provide Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

If the people around Donald Trump had been both smart and patriotic, we wouldn’t be waking up this week to news that his son met with a Russian lawyer to dig up “dirt” in Hillary Clinton. We would’ve found out last summer — and it might’ve provided the boost he needed to win the presidency.

News of Trump Jr.’s meeting broke this week, adding to the appearance of a White House under siege and a legal noose tightening around the president’s inner circle. All of this — this part of the scandal, anyway — could’ve been avoided if the Trump campaign had just done two things:

• Called the FBI.

• Held a big press conference announcing why they’d called the FBI.

This approach would’ve had two advantages. It would’ve been the right thing to do. And it would’ve helped Trump look like a real American leader — someone selfless enough to sacrifice a possible advantage if taking that advantage meant doing dirty business with the country’s rivals.

There was precedent for this: Back in 2000, Al Gore’s campaign received a tape showing George W. Bush’s debate preparations — and promptly sent it along to federal investigators.

”I looked at it, and I said, ‘I shouldn’t have this and shouldn’t be looking at this,”’ said former Rep. Tom Downey, the Gore adviser who received the tape. ”I knew that it was serious stuff.”

Gore, of course, ended up narrowly losing the presidency. Trump narrowly won.

But imagine what our politics might look like right now if the Trump campaign called the FBI then held the press conference. Imagine the campaign bounce he might’ve received if he’d made a statement like, say, this:

“The Russians tried to give us damaging info on our opponent but even though that might have given us an advantage, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do for our country. We are all Americans.”

Trump still could’ve railed against “Crooked Hillary.” He still could’ve charged that her email setup as Secretary of State had made America less secure. But he could’ve put questions of collusion with Russia largely to rest, and — for once — maybe even made himself look a little more like a statesman instead of a two-bit schemer. “More in sadness than in anger” would’ve been a good look for a politician attempting to appeal to moderates.

That would’ve taken some imagination, though. That would’ve taken some moral fitness — or the smarts to try to appear fit once in awhile.

Instead, the Trump campaign played to character, choosing to pursue the dumb, obvious, “let’s screw our enemies” power move. And when that didn’t work, he went public asking the Russians to release any info they had on his opponent.

The trouble with Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, from the beginning, has been his inability to get out of his own way. His determination to avenge slights and be in “control” — but only in the most rudimentary fashion — led him to fire James Comey, to attack the “Morning Joe” crew, to slam veterans like John McCain and to pick fights with Rosie O’Donnell, to get his pound of flesh but to almost always get it in a fashion that leaves his presidency as collateral damage.

Given the choice between blunt-force trauma and the smart, silent shiv — or merely doing the right thing and being nice people — Trump and his minions choose blunt force every time. I’m not sure they’re aware that different possibilities exist.

If Trump had tried to be a bigger, better man, he might right now have a bigger, better presidency. All he and his campaign had to do was the right thing. They didn’t. Of course they didn’t.

With disgust, Joel

The ‘Bechdel test’ doesn’t limit movies. It asks them to stop being so limited.

Dear Rebecca:

I’m shocked, shocked that a National Review writer has decided to take issue with the “Bechdel test.” The test, as I’m sure you know, is a very simple way to check if your movies have even a moment in them that isn’t dude oriented.

Here’s Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

And here’s NRO’s Kyle Smith:

In the past few years, the Bechdel Test has begun popping up casually in reviews like a feminist Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Take this appreciation last month of the 1992 film A League of Their Own, published by Katie Baker on the site The Ringer: “It is, in my possibly blinded by love but also correct opinion, one of the best sports movies there is. And it is an honest ode to women and sisters and friendships, with a story that breezes through the Bechdel test by the end of the opening scene.”

Hey, and you know what? Tom Selleck’s Matthew Quigley appears almost immediately in Quigley Down Under. Hurrah, this film breezes through the Cowboy Test by the end of the opening scene!

Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film, and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness. It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman.

A couple of observations:

•You know why the “Cowboy Test” is ridiculous? Because there have been a million fricking movies about cowboys. We actually have no need of further cowboy movies — though, admittedly, I’d watch one if a good one came along — because just about every permutation of the genre has been exhausted. The Bechdel test was invented, meanwhile, because such female-centric moments were relatively rare.

•Smith is right that the Bechdel test doesn’t tell you about the worth of a film or its feminist bona fides. Nobody makes those claims for it! (Check the video above for confirmation of this.) Instead, the underlying question is this: Does this movie contain a single moment that’s not all about the guys in it? It is the very minimum a movie can do, in other words, to put a female perspective onscreen.

• Which means that the Bechdel test doesn’t do much to constrain movie art: The art itself is pretty constrained — the movie business has increasingly been designed to appeal to and arouse the passions of teenage boys. To the degree female characters are designed to appeal to this demographic, it’s not often with their agency apart from men in mind. The Bechdel test was created because movies are so dude-oriented that getting such a moment was unexpected, to be noted.

Smith says the Bechdel test is irrelevant because women don’t make the kinds of movies that reap big box office. “Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female? Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from. If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.”

Which is … stupid. Tell the makers and viewers of Wonder Woman that they don’t like sci-fi adventure. For the love of god, tell my nerdy-ass wife — but give me a head start out of the room.

Hollywood discovers that there’s an audience for women-centric movies every couple of years, then promptly forgets it. Using that amnesia to justify the ongoing omission of women and women’s perspectives from our films isn’t just dumb — it’s clearly leaving a lot of money on the table. Conservatives, you’d think, might embrace the Bechdel test for this reason if for nothing else: It just might help them make a ton of cash from an underserved audience.

Sincerely, Joel

War is not inevitable

Dear Rebecca:

Speaking of the way Americans are sold wars of choice as no choice at all:

While the Kim regime is technically a Communist government, the ideology that governs North Korea is known as “Juche” (or, more technically, “neojuche revivalism”). The official state ideology is a mixture of Marxism and ultra-nationalism. Juche is dangerous because it is infused with the historical Korean concept of “songun,” or “military-first,” and it channels all state resources into the North Korean military—specifically its nuclear program.

Juche is not a self-defensive ideology. Rather, it is a militaristic and offensive belief system. If the North gets a fully functional nuclear arsenal, they will use those weapons to strike at their American, South Korean, and Japanese enemies.

Get that: If North Korea gets the right combination of nukes and missiles, it will definitely attack the United States. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion: “Given these facts, why should we waste precious time on negotiations that will only empower the North and weaken the rest of us? We should be preparing for conflict on the peninsula, not begging the North to take more handouts from us as they build better nuclear weapons.”

But there’s plenty of reason not to believe that North Korea will automatically strike the United States if it’s capable.

Here’s why. If North Korea launched nukes at America, America would launch its nukes at North Korea. Everybody knows this. The North Koreans know this. This is not in doubt. It is difficult to establish one’s dominance over a continental peninsula if you, along with the peninsula, are smoking, radioactive ash.

As NBC News reports: “The country says it wants a nuclear bomb because it saw what happened when Iraq and Libya surrendered their weapons of mass destruction: their regimes were toppled by Western-backed interventions. It wants to stop others, namely the administration of President Donald Trump, from toppling its totalitarian regime.”

The North Korean regime is awful. But that penchant for self-preservation means it’s unlikely to start a war that will end with its destruction.

Understand, there’s a long history of this. America’s hawks warned that Iran’s mullahs had a messianic ideology that would cause them to lash out with nuclear weapons once they were capable; we invaded Iraq because we didn’t want Saddam Hussein to prove he had weapons “in the form of a mushroom cloud.

The essential idea is always that nations unfriendly to the United States are so irrational, care so little for their own survival, that they’re willing to commit civilizational suicide via a nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies. But it hasn’t happened yet.

So when hawks make that case, make them prove it. Point out that history hasn’t worked out that way so far. Point out that we’ve invaded a country to no good end because of similar thought processes. But never merely accept that we have to choose war. It’s not inevitable, no matter how much hawks sell it as such.

Sincerely, Joel

‘Self-restraint’ in North Korea

Dear Rebecca:

This has been stuck in my craw for the last day or so.

The unusually blunt warning, from Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of American troops based in Seoul, came as South Korea’s defense minister indicated that the North’s missile, Hwasong-14, had the potential to reach Hawaii.

“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” General Brooks said, referring to the 1953 cease-fire that halted but never officially ended the Korean War. “As this alliance missile live-fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.

“It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”

You know what else is a choice? Making war.

There’s something awful and dangerous about the idea that war is a default position, that it takes an act of will not to send thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen into combat to inflict death on a widespread scale.

This is particularly true in North Korea, where it seems likely the regime is developing nuclear weapons as a means of protecting itself from interference from superpowers like the United States. The likelihood they’ll actually start a war? Pretty low.

Which means we’d be starting a war for the purpose of … making sure they can’t retaliate if we decide to go to war with them. That seems like a terrible squandering of life in order to prevent an unlikely outcome.

Listen, the North Korean regime is — as George W. Bush once said — loathsome. But if our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved this century, going to war against loathsome regimes doesn’t necessarily result in a net improvement.

But their provocations do not require an armed response. Anybody who tells you differently might have an itchy trigger finger.

Worriedly, Joel

Love, gays, Mennonites, and me

Dear Rebecca:

You mention the Mennonite gathering at Orlando this week. As it happens, I was at the 2001 conference in Nashville that created the Mennonite Church USA. Tough to believe there’s a whole generation of high school students with no memories of “GCs” and “MCs.” We’ve been a united (ahem) church for a little while now.

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The shirt from the 2001 Nashville conference.

That trip to Nashville affected me two ways:

•It made me love Mennonites more than ever.

•It helped drive me out of the church.

The reason for the first is simple: It’s difficult — for me, anyway — to spend days with Mennonites from across the country, much of that time spend in fellowship and worship and prayer with them, and not come away inspired by the breadth and sweep of the faith. Simply: I met a lot of good people at Nashville — including a few with whom I was in disagreement.

But yes: It helped drive me out, too. Why?

That year, the organization of gay and lesbian Mennonites were not allowed to have a display or official presence in the conference’s main hall. So they set up shop in hotel across the street, instead. I went over, to listen and to talk, and ultimately to worship with those folks.

I met a middle-aged Mennonite couple. I don’t remember their names at this point. But one of the men had had a heart attack a few years before. The other had nursed him back to health. And it was inhering their story that any ambivalence that remained in my heart was washed away: This was love. It was a good thing. And I decided in that moment the onus was not on them to prove they belonged in a faith community, but on a faith community that could look at that love and call it evil.

My faith was tenuous anyway, admittedly. But between that and other events, I decided a couple of things:

•I didn’t believe that God wanted me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community.

•If God DID want me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community, that was not a god worthy of my worship.

•In any case, I wasn’t going to participate in a faith community where I had to argue for the simple, lovely humanity of people who loved each other.

I’ve been slowly stepping back into the church of late. It helps that I have a congregation here in Lawrence where I don’t have to have these arguments. (Though the congregation’s history is imperfect on such matters.) But I confess to not being sure how to address the arguments that remain in the broader Mennonite Church. I know that my friends who love each other also love God and I’m pretty sure God loves them too. I don’t know what else to say about it.

Respectfully, Joel

Jesus Wants Me to Love Donald Trump (Or: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?)

Dear Rebecca:

Wait. Wait a minute. Gotta finish listening to this Elvis Costello track.

OK. Where were we?

Oh, yeah. It turns out that there’s going to be plenty of room on my “I hate Trumpism, but I’m going to love Trumpistas” bandwagon. As in: I’m possibly the only one on it.

That’s ok. I didn’t expect anybody to embrace it, really, and some of the objections are really, really good. What the last few days have made me realize is this: The advent of Donald Trump has made me embrace the Mennonite aspects of my personality much more than I’d realized. I like to think of myself as an agnostic, but the wisdom I’m seeking — and appeal to — has its roots in pacifist-Christian traditions that find their fullest expression among Mennonites, Quakers and other so-called “peace churches.” There’s a contradiction there for me, no doubt. It’s not going to be resolved today.

It also means that the stuff I’m writing here might be of limited use to a general audience. So.

Still, I want to talk about a couple of issues that were raised in response to my piece this week, if only to be more clear.

How can you talk about being friends with people who are clearly bad? There are a few variations on this theme, and I don’t mean to oversimplify it here, only to cover the broadest ground.

So let’s talk about Martin Luther King Jr.

I acknowledged in the last piece that King, in the 21st century, is kind of problematic. Lots of people whose commitment to racial equality seems, er, less than stout, appeal to his example regularly, sometimes to mean things he probably didn’t mean. Some of those people prefer to see black folks embrace nonviolence because that means they’re not going to face the armed rebellion they so surely deserve.

Still, I’m kind of surprised that some folks these days seem to dismiss his example so easily. When I talked about King’s example with an online friend this week, her response was: “He got shot.”

Well. Yeah. So did Gandhi, from whom King borrowed a lot of his approach. Their deaths were tragic, and I don’t mean to treat them lightly here.

But it’s also clear to me that Gandhi and King led movements that created unprecedented breakthroughs in their respective societies. Gandhi used nonviolence to help the Indian people achieve self-determination; it’s thanks to the movement King led that the laws evolved to guarantee the right of black people to go to vote, go shopping, and get an education like their white peers.

What they did worked. Did it produce 100 percent victories? No. Such victories are rare. But their societies were transformed. That’s a big deal. Not to put too fine a point on it: What have you accomplished for justice lately? (I’m speaking of a general “you,” Rebecca, not you you.)

What both men sought was justice and reconciliation.

King:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.

Gandhi:

My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.

The intertwining of justice and reconciliation was important to both men. I’m not sure why we find it so easy to ignore, or even dismiss, their examples.

Which reminds me of a point I really, really want to emphasize:

When I say “justice and reconciliation are intertwined,” it is not to diminish the role of justice. If I suggest that justice requires reconciliation, then the opposite is also true: Reconciliation requires justice. That means true friendship won’t be achieved until justice is. Seeking reconciliation isn’t about being namby-pamby in the pursuit of justice, but rather recognizing that reconciliation — while a good unto itself — is probably necessary to cement the gains that justice makes. The best example of this? South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. 

I’ve got some more thoughts about what that means, but maybe that’s for another post.

Wait. One other thought:

Does this mean I have to love Trump, too?

Short answer, yes. Kind of. Ugh. Longer answer: It’s complicated.

This conclusion makes me itch, frankly. But if I’m seeking wisdom from the Mennonite tradition, then I Timothy 2 probably bears some contemplating:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…”

So does Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, loveyour enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven

(Aside: This is why I’m skeptical of Christianity as tribalism. Because this is the opposite of tribalism, and what’s more, this shit is really, really, really fucking hard to do.)

Now: My own inclination is to make some distinctions. When I say I’m going to love Donald Trump supporters, dammit, it’s partly because they’re not Donald Trump. Best I can tell — and I don’t know his heart — he does awful things without remorse and for entirely base motives. The people who voted for him? Somewhat more complicated than that. I’m more complicated than that. Recognizing my own humanity forces me to recognize theirs, which forces me in turn to offer a bit of grace.

(True story: I cut off contact with a high school friend who, I felt, made racist jokes about Obama. When my mom died, though, he organized a dinner of guys from my graduating class upon my return to my hometown. It was an act of grace from an unexpected source. And I hate the racism I still perceive in this guy. But I also see where he’s trying to be better than what he is. So what’s my duty here?)

(This stuff is hard.)

Longer story short: Donald is responsible for his own actions more than his supporters are, though they bear some responsibility. If I get around to reconciling with him — and hoo boy, justice will have to be involved there — it’ll be after justice and reconciliation have happened, for me, at a broader, societal level.

Am I rambling? I’m rambling. Sorry. I’m thinking out loud. I’m almost finished with this post, swear.

Are we really in a civil war? I have a tremendously smart friend who objects to one of the core ideas of the last post: That we’re in, or headed for, a sort of civil war.

“Yeah, there’s a foul mood out there, and there are some paranoid people. And maybe it will get so bad that we’ll all freak out on each other. But I doubt it,” he writes. “I think we’re in an unpleasant period in our democracy. Not the first one.”

I hope he’s right. My own sense of things isn’t quite as hopeful as that, admittedly, and the people who I’m in contact are probably mostly in the top 15 percentile of Americans in terms of how much they care about politics. But politics isn’t everything, and maybe if I stepped back, I’d see more clearly that we’re a long way from that civil war.

Like I said, I hope he’s right.

All of this ruminating, which you’ve been so kind to read — or at least scan — probably isn’t a good guide to political organizing. It’s my own attempt to figure out how to live justly and humanely in an unjust and inhumane world. Your mileage may vary.

As I told one interlocutor:

I hate to get mystical about all this, but: On one level, I suspect that we’re each of us called to different roles in this. I think it’s clear the approach I want to take — one of resistance, and yet also fiercely resisting the ways polarization make us miserable — is one that few other people agree with, or can see a through-line to obtain the kind of justice they seek.

“You do you” is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also a mission statement. I’m taking the approach I take because I think we’re in a dehumanizing era – Trumpism is, I think, dehumanizing – and I want to resist that to the point that I don’t even give myself permission to dehumanize the Trumpistas. I’m not necessarily good at that, but I also think it’s a lot to ask of folks like you. This is my mission, not yours. That’s OK.

Maybe that’s enough for one day. Thanks for listening to me think.

Sincerely,
Joel