Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fond Memories of the Inauguration of an Outsider President

Picture it: an outsider who was not given much of a chance at ever taking the White House focuses on the early part of the primary race and performs strongly, gains momentum, and takes his party by surprise. Ultimately, he wins the nomination.

Some people express doubt about his convictions, and many suggest that he simply lacks the experience. His policies, particularly his foreign policy, seems unclear as a result, but perhaps it is because these positions are not particularly well known.

Then, in the general election, he says some things that hurt his chances, but still manages to pull off a stunning election victory.

This blonde-haired man is inaugurated in January, and a lot of people still are not entirely sure what to make of him.

Now, all of that might sound like I am describing the rise of Donald Trump on this, his inauguration day.

In fact, I am describing another president, one that we can, and should, all be proud of. The man of whom I speak is, of course, Jimmy Carter. He was the last president that this country saw, when a man with real integrity, who put the interests of his country before those of his own wallet, was in charge in the Oval Office. Ever since then, numbers 40 to 45, have been the exact opposite, and we seem to be lowering the bar with each successive election, with both Democrats and Republicans growing more transparently worse. The country as a whole is worse for it, too. 

And yes, I am very serious that we, as Americans, all should be proud of this man, and all that he has tirelessly and selflessly done for the benefit of the country, and indeed, of the world. This man is a true role model for all Americans. After all, Carter spends his free time helping to build homes for the poor. His Carter Center does seriously good work the world over, and the former president has continued to travel all around the world to help it along, whether that means going to small, rural villages in Africa or Asia or South America and bringing clean water and fighting diseases there, or whether it means overseeing the fairness of elections when one or possibly even both sides feel entitled to make sure that they win come what may, or if that means negotiating peaceful solutions to conflicts, often putting himself in the way of danger.

How many leaders do you know who are willing to do that, and to continue doing all of that past the age of 90? 

Not many. In fact, you can probably count the number of Americans who do all of that on one hand, Probably with three fingers lowered, for that matter, as Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter are pretty much the only examples that I am aware of who are like that.  

Yet, far too many Americans dismiss the selfless example, and claim that he was the worst president in history. 

Now first of all, let's get some things straight: the worst president in history would be one who truly dragged America into the mud, no? Someone who bankrupted the country with ill-advised policies, such as providing massive tax cuts and benefits to the wealthiest among us, while advocating aggressively for foreign wars which were costly in every way. This president would probably have to have done some things that are not just questionable, but go against the very spirit of the constitution itself. He surely would have had to conduct himself very poorly, so that towards the end of his term, even his own former supporters would be embarrassed by him and his staggering lack of popularity. All of this we had in President George W. Bush, and even more! he was the sitting president during the biggest domestic security failure in history! Throw in a miserable, failed response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, advancing the cause of corporate supremacy in the country while somehow remaining largely immune to the high-profile corporate scandals that came on his watch, as well as an embarrassing denial of science that made a mockery of the country's status of leadership the world over, and you have a pretty good picture of the man who actually should rightly hold the title for worst president of all time. When he left office after eight long years, the country was on the brink of economic collapse, and he was faulted for much of the country's ridiculous situation.

But how quickly people have forgotten!

In any case, Bush's distinction as worst president of all time might just be in serious jeopardy, with Donald Trump's inauguration and now official rise to the highest office in the land solidifies yet another new low for the country. This man, who has represented the very worst and basest excesses of the United States during this era of shameless consumerism and narcissism, now is the face and voice of the country, at least for the next four years.

Let's face it: it's fitting, on some level. Certainly, it is indicative of where we as a people, as a nation, are, collectively. Because the fact of the matter is, however much some might say that he is not their president, the fact remains that he is. I understand their reluctance to see it this way, believe me. Not only was he not my choice to be where he is now, but he would rank probably much closer to the very bottom of my list, as again, he represents just about everything that I see as wrong with America right now, and has since I first heard of the man, some time in the 1980's.

Yet, it did not have to be that way, because the American people had it better - far, far better - than they realized, back in the late 1970's.

In the 1970's, this country still enjoyed far and away the highest standard of living in the world. It had both the most powerful economy and military in the world, and it was still a respected leader, the most powerful nation that the world had ever seen. And we had a president in Jimmy Carter who actually took a serious and, crucially, an honest look at the problems on the horizon that this country faced. He thought about it, considered and weighed all options, and he gave what he felt truly were the best solutions to these problems.

The two biggest problems, as he saw it then, were energy independence, and a moral crisis of excess greed and narcissism. He basically put his chips on the table with both, and offered controversial speeches addressing these crises. In the first speech, often known as the "Crisis in Confidence" speech, he urged Americans to work towards achieving energy independence, so that the United States would not have to rely on the notoriously unstable Middle East for it's energy needs. This would also help the country to use cleaner,, more environmentally friendly energy, which would help to combat climate change. In the second speech, commonly known as the "Malaise Speech" (even though the word "malaise" was never actually used), he admonished his fellow countrymen for allowing the country as a whole to allow this moral crisis of excessive greediness to grow to such ridiculous proportions, and which prevented the country from unifying behind solid, agreed upon goals.

Many people cite these two speeches - particularly the "Malaise speech" - as the reason for why he lost.

And they would be wrong.

Indeed, there were reasons why Carter lost, and as Ezra Klein rightly points out (see the link to the article down below), it was because Carter's actions often seemed to undermine the clarity and forcefulness of his speeches. He fired several members of his cabinet just two days after the speech, and this gave the impression that he was panicking and did not know what he was doing, that the job was too much for him, overwhelming. Then the seeming stalemate with the Iran hostage situation, and Reagan's skillful exploitation of all of this, plus the economic inflation that the country was suffering through, that prevented Carter from seriously having a shot at a second term.

Yet, let's face it: he accurately diagnosed the country's two most glaring problems, and his solutions could have worked to improve the whole situation in the country. After all, clean, alternative energy is something that most people recognized we needed in the decades that have since passed, as indeed, the volatile situation in the Middle East compromised the country's needs, as well as it's standing. And the moral crisis that Carter pointed out was exactly that: a crisis. And indeed, it has been allowed to largely grow in scale to such a ridiculous level where tens of millions of our fellow Americans truly believe that a narcissist and pseudo-fascist like Donald Trump is exactly what this country needs.

Indeed, the problem is bigger than that, even. With Ronald Reagan's win in the 1980 presidential election, the serious diagnosis of the country's problems went away, as did his proposed solutions. The first thing that Reagan did was to take down the solar panels on top of the White House. He put on a smile, and told Americans what they wanted to hear, rather than do as Carter did, which is to tell them what they needed to hear. This was clearly the more popular choice, but it was not the right choice. The country was the worse for it, although it was not immediately apparent at the time, which probably accounts for the almost God-like worship of Reagan by conservatives ever since.

Reagan relentlessly tried to shame his opponents, and it worked. Indeed, his mockery essentially made the term "liberal" a bad word, and this has lasted right into the present day. This populist sentiment won out, time and time again, and neocons (which is what Reagan was, rather than an actual, traditional conservative) used it relentlessly. We still hear echoes of the "tax and spend liberal" arguments even to this day!

Democrats lost big for a while, until they did what President Truman warned them not to do, and pretended to be Republicans themselves. In the meantime, both parties did what President Eisenhower warned them against by embracing, rather than fighting, the military industrial complex. As the Republicans grew more transparently in favor of corporatism and truly excessive military spending, so did the Democrats. The difference was in degrees, but both parties grew far more conservative, because liberalism was, for all intents and purposes, seen as discredited and political dead weight. Not one major politician today would define themselves as being a liberal, and that is saying something!

In time, the Democrats finally started winning some elections of their own in a big way, but they did it with politicians who were far more to the right, and had far more friendly policies towards Wall Street and the corporate culture that increasingly came to dominate, than Democrats had ever seen before. Clinton was so conservative, that he was often called "Republican lite" at the time. Obama was so conservative, that he was further to the right on many issues than Richard Nixon! And he was far more conservative on most issues than was Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the face of that party going back to the 1950's! At a time when most other industrialized nations were going towards some version of capitalism with socialist policies in place, this country was going in exactly the opposite direction. Unions were attacked with increased ferocity and, yes, with increased success, over the course of these decades. Salaries stagnated, benefits were slashed, and funding for programs that had never been seriously criticized before, such as education and infrastructure, were now defined as wasteful spending by big government, and kept shrinking.

Not surprisingly, the standard of living sank, as one nation after another caught up and even passed us, in terms of standard of living. Yet, Americans seemed incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. From their point of view, everything that Reagan did and represented was good, and any politician that seemed to praise him, or remind them of him, was also good. That way, "deregulation" came to be this magical word that helped candidates win election after election, even though it actually took away legal protections for the American people. That was how environmental laws were weakened and rendered ineffective, how salaries and benefits were cut, how corporations and the very wealthy were given not only tax cuts and favorable policies, but were given free rein to put their money in offshore accounts, and to ship off their jobs overseas. All of this happened without serious ramifications, and it amounted to Americans giving away their quality of life. And this trend picked up steam over time, regardless of whether a Republican or a Democrat was in the Oval Office. The de facto corporate supremacy was initiated under Reagan, and strengthened under Bush 1, then Clinton, then Bush 2, Obama, and now, Trump.

Amazingly, attacking Jimmy Carter like Reagan did proved so effective, that Republicans are still doing it! the comparisons to Carter's supposedly failed presidency came frequently during both the Clinton and Obama presidencies!

Yet, how much better would this country be if we had gotten past our own selfishness at the time, our own desire to deflect responsibility, and actually had given this man, and what he was proposing, a serious chance? Can you imagine if we had done what we should have done, and invested heavily in clean, alternative energy sources back then? Can you imagine if we seriously reflected on our excess and greed back then, instead of caving into our basest desires time and time and time again since? We would be such a better country, and probably would not have bankrupted ourselves in needless wars in the Middle East that wound up costing literally trillions upon trillions of dollars.

This country indeed had a chance to be so much better off, if we had only listened. Instead, we turned a blind ear to what this man had to say, because we wanted to believe in a dream. And, in fact, we allowed ourselves to, when Reagan urged us, in his Inaugural Address, to dream, claiming that we "have every right to dream heroic dreams."

But that dreaming came at the expense of being awake to a reality that was growing dimmer and dimmer. Reagan favored corporations, favored short term profits, and look at what those policies have done when they were allowed to come to fruition. Decades upon decades of such policies and increased deregulation have harmed this country, possibly irreparably. We no longer are the respected superpower that we once were. Much of the world no longer views the United States as a true leader anymore, although Americans themselves are waving flags and saying "America first!" with more vigor than ever before! This paradox seems lost only on Americans themselves.

Yes, we had a leader who showed us, by his actions, what we should be doing, and by his words, described where we should be going. We gave him the cold shoulder, and handed him a crushing election defeat that is still talked about to this day, and which still in great part shapes the direction that the country not only has gone, but continues to be going in. If the sky had not fallen while Reagan was in office, it seemed to be getting a bit closer when his Vice-President took over for four years. This was even more transparently the case by the time George W. Bush came into office. And now, we have Donald Trump, making grandiose promises much like Reagan did before him, and which he surely will not be able to deliver on. Most likely, he will not even come close.

Still, no one seems to even care anymore. This guy said some blatantly racist things, and made fun of that disabled reporter. He was caught lying time and time and time again. He was caught talking about women as merely sexual objects, time and time again. And he never proposed serious, concrete solutions to the numerous problems facing the country, opting instead for those grandiose promises of a better tomorrow without any specific details on how he would get us there. That, and he outright ignored some of the other glaring problems by denying their existence. Climate change? He said it was a scam. Racism? Not a serious problem, just a denial that it is a real problem. Growing and glaring economic inequality? Again, not a real problem. A growing sense of insecurity among much of the people of the country? Hype up illegal immigration instead, and tell everyone that we will build a wall that Mexicans themselves will pay for, and also advocate a national registry for a people of a certain religion. Corporate dominance and greed crippling the country? Let a supposed "outsider" like him take over. Corruption run rampant? Say drain the swamp relentlessly during the campaign, then get nice and cozy with the same corporate lords that have been advancing the corporate supremacy that has been strangling the life out of our high standard of living, and get supporters to cry out, "Give our guy a chance!" Another arms race? Bah, we're going to win, easily!

Now, we have that boisterous imposter's inaugural speech as part of our official history. He claimed that he was writing it himself, although this proved to be yet another of his many, many lies. In fact, it was largely written by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. But does his lying matter? It certainly does not seem to. He has lied time and time again, and it seems clear that he will renege on at least a good portion of his campaign promises. Hell, he already has turned his back on some of them! Yet, his supporters seem to conveniently ignore this, and keep urging us to give their man a chance. He's the president of us all, now, right? Yet, that was obviously not their message during the Obama years. Not at all, even though Obama won with a far wider mandate than Trump did. It's not even close.

Frankly, I think it is fitting in some ways that Trump is now in the White House. Succeed or fail, he is indeed the most symbolic figure of our American thinking (or lack thereof) and way of life. He embodies what people want, the excess, the greed, the narcissism, the false confidence to not only act the way that he wants to act, but to say the most absurd things, confident in the knowledge that no one will seriously hold him to task for any of it. To proclaim himself a genius, an expert on every field imaginable. The cojones to claim, and with a straight face, that he and only he alone can save this country of 320 million people!

Yes, these are the values that tens of millions of Americans admire, and seem to feel represents them best. It hurts their reputation, around the world, although tens of millions of Americans either seem unaware of this, or perhaps outright just don't care.

I have used this quote here before, but I think it appropriate on this day, Trump's first full day in office, to share it once again. This is a quote from Paul Thomas of the New Zealand Herald, and it comes from the days before he even became the official Republican nominee, let alone was elected to the White House:

“Trump personifies everything the rest of the world despises about America: casual racism, crass materialism, relentless self-aggrandizement, vulgarity on an epic scale. He is the Ugly American in excelsis.”

Indeed. But now, he is our president. God help us all.

But I remember a time when we had someone intelligent and thoughtful, someone kind of with a good and honest heart. Someone who was not only capable of examining the country's problems, but also had the courage to do so, and then had the foresight to come up with real solutions - solutions that millions of Americans have since come to agree with, but have been mostly powerless to pursue politically.

Carter is a man of action. He can deliver some truly stirring speeches, and his words have the power to move. But he is far, far more than that. He believes that there is good in people, himself included, and he tries to get that out of everyone, including himself. Perhaps especially himself. To that end, he has selflessly spent almost all of his time and energy in pursuit of making his country, and indeed this entire world, better. He represents not just the possibility, but the outright ability to transcend our prejudices and our own limitations, and to become better. This man, who grew up in the Deep South during the days of official Jim Crow segregation, transcended all of that to promote equality and fairness the world over. He was president of the most powerful country in the world, and had the most powerful military under his command, yet he alone among modern presidents can boast real peace from the beginning of his presidency right to the end of it. And with all of the useful resources, as well as the power of the presidency at his disposal, he did not utilize these things for personal benefit, but used them to come up with real, workable solutions for the biggest problems that this country faced.

If only we collectively had half the courage and the conviction, back then as well as now, that he had in so doing this, I have no doubt that we would be a far better country for it.

Call me crazy, but I just cannot believe a leader when he encourages us merely to dream heroic dreams, rather than work towards workable solutions to address the country's biggest problems right now. I did not want to hear about a thousand points of light, or a bridge into the 21st century. Did not believe in compassionate conservatism, nor in the audacity of hope (or as Jello Biafra suggested, the audacity of hype). And I do not believe that hatred and greed will "Make America Great Again."

I believe that we had an intellectual, very capable, and good-hearted, sincere man who once occupied the highest office. He had a sense of purpose to make the country better, and did not shirk these responsibilities. Agree or disagree with him, he has always, always tried to do his part to make the country and the world he lives in better, and he did some amazing things while in office. He gave the Panama Canal back to Panama, and he was able to play a huge role in getting what seemed to be the first major breakthrough towards peace in the Middle East. He managed to promote real human rights the world over during his four years in office, and so committed was he to this ideal, that he was willing to forsake exploiting profits from apartheid in South Africa, or Olympic glory for America in the 1980 games, in order to work towards a more peaceful, just world. He fought against racism and prejudice, and urged us to overcome our own worst instincts. And he kept this spirit up well after his White House years, continuing to help build homes and lives for the poor, to eradicate diseases and build more livable conditions for people around the world, to take an active role in making sure that fair elections can be had in places where democracy is most vulnerable, and to put himself in dangerous, war-torn areas in order to try and negotiate peace. All of this not only earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, but to serve as a truly shining example for the American people, to become one of the most beloved faces of this country. He wrote books, showed us a more personal side, as well. Through it all, both from the Oval Office as well as outside of it, he advised the nation that it must sacrifice a bit to obtain a better country in the not so distant future.

It really was not all that much to ask, although the country still failed to do it. They opted to "dream heroic dreams" instead. Not just for the next four years at the time, and not even for the eight long years of the Reagan presidency. Indeed, Americans have chosen to dream their desired dreams rather than face an ever darkening and uncertain reality, to the point that we have now actively chosen a basically fictitious television personality to lead our country. He is the ultimate American caricature, and fittingly, he makes fictitious, albeit grandiose, claims.

We had two men in recent decades who had blonde hair and were considered outsiders, but who still managed to reach the Oval Office. One of them is a phony, a man of empty promises and empty rhetoric, rhetoric that he himself mocks (such as "lock her up" and "drain the swamp," which he himself described as "hokey"). He promises the world and emphasizes that he, and he alone, can save the country.

But this man's rise was really only possible because of this country's rejection of that first blonde man who became president. He allowed us to see our own prejudices, and to try and get beyond them, to become better people, and help to allow our country and, yes, our world, to be better. Carter never to my knowledge lashed out at anyone, although he did offer his well thought out critiques of the policies of presidents, regardless of the party. He never seems resentful that so many people demonize him or claim him to be a failure, but just keeps doing what he is doing, because he believes - truly believes - that he is doing everything that he can to make this world a better place, regardless of whether or not other people believe, or if they allow the cynicism that itself has become so problematic to the country to taint what he does.

It makes me sad to think that so many Americans view this man, Jimmy Carter of all people, as a failure. This man just might be the most successful American in every sense in the latter half of the 20th century, and now well into the 21st century. He offered us the real possibility of making small sacrifices on our own terms, before circumstances around the world forced us to make compromises and/or see our power and status fall. He faced reality, and came up with solutions that we Americans ultimately rejected. It was not he who failed us, but we who failed him, and the country as a whole is the worse for it. And never has that been so clear as it is now, the day after we saw the inauguration of the very worst that America has to offer.

Here are the two articles that proved very helpful in my writing this piece, which actually took a few days scattered about recently to complete. The first has that quote from a New Zealander about Donald Trump, and the last showed that Jimmy Carter's "Malaise" speech was not the failure that so many seem to believe that it was:

Trump is Global Journalism’s American Junk Food August 26, 2015 by Christian Christensen

Jimmy Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech was popular! By Ezra Klein August 9, 2013:

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