Rambling Notes on Bush, Obama, Trump, and Civic Culture, and Passages from Kelly and McCain
President Bush and President Obama Condemn Trump, but They Created Trump
The Daily 202 this morning was a great read. It highlighted the parallel speeches of President George W. Bush in New York and President Barack Obama in Richmond, both former presidents condemning the “cruelty” that has begun to eat up American politics, both implicitly castigating Donald Trump for his nativist nationalism and abandonment of American ideals. Neither mentioned President Trump by name, but it was clear who these two elder statesmen were talking about.
And they well should- Trump’s buffoonery and undignified idiocy, checked only by the lingering strength of our institutions and the sterling character of “the Generals,” is eating away at what remained of a shared civic culture throughout the Bush and Obama eras. Now that shared culture is all but gone in the American upper atmosphere, confined to a few subterranean pockets of patriotism like the defense community and local governments and some elements of civil society. The American Dream lives on, the American community hungers for the mystic chords of memory, lived, that once bound it together; but for now, the common air is poisoned with the decadence and vitriol of human nature at its most ludicrous (though perhaps not at its worst.)
Presidents Bush and Obama shouldn’t be so quick, though, to condemn Trump without taking responsibility for him, though. After all, they presided over the trends, and either created or failed to address the problems, that swept Trump into the Oval Office in one of the biggest upsets in American history. Along with Bill Clinton before them, they constructed the neoliberal-marketeering economic order that sapped American productivity in the Heartland while enriching the coasts. They committed America to wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and proceeded to fight (or not really fight) those wars in the least successful ways possible. Obama, in particular, institutionalized a liberal cultural ascendancy that was, for my money, the single most important reason Trump’s voters reacted as they did and cast their votes against Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it’s trite to say that Presidents are elected in reaction to the failures of their predecessors; but this does in fact seem to be the case, and the failures of Bush and Obama, and Clinton to a degree, set the stage for the populist-nationalist insurgency that Trump rode into high office, with all his indignity.
This isn’t to say that Bush and Obama’s counselings to the American people are wrong or hypocritical or worth ignoring. It is to say, though, that you can have a civic sense while having the wrong strategic sense- and in both cases, their strategic sensibilities seem to have been lacking throughout the times when they could’ve made the biggest differences.
Some Points of Light of Hope
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a moral beacon in a landscape of moral nitwits and curmudgeons, gave a press conference speech the other day responding to a press kerfuffle over President Trump’s handling of a phone call to the family of a deceased American soldier. (By the way- the politicization of so many combat deaths, from Captain Khan to Benghazi to Niger to Yemen and beyond, is absolutely disgusting and revealing of the moral rot at the heart of American “civic culture” today.) But Kelly had a beautiful line, reminding us all that there are still some heroes out there, and they’re not the ones on TV-
“Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.”
Well I do know a few of them. One of them’s my brother Ensign Jacob Phillips, United States Navy, and I’m prouder and more jealous of him than I am of anyone else in the world. He lives what John Kelly depicts, and defends what is discussed in the following passage.
And meanwhile another former presidential aspirant, this one a failed one, can probably shed some helpful light here. John McCain, who clearly knows he’s on his way out, delivered a fantastic speech at the National Liberty Center the other day, musing on the nature of the American experiment. For my money, it’s the greatest American political speech delivered thus far in my lifetime. It is required reading for all American patriots looking for guidance in these dark times. I copy here only the most beautiful of its beautiful passages:
“The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so very grateful.
What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.
We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.
We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.”
David Brooks’s depiction of John McCain looks a lot like my depiction of George H.W. Bush, in my view, and that sort of gravitas-laden statesmanlike patriotism is what is sorely lacking today- reviled on the far left, ignored on the center left, given lip-service on the center right, disfigured and parodied on the further right. They just don’t make politicians these days like they used to, and we’re suffering as a country because of it.
I don’t have a real purpose in writing these notes, just needed to record some thoughts about the Bush and Obama speeches and record those fantastic quotes from John McCain and John Kelly. This weekend is the California Republican Party statewide convention in Anaheim, which’ll be a parody of patriotism if there ever was one. I probably won’t get a chance to go.
But if I do wind up down there somehow, I’ll have a lot of thoughts weighing on my mind.