President Trump’s Useful Idiocy

Though the president still has many supporters, there is a growing consensus, especially as the Trump-initiated trade war heats up, that he does not have their best interests in mind, never mind the best interests of the nation as a whole.

While I think I understand why so many people voted for Trump, my sympathy does not extend to the man himself, whose emotional repertoire appears to be the narrow range between meanness and self-pity.

As his first summit with Vladimir Putin approaches, though we do not have certainty about the possibility of active collusion, one cannot help but recall Lenin’s phrase “useful idiot,” by which Lenin meant anyone who could be manipulated to serve the ends of the Soviet state.

To borrow another well-known phrase, this time from the late Senator Moynihan, Trump has “defined deviancy down.” Gradually we have come to tolerate behavior in a leader that was formerly enough to derail a candidacy, if not leading to outright trial by law.

Whether Mr. Trump will or will not be able to serve out his term, it is not too soon to learn some lessons about what we seek and what we want to avoid in candidates for the presidency. In no particular order, here follows a simple and obvious list, clarified by way of contrast with the person presently occupying the office:

• A president needs to be a national model for truth-telling, encouraging and validating the scientific method, and making policy based upon experimentally validated data.

•A president needs a secure, private, inner-directed self-sense that transcends their image in the media, a self-sense that includes a solid ethical compass.

•A president needs to ameliorate, not exacerbate, conservative-progressive polarization, and consistently emphasize what all of us have in common as Americans, like equality of opportunity and equality under the law. The president that follows Trump will need special skills to promote healing between pro- and anti-Trump factions.

•A president needs to understand the racism, which is one of America’s original sins, so that they can actively encourage the principle that our diversity makes us stronger.

•Anyone who wins the presidency will inevitably possess a healthy ego, but presidents must sublimate their self-confidence into a humble awareness of their position as servant leader, which views citizens as ends rather than instruments.

•A president needs good listening skills. Most of America’s difficulties, domestic or international, have in common some kind of failure to listen. Crude bullying, such as opposition to a U.N. breastfeeding resolution because it threatens the profits of baby formula corporations, is surely not what our country wants to be known for around the world.

•A president needs to separate from business interests clearly and absolutely while in office.

•Presidents need authentic life experience that has tested them. My friend Adam Cote ran for the governorship of Maine. While serving the National Guard, he was deployed to Bosnia, Afghanistan and finally Iraq, where he began an orphanage and established an effective program that adopted Iraqi villages. Five minutes in Adam’s presence is sufficient to demonstrate that his motivation for running is public service, not power. The testing experience doesn’t have to be military; it could be any trial by fire that seasons a person.

•Presidents need a sense of humor,

especially about themselves.

•Presidents need to be scholars of the lessons of history, to avoid repeating past mistakes.

•A president needs to be strong enough to push back against establishment groupthink from whatever political

direction, such as the momentum of American techno-colonialism and militarism. Presidents can be a bulwark against the tail of unlimited military spending wagging the dog of sensible policy.

•Irrespective of party, presidents need to understand the great global challenge of environmental stress, and the imperative for greater international cooperation to help the planet through to a place where humans have learned to sustain the commons that is the life-support-system for all.

•Presidents must understand that many of our contemporary challenges are trans-national, and that the delicate structures of international law must be gradually strengthened. This will unquestionably benefit America’s security in the long term.

•Presidents need discernment. As my father used to say, quoting Leo Rosten: “First rate people hire first rate people. Second rate people hire fourth rate people.”

Of course, every trait that makes a good president also makes a good civically engaged citizen. It would seem we get the presidents we deserve (though most of the Trump voters I know are much more interesting than either the liberal press stereotype of a Trump voter or than Trump himself).

Even if at a very high cost President Trump may have done our country at least one valuable service. If we have learned the right lessons, we will tolerate a little less the political obfuscations of the mean-spirited, the petty, the mealy-mouthed, the smugly entitled (in both mainstream political parties), and still less the garrulous narcissism taking up all the air in the room at present. There is an opening, if we can encourage it,

for a more disinterested, honest political conversation. I know I will be looking among the emerging candidates for at least some of the qualities listed above— and that, I’m afraid, means I need to exemplify those qualities myself.

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide” and serves on the Advisory Board of the War Prevention Initiative.

Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’

Toni Morrison calls this book required reading, and it is. Even if it first germinated before the many police murders of unarmed African American boys and men over the last year, it could not have entered the cultural scene at a more fateful moment.

The book takes the form of a letter from Coates to his son, overflowing with mingled anger, despair and love, about the experience of growing up in a country where our foundational heritage is the ongoing freedom of whites to kill blacks with impunity. This injury is complemented by the insult of hundreds of years of rank economic injustices extending back to the origins of our “exceptional” political experiment, conceived, with due respect for their good intentions, by slaveholding white men.

To define whiteness, Coates uses the provocative phrase “people who believe they are white,” by which I take him to mean that there is a negative part of some of us that needs to feel superior to, and therefore also fearful of, some “lower” order. No peak without a valley. The pain caused by this illusory mis-identity is unfathomable.

After the latest mass shooting in San Bernardino, the African-American president of the United States spoke from the Oval Office trying to calm the fears of citizens anxious about the random terror of ISIS. He appealed to our best tendencies: “We were founded upon a belief in human dignity that no matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.” While acknowledging the reality of terrorism, he cautioned against separating Muslims and non-Muslims into a stereotypical “us and them.” Because “us and them” sadly forms a big chunk of our only partly acknowledged heritage, Obama was immediately attacked by presidential candidates of the opposing party with the fear-mongering version of our national identity.

The violence of ongoing exceptionalism, built upon so much insufficiently processed history, continues to assume grotesque forms. Sadly, the Senate cannot even pass a bill that forbids people on terrorist watch lists from buying weapons because the National Rifle Association has such a powerful lobby. What are the roots, if not raw fear of the “other,” of this white obsession with the Second Amendment?

At my Ivy League college 50 years ago, the hundred or so young white men with whom I shared meals were served by a group of young black men in white coats. Did we speak a friendly word to them? Did we see them as people with the same potentialities as ourselves? We did not.

Now I have become part of a family where I have four mixed-race adoptive grandchildren. My love for them is just as fierce and fearful as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s for his son. Suddenly, it is of more than the academic interest that the oldest of my four is approaching the adolescent moment when he will start to look dangerous to the police.

The knotted heritage of our nation cannot be loosed by the descendants of slaves who endured it and endure it still. Instead the knot must be newly owned by those who have too long disowned it; can we who think we are white emerge from the dreamy pretension of our effortlessly assumed privilege? Can we admit that our perverted form of exceptionalism has cut a swath of destruction not only through our national history but also through such diverse haunts of otherness as Vietnam and Iraq?

Those who think they are white came to wherever they are now by free migration not by slave ships, out of the common pool of all humans from the savannas of Africa. In that shared origin story may reside some hope of post-racial— or post-religious for that matter— interrelationship among equals. Meanwhile, we have Coates’s authentic cry of the heart from which to learn and grow.

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He also serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.