Look Away from Them

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
To live well, Americans should tear their gazes from Washington.

Sometime in the spring of 2001, caught up in a moment of undergraduate irrepressibility, I remarked to one of my professors how pleased I was that George W. Bush had succeeded Bill Clinton in the White House. My professor was a Republican himself — even at 20 I was not fool enough to boast to a Democrat in a position of authority — but his response was nevertheless a withering one: “You mean you actually think about who the president is?”

At the time, I took my professor’s scorn for irony and largely ignored it. (This was a man whose appointment was in the political science department and whose course was on the nature and history of the American Executive.) Yet hidden beneath his derision was a valuable piece of advice. The American people could do worse than to follow it.

To be alive in the 21st century is to straddle competing extremes. We live, to borrow the novelist Ian McEwan’s phrase, in “an age of wondrous machines,” yet our unhappiness has rarely been more pronounced. We are endlessly — some might say tediously — connected, but our isolation from one another is a frequent topic of lament. That the “yet” and “but” in the previous two sentences could just as easily be replaced by “and thus” is a significant part of the problem: Those things that might have blessed us have instead turned to curses in the span of a generation. Can anyone doubt that a future that promises exponential technological advancement will only exacerbate the griefs that now ail our spirits?

Politically, the situation in which we find ourselves is little different. Having already brought ourselves low by the national disgrace that is the Trump administration, we are now searching for Trump’s replacement amongst a crop of Democrats so uninspiring (Kamala Harris), anonymous (Kirsten Gillibrand), or unaccomplished (et al.) that Michael Dukakis must somewhere be asking himself if the moment is finally right for a comeback. We elect scoundrels and fools — who but a scoundrel or fool could want the wretched office? — and then we wring our hands at the spectacle of it all.

Like a pesky neighbor forever borrowing our tools, the American presidency won’t stop demanding our attention. We can’t ignore it — someone please count the number of times the words “Donald Trump” have appeared in the New York Times since 2015 — but neither can we quite bring ourselves to take it seriously.

That Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke might conceivably be a candidate for the position tells one everything one needs to know about its place in the public consciousness.

Indeed, a closer look at the roster of potential Democratic standard-bearers brings one face to face with the absurdity of our political moment. For every Joe Biden on the list, there is at least one candidate in the mold of South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose presumptive entry into the race is so obviously a bid to increase his future MSNBC appearance rate that “Star in Pete Buttigieg Tonight” might as well be listed among his website’s policy goals. If he had a website that mentioned policy goals.

Presumably, some human being not named Tulsi Gabbard believes that Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii) is just what this country needs. Does anyone think that a plurality of Democratic primary voters will come to the same conclusion, or that the majority of Americans will ever know her name? From the safe vantage of 2019, I’m happy to admit that there was something to be celebrated in the idea that Hillary Clinton was the Most Qualified Presidential Candidate Ever, even if she wasn’t. Whether Gabbard could successfully book her own flight from Honolulu to the Capital is, given the state of our leadership class, an open question.

Have I mentioned that Julian Castro, John Delaney, and Richard Ojeda somehow continue to exist?

What if the answer — difficult though it may be — is to ignore the whole silly lot of them and go about the dynamic and laudable business of building our families and communities, one dogged day’s work at a time? There are, of course, sundry residents of this land (federal workers come to mind) for whom the identity of the chief executive is a matter of some urgency. But for the great majority of Americans going about their daily tasks — doing their best to make a living and a life — my old professor’s question remains remarkably pertinent.

Do you actually think about who the president is?

Must you?

People will say, of course, that such a question can only be asked from a position of privilege. They are, to an extent, correct. Yet contrary to what the Left insists, privilege is not always unearned. Day by day, one decision at a time, vast numbers of Americans are busy constructing lives that no president can touch. It is often a struggle. Everyone starts from a different place. But it is possible.

And I can’t think of a better way to spend one’s time.

In what was arguably last week’s most dispiriting piece of click-bait, the Washington Post related the story of an 87-year-old Louisville woman whose obituary blamed the Trump administration for “hastening” her passing. Shame on President Trump, that notorious murderer of little old ladies?

No. Shame on her.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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