The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

It’s Easy to Overlook the Faults of Our Leaders When We Catastrophize the Alternative

President Trump welcomes Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau to the White House in 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Justin Trudeau wins again, and Virginia Democrats appear set to win again, yet people still wonder why Trump voters stand by their man; some Democrats wonder if they have any more options in 2020; and the final trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives, greeting a much more wary fanbase.

Almost Everybody Finds a Way to Excuse the Sins of the Leaders They Prefer

You hear this question from a lot of people, including from colleagues I respect a great deal: “How can Trump voters/Republicans/evangelicals just shrug their shoulders at President Trump and his pressure on Ukraine/abandonment of the Kurds/sordid payoffs to Stormy Daniels/warm and fuzzy talk about Putin and Kim Jong-un/[insert scandal du jour here]?”

Trump voters shrug their shoulders at these scandals probably for the same reasons that so many in the Canadian Liberal party shrugged their shoulders at Justin Trudeau’s multiple embarrassing occasions wearing blackface or his decision to pressure prosecutors who were investigating a politically connected corporation.

They probably do it for the same reasons that so many Joe Biden supporters shrugged their shoulders at all the times powerful institutions paid Hunter Biden enormous sums because he was the son of the vice president.

Probably for the same reasons that so many Virginia Democrats eventually shrugged their shoulders at Governor Ralph Northam and state attorney general Mark Herring wearing blackface, and the sexual assault allegations against Justin Fairfax. Virginia Democrats are expected to have a good Election Day next month, and they’ve doubled their fundraising compared to four years ago.

Probably for the same reasons that so many Hillary Clinton supporters shrugged their shoulders at foreign governments like Qatar making million-dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation, then argued that Donald Trump’s election victory couldn’t possibly be legitimate because of foreign interference, and that he deserved to be impeached because foreign governments were spending lavishly at his hotels.

Probably for the same reasons that so many Democrats believe that Al Franken was unfairly forced to resign.

The reason none of these factions get all that upset about glaring hypocrisy or unethical behavior by their preferred leaders is that as a culture — and perhaps as a species — we’re really good at coming up with reasons as to why the scandals surrounding the leaders we like aren’t that important.

Politics attracts people who dream of doing good on a grand scale. They don’t just want to be good parents, good spouses, good workers, good neighbors, and good friends; they want to save the planet, to make America great again, to preserve the Constitution, to end gun violence, to end poverty, to immanentize the eschaton. Cleaning up the local park in the name of the environment is too modest and humdrum; they want to end carbon emissions. Mentoring a kid who needs it is too time-consuming and labor-intensive; they’re going to remove every AR-15 rifle from all of America’s homes. Political activists, and in particular those who choose to run for office, have big dreams and grandiose ambitions.

And the vast majority of politicians sell an extremely seductive vision: You can make the world a much better place just by voting the right way and convincing other people to vote the right way. Fighting poverty in your own community is tough. It’s much easier to just vote for the right candidate and to believe, despite many decades of contrary evidence, that once in office, that candidate will solve the problem of poverty for the rest of us through the power of government.

Back in 1981, then-Mayor Bernie Sanders contended that supporting the right government policies meant he didn’t need to support charitable causes:

“I don’t believe in charities,” said Mayor Sanders, bringing a shocked silence to a packed hotel banquet room. The mayor, who is a Socialist, went on to question the “fundamental concepts on which charities are based” and contended that government, rather than charity organizations, should take over responsibility for social programs.

Alternatively, politicians like to argue that a victory for their opponent is an apocalyptic catastrophe — the moral equivalent of Flight 93 on 9/11. Most modern political rhetoric is designed to emphasize the all-consuming enormity of our stakes. When debating climate change, we’re told the fate of the planet and all of humanity is at stake. When debating gun control, we’re told that our children’s lives are at stake and that if we don’t agree with the other side, we have blood on our hands.

Quite literally, the leaders of both sides of the political spectrum currently contend the other side is trying to destroy the country. President Trump said recently, “Pelosi, Shifty Schiff, Schumer — these people are trying to destroy the country.” Retired admiral William McRaven — the man who planned the Osama bin Laden raid! — contended President Trump is attacking the country and trying to destroy it, and that “the fate of our Republic” depends upon replacing him quickly. Former CIA director John Brennan repeatedly accused Trump of treason, contending, “he’s bringing this country down.” Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton contended that the previous nominee of the Green Party and that a U.S. congresswoman were agents of the Russian government.

In light of how frequently we’re told that our opponents want to destroy the country, or that Paul Ryan wants to push granny off a cliff, or to put African Americans back in chains, or that armed gangs of Ed Gillespie supporters are hunting minority children, is it really that shocking that some people would shoot up a baseball field of congressmen?

Good heavens! When the political opposition is trying to destroy the country, who can be bothered to care about some payoffs to a porn star, or old party photos in blackface, or arm-twisting a foreign government for dirt on a political opponent or donations. The moral and legal failures of our side’s leader fade to nothingness when compared to the Armageddon-level stakes of the upcoming election, inevitably touted as “the most important election of our lifetimes.”

Because if it ever wasn’t the most important election of our lifetimes, we would have the time and energy and mental real estate to contemplate the moral failings, bad behavior, and perhaps even lawbreaking on the part of the leaders we prefer. And if we did that, we might demand better from our elected officials. And God knows where that could lead!

Democratic Donors: Are You Sure We Don’t Have Other Candidates Waiting to Jump In?

We keep getting told that this is a huge, varied, and strong field of Democratic candidates . . . but apparently some big donors aren’t quite satisfied with their options:

Would Hillary Clinton get in, the contributors wondered, and how about Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor? One person even mused whether Michelle Obama would consider a late entry, according to two people who attended the event, which was hosted by the progressive group American Bridge.

“There’s more anxiety than ever,” said Connie Schultz, a journalist who is married to Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another Democrat who some in the party would like to see join the race. “We’re both getting the calls. I’ve been surprised by some who’ve called me.”

“I can see it, I can feel it, I can hear it,” Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, said of the unease within the party. He said he thinks Mr. Biden is best positioned to defeat Mr. Trump but called the former vice president’s fund-raising “a real concern.”

Most of the time late entries never go anywhere; a candidate just doesn’t have the time or resources to throw together a get-out-the-vote organization and file the right paperwork. But Bloomberg would have the money to buy whatever organization he needed, and Michelle Obama probably has so much accumulated goodwill in the Democratic grassroots that she would instantly become a top contender.

Hillary, on the other hand . . . how many Democrats are itching for a 2016 rerun?

ADDENDA: Last night brought the final trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The mood among the fans online is significantly less enthusiastic than before The Last Jedi — cautious optimism and perhaps some trepidation. Fans will be debating the qualities of Episode Eight for the rest of time; what’s now indisputable is that director Rian Johnson had no interest in picking up the story threads J. J. Abrams left to continue from Episode Seven — who’s Snoke? Who are Rey’s parents? Who are the Knights of Ren? — and went off in his own direction, “deconstructing” the mythos with the occasional heavy-handed modern political metaphor. (Forget the First Order, the real villains are war profiteers!)

Let’s also point out that The Last Jedi came along at a time when Hollywood’s sequel and reboot mania seemed to grow obsessed with reinventing beloved heroes as bitter, defeated, old men: Wolverine in Logan, Ben Affleck’s Batman in Batman v. Superman, Deckard in Blade Runner 2047. One might add Dale Cooper into that category. It was one part a concession to aging actors, one part an attempt at gritty realism, and one part an attempt to reset a triumphant hero back to underdog status.

This approach to returning characters meant that no matter how much the hero’s previous story seemed to end in success, subsequent developments meant the victory was ephemeral — things still turned out badly for mutants, replicants, Jedi, Gotham City, and the residents of Twin Peaks. (Here’s hoping the new series Picard doesn’t continue the trend.)

. . . This is what happens when I take a week off from denouncing Jets head coach Adam Gase.

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