I was having an uncharacteristically bad night of sleep and for whatever sad sack reason (e.g., not willing to endure yet another episode of how those cheesy poofs are made on the Cooking channel), I watched the 2015 movie about the Rathergate CBS scandal, Truth. As you can tell, I thought it a pretty awful movie. It was a self-serving film based on a self-serving memoir of the protagonist who thought that while, yeah, they committed journalistic malpractice by passing fraudulent documents as facts to the American public, they still believed the story anyway and their firings were nothing short of corporate malfeasance.
A quick review: the CBS 60 Minutes crew, headed by producer Mary Mapes, is presented with what they feel is a gigantic scoop: apparent proof that President W got away with being a no-show in the Texas Air National Guard, thus debunking his military service and…making liberals feel great that Kerry would look so wonderful in comparison for the upcoming election. (Liberal bias at CBS News is not only assumed but seems to be celebrated in this movie.) The documents containing the smoking gun were examined by a handwriting expert for authenticity, and once the crew was satisfied with their fact-checks, Dan Rather ran the story. It was a sensation…until it emerged that the documents were phony, clearly having been typed on a PC, rather unavailable to the TX Air National Guard in 1972. The proverbial shit hit the fan, Mapes was fired, and Rather was forced into retirement.
I bring this story up – and the awful movie telling one side of this story – because the self-delusion that brought down Mapes and Rather has particular relevance today, right now, at this very moment. The self-delusion began because Mapes was damned sure there was something unseemly about the Bushes. Many of us thought so. And maybe there indeed was something there. But the zeal to make the case at a particular, politically convenient point in time, rather than professional obligation, destroyed whatever credibility CBS News had – and, by some twisted logic, anyone else’s credibility if they too had some stuff on W. And history is repeating itself.
The same people that campaigned against W despise Trump with the power of one hundred…, no, one thousand suns. People who did not block my FB posts over the past year (many thanks to the 30 or so of you!) know that I think his presidency is a unique disaster for our country. My Twitter feed explodes daily with new crap about Trump himself, or some surrogate, that even a year ago would have resulted in heads on poles. No more. The uniquely horrifying has become the mundane. The ability to shock has been neutered.
And yet, we wait for the other shoe to drop. Trump is a toxic debtor, and the only reliable source of capital seems to have been Russian banks, which may be tied to oligarchs tied in turn to Putin. The same Putin that has apparently given orders to his cyber-army to break into the DNC server and John Podesta’s email account and release a trove of documents that made the Democrats look bad. But they left the RNC alone, or at least they are holding back. And Trump remains opaque about his financial ties – and furthermore, refuses to put his assets in a blind trust. He could be in violation of the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution.
And, watching Truth, I came to the stunning realization that…none of this matters. At all.
I’m not the only dedicated anti-Trumper to come to this sad conclusion. Masha Gessen, someone who knows a lot about Russia and is someone whose wisdom I trust, wrote a fiery essay excoriating liberals for focusing on conspiracies rather than policy.
Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.
To be honest, not having control of the House or Senate – both of which have proven robotically subservient, I am not sure how policy can be affected any more. (The Courts, thank G-d, have been doing their job so far.) But her point remains: we are playing Mary Mapes on 60 Minutes, damned sure there’s a conspiracy but coming up, over and over again, snake eyes.
Please, do not misunderstand me: I do believe there is unseemly business there, that Trump is a A-1 liar and crook (which I guess makes him an American politician), and that he is unworthy of the Office of the President. But at this point, we need to move on. That Trump is President is painful to me. But like any loss, one must move on and deal. I am not a full-time journalist, so I cannot spend my waking hours pretending to be one. Trump is President, a fact I hate, and he is shaping policy, a fact I hate worse.
As I was contemplating this frame of mind, which I have come to slowly over the past several weeks, I remembered the epilogue of War and Peace, a book I read on a road trip up the Australian Pacific coast over 20 years ago. There, Tolstoy presents his philosophy about what factors drive history – a way I guess of explaining why events in the novel went as they did. To Tolstoy, history is much larger than any one person or group of people, no matter how powerful they seem.
The movement of nations is caused not by power, nor by intellectual activity, nor even by a combination of the two as historians have supposed, but by the activity of all the people who participate in the events, and who always combine in such a way that those taking the largest direct share in the event take on themselves the least responsibility and vice versa.
The tide of history is shaped by entire nations’ worth of people, not just Trump or his benefactors. Here we have a movement, however horrible to me personally, that is taking shape here and across the globe. Xenophobic, right-wing governments have emerged in Poland, Hungary, Russia, Israel, the UK…and the US. France seems headed down that road. Xenophobia breeds xenophobia, so it should not surprise that hatred across the globe – and its policy ramifications – are spreading. I salute those nations, like Canada, that have resisted so far. But trying to bring down this rotten government within this dark sweep of history in which we find ourselves seems to be beyond an uphill battle. If we are to save our democracy, we are left to figure out how to oppose the bad policies coming our way.
But I cannot any longer get involved in the minutiae of the wishful thinking a scandal brings. Life’s too short.