Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Flags and Trumps

Of Flags and Trumps

There is a terrific moment at the end of the first season of “Mad Men”.  Don Draper is pitching two exceptionally nerdy-looking men from Kodak who have delivered a projector shaped as a wheel.  He’s filled it with slides of his family, and gently, he narrates.  He talks about nostalgia.  Nostalgia, he says, comes from the Greek, and “literally means the pain of an old wound.”  On the screen, he flicks images of him with his wife and his children, backwards and forwards, his past and present.  It’s not a wheel, he says, it’s a Carousel, that “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

I’ve been thinking about that place a lot the last few weeks, as history has been unfolding before our eyes.  It started with the horrific mass murder in Charleston, Governor Nikki Haley’s ordering of the lowering of the Confederate Flag, and the explosion of debate about heritage, the meaning of symbols, and the importance of a personal historical narrative. Then, almost comic if it weren’t so serious, has been the abrupt rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy, on the heels of his unfiltered expressions of contempt for people from south of the border.

Of Charleston, so much has been written so eloquently, reporting on so many acts of personal grace writ large and small, that it seems hard to even talk about politics.  

Yet, politics never truly takes a day off.  At its best, it can elevate, be a vehicle for doing great things and speaking great words.  But the temptation for maneuvering, looking for advantage, sensing the opportunity to amplify outrage is often too much to resist.  The initial response from Washington was a human one—take down the Confederate Flag that may have inspired a murderer.  Democrats had sponsored amendments to an Appropriations bill that would reduce or eliminate the sale and display of Confederate Flags in National Parks and in National Cemeteries, and those passed without debates and by voice vote. But last Wednesday, House Interior appropriations subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) added an eleventh-hour amendment that would nullify those amendments.  Calvert apparently had his arm twisted by House leadership, who were, in turn, reacting to pressure from some Southern states’ Members, who argued vociferously that this was a cultural issue that shouldn’t be influenced by non-Southerners. 

By Friday, House Leadership stopped work on the appropriations bill entirely, fearful that the Democrats would try to reintroduce the amendments, and force a public debate over the issue. They also moved a similar Pelosi-introduced Amendment to committee, where they expect it will expire for lack of light and air.  For now, that has worked—the House will not debate the flag issue, because it will not debate the “real government” issues--like Appropriations.  Without stating the obvious, that cannot go on indefinitely. But there is no pretty way to resolve it.

Politically, the Democrats have an easier path.  For many, the Confederate Flag represented insurrection.  It represented a war to protect a culture that dehumanized an entire race.  In later years, it represented defiance, as when George Wallace had it raised to oppose desegregation.   And, to be perfectly blunt, white Southern males who venerate the Stars and Bars aren’t flocking to vote Democratic. 

But for the Republicans, it’s much harder.  Their path to power is built on a solidly Red South.  The social issues that have become such a driving force also reflect the more conservative mores that predominate there.  And the refusal to abide by any laws, regulations, or Supreme Court decisions they don’t agree with is largely being led by Southern Governors.  It is an oversimplification to think the GOP is beholden to the South.  It’s far more accurate to say they reflect Southern values.  And part of Southern identity—and particularly the identity of those who vote Republican—is an admixture that incorporates the legacy of the Confederacy, of resistance to Washington, of the rebel and slave master, and the venerated ancestor. Think Robert E. Lee, and you can see the physical embodiment of that complexity.

So, this cultural argument would be a difficult enough conversation to be having at any time.  It is made far more difficult because it is occurring while Donald Trump has made a gigantic surge in polls largely on strength of an extraordinarily blunt and insulting approach to immigration—with a particular focus on the horrors of Mexicans.

Trump has a huge advantage.  He has a towering ego, he’s of the opinion that virtually all publicity is good publicity, he’s getting phenomenal feedback, and he has a personal brand that does not have to be consonant with what the GOP is selling.  A true free agent, but one who says he wants to run as a Republican, and recently disavowed a third party candidacy. 

That is a big problem for the party that, in a bow to future demographic trends, wants to appear to be a little more inclusive. Amongst friends, anything goes.  But Trump manning a Fox Debate podium in what was initially intended as advertising airs it out a little bit more than they are comfortable.

How to deal with it and keep the base energized? The initial reaction from the GOP Presidential aspirants has ranged from very, very quiet to very mild disagreement, to a “happy to share in Trumps’ good feelings.”  This shouldn’t be considered a surprise, no matter how discomforting it might be to the party professionals.  The Donald understands marketing—he knows what sells, and he see this sells very well.  Even Jeb has been advised to take on Trump very carefully—be graceful and show how Presidential you are, but downplay the Mexican stuff—even in responding to Trump’s (since taken down) personal tweet about Jeb’s wife.   

The base loves the Donald.  In Iowa, they worry about being swamped by Latino culture and language.  The state’s Latino cohort now stands at an overwhelming 5.3% of the population.  Any sane person could see it’s only a short time before even the speaking of English will be banned.  If it can happen in Iowa, it can happen anywhere, and it must be fought.  Donald Trump is ready to fight for Iowans, and a truly American culture.

Sounds ludicrous?  To my New York ears, surrounded by the cacophony of diversity that comprises the “Island at the Center of the Universe” it does.  And, I am in favor of a liberal immigration policy—liberal in the number of people they let in, hoping those people will follow the example of tens of millions of other immigrants, including my grandparents and great-grandparents, and become productive citizens.   

That being said, I think the Democrats will be shortsighted if they don’t recognize that Trump is at the fault line between principled opposition to the present immigration situation and the dark underbelly of at least some of that opposition.  The name-callers like Trump degrade the argument that you don’t have to be a racist or a xenophobe to insist on a tight border and strict treatment for those who came here illegally.  But that’s all they do—degrade it, not completely drain it of legitimacy.  

And that is the peculiar paradox of these issues, flags and immigration.  They require an understanding that there are times in which we can be graceful and somewhat wrong, and ugly, but somewhat right.  That community and history are not easily erased, and that changing hearts and minds takes time, and effort, and sensitivity from all sides. 

The politicians with true vision will grasp that and act on it—they will sense that most people are far more giving then their worst impulses, and what they really wanted all along was to find a path to ride Don Draper’s Carousel. 

“Round and around.  Back home again.  To a place where we know we are loved.”

July 13th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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