• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Summertime Slump

August 2018

The dog days of summer haven’t yet reared their heads, but need we await their arrival for things to go wrong? Modelling our forecast upon the past antics of President Trump tells us no—we needn’t wait for the heatwaves to find us; they’re already here. Throw away your mystic aeromancy, once useful in divining the season’s inevitable, annual strife. Toss out your almanacs, those antiquated books through which farmers read gales and controversy. We know, based on all of the previous and tempestuous piques of Trump, one year unto the next, that summertime is the time for meltdowns.

As it did in 2016, so too in 2017, and in much the same way it continues until today, the summertime for President Trump invites problems: problems for him at the polls (his favorability ratings, when gauged during the summer months, have a tendency to slip); problems for his communications department (which is tasked with a Sisyphean battle of walking back—rather than up—heaps of controversies and prevaricating on his behalf); and problems for his Republican Party (which has recently finished not only its prostration—that that kind of groveling, admittedly, has been going on for a while—but its castration as well. The Republican Party is now little more than a sterile group of eunuchs kissing a sultan’s ring).

But to call them problems might be to put the matter more charitably than one should. In each successive year, between the months of June and September, President Trump has been at the center and has been the main cause of things considerably worse than mere controversies. Less hiccups they’ve been than unmitigated maelstroms. Far from harmless snafus, they’ve been national embarrassments, and each summer, we tolerate a new one.

To begin, perforce, we’re brought back to the summer of 2016—a summer indelibly etched into the American soul. It was a halcyon time when still Hillary Clinton’s name was on the tongue (bitter though to the taste it was becoming), James Comey’s reputation was on the line, and Donald Trump’s ascent was merely beginning its rise. At least it very much appeared to be, until he responded to Khizr Khan.

Better and more widely known as the father of Humayun Khan, a marine of Pakistani extraction who was slain while fighting on the American side in the Middle East, the elder Khan memorably berated Trump for having no knowledge of the Constitution and its sanctity. He vigorously picked up his pocket-sized Constitution and waved it in the air. Indiscriminately irascible then as now, Trump take such reproach sitting down. He responded by insulting not only Khizr Khan, but his family as well. He intimated that Khan’s wife, Ghazala Khan (at whose side he spoke at the DNC convention in Philadelphia where the world listened to this unassuming man excoriate Trump) wasn’t “allowed to speak” because of some kind of misogynistic Islamic prohibition. The idea was that Ghazala Khan, a proud American citizen and mother of a veteran, was religiously subdued by her umma and her man. Adding to this, it was at this time that Trump’s “Muslim Ban”—still an infant of an idea and a vaunted figment of the nationalist imagination—was being debated. Needless to say, the fallout from his remark about Mrs. Khan was severe.

It was one thing to ascribe to an apparently secular Muslim-American family a sort of religious fanaticism that would put at a distance a woman from her inalienable right to speak, quite another to disrespect a Gold Star family. Knowing it as I do, the American right will usually countenance the former, but I’ve not yet stumbled upon a Republican who’d suffer the latter. (Khan’s wife later wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, in which she attributed her silence not to some Medieval moratorium on her right to be heard, but to the crippling emotions by which she was overcome at the revisited thought of her son’s untimely death). The exchange and its aftermath was, in Trumpian terms, a total disaster. It also inaugurated Trump’s trend of summertime meltdowns to come.

The next came in 2017. Seeking and finding a moral nadir—really an ethical bedrock to which no previous statesman had yet plunged—the now president Trump responded to the ghastly events of Charlottesville in his own abhorrent and idiosyncratic way.

It was in that quaint and sleepy university town where the “Unite the Right” rally was held. There was nothing innocuous about it from the start; what good can come, after all, from a gathering of a bunch of aggrieved, racist, white, ennui-imbued, middle-aged, tiki-torch brandishing louts? Not surprisingly, the event quickly spiraled out of control. It devolved from an odious demonstration of the “blood-and-soil” right to a direct confrontation in the streets. The radical leftist “Antifa” members—armed with identity politics and pepper spray—and the white nationalists—favoring clubs, shields, and an assortment of slapdash accoutrements to clad their ranks—converged on the university green before mid-day. Thereafter, for the better part of the morning, the two sides proceeded to beat each other with home-made matériels. It wasn’t until the police arrived on scene that things settled down—albeit only slightly.

Even with the police’s arrival, the situation remained a mess. Its response was desultory and slow and the fighting continued, but the situation hadn’t yet become one of a sanguinary kind. That would of course change when a crazed allegiant of the right, too proud of skin and soil and all things Aryan, drove his vehicle down a pedestrian-filled street. By the time he reversed his car and ventured toward a getaway, one innocent victim’s heart stopped its beat. A peaceful protestor lay dead, and—thanks to President Trump’s response to it all—a new source of national embarrassment was born.

Flanked by Gary Cohen and Steve Mnuchin in his gilded Trump Tower atrium in New York, the president gave a most unforgettable press conference. Ostensibly, the three were gathered to talk about America’s financial path forward and the inchoate tax reforms that tickled the businessmen’s mind. But the horrors of Charlottesville were fresher and deeper than any tax cut could be. Casting a wink and a sympathetic nod to the furthest reaches of the right, Trump infamously exclaimed that “both sides” were to blame for the death of the young woman on that Charlottesville street.

It seemed as if Trump couldn’t have sunk much lower. After making the remark—and subsequently refusing to amend it in the face of mounting pressure—the idea of his presidency became tinged with the sour taste of ignominy. Henceforth, these loose and undercooked morals were to become a common course, nauseating yet familiar to the American palate.

They were served up again, only this time on the world rather than the national stage. Following a divisive visit to Brussels (where he met and bumped heads with NATO members) and thence to England (where he insulted Theresa May and the Queen), Trump flew to Helsinki for the last stop of his European tour. It was there, in that capital city just beyond Stalin’s reach, that Trump met with our modern-day, neo-authoritarian Russian man of steel—Vladimir Putin. This second of two tête-à- têtes (the first having taken place last year in the German city of Hamburg) gave time enough for Trump and Putin to discuss many a thing. So far as we’re led to believe, the topics about which they spoke included entanglements in Syria, unlawful annexations in Crimea, issues in Iran, oil shipments in Germany, and meddling in the U.S. election. Ever the obscurantists, no readout of the meeting has been made available from either side. Buoyed by the breadth of their conversation, though, one might’ve expected Trump’s posture toward Putin to be one of dominance rather than subservience—of command rather than equivocation (Trump, after all, had recently lambasted Angela Merkel for her dealings with Russian petro-companies and had come out on the side of the pro-western Ukrainians). This was his chance to give Putin a piece of his mind.

But it became immediately clear, as the two began fielding questions from the gathered press corps, that Trump would assume no such manly stance. Instead, he chose to kowtow to President Putin—taking to a knee and kissing the despot’s boot in a most emasculating way. Agreeing with all Putin had to say, Trump made the worse arguments the better and America’s pride the lesser. As if attempting to re-capture the momentary idiocy of President George W. Bush (who you’ll recall was convinced of Putin’s sincerity and bonhomie, after having seen his soul through his mother’s cross), Trump was likewise smitten with the ex-KGB Machiavel of a leader in whose image he sees himself.

Days before the summit, President Trump’s own Department of Justice—a department, mind you, whose execution he oversees—released a damning indictment of twelve Russian state agents. After more than two years of quiet and indefatigable research, the DOJ came to the conclusion that the dozen was doubtless involved in the attempt to meddle in the 2016 election. What’s more, President Putin almost certainly had a hand in orchestrating the coup. It seemed as though even the staunchest Trump apologist and the most imaginative Republican revisionist could no longer deny the intelligence community’s findings: the Russians meddled in our election process, and they were sanctioned to do so from on high. And likely, if given the chance, they’d do so again.

Yet of all of the apologists, Trump continued to be the most obstinate, and of all the revisionists, the most acrobatic. Instead of explicitly siding with his own Department of Justice when he had the chance, Trump appeared to toss American intel under the bus. He opted instead to swallow the Russian pill, having been taken in hook, bait, and sinker by the line the Kremlin had cast. “(President Putin) just said it’s not Russia”, said Trump when pressed by journalists to expound on his position. “I do not see any reason why it would be”, he continued, before ending by saying that “I have great confidence in my intelligence people…but (Putin) was extremely strong and confident in his denial today”. As always they are, the “buts” are the most worth noting; they’re the pivot points over which real feelings turn.

We’d hoped that Trump had long since forsaken this position—that of Putin’s denial being more creditable than the intelligence community’s avowal that the Russians interfered in our election process. We’d hoped that he might’ve evolved his thinking on this matter for the good of the country—that he’d maybe sobered his infatuation with the autocrat, and humbled himself to the unprepossessing truth. But one knows too well the adage of old dogs and new tricks.

And so, like old mutts, the dog days trickle in. So as before, and now again, the president limps through another summertime meltdown. As he does, America suffers its annual bout of embarrassment. But, amazingly, come autumn, neither seems much worse for the wear.

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