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Distracted by the circus

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POSTED May 8, 2017 12:24 a.m.



I was about to get into it with my son about President Donald Trump’s suggestion that Andrew Jackson, a slave owner who died in 1845, could have avoided the Civil War (as if there were a compromise to be had on the question of expanding slavery into the territories), when he quickly dismissed me by pointing out that no one cares.

Or rather, that the people who care about this already cared, but it doesn’t matter, because all the president does is work us up into a lather, simultaneously diverting our attention from more important issues and leaving his base 43 percent of voters bemused, bored or angry at the fuss about nothing.

That’s simply how it is when you have a president with no censor, internal or external, no pause between having an idea and tweeting about it. He says a lot of very wrong, crazy, scary things, as do the people who work for him. He would rather entertain dictators than the American media. The press describes the shocked reactions of his own staff, eminent historians, human rights experts, the usual suspects... Yet nothing changes. The sky does not fall in. 

Generations of staffers, who took care with every word that a president uttered, shake their heads in disbelief. This is beyond Reagan’s Teflon.

Who cares? And what difference does it make, except to the people who are already lost to him? Maybe none. But that’s a disgrace in its own right. The office of the presidency is being diminished before our very eyes. When everything is “fake news,” what, after all, is real and true? 

I remember, decades ago, the cover of Time magazine asked: “Is God Dead?” Recently, in the doctor’s office, I saw a much thinner Time magazine, one from this year, asking: “Is Truth Dead?” 

My academic colleagues will tell you that “truth” is a construct, infected with the biases of the teller, but even so: Even if there is no truth, there are certainly lies. If the expansion of slavery was an insoluble issue, as noted historians tell us, could former President Jackson (dead 15 years before the Civil War) have solved it?

It is true that, even with Republican control of the House and Senate, President Trump has not gotten anything of significance through Congress in his first 100 days. The 100-day mark has long been regarded as a milestone in any president’s first term. But according to Trump, it’s meaningless, insignificant — just another fiction invented by the failing press.

Meanwhile, did you notice the gutting of environmental protections? Or are we still talking about the Civil War, and Sean Spicer, and the friendly dictators, and even the Russians? I plead guilty. I’ve become distracted by the circus, too. It is hard to resist. 

We have to teach our children that even though we want them to express themselves, not every thought they have is worthy of expression. Some thoughts are hurtful. Some are wrong. And when you’re a leader, it’s even more important to think before blurting out every thought that pops into your head. How is it that we have a president who doesn’t understand that?

What Trump does is make the angry more inflamed; the critics more outraged; the cynics more cynical; and the public discourse more meaningless and bitter. If what the president says doesn’t matter, whose words do? 

One day, like Peter crying wolf, this president might find that he really needs people (beyond just his hardcore followers) to believe him and respect him, that his words need to have power, that what he has to say must not be dismissed with a shrug. But having cheapened the discourse, having trained us to change the station, who will be listening when that day comes? And why would we even consider that it might really be the truth?

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