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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Senate

Lindsey Graham abandoned his conscience — or maybe he never had one

Stephen H. Provost

Dear Senator Graham,

I’m going to put this to you directly: What does Mr. Trump have on you?

I’ve been watching politics a long time. It’s a game in which opportunists routinely “adjust” their positions to catch latest updraft in public opinion. The man you tried to convict and remove from office two decades ago was famous for it. Governing by polls, they called it.

But we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill Clintonian flip-flop here. We’re talking about a 180-degree turnabout in your opinion of a man he called a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” and a “kook not fit to be president” just four years ago. Today, you’re one of his most avid supporters. This isn’t a flip-flop; it’s as a transformation that would make any good chameleon green enough with envy to stand out in the greenest rainforest.

A Washington Post story claimed you’d provided some answers to this question: You wanted to “be relevant” and declared, “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business.”

I’d say the more appropriate answer is, “If you don’t want to serve the people and the nation’s highest good, you’re in the wrong business.” And that’s what you’ve always said you were doing. You positioned yourself as a person of conscience and, whether or not people agreed with your conclusions, you crafted something of a reputation for following that conscience.

Until now.

Conscience, what conscience?

So, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy your explanation that this is simply a case of political pandering in an attempt to be re-elected. That kind of explanation that would work in explaining your typical, everyday political about-face, but this is something else. Plenty of other legislators fell in lockstep behind the “race-baiting xenophobic bigot,” but they were not the kind of people who boasted of working across the aisle and speaking with an independent voice. You were.

Take your colleague from Texas, Senator Cruz, for an example. He did an about-face on Trump, too – even after Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on his wife (whatever that meant) and smeared his father without justification. But let me point out two important distinctions: First, Mr. Cruz never had the reputation for integrity you cultivated and, second, his support of Trump hasn’t been nearly as public and vocal as yours has been.

I know you’re not a big fan of Senator Cruz: You once likened a choice between him and Mr. Trump in these terms: “It’s like being shot or poisoned.” So, in deference to that statement, I’ll choose a few other examples to illustrate my point: Your conversion regarding Mr. Trump isn’t politics as usual, it’s bizarre, even by Washington’s standards.

It’s tempting to say that, now that Trump’s in office, that you were, in fact, poisoned. But I suspect this poison emanates from within. Here’s why:

Hypocrisy writ large

I invite you, Senator Graham, to think of your colleagues who have earned reputations as people of conscience. Imagine if Bernie Sanders repudiated democratic socialism and became a Republican. Or Rand Paul started speaking out in favor of foreign intervention and tax increases. Imagine if the late Senator John McCain had started decided to oppose all campaign finance reform. These are men who, it’s clear, have held to their beliefs regardless of which way the political winds were blowing, and you depicted yourself as one of their number. If any of them did what I’ve just described, they would be labeled the biggest hypocrites in Washington.

But now, I’m afraid you’ve got that title all to yourself.

What you said about Trump being a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” could have just as easily been said about David Duke. You know, the former KKK grand wizard. It was unequivocal. If you were wrong about it, you owe Mr. Trump the most abject of public apologies. If you were right, you owe that same apology to the American people. But since Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in apologies, and you are now one of his unapologetic disciples, I don’t expect you’ll issue one – even to him.

I’m even less optimistic you’ll offer one to the American people, and at this point, it doesn’t really matter, because that reputation you built as a “man of conscience” is pretty much toast. If your mysterious about-face regarding Mr. Trump hadn’t incinerated it, your willingness to stand by while he threw your supposed friend, Senator McCain, under the bus most certainly would have. Friends don’t act like that; assholes do.

Two possibilities

So, I’ll ask you again: What does Mr. Trump have on you? Think carefully before you answer, because if you say, “nothing,” there’s only one real alternative: That you were never a person of conscience in the first place, and it was all just a brazen act from the beginning. That would make you the worst kind of political troll. Worse than Clinton or Cruz or even Trump himself, because Trump – while a shameless con man – never pretended to be a man of conscience. You did.

That leaves us with two possibilities: First, that you are a true man of conscience who’s been undone by something so dark and despicable that you forsook that conscience and hitched yourself to Trump’s amoral bandwagon. I’m not talking about your rumored-and-denied homosexuality; that’s no longer (thankfully) the political or social liability it once was, even among Republicans.

This would have to be a whole lot more damaging than that. It would have to be downright humiliating. I have no idea what this sword of Damocles might be, and perhaps it doesn’t even exist. But if it doesn’t, we’re left with only one other option: that you never a man of conscience in the first place. That you’re an even bigger huckster than the “Art of the Deal” guy himself, and that your entire, well-cultivated image was nothing but a fraud from the outset.

Those are your choices. Think hard and choose wisely.  I’ll be waiting for your answer – not that I ever expect to get it.





Kavanaugh hearing a triumph for toxic male anger

Stephen H. Provost

American hasn’t been made great again. It’s been sucked down into a sinkhole fueled by toxic male rage. The Kavanaugh hearings illustrated that beyond a reasonable doubt.

The problem goes much deeper than partisanship, tribalism or any other “ism.” It rests on one tragic but glaring truth, and one alone: Toxic male anger works.

Viewers, even those on the right, were moved by Christine Blasey Ford’s honest and credible testimony during the September 27 hearing. But when Brett Kavanaugh sat down to testify, it was as if nothing Ford had said mattered. Senators didn’t address the sexual assault Ford said Kavanaugh committed against her. All they cared about was the self-righteous anger he exhibited.

Even some liberal talking heads on cable news spoke favorably of a performance by a man who:

  • Engaged in hyper-partisan accusations unbefitting a nominee to any court.

  • Repeatedly refused to answer questions directly.

  • Sought to excuse drinking and crude behavior based on his immaturity, yet at the same time tried to whitewash it by touting how mature he was for his age (if one can call studying and playing football at an all-male prep school signs of maturity). I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. And you shouldn’t be able to excuse a crime by touting how many good things you’ve done. Bill Cosby, anyone?

“It’s all about me”

But most of all, Kavanaugh made it all about him, just like he probably made it all about him in that upstairs bedroom. (I say “probably” because he hasn’t been convicted in a court of law – which might happen if anyone ever conducted an impartial investigation. It’s no surprise that Kavanaugh refused to even call for an investigation, because he was obviously afraid of what an investigation could uncover. So was the committee. How disingenuous is it to say “I’ll do whatever the committee decides” when you know damn well the committee wants the same thing you do?)

In unleashing an angry, accusation-filled tirade against his enemies, Kavanaugh did exactly what the man who nominated him does in virtually every situation: refused to apologize or even acknowledge any degree of responsibility. This, predictably, earned high praise from the bloviator-in-chief. And it also cued Republican senators to follow his example. They’d appointed a sex-crimes prosecutor as their surrogate to question Professor Ford, not wanting to look like they were bullying a victim of a sexual assault. But when it came time to “question” Kavanaugh, they grabbed the microphone and went off on one tirade after another on his behalf.

Do they care about Brett Kavanaugh? Hardly. Because in their eyes, it’s all about them. Their re-election. Their power. Their egos. Their fear that someone who looks and acts a lot like them might actually be held accountable for doing something they find abhorrent. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s too similar to something they’ve done or wanted to do themselves.

Red herrings

This wasn’t about presumption of innocence – it wasn’t even a court case. It’s not about the fact that it happened a long time ago and that “people can change.” To that latter point, a Slate headline noted that “Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony made it easier than ever to picture him as an aggressive, entitled teen.”

It also made it very easy to picture him acting that way on the bench, making it all about him or about the people who look like him, while focusing his toxic male anger at those who dare to be different or to suggest that he might be wrong.

If Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth, she had every right to be flame-throwing pissed as hell at Kavanaugh and his apologists. Yet there wasn’t even a hint of anger in her testimony. Instead, she said she was “terrified” to be testifying, repeatedly deferred to the committee’s judgments and used words like “collegial” during her testimony.

Kavanaugh’s self-righteous explosions, which sent emotional shrapnel flying scattershot around the hearing room, provided quite a contrast. And you know what? They’re what won the day, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham’s even more unhinged testimony that left at least this viewer wondering why he seemed to be taking this so personally.

None of Professor Ford’s collegiality, cooperation and civility mattered – not a whit. It was all blown away by the destructive force of Category 5 Hurricane Brett.

Who we are

We were left with one inescapable conclusion: We, as a society, like toxic male anger. Because it works. In the short term. For us. Or at least for enough of us like it to elect a bully to our highest office and repeatedly look the other way when he runs roughshod over our traditions, our ethics and our fellow citizens. Christine Blasey Ford’s collegiality and civility? Signs of weakness - at least in the minds of far too many.

They excuse bullying and assault as “boys being boys” because they don’t dare give it their full-throated endorsement – even though that’s what they really want to do. If you doubt me, just look at how blatant racism, sexism and jingoism has come out of hiding. We thought we were on track to beating it. But like a stubborn and virulent disease, it was just lying dormant. We’d merely sent it underground.

Toxic male anger sends our soldiers off to die on foreign soil. It gives us negative campaigns at election time that make some of us want to turn off the television for a month until it’s all over. It excuses the excesses of drunken frat boys to the extent that it doesn’t matter what they do as long as the person from our side of the aisle gets elected. (A poll found that Republicans, by a 54 to 32 percent margin, thought Kavanaugh should be confirmed even if the accusations against him were true.)

We celebrate anti-heroes and vigilantes in our movies: people who break the rules so our side can prevail. Because our side is “right,” even righteous. We tolerate white supremacists and empower bullies in the hope that they might be on our side.

A 2-year-old’s tantrum

But toxic male anger isn’t on anyone’s side but its own. It’s the same amoral force that fuels the tantrums of 2-year-olds who have yet to learn right from wrong. The 2-year-old has an excuse. We don’t, because we do know right from wrong and we resort to it anyway.  

None of this is to say that all men are toxic or that the solution is merely to elect a bunch of women. Gender stereotyping won’t solve anything, and to suggest that males are a slave to toxic anger is an insult to those who aren’t. (It’s also to ignore the fact that such anger appeals to, and is employed by, any number of women – if it weren’t, the current occupant of the White House would have zero female supporters.)

Nor is it to suggest that anger doesn’t have a place. It’s a human reaction. But if we make it the driving force behind our most important decisions, as we did in the Kavanaugh case, we’ll end up with a country run by 2-year-olds.

If we aren’t already there.