Open letter, part 2: The dissonant sounds of summer

Open letter, part 2: The dissonant sounds of summer

Dear Lindsey, Daniel, Dylan, and Emma,

How’s the presidential election working for you so far?

It’s been several months since I addressed my first open letter to the four of you about this very surreal (weird? historic? fill in in your own adjective) campaign. Since then, Mr. Trump’s legal posture has both improved (rulings that will delay three trials until after the election) and worsened (a stunning guilty verdict in the hush-money case). And just days away, the candidates square off in an unprecedented early debate, followed by Mr. Trump’s sentencing, and then the conventions, with their potential disruptions and street theater.

Whatever happened to those lazy, hazy days of summer and the political doldrums?

I trust by now that all of you are considering this presidential contest in the context of a mean-spirited, polarized confrontation for the soul of the nation, a contest fueled by tens of millions of dollars at the disposal of both parties. Or, on a more granular level, as described in a New York Times op-ed recently, a contest between the felonious and the frail. That Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump loathe each other is a given. That they are not even the two contenders many people favor is a disquieting reality.

I hope all this doesn’t sound too cynical, but as an old newspaper hand who’s witnessed 14 presidential elections, I’m not expecting this one to yield a meaningful discussion of policy issues cloaked in flowing rhetoric, soaring themes, and basic civility. Nor do I think memorable slogans, themes, or catchphrases like “New Deal.” “New Frontier,” “Great Society,” “A house divided against itself,” “Ask what you can do for your country” or even “a chicken in every pot” will emerge to define the tone and goals of the candidates.

Yet the distinctions between Joe Biden and Donald Trump are stark and monumental. Mr. Trump seems to stand for little more than grievance, retribution, and staying out of jail, while offering only punitive or harsh approaches to immigration (he successfully signaled Congress to reject a meaningful reform package ), equal justice and respect for the law, and fulfillment of our global alliances. During a second term, he undoubtedly would try to destroy Obamacare once again, without offering a replacement. His concept of class division doesn’t even exist. There are only the very rich and the rest of us.

Conversely, Mr. Biden has presided over a solid, transformative first term, one that’s lifted technology, clean energy, infrastructure, EVs, and manufacturing, while slowing inflation (yes, still deeply felt but inherited from the pandemic and exacerbated by Trump policies), spurred record job growth, enhanced consumer safeguards, and responded to crises in Ukraine, Taiwan, and Gaza with diplomacy, coalition building, and selective force.

Let’s take just one example of where the candidates diverge, although it’s not as incendiary or publicized an issue as reproductive rights.

If elected, Mr. Trump would sign an extension of what he calls the signature accomplishment of his first term, a tax “reform” package tilted toward the wealthiest individuals and the largest corporations (especially fossil fuel industries). The newest version would deepen these disparities. Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has vowed to approve the extension only if it nudges up corporate levies slightly, makes the rich pay more marginally, and widens breaks for the middle class. Their respective stands say yards about where each candidate’s sympathies lie.

In sum, Mr. Trump looks nostalgically and stubbornly backward while Mr. Biden peers hopefully and sometimes imperfectly ahead.

So brace yourself for the combined sound and fury of attack ads, influencers, analysts, surrogates, Xers, trollers, TikTockers, pundits, and talking heads. The deafening and deadening campaign crescendo usually pumps up after Labor Day, but this year will be jump-started by the initial Biden-Trump debate on June 27 and the sentencing of Mr. Trump on July 11 for his conviction on falsifying business records, four days before the GOP convention opens. And while there is no equivalency with the GOP contender’s ongoing legal woes, the president’s son, Hunter Biden, will face the judge, a Trump appointee, most likely in August, to learn his fate on a gun purchase conviction. Both are sad, seedy cases, whose effects on the electorate are difficult to gauge.

Please don’t take my concern to suggest that you tune out the chattering classes and commentariat or stay above the fray during the next five months. On the contrary, I want you to dig deeper, because if ever an election needed clarity to differentiate the character and ideological chasms between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, it’s this one.

I know that what I’m going to propose next is both time-consuming and a big ask, but I think it’s well worth it because, despite a host of negatives, this truly is the most consequential election in more than a generation, one that will significantly influence your options and outlooks for a long, long time.

So here’s what I’d like each of you to do: Expand your sources of information and move beyond comfort zones. Ideally, this means you should be reading two newspapers or more online. For instance, balance the New York Times with the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post with the New York Post, or Haaretz with Israel Hayom. Ditto for cable news. See how CNN or MSNBC play a certain story as opposed to Fox News. Ditto also for magazines such as the Atlantic and the National Review.

In other words, double down.

I realize I am recommending traditional, mainstream sources to the exclusion of social media, and I do so without hesitation. I know your lives are extremely busy and the rewards of this exercise may not be immediately evident. But trust your old zaydie; you’ll feel that you’ve done your homework, both intellectually and emotionally, when you enter the voting booth.

The polls at this stage show Mr. Trump leading in most battleground states, with Mr. Biden hovering within the margin of error. But the electorate is still digesting the fallout from Mr. Trump’s felony conviction in New York with the possibility of jail time, and also contemplating his three additional prosecutions in Florida (stashing classified documents), Georgia (election interference), and D.C. (immunity and insurrection).

A loss by Mr. Trump on November 5 (whether close or clear-cut), practically guarantees the prospect of challenges and intimidations, a possible try at electoral college contravention, an appeal to the conservative-dominated Supreme Court, or even another other-worldly insurrection attempt. (Pick either one, two, or all of the preceding.)

And speaking of polls, the most recent survey by historians rating all the presidents placed Mr. Trump squarely at the bottom, behind such disappointments and mediocrities as James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, and Andrew Johnson. Mr. Biden scored a respectable 18th out of the forty-five chief executives to have served.

When I consider Mt. Trump’s chaotic, drama-laden White House quadrennial, I can only remember his sycophantic relationship with Vladimir Putin, his risible attempts to launch and re-launch the never-materialized infrastructure week, and his hiring and firing of lackeys and incompetents to fill cabinet posts, commission and agency positions, and judicial vacancies. (Thanks also to Mitch McConnell.)

This is the Donald Trump who mused aloud during the height of the pandemic about whether a lovin’ spoonful of bleach might benefit the health of the citizenry; considered approaching Denmark to buy the whole of Greenland for forward bases (we already have them there); and tried unsuccessfully to alter the path of a hurricane by taking his Sharpie to a map and scribbling over the absolutely correct prediction of government meteorologists.

Lost in all this sound and fury, though, is that there’s so much more at stake than the presidency come November. Significant state and local races will determine control of Congress, distribution of the governorships, and the complexion of legislatures. As always, a host of referenda, initiatives, and questions will appear on ballots, addressing issues as monumental as climate change and as fundamental as water filtration plants. Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump must have support on Capitol Hill to advance their agendas. We’ve seen what gridlock in the House and Senate can do.

When I write my next letter to you, dear grandchildren, we will undoubtedly know more about Mr. Trump’s legal entanglements, who his running mate will be, and the latest targets of his rhetoric. For Mr. Biden, the summer means the Democratic convention in Chicago in mid-August (please study what happened there in 1968), helping Ukraine maintain battle readiness, and trying to end the fighting in Gaza within a diplomatic driven Israel-Arab framework. And the economy will still be very much front and center as prices and inflation reminding us that many people will vote their pocketbooks.

It’s not exactly a day at the beach, especially for younger voters like yourselves. Hang in there and bone up on the issues!

Jonathan E. Lazarus, a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a copy editor at the Jewish Standard and New Jersey Jewish News, realizes how busy Lindsey will be at her magazine position; Daniel as a mortgage banking associate; Dylan, a recent George Washington graduate at his entertainment venue post, and Emma as a rising drama and writing junior at Emerson College.

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