I’m still fighting my hangover from Trump
The date had been marked on my calendar and underlined for weeks: January 20, 2021. Rise, caffeinate, pray (or maybe it was pray, then caffeinate) and bundle off to the JCC fitness center. Return home, check emails, play online chess, and, at the stroke of noon, EXHALE.
I take deep breaths. Lots of them. One after the other. Four years of pent-up frustration lessening with each respiration. I sit riveted to the TV, watching the transition of power unfold in real time. Yet in the midst of this truly miraculous spectacle, a slightly sobering, disconcerting thought occurs: Now what?
After 48 unrelenting months of digesting and processing the awful daily misdeeds, policy botches, and bad behavior spurting from the White House, it is a midday of hope, accompanied by the twin feelings of accumulated emotional fatigue and tempered optimism.
I view the inaugural with awe and amazement, its moving parts providing an effective eyewash to the barbarians at the gates only two weeks before, even though nothing can completely erase the stain of that day. A musical traditionalist, I’m giddy enough to enjoy Lady Gaga’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and to be mesmerized by youth poet Amanda Gordon. The oath-taking of Kamala Harris adds even more luster to the proceedings, establishing a string of firsts in the process. Joe Biden’s maiden speech as chief executive strikes all the grace notes, not through soaring rhetoric but with expressions of hardcore decency, aspiration, and optimism, and by offering an actual template to confront the multiplicity of crises facing the republic.
I realize a watershed moment is at hand, and my mind races through the possibilities. But in the meantime, I indulge myself with harmless gamesmanship by placing all the responsible, sometimes exceptional presidents of my lifetime on one side of a demarcation line: FDR, Harry Truman, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Gerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bush the elder, Bush the younger, and Barack Obama. On the other, I put the disappointments: Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, both whip-smart, both policy wonks, but both too clever by half, and both ethically and morally compromised.
Then there’s a third category. It has only one occupant: Donald John Trump. Not even Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, and the risible James Buchanan can challenge his bankruptcy of redeeming qualities and positive human impulses.
On this inaugural morning, a bare-bones departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews fittingly deprives Trump of the pomp and pageantry he so earnestly yearns for. As the red carpet is rolled up, Air Force One whisks its orange-complexioned occupant for the final time (hopefully) to his gilded bunker at Mar-a-Lago. Hours later, Joe Biden begins his presidency with a flurry of executive orders, directives, and appointments, creating a reverse policy trajectory to that of his predecessor. He immediately tackles the covid crisis, vaccine distribution, access to health care, immigration reform, climate change, green energy, a stimulus package for the economy, racial inequality, income disparity, infrastructure, and the mending of foreign fences. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaims: “What a difference a day makes!” The machinery of government seems instantly energized after a four-year slumber.
Mr. Biden also brings Dr. Anthony Fauci in from the cold to reclaim center stage in the pandemic fight, augmented by an authentic supporting cast of scientists and medical experts. The vaccine distribution ramp-up still leaves lots to be desired, but that’s because the new team has inherited a hollow vessel and each step is, of necessity, incremental, often evolving from square one. The totality of the new president’s initiatives, from mask mandates to eviction moratoriums, to his decision to hold firm on an expansive pandemic aid package, show boldness but could be ephemeral without congressional approval. (Already, a $15 minimum wage has failed in the Senate.) Real battles lie ahead for structural, more durable changes through legislation built to withstand challenges argued in front of a newly conservative federal judiciary right up to the Supreme Court. (Think of the doggedly cunning Mitch McConnell at work here.)
So what do we know since the inaugural, and what can we expect? We know that a significant segment of the population still believes Citizen Trump had the election stolen from him. They are catered to by a Republican Party at war with itself and unable or unwilling to deal with rogue members (Marjorie Taylor Greene), while hectoring the few courageous ones (Liz Cheney) and pandering to the militias and foot soldiers of the soft civil war festering around us. The Grand Old Party showed that its grand old arteries are still hardening during preliminary skirmishing on a second impeachment trial, when only a handful of Republican senators said they would be willing to keep an open mind on Donald Trump’s fate on a single count of incitement to insurrection.
It seems all but certain that Trump will skate for a second time, even though he already has parted ways with his initial legal team by insisting he’s a victim of a rigged election, rather than being shielded from prosecution because he’s not in office (the charged offense occurred while he was). And he immediately rejected an invitation from the impeachment managers to testify on his own behalf. He’s out of power but still sucking oxygen from the room; out of sight but not out of mind; out of D.C. but still the center of conversation and drama in many quarters there.
I have conjured a fallback position for holding his feet to the fire — and it has absolutely no chance of succeeding. I fantasize about Trump being hauled before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The charges would be based on complicity in the deaths of thousands of innocents during the covid pandemic by spreading outright lies and medical misinformation and wishing the inconvenience of it all would just go away if everyone took a shot of bleach. Throw in malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance, and the case would be compelling.
But again, this never will happen.
So I must content myself with the prospect that pending federal, state, and local lawsuits against him and his corporations will bear fruit, or at least consume enough of his time and energy to make retirement uncomfortable. Who knows, he may actually thrive when cornered. After all, he’s spent his whole life in a defensive crouch.
Is this all too harsh and disproportionate and un-Jewish of me? Undoubtedly. Yet, I, like many other Jewish Americans, need time to heal from the perfidies of the last administration. How, one may ask, can the wounds cut so deep from someone who has seemingly done so much for Israel? I acknowledge the soundness of the question but add the caveat: at what price? Israel always has been a priority in my calculus and critique of any administration’s foreign policy. The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who is Jewish, reaffirmed his support for the Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump team, and so do I. Yet I also buy into President Biden’s recent opt-out from supporting and supplying the Saudis (Israel’s best anonymous friend) in the war against Iran-backed forces in Yemen.
The new president undoubtedly will entertain further overtures to Tehran, from renegotiating and rejoining the divisive nuclear materials inspection treaty to a separate control agreement on missiles. The sanctions piled on by the Trumpians and egged on by the Likudniks have hurt the regime but haven’t flipped the switch. It’s time for a new approach or, more accurately, an updated return to a more balanced way forward.
Donald Trump left the precious vase (or globe) shattered in a thousand pieces. Hopefully, Joe Biden can practice the ancient art of reassembling the shards into a stronger whole than the original. It’s called tikkun olam.
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard.