Trying to get over jet lag, I’ve been propped up in front of two absurdly difficult annual events, the Tour de France and the links golf of the British Open. One of these sporting events can break your body, and both can mess with your head.
The Tour expects humans on bicycles to cover around 2,200 miles in three weeks — up mountains and down, in rain, wind or sweltering heat. Just finishing is superhuman.The British Open is played on seaside courses where the rough looks like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, balls can vanish forever into dense three foot tall foliage, gales off the water come from a different angle on every hole, and and traps look more like sink holes into which your can lose a Land Rover. Are these games of skill, luck or endurance?
The designed-in impossibility of these tests is what makes them great. Robert Frost once said that writing free verse was “like playing tennis with the net down.” He meant that it’s the constricting rules of a sonnet or sestina that forces the writer to perform with concision, clarity, economy and creativity. It’s the difference between making art and making an idle observation.
Human endeavors without rules are random or anarchic. It’s the difference between balls and strikes, between fair and foul that makes a game out of random action and that separates the dabbler fooling around for fun and the professional who can perform with a high degree of consistency under the pressure of intense competition.
All of which leads, as does almost everything these days, to a thought about what’s wrong with Donald Trump. People keep wondering what explains his peculiar inability to understand the game he’s involved in — politics, also know as the art of the possible, why he undermines the achievement of his own goals at every turn, why he keeps behaving in ways designed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,.
I think it’s possible that he has never learned how to play with others. His father taught him you are either a loser or a killer. He taught him how to seize every chance at an edge, how to cheat and connive, cajole and charm, bully, sue and attack while flouting the rules everyone else has to observe.
But he never learned how to be a teammate or collaborator or member of a party. He didn’t have to. Like George H. W. Bush In the memorable gibe aimed at him by fellow Texan Jim Hightower, Trump was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.
And since Trump thinks people who play by the rules are losers, he can’t understand James Comey and Robert Mueller whose lives have been spent preserving, protecting and defending the rule book, that is, The Constitution of the United States, even though he vowed to play exactly that game on January 20. Instead, since Comey and Mueller won’t behave the way he wants them to, but the way the rules demand, he thinks they must be enemies, plotting against him.
In Trump’s mind there is no higher duty than to cater to his self-interest. And since he’s the president — the boss, the CEO, the commander-in-chief, the star player — the role of every other government employee should be to unquestioningly do whatever he wants done. So, for example, he is stunned and outraged that his Attorney General in playing by the rules recused himself from decisions regarding the Russians meddling with the election.
In Trump’s world the purpose of an attorney is to screw his enemies, get him what he wants, and get him off the hook when he breaks the rules, not to investigate his behavior. In fact, other people exist only to gratify his needs — they are lackeys, toadies or concubines. And because Trump knows no rule but ‘me first,’ he is willing to transgress any rule that gets in his way.
So, he lies, floridly, constantly and transparently. He makes deals and promises he has no intention of living up to. He has a long history of violating building codes, fair housing laws, and social norms. He has cheated his customers, his suppliers, his partners. He declares bankruptcy to avoid paying his bills and stiffs those he owes. No wonder many banks will no longer lend to him and he allegedly may have fallen into the hands of shadier moneylenders.
Those who play golf with Trump, not surprisingly, say he cheats at that too– improving his lie, falsifying his stroke count. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine him colluding with Russian hackers to improve his odds of being elected, or that he would make a deal to pay them off once successful. Call it the art of the steal.
But Trump has found Washington a place unlike any other in his life. It plays by rules all its own. Party loyalty matters. The rule of law matters to people at the Justice Department. The Supreme Court takes precedent seriously. Members of the military and the intelligence community think of themselves as patriots, not as gofers or presidential stooges. They act live not to curry favor, but for honor, duty, country. The House and Senate play by complicated rulebooks compiled over a couple centuries and aren’t about to change their ways for a mere president. They come and go every four years, the rules, traditions and mores of institutions endure.
Men like Trump have arisen to undermine and overthrow every attempt at democratic, self-government since Greece and Rome. And often the autocratic “man on a horse” has been enabled by gullible, aggrieved, anxious, impatient people who fall for promises of a quick and painless fix for the troubles of the time. They soon find out they have traded away their birthright for a mess of potage, or for bread and circuses.
James Madison and the other founders knew the dangers well and designed a rule book that put obstacles in the way of such demagogues. Checks and balances, separation of powers, and so on. For this reason we are said to be a nation of laws, not of men.
But the rules only work if men and women insist they be honored — citizens, voters, their representatives, courts, and a free press. That is the rendezvous with destiny we are approaching. Will we, as a people, choose to live by the rules that have been our bulwark for 240 years or succumb to the siren song of a reality TV Caesar? We shall see.