Insidious is the force that causes us to dream of things we wish (or don’t wish) were so.
Thus, on the eve of this column’s creation, I dreamed of Donald J. Trump. We were seated at a dinner table for eight, but the other six chairs were empty. We spoke of many things, from education to globalization and the near-universal crisis of identity. The president was courtly, humble, erudite and wise.
I awoke suddenly to the harsh sounds of braying asses (I had left the TV on), only to realize that I was actually dreaming of Adlai Stevenson, the twice-defeated presidential candidate who lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in part because of his excess erudition. In today’s clever-ish jargon, he was too thinky.
Mine was a dream of wishes, obviously, for we suffer no such excesses now.
This is not to besmirch Eisenhower, who was no intellectual midget. He did, after all, warn in his 1961 farewell address against the future peril of a military-industrial complex that would keep America on the brink of war and stoke “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”
A gentleman who reportedly rarely cursed, he had proved himself a leader directing American forces in World War II. Perhaps pivotally, he had a great smile, which made him instantly likable. Sound familiar?
In addition to his appeal, his campaign buttons, “I like Ike,” had the requisite single-syllable appeal to postwar sensibilities. A gentle general, Eisenhower was the stoic, commanding father figure who would take charge, while Stevenson was still seeking the deeper meaning of things.
Trump couldn’t be more different than either man, a testament to how much times have changed — and been changed — by technology and the gradual dissolution of traditional institutions. Though he shows great respect for the military, now having hired retired Gen. John F. Kelly as his chief of staff, Trump’s own battlefield was real estate, and, by his own telling, his sexcapades were his Vietnam. He’s no Ike, in other words. As a 140-character thinker, he’s no Stevenson either.
Years ago, I declared the end of civilization when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos conducted an interview with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) via Twitter. My objection then was that nothing worthwhile could be said in 140 characters. Thanks to Trump’s daily expurgations, I stand corrected. Nations can be put on guard and personnel dispatched to the bread line with a presidential tweet.
Then again, civilization doesn’t seem as securely tethered as it once was. The unraveling began decades ago in the new world, but it seems no mere coincidence that the chaotic tempo of our daily lives corresponds to diminishing cognitive abilities resulting from attention spans that mimic a honeybee’s.
“Can you imagine reading Faulkner now?” I recently asked a friend.
“We can’t,” he responded.
And Trump, who proudly prefers television to newspapers and Twitter to books, is our president.
We’ve all exhausted our stores of punditry in trying to explain how and why The Donald won. Most analysis focuses on quantifiable voter concerns — unemployment, immigration, trade, terrorism and the sort. But it’s the unquantifiable that really drives the ballot: instinct. Trump figured out how to match his primitive drives to the modern needs of his supporters.
Come Election Day, the instinctual question was: Which of these two characters is most likely to keep the fires stoked and the predators scared? Trump, the overconfident lobber of id-ioms? (See “Make America Great Again!”) Or Hillary Clinton, the head-nodding yes woman who lacked a platform higher than the heels of her sensible shoes?
But what now? In just over six months in office, Trump has managed to alienate our allies, shatter our international standing, demonstrate no leadership ability or essential knowledge, fire or replace people in key positions, and exacerbate global tensions with his lack of discipline, maturity and self-control. Who can save us from ourselves?
There are still plenty of deep thinkers out there, but who is listening? Who is reading? Who among those who can contemplate the future — as opposed to retweeting this-just-happened — is even willing to lead? And what, finally, is leadership in an era when centuries-old institutions are failing and commonly shared beliefs are no longer common or shared?
Well, somebody. Someone who has consulted history to understand present and future challenges, who understands the role and risks of technology — and who can help people understand the daily chaos with the erudition of Stevenson, the humanity of Eisenhower and the wisdom of one we’ve yet to know.
Now there’s a dream worth pursuing.