President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.
“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.
The existence of Mr. Trump’s request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.
Mr. Comey wrote the memo detailing his conversation with the president immediately after the meeting, which took place the day after Mr. Flynn resigned, according to two people who read the memo. The memo was part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation. An F.B.I. agent’s contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.
Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates. The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of the memo to a Times reporter.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein knew President Trump planned to fire FBI Director Jim Comey before he sat down to write a memo criticizing Comey’s conduct.
That’s according to several United States senators who met with Rosenstein Thursday afternoon in a secure room in the Capitol basement.
“He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to writing his memo,” Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill told reporters after the briefing.
Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin echoed McCaskill, saying Rosenstein told lawmakers that he knew of Trump’s intent the day before he wrote a document that the White House initially said was the main reason why Comey was dismissed.
Rosenstein fielded questions in the closed session for more than an hour, but many senators left the briefing unsatisfied.
Again, not shocking. But still important. It’s one of those little things that matters, and indicates how Trump corrupts the people around him.
Rosenstein knew at the time that he was concocting an official rationalization for the president to do what he was going to do anyway.
On May 10, conservative journalist Byron York reported that getting Rosenstein in place as deputy AG was necessary for the White House to fire Comey, because it gave them bipartisan cover:
Only after Rosenstein was in place did the Trump team move ahead. That was true not only for chain-of-command reasons but also — probably more importantly — because Rosenstein had the bipartisan street cred to be able to be the point man in firing Comey. Even though his confirmation was delayed, Rosenstein was eventually confirmed by the Senate by a 94 to 6 vote, meaning that the vast majority of Democratic senators voted for him along with all of the Republicans.
How important was the arrival of Rosenstein to the bid to fire Comey? This, from a source in a Senate office Wednesday morning: “Many who are suggesting that there’s something nefarious about the timing of the Comey firing are likely missing the fact that DAG Rosenstein was sworn in two weeks ago (April 26), and that the FBI Director reports to the DAG on the DOJ org chart. It seems completely normal that the DAG would review their top reports within the first couple weeks of starting.”
Discount the part about “completely normal” — firing the FBI director, who has a ten-year term and was conducting a high-profile investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that touches on the president, was not a routine act. The point is, it took the arrival of Rosenstein to do it.
Read Rosenstein’s May 9 memo to the Attorney General detailing Comey’s failures. Rosenstein does not actually recommend firing Comey; he only provides the rationale. AG Jeff Sessions recommends the firing, and Trump executes it.
So Rosenstein knew that his reputation was being used to cover up something Trump intended to do anyway, for reasons that wouldn’t have flown politically had they been known. In other words, he let Trump’s dirty move conceal itself under his (Rosenstein’s) reputation for fairness. But Trump himself blew the story up when he told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had his anger over the Russia investigation in mind when he fired Comey. Now it’s clear from Rosenstein’s own admission that he knowingly participated in a charade.
And it’s clear (as if it weren’t already) that Donald Trump lies, and is pleased to corrupt those who serve him, to make them accomplices in his deception.
What Rosenstein did is not a crime, and for all I know, it may simply be a case of the public inadvertently getting a look at how the sausage is made. If you read Rosenstein’s firing memo, it is likely that everything in it is factually true. But if so, they were truths written down for use in the telling of a lie, for misleading the American people.
Where does Rod Rosenstein’s good reputation stand today? I wonder if anybody who works high up in this administration is going to come out of it with his reputation intact.
“Now, we have the chance to really be like St. Benedict and those monks at the fall of the Roman empire,” said Bernhard. “When the culture and civilization [were] falling apart…morally, economically,” St. Benedict and his followers “had an opportunity to kind of be even a brighter light, a brighter beacon.”
“We kind of find ourselves in a similar situation,” he said, because the local tourism-based economy has greatly suffered and “a lot of people are out of their homes and out of jobs…and now we have an opportunity to rebuild in that context, not only [in a] culturally, morally challenged context, but an economically challenged context.”
The tragedy of the earthquake, and Norcia’s rebuilding efforts, can “show to the world that even when things go very badly or there are great difficulties around one, it doesn’t mean we have to give up hope,” said Bernhard. “The hope is that our music and our chant and our prayers and our beer and our liturgy can still be kind of given to the world and I think maybe even in a more authentic way because we will have suffered more in order to make it happen.”
Bernhard said the earthquake was the cause of “a great sense of a kind of fear and trust really in God’s providence and a great recognition of our littleness as humans.”
“When the ground shakes like it did it kind of strikes a kind of natural fear,” he explained. “You grow up your whole life thinking the ground you stand on is firm [and] it’s not going to move. But then when it starts to move, it seems like the whole world is kind of falling apart around you. And then with a lot of the tremors and everything that took place afterwards, kind of for days, you would think about, ‘if I put this here on the table, will it fall off?'”
Now you understand a bit better why the Norcia monks look at the ruins of their old monastery and the basilica and see in them a symbol of Christianity in the West. And therefore, you can see the scope of their rebuilding project. More from Father Martin:
Bernhard encouraged Christians seeking to create their own communities in the spirit of St. Benedict to pray together.
“Community life is not just a social gathering,” he said. “It’s also a moment of prayer, which has a social element because it involves more than one person.”
And read together, he recommended. “Choose good books. Choose good saints…study them together, talk about them.”
Read the whole thing. I think that Father Martin will be in Dallas next weekend for the big fundraising dinner for the monastery. Also, Father Cassian, the founding prior, and Father Benedict, the current prior. I’ll be the speaker. The dinner is sold out.
Last night, my Orthodox priest put me onto this 1968 lecture by the late Father Alexander Schmemann, titled “The Mission of Orthodoxy,” saying that it reminded him of The Benedict Option in some ways. All Christians can profit from this, I believe. Excerpts:
It is here that I must stress again the fundamental quality of American culture: its openness to criticism and change, to challenge and judgment. Throughout the whole of American history, Americans have asked: “What does it mean to be American?” “What is America for?” And they are still asking these questions. Here is our chance, and here is our duty. The evaluation of American culture in Orthodox terms requires first a knowledge of Orthodoxy, and second a knowledge of the true American culture and tradition.
One cannot evaluate that which one does not know, love, and understand. Our mission, therefore, is first of all one of education. We–all of us–must become theologians, not in the technical sense of the word, but in terms of vital interest, concern, care for our faith, and above everything else, in terms of a relationship between faith and life, faith and culture, faith and the “American way of life.”
Let me give you one example. We all know that one of the deepest crises of our culture, of the entire modern world, is the crisis of family and the man-woman relationship. I would ask, then: How can this crisis be related to and understood in terms of our belief in the one who is “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim. . . “–the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the Virgin?
Where all this will lead us, I do not know. In the words of a hymn of Cardinal Newman: “I do not see the distant scene, one step enough for me.” But I know that between the two extremes–of a surrender to America, of a surrender of America–we must find the narrow and the difficult way of the true Orthodox Tradition. No solution will ever be final, and there is no final solution in “this world.”
We shall always live in tension and conflict, in the rhythm of victory and defeat. Yet if the Puritans could have had such a tremendous impact on American culture, if Sigmund Freud could change it so deeply as to send two generations of Americans to the psychoanalytical couch, if Marxism, in spite of all its phenomenal failures, can still inspire presumably intelligent American intellectuals, why can’t the faith and the doctrine which we claim to be the true faith and the true doctrine have its chance? “O ye of little faith …. ”
Marx and Freud never doubted, and they won their vicious victories. The modern Christian, however, has a built-in inferiority complex. One historical defeat pushes him either into an apocalyptic fear and panicking, or into a “death of God” theology. The time has come, perhaps, simply to recover our faith and apply it with love and humility to the land which has become ours. And who can do that if not those who are given a full share in American culture?
Two things, then, are essential: first, the strengthening of our personal faith and commitment. Whether priest or layman, man or woman, the first thing for an Orthodox is not to speak about Orthodoxy, but to live it to his full capacity; it is prayer, it is standing before God, it is the difficult joy of experiencing “heaven on earth.” This is the first thing, and it cannot be reached without effort, fasting, asceticism, sacrifice, or without the discovery of that which in the Gospel is called the “narrow way.”
And second, to use a most abused word, there must be a deep and real dialogue with America–not accommodation, not a compromise, for a dialogue may be indeed violent. If nothing else, it will achieve two things. It will reveal to us what is real and genuine in our faith and what is mere decoration. We may, indeed, lose all kinds of decorations which we erroneously take for Orthodoxy itself. What will remain is exactly the faith which overcomes the world.
In that dialogue we will also discover the true America, not the America which so many Orthodox curse and so many idolize, but the America of that great hunger for God and His righteousness which has always underlain the genuine American culture. The more I live here, the more I believe that the encounter between Orthodoxy and America is a providential one. And because it is providential, it is being attacked, misunderstood, denied, rejected on both sides. Perhaps it is for us, here, now, today to understand its real meaning and to act accordingly.
After a discussion of church history, Father Schmemann says:
Our situation today is once more that of crisis, and it is the nature of that crisis that is to shape the orientation of our missionary effort. The fundamental meaning of the crisis lies in the fact that the Christian world born out of Constantine’s conversion, and the subsequent “symphony” between the Church, on the one hand, and the society, state, and culture, on the other, has ended.
Please do not misunderstand me. The end has come not of Christianity, not of Church or faith, but of a world which referred, however nominally at times, its whole life to Christ and had Christian faith as its ultimate criterion. All dreams about its restoration are doomed. For even if Christians were to recover control of states and societies, that would not automatically make these societies “Christian.” What happened occurred on a much deeper level.
The fact is we are no longer living in a Christian world. The world we live in has its own style and culture, its own ethos, and, above everything else, its own worldview. And so far Christians have not found and formulated a consistently Christian attitude towards the world and its worldview and are deeply split in their reaction to it. There are those who simply accept the world’s view and surrender to secularism.
And there are those whose nervous systems have not withstood the shock of the change and who, faced by the new situation, are panicking.
If the first attitude leads little by little to the evaporation of faith itself, the second threatens us with the transformation of Orthodoxy into a sect. A man who feels perfectly at home in the secular and non-Christian world has probably ceased to be a Christian, at least in the traditional meaning of that term. But the one who is obsessed with a violent hatred and fear of the modem world has also left the grounds of the genuine Orthodox tradition. He needs the security of a sect, the assurance that he at least is saved in the midst of the universal collapse. There is very little Christianity and Orthodoxy in either view. If some forget that the Kingdom of God is “not of this world,” the others do not seem to remember that “perfect love overcomes all fear.”
And he concludes by calling for a new “movement” of people rededicated to the faith:
I have in mind a kind of spiritual profile of that movement and of those who will take part in it. To me, it looks in some way like a new form of monasticism without celibacy and without the desert, but based upon specific vows. I can think of three such vows.
1. PRAYER: The first vow is to keep a certain well-defined spiritual discipline of life, and this means a rule of prayer: an effort to maintain a level of personal contact with God, what the Fathers call the “inner memory of Him.” It is very fashionable today to discuss spirituality and to read books about it. But whatever the degree of our theoretical knowledge about spirituality, it must begin with a simple and humble decision, an effort, and–what is the most difficult–regularity. Nothing indeed is more dangerous than pseudo-spirituality whose unmistakable signs are self-righteousness, pride, readiness to measure other people’s spirituality, and emotionalism.
What the world needs now is a generation of men and women not only speaking about Christianity, but living it. Early monasticism was, first of all, a rule of prayer. It is precisely a rule we need, one which could be practiced and followed by all and not only by some. For indeed what you say is less and less important today. Men are moved only by what you are, and this means by the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, dedication.
2. OBEDIENCE: The second vow is the vow of obedience, and this is what present-day Orthodox lack more than anything else. Perhaps without noticing it, we live in a climate of radical individualism. Each one tailors for himself his own kind of “Orthodoxy,” his own ideal of the Church, his own style of life. And yet, the whole spiritual literature emphasizes obedience as the condition of all spiritual progress.
What I mean by obedience here, however, is something very practical. It is obedience to the movement itself. The movement must know on whom it can depend. It is the obedience in small things, humble chores, the unromantic routine of work. Obedience here is the antithesis not of disobedience, but of hysterical individualism. “I” feel, “I” don’t feel. Stop “feeling” and do. Nothing will be achieved without some degree of organization, strategy, and obedience.
3. ACCEPTANCE: The third vow could be described, in terms of one spiritual author, as “digging one’s own hole.” So many people want to do anything except precisely what God wants them to do, for to accept this and perhaps even to discern it is one of the greatest spiritual difficulties. It is very significant that ascetical literature is full of warnings against changing places, against leaving monasteries for other and “better” ones, against the spirit of unrest, that constant search for the best external conditions. Again, what we need today is to relate to the Church and to Christ our lives, our professions, the unique combination of factors which God gives us as our examination and which we alone can pass or fail.
Read the whole thing. It’s really good.
As I write this, I’m receiving texts from a conservative Evangelical friend who said his pastor this past Sunday preached on life in “post-Christian America.” The pastor had not read my book, but he has read the signs of the times. He told his congregation that the disruptive changes in our society and culture are accelerating, and that Christians have to face this fact, and prepare for it. He’s right. But as Father Martin Bernhard reminds us, there is hope! We should not expect to avoid suffering, but should be prepared to face it like Christians (not Moralistic Therapeutic Deists), and to work by the Spirit to redeem that suffering. The Monks of Norcia are helping to show the way. Get to know their story.
UPDATE: Evangelical Friend texts this addition:
I should be clear that my pastor’s conclusion was very optimistic. He said we should see the changes as an opportunity, an expansion of our mission field.
He specifically said that all of the anti-Christian people are not our enemies. They are our mission field. They are victims of the Enemy.
If you read nothing else today, read TAC editor Bob Merry’s powerful piece explaining why removing Trump cannot solve the crisis gripping America. Excerpts:
America is in crisis. It is a crisis of greater magnitude than any the country has faced in its history, with the exception of the Civil War. It is a crisis long in the making—and likely to be with us long into the future. It is a crisis so thoroughly rooted in the American polity that it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved in any kind of smooth or even peaceful way. Looking to the future from this particular point in time, just about every possible course of action appears certain to deepen the crisis.
What is it? Some believe it stems specifically from the election of Donald Trump, a man supremely unfit for the presidency, and will abate when he can be removed from office. These people are right about one thing: Trump is supremely unfit for his White House job. But that isn’t the central crisis; it is merely a symptom of it, though it seems increasingly to be reaching crisis proportions of its own.
Seriously, read the whole thing. Merry talks in detail about the failures of American elites, Democrats and Republicans both, to govern the country for the sake of the common good. It’s important to remember that if Trump were to go, the nation would be governed by Mike Pence, a thoroughly conventional Republican, and by a Congress in the hands of a Republican Party that has shown few if any signs of having understood the meaning of the Trump election. In other words, pretty much more of the thing we had during the Bush administration — as we would have had the third term of the Obama administration (minus the president’s personal integrity) had Hillary won.
I would broader Merry’s critique. It’s not merely a problem of the elites, but something that has engulfed us all. Here’s commenter Sam M. reacting to the Chris Arnade piece about drug-ridden Portsmouth, Ohio, that I posted last night:
““You around family members who use, around friends who use. When you start using drugs you are accepted for who you are, including your imperfections. For many people, myself, that is hard to stay away from.” [<– a quote from one of the addicts in the story]
Accepted for who you are. Interesting how completely this has overcome the communal language and filtered down to the least privileged, least educated people suffering in abject poverty. We shall be affirmed in our choices.
I think this is half-right. I think people are desperate for community, which is a human trait. One problem is that they’re so desperate for community that they will choose a bad community — one that finds solidarity in a shared vice — rather than be alone. This is not a problem that politics can solve.
Still, I think Sam is onto something about the language of acceptance, and how it corrupts. It is a dangerous misunderstanding of Christian mercy. When Jesus met the woman at the well, he diagnosed her sin, forgave her, and told her to sin no more. That is to say, he received her, told her what she had done wrong, released her from the burden of her guilt, and commanded her to repent. In our culture, we have lost the sense of the seriousness of sin, and the need to repent.
That’s a Christian judgment, which you may not share, at least in theological terms. But the phenomenon is rreal. Here’s an insight into how we got here:
That’s Google measuring the usage of the words “rights” and “duties” in published books. Notice how the lines began to diverge in the late 19th century — in the Progressive Era. The widening gap became a chasm around 1960. People focused on their rights understand themselves primarily as people to whom things are owed; those focused on duties understand themselves primarily as people who owe things.
No wonder Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has replaced orthodox Christianity as the real religion of most contemporary Americans. It is a pseudo-religion that caters to the desiring, narcissistic self. This is not merely a problem of elites in this country.
Which brings us to Donald Trump, and his tweets this morning:
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
Yeah, “councel.” As John Podhoretz snarked, “Well, at least we know he wrote it himself.” [UPDATE: In the original tweet, Trump wrote “councel”. He deleted that tweet and sent out a properly spelled one later. — RD]
The childish self-pity of our president is breathtaking. He’s a 70 year old man whining like a five year old. It is contemptible and extreme — but it is a symbol of our time and place. I’m old enough to remember a time when people who called themselves conservatives would have heaped scorn on this kind of thing, and rightly characterized it as a sign of decadence. You still find it at times, when conservatives complain about egalitarianism gutting standards of excellence. But the Trump example reveals the hollowness of conservatives on this point. Trump is a managerial incompetent and a man of low morality, yet many conservatives turn a blind eye to his grotesque failures, because … why? Because liberals and establishment Republicans hate him? Because he makes them in some sense “feel accepted for who [they] are”? Why?
But then, we must remember that most conservatives did the exact same thing when George W. Bush failed catastrophically. And most liberals cast their standards aside to affirm Bill Clinton in his mediocrity.This is what we do in America today. Donald Trump is only an extreme manifestation of a deeper corruption, one that implicates us all, elites and non-elites alike. One completely understandable reason why many Americans outside the Beltway are reluctant to abandon Trump is that they hold the governing class he defeated (including Republicans) in contempt, and do not think a return to power for them is progress. They’re not entirely wrong, either, but the failures of the elites do not suddenly make Donald Trump morally good or administratively competent.
So, Bob Merry is right: whether or not Trump stays or goes, the underlying condition he represents will be with us. As I write in The Benedict Option, addressing my fellow conservative Christians:
Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that the robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.
… There is also the danger of Christians falling back into complacency. No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.
What’s more, to believe that the threat to the church’s integrity and witness has passed because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election is the height of folly.
We are living through Big History right now. Do not be deceived that the fate of Donald Trump, one way or another, will be decisive for the fate of the Republic. Name one institution that you fully trust. If you can’t, that tells you something, doesn’t it? As Bob Merry writes:
It is a crisis so thoroughly rooted in the American polity that it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved in any kind of smooth or even peaceful way. Looking to the future from this particular point in time, just about every possible course of action appears certain to deepen the crisis.
I wish I believed that the problem was merely one of the elites, who were entrusted with power, authority, and responsibility, but who have failed so utterly to execute their duties. They bear the greater burden of blame, because to whom much is given, much is expected. But it’s not entirely their fault, not by any means. We really are like the late Roman republic, which, as Livy said, could bear neither its vices nor their cure.
Morris Berman claims that there are four signs present when a civilization declines:
(a) Accelerating social and economic inequality
(b) Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems
(c) Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness
(d) Spiritual death—that is, Spengler’s classicism: the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing (or repackaging) of it in formulas—kitsch, in short.
A confession: on the advice of reader Leslie Fain, I bought a secondhand copy of Berman’s book The Twilight of American Culture as preparation for writing The Benedict Option, but never got around to reading it. What a mistake that was! I was just googling around and discovered that in that book, Berman — a left-wing atheist — counsels people to take “The Monastic Option” as a way of preserving truth through the collapse now upon us. I think my copy of the Berman book is in storage, but I clearly have to go dig it up and read it.
It’s the end of the day, but I didn’t want to turn in without telling you about a story I first read this morning, but haven’t been able to forget about. Chris Arnade — follow him on Twitter — writes a piece for The Guardian based on his visit to Portsmouth, Ohio — a small city devastated by drugs. It used to be a manufacturing town. Then the factories left. Now it’s Rust Belt ruin, and narcotics. Read:
On my first night in town, a beat-up car parks next to me, positioned in the darkness cast by my van. The passenger, a middle-aged woman, injects the driver in the neck. He stays still, head tilted to expose a vein, as she works the needle in, while two young boys play in the back seat.
Done, they pull away as I try to fool myself into thinking I didn’t see what I saw.
For six days in Portsmouth, over three trips, I keep trying to fool myself. Eventually, I am unable to just watch and listen.
He sees a homeless young couple pushing around their two children in a shopping cart as they beg for money. He calls them “James” and “Meghan,” and talks to them:
I continue to see them over the next few days along a commercial strip, Meghan standing by the side of the road holding her sign, staring straight ahead, her expression vacant, while James pushes the cart with the kids in it, collecting bottles and cans. Sometimes he stops to let them play.
One afternoon I run into him in the McDonald’s bathroom, filling plastic bottles with water to clean his children.
Outside I ask him more questions about his situation, and he tells me his history with drugs. “I was born in Portsmouth and raised around drugs. Everyone used them. My father drank, and I started drinking when I was a teenager. Then started Percocets when I was 19. Then I moved to the harder stuff like Oxy 80s, then heroin.” I ask him if he still uses drugs, “No, I don’t. Well, only Suboxone [an opioid medication used to treat opioid addiction]. I buy it from the street since I don’t have a prescription.”
Most drivers ignore the family. Police pass without stopping. One woman drops off two slabs of bottled water, and a minister inquires about their condition, but otherwise they are unseen. I think about calling child protective services, but it is clear James cares and is attentive. I also assume I am missing part of their story. Surely others have called. Perhaps others have inquired more than I have. Perhaps things are more complicated than what I see.
Besides, there is so much visible pain in Portsmouth, it is hard to focus on any one situation.
Later, Arnade meets and interviews Kim, a beautiful young woman, only 19 years old, recovering from heroin addiction. She lives with her grandmother Vickie, who has had custody of her since she was one. Kim had her first child at age 15. She now has two. More:
[Vickie] is retired after 28 years as a cook in the school system. When I ask if there are drugs around, she laughs. “Oh honey, yes, this is Portsmouth. This is the armpit of Ohio.” She points to the neighborhood. “Everything around here is dope-town. Xanies, Oxys, meth, we got it all. Nothing for kids here. When I was young we had dances at the community centers. Now they have nothing. No work around here unless you are a nurse, or a doctor, or lawyer.”
Vickie doesn’t do drugs (“except for my smokes”), and so she has become the de facto mother for an entire neighborhood, a calm center in a tornado. That tornado eventually pulled Kim in. “When I adopted Kimberly, I promised her mom I would keep her in her life. Biggest mistake I made.”
Kim gets up to chase after a child and comes back. “I would go hang out at my mom’s trailer, with all my cousins. We would play there, spend evenings there. It is where my mom got me on heroin. At 13. My mom was doing it. Everyone was doing it. I wanted to do it because I thought it would be fun.”
You’ve got to read the whole thing — especially for the ending. What would you have done in that situation?
This is our country today.
I wonder what the people of Portsmouth, Ohio, have to say about whether or not Donald Trump’s job should be at risk for what he supposedly said to James Comey.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your article about Portsmouth, Ohio. I’ve lived in the Portsmouth area for my entire life (I’m 35). I’ve been a daily reader of your blog for the last 2 or 3 years.
This area needs all the help it can get. In a lot of ways, living here makes you feel like you’re cut off from the rest of America. Change happens all around the country, but nothing ever changes here. Not for the better. Things just slowly get worse. The stories that are told in the Guardian article have been realities for as long as I can remember. I remember friends discovering drugs in middle school and becoming burnouts in high school. I’ve found needles lying in my front yard while cutting grass. I’ve seen police raid the house across the street. I have friends and family members that are in and out of rehab or have died from overdoses. Recently, I found someone lying in a parking lot with her eyes rolled back into her head and had to call an ambulance. I suspect she had overdosed as well.
I don’t want you to think it’s all bad, though. There are good people here. Many are trying to help out, but it’s hard. The drug problem is overwhelming. It touches everyone. Good jobs are scarce and there is a constant threat of layoffs, leaving most people to struggle to take care of their own families. I know of several instances where grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren because the birth parents were addicts. The story that J.D. Vance tells in Hillbilly Elegy is common here.
There are good churches in the area too, but the congregations are dwindling. Most of the people my age or younger leave for Cincinnati, Columbus, or Dayton as soon as they graduate college if they are able. This leaves a large generational gap in the local congregations. The majority of the people are either retired or nearing retirement age. But many are active in the community. Our small church has people involved in visitation, rehab, and foster care. Some of the younger couples have adopted children whose parents were involved in drugs. We all want to make a difference, but it’s hard when our resources are so limited.
As far as Trump is concerned, I don’t think anyone here really cares about the events that transpired between him and Comey. Like I said before, issues like that seem so distant from us that they may as well be happening in another country. If anything, most people simply hoped that he would bring jobs back to the area. I think many of us knew that wasn’t going to happen. It never happens. But there was a sense of optimism during and after the election. That’s gone now. Personally, I have never believed that the president or the federal government was going to solve our problems. Since I’ve graduated high school, both a Republican and a Democratic president have been in office for two consecutive terms and nothing has changed. Like J.D. Vance, I don’t know the answer to the riddle of my community, but I do think the solution is going to have to come from the community itself.
I apologize for rambling on longer than I should have. I had intended to keep this short. Again, I thank you and the author of the Guardian article so much from bringing us to the attention of a national audience. It gives me great hope that people are starting to notice the problems that we face. I hope that God uses this to bring help to our community.
UPDATE.2: Sam M.:
Rod, you blogged earlier about the piece in the NYT Magazine about the rise of polyamory. New York Magazine has an interesting supplement to that. It’s a review about a memoir in which a middle-aged woman discovers that she can act like a lecherous middle-aged man:
This is seen as a huge victory. In a sense it acts as an extended restatement of the Law of Merited Impossibility. “Nothing about your marriage is going to change based on what other people do. But when it does your open marriage in which it’s OK to make out with short story writers from California will be awesome!” Like year health plan? You can keep your health plan!
This is not an argument for or against gay marriage. Rather, it simply reaffirms your continued insistence that the culture moves in broad, glacial shifts we cannot predict. Elites, like the lady mentioned here, are almost completely insulated from the more dire impacts of a consumerist approach to morality and family life. But other people are not.
Sorry, Portsmouth, Ohio. Sorry about your Mountain Dew mouth and your meth addiction and your dire family straits. On the bright side, when you use drugs you can be accepted for who you are, including your imperfections. Which is great!
Just stay out of my neighborhood, you know, because the Dean at Pierson College at Yale let me know that you don’t know squat about Japanese ice cream treats. Loser! Enjoy your freedom from the patriarchy, though!
Charles Featherstone has some provocative and interesting thoughts about the current crisis. In his piece, he quotes a novelist’s tweet:
Be advised America: you’re cheering for anonymous leakers trying to destroy an elected president. Can you see where that can go wrong?
— Peter Van Buren (@WeMeantWell) May 16, 2017
The very tools that made it possible to take down a bad emperor — Caligula — now make it possible to take down a good one, or even stake a claim to leadership based on sheer ambition alone. (Which would be Rome’s condition during the Crisis of the Third Century.) The series of military uprisings that led to the collapse of senatorial support for Nero, and the chaos that was rule in Rome, prompted the commander of the legions besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian, to return to Rome and seize power for himself. the Flavians and the Antonines would restore order, but like all things, it was not permanent.
If Van Buren is right, and the intelligence services are engaging in a slow-motion coup against President Trump, that should be a cause for concern. The intelligence community has become our Praetorian Guard, with the ability to make and unmake presidents. It has not been used yet, but there are an awful lot of people cheering for just that to happen. And once that weapon is unsheathed, for good and ill, and it will only be a matter of time before some ambitious soul realizes you can get and keep the presidency that way, instead of actually having to get elected.
As long as we’re in a Roman mode, the problem presented by the Trump situation brings to mind the historian Livy’s famous line about Rome, whose republican form of government had collapsed, giving way to imperial rule: “We have reached the point where we cannot tolerate either our vices or their cure.”
Ross Douthat argues today for “the 25th Amendment solution”: the cabinet and Congress removing Trump from office over his failure to be able to discharge his duties. Excerpt:
Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.
It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him. And all this, in the fourth month of his administration.
This will not get better. It could easily get worse. And as hard and controversial as a 25th Amendment remedy would be, there are ways in which Trump’s removal today should be less painful for conservatives than abandoning him in the campaign would have been — since Hillary Clinton will not be retroactively elected if Trump is removed, nor will Neil Gorsuch be unseated. Any cost to Republicans will be counted in internal divisions and future primary challenges, not in immediate policy defeats.
Meanwhile, from the perspective of the Republican leadership’s duty to their country, and indeed to the world that our imperium bestrides, leaving a man this witless and unmastered in an office with these powers and responsibilities is an act of gross negligence, which no objective on the near-term political horizon seems remotely significant enough to justify.
I have for a long while believed that Trump is unfit for office, and, as such, I do not disagree with all — or even most — of Douthat’s characterizations. In addition, I continue to think that this president is his own worst enemy: The press is hostile, yes, but Trump seems utterly hellbent on making things difficult for himself. Nevertheless, at this point in American history — a point at which large numbers of voters in both parties believe that the system is “rigged” – for the president to be undone by a small group of establishment Republicans and replaced with a career politician would be disastrous for the culture. If it turns out that Trump has done something terrible while in office, he should be impeached by the usual process. If he finds that he no longer likes or wants the job, he should resign. But a legalized coup on the nebulous grounds of “witlessness” would be an invitation for discord the likes of which we have not seen in a while.
Chris Arnade, writing from the left, agrees. If you don’t know who Arnade is, he’s a liberal (and former Wall Streeter) who travels America photographing and talking to the poor and working-class folks. He’s been a particular scourge on his own side, dunning the Democratic elites for looking down on the white working class and its travails. Unlike a lot of Acela corridor pundits (and unlike yours truly, whose butt is in Louisiana but whose head is more often than not in the Acela corridor), Arnade has actually been out among the Trumpenproletariat, and sympathizes with their plight, if not their politics. His Twitter feed is a daily must-read. Today he writes that Douthat’s proposal is a terrible idea:
Failure to do so is not understanding how visceral, broad, and deep the anger in much of the country is.
Why you think Trump was elected?
— Chris Arnade (@Chris_arnade) May 17, 2017
I think all three men are mostly right — and that fact expresses the frankly terrifying situation the United States is in right now.
Douthat is correct about the perils of someone of Trump remaining in office. He does not know what he’s doing, and cannot control himself. Nobody in Washington can or should trust him. He has all but destroyed his own presidency. True, he gave us a good (we think) Supreme Court justice, but all the other things Trump might have accomplished will almost certainly not happen now, because of the non-stop drama that Trump causes. And he’s such a narcissist that even after he has screwed up so badly in the past two weeks that he has some Republicans in Congress using the i-word (impeachment), he stood today before graduating Coast Guard members and whined about how mean everybody is to him:
Trump at Coast Guard Commencement: “No politician in history…has been treated worse or more unfairly”
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) May 17, 2017
If one of my kids said that, I would chastise them for self-pity and excuse-making. You would do the same to your kids. This is a 70-year-old man who is President of the United States.
So it’s a massive risk having a man-child like this as Commander in Chief of a nuclear-armed great power. Having said that, removing him, even if done constitutionally, also runs a massive risk, for the reasons Cooke and Arnade identify. It is hard to imagine how the Washington establishment removing Trump from office would be received by Trump’s supporters. True, he got half the vote in the election last fall, and no doubt a significant number of those who voted for him would by now not be sorry to see Mike Pence take over. But I think it safe to say that there is and will be a hard core of Trump backers who are so furious at the establishment that there is nothing Trump can do to alienate them. You don’t think these folks are going to sit back quietly and take it, do you? No matter how justified the case for removing Trump might be, doing so will exact a tremendous, unpredictable cost on the political stability of our system.
It might still be the wiser choice. It is not clear to me which is the riskier move, though the release of all the Comey memos, and Comey’s testimony before Congress, will no doubt make that answer clearer. Not to mention what fool things Trump does in the weeks to come.
If you are having trouble imagining why some people cling to Trump despite it all, I want you to read this story from the Washington Post. Excerpts:
As the dean of Yale University’s Pierson College, June Chu is responsible for advising about 500 students and fostering “a familiar, comfortable living environment” in keeping with the university’s residential college system.
Chu’s biography states she has a PhD in social psychology and touts a long career in which she has “sought to help students not only succeed academically but to support their holistic academic experience and multifaceted identities.”
But the administrator’s seemingly supportive and culturally sensitive persona has been marred since Yale students came across her Yelp account. Images of Chu’s controversial Yelp reviews began circulating among Pierson students in recent months and were published by the Yale Daily News on Saturday.
The problem wasn’t so much what she said about the New Haven eateries and businesses she reviewed but rather her comments on the people who frequented them.
The posts, published over the course of the last few years, referred to customers as “white trash” and “low class folks” and to some employees as “barely educated morons.”
“If you are white trash, this is the perfect night out for you!” Chu wrote in a review about a Japanese restaurant, which she said lacked authenticity but was perfect for “those low class folks who believe this is a real night out.”
When Chu was exposed, she apologized … to the Yale community. The white trash, the low class folks, the barely educated morons of New Haven — well, they don’t count to June Chu, PhD, dean of Yale University’s Pierson College.
Chu’s expression of contemptible race and class bigotry tells a lot of people in this country what the elites think of them. It’s like Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark. Trump hates those elites, and they hate Trump, therefore the deplorables feel solidarity with Trump. The actual truth of what Trump said or did as president does not matter as much as that emotional truth, any more than the actual truth of what Michael Brown or Alton Sterling did matters to black people who see them as symbols of a deeper truth about American society.
It ought not be that way, but it is. “He may be a fool, but he’s our fool/If they think they’re better than him, they’re wrong,” sang Randy Newman sang in his great satirical song “Rednecks” (which is NSFW), about populism and elitism. All this makes the job of the members of Congress who sit in judgment of Trump that much harder.
I’ll be in Italy next month for a conference, flying into and out of Venice. I’ve never seen Venice, so I’ve made plans to stay there for a couple of days before heading home. I’m reading a history of the city now, and it’s simply a breathtaking monument to human endeavor that the city exists at all, much less that its people created such a work of art to live in. I anticipate that walking its streets will be one of the highlights of my life.
A friend sent me this short piece from Artnet about the Venice Bienniale, the art world’s most significant event. Excerpts:
The world in 2017 is a frightening and chaotic place: why not relieve your anxiety with some casual masturbation or perhaps some good old-fashioned sex? As a corollary to the heavy menu of post-colonial guilt, migration-related tub-thumping and an abstract, queasy panic induced by global capitalism, this year’s Venice Biennale is letting off steam with an abundance of carnal knowledge. From pagan fertility rituals to extreme genital modification: it’s all here for the taking.
Showing as part of James Richards’s exhibition for the Welsh pavilion, the film What Weakens the Flesh Is the Flesh Itself (a collaboration with Steve Reinke) explores the body as a work of art in itself. Besides a lingering tour through snapshots of cheerful young men hanging out at a festival, and footage from an erotic photo-shoot heavy on the squashed fruit, the film draws extensively on the private photographic archive of Albrecht Becker.
An actor and photographer arrested and imprisoned for homosexuality by the Nazis, Becker became obsessed with representation and modification of the body. Gradually the images shown of this mild-looking elderly man in his V-necked sweaters become more unconventional, revealing a body entirely covered in homemade tattoos and piercings. Fairly close to the top of Venice’s wince list this year comes Becker’s modified and elephantine groin, so swollen that the penis prods out like a little mushroom cap. From a bolt through his glans, he lifts great metal chains.
Sounds like fun, eh? More:
[I]n Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan cycle, the narrator Yasmine masturbates next to the corpse of a woman whose jeans she’s about to purloin.
Pauline Curnier Jardin’s film and installation work Grotta Profunda Approfundita (for this critic, a highlight of the Biennale overall) places its viewers inside the human body, seated on a tufted rug that suggests the wall of a sexual organ. Among the many indelible images on offer is a louche Jesus, oiled and lounging in his loincloth like a 1970s tennis player, tempting a young Saint Bernadette with proclamations of love that sound divine in all the wrong ways. Oh, the ecstasies she suffers! Besides such holy visions, Curnier Jardin makes overt homage to the heavy-bodied and lysergic feminist film works of the 1960s and ’70s, which in themselves offer an essential intersection between sexual, and liberal/activist agendas.
Read the entire review, if you can stand it.
“His mind and his soul were intoxicated, and his steps were dictated by the demon who delights in destroying man’s reason and dignity,” wrote Thomas Mann, in Death In Venice. At this point, is it even worth mustering outrage? Mind you, the Venice Bienniale is not just one art event among many. It is the most prestigious in the world. And this rotting corpse of a show is the very best Western civilization can produce today.
True, none of us will go to the Venice Bienniale, and few of us would want to. But don’t deceive yourself into thinking that this only reveals the depravity of the elites. This is only an aestheticization of what the masses watch to stiffen their giblets in the privacy of their own homes. As Nicolas Gomez Davila put it, “The Gospels and the Communist Manifesto are on the wane; the world’s future lies in the power of Coca-Cola and pornography.”
The contrast between the glories of the past manifest in the great paintings and architecture of historic Venice, contrasted with this filth, this decadence, is a sign of the times. Look what our inheritance is, and look how we have squandered it. We are dead men. We have poisoned ourselves. We are a depraved civilization that deserves judgment.
And we are going to get it.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
It’s pretty lame that the Times ran this story not having seen the memo, but only having had it read to them over the phone. But that’s the blood-in-the-water atmosphere in Washington now. Seriously, do you doubt for a minute that this Comey memo exists? It came from a Comey associate. Comey is known for keeping meticulous records of these conversations. There will be more memos to come — so say sources close to Come, according to the Washington Post, which confirms the Times story, adding that Trump asked Comey to focus instead on journalists who print stories leaked to them.
If Comey is telling the truth, then it’s another piece of evidence that Trump tried to obstruct a criminal investigation. Recall that had he not resigned, Richard Nixon would have been impeached for obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Congressional Republicans have their back against a wall now.
Three and a half more years of this.
How could Trump be so stupid as to fire Comey knowing that he had asked him to do this? True, Comey could be lying, but we already know that Trump fired Comey in part because of the Russia investigation, because Trump said so himself in the NBC interview. Do you trust Jim Comey’s account, or Donald Trump’s? Did Trump not know what he asked of Comey was seriously wrong? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but as with the intel story from yesterday, Trump is ignorant of the norms and practices of the presidency, and thinks he can trample them.
Hubris makes you stupid. Trump came to Washington knowing that the Deep State would have it out for him. They hardly have to lift a finger — he’s taking himself down. Who — and what — will he take down with him?
I will go out on a limb and say what I think Rod would say, about this persistent mis-impression that he is exhorting people to “head for the hills.” I think the confusion has to do with the idea of “withdrawing from the political arena” (or however it’s phrased).
If you are directly involved in politics, Rod is not advising you to stop. If you hold office, or are running for office, or supporting people in office, if you are professionally involved in politics in any way, Rod is not trying to stop you.
He’s noting instead that for the vast majority of Christians in America, politics is a spectator sport. We follow it and talk about it, but are not professionally involved. We assume that everything that’s important happens in the political arena, so we keep focused on it.
I think what Rod wants to say is that what’s wrong with our culture cannot be solved by politics. In terms of the social, cultural, and moral issues, popular opinion has been marching steadily to the left for fifty years. The vast majority of Americans actually likes those changes in morality. They like the freedom to do whatever they want. There is no conservative majority to energize, on the social issues, because the majority wants things just as they are, or more so.
So, even though we sometimes achieve political victories, even the presidency, we never make any progress on those issues. Those who are called to politics must keep at it, but the rest of us need to realize that they aren’t going to be able to stop a momentum that has the majority of public opinion behind it. We live in a democracy, and we’re going to have the kind of culture most people want.
But while we’ve been setting all our hopes on political victory, we’ve permitted the tide of secular culture to flow freely into our homes and families. Surveys show that today’s Christians are mostly ignorant of the core beliefs of their faith. In terms of moral standards, their behavior matches that of those in the world around them, rather than that held through Christian history. Christian marriages fail about as often as secular marriages do. In terms of the moral issues, Christians have become indistinguishable from the non-Christian population, probably because we actually agree with the majority, and prefer to do whatever we want.
Christianity is not matched up against atheism today, or even paganism, but against an easy, shallow, amiable public religion. It holds that God wants us to be nice to each other, and call on him in times of trouble; otherwise, he just wants us to be happy. (This is has been called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD.)
Real Christianity isn’t like that; it’s challenging, even difficult. Churches have found it a hard sell. They offer instead an affirming, sympathetic, entertaining version of Christian faith, pitched in the tones of clever advertisements. Worship is not focused on God but on the worshiper; the goal is giving the worshiper a good worship experience.
Regardless of the style it takes–contemporary, trendy-ancient, social-justice, etc–anxiety to please the consumer is itself detrimental to faith. Perpetuating the consumer’s expectation that he will be catered to is detrimental to faith. Because real Christianity means taking up your cross (Matthew 16:24).
So the Benedict Option is not about withdrawing from the public square. Those whom God has called to the public square had better stay there. Instead, it’s a call to recognize that politics cannot solve the problems that confront us. We have to let that fantasy go.
The Benedict Option is a call to recognize that, while we’ve been keeping our binoculars trained on politics, all this time the sweet, seductive, please-yourself culture has been seeping in under the door. It is saturating our minds and those of our children; it is training us to think of ourselves as primarily consumers, vigilantly monitoring our right to be pleased.
The Benedict Option is a call to resist this. It’s a call to “wake up and strengthen the things that remain” (Revelation 3:2). This is going to be unglamorous and demanding, a family-by-family, church-by-church recomittment to the difficult life in Christ, which entails taking up your cross. We are going to need each others’ support. It’s not going to be easy, but the hour is already late, so let’s get started.