An America I Don’t Know

Some  years ago, when the New York football Giants began their season with a string of close losses, a reporter asked their famous coach, Bill Parcells, if he believed that the Giants were a better team than their record showed. After all, the games they lost were all close. He answered with words that become the gold standard for evaluating team performance. “You are,” he said, “the team that your record says you are.” In the world of professional sports, close losses are losses, not moral victories.

Lately I have found myself wondering, not at all happily, what the implications of Parcells’ comment are for today’s America. So, evidently, is former President Obama. In an interview that he granted a few days ago in Italy, he said that “we get the leaders that we deserve.” If we are indifferent, or don’t vote, or don’t take the trouble to educate ourselves about the positions of the candidates running, we wind up with the leadership that we deserve.

So I have to ask… What are we to make of America today? Are we the country our leadership says we are? Or. to frame it as President Obama did, do we have the leadership that we deserve?

Are we the country our leadership says we are? Clearly, there is a significant percentage of America that would answer that question in the affirmative. Not a majority, I would hasten to say, but a significant percentage, a large percentage, and research would indicate that there is little if anything that President Trump could do or not do that would change their minds. Though I deplore his policies and duplicity, I am obliged to admit that the President is doing what most successful presidential candidates rarely do– he’s actually working hard to translate his campaign promises, no matter how outlandish, into policy and law. As he is fond of saying, he won, and that gives him the authority to act on what he promised. He is committed to fashioning an America in the image of the men and women who elected him, and in so doing, he is already sewing the seeds of his re-election campaign.

But as for whether or not we have the leadership that we deserve, I cannot bring myself to the level of self-loathing that answering yes to that question would require. To be sure, we are all guilty of failing, during the presidential campaign, to adequately appreciate the depth of Trump’s support, and the degree to which his populist demagoguery was tapping into powerful forces in our country. In retrospect, given that he bested some seventeen estimable Republican opponents and won just about every Republican primary, the writing was very much on the wall. Democrats were far too smug to believe it, and members of the press were so fascinated by the “phenomenon” of Trump that they gave him endless free publicity and exposure.

But i cannot bring myself to say that we deserve the leadership that we have, for another very good reason: we don’t have leadership. We have the Trump presidency, which is some kind of hybrid version of a presidency the likes of which the American body politic has never known. The man with his hand on the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal launch codes lurches from position to position on major policy issues, depending on the last person he spoke to. He continues to visit degrading and embarrassing insults on a broad and eclectic variety of people far greater than he is. In his embarrassing, insipid and relentless tweets, Hillary is still “crooked,” Chuck Schumer is “cryin,” the media generates “fake news,” the New York TImes is “dying,” and those who don’t see the world the way he does are “sad.”

The only legislation that he has passed (narrowly) through the House has been an ill-conceived and morally reprehensibly “health care bill,” to meet his promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” The Office of Management and Budget hasn’t scored it yet, but in all likelihood, many tens of millions of Americans stand to lose their insurance coverge. People with pre-existing conditions will at worst be unable to find coverage, and at best will find the premiums well beyond their ability to pay. Support of Planned Parenthood, of course, is ended, and individual states may have to right to decide which coverages they choose to offer. Medicaid, which helps the poorest among us, is being decimated, and with no mandated health insurance, large numbers of young Americans will remain uninsured, forcing up the premiums on older Americans…

And– can’t leave this out– President Trump just fired FBI Director James Comey, whose investigation of possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian governmental officials  was getting just a little too close for comfort to the people in Trump’s inner circle. The President said it was because of Comey’s inappropriate meddling in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but if so, why wait almost four months to fire him? And did he not  laud Comey during the campaign when he was destroying Hillary Clinton’s candidacy?

When all is said and done, until such time as he is either impeached or forced from office, Donald Trump is our President, and we are obliged to admit that. Even as we lament the profound damage that he is doing to the institution of the Presidency, the nature of our civil society, and the image of America around the world, the office that he holds demands at least a modicum of respect. But like many others, I choose to remain in “the opposition,” as much for my sanity as for America.

And one final thought… I would respectfully caution Israel and its government, who are eagerly anticipating President Trump’s arrival in a few short weeks, to be extremely careful about so enthusiastically embracing a man who is slowly but surely proving himself to be a pariah to much of America– including many of Israel’s staunchest supporters, especially in the non-Orthodox world. He is already among the most unpopular presidents in American history. Does Israel really want to be perceived as Trump’s best friend right now? Doesn’t Israel have enough of its own problems without being so closely associated with Trump?

Think about it…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.