Frank Bruni, writing in The New York Times, explained to me what I love about Donald Trump. The Donald may be the best advertisement for education who has resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in my lifetime.
Don’t get me wrong. In a society where too many people grow up valuing money and little else, Trump demonstrates a campaign for POTUS based on money and little else. His talent as a businessman has not been success; it has been making others pay the price of his failures. That paradoxical talent shone through when he talked about his bankruptcies.
Sending one of your enterprises into bankruptcy, to hear Trump tell it, is just another tactic for surviving in the middle of carnage. If your lawyers have done their jobs, your personal assets will remain yours while the creditors of your legal sock puppet will be stiffed like one of the workmen you brag about making sue for their wages so you can settle for less than what you agreed to pay.
If all you want is what Trump has, his life teaches that you must approach the world in a manner that keeps you in the center of it. Other people are eggs that must be broken to prepare the omelet of your life.
It goes without saying that you will have several wives as each one ages out of the role of eye candy. You take care of your exes so they don’t talk too much and you always have several girlfriends ready to audition for the role of counterparty in a tidy prenup. They are always younger than you, always less powerful, and you know you can introduce yourself by just walking up and grabbing them by the p*ssy.
I watch this and think it must be a lonely way to live, but I suppose it works if your only objectives are to never sleep alone and to be treated like the royalty you were born to be. Women, like your business associates, are means to an end and you are the end.
By having to explain this, I force myself to admit that my argument about how Trump advertises for education assumes a set of values unlike Trump’s, and if a young person is more attracted to Trump’s values than mine, then the epiphany I got from reading Frank Bruni’s column will illuminate nothing.
I also realize that by writing about Trump, I neglect two world class Horatio Alger stories that made education a path to the White House.
Bill Clinton was born in one of the poorest states in the nation of parents who never lawfully married because at the time they tried, his father was married to somebody else. Even had the marriage been lawful, his father still died while his mother was pregnant and so would still have been only a name on the birth certificate.
Raised by an alcoholic and abusive stepfather, he threw himself into music and into his education, winning a merit scholarship to Georgetown University. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and won a Rhodes Scholarship, which parlayed into admission to an Ivy League law school, Yale.
Whatever your think of his politics—and I don’t think much of them—his biography is a clinic in escaping dire circumstances through the world of books.
Barack Obama was abandoned by his father and mostly raised by his grandparents while his mother pursued an academic career in social sciences, which this ex-social science professor is here to tell you is not where the money is.
His grandmother had a white-collar job in a bank, where she smacked into the glass ceiling but was still able to support her disabled husband, whose talent for making friends hustled the young Obama admission on scholarship to Punahou School, an excellent prep school. He made decent grades and played on a championship basketball team.
In his senior year, his mother was back in Hawaii and had a talk with him that he related in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father:
She had just sat there, studying my eyes, her face as grim as a hearse. “Don’t you think you’re being a little casual about your future?” she said. “What do you mean?” “You know exactly what I mean. One of your friends was just arrested for drug possession. Your grades are slipping. You haven’t even started on your college applications. Whenever I try to talk to you about it you act like I’m just this great big bother.”
I didn’t need to hear all this. It wasn’t like I was flunking out. I started to tell her how I’d been thinking about maybe not going away for college, how I could stay in Hawaii and take some classes and work part-time. She cut me off before I could finish. I could get into any school in the country, she said, if I just put in a little effort. “Remember what that’s like? Effort? Damn it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you through…”
His mother’s foot applied to his butt had the desired effect. Obama snagged a scholarship to Occidental College, which had an articulation agreement with Columbia University. When the scholarship ran out, he took out student loans.
The years between graduating Columbia and starting Harvard Law mostly passed on a community organizer’s salary. So, he was back to scholarships and loans, but he hit the books hard enough to graduate cum laude and become President of Harvard Law Review.
No matter what you think of Obama’s presidency, his and Michelle Obama’s lives are advertisements for the virtues of education.
John Kerry and George W. Bush were Ivy League students, but they were “legacies.” Admission was a slam dunk and the goal was not so much to get ahead as to stay in the status to which they were born. John McCain was a legacy to the U.S. Naval Academy, from two generations of admirals.
There’s nothing wrong with being born on third base if you don’t use the location to claim you hit a triple. And it’s fair to ask how Donald Trump, another POTUS of high birth, makes an argument for education, particularly when he has appointed an Education Secretary with no commitment to public education.
Again, I’m forced to concede it depends on your values. On being elected POTUS, your name is in the history books. The question is what will be written next to your name? Trump was unusual in being the only POTUS ever with no history of political activism to show both what he wished to accomplish and whether he had the necessary skill set.
A lack of political history makes it possible to run as a chameleon, taking on the coloration of each audience, provided the audiences have a high tolerance for lies, which was the case in this last election.
You can run as a chameleon but you can’t govern as one. So far, President Trump has not filled most of the positions he is entitled to appoint. His appointments to date are overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. Their public policy decisions are what you would expect from those demographics.
Aside from appointments, how will Trump handle a job for which he never qualified himself by experience or by education? He delegates a lot of authority to his billionaire appointees, his generals, and his immediate family. The staff responsible for briefing the POTUS is told to keep it short, preferably bullet points, and pictures are encouraged.
Trump famously has a very short attention span. He does not read books and he gets his news from electronic media. Tony Schwartz, who wrote Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, was with Trump for 18 months both in his office and his home without ever seeing a book.
Since he went to work, Trump was heard to ask who knew health care was so complicated? Anybody who paid attention to it.
He had to absorb a verbal primer from the Chinese leader on the relationship between China and Korea to conclude the relationship between China and the northern part of Korea is way more complicated than he thought.
Trump is off to a very bumpy start and most of the bumps are traceable to gaps in his education. This hit me in the face when I read Frank Bruni’s op-ed, Steve Bannon Was Doomed, about why “Chief Strategist” Bannon is losing influence in the Trump White House, to which he came by way of Goldman, Sachs and Breitbart News. Bruni diagnosed Bannon’s ailment:
He wasn’t vigilant enough about patrolling the way his allies inside and outside the administration deified him in their own murmurings to the media, which included the nugget that colleagues awed by his knowledge called him “the encyclopedia.” He didn’t grasp that you can’t be “the encyclopedia” if your president is barely a pamphlet…
Bannon writes his own books, and the threat of being the subject of one might keep Trump from firing “the encyclopedia.” However, Bannon’s stock went down faster than Karl Rove’s when he got called “Bush’s brain” because Bush was accustomed to political power and much less the narcissist.
I dislike Bannon’s policy ideas enough to cheer when his boss throws him under the bus. The lesson I started out to claim—that if Trump understood history and political science, he would not be flopping around like a fish out of water—is only a lesson to those who are merely ambitious. There’s a difference between having ambition and making decisions as if you are the center of the universe.
In reducing this to writing, I showed the weakness in my observation. Those convinced they are the center of the universe will learn nothing, and those with higher goals don’t need to be told they will crash and burn if they take on a complex task without adequate preparation.
Having destroyed my own argument, I’ll now go back to hoping and praying that Donald Trump does not learn how complicated nuclear war is by the only method he seems prepared to accept, trial and error.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a retired Texas trial court judge and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.