For some of us, the Trump presidency has cast us in the role of Tevye in Fiddler, a sensible man who finds himself caught between two seemingly defensible positions. “Why should I break my head about the outside world?” says a fellow townsman. “He is right,” says Tevye. Someone else says, “You can’t close your eyes to the outside world,” to which Tevye says, “He’s right.” A third person upbraids him: “They can’t both be right!” To which Tevye says, “You know, you are also right.”
One person says, “How can you speak ill of Trump? He appointed great judges. He threw out the Iran deal. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem and made the Abraham accords possible. He cut taxes and regulations. He authorized Operation Warp Speed.” And we say, “You are right.”
Another person says, “How can you countenance Trump in any way? His behavior is unspeakable. He violates norms. He has lied more than 25,000 times in public statements during his presidency. He told people to swallow bleach to get over the virus. He has sought to overturn the results of the election and has seduced tens of millions of people into believing the outcome was illegitimate.”
And we say, “You are right.”
And then someone on Twitter says, though not as nicely as this: “They can’t both be right.”
But the answer—the stark, difficult, unrewarding, emotionally unfulfilling answer—is that they can both be right. Undeniably bad people can do undeniably good things, even if their motives aren’t necessarily good. We have recent history to prove this.
Bill Clinton disgraced the Oval Office and brought the presidency to a then-new low—but signed the welfare reform bill and the now-reviled crime bill that proved a signature achievement in ending a three-decade crime wave. Richard Nixon did many awful things and was arguably an anti-Semite, yet he helped save Israel in 1973 at a critical moment in the Yom Kippur War.
Trump is the most extreme example of this we’ve ever seen, perhaps, but he is another example, not something new—an example of the immense complexities in the relationships between democratic leaders and the people who vote them into power. What is new, perhaps, is that, while I’m saying it’s his policy achievements that complicate the situation, that’s not true of his most passionate supporters. They’re happy to use those achievements when they’re useful, but they wouldn’t like him any less if they hadn’t happened. What they like are the norms broken, the ad hominem assaults, the racial dog-whistling, the rage, the aggrievement, the solipsistic paranoia, his embodiment of a uniquely American id.
So now we come to what are certainly the most outrageous, unseemly, and disgusting acts of the Trump presidency—the pardons he is now tossing to cronies and loyalists whose crimes are undeniable but whose fealty to Trump himself is unmistakable. To call these abuses of the president’s absolute power to pardon is to understate the case. He expunged the criminal stain from his horrifyingly guilty machuten Charles Kushner, father of Jared—who chose to express his displeasure at his sister and his brother-in-law’s cooperation with law enforcement authorities by setting the man up in a honey trap with a prostitute and then sending the videotape of the encounter to her on the day of their son’s engagement party.
Even that pales before the pardons of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. First off, both had already gotten some privileged treatment: Stone had had his sentence commuted, while Manafort was sprung from jail due to the coronavirus and was under home confinement. But that Manafort, perhaps the sleaziest person in Washington and someone convicted of open-and-shut money laundering, should be cleansed in this way beggars belief—except, of course, that he didn’t drop any dirty dimes on Donald Trump, and that is what matters. He didn’t rat, and he has now been rewarded. This, too, has some history to back it up; in the last hours of his presidency, Bill Clinton pardoned his crony Susan McDougal, who had gone to jail for 18 months because she refused to answer questions before the Whitewater grand jury and then served time for Whitewater offenses as well.
Just as Clinton’s befouling of the presidency took the bar for public expectations of how presidents could or should act and lowered it so radically Donald Trump became a thinkable candidate in 2016, so, too, has Clinton’s Jedi master standing as the president who made the most repugnant use of his pardon power (his brother, and fugitive financier Marc Rich) found a willing Padawan learner in Trump. Now the student has become the master.
I’m sure we’ll hear from Trump that since the Mueller probe was a hoax, anyone it touched did not deserve any sort of criminal treatment. But there’s a Rube Goldberg quality to that defense since the Mueller probe essentially exonerated him on the central issue—whether there had been collusion between him and Russia in 2016. “We focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy,” Mueller told the Congress. “It was not.” If Trump says everything Mueller did was wrong or faulty, why wasn’t that statement faulty?
I have no idea what’s going through Trump’s head, and neither does anyone else. Maybe, hamstrung by the checks and balances that frustrate every president, he’s going hog-wild at the end of his term with one constitutional action no one can challenge or reverse (he could be impeached and removed from office for abusing the pardon power but with 34 days left?) just to get the thrilling release of showing everybody what he can do with a flick of his wrist.
Or maybe, and most chilling, he’s sending a message at the very outset of a second run for the presidency that should he return to office, his people can feel free to play fast and loose with the law in the knowledge he’ll take care of them if they take care of him. Donald Trump loves The Godfather movies. The thing about The Godfather movies (the first two, I mean) is that they constitute a full-blooded American tragedy about how a man loses his soul; they do not comprise a leadership manual.
Near the end of Fiddler, Tevye’s ability to see all sides of an issue is put to the ultimate test by his daughter’s declaration that she is marrying a Gentile and wants his blessing. “Can I deny my own daughter?” he says. “On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith?… If I try and bend that far, I will break.” He pauses. “On the other hand…” And then he stops. “No,” he says. “There is no other hand.” And, heartbroken but determined, he walks away from her.
Every time Trump has done something awful, there comes the “other hand,” and some of my dear friends among the Never Trumpers have simply dismissed the “other hand” too easily and too glibly. The judges are great. The Abraham Accords are great.
Meanwhile, my friends among the Trump supporters have too easily and too glibly dismissed the awfulness.
Thus have I been left as Tevye at the beginning of Fiddler. But now, this production of Fiddler is nearing its end. And now I’m Tevye again. Trump has crossed the final line. He is a tinpot Banana Republic gangster, a sordid loser, a disgrace, and a fraud, and a crook. There is no other hand.