Have you been following this? All these airplane crashes? And everyone is so confused. Everyone is going, Gosh, how come there are so many airplane crashes? Well, um, I gotta theory here. You remember, what was it? Like, uh, four years ago? The air traffic controllers, they went on strike? And then, um, Ronald Reagan fired ‘em? So then they just hired anyone who was hanging out at the time. And now everyone is going, Geez, how come there are so many airplane crashes? How come there are so many airplane crashes?! I dunno, maybe Walt the janitor isn’t qualified to land a Boeing 707!”
-- Bobcat Goldthwait
Maybe Walt the Janitor isn’t qualified to land a Boeing 707.
But then again, in America we’d love to believe Old Wally could maybe pull it off.
Because we Americans, we sure love the heroic myth of the common man.
Oh we do. We prefer myth over reality every time.
We love to tell ourselves that one.
It’s the myth of our country’s birth. We love that myth more than all the others combined.
We tell ourselves with great pride how a bunch of raggedy assed, untrained colonists one day rose up against tyranny. The Minutemen were roused from their beds in the middle of the night by Paul Revere and they rallied to the Stars and Stripes. They threw all the tea into Boston harbor and sent England a stiff upraised middle finger, up yours, we ain’t paying no taxes no more. And then a bunch of farmers grabbed up their muskets and formed themselves into a militia under good old George Washington and this army of amateurs chased the Redcoats all the way back to England without any help from anybody except for Jesus.
Because Americans are special. Exceptional.
And when they’d thrown off the yoke of tyranny, well, then a bunch of common men gathered in Philadelphia to receive the Constitution directly from God. They wrote down the sacred words and everybody signed it, especially John Hancock, and America was born.
That’s the myth we tell ourselves, we Americans.
We’re special. Exceptional. We pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and forged the Republic out of the mud with our own hands.
We’re a nation of amateurs. Bunch of Good Old Boys beat the best army on the planet. Bunch of farmers wrote the Constitution and laid down the foundation for the greatest country in the world. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In America, we’re not ruled over by kings. We don’t owe our allegiance to some hereditary weak-chinned inbred royalty.
In America, why the people are the government and anybody can be president.
We are a nation of amateurs and damned proud of it, aren’t we?
That’s what this election was about.
Drain the swamp! Throw the bums out!
That’s why we hated Hillary Clinton.
Sure. Crony capitalist. Career politician. Corruption. Business as usual. You heard it from the Right and you heard from the Left. Hell, go check out my Twitter feed, I’m still getting it full bore from both sides.
That’s why we elected Donald Trump, isn’t it?
Because he was an outsider. Because he’s not a member of the Washington elite. That’s what Trump’s supporters said. That’s what they say now. He’s not like other presidents. He’s not a politician. The normal rules don’t apply. He’s gonna do things different.
Because he’s not a politician.
That, that right there, is a very American belief.
This idea that anybody can be the president.
That’s what we tell our kids. Eat your broccoli, Sonny, and some day you might grow up to be president.
Moreover, we Americans by and large tend to be suspicious of education and experience when it comes to government.
Anywhere else, brain surgeon, airline pilot, corporate CEO, dog trainer, we want the most experienced person we can get. But the President? Not so much. Power corrupts, right? You got to clean house every once in a while. Throw the bums out.
Except, in retrospect, perhaps ignorance and a suspicion of “elites” isn’t the best way to go about selecting a leader.
Once upon a time, I despised Jimmy Carter.
I mean, who didn’t, right?
President Jimmy Carter. He was weak and cowardly I thought, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. Iranian revolutionaries had just overthrown the Shah, stormed the US embassy in Tehran and taken fifty-two American diplomats hostage. And there was Carter, the hapless peanut farmer, and he wasn’t doing anything about it. We had the mightiest military in the world. Those were our people. Our embassy. Our soil, our property. A bunch of goddamned towelheads were touching our stuff, defying the United States of America.
And it just went on and on, four hundred and forty-four days.
It was infuriating.
It was embarrassing that a bunch of camel jockeys should have us – US – bent over a barrel like that.
I mean, how dare they? We were America, Goddamn it.
And Carter, well, Carter did nothing.
I was just out of high school. I worked in a restaurant then, taking classes at the local junior college. After work, over beers, the air thick with cigarette smoke, we smacked our fists on the tables and we cooks and dishwashers seethed in outrage. We hatched endless military campaigns, we mighty generals. It was simple and obvious. We’d send in an aircraft carrier, you see, and not one of those old rusty conventionally powered ones either. A nuclear warship, the very symbol of American military power, her decks bristling with fighter jets. One look – one look, by God – and those Ayatollahs would shit themselves in fear.
Oh, we would get our people back, you bet.
Eventually Carter did send in the military. Operation Eagle Claw. And it ended in horrifying failure. Eight Americans died in the desert, we lost millions in equipment. Iran mocked us from our TV screens. What a bumbling fool Carter was.
Anybody could have come up with a better plan, even a bunch of line cooks and dishwashers with no military background.
Eventually Carter lost the election, Reagan took his place, and the hostages came home.
Reagan, boy, those Iranians feared him, didn’t they? Ronald Reagan was strong, a genuine American cowboy. By God, he’d send in the fleet first thing, you bet. The minute that guy was in office, those sons of bitches let our people go rather than risk it, didn’t they?
Carter went back to his peanut farm in shame and defeat.
I joined the Navy.
And one day, many years later in the wake of 911, I was on the bridge of a cruiser as we steamed north through the Straits of Hormuz, past Iran, headed for Iraq and war. By then I was salty navy intelligence officer, an experienced war planner, with peculiar and unusual skills. It wasn’t the first time I’d been there and I had actually served with men who had been in the desert on that horrible day when Eagle Claw crashed and burned. I knew a little something of Iran, more than a little in point of fact. I knew a great deal about about the staggering complexity of the Arabian Gulf, its convoluted history and politics and the endlessly shifting powers of the region. And I knew more than a little about what it takes to stage a successful hostage rescue in hostile territory – or even an unsuccessful one. I was an expert in our capabilities (and the very, very real limits of those capabilities), in the astoundingly complicated intelligence problem spawned by a dozen impenetrable regimes (some willing allies, some less than willing, some openly hostile, some undetermined), mixed with a dozen shades of the same religion all mutually hostile, grudges going back a thousand years, the arbitrary interests of the Great Powers, the economics of oil and power and unimaginable amounts of money, the constraints and pressures of geography, and the complex ever shifting unknown and unguessable permutations of a dozen military forces, mercenaries, smugglers, pirates, and random criminal organizations mixed in with commerce from a hundred nations in unbelievable density. It was my job to know those things, and I was very, very good at it.
As we cruised past miles of Iranian coast, alert for danger, ready for action, hemmed in by the geography of the Straits, past lumbering vulnerable tankers laden with vast wealth, dogged by foreign warships, bathed in the electronic energy of hostile fire control radars, knowing we were in the crosshairs of dozens, hundreds, of shipkillers, well, let’s say I knew very, very well indeed how utterly naïve that 18-year-old dishwasher had been all those years ago.
There are few certainties in the Middle East, but one thing I knew for sure was that this was no place for amateurs.
It’s a funny thing though, isn’t it?
We want an amateur President, but when I sailed up that dangerous strait in 2003 on my way to Iraq, a significant percentage of Congress, both in the Senate and in the House, had been in their jobs since long before the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
Some of them are still in office.
Funny perverse, I mean.
And that Iranian Hostage Crisis? Funny thing about that too. Carter had sent a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, at that time one of the newest ships in the fleet. To this day, one of the most powerful warships in the world. Her decks had quite literally bristled with fighters. She was accompanied by USS Coral Sea, and a fleet of nuclear powered cruisers and a screen of destroyers. That fleet carried enough firepower to lay waste to a continent. And the Iranians simply shrugged, they weren’t impressed and they certainly weren’t intimidated. Iran has been at the crossroads of war and empire since before the beginning of recorded history – a history so vast and so complex that an America barely 240 years old has nothing we can compare to it. The reasons for the Hostage Crisis were woven deeply into that history and included resentment over things most Americans still don’t know about their own past let alone Iran’s – such as the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953. In America, the Iranian Hostage Crisis was the birth of modern shallow mindless patriotism, of overdone flag displays and empty gestures of self-indulgent nationalism. USA! USA! In the end, the release of the hostages had very little to do with the election of Ronald Reagan and a great deal to do with the patient statesmanship of Jimmy Carter. Despite endless conspiracy theories ala Richard Nixon’s diddling the Paris Peace Accords to win his election, there is no evidence whatsoever that Reagan sent agents (supposedly William Casey and George H. W. Bush) to Paris to delay release of the hostages until he could win the election and take office. No, Iran’s decision to release the hostages was a complicated process that owed as much to the Iran-Iraq war and convoluted diplomacy via Algeria (a country most Americans couldn’t find on a map without Google and would be outraged if told they owed a debt of gratitude) as it did to American efforts.
What I’m saying here is that the situation was fantastically complicated and even to this day not all of the details are known. In point of fact, we are still arguing over the details, who owes who, who was at fault, who was involved, who was wrong, who was right, and all the infinite shades of gray in between. The Obama Administration’s release of frozen Iranian assets from that time, 30 years later, and the seething outrage it caused here in the US is a prime example – though few of the outraged could tell you where that money came from or why we ultimately paid it back. Ask those same righteous patriots about Canada’s involvement and what we owe them and before the Ben Affleck movie Argo came out, not one of them could have told you (and few can even now). The crisis was hideously complicated. It involved religion and politics and vast sums of money and power and war and ancient grievances and the wills of a dozen nations, and no mere display of strength back then, no matter how powerful or determined, would have simplified it. And in fact, every such display, every rattle of the sword, every threat of force, every waggle of dicks, only made matters worse. And Reagan? Hell, five years later Reagan was trading arms to Iran through Israel in exchange for hostages held by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and funding a secret war in South America in direct violation of US law.
I watched the Iranian coast slide by, and in that moment, I knew the terrible choices President Carter must have faced and how unfair the judgement of the mob and history had been to him, the things few Americans will ever know – or care to know – or are even vaguely equipped to understand.
And why a nation run by blustering amateurs is a foolish and idiotic conceit.
The world is a dangerous and complicated place.
Almost unimaginably so.
And nothing is as simple or as straight forward as it seems and as the mob apparently believes.
Foreign nations do not kowtow to the United States.
This is not something new.
This is no weakness of Carter or Clinton or Obama – or Reagan and Bush for that matter. These nations have never bent a knee to us. From Morocco during Roosevelt’s time, to Cuba and Vietnam during Kennedy, to Libya under Reagan to Haiti and Grenada and Panama and all the nations that fill your news feed today.
It is the nature of nations, large and small, to push back – and in fact, like dogs, the smaller a nation is, likely the more fierce and furious its bark.
At home, we Americans face the same problems we’ve always faced, energy and resources, civil rights, race, age, religion, law and order, unrest, left and right, young and old, health care, education, infrastructure, jobs.
It’s complicated and difficult and always on the verge of failure.
This is not a world for a government run by amateurs.
As the man said, Walt the Janitor isn’t qualified to land a Boeing 707.
As we are right now finding out.
Trump was going to repeal and replace Obamacare on his first day in office.
He was going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.
He was going to defeat ISIS in the first 30 days.
The Iranian deal was history.
He was going to get us out of NATO.
He was going to get rid of the Import-Export Bank.
Trump spend a decade or more railing about China. Oh it was simple. It was easy. It was so clear. Currency manipulation! We have to stop it!
The mob cheered. Of course the mob cheered. Mobs despise “the elites,” the educated, the experienced, and complexity.
The simpleminded demand simple causes for complex problems.
The simpleminded demand simple solutions.
To the howling mob it’s clear, it’s us and them. We’re right and they’re wrong and there’s no problem that can’t be solved with the correct application of high explosives. The big stick. Send in the fleet, that’ll scare ‘em. And if it doesn’t, drop enough bombs, kill enough people, sooner later, you win. Right? That’s America, we punched old King George right in the nose, created democracy, and popped open a cold one. Back then all a man needed to forge freedom from the wilderness was a good horse, a sturdy woman, and his six shooter. That’s how America beat Hitler and the Japs, that’s how Reagan beat the Soviets, you bet.
Except it turns out it’s not simple and it’s not easy and it’s anything but clear and it didn’t happen that way.
It’s right there, in the news, in your face, obvious to all but the most obtuse.
Trump spent a decade telling everybody who would listen how easy it was. And he ought to know, right? He’s a billionaire. Billionaires got money. Right? That makes him smarter than the professionals. Sure it does. Just ask him.
Except that simplistic view was wrong – as evidenced by Trump’s own words, even if he doesn’t have the moral courage to admit it.
And being wrong on this scale has consequences.
Trump was stunned by how difficult it was to come up with a better health care plan than Obamacare.
“Nobody knew health care could be this complicated,” he lamented.
But the thing is, the professionals did know. The people with the most experience knew. And they said so, over and over and over again. It was only the ignorant and the foolish and the howling mob who didn’t know. Who didn’t want to know.
Turns out Mexico isn’t going to pay for Trump’s wall, so we’re going to pay for it. Turns out defeating ISIS is going to take a hell of a lot more than the Mother of All Bombs. Turns out the deal with Iran is far better than anybody had any right to expect and Trump isn’t going to negotiate any better deal because there isn’t one – and man, don’t you wish we had that same deal with North Korea? Turns out NATO was a good idea after all. So is the Import-Export Bank. Turns out Moscow isn’t much of a friend. Turns out the FBI isn’t much of one either.
Turns out, Trump’s ideas of how to run a government aren’t much better than that of an 18-year-old dishwasher – though it should be noted: the ignorance of youth has an excuse, the President of the United States does not.
Foreign relations, international economics, the balance of powers, the art of diplomacy, it’s complicated and difficult and nothing is as it seems to the simpleminded mob. You can’t just bomb your way to peace and prosperity. You can’t just send in an aircraft carrier.
You can’t manage foreign policy via Tweets.
“See what happens.” Literally, the foreign policy version of Come at me, Bro!
Meanwhile, the warships supposedly dispatched to show Kim Jong Un the Big Stick, well, that fleet was sailing in the opposite direction, blithely unaware that they were at the center of a threatened nuclear war.
Because the President of the United States of America has no idea whatsoever how to command the very military assets he’s threatening the rest of the world with.
And neither, apparently, does anybody else in his administration.
That’s how utterly unprepared this bunch of amateurs is.
And now they’re shoveling shit against the tide in an effort to dig their way out of it.
“The bottom line is, in our effort to always be open about what we are doing we said that we were going to change the Vinson's upcoming schedule. We don't generally give out ships' schedules in advance, but I didn't want to play a game either and say we were not changing a schedule when in fact we had.”
That was Secretary of Defense James Mattis today in Saudi Arabia in a statement that is patent nonsense.
That’s what it looks like when a military man who’s used to speaking plainly tries to spin like a politician.
And he knows he’s sucking at it. He can’t help it. Because he knows that last week the Navy, for which he is personally responsible, announced the Carl Vinson strike group would divert from Australia and proceed to the western Pacific Ocean. Trump administration officials along with Trump himself were explicit about it.
And Secretary Mattis himself said on April 11th, the Vinson was “on her way up there.”
A day later, Trump himself said on Fox Business News, “We are sending an armada, very powerful.”
The danger here is even worse than most Americans imagine. It’s not that he might start a war via some belligerent ham-fisted Twitter accident, which would be bad enough, but he might start a war on purpose with no idea the status of American forces or how to deploy them in any coherent fashion. Nor does he have the focus or the intellectual curiosity necessary to find out.
And nobody else in his administration, including General James Mattis, apparently knows either.
Meanwhile, somebody in the Administration claiming to represent the US Central Command told the press,
This was regarding the MOAB drop in Afghanistan last week. A strike apparently conducted by the military without Presidential authorization because according to Trump he prefers the generals to handle the details.
Except shortly thereafter, CENTCOM issued an official press release saying in essence, “We have no idea who that guy is.”
And while the whole thing suddenly reeks of John Miller, more likely the Press got pawned by some over zealous mid-grade officer who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
And it’s not just the military.
A month ago, Trump fired all the US Attorneys.
Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says aggressive law enforcement is the administration’s priority. He’s going to crack down on everything from illegal drugs to illegal immigration.
Except that’s impossible without the 93 US Attorney positions currently vacant via his own President’s order.
Add to that the fact that all of the Justice Department’s top divisions are currently without permanent appointees.
This disarray is evident in every department of the Trump Administration, from Defense to Education to State to the Interior.
Just like in any other profession of any difficulty, education, training, practice, experience, advice, these things matter.
There are real world consequences, terrible consequences, for ignorance on this scale.
There is no position of comparable complexity – or even approaching such complexity as the office of President – anywhere else in America that we would trust to someone so utterly lacking in qualifications as is Donald Trump.
And nothing demonstrates the sheer staggering incompetence of this bumbling oaf than threatening North Korea with a fleet that didn’t even know it was involved.
The Founding Fathers weren’t amateurs
The men who freed this country from King George and then went on to forge a new nation were intellectual elites, the educated inheritors of The Renaissance and products of the Early Modern Age. They were able to create a new government because they were experts in government, educated in war and politics and science and religion and economics and social structures and all the hundreds of other things it takes to build a nation instead of tear one down.
Unlike their foolish descendants, the Founders knew that liberty and democracy and good government take far more than shallow patriotism.
Good government takes intellect, education, experience, curiosity, and a willingness to surround leadership with expert advice and support.
More than anything, it takes the cultivation of intelligence instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Myths are important to a nation, but a firm appreciation of actual history serves a free people to far greater effect.
There is no virtue in ignorance.
And amateurs make for a lousy republic.
If you want a better nation, if you want better leaders, you have to be better citizens.
The doctor turned to me and asked, “Mr. Goldthwait, would you like to cut the cord?” And I said, “Isn’t there anyone more qualified?!
-- Bobcat Goldthwait