An artist had a brilliant idea a couple of years ago. He was looking at the cartoons in the New Yorker and realized that you could probably just write one universal caption that would work for all of them. Indeed, there have since been several takes on this theme (I'm partial to the "LinkedIn" version) but the original universal caption was on my mind for a lot of the sad political events this July 4 weekend: "Christ, what an a–hole!"
Consider Chris Christie. On Monday, an editor who didn't realize I was on a mini-vacation urgently emailed me and wanted to know if I'd write a quick down-and-dirty opinion rant — "a hot take," for want of a better term — on those now omnipresent photos of the New Jersey governor enjoying the state beach that he'd closed to all other citizens because of his state's budget impasse. I was relieved to be not working, because although I've written frequently about Christie over these last seven-plus years, I've kind of run out of things to say about his 15 percent approval rating, his bullying tactics, his governing of New Jersey for his rich and powerful cronies, and now the stunning arrogance of hogging a closed beach for himself and his family. What more can you add about this latest outrage?
I mean, besides, of course, "Christ, what an a–hole!"
Ditto for the president of the United States, who in the nearly six days I was away from this post managed to glorify violence against working journalists in this country by tweeting out a meme video of the WWE-era Donald Trump body slamming a man with a CNN logo for a head — a meme that, it turned out, was created by a Reddit poster with a history of anti-Semitism, among other sins. On July 4 weekend, when Trump could have been preparing for his first-ever (or not) meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin or focusing his energy on the escalating tension with North Korea, the presidential obsession with media and entertainment again rose to the fore. It was a new low for the incredibly shrinking American presidency — until the next new low that everyone knows is coming tomorrow, or the day after that.
In the dull hangover after America's 241st birthday, it feels like there are only two kinds of political leaders in this nation — those who don't want to know the public thinks, and those who just don't care. In the first category you'd have to put most members of Congress, especially the many Republican senators who skipped out on July 4 parades and other once pro-forma celebrations, lest some flag-waving mom dare ask why he or she thinks throwing working folks off Medicaid to finance tax cuts for billionaires is a responsible policy. No one is more embarrassing in this regard than Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who tonight is hosting what he falsely calls "a town hall" at a Harrisburg TV studio before a hand-picked audience that won't ask the tough questions that everyday Pa. citizens have for him. Scores of protesters are meeting outside of the studio, desperate for even 5 seconds to yell their pleas at a senator who seems to answer to no one.
Christie, of course, is the king of the latter "just don't care" category — a governor who put on a show, complete with "bipartisan" endorsements won through relentless bullying, to win a second term that's seen his not-really-apologetic handling of a scandal that led to felony convictions of top aides even as he spent much of time out-of-state running for president, or sucking up to a future president or going to Springsteen concerts or Dallas Cowboys games. When he does show up in Trenton, it's only to help out a crony like political boss George Norcross, a wealthy Mar-a-Lago crony whose insurance interests loomed behind a budget stalemate that hurt regular people.
Why is this arrogant man who essentially checked out of the job two years ago still governing a major American state? Surely if New Jersey had a parliamentary form of government, there would have been a snap election in 2014 and Christie could have gotten an early start on that sports-talk-radio career. But they don't, and while technically the Garden State does have a recall process, the bar for getting such a measure on the ballot was set too high to make a Christie recall a viable option. And even though the governor's Bridgegate actions seem a textbook case for impeachment, 21st Century American politicians almost never turn on one of their own.
Yes, the American experiment is 241 years old, and you know what our leaders have perfected through decades of trial and error? The science of self-preservation. In their labs for blowing up democracy, they developed the gerrymander to keep themselves in office for life and summoned the flood of big money that has submerged the quaint notion of one person, one vote. There has been so much talk in recent months about rage in American politics and about the rise in both violent imagery — covering the spectrum from Kathy Griffin to the man at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — and, increasingly, outbreaks of actual violence. Violence is immoral, deplorable, and will solve nothing. But we won't fully solve the anger and the violence unless we're realistic about what lies beneath. And underlying some of this is a growing awareness that our government not only isn't accountable, but that big chunks of it don't even care.
The other fascinating thing that happened this long July 4 break was what happened when NPR — which has read aloud the Declaration of Independence for a number of years — decided to start a new tradition and tweet out the 1776 document, line by line. More than a few unknowing folks on social media read the more revolutionary passages as yet another assault on President Trump from the liberal media. Especially this line: "A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."