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Columnists
Shaken and stirred: America after one year of Trump

David Shribman

When President Donald J. Trump sent out a triumphal email to supporters a few days ago on the one-year anniversary of his astonishing victory, he put perhaps the only indisputable remark of his presidency in the subject line: You shook the world. This was one Trump digital communication that was dead-on accurate. No one could possibly argue that sentiment.

It was the year that shook America, that transformed our politics, challenged the underpinnings of our political system, shredded our notions of liberalism and conservatism, and overturned our preconceptions of the presidency, of presidential comportment, of presidential communication.

Almost nothing is the same. The overseas presidential trip, the White House press briefing, the character of the Republican Party, the nature of the Democratic Party, the way the president speaks to his allies, the way he treats his opponents, the strictures of diplomatic life, the profile of the mainstream press -- all are changed, changed utterly.

American politics is thoroughly unrecognizable from its earlier incarnation -- an untamed wilderness without discernable paths today, rather than the manicured lawn with the well-lit walkway it was before.

There have been dramatic changes in American political life before, to be sure. Andrew Jackson invited a democratic spirit and populace into the White House and into our politics. Theodore Roosevelt introduced an activist, progressive reformism into the presidency. John F. Kennedy mobilized the English language and injected it with idealism at a time of abiding practicality, and two decades later Ronald Reagan injected it with optimism at a time of overwhelming pessimism. Sometimes changes in American character do come from the top, though from political figures thrust into office by upswellings from the bottom.

It is impossible, at a mere year's distance, to offer anything more than a tentative verdict on the effect Trump has had on the presidency, though it is impossible, also, to ignore the early signals. In an office where teams of strategists, analysts and speechwriters once carefully sculpted the words of the chief executive, Trump has been informal and instinctive -- and prone to invective. This thrills his adherents and horrifies his opponents. In a role animated by ritual and draped with dignity, Trump has discarded ritual, sometimes traducing earlier, staid conceptions of dignity. His supporters applaud this, his critics deplore it. To his backers he is Harry Truman, giving them hell. To his enemies, he is the devil himself, emerging unapologetically from hell.

Much of this came into sharp focus in the past week. The Democrats took the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Almost certainly, more was made of this than those Democratic triumphs warranted; the Republicans took all four special House elections this year in contests where national issues were at play, while the elections for governor were conducted amid state issues. Besides, the percentage of the vote Republican candidates captured in both states was almost identical to the vote Trump received a year earlier. (In fact, the GOP vote increased by a tiny amount in both gubernatorial contests.)

But rather than offer the entirely plausible, and persuasive, argument that these results merely reflected the regular order -- blue states remaining blue, a Democrat replacing a Democrat in Virginia and the natural progression of a Democrat to the governor's chair in deep-blue New Jersey -- Trump attacked a man who, 24 hours earlier, he had supported fervently.

On the eve of the election, Trump sent out an email boosting Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, arguing, "Ed will be TOUGH on illegal immigration. He will CRACK DOWN on the MS-13 criminal gangs." After the election results were posted, the president took the opposite tack on Twitter: "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."

The only truly significant result of Tuesday's balloting may have come in Maine, where in a referendum voters chose to enlarge Medicaid spending after the governor, Republican Paul LePage, vetoed just such a measure on five occasions.

This will steel the determination of Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has opposed her party's efforts to overturn Obamacare, to continue to balk at presidential entreaties.

American politics may look a lot different a year from now, after the Republicans' control of the House and Senate are tested in midterm congressional elections. Those contests may truly be referenda on Trump and his policies.

But this much is certain: Trump is not likely to change his profile or his comportment.

The question historians will have to answer -- and very likely it will be visible to the non-academic eye as well -- is whether the change in tone and timbre Trump has introduced into the presidency is a passing phase or a permanent transformation. Though bitter rivals before becoming post-presidential intimate friends and admirers, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter introduced a whispery, almost bashful style to the White House. That was overturned by Reagan, much the way the Coolidge/Hoover reticence and reluctance were overturned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Whatever the long-term effect, Trump is both consequence and cause of a bitter, brutal style of American politics, sketched in blacks and whites, with hardly a patch of gray anywhere on the national landscape. There are in our politics today heroes and villains aplenty -- in fact they are the very same political figures, just viewed from different perspectives -- and few whispery, contemplative introverts. Those who exist in the dangerous middle of the road -- where, according to country folklore, the roadkill lie -- are scarce, and scared.

The result of the Trump presidency may be the emergence of the shouted word and the impulsive tweet -- a far cry from the notion, expressed 28 years ago by George H.W. Bush in his inaugural address, that his presidency would be "the age of the offered hand." This instead is the age of the clenched fist -- and of the clenched jaw. No historical revisionism, for Trump or any of his predecessors or successors, is likely to change that assessment.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


David Shribman


Columnists
Hope on display in Texas

The first thing I noticed when I recently flew into Texas is the flags at half-staff. The second thing I noticed is churches with open doors. In Dallas, where I happened to be a few days after the Sunday shooting in Sutherland Springs, a funeral was going on when I walked through the doors of St. Catherine of Siena Church, looking for a midday Mass. It was holy business as usual, as it continues to be in churches throughout the country, many of them united in prayer with their brothers and sisters in Christ, who suffered the largest mass shooting in a church in United States history.

Listening to Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist, the site of the shootings, we seem to see the antidote to evil: The witness of people of hope. Because they've encountered redemption, they have a freedom from fear, even as they confront some of the greatest of human fears. In the hours after the shooting, which included the murder of his youngest child, Pomeroy declared an act of faith in his most vulnerable state, still leading his church with example of trusting in God's providence, telling reporters: "I don't understand, but I know my God does."

Speaking of that Christian hope on display in Pomeroy, the now pope emeritus Benedict said in 2007: "It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love -- a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free."

On Thursday morning at St. Dominic's in San Francisco (I was moving around a bit this week), the priest celebrating the 8 a.m. Mass said: "This is a safe place, where you can commune with God." Days after the massacre in Texas, to anyone who just happened to be walking in without context, it may have sounded like an act of defiance or a tempting of fate. His homily explained the significance of the day on the church calendar, marking the dedication of the basilica of John Lateran in Rome, the official seat of the bishop of Rome -- the pope. This year, it seemed to have so much more added meaning -- about why we have such sacred spaces and what they're meant for: a strengthening of mission, to show the world why faith is important and what it's all about.

Pope Francis visited Colombia this summer, and one night while in Bogota, a group of children and teenagers waited for him as he returned to where he was staying. One girl named Maria said to him: "We want a world where vulnerability is recognized as essential in the human. That far from weakening us, strengthens and dignifies us. A place of mutual encounter that humanizes us."

"Vulnerability is the essence of the human person," he responded to her, visibly moved. "We are all vulnerable," he said, "all of us. Inside, in our feelings, there are many things that do not work inside us, but no one sees them. And others we see, all of them. And this vulnerability needs to be respected, caressed, healed as far as possible, so that it bears fruit for others. We are all vulnerable."

Faith and hope mean seeing the world as it is and the human person as it was created, and wanting to love people while helping them reach that same understanding. We're all united with the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in our vulnerability, and don't we pray to display the same kind of hope in the face of all evil?

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at klopez@nationalreview.com


Columnists
The girl who sold books

Ever since the book "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and its sequels became such monster hits, it seems every other book on the best-seller list has the world "girl" in the title.

"Gone Girl," "The Girl on the Train," "Gadget Girl," "The Windup Girl," and of course, Amy Schumer's "The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo." According to one of the book trade magazines, 364 books with the word "girl" in the title have come out in the last eight years, with 80 this year alone. And yet in 2009, only one book appeared with "girl" in the title.

Obviously if you want to sell a book, it helps to have the word "girl" in it. But it's not a requirement. Instead, you can always use "wife" or "daughter."

There's another slew of books with one of those in the title: "The Aviator's Wife," "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "The Bonesetter's Daughter," to name just a few of the 188 titles I found with a quick search. By contrast, I can't remember ever seeing a book with the word "husband" in the title. That doesn't mean they don't exist, but face it -- who would buy a book called "The Husband With the Hairy Back"? That just screams, "Nothing to see here, move along."

Well, if it's not broken, don't fix it. We can certainly expect many more books with "girl" to come. How long before we see these through the bookstore window? "The Girl on the Crosstown Bus," "The Girl With the Giant Schlep Bag," "The Girl Who Really Was a Little Girl, and Not a Grown Woman Being Called a Girl Just to Sell a Book." It seems a truism that you can get away with calling a woman a girl a lot longer than you can call a man a boy.

I'm working on a book right now that features an 87-year-old woman. My publisher, Hookline and Sinker, would be in seventh heaven if I could only work the word "girl" into the title.

"Can't you give her a tattoo?" my editor asked the other day. "Or a piercing?"

"I think that's been done," I said.

"Of course, it's been done," he snapped. "It's been done because it works. If I was publishing the Hardy Boys right now, they'd be girls. Or wives or daughters."

"I think most girls are daughters."

"We're not talking about daughters, idiot. We're talking about money. Would you work with me for once in your life? The people have spoken, and they want to read about girls -- young women just like themselves, but more exciting. Girls who do things; girls who have adventures. Girls who don't get along with their parents, girls whose husbands and boyfriends don't 'get' them, girls who are effortlessly pretty. Girls who never have to diet or exercise or do laundry, but who are still thin and gorgeous. Girls who go out and drink Kir royals and meet exciting people who know other exciting people."

"OK, so let's call it 'The 87-Year-Old Girl.'"

"I like it!"

"I was kidding. I'd rather give her a tattoo."

There goes my dream of winning the Nobel Prize for Trash Literature. My hopes have been cruelly dashed once again. If only the world were more like my high school, at least I could maybe get the Nobel Prize for Participation.

But I doubt that Hookline is about to wait for me, or anyone else, to jump on the "girl" bandwagon. I've heard they just have to retitle old classics and watch them fly off the shelves. "Romeo and Juliet" is now "The Girl on a Really Bad Date." Dracula will become "The Girl Who Forgot to Close the Window." "Gone With the Wind" will be "The Girl Who Used People." And "The Wizard of Oz" can become "That Other Gone Girl."

Contact Jim Mullen at mullen.jim@gmail.com


Kathryn Lopez


Jim Mullen