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Be Afraid, America, Very afraid

Posted by Howard Denson on November 11, 2016 at 2:25 PM

By HOWARD DENSON

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I have been on the losing sides of presidential elections many times in the past, but this time I am experiencing a new sensation: a definite fear for my country.

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When I was seven in Vidalia, Georgia, I rooted for the Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey against the incumbent, President Harry Truman. In truth, I didn’t know much about Dewey, but the “Stephenson circle” favored him, so I did too. I didn’t dislike Mr. Truman, partly because his voice was almost identical to Gene Autry’s, and you can’t pass up a connection like that. I wasn’t aware of the jab that Dewey looked like the man on the wedding cake, but I was a little disturbed because he looked too much like the villain in one of Gene’s pictures.

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I was a big fan of General Eisenhower and got into my teens during his administrations. I grew to tolerate his quirky vice president, Richard Nixon. I didn’t know about Ike’s war-time fling with his female jeep driver, and I didn’t know about Mamie’s drinking. I wasn’t afraid of Adlai Stevenson for he seemed like a nice fellow. Years later, I was puzzled to learn that balding, pear-shaped Stevenson was a bit of a womanizer.


.I was a little too young to vote in the Nixon-Kennedy election, although I was all in favor of Nixon. Kennedy didn’t scare me, and it came as a shock later to learn that political scientists considered them almost identical in their positions.

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Back then, it wasn’t appropriate for the media to pry into the presidents’ bedrooms, so I would have to wait for Victor Lasky’s JFK: The Man and the Myth to learn what dirt could be dished on him. (Ill Luck Dept.: JFK: The Man and the Myth is published, and he gets assassinated. Lasky’s RFK: The Myth and the Man is published, and he gets assassinated, too.)

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I knew Barry Goldwater was going to lose in 1964 and was proud to be one of the 26 million who voted for him. He was a decent man, even if not the smartest senator in Washington. By contrast, I loathed Lyndon Johnson with his slick business deals and wheeling and dealing. I wasn’t aware that much of my animosity was being fed by my latent racism and lack of insight into what Johnson was trying to do. Still, I wasn’t afraid of him, just didn’t trust him or like him.

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In 1968, I should have voted for Richard Nixon over exuberant and voluble Hubert Humphrey, but I was out of state at graduate school and knew that George Wallace was going to win both my home state and the state in which I was studying.

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Considering that the war in Vietnam went on and on under Nixon, as he searched for a way to victory instead of an armistice, it would have been better if Humphrey had been elected in 1968, but a Democrat may not have been able to open diplomatic channels with China, thanks to the fall-out from the “Democrats lost China” attacks in the 1940s. I bought into the disdain directed at George McGovern in 1972 and didn’t research him enough to learn that he was a decorated World War II bomber pilot. This good man was closer to Audie Murphy than LBJ, Nixon, and Ford were.

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I debated a long time in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Ford was probably no smarter than Goldwater was (or your typical senator of any year), but he was an honorable man. Jimmy Carter was also a decent man, but, like Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, ran into ill luck with high interest rates and the Iran hostage crisis.

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In 1980, I voted for Reagan, even after years of being doubtful about his ability to do the job. The S&L crisis occurred during the administrations of RR and Bush 41, and, when I saw the sloppy, deceitful way that the GOP handled the scandal, I vowed to go with Democrats from then on or until the banking mess was cleaned up. It still isn’t and has only gotten worse.

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Of course, Reagan was re-elected, defeating Walter Mondale, another good man, and then Bush the Elder and Wiser took over, defeating the quirky Michael Dukasis. Bush had been a fighter pilot in World War II and was filmed ditching his plane and being rescued.

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I deserted Bush the Elder for the tom-cat from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who, like Kennedy and Warren G. Harding, had trouble keeping his pants zipped. Bob Dole, a WW2 veteran, was a good man and a bulldog of a GOP attack dog.

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In 2000, we had a choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I went with Al Gore since I am used to socially awkward politicos like Dukasis, Nixon, and most of the first six presidents. I didn’t fear Bush the Younger because I erroneously assumed that he would follow in the footsteps of his father. I couldn’t imagine his trying to do everything opposite from what 41 had done. A media riff back then was “who would you rather have a beer with, Gore or Bush?”

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Some Americans stupidly went along with the notion that a pal could make a good president. As Sportin’ Life sings, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

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An early supporter of Hillary, I switched to Barack Obama and have never regretted a moment of that support. I wasn’t afraid of John McCain or Mitt Romney. McCain, despite his temper, would do his duty if he had been elected president, and Romney was level-headed. In the Sixties, I was rooting for George Romney, who had been governor of Michigan and CEO of American Motors. Romney visited Vietnam and later said the generals had “brainwashed” him about the progress in the country. The media riffed on “do we want a president who could be brainwashed?” This time, the media helped to hand the election to Nixon.

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And that brings us to Donald Trump, and the fact is this guy scares the daylights out of me, something that none of the previous presidential winners or losers did.

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If you are an opponent, you will probably want to compare his rhetoric and that of his followers to Adolf Hitler. If so, you are missing the point. Hitler laid out what he was going to do in Mein Kampf, and, hours from his suicide in 1945, he wrote his last will and testament and essentially underscored what he had written in the 1920s. Few people, except for Churchill, were paying attention to what he was saying.

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Trump probably can’t help himself, but he is an extreme narcissist. Now, every citizen who puts himself or herself forward as a possible president, senator, governor, or congressman has a hyper-ego.

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But history provides us with hundreds of cautionary examples about the extreme narcissists. The one that we might fear most is not Hitler, but the Emperor Nero. He could be charming, talented as an amateur, but always self-centered. His egotism wearied the Romans after a bit. They even unjustly blamed him for the Great Fire and said he was plucking his lyre while the city burned. (He was elsewhere, but was delighted to have much of Rome cleared so he could build an amazing palace complex.)

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If an Emperor was barking mad, as Caligula was, he would be quickly put down (four years). Commodus (twelve years), like Nero (fourteen years), had some positive features, but the city state was greatly relieved when these narcissists were visiting their relatives in the underworld.

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We are unable to track the way Trump’s mind thinks because frankly it doesn’t. His supporters will bellow at such a canard, but Shakespeare has also been accused of not being much of a thinker. Instead, the Bard relied on his instincts and insights about human behavior.

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Trump’s mind relies on trash-talk. His mind is not that of a Lincoln or Churchill, since he essentially is as incoherent as Bush the Younger, Andrew Johnson, and others. No, his mind is that of a traveling salesman who “rassles” on the side. He comes into a town and has a product to sell, and he will tell the mark anything, absolutely anything, to get the sucker to sign on the bottom line and fork over the green stuff.

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Like Gorgeous George and Ali later, he crows that he is the greatest.

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Trump does not have the ethics of Ulysses S. Grant, who let himself be seduced by the robber barons around him, nor of Harry S. Truman, who was wiped out during recessions in the 1920s. With his family in debt and dying from throat cancer, Grant forced himself to finish an outstanding autobiography whose sales saved his family’s prospects. It took time, but Truman paid off all of his debts.

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What does a traveling huckster do? He files for bankruptcies, stiffs vendors on what is owed to them, and shafts employees by refusing to pay them.

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Could that personality produce an effective president? It might in terms of foreign relations. Elizabeth I’s ministers cautioned the ministers from possible opposing countries, in effect, “My God, be careful what you do. She’s a hysterical woman and nobody can predict that she’ll do. Don’t upset her.”

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Nixon liked for the North Vietnamese leaders in particular to think he was a bit unbalanced and God knows what he’ll do next.

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As a long-time (largely ineffective) labor leader, I read books on management to understand how managers think. (If you are an effective manager, you don’t have to worry about your employees unionizing. If you are a bully and a tyrant, then you are also the best and primary organizer of a union.)

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One rule of thumb cropped up over and over: “If you want to know what individuals will do [as an employee or CEO], look at what they have done in the past.”

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With that standard in mind, America, be afraid. Be very afraid.

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