The Fifth Avenue Principle

In my lifetime, I have seen a man walk on the moon, one president call it quits after 1 term, one resign in disgrace, two impeached (for a total of three times), one pope die after a month in office, one pope resign from office while still alive, one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading men outed as gay and die of AIDS, a famous football player kill his wife and get away with it, a black man elected president, a woman elected vice president, a gay man mount a serious campaign for a major party’s presidential nomination and then become a cabinet secretary, the World Trade Center towers collapse, a medal-winning, Wheaties-endorsing Olympic athlete change her gender, an action film star and body builder become governor of my state, the largest land war in Europe since WWII, the threat of nuclear weapons being used in a post-Soviet conflict, and an electronic band (synthesizers and drum machines) no one had ever heard of from Britain on the radio when I was in high school go on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — it’s remarkable really.

But none of that is as shocking, and frankly unsettling, as the depths to which this one man, Donald Trump, sunk before, during, and after he held the most powerful job on the planet.  His utter and complete lack of a sense of right and wrong and lack of respect for the rule of law upon which this country — albeit imperfect country — is built, makes dictators like Saddam Hussein, whom the United States reportedly removed from power to make the world safe for democracy, look like hustlers scamming tourists out of travelers cheques playing Three-card monte in Times Square.  The steady stream of post-presidential revelations is chilling because so many people were fooled by his act, voted for him, voted for him again, followed and are following his lead in refusing to accept the results of a free and fair election, and seriously believe he should return to the White House in 2024, spurred on by a major cable “news” outlet that is as close to state-run television as this country has ever come.

The man suggested ingesting household cleaning products to fight a viral pandemic affecting the lungs (I assume he was unaware the mouth, throat, stomach, and bladder are not connected to the lungs, but hey… he’s not a doctor!).  The man defended neo-Nazis and white supremacists (because, you know, "very fine people").  The man used a sharpie to change the weather service’s forecast of a deadly storm’s path (um, yah, I got nothing).  He bragged in 2016 that he could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters;” and it appears he was right.  The Fifth Avenue Principle has been repeatedly tested – by the Access Hollywood tape, by Robert Mueller’s findings that Trump obstructed justice and his campaign aides cooperated with Russia, by overt and unapologetic racism that included putting immigrant children in cages, by his quid pro quo with the president of Ukraine that led to his first impeachment and seems frighteningly relevant now given the last two months, and by his treasonous incitement of an insurrection against the United States government that led to his second impeachment.

The most fascinating periods in history were filled with tumult and upheaval — their tales of treachery, wars, and chaos make for compelling reading, but the people living through such momentous events were probably experiencing something more along the lines of trepidation, anxiety, and pain.  "May you live in interesting times” is said to be a Chinese curse.  But, Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, has stated, “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found.”  That said, a March 1936 newspaper report in The Yorkshire Post of West Yorkshire, England attributes the expression to the Chinese by way of an influential British statesman of the day:

Sir Austen Chamberlain, addressing the annual meeting of Birmingham Unionist Association last night, spoke of the “grave injury” to collective security by Germany’s violation of the Treaty of Locarno. Sir Austen, who referred to himself as “a very old Parliamentarian,” said, "It is not so long ago that a member of the Diplomatic Body in London, who had spent some years of his service in China, told me that there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, "May you live in interesting times.” There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us. We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.
(emphasis mine)

We might question the maxim's provenance, but I think there is little doubt the “curse” (such as it is) has befallen us.  We, and by that I mean all of us in this country, are careening from one disturbance to another shock on a daily basis.  There seems to be no respite from the rolling revelations of total and complete depravity on the part of Donald Trump.  Today, Mike Allen at Axios is reporting President Trump wanted to shoot protesters on American streets, a kindof Fifth Avenue Principle by proxy:

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper charges in a memoir out May 10 that former President Trump said when demonstrators were filling the streets around the White House following the death of George Floyd: "Can't you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?"

One of the enduring strengths of our country is the right to protest, a right the people of Russia are denied as their leader conducts a brutal, savage, unjustifiable slaughter in their name, supported by propaganda and a sycophantic press that serves his purposes no matter how at odds with the good of their country those purposes are.  We have seen President Putin crack down on protest and dissent in Russia.  Secretary Esper is revealing former President Trump shares Putin’s autocratic, dictatorial sensibilities.  Not that that comes as a surprise.

I have to wonder when the fever is going to break.  This country’s Trump fever.  With each new story about the chaos of the Trump administration, I think — is this the Welch/McCarthy moment?

In 1954, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy was the popular chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and he set his Communist-hunting sights on the US Army, charging lax security at a top-secret Army facility.  The Army responded that the senator had sought preferential treatment for a recently drafted subcommittee aide, and the resulting controversy caused McCarthy to temporarily step down for the duration of the three-month nationally televised spectacle known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.  The Army hired Boston lawyer Joseph Welch to make its case; at a session held June 9, 1954, McCarthy charged that one of Welch's attorneys had ties to a Communist organization.  Welch responded:  "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness."  When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator.  You have done enough.  Have you no sense of decency?”  Welch’s devastating responses effectively ended McCarthy's career; almost overnight, McCarthy's immense national popularity evaporated — he was censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press.  McCarthy remained a senator but turned to the bottle to soothe the sting of his irrelevance on the national stage.  He died three years later at the age of 48.

Trump-decency

There are more than faint echoes of McCarthy’s populist political “style” in the whole Trumpian MAGA movement:  identify a bogeyman, whip up fear, be seen as the antidote, label anyone who disagrees with you or disparages you or your methods as in league with the bogeyman… wash, rinse, repeat.  Today, McCarthyism is a stain on our history.  According to Encyclopædia Britannica:

McCarthyism — name given to the period of time in American history that saw US Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin produce a series of investigations and hearings during the 1950s in an effort to expose supposed communist infiltration of various areas of the US government. The term has since become a byname for defamation of character or reputation by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.

Have we learned nothing?  Have you no sense of decency, Mr. Trump?

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