While the divisions are maddening, let's hold onto optimism, values and sanity. Our collective future depends on it.
In 1936, Esquire magazine published an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald on the topic of fame and addiction titled “The Crack-Up.” That work contains one of his most famous observations: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
The legendary author of The Great Gatsby offered a few of those opposing ideas from his own thinking: “the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to ‘succeed’—and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.”
I suspect it’s useful to recall that the challenge to keep one’s wits is not just a recent arrival. Then again, our current political sphere requires particular acumen to manage the split-screen division between one party that’s primarily seeking to govern a democracy and make lives better and another bent on gaslighting and revenge.
Look no further than the words of the current leader for the Republican nomination for president—and the cognitive dissonance between his criminality and what he’s promising for the years ahead. “I am your warrior. I am your justice,” Donald Trump said last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”
Unsurprisingly, this man won 62 percent of the vote among CPAC attendees for the 2024 presidential straw poll. He also informed reporters prior to his speech that criminal indictments would not stop his plan to retake the White House.
“I am your justice…your retribution,” says the criminal one appealing to millions. The test “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” reminds Fitzgerald.
Back in the world of the sane, President Biden released on Thursday his annual budget proposal, which he has accurately described as a statement of values and which most every observer described as dead on arrival since the GOP controls the House. This $6.8 trillion budget seeks to increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations by some $5 trillion over the next decade, as well as fund new programs largely benefiting the middle class and the poor. It also would increase military spending and seek to reduce budget deficits by nearly $3 trillion.
Among the details: $400 billion for affordable child care, $150 billion for home care for the elderly and disabled, $325 billion to guarantee paid leave for workers, $400 billion to make permanent expanded health coverage, $100 billion to help lower housing costs for homeowners and renters, and nearly $300 billion to make community college and prekindergarten for students free. To help reduce child poverty, he would reinstate for three years the expanded child credit which expired last year.
His method to fund these costs: a 25 percent tax targeted at billionaires, quadrupling a tax on stock buybacks, raising the corporate income tax from 21 percent to 28 percent, and ending the trillions in Trump tax cuts that primarily benefited millionaires and billionaires.
“My budget is about investing in America and all of America, including places and people and folks who've been forgotten,” Biden said in a speech in Pennsylvania on Thursday. “Too many people have been left behind and treated like they’re invisible. Not anymore. I promise I see you.”
The GOP response from House leadership: “President Joe Biden’s budget is a reckless proposal doubling down on the same Far Left spending policies that have led to record inflation and our current debt crisis…We must cut wasteful government spending. Our debt is one of the greatest threats to America and the time to address this crisis is now.” That is, address “this crisis” now when a Democrat is in the White House.
While Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his House Republicans have failed to proffer their own budget yet, the House Freedom Caucus released their conditions to raise the debt ceiling. Representing more than 20 percent of the GOP members, their plan can also be characterized as dead on arrival. It includes demands to end planned student loan forgiveness, stop spending on climate programs passed last summer, end federal energy regulations, take back $80 billion from the IRS intended to enhance tax enforcement, and establish spending levels based on non-defense spending from five years ago.
While House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington told Politico that their budget will take at least another month to finish—a budget that they hope can garner 218 votes—note the comments of Freedom Caucus member Ralph Norman when asked about his ideas of where to cut: “The woke, the Green New Deal, some of the military green programs, reallocations, the Covid dollars that we will reclaim.”
Of course, every budget proposal is just the beginning of a negotiation—and an opportunity to assert priorities. “The things I’m proposing not only lift the burden off of families in America,” Biden said Thursday. “It’s all going to generate economic growth.”
But in the void of an actual GOP alternative concerned with real governance, we are faced with unstable House insurrectionists like Marjorie Taylor Greene calling for a “national divorce” of red and blue states and Paul Gosar insisting on criminal referrals for Liz Cheney, other members of the Jan. 6 committee and military officials to address their “lawlessness.”
In our split-screen country, such madness could be reason to believe we can’t put the broken pieces back together again. But let’s rely on F. Scott Fitzgerald for sustenance here. Not only did he beseech us to believe we can manage two opposing ideas at the same time, he urged optimism. “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
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“I can run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
They're gonna hear from me.
Ring ring ring ring ring
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”
As I read through your excellent writing, Steven, it occurred to me that perhaps the Republicans seek relevance and attention by always beating the drum of chaos. They would have us believe that they can ride the waves, like motley pirates on the political seas. By choosing to function in alarmist territory, they cater to the aggrieved individuals in American society. In making his assertions, Donald Trump left out one phrase: 'I am your criminal.' If a disingenuous business man and indicted person can run for President of the United States, then you might as well tear up the Constitution. With no rules, no integrity, no holds barred; it sounds like the Wild West to me.