One of the assignments I gave students in my “Imagination and Entrepreneurship” class at Miami University was to establish a goal for each decade of their lives. And each semester, I shared my goals during the in-class discussion. In my 70s, I hoped to publish the great American political novel.
Last week I was searching through an old hard drive to respond to a request for information from a former college. During that quest I also found the original outline of that story created in 2002, which tells you a lot about my tendency to procrastinate. The manuscript is now 50 percent completed. And being nine years from turning 80, I am still within reach of fulfilling the goal.
The novel is titled, “In the National Interest.” If is a fictional account of the Kennedy assassination which focuses not on what happened, but the why it happened. When the plot is initially presented in the first pages, I fully expect the reader to think my thesis is totally implausible. Using detailed public and sourced documentation, my goal is to get the reader, by the end, to say, “Maybe this is not as crazy as it first seemed.” I do have a recurring dream in which, following publication, authorities come to our house to ask, “How did you figure it out? Who told you this?”
In the Personal Interest
For me, the greatest mystery of the Trump era has been the extent to which so many voters appear to have acted contrary to their own self-interests. Consider the following.
- States with the unhealthiest populations cheer the rollback of air and water quality regulations.
- The attorneys generals of those same states joined the administration’s law suit to nullify the Affordable Care Act.
- Farm states continued to march lock-step into the red column despite trade policies resulting in a record number of small and family farm bankruptcies.
- Many blue collar workers bought into Trump’s populist message while he and Mitch McConnell filled the federal court system with judges and justices who regularly rule in favor of big business over labor.
- And finally, Americans without a college degree, flock to Trump rallies to be told he loves you just the way you are, although education has always been recognized as the gateway to the middle class and a higher standard of living.
Though irrational, the attraction of a Donald Trump is understandable. Most of these voters are apprehensive about being left behind in a changing world. And so they grasp for straws. Trump told them what they wanted to hear. That they were victims. And they swallowed it whole.
What is more surprising is the number of educated, well-off individuals and interests who also chose to act contrary to their own interests over the last four years. Let me share just two examples.
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported General Motors “will no longer back the Trump administration in its legal battle to strip California’s authority to set its own fuel-efficiency regulations, saying GM’s goals for green cars are aligned with the state and the incoming Biden administration.” WTF? GM thinks its long-term profit potential lies in an all-electric automotive future, but joined the administration in a law suit contrary to their own corporate strategy and a $27 billion investment in cars not dependent on fossil fuels. And simply because a majority of Americans voted for Joe Biden, they have changed their position.
Talk about a lack of conviction. Biden has made it clear he will direct DOJ to drop the suit leaving the corporate partners to carry on without government backing. If GM and others carmakers who are reassessing their position honestly believed the legal challenge was in their own interest there is no way they would surrender based on a change in the political winds. GM is even touting Biden’s job creation numbers as evidenced in their letter announcing their termination of legal action against California.
Yet, the best example of people who have acted against their own personal interest in the Trump era is the namesake himself. I know I have said this a million times already, but I will say it again. “Good governance makes good politics.” It was in Donald Trump’s own interest to grab the pandemic by the horns and demonstrate a level of competence which would have silenced much of the criticism of his management style. Instead of touting record highs for the Dow Jones industrial average, just imagine if he could have come to the podium and said, “While America has 4.5 percent of the world’s population, we have taken actions and promoted policies which have resulted in the U.S. having a proportionately lower share of cases, hospitalizations and death than would have been expected.”
Imagine if Trump had invoked the Defense Production Act to ensure every hospital and nursing home had MORE than the supplies they needed to protect front-line workers in these facilities. Instead of media stories about South Dakota nurses in tears talking about the conditions under which they have to operate, medical personnel would be praising the federal government for its exceedingly adequate response. So, do not be surprised when, GM-like, dozens of American corporations line up to get behind the Biden administration plan for the production and distribution of PPE and vaccine delivery systems next year.
Which, as it always does, brings me back to cinema as art imitating life, in this case, Aaron Sorkin’s script for The American President (1995). The relevant message is embedded in an exchange between presidential advisor Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox) and President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas).
People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
Lewis, we’ve had Presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand, ’cause they’re thirsty, Lewis. They drink it ’cause they don’t know the difference.
Yesterday, GM affirmed they know the difference. It is a safe guess Donald Trump never will nor cares to understand the difference, and that is why he was never able to expand his voter base enough to ensure re-election. The challenge for Joe Biden when it comes to re-uniting America is whether, through competent and empathetic governance, he can get more and more people to see that difference. Only then will they be open to the possibility their own self-interests lie somewhere other than following Donald Trump to an imaginary oasis.
When I first began to draft “In the National Interest,” I was concerned that I still did not have a satisfying conclusion to the story. That bothered me until I attended a lecture by the author of John Adams David McCullough. During the question and answer session, a student asked McCullough whether he ever started a book before he knew how it would end. I was pleasantly surprised when the writer said that was always the case. He went on to explain there is always an illuminating moment during the process when the ending becomes apparent. As with most creative moments, it cannot be forced. If patient, it will come to you.
I had the same experience just a few months ago. I had just sat down at the computer intent on capturing an idea about how the narrator in my novel would react to his latest discovery, a critical document that might be the “Rosetta Stone” which unlocked the truth about the assassination. And there it was. I stopped what I was working on, and by the end of the day, had drafted the final chapter in total. Now, confident in the ending, I am left with the hard work of getting there.
Which brings me back to this counter-intuitive narrative of whether individuals will pay more attention to their personal interests than tribal loyalties. I have no idea how this saga will end. But I can assure you, sometime in the next four years, there will be a moment or event when the outcome is revealed.
For what it’s worth.