On this Presidents’ Day, let us all take a moment to gaze in awe at the ever-expanding field of 2020 candidates, which now officially includes California Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former New Jersey Rep. John Delaney, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and, of course, President Donald Trump.
The list of as-yet-undeclared Hot Maybes includes former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld; Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown; former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; former New York Mayor and current billionaire Michael Bloomberg; Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam; former Vice President Joe Biden; California Rep. Eric Swalwell; former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley; Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; and probably the surviving cast members from Ben-Hur, I Am Spartacus and Gone With the Wind before all is said and done.
As there are fully 624 days until the aforementioned 2020 presidential election, please allow me to invite the entire concept of “Presidents’ Day” to take a flying copulation at a rolling doughnut in a gravel driveway. Enough already with the presidents and with our obsession with that high and highly corrupted office. Here at Truthout, we observe our own holiday today: Native Sovereignty Day, recognizing the civil rights, human rights and humanity of the many peoples who were damn well here first. Doing so, we acknowledge that in a world without colonial displacement and genocide, the very concept of a “U.S. president” would not, in fact, exist.
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How did we wind up in this bizarre situation? Is our presidential fixation just an ossified holdover from British colonial days, some atavistic and self-destructive yearning to be ruled by an untouchable absolute leader? Is it the God thing, a lazy surrender to the Divine Right of Kings because having no say whatsoever is an easy out in a complex world? Or are we all captives of a mass mainstream news media which loves to cover the presidential horse race because it fills air time and column inches, thus sparing them the grind of actually reporting on policy and substance?
Maybe it’s a combination of the three, or perhaps it is something else entirely, some insidious unseen motivator straight out of an L. Ron Hubbard book. Questions like these are mostly above my pay grade, but I do know this: According to the most recently available data, there are 100 U.S. senators, 435 U.S. representatives, more than 500,000 state and local offices within over 87,000 state and local governments, and only one fa-chrissakes president … yet that one office gets an overwhelming amount of the ink, while the rest do 90 percent of the actual governing in the country.
Yes, the office of the president of the United States is oozing with power, and that is most of the damn problem. Look no further than the historically disgraceful display of gross presidential overreach put forth on Friday by Donald Trump. The nation is now neck-deep in a constitutional crisis because a president, on the eve of Presidents’ Day, decided he didn’t feel like bothering with Article I.
The office of the presidency is itself a recipe for disaster. The things one is required to do in order to attain that exalted position, the gruesome dotted lines one is obliged to sign on, would put a rabid wharf rat off its breakfast. Power does not merely corrupt; it attracts the manifestly corruptible. Volunteering for a job like that, spending an adult lifetime preparing for it, often begging for money from the worst people in the world to fund a campaign that now lasts three years, and all just to get there, evinces a whole file cabinet of character flaws that “hubris” only begins to explain.
Most if not all of the people running for president or considering a run are not the kind of folks you’d want to be stuck in an elevator with. Most if not all of them have already done things you wouldn’t believe, and are preparing to do things they won’t believe until they do them, just to be in a position to possibly grab that brass ring. “No man knows,” said Abraham Lincoln, “when that presidential grub gets to gnawing at him, just how deep it will get until he has tried it.”
Speaking of Lincoln, someone will certainly be at pains to remind me that Presidents’ Day is about honoring the presidents that were, not the ones that are or will be. Let’s chew that cud for a few minutes.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Tyler, James Polk and Zach Taylor were slaveowners. Andrew Jackson was an unrepentant mass murderer. William Henry Harrison didn’t make it to the men’s room. James Buchanan was a compromised fool. Abraham Lincoln had newspaper editors arrested. Andrew Johnson was a racist at the top of his voice. Ulysses Grant stole everything not nailed down. Warren Harding was a scandal factory. Herbert Hoover was trickle-down before it was cool. Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon gave us the gift of Vietnam. Ford pardoned Nixon. Jimmy Carter sowed the seeds of 9/11. Ronald Reagan is the reason everything is awful. George H.W. Bush made it worse. Bill Clinton brought full-spectrum corporate sponsorship to the Democratic Party. George W. Bush oversaw the violent deaths and displacement of millions. Barack Obama maintained the status quo of badness. Donald Trump is an unlettered white nationalist clod who may yet oversee the dissolution of the republic.
That’s 27 of the 45 presidents we have endured. Those gruesome dotted lines have been around since the days when powdered wigs were hip. Precisely what are we celebrating?
Oh, right. Mythology. The scripted, rose-colored lullabies by which we sleep. Folks in this country are a funny lot, by and large. Point out a lie to them and they will usually thank you from their hearts. Crack the veneer of the folklore they hold dear, however, and you’ve made an enemy for life. The population in general is controlled by the fables we are fed with mother’s milk, and things like Presidents’ Day are another brick in that big, beautiful wall. The Mexican government isn’t paying for this one. We buy it dear every day.
Now, some will call me bitter, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t follow most of the presidents I’ve lived through into the water, for a galaxy of well-documented reasons. Their power makes them destructive as a matter of course, an integral and often lucrative part of what is called “doing business.” The power they possess, however, is power we as a people have ceded to them over many grinding years. Governing happens from the bottom up, but all that many choose to see is the apex of the pyramid. It’s time to turn our eyes to the fertile fields of civic participation — where genuine good work can and does happen.
Put it this way: I will never be president, and neither will you. If I ran for city council here in my little town and won, however, I would be able to have an immediate positive impact on the lives of some 26,000 people by making sure the snow is cleared, the roads are fixed, the garbage is collected, the library is well stocked and the hospitals and schools are running as well as they can. None of these actions would ever merit a breaking banner on CNN — “Student Finds Book She Needs at Library, Man Receives Competent Health Care” — but they have a direct effect on lives and commerce. They matter on the ground, right where most everybody lives.
We desperately need more of that, and less past-and-present presidential idolatry. When the time comes, vote your conscience if you so choose. Until then, take your eyes off the apex and focus on the six inches in front of your face. Imagine what good you could do in your own sphere, within reach of your arm. If that kind of thing happens often enough in enough places for a long enough time, it will be revolutionary in the purest sense of the word.
Happy Native Sovereignty Day.