By Rabbi Michael Berk
I once heard a sermon that began with a story of the famous Hasidic rabbi, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav (1772-1810). The story goes something like this: There was once a kingdom ruled by a very wise king. Because there was a prediction that a famine would be coming soon, the king instituted a program to save grain from the years of plenty before the famine struck, and then distribute the grain during the upcoming bad times.
When the famine struck, the king turned to the supply of grain that had been stored, but a terrible discovery was made: something had gone wrong with the grain. Whoever ate it went wildly insane. The realm’s advisors went to the king and told him the dilemma and asked what they should do. The king said this: distribute the grain so that we may eat. But let us never forget that we are mad.
In the tumult of the Donald Trump presidency, with our national lives flooded by lies and distortions, conspiracy theories and the unrelenting insulting and cringe-worthy tweeting by our President, attacking everyone from slain war heroes to dead Republican United States Senators, it’s getting difficult to remember what normal is. Trump attacks everything and everyone that irritates him — including his own government.
During the congressional impeachment hearings we learned something about how America operates in the world. We met the people who represent America all around the world; the men and women who’s task it is to help us understand the world, formulate policy, and then implement those policies.
When we talk about what America does, these are the people who do what it is America does around the world. Most of the time these experts, scholars, and diplomats work tirelessly and practically unknown to the vast majority of American citizens. Just the way they like it.
As part of his program of erasing our memory of normal, Trump has been systematically decimating the ranks of our government, as reported in the New York Times on Nov. 29, in an op-ed reflecting on the heroes who’ve emerged from the government to testify in the hearings (“Trump Has Made Civil Servants Sexy”). The article states that “a steady flow of advisers and employees of agencies ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to the Environmental Protection Agency have resigned in disgust with, or protest of, Mr. Trump’s policies and practices.”
This is an example of how Trump is turning the world up-side-down, and according to the Times, it’s intentional. As Michelle Cottle writes, “Since Day 1, [Trump] has evinced zero respect for his own government and the people who power it. This goes beyond any paranoia about administrative coups. A deep-seated hostility toward government is central to his brand — and his party’s brand more broadly.”
Just a few weeks after Trump was sworn into office, Steve Bannon, at the time a top White House adviser, cited the “deconstruction of the administrative state” as a core principle of the President’s agenda: “Mr. Trump and his appointees have labored to dismantle chunks of the government and drive people out the door, directly and indirectly.”
What Trump has been eliminating is what anyone who’s ever worked in any organization knows is vital: institutional memory (let alone institutional intelligence and ethics).
And that’s perhaps the real danger of the Trump presidency — that we will forget what institutional integrity is; what righteous leadership is like; what morality and decency in politics is like. The danger is that we will forget how our own government is supposed to operate — at least in terms of morality and ethics. I worry that we will forget what normal is.
We may have to endure the Trump presidency; but let us never forget that we are mad.
Michael Berk is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.
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