Can We Learn Anything?

Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 3, 2021

Donald Trump’s obsessions over Winning While Losing are giving way to a new American obsession — trying to make sense of the Trump years.

Whether through The New York Times’ thorough review of the 77 days of Trump plotting from bad news after Election Day to worse news of an anti-democratic insurrection or the various news forays into reconstructingthe vacant planning efforts by Team Trump in handling coronavirus, we’re consumed with trying to understand how bad things got.

In fact, we seem more content with tracking through the errors again and again than in looking forward to handle the issues we still face.

Beyond that, we are repeatedly showing that we resist learning from our history altogether — choosing too often to accept opinion that conforms with our world view to taking in information that may present a challenge. That, of course, is what history or even journalism as a first draft of history is all about.

Still, apparently we are content to simmer in our partisan silos, lobbing explosive talk — or physical threats — at one another, as if that will make disease leave, or jobs return or speak to racism, hate and division.

The twinned efforts by the White House to obsess on finding election fraud and overturning election results while ignoring the rising American death toll from coronavirus still seem to astound us rather than to intensify efforts to deal with both.

Even as we learn more details of White House coordination to keep the fraud pot boiling until it burst, we also keep discovering that the Trump administration went out of its way to worsen Covid. This week, STAT, a health news site, for example, told us that top Trump officials actively lobbied Congress to deny state governments any extra funding for vaccine rollout despite frantic warnings from the states.

It’s far more serious than Team Trump neglect. Trump went out of their way in both crises to make them worse.

And now, just as Trump sits in Florida with hundreds of millions of dollars and accepts the fealty of Republican officials who still want his disgraced blessings, we know that he will emerge unscathed from both — even if he faces personal legal issues from unrelated tax probes.

That Trump now somehow wants his replacement legal team to defend inciting a riot as unintended results of election fraud just underscores and continues the backwards look. A impeachment conviction would set the record straight; a Senate vote letting Trump off the hook just promises years of simmering hotness.

Why look back?

Of course, the whole point of looking back is supposed to be better understanding, a chance to learn from our mistakes.

And it’s not all about Trump, for sure.

There were news stories and investigations this week looking at Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, and whatever bungling nursing home death numbers New York State reported early in the Spring, or New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio’s ineptness at handling issues from schools to homelessness.

What we found out in state attorney general report was that Cuomo’s health folks misclassified deaths of nursing home patients as hospital deaths, based on the location of death, creating a perception that Cuomo low-balled nursing home deaths — as if there was some kind of political gain to be had by doing so. But the learning aspects of whatever mistakes went on with this report leave me pretty baffled; altering the classification doesn’t change the number of deaths, not set a better course for the future.

It’s a reminder that we do want to learn from mistakes or bad policy, not just look back as if we were able to re-run the tape differently.

So, what do we learn about Trump’s last three months in office through these continuing reports? Setting aside the procedural question of whether Trump can be impeached after his time ran out, how should these details guide the impeachment trial — were it a true judgment process and not such a predisposed, partisan affair?

First, Trump was in the escalating fraud business from the first moment to the last. The details of anti-democratic moves to alter election results, to illegally suborn state officials into doing his partisan political bidding, of fallacious challenges all serve as evidence of his intent leading to the riot that he personally helped orchestrate. Secondly, there is plenty of evidence that people tried to warn him off an increasingly illegal and dangerous path. More evidence that should point to intent.

What Should We Learn?

Practically, details of these reviews of Trump’s time from election on should push us to pin accountability on those who broke the law.

As usual, it will only for those red-hatted MAGA rioters at the bottom of the food chain. We already are seeing that Republican lawmakers who lent credence and leadership are escaping without punishment, still crowing over their need to suppress the votes of political enemies.

We ought to be learning something about dealing with realties rather than fantasies. But in a world in which Sean Hannity and friends declare an opposing set of facts for every issue, that seems unlikely. The forward path for a much more aggressive path on vaccines by the new Biden administration seems slightly better, if still plagued by logistical difficulties. Still, we have anti-vaxx protesters in Los Angeles going out to block the entry to the Dodger Stadium stopping vaccines for others. There’s still a whole lot of learning needed.

It’s always good to have the details of our recent history in place — if we can agree to accept them as true.

At the moment, it is difficult to see either an agreement on what already happened or what should be happening next.