Columnist Don Robinson: In season of Advent, what can we hope for?

Published: 12/21/2016 9:54:30 PM

Advent, the Christian season that concludes with the winter solstice, is a time of repentance and of hope, in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Believers understand Advent in the context of the history of Israel. Abraham entered into the founding covenant with Yahweh. Moses was the messenger of God’s commandments and leader of the Hebrews’ quest to take possession of the Promised Land. He was followed by Abraham and the founding covenant; by Jacob and the patriarchs; and by the prophets, especially Isaiah, who foresaw “a great light” coming to those who “dwelt in a land of deep darkness;” and by Jeremiah, who proclaimed his vision of a “new covenant” written upon human hearts.

In due course came Jesus, whose birth was attended by angels and shepherds and sages from the East, but whose parents had to flee to Egypt to escape agents of the Roman Empire. Innocent children were slaughtered in a vain attempt to prevent Jesus’ challenge to their tyranny.

Advent comes this year at a particularly vexing time.

President Barack Obama’s administration began eight years ago in an atmosphere of almost giddy expectation. A sense of jubilee was widespread, but it was felt most keenly by Americans of African heritage.

Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 also was a time of testing for American institutions. The global economy was teetering on the brink of collapse. War continued to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president’s legitimacy was challenged by those who believed that he had been born in Kenya.

Immediately, Obama sought to strengthen his political base by appointing as secretary of state the leader of the opposition in his own party, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gradually it became apparent that he would have difficulty mastering the tiger he now rode. Vestiges of Ronald Reagan’s coalition still commanded many of the heights of the American system.

Obama got parts of his health care reform program through Congress (his foes dubbed it “Obamacare,” signaling their unrelenting opposition), and immediately he faced chaos with its implementation. The Supreme Court accepted some of the Affordable Care Act, but tore out some of its delicate architecture.

Soon the court, dominated by justices appointed by Reagan and both Bushes, gutted the long-standing Voting Rights Act and, in the Citizens United decision, overturned decades of bipartisan efforts to reform the nation’s campaign finance laws.

A coalition of state attorneys general mounted a campaign to dismantle his environmental regulations. (The organizer of that effort has been chosen to direct the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Obama’s presidency is limping to its end in a welter of confusion. There are unfulfilled promises (most gallingly, to close Guantanamo), and the achievement of “affordable” health care for millions is under threat of being “repealed and replaced” by hostile majorities in Congress and by the White House.

The final straw in this campaign to deny Obama the fruits of his victories in 2008 and 2012 came when the Senate majority leader, brazenly adding insult to repeated injury, refused even to allow hearings to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace the deceased lion of the right-wing, Antonin Scalia.

Government, Ronald Reagan used to say, is not the solution for what ails us. Government is itself the problem. This formula was brilliant for opposing the incumbent administration in 1980. But it offered little guidance for governing the country.

We demand of presidents, especially at the waning of an era, two things almost impossible to deliver simultaneously: disruption, root and branch, of an existing system that doesn’t work anymore; plus capable administration of a sprawling governmental apparatus.

Is Donald Trump capable of delivering both of those things? The administration he is assembling looks downright bizarre. He has put the economy jointly in the hands of Goldman Sachs executives and Tea Party congressmen. From the back benches of Congress, he has plucked people to “drain the swamp” of official Washington.

People with no professional experience in diplomacy or public bureaucracy have been appointed to lead the national security apparatus. A fierce opponent of the two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute will represent us in Israel.

A senator who failed to pass Senate muster for a judicial appointment has been put in charge of the Department of Justice. A pediatric neurosurgeon will lead the housing and urban development programs, and a Texas politician who was laughed out of the Republican primary campaign four years ago has been named to preside over the nation’s energy complex.

Where is the pattern here? What coherent formula for governing the nation does it reveal? The only clue we have is Trump’s presentation of himself as a showman with a boundless ego, a nonpartisan (until recently) real estate developer who communicates his thoughts in telegraphic tweets. We know he must be smarter than this, but he refuses to reveal what he is really thinking.

At the end of the campaign there was a flood of confusion and misinformation, including interference by Russian agents, FBI Director James Comey’s bizarre performance around the “damned emails,” and the internet serving up a flood of lies and false information. On Nov. 8, voters faced a choice between an experienced hand at making the existing system work and an opponent whose promises made no sense. Through the prism of our bizarre electoral system, the electorate, very narrowly, chose the latter. Given the circumstances and the choices, who could blame us?

We really do need another miracle, another Lincoln to come to the rescue. What are the prospects of that happening? Indeed, will we recognize her if she presents herself?

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