We are living a Brock Lovett moment.
Brock Lovett? Reel your memory back a quarter century. Summon the most dramatic moment in the 1997 film “Titanic.” And recall what Brock Lovett, the “treasure hunter” played by Bill Paxton who searched for sunken ships, had to say about the captain of the doomed vessel:
Twenty-six years of experience working against him. He figures anything big enough to sink the ship, they’re gonna see in time to turn. The ship’s too big with too small a rudder. It doesn’t corner worth a damn. Everything he knows is wrong.
This summer, we are all the captain of the Titanic. Not that we are rearranging the deck chairs on the planet, though there’s plenty reason to think that. Rather, we all are living that last sentence, ourselves vulnerable to those last five words: Everything we knew is wrong.
Here are some of the things we “knew” when summer began:
-- Like the great ship, abortion rights are doomed in states with huge Trump majorities.
Not so. Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden by nearly 15 percentage points in Kansas, which has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once -- for Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide -- since 1940. Both its senators and all but one of its House members are Republicans. Trump won Kansas in 2020 with 56.18% of the vote. Tuesday’s vote against banning abortion was even bigger than the Trump margin: 58.8%. Everything we thought we knew was wrong.
-- Joe Manchin will never make a deal.
Not so. Sen. Manchin is a Democrat in a state that Trump carried two years ago with nearly 69% of the vote -- a huge margin, 9 percentage points above the informal definition of an American political landslide -- making West Virginia, which was Trump’s best state in 2016, his second-best state in 2020, behind only Wyoming. A former governor of the second-biggest coal-producing state (again, behind Wyoming) and an investor in coal companies himself, it was not irrational politically for Manchin to balk at climate legislation. But -- albeit with substantial concessions to fossil-fuel interests -- he signed on to the most significant legislation to fight global-warming in history. Everything we thought we knew was wrong, which leads us to the next half-truth:
-- The United States doesn’t have the resolve to address climate change.
Not so. The legislation Manchin likely has made possible will provide tax credits for solar panels and wind turbines, incentives for Americans to buy electric vehicles, and consumer subsidies for high-efficiency heat pumps. All while assessing penalties to companies with leaking oil and gas wells and cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
-- At a time when Democrats needed unity, the speaker of the House would never defy the president of her own party.
Not so. Nancy Pelosi has been a reliable ally to the Biden White House. She has tried to keep the progressives at the left edge of her party pacified when the president’s proposals didn’t meet their sense of urgency. She has maneuvered Biden’s priorities through the House despite a slim Democratic majority. And yet there she was the other day, in defiance of every signal from the administration that her appearance in Taiwan was needlessly provocative to the Chinese and thus in collision with American foreign policy.
Despite Richard Nixon’s willingness to jeopardize the status of the Republic of China, the survival of Taiwan separate from the mainland has traditionally been a GOP talking point. It was slightly incongruous for a leading Democrat, even one who has been an unusually strong voice on Taiwan, to appear in the island nation’s parliament. And while we might applaud her sentiment -- “We don’t want anything to happen to Taiwan by force” -- we also might question her judgment.
-- Nothing the Jan. 6 committee could do would make a difference.
Not so. The committee, consisting of seven Democratic foes of Trump and two Republican renegades, had every potential to devolve into a partisan dud, a parade of denunciations of the 45th president that the former president and his GOP allies easily could dismiss as a “witch hunt,” which is precisely the term Trump has employed. No matter. The hearings have provided gripping television -- that’s what happens when you hire a TV executive to “produce” them -- and have eroded Trump’s support. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken before the eighth, and most devastating, hearing found that 40% of Republicans now believe Trump was at least partially responsible for the Capitol Hill insurrection. That is a marked increase from 33% who believed that six weeks earlier. Which brings us to our next “truth”:
-- Nothing that Trump could do would alienate his allies in the Murdoch media empire.
Not so. Fox didn’t broadcast Trump’s Arizona speech -- when he teased the audience about running for president again two years from now -- live; instead it aired an interview with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is regarded as the biggest threat to Trump’s renomination for the 2024 presidential contest. Nor did it broadcast his remarks to the conservative America First Agenda Summit live, though it did broadcast live the speech from former Vice President Mike Pence, who has shown every indication he will seek the White House even if his onetime boss runs for a second term.
But that’s not all. The New York Post, ordinarily considered an important Trump backer, issued a blistering editorial, arguing, “as a matter of principle, as a matter of character, Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.” Even more devastating may have been the editorial from The Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch’s most prestigious property. In an editorial titled “The President Who Stood Still on Jan. 6,” the Journal said, “Character is revealed in a crisis, and Mr. Pence passed his Jan. 6 trial. Mr. Trump utterly failed his.”
This is a period in which expertise has been undermined and universal expectations defied. There has been a cost to the former even as there have been some surprising uplifting elements to the latter. But this summer is a potent reminder of one of the principal tenets of modern American life: The conventional wisdom isn’t always wise. Columnists, and their wise readers, should remember that.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.