Was the firing of Steve Bannon just another effort to distract us?

 

Donald Trump has had a couple of awful weeks, all self-inflicted wounds. By Friday, his presidency seemed to be spiraling out of control in the aftermath of his morally obtuse defense of the actions of white supremacists and Nazis at Charlottesville. Prominent business leaders moved to separate themselves from his administration. Republican elected officials openly criticized his remarks. Even some members of the White House staff seemed stunned by his comments. The image of General John Kelly, his new chief of staff, squirming and looking incredibly uncomfortable at Trump’s press conference, may have said even more than the torrent of editorials and press criticism that rained down on the President.

At this moment, however, the story dominating the headlines is the firing of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.  Depending on your perspective, Bannon had been Trump’s puppet master, the architect of the Administration’s right-wing nationalist agenda, a shameless self-promoter, the brains behind Trump’s bluster, or some combination of the above.  Many conservatives have seen him as their man in the White House while liberals have almost universally regarded him as an evil Svengali and have called for his removal from Day One of the Trump Presidency.

Rumors have been swirling for days if not weeks that Bannon would soon be forced out.  After all, he kept getting the kind of praise and attention that Trump can’t stand to see anyone else receiving.  Kelly’s appointment, intended to bring order to the chaos of the White House, suggested that there wouldn’t be room for both of them.  According to press coverage, Kelly pushed Trump to get rid of Bannon.

Amidst the celebrations, including the gloating, about Bannon’s firing, a critical question remains however: what exactly has changed?

Trump has not retracted, modified or disavowed his position on “both sides” being responsible for the violence in Charlottesville.  He continues to show no appreciation of the historical significance of the Nazis, the KKK or the fact that the Civil War was fought primarily to determine whether slavery would continue to exist.  He still sees “good people” among those marching in Charlottesville with guns, clubs and symbols of hatred and bigotry.  He continues to show more concern for the fate of Confederate statues than the welfare of American citizens.

The President still has his twitter account.  He is still a narcissist with little or no impulse control.  He still resists being briefed on world issues. His relationship with Congress continues to worsen just as a series of critical issues–raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget, trying to reform the tax system–have fast approaching deadlines with no clear path to resolution.

And in case you had forgotten in the most recent avalanche of news, Trump still has Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether his campaign knew about and collaborated with the Russians, and, perhaps more ominously for the President, what financial relationships Trump has had with Russians.

Let’s also remember that Kim Jong-un still has nuclear weapons, ISIS is still in Syria and Iraq, and this country’s longest war still rages in Afghanistan.  All of these hot spots pose major challenges to the Preident regardless of where Steve Bannon is.

Bannon certainly encouraged Trump to always cater to a base that responds positively to calls for a wall between the United States and Mexico, that cheers his Muslim ban, and that sleeps better at night believing that there is no place in the US military for transgender Americans and no sympathy for members of the LBGQT community.  Every indication we have so far is that Trump really didn’t need convincing to adopt those positions.  Don’t expect a kinder and gentler Trump now that Bannon has left the White House.

To what extent Bannon is really gone is not all that clear either.  Do you remember when Corey Lewandowski was fired as the head of Trump’s presidential campaign?  He continues to talk regularly with Trump, is seen  wandering the halls of the White House and has made a lot of money promising his clients special access to the President.  Does anyone really believe that things will be any different with Bannon?

At the end of the day, Bannon’s departure from the White House is more smoke than fire.  There will not be a new Trump as a result.  Moreover, Bannon will feel even less constrained back at Breitbart to advocate for his extreme views and attack anyone whom he sees as an obstacle, including prominent Republicans.  And just as Trump was incapable of criticizing the racists and anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville, he will continue to treat Bannon as a kindred soul, a “good person” who happens to be spewing hate.

 

Writing about Donald Trump

 

The President is both the problem and the distraction. Thousands of words are written about him every day but it’s hard to determine what significance, if any, they have. We are caught between the Scylla of paying too much attention to every word he utters and the Charybdis of treating his unhinged behavior as normal.

When future historians look back at the times we are currently living through, they will not need to say that there were no voices raised in protest.  Nor will they think that no one warned of the dangers Trump posed to the American constitutional system and to the norms keeping politics within fairly reasonable boundaries over the years up to 2016.

They will instead have the daunting challenge of figuring out why so many Americans were unmoved by the warnings. Historians will ask why large groups of citizens were willing to take a leap into a totally unfamiliar future based on Trump’s unreliable promises and his appeals to the worst in human nature.

There are some clues already available.  We were a deeply divided, indeed polarized, country even before Trump announced his campaign for president.  Now it appears that we don’t even agree on  facts because we rely on different information sources with little or no overlap.  His attacks on the media and on “fake news” are likely to diminish our ability to find common political ground long after he has departed the public arena.

Moreover, there seems to be an enormous gap in this country about how to define self-interest, a concept that has been central to political analysis throughout history.  Critics of Hillary Clinton’s campaign slammed her for not having an economic message that reached out to working class whites  left behind by the global economy.  However, numerous studies have argued that many of those voters are less moved by economic interests than by social issues, especially coded or symbolic ones.  Trump supporters continue to respond to his call to build a wall and to ban Muslims from entering the United States even as coal and manufacturing jobs show no sign of returning.

I regularly read some of the smartest and most thoughtful columnists working today.  While Trump has certainly provided them with a steady stream of materials to write about, many must feel as if they are trapped in an endless loop where nothing changes despite their best efforts.  We are living in an Age of Sisyphus where the rock keeps rolling back down the hill.

The New York Times’ David Brooks recently wrote a column entitled “Getting Trump Out of My Brain.” His goal was “to spend less time thinking about Trump the soap opera and more time on questions that surround the Trump phenomena and this moment of history.”  It’s a challenge that a lot of smart presidential observers are struggling with and achieving only limited success.  It may be, however, the crucial question to pursue.

Trump’s most recent rant threatening North Korea with unprecedented “fire and fury” illustrates the challenge.  The cynic might view his bellicose language as just another instance of his lack of impulse control or, alternatively, as a deviously clever way to distract everyone from the Russia investigation.  And while we have been cautioned on numerous occasions to not take his words literally, what if Kim Jong-un does?

We may be too deep into our current situation to be able to make much sense of it.  The search for historical precedents for his presidency has provided neither insight nor comfort.  We do know that his campaign struck an emotional chord with many Americans and that some percentage of those continue to enthusiastically support him.

One report which underscores that reality is a poll showing that over 50% of Republicans would agree to cancel the 2020 Presidential Election if Trump claimed that the results would be rigged against him.  Even if you don’t believe that a nuclear war with North Korea is imminent, you should be terrified that so many of your fellow citizens have that opinion.

I have neither the audience nor the skill of Tom Friedman,  E.J. Dionne, Trudy Rubin or Michael Gerson.  In offering commentary on the Trump presidency, I am searching for the words to help me understand the Trump phenomenon as well as to express my concerns and even my outrage at what is happening to our country.  At times, friends have thanked me for putting their thoughts into words and for reminding them that they are not alone.  I am grateful for that feedback, but have not figured out how to expand my reach beyond the choir.

And, like Sisyphus, I sometimes feel like I am writing the same column over and over again with only the words rearranged.  Beating your head into a wall is not a productive political exercise, but neither is standing idly by as the political system is hijacked.

Are We All Living in a Dystopian Novel?

Much of the time, Donald Trump seems more a dark caricature of a president than the real thing. People use all sorts of metaphors to describe his bizarre behavior in office, including references to psychological disorders, comparisons to fascist dictators of past history and, of course, reality television shows.

None of these has been quite sufficient. During his campaign for president, he kept doing things that analysts agreed were the “last straw”, surely the breaking point in his effort to win the nomination. Since he took office in January, numerous events have been described as the worst day or worst week of his presidency, yet they keep coming. There is, as best anyone can tell, no bottom to what Trump is capable of doing.

Trump’s shortcomings have been well catalogued.  He came to the job never having served in either public office or the military.  He is stunningly ignorant about even the most basic information regarding issues, law and policy, the lives of others, or the rest of the world.  Worse yet, he shows no interest in learning.  Trump substitutes lies and bluster for knowledge and perspective.

The words “chaos”, “dysfunctional” and “incompetent” have become increasingly the language to describe this Administration.  It’s apparent that  Trump isn’t really interested in governing.  While some might take comfort in that realization and in the disarray that characterizes everything that the White House does, there is a much greater danger lurking below the surface.

What Trump does care about is holding power, not being perceived as weak–note all his references to others laughing at the United States or at Republican Senators–and not being unmasked as the fraud that he is.  He is not going to go quietly into the night.  He will pull down the entire edifice of government before he allows himself to be humiliated.

The most serious transgression thus far has been Trump’s attack on the constitutional system.  Whether or not you agree with “originalists” about the correct way to interpret our founding document, the reality is that our political system relies upon much more than just a piece of paper written in 1787.  It’s also history, Supreme Court decisions, precedent, compromise, norms and civility.

Trump has unleashed an all-out attack on our entire system.  He disregarded years of accepted practice when he refused to share his income tax returns.  He violated the spirit of the law when he brought unqualified family members into senior positions in government.  He views Congress as an annoyance rather than a co-equal branch of government.   Although his firing of James Comey may not constitute  obstruction of justice, it is certainly a blatant trampling of the independence of the Federal Bureau of  Investigation.

Every political observer on the planet is watching to see what will be the next attack.  Will he fire Special Council Robert Mueller?  Will he replace Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein at the Department of Justice?  If he takes those steps and there isn’t an immediate move to impeach him, we really will be entering dystopian territory.

American presidents have enormous powers.  Practices that have evolved since the Constitution was originally written have greatly increased those powers.  The revered system of checks and balances is far from automatic.  It only works when those in office recognize that there are limits on their powers and other officials in the political system place a higher value on the country and the Constitution than they do on personal loyalty to the president.

It’s not surprising that Trump can demand and received subservience from White House officials.  As members of his personal staff, they serve at his pleasure. If they don’t respond as he wishes, he can replace them and bring in world-class sycophants.  There is no one working there now–neither the relatives nor the generals–who is an effective restraining force.  The first six months of his presidency should have made that totally clear to everyone.

Before Trump took office, some observers saw signs of latent fascism and suggested comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini.  That Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism led others to conclude that, therefore, he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic and, thus, wasn’t a fascist.

A better place to look, however, is the psychological literature on authoritarian personalities.  When you examine the characteristics of this personality type, Trump comes across as a textbook example.  Joseph Stalin in the 1930s offers a clearer analogy.  That was the period of his greatest paranoia, of his purges of people in the army and the communist party whose loyalty Stalin doubted.  Sound familiar?

Trump acknowledges no limits on his power.  He is, in many respects, a shrewd analyst of human nature, a skilled manipulator of public opinion and a person who defines everything in terms of the impact on him.  He has no allegiance to the American political system, to fundamental values or to anyone else.  He will do anything to hold on to power.

The “novel” in which we find ourselves today doesn’t need to have a dystopian ending, but it could.  The next few months are likely to be critical.  The future of American democracy depends on Trump being held accountable by Congress, the Courts and the political system.  He is a dangerous man and it’s time for even his supporters to realize that he’s also a fake who has no interest in delivering on any of his promises.  Whether the political system which has evolved over 230 years can hold him remains to be seen.

 

 

It’s Almost 2018

 

Donald Trump has managed to disrupt many of our conventional notions about the world of politics.  Bad things are happening so fast and so frequently that it’s hard to know which ones should get our attention. More significantly, the relatively trivial distractions are difficult to ignore because they seem so outrageous.  Trumps flagrantly disregards conventions, norms, rules, laws–and the truth.

Despite his claims about how incredibly successful his presidency has been in the first six months, the reality is that he has created an unstable and dangerous mess. Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have already done great damage to this country, damage which would be even worse if they weren’t so incompetent.

The international situation–whether you are thinking of China, Russia, North Korea, the Middle East, or our relationships with our traditional allies–is spinning out of control. Largely by executive action, this administration is jeopardizing the future of the planet by undoing environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. Trump, ironically, seems to have little understanding of what he is doing and cares even less. His erratic posturing on health care legislation would be laughable if the risks weren’t so great.

And we haven’t even gotten to a serious discussion about his budget proposal which would devastate what is left of the safety net for the poor and disadvantaged, dramatically reduce enforcement of many protections that the government by law is required to provide, and ultimately offload all sorts of commitments onto state and local governments.

In response to these cataclysmic events, what is the average citizen to do? Political activism is at its highest level since the 1960s. Pressure on members of Congress impacted the deliberations over the McConnell healthcare bill. Republican legislators, when they go to their home districts, are either hiding or facing angry constituents. Much of the media has recovered from the nap it took during the presidential election campaign and is now increasingly focusing a sharp light on the actions of the president. And late night comics have never had so much material to work with.

However, Trump is still the president and the hardest core of his base continues to support him and to see the world through orange-tinted glasses. Those hoping for impeachment proceedings or invoking of the 25th Amendment are almost certainly going to be disappointed. Few Republicans have shown the courage to stand up to Trump or to place a higher loyalty to country than party.

Until November 2018, the best hope is to contain the damage caused by this president. Nothing good is going to happen.  Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will continue to try to increase the wealth of the rich at the expense of the poor. Jeff Sessions will continue to support efforts to disenfranchise voters. Environmental safeguards will continue to be dismantled. And the list will go on.

The only hope to reverse the tide of destruction is for Democrats to turn out in record numbers in the 2018 election and regain control of the House and the Senate. We don’t have to decide who the Democratic Presidential nominee will be in 2020 to succeed in 2018. Neither is it essential to have universal agreement on the precise language of the Democratic “message.” It is, however, critical that there be a unified party working together for a common goal rather than one mired down in intramural battles over personal grievances.

It’s time to stop arguing about whether Hillary Clinton was the right candidate in 2016 or about what could have been done differently. That was the last war. Now it is time to fight the next one.

To be sure, there has to be an economic message. As Trump showed last time, however, it doesn’t need to be too detailed or too complicated. But it’s not enough to say that Trump and the Republicans are awful, although that will certainly motivate some voters. Democrats must offer a message that resonates with the real-world concerns of voters.

My personal view is that it is much more effective to turn out committed Democrats, many of whom have historically stayed home in off-year elections, than it is to put much effort into trying to convert Trump supporters. If they continue to insist on believing that coal jobs are coming back, there’s no argument that will ever convince them. Don’t call them deplorables,  do campaign in places that have had Republican majorities, but don’t count on winning the election there.

The 2016 outcome was a surprise, but it was also close.  Politics is always messy, parties are rarely well-organized and even hindsight is not always terribly clear.  Democrats will not in a single election overcome the years of neglect of state and local races, but they do have the chance to turn 2018 into a wave election, a political tsunami, that gets the country back on the road to sanity, decency and hope.

2018 may be the last best hope to save American democracy.  Democratic control of Congress may be the only thing that can stop Trump, Sessions and Russian hackers from manipulating–stealing–the 2020 Presidential election.  As awful as the current situation is, that really could be the end of democracy in America.

A New Partisan Divide: Higher Education

 

We have become increasingly used to sharp differences of opinion between Democrats and Republicans. While the 2016 Presidential Election was the most consequential demonstration that our country is deeply polarized, there are more and more examples, some of them new and surprising.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in early June that showed fundamental differences by party affiliation in opinion about major institutions in the county.  The findings support other research that shows we are more likely to live close to people with similar political orientations, more likely to socialize with them and, increasingly, to obtain our news about the world from sources that have filtered it to meet our pre-existing views.

The Pew study showed clear divides in Democratic and Republican views about banks, churches, labor unions and the media.  While the most recent poll reflected a widening of the gaps between how party identifiers view these institutions, the overall assessments followed historical patterns that have been around for a while.

Not true for higher education.  The 2017 numbers are stunning, grounds for serious head scratching.  As recently as two years ago, Republicans saw the impact of colleges and universities as positive rather than negative by 54% to 37%.  Since then, support among the GOP for higher education has fallen off the table.  This year’s poll has only 36% of Republicans viewing colleges and universities as positive as opposed to 54% who view them negatively.  In every single demographic category that the poll examined, the level of support dropped significantly.

To underscore the contrast, Democrats, who have always held a highly positive view about higher education, support colleges and universities in this most recent survey by 72% to 19%.  The overall positive balance, 55% to 36%, highlights both the chasm between the parties and the hazards of looking only at overall poll numbers without examining the sub-categories.

This dramatic turnabout by Republicans is at first glance really puzzling.  Higher education has long been touted as the path to economic and social advancement in the United States.  The stories of parents sacrificing to enable their children to attend college are a cherished part of the American narrative.  And if the past weren’t significant enough, the reality of a global economy and international competition argue even more urgently for the importance of higher education.

Unraveling the numbers requires, by necessity, a certain amount of speculation.  Let me suggest three factors that may contribute to the new Republican antipathy to higher education.  None can stand alone as a total explanation and all of them require acknowledgement that the attitude is held by some Republicans despite being contrary to their self-interest.

For a number of years, the party of Donald Trump–he may have taken control only in 2016, but the party was clearly waiting for him to arrive–has been engaged in a war against science and facts.  Rejecting the overwhelming consensus among scientists about the threat to the planet of climate change is the most visible but hardly the only example.

Data about the impact of gun ownership on public safety is routinely and aggressively rejected.  The benefits of preventive health care and of a single-payer insurance system are attacked as socialism without more than a glance at the facts pointing to both dramatic health and financial benefits that would accrue .  This list could be much longer, but the common thread is a systematic rejection of science and facts.

The logical–in some worlds–next step is to turn against the institution in our society that is one of the major transmitter of science and facts.  The logic is very similar to that employed to attack the “mainstream media.”  Some Republicans rationalize their attacks by arguing that colleges are actually partisan institutions fostering radical ideas and a Democratic agenda.  Citing examples of individual faculty who openly espouse progressive views, they jump to sweeping generalizations without ever having been on any college campus other than the one they attended.

A second factor to consider springs from the success that Donald Trump has had in appealing to white working class individuals who are struggling in the changing economy.  For that segment of the Republican base, colleges are elite institutions pampering the children of the upper class.  Never mind that those students include the children of more affluent Republicans with whom they have joined in support of Donald Trump.  Regardless of the reasons that they didn’t go on to higher education, their perspective is often one of resentment rather than lost opportunities.

When Bernie Sanders proposed debt-free college and Hillary Clinton eventually supported the idea during the campaign, JD Vance’s “hillbillies” saw that as yet another reason to vote Republican and to show their disdain for higher education.

Moreover, many of them have not had positive experiences when they ventured into a college.  Some students were bilked by for-profit institutions that charged them a lot of money and gave them nothing of value.  It is another irony of the Trump Administration that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to loosen the rules on the very institutions which prey most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged.

Amy Goldstein’s brilliant study of Paul Ryan’s hometown, Janesville, points out another source of grievances.  Training programs in community colleges turned out to make little or no difference to those people trying to restart their lives after the local GM plant closed.

The third factor on my list is the growing politicization of issues across the board.  This one actually may cut across the other two explanations.  If partisanship is the primary motivating force for many Republicans, the specific issue doesn’t really matter.

Go back to two issues that I mentioned earlier–climate change and health care–that have become matters of Republican orthodoxy.  When not a single Republican member of the U.S. Senate is willing to acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, it suggests that the facts really don’t matter; sticking with your party is the only thing that matters.  Similarly, being willing to vote for a health care bill that harms millions of your own constituents is hard to understand other than as an exercise in party loyalty.

What the Pew study may really show is that Republicans are coalescing around opposition to higher education primarily as a way of showing party cohesion.  The other factors I described were part of the conversation that led to the incredible shift from their historical support for an institution that has been one of the keys to success in America.  It’s far from the only instance in which the Republican Party is placing partisan politics over benefit to the country and, more cynically, to their own supporters.

 

A Message, A Message, My Party for a Message

 

Democrats are particularly good at navel gazing, but sometimes angst has a basis in facts and data. Recent electoral history, with the major exception of Barack Obama’s presidential victories in 2008 and 2012, has not been good for Democrats. Despite all the talk that the country’s shifting demographics were on their side, Democrats have been losing elections, sometimes by narrow margins, but still losing.

Liberal optimism was at a high right after Obama’s first win and the incredible outpouring of joy in Grant Park on Election Night 2008. Was a new coalition that would shape politics for decades being built? Were we entering the post-racial phase of our country’s history? Would Obama’s remarkable story inspire a new generation of public-spirited candidates?

Optimism, it turns out, is not enough. During the Obama presidency, Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, lost hundreds of state legislative seats and lost gubernatorial races in states they once dominated. As if all of that wasn’t disheartening enough, Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election and Republicans maintained their edge in both the House and the Senate.

During that campaign and since, the predominant Democratic “message” to voters has been focussed on how horrible and dangerous and vulgar and petty Donald Trump is. Despite the accuracy of all of those pronouncements, it has had little or no impact on Republican voters who continue to support their party and Trump even though they have doubts about him.

After the recent–and fourth consecutive–loss in a special Congressional election in Georgia, the gnashing of teeth among Democrats reached a fever pitch. So much money and hope were attached to the candidacy of Jon Ossoff, and yet he lost.

Was he less than a stellar candidate? Was the specter of Nancy Pelosi and her “San Francisco values”, as Republican ads constantly reminded voters, too much? Did Republican voters decline to connect Trump’s problems to Congressional candidate Karen Handle? Or was the district too much of a long-shot from the start to justify the inflated expectations?

The answer to those questions is yes.

When you put together the long string of losses, many people wonder if the Democratic Party needs to rethink its core message.  Or, to put the matter more starkly, does the Party, which seems to be adrift without a clear mission, need to develop and publicize a core message?

Lots of thoughtful people have analyzed the problem.  Their well-written commentaries all seem to fall short, however, of offering a direction for the future.  It has to be more than attacking Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.  It has to be more than listening to white working class voters who have been displaced by economic change.  It has to be more than doubling down on identity politics.

The most frequent refrain is that Democrats need to focus on crafting an economic message and on the creation of jobs in the new economy.  What that means in terms of specific policy proposals is not clear in any of the commentary.  New clean energy jobs?  Sure, even if right now we are conceding leadership in that field to the Chinese.  New high-tech manufacturing jobs?  Sure, as long as you have the education and skills and recognize that there won’t be nearly as many of those jobs as there were in traditional manufacturing.

Another approach might be to try to “out promise” Donald Trump.  We’ll bring back even more coal jobs.  We’ll reopen the auto plants that have been shut down.  We’ll make America the leading producer of steel in the world.  Forget that.  He’s a much better liar than any candidate the Democrats might produce.

Moreover, Trump has grabbed many of the emotional hot-button issues that have a stronger appeal to some voters than economic self-interest.  A Muslim ban?  A wall between Mexico and the United States?  Cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood?  Free guns for everyone?  Part of developing a new Democratic message has to include sticking to a set of core values and not merely pandering for the sake of votes.

Where does that leave the Democratic Party?  A lot of smart people are hunting for the magic message.  While I haven’t found it either, I have a few thoughts on the path to take.

First of all, the “Yellow Brick Road” goes through state and local elections.  Building a cadre of candidates, regaining control of the legislative districting process and mobilizing local citizen energy and enthusiasm are all essential to the revitalization of the Democratic Party.  The effort in a number of different states to recruit more women as candidates is a hopeful and encouraging step.

Second, changing leadership at the top of the party–elevating a new generation of activists–can’t be put off any longer.  I agree that Nancy Pelosi has, as she recently declared, remarkable political skills.  It’s still time for her to move on and so must the group of officials who have dominated the Democratic Party for decades.

As another example, which can be replicated in many parts of the country, the cynicism I constantly hear about Philadelphia’s Democratic establishment–that’s you, Bob Brady–is a clarion call for change.  Repeatedly supporting candidates who commit felonies or engage in unprofessional acts, being unable to turn out enough voters in key elections, and generally being unresponsive to most constituents have undercut what little credibility they once had.

Finally, on this short list, don’t learn the wrong lessons from the recent string of electoral defeats.  Should Democrats veer left and become the party of Bernie Sanders?  While that’s certainly the dream of some activists, there’s little evidence that there are enough votes on that end of the political spectrum to produce a winning coalition.

Another temptation is to conclude that neither a woman nor a minority candidate can win the next national election.  The backlash toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by a segment of the electorate doesn’t mean that most voters are close-minded.  The field of candidates shouldn’t be limited to white males although neither should they be excluded.

How do these steps help the Democratic Party identify a message that resonates with voters?  At the risk of intra-party conflict and some bumps on the road, the answer may lie in a more inclusive process. This involves listening to voters, avoiding reflex responses to ideas that don’t sound familiar and, without jettisoning core values, being willing to reconsider old truths that may not hold up so well anymore.

That’s what Emmanuel Macron was able to do in France, establishing a political movement and then a new party that now dominates French politics.  That’s what an upstart group was able to do in Barcelona, creating a grassroots model that is being examined by activists in many other countries.  That’s what Indivisible is trying to do in the United States, providing tools and strategy to local political organizations.

A better, stronger Democratic message will result from the political engagement of concerned citizens, not from a focus-group tested draft produced by a bunch of long-term insiders.  It may be messy, but it is a necessity if we are to address the anger, division and exclusion felt by so many today.

 

 

Greedy and Mean-Spirited

 

Initial reactions to the Senate version of Trumpcare have been overwhelmingly negative. The proposal, drafted behind closed doors, has been described accurately as a giant transfer of money from the poor to the rich.  Another assessment viewed it as a fundamental attack on Medicaid, a health safety net for one out of every five Americans.

While the specifics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bill may not have been totally predictable, the mean-spirited approach certainly was. Everything the Republican majority has attempted for a long time has demonstrated a callous indifference, even hostility, to the poor and disadvantaged in this country and a fawning obsession with shifting still more resources to those few who already have way more than they need.

Why do the most wealthy citizens of the United States need another tax break?  As countless studies have shown,  the last two decades have yielded a growing concentration of wealth in this country.  We are increasingly defined by inequality, two nations not one.  The so-called Republican healthcare bill would accelerate and exacerbate those patterns.

Is there any justification for another transfer of wealth to the wealthy?  Republicans continue to trot out the claim that the wealthy are job creators, that “supply side” economics–the theory that money will trickle down to the less fortunate–will create dynamic economic growth.  This ignores the fact that past efforts have all failed.  The massive tax cuts under Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush led to enormous budget deficits, not to an economic stimulus.

The real explanation is that too many wealthy people are greedy for more and more and Republican lawmakers, who count on a steady flow of campaign contributions, are more than eager to accommodate them. It’s a perverse system that is steadily eroding the foundations of representative democracy.

The other half of the equation, robbing the poor to give to the rich, is equally confounding.  Notwithstanding the populist appeal of Donald Trump, Republicans basically don’t like poor people.  Wrapping themselves in what they, in an incredible display of arrogance, view as the moral high ground of ending “dependence on government support”, much of the GOP holds anyone who isn’t rich totally responsible for their own problems.  If only they had been smart enough to inherit millions of dollars, they could join the club.

Republican mean-spiritedness is not focussed solely on the poor in their newest version of income redistribution masquerading as a healthcare bill.  Hostility to any measure that benefits the health of women is a well-established Republican tenet.  The Party leaders may bemoan the epidemic of opioid addiction, but this newest proposal will provide less treatment rather than more.  That 23 million people will end up without health insurance if their mean-spirited bill is enacted into law really is, similarly, of no concern. Continue reading “Greedy and Mean-Spirited”

Beyond “Hillbilly Elegy”

“Hillbilly Elegy”, JD Vance’s memoir of a dysfunctional Appalachian family, on the New York Times Best Seller list for 44 weeks and counting, offered a trendy explanation for Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election. If only Democrats had paid more attention to white working class voters devastated by economic change, the outcome might have been different.

Vance is a gifted writer with a great personal story who introduces us to some fascinating characters in his book.  He is certainly correct that Hillary Clinton’s campaign largely ignored the voters who Vance described, but he fails to offer a thoughtful discussion of what it would have taken to persuade his hillbillies to resist the siren song of Trump.

To be sure, Vance is not the first person to explore the reasons for why working class voters have been abandoning the Democratic Party.  Thomas Frank, in 2004, posited in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” that residents of the state, rather than voting their economic self-interest, were being distracted by Republicans appealing to them on social issues like abortion and opposition to gay rights.  The tanking of the Kansas economy under ultra-conservative Governor Sam Brownback may have finally showed those voters the error of their ways, but that’s not a sure thing yet.

Hillary Clinton, as you may remember, offered a different explanation, that many of Trump’s backers were “deplorables”, motivated by racism, anti-immigrant hostility as well as opposition to a progressive social agenda.  Her turn of phrase did not play well politically and blocked, at least at the moment, any serious assessment of voter motivations.

This is a debate that’s likely to continue until at least 2020.  The ability and willingness of Democrats to seek out and build a coalition that includes at least some people not living in bubbles or on the two coasts may be the key to whether they can prevail over Donald Trump (or Mike Pence?) in the next Presidential election.

A recently published book by Amy Goldstein, a reporter for the Washington Post, digs much more deeply than Vance did into the challenges faced by an American working class that is seeing its jobs disappear.  In “Janesville”, she examines the impact on Paul Ryan’s hometown in Wisconsin of the closing of a GM plant in 2008.

Many of the people described by Vance are their own worst enemies, frequently making decisions that lead to turmoil in their lives.  By contrast, Goldstein examines, in a series of case studies, people who seem to do everything right but still never recover their lost economic status.

Some go back to the local community college to retrain for a new career.  Others commute to GM plants in other states, seeing their families only on weekends, in the hope that the Janesville plant will reopen or that a new job with comparable wages will come along.  Some families work multiple jobs, including teenage kids, to try to cobble together enough income to approach their GM-era quality of life.

The results were decidedly mixed.  Job retraining programs, Goldstein discovered, had no significant impact on finding new, decent-paying employment.  Janesville competed for new manufacturing plants without success.  And, as the community struggled with the new economic reality, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was slashing government budgets and attacking the State’s public unions.

Meanwhile, Janesville’s Member of Congress, Paul Ryan, was veering to the right, proposing budgets that would have an even more devastating impact on any kind of government safety net or support for the economically displaced.  Walker and Ryan kept getting reelected although they did not win the support of the majority of Janesville voters.

Goldstein’s book offers a much more complex and nuanced view of America’s working class and the troubles they are facing. She notes that Janesville is increasingly becoming two communities, one of people succeeding in the new economy and another of those being left behind.  Moreover, the first group is showing very little sympathy for the second.

For several years, people laid-off from the GM facility engaged in wishful thinking about when it would be reopened.  That sounds an awful lot like those who believe Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs.  The impulse to hope that yesterday can be restored is a powerful one.

Another reality suggested by her study is that a shrinking economic pie does not bring out the best in people.  Janesville in the past prided itself on its strong sense of community and its generosity to those in need.  Besides having less wealth to share, it became apparent that there was a tendency to blame those in economic need for their own problems.

Curiously, even among those who had benefitted from government programs such as aid to attend community college, there was a discernible anti-government attitude.  After years of hearing a drumbeat of attacks–starting from Ronald Reagan–many in this country are reflexively inclined to believe that “government is the problem.”

Crafting an agenda that responds to the plight of America’s working class–without resorting to false promises–is a daunting challenge.  Vance is correct that listening is an important first step, but it’s not enough.  Honestly facing the fact that most of manufacturing jobs of the past aren’t coming back is probably essential, but it’s likely to be a hard sell for potential voters.

“Janesville” underscores the truth that there isn’t a single, bumper-sticker answer.  Trump’s failure to produce coal or manufacturing jobs–much like Brownback’s destruction of the economy of Kansas–may eventually sink in with wishful thinkers.  But creating viable alternatives will be a hard slow process.

Ultimately, however, the Democratic Party has to present an economic message that focuses on where and what the jobs of the future will be, on the role of government in providing a safety net and on the reality that funneling even more of the nation’s resources to the wealthiest Americans will not “trickle down” to anyone else.  And then Democrats have to find a candidate who can effectively deliver that message.

Brian Frosh, Larry Hogan and Donald Trump

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined the Attorney General of Washington D.C. on Monday in a suit challenging whether Donald Trump is violating the “emoluments” clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The central issue is whether Trump’s failure to divest from his many financial holdings, allowing him to profit from spending by foreign governments intended to influence his decisions, puts him at legal and constitutional jeopardy. While the obvious focus is on his hotel just down the street from the White House where many foreign officials have stayed, the suit has the potential to raise a wide array of issues, including whether the President can be forced to release his tax returns.

Whether a court will actually take the case is an open question.  The emoluments clause has never been tested before.  On the other hand, we’ve never had a president like Donald Trump before, someone with an incredible tangle of financial interests who refuses to publicly disclose his holdings.

While some might argue that the emoluments clause is out of date or that the authors of the Constitution weren’t really serious about its inclusion, a more compelling position is that insuring that a president’s decisions are not “bought” by a foreign power is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1787.  Trump’s failure to either divest or disclose has created a constitutional quagmire that is entirely of his own making.

Frosh’s joining in this lawsuit is possible only because of a law passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year.  Prior to adoption of that statute, the Attorney General had to receive permission from the Governor for most legal actions.

Larry Hogan’s reluctance to allow suits or even to comment on  policies of the Trump Administration that adversely impact Maryland persuaded the State Legislature that the change was needed.  The other essential ingredient that facilitated the new law was the trust and confidence that legislative leaders have in Frosh, a former member of both the House and the Senate.

Frosh has never hesitated to take on tough questions.  Among other issues, he has been a leading advocate for environmental protection, a sponsor of Maryland’s landmark gun control law and strong supporter of marriage equality and immigration rights.  That Hogan is on the other side of every one of those issues helps explain the General Assembly’s  willingness to expand Frosh’s authority.

You won’t be able to find references in any of Hogan’s remarks to the word “emoluments.”  Unless the subject comes up while he is playing golf with Trump, Hogan will be able to dance around the subject.  Don’t expect a press release or an answer to a reporter’s question.

That approach won’t work, however, on other Trump policies impacting Maryland.  At this point, the President’s proposed budget includes no funds for the preservation of the Chesapeake Bay.  Frosh is already talking to a number of other state Attorneys General about filing suit if the Administration follows through on its stated intention to gut environmental protections.

Hogan’s unwillingness to offer an opinion on the attack on the Bay leaves you wondering whether his brand of conservative Republicanism has any room for actual conserving.  The Governor is obviously very uncomfortable criticizing the President, but his apparent abandonment of the State’s most critical natural resource is sure to be an issue in next year’s election.

Similarly, Hogan’s preference for tip-toeing around the Republican revisions to the Affordable Care Act doesn’t seem politically sustainable.  Health care is a significant part of the State’s economy just as it is nationally.

Moreover the evidence is clear that a bill anything like the one that passed the House of Representatives, and which Trump applauded with an unseemly White House celebration, would do great harm to the citizens of Maryland.  Much like Congressional Republicans, Hogan so far has placed loyalty to his political party higher than  concern for the health of the residents of Maryland.

As we approach the 2018 election, we’ll find out whether the political calculation that Larry Hogan made was smart or self-defeating.  He is trying to walk the tightrope between not alienating Trump supporters in Maryland, who constitute a measurable part of his electoral base, and not alienating those Marylanders–sometimes the same people–who will be harmed by Trump’s policies.  He may have figured out the political sweet spot or, like Britain’s Theresa May, his actions may bring about his own political demise.

Meanwhile, until there is a Democratic nominee to oppose Hogan in next year’s gubernatorial election, Frosh certainly seems like the voice and face of the State Party.  That’s not to diminish the role of the Congressional delegation, but their focus has necessarily been on what’s happening in Washington.

Frosh’s willingness to speak out, to take action, to articulate a set of values that distinguishes him from both Hogan and Trump, provides an example of courageous leadership that is all too rare these days.  Now we need Republicans with the backbone to stand up to Trump’s assault on our democratic system and join Democrats like Frosh who are taking a stand.

 

 

The Carelessness of Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States from the Paris climate change agreement demonstrates a president in continuous campaign mode.  His approach is characterized by politics over policy, reckless disregard for facts and science, and a dangerous carelessness about the impact of his choices.

Despite having been elected chief executive of the government of the United States, Trump shows little interest in governing, a stunning lack of understanding of the constitutional system, and no core beliefs to guide his actions.  The only constants in his world are his overinflated view of his own abilities and a hypersensitivity  about how others see him.

Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement vividly demonstrates all these factors.  The event itself seemed more like a campaign rally than a serious policy prouncement.  In full display for all the world to see were his virulent nationalism, demagogic rejection of the overwhelming scientific consensus about the threats posed by climate change and pandering to a political base desparate for reassurance that their lost world could be restored. Without any supporting evidence, Trump manufactured a smorgasbord of benefits that would accrue to American workers from abandoning the Paris agreement and brushed aside any alledged risks as illusory.

Why did he make such a disastrous decision?  For one, Trump had promised during his campaign to walk away from the climate agreement.  Toting up “promises kept” is an essential piece of his ongoing campaign for reelection in 2020.  Climate change denial has become a central plank of Republican orthodoxy and Trump, hardly a mainstream member of the Party, has been eager to find areas of common ground.  A third factor is the opportunity to dismantle another piece of Barack Obama’s legacy, which is  clearly important for Trump’s fragile ego.

Much was made in the days leading up to the announcement of a supposed battle between competing White House factions to persuade Trump which way to decide.  Those reports were most likely a combination of internal spin and external wishful thinking.  It’s hard to believe the outcome was ever in doubt, especially when you consider the language and tone of his remarks described by one commentator as “belligerent.”

Climate change poses serious risks to the planet.  Deferring action is not an option.  If there were an environmental disaster clock similar to the one assessing the risks from nuclear weapons, Trump just moved it closer to midnight.

Yet, Trump seems oblivious or indifferent to those risks.  For him, the decision was a political choice somehow detached from any real world consequence.  It’s easier to belittle scientific evidence than to work to protect the environment.  For Al Gore, climate change is an “inconvenient truth”; for Trump, it’s a matter to be ignored.  Perhaps he will think differently if sea water covers the golf course at Mar-a-Lago

It is in that respect that I use the word “careless” to describe Trump’s approach to governing and decision-making.  He understands and cares only about his own interests.  He is amazingly uninformed and uninterested in anyone else.  As a result, his decision process does not take into account how others will be impacted by his actions.

That myopia is not limited to decisions about the environment.  Think about the travesty of the health care bill that he has been promoting.  During the campaign, Trump bought into the Republican talking point about “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act.  He is still committed to that goal even though he has shown no understanding of what is in the bill passed by House Republicans.

Even as the Congressional Budget Office determines that 23 million Americans will lose their health insurance and many others will pay much more for coverage, Trump blathers about having the best healthcare system in the world, claims he is adding money for health care – despite his proposed budget slashing funding – and continues to assert that everyone will be better off under Trumpcare.  It’s only words to him.  Enacting a bill–any bill–for which he can claim victory is all he cares about.

Trump’s late-in-his-political career conversion  to “pro life” is another illustration of his carelessness.  His switch was merely a political expedient.  To keep his base happy, he has appointed a justice to the Supreme Coury who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.  His selections as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Attorney General are both working to make access to abortion and contraception more difficult.

Is Trump acting on one of his core beliefs or is he going along with his political crowd with no regard for the consequences for a woman’s ability to control her body and her health?  That’s an easy question to answer since Trump has no core beliefs.

As many have noted, Trump is fundamentally a transactional figure.  He cares about making the deal, not about what impact it will have on others, not even on his core supporters.  His need to tally up symbolic victories is leaving in its wake a trail of enormous damage to the United States and to all but its wealthiest citizens, but Trump doesn’t either notice or care.

Donald Trump has no feelings or empathy for others, is extremely egocentric, has no close personal relationships, seems to lack a moral base and does not learn from his experiences.  Medical professionals are understandably reluctant to offer a diagnosis based solely on his public behavior, but the rest of know that when it quacks likes a duck, it probably is a duck.