The Silence of the Lemmings

Donald Trump is an awful excuse for a human being. He finds new ways to demonstrate that irrefutable truth every day.

Trump is a racist, something that was evident to anyone paying attention long before his most recent outburst. He is a pathological liar whose lies sometime have a purpose and other times seem more like reflex actions, his natural state of being.

The President is uninformed, lacking a scintilla of curiosity. He doesn’t read. His attention span is so short that briefing him on an important topic is almost impossible.

Psychiatrists should be reluctant to go on the public record. However, it doesn’t take medical training to recognize that he is a narcissist, might well fit the definition of a sociopath and offers a textbook’s worth of material for studying abnormal personality traits.

And yet, almost all the members of one of this country’s two major political parties act as if they are deaf, dumb and blind to these obvious characteristics.  The Emperor has no clothes on, but Republicans are still committed to admiring his non-existent outfit.

Every once in a while, but remarkably infrequently, one of them offers tepid criticism of something that Trump said, but so weakly as to lack any impact.  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the master of the mealy-mouthed non-comment, but he certainly has lots of company.

A new version of “Profiles in Courage” focused on Republican Members of Congress would be nothing but blank pages.  When Trump bragged during the presidential campaign that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and no one would care, did we realize that he was including Congressional Republicans in that assertion?

At this point in the Trump era, he may continue to shock us, but he no longer surprises us.  There is no bottom to what he is capable of doing, no act too outrageous, no assertion beyond his imagination.  He is, he tells us, “the least racist person in the world”, the individual who “understands the health care system better than anyone else,” “the best deal maker ever.”  The rest of us shake our heads in dismay while Republicans act as if what he is doing and saying is normal.

The crazy–is there really another word for it?–meeting in the White House to discuss immigration legislation last week is the latest example.  Trump was reported to be furious that a bipartisan proposal included special provisions for refugees from Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries.

According to the one Democrat in the room, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, Trump fumed about letting people into this country from “shithole” places such as those.  Two Republican Senators who were also in the meeting first claimed that they could not remember what he said and later denied that Trump used those precise words.  Trump himself offered a weasely explanation that his words had been “rough” but not what Durbin claimed.  He and his minions have not provided their version of what Trump  said.

On Monday, the extent of Republican complicity in covering for his racist language became clear.  Multiple sources assert the word Trump used was “shithouse” rather than “shithole.”  Based on that very narrow distinction, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator David Perdue of Georgia defended Trump.

I don’t know to what circle of Hell Dante would assign Cotton, Perdue and Trump’s other Republican enablers, but it would certainly be one of the hotter ones.

For Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other Republicans, Trump is a “useful idiot.”  While it’s clear that he had little understanding of the provisions of the tax bill and made all sorts of dishonest assertions about it, his presence in the White House allowed a group of hardline conservatives to pass legislation that they have salivated about for years.  Despite his wildly exaggerated opinion of himself, the movie version of this story would have Trump played by Charlie McCarthy, the dummy manipulated by Edgar Bergen.

Is there any action that Trump might take that would go too far for Congressional Republicans?  They are clearly unconcerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Will they continue to be indifferent to future meddling?  Trump’s administration has taken no actions to prevent future cyber-penetration and Republicans have shown no willingness to acknowledge that America’s security is at risk.

Similarly, they seem untroubled by Trump’s assertions–totally without merit–that there was widespread voter fraud in 2016.  In fact, the party that once had Lincoln as its standard-bearer fully supports a wide assortment of voter suppression schemes.  Efforts to undermine our democratic system don’t set off any alarm bells for Republicans.

What about the risk that Trump will initiate or provoke a war with North Korea?  Or that his bellicose rhetoric and hostility to diplomacy will lead to renewed fighting in the Middle East?  Whatever your favorite metaphor for indifference–fiddling while Rome burns or whistling past the graveyard– Republicans refuse to take seriously the dangers that this unhinged president poses to world peace.

Last, but certainly not least, how will Republicans respond as Robert Mueller closes in on Trump, his family and his co-conspirators?  If Trump tries to fire Mueller, the early indications are that his party will excuse his action as a legitimate response to a partisan witch hunt.

We are in scary territory.  Politics has never been, as the old saying goes, beanbag, but there has usually been an assumption that, when push comes to shove, country does come before party.  Right now, it’s hard to argue such a principle is alive in the Republican Party.

At long last, have they no sense of decency?

Oprah for President?

 

A lot of people got very excited during the Golden Globe Awards to hear a thoughtful and articulate celebrity discuss important public issues. It’s hard not to see the reaction as in part a backlash against the incoherent ramblings of the “very stable genius” in the White House. In addition, however, Oprah Winfrey’s remarks addressed in a direct, no-nonsense fashion the long-standing cloud of sexual harassment and unequal treatment of women that has characterized the entertainment industry forever.

It’s definitely a talk that people should hear and share. Winfrey’s use of a public platform with millions of viewers to deliver her message was a brilliant choice on her part. She accomplished her task with style, eloquence and inspiration.

Should her Golden Globes speech be seen as the kickoff for a presidential campaign? Winfrey is certainly among the best known and most admired people in the country. Those are assets that any candidate would love to have in their pursuit of a presidential nomination. Are they enough to make her a serious and credible contender for the presidency in 2020?

That question has already generated a national debate.  For many, the stunning contrast to the crass narcissism of Donald Trump makes her a very appealing choice.  Compare a man who apparently doesn’t read at all to a woman who has made books a central part of her public identity.  Trump’s persona is one of conflict and division while Winfrey seems to be much more about building bridges and making connections.

Yet, even many of her strongest admirers question whether her status as a celebrity, not a person who has experience in government, public service or leadership in a large organization, is the right profile for a presidential candidate.  Any evaluation of her qualifications has to look at more that whether she is a better person than Donald Trump.  That’s way too low a bar.

My guess is that the Winfrey “boomlet” will probably fade fairly quickly.  To be a serious presidential candidate, she would have to do more that make great speeches.  She would have to raise money–which she probably would have no difficulty in doing.  She would have to take positions on important issues of the day and have some depth of understanding about them.  The fact that Trump has mastered none of the understanding is not a sufficient measure.  The anti-Trump has to be better, more knowledgable, more thoughtful, able to effectively deliver a coherent message.

Winfrey would also have to start meeting with political leaders, donors, the media and regular voters.  She certainly seems to have the skills to handle the human interactions, but whether she has the temperament, patience and endurance remains to be seen.  To seek the presidency, a person has to really desperately want the office and be willing to put up with a long, hard process that often makes little sense at the moment.

I am less concerned that she is a celebrity than that she is, in political terms, an amateur.  You may think professional politicians have not always served us well and you would certainly be correct.  But many have.  Trump’s non-existent public resume is unique in presidential history.  Our least successful chief executives have struggled because they came unprepared for the job.

There are great risks to turning the levers of power over to people who have neither  experience with, nor understanding of, how government works, what the constraints–formal and informal–are, and the realization that getting things done is more about persuasion than the exercise of formal authority.

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has to be seen as an anomaly.  Moreover, his lack of deference to the Constitution, his stunning ignorance about the most basic features of our government system and his lack of perspective, historical and otherwise, should convince all thoughtful voters  never to go down the celebrity path again.

We are at a perilous moment in our history.  If we are successfully to overcome the threat the Trump presidency poses to our most basic values and institutions, we must have leaders who understand and appreciate those values and institutions.

I have no idea whether Oprah Winfrey has those qualities.  I loved her speech and how it inspired many Americans.  If she really wants to be taken seriously as a prospective leader of this country, however, she has a lot of learning and a lot of very hard work to do.  I don’t preclude the possibility that she could do it, but we have too little to go on at this point to judge her as anything other than a smart, articulate individual.

That she gave all of us a moment of hope and inspiration is something we should all cherish.   Let’s not, however, get ahead of ourselves.

 

 

2017: A Year Out of Focus

 

Year-end reviews usually seek to offer perspective on events of the prior 12 months.  As I thought about how to approach that task for 2017, I realized that this past year had been a bit off from the start, never quite in focus, not fitting in with any standards by which we usually make comparisons.

Still, shouldn’t we be able to summon the means to make sense of what has admittedly been a jarring period and maybe even learn some lessons from the experience?  If not, we run the risk of repeating a history that seems to many of us to be bending its arc in the wrong direction.  That version of “Groundhog Day” would be more horror show than comedy.

The presidency of Donald Trump and its assault on long-standing traditions and norms of our political system is certainly not the only important story of 2017, but it is in many respects the central one.  Yet, even as we were living through the first 12 months of an administration unprecedented in American history, it was incredibly difficult to stay focused on the most significant developments and not be distracted by the numerous sideshows, some deliberate and some just “Trump being Trump.”

As much as I am appalled by many of the policy decisions made by the President and the Republican Congress in 2017–the tax bill, the relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the dismantling of environmental protections, the undermining of alliances and international agreements—all of those actions and more were the inevitable byproducts of the 2016 election results.

We have to hope that future elections will produce public officials who reverse many of those actions and move the country in a different direction.  Great damage is being done in the meantime to the  nation as well as to individuals, but, as both voters and non-voters must realize, elections have consequences.

My greatest concern is with the very real threat—and I don’t believe I am engaging in hyperbole—to our democratic system of government.  Trump has trashed long-standing political norms—not releasing his tax returns, not divesting his business and financial holdings, appointing relatives to senior White House positions, trying to delegitimize the media, calling into question the validity of election results, treating truth as a plaything to be disregarded at his whim.  Whether those norms and standards can be re-established after the Trump Presidency is far from certain.

The future may be even worse.  His Justice Department is supporting efforts in multiple states to disenfranchise voters.  His commission on voter fraud is a transparent gimmick to limit access to the ballot box.  His rhetoric in the aftermath of the 2016 election could foreshadow moves in 2018 and 2020 to nullify votes and even election results.  Preventing that possibility requires public vigilance, legal challenges and electing officials who will oppose his efforts rather than blindly following his lead.

My review of what is significant about Trump’s first year in office has no room for his tweets, for Ivanka and Jared, for the greed and lack of ethical standards of members of his cabinet or for his generally crass behavior.  I’ll leave those topics to the re-energized media as well as to late night comics.

On the other hand, there are a number of areas in which Trump’s failure to act has had enormous significance.  His administration’s refusal to take seriously Russian interference in the 2016 elections and its continuing cyber-attacks on this country is a serious dereliction of duty in not protecting our national security.  His indifference to the impact of growing inequality in the United States poses a serious risk to the country’s long-term stability.  Is there a point at which the economic imbalance becomes so great that it threatens the relative political stability that has endured since 1789?

Two additional trends from 2017–both relevant to the Trump Presidency but neither merely the product of it—also make my review.  2017 unearthed a level of tension in race relations in this country that had been submerged for many years.  This hostility became more visible partly as a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama but also in response to the overt encouragement and racial “dog whistles” of his successor.

There were many moments during the year that illustrated those patterns, but none so vivid as Trump’s comments in the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As if that weren’t enough encouragement for undercover racists, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, often described as the only adult in the room, offered his own revisionist interpretation of the Civil War in which he downplayed the role of slavery.  The “good people on both sides”line was a much clearer signal than any wink or nod might have been.

The other major development of the year, celebrated by Time magazine, was the “#MeToo” movement.  Demonstrating that all roads in 2017 led back to Trump, the accusations of sexual harassment and worse that led to the ousting and resignations of many powerful males in the last few months generally paled in comparison to the list of those making similar claims about Trump.  Yet, he remains in office vigorously defended by his base supporters including many Evangelical Christians.

As awful as much of 2017 was, there were a few encouraging signs of a willingness to fight back against Trump.  Elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama have been seen by some as the precursors of a Democratic tsunami in 2018.  Unprecedented numbers of women running for public office are starting to break up the old patterns of traditional politics.  High turnout in the normally low turnout off-year election of 2017 offers the hope that sleepy Democrats may finally be waking up.

If you were paying attention only to day-to-day events, to the seemingly endless stream of distractions and outrages, 2017 was a truly depressing year.  There were, in addition, some dreadful policy outcomes.  However, if you are looking for any glimmers of hope, the new activism, particularly among women—and specifically, in Alabama, African-American women—gives you something to hold on to.

Fighting back against the darkness requires having hope that change can be achieved if we all work hard enough at it.  That needs to be the theme of 2018.

A Gift for my Grandchildren

When I was three years old, my mother gave me an extraordinary gift. Against incredible odds, she got the two of us to this country after the communist regime in Hungary executed my father. Fortunately, there was no ban at that time preventing refugees escaping dangerous places from entering the United States.

I have always been grateful for the privilege of living in a nation that values individual freedom and liberty and strives to be a democracy.  Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst system of government in the world except for every other one.  As someone whose family suffered greatly from two of those others—Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union— I truly believe that this is a great country even when, at times, it falls short of its ideals.

Perhaps because I acquired my citizenship rather than being born with it, I have always treated it as something to be cherished.  Since I first became eligible to vote, I have never missed an Election Day.  I have always strived to be an well-informed citizen.  For much of my professional career, I taught politics and government to college students.  Even in retirement, I have remained engaged in public affairs through reading, writing and discussion.

With that  history as my guide, I find myself in despair about today’s  dysfunctional politics.   We are witnessing government behavior–because, really, who could call it policy– under Donald Trump and the Republican Congress that is dominated by dishonesty, a total absence of ethics, mean spiritedness and greed.  In a lifetime devoted to the study of politics as well as of being a direct participant, I never imaged we would sink this low.

The people of the United States are better than this.  Only a small portion of Americans support the direction that Trump and the Republicans are taking us.  On almost every important issue you can think of—the tax bill, climate change, health care, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, civil rights, the rights of the LBGTQ community, gun regulation, foreign affairs—clear majorities of Americans oppose the policies of Trump, Ryan, McConnell and their lock-step followers.

Their unpopular and unrepresentative actions have been made possible largely as the result of two malignancies in the political system.  One is the oversized impact of unregulated money.  Influence, votes and policy are all for sale.  You might add Members of Congress to that list.

The second factor is gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative boundaries to create safe seats.  Sadly for the health of our politics, Republicans have been incredibly adroit and ruthless at gaining control of the redistricting process and then pushing their advantage to the limit.

The result is  a House of Representatives in which Democrats win more votes nationally but end up with fewer seats.  The same thing has happened in a large number of state legislatures.  Similarly, Republicans control the U.S. Senate in part because they win most of the states with smaller populations but which still have two senators each.  And never forget that Donald Trump lost the popular vote for president in 2016.  While the latter two features are embedded in the Constitution, the result, when combined with “dark money” and gerrymandering, is a government that need not be responsive to the majority of citizens and their interests.

This is not the country I want to leave to my grandchildren.  Neither do I want them  ever to wonder if I might have done more to fight against those who would change our form of government to that of the few, an oligarchy, or worse yet, a dictatorship.  I don’t doubt for a second that Trump will take us there if he can and that some in this country, including some in Congress, would be silent, complicit or enthusiastic supporters.

My best hope is that there are lots of other patriotic Americans who feel the same way I do.  The single most important thing people can do to save this country is to vote in the 2018 election.  Democrats in large numbers have ignored off-year elections for too long with dire consequences.  2018 provides an opportunity, if enough voters show up, to sweep Republicans out of office in historic numbers and send an unmistakable message to President Trump.  Let me repeat, the single most important thing  people can do to save this country is to vote in the 2018 election.

An essential step, but even more is needed to ensure victory.  Whatever level of political donations you’ve made in the past, this is the year to greatly increase it.  Your grandchildren will be the beneficiaries of that investment in their future.  If you haven’t donated in the past, this is the year to start a new habit.  We can all wish that money weren’t important in politics, but it is.  Fight back against the big money and give more than you think you can.

As with many friends, I vacillate between rage, depression and renewed determination.  The first two don’t do any good even though they are hard to avoid.  What motivates me and keeps me focused is the gift my mother gave me all those years ago and my determination to pay it forward to my grandchildren.

An Agenda for Democrats

Donald Trump will continue to provide lots of material to keep Democratic activists motivated in 2018. That’s not enough, however, if Democrats are going to regain control of one or both houses of Congress and make significant progress in state gubernatorial and legislative races.  Success in next year’s elections requires fighting for specific goals, not just being opposed to what the President is doing, as awful as that is.

So far,  we’ve heard a lot of agonizing over the absence of a clear Democratic message.  That’s really not very helpful.  The party-out-of-power is also spending an inordinate amount of time refighting the battles of both the 2016 nominating process and the stunning defeat in that year’s presidential election.  To round out this trifecta of navel gazing, there’s plenty of despair about the absence of a clear front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Much of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party in the 21st century is a preoccupation with presidential politics to the almost total exclusion of every other office, particularly at the state and local level.   Rather than devoting so much time to finding a savior, Democrats would be much better off giving their time, attention and money to recruiting a new generation of candidates, winning state and local elections and building a coalition that addresses the interests and concerns of the great majority of Americans.

In fact, there will be a strong, dynamic presidential candidate in 2020.  It’s okay we don’t yet know who that is.  There are many rising stars who just haven’t gotten national attention yet.  The list of potentially appealing candidates–mayors, governors, members of Congress and some who don’t hold political office–is so substantial that the challenge will be picking among them.

Let’s dispense with one piece of the 2016 post-mortem.  Trump’s continued support by much, although not all, of his base shows that no Democratic candidate is likely to win their support.  No campaign should have to reach out to racists, xenophobes, sexists or bigots of any stripe to win an election.  Those individuals are far from a majority in this country and in no way represent what the United States stands for.  Of course there are some Trump voters who do not fall into any of those categories and some may be open to the appeal of a thoughtful progressive candidate.

A Democratic message will emerge through the campaigns of candidates for offices at all levels of government.  Litmus tests are not required; not every Democrat has to agree on every issue.  Neither is it useful to have a long check list of issues that define the Party.  Political parties, to be successful, have to be coalitions that allow differences, dissent and flexibility.

My own take on a potential Democratic agenda may not appeal to you.  That’s okay because I view it as a first draft.  I’ve focused on broad themes and connections that ties issues together.  Your favorite cause may not be explicitly mentioned although I might still agree with you about its importance.   Finally, I have deliberately kept this list relatively short on the premise that most voters will focus on only a few key priorities.

  1. Invest in the future.  People will have different ideas about what fits into this category.  Without necessarily excluding other suggestions, I would start with: education, infrastructure, environmental protection.
  2. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with dignity.  A few years ago, I might not have felt the need to say this directly, but the attacks on a whole range of groups and individuals in more recent times makes it imperative.  My list under this admonition is long, but I prefer to state the principal rather than run the risk of leaving out any who are at risk.
  3. Build an economy for a global, interdependent world.  Most commentators agree that Democrats need an economic message, but are hard pressed to articulate what it should be.  #1 above covers some of it.
    • Make sure that all Americans have access to the education and training needed to become productive workers.
    • Global competition means that there will be losers;  automation means that some of the jobs that exist now will disappear.   This country needs to do a much better job of retraining those who lose jobs through no fault of their own.  We need to recognize that transitions to new employment will be longer and harder than we have been willing to support up to now.
    • Government support for research and development needs to be increased, not decreased as the current administration is doing.  Similarly, support for universities and for graduate education needs to be seen as one of the pillars of a robust and competitive economy, not merely as a line item in the budget to be cut.
    • Support industries of the future, such as those related to a sustainable environment, that need help in the early stages of development.  Republicans object to “picking winners and losers in the economy,” but actually do that all the time, just with different beneficiaries.
  4. Everyone deserves quality health care at an affordable price.  Democrats were on the political defensive about the Affordable Care Act until Republicans started their ugly and disjointed effort to take it away.  Americans then discovered that they actually like many of the features of Obamacare.  Whatever ends up happening in the short-term, supporting a system of universal health care is both right and a political winner.
  5. Support the institutions and individual rights that make the United States a democracy.  Fight back against voter suppression and gerrymandering.  Don’t let the Department of Justice, the court system or the rule of law become political tools.

I could make the list longer and certainly could expand on the explanations, but I mean this to be a starting point.   Most fundamentally, I don’t think a winning Democratic message, whether it’s my version or someone else’s, is that hard to develop.  Of course, candidates who can articulate and argue the case effectively are required.  A free and independent press is also important.  The push back against Trump’s fake new campaign is actually a hopeful sign.

Finally, we have to have an informed and engaged electorate.  Too often, Democrats have stayed home in off-year elections and in state and local contests.  The activism of innumerable groups that sprung into life after the 2016 presidential election should give us all hope.

This is a fight for the very existence of our form of government.  It is a fight that can be won.  If we make the effort. Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing.  Every generation has to win it again.

 

Happy Holidays to Trump Voters Everywhere

Donald Trump has been president for almost one full year.  To those who voted for him: You must have a lot to be thankful for.

Those of us who supported the candidate who lost in the Electoral College have been admonished frequently since then to try to understand your point of view and your grievances. We are told that if only Hillary Clinton had paid more attention to you and your concerns, the election outcome might have been different.

Maybe so.  Public opinion polls continue to show that you have no regrets about your vote last November, that you continue to strongly support Trump’s performance as president. It’s obvious that those of us who are so opposed to what his Administration is doing are missing something.

In that spirit, I’ve been examining what the President has accomplished to retain your support and loyalty. What have been the benefits for you of having Donald Trump as president of the United States? To deepen whatever understanding we can glean from the record of the first year, it’s also worth examining your attitudes on key issues of the day as reflected in public opinion polls.

Most observers agree that the president’s biggest victory this year was the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to be the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  While he owes much of that win to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell–who prevented a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and then changed the Senate rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority in 2017 –a win is a win.  Additionally, the Administration is on a near record pace to fill federal judgeships, in part because so many vacancies were held over from the previous year.

The Trump Administration has rolled back a lot of regulations, particularly in the area of environmental protection.  As long as you don’t care about climate change or the quality of the air you breath or the water you drink–and polls suggest that you don’t–everything is good.

The President hasn’t done quite so well with other executive actions.  Courts  have rejected a number of his orders, beginning with his “Muslim ban.”  No funds have been appropriated for the “big, beautiful wall” between the United States and Mexico.  These were two of the issues that got the most boisterous applause during the campaign.  The polling seems to indicate that you are content with his efforts on these promises, regardless of the results, and maybe that you didn’t really take them too seriously in the first place.

Meanwhile, Trump’s appointees to the Federal Communications Commission have indicated that they will roll back the previous Administration’s rules on “net neutrality.”  Sounds like a pretty technical issue, doesn’t it?   The new rules may increase your cable bill, decrease the speed at which you can download and limit the sites you can access, but don’t worry because all the big cable companies are delighted with the change.  You like big cable companies, don’t you?

What about  other priorities?  Republicans have been trying all year to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.  After several failed efforts to “repeal and replace”, they are now trying instead to sabotage it.  Should they succeed, these attempts would, as judged by independent assessments, lead to millions of Americans either losing their health insurance or having to pay much more for it.

As Trump supporters during the campaign, you roared your approval whenever the candidate attacked “Obamacare.”  Now, you may be getting your wish.  Your continued support for the President suggests that either you approve of the trashing of the Affordable Care Act or you don’t  understand the impact it will have on you personally.

The other big item on the Republican agenda this year, one with strong vocal support from Trump, is tax “reform.”  The current versions, one passed by the House of Representations and another still being crafted in the Senate, would bring the largest benefits to corporations and the country’s wealthiest individuals.

Most non-partisan assessments conclude that the middle and working class are likely to lose out as the result of proposed tax legislation.  Democrats have been confounded by the apparent willingness of working class Trump backers to act against their own economic self-interest.  What is most likely in this case is that those supporters see the reports that they will be harmed by the Republican bills as “fake news.” In any case, you don’t seem troubled so far by the newest give-away to those who need it the least.

The controversy over the Republican candidate for the Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore, offers additional insight into the Trump coalition.  Even before the President all but endorsed Moore last week, polling showed that a plurality of Republicans were willing to support Moore despite the multiple allegations that he pursued teenage girls while in his early 30s.  As Trump said explicitly, you view it as better to have a Republican sexual pervert than any Democrat.

The unholy alliance between Trump and Moore reveals other disturbing patterns as well.  Moore has demonstrated over and over again that he has no respect for the rule of law.  He has been removed from office twice for failing to uphold the U.S. Constitution.  Both Trump and Moore readily employ racist dog whistles, openly display their homophobia and generally appeal to people’s worst instincts.

Frankly, these examples make me wonder if my efforts to better understand Trump supporters are doomed to failure.  Support for a thoroughly discredited person like Moore represents the most egregious sort of  partisan tribalism.  It seems to be yet another demonstration that Trumpism has taken control of the “soul” of the Republican Party.

Maybe that is what you wanted all along.  In that case, this whole effort to find common ground may just be a big waste of time.  The only thing that makes sense at this point, if you are determined to keep supporting a president who is so damaging the country–which is,  after all, your country as well–is to start organizing for the next election.

Let’s get together next November and see how having Donald Trump and Roy Moore as the voices of your party works out for you.

 

 

 

Dealing with Political Overload

The political news these days comes barreling at you in relentless waves, and so much of it is depressing, discouraging and scary.  And, of course, some of it is merely a distraction, bright shiny objectives that have little or no real importance.  Worse yet, some of it is fake.

If you are a person who feels a responsibility to keep up with current affairs, to be knowledgable about what our government and its leaders are doing, you can’t just shut yourself off or bury your head in the sand.

To take an example, how does someone sift through the torrent of news items from the past couple of week?  Roy Moore and teenage girls.  A Republican tax bill that threatens to exacerbate the income and inequality gap in this country.  Continuing Congressional efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.  Mass shootings followed by Congressional “thoughts and prayers.”  Jeff Session’s incredible shrinking memory.  Donald Trump’s foreign travels that emphasized his high esteem for dictators.  More revelations about Trump campaign officials meeting with Russians during the presidential campaign.  The threat of a nuclear war with North Korea.   Further dismantling of environmental protections by the EPA.

And the surprisingly positive results from the 2017 election.

I’ve only scratched the surface, but even this list is more than most of us can absorb.   Yet, our in-baskets are filled with countless news summaries and updates.  Some of us start the day with “Morning Joe” and make sure we are still up to date by evening by checking in with Rachel Maddow.

The challenge is finding the happy medium between being constantly outraged and being disengaged.  How do you fulfill your responsibility to be an informed citizen without driving yourself crazy?

I certainly haven’t figured out a foolproof approach, but looking back at recent events may help develop some rough guidelines.  In any cases, here’s my best shot.

Robert Mueller is going to figure out whether there was collusion or improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.  Neither the additional public revelations nor the continuing denials will change that.  Until the investigation fingers the President or people really close to him, it’s not important to follow the day-to-day drama.  That should free up a lot of time and emotion.

Roy Moore is a Republican problem.  That party is now in a lose-lose situation of its own making.  We already have enough information to confirm without doubt that Moore is a slimy hypocrite and sexual predator.  Additional disclosures will only be further confirmation.  Other than the priceless material he is providing to late night comics, Moore isn’t worth much of our attention.

When the Alabama election results are in, one of two things will happen, either of which is significant.  Democrats may pick up a Senate seat which would cut the Republican majority to one.  That would be important.  On the other hand, a Moore victory would mean that every Republican office holder for the foreseeable future would have to answer questions about the Party’s association with him, a prospect none of them will relish.

Both Donalds, the original and Jr., are going to continue their vaudeville performances.  Much of it is tweets and stupidity signifying nothing.  We know Jr. is a lightweight who has stumbled into incriminating acts, but his antics are only worth Mueller’s attention, not ours.

President Trump is obviously a more complicated category.  He draws a lot of attention for his erratic behavior, his buffoonery, his endless lies that often have no point and his stunning lack of a moral compass.  While we shouldn’t ignore those characteristics, neither is it worth obsessing about them.  He is what he is.

On the other hand, his actions should get our attention.  In foreign affairs, he has already done great damage to this country’s national interests and seems eager to do even more.  Pulling out of the international climate agreement.  Shredding trade deals.  Calling into question our collective security treaties.  Engaging in irrational taunting of North Korea.  Acting as if Vladimir Putin is our friend rather than a deadly enemy.

Trump has sacrificed our leadership position in the world, has made us a less reliable partner to our allies, has failed to understand much less respond to the serious threats that this country faces.  Our attention and activism should be focused on these areas, not on his idiotic tweets.

Similarly, the tax bill now under consideration by Congress, the efforts to dismantle the health care system and the relentless attacks on environmental regulations should have all of us up in arms.  Public opinion and political pressure have already contributed significantly to the many failures of the Trump legislative agenda.  This is no time to stop.

Nor  should we ever accept the level and frequency of deadly gun violence in this country as normal, as just another day in America.  Rather than periodic upswings of attention when another massacre occurs, we need to push every day for sensible gun laws.

With all the time that my suggestions have freed up from your day, the best way in which you can change the political landscape and at the same time enhance your mental health is to get involved in state and local elections in 2018.  As the results of last week’s elections demonstrate, there is a real opportunity to make significant gains in state legislatures.  The political winds are shifting and may even lead to a change in party control of both houses of Congress.

The winds aren’t enough however.  Volunteering, organizing, and making campaign contributions are essential if the light is to be restored to American politics.

 

Not a “Gun Situation”

 

Aren’t you sick and tired of the bullshit? Some white kid–not a Muslim, not a terrorist from the Middle East, not even some urban bad guy–walks into a church in a small Texas town and kills 26 people, but it’s not a “gun situation”? How did he murder all of those people? Was his weapon some sort of laser beam, or a Koran or polluted air?

In fact, as is pointed out every time there’s a mass shooting in this country, it’s never a “gun situation.” We either have enough guns laws in place already or laws won’t stop bad people.

And certainly we shouldn’t do anything to make guns less lethal. However many rounds they can fire, however rapidly they can discharge their deadly cargoes, wherever they can be carried either openly or in secret, none of those considerations causes or contributes to the epidemic of deadly violence in the United States. It won’t be long, in all likelihood, before gun advocates slip a provision into some piece of Congressional legislation that allows silencers to be put on guns without restriction or limitation.

We are told that when the fault doesn’t lie with religious fanatics–and, actually, it usually doesn’t–it’s because some person with mental health problems went off on a killing spree.  The logical implication of that argument–not that logic has ever had much to do with the arguments of gun advocates–is that we should be strengthening our programs for the mentally ill and increasing the funding for those efforts.  You can scour the federal budget in vain for any signs of increased funding. The mental health explanation is merely a dodge to change the subject from any consideration of gun regulations.

Have you ever heard Donald Trump, any representative of the NRA or the Members of Congress who they own put forth a serious proposal about improving mental health services in this country?  No sign of it in the President’s agenda.  No indication that Paul Ryan has included something in the tax bill.  Republicans have about as much interest in mental health services as they do in health care generally.

And certainly don’t resort to facts.  Comparisons with the records of other developed nations apparently are irrelevant because the United States is “exceptional.”  Unfortunately, the reality that stands out most clearly as exceptional is our addiction to gun violence.

Meanwhile, you might be tempted to feel better because of the press accounts of the hero with a gun who chased the killer from the church.  His presence will be argued by gun advocates as proof that if only all of us were fully armed all of the time, there would be no mass killings.  Only  that guy arrived too late, after 26 were dead.

You’re going to tell me it could have been worse. Perhaps, but there’s never been any indication that Second Amendment “true believers” actually care about the magnitude or horror of gun deaths.  Newtown, with its massacre of school children, changed nothing.  Concert goers in Las Vegas being mowed down are already far in the rear view mirror for most gun supporters.

Other people’s deaths become merely the cost of freedom, as long as you define freedom solely as the right to possess as many guns as you want with few–preferably no–limits.

Maybe we need to go back to an Originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment.  I’m sure the late Antonin Scalia would approve.  What if we let everyone own a single-shot musket as long as they are members of a local militia?  How’s that for trying to find common ground?

To borrow from one of the President’s favorite phrases, we are the laughing-stock of the world because of our stance towards guns and gun violence.  If people weren’t blinded by their ideology and their fanaticism, if they only opened their eyes and the minds, they would clearly see that we are facing a public health crisis.  In so many other ways, we are a nation that has identified problems, worked together to find solutions and then whole-heartedly implemented them. Just not about guns.

Instead, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot.  And the head.  And everywhere else.

Revising the tax code: What do Republicans really want?

There is actually widespread, even bipartisan, agreement that the U.S. tax code is in serious need of revision. In fact, the most recent major revision was in 1986 and, as historians note, since the federal income tax was instituted in 1916, there has been a major rewrite every 32 years.  Which means, 2018, it’s your turn.

However, there’s no real consensus on what changes are needed and no guarantee that a Republican-controlled Congress won’t make the current problems even worse. Although “alternative facts” are much in vogue these days, there are a few real facts worth keeping in mind as the debate unfolds in Washington this week.

First, despite what Donald Trump keeps saying, the United States is not even close to being the most heavily taxed country in the world. Many nations tax their citizens at much higher rates as part of a deliberate choice to fund a much broader range of services than are available in this country. Universal health care. Free higher education. A much more extensive set of social services.

Second, on the other hand, Trump’s contention that the corporate tax rate in this country is among the highest in the world is correct.  Few companies actually pay that rate,however, because they are able to find loopholes, tax havens and other evasions.  Many pay nothing.  How do you reduce the nominal rate while also increasing the amount of corporate tax revenues? Is there any will in Congress to address the abysmal level of compliance or collection among U. S. corporations?

Third, the “theory” of supply side economics–that the economy and the rest of society will benefit when the wealthiest among us pay minimum taxes–has never worked in practice.  If supply side economics actually worked, the growing disparities in wealth and income in this country in the past two decades would already have stimulated major growth in the economy.  Instead, executive salaries are rising to historic highs, stock buy-backs and increased dividends are much more prevalent, and employee pay raises and investments in business are lagging. And wage earners fall farther and farther behind.

Fourth, the tax code is entirely too complicated.  Only 10% of Americans fill out their own tax returns; 60% use tax-preparation agencies and another 30% use tax-preparation software.  It is estimated that American families spend 3.16 billion hours each year getting their tax forms completed.  By contrast, many European countries have returns that can be filled out in less than half an hour.

Here we get to the challenge of rewriting the tax code.  The 1986 revision was widely seen as a significant advance, simplifying the rules, achieving a progressive structure and raising enough money to fund government.  Since then, however, Congress has regularly found ways to modify and amend the law, carving out exceptions and special provisions, sometimes for a single company.  The irony is that while the IRS is routinely seen as the villain in our tax system, it is Congress that keeps messing it up and Congress which makes it more difficult for the IRS to do its job by repeatedly reducing its budget.

One of the great acts of hypocrisy that we see regularly is members of Congress pledging to make the system easier for taxpayers–while knowing that their capitulation to lobbyists requesting special favors is a major reason why tax forms are so complicated.

Similarly, new tax legislation will test whether Republicans actually care about budget deficits or only are concerned when there is a Democratic President.  I would bet on hypocrisy triumphing yet again.

What can we expect from the latest Republican tax initiative?  Its really hard to say since they have kept their proposal secret.  Any piece of legislation that impacts as many people as the tax code does and is as complicated deserves–indeed demands –extensive public hearings and lively debate, what Senator John McCain has called “regular order.”  If they have their way, Republicans will pass a bill in the dead of night with no hearings and little public awareness of what is being enacted.

Donald Trump clearly has no idea what the proposal will do, just as he had literally no understanding of the various pieces of health care legislation that were proffered earlier this year.  He wants something he can call a “win”, regardless of its content.  While he has made various promises in the past about what he would support–no changes in 401 (K) plans, tax increases for the wealthy–he is very likely to renege on those pledges just as he has so many others.

Similarly, because he has never released his own tax returns, Trump’s claim that he will not personally benefit from the new tax law is impossible to verify.  The exception is the effort to eliminate the estate tax, which would save his family hundreds of millions of dollars.  In fact, the beneficiaries of such a change would constitute far fewer than 1% of taxpayers and is hard to justify on any grounds.

Most Republican tax proposals in the past have had two objectives: lower the tax burden for the wealthy and force a reduction in the size of the federal government by making less revenues available.  The rhetoric surrounding the current proposal is substantially different from that, but, unless a few brave Republicans stand up for the truth, that will be the outcome again this time.

There are, in fact, examples from other countries of how we could greatly improve our tax system, but there’s no chance that any of those will receive any consideration in the current political environment.  The best we can hope for is less rather than more damage.  Unfortunately, that sentiment can be applied to most of what is going in in Washington these days.

 

Military-Civilian Relations in Donald Trump’s White House

 

In the adult day care center at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, General John Kelly has been generally seen as a leading pillar of stability. Since replacing the hapless Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff, he has brought a degree of order to the President’s schedule and cut down on unfettered access to him particularly by the most zealous staff members.  He has also reassured many outsiders by his mere presence.

Managing the White House may well be the most challenging job of Kelly’s long and distinguished career.  We continue to be reminded that not even a career Marine General can bring total order to the chaos that defines the Trump Administration.  Trump continues his tweets at all hours on all topics, big and small.  He lurches from position to position with no warning and no apparent rationale.  The family kiddie corps still occupies offices down the hall despite their absence of relevant qualifications or discernible impact on the issues they claim to care about.

In fairness to Kelly, he can hardly be expected to perform miracles.  As a staff person in the White House with no operational responsibilities and a history of strict adherence to the chain of command, Kelly likely sees his job as managing rather than weighing in on major policy issues.  Those looking to him to save the Affordable Care Act or prevent a massive give-away of tax dollars to America’s richest 1% are almost certain to be disappointed.

The main hope of Trump-watchers is that Kelly will keep him away from the nuclear button and rein in his reckless threats to start a war with North Korea because his pride has been hurt by Kim Jong un. They also hope he can insure that Trump maintains the United States’ membership in NATO and avoids a confrontation in the Middle East.  Whether Kelly plays a role in Trump’s apparent desire to dramatically increase the military budget as well as the country’s nuclear arsenal is much less clear.

Kelly certainly does not conform to the stereotype of military generals sometimes found in popular fiction.  Neither “Seven Days in May”–depicting an attempted military coup–nor “Dr. Strangelove”–scary satire about a nuclear war resulting from unhinged fingers on the levers of power–seems relevant.

In fact, the authors of the Constitution consciously constructed a system in which civilian control over the military was one of the fundamental principles of American government.  By contrast, in the contemporary world, we have numerous examples of the military seizing control in countries with less well-established traditions of constitutional government.

Among the critical strengths that Kelly brings to his job are his reputation and his credibility.  While he clearly possess political skills–anyone who rose to the most senior levels of the military as he did had to be politically adept–he is now operating in a totally different political environment.  At times, his lack of experience in national partisan politics has shown.

Beyond that, Trump has continuously disregarded traditional political norms and has left even wily veterans of Washington scratching their heads trying to figure out what makes him tick.  Kelly, in other words, is not the only one having to learn on the job how to deal with a president who frequently simply disregards the existing rules.

That’s the context for assessing Kelly’s dive into the ugly mess Trump created last week regarding calls to families of service members killed since he assumed office.  The General is certainly incredibly knowledgable about the challenges of comforting families who have lost a loved one in war.  That one of those lost was his own son makes the issue an understandably emotional one for him.

Kelly’s very human side showed when he took the podium at a press briefing to support Trump in a dispute with a family who publicly objected to the tone and content of his “condolence” call.  The politics of the issue were further complicated by the fact that a Congresswoman and friend of the family was riding in the car and overheard Trump’s call on a speaker phone.

Whether Kelly learns from this experience will be a key to his continuing effectiveness as Chief of Staff.  He made at less three significant errors, all of which reflect the dangers of working for Donald Trump.

For one, Kelly made an accusation about the Congresswoman that was false.  He has yet to correct the record or apologize.  His mistake was almost certainly the result of believing something that he had been told in much the same way that Colin Powell made the case at the United Nations for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction based on a faulty briefing.

Distortions of what political opponents say or do are much too common in today’s politics.  Whether the information passed on to Kelly was known to be false or was the result of sloppy staff work is less important than that his credibility took a big hit as the result of his public assertion.  I assume that Kelly will be more careful in the future about who he believes.

A second costly mistake was to engage in the kind of name calling that is a staple of Trump’s political style.  Calling a critic an “empty barrel” diminishes Kelly and makes him look like less of a general and more of a partisan mud-slinger.  That’s Trump’s job, not his.

Finally, even though he was operating in an area of personal expertise and experience, Kelly failed to see the other side of the argument when he made sweeping statements about the “correct” way to receive condolence calls.  He dismissed out of hand the right of a grieving family member to handle the information in any way she chooses.  That Kelly was “shocked” that someone else heard the call is imposing his personal preference and ignoring the rights of others.

The big lesson for Kelly from this incident should be that his credibility and reputation are on the line every time he goes public in support of the President.  He may believe that it buys him more leeway to manage Trump, but the President’s incredibly short-term focus suggests that he will care only about what Kelly has “done for him lately.”

Count me among those who hopes that Kelly learns from this experience and that he continues to be a stabilizing force in the most erratic and dangerous presidential administration in American history.