What’s Next?

 

james-comey

How many times in this strangest of political years have you said: It can’t get any stranger? And then, of course, something even more unimaginable happens.

The latest. but unlikely the last, development was FBI Director James Comey’s unprecedented intrusion into the presidential election.  Last week, he announced that his agency would be looking into the possibility, without having seen any of the materials, that there might be evidence related to the previously closed investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails on a computer owned by disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner.  His decision was made in the face of contrary advise by the Department of Justice, longstanding procedures in the department and all common sense.

While there is lots of speculation about Comey’s motives, the only thing we know for certain is that he has involved himself in the closing stages of an election in a way that no senior governmental official should ever do.

Partisan politics?  Comey is a Republican.  Caving to pressure from Republican members of Congress?  There’s certainly been a constant drumbeat.  Remarkably bad judgment?  He already demonstrated that in his earlier comments on the investigation, so this latest episode is totally in character.  Whatever the reason, history will certainly remember his name .  Discussions about presidential campaigns in the future will all include this act of reckless irresponsibility.

Given the highly polarized electorate, few votes will be changed by Comey’s action.  Trump supporters will see it as further confirmation of Clinton’s dishonesty even though we know nothing at this point that we didn’t know before last week.  Clinton voters may well be motivated to work even harder between now and election day in response to this thumb on the election scale.  Whether it impacts down ballot races may be the even more significant question.

However, as we enter the last week of the campaign, it’s hard to imagine that there are no more revelations or surprises to come, even ones that are  totally fictitious.

Will there be more disclosures from Russian hackers and from Wikileaks?  Almost certainly.

Will there be more women who come forward to describe being groped by Donald Trump?  Seems likely.

What won’t happen, unless the Russian hackers change sides, is that we will learn anything about Donald Trump’s taxes.  And that’s actually quite amazing given the potential conflict of interest issues, the questions about his business dealings in Russian and the doubts about how much in taxes he has paid.

The other question, of whether he has given anything near the amounts to charity that he has publicly claimed, has already been answered with a resounding “no” as the result of outstanding reporting by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold.

If the Clinton campaign has been saving any particularly damaging information about Trump, this will be the week in which it gets revealed.  And, as has been the modus operandi of his entire campaign, Trump is likely to make some assertions about Clinton for which he supplies no supporting evidence at all.

And if all of these prospects weren’t bad enough, the ugly contentious mood is certain to extend well past Election Day.  Republicans are already talking about not confirming any Supreme Court nominee proposed by Clinton as well as planning a torrent of investigations.  Trump has encouraged his followers to question the legitimacy of the election.  What actions that might provoke is anyone’s guess, but most of the scenarios are not good.

I’ve been taking a course on Latin American politics and am dismayed by the examples of military coups, impeachment of public officials on highly partisan grounds and the general instability of many of those political systems.  We have always held ourselves out as a model for the rest of the world, the longest functioning democracy.  Right now, our politics seems to be fraying at the edges and it’s not at all clear that there is a center any longer.  As difficult and trying as the next week is likely to be, what follows may be even worse.

 

Trump for Dictator

 

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Last week, I asserted that the traditional tools of political analysis are not adequate for this year’s presidential election. I want to elaborate on that point because I believe it leads to a significant observation about the 2016  campaign that has not received sufficient attention.

Many observers, including me, have been mystified that Donald Trump’s supporters seem so unfazed by his lack of knowledge and understanding of world affairs, his constant lies and his lack of presidential temperament.  A variety of explanations have been offered.

One is that his backers have been left behind by the economy and are swayed by his promises to bring back coal, manufacturing and a 1950s way of life.  While this may explain some of his support, numerous studies suggest  that many of his supporters are not really suffering economically.

Another interpretation is that his anti-immigrant stance, his racist “dog whistles” and his more recent allusions to an international conspiracy of bankers and elites resonate with citizens who feel threatened by a rapidly changing country in which they will no longer be the majority.  Overt racist signs and language at some of his rallies reinforce this perception as does Trump’s long history of denying that Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate short-hand reference to this group as “deplorable” may overshadow the basic truth that some Trump supporters are motivated by  factors such as these.  For them, the important issue is not Trump’s qualifications for office, but that he identifies the cause of their problems, the reason America is not great right now.

A third explanation is that Trump has tapped into a strong anti-government, anti-Washington sentiment in the country.  Polls have for years shown a declining confidence in the basic institutions of this country, not just government.  That Republicans have willfully created a state of gridlock at the federal level only reinforces the frustration.

When Trump promises “to drain the swamp in Washington,” that’s music to the ears of many of his followers.  Those who believe “government doesn’t work” may mean different things by that expression, but they are united in their wish for change, however undefined.

Yet, the polls,  a growing number of Republican leaders and most media commentators other than on Fox and the extreme right view the election moving away from Trump and decisively toward Hillary Clinton.  States that have voted Republican for years are either toss-ups or starting to lean toward the Democrats.

How can that possibly be if Trump has all the answers?    Why can’t everyone see what they see so clearly?

In a world view which Trump has articulated in a way never before seen in this country’s national politics, the only explanation for his losing the election must be a conspiracy of massive proportions.  Democracy isn’t working if their man doesn’t become president.  For people with as much anger and frustration as I’ve described, the logical conclusion offered by their candidate is that the election is rigged.

This circular reasoning as well as all the contradictions underlying Trump’s support can be explained by a simple, but frightening, proposition.  Trump is not running for president; he is running to become  dictator–and some of his followers are fine with that.  The thread that unites these disparate groups of aggrieved supporters is an openness to undemocratic remedies.

We’ve had statements from him throughout the campaign that demonstrate an autocratic approach.  If newspapers are critical of him, they need to be shut down or sued.  Or they need to be threatened by Trump supporters.

If the national debt is getting too large, he’ll default, declare bankruptcy in the same way he did as a businessman and leave other stuck with the bills.  If international treaties and agreements aren’t sufficiently advantageous, Trump will “renegotiate” or just walk away from them.

Laws against torture?  The Geneva Convention?  No problem.  He’ll make America great again by wringing confessions out of prisoners, going after the families of terrorists and obliterating parts of the Middle East that oppose us.  Nuclear weapons?  If we have them, why shouldn’t we use them?

Yet, none of these statements have convinced Trump’s supporters to abandon him.  Indeed, it may well be that  assertions like these are exactly what define his  appeal.

Some, although certainly not all, of Trump’s legions, are really looking for a dictator, not a president.  They may pretend to revere the constitution, but, like Trump, they neither understand it nor is it likely that they’ve ever read it.  In addition to believing that Christianity is enshrined as the official religion of the United States, they see the 2nd Amendment as the only important part of the document.

Unfortunately, there is a historical precedent for a dictator being popularly elected.  Without extending the comparison beyond that one point, it is true that Adolf Hitler initially took power through a democratic election even as he talked of wanting to establish a dictatorship, restore Germany to greatness, and deal with the country’s “Jewish problem.”

Hitler references are always perilous and invariably provoke backlash.  On the other hand, the naivety as well as unwillingness to stand up to him in the early 1930s bear a striking resemblance to how the Republican Party has responded to Trump.  Whether or not you’re comfortable with the historical analogy, Donald Trump is a risk no democracy can afford to take.

 

 

How Low Can Donald Trump Go?

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Just when we think the campaign has hit rock bottom, the Republican candidate astonishes everyone with a new outrage. This year’s campaign, as all reasonable observers agree, is unprecedented in modern history. The traditional tools of analysis have not been particularly helpful. Campaigns usually have strategies that can be assessed and end up either working or failing.  Trump’s efforts are more a series of lurches and stream of consciousness comments.

Moreover, until recently, journalists were perplexed about how to cover this most unconventional of candidates.  In the last two or three weeks, they have discovered that actually reporting his words can be incredibly effective.  Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz made a serious effort to pin him down on his answers during the last debate and he hated it.  That was exactly the point at which Trump began talking about a media conspiracy against his campaign.

Another difficulty with discussing Trump’s candidacy is that normal language doesn’t do it justice.  Various surrogates have tried frequently to explain what Trump “really meant.”  For example, Mike Pence claimed that the candidate would accept the results of the election and that Trump’s remarks to the contrary just referred to media bias.  A flurry of tweets from Trump immediately doubled down on his claim that the election is rigged.

The efforts to explain away Trump’s language on the Access Hollywood bus are another case in point.  It was just “locker room talk”, or, as Melania Trump tried to argue, “boy talk.”  More astonishingly, she claimed that this wannabe leader-of-the-free-world was tricked into his “naughty” comments by a television gossip show host.  It was refreshing to hear a number of professional athletes point out that the language of their lockers rooms is really quite different, often about their stock portfolios.

What about his insistence that he would put Hillary Clinton in jail if he is elected president?  Is that a metaphor or a literal call to action?  Can anyone associated with the Trump campaign explain how that comment, repeated constantly at his rallies, is anything less than an appeal to disregard or even discard the constitution?

One of the big problems with the need to explain and clarify Trump’s comments is that many of his supporters seem to be taking them as rallying cries to action.  The endorsement of Clinton by the Arizona Republic newspaper has produced harassment and even death threats against employees of the paper.  Imagine threatening the paperboy because you don’t like a position taken by the editorial staff of a paper.

How do you describe a candidate who claims that no one respects women more than he does, but then talks incessantly about whether or not they are attractive? Trump promised to provide evidence that his accusers were lying about his groping and harassment, but so far his best explanation is that he wouldn’t have touched them because they weren’t attractive enough. He even offered that assessment of his opponent after lurking behind her during the second Presidential debate.

Trump has taken lying to a new level, as every fact checker has verified.  Lying actually doesn’t adequately describe what he does.  Instead, he spins tall tales about Hillary Clinton, immigrants, crime in big cities (which is at near record lows despite his claims), the international conspiracy of bankers, Barack Obama’s place of birth (You didn’t forget that one, did you?) and nearly every topic that comes out of his mouth.  He promises evidence of his assertions but never delivers.  It is pretty clear that not even he can keep up with the barrage of lies that he spouts.

Wednesday night is the third and final debate.  It is, hopefully, Trump’s last appearance before a television audience that large.  Given his track record, I certainly can’t predict what he will do or say, but the odds are that he will reach another new low.

It’s not clear whether Trump is even trying to win the election anymore.  His actions don’t make a lot of sense politically.  Some will argue that his non-traditional campaign has continually exceeded expectations and that we shouldn’t count him out.  While it’s not safe to do that until all the votes are in, elections are ultimately about voters and he has alienated many of the groups that he needs to appeal to if he is to have any chance.

In recent campaign stops, Trump has started talking about his movement and how he will fight to preserve it.  Many hear those words and his repeated references to the “rigging” of the election as a prelude to contesting the results of the election.  Unfortunately, whether or not he means that, some of his supporters will think that it’s time to man the barricades, get out the pitchforks (and the guns), attack people who don’t look like them and “make America great again.”

I actually think Trump is just trying to rationalize away an electoral loss that may well be of historical proportions.  His ego, which seems large but is actually incredibly fragile, wouldn’t allow him to acknowledge that he actually lost.  The only acceptable explanation is some devious conspiracy to steal what is rightfully his.

A sad fact is that Trump probably doesn’t really care that much.  He can, as he has said, go back to his very comfortable and self-indulgent life.  There is considerable speculation that his real end-game is to create a new media empire with his buddy Roger Ailes.

The suckers in this story are his supporters who went along on the ride thinking he was their knight in shining armor.  A few years ago, we were told that the Tea Party arose out of conservatives’ unhappiness  with Republicans consistently failing to deliver on their election promises. How will they react if they realize that their carnival barker has just played them for saps again?

Trump Unshackled

 

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He had me fooled.  Prior to Donald Trump proclaiming last week that he was now unshackled and free to run his campaign in the way that he really wanted to, I had thought he was the most undisciplined, most unfiltered, and least constrained political candidate I had ever seen.

Trump’s declaration of freedom seems to have been provoked by Paul Ryan, John McCain and some other prominent Republicans abandoning his campaign in the aftermath of two weeks of unravelling.  The high–no, low–point came with the revelation of a tape capturing Trump bragging about groping women whenever he felt like it.

The only surprising thing about the reactions to the tape was that some Republicans were surprised by it.  Trump throughout the campaign has demeaned women, African-Americans, Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, a disable reporter and just about anyone who came within his sight.  His campaign has been nasty, coarse, filled with lies and intended to appeal to people’s worse instinct.  Despite that history, it apparently took language that was sexually explicit to put some former supporters over the edge.

Now Trump has a new group to attack, Republicans who refuse to fall in line.  In his attacks on the politically unfaithful, he is blasting holes in what remains of the Republican Party, creating what some observers have described as a civil war.  Even as it looks more likely that he will lose decisively in November, the aftershocks are likely to reverberate for months if not years.

Meantime we can speculate about what an unshackled Trump will do in the days between now and November 8.  Recognizing that he has run the most unconventional campaign in modern history, we can still be pretty confident about some of the coming attractions.  He will almost certainly continue to attack Bill Clinton, getting increasingly graphic over time. Count also on more stunts involving the four women allegedly harassed by the former president.

Trump has gotten enthusiastic response to his wildly irresponsible call to put Hillary Clinton in jail after he becomes president.  He is likely to hammer that theme with more claims about her unproven transgressions.  This particular spectacle puts a lie to the claim by Trump and his supporters that they venerate the constitution.

Perhaps even more irresponsibly, Trump will continue to raise the specter of a rigged election with its overt racial overtones.  His not-at-all veiled references to voter fraud by black Philadelphia residents is likely to be just the opening salvo.  He may, however, find it difficult to blame inner city voters when he loses Utah.

In what will surely be a counterproductive effort, some of his supporters are now tweeting about the need to repeal the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.  That call will only add to the gender gap, in which Trump trails Clinton by staggering percentages.

Additionally, you can count on Trump ratcheting up the number and outlandishness of his lies.  To say that he has an uneasy relationship with the truth would give him too much credit.  Trump lied continuously at the second debate, which made it no different from the rest of the campaign.

As one of so many examples, he has been briefed by intelligence officials on the fact that the Russians are responsible for the hacking of the Democratic Party, but continues to assert that it could be could be anyone.  That claim serves as a reminder to listeners of his strange admiration for the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin.

The list of lies is almost endless.  Trying to catalog them is actually beyond the scope of even the most diligent fact checker.

I’m afraid that what I’ve done up to now is barely scratch the surface of what’s in store for us.  In the words of a song that was popular during the 1979 run of the Baltimore Orioles to the World Series, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

We are likely to be bombarded with a constant volley of conspiracy theories, many of which have been lurking in the recesses of the alt.right. If he hadn’t already used it, we might well be hearing that Hillary Clinton was born in Kenya.  We may well hear about her secret ties to ISIS.

The effect of an unshackled Trump will make his election even less likely, will seriously damage Republican prospects in the Senate and maybe even in the House and leave the Party in total disarray.

It’s also likely to disgust voters.  To the extent that those voters turn away from the Man in Orange, it could lead to a landslide victory that sets the stage for a more constructive phase of American politics.  The danger for the Clinton campaign, however, is that her supporters view her election as a sure thing and not bother to vote.  The second risk is that an apparently one-sided election may allow some people to feel like there’s no cost to voting for Gary Johnson.  Trump poses too great a danger to democratic government for either of those indulgences.

That’s why it’s so important that Clinton, her campaign, and all of her supporters continue to go full speed through November 8 with no let up and no mercy.  Elections ultimately are not decided by polls; the outcomes are determined by who shows up.

 

The Most Disturbing Moment in Presidential Debate History

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Given what  happened in the days leading up to Sunday night’s second Presidential Debate in St. Louis, there was widespread apprehension that it could be the nastiest and most acrimonious encounter ever between presidential candidates. After all, the political world had been in a swirl since the disclosure on Friday of a tape in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women.  And that came on the heels of his disastrous performance in the first debate and his unraveling in the days afterward.

The grope heard round the world did come up early in the debate.  Trump dismissed it as “locker room banter”, suggested that all men engage in similar talk and then asserted that it was insignificant compared to the things that Bill Clinton has done.  Trump claimed it was just talk and that he had not actually done the things he boasted of in the tape, an assertion that has already been challenged and that will surely be further rebutted in the coming days.

His supporters will believe him and everyone else will view him as a predator who shouldn’t get anywhere near their daughters.   As much as this issue was highly anticipated in the run-up to the debate, it was actually not the most disturbing aspect of the night.

Trump was widely panned for his boorish behavior in the first debate, but didn’t learn the lesson.  Sunday night, he continually interrupted and talked over Hillary Clinton, even to the point that the moderators admonished him to let her speak.  And, in what can only be described as creepy, he lurked behind her as she walked around the stage responding to individual questioners.  Trump’s scowls, sniffling and head shaking as Clinton talked are, in the bigger picture, not very important, but his handlers surely must have told him how off-putting his actions are.

All of this, however, was standard Trump.  So was his steady stream of lies and misrepresentations.  Despite incontrovertible evidence, he continues to deny that he initially favored the Iraq war.  His characterizations of his tax plan and of Clinton’s bear no resemblance to reality.  Trump’s shaky understanding of the Middle East and his simplistic assertions about how to fix it would be laughable if he were not the presidential nominee of a major political party.  The list goes on but not even these problems compares with one statement he made during Sunday’s debate.

Casting aside one of the most important and enduring features of American democracy, Trump baldly stated that if he were president he would make sure Clinton was put in jail.  As contentious and nasty as presidential campaigns have sometimes gotten, never in our history has that threat been made to a political opponent.  We are not a petty dictatorship.  We are not a country that is just now trying to figure out how to establish democratic procedures.  We have a constitution and protections of individual rights and guarantees of due process of law.

Yet, Trump, in his careless and tyrannical manner, would sweep all of that aside.  You might  dismiss the statement as something said in the heat of the debate without adequate reflection, but, in fact, he has made similar suggestions in other comments.

Trump has talked at his rallies of wanting to lock Clinton up.  It always get a roar from his followers, some of whom are wearing “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts.

Equally disturbing, Trump keeps suggesting that the election may be rigged and that if he loses, it could only come as a result of fraud.  That language itself is dangerous and a stunning break with a history of peaceful transitions of power.  We revere George Washington because he voluntarily relinquished his office when there was no tradition to do that,  a decision Lin Manuel Miranda celebrates in his musical, Hamilton.

Trump shows no awareness of the constitution and its limits and checks on power.  He attacked Clinton on Sunday for not having changed the tax code when she was a senator.  That ridiculous comment shows no understanding of the complexities of the legislative process and the need to persuade a majority of members of both houses to get laws enacted.

Trump’s instincts are those of a dictator.  He talks about what he will do, not what the country will do.  Everything is personal.  And in all of those comments, he continues to reveal himself as a real threat to democracy and to our constitutional system.

Whatever you think of the tape from last week, his stated intention to jail a political opponent is a much more serious indicator of his not being qualified to be this nation’s next president.  Threatening to have Clinton jailed if he is elected president is much more disgusting  than anything he said on the tape.

 

The Turning Point

 

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When the definitive history of the 2016 Presidential Campaign is written, the events of last week will be seen as the forces that conclusively turned the tide in favor of Hillary Clinton. To put the week in context you have to look first at the run up to Monday night’s debate which unveiled the real Donald Trump to 86 million viewers.

Through a combination of Trump campaign spin and media laziness, the bar for Trump’s performance had been set so low as to be scraping the ground.  Yet he somehow was able go even lower and astonish even his own supporters with his lack of preparation, boorishness, and total unfitness for the presidency.

Before the debate Trump kept sending the message that he was too smart to need the standard debate practice.  In fact, however, even when his handlers tried to get him ready, he demonstrated the attention span of a gnat.  Still,  those shortcomings were not the real problem.

Instead, Trump failed most spectacularly in the attribute that he claimed as a strength, his temperament.  Teenagers have more self-control than Trump.  Young children don’t interrupt as constantly as he did.  For a self-professed expert at negotiations, he kept missing opportunities to make his case.

By contrast, Clinton acquitted herself brilliantly.  She demonstrated her usual mastery of the facts; she never lost her composure; and she managed to push the buttons that brought out the worst in Trump.  Clinton made it look easy and we should give her credit for doing that under incredible pressure.  A cough, too much or too little smiling, a misstatement, and the press, as well as her opponent, would have jumped all over her.  She never gave them the opportunity.

The rest of the week saw Trump unraveling as the negative reviews of his debate performance poured in.  He retreated deeper and deeper into the cocoon of Fox News and into his own fantasy world.  He claimed to have prevailed in a poll that never happened.  He also asserted that he won the debate based on polls widely recognized as unscientific.   And then, to contradict his spin, some of his proxies wondered whether he should participate in the remaining debates.

More amazingly, he kept playing the losing hand of a public debate with a former Miss Universe whom he had demeaned.  Clinton clearly baited him in the debate and he jumped in with both feet, apparently unable to help himself.  Some temperament!  Trump, in those exchanges, including an early morning flurry of tweets, became smaller and smaller right in front of our eyes.

Meanwhile, the scrutiny by the press that Trump managed to avoid during the nominating process is finally catching up with him.  Three stories, any one of which would seriously damage most campaigns, appeared at the end of the week.

David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who has been investigating the Trump Foundation throughout the campaign, turned up evidence that the Foundation has never applied for the necessary certification from the State of New York to be allowed to accept charitable donations.  On Monday, New York’s Attorney General ordered the Trump Foundation to cease operating.  While that disclosure is unlikely to dissuade his loyal supporters, it is a measure of the careless way in which he does business.

Potentially more damaging was the revelation that a Trump business explored opportunities in Cuba in the 1990s.  Given his very vocal opposition to President Obama’s recognition of the Castro regime, his hypocrisy on this issue may well undercut his support with the Cuban community in the all important state of Florida.

But the really big bombshell exploded on Sunday when the New York Times revealed that it has obtained partial tax returns which suggest that Trump probably evaded taxes for up to 18 years.  Coming on top of his debate comment that not paying taxes made him “smart”, this is an issue which should persist with real impact through the remainder of the campaign.  How Trump handles questions about his taxes in the remaining debates, if he shows up, will get lots of attention.

Additionally, a number of newspapers around the country, many of whom have never before endorsed a Democrat, came out in favor of Clinton this past week.  While endorsements probably don’t mean nearly as much as they once did, the position of those conservative papers reveals an uneasiness about Trump that is shared by a lot of Republicans.

Trump’s disastrous week is unlikely to change the minds of many of his supporters.  That reality shows just how polarized our politics are today and, even worse, how Trump’s message of racism, misogyny and xenophobia resonates with some Americans.

On the other hand, the stark display of his ignorance, mean spiritedness  and non-presidential temperament will raise the energy and enthusiasm level of Democrats, encourage the uncommitted to realize that Clinton is the only sane choice in this election and highlight the risk of throwing a vote away on Gary “Aleppo” Johnson or Jill Stein.

There’s almost a month to go until Election Day and lots of work to be done, but Donald Trump has managed to make an irrefutable case against his election.