Get Over It? I Don’t Think So.

 

Donald Trump has been elected president. There, I’ve said it, acknowledged it, realized that it’s the political reality we have to deal with for the next four years.

What I am unwilling to do, however, is passively accept actions that threaten the foundations of our democracy or look the other way when his administration tramples the basic rights of Americans because of the color of their skin, their religion, their national origin or personal lifestyle. I haven’t–and won’t–change my opinion that Trump is totally unqualified by temperament, experience and values to be president. I won’t forget his appeals to prejudice and to the worst instincts of people.  Nor will I forget those voters who supported him despite his ugly campaign.

I will also recall the trashing by the Republican Party of a long history of political norms that treated the opposition party as legitimate.  In the past, election victors exercised some degree of self-restraint when in office because majority status was unlikely to be a permanent condition.

The unprecedented decision by Senate Republicans to take no action for nearly a year on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court reduces politics to total warfare and doesn’t bode well for the future.  That Trump will take office with over 100 federal court vacancies, twice the number which existed when Obama took office, demonstrates the same intransigence.

In a series of actions even more extreme, North Carolina Republicans rejected the will of voters in that state by stripping away many of the executive powers of the incoming Democratic Governor.  That was just the latest example of increasingly tyrannical measures by Republican majorities following the enactment of laws to disenfranchise minorities and the extreme gerrymandering of legislative districts.

Before the Trump Administration is sworn in, it’s worth remembering how Congressional Republicans strategized from before Day One of the Obama Presidency to thwart his agenda.  Even when he offered proposals that had long been supported by Republicans, that party turned to total unrelenting opposition.  Republicans were willing to paralyze the functioning of government rather than see the Obama administration succeed at anything.  In that vein, it will be instructive to see how they deal with deficits under a Republican president.

We hear a lot of pious admonitions that Trump is president of all the American people, that we should all wish him to succeed, that we should give him a chance before criticizing him.  Let’s for argument’s sake ignore the rank hypocrisy of those calls.

At this point, we already know several things about the new president.  First, and of particular significance, we know that we can’t rely on anything he says.  Trump lied constantly during the campaign.  He has already contradicted and repudiated many of his promises and has made clear that they were said just for political effect.

His staff is frequently clarifying his remarks and tweets.  And in the most outrageous explanation for his failure to communicate clearly or honestly, we are told that it’s our fault for not understanding what he really means and for taking him literally.

That pattern has continued during the transition.  In fact, it’s become increasingly clear that many of his tweets are intended to distract and confuse, not to clarify or explain.

We also know that his appointees include a large number of extreme ideologues.  For voters who were skeptical about Trump’s candidacy but were willing to look for hopeful signs, two of his expressed positions–safeguarding Medicare and Social Security and plans for major infrastructure projects–were encouraging.  Based on the people he has selected for key positions, those promises are looking a lot like empty campaign rhetoric.

With so many indications that the words of his campaign can only be understood as metaphorical suggestions about how he will govern, there is one constant, one unaltered piece of the puzzle.  Trump is the same undisciplined, shoot from the lip person he showed himself to be before November 8.  He has demonstrated little interest in educating himself, avoids complexity and nuance in favor of bumper sticker solutions and continues to reveal that he is incredibly thin-skinned and self-absorbed.  His obsession with Alec Baldwin’s SNL’s skits shows a remarkably insecure person.

The picture of the coming Trump presidency that has emerged so far leaves me wondering exactly what I should be getting over.  Everything he has done so far convinces me that I need to be incredibly vigilant, that I need to be even more politically active and that I need to encourage others to do the same.  I only hope that there are enough other people in this country who feel the same way so that we can together keep the lights burning brightly  in what looks like it could be a very dark time.

Tom Perez, Paul Ryan and the End of 2016

 

For all of you who view 2016 as one of the worst years in memory, hold onto your hats because 2017 is likely to be even worse. After all, this year Barack Obama is still president, but that will come to an end January 20. Today we are still speculating about what kind of president Donald Trump will be; next year we will actually have to face the reality of a Trump presidency.

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to listen more carefully to people with different political views, an approach the leadership of the Democratic Party might try as well. Not all Trump supporters come off the pages of “Hillbilly Elegy”, are in desperate financial straits or are overdosing on opiates.

Most of them are not racists or xenophobic though they do tend to have very different views about the role of government than I do and different values about the balance between community and the individual. And however much quiet discussions might add to the nation’s sense of civility, the early indications are that neither the Trump circle nor Republican Party leaders are in any mood for either compromise or conversation.

In North Carolina, the outgoing Republican Governor, defeated in his reelection bid, is conniving with the Republican dominated legislature to erode the executive powers of his successor.  You can dress that up anyway you want, but in essence it’s a coup d’etat.  Respect for the outcome of an election and for the legitimacy of the opposition party are foundations of our political system.  Since George Washington chose to leave office after two terms, the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another has been a  touchstone of American democracy.

Let me say clearly that I disagreed with the efforts to pressure electors to change their votes and not support Trump for president.  While an argument about the strengths and weaknesses of the Electoral College is a worthy debate topic, you don’t change the rules during an election.

Moreover, the proponents failed to recognize that in the absence of one candidate receiving a majority in the Electoral College, the winner would be selected by a vote of states in the House of Representatives.  Same outcome with a lot of bitterness in the process.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the contours of the Trump Administration are steadily being filled out.  As the appointments are announced, a different picture of the President-elect has emerged.

Trump has already stepped away from many of his campaign promises and assertions.  His proclaimed lack of interest in intelligence briefings, his short attention span and his proud insistence that he doesn’t read much all add up to a president who is not terribly engaged on most matters.

The risk of his blundering into a foreign policy crisis from ignorance, lack of interest or impatience has been widely noted.  Another, more likely product of his approach has not, on the other hand, received much attention.  Trump, who never served in the military, likes associating with generals.  He’s already selected three of them for high level positions.  It’s hard not to conclude that a significant factor in picking James Mattis to head up the Department of Defense was that Trump likes referring to him as “Mad Dog Mattis.”  You also wonder if his comparing Mattis to General George Patton is based only on having watched the George C. Scott movie since Trump doesn’t read books.

Then there are the very rich financial and business sector people who donated large amounts to Trump’s campaign.  These appointments have more the look of rewards for services rendered than picking a team to carry out a Trump agenda.

The appointees who are neither generals nor wealthy seem to come from an entirely different pipeline.  Most of them are people Trump doesn’t know personally, including several from the U.S. House of Representatives.  For example, he just named an extreme budget cutter to head up OMB, which won’t be easily reconciled with Trump’s announced plans for major infrastructure spending.

All roads seem to lead back to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.  Ryan, with a big assist from Trump Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, is stocking the new Administration with loyalists to himself who share a radical agenda.  So far, in addition to OMB, the list includes the head of the CIA and the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Interior.

Ryan, when he finally endorsed Trump during the campaign, spoke of his confidence that Trump would support the House Republican agenda if elected.  The Speaker apparently saw a more compliant candidate than most other observers did and realized that Trump would have little interest in the details of governing.

Paul Ryan has cultivated an image as the brains of the Republican Party as well as of a reasonable person.  He may, however, be more dangerous than even Donald Trump because he has a very ambitious agenda while Trump is a purely transactional figure.

Before I leave you with that gloomy prognosis for 2017, I want to end on a more encouraging note.  Secretary of Labor Tom Perez has announced his candidacy to head the Democratic National Committee.

Perez is a true progressive: smart, passionate about issues of equality, access and opportunity, and knowledgable about the working class voters who the Clinton campaign largely ignored in 2016.  I first met Perez in 2006 when he was a candidate  for Attorney General in Maryland.  He was ruled ineligible to run though a debatable interpretation of the State Constitution, but rebounded brilliantly.  After serving as Maryland’s Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, he moved to the Obama Administration, first as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and then Secretary of Labor.

In every office that he has held, Perez has been a champion for the disadvantaged in our society, whether it was voting rights, benefits for workers or fairness for citizens of all categories.  He is tireless in his advocacy, relentless in his commitment.

It’s hard to imagine an individual who better personifies what the Democratic Party can and should be than Tom Perez.  His record of achievement built upon an amazing life story makes him an ideal choice to head the Democratic Party’s efforts to rebuild itself.  Finally, a bit of positive news.

The Case for Democratic Obstructionism

The next four years are going to be awful.  Even if you aren’t worried about Donald Trump and his incoming administration undermining democracy in this country–a threat I see as real–you should expect substantial cuts in the role of government in this country.  The 1% may cheer that development, but many others will suffer.

By 2020, the rich are likely to be richer, the poor to be poorer and much of the safety net to be only a vague memory.  There will be more impediments to voting, fewer protections for minorities of every definition  and our commitment to saving the planet will have been shunted aside.

This set of concerns doesn’t even touch national security and American policy toward the rest of the world.  A new round of foreign intervention?  Trade wars with former partners?  Stumbling into conflicts because no one listened to a briefing on the history of a region?  A convoluted relationship with Russia that mistakes their interests for our own?

The intensity of speculation about fundamental changes in the direction of American policy is in some ways astonishing given that the country is incredibly and almost equally divided on many of the important issues of the day.  Nevertheless, the early indications are that the President-elect and the Republican leadership in Congress are intent on pushing radical changes.

Hillary Clinton’s significant lead in the popular vote does not give her a claim to the presidency but it does undercut any argument that Donald Trump has a mandate from the American public. The reports by many of the country’s intelligence agencies that Russia deliberately intervened on behalf of Trump’s candidacy underscores political and moral arguments for a cautious and deliberative approach to change.

In the 20th Century, three presidents–Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan–won the kind of landslide victories that gave them a justifiable claim to a mandate.  Trump lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College as the result of close outcomes in a handful of states.  He ran a campaign that included few specific policy positions and, as we have learned since the election, he didn’t even mean many of those.

As his transition unfolds, we are seeing evidence that Trump’s Administration may take a highly conservative Republican approach to the Federal Government in some areas.  Those who hoped that he would be pragmatic and non-ideological may be sorely disappointed.  A number of his appointees come from the hard-line anti-government wing of the party.  Cabinet secretaries at Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Education and the Environmental Protection Agency give every indication of being fundamentally opposed to the  missions of their departments.

Moreover, and while this should be disturbing to many of his backers but probably won’t be, Trump has looked increasingly to the financial sector,  particularly Goldman Sachs, for filling high level positions.  Where once those people were demonized in his campaign, now they are the insiders.  In the same vein, there has never been an administration with so many former generals.

Another sign that the Republicans have an ambitious agenda comes from the Congressional side, particularly the ideas that House Speaker Paul Ryan has advocated over the years.  Repealing the Affordable Care Act is the advertised first move but how to replace it is far from obvious. Any plan offered by the Republicans could create both real hardship and chaos in health care.

Despite Trump’s promises during the campaign to safeguard Medicare and Social Security, those programs seems to be directly in Ryan’s crosshairs.  Other programs in danger, and this is far from a complete inventory, include environmental standards, trade agreements, the safety net for the poor, women’s healthcare, voting rights, LGBTQ protection, and  … this list could get really long.

What are Democrats to do?  While there may be some areas in which a cooperative approach can produce positive results–rebuilding the country’s infrastructure is frequently cited, although Congressional Republican support is far from certain–Congressional Democrats are really left with two options, neither of which is ideal, and which are in some respects contradictory.

One is to obstruct, to find every means of parliamentary and legislative resistance to the Trump agenda.  Many of those efforts are likely to fail, but a few may succeed.

Meanwhile, it is essential that the Democrats leave no doubt with the voting public –especially those who supported the new president –that Trump and the Republicans are responsible for enacting the changes that harm Americans.  For example, it’s already not too early to push the message that his cabinet is filled with former partners at Goldman Sachs and billionaires from businesses which profited off the backs of their workers.

For many years, Republicans have been far more effective than Democrats at winning the messaging wars.  It’s time for Democrats to pay serious attention to the importance of communicating with voters in language that resonates with them.  That was one of the keys to Trump’s victory.  Opposing his agenda will require a greatly improved outreach effort.

Given the intransigent Republican opposition to everything Barack Obama tried to do during his presidency, that party has totally sacrificed the moral high ground on political obstruction.  Add to that the refusal to even consider, let alone confirm, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee–and to hear some Republican Senators, who at the time assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election, assert that eight justices are enough–Democrats have a lot of public relations ammunition for resisting Republican measures.

Parallel efforts–beginning immediately to focus on the 2018 and 2020 elections in the states as well as for Congress, citizen activism including mass demonstrations, and support for organizations that can lead the legal fight against a radical agenda–are also critical.

The passive view, that things have always turned out okay in the past, is just too dangerous with a president who is as unqualified, erratic and demagogic as Trump.  As the American patriot Thomas Paine said during the Revolutionary War, these are the times that try men’s souls.

Writing today, Paine would certainly have included women as well.  These next four years will test everyone who cares about democracy and the values that have been fundamental to this country since its founding.

 

Crumbling Foundations

public-trust-in-government

Much of the analysis of the 2016 Presidential election has focused on the specifics of the campaign: Donald Trump’s ability to appeal to angry white working class voters; Hillary Clinton’s “baggage” as a candidate; the oddities of the Electoral College system.  However, these issues may miss the larger point altogether.

Trump’s victory may be less a portent of transformation of the political system and more the product of factors long preceding his candidacy. For those who worry that our democratic system is at peril, this risk goes far beyond Trump himself.

The election was so jarring because none of the normal expectations of electoral politics seemed to apply.  Trump won despite disregarding long-standing political norms, overcoming personal disclosures that would have sunk any traditional candidate and giving little indication of how he would govern.  His candidacy seemed in many respects more an assault on the political system itself than a forecast for what his presidency would be like.

In fact, the political system was already incredibly wobbly although we have been largely blind to that reality.  And, more significantly, the weakness of our basic institutions is, if you reflect, the result of years, even decades, of undermining by well-organized political forces.

The decline in trust in government, reflected in the chart above, can be traced to events such as Watergate and the Vietnam War, as well as to the slowdown in economic growth in this country.  Another significant factor has been the demonizing of government by politicians.  Ronald Reagan’s critique of government as “the problem” opened the floodgates for that era.  The drumbeat of attacks on Washington, on bureaucrats, on government overreach, has taken its toll on American voters.

The campaign against government  has also been furthered by conservatives arguing that all taxes are bad, that they should always be reduced and never increased. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy that government is not capable of responding to the needs of the country.  Infrastructure is crumbling, schools are in decline, the safety net is being shredded.

Additionally, Republicans who controlled Congress for most of Barack Obama’s term as president demonstrated a single-minded determination to prevent him from accomplishing anything.  Voters saw gridlock and stalemate in Washington and attributed it to inherent failings of the political system rather than to a deliberate strategy to incapacitate a political opponent.

As a result, when Trump promised to “drain the swamp”, he was plowing ground that had been made fertile by years of systematic attacks on the very concept of government.

Another institution under assault is the media.  The president-elect didn’t invent press bashing, but he certainly made an art form of it.  While the press has always had its faults, the founders of our constitutional system still saw an independent media as an essential safeguard for a democratic system.

That institution is under siege from three directions and what its future in our political system will be is far from clear.  One challenge is the rapidly shifting economics of the media.  The Internet has undercut the traditional revenues streams and forced the press to reconfigure itself in ways that are still evolving.  As a consequence, the press is left with significantly fewer resources and less capacity than it once had.

A second challenge is the proliferation of media outlets and disagreement about the very definition of news.  Multiple web sites, bloggers and the appearance of “fake news” have created a cluttered environment for news consumers.  Where once we could confidently describe Walter Cronkite as the “most trusted man in America”, no one can claim that mantel today.  The phenomenon, well-documented, of people relying primarily on sources that reinforce their own views has altered the role of the media in this country in ways that diminish its ability to be the watchdog of democracy.

Finally, and perhaps most distressing, the credibility of the media has been seriously damaged.  Some of that is self-inflicted but most results from constant criticism.  Trump made the media a prop for his campaign and urged his supporters to disparage reporters at every opportunity.

The logical, or illogical if you prefer, conclusion of these trends, has been the assertion that we are in a post-factual era.  Certainly, fact-checking of Trump during the campaign seemed to have minimal impact on his supporters.  Now, some of his advocates are claiming that there is no such thing as facts, only perceptions and opinions.

My conclusion, based on these observations, is that safeguarding democracy in this country and avoiding the more ominous dangers of a Trump presidency will require more than the steps that have been generally discussed so far.  The foundations, the basic institutions of our political system, have been under sustained and systematic attack for years.   Without a common understanding of what is essential for a democratic system, we get the kind of destructive actions that characterized the election of 2016.

Finding ways to rebuild trust in our most cherished institutions is going to be essential if the United States is to have any chance of preserving the basic values of the constitutional system.  Ben Franklin, after the convention in Philadelphia in 1787, was asked what sort of government the delegates had established.  His answer, very much relevant today, was: A Republic if you can keep it.

 

Did You Really Think There ‘d Be A Different Donald Trump After November 8?

 

baldwin-and-trump

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump showed himself to be a thin-skinned narcissist with little or no understanding of the demands of the presidency or the challenges he would face if elected. Some saw his comments and behavior as reminiscent of fascist leaders of the past. Others noted his tolerance for, if not active encouragement of, supporters who were racist, misogynist, and xenophobic. Rather than someone who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, Trump gave every indication of not caring what he doesn’t know.

Many people have spent  time since the election passing through the various stages of grief as well as trying to understand what factors led to the outcome.  Wherever those assessments lead, the reality remains that on January 20, 2017, Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

If words like “surrealistic”, “unprecedented” and “scary” were used to describe his campaign, those impressions have all been reinforced and underscored by his activities during this transition period.  The hope that he would become more “presidential” after the election and that the impending responsibilities of the office would moderate his behavior have proved illusory up to now.

The most significant lesson so far is that Trump’s words can’t be taken literally.  Many of his senior advisors have criticized the press for reporting his words directly when he “clearly” meant them figuratively.  Trump gives every indication that he doesn’t feel bound by anything that he said during the campaign.  Moreover, as with the campaign speech about making sure the Carrier plant in Indiana wouldn’t move to Mexico, he feels free to deny ever having said that.

How well that will play with the large crowds at his rallies who heard him talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs and the coal industry remains to be seen.  Perhaps the opportunity to shout “Build the wall” and “Lock her up” was all they wanted out of the campaign.  Frankly, however, that won’t be just their problem.  It will also be the problem of all those working class whites who will make up the bulk of the military if Trump or one of his belligerent generals involves us in a war in the Middle East or elsewhere just to show how tough they are.

As to Trump’s words during the transition and once he takes office, I hope the press and the public will remember the lesson that we can’t take anything he says literally.  As Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell said during the Watergate hearings, watch what they do, not what they say.

There are at least three other patterns from the campaign that have reemerged during the transition.  First, and it should surprise no one, Trump is continuing to tweet at all hours and primarily on subjects that annoy him personally.  It’s astonishing that the incoming leader of the free world feels the need to critique Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live.  Did I mention thin-skinned?  I actually wonder how stable the man is.  Unfortunately, we may not find out for sure until he has created incredible damage somewhere.

The second issue with his tweets is what it shows about his values.  Has he tweeted about the right-wing group that shouted “Heil Trump” at a meeting in Washington?  Has he weighed in on the upsurge in hate acts aimed at minorities and Muslims?  No, but he did get upset about the cast of Hamilton offering a plea for tolerance to Mike Pence after a performance.

Trump has bragged in the past about not reading books.  Apparently his short attention span and impatience apply to sitting through briefings as well.  However big he thinks his brain is, there are lots of important subjects about which he knows almost nothing.  In skipping briefings from American intelligence agencies, he is demonstrating  a level of either arrogance or indifference that jeopardizes his ability to do the job for which he was elected.

This pattern has already had adverse consequences.  It was troubling when, during the campaign, Trump diminished the importance of America’s alliances with other nations.  Now, however, he seems intent on  treating long-time friends like Britain and Germany with disdain and indifference.  Whether he is aware of the potential impact of his amateurish actions is besides the point; he is running the risk of undermining the international security system that has served the United States incredibly well since the end of World War II.

Conducting telephone calls with foreign leaders without bothering to learn about and understand the intricacies of the relationships with their countries is fundamentally an act of gross irresponsibility.  Conversations with the leaders of Pakistan and Taiwan have already caused unnecessary confusion.  Trump may look upon himself as a deal maker, but he certainly is no diplomat.

Once he becomes president, his tendency to act without thinking and preparation, to react to the moment, to want to make whoever he’s talking to happy raise gigantic risks for American national interests and for world stability.  Trump the businessman sees every relationship as a transaction.  In diplomacy, being able to think and act for long-term goals is essential, but it’s increasingly questionable whether he is capable of taking that perspective.

The third pattern of the Trump transition, the one that has received by far the most attention, is his appointments to key positions.  During the campaign, he went through three campaign managers, had a constant swirl of people trying to influence him and brought into his closest circle individuals from the extreme fringes of US politics.  As a candidate, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington and end politics as usual. He also strongly criticized Wall Street for its influence on policy makers.

However, some of his initial appointees looks like those of a very traditional Republican.  A Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs.  A Transportation Secretary who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  A Chief of Staff who headed the Republican National Committee.  That looks more like bringing additional alligators to the swamp  than draining it.

Many of the others are even more controversial and raise serious questions about the direction of a Trump Administration.  Senator Jeff Sessions, who was turned down for a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of his racist connections, will head the Department of Justice.  It’s hard to think of a worse choice short of picking David Duke.

One of my biggest concerns is that Trump will not be interested enough to pay attention to what Sessions does as Attorney General and will give him almost unlimited latitude.  In many respects, Sessions may well be the most dangerous person so far named to the new administration.

Given the overt attacks on voting rights in many states even before this and in light of the dreadful Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, Sessions could do great harm to what should be a constitutionally sacred right.  Stopping him will take concerted efforts by the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, other groups and concerned citizens.

The national security team is not yet in place.  Whoever is selected to be Secretary of State may well play  a pivotal role given the current configuration.  Mike Flynn, the National Security Advisor, has a history of erratic and confrontational behavior and will certainly not be a brake on any rash tendencies that Trump may bring to the Oval Office.

By all accounts, James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense designee, is a thoughtful, well-read strategic thinker who could be a counter-weight to the tendency to precipitous action.  The announcement by some Congressional Democrats of their intention to fight the waiver that Mattis needs to take the job looks like it’s picking the wrong guy to fight.

I haven’t yet mentioned Steve Bannon in part because it’s not at all clear what his job is.  Chief strategist could mean anything.  His history in the alt.right movement is deeply disturbing, however, and should make all of us very wary of whatever role he plays.

The upshot of these observations is that, at this point, President-elect Trump looks an awful lot like candidate Trump.  It’s hard to see any mellowing, any willingness to be more reflective, any instinct to broaden his circle of advisors. Worse, he is still resisting guidance from individuals with any experience in government. Unless we see a real change after January 20, we are in for a very dark period in this country.