Observations from the early days of the Trump Presidency

If you were paying attention during his campaign, the start of the Trump Presidency has held relatively few surprises . Much of what he’s done has only confirmed our worst fears and reinforced our impressions of the  Trump we saw as a candidate.

We have already seen patterns that are likely to dominate his time in office.

First of all – and there never should have been any doubt about this – Trump as president is exactly the same person as Trump the candidate.  He has not become more moderate, more reasonable, more “presidential.”  With the exception of Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s opposition to torture, there is no evidence that he has appointed people to the cabinet or to his staff who will constrain his worst impulses or fill in the gaps in his appalling lack of knowledge.

His continuing barrage of tweets, most of them products of his insecurity and fragile ego, is the most visible evidence that Trump is who he always has been.  His continued reliance on his family, including the appointment of Jared Kushner to a position on the White House staff, demonstrates his need for a security blanket to insulate him from opposing points of view.  Trump’s fundamental boorishness and insensitivity to anyone other than himself were on full display during his visit to CIA headquarters.

Second, despite Kellyanne Conway asserting that we had paid too much attention to the literal meaning of his words during the campaign, it turns out he often meant exactly what he said.  He has signed executive orders to start dismantling the Affordable Care Act, to begin the process of constructing a wall along the Mexican border and to ban Muslims from entering the United States.  Some people are grasping at the straw of his promise to protect Medicare and Social Security, but so far there’s no evidence that his is going to honor that pledge.

Third, for those who believed that Kushner and First Daughter Ivanka were going to play a moderating influence, the decision to go ahead with the cruel and ineptly fashioned Executive Order banning Muslims should end that fantasy forever.  Similarly, even though Kushner was in the room when it happened, Trump issued a Holocaust Remembrance Proclamation that made no mention of Jews or of the events that it is essential that we never forget.

Kushner may be Jewish, but he gives every indication of being a real estate developer first and foremost.  The idea that he can negotiate  peace in the Middle East would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.  Kushner has no experience in public service, knows nothing about foreign affairs or diplomacy but has been handed a West Wing office solely because he’s in the family.

The hostility, not merely blindness, to ethical constraints highlighted during the campaign by his refusal to release his tax returns is a thread that binds many of his cabinet nominees.  They have been slow and evasive in filling out financial disclosure and ethics forms.  As one example, Tom Price, the nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, took advantage of his congressional position to get sweetheart deals on stock purchases and engaged in what looks an awful lot like insider trading.  And meanwhile, Trump brazenly asserts that the public doesn’t care about his tax returns.

Two other patterns are worth adding to this list.  Trump supporters–and let’s remember that they constitute less than half  the voting population–continue to be undisturbed by anything he says or does.  They remain blindly loyal to him despite his demonstrable lies, his bizarre behavior and his actions, some of which will surely bite them in the tail – and the pocketbook.

Some observers believe their loyalty will be tested when he can’t bring back the coal industry and produce large numbers of manufacturing jobs, but I’m not so sure.  So far, what he has “given” them is the Muslim ban, an intent to go ahead with the wall on the Mexican border (even if there’s no way he can get Mexico to pay for it), and his constant attacks on the mainstream media.  Whether all of that will compensate for their loss of health care coverage will be a bigger test of their commitment, but so far they are not wavering.

Finally, the unwillingness of Congressional Republicans to speak out or oppose any of his actions is appalling.  It may be early, but their silence makes them complicit if the public turns against the Trump agenda.  Many Republicans have stopped answering their phones or allowing constituents into their offices as opposition to the early wave of Trump initiatives builds.   You have to assume, however, that a few of them will eventually realize that an energized public may come out and vote in 2018 and 2020 in numbers that jeopardize their chances of reelection.

Citizen activism is the most encouraging bit of news in the midst of the ugly start to the Trump Presidency.  Sustaining it may be difficult, but it certainly looks like Trump will continue to provide grist for the opposition.  While I wish I could close on that relatively positive note, I am going instead to offer two warnings.

The first is that Trump, Conway, Sean Spicer and others in the administration will continue to do everything they can to distract attention from what they are doing.  The press seems to be starting to understand that challenge, but it’s going to be an ongoing struggle and not an easy one to overcome.

Last is a truly ominous note.  With a full appreciation of all the risks of citing this historical event, I worry about Trump or Steve Bannon or another of his minions creating the modern equivalent of the Reichstag fire that opened the door to Hitler seizing emergency powers in Germany in 1933.  The combination of Trump’s radical goals and his insatiable quest for power means that we need to be alert to even the most far-fetched scenarios.

A Day of Marches

 

 

The “corrupt media” is at it again. There were multiple accounts of large marches on Saturday across the United States and in many other countries. Most media, though not Fox News, reported that turnout greatly exceeded  organizers’ expectations, that all proceeded peacefully and that the marchers promised that they would continue to press not only for equality for women but for a whole range of issues that they see as threatened by the administration of the new president.

As an old friend used to enjoy saying, who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? Donald Trump and his pit bull press secretary, Sean Spicer, went berserk on Saturday about coverage that described attendance at his inaugural on Friday as less than that at Barack Obama’s in 2009. The reports included aerial photos, which were “obviously” photoshopped. Trump and Spicer insisted that it had been the largest turnout ever, a bit like Trump’s fingers.

If Friday’s coverage infuriated them, just imagine how they must be reacting to the reports of Saturday’s huge gatherings. According to that “lying” New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof, the national total of demonstrators was at least 3.6 million and probably more.  I participated in the march in Philadelphia and am pretty sure most of those alleged 50,000 people were really holograms.

Trump and his crowd deniers notwithstanding, Saturday was an inspiring and hopeful day.  The crowds were so large that there was really very little marching.  I suspect that Trump’s dark and ominous inaugural address helped build attendance.  If you were present at any of the marches or even if you only saw the pictures, you were witness to an amazing celebration of hope.  It was a Women’s March, but there were also significant numbers of men and children.  One particularly poignant sign expressed the wish that “our daughters won’t have to do this.”

The decision to focus the march on women’s issues was a brilliant choice.   It allowed a positive focus rather than one that was just a reaction to the election of Donald Trump.  Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of anti-Trump signs, but there were even more that focused on the importance of women’s rights.  The mix of young and older marchers was also really encouraging.  And, as many marchers pointed out, it’s past time for women to get much more involved in running for and holding political office.

One of the fun parts of being at the march–although you could have seen many of the same images on Facebook and other social media–was the clever and creative signs that people made for the occasion.  One that I didn’t see personally, but read about, borrowed from Carly Simon:  “You’re so vain, you probably think this march is about you.”  There were numerous riffs on Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” lyrics as well as reference to Helen Reddy’s “I am woman.”

The most frequently seen theme of the march was probably the reaction to Donald Trump’s infamous “Hollywood Access” tape.  Thousands of women–actually it was many more than that–wore “pussy hats” and apparently a good many knitted them personally for the event.  Signs with warning about the dangers of grabbing were also frequent and carried by women of all ages.

The march on January 21 was unquestionably therapeutic for many.  Those still reeling from Trump’s election had any hopes of him becoming more presidential dashed by his apocalyptic inaugural address.  But instead of pulling the covers over their heads, millions of people came out to demonstrate that they would not go quietly into the political darkness.

As positive as Saturday was, the real challenge is to maintain the energy, spirit and involvement that the day produced.  There are lots of ideas for how to resist the most damaging parts of the Trump and Republican agenda.  The source that has gotten the most attention is “Indivisible” but there are many others.  Of particular significance, it seems to me, is paying much more attention to state and local elections. The time to begin organizing for the 2018 contests is today.

Whether the Democratic Party leads the charge or whether it is much more grassroots driven remains to be seen.  While we wait for the party to pick a new leader and see if it can provide direction, there’s every reason to focus on local efforts that bring a new generation of activists into political life.

There is, in the midst of a lot of uncertainly and even confusion, one relatively simple and straightforward solution to winning back political power from a populism that emphasizes division and hatred.  Increasing participation, particularly in voting, could transform the political landscape overnight.

This approach doesn’t require converting hardcore Trump supporters. Instead, it  entails convincing people who didn’t vote for all manner of reasons that their future depends on getting involved.  I’m pretty sure that Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will provide lots of proof of the truth of that statement.

The Women’s March offered clear evidence that the will is there to fight for our better angels.  Maintaining the momentum of that day of hope is the challenge to which all of us must respond.

 

Thank You, President Obama

It seems like only yesterday that a joyous throng filled Chicago’s Grant Park to celebrate the election of the nation’s first African-American president. Watching their smiles and their tears that evening, it was easy to believe we were entering an era in which the country would focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, that the arc of history really would continue to bend toward justice.

Expectations for the future were extraordinarily high that night. Barack Obama’s eloquent and inspiring words certainly helped create that mood. So did the fact that Obama was succeeding a president, George W. Bush, who had misled the country into a disastrous and totally unnecessary war in Iraq, who had helped create the worst economic conditions in this country since the Great Depression and who had tarnished America’s standing and reputation with the rest of the world.

The expectations were always too high, unrealistic and unachievable.  No one quite appreciated at the time of the 2008 Election just how damaged the American economy was.  Few people understood how quickly and dramatically the forces of globalism were transforming the economy, not just of the United States, but of much of the world.  And certainly no one quite understood the impact those economic changes would have on the political and cultural landscape.

Perhaps most significantly, the new President faced a level of obstruction from many Republicans that ran directly counter to his campaign themes of moving beyond partisanship and gridlock in Washington.  We Americans learned only later that Republicans committed themselves from before the first day of his administration to block every initiative, to do everything they could to prevent him from achieving any success. In the words of Mitch McConnell, it became their overriding priority to make Obama a one-term president.  It was a pattern that Congressional Republicans would continue for eight years, culminating in their unprecedented decision to refuse to hold hearings on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly an entire year.

It is undeniable that a considerable strain of the opposition to Obama was racially motivated.  The “birther” movement, championed by many in the party including Donald Trump, has no plausible basis other than Obama’s race.   The president tried early to work with Republicans, borrowed heavily from their ideas, including in the construction of his health care plan, and undertook an approach to the fight against global terrorism that should have made Republicans enthusiastically supportive.   Meanwhile, overt racism began to appear in Republican rallies and became much more prevalent as the 2016 election approached.

In many ways, Obama faced a challenge similar to that of the first black man to play Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson.  It wasn’t enough to be good; both of them had to avoid responding to the taunts and neither was allowed to show public anger.

Yet, with all of that, history will speak well of the Obama presidency and rank him among the best who have ever served in that office.  To understand this, start with his actual record, not the distortions you hear from his critics.

It’s not easy to get credit for preventing bad things from happening but, absent Obama’s determined leadership, this country might have faced a total economic collapse.  Contrary to any ideological dispositions he might have had or the unpopularity of such a move in the view of members of his own party, he intervened to save the country’s banking industry.

He was attacked for not presiding over faster and more robust economic growth.  The reality, however, is that the combination of a global recession, a Congress that refused to pass legislation that might have accelerated the recovery and structural shifts in the country’s economic base substantially limited the resources he could bring to bear on the problems.  Actually, we tend to attribute both too much credit and too much blame to presidents for economic conditions over which they have little control.

Measured by the unprecedented months of job growth, the recovery and more of the Stock Market and the ongoing struggles of most industrialized nation in the world, Obama’s economic record looks very impressive.  Add the Dodd-Frank legislation which attempts to prevent the same risky business practices that contributed so much to the 2007 collapse and you have a real set of accomplishments.

As we stand on the precipice of the Trump Administration, Obama’s so-called signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, appears to be poised for repeal by the Republican Congress.  Would that action wipe out his legacy?  Not necessarily.  For all the wild and irresponsible talk by Republicans since the passage of the law, they still do not have a viable replacement proposal and are discovering that much of the law is actually quite popular.  They lied about its impact from before Day One and continue to misrepresent how it works, but they are at last beginning to understand that there will be serious political costs to a simple repeal.

Obama succeeded, regardless of what this Congress does, in changing the terms of debate about health care in this country.  The goal of coverage for everyone is much more widely accepted than it once was.  The idea that no one should be prevented from getting insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition is universally popular.  Being able to stay on your parents’ plan until age 26 seems largely beyond debate.  In other words, we’ll never talk about health care policy the same way because of what Barack Obama did.

His approach to international affairs will be more widely debated even among Democrats.  Obama vigorously prosecuted the war on terror despite Republican complaints that he didn’t describe it in the same language that they did.  Trump may undo the nuclear agreement with Iran, but the alternatives and the consequences are likely to make the world more dangerous rather than safer.  Similarly, while Obama had a tense relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, it is naked political rhetoric to say that he wasn’t highly supportive of Israel.  His administration didn’t achieve peace in the Middle East, but neither had any other president.

There will be other issues, including global warming and the environment, than draw the attention of future historians.  However, they will also pay homage to Obama’s integrity, character and example of how to be a public figure.  There were no scandals during his administration, no hints of corruption other than those made up by unscrupulous opponents.  Obama also showed that he could devote time and attention to his wife and children even as he fulfilled the office of president.

Some critics argue that he overthought some issues and was too reflective at times, that he didn’t engage in the schmoozing that is necessary to get political results.  On the other hand, he believed in facts, reason and science and tried to justify his decisions in thoughtful ways.  We are likely to miss that attribute more than almost any other.

Barack Obama wasn’t a perfect president as no one else has come close to that standard either.  He was, however, extraordinary in many ways.  Even those who don’t share that view today are likely to have a greater appreciation of him as we get further away from his presidency.  The United States was truly fortunate to have Barack Obama as its president for the past eight years.

 

 

The Sanctuary Debate Comes to Howard County

 

Sanctuary is a concept that has been around for a long time but has taken on  fresh urgency in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s incredibly ugly 2016 presidential campaign. A bill recently introduced in the Howard County Council (CB-9) has provoked a local debate about an issue that is already getting increased attention across the country.

Even though the idea of providing a safe place for people fleeing oppression goes back centuries, it still doesn’t have an entirely clear definition. Perhaps the best known example has been churches that offered shelter to refugees. That was certainly the origin of the modern sanctuary movement in the United States.

As immigration has become a hot button political issue in the United States in the 21st century, other forms of sanctuary have evolved, including sanctuary cities, states and campuses.  Most frequently, these entities take some formal action to indicate that they will not assist federal authorities in enforcing national immigration laws.

A specific point of controversy involves requests by federal authorities to local government to detain someone who has been arrested on an unrelated matter for an extended period until immigration officials can step in.  In 2016, a federal judge  ruled against the legality of that process.  Another contentious question is whether universities will voluntarily turn over student records to law enforcement authorities.

The case against assisting federal immigration officials has several bases.  The first, straight out of federalism, is that it’s not the job of local officials to enforce federal laws.  Proponents of this position argue that engaging in those activities detracts from the ability of the locals to enforce their own laws.  It is for exactly  that reason that so many police chiefs have supported the idea of sanctuary cities.

There is, of course, another factor that goes back to the more historical notion of sanctuary.  Protecting vulnerable people is seen by some as a moral imperative.  In the wake of Trump’s demagogic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, refugees fleeing from the horrors of the war in Syria and immigrants in general, sanctuary is a way to stand in opposition to policies that are seen as betraying American values.

Opponents of sanctuary usually start with some version of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?”  Given the unwillingness of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, this argument wildly oversimplifies the issue.

They also often complain about immigrants taking jobs from Americans even though there is little or no evidence to support that assertion.  In fact, most studies conclude that immigrants, legal and illegal, contribute positively to the U.S. economy.

The arguments get more emotional when Trump and others cite examples of people in the country illegally who commit crimes.  Certainly there have been some incidents but the actual numbers are relatively few.  This position makes no more sense than advocating that all white nationalists be arrested because some of them have committed violent crimes.

Recently, much of the outcry against immigrants has arisen from a calculated political campaign by Republicans to distract members of their base from realizing that the party has done little to create jobs for them and cannot bring back the 1950s.  Finding a scapegoat is so much easier than confronting real issues.

It is not hard to find hundreds of examples of sanctuary cities and campuses in the United States.  Both Baltimore and Philadelphia are included as is the University of Pennsylvania but not Penn State.  Active discussions are underway in the University System of Maryland in the aftermath of the election.

The Howard County bill was introduced by Council President Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa and is scheduled for a hearing on January 17.  The preamble of the bill states the case of its sponsors very explicitly:

WHEREAS, Howard County is comprised of immigrants from   throughout the world who contribute to our community’s social vitality, cultural richness, and economic strength; and

WHEREAS, Howard County has a strong tradition of leadership on issues of human rights, respecting the rights of and providing equal services to all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigration status; and

WHEREAS, the recent national political climate has galvanized support for xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racist sentiments within certain portions of the population, resulting in increased incidents of hate speech and violence; and

WHEREAS, unfortunate statements made by our nation’s President-elect have bolstered such dangerous sentiments and caused many residents throughout our country and within Howard County to fear for their personal safety and the loss of civil liberties; and

WHEREAS, the Howard County Council wishes to ensure that all residents of Howard County, regardless of nationality or citizenship, shall have fair and equal access to County benefits, opportunities, and services; and

WHEREAS, we must act now and always to uphold our commitment to be a community free of prejudice, bigotry, and hate; and

WHEREAS, the Howard County Council wishes to affirm that commitment by declaring Howard County a sanctuary county…

Make no mistake, this bill is a principled commentary about the direction in which the country is going.  It is a striking example of local elected officials having the courage to stand up to the hatred and prejudice that have been so much a part of Trump’s appeal.

The political dynamics going forward are likely to be complicated.  Supporters and opponents are organizing, mobilizing and making public appeals.  On Thursday, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced that he would veto the bill if it passed County Council.  In his statement, he first asserted that he is a supporter of diversity, inclusion and civility, but then called the bill a “hollow political statement.”

With the only Republican on County Council, Greg Fox, already on record opposing  CB-9, an override of a veto would need all four Democratic Council members to support the effort.  That could definitely happen.

The debate in Howard County has echoes in other parts of the state.  Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has already stated that his county will not assist in any immigration enforcement efforts.  By contrast, the man he may challenge in 2018, Governor Hogan, announced in 2015 that the State of Maryland would cooperate with federal officials.

With some Congressional Republicans threatening to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, states and campuses, this debate is likely to get even more heated in the coming year.  How it plays out in Howard County could be an early indicator of the larger battle.

Will the Media Do Better in 2017?

 

With relatively few exceptions, the national media failed us badly during the 2016 presidential election.  As the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States fast approaches, it’s far from clear that the press will be able to do a better job covering his presidency than it did his candidacy.

To be sure, there’s been some agonizing, self-reflection and calls to rethink their approach to covering a highly unconventional figure in an age when traditional media faces such significant competition.  The ability of the press to inform the public about candidates, elected officials and the activities of government is one of the essential pillars of a democracy.  As some observers already worry that under a Trump presidency our democracy is at risk, the question is of central importance.

How did the media fail in 2016?  Let me count the ways.

For one, television gave Candidate Trump hours of unfiltered and unexamined coverage worth millions of dollars.  The apparent motivation was that he was good for ratings.

An unfortunate corollary was the paucity of coverage of issues during the presidential campaign.  Numerous studies of network television news have shown that policy issues–as opposed to political controversies, assertions by the candidates and personality stories–received almost no attention.

Similarly, until much too late in the General Election, media coverage failed to point out Trump’s lies, contradictions and inconsistencies.  Some apologists for that practice argue that it’s up to the public to figure out whether a candidate is telling the truth and that the only job of the press is to report on what is said.

That begs the question of how the public is supposed to make such a judgment unless they are informed by the press.  It also relates to one of the most troubling aspects of the election, that so many of his supporters knew but didn’t care that many of his assertions were false.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the press largely failed to  pursue such important issues as the non-release of his tax returns, his business dealings with Russia and his stunning lack of knowledge about foreign affairs.  The notable exception was David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, whose coverage of Trump’s foundation and “charitable donations” is likely to win him the Pulitzer Prize.

Moreover, the media comes out of the 2016 campaign structurally weakened.  Trump used the press as a prop for his anti-establishment rants and succeeded in undercutting their credibility with a significant portion of the electorate.  Alternative media, not just Fox News, offered a view of the world that many of those voters eagerly accepted.

The most dangerous development of all may have been the advent of what has been called “fake news.”   For both partisan and commercial reasons, there were people out there in cyberspace inventing stories that some voters believed, reposted on social media and used to reinforce their views of the candidates and the “facts.”

If I had to pick a metaphor to describe how the press covered Donald Trump in 2016, the most apt would probably be a dog on a walk who keeps getting distracted by squirrels.  Donald Trump’s tweets are the squirrels that keep the press chasing after much that is irrelevant.

The early 2017 signs are not encouraging.  Trump keeps tweeting and the press keeps chasing.  He keeps lying and the media keeps reporting on just what he says.  He hasn’t held a press conference in months and may not during his presidency.  If he does, it will likely again be to  use reporters as a foil to stir up his angry supporters.

The president-elect has already stated that he didn’t really mean much of what he said during the campaign.  He has appointed individuals to key positions in the new administration who have a much more ideological agenda than he ever suggested while a candidate.

Moreover, many of his promises, whether or not he meant them, are unachievable.  Coal is not coming back.  Manufacturing jobs in large numbers for people without significant education are not going to happen either.  There’s no signs of any swamp being drained.

How will the press cover what he does and what he fails to do?  Will reporters make the effort to put his actions into a broader context or will they just continue to react to his latest words and tweets?  Will they finally escape the trap of false equivalency, of insisting on finding parallels between his actions and those of Democratic critics?

I have another concern as well.  Trump’s supporters have gone after anyone who criticizes him, often threatening and engaging in personal attacks.  There are early indications that some Congressional Republicans are hesitant to voice opposition because they fear the wrath of his backers.

Will the press also be vulnerable to intimidation by Trump?  He certainly tried to do that during the campaign, including threatening to change the nation’s libel laws to make it easier to sue reporters.  It’s clear that his version of “fair” coverage means only favorable reporting.

I actually don’t know the answer to the question I posed at the start of this blog.  I do know, however, that maintaining some semblance of our traditional democratic norms and practices depends on the ability of the media to play its historic role as a watchdog and as the means by which the public is informed.

The political environment is unlike any that the media has ever seen before.  How well it can adapt and respond may well be the single most important factor in whether American democracy survives the Trump years.  Unfortunately, we are not going to know the answer to that question for some time.