Overcoming “Trump Depression”

 

In a recent article in the New York Times, Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, argued that people who pay the most attention to politics are most likely to be unhappy. While it’s indisputable that a lot of people have been unhappy since November 8 of last year, Brooks’ assertion paints an incomplete and misleading picture.

As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there trying to get you. Similarly, in today’s political environment, there’s plenty to be depressed about regardless of the state of your mental health.

Americans who think government should provide help to the disadvantaged, disabled and in need, who believe in science and the threat of climate change, who are troubled by the growing level of inequality in this country, and who support equal rights for women and minorities must live with a president and a Republican-controlled Congress who are openly contemptuous of all those goals.

Donald Trump was elected president despite or, maybe, in part because of, a campaign filled with open appeals to prejudice and hatred, promises that could never be kept and a self-absorption for which the term “narcissistic” is barely adequate.  Trump’s pattern of lies, bullying, unethical behavior and ignorance of our constitutional system has carried over from the campaign to the Oval Office.

Is it any wonder that many politically active citizens are struggling with emotions which range from rage to apathy to what surely feels like depression?  Women, who have struggled for years to achieve equal treatment in the work place, the political arena and health care are facing attacks that seemed unthinkable as recently as 2016.  Minorities are also facing more aggressive assaults on their right to vote and to participate in the political system.

In an economy that has disproportionately favored the most wealthy for several decades, the new Administration seems determined to put yet another thumb on the scale.  Attacks on immigrants, the press and anyone outside some narrowly defined mainstream are, to many, assaults on the very essence of what has made this country special and, therefore, are deeply disturbing.

Contrary, however, to some people’s reading of Brooks’ article, the answer is not to avoid the news or to disengage from politics.  Certainly it’s possible to overdose on Rachel Maddow or on like-minded Facebook posts, but’s burying your head in the sand, going off the grid, and cutting yourself off from others are not solutions to what ails you.

Despite the disdain in some quarters for facts, the problem is reality-based.  Many of us see serious threats to our most cherished values, to institutions that have served this country well for a very long time, to the proposition that we are one country rather than a collection of gated communities.

More rather than less political engagement is the prescription for “Trump depression.”  That will probably mean spending less time surfing the Internet or signing petitions and more time writing checks to causes that matter to you; calling, writing and visiting your elected representatives; going to rallies and demonstrations that make clear to the president and the members of Congress that the public is paying attention to what they are trying to do; and being part of a record off-year turnout for the 2018 elections.

The good news is that we are already seeing evidence of all these activities in numbers totally unprecedented at this point in the political cycle.  People who told me how much trouble they were having overcoming their depression in the aftermath of the presidential election are finding ways to channel their energies and emotions.

We’re seeing spikes in donations to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.  “Indivisible” groups are sprouting all over the country. People are showing up for rallies and protests.  Also, we should not forget that there are lots of white males who don’t feel threatened by immigrants or women or globalism and who are concerned by the anti-democratic tendencies of the new president.

Sustaining that level of engagement won’t be easy although we can be confident that Trump and Paul Ryan will continue to provide motivation for us.  Make no mistake, political activism was one of the key factors that contributed to the failure of the Republican health care initiative last week.

Anxiety about the 2018 elections will become increasingly more apparent among officials up for reelection.  Public opinion polls, already showing records levels of disapproval of a president in his third month, will continue to plague Trump.  Republican infighting and finger pointing for their failures will blossom as their struggles get more difficult.

Unfortunately, Trump and Ryan will do more damage before they are ultimately stopped, but there is at least a solution to their misguided agenda for all who are depressed by it:  ever more political activity.

 

The Trump Administration–Where Truth Goes to Die

 

At a recent White House press briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer whether Donald Trump could be relied on to tell the truth. Spicer, in a response that sounds directly out of “Alice in Wonderland” said “yes, unless he’s joking.”

Trump may be many things, but no one has ever accused him of being a stand-up comedian. Claims that he was just joking have come only well after the fact when he and his minions try to excuse away a particularly indefensible statement.

Instead, Spicer’s deflection is but one example of the multi-layered facade of lies and deception that this Administration uses to pursue an agenda that could never stand up to the light of scrutiny and analysis.

The tone and much of the deception comes from the very top, from Trump himself.  As has been well-documented, first in the campaign and now continuing since his Inauguration, Trump lies as easily as he breathes.  What’s puzzling is that so many of the statements are so easily disproven or, at least, cannot be verified and that others have no apparent political objective.

Even a partial list would consume volumes.  Trump has maintained his pathetic claim that so many more people attended his inauguration than that of Barack Obama despite unequivocal pictorial evidence to the contrary.  His repeated rant that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of illegal votes is delusional.

These two examples, which could easily be supplemented by many others, seem primarily a product of his fragile ego.  He can’t admit to ever being less than the best or not having the most of whatever, even when repeating the claims makes him seem unhinged from reality.  And then he sends out Spicer and Kellyanne Conway and others to look even more ridiculous by backing him up.

Other lies have more serious consequences.  His recent assertion that Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped during the campaign is a reckless claim that may have real political consequences for Trump.  Yet he continues to repeat the lie, refuses to back down in the face of denials even among other Republicans and looks to have backed himself into a dead-end alley.

Then, to make matters worse, he alleged that Britain assisted Obama in spying on him.   This outlandish accusation further enhances his reputation for mendacity even as it damages the relationship with a key ally.

Trump’s biggest lies, however, are those he tells to supporters.  He has promised the return of coal and manufacturing jobs, a boom in the economy, the repeal of Obamacare, the defeat of ISIS, and generally lots of “winning.”  His nearly three months in office have achieved none of those promises.

To understand the significance of this administration’s lies, however, you have to move beyond the specifics.  Trump’s falsehoods, and those of Spicer and Conway as well as of many of his cabinet heads, are in fact much more insidious than mere misstatements.  Trump’s goal is to discredit the very notion of reality and to replace it with a set of beliefs and prejudices that appeal to that portion of the electorate that is angry and frustrated with conventional politics.

Take the President’s proposed budget as an example and the justifications that have been offered for the draconian cuts in domestic programs.  There are two main strands to the arguments and they both appeal to emotions rather than to reason.

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, without a hint of embarrassment, asserted that school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels for Senior Citizens and a long list of others had not demonstrated any benefits to either the individuals or to society.  In fact, multiple studies have fully documented the value, both economic and social, of these programs, which render Mulvaney’s statements nothing less than a blatant appeal to prejudice, greed and ignorance.

A second piece of the attack was the pious sounding claim that the administration doesn’t want to force miners in West Virginia to pay taxes to support Big Bird on PBS or the National Endowment for the Arts.  At its root, this argument is an attack on almost all government spending other than defense.  It’s an approach that says that if I personally don’t benefit, then no one else should either.  It undermines the very idea of the “United” States.

By n0w, you’ve also heard about various officials describing the budget as “compassionate.”  That remark may be the biggest lie of all.  Nothing about Trump or the Republican leadership in Congress suggests even a slender reed of compassion for the poor or disadvantaged.  For a timely  discussion of this point, see Nick Kristof in the March 16, 2017 New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/opinion/and-jesus-said-unto-paul-of-ryan.html?_r=0

If you can’t succeed on your own–which apparently includes tax breaks for the wealthy and parents who provide millions of dollars to underwrite your business career–you really need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and overcome those minor obstacles like generations of poverty, institutional bias and inadequate schools.

The attacks on the mainstream media are a significant piece of the strategy of lies.  If all media are equally suspect, then you are free to rely on sources that reinforce your prejudices even if their reporting can’t be verified.  If Breitbart and Fox are good enough as sources for Donald Trump’s tweets, they should be good enough for you.

Attacks on press credibility have another objective.  The Trump Administration has been incredibly sloppy in its vetting of senior officials.  Lies and omissions about connections to Russia during the campaign and after were revealed only through extensive digging by reporters.  Mike Flynn, who was being paid by Turkey and Russia even while advising Trump, was finally forced from office, but what about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who lied during his Senate confirmation hearings? There’s a lot more smoke circling around this issue, and it appears as if the principal Trump response is to attack the messengers.

Some viewers were disturbed by the very dark image of politics presented in the Netflix series “House of Cards.”  At this point in the Trump presidency, that rendering may turn out to have been too rosy.  Donald Trump lies constantly, sometimes with a clear purpose and other times because he can’t seem to help himself.

He regularly requires staff to repeat and defend his lies even though they are indefensible.  Sean Spicer looks more of a buffoon with each press briefing.  Kellyanne Conway has lost all credibility, a commodity that once lost is unlikely ever to be regained.

Trump’s cabinet of transplants from Goldman Sachs, ideologues and B-listers from the political fringe embarrass themselves every time they open their mouths.  While it’s hard to judge whether they are just incompetent and uninformed or if they are deliberately lying, the distinction may not matter much.

Bottom line:  the Trump Presidency is built on a foundation of lies and deception.  It truly is a house of cards that will come tumbling down if reporters keep doing their jobs, activist citizens stay engaged and insist on accountability, Courts continue to enforce the constraints of the Constitution, and Congress, which has been incredibly passive and compliant, decides that it is an independent branch and not a lap dog for Trump.

The outcome is not assured.  Falling back on the notion that “it can’t happen here” is not enough.  While the Trump presidency at times shows signs of self-imploding, it ultimately won’t collapse without the vigorous efforts of the rest of the political system. Ben Franklin wondered whether we could “keep the Republic” that had been created by the Constitutional Convention. We are facing a test that probably even Franklin couldn’t have imagined, but he certainly understood the stakes.  Do we?

Meanwhile, back in Maryland…

Even though the Master of Mar-a-Lago continues to provide endless material for commentary, a decent regard for mental health suggests the importance of looking away from time to time. Thinking about Paul Ryan and the machinations of House Republicans with respect to health care policy really isn’t much of a respite either. The current draft of RyanCare working its way through the lower chamber seems more like their 50 plus earlier efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act than a serious effort at policy making.

Looking for a different perspective, I recently spent a day in Annapolis, home of Maryland government. Despite a long absence, it only took a few conversations to realize that the French were absolutely correct that “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

I couldn’t find anyone who thought that it was going to be a particularly productive legislative session. Certainly the Governor’s agenda doesn’t look like much is going to come of it. And, on the other hand, Democrats haven’t really figured out how to effectively oppose Larry Hogan other than to frustrate his ambitions.

I admit that I’m gazing down from about 50,000 feet and that of course lots of bills will end up passing. Still, revenue projections are down again, little has changed with respect to the State’s ongoing structural budget deficit and no one really has a plan for dealing with what may be massive disruptions from the federal budget and the efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Hogan’s leadership is a bit puzzling. In fact, it’s not really clear what his goals are other than to get reelected. His poll numbers continue to be high, but his popularity may well be more personal than political. The two main strands of his outreach strategy seem to be to beat up on Baltimore City and to make derogatory statements about Democrats in the General Assembly. Will that be enough to ensure his reelection to 2018?

Maybe, but the political environment next year is likely to be less favorable to him than it was in 2014 when he faced a weak opponent and considerable voter fatigue after eight years of Martin O’Malley as governor.  By next year, the Trump presidency may be so unpopular than Hogan will have serious problems in figuring out how to position himself.  Will he have a record that he can take to voters?

He has certainly made a few decisions that are popular with his base, such as reducing tolls and cancelling the Red Line in Baltimore.  Hogan has also announced that “Maryland is Open for Business.” Whether that declaration translates into any tangible benefits for Marylanders is murky at best.

Hogan has taken a very visible position against gerrymandering.  Will voters care?  He has one of the smartest persons in Maryland, Bobby Neall, working on a plan to reorganize state government.  I could argue that both of these initiatives might, depending on the details, make sense, but whether either can be a viable campaign issue is far from clear.

Ultimately, Hogan’s reelection prospects will depend largely on who runs against him in the General Election and whether Democrats are able to mobilize their significant registration advantage to actually turn out on Election Day.  One factor that might impact the second issue is whether the anti-Trump political activism that has been so evident since his Inauguration will spill over into the Maryland race.

A number of Democratic names are out there, but no one seems to have grabbed the frontrunner position.  Two county executives, Rushern Baker of Prince’s George’s and Kevin Kamenetz of Baltimore County, both have impressive records as local executives, but little name recognition outside their own areas.  Congressman John Delaney has a lot of money, but may be even less well-known than Baker and Kamenetz.

Last week, State Senator Rich Madaleno, who is Hogan’s leading critic in the General Assembly, announced that he is considering getting into the race.  Earlier, House Appropriations Chair Maggie McIntosh made it known that she was thinking about running for statewide office, although most observers assumed that she meant challenging Comptroller Peter Franchot in a Democratic Primary.  Madaleno and McIntosh are both smart, experienced and well-respected legislators.  Whether either can translate those qualities into voter appeal will be a real challenge.

Making the jump from being a locally elected official to running statewide is much harder than most people realize.  A lot of popular local officials have stumbled badly in the past trying to move up.

A couple of other names have surfaced and others may still express an interest, but whether any of them is a serious candidate or is just seeking attention won’t be obvious for several months.

On the other hand, Larry Hogan pretty much came out of nowhere to win first the Republican nomination and then the Gubernatorial race in 2014.  He better than anyone else should know that one of these candidates could do the same thing him next year that he did to Anthony Brown in the last election.

The Madness of King Donald I

Our constitutional system is facing its most serious threat since the American Civil War. The expectations of checks and balances and representative democracy are being jeopardized by three factors, any one of which could destabilize the system and in combination should make us very worried.

First, we have in Donald Trump a president who defies traditional description despite repeated efforts to apply a label to him. He has been called a narcissist, a bully, thin-skinned,  stunningly uniformed and appallingly lacking curiosity. None of those words go nearly far enough nor do they adequately express the danger that he poses to our system of government and our most cherished values. As the positive responses to his address to Congress last week demonstrate, we desperately want to see him as within some broad definition of “normal.” Yet he once again blew up those hopes with his weekend tweets.

Some people point to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as possibly able to keep Trump’s behavior in an acceptable range.  The Founders never anticipated a need for a full-time baby sitter.  Moreover, even their efforts haven’t had much impact. We look for adults in his administration and hope that the generals will keep him in line. Relying on retired military leaders to provide guidance is a thin reed which doesn’t look very promising at this point in his presidency.

We need to stop dancing around the real issue.  Donald Trump is unstable, dangerously unpredictable, erratic and unfit for the office he holds.  He is a poster child for the provisions of the 25th Amendment except that Vice President Mike Pence and the members of the Cabinet show no signs of the courage or wisdom needed to act on what is so plainly in front of them.

My concern is not about policy or ideology.  I disagree with almost every position that Pence holds but still believe that he operates within the boundaries of normal.  Trump does not.  I hate seeing the nation’s environmental efforts gutted and public education undermined by an emphasis on vouchers, but my worries about the dangers posed by Trump go way beyond those specific policies.  In his insatiable need for power, recognition and submission, he threatens the very foundations of our political system.

Some have suggested that the “mad man” theory of foreign relations–be unpredictable to your adversaries in the way that Richard Nixon was during his presidency–is a viable approach.  In an age of both thermonuclear weapons and terrorist organizations, there’s no evidence that a mad man in the Oval Office constitutes an effective deterrent.  Moreover, how do you justify an erratic president in terms of domestic policy in a representative democracy?

Trump is truly an aberration, a president who exceeds the worst fears of the Founders.  To be sure, they were worried about too much power being held by anyone and created a system that was intended to put limits on excesses.  The problem we face is that the mechanisms to make checks and balances work have been undercut by two modern trends.

As Lin Manuel Miranda pointed out in “Hamilton,” George Washington in his Farewell Address offered some significant advice to future generations.  Specifically, he warned about the dangers of “factions,” a term he used to refer to the incipient development of political parties.  Political Scientists in modern times have often described American political parties as a stabilizing influence, but that assessment seems increasingly out of date.

Instead, contemporary political parties aren’t unifying or bridging gaps in our country; they are hardening the divisions.  While you can legitimately criticize the shortcomings of both parties, the evidence is quite clear that Republicans have been the more intransigent, less willing to compromise party.  (See for example, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, “The Broken Branch.”)

As a result, Republicans who control both houses of Congress have shown no willingness to stand up to or criticize Trump’s erratic behavior.  Instead, they look the other way, pretend that nothing strange is going on, and push their ideological agenda in the hope that Trump will be too busy with his own obsessions to care what they are doing.

Is there any chance that some Republicans will eventually put “country ahead of party”?  Mr. Trump has already shown that he is basically unhinged and that he is not going to become more presidential.  In fact, the pressures of the office and the disappointments that are inherent in the system are likely to make his behavior even more erratic.

His outlandish charge, without any supporting evidence, that Barack Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped during the election is but the most recent example of his wandering mind.    The more he gets away with flaunting laws and conventions, the harder it will be for other institutions to rein him in.  If Congress doesn’t exercise its authority as an independent branch of the Federal Government, the risks of authoritarianism will continue to increase.

Another obstacle to checking the mad man in the Oval Office is the sharp divisions among the public.  It’s not so much that people hold different points of view as that they see the world from different prisms.  Rather than being open to new information that might modify opinions, we are a country increasingly in search only of “facts” that reinforce what we already believe.

The observation that you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts is apparently no longer operative.  Despite years of evidence widely available, more than 50% of Republicans continue to believe that former president Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya.  With alternative facts and charges of fake news thrown around with abandon, there’s less and less common ground for political discussion.

In this environment, we are already seeing the Trump Administration attempting to delegitimize the mainstream press and to push assertions for which there is no evidence.  Even if Trump fails to accomplish the things he promised his supporters during the campaign, many of them may view his administration as a success based solely on what they see and read on Fox News, Breitbart and similar sources.

The bottom line is that our constitutional system doesn’t automatically check the president or guarantee that our rights are protected.  Two of the mechanisms that have historically played a key role–political parties and an informed public–are under siege.

That reality places an even greater burden on the institution that Thomas Jefferson saw as the key to preserving liberty, a free press.  There have been of late some encouraging signs, but the struggle is going to be difficult and often ugly.  At this point, however, it may be all we have.