Are We All Living in a Dystopian Novel?

Much of the time, Donald Trump seems more a dark caricature of a president than the real thing. People use all sorts of metaphors to describe his bizarre behavior in office, including references to psychological disorders, comparisons to fascist dictators of past history and, of course, reality television shows.

None of these has been quite sufficient. During his campaign for president, he kept doing things that analysts agreed were the “last straw”, surely the breaking point in his effort to win the nomination. Since he took office in January, numerous events have been described as the worst day or worst week of his presidency, yet they keep coming. There is, as best anyone can tell, no bottom to what Trump is capable of doing.

Trump’s shortcomings have been well catalogued.  He came to the job never having served in either public office or the military.  He is stunningly ignorant about even the most basic information regarding issues, law and policy, the lives of others, or the rest of the world.  Worse yet, he shows no interest in learning.  Trump substitutes lies and bluster for knowledge and perspective.

The words “chaos”, “dysfunctional” and “incompetent” have become increasingly the language to describe this Administration.  It’s apparent that  Trump isn’t really interested in governing.  While some might take comfort in that realization and in the disarray that characterizes everything that the White House does, there is a much greater danger lurking below the surface.

What Trump does care about is holding power, not being perceived as weak–note all his references to others laughing at the United States or at Republican Senators–and not being unmasked as the fraud that he is.  He is not going to go quietly into the night.  He will pull down the entire edifice of government before he allows himself to be humiliated.

The most serious transgression thus far has been Trump’s attack on the constitutional system.  Whether or not you agree with “originalists” about the correct way to interpret our founding document, the reality is that our political system relies upon much more than just a piece of paper written in 1787.  It’s also history, Supreme Court decisions, precedent, compromise, norms and civility.

Trump has unleashed an all-out attack on our entire system.  He disregarded years of accepted practice when he refused to share his income tax returns.  He violated the spirit of the law when he brought unqualified family members into senior positions in government.  He views Congress as an annoyance rather than a co-equal branch of government.   Although his firing of James Comey may not constitute  obstruction of justice, it is certainly a blatant trampling of the independence of the Federal Bureau of  Investigation.

Every political observer on the planet is watching to see what will be the next attack.  Will he fire Special Council Robert Mueller?  Will he replace Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein at the Department of Justice?  If he takes those steps and there isn’t an immediate move to impeach him, we really will be entering dystopian territory.

American presidents have enormous powers.  Practices that have evolved since the Constitution was originally written have greatly increased those powers.  The revered system of checks and balances is far from automatic.  It only works when those in office recognize that there are limits on their powers and other officials in the political system place a higher value on the country and the Constitution than they do on personal loyalty to the president.

It’s not surprising that Trump can demand and received subservience from White House officials.  As members of his personal staff, they serve at his pleasure. If they don’t respond as he wishes, he can replace them and bring in world-class sycophants.  There is no one working there now–neither the relatives nor the generals–who is an effective restraining force.  The first six months of his presidency should have made that totally clear to everyone.

Before Trump took office, some observers saw signs of latent fascism and suggested comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini.  That Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism led others to conclude that, therefore, he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic and, thus, wasn’t a fascist.

A better place to look, however, is the psychological literature on authoritarian personalities.  When you examine the characteristics of this personality type, Trump comes across as a textbook example.  Joseph Stalin in the 1930s offers a clearer analogy.  That was the period of his greatest paranoia, of his purges of people in the army and the communist party whose loyalty Stalin doubted.  Sound familiar?

Trump acknowledges no limits on his power.  He is, in many respects, a shrewd analyst of human nature, a skilled manipulator of public opinion and a person who defines everything in terms of the impact on him.  He has no allegiance to the American political system, to fundamental values or to anyone else.  He will do anything to hold on to power.

The “novel” in which we find ourselves today doesn’t need to have a dystopian ending, but it could.  The next few months are likely to be critical.  The future of American democracy depends on Trump being held accountable by Congress, the Courts and the political system.  He is a dangerous man and it’s time for even his supporters to realize that he’s also a fake who has no interest in delivering on any of his promises.  Whether the political system which has evolved over 230 years can hold him remains to be seen.

 

 

It’s Almost 2018

 

Donald Trump has managed to disrupt many of our conventional notions about the world of politics.  Bad things are happening so fast and so frequently that it’s hard to know which ones should get our attention. More significantly, the relatively trivial distractions are difficult to ignore because they seem so outrageous.  Trumps flagrantly disregards conventions, norms, rules, laws–and the truth.

Despite his claims about how incredibly successful his presidency has been in the first six months, the reality is that he has created an unstable and dangerous mess. Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have already done great damage to this country, damage which would be even worse if they weren’t so incompetent.

The international situation–whether you are thinking of China, Russia, North Korea, the Middle East, or our relationships with our traditional allies–is spinning out of control. Largely by executive action, this administration is jeopardizing the future of the planet by undoing environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. Trump, ironically, seems to have little understanding of what he is doing and cares even less. His erratic posturing on health care legislation would be laughable if the risks weren’t so great.

And we haven’t even gotten to a serious discussion about his budget proposal which would devastate what is left of the safety net for the poor and disadvantaged, dramatically reduce enforcement of many protections that the government by law is required to provide, and ultimately offload all sorts of commitments onto state and local governments.

In response to these cataclysmic events, what is the average citizen to do? Political activism is at its highest level since the 1960s. Pressure on members of Congress impacted the deliberations over the McConnell healthcare bill. Republican legislators, when they go to their home districts, are either hiding or facing angry constituents. Much of the media has recovered from the nap it took during the presidential election campaign and is now increasingly focusing a sharp light on the actions of the president. And late night comics have never had so much material to work with.

However, Trump is still the president and the hardest core of his base continues to support him and to see the world through orange-tinted glasses. Those hoping for impeachment proceedings or invoking of the 25th Amendment are almost certainly going to be disappointed. Few Republicans have shown the courage to stand up to Trump or to place a higher loyalty to country than party.

Until November 2018, the best hope is to contain the damage caused by this president. Nothing good is going to happen.  Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will continue to try to increase the wealth of the rich at the expense of the poor. Jeff Sessions will continue to support efforts to disenfranchise voters. Environmental safeguards will continue to be dismantled. And the list will go on.

The only hope to reverse the tide of destruction is for Democrats to turn out in record numbers in the 2018 election and regain control of the House and the Senate. We don’t have to decide who the Democratic Presidential nominee will be in 2020 to succeed in 2018. Neither is it essential to have universal agreement on the precise language of the Democratic “message.” It is, however, critical that there be a unified party working together for a common goal rather than one mired down in intramural battles over personal grievances.

It’s time to stop arguing about whether Hillary Clinton was the right candidate in 2016 or about what could have been done differently. That was the last war. Now it is time to fight the next one.

To be sure, there has to be an economic message. As Trump showed last time, however, it doesn’t need to be too detailed or too complicated. But it’s not enough to say that Trump and the Republicans are awful, although that will certainly motivate some voters. Democrats must offer a message that resonates with the real-world concerns of voters.

My personal view is that it is much more effective to turn out committed Democrats, many of whom have historically stayed home in off-year elections, than it is to put much effort into trying to convert Trump supporters. If they continue to insist on believing that coal jobs are coming back, there’s no argument that will ever convince them. Don’t call them deplorables,  do campaign in places that have had Republican majorities, but don’t count on winning the election there.

The 2016 outcome was a surprise, but it was also close.  Politics is always messy, parties are rarely well-organized and even hindsight is not always terribly clear.  Democrats will not in a single election overcome the years of neglect of state and local races, but they do have the chance to turn 2018 into a wave election, a political tsunami, that gets the country back on the road to sanity, decency and hope.

2018 may be the last best hope to save American democracy.  Democratic control of Congress may be the only thing that can stop Trump, Sessions and Russian hackers from manipulating–stealing–the 2020 Presidential election.  As awful as the current situation is, that really could be the end of democracy in America.

A New Partisan Divide: Higher Education

 

We have become increasingly used to sharp differences of opinion between Democrats and Republicans. While the 2016 Presidential Election was the most consequential demonstration that our country is deeply polarized, there are more and more examples, some of them new and surprising.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in early June that showed fundamental differences by party affiliation in opinion about major institutions in the county.  The findings support other research that shows we are more likely to live close to people with similar political orientations, more likely to socialize with them and, increasingly, to obtain our news about the world from sources that have filtered it to meet our pre-existing views.

The Pew study showed clear divides in Democratic and Republican views about banks, churches, labor unions and the media.  While the most recent poll reflected a widening of the gaps between how party identifiers view these institutions, the overall assessments followed historical patterns that have been around for a while.

Not true for higher education.  The 2017 numbers are stunning, grounds for serious head scratching.  As recently as two years ago, Republicans saw the impact of colleges and universities as positive rather than negative by 54% to 37%.  Since then, support among the GOP for higher education has fallen off the table.  This year’s poll has only 36% of Republicans viewing colleges and universities as positive as opposed to 54% who view them negatively.  In every single demographic category that the poll examined, the level of support dropped significantly.

To underscore the contrast, Democrats, who have always held a highly positive view about higher education, support colleges and universities in this most recent survey by 72% to 19%.  The overall positive balance, 55% to 36%, highlights both the chasm between the parties and the hazards of looking only at overall poll numbers without examining the sub-categories.

This dramatic turnabout by Republicans is at first glance really puzzling.  Higher education has long been touted as the path to economic and social advancement in the United States.  The stories of parents sacrificing to enable their children to attend college are a cherished part of the American narrative.  And if the past weren’t significant enough, the reality of a global economy and international competition argue even more urgently for the importance of higher education.

Unraveling the numbers requires, by necessity, a certain amount of speculation.  Let me suggest three factors that may contribute to the new Republican antipathy to higher education.  None can stand alone as a total explanation and all of them require acknowledgement that the attitude is held by some Republicans despite being contrary to their self-interest.

For a number of years, the party of Donald Trump–he may have taken control only in 2016, but the party was clearly waiting for him to arrive–has been engaged in a war against science and facts.  Rejecting the overwhelming consensus among scientists about the threat to the planet of climate change is the most visible but hardly the only example.

Data about the impact of gun ownership on public safety is routinely and aggressively rejected.  The benefits of preventive health care and of a single-payer insurance system are attacked as socialism without more than a glance at the facts pointing to both dramatic health and financial benefits that would accrue .  This list could be much longer, but the common thread is a systematic rejection of science and facts.

The logical–in some worlds–next step is to turn against the institution in our society that is one of the major transmitter of science and facts.  The logic is very similar to that employed to attack the “mainstream media.”  Some Republicans rationalize their attacks by arguing that colleges are actually partisan institutions fostering radical ideas and a Democratic agenda.  Citing examples of individual faculty who openly espouse progressive views, they jump to sweeping generalizations without ever having been on any college campus other than the one they attended.

A second factor to consider springs from the success that Donald Trump has had in appealing to white working class individuals who are struggling in the changing economy.  For that segment of the Republican base, colleges are elite institutions pampering the children of the upper class.  Never mind that those students include the children of more affluent Republicans with whom they have joined in support of Donald Trump.  Regardless of the reasons that they didn’t go on to higher education, their perspective is often one of resentment rather than lost opportunities.

When Bernie Sanders proposed debt-free college and Hillary Clinton eventually supported the idea during the campaign, JD Vance’s “hillbillies” saw that as yet another reason to vote Republican and to show their disdain for higher education.

Moreover, many of them have not had positive experiences when they ventured into a college.  Some students were bilked by for-profit institutions that charged them a lot of money and gave them nothing of value.  It is another irony of the Trump Administration that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to loosen the rules on the very institutions which prey most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged.

Amy Goldstein’s brilliant study of Paul Ryan’s hometown, Janesville, points out another source of grievances.  Training programs in community colleges turned out to make little or no difference to those people trying to restart their lives after the local GM plant closed.

The third factor on my list is the growing politicization of issues across the board.  This one actually may cut across the other two explanations.  If partisanship is the primary motivating force for many Republicans, the specific issue doesn’t really matter.

Go back to two issues that I mentioned earlier–climate change and health care–that have become matters of Republican orthodoxy.  When not a single Republican member of the U.S. Senate is willing to acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, it suggests that the facts really don’t matter; sticking with your party is the only thing that matters.  Similarly, being willing to vote for a health care bill that harms millions of your own constituents is hard to understand other than as an exercise in party loyalty.

What the Pew study may really show is that Republicans are coalescing around opposition to higher education primarily as a way of showing party cohesion.  The other factors I described were part of the conversation that led to the incredible shift from their historical support for an institution that has been one of the keys to success in America.  It’s far from the only instance in which the Republican Party is placing partisan politics over benefit to the country and, more cynically, to their own supporters.

 

A Message, A Message, My Party for a Message

 

Democrats are particularly good at navel gazing, but sometimes angst has a basis in facts and data. Recent electoral history, with the major exception of Barack Obama’s presidential victories in 2008 and 2012, has not been good for Democrats. Despite all the talk that the country’s shifting demographics were on their side, Democrats have been losing elections, sometimes by narrow margins, but still losing.

Liberal optimism was at a high right after Obama’s first win and the incredible outpouring of joy in Grant Park on Election Night 2008. Was a new coalition that would shape politics for decades being built? Were we entering the post-racial phase of our country’s history? Would Obama’s remarkable story inspire a new generation of public-spirited candidates?

Optimism, it turns out, is not enough. During the Obama presidency, Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, lost hundreds of state legislative seats and lost gubernatorial races in states they once dominated. As if all of that wasn’t disheartening enough, Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election and Republicans maintained their edge in both the House and the Senate.

During that campaign and since, the predominant Democratic “message” to voters has been focussed on how horrible and dangerous and vulgar and petty Donald Trump is. Despite the accuracy of all of those pronouncements, it has had little or no impact on Republican voters who continue to support their party and Trump even though they have doubts about him.

After the recent–and fourth consecutive–loss in a special Congressional election in Georgia, the gnashing of teeth among Democrats reached a fever pitch. So much money and hope were attached to the candidacy of Jon Ossoff, and yet he lost.

Was he less than a stellar candidate? Was the specter of Nancy Pelosi and her “San Francisco values”, as Republican ads constantly reminded voters, too much? Did Republican voters decline to connect Trump’s problems to Congressional candidate Karen Handle? Or was the district too much of a long-shot from the start to justify the inflated expectations?

The answer to those questions is yes.

When you put together the long string of losses, many people wonder if the Democratic Party needs to rethink its core message.  Or, to put the matter more starkly, does the Party, which seems to be adrift without a clear mission, need to develop and publicize a core message?

Lots of thoughtful people have analyzed the problem.  Their well-written commentaries all seem to fall short, however, of offering a direction for the future.  It has to be more than attacking Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.  It has to be more than listening to white working class voters who have been displaced by economic change.  It has to be more than doubling down on identity politics.

The most frequent refrain is that Democrats need to focus on crafting an economic message and on the creation of jobs in the new economy.  What that means in terms of specific policy proposals is not clear in any of the commentary.  New clean energy jobs?  Sure, even if right now we are conceding leadership in that field to the Chinese.  New high-tech manufacturing jobs?  Sure, as long as you have the education and skills and recognize that there won’t be nearly as many of those jobs as there were in traditional manufacturing.

Another approach might be to try to “out promise” Donald Trump.  We’ll bring back even more coal jobs.  We’ll reopen the auto plants that have been shut down.  We’ll make America the leading producer of steel in the world.  Forget that.  He’s a much better liar than any candidate the Democrats might produce.

Moreover, Trump has grabbed many of the emotional hot-button issues that have a stronger appeal to some voters than economic self-interest.  A Muslim ban?  A wall between Mexico and the United States?  Cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood?  Free guns for everyone?  Part of developing a new Democratic message has to include sticking to a set of core values and not merely pandering for the sake of votes.

Where does that leave the Democratic Party?  A lot of smart people are hunting for the magic message.  While I haven’t found it either, I have a few thoughts on the path to take.

First of all, the “Yellow Brick Road” goes through state and local elections.  Building a cadre of candidates, regaining control of the legislative districting process and mobilizing local citizen energy and enthusiasm are all essential to the revitalization of the Democratic Party.  The effort in a number of different states to recruit more women as candidates is a hopeful and encouraging step.

Second, changing leadership at the top of the party–elevating a new generation of activists–can’t be put off any longer.  I agree that Nancy Pelosi has, as she recently declared, remarkable political skills.  It’s still time for her to move on and so must the group of officials who have dominated the Democratic Party for decades.

As another example, which can be replicated in many parts of the country, the cynicism I constantly hear about Philadelphia’s Democratic establishment–that’s you, Bob Brady–is a clarion call for change.  Repeatedly supporting candidates who commit felonies or engage in unprofessional acts, being unable to turn out enough voters in key elections, and generally being unresponsive to most constituents have undercut what little credibility they once had.

Finally, on this short list, don’t learn the wrong lessons from the recent string of electoral defeats.  Should Democrats veer left and become the party of Bernie Sanders?  While that’s certainly the dream of some activists, there’s little evidence that there are enough votes on that end of the political spectrum to produce a winning coalition.

Another temptation is to conclude that neither a woman nor a minority candidate can win the next national election.  The backlash toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by a segment of the electorate doesn’t mean that most voters are close-minded.  The field of candidates shouldn’t be limited to white males although neither should they be excluded.

How do these steps help the Democratic Party identify a message that resonates with voters?  At the risk of intra-party conflict and some bumps on the road, the answer may lie in a more inclusive process. This involves listening to voters, avoiding reflex responses to ideas that don’t sound familiar and, without jettisoning core values, being willing to reconsider old truths that may not hold up so well anymore.

That’s what Emmanuel Macron was able to do in France, establishing a political movement and then a new party that now dominates French politics.  That’s what an upstart group was able to do in Barcelona, creating a grassroots model that is being examined by activists in many other countries.  That’s what Indivisible is trying to do in the United States, providing tools and strategy to local political organizations.

A better, stronger Democratic message will result from the political engagement of concerned citizens, not from a focus-group tested draft produced by a bunch of long-term insiders.  It may be messy, but it is a necessity if we are to address the anger, division and exclusion felt by so many today.