Houston, We Have a Problem

 

Texas needs federal assistance, lots of it. The damage, human and property, inflicted by Hurricane Harvey requires a united and collective response. The imperative to help in this time of overwhelming need shouldn’t be impacted by partisan, ideological or regional differences.

Unfortunately, that perspective has not always applied to other natural disasters.  Texas Republicans, and for that matter many other Republicans as well, voted against emergency relief aid in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  Senator Ted Cruz was asked about his position against granting relief then in anticipation of a bill to help victims of Harvey.  His explanation for voting against the bill to help Americans in the Northeast part of the United States after Sandy was that lots of non-emergency spending was included.

That explanation, however, fall apart under examination.  Fact checkers have totally discredited the Texas Senator’s description of what was in that emergency legislation.  Cruz, who is clearly the least popular senator among his colleagues, is engaged yet again in world class hypocrisy.

Past behavior notwithstanding, Members of Congress should approve emergency assistance for Harvey victims as soon as possible.  I choose to believe that most will hold themselves to a higher standard than Cruz does.

However, this may also be an opportunity for a broader discussion about the role of the federal government and the importance of collective responses to challenges facing this country.  You might think there would be close to unanimity on the importance of a federal role in emergency relief, but that isn’t always the case.  Many Republicans are so fixated on reducing the size of the federal budget that they even argue for offsetting cuts to “pay” for hurricane assistance.  We will soon see what kind of response Cruz and his colleagues have to the crisis created by Harvey.

One of the cornerstones of contemporary conservative thinking is that individuals are responsible for themselves and shouldn’t be given “handouts” by government.  At its extreme, this position argues that the “free market” will do the best job of allocating resources and allowing the best decisions to be made.

Put aside for a minute that the concept of a “free market” is a fiction used to rationalize personal preferences.  In Houston, there has been no zoning or land use regulation.  It’s a great example of the rugged individualism that Texans claim as their defining characteristic.  The absence of planning and regulation, however, contributed significantly to the flooding and extreme damage caused by Harvey.  Houston has developed so rapidly, with so many miles of highway, so little permeable surface, that there is not nearly enough earth available to absorb water runoff.

Harvey has been described as a storm of biblical proportions, a once in a thousand years phenomenon.  While we may not see anything quite so disastrous again in our lifetimes, we will be getting extreme weather more frequently in the future.  According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Houston is in a 500-year floodplain, yet has flooded three times in the past decade.  And the reality remains that the impact of Harvey has been significantly worse than if attention had been paid to the risk–actually the certainty–of massive flooding.

Should we, as a result of bad land-use decisions in the Houston area, hold back on relief aid?  Do the people who are suffering from Harvey’s impact bear responsibility for their plight?  I don’t see it that way and have no reservations about assistance, but the philosophy of Cruz and some hard-line conservatives, when applied to other groups in need, would suggest letting Houston residents live with the consequences of their past decisions.

One of the Internet posts I saw from a Texas elected official proclaimed that the citizens of that state would get through this disaster because they have a tradition of working together and of helping each other.  That’s a great sentiment, but anyone reading about recent actions of the Texas legislature might be skeptical about how far that helping really goes.

Gerrymandering legislative districts–recently overturned by a Federal Court–to dilute minority voting power is certainly not an example of that helping spirit.  Constructing barriers to women’s health services doesn’t seem particularly friendly.  Despite having an enormous number of people who would have been eligible for service, Texas said “no” to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

We will, in all likelihood, compartmentalize our response to the damage done by Harvey from other examples in which the country would benefit from a collective effort.  This could be a teachable moment, a chance to apply the lessons of emergency relief, so visible in this instance, to other needs that don’t look as dramatic but are every bit as important.

Our Child President seems enthralled with the size of the disaster.  It is the magnitude that he convinced himself was on the National Mall for his Inauguration.  His tweets insure that he will avoid the criticism that George Bush received during Katrina for being totally out of touch, but there’s no indication so far that he will provide any leadership to the country in terms of either the response to the emergency or to the broader issues of coming together as a nation.  Sad.

 

 

The World Turned Upside Down

In the Broadway mega-hit “Hamilton”, creator Lin Manuel Miranda depicts the British shock at their defeat at Yorktown through the song “The World Turned Upside Down.” It’s hard to think of a more apt description of our political world in the Age of Trump.

Many Americans are still struggling to decide how to respond to a president who so flagrantly disregards the norms and conventions that have served politics reasonably well for much of our history. We keep expressing surprise at each most recent action long after we should have learned not to be surprised by anything that he does. His comments in the aftermath of the ugly white supremacist march in Charlottesville dismayed even some of his supporters, including members of his administration. How much longer some of them can continue to compromise their values and self-respect is an open question.

Trump certainly signaled that he was going to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio well before he acted, but the decision still shocked many observers including some prominent Republicans.  He is so far beyond the boundaries of normal that many of us are still floundering in our efforts to fashion a meaningful political response.

Indeed, Trump’s trampling of political conventions has called into question whether our constitutional system is adequate to the challenge of constraining him.  He openly discusses the possibility of pardoning himself.  It’s not clear that our system would prevent that outrageous act.  His pardoning of Arpaio raises the specter of similar clemency for individuals who obstruct inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and into Trump’s financial dealings.  No one will be totally surprised if, as the investigation gets closer to the president, he fires Robert Mueller, but it will be quite a jolt for the rule of law in this country.

The presidency of this unhinged and unrestrained individual has become a national civics lesson.  What should be apparent to any serious observer is that our ability to govern ourselves depends on much more that a single document, as much as we all pay homage to the U.S. Constitution.  In that respect, Originalists miss the point all together when they argue for a strict historical reading of that text.  Trump has vividly demonstrated that the stability of our system depends on much more than the words that were written in 1787 however they are interpreted.

Tradition, norms, conventions, precedent, rules, laws and application are also part of the fabric of American democracy.  What that means, however, is that nothing works automatically.  When you hear references to the impeachment process or invocation of the 25th Amendment, remember that neither of them is self-enforcing.  Either would require courageous action by political figures who may have conflicting loyalties and interests.

Can you imagine Vice President Mike Pence and any member of Trump’s Cabinet declaring that he is unfit to hold office?  As Andy Borowitz might point out, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would probably have to consult Google to find out what the 25th Amendment says.

Members of the Republican Party in Congress, even though they are elected independently of the President, have shown no more indication of backbone than the Cabinet.  Between worrying about the 25% of their base who will support Trump even if he shoots someone in broad daylight in Times Square and continuing to calculate that he will be receptive to their policy and ideological goals, the idea of Republicans impeaching Trump regardless of what he does is incredibly far-fetched.

Our political world really has been turned upside down.  Just as we are hearing that it will take years for the Houston area to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, the damage to this country caused by this administration will last well beyond its time in office.  In both cases, we are still in the midst of the storm with no relief in sight.  How do you start rebuilding when the flood waters are still rising?

I’m looking for rays of sunshine, but it isn’t easy to find them.  If the level of political activism that we are seeing today can be maintained through the 2018 election, there is a chance that the political balance in Congress could be sufficiently altered to place additional constraints on the President.   Maybe there will be an outbreak of political courage as a result, but I’m not holding my breath.

Treating Trump’s presidency as normal is not an option.  Neither is the false optimism that assumes that the system will self-correct.  We are facing the greatest challenge to this country since the Civil War.  The outcome is far from certain.

 

Was the firing of Steve Bannon just another effort to distract us?

 

Donald Trump has had a couple of awful weeks, all self-inflicted wounds. By Friday, his presidency seemed to be spiraling out of control in the aftermath of his morally obtuse defense of the actions of white supremacists and Nazis at Charlottesville. Prominent business leaders moved to separate themselves from his administration. Republican elected officials openly criticized his remarks. Even some members of the White House staff seemed stunned by his comments. The image of General John Kelly, his new chief of staff, squirming and looking incredibly uncomfortable at Trump’s press conference, may have said even more than the torrent of editorials and press criticism that rained down on the President.

At this moment, however, the story dominating the headlines is the firing of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.  Depending on your perspective, Bannon had been Trump’s puppet master, the architect of the Administration’s right-wing nationalist agenda, a shameless self-promoter, the brains behind Trump’s bluster, or some combination of the above.  Many conservatives have seen him as their man in the White House while liberals have almost universally regarded him as an evil Svengali and have called for his removal from Day One of the Trump Presidency.

Rumors have been swirling for days if not weeks that Bannon would soon be forced out.  After all, he kept getting the kind of praise and attention that Trump can’t stand to see anyone else receiving.  Kelly’s appointment, intended to bring order to the chaos of the White House, suggested that there wouldn’t be room for both of them.  According to press coverage, Kelly pushed Trump to get rid of Bannon.

Amidst the celebrations, including the gloating, about Bannon’s firing, a critical question remains however: what exactly has changed?

Trump has not retracted, modified or disavowed his position on “both sides” being responsible for the violence in Charlottesville.  He continues to show no appreciation of the historical significance of the Nazis, the KKK or the fact that the Civil War was fought primarily to determine whether slavery would continue to exist.  He still sees “good people” among those marching in Charlottesville with guns, clubs and symbols of hatred and bigotry.  He continues to show more concern for the fate of Confederate statues than the welfare of American citizens.

The President still has his twitter account.  He is still a narcissist with little or no impulse control.  He still resists being briefed on world issues. His relationship with Congress continues to worsen just as a series of critical issues–raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget, trying to reform the tax system–have fast approaching deadlines with no clear path to resolution.

And in case you had forgotten in the most recent avalanche of news, Trump still has Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether his campaign knew about and collaborated with the Russians, and, perhaps more ominously for the President, what financial relationships Trump has had with Russians.

Let’s also remember that Kim Jong-un still has nuclear weapons, ISIS is still in Syria and Iraq, and this country’s longest war still rages in Afghanistan.  All of these hot spots pose major challenges to the Preident regardless of where Steve Bannon is.

Bannon certainly encouraged Trump to always cater to a base that responds positively to calls for a wall between the United States and Mexico, that cheers his Muslim ban, and that sleeps better at night believing that there is no place in the US military for transgender Americans and no sympathy for members of the LBGQT community.  Every indication we have so far is that Trump really didn’t need convincing to adopt those positions.  Don’t expect a kinder and gentler Trump now that Bannon has left the White House.

To what extent Bannon is really gone is not all that clear either.  Do you remember when Corey Lewandowski was fired as the head of Trump’s presidential campaign?  He continues to talk regularly with Trump, is seen  wandering the halls of the White House and has made a lot of money promising his clients special access to the President.  Does anyone really believe that things will be any different with Bannon?

At the end of the day, Bannon’s departure from the White House is more smoke than fire.  There will not be a new Trump as a result.  Moreover, Bannon will feel even less constrained back at Breitbart to advocate for his extreme views and attack anyone whom he sees as an obstacle, including prominent Republicans.  And just as Trump was incapable of criticizing the racists and anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville, he will continue to treat Bannon as a kindred soul, a “good person” who happens to be spewing hate.

 

Writing about Donald Trump

 

The President is both the problem and the distraction. Thousands of words are written about him every day but it’s hard to determine what significance, if any, they have. We are caught between the Scylla of paying too much attention to every word he utters and the Charybdis of treating his unhinged behavior as normal.

When future historians look back at the times we are currently living through, they will not need to say that there were no voices raised in protest.  Nor will they think that no one warned of the dangers Trump posed to the American constitutional system and to the norms keeping politics within fairly reasonable boundaries over the years up to 2016.

They will instead have the daunting challenge of figuring out why so many Americans were unmoved by the warnings. Historians will ask why large groups of citizens were willing to take a leap into a totally unfamiliar future based on Trump’s unreliable promises and his appeals to the worst in human nature.

There are some clues already available.  We were a deeply divided, indeed polarized, country even before Trump announced his campaign for president.  Now it appears that we don’t even agree on  facts because we rely on different information sources with little or no overlap.  His attacks on the media and on “fake news” are likely to diminish our ability to find common political ground long after he has departed the public arena.

Moreover, there seems to be an enormous gap in this country about how to define self-interest, a concept that has been central to political analysis throughout history.  Critics of Hillary Clinton’s campaign slammed her for not having an economic message that reached out to working class whites  left behind by the global economy.  However, numerous studies have argued that many of those voters are less moved by economic interests than by social issues, especially coded or symbolic ones.  Trump supporters continue to respond to his call to build a wall and to ban Muslims from entering the United States even as coal and manufacturing jobs show no sign of returning.

I regularly read some of the smartest and most thoughtful columnists working today.  While Trump has certainly provided them with a steady stream of materials to write about, many must feel as if they are trapped in an endless loop where nothing changes despite their best efforts.  We are living in an Age of Sisyphus where the rock keeps rolling back down the hill.

The New York Times’ David Brooks recently wrote a column entitled “Getting Trump Out of My Brain.” His goal was “to spend less time thinking about Trump the soap opera and more time on questions that surround the Trump phenomena and this moment of history.”  It’s a challenge that a lot of smart presidential observers are struggling with and achieving only limited success.  It may be, however, the crucial question to pursue.

Trump’s most recent rant threatening North Korea with unprecedented “fire and fury” illustrates the challenge.  The cynic might view his bellicose language as just another instance of his lack of impulse control or, alternatively, as a deviously clever way to distract everyone from the Russia investigation.  And while we have been cautioned on numerous occasions to not take his words literally, what if Kim Jong-un does?

We may be too deep into our current situation to be able to make much sense of it.  The search for historical precedents for his presidency has provided neither insight nor comfort.  We do know that his campaign struck an emotional chord with many Americans and that some percentage of those continue to enthusiastically support him.

One report which underscores that reality is a poll showing that over 50% of Republicans would agree to cancel the 2020 Presidential Election if Trump claimed that the results would be rigged against him.  Even if you don’t believe that a nuclear war with North Korea is imminent, you should be terrified that so many of your fellow citizens have that opinion.

I have neither the audience nor the skill of Tom Friedman,  E.J. Dionne, Trudy Rubin or Michael Gerson.  In offering commentary on the Trump presidency, I am searching for the words to help me understand the Trump phenomenon as well as to express my concerns and even my outrage at what is happening to our country.  At times, friends have thanked me for putting their thoughts into words and for reminding them that they are not alone.  I am grateful for that feedback, but have not figured out how to expand my reach beyond the choir.

And, like Sisyphus, I sometimes feel like I am writing the same column over and over again with only the words rearranged.  Beating your head into a wall is not a productive political exercise, but neither is standing idly by as the political system is hijacked.