Where Do I Start?

 

Have things gotten even crazier recently?  It’s not just the horrible things Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress are doing, although those are certainly enough to send you into a serious state of depression. No, it seems as if the world has slipped a few degrees more off kilter, that public figures are acting even more unhinged than usual, that signs of responsible behavior by the “adults” are getting really hard to find.

The horrific shooting in Florida last week led normal Americans to grieve and to wonder what could be done to stop the endless string of mass murders.  Many of us were heartened by the courage and resolve of student survivors who spoke out, who weren’t intimidated by the politicians who again offered nothing better than “thoughts and prayers” and who started organizing and mobilizing.

Having heard “never again” too many times to count, it’s hard not to be skeptical that this time will be different.  But maybe it will because we’ve never seen anything quite like the response of those Florida teenagers. They may actually succeed in moving us off our inertia.

What we have seen before is the mindless rhetoric, empty promises and phony empathy of politicians who seem only to care about NRA donations, see the Second Amendment as the only important section of the Constitution, and believe, based on past history, that this too shall pass. And it will, unless there is a sustained and wider spread adult response.

However, under much more public pressure than these praetorian guards of guns have faced before, some have lost their bearings and gone totally off the rails.  As you would expect, the most inane ramblings came out of the mouth of Donald Trump.

The President decided that it was important to his public image to meet with students and parents from the embattled high school.  His main task was to appear empathetic, but, as a photojournalist showed the world, Trump needed a cue card to remind him how to feel and what to say.  The leader of the free world wasn’t up to showing genuine human emotions.  In a presidency chocked full of low moments, this one was right down there.

Trump’s reaction to the shooting was dictated in large part by his determination to keep his base happy and  not disappoint the hand-that-feeds him, the NRA.  Pressed for a solution to the gun epidemic, he first tried to insist that the problem was primarily the product of people with mental health problems.  That he recently signed legislation allowing easier access to gun by everyone including the mentally disturbed did not seem to faze him nor did the fact that his position is not supported by facts or data.

He then danced around the edges of a couple of minor adjustments to gun laws, including looking at outlawing “bump stocks” and raising the age for purchase of rifles from 18 to 21.  The NRA looked on disapprovingly and Trump quickly moved on from these suggestions.

His silver bullet, if you pardon the expression, was to arm teachers.  The idiocy of this idea is beyond rational comprehension.  While gun advocates support any measure that increases gun sales and doesn’t put limits on their acquisition of firearms and ammunition, most of the sane world ridiculed the proposal through words, cartoons and withering explanations of all the supplies teachers do not have.

Arming teachers is not only stupid, it is breathtakingly cynical.  Trained marksman don’t always hit their targets.  The chaos of an active shooter situation has the potential for a wild west fiasco if multiple people are running around with guns.  And exactly where do the guns get stored while the school waits for the next attacker.  Trump at one point suggested “concealed carry.”  And the list of nightmarish possibilities is almost endless.

I have read some commentary that argues we should ignore the “arm teachers” proposal as merely a distraction.  I disagree.  Given that the NRA’s reaction to any shooting is more guns for everyone, conservative legislators may well take the proposal seriously and claim they are responding with a real “solution.”

Then, on Tuesday, Trump exceeded the worst expectations anyone could have possibly had for him.  After having called the security guard who didn’t go into the school during the shooting a “coward”, Trump–bone spurs and all–asserted that he would have gone into the school even if he hadn’t had a weapon.

In his long career as a public figure, it’s doubtful he has ever said anything more delusional than that.  A man with multiple deferments from the military who has never shown any signs of physical courage, Trump’s creation of this fantasy  in which  he plays a “superhero” suggests  self-delusion and self-aggrandizement on a grand scale.

Imagine then what will happen if he ends up testifying before Robert Mueller or, worse yet, a grand jury.  His make-believe world would come to a crashing end.  That his lawyers are trying to avoid that possibility because they are afraid it might be a “perjury trap” tells you yet again what a weak figure Trump really is.  The way to avoid a “perjury trap” is to tell the truth, but that’s clearly beyond Trump’s capacity.  As he just showed, he even lies to himself.

Don’t Expect Presidential Leadership on Guns

 

Given Donald Trump’s track record as president, no one should hope or think that he will play a meaningful role in getting new gun regulations enacted. Even though his office has signaled that he may be open to supporting a very limited bill on background checks that has been introduced in Congress, we should know by now that such a signal means nothing.

Start with the more general truths about Trump. First, he is not a leader; instead, he is almost exclusively a disruptor. Since he has neither a well-grounded understanding of government and public policy nor a fixed ideology, the president is best seen as a transactional figure. The public outcry about the most recent school shooting has provoked in Trump a desire to appear sympathetic. Past history strongly suggests that it is merely posturing and that he will end up doing nothing meaningful.

His presidency is primarily about the negative. Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement; he jettisoned U.S. participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership; his Interior Secretary and his EPA head are ravaging environmental regulations as quickly as they can.  His proposed budget focuses heavily on dismantling what is left of the safety net.

Neither is Trump’s legislative record one of leadership. On both the Affordable Care Act and  the Tax Bill, he deferred to Republican conservatives and wasn’t even an effective cheerleader. His contribution to the debate on immigration and DACA was to blow up any chance of an agreement by veering wildly from one position to the next.

Despite the fact that Trump in a much earlier version spoke in favor of more stringent gun regulations, he long ago abandoned that stance and has positioned himself squarely in the corner of the NRA.  For the most part, he has been stunningly silent during his time in office as deaths from handguns pile up.  Trump hasn’t even made much of an effort to take on the role of “Comforter-in-Chief.”

Over the coming days, we’re going to see a bit of performance art by Trump as he engages in a “listening” tour.  The most interesting question will be whether the students who have been invited to the White House will dutifully play the role of props for a “compassionate” president or will they show the rage at inaction by the adults that some have expressed in recent days.  If he allows questions or comments, he won’t have teleprompter responses available to him.

On the other hand, if the event is so tightly scripted that no meaningful role is left to the students, there will certainly be a backlash.  Trump, feeling pressure to do “something” in response to the Florida massacre, may have outsmarted himself.

Whichever way the event plays out, it won’t be decisive for determining Trump’s position in whatever debate on gun legislation may follow.  We already know that the NRA has unfettered access to him.  He is likely also to hold some sort of public event in which Second Amendment advocates bully him not to let their precious Constitutional rights be trampled by an angry mob.

After “thoughtful” consideration, Trump is likely to conclude that more attention needs to be given to the mental health dimensions of the problems.  That position will disregard his acceptance of cuts to funding for treatment programs, his recent decision to sign legislation allowing wider access to guns regardless of mental status and his divisive and often violent rhetoric as a candidate and a president.

The basic point is that no one should look to the president to make significant changes in this country’s approach to gun violence.  That does not mean, however, that despair and inaction are the only options.

If ever there was an issue that called for grassroots activism, this is it.  Unrelenting pressure on elected officials at all levels of government is essential.  The calls for student walkouts, strikes by teachers and students and national rallies are a good first step, but can’t be all that happens.

Fighting back against the influence of the NRA is an achievable objective.  Calling on every elected official to sign a pledge refusing to take political contributions from the NRA is another step.  You’ve seen the lists of how much money various Republican Senators have accepted.  Call them on it, shame them, make it clear that NRA money is “blood money” and that it disqualifies the recipient from public office.

Don’t limited the activism to members of Congress.  Make local and state officials pay a price for their silence on this issue and their support for members of their party who have refused to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

Pressure on businesses and corporations that contribute to and support officials who refuse to act on gun regulations and continue to accept NRA money is another avenue of grassroots activism.  Everyone who doesn’t take a stand is complicit in the deaths of those 17 Florida students and all the others that have been cut down before their time because the adults are cowards.

Trump’s outrageous behavior as president has stimulated unprecedented levels of political activism.  Most of it, correctly, is focused on the 2018 congressional as well as state and local elections.  Devoting time and energy to the battle for common sense gun regulations doesn’t detract from that goal; rather, it reinforces it. It is time to stand and be counted.

 

The Ugly Hypocrisy of “Thoughts and Prayers”

 

When you cut through all the bullshit, the only remaining explanation for the unwavering opposition of Second Amendment absolutists to any gun regulation is that they really don’t care at all about the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year as the result of gun violence. Whether the victims are school kids, people at a nightclub, employees at a place of work or random strangers, their abstract right to have unlimited access to guns and ammunition trumps any concern for human life.

Truth be told, they don’t really even pretend that they care. Vapid expressions of “thoughts and prayers” no longer carry any meaning at all. They are uttered in a totally pro forma manner with only the names and location changed from one massacre to the next.

Pretending that their response is a spiritual or religion one is beneath contempt. When the same mantra is repeated over and over again, it’s hard to see it as anything  other than a formulaic alternative to compassion for human suffering.

After the thoughts and prayers, there is usually an admonition that “now” is not the right time to talk about gun regulations. The cynicism underlying that observation is breathtaking. There is, as demonstrated by the repetition of that phrase, clearly never a right time.

Gun advocates have no tolerance for facts.  The gaping disparities between gun deaths in the United States and every other industrialized nation in the world is brushed aside as irrelevant. It is in fact the most glaring example of “American exceptionalism” even if the gun enthusiasts would take exception to that statement.

We are frequently told that no public policy can possibly make a difference.  Pay no attention to other nations, such as Australia and the countries of Western Europe, which have all enacted measures that have made a difference.  Similarly, data that demonstrates lower rates of gun violence in states with stricter laws is discounted as flawed without any effort to examine it seriously.

No set of regulations will ever eliminate all gun violence, yet opponents argue that anything less than a perfect system is not even worth trying.  They point to gun violence in states with stricter regulations yet ignore the ease with which weapons can be transported across state lines as well as all the loopholes that exist.  And, as we recently discovered that the Defense Department often fails to submit relevant information about offenders to state officials, the existence of laws doesn’t mean that they are always enforced.

A particularly depraved excuse for gun violence is that the real cause of deaths is people with mental illnesses using guns.  The hypocrisy is piled deep on this one.  First of all, those resorting to this argument also resist measures that would limit access to guns by anyone, including those with mental illnesses.

The more cynical part of this argument, however, is that those using it show no inclination to support funding for more mental health care in this country.  Republican members of Congress are no more willing to include funds in the federal budget for mental heath treatment than they are to outlaw bump stocks or require background checks.

One comment I read recently by a gun absolutist was that his right to “enjoy” his AR-15 overrides any argument for gun regulations.  The selfish inhumanity of that comment tells you almost everything you need to know about what’s wrong with the gun debate in this country.

Dead bodies are regularly on the front page of every newspaper in the country.  The images lead the evening news.  The only certainty about the most recent tragedy is that it will be replaced in our consciousness within a very short time by another grisly shooting.

The script will remain the same.

Let me be very clear: despite the pious rhetoric, the defenders of absolute gun rights do not care at all about the continuing carnage in our schools, in our streets, in our places of leisure and in offices and factories.  They mouth the words, but there is nothing behind them.

If you think that statement goes too far, give me evidence that gun advocates care about the human lives that are lost to guns.  Thoughts and prayers change nothing.  If you identify a problem, you work to find a solution even if it is an imperfect one.  The reality is that those 17 kids who were mowed down in Florida on Wednesday don’t register at all with those Americans who see the Second Amendment as the only part of the Constitution that matters.

Their “thoughts and prayers” won’t be of much consolation when they are rotting in hell.

 

The Stakes in the 2018 Election Keep Getting Higher

 

The Little Shop of Horrors, sometimes referred to as Donald Trump’s White House, keeps assaulting basic American values. The President defends staff members who abuse women. His proposed budget is nothing less than a war on the poor. Members of the cabinet run up enormous expenses on the taxpayers’ dime while food stamps, public housing and Medicare are slashed.  The world’s largest defense budget, dwarfing that of most other countries put together, is scheduled to increase faster than can be reasonably absorbed while the State Department has almost vanished.

It’s hardly worth pointing out the lies and hypocrisy of Trump and the Republican Party.  Why tell working class whites that they will bear the brunt of the budget cuts while they care more for his hate-filled rants  than their own economic self-interest?  The Party that worked itself into a constant frenzy about budget deficits when Barack Obama was president now gleefully adopts trillion-dollar increases in the deficit without even blinking.  Even if you could confront Trump with the video of him promising to safeguard Medicare, he will assert that it’s “fake news.”

The nation’s intelligence heads tell Congress that Russia is already planning its attacks on the 2018 election, yet no one in the Administration is willing to acknowledge the damage already done much less initiate any precautions for the future.  The Boy Prince remains in charge of Middle East negotiations as the region bursts into flames.  Trump cuts off aid to the Palestinian Authority creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that will spill over into Israel.

Those in control of government in Washington have demonstrated a witch’s brew of incompetence, ignorance and mean-spiritedness.   Trump’s desire for a military parade is eerily reminiscent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.  Histories of the breakdown of empires raise perplexing questions as to whether the leaders realized at the time that the system was collapsing around them.

Trump will certainly not be impeached by this sycophant Republican Congress.  There is no chance of the 25th Amendment being invoked by the toadies who make up the Cabinet.  Trump may still take the drastic step of firing Robert Mueller, which, from any other president would provoke a constitutional crisis, but his apologists will rally round and defend him to our dying breath.

At the federal level, the only glimmer of hope lies in Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives in the fall 2018 election.  That continues to look possible, but only if all those people dismayed by what this administration is doing actually turn out and vote on Election Day.  While an epic tidal wave might allow Democrats also to capture the Senate, that certainly seems like a long shot.

If you yearn to do more than curl up in a fetal position or throw things at the television, the best place to focus your attention now is on state and local elections.  It’s not possible to emphasize just how high the stakes really are this year.

Significant Democratic gains in state and local elections– as well as recapturing the House of Representatives –would make actual progress in changing the dynamics of government as well as sending a clear signal to those currently in power.  A failure to accomplishment those goals would not be a status quo outcome; it would make the situation worse.

It’s hard to overstate the urgency of our dilemma.  Do we want to maintain some semblance of democratic government?  Do we want to be a compassionate nation that cares about the less fortunate among us?  Do we want to be a trusted partner with those countries that have historically shared our values?

Empires don’t last forever.  Make no mistake, the American experiment has had a good run, but all the references to our “exceptionalism” won’t preserve out system.  The world is changing rapidly and we have leaders who want to turn back to an earlier and largely fantasy time in our history. They celebrate what divides us rather than what could unite us.

The one response that has a chance of being effective requires a level of political activism that we have rarely, if ever, seen in this country.  If you’re concerned about the direction in which we seem to be going, you have to come out and vote rather than come up with excuses for why it’s inconvenient.  You have to support the best available candidate rather than abstaining because none of them are perfect.  You may abhor the influence of money in elections, but if you don’t contribute more than you easily can afford, you are allowing the big money interests to control the outcome.

The good news is the rise of a new activism that is largely a response to the horror of the Trump Administration.  The challenge is that people need to stay engaged all the way to the election and not get distracted or lulled or accept what is going on as normal.  We have the power to make things better but only if we rise up, speak up and act together.

 

 

The Assault on Public Opinion

 

One of the underlying premises of a democracy is that government must be responsive to the will of the people. The clearest manifestation of that obligation is the direct election of government officials. How the concept works between elections is not always so clear.

Our understanding of “what the public wants” can come from a number of different sources.  For some, public opinion is identical to what we personally believe.  Many of us live in political bubbles and find our opinions reaffirmed regularly by almost everyone in our immediate circle.

There is growing evidence that our society has become increasingly segregated into like-minded communities.  We encounter few, if any, people who see the world differently than we do.  It is too easy to slide from that reality to the belief that most people have similar opinions.  The corollary to that phenomenon is that we are amazed when we discover there are others out there who disagree with us and wonder what is wrong with them.

This pattern, which has increased sharply in the last two decades, helps to explain the growing polarization of our politics.  If we constantly get reinforcement of our own views, we are more and more inclined to dismiss any contrary opinions.  Where and how we get our news tends to follow the same outline.  The world of Fox viewers has almost no overlap to that of MSNBC watchers.  When you live in an echo chamber, other perspectives can’t easily break through the noise clutter.

A second source of our views about “what the public wants” comes from people we view as authority figures.  On lots of public issues, we have little or no direct experience or first-hand knowledge.  This source certainly overlaps with elements of the first factor, the reinforcement of our views, but fills in when we have less to go on.

Some authority figures are friends and acquaintances, people whose opinion we particularly value on topics that we see as their area of expertise.    Often, however, these sources are public figures, perhaps the president, or a leading figure in whichever political party we identify with, or an individual who has achieved a level of success that we believe warrants our attention.

Elected officials frequently tell us that they have taken a particular action or position in response to the public will.  The dilemma, of course, is that you hear that assertion from politicians on opposing sides of an issue.  Claiming that the public supports you is a way to legitimize your stance as well as a way to persuade people to agree with you.

In an era where charges of “fake news” are thrown about with abandon, it’s hard not to be skeptical about claims of popularity for someone’s newest initiative.  Yet, sometimes, the public–which may not have had any firm opinion on a particular issue–decides to follow and ratify a claim based primarily on exhortation.

A third, and seemingly more scientific, source is public opinion polls.  Here again, elected officials cite approvingly favorable polls and characterize unfavorable ones as flawed.   The recent debates about, first, the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, more recently, the Congressional tax bill demonstrate that public opinion polls are easily disregarded by politicians when they have the votes.

Survey research, after achieving real influence in the post World War II period, has been in a more troubled time recently.  Failing to predict a number of election outcomes correctly hurt their credibility.  Increasing questions about methodology, including how to account for cell phone users in their samples, made some people skeptical.  And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the proliferation of new polls resulted in conflicting results with no clear way to choose among them.

When you look at these three sources for answering the question “What does the public want?”, it’s apparent that finding anything near a consensus is almost impossible.  We have become an increasingly fragmented society and body politic with less and less ability to agree on common ground.

Some of the problems that I have described are inherent in human nature. But some are the product of a deliberate and calculated assault on the very idea that there is an identifiable public will.  We are living in a period when determined political minorities have been able to pursue their interests without regard to any broader public will.

Congress refuses to enact what a majority of Americans see as “common sense” gun regulations.  The entire Republican Party resists efforts to deal with climate change even as polls show a majority of citizens concerned about its impact.   Providing access to affordable health care is clearly more important to most voters than it is to Congressmen who currently dominate the legislative process.

Money has become a critical factor in our elections, diminishing the impact of individual voters.  Gerrymandering has allowed minority policies to be pushed by those who manage to rig the system to their benefit.  We have a president who casts aside truth, long-held norms and even respect for our constitutional system.

We are left with only one effective means of expressing public opinion, one that many citizens voluntarily give up.  Voting is the last best hope for retaining democratic government but it only works if citizens get up off their lethargy and participate in the political system.  So many of the pillars of our system are under attack and have already been eroded.  This is no time for complacency.

At the end of the day, the true measure of patriotism and love of country isn’t clapping for a speech or having a show of military force, but voting.  The next real test of whether our democracy will endure comes in the General Election of November 2018.   It’s not someone else’s responsibility; this is on all of us.

 

Donald Trump and the Mitchell Doctrine

Early in the presidency of Richard Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell responded to a reporter’s question with these words: “Pay attention to what we do, not what we say.”  That’s incredibly good advice for those trying to make sense of the presidency of Donald Trump. His words, particularly when they come in the form of a tweet, are at best a distraction and frequently false or misleading.

Even his supporters acknowledge that he uses words in ways that confound the expectations of normal people. We have been told to consider some of his statements as alternative facts. When the evidence of a falsehood becomes overwhelming, Trump sometimes claims that he was joking. We have been told over and over again to take his words figuratively, not literally.  Then there’s the problem that he keeps changing what he has to say about any particular topic.

Take his State of the Union speech as a case in point.  The fact checkers had a field day, as they always do, but I’m talking about something much more fundamental than a string of lies.  The very essence of the speech was dishonest.

Some observers got all excited about his “proposal” for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure program to rebuild roads, bridges, sewer and water systems and other vital parts of America’s backbone.  That section of the speech was total nonsense, just a distraction that Trump did not mean seriously.  He knew that Republicans, having just given away the store in their tax bill, are not about to approve a massive spending initiative.  Additionally, the price tag is a bit of fraud.  Later reports reveal that he was talking about $200 billion in federal spending to be leveraged toward state, local and private contributions.  Not going to happen, but the Trump “squirrel” got lots of media attention.  Pay no attention to what he says.

Could anyone make sense of what the President really wants to do about immigration?  He’s been all over the place in the last month.  He rejected a bipartisan initiative after having said that he would sign any bill brought to him by Congress.  The substance of his most recent position–to the extent you can fathom it from the State of the Union–is a jumble of contradictory and inconsistent pieces that has no whole to it.

Important parts of the problem are that Trump doesn’t understand policy, is almost impossible to brief on issues and often makes up things as he speaks.  Recall promises he made during the presidential campaign that are long-forgotten.  It’s honestly really hard to know what he thinks and his words offer few clues.

Critics seem puzzled that his supporters haven’t abandoned him as he has failed to deliver on bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs, hasn’t gone after Wall Street and hasn’t yet succeeded in implementing a Muslim ban.  Part of the explanation for why the political base continues to support him is that they respond to the “red meat” rhetoric he throws to them.  His loyalists seem to take the words without the deeds.

Those critics also make the mistake of believing that Trump supporters are primarily motivated by economic self-interest.  Many of them are not.  J.D. Vance fundamentally missed the point.  In their anger, fear and disaffection, his backers rely on symbolic victories and rhetorical attacks on government and elites.  They are misled by Trump’s words in the same way that his critics are.

Trump has no real ideology, no core set of beliefs with respect to government.  He is the ultimate transactional person.  His presidency has been driven by two primary factors.

First – and this is deeply, deeply troubling – Trump is determined to erase as much of Barack Obama’s legacy as he can.  That goal, however, is not motivated by policy or ideological preference.  Rather, it is his endless and insatiable need to stroke his own ego by tearing down anyone  he sees as a rival.

There is more though.  Trump has demonstrated in ways big and small that he is a racist.  Going after Obama satisfies his racist impulses as well as playing to that part of his base that shares his attitudes.

Trump is also  motivated by his desire for power.  He knew little or nothing about government when he was elected, but has discovered that the office comes with lots of perks.  He is now a national and international figure rather than just someone covered by the New York tabloids.  Playing nice with conservative Congressional Republicans isn’t the product of like-mindedness; it’s a cold hard calculation of how to stay in power.

That’s why he got on board with a tax plan that contradicted much of what he said on the campaign trail.  That’s why he can’t really decide what he thinks about immigration.  That’s why he’s made the most feeble of efforts to move an infrastructure plan forward.  And it’s why he’s turned over the nomination of federal judges to ideologues who  care deeply about restricting a woman’s right to choice, an issue Trump has vacillated on over the years.

There is another aspect of Trump’s desire for power that accounts for much of what he has done as president.  As the wealthy head of a private business, he had absolute authority.  Sycophants were everywhere.  The rules were whatever he wanted them to be.

As he has learned a little about government and the Constitution, he has discovered that he doesn’t like the limitations imposed upon him.  Thus, the most striking characteristic of the Trump presidency has been his disregard for norms, rules and law.  He has tried to undermine freedom of the press.  He has sought to interfere in independent investigations as well as judicial proceedings.  Just this week, he announced that he was going to disregard a law passed almost unanimously by Congress that would require him to impose new sanctions on Russia.

John Mitchell was right.  If you watch what Trump has done rather than spend time listening to what he says, the picture is very clear.  Trump poses a clear and present danger to American democracy.  That’s not because he is crude or uninformed or a bully, although he is all of those things.  Rather, he has no respect for our constitutional system and will always put himself–not even party–before country.