George W. Bush and Donald Trump: Eerie Parallels

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My summer reading list is largely the same as my fall list: primarily history, politics and biography. I recently finished Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush”, an examination of the 43rd president of the United States. Smith, a prize-winning biographer, has previously written presidential studies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower.

“Bush” covers a lot of familiar ground but also provides some perspectives that may change some of your previously held views. The bottom line, documented through its 660 pages, is the book’s last sentence: “Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worse foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”

Despite that conclusion, Smith gives Bush credit for his efforts to stem the scourge of AIDs in Africa, his counter-ideological response to the financial meltdown of the economy in 2008, and even his failed initiative at immigration reform. In foreign affairs, Smith paints a picture of Bush as the “decider,” just as Bush claimed. In this account, Dick Cheney is not pulling all the strings, Donald Rumsfeld raises significant questions and Bush frequently overrules all of his military commanders.

As I was reading “Bush” in the politically charged summer of 2016, I was struck by a number of his characteristics that resonate with the current Republican presidential nominee.  Bush came to the presidency with almost no experience or, indeed, understanding of foreign affairs.  His father arranged some high level briefings in the two years before the election, but it’s clear that Bush was not a quick study or a serious student.   We all saw lots of examples of his inexperience during his presidency, but we sometimes forget the broader lesson.  Experience does matter; the presidency is not a place for on-the-job training.

Donald Trump would have us believe that his stunning lack of understanding of the rest of the world is no obstacle; that reneging on an agreement with a contractor is preparation for international diplomacy; and that his own “big brain” will guide him successfully through any challenges that arise.  If anything, Trump would come to the presidency with even less foreign affairs experience than Bush, and Bush’s lack of preparedness was a disaster for this country.

A second strain of Smith’s assessment is Bush’s resistance to learning and to accepting facts.  He never tried to understand the history of the Middle East much less the sectarian divisions within that region.  His administration concocted a link between Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorism that never existed and saw weapons of mass destruction where there were none.  All of these examples and others were a combination of willful ignorance and a predetermined desire to go to war with Iraq.

Does that sound chillingly like Donald Trump?  Fact checkers have concluded that three-fourths of his public pronouncements are wholly or partially false.  Moreover, as a political neophyte, Trump has shown no willingness to be briefed and to learn about issues that would confront him as president.  His comments on NATO, the Ukraine, Brexit and anything he discussed yesterday keep demonstrating a mental laziness that should terrify any serious voter.

According to Smith, Bush put primary trust in his own instincts, often to the exclusion of expert advisors and factual presentations.  In his case, those instincts were in part a reflection of his own deeply held religious beliefs.  Bush often counted on God to bring about the desired outcome even when all the evidence suggested he was on the wrong path.

Absent the religious connection, that’s a theme we see constantly repeated by Trump.  He doesn’t need experts because his instincts are so good.  He dismisses evidence because he “knows” better.  And his very small circle of advisors, mostly family, do not provide the kind of environment in which opposing opinions or serious questions are welcomed.

Much of the reaction to Donald Trump up to now has focused on his theatrics, his coarse and vulgar style and his breaking of all the traditional political norms.  There’s plenty there to make you do everything you can to prevent him from ever becoming president.  However, the comparison with the characteristics of a man many believe to have been the worst president this country has ever had provides an additional dimension to ponder.  Trump is so ill-prepared, by experience, temperament and knowledge, that his presidency might make Bush 43 look like an age of enlightenment.

Is It Time for Peter Franchot to Change his Party Membership?

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Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot’s political odyssey has been well-documented. During his years as a Member of the House of Delegates from Montgomery County (1987-2007), he was one of the chamber’s most out-spoken progressives, widely regarded as a partisan Democrat.

Franchot’s transformation began 10 years ago when he ran for and won the statewide office of comptroller. In his new role as the State’s tax collector, he started to demonstrate a fiscal conservative streak that had never been evident before. Responding to the demands of the office, a statewide rather than district constituency and a political calculation about shifting attitudes of Marylanders, Franchot’s new orientation has served him well in two decisive reelections.

His new office has also given him a much larger audience and a new platform, the meetings of the Board of Public Works. Franchot, who has never been accused of being camera-shy, has initiated a series of public confrontations that have won him lots of headlines as well as the animosity of many Democrats. Questions have arisen about the appropriateness of some of the fights he has picked, such as his attempt to intervene in Towson University’s decision to reduce the number of intercollegiate athletic programs.

Many Democratic elected officials have seen his actions as both grandstanding and well outside the purview of his office. During Martin O’Malley’s eight years as governor, Franchot frequently criticized O’Malley’s decisions as well as those of the General Assembly leadership.

After the 2014 Election in which Republican Larry Hogan won an upset against the Democratic nominee, Anthony Brown, Franchot veered even farther to the right. In Governor Hogan, he found an ally on issues  before the Board of Public Works, particularly the state procurement process. And, as the Comptroller continued to use the forum to advance his own pet peeves, he got the support of Hogan.

Now in the dog days of summer, about the only thing going on is Franchot and Hogan trading compliments.  They’ve even gone shopping together to promote the State’s upcoming sales tax holiday. Soon, however, Franchot will resume his crusade to move the school start date to after Labor Day and Hogan will voice his support for the effort. This comes shortly after his spring campaign railing against the absence of air conditioners in some Baltimore County schools.

The latter effort is particularly curious given that Franchot and Hogan are proposing remedies that are less fiscally responsible than the Baltimore County phased plan. Their approach is also legally questionable as they are arguing to use capital budget funds for air conditioners that have less than a 15-year life expectancy.

Much of what I’ve described is just Peter Franchot being Peter Franchot. He gets antsy when he goes very long without being in the headlines. His emphasis on fiscal restraint is certainly appropriate to his office.

However, the air conditioner war comes across much more like a deliberate political fight that he has picked with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who may be positioning himself to run for either governor or comptroller in 2018. Moreover, Franchot isn’t content just to have a disagreement about a public policy issue; he and his office question the motives and integrity of whoever is the opponent of the moment.

And, finally, there’s the continuing love fest with Larry Hogan. It’s clear that Franchot feels much more comfortable, politically and personally, with the governor than with any of his Democratic colleagues in the state. Few of them would even agree to my use of the word “colleague” at this point.

Is the Hogan-Franchot alliance a refreshing example of bipartisanship, as a Washington Post article just suggested? That’s a hard argument to sustain given that Hogan keeps demonstrating that he is a fiercely partisan Republican. He and Franchot certainly agree on some fiscal issues and the Governor supports the Comptroller’s public rants. But where are the examples of Franchot having gotten Hogan to support any Democratic or progressive issues?

I don’t really have any expectations that Franchot will become a Republican. He continues to cling to a self image of as a progressive, although he certainly doesn’t spend much time advocating for issues that fit that label. Franchot is supporting Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election, although that’s hardly a profile in party loyalty or courage.

The rub will come in 2018. Is there anyone in the State of Maryland who believes Franchot will support the Democratic candidate for governor that year? And if he backs Hogan, as he certainly will, how do Maryland Democrats deal with him during the campaign?

As a result, Franchot will likely face a challenge in the Democratic primary. While he seems well positioned at this point, his success may ultimately depend on Hogan maintaining the level of popularity that he currently enjoys, which is far from a sure thing.

To answer my starting question, Franchot will continue to be a Democrat but in name only. While there should be room in a political party for a range of views and perspectives, it’s hard to see the issues on which Franchot is still a Democrat.

Larry Hogan’s Visit to Trump World

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For much of this campaign year, Larry Hogan did his best to avoid answering whether he would support Donald Trump for president. He frequently expressed annoyance at reporters who asked what was surely an incredibly obvious question. Finally, in June, he grudgingly acknowledged that he would not be voting for either Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Hogan’s belated answer implied a false equivalency between the two candidates, a notion dispelled yet again this week when 50 former Republican national security officials warned that Trump would be the most reckless president ever elected. The suggestion that Hogan was focused entirely on state matters was also belied by his earlier support for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Still, since his declaration of neutrality, Hogan has largely managed to keep his distance from Trump and the political fallout being created by his candidacy. For a multitude of reasons, Hogan has retained his high favorable rating in public opinion polls, has cultivated his image as a moderate, non-ideological Republican and has avoided major political errors.

With a relatively modest legislative agenda, Hogan has limited  his confrontations with the Democratic General Assembly. However, his main initiatives have been either defeated or substantially rewritten. His vetoes have been consistently overridden. Hogan’s greatest success has come in the area where Maryland governors have the greatest authority, the State budget.

Legislators leaders have used a variety of methods to try to negotiate with him on spending priorities. Efforts at direct negotiations have been generally ignored by the Governor. A second approach, employed in each of the first two year of his administration, has been to “wall off” funds in the budget, specifying that they can be used only for the purposes designated by the legislature’s two budget committees or not at all. Hogan keeps selecting Option B.

Last week, when he announced that he would not be spending $80 million earmarked by the General Assembly for education and “safe streets” projects, Hogan was roundly criticized by  legislator leaders as well as by education groups. Their response was totally to be expected and not particularly noteworthy.

Hogan’s reaction to the complaints, on the other hand, looked like it came straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook. His Facebook post accused them of being “union thugs”.

In the same week that he spoke at the Urban League conference in Baltimore, an event Donald Trump declined to attend, Hogan was definitely sending mixed messages about what kind of Republican he is: a conciliatory moderate or a confrontational partisan.

How do you explain the “union thug” comment in a way that makes any sense at all? The most benign explanation I could think of–and one that is totally implausible–is that Hogan thinks the word “thug” means critic or opponent. Once you reject that interpretation, the alternatives are all less appealing.

Hogan took grief from some conservative Maryland Republicans for not supporting Trump. Was the “thug” line a kind of dog whistle to let them know his heart is really with them? If you believe that much of political rhetoric is code and signaling, that explanation is possible although perhaps a bit too subtle.

In the same vein, you might argue that Hogan was merely trying to shore up his own political base by taking a cheap but popular shot at public unions, widely seen by the Right as the source of many evils. That interpretation suggests a political calculation looking toward the 2018 Election and has some logic to it.

Since we are most definitely in the area of speculation, let me offer yet a different assessment. This is far from the first time that Larry Hogan has taken what seem to be gratuitous shots at a political opponent for no really good reason. He could have turned down the Red Line in Baltimore without having called the planning process a “boondoggle.” He could have put his own stamp on the State school construction program without having personally attacked the outgoing director. He could have vetoed what he considered excessive spending without having picked out a pet project of Speaker Mike Busch, all the while knowing his veto was going to be overridden.

Hogan, a bit like the guy he won’t endorse, has a thin skin and a quick temper. He can be politically astute and calculating at one moment and petulant the next. Despite years in and around politics, albeit not elected office, he sometimes gives the impression that he feels entitled to unquestioned support without any opposition, to praise without questions, to applause without boos. Hogan may get all of that from Comptroller Peter Franchot, but he’s not likely to get it from anyone else.

An Election Year Homework Assignment

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In a normal year, a presidential election has some aspects of a national civics class. We get a refresher course on our constitutional system. Candidates vie for our support through campaigns that highlight their positions on key issues, their character, and their visions for the future. As the world’s oldest democracy, we witness the peaceful transfer of power — regardless of how intense or hard-fought the election has been.

But this is not a normal year. 2016 seems far more like a class in Abnormal Psychology. The nominee of the Republican Party is rarely assessed in terms of his positions on issues since he has none beyond the vaguest of generalities. His promises are about returning America to an imaginary past in which white males run everything, everyone speaks only English, all the jobs are high paying regardless of  level of education, and the oceans are a protection against all foreign influences. It’s a world that never was, never could be and looks less and less like present day reality.

Donald Trump has broken every mold for how to run for U.S. President. He has assembled a coalition of the insulted to oppose him. He prefers a Russian dictator to our NATO allies. Even members of his own party are likely to feel his ire if they aren’t “nice” enough to him.

Trump is so far off the norm that we are now getting a steady stream of articles concluding that he is a narcissist, that he has a fundamental personality defect, or that he is a compulsive liar. Those diagnoses aren’t merely name-calling;  authors with impressive credentials in their fields provide supporting evidence straight from the candidate’s mouth.

Really, Trump is not so much a denier of facts as incredibly unfamiliar with them. He follows the Republican Party line on climate change but goes his own ungrounded way on dealings with the rest of the world, assertions about how the economy works, and views on the constitution that wouldn’t pass muster in a basic elementary school class.

And, if you take him at his word, he is terrifying. A former head of the CIA who has carefully avoided politics throughout his professional career recently announced his support for Hillary Clinton because he thinks Trump’s view are so dangerous. Trump has openly mused about the use of nuclear weapons as an option that should be available to the president.

You hardly have to hear anymore than that to return to serious questions about his personality. A thin-skinned man who can’t get past any slight even when his reaction harms him politically, the notion of Trump controlling this country’s nuclear arsenal should be enough to make any thoughtful voter turn away from him.

With all his faults, and I have barely touched on the whole list, the one that I find most troubling is his encouraging and enabling  supporters to act on their worst impulses. What we have observed during his campaign are open appeals to racism promoting words and acts which had at least been submerged in recent years. We see the ugly rants of his supporters directed at his opponent that sound more like the politics of a petty dictatorship than of a great democracy. Trump and some of his proxies have begun to talk darkly of a rigged election and to suggest that they won’t accept the outcome peacefully.

I understand that many people in this country are angry or scared and that Trump speaks to them in a way that no other politician does. I also understand that those of us who oppose Trump are unlikely to be able to reason with his supporters. They don’t seem troubled by the fact that a huge proportion of his statements are often outright lies. They seem comfortable with the ugly atmosphere that he has created. They clearly take comfort in the fictional description of Hillary Clinton that he and Fox News have created over the years. They can conduct as many “investigations” of Benghazi or Vince Foster’s death as they want. And,although they still won’t find the results  they imagine, they will continue to proclaim their own “truth”.  These are the same people who continue to assert that Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya.

I’m afraid that the Abnormal Psychology reference  I started with doesn’t apply just to Donald Trump. Those supporters who profess fealty to the U.S. Constitution but  seem no more familiar with it than he is share many other characteristics with Trump.

As I’ve argued before, the outcome of this elections is more likely to be determined by getting your supporters to the polls than by any efforts to persuade people to change their opinion. While I have moments of hopefulness as Trump continues to alienate people of common sense, I also know that the ability to rationalize his outrageous behavior will keep many people in his camp.

The only solution is for Americans of all political persuasions who believe Trump is a grave threat to our democratic system to vote for Hillary Clinton, to get as many of their friends to do the same, and to speak out against everything Trump stands for. That’s the only way we will return sanity to our political system.

After the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government the delegates had created.  His answer: “a Republic, if you can keep it.”  It’s our turn now to keep it.

The Philadelphia Story

If you’ve ever been in a city holding a national political convention, you know that there’s as much going on off the convention floor as on it.  Last week, the City of Philadelphia was transformed into a giant political laboratory.

The media covered the small part of that activity which occurred on the streets.  Supporters of Bernie Sanders were among those who engaged in demonstrations around City Hall as well as outside the Wells Fargo Center.  From the video on television, you might have thought that Philadelphia was engulfed in protests but those demonstrations represented a very minor part of what was going on during the convention.

Sanders supporters were also heard throughout the convention itself, although that was mostly through chants and efforts to drown out speakers with whom they disagreed.  Again, however, their numbers represented a small fraction of the attendees.  Sarah Silverman said the words that captured the general mood when she observed that the Bernie or Bust people were “being ridiculous.”

What will those protesters do in November?  Early indications are that a large portion of Sanders backers will come around to voting for Hillary Clinton.  You might have gotten a different impression from the media  hunt for people  willing to say they would vote for someone else.  I heard the same woman announce in two separate interviews that she would vote for Jill Stein.  A disclaimer about her not being a representative sample would have been in order.

For anyone with a longer political memory, the experience of “protest” votes leading to a Republican victory–think George Bush in 2000 as the result of the votes for Ralph Nader in Florida or Richard Nixon in 1968 in the aftermath of a deeply divided Democratic Party–underscores the  scary possibility that we could end up with Donald Trump as president.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups were holding events in every conceivable venue. They ranged from an outdoor rally at Logan Circle by organizations campaigning for commonsense gun regulations to receptions hosted by Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and numerous environmental groups in museums and public sites throughout the city.  I cite these specific examples because most of them didn’t have a presence in Cleveland the week before.

A political convention is, in addition to its formal task of nominating a presidential candidate, a combination pep rally, networking event and fundraiser.  And if all  that didn’t keep you fully occupied, there were also plenty of celebrity sightings.  Unlike the Pope’s visit earlier in the year, with security so intense that many Philadelphians just left town, the Democratic Convention was more like a four-day festival for people of all ages, races and religions.

That reality on the ground in Philadelphia was a marked contrast to the Republican gathering in Cleveland.  The televised versions of the two conventions told the same story as the rhetoric of the speakers. One party was overwhelmingly white and resentful of anyone who isn’t. The other spoke constantly of inclusion and reflected that value in those who attended.

Beyond the headliners, the Democrats showcased lots of ordinary people who had overcome adversity, whether health, poverty or other challenges, to speak to the importance of both individual effort and community support. The speech with perhaps the greatest political impact–because it provoked another ugly response from Trump–was that of Khirzr Khan a Muslim American whose son, a captain in the U.S. Army, was killed in Afghanistan. Just when you thought the Republican candidate couldn’t get any worse, he showed that there are no limits to his inhumanity.

A number of prominent Republicans have criticized Trump’s remarks but have been unwilling to go farther.  Imagine if any of them–take Paul Ryan as an example–had the courage and integrity that Dr. Khan demonstrated in his remarks and in the days since then.  A generation of Republican leaders runs the risk of being forever stained by the failure to stand up to a narcissistic bully who has hijacked their party.

And then there was Hillary Clinton’s speech. She is not a great orator and expectations were relatively low. Her speechwriters, who I don’t think moonlight for Melania Trump, crafted remarks that fit her style and allowed her to make an effective case without trying to be something she isn’t. Clinton knows public policy, cares about the details, has a real understanding of the world in which we live with its many dangerous challenges, and doesn’t propose bumper sticker solutions.

In an election, this latter quality could be a disadvantage unless voters take the trouble to educate themselves and not be seduced by quick fixes. Donald Trump is the master of the sound bite, truly believes than any coverage is good coverage, and can’t be pinned down on any issue because he has no positions beyond the vaguest of generalities.

The Republican candidate keeps demonstrating how little he knows about the challenges he would face as president even as some of his supporters bend themselves into contortions to dismiss that problem. Rudy Giuliani, surely one of the most divisive figures on the political scene today, suggested that Trump might be able to learn on the job. Even if you accepted that rationale for supporting a totally unqualified candidate, you’d have to deal with the reality that Trump has shown no inclination to learn about issues while campaigning.

Not long after the Cleveland convention, Trump publicly urged Russia, which may have been responsible for hacking the DNC computers, to hack and turn over Hillary Clinton’s missing State Department emails. Can you imagine the Republican response if Barack Obama had said anything similar to that? They would have drafted Articles of Impeachment the next day.

It truly was much sunnier in Philadelphia. You’d be hard pressed to pick out the best speech because so many of them were really well-delivered, inspiring, and substantive.

President Obama, surely one of the most gifted orators of our time, may well have been surpassed by his wife. Michelle Obama’s speech epitomized better than any other the difference between the two parties in both tone and substance.

We now have fewer than 100 days until an election that poses a fundamental choice about the future of America.  It’s too early to pay much attention to public opinion polls. It’s too soon to make absolute assertions about what Bernie Sanders’ followers will do, but not too soon to be engaging them.

Besides waiting to see what the two campaigns will do, we also have to remember that events in the world, most of them outside our control, may influence the way in which voters  see the contest.

This election is going to be determined more by turnout than by persuasion. The biggest enemy facing Hillary Clinton is not Donald Trump but the risk of apathy among her supporters. The other side of the turnout question is whether significant numbers of Republicans will conclude that Donald Trump is so anathema to their beliefs that they will either not vote or even do what many would never have imagined and vote for Clinton.

Another major unknown is whether the media will be able to pin Trump down, point out his shortcomings and misrepresentations and push for answers on his taxes and his dealings with Russia.  He keeps complaining that the press is “mean” to him, but his campaign has received incredibly little close scrutiny up to now.

Finally, of course, the ultimate responsibility will reside, as it always does, with voters.  Will they be motivated by fear and anger or by optimism and hope?  Will they pay attention to what the candidates are saying rather than to how they as voters are feeling?   And, perhaps most importantly, will they give serious thought to what kind of country they want to live in, one that is welcoming and inclusive or one that abandons the principles and values on which this country was founded in favor of a false sense of security?

Finding Common Ground

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A highlight of a recent visit to Chicago was walking through Millennium Park, a magnificent 2004 expansion of public space near Lake Michigan. Built with both public dollars and significant corporate support, it has become a major gathering place for Chicago residents as well as a leading tourist destination. Millennium Park is also a real focus of civic pride for Chicagoans.

It’s a vivid demonstration of the value of public space in large cities and of the foresight that generations of leaders in Chicago showed in preserving the lakefront for parks and recreation. Other cities–and you know who you are–squandered the opportunity years ago to create similar kinds of public space along their rivers and harbors.

Public space brings people together, whether for concerts, wandering through gardens, peering at outdoor sculptures, or just providing a place to decompress from the trials of daily life. Perhaps most significantly, the fact that public space is available to everyone regardless of whatever category they are generally placed in underscores the importance of community.

I’m certainly not asserting that a public park is a substitute for dealing with the perplexing issues of urban education, crime and poverty. However, if we were able to see that we actually have a common stake in addressing those challenges in the same way as we appreciate the pleasures of shared public space, we might make some progress.

In fact, you might well trace the current rancor and division in our society and politics to the growing emphasis on self rather than on community. That’s always been a tension in this country, but the pendulum has lurched toward unrestrained individualism in recent years.

The unwillingness of some people to pay taxes to pay for support common services, infrastructure and basic needs has had dire consequences. Crumbling roads, bridges and utilities are taken as too expensive to repair or replace. We shortchange our public schools to the detriment of the whole society. Some elected officials are very ready to send Americans off to wars, but unwilling to pay for veterans services when they return. The less fortunate among us are told that it’s their fault that they weren’t born to a family of means.

Our politics, as shown in the ugly and often racist behavior in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, has sunk to new lows. The rabid mob at the Convention didn’t see victory in the election as adequate; they shouted for Hillary Clinton to be locked up or even executed. That’s not how people in democratic societies act, but the party of Donald Trump shows no shame at its excesses and its abandonment of the values on which this country was founded.

The party’s nominee gave a speech on Thursday night that was intended to terrify every voter in the country in the hope that many of them would turn to him as the strongman who would make everything right.

In the midst of that spasm of emotion, some Republican leaders have not capitulated to the madness and have been willing to put country ahead of party. In future years, when a grandchild asks what you did during the Era of Trump, there will be a clear division between those who can hold their heads up high and those who will have no response other than shame.

Trump’s Convention highlighted the worst in America.  It was, for anyone who sees the value of community and sharing, a truly depressing week.  I’m counting on the Democrats at their Convention in Philadelphia to demonstrate a strikingly different tone and appeal.  Until then, I will take comfort in my memories of Millennium Park as a positive sign of what our better instincts can accomplish.

What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

 

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That line from the classic Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke, could describe politics in the United States today.

It’s much worse than people talking past each other or even ignoring each other. Opposing sides use the same words but not the same language. They look at the same events and see totally different things happening. If you’ve been paying attention to the news in recent weeks, you can probably identify lots of examples of your own, but let me offer a few to illustrate my point.

After the death of five policemen in Dallas, President Obama went to that troubled city to offer his condolences as well as reflections on police-community relations in this country.  Most of the commentary that I saw described his remarks as thoughtful and sensitive, indeed among his best public comments.  Sadly, he’s had a lot of practice as “Comforter-in-Chief”, and most observers thought he struck just the right tone.

But not everyone.  I read a couple of rants on the Internet about how many times the President used the word “I” in his comments, proof positive that he didn’t really care about the dead police. Not to mention the objection that he spoiled things by mentioning the black men shot by police in his comments on the shootings in Dallas. I’m pretty confident that  people expressing that sentiment have not approved of a single thing that Obama has done since he took office.

That’s certainly a pattern he has had to confront as president.  Even when he has adopted ideas favored by Republicans in the past, he has been attacked.  His health care plan, modeled closely after that one that Mitt Romney championed in Massachusetts, is one of many examples.   Those examples make it clear that there is nothing the President could have said or done to win the approval of his critics.

The chasm isn’t limited to views about the president.  Recently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in public comments blasted Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.  He immediately suggested that she should resign from the Court for meddling in politics and was joined by many of the same Republicans who don’t think their responsibilities include holding hearings on Court nominees.

More interestingly, however, neither Trump nor his acolytes were ever troubled by the intemperate public speeches of the late Antonin Scalia.  Using the standard they want to apply to Ginsberg, Scalia should have recused himself, for example, from all cases involving LGBT parties.

How about the outrage–what’s a more intense version of that word?–at Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails while Secretary of State?  As a Democrat who plans to vote for her in November, I  think she made a big mistake with her initial decision and with how she explained her actions over the months since it became public.  However, while FBI Director Jim Comey was highly critical of her actions, he concluded that she had not violated any laws.

Comey, who had been highly regarded by conservatives until that pronouncement, has been pilloried for rendering his professional judgment because it didn’t confirm the political preferences of Republicans in Congress.  Yet, nary a word has been heard from any of them in response to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s revelation that he too used a private server and didn’t see any violation of the law in Clinton’s actions.

Let me offer one more example: the differing ways in which reactions are divided whenever there is a mass shooting in this country.  Despite the pleas for a serious conversation about gun violence, no such thing has happened in decades.

Rather, I’d like to suggest that we all listen to the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown.  He first pointed out that the police were doing their job and made a plea for lawmakers to do theirs.  Brown went on to note that in the midst of the attack on police in that City, it was hard to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys” because so many people were openly carrying around the scene of the shooting.  It’s a cinch that none of those “good” guys helped the police deal with the assassin, but they did add to the confusion.

And now we have the prospect fast approaching of a Wild West situation in the streets of Cleveland next week.  Protesters will show up to express their opposition to Donald Trump and the Constitution of the United States will tell them that they have every right to do that.

Somehow, in this upside world in which we are now living, there will be Trump supporters in the streets as well, asserting that those Constitutionally-protected protests somehow threaten them.  And the problem is that those people will in some cases be carrying guns because they are allowed to.  What can possibly go wrong?

Some people in this country, whenever something bad happens, quickly assert that it is Barack Obama’s fault.  I suppose they have a point in that Obama insists on continuing to be Black.

This massive breakdown in communications has been building for years.  What is particularly frightening is that we now have on the public stage a demagogue who is encouraging hatred and bigotry, telling his followers that it’s okay to build walls and marginalize groups because of their race, religion or ethnicity, and setting the example that anyone who disagrees should be attacked verbally and perhaps even physically.

The Trump candidacy is a direct result of our failure to communicate.  Unless he is soundly defeated in November, the democracy that we have cherished since the founding of this country is in real peril.

The Inadequacy of Words

Words can be very powerful. They can inspire patriotism, foment revolution, result in acts of compassion or incite riots. Words can heal, scar, comfort and humiliate.

Yet there are times that mere words are inadequate. In the aftermath of the horror that was last week, thousands of words have poured forth urging unity, understanding, a rethinking of race relations in this country and asserting that we are better than our worst moments. Two common themes were shock at the events of last week and a hope that we as a society could begin addressing the causes of that spasm of violence. Although there were exceptions, the preponderance of what was written in response to the killing of five policemen in Dallas and two unarmed black men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis spoke more to seeking solutions than to casting blame.

As someone who has spent much of my adult life engaged in using words to analyze, advocate and describe, I have a high regard for the importance of putting thoughts into words.  When I taught undergraduates who would tell me that they knew the answer but just couldn’t put it into words, my response invariably was that then they didn’t really know the answer.  Being able to articulate thoughts as words is one of the key ways in which we interact as human beings.

Still, I found the torrent of words from last week, many of them incredibly thoughtful, moving and sincere, to be a totally inadequate response to all those deaths.  Perhaps it’s partly because we’ve heard versions of those words so many times before in the aftermath of whatever was the most recent national tragedy.  We so often declare that “this” must never be allowed to happen again.  We talk about a particular event “changing everything.”  We even assert that there are lessons that have been learned from whatever the most recent horrible event was.

I think many people are a bit numb at this point.  The bad news keeps bombarding us with no time to absorb one tragedy before another comes hurtling at us.  How do you make sense of the senseless?  How do you comprehend what at some level can only be described as evil? How do you retain any confidence that what has happened so frequently won’t happen again soon?

The impulse to express feelings through the written word is a pretty basic one.  I have no quarrel with all those who shared their thoughts last week and in fact was moved by many of the words.  But, ultimately, I took no solace in them.

Last week’s murders are among the many symptoms of a society that shows lots of signs of unraveling.  The inability of Congress to deal with  the core issues facing the country without the discussion turning into partisan warfare is dismaying.  The mean-spirited and ugly tone of so much public discourse guarantees that nothing positive will result.  Public cynicism about our politics and a decreasing level of confidence in the major institutions of our society undercut our ability to find solutions to any of the big problems facing us.

I have written on many occasions about the need for “commonsense” regulations regarding guns, but my larger concern is that we are not even able to have a serious discussion about the topic.  I understand that some people have views on the topic that are different from mine.  What I don’t understand is why those who reject “gun control” are unwilling to offer any proposals on how to reduce–not eliminate–the level of violence that plagues the United States and that sets us apart from every other industrialized nation in the world.  The words we use become barriers rather than bridges to communicating.

The inability to have a discourse on guns is mirrored by similar impasses on many other issues.  We are stuck in stalemate and seemingly lack the will to move beyond it.

Worse yet, we are well into a presidential campaign that could result in an even more fractured country.  I find it totally incomprehensible that Donald Trump, the least qualified and in many respect least serious candidate I have ever observed in national politics, has a chance to be elected president.  I do understand that some in this country don’t trust or even dislike Hillary Clinton.  I also understand that people have legitimate reasons for being angry, frustrated and disillusioned.  What’s harder to understand is why, even with all those factors taken into account, so many citizens would consider turning this country over to an unstable, erratic and potentially dangerous individual who exhibits every sign of being both a narcissist and an autocrat.

At this point, I don’t take comfort in any words about either the presidential campaign or the state of the nation.  While there are many small steps that individuals can take to improve their immediate communities, I’m at a loss how we are going to regain the soul of our nation.  I don’t think we need to “make America great again;” I would settle for making it civil.

 

 

 

4th of July Musings

Signers

The 240th anniversary of the writing of the Declaration of Independence is particularly significant in this most bizarre of election years. Even in those times when the imperfections of our political system seem most glaring, we have always comforted ourselves with two reminders. First, as Winston Churchill once observed, democracy is the worst system of government except for all the rest. Additionally, we tend to take solace in the assertion that things have always eventually worked out in the past.

Sometimes the working out has taken a very long time, as with ending slavery and its successor, the Jim Crow era. Voting and civil rights did not come quickly or easily to African-Americans, women, or the LGBT community.  The Supreme Court’s nullification of the 1965 Voting Rights Act reminds us that it’s possible to move backward as well as forward.  We still have a long way to go.

Similarly, the perception of foreign threats has not brought out the best in us. Think of the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus under our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Palmer raids, and the McCarthy era in the 1950s.  In the aftermath of 9/11 and now of terror attacks by ISIS, the debate about the correct balance between security and liberty is in full force

From the vantage point of 2016, we can see real progress in many areas even as the rise of Donald Trump should remind us that we can’t take any of our freedoms for granted. The “it’s always worked out before” mentality is an invitation to complacency with real, not imaginary, harms that could result.

If you doubt that, think of the predictions about the impact on the British economy that were widely ignored before the Brexit vote. Think of the young Brits, who will be most impacted by the split from Europe, many of whom didn’t bother to vote. Think of all those people who searched on Google after the vote to find out what their vote meant.  Think, finally, of the increase in racial incidents in Britain apparently by people feeling empowered by the virulent anti-immigrant message that was a centerpiece of the Brexit campaign.

It’s easy to find parallels for every one of those developments in Britain in the political atmosphere of this year’s election.  Donald Trump’s simplistic pronouncements about renegotiating all of the current trade agreements would cause chaos in the international economic system.  Focusing on NAFTA and TPP ignores the fact that international trade is governed by a much larger complex of agreements.  The impulse to protectionism implied in his rants has always led to turmoil in the past.

Moreover, his “tax plan” would, in the opinion of any economist who has taken a close look at it, dramatically increase the national debt and bring no discernible benefits other than reducing the taxes of the very wealthy.  Actually, Trump has shown so little awareness of how the economy works that the greatest danger is his ignorance and naiveté.

We are told that the “have-nots” voted for Brexit to punish the elites.  We are also told that anger over the struggling economy convinced people to vote for a change without necessarily understanding what that change would be or how it might make things better.

You can definitely see that same dynamic among Trump supporters.  Given that most of those individuals are highly unlikely to switch their position, ensuring that he is not elected president in November needs to focus on getting Democrats to vote and on undecided voters.

Much of the commentary on the Democratic race since Hillary Clinton wrapped up the nomination has focused on whether Bernie Sanders fans will end up supporting her.  The more significant question is whether they will vote at all.  Young voters, the core of his support, have historically turned out in the lowest proportion of all age groups.  That it happened that way in Britain should be no surprise.

Any of those young voters who assert that there is no real difference between Clinton and Trump; or who decide that if Bernie can’t be president they will stay home on Election Day; or who are just too busy to go to the polls; will be making a direct contribution to the election of Donald Trump and to all that will follow.  After the election is no time to have voters remorse or to “wish” that you had done the right thing.

Trump’s campaign has been filled with lies, misrepresentations and distortions.  If you’re one of those people who says that “all of them do it”, you just haven’t been paying attention.  Accepting false equivalency is the lazy way of evaluating political candidates.

Every fact checking organization has concluded that fully three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are largely or totally false.  He has an insurmountable lead in the “pants on fire” and “four Pinocchio’s” ratings.

Don’t wait until after the election to google his comments.  You have no excuse for discovering after the fact that he has been lying to you for months.  If you choose to believe his lies, that’s on you.

And, as in Britain, the ginned-up fear about immigrants is driving a significant part of Trump’s appeal.  We’re already seeing more overt signs of racial and immigrant bias.  If Trump wins, you can count on those same people feeling that they have license to express their darkest and ugliest prejudices.  Not letting him become president is the most effective way to put them back in their boxes since it’s unlikely their minds will ever be changed.

I can think of no more inappropriate way to celebrate this nation’s history and heritage than to “build a wall.”  It’s ironic that Tea Party activists, Know-nothing nativists, and Trump advocates all assert a fealty to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Their values couldn’t be more at odds with either of those documents.  In wanting to build walls, use religious and ethnic tests to determine who gets to be an American, and trying, however futilely, to cut this nation off from the rest of the world, they demonstrate how disconnected they really are from what is exceptional about the United States.

That Democrats will be holding their Convention in Philadelphia, 240 years after the Declaration of Independence was written in that City, provides an almost perfect counter-image to Donald Trump.  The key to Hillary Clinton’s ability to prevail in November is for her campaign to come out of the Convention with the same urgency and commitment that inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence.

 

The Brexit Tsunami

Union Jack

The day after Britain voted to leave the European Community, the Washington Post ran an article about large numbers of Brits googling to find out what the European Community is and what the impact on Britain. of terminating its membership might be. Talk about getting to the barn door too late.

All along we’ve known that the opposition was driven by some mix of fear and anger, much like Donald Trump’s supporters in this country. What we didn’t know was how strong that side would be. The vote was expected to be close, with a lot of speculation in the last few days that the “Remain” forces were gaining strength.

A broad spectrum of experts, including just about every economist willing to be quoted, argued that Britain’s exit would be bad for the country, bad for Europe, bad for the world economy and generally bad. The 52% who voted to leave either didn’t believe those predictions, didn’t care about them or weren’t even aware of them.

Even in the first day, it looks like those experts knew what they were talking about. Markets around the world are taking a beating. The British pound’s free fall may be good for tourists visiting Britain, may eventually help British exports, but sure looks bad in every other respect.  And in one of those “you can’t make this stuff up moment”, Donald Trump observed that it might be good for his golf courses in Scotland.

And that’s only the first day. What’s really most ominous about Britain’s decision is the extended period of uncertainty and instability that it will usher in. The legal structure of the European Community is incredibly complex and detailed. Negotiating Britain’s removal will be lengthy, contentious and a source of continued confusion. Some of the “Remove” proponents argued that the country on its own could cut a better deal with the European Community than it could as a member. That’s an example of wishful thinking that’s off the charts ridiculous.

But so much more could happen and just about every scenario you can imagine ends badly. Will other countries decide to hold their own referenda? Almost certainly. Will others exit as the result of that process? Pretty good chance.

For Britain, or perhaps more precisely England, there may well be an extreme irony. There is already talk north of the border that there will be another vote on Scottish independence. The Scots, it turns out, aren’t so keen on leaving the European Community. In fact, the “Remain” vote won decisively in the land of kilts. It’s not hard to imagine Scotland splitting from England and then turning around and applying for its own membership in the European Community. Try to picture Passport Control between those two countries. And how will they sort out where the British Open is played?

And if that weren’t strange enough, the “Remain” side won decisively in Northern Ireland, prompting some supporters to argue that the time had arrived for reunification of Ireland.

Moreover, for anyone still skeptical about the reality of a global economy, that gigantic thud you heard on Friday was the Dow Jones Average falling 611 points.  Are you still sure that Brexit has no relevance to you?  Since the Great Recession of 2007, this country has had a slow and steady, albeit not terribly robust, recovery.  Some economists were already speculating about when the next recession, pretty much inevitable in their view, would begin.  The large waves being stirred about by Brexit could lead relatively soon to the next economic downturn.

Besides the potential for economic turmoil, what are the other major consequences of Brexit?  For one, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation.  That’s actually too good for him.  Cameron, after all, decided to call for a referendum in the first place and then failed to rally his party to support the “Remain” side in sufficient numbers.  The key point is that Cameron did not have to call for a referendum.  He was feeling pressure from some Conservatives and, rather than show leadership and political courage, opted for the expedient of throwing the decision to the voters.  History will not be kind to David Cameron, which is only fitting.

Pollsters got another vote wrong.  You might want to cut them some slack since it was close but that’s being too generous.  In the last few days, all the polling stories suggested that the tide was moving in the direction of “Remain.”  The pollsters apparently underestimated the “Leave” vote, which was either a methodological problem or a lot of people deciding late.

That the first explanation could be right should make you worry about polling for the American election in the fall.  Trump certainly has a following that looks in many respects like the winning coalition in Britain.     Besides being angry, fearful, less educated and generally older, Trump voters are not very concerned with facts.  That the Brexit forces ignored sophisticated economic warnings about the consequences of leaving Europe makes them seem a lot like voters supporting Trump.

There’s one other point worth making that has been almost totally ignored in the public discourse about Brexit.  It might be tempting to cite yet again George Santayana’s admonition that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but I think the problem is slightly different.  I’m pretty sure that most of the “Leave” supporters never recognized the original purpose of European unity.

The predecessor organizations in the early post-WW II period to what eventually became the European Community had a single overriding objective.  The goal was to tie the countries of Europe, and particularly Germany, so closely together that another war among them would be not only inconceivable but practically impossible.

The period in Europe since the end of World War II has stood in marked contrast to the half century that preceded it.   If Brexit foreshadows a general unraveling of European harmony, the economic problems that are already  evident will be the least of the consequences.

It’s hard to end this complex foreign relations challenge anywhere but on the 2016 Presidential Election.    That Donald Trump was visiting one of his golf courses in Scotland just as the vote was occurring sums up his understanding of foreign affairs just about perfectly.  At a time when impulsive, emotional responses are really dangerous, that’s all he brings to the table.

Yet, watching the Brexit vote unfold, it would be naive to argue that he has no chance to be elected president.  Brexit reminds us that he actually could win.  It should also remind us that elections have consequences and those consequences can be both dangerous and destabilizing.  Brexit should be a wake-up call for everyone on this side of the pond.