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.

 

Is “R” the New Scarlet Letter?

 

If you are a Republican running for public office in November 2018, you are in trouble.

Let me count the ways. Donald Trump, the leader of your party, is the least popular president at this point in a first term of anyone in modern history. The Congressional members of your party are, with few exceptions, marching in lock-step support of the least qualified person  ever to hold the office.  And they are even less popular than Trump.

If you are a state or local office holder, you might run, but you can’t hide. You will still have “R” plastered over your name on the ballot.

Both history and math are against you. The party of the incumbent president almost without exception loses seats in Congress in the first off-year election of the presidential term. Add to that the enormous number of “voluntary” retirements by incumbent Republican members of Congress who have seen the handwriting on the voting booth wall.

Republicans are likely to lose as many as 50 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, with them, control of the chamber. In the Senate, where many more Democrats are defending seats in 2018 than Republicans, your task should be much easier, but  probably won’t be.

Republicans in both houses voted for an incredibly unpopular tax bill whose primary beneficiaries are the very rich. They also tried mightily to repeal the Affordable Care Act, stripping health care coverage from millions of Americans. While they didn’t succeed directly, working in concert with Trump, they managed to badly cripple the law. Running on those two “accomplishments” is the challenge Republican incumbents have as a weight around their necks in this election.  And that was before a government shutdown that most Americans see as the fault of Republicans.

The early warning signs–the canaries–are already in.  2107 elections in New Jersey, Virginia and that special one in Alabama all should have Republicans quaking in their boots.  While most of the media attention has focused on the prospects of a Democratic takeover in Congress, Republican office holders at the state and local level should also be worried – very worried.

Look at Pennsylvania and Maryland, adjoining states with striking political differences.   A Democratic tsunami is barreling toward  Republicans who mistakenly think they are safe.  Local races in the suburban counties around Philadelphia in 2017 produced Democratic winners in offices that had been Republican for decades.  The trend is almost certain to continue in state legislative races in those counties in 2018.  While Republicans hold significant majorities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, expect those gaps to shrink dramatically  this year and disappear altogether in 2020.

Meanwhile, the two statewide Democratic office holders, Governor Tom Wolf and U.S. Senator Bob Casey, who both looked vulnerable at one point, now seem well positioned to win re-election.

Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation, in which Republicans have benefited enormously through a combination of Democratic concentration in cities and some of the most extreme gerrymandering in the country, is likely to see changes in 2018.  Three districts in the Philadelphia suburbs are being targeted by Democrats.  Moreover, a suit before the State’s Supreme Court could result in a redrawing of the congressional districts in time for the 2018 election.  Stay tuned.

Maryland, widely known as a Blue state, could see a reversal of recent Republican gains.  In 2014, Larry Hogan upset the Democratic candidate, Anthony Brown.  In 2018, the circumstances will be dramatically different.

First of all, Brown ran a truly dreadful campaign.  Second, Hogan was largely unknown and managed to portray himself as a moderate Republican back when people still believed such a person existed.  Unicorns were in fashion that year as well.  Finally, Donald Trump was not the president.

This year, Democratic turnout  will almost certainly be significantly higher than it was in 2014.  The party’s large registration advantage means that Hogan will be facing strong head winds no matter what he does.  So far, he has tried to walk a difficult tightrope, paying lip service to bipartisanship but relishing attacks on the General Assembly’s Democratic leadership and on Baltimore.  His record of accomplishments is thin and all of his vetoes have been overridden.

As the recent Gonzales survey shows, Hogan continues to be very popular in public opinion polls, but that has not translated into support for his re-election.  While the Democratic field running for the nomination is large and the outcome is far from settled, any of the leading candidates is likely to be a formidable opponent for Hogan in the fall.  In fact, if you have an opportunity to wager on the outcome, bet on Hogan being a one-term governor.

How will these political forces play out in other state elections?  Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both legislative bodies and picking up additional seats is probably a stretch.  On the other hand, incumbents who might normally be considered vulnerable are much more likely to be re-elected in the political climate that will surround the November election.

If you think of suburban counties in Maryland as the best opportunity for Democrats to pick up offices currently held by Republicans, the jurisdiction that looks most like the Philadelphia suburbs is Howard County.  In the Democratic debacle of 2014, Republican Allan Kittleman was elected County Executive.  While he remains popular, he will face a strong challenger in County Council member Calvin Ball.  Regardless of how county voters see Kittleman’s record, he is going to have a really tough struggle to retain his office in a year in which Democrats have so much going for them.

A final example.  There are areas in Howard County where Republicans have almost always done well.  One is the state legislative seat currently held by Bob Flanagan, a long-time office holder who was Transportation Secretary under Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich. Flanagan has not been particularly visible and has little or no impact as a member of the minority in the House of Delegates.  Don’t be surprised if he loses his re-election bid to Courtney Watson who ran against Kittleman in the bad Democratic year of 2014.

While there are several months left until the November election and all sorts of things could happen in the meantime, just about every political indicator now points to a highly motivated and energized Democratic electorate going to the polls and sweeping large numbers of Republicans out of office.  Carrying the burden of Donald Trump as their party leader will be more than they can overcome.

The Silence of the Lemmings

Donald Trump is an awful excuse for a human being. He finds new ways to demonstrate that irrefutable truth every day.

Trump is a racist, something that was evident to anyone paying attention long before his most recent outburst. He is a pathological liar whose lies sometime have a purpose and other times seem more like reflex actions, his natural state of being.

The President is uninformed, lacking a scintilla of curiosity. He doesn’t read. His attention span is so short that briefing him on an important topic is almost impossible.

Psychiatrists should be reluctant to go on the public record. However, it doesn’t take medical training to recognize that he is a narcissist, might well fit the definition of a sociopath and offers a textbook’s worth of material for studying abnormal personality traits.

And yet, almost all the members of one of this country’s two major political parties act as if they are deaf, dumb and blind to these obvious characteristics.  The Emperor has no clothes on, but Republicans are still committed to admiring his non-existent outfit.

Every once in a while, but remarkably infrequently, one of them offers tepid criticism of something that Trump said, but so weakly as to lack any impact.  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the master of the mealy-mouthed non-comment, but he certainly has lots of company.

A new version of “Profiles in Courage” focused on Republican Members of Congress would be nothing but blank pages.  When Trump bragged during the presidential campaign that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and no one would care, did we realize that he was including Congressional Republicans in that assertion?

At this point in the Trump era, he may continue to shock us, but he no longer surprises us.  There is no bottom to what he is capable of doing, no act too outrageous, no assertion beyond his imagination.  He is, he tells us, “the least racist person in the world”, the individual who “understands the health care system better than anyone else,” “the best deal maker ever.”  The rest of us shake our heads in dismay while Republicans act as if what he is doing and saying is normal.

The crazy–is there really another word for it?–meeting in the White House to discuss immigration legislation last week is the latest example.  Trump was reported to be furious that a bipartisan proposal included special provisions for refugees from Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries.

According to the one Democrat in the room, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, Trump fumed about letting people into this country from “shithole” places such as those.  Two Republican Senators who were also in the meeting first claimed that they could not remember what he said and later denied that Trump used those precise words.  Trump himself offered a weasely explanation that his words had been “rough” but not what Durbin claimed.  He and his minions have not provided their version of what Trump  said.

On Monday, the extent of Republican complicity in covering for his racist language became clear.  Multiple sources assert the word Trump used was “shithouse” rather than “shithole.”  Based on that very narrow distinction, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator David Perdue of Georgia defended Trump.

I don’t know to what circle of Hell Dante would assign Cotton, Perdue and Trump’s other Republican enablers, but it would certainly be one of the hotter ones.

For Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other Republicans, Trump is a “useful idiot.”  While it’s clear that he had little understanding of the provisions of the tax bill and made all sorts of dishonest assertions about it, his presence in the White House allowed a group of hardline conservatives to pass legislation that they have salivated about for years.  Despite his wildly exaggerated opinion of himself, the movie version of this story would have Trump played by Charlie McCarthy, the dummy manipulated by Edgar Bergen.

Is there any action that Trump might take that would go too far for Congressional Republicans?  They are clearly unconcerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Will they continue to be indifferent to future meddling?  Trump’s administration has taken no actions to prevent future cyber-penetration and Republicans have shown no willingness to acknowledge that America’s security is at risk.

Similarly, they seem untroubled by Trump’s assertions–totally without merit–that there was widespread voter fraud in 2016.  In fact, the party that once had Lincoln as its standard-bearer fully supports a wide assortment of voter suppression schemes.  Efforts to undermine our democratic system don’t set off any alarm bells for Republicans.

What about the risk that Trump will initiate or provoke a war with North Korea?  Or that his bellicose rhetoric and hostility to diplomacy will lead to renewed fighting in the Middle East?  Whatever your favorite metaphor for indifference–fiddling while Rome burns or whistling past the graveyard– Republicans refuse to take seriously the dangers that this unhinged president poses to world peace.

Last, but certainly not least, how will Republicans respond as Robert Mueller closes in on Trump, his family and his co-conspirators?  If Trump tries to fire Mueller, the early indications are that his party will excuse his action as a legitimate response to a partisan witch hunt.

We are in scary territory.  Politics has never been, as the old saying goes, beanbag, but there has usually been an assumption that, when push comes to shove, country does come before party.  Right now, it’s hard to argue such a principle is alive in the Republican Party.

At long last, have they no sense of decency?

Oprah for President?

 

A lot of people got very excited during the Golden Globe Awards to hear a thoughtful and articulate celebrity discuss important public issues. It’s hard not to see the reaction as in part a backlash against the incoherent ramblings of the “very stable genius” in the White House. In addition, however, Oprah Winfrey’s remarks addressed in a direct, no-nonsense fashion the long-standing cloud of sexual harassment and unequal treatment of women that has characterized the entertainment industry forever.

It’s definitely a talk that people should hear and share. Winfrey’s use of a public platform with millions of viewers to deliver her message was a brilliant choice on her part. She accomplished her task with style, eloquence and inspiration.

Should her Golden Globes speech be seen as the kickoff for a presidential campaign? Winfrey is certainly among the best known and most admired people in the country. Those are assets that any candidate would love to have in their pursuit of a presidential nomination. Are they enough to make her a serious and credible contender for the presidency in 2020?

That question has already generated a national debate.  For many, the stunning contrast to the crass narcissism of Donald Trump makes her a very appealing choice.  Compare a man who apparently doesn’t read at all to a woman who has made books a central part of her public identity.  Trump’s persona is one of conflict and division while Winfrey seems to be much more about building bridges and making connections.

Yet, even many of her strongest admirers question whether her status as a celebrity, not a person who has experience in government, public service or leadership in a large organization, is the right profile for a presidential candidate.  Any evaluation of her qualifications has to look at more that whether she is a better person than Donald Trump.  That’s way too low a bar.

My guess is that the Winfrey “boomlet” will probably fade fairly quickly.  To be a serious presidential candidate, she would have to do more that make great speeches.  She would have to raise money–which she probably would have no difficulty in doing.  She would have to take positions on important issues of the day and have some depth of understanding about them.  The fact that Trump has mastered none of the understanding is not a sufficient measure.  The anti-Trump has to be better, more knowledgable, more thoughtful, able to effectively deliver a coherent message.

Winfrey would also have to start meeting with political leaders, donors, the media and regular voters.  She certainly seems to have the skills to handle the human interactions, but whether she has the temperament, patience and endurance remains to be seen.  To seek the presidency, a person has to really desperately want the office and be willing to put up with a long, hard process that often makes little sense at the moment.

I am less concerned that she is a celebrity than that she is, in political terms, an amateur.  You may think professional politicians have not always served us well and you would certainly be correct.  But many have.  Trump’s non-existent public resume is unique in presidential history.  Our least successful chief executives have struggled because they came unprepared for the job.

There are great risks to turning the levers of power over to people who have neither  experience with, nor understanding of, how government works, what the constraints–formal and informal–are, and the realization that getting things done is more about persuasion than the exercise of formal authority.

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has to be seen as an anomaly.  Moreover, his lack of deference to the Constitution, his stunning ignorance about the most basic features of our government system and his lack of perspective, historical and otherwise, should convince all thoughtful voters  never to go down the celebrity path again.

We are at a perilous moment in our history.  If we are successfully to overcome the threat the Trump presidency poses to our most basic values and institutions, we must have leaders who understand and appreciate those values and institutions.

I have no idea whether Oprah Winfrey has those qualities.  I loved her speech and how it inspired many Americans.  If she really wants to be taken seriously as a prospective leader of this country, however, she has a lot of learning and a lot of very hard work to do.  I don’t preclude the possibility that she could do it, but we have too little to go on at this point to judge her as anything other than a smart, articulate individual.

That she gave all of us a moment of hope and inspiration is something we should all cherish.   Let’s not, however, get ahead of ourselves.

 

 

2017: A Year Out of Focus

 

Year-end reviews usually seek to offer perspective on events of the prior 12 months.  As I thought about how to approach that task for 2017, I realized that this past year had been a bit off from the start, never quite in focus, not fitting in with any standards by which we usually make comparisons.

Still, shouldn’t we be able to summon the means to make sense of what has admittedly been a jarring period and maybe even learn some lessons from the experience?  If not, we run the risk of repeating a history that seems to many of us to be bending its arc in the wrong direction.  That version of “Groundhog Day” would be more horror show than comedy.

The presidency of Donald Trump and its assault on long-standing traditions and norms of our political system is certainly not the only important story of 2017, but it is in many respects the central one.  Yet, even as we were living through the first 12 months of an administration unprecedented in American history, it was incredibly difficult to stay focused on the most significant developments and not be distracted by the numerous sideshows, some deliberate and some just “Trump being Trump.”

As much as I am appalled by many of the policy decisions made by the President and the Republican Congress in 2017–the tax bill, the relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the dismantling of environmental protections, the undermining of alliances and international agreements—all of those actions and more were the inevitable byproducts of the 2016 election results.

We have to hope that future elections will produce public officials who reverse many of those actions and move the country in a different direction.  Great damage is being done in the meantime to the  nation as well as to individuals, but, as both voters and non-voters must realize, elections have consequences.

My greatest concern is with the very real threat—and I don’t believe I am engaging in hyperbole—to our democratic system of government.  Trump has trashed long-standing political norms—not releasing his tax returns, not divesting his business and financial holdings, appointing relatives to senior White House positions, trying to delegitimize the media, calling into question the validity of election results, treating truth as a plaything to be disregarded at his whim.  Whether those norms and standards can be re-established after the Trump Presidency is far from certain.

The future may be even worse.  His Justice Department is supporting efforts in multiple states to disenfranchise voters.  His commission on voter fraud is a transparent gimmick to limit access to the ballot box.  His rhetoric in the aftermath of the 2016 election could foreshadow moves in 2018 and 2020 to nullify votes and even election results.  Preventing that possibility requires public vigilance, legal challenges and electing officials who will oppose his efforts rather than blindly following his lead.

My review of what is significant about Trump’s first year in office has no room for his tweets, for Ivanka and Jared, for the greed and lack of ethical standards of members of his cabinet or for his generally crass behavior.  I’ll leave those topics to the re-energized media as well as to late night comics.

On the other hand, there are a number of areas in which Trump’s failure to act has had enormous significance.  His administration’s refusal to take seriously Russian interference in the 2016 elections and its continuing cyber-attacks on this country is a serious dereliction of duty in not protecting our national security.  His indifference to the impact of growing inequality in the United States poses a serious risk to the country’s long-term stability.  Is there a point at which the economic imbalance becomes so great that it threatens the relative political stability that has endured since 1789?

Two additional trends from 2017–both relevant to the Trump Presidency but neither merely the product of it—also make my review.  2017 unearthed a level of tension in race relations in this country that had been submerged for many years.  This hostility became more visible partly as a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama but also in response to the overt encouragement and racial “dog whistles” of his successor.

There were many moments during the year that illustrated those patterns, but none so vivid as Trump’s comments in the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As if that weren’t enough encouragement for undercover racists, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, often described as the only adult in the room, offered his own revisionist interpretation of the Civil War in which he downplayed the role of slavery.  The “good people on both sides”line was a much clearer signal than any wink or nod might have been.

The other major development of the year, celebrated by Time magazine, was the “#MeToo” movement.  Demonstrating that all roads in 2017 led back to Trump, the accusations of sexual harassment and worse that led to the ousting and resignations of many powerful males in the last few months generally paled in comparison to the list of those making similar claims about Trump.  Yet, he remains in office vigorously defended by his base supporters including many Evangelical Christians.

As awful as much of 2017 was, there were a few encouraging signs of a willingness to fight back against Trump.  Elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama have been seen by some as the precursors of a Democratic tsunami in 2018.  Unprecedented numbers of women running for public office are starting to break up the old patterns of traditional politics.  High turnout in the normally low turnout off-year election of 2017 offers the hope that sleepy Democrats may finally be waking up.

If you were paying attention only to day-to-day events, to the seemingly endless stream of distractions and outrages, 2017 was a truly depressing year.  There were, in addition, some dreadful policy outcomes.  However, if you are looking for any glimmers of hope, the new activism, particularly among women—and specifically, in Alabama, African-American women—gives you something to hold on to.

Fighting back against the darkness requires having hope that change can be achieved if we all work hard enough at it.  That needs to be the theme of 2018.