Ignore Trump’s Distractions

Even as the Trump Administration is doing great damage to this country, entirely too much attention is being paid to events that are irrelevant or trivial. Is there any significance to the President having had dinner at the White House with three ignorant redneck blowhards? Was anyone surprised that he catered to the fringes of his base with that invitation or that Sarah Palin, Ted Nugget and Kid Rock acted like immature adolescents while they were there?

Those kind of stunts don’t matter. Similarly, it really should be of no concern to anyone how many members of the New England Patriots showed up for a photo-op with Trump. Why is that a story that gets some people on the Internet all excited?

The list of these kinds of distractions is a long one. Trump constantly boasts about having the largest crowds, the greatest first 100 days, the smartest cabinet. The fact that none of those claims are true should now be seen as old hat, not worth comment.

Similarly, pointing out that Trump lies constantly and that he is a total hypocrite is not a revelation.  While we shouldn’t accept that behavior as normal or reasonable, acting startled at the most recent example is a waste of time and energy.

Trump and his appointees are doing so many things that warrant outrage, resistance and comment.  As Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell said in a very different context, watch what he does, not what he says.  It’s going to take a lot of committed and sustained effort by those who worry about the threat to our democracy, our civil rights and the fabric of our community to resist and fight back.  There’s no room for wasting time and energy on distractions.

In fact, it’s becoming increasing clear that in many respects Trump himself is merely a sideshow.  He signs Executive Orders that will only matter if his administration figures out how to implement them.  He revels in photo ops which mostly underscore the white, male composition of his administration.  He blusters about what Congress must do and then either suffers a humiliating defeat, as with the Health Care bill, or backs down, as he did this week about funding the Wall for which he insisted as a candidate Mexico was going to pay.

Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, is right in the middle of some of the worst things being done in Trump’s name.  He is making every effort to undercut the Justice Department’s historical role as defender of the poor and disadvantaged.  The threat Sessions poses to voting rights, criminal justice reform and our confidence in the fairness of law enforcement is truly frightening.

Yet, again, a lot of ink and airtime was devoted to his ignorant comments about a federal judge on an island in the middle of the Pacific.   That comments reinforces an image of Sessions as a narrow-minded ideologue, but it is not central to the damaging policies he is pursuing.

The anti-head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, may be doing the most long-term damage of anyone in the Trump Administration.  He is pulling back regulations that were intended to keep air breathable and water drinkable.  He is signaling directly to corporate polluters that he has little or no interest in enforcing environment standards.  It won’t be long before this Administration formally withdraws from the international climate accords that were championed by Barack Obama.

Pruitt is a rabid anti-environmentalist.  The best shot at minimizing the damage he is intent on will come as the result of law suits filed by environmental groups.  That effort is worthy of our attention, not the carnival acts produced by this Administration to distract us from what’s really going on.

Another area in which the interplay between words and actions is not entirely clear is foreign affairs.  Trump blusters an awful lot.  He tells us it’s time to start winning wars ago.  He’s taken a couple of largely symbolic actions with the Tomahawk missile attack in Syria and the dropping of a BIG bomb in Afghanistan.  Neither of those steps constituted a policy; what may follow is anyone’s guess.

Trump has threatened unilateral action North Korea.  You have to hope “his” generals–widely regarded as the only adults in the room–will insist on a more measured approach.  He has reversed himself on so many positions that he took while a candidate that you are once again forced to conclude that his words are largely meaningless.

Activist citizens have generally done a good job of focusing on the important issues, such as preserving the Affordable Care Act and fighting for a sensible approach to climate change and respect for science.  While the media’s coverage of Trump has gotten more skeptical and more critical since the campaign, they still find the chasing of shiny objects to be irresistible at times.

Fawning over the notion that Trump had become “presidential” by ordering a missile strike in Syria was utter nonsense.  Falling for the narrative that dropping the “Mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan was a significant step in that war was irresponsible.  Getting obsessed about so-called power struggles within the West Wing and being breathless about the alleged moderating influence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, despite no supporting evidence, take the focus off the important issues.

Trump is abnormal, but that fact was established a long time ago.  We need to avoid treating him as entertainment and focus on what he is doing to our country.  That enterprise is more than enough to keep concerned citizens busy for the next four years.

Can a Democrat win the Maryland Race for Governor in 2018?

Sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it?  In normal political times, the answer would be “Of course, why is there any doubt?”

But, as we all know, these are not normal political times.  In 2014, Larry Hogan shocked the Democratic Party establishment by upsetting its hand-picked candidate, Anthony Brown.  Since then, the incumbent Governor has convinced some observers that he is invulnerable because of his very high approval ratings in public polls.  His approval level of 65% in the most recent survey places Hogan as the most popular Republican governor in the country.

While Hogan has certainly demonstrated political skills, his standing in the polls is not purely a result of how he has governed.  His widely admired personal fight against cancer has definitely given him a boost in the polls.

More to the point, however, the “approve/disapprove” question is the wrong one to rely on.  Recently a Washington Post/University of Maryland survey asked voters whether they would support Hogan for reelection in 2018.  That number–41%–suggests that he is less a political behemoth than a normal Republican running in heavily Democratic Maryland.

In 2014, Democratic candidate Brown underperformed Martin O’Malley’s 2006 campaign in all but three counties in Maryland.  Even in counties that O’Malley lost, his losing margins were considerably less than Brown’s.  To take a couple of examples, in Allegany County, Brown won 23% of the vote while O’Malley had 42%.  In Calvert, the comparative figures were 29% and 42%.

In the traditionally Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s, Brown won by a larger margin in his home county and had about the same advantage in the other two.  However, in the two next largest jurisdictions, O’Malley outperformed Brown by significant amounts:  Anne Arundel, 42% to 32%; and Baltimore County, 48% to 39%.

If you split the difference in the percentages for Brown and O’Malley and assumed a 2014 turnout, Hogan would lose in 2018.  Obviously, elections are more complicated than just the manipulations of numbers, but these calculations remind us that Hogan will be running uphill in Democratic Maryland in 2018.

Moreover, other factors would also seem to  be working against his reelection bid.  The first is turnout.  Fewer voters went to the polls in the 2014 election than in 2006.   Brown tallied 124,000 fewer votes than O’Malley.   It’s hard to imagine any Democratic candidate in 2018 running a worse campaign than Brown did in 2014.

And that may be the least of Hogan’s problems.  The level of Democratic activism since the election of Donald Trump as president strongly suggests that turnout in next year’s elections, nationwide as well as in Maryland, is likely to surge.

The other widely discussed narrative about Hogan’s 2014 win was his ability to appeal to white working class voters, many of whom had traditionally voted for Democrats.  Was Hogan an early indicator of Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election?

This will certainly be one of the keys to next year’s race, but Hogan’s path is far from assured.  Other than reducing highway tolls and cancelling the Red Line in Baltimore, his record is a really thin one.  His legislative victories have been claims rather than reality; he has failed to impose his will on the budget; his vetoes have all been overridden; and his crossover attempts, such as supporting a ban on fracking, aren’t going to persuade many Democrats to vote for him.

Hogan is trying to walk a delicate balance between keeping his base happy and broadening his appeal.  He can’t win with just Republican voters, but his ability to attract Democrats and independents may have waned.

And, as already referenced, there will be the looming presence of Donald Trump in the 2018 race.  Hogan’s posture up to now has been to keep his distance from the president and to avoid commenting on what is going on in Washington whenever possible.  At times, the approach has required convoluted verbal gymnastics.

If Congressional Republicans had passed their version of health care, Hogan would be dealing with the very negative impact of the new law on Maryland.  That possibility is still on the table.  There’s a long list of other Trump initiatives that could come into play by next year, but the most significant impact will arise from whatever budget is passed in 2017.  Given Maryland’s historical reliance on federal funding, there’s no version of a Trump budget that is good for the State.

Hogan won’t be able to keep dancing around the impact of actions taken by Trump and Congressional Republicans.  He will be faced with the difficult choice of which voters to upset by whatever positions he takes.  And whoever is the Democratic candidate should make this issue a centerpiece of a campaign against Hogan.

Finally, of course, there’s the question of who the Democratic candidate will be.  The current list of prospects is eight, but it’s hard to know how many of them are serious.  One interpretation is that the presumptive frontrunners, Rushern Baker and Kevin Kamenetz, have not scared off other contenders.  Another view is that Hogan hasn’t scared them off either.

There are some outsider candidates, non-politicians if you will, as well as  one candidate from 2014 giving it a second try, Doug Gansler.  In the next few months, starting in June, we’ll start seeing what advantages and disadvantages each of these candidates brings to the race.

The conventional wisdom is that a bruising primary would damage the winner and complicate the efforts to raise enough money for the General Election.  A contrary view is that a contested race will stimulate turnout and help in the November election.

Will Democrats show up at the polls and will they unite behind the winner of the primary?  The answers to those questions will have a major impact on calculating Hogan’s chances of reelection.  At this point, despite Hogan appearing as the favorite before the race really began, he has a very good chance to be a one-term governor.

 

The Consequences of Trump Being Trump

Even for those not paying close attention during the Presidential election, Donald Trump’s fundamental characteristics have become vividly clear  in his first 100 days.

Trump is certainly a narcissist. He lies constantly, often for no apparent reason. He has incredibly thin skin and lashes out at any comment he views as critical of him, even if the remark is clearly accurate.

Trump may well be the least well-read person ever to occupy the White House. He has no knowledge of  basic historical facts.

The President relies almost exclusively on his instincts and often doubles down on them if faced with evidence that he has made a mistake. Trump fosters chaos around him but doesn’t use it for strategic purpose.

Moreover, despite his bluster, Trump is clearly an insecure person.  His dependence on family members who lack qualifications for the high level positions  they have been given in the White House is unprecedented.  His constant monitoring of cable tv shows, particularly on Fox News, reveals a person with no core beliefs or values.

If you were  paying attention during the campaign, none of these observations comes as a surprise to you.  All of Trump’s warts were in plain sight.  What we are now coming to grips with is the impact of Trump’s deficiencies on his approach to governing.

Trump asserts that his unpredictability is a virtue.  The implication is that he makes deliberate calculations to confuse possible adversaries.  One byproduct is that he leaves allies and friends scratching their heads as well.  Moreover, the “mad man” theory of foreign relations requires you to have strategic objectives that you are pursuing.  Trump shows no evidence that he understands the complexities of the rest of the world. More significantly, it is unclear what he hopes to accomplish.

After seeing pictures of children who were victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, he ordered retaliatory bombing.  According to some sources, Ivanka Trump played a key role in convincing him to take that step.  But pictures of dying refugee children have evoked no similar sympathies so it’s hard to know what his true motivation was.

Even more importantly, however, there’s no indication of what he hoped to achieved with the bombing or of what steps 2 and 3 might be.   You half expect him to observe that “no one knew the Middle East would be so complicated.”

The world, which he promised us he was uniquely qualified to get under control, is getting more dangerous by the day.  Trump just announced that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is at an all time low despite his campaign rhetoric that it would reach new levels of friendship.  The comment also demonstrates his lack of historical context–the Cold War, in which nuclear war was a real threat, was much more dangerous.

Trump’s blustering about taking care of the threats from North Korea is similarly unhinged.  What leverage does he think he has if he, the master deal maker, can’t convince the Chinese to rein in their neighbors?

Trump’s lack of qualification for the presidency is showing up in the sputtering start to his administration.  His sole success has been getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed by the Senate for a seat on the Supreme Court.  The President’s lack of engagement and understanding of the complexities involved contributed substantially to the failure to pass the Republican health care plan.  Trump seems no more ready to move forward on tax reform, which will be equally difficult politically.

The fiasco that has played out over the Administration’s attempts to impose a Muslim travel ban shows a similar failure to comprehend Constitutional and political reality.  As in so many other areas, Trump seems content with a flashy photo-op and fiery political rhetoric to stir up his base.

A growing number of promises that Trump made in his campaign are rapidly being exposed as just plans lies or figurative rather than literal intentions or hyperbole that he wasn’t serious about.  Did anyone really believe he could bring back manufacturing and coal jobs?  What a fun joke he told about reducing the budget deficit.  Or even better, his claim that Bureau of Labor Statistics reports are now credible where once they were phony.

Trump governs by lies, distraction, chaos and ignorance.  While early evidence suggests that many of his supporters are just fine with that approach, the consequences for the country are not so sanguine.  We have a foreign policy that is without direction, without any grounding in national interest, without an appreciation of the complex interrelationship among different foreign entanglements.  The President seems oblivious to the risk of stumbling into a war or a foreign commitment for which neither the goals nor the means of achieving success exist.

In domestic affairs, Trump has so far been willing to leave decision-making to the most extreme ideologues in his administration–Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Mick Mulvaney, Scott Pruitt and, of course, Steve Bannon.  His lack of interest as well as of understanding of the policies they are instituting has ushered in an era of great damage that will take years to recover from.  Attacks on women’s health, on basic civil rights, on government help for the poor and disadvantaged, on protection of the environment and on the very idea of a “United” States are already creating a legacy on which history will not look favorably .

Americans on a daily basis are astonished at the inept performance of Sean Spicer, at the latest wild conspiracies that the President asserts, at the sense that we are watching a reality television show rather than our government at work.  Meanwhile, there are grave consequences to having as president a man who is temperamentally, intellectually and by lack of experience unfit for the job.

If you think we’ve seen the worst from this president, you’re sadly mistaken.  Just when you think he’s hit the bottom and can’t sink any lower, he outdoes himself.  There is no bottom with this presidency.

 

 

Brexit, Donald Trump and the Cost of Dysfunctional Politics

 

Once upon a time I knew a lot about Britain’s relationship with the European Community.  More than 40 years ago, I studied that country’s efforts to join what was then referred to as the European Common Market. The history was a tortured one as Britain held on for too long to the belief that it was still a major world power, closer to the United States than to the continent just across the English Channel. Eventually, though, a deal was struck and Britain joined the European Community.

With that historical context in mind, the vote in last year’s referendum can be seen as not just a reaction to concerns about immigrants from the Middle East or bureaucrats in Brussels. The British have always been ambivalent about efforts to tie the countries of Europe more closely together and to reduce the autonomy of the individual nations.

With the resurgence of ultra-nationalism, the great experiment that has helped keep peace for over 70 years in a continent that almost destroyed itself in the 20th Century, is at jeopardy.  If the French elections at the end of April bring to power the extreme nationalist, Marine Le Pen, European collaboration could start coming apart.  And if that happens, the British referendum will be seen as the snowball that started the avalanche.

Whatever the outcome of the French vote, however, Britain will be less well off because of its decision to go it alone.  Prime Minister Theresa May has started the formal process of disengagement and the decision is irrevocable.  London will remain a delightful place to visit, but Britain’s influence in world finances will inevitably decline.  Its position in world trade will become much less significant and, ultimately, the economy of the nation will be weaker and more, rather than less, vulnerable to global influences.

May seems like she’s doing the best she can with a bad situation.  Her predecessor, David Cameron, is the real villain in the piece, a spineless “leader” who thought that the expedient of a referendum would spare him the need to stand up to political critics.

While most analyses have focused on the rise of populism in Britain to explain the vote to leave Europe, there are two other important lessons as well.  The first is that weak and inept political leadership can lead to disastrous results in a democratic system of government.   Democracy is largely defined by processes with no guarantee of particular outcomes.

Second, some decisions have more consequences than others.  Leaving the European Community will impact every aspect of British life and the impact will be both short and long-term.

Those lessons are being played out at this very moment in the United States.

Whatever the explanations for Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, he is now the president.  So far, his administration has demonstrated a stunning mix of ignorance, incompetence and hard-line conservative greed.  Trump’s executive orders, tweets, public pronouncements and legislative initiatives have played well with his base supporters but are dismaying a growing portion of America and the world.

So far, the impact has merely been damaging.  Trump has ordered a rapid retreat from environmental protection and policies to reduce the impact of climate change.  His Attorney General is shifting the Justice Department’s position from protector of minorities and disadvantaged to ally of the rich and powerful.  His Secretary of Education is leading an attack on public education.  And the list goes on.

If any significant portion of his proposed budget is enacted, the consequences for the poor and struggling of this country will be even worse.  Trump is trying to shred what used euphemistically to be called the “safety net.”  By all appearance, his only serious priorities are increasing the defense budget and reducing taxes for the very wealthy.  In a nation that has seen the inequality gap grow dramatically in the past three decades, his efforts seem designed to accelerate that process.

Trump’s willful ignorance of history, science and the lives of most Americans is contributing to decisions that do great harm to the very fabric of the nation as well as to many who voted for him.  His lies, deceptions and blatant disregard for the most basic notions of ethical behavior have undermined the credibility of the office.

For some observers, however, all that bad news is not the greatest danger from the Trump Presidency.  Instead, the gravest danger may lie in his total incompetence.  So far, there have been no real emergencies, no national security threat, no moments that required quick and decisive action.  Trump blusters about ISIS, bellows about Mexicans and Muslims, talks irresponsibly about handling North Korea, but his performance so far provides no basis for any confidence in how he would actually respond.

David Cameron had a parliamentary majority and, under the British system, should have been able to govern.  He failed miserably.  Trump has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the Executive Branch of Government.  Yet, he totally bungled his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cannot produce a travel ban that comes close to conforming to the Constitution and demonstrates on a daily basis that he has something to hide with respect to his dealings with Russia.

I have many smart friends who are confident that we will survive the horrors of the Trump Presidency.  They believe in the basic institutions of this country and look to our history to reassure themselves that we have always come through dark periods before.  I hope they are correct, but I am also quite sure that it won’t automatically turn out well merely because it has in the past.

Trump is harming not only the people of this country and our relationships with the rest of the world, but his administration is also seeking to undermine the basic safeguards of our democratic system.  That system has served us quite well for well over 200 years and shouldn’t be given up without a fight.  We may take some comfort in how incompetent he is, but that won’t stop him from doing great harm while he is still in office.

 

Overcoming “Trump Depression”

 

In a recent article in the New York Times, Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, argued that people who pay the most attention to politics are most likely to be unhappy. While it’s indisputable that a lot of people have been unhappy since November 8 of last year, Brooks’ assertion paints an incomplete and misleading picture.

As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there trying to get you. Similarly, in today’s political environment, there’s plenty to be depressed about regardless of the state of your mental health.

Americans who think government should provide help to the disadvantaged, disabled and in need, who believe in science and the threat of climate change, who are troubled by the growing level of inequality in this country, and who support equal rights for women and minorities must live with a president and a Republican-controlled Congress who are openly contemptuous of all those goals.

Donald Trump was elected president despite or, maybe, in part because of, a campaign filled with open appeals to prejudice and hatred, promises that could never be kept and a self-absorption for which the term “narcissistic” is barely adequate.  Trump’s pattern of lies, bullying, unethical behavior and ignorance of our constitutional system has carried over from the campaign to the Oval Office.

Is it any wonder that many politically active citizens are struggling with emotions which range from rage to apathy to what surely feels like depression?  Women, who have struggled for years to achieve equal treatment in the work place, the political arena and health care are facing attacks that seemed unthinkable as recently as 2016.  Minorities are also facing more aggressive assaults on their right to vote and to participate in the political system.

In an economy that has disproportionately favored the most wealthy for several decades, the new Administration seems determined to put yet another thumb on the scale.  Attacks on immigrants, the press and anyone outside some narrowly defined mainstream are, to many, assaults on the very essence of what has made this country special and, therefore, are deeply disturbing.

Contrary, however, to some people’s reading of Brooks’ article, the answer is not to avoid the news or to disengage from politics.  Certainly it’s possible to overdose on Rachel Maddow or on like-minded Facebook posts, but’s burying your head in the sand, going off the grid, and cutting yourself off from others are not solutions to what ails you.

Despite the disdain in some quarters for facts, the problem is reality-based.  Many of us see serious threats to our most cherished values, to institutions that have served this country well for a very long time, to the proposition that we are one country rather than a collection of gated communities.

More rather than less political engagement is the prescription for “Trump depression.”  That will probably mean spending less time surfing the Internet or signing petitions and more time writing checks to causes that matter to you; calling, writing and visiting your elected representatives; going to rallies and demonstrations that make clear to the president and the members of Congress that the public is paying attention to what they are trying to do; and being part of a record off-year turnout for the 2018 elections.

The good news is that we are already seeing evidence of all these activities in numbers totally unprecedented at this point in the political cycle.  People who told me how much trouble they were having overcoming their depression in the aftermath of the presidential election are finding ways to channel their energies and emotions.

We’re seeing spikes in donations to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.  “Indivisible” groups are sprouting all over the country. People are showing up for rallies and protests.  Also, we should not forget that there are lots of white males who don’t feel threatened by immigrants or women or globalism and who are concerned by the anti-democratic tendencies of the new president.

Sustaining that level of engagement won’t be easy although we can be confident that Trump and Paul Ryan will continue to provide motivation for us.  Make no mistake, political activism was one of the key factors that contributed to the failure of the Republican health care initiative last week.

Anxiety about the 2018 elections will become increasingly more apparent among officials up for reelection.  Public opinion polls, already showing records levels of disapproval of a president in his third month, will continue to plague Trump.  Republican infighting and finger pointing for their failures will blossom as their struggles get more difficult.

Unfortunately, Trump and Ryan will do more damage before they are ultimately stopped, but there is at least a solution to their misguided agenda for all who are depressed by it:  ever more political activity.

 

The Trump Administration–Where Truth Goes to Die

 

At a recent White House press briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer whether Donald Trump could be relied on to tell the truth. Spicer, in a response that sounds directly out of “Alice in Wonderland” said “yes, unless he’s joking.”

Trump may be many things, but no one has ever accused him of being a stand-up comedian. Claims that he was just joking have come only well after the fact when he and his minions try to excuse away a particularly indefensible statement.

Instead, Spicer’s deflection is but one example of the multi-layered facade of lies and deception that this Administration uses to pursue an agenda that could never stand up to the light of scrutiny and analysis.

The tone and much of the deception comes from the very top, from Trump himself.  As has been well-documented, first in the campaign and now continuing since his Inauguration, Trump lies as easily as he breathes.  What’s puzzling is that so many of the statements are so easily disproven or, at least, cannot be verified and that others have no apparent political objective.

Even a partial list would consume volumes.  Trump has maintained his pathetic claim that so many more people attended his inauguration than that of Barack Obama despite unequivocal pictorial evidence to the contrary.  His repeated rant that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of illegal votes is delusional.

These two examples, which could easily be supplemented by many others, seem primarily a product of his fragile ego.  He can’t admit to ever being less than the best or not having the most of whatever, even when repeating the claims makes him seem unhinged from reality.  And then he sends out Spicer and Kellyanne Conway and others to look even more ridiculous by backing him up.

Other lies have more serious consequences.  His recent assertion that Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped during the campaign is a reckless claim that may have real political consequences for Trump.  Yet he continues to repeat the lie, refuses to back down in the face of denials even among other Republicans and looks to have backed himself into a dead-end alley.

Then, to make matters worse, he alleged that Britain assisted Obama in spying on him.   This outlandish accusation further enhances his reputation for mendacity even as it damages the relationship with a key ally.

Trump’s biggest lies, however, are those he tells to supporters.  He has promised the return of coal and manufacturing jobs, a boom in the economy, the repeal of Obamacare, the defeat of ISIS, and generally lots of “winning.”  His nearly three months in office have achieved none of those promises.

To understand the significance of this administration’s lies, however, you have to move beyond the specifics.  Trump’s falsehoods, and those of Spicer and Conway as well as of many of his cabinet heads, are in fact much more insidious than mere misstatements.  Trump’s goal is to discredit the very notion of reality and to replace it with a set of beliefs and prejudices that appeal to that portion of the electorate that is angry and frustrated with conventional politics.

Take the President’s proposed budget as an example and the justifications that have been offered for the draconian cuts in domestic programs.  There are two main strands to the arguments and they both appeal to emotions rather than to reason.

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, without a hint of embarrassment, asserted that school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels for Senior Citizens and a long list of others had not demonstrated any benefits to either the individuals or to society.  In fact, multiple studies have fully documented the value, both economic and social, of these programs, which render Mulvaney’s statements nothing less than a blatant appeal to prejudice, greed and ignorance.

A second piece of the attack was the pious sounding claim that the administration doesn’t want to force miners in West Virginia to pay taxes to support Big Bird on PBS or the National Endowment for the Arts.  At its root, this argument is an attack on almost all government spending other than defense.  It’s an approach that says that if I personally don’t benefit, then no one else should either.  It undermines the very idea of the “United” States.

By n0w, you’ve also heard about various officials describing the budget as “compassionate.”  That remark may be the biggest lie of all.  Nothing about Trump or the Republican leadership in Congress suggests even a slender reed of compassion for the poor or disadvantaged.  For a timely  discussion of this point, see Nick Kristof in the March 16, 2017 New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/opinion/and-jesus-said-unto-paul-of-ryan.html?_r=0

If you can’t succeed on your own–which apparently includes tax breaks for the wealthy and parents who provide millions of dollars to underwrite your business career–you really need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and overcome those minor obstacles like generations of poverty, institutional bias and inadequate schools.

The attacks on the mainstream media are a significant piece of the strategy of lies.  If all media are equally suspect, then you are free to rely on sources that reinforce your prejudices even if their reporting can’t be verified.  If Breitbart and Fox are good enough as sources for Donald Trump’s tweets, they should be good enough for you.

Attacks on press credibility have another objective.  The Trump Administration has been incredibly sloppy in its vetting of senior officials.  Lies and omissions about connections to Russia during the campaign and after were revealed only through extensive digging by reporters.  Mike Flynn, who was being paid by Turkey and Russia even while advising Trump, was finally forced from office, but what about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who lied during his Senate confirmation hearings? There’s a lot more smoke circling around this issue, and it appears as if the principal Trump response is to attack the messengers.

Some viewers were disturbed by the very dark image of politics presented in the Netflix series “House of Cards.”  At this point in the Trump presidency, that rendering may turn out to have been too rosy.  Donald Trump lies constantly, sometimes with a clear purpose and other times because he can’t seem to help himself.

He regularly requires staff to repeat and defend his lies even though they are indefensible.  Sean Spicer looks more of a buffoon with each press briefing.  Kellyanne Conway has lost all credibility, a commodity that once lost is unlikely ever to be regained.

Trump’s cabinet of transplants from Goldman Sachs, ideologues and B-listers from the political fringe embarrass themselves every time they open their mouths.  While it’s hard to judge whether they are just incompetent and uninformed or if they are deliberately lying, the distinction may not matter much.

Bottom line:  the Trump Presidency is built on a foundation of lies and deception.  It truly is a house of cards that will come tumbling down if reporters keep doing their jobs, activist citizens stay engaged and insist on accountability, Courts continue to enforce the constraints of the Constitution, and Congress, which has been incredibly passive and compliant, decides that it is an independent branch and not a lap dog for Trump.

The outcome is not assured.  Falling back on the notion that “it can’t happen here” is not enough.  While the Trump presidency at times shows signs of self-imploding, it ultimately won’t collapse without the vigorous efforts of the rest of the political system. Ben Franklin wondered whether we could “keep the Republic” that had been created by the Constitutional Convention. We are facing a test that probably even Franklin couldn’t have imagined, but he certainly understood the stakes.  Do we?

Meanwhile, back in Maryland…

Even though the Master of Mar-a-Lago continues to provide endless material for commentary, a decent regard for mental health suggests the importance of looking away from time to time. Thinking about Paul Ryan and the machinations of House Republicans with respect to health care policy really isn’t much of a respite either. The current draft of RyanCare working its way through the lower chamber seems more like their 50 plus earlier efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act than a serious effort at policy making.

Looking for a different perspective, I recently spent a day in Annapolis, home of Maryland government. Despite a long absence, it only took a few conversations to realize that the French were absolutely correct that “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

I couldn’t find anyone who thought that it was going to be a particularly productive legislative session. Certainly the Governor’s agenda doesn’t look like much is going to come of it. And, on the other hand, Democrats haven’t really figured out how to effectively oppose Larry Hogan other than to frustrate his ambitions.

I admit that I’m gazing down from about 50,000 feet and that of course lots of bills will end up passing. Still, revenue projections are down again, little has changed with respect to the State’s ongoing structural budget deficit and no one really has a plan for dealing with what may be massive disruptions from the federal budget and the efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Hogan’s leadership is a bit puzzling. In fact, it’s not really clear what his goals are other than to get reelected. His poll numbers continue to be high, but his popularity may well be more personal than political. The two main strands of his outreach strategy seem to be to beat up on Baltimore City and to make derogatory statements about Democrats in the General Assembly. Will that be enough to ensure his reelection to 2018?

Maybe, but the political environment next year is likely to be less favorable to him than it was in 2014 when he faced a weak opponent and considerable voter fatigue after eight years of Martin O’Malley as governor.  By next year, the Trump presidency may be so unpopular than Hogan will have serious problems in figuring out how to position himself.  Will he have a record that he can take to voters?

He has certainly made a few decisions that are popular with his base, such as reducing tolls and cancelling the Red Line in Baltimore.  Hogan has also announced that “Maryland is Open for Business.” Whether that declaration translates into any tangible benefits for Marylanders is murky at best.

Hogan has taken a very visible position against gerrymandering.  Will voters care?  He has one of the smartest persons in Maryland, Bobby Neall, working on a plan to reorganize state government.  I could argue that both of these initiatives might, depending on the details, make sense, but whether either can be a viable campaign issue is far from clear.

Ultimately, Hogan’s reelection prospects will depend largely on who runs against him in the General Election and whether Democrats are able to mobilize their significant registration advantage to actually turn out on Election Day.  One factor that might impact the second issue is whether the anti-Trump political activism that has been so evident since his Inauguration will spill over into the Maryland race.

A number of Democratic names are out there, but no one seems to have grabbed the frontrunner position.  Two county executives, Rushern Baker of Prince’s George’s and Kevin Kamenetz of Baltimore County, both have impressive records as local executives, but little name recognition outside their own areas.  Congressman John Delaney has a lot of money, but may be even less well-known than Baker and Kamenetz.

Last week, State Senator Rich Madaleno, who is Hogan’s leading critic in the General Assembly, announced that he is considering getting into the race.  Earlier, House Appropriations Chair Maggie McIntosh made it known that she was thinking about running for statewide office, although most observers assumed that she meant challenging Comptroller Peter Franchot in a Democratic Primary.  Madaleno and McIntosh are both smart, experienced and well-respected legislators.  Whether either can translate those qualities into voter appeal will be a real challenge.

Making the jump from being a locally elected official to running statewide is much harder than most people realize.  A lot of popular local officials have stumbled badly in the past trying to move up.

A couple of other names have surfaced and others may still express an interest, but whether any of them is a serious candidate or is just seeking attention won’t be obvious for several months.

On the other hand, Larry Hogan pretty much came out of nowhere to win first the Republican nomination and then the Gubernatorial race in 2014.  He better than anyone else should know that one of these candidates could do the same thing him next year that he did to Anthony Brown in the last election.

The Madness of King Donald I

Our constitutional system is facing its most serious threat since the American Civil War. The expectations of checks and balances and representative democracy are being jeopardized by three factors, any one of which could destabilize the system and in combination should make us very worried.

First, we have in Donald Trump a president who defies traditional description despite repeated efforts to apply a label to him. He has been called a narcissist, a bully, thin-skinned,  stunningly uniformed and appallingly lacking curiosity. None of those words go nearly far enough nor do they adequately express the danger that he poses to our system of government and our most cherished values. As the positive responses to his address to Congress last week demonstrate, we desperately want to see him as within some broad definition of “normal.” Yet he once again blew up those hopes with his weekend tweets.

Some people point to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as possibly able to keep Trump’s behavior in an acceptable range.  The Founders never anticipated a need for a full-time baby sitter.  Moreover, even their efforts haven’t had much impact. We look for adults in his administration and hope that the generals will keep him in line. Relying on retired military leaders to provide guidance is a thin reed which doesn’t look very promising at this point in his presidency.

We need to stop dancing around the real issue.  Donald Trump is unstable, dangerously unpredictable, erratic and unfit for the office he holds.  He is a poster child for the provisions of the 25th Amendment except that Vice President Mike Pence and the members of the Cabinet show no signs of the courage or wisdom needed to act on what is so plainly in front of them.

My concern is not about policy or ideology.  I disagree with almost every position that Pence holds but still believe that he operates within the boundaries of normal.  Trump does not.  I hate seeing the nation’s environmental efforts gutted and public education undermined by an emphasis on vouchers, but my worries about the dangers posed by Trump go way beyond those specific policies.  In his insatiable need for power, recognition and submission, he threatens the very foundations of our political system.

Some have suggested that the “mad man” theory of foreign relations–be unpredictable to your adversaries in the way that Richard Nixon was during his presidency–is a viable approach.  In an age of both thermonuclear weapons and terrorist organizations, there’s no evidence that a mad man in the Oval Office constitutes an effective deterrent.  Moreover, how do you justify an erratic president in terms of domestic policy in a representative democracy?

Trump is truly an aberration, a president who exceeds the worst fears of the Founders.  To be sure, they were worried about too much power being held by anyone and created a system that was intended to put limits on excesses.  The problem we face is that the mechanisms to make checks and balances work have been undercut by two modern trends.

As Lin Manuel Miranda pointed out in “Hamilton,” George Washington in his Farewell Address offered some significant advice to future generations.  Specifically, he warned about the dangers of “factions,” a term he used to refer to the incipient development of political parties.  Political Scientists in modern times have often described American political parties as a stabilizing influence, but that assessment seems increasingly out of date.

Instead, contemporary political parties aren’t unifying or bridging gaps in our country; they are hardening the divisions.  While you can legitimately criticize the shortcomings of both parties, the evidence is quite clear that Republicans have been the more intransigent, less willing to compromise party.  (See for example, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, “The Broken Branch.”)

As a result, Republicans who control both houses of Congress have shown no willingness to stand up to or criticize Trump’s erratic behavior.  Instead, they look the other way, pretend that nothing strange is going on, and push their ideological agenda in the hope that Trump will be too busy with his own obsessions to care what they are doing.

Is there any chance that some Republicans will eventually put “country ahead of party”?  Mr. Trump has already shown that he is basically unhinged and that he is not going to become more presidential.  In fact, the pressures of the office and the disappointments that are inherent in the system are likely to make his behavior even more erratic.

His outlandish charge, without any supporting evidence, that Barack Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped during the election is but the most recent example of his wandering mind.    The more he gets away with flaunting laws and conventions, the harder it will be for other institutions to rein him in.  If Congress doesn’t exercise its authority as an independent branch of the Federal Government, the risks of authoritarianism will continue to increase.

Another obstacle to checking the mad man in the Oval Office is the sharp divisions among the public.  It’s not so much that people hold different points of view as that they see the world from different prisms.  Rather than being open to new information that might modify opinions, we are a country increasingly in search only of “facts” that reinforce what we already believe.

The observation that you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts is apparently no longer operative.  Despite years of evidence widely available, more than 50% of Republicans continue to believe that former president Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya.  With alternative facts and charges of fake news thrown around with abandon, there’s less and less common ground for political discussion.

In this environment, we are already seeing the Trump Administration attempting to delegitimize the mainstream press and to push assertions for which there is no evidence.  Even if Trump fails to accomplish the things he promised his supporters during the campaign, many of them may view his administration as a success based solely on what they see and read on Fox News, Breitbart and similar sources.

The bottom line is that our constitutional system doesn’t automatically check the president or guarantee that our rights are protected.  Two of the mechanisms that have historically played a key role–political parties and an informed public–are under siege.

That reality places an even greater burden on the institution that Thomas Jefferson saw as the key to preserving liberty, a free press.  There have been of late some encouraging signs, but the struggle is going to be difficult and often ugly.  At this point, however, it may be all we have.

At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question that Joseph Welsh directed at the mid-20th century demagogue, Senator Joe McCarthy.  Seen by historians as the turning point that finally derailed McCarthy’s communist witch hunts and abuse of power, it reminds us that it takes people of courage and integrity to combat evil.

Before Welsh called out McCarthy and demonstrated for all that beneath the exterior of a bully lurked a coward, the Wisconsin Senator had ruined many careers and lives.  His time in office set a corrosive tone for politics from which it took the country years to recover.  He was able to get away with his destructive behavior for so long because almost no public official was willing to stand up to him.

The 1950s was in many ways a dark time in American politics.  It feels a lot like that today.

We have a president who is careless in his decisions and in his cruelty.  Concerned only about himself, he issues executive orders aimed at satisfying his political supporters rather than furthering any serious national goals.  The antithesis of a role model, Donald Trump demonstrates on a daily basis that he is a bully, a liar and has the attention span of a small child.

As many observers noted during his presidential campaign, Trump openly appeals to people’s worst instincts.  Whether he is actually a racist, he certainly draws some who are, encourages them with inflammatory language as well as “dog whistles”, and does nothing to express  disapproval when they respond with ugly or violent actions.

In his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, Trump has selected as a key advisor someone with a history of encouraging bigotry.  Early actions of the Trump Administration, in which Bannon has played a central role, have provided still more support for these concerns.

Meanwhile, in the Congress they control, Republican Representatives and Senators have, with few exceptions, shown no anxiety or embarrassment about Trump’s outrageous words and actions.  Indeed, they have, in their glee over controlling both houses of Congress, demonstrated their own streak of cruelty and indifference to the needs of many Americans.

Republicans in Congress seem prepared to repeal the Affordable Care Act without any replacement despite seven years of promising a better version.   They want to defund Planned Parenthood despite the fact that millions of people, not only women, rely on it to provide a wide range of health services.  Republicans are busy nullifying environmental regulations, including one preventing coal companies from dumping waste into rivers.

And then, perhaps the height of irresponsibly and hypocrisy, Republicans voted to erase the regulation prohibiting mentally incompetent individuals from purchasing fire arms.  Whenever there is a mass shooting, the gun lobby argues that we don’t need more gun regulations, merely more effective treatment for those with mental illnesses.  What they actually mean, however, is that there should be no limits on who can have firearms and no limits on the profits of gun manufacturers.

All of these actions–Trump’s as well as those of Republicans in Congress–are the epitome of indecency.  They come from a party that claims a monopoly on patriotism, but seems intent on undermining American democracy and helping only the very wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

There are but a handful of exceptions to this indictment.  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have spoken out forcefully against Trump’s threats to reinstitute torture.  Fortunately, so has Secretary of Defense James Mattis.  In the face of a stunningly unqualified nominee to be Secretary of Education, two other senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, voted no.  It’s hard to find other examples.

If the start is any indicator, Donald Trump is going to do great damage to this country during his presidency.  Republicans in Congress not only seem willing to let him have his way, but are also intent on creating a less healthy, less financially secure and more heavily armed society.

Until and unless the American people rise up and challenge the exercise of power in Washington, our best hope of averting the worst of those prospects is for more Republicans in Congress to speak out for decency.  It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to know that Donald Trump has a serious personality disorder and could destroy our democracy, blunder into a war or leave the country weak and isolated.  It’s time to put country ahead of party and stand up to Trump.

 

Addendum from Cambodia:  Most of this post was drafted before we left on a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam.  From even our limited monitoring of the news, it is clear that Donald Trump’s worst instincts are continuing to dominant his behavior.  The unrelenting attack on the press is the clearest sign of his authoritarian goals.  From the vantage point of Cambodia, which suffered terribly from the inhuman excesses of the Khmer Rouge, the critical need to resist the indecency of his administration is beyond doubt.

 

Note on the photo:  The man sitting next to Senator Joe McCarthy is Roy Cohn, who was his chief aide and in later years became a mentor to Donald Trump.

Gauging Trump’s Base

 

For many Americans, arguably a majority, the early days of the Trump Presidency have provided a torrent of bad news: executive orders that will harm large numbers of people; cabinet appointees hostile to the legislatively mandated missions of the agencies they will be heading; public statements and tweets that reveal a mean-spirited and perhaps unstable president; and actions designed to undo a world order that has maintained peace for decades.

Apparently, however, many citizens don’t share those concerns and are infact delighted with the roll-out of Trump’s administration.  Some articles shortly after the election suggested voter remorse, not unlike that in Britain after the Brexit vote, but there’s really not a lot of evidence to support those assertions. Others predicted an immediate clash between the highly unorthodox president and Republican members of Congress, but, so far, they are largely hanging together. Even the public opinion polls, which showed his initial ratings as historically low, have held steady among his supporters.

Trump’s appeal was constantly underestimated during the Republican primaries and then during the General Election.  He won despite a broad consensus that he was unqualified, erratic and running a campaign that disregarded all the established rules.  Even if the first two observations are actually correct, the third point turned out to be the key to his winning office.  Trump had a better read on the mood of the electorate than almost all political observers realized.

There’s been a lot of speculation among opponents that as the Trump agenda begins to be implemented, some of his supporters will abandon him because they will be harmed personally by his policies.  Certainly there are a number of areas in which the reality of a Trump Presidency will be quite different from the promise of one, but how much that will matter to his supporters remains to be seen.

The early analysis suggested that Trump voters were highly motivated by the slow and shallow economic recovery during the Obama years, that many of them were victims of the new global economy.  Later studies paint a more complex picture.  Trump had lots of backers who weren’t hurting economically.  It is increasingly clear that some of his appeal had nothing to do with economic arguments.

The classic reference for the assertion that voters are not just motivated by economic self-interest is Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  To greatly simplify his argument, Frank concluded that Republicans had won support from working class residents of Kansas by appealing to them on such critical social issues as abortion, gay rights and gun control.

Two issues which may measure the relevance of that assessment to Trump’s popularity will be tested over the coming months and years.  A central piece of his campaign was the promise to grow the economy and, particularly, to bring back manufacturing jobs and the coal industry in this country.  Most reputable economists doubt that either of those goals can be accomplished, at least not in the way that those sectors existed several decades ago.

The decline of manufacturing jobs in this country is much more due to technological advances than to them being shipped abroad.  The world energy market, particularly with the growth of the shale oil sector, is fundamentally different from when coal was king.

So far, Trump has focused on jawboning individual companies to keep jobs in this country rather than move them to Mexico or some other place.  While those “negotiations” make for dramatic headlines, the results have only a marginal impact on total jobs or the overall economy.

Does there come a point at which voters realize that Trump is not going to be able to deliver on these economic promises?  And if so, will it change their opinion of him and the way they vote in future elections?

The answer may not be as obvious as some would expect.  So far, Trump is making good on other campaign promises which are keeping his base happy.  He has started the process of building a wall along the Mexican border.  He has instituted a ban on Muslims entering the United States.  He has nominated an extremely conservative judge to serve on the Supreme Court.

In addition, Trump has maintained his practice from the campaign of asserting that everything he is doing is a success and of attacking opponents and “political correctness”, or, in other words, of using the same populist demagogic tactics that got him elected.

Another issue on which some analysts believe he may be vulnerable is health care.  Will all those supporters who bought into hating “Obamacare” but were pleased with their coverage under the Affordable Care Act turn on him when they lose their health insurance?  What about the large group of older Americans, many of whom backed Trump, who count on Medicare and Social Security?  How will they feel when Trump accedes to Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize those two programs?

As with jobs, the question will be whether the other things Trump “gives” the base outweigh the tangible losses that they will feel from his specific policies.  At this point, the answer to that question is not self-evident.

For those dismayed by the Trump presidency, wishful thinking about erosion of support among his base is a futile approach.  Strategic political activism is the only way to minimize the negative consequences of his presidency and to eventually reclaim political control.  It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be pretty, but there’s no alternative.