Sights and Sounds from a Funeral

“We shouldn’t be here.” “This shouldn’t be happening.” That  message was voiced by all the speakers at the funeral last Friday for Kevin Kamenetz.  It had to be the thought going through the mind of everyone at the service as well.

Kamenetz, the Baltimore County Executive and candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor, died suddenly at age 60 the day before.  I’m sure that all the people who received the early morning news of his passing couldn’t quite comprehend it.  There must be a mistake.  That can’t possibly be.

Yet, by the day after his death, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was packed with mourners who rearranged their schedules without a second’s hesitation.  Despite his relatively young age, Kamenetz had been on the political scene in Baltimore County for decades, first as a member of the County Council, then as Executive, and more recently as an aspiring statewide figure.  That record certainly contributed to the overflow crowd.

Family and friends.  County employees.  Other elected officials.  Lots of officials.  People there to pay their respects who may never have met Kamenetz in person.   All of them in a state of shock.

The service itself was direct and  unadorned, much as some would have described the County Executive.  Only one elected official, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, spoke.  That was a well-advised decision for at least two reasons.  First, Cardin was eloquent, personal and appropriate.  His remarks were never about himself, but focused exclusively on paying tribute.

But second, if there had been more speakers than the one who nobody could have disputed, the list would have been endless.  The reality is that funerals for public figures are, in part, political events as well.  Some people show up to be seen regardless of what sort of relationship they had with the deceased.  Just as John McCain has made it clear that he doesn’t want Donald Trump speaking at his funeral, you might well surmise that if Kamenetz had had the choice, he might have placed some of the attendees from Friday way back in the balcony.

Still, most of the political figures had  good reason to be there.  It was, in part, a gathering of Maryland’s governmental leadership, a coming together that Kevin Kamenetz would surely have appreciated.  The four current and former U.S. Senators present have among them nearly three-quarters of a century of service in that august body.

I counted five former Baltimore County Executives in the crowd going all the way back to 1974.  That group was uniquely qualified to understand the challenges and stresses that Kamenetz had faced in office.

The speakers, however, devoted most of their remarks not to his public life but to his qualities as an ordinary person. They recounted his humor, his passion, his love for his family.  His wife, Jill; his oldest son, Carter; two long-time friends.  Jill’s comments demonstrated an incredible bravery in being willing to speak publicly the day after Kevin’s death.  They also reflected a pain that felt almost too personal to be shared.

There has been constant media coverage of Kamenetz’ death as well as of the funeral.  I was only able to see some of the people there and some of what transpired during the afternoon service.  There were a few things that caught my attention beyond the profound sadness of being there.

Senator Cardin in his remarks repeated a story that Kamenetz had told a lot of people.  I know that because he told it to me.  As a very young man, he had been a driver for the legendary former mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, and credited his career in public service at least in part to that experience.  One manifestation of the link with Schaefer was that Kamenetz was always a supporter of regional cooperation and of assistance to the City.

When I looked around the room on Friday, I was struck by how many lives and careers had intersected with Governor Schaefer’s.  There was Ted Venetoulis, former County Executive, who had been deeply involved in Schaefer’s first campaign for mayor.  There was U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, who worked in the Washington office when Schaefer was governor.  There was former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, whose first term on the Baltimore City Council coincided with Schaefer’s first term as Mayor.  And I’ve scarcely begun.

While we were waiting for the service to begin, Ben Jealous, one of Kamenetz’ rivals for the Democratic nomination, sat down in the row in front of us.  I couldn’t see everyone in the room, but I have it from a reliable source that other candidates were also there.

I want to end with one more sighting.  Don Mohler, chief of staff to Kamenetz for his entire time as County Executive, was serving as a kind of unofficial greeter for all the elected officials who filed in.  Given his closeness to Kamenetz, I know that he was carrying out those duties despite being numb and still in a state of shock.  The loyalty and dedication of so many people like Don Mohler is one more proof of the warmth and leadership qualities that Kevin Kamenetz brought to public service which will be so sorely missed.

 

Is there a new “normal” in politics?

 

Critics of Donald Trump frequently react to some particularly outrageous behavior by describing it as “not normal.” Constant lying. Personal insults to political opponents. Tweeting as his primary means of communicating. Spewing racist comments. Governing by sudden, inconsistent pronouncement. And the list goes on.

At a more analytical level, it has been argued that Trump is defying long-held political norms which have reinforced the institutions that preserve democracy. The book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt asserts that this undermining of political norms is a most serious threat to the stability of our political system.

The authors of “How Democracies Die” point to two norms as historically having been critical: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.  Today, they seem to have given way to demonizing the opposition and doing whatever it takes to win the immediate battle.  Exhibit A: the cries of “lock her up” at Trump rallies.  Exhibit B: Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let the Senate consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016.

Some people argue that Trump is an aberration, an outlier, a temporary phenomenon. They assert that those norms or guardrails will reassert themselves a bit like a gyroscope bringing us back to level. I fear that view may be a bit too optimistic.

It’s clear that Trump didn’t all by himself create the chaos, instability and polarization that characterizes today’s politics. To employ a different metaphor, American politics have been oscillating wildly for at least two decades, probably more. Consider Newt Gingrich’s total warfare approach of the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s playing fast and loose with presidential morality and George Bush’s lying us into an unnecessary war in Iraq as all helping pave the way for Trump’s presidency.

While some will be quick to argue an equivalency in Democratic and Republican behavior, numerous academic studies all come to the conclusion that the Republican Party has contributed far more to the current state of dysfunctional politics than have the Democrats.  Wherever you allocate the blame, however, the result is a political system seriously out of balance– and with no auto-correct mechanism available.

Americans have lost confidence in the major institutions of society, not just of government.  We are deeply divided on many of the major issues facing the country.  Liberals and conservatives rely on different sources of news and often have differing perspectives on facts.  Discontent takes at least two forms: not voting and voting for changes that promise to tear the system down.

Will we get back to “normal” in the next election cycle or two?  Let me start by making the case that it’s far from a sure thing.  Trump ran a campaign for the presidency that defied every norm and every rule of politics.  Experts kept saying that his most recent incendiary remark would surely be the end of his campaign.  And yet he won.

Since becoming president, he has continued to throw away the traditional playbook.  This week, he acknowledged knowing about a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels after repeatedly denying any awareness of it.  His cabinet of “the very best people” has been a revolving door with scandals shadowing a number of them.

And the only thing we can say for sure about the future is that his actions will continue to be unpredictable and well outside the norms of traditional politics.

And yet, Trump’s base is unfazed by his behavior in office; in fact, they seem to relish it.  He has created a cult of personality in which his supporters follow him regardless of what he does, even as he fails to fulfill promises that he made to them.   Moreover, they seem unconcerned that his presidency is damaging the very democracy that has been the essence of “American exceptionalism.”

Reestablishing those “guardrails of democracy” will take a concerted effort by active citizens.  We are unlikely to get back to the exact same normal that we have had in the past, but we may be able to create a new democratic reality.  There are, in my judgment, three crucial tests that we face in the near future.

One is the election of 2018.  Signs of Democratic energy and activism are everywhere and they need to be sustained through the November election.  If Democrats don’t recapture at least one of the houses of Congress, the situation is going to get much worse.  Similarly, the efforts to win state and local elections are crucial to both sending a message and insuring that the new round of legislative redistricting is not abused in the way that the last one was.

The presidential election of 2020 is obviously the second big hurdle.  Finding a Democrat who stands for restoration of the norms and values that have preserved American democracy and can defeat Trump’s run for re-election is crucial.  Similarly, winning both houses of Congress and continuing to win elections in the states are necessary to beat back the corrosive impact of Trumpism throughout the country.

But, most ominously, there may be one more test to be endured.  There have been at least some signs that Trump and his backers might not accept the results of an election.  In 2016, he constantly railed about the system being rigged.  Republicans in many states are in fact trying to put their collective thumbs on the electoral scales by implementing voter ID laws, changing polling place locations and hours and erecting other barriers to participation.

A failure to accept the voter’s will would be the most serious norm to fall, but it could happen.  The best way to avoid that risk is to make sure the Democratic wave in 2018 is gigantic.  Winning that election by large margins will be the most effective way to start rebuilding the political norms that Donald Trump has been attacking.

 

No, It’s not the economy, stupid!

 

Those who oppose Donald Trump keep missing a major point. Whether during the Republican primaries, in the General Election against Hillary Clinton, or since he became president, critics have misunderstood the basis for Trump’s appeal to his supporters.

Given that our current president is the most unconventional politician of modern times, getting a clear handle on him is not easy. He has defied all the norms, broken quite a few rules and seems to lack any fixed set of beliefs. You shouldn’t pay too much attention to what he says at any given moment because he doesn’t. Trump lies, changes his position and backpedals and restates.  He also is masterful at creating distractions.

It is conventional wisdom that Trump won the presidency in 2016 by connecting with white working class Americans who had been left behind in the new global economy.  Books like J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” provided support for that view by arguing that poor working people had been  ignored by traditional politicians.  Trump, it was said by many, spoke to their concerns and promised solutions to their problems.

To add to that perspective, many in the Democratic Party argued that the Party needed to refine its message to reach out to those forgotten voters.  The hand-wringing about the need for a more inclusive approach continues to this day.

The problem is that working class whites really aren’t drawn to Trump because of his economic message.  They may wish that coal was coming back or that the president would create new manufacturing jobs, but his continued failure to achieve either of those objectives hasn’t led to a significant drop in support among that key portion of his base.

It’s actually not clear that white working class voters ever took Trump’s economic promises very seriously, either literally or figuratively.  While his rallies always included assurances that he alone could remedy their economic woes, those were never the main applause lines.

Those who believed early on that Trump couldn’t possibly be elected relied on the faulty assumption that he was too erratic and too lacking in the most basic qualifications and knowledge ever to win the support of thoughtful Republicans.  On Election Day, 90% of voters who identified with the Party voted for Trump.

That phenomenon goes far toward explaining why Trump won despite not having a believable economic message.  Our highly polarized politics led many Republicans to vote for him solely because he carried the Party’s label.  Many, if not most, of them will continue to support him in the future regardless of his record.

It is true that a portion of his support did come from voters who anticipated economic gain for themselves if Trump captured the White House and Republicans retained control of Congress.  That group was not, however, the economically disadvantaged.  It was the wealthy segment of the Republican Party who received their reward through the GOP tax cut that was passed in 2017.

Vance’s hillbillies may see marginal benefits from legislation that poured millions into the pockets of the richest Americans, but those few extra dollars won’t change their lives.  My argument here is that getting the short end of the tax cut stick won’t at all diminish their support for Trump.

Why, then, do they cling to a billionaire president who is doing nothing to provide materials benefits to them?  Will they rebel as they discover it is their health benefits that have been taken away or made more expensive?  Probably not.

Understanding Trump’s hold on America’s economically disadvantaged requires looking in a different direction.  The answer, it turns out, is staring us in the face.

As a candidate and even more openly since he took office, Trump has played on a different anxiety than economics.  Trump’s supporters are overwhelmingly white.  So is the Republican Party.  His consistent message, which supporters do take both literally and figuratively, is that he will protect them from the encroachment on their way of life from minorities and immigrants.  The theme is neither subtle nor indirect.

Take the two moments that best characterize Trump’s appeal.  One is the promise to build a wall.  Many observers thought that the assertion that Mexico would pay for the wall was a critical ingredient in the popularity of the promise, but his total and complete failure to get Mexican compliance hasn’t diminished his supporters’ enthusiasm.  You can see the same thing about his proposed Muslim ban which keeps falling afoul of legal and constitutional objections.

The other Trump “highlight” was his observation that there were”good people on both sides” of the events in Charlottesville last year.  What most decent Americans saw as a rally of racists chanting ugly slogans and intent on violence was used by Trump as a dog whistle for racist supporters.

“Make America Great Again” is nothing more than a veiled reference to an era of unquestioned white privilege and minorities who “knew their place.” Trump is presenting himself to those who are threatened and anxious about the changing demographics of the United States as the person who can hold back the tide.  Whether he can is largely beside the point.  Trump holds out hope at the very time that a portion of the population is losing it.

We are at an incredibly ugly time in our history.  Trump will not change his stripes; we have not yet seen the worst from him.  Appeals to reason won’t dissuade many of his supporters.  Neither will a better economic message by Democrats.  Saving the country from the worst features of Trumpism will require a clear rejection  of the racist and nativist views bellowed by this demagogue and an overwhelming turnout in November by those who believe that America is better than that.

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us

 

Maybe this time really will be different. After so many mass murders by guns in recent years yielded only “thoughts and prayers”, it feels for the first time that there is momentum building for real change. It’s not that I expect that significant gun legislation will pass this Republican controlled Congress. Rather, a budding political movement recognizes that the path to change requires replacing the current group of do-nothing, indifferent, in-bed-with-the NRA elected officials. We need to support candidates who listen to the overwhelming majority in this country who favor common sense regulations on deadly firearms.

There is already growing evidence that 2018 will see the election of a lot of Democrats at the federal, state and local levels. The new activism and passion around gun violence, so vividly and dramatically demonstrated on Saturday by 800,000 marchers in Washington and at 854 other locations around the world, could provide the impetus for the tsunami to grow even larger.  If the younger generation that sparked the March for Our Lives stays engaged in politics and continues to inspire in the way that they did last weekend, it really could be different this time.

Allow me a few personal observations from having attended the Washington March.  Of course, there was no actual marching because the streets were filled to overflowing.  It was as well-organized a political rally as I have ever attended, and my own experiences date back to the 1960s.  Speakers and Jumbotrons along the route guaranteed that everyone could see and hear what was happening on the main stage.  And what we saw and heard was remarkable.

Moreover, the crowd looked like America.  Political rallies are not always known for their diversity.  This one was.   Age, race, gender–everyone came and many of them brought their signs.

No speaker was over 21.  They were articulate, passionate and fearless.  Some of them will clearly become the public leaders of the future, but they are already proving leadership by their refusal to accept stale excuses and the status quo.  As powerful as their words were, the most dramatic moment of the day may well have been the “sounds of silence” from Emma Gonzales’ six minute and 20 second tribute to her fallen classmates.

The students knew, even before the event itself, that they would be attacked, ridiculed and demeaned.  They had already faced ugly attacks and made it clear in their remarks that they would not be intimidated and would not back down.

In the aftermath of the March, the world heard from the usual suspects, the apostles of hate, lies and inhumanity.  The students have obviously shaken and scared the gun lobby and the far right with their courage and determination.  Why else would the attacks be so vile, so filled with falsehoods and so lacking the dignity that those students keep showing?

If there is a poster child for all that is wrong with this country, Rick Santorum is surely a prime candidate for the role.  He dismissed the March as a waste of time and said the students would be better off learning CPR.  As ill-advised as the suggestion to arm teachers is, Santorum has come up with an idea even more stupid and irrelevant.  Once you’ve been shot even once by an AR-15 killing machine, there will be no need to administer CPR.

Santorum, of course, is only one example of right-wing ugliness.  The NRA spewed its usual mix of hatred and mockery.  Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a particularly craven politician who several speakers pointed out had received from the NRA the equivalent of $1.05 for every student in Florida, declared with his usual piety that many people were opposed to tighter gun regulations.  Rubio  makes weasels look good by his gutless performances.

While Santorum, Rubio and the NRA blathered, the students of Parkland told their personal stories.  They were joined by other students from Sandy Hook as well as by students from cities in which they face the threat of daily violence.  If there is any shred of conscience left in America, their pleas for action will surely be heard.

Some commentators tried to find comparisons with successful protest movements of the past.  Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changin’ ” to close the March surely was a bookend for those who were in Washington protesting the Vietnam War 50 years ago.

The measure of the impact of the March will begin to show in November when voters go to the polls and  decide whether candidates who accept NRA money are fit to serve, whether the excuse that “now is not the right time to consider gun legislation” is still acceptable, whether the lockstep opposition of Republicans to any effort to stop the epidemic of gun violence disqualifies that party from holding power.

As of this writing, Donald Trump himself has said nothing about the March.  Once again, he slipped out-of-town on Saturday to play golf in Florida.  He may pretend he didn’t hear the words of the students in Washington and around the world, but a lot of other people did.  When those  voters cast their ballots in November, Trump will most definitely learn what was being said on Saturday.

 

Peter Franchot and the Art of the Gimmick

When I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago, I stopped paying attention to  the “inside baseball” of Maryland politics.  Plenty of other commentators are doing a great job of giving readers behind-the-scenes analysis of the drama of Annapolis.  Josh Kurtz’ Maryland Matters is a recent and valuable addition to that roster.

On the other hand, having written about and been involved in Maryland government and politics for many years, I continue to see familiar patterns. And now I have the advantage of not getting stuck in the weeds of day-to-day dramas and pseudo-dramas.

Thus, it was with real interest that I noticed a flurry in the last few days of news reports and columns about the political fortunes of Maryland’s Comptroller, Peter Franchot.   I have known Peter for decades, have written frequently about him–he claimed to have put my piece, “Peter and the Wolves”, on the wall of his office–and, yet, I admit to being puzzled by his most recent political incarnation.

Franchot is about to be elected to his fourth term as State Comptroller after years in the House of Delegates.  He has a highly skilled political staff working for him and seems to be in constant campaign mode.  I don’t mean the latter comment as a criticism.  He’s built a strong following for himself and carved out a position on the right edge of the Democratic Party that would seem to ensure continued electoral success.  Franchot doesn’t even have an opponent in the Democratic Primary this year and will not face a serious challenge in the General Election.

The thing I have trouble understanding is why, after having made himself all but unbeatable electorally, Franchot has now decided to spend the preponderance of his efforts and his political capital engaged in fake populism.

Barry Rascovar, longtime observer of Maryland politics, recently wrote a column entitled “Comeuppance for Franchot” describing the overwhelming defeat in the Maryland General Assembly of his initiative to change the state laws on craft brewers.  The Comptroller has annoyed legislative leaders for years, but this most recent repudiation was more emphatic than usual.

I don’t know enough about the substance of the “beer wars” to have a clear opinion.  Franchot has positioned himself as the champion of small business owners, a populist looking out for the little guy.  From my perspective, even if he has the high ground on this issue, his approach to gathering support for it has been one of the most ham-handed I have ever seen in years of watching the General Assembly.  Franchot and his people insulted legislators, did little to make the case for his bill other than public rallies at breweries and, at the end, brought the supporters along on a fools’ errand.

Franchot is not dumb.  In the opinion of many, Len Foxwell , his chief of staff, is one of the smartest political operatives in Maryland.  Yet, they could hardly have done a worse job of trying to get his bill passed.  Viewing their actions from without, it looked like they were interested only in firing up brewers, drinking a lot of beer and burnishing Franchot’s populist credentials.

Unfortunately, Beer Wars is hardly an isolated incident.  The Sun on Thursday editorialized about the challenge facing schools inundated by snow days this year.  As the result of Franchot and Governor Larry Hogan’s publicity stunt to force schools to begin their year after Labor Day and end by June 15, many counties are literally out of options to reach 180 days.  Hogan’s executive order, in support of Franchot’s idea, took no account of the educational needs of students or the administrative problems for schools, but, instead, ginned up a phony marketing slogan of “Let Summer be Summer” in order to help a few pizza parlors in Ocean City.

It will be easy to add to this list the ridiculous bit of theater about air conditioners in schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County or Franchot’s earlier meddling into Towson University’s decision to eliminate its baseball program.  That program, in fact, has been restored, and you can certainly argue about the merits of the original decision. What you can’t do, however, is come up with any sensible rationale for why it was an issue that merited the intervention of the State’s Comptroller.

Chickens are now coming home to roost.  The General Assembly is considering legislation to take control of Maryland’s school construction program away from the Board of Public Works, where Hogan and Franchot currently occupy two of the three seats.  Another bill would set up an inquiry as to whether oversight of the state liquor industry should be removed from the Comptroller’s Office.

And all of this comes before this year’s state election.  Franchot will be reelected but Hogan’s fate is far from secure.  In what is likely to be an enormous Democratic wave, he has a very good chance to be a one-term governor.

What will Franchot do during the campaign?  Given his close relationship with Hogan, it’s hard to imagine the Comptroller supporting the Democratic candidate for governor, even if that person wanted his support, which is also far from certain.  And, if Hogan loses, Franchot is going to feel particularly isolated in Annapolis in 2019.  He’s burned a lot of bridges and has few friends left in the party of which he is still a nominal member.

And yet, had he chosen to use his popularity to advocate for issues like school funding, women’s health, rights of immigrants and environmental protection, Franchot might have actually had a record worth remembering.  He will, instead, be known for squandered opportunities regardless of how many terms he serves.

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.