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.

1984 Updated

Sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, “1984”, have been surging recently. If you haven’t read it in a long time or never read it, you will find some remarkably clear echoes of the current political situation in this country.  It’s not that we have a totalitarian regime of the kind that Orwell so chillingly described in 1949.  After all, Orwell, a disillusioned former communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, was reacting to the excesses of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

Rather, for those who worry that Donald Trump has little regard for the U.S. Constitution or for basic American values, Orwell’s story highlights tactics used to control the population and maintain a system built on a carefully constructed alternate reality.

During the presidential election and continuing since the inauguration, there’s been a lot of commentary about similarities between Trump and some of the fascist leaders of the 20th century.  The new president’s uneasy relationship with the truth is now being reported by the media in a way that the press was reluctant to do through much of 2016.

The problem with that approach is that it tends to present a series–albeit a steady stream–of separate incidents.  Calling Trump a pathological liar may feel good but it doesn’t really help explain his political success.  More importantly, we are left to constantly react to the most recent outrage instead of thinking about and trying to counter his actions in a more systemic way.

I want to focus specifically on two concepts from “1984” that are often blurred together in our current political dialogue but which play distinctly different roles in Orwell’s narrative.  The first is propaganda, a term which has not yet become part of the narrative to Trump’s approach to politics and governing.  Propaganda is different from lying, the second concept, in the sense that it is about trying to create an official set of truths while lying is an effort to discredit reality.

Think about some of Trump’s assertions that are often described as baseless, blatantly failing innumerable fact checks.  One of the most egregious was his claim that he would have won the presidential popular vote but for millions of people illegally casting votes for Hillary Clinton.

While that could be merely an effort to assuage his fragile ego,  it can also be seen as something far more ominous.  If massive voter fraud is  accepted as a “reality”, it’s easy to imagine restrictions on voter access–voter suppression by any other name–as an appropriate, even necessary, response.

Another example of an alternate reality being adopted as justification for official policy is the recently enacted ban on Muslims entering the United States.  From his claim during the campaign that he actually saw Muslims cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center to his hyping of a national security threat to this country from Syrian refugees–despite neither historical examples nor any other evidence to support the concern–Trump laid the basis for a policy that probably violates the Constitution and certainly tramples traditional American values.  Support for the ban among citizens who voted for Trump has been built on the foundation of a fictional world view fed to them.

That is exactly how Trump created support for the wall between Mexico and the United States.  It was no slip of the tongue or spontaneous comment at his campaign kick-off, but rather a deliberate effort to create an issue for potential voters that he could continue to refer to and deliver on as president.

Other examples abound.  Trump’s assertion of rising crime rates in American cities, despite data that shows just the opposite, allows him to demonize areas with large concentrations of Democratic voters and may well set the stage for a federal intervention that Republicans would normally have opposed but may not under Trump.

Think of your own examples and stay alert to others that will inevitably become part of the Trump governing strategy.  At the same time, Trump’s lies need to be seen as a political tactic, not just a character flaw.

One of the most commented-on examples from the campaign was his denial that he had mocked a New York Times reporter who has a disability.  The incident was recorded and readily available for all to see, but Trump has remained steadfast in claiming otherwise.  In this instance, the President is using lying as a tactic to “erase” a potentially damaging incident.  By repeating the lie over and over again, he is telling his base that his definition of reality is the one that they should believe — and many of them apparently do.

His constant refusal to release his tax returns is basically just another lie, actually a multi-layered one, to purge from reality his business and financial dealings.  Trump first asserted that he couldn’t release his returns because he is under IRS audit, despite there being no policy requiring that.  He also has claimed that there was nothing to be concerned about, nothing relevant to his qualifications to be president and nothing that posed conflict of interest issues. Finally, his team has now asserted that the American public doesn’t really care about the tax returns anyhow.

One more concern.  In the Orwellian world, a keys to the government maintaining control was always having an external enemy.  War was a mechanism to help control the population.  Throughout history, there have been lots of examples of that phenomenon.  Trump already gives every appearance of seeking a convenient foe, whether Iran, China or a country yet to be determined.

In Orwell’s story, the government has a Ministry of Truth that is concerned with pumping out propaganda, rewriting past history to conform to whatever the leaders are currently asserting and making sure that no one deviates from the official line.  In Trump’s inner circle, you can readily see Kellyanne Conway, she  of “alternative facts” and the Bowling Green Massacre, and Sean Spicer as agents of the Ministry of Truth.

Trump is a narcissist, a liar and a power-hungry person who doesn’t tolerate other points of view.  Ultimately, what is even more important, however, is that he is very dangerous, a threat to the basic tenets of American democracy.  We need to stop fixating on his personality traits and pay much more attention to the actions that he is taking to undermine our system of government.  “1984” may not provide a complete blueprint for doing that, but it sure does offer a lot of guidance.

 

 

Observations from the early days of the Trump Presidency

If you were paying attention during his campaign, the start of the Trump Presidency has held relatively few surprises . Much of what he’s done has only confirmed our worst fears and reinforced our impressions of the  Trump we saw as a candidate.

We have already seen patterns that are likely to dominate his time in office.

First of all – and there never should have been any doubt about this – Trump as president is exactly the same person as Trump the candidate.  He has not become more moderate, more reasonable, more “presidential.”  With the exception of Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s opposition to torture, there is no evidence that he has appointed people to the cabinet or to his staff who will constrain his worst impulses or fill in the gaps in his appalling lack of knowledge.

His continuing barrage of tweets, most of them products of his insecurity and fragile ego, is the most visible evidence that Trump is who he always has been.  His continued reliance on his family, including the appointment of Jared Kushner to a position on the White House staff, demonstrates his need for a security blanket to insulate him from opposing points of view.  Trump’s fundamental boorishness and insensitivity to anyone other than himself were on full display during his visit to CIA headquarters.

Second, despite Kellyanne Conway asserting that we had paid too much attention to the literal meaning of his words during the campaign, it turns out he often meant exactly what he said.  He has signed executive orders to start dismantling the Affordable Care Act, to begin the process of constructing a wall along the Mexican border and to ban Muslims from entering the United States.  Some people are grasping at the straw of his promise to protect Medicare and Social Security, but so far there’s no evidence that his is going to honor that pledge.

Third, for those who believed that Kushner and First Daughter Ivanka were going to play a moderating influence, the decision to go ahead with the cruel and ineptly fashioned Executive Order banning Muslims should end that fantasy forever.  Similarly, even though Kushner was in the room when it happened, Trump issued a Holocaust Remembrance Proclamation that made no mention of Jews or of the events that it is essential that we never forget.

Kushner may be Jewish, but he gives every indication of being a real estate developer first and foremost.  The idea that he can negotiate  peace in the Middle East would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.  Kushner has no experience in public service, knows nothing about foreign affairs or diplomacy but has been handed a West Wing office solely because he’s in the family.

The hostility, not merely blindness, to ethical constraints highlighted during the campaign by his refusal to release his tax returns is a thread that binds many of his cabinet nominees.  They have been slow and evasive in filling out financial disclosure and ethics forms.  As one example, Tom Price, the nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, took advantage of his congressional position to get sweetheart deals on stock purchases and engaged in what looks an awful lot like insider trading.  And meanwhile, Trump brazenly asserts that the public doesn’t care about his tax returns.

Two other patterns are worth adding to this list.  Trump supporters–and let’s remember that they constitute less than half  the voting population–continue to be undisturbed by anything he says or does.  They remain blindly loyal to him despite his demonstrable lies, his bizarre behavior and his actions, some of which will surely bite them in the tail – and the pocketbook.

Some observers believe their loyalty will be tested when he can’t bring back the coal industry and produce large numbers of manufacturing jobs, but I’m not so sure.  So far, what he has “given” them is the Muslim ban, an intent to go ahead with the wall on the Mexican border (even if there’s no way he can get Mexico to pay for it), and his constant attacks on the mainstream media.  Whether all of that will compensate for their loss of health care coverage will be a bigger test of their commitment, but so far they are not wavering.

Finally, the unwillingness of Congressional Republicans to speak out or oppose any of his actions is appalling.  It may be early, but their silence makes them complicit if the public turns against the Trump agenda.  Many Republicans have stopped answering their phones or allowing constituents into their offices as opposition to the early wave of Trump initiatives builds.   You have to assume, however, that a few of them will eventually realize that an energized public may come out and vote in 2018 and 2020 in numbers that jeopardize their chances of reelection.

Citizen activism is the most encouraging bit of news in the midst of the ugly start to the Trump Presidency.  Sustaining it may be difficult, but it certainly looks like Trump will continue to provide grist for the opposition.  While I wish I could close on that relatively positive note, I am going instead to offer two warnings.

The first is that Trump, Conway, Sean Spicer and others in the administration will continue to do everything they can to distract attention from what they are doing.  The press seems to be starting to understand that challenge, but it’s going to be an ongoing struggle and not an easy one to overcome.

Last is a truly ominous note.  With a full appreciation of all the risks of citing this historical event, I worry about Trump or Steve Bannon or another of his minions creating the modern equivalent of the Reichstag fire that opened the door to Hitler seizing emergency powers in Germany in 1933.  The combination of Trump’s radical goals and his insatiable quest for power means that we need to be alert to even the most far-fetched scenarios.

A Day of Marches

 

 

The “corrupt media” is at it again. There were multiple accounts of large marches on Saturday across the United States and in many other countries. Most media, though not Fox News, reported that turnout greatly exceeded  organizers’ expectations, that all proceeded peacefully and that the marchers promised that they would continue to press not only for equality for women but for a whole range of issues that they see as threatened by the administration of the new president.

As an old friend used to enjoy saying, who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? Donald Trump and his pit bull press secretary, Sean Spicer, went berserk on Saturday about coverage that described attendance at his inaugural on Friday as less than that at Barack Obama’s in 2009. The reports included aerial photos, which were “obviously” photoshopped. Trump and Spicer insisted that it had been the largest turnout ever, a bit like Trump’s fingers.

If Friday’s coverage infuriated them, just imagine how they must be reacting to the reports of Saturday’s huge gatherings. According to that “lying” New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof, the national total of demonstrators was at least 3.6 million and probably more.  I participated in the march in Philadelphia and am pretty sure most of those alleged 50,000 people were really holograms.

Trump and his crowd deniers notwithstanding, Saturday was an inspiring and hopeful day.  The crowds were so large that there was really very little marching.  I suspect that Trump’s dark and ominous inaugural address helped build attendance.  If you were present at any of the marches or even if you only saw the pictures, you were witness to an amazing celebration of hope.  It was a Women’s March, but there were also significant numbers of men and children.  One particularly poignant sign expressed the wish that “our daughters won’t have to do this.”

The decision to focus the march on women’s issues was a brilliant choice.   It allowed a positive focus rather than one that was just a reaction to the election of Donald Trump.  Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of anti-Trump signs, but there were even more that focused on the importance of women’s rights.  The mix of young and older marchers was also really encouraging.  And, as many marchers pointed out, it’s past time for women to get much more involved in running for and holding political office.

One of the fun parts of being at the march–although you could have seen many of the same images on Facebook and other social media–was the clever and creative signs that people made for the occasion.  One that I didn’t see personally, but read about, borrowed from Carly Simon:  “You’re so vain, you probably think this march is about you.”  There were numerous riffs on Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” lyrics as well as reference to Helen Reddy’s “I am woman.”

The most frequently seen theme of the march was probably the reaction to Donald Trump’s infamous “Hollywood Access” tape.  Thousands of women–actually it was many more than that–wore “pussy hats” and apparently a good many knitted them personally for the event.  Signs with warning about the dangers of grabbing were also frequent and carried by women of all ages.

The march on January 21 was unquestionably therapeutic for many.  Those still reeling from Trump’s election had any hopes of him becoming more presidential dashed by his apocalyptic inaugural address.  But instead of pulling the covers over their heads, millions of people came out to demonstrate that they would not go quietly into the political darkness.

As positive as Saturday was, the real challenge is to maintain the energy, spirit and involvement that the day produced.  There are lots of ideas for how to resist the most damaging parts of the Trump and Republican agenda.  The source that has gotten the most attention is “Indivisible” but there are many others.  Of particular significance, it seems to me, is paying much more attention to state and local elections. The time to begin organizing for the 2018 contests is today.

Whether the Democratic Party leads the charge or whether it is much more grassroots driven remains to be seen.  While we wait for the party to pick a new leader and see if it can provide direction, there’s every reason to focus on local efforts that bring a new generation of activists into political life.

There is, in the midst of a lot of uncertainly and even confusion, one relatively simple and straightforward solution to winning back political power from a populism that emphasizes division and hatred.  Increasing participation, particularly in voting, could transform the political landscape overnight.

This approach doesn’t require converting hardcore Trump supporters. Instead, it  entails convincing people who didn’t vote for all manner of reasons that their future depends on getting involved.  I’m pretty sure that Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will provide lots of proof of the truth of that statement.

The Women’s March offered clear evidence that the will is there to fight for our better angels.  Maintaining the momentum of that day of hope is the challenge to which all of us must respond.