Republicans are being politically stupid on the Kavanaugh nomination

The Thinker by Rodin

It used to be that Republicans had something of a reputation for being politically astute. For example, they spent more than thirty years building their brand and mucking up the machinery of government to disproportionately favor them. They perfected gerrymandering, gerrymandered a Supreme Court to allow unlimited campaign contributions through mysterious PACs and overturn key parts of the Voting Rights Act, which quickly resulted in major voter disenfranchisement.

Their “take no prisoners” strategy lately though has looked increasingly desperate. After Justice Anton Scalia’s death, they refused to even given President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland a hearing, because a presidential election was only 200 plus days away. Of course once Trump was president, they had no issues expediting the hearings for our new Justice Neil Gorsuch. More recently it was the swing justice, Justice Kennedy that retired. Trump took only a couple of weeks to nominate Brett Kavanaugh. His hearings were slowed down only a little because senators wanted to take summer vacation. Of course shortly after Labor Day his hearing started in earnest, feeling very much like a kangaroo court, the “court” in this case being the U.S. Senate. There was no time to do things like review his voluminous records working for Ken Starr or George W. Bush. Mitch McConnell wants that conservative court ASAP so screw that.

Now we have accusations from a California professor, Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh participated in a sexual assault against her when Kavanaugh was 17 and she was 15. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that makes this accusation credible, including a wishy-washy response from Kavanaugh’s alleged accomplice (“no memory”), 2012 notes from Blasey Ford’s therapist, remembrances of fellow students at the time on incidents like this, yearbook entries of Kavanaugh that suggested he drank a lot of beer and occasional speeches by Kavanaugh (some recent) where he was quoted as saying what happened at his exclusive prep school stayed there. It doesn’t help Kavanaugh that he lied repeatedly at his confirmation hearing, as well as previous confirmation hearings. These lies don’t seem to bother Republicans though. Apparently anything is excusable to get that last conservative justice on the Court.

Republicans are becoming Icarus flying too close to the sun. Supposedly their rationalization for not throwing in the towel on his nomination is that it will disappoint their base and maybe depress their voting in the upcoming midterms. They realize their clock is ticking at that come November 7 they may lose control of Congress.

Later if more credible accusations come forward, I guess they figure they won’t have to pay a political price. They also apparently think they won’t pay a political price by giving Blasey Ford a perfunctory hearing and then voting Kavanaugh in, as if their blithe dismissal of these allegations won’t cause uproar against them from the many women out there who have endured similar incidents.

In truth there is plenty of time to give Kavanaugh a quick heave ho and put someone of a similar ilk on the court. The only thing that distinguishes Kavanaugh from the list of conservative jurists provided by the Federalist Society is that he most likely to give Trump a pass if cases of Trump’s malfeasance come before the court. It’s pretty unlikely though that any other pick will have potential sexual assault as baggage. It’s unlikely that a new nominee could be confirmed before the midterms, but new senators won’t take office until January. You would think that given their concern over Obama’s nominee that they would defer a vote until the new Senate is seated and can weigh in. Ha! Of course not! They would push this through during a lame duck session and they would not work up any sweat garnering the votes either.

Instead, they are doing the stupid thing. They are inflaming millions of female voters, as well as many of us male voters further appalled by their disinterest in doing any meaningful due diligence before putting someone on the court for a lifetime appointment. They are setting themselves up not just for a huge blowback in November, but further blowback down the line if further allegations come up.

The price for dumping Kavanaugh is a short-term blowback that will soon be forgotten when a new nominee is chosen. Knowing that this nominee will have a cleaner record than Kavanaugh’s, it’s likelier that Republican voters will feel a mixture of relief and greater enthusiasm. Moreover, they will make some amends for their 1991 confirmation of Clarence Thomas, tarred by sexual harassment allegations from Anita Hill. These allegations against Kavanaugh though are much more serious than a case of sexual harassment.

I’m not sure where the sane Republican senators went, but hopefully there are enough of them out there to reject this nominee just because it is the saner thing for them to do. Right now though there is plenty of evidence that their political calculus is way off, and they are undercutting their own professed goals.

A short visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Thinker by Rodin

Life can be busy when you are retired. For me it’s been busy in a good way, meaning I took a mini vacation last week. This had the effect of keeping me from blogging. It meant a 4-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a reunion related to my last job.

Our hotel turned out to be a mile away from the Mall of America (MoA), so when we weren’t doing tours or attending a banquet we were often at the mall for dinner and to gawk at its immensity, its indoor amusement park and its four levels of shopping. It’s so big that there are two or three stores for some retail brands in the Mall. I guess they want to make sure they have you coming or going.

The MoA is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into malls or shopping in particular. If it’s available for retail, it’s probably somewhere in the MoA, if you can find it. Thinking of our tiny Hampshire Mall, I’m guessing you could fit a hundred of those in the MoA and still have a floor or two to spare.

The trip was a good change of pace. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a beautify area, at least near the end of summer: prosperous and clean where the run down houses are few and the streets look regularly swept. If life were longer I might want to move there. It has it all: two major cities close to each other, light rail connecting cities with the burbs, three major rivers including the mighty Mississippi, bluffs along the rivers, major arts, sports and events venues and 10,000 glacial lakes to choose from within the state.

It’s also got history of sorts. St. Paul was a big gangster haven during and after Prohibition. We took a Gangsta Tour that included a tour guide who was also an actress. She stayed in character the whole time as we looked at a speakeasy built into some sandstone cliffs and saw houses where various mobsters and gangsters hung out. She played the sister of a woman married to the mob and provided colorful insights into the mobsters of the time. St. Paul was known back then as a safe city, not meaning it was a particularly safe community but that gangsters could hang out there with impunity as long as the police got their payola and you refrained from open violence.

Today the biggest scandal is probably Garrison Keillor’s (“A Prairie Home Companion”) alleged sexual harassment. He did well enough though to buy a fine home in St. Paul’s most exclusive neighborhood: Summit Street, which we drove down. He shares this street with previous luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

With Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States, I was a bit anxious about flight delays. Thankfully we had direct flights between here that were on time, making our air travel relatively painless for a change. Florence did eventually catch up with us here in Florence, Massachusetts. It resulted in three inches of rain yesterday and the report of one missing woman who was stupidly swimming in the local Mill River. They are looking for her body on the river.

Back to more germane topics in the days ahead.

Preventing future presidents Nixon and Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

In my sixty-one years I have watched two disastrous presidencies implode. Nixon’s ended in an abrupt resignation following the Watergate scandal. Trump’s implosion is currently underway. It’s unclear how it’s going to end, but I’m reasonably confident he won’t survive a first term. It’s also unclear if our nation will too, at least in its form where branches of government keep a check on each other, which is already not happening.

Both Nixon’s and Trump’s presidencies qualify as national crises. Over the decades too much power has shifted toward the Executive and Congress has largely failed in its role to check the Executive’s power. Moreover, because the presidency has become so powerful, it attracts people drawn to power including people who should really not be president. Trump is the obvious poster child.

Given that about forty years spanned Nixon and Trump, it’s not too hard to predict that if nothing changes we’ll endure another disastrous presidency within a few decades.

One way of checking executive power has already been enacted: we passed the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to no more than two terms. Unfortunately, eight years gives presidents plenty of time to muck of the mechanics of government.

Time is revealing some flaws in our constitutional system. How do we fix things? These suggestions range from the idealistic and unlikely to the practical. They don’t necessarily guarantee another Nixon or Trump but make them less likely. Of course I am hardly the first one to suggest some of these solutions.

Elect a national attorney general. Many states do this already. It allows the people to decide who should impartially administer our laws. Being a constitutional office, this person could not be fired by the president but would take an oath to impartially administer the laws of the United States and would be in charge of managing the Justice Department. Because presidential election years are too consequential, I propose we elect an attorney general during midterm election years. The term would be for four years. Nixon and Trump demonstrate that you can’t count on a president to ensure that justice is fairly administered, particularly when the Justice Department has to look into the executive branch. The executive needs its hands constitutionally tied from managing the impartial administration of justice.

Get rid of the Electoral College. Presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Of course, twice recently it didn’t happen. Had Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who won the popular votes) become president, it’s unlikely that we would have invaded Iraq or had to worry about a lawless chief executive. Obviously a constitutional amendment is a steep climb given that it’s not in red states’ interests. Still, initiatives like the National Popular Vote would guarantee electoral votes to the popular vote winner nationwide by committing a state to assign all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. These state laws are written to take effect only when enough states that comprise a majority of the electoral votes pass state laws. 12 states are currently onboard representing 172 electoral votes. We need states comprising 98 more electoral votes to make this a reality. No, it’s not unconstitutional because the constitution empowers states on how they wish to apportion their Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner take all system.

Require presidential candidates release their tax returns to get on the ballot. The constitutionality of some proposed state efforts has been questioned, which is probably while this has been introduced in a few state legislatures it hasn’t passed in any. However, Congress could pass such a law with no issues. Obviously, this has been a problem with Trump, who still claims the IRS is auditing his returns, which is false. Even if it were true, there is no law prohibiting a candidate from releasing his tax returns while being under audit.

Split the presidency into two positions: head of state and chief executive. Arguably the U.S. president has too much power, as he/she is both the head of state and the chief executive. As a practical matter, doing both competently is virtually impossible. Most other democracies split these duties. For example, Israel elects a president that represents the nation but has few powers, but can speak for the nation. Its prime minister is the chief executive. Great Britain has the Queen as its head of state. Presidents tend to be politicians, not statesmen. We need both, not one or the other. The head of state should be the moral voice of the country. They too could be elected in “off” years.

Decentralize first-use of nuclear weapons. It’s quite frightening that Donald Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons against any country he wants at any time, given his impulsive nature documented in Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear. In general, this is a dangerous power with massive implications for the nation. Congress should pass a law that prohibits the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States without the consent of Congress. Since such a decision might clue in potential adversaries, such a decision should require agreement by the president, Speaker of the House and both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.

Reinstate the full Voting Rights Act. We need a law that explicitly overturns Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The case removed constrains on certain mostly southern states with a history of suppressing minority votes from enacting voter laws without a preclearance from the Justice Department. If we want to be non-discriminatory, make all states get preclearances. When a day after this decision, Alabama passed a Voter ID law you know this will be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Obviously I am against political or racial gerrymandering. I would like to see federal voting districts drawn impartially by federal judges, as is true in most republican forms of government. This effects the composition of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, so it’s off topic here. It has no effect on the national popular vote for president.

The 25th Amendment remedy to remove Trump is looking more probable

The Thinker by Rodin

In case it’s not obvious, we are amidst a current constitutional crisis. It’s only not a constitutional crisis if you are perfectly okay with authoritarianism over the rule of law or are fine with one branch of government refusing to hold the other accountable. If that’s you, then you don’t believe in our constitutional government.

The New York Times published an anonymous OpEd the other day. In it, a “senior administration official” admitted they were managing Donald Trump the man-child, by keeping many of his impetuous decisions from actually being carried out. This OpEd is perfectly consistent with Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear in which many other senior administration officials anonymously say similar things.

However, these self-styled patriots apparently couldn’t keep the man-child from a disastrous policy of separating foreign children from their parents at the Mexican border, probably because they liked the policy. But at least they were awake enough to distract Trump with something shiny and new until he forgot about a boneheaded impetuous decision to assassinate Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. This anonymous insider says staff are whispering a 25th amendment while none of them are bold enough to actually resign and call for it to be invoked.

As for Trump, of course he is bursting blood vessels over this. He calls it fake news while demanding that the Justice Department find the official who wrote it and charge him/her with “treason”. This is his tacit admission that he believes it was written by someone on his inner staff. Our man-child president of course has no idea what actual treason is. It’s quite possible that Trump is guilty of treason by collaborating with Russia to rig our election. Given that no state secrets were released in this OpEd and freedom of speech and the press are privileges of our democracy, this argument makes no sense … unless it’s the open secret that our president is a narcissistic moron. Even Trump’s supporters must now agree he is one; they just see it as a feature, not a bug.

Apparently it takes a moron to bring down a constitutional democracy, which is what Trump means by Making America Great Again. I got to admit; I did not see this coming. I thought you had to be more devious to bring down our great democracy. But perhaps Trump is just a fool; unaware that overlord Vladimir Putin had surreptitiously pressed his buttons.

I have little doubt that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has already had discussions with the president’s military attachés who carry around the black box with the nation’s nuclear launch codes: if Trump wants to launch nuclear weapons, he has to clear it with Mattis first. So maybe that is something of a safety valve for our country, at least until Trump decides to replace him with a toady.

I personally am betting that Trump’s all-consuming malignant narcissism keeps him distracted from executing some of these impulses. Since his ego is at stake, Job #1 is to obsessively watch the media to see how he is being portrayed and to counter the relentless narrative that he’s an impetuous and dangerous moron. Curiously, his every tweet reinforces the narrative that he is one. I’m actually hoping this state of affairs will prevail until November 6, when voters are likely to deliver Trump a clear message.

The midterm’s results may finally give Republicans a clear message too: Trump is toxic to their party. With an election behind them it might stiffen some spines to get rid of him altogether. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. If it happens though it will because Trump further careens off the rails. They will have to hope they can toss him overboard to calm the seas before 2020 elections.

Much depends on Republican voters, who support Trump with a 90% approval rating. Lost in his high approval numbers among Republicans is the shrinking size of the Republican Party as lukewarm Trump supporters move into the independents column. This explains why Trump’s overall approval rating now averages in the high thirties.

Trump will probably get impeached next year when Democrats retake the House. But even if Democrats retake the Senate too, actually removing him will require fifteen or so Republicans to develop spines. So in practical terms, Trump can probably only be removed by the 25th Amendment. A disastrous midterm might be enough of a catalyst for some cabinet members to call for it, members that Trump can conveniently fire.

Vice President Mike Pence though really would have to initiate this process. Some speculate that he is the anonymous author of this OpEd. He is also the one person in the Executive that Trump cannot fire, as he has a constitutional office. Pence, of course, has been working hard to excel in the role of Chief Toady. But doubtless he has presidential aspirations. He might make the leap to “Betrayer in Chief” if he thought he could get away with it. If not, then resigning and offering himself as a Republican alternative in 2020 is not a bad strategy. He’s just as evil as Trump but can at least run the machinery of government. That may appeal to Congressional Republicans who would have to give Trump the heave ho.

It all depends on Trump’s behavior, of course. He is showing all the predictable strains of someone with extreme narcissism in its final stages of unraveling under threat. The best case for the country would be his sudden resignation in a fit of pique, which I still think is the most likely, perhaps after Mueller issues his report (“rigged witch hunt”). If he survives impeachment and removal and if no 25th Amendment remedy succeeds, this crazy constitutional crisis is likely to drag on through 2020, assuming we survive as a nation until then.

Stay tuned. It’s not like we have any choice.

Coming up: a blog post on how we can prevent these crises in future presidencies.

Whites are being horribly exploited … by other whites

The Thinker by Rodin

Fox News host Laura Ingraham drew some attention in August when she said this on her Fox News TV show:

“In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love don’t exist anymore,” she said, with videos of agricultural work playing over her shoulder. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”

Donald Trump’s election proved there are plenty of white people worried that America isn’t quite white enough for their tastes anymore. It’s making them nervous and scared and not coincidentally is causing many of them to stock up on guns.

The browning of America is hardly new but for decades Republicans have been riding this anxiety to political power. Richard Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy (as well as his Silent Majority strategy in his 1972 reelection) harnessed this fear. Ronald Reagan stoked it too, with images of imaginary welfare queens buying steaks and driving Cadillacs. Donald Trump of course made this anxiety the center of his campaign and his presidency. Fear, particularly fear of “the other” is a powerful motivator.

Reagan’s imaginary welfare queen was probably not a white person. This is strange because whites receive the majority of food stamps. In 2015, 40% of SNAP recipients were white. That’s more than blacks (26%) and Hispanics (10%) combined. If you are one of those whites on food stamps though, it may be scary though because it suggests that you can’t do any better economically than those other “lesser” races in our country. That can be unsettling. But whites traditionally have always been the biggest recipients of food stamps because they are a majority of the country.

Still, Laura Ingraham’s remarks are awfully odd considering that she has an adopted Guatemalan daughter. With images of brown agricultural workers in the background during her tirade, you have to wonder how long it’s been since most of our agricultural workers were white. Whites don’t want to work agricultural jobs, even for increased wages. I live in Western Massachusetts where local farmers advertise heavily for agricultural workers but get few takers. That’s because these jobs are brutal, far away and don’t pay well. Just 23% of agricultural workers in the United States were born here. I was born in 1957 and I’d be very surprised if in my 61 years the majority of agricultural workers were ever white.

As for Ingraham’s assertion that none of us ever voted on these changes, what a load of malarkey! Congress makes immigration law so we have only ourselves to blame. Agricultural interests though doubtless pushed these laws. They succeeded with guest worker programs and policies that gave short shrift to immigration enforcement on our Mexican border. This was not bad. It allowed our agricultural section to flourish and keep their prices low. With native born Americans unwilling for the most part to take these jobs, that we still have an agricultural sector is due principally to these workers we’re told to despise. To this day, it’s largely unheard of for an employer to be held liable for undocumented workers they employ.

Yes, America certainly did look a lot whiter in 1957 than it does today. The places I lived in when I was young were so far in upstate New York that I don’t recall even seeing a black person until I was in high school. Lots of these places still exist, but in cities like Hazelton, Pennsylvania they are finally coloring up. And it’s making lots of whites in Hazelton anxious. In 2013, a Hazelton-area chief of police channeled his frustrations with a crazy YouTube video.

There are plenty of reasons for whites to be anxious, but it’s not because the nation is coloring up. It’s because pathways for whites to enter the middle and upper classes are narrowing. Things are particularly bleak for blue-collar whites, the base of Trump’s support who he’s largely left out to dry. A good paying blue-collar job is hard to find and harder to retain. When lost these workers usually quickly fall into jobs that don’t pay a living wage, even if they work two or three of them. People like Amazon warehouse workers, many of whom are on food stamps. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is worth $164B but can’t pay his warehouse workers a living wage. He’d rather let the U.S. government try to fill in the difference with food stamps instead. Amazon is hardly alone, which is why a $15/hour living wage proposal polls so well.

It’s the rise of wealth inequality that is driving most of this white anxiety. While courting whites though Republicans (and sometimes Democrats) have worked instead for their real masters: corporations and rich people. They’ve enacted tax cuts that disproportionately allow the rich to keep more money. They cut services and when possible entitlements that principally benefit the rest of us, like affordable public college tuitions, that used to be free in many states. Corporations use their tax cuts to buy back their own stocks rather than raise wages for their employees or invest in the future. Minimum wage laws rarely move upward, making it impossible for people falling through the cracks to reach for the next rung. So-called Right to Work laws make it hard for workers to organize for higher wages. Moreover, Republicans shamelessly feed the myth that if you work harder and try hard enough you can scale the economic ladder. In most cases though they took the rungs out of the ladder decades ago. Middle and lower classes have been disenfranchised not by accident, but by design. Bernie Sanders long ago recognized the real issue: the system is rigged against working people.

The game is rigged but there are some signs that whites may be waking up at last. Midterms in two months should be revealing. In deeply red states like Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona teacher strikes have drawn the sympathy of the public, including working and middle class whites. They are even electing politicians who commit to raising their taxes in exchange for more services. They can certainly understand how teachers are struggling economically on substandard wages. It may be that Republicans have played the race card about as far as it can be played.

In any event, it’s absolutely clear that the rich and the powerful, who are principally white men, have been systematically and cynically abusing middle income and working class whites, feeding their anxieties and promoting false rationalizations for their anxieties. Curiously the best way to make this anxiety ebb is for whites to rise up against their economic masters and elect people who will put rungs back in the economic ladder again, many of whom will be brown, black or female. White politicians are horribly misleading and abusing them.

Trump is an illegitimate president

The Thinker by Rodin

The day of Donald Trump’s election is certainly seared in my mind, as it is in most Americans’. Like most people, including apparently Donald Trump, I thought Hillary Clinton had the thing locked up. And she did if we elected presidents by popular vote: she won by three millions votes. Trump’s lopsided win in the Electoral College was made possible by margins of about 4000 votes in Pennsylvania, 10,000 votes in Michigan and 22,000 votes in Wisconsin. Had Clinton won those states she would have squeaked a win of 273-258 in the Electoral College.

That night was surreal and every day since has been too. I didn’t sleep that night but the next day I felt that our country had fundamentally changed. As someone not given to conspiracy theories, I felt his election had to be something of a fluke. But based on what we now know, it’s clear that Donald Trump was not fairly elected and is hence an illegitimate president.

I’ll grant you that Hillary Clinton was a poor candidate. If you want to win, a party should never nominate a candidate with negative likability scores. But Trump’s were just as bad. Two really unpopular candidates were nominated. No surprise then that, like in 2000, so many on the margins voted third party. Libertarian party candidate Johnson got 3% and Green party candidate Stein got 1%.

Events this week though show clearly that the odds were unfairly and illegally stacked to elect Trump. With these tiny margins in three swing states, it’s quite likely that had Americans known that Trump had paid off at least two mistresses before the vote that our national nightmare would not now be underway.

This Tuesday of course both Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and ex-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort were convicted of multiple felonies each. Cohen directly implicated Trump, making him effectively an unindicted co-conspirator. If Trump were a nobody instead of president, he too would have been indicted for these campaign finance violations, a felony. Cohen of course should have never participated in this crime, but he would have never had the temptation had Trump not directed him to do so.

Then there are the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump. It’s also clear that at least some in the Trump campaign, specifically Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen attended a meeting with Russians for the express purpose of learning dirt on Hillary Clinton. Since just hours after the meeting Trump tweeted that there would be forthcoming dirt on Hillary, it really sounds like he was in the know too. I expect that these links will come out in time and we’ll discover genuine conspiracy.

In any event, it was not a free and fair election. The Trump campaign did not play by the rules. And it was enough, by a tiny margin, to swing the election. There were of course other acts, arguably legal but morally repugnant, that helped as well. These included voter suppression efforts and making people in certain precincts wait inordinately long to cast a vote. It’s impossible to say if the election had been fair that Trump would still have won. But it is clear that by playing dirty and by participating in illegal activities, things that voters should have known were not known and probably would have changed a lot of votes. Former FBI Director James Comey’s announcement late in the campaign that the FBI was reopening its investigation the Clinton investigation, against FBI policy so close to an election, obviously had some influence too.

While it’s surprising to me that Trump won, it’s not surprising to me that the Trump campaign fought dirty. Trump hasn’t changed at all. He always jumps first and expects not to pay a consequence. He attracts people with similar inclinations, which apparently consist of virtually the entire Republican Party. Unlike Richard Nixon, he is likely to escape the political consequences of these actions because Republicans show no inclination to put country before party, which they did in the Watergate era. I remember.

Still, karma may pay Donald Trump a visit at last. While he is unlikely to be forced from office, he is likely to get impeached (but not removed from office) if Democrats retake the house this November. Also, Trump has a history of bailing when things get too bad. Thus it’s quite possible that when the evidence of his guilt becomes overwhelming he will resign in a fit of pique.

His behavior this week has been his most bizarre to date; he is clearly under great psychological strain. Even if he can escape impeachment and removal, he is likely to be charged with crimes in the state of New York, most likely for running his charity in an illegal manner but quite possibly for money laundering too. He can’t pardon himself or his lackeys out of state charges. At best he can only defer these trials until he is out of office. It’s quite possible that Trump will spend years in prison after leaving office, a dubious first for a U.S. president.

As far as his reputation is concerned, he can now never escape having an asterisk next to his name in the ranks of U.S. presidents. The footnote will have to note that his election was likely illegitimate. Trump accused Barack Obama of being an illegitimate president because he asserted that he was born in Kenya. Oh the irony that his accuser will forever live with this asterisk, and with overwhelming evidence that will show him to be the worst U.S. president in history.

Rest easier, Richard Nixon.

Trump: caught in the Chinese finger trap

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s taken a while but a few people are figuring out how to use Trump’s narcissism against him. Anyone with sufficient influence or power who criticizes Trump will get a reflexive set of double-down tweets. Trump will point out how they are the flawed one and he is never wrong; after all he is a very stable genius.

Chinese finger trap
Chinese finger trap

Trump also uses his tweets to change the subject, hopefully resetting the narrative. This week former CIA Director and Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan felt Trump’s wrath by having his security clearance revoked. Brennan of course has been regularly criticizing Trump from his secure perch in retirement.

Removing his clearance means nothing; Brennan doesn’t need one and hasn’t used it since leaving office, except to prepare to answer questions from investigators. It is possible that by taking away his clearance it will ultimately work to Trump’s disadvantage. Trump is working to remove a bunch of other senior security clearances too in response to their “rigged witch hunt” against him. All but one of them no longer work for the federal government, so they are effectively toothless too.

What really got Trump’s goat recently though was the release of Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book Unhinged. The unflattering tapes she has been slowly releasing methodically prove she is speaking the truth. This resulted in a predictable set of new rage tweets from Trump against Omarosa, one of the few blacks in his administration. She has been part of his orbit since she first appeared on The Apprentice in 2004. Omarosa has nearly fifteen years of experience working with Donald Trump and is intimately familiar with his strengths and weaknesses. In response, he called her a “crazed, crying lowlife” and “that dog” among other insults.

Obviously her book is not flattering to Trump and Trump felt betrayed because of her disloyalty. Trump never returns any loyalty, but he hasn’t made the connection that true loyalty goes both ways. Trump thinks he can buy-off people, but he only rents them until they just can’t stand working for him anymore.

Fourteen years of observing Donald Trump, plus Omarosa’s own character flaws, have produced a character uniquely qualified to help bring him down, bigly. This is because unlike most of The Apprentice contestants, Omarosa played by Trump’s own rules. So of course she had no problem making surreptitious recordings (and reportedly videos) of Trump and his aides. This is completely consistent with Trump’s break-all-the-rules-to-succeed philosophy. Apparently she has quite a collection of these and plans to keep doling them out regularly, at least until Trump’s bullying against her stops.

Her condition that these releases would stop only when Trump stops bullying her is brilliant. It will show in time that Omarosa knows how to best Trump in his own game. Here’s why:

As someone with an extreme case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Trump cannot control himself when someone criticizes him. So with each tape released by Omarosa, Trump’s ego will require him to lash out at her some more, mostly through rage tweets. That in turn will keep his faults and her face constantly in the news. Trump will try to find surrogate issues (like these security clearances) to change the focus, but they are unlikely to work. He must stop bullying Omarosa to bring the pressure relief he craves. But he can’t do that because he has NPD. What’s really interesting is that Omarosa has done the impossible with Trump: changed the power dynamics. She is now his Alpha, on par with Vladimir Putin. Trump just hasn’t figured that out.

No wonder then that Trump is so scared. No wonder he has put together an enemies list and is revoking security clearances. Aside from bullying, Trump really doesn’t have much in the way of power to frustrate his opponents. His best weapon is Brent Kavanaugh, if he gets confirmed to the Supreme Court, as is likely. If cases against Trump come before the court, Kavanaugh is likely to rule in his favor. Removing security clearances though is largely a toothless exercise in retribution. Trump may sense that removing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is another trap that will make things worse for him. His narcissism and the feeling that the walls are closing around him though may impel him to fire him anyhow.

To Trump’s critics though Omarosa is the gift that keeps on giving. Each release shows more flaws in Trump and his hapless administration. This will cause an inevitable reflexive series of outrage tweets by Trump, which keeps the pattern repeating indefinitely. Omarosa has Trump is caught in a Chinese finger trap, and Trump simply lacks the life experiences required to get out of the trap. He can’t even picture them.

It is possible that Trump will figure out that ignoring her is more productive, but it’s unlikely he will figure this out by himself. Someone on staff will have to surreptitiously suggest it and hammer it in again and again until it gets absorbed. With his case of NPD so advanced though, he probably won’t. It will probably grow to become an every bigger cyclone of fury and hate.

As for Omarosa, just as Trump got tons of free publicity during his campaign by giving the media something shiny and new to follow, Omarosa gets tons of free publicity too, stays constantly in the news and makes a name for herself. Copies of her books fly off shelves, and her recording and videos inside the Trump White House get constantly played. Her future looks bright.

So effectively Omarosa has out trumped Trump. Well played, Omarosa. The apprentice seems likely to topple the king.

Pope Francis: let priests be people and this clergy abuse problem will largely disappear

The Thinker by Rodin

Catholic clerical abuse, mostly of minors, is hardly news. And yet this week such a story broke through to the front pages for a change, mainly because it gave us an understanding of the truly vast scope of the problem. Yesterday, a grand jury issued a report saying an estimated 300 Catholic priests in the Pennsylvania abused more than 1000 children, and likely a lot more than that, since the 1940s. Some of the reports are so graphic they will literally turn your stomach. I won’t repeat them here, but if your stomach can handle it go ahead and read them.

And yet it was hardly the only story of this type recently. Last month the archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal Theodore Mc­Carrick, was suspended from duties by Pope Francis. McCarrick is accused of abusing a 16-year-old altar boy in the 1970s. He was probably not the cardinal’s only victim. You will find lots more stories but few more egregious lately than these two. A cardinal is just one step from being pope!

The problem is not confined to the Catholic Church. A Unitarian Universalist minister that married me was involved in sexual relations with women who sought him out for counseling, also a terrible violation of trust. The Roman Catholic Church has a much larger problem than other denomiations, and it’s not just because of its enormous size. Adjusting for denomination size, the Catholic Church is still by far the largest denomination with this sort of problem.

For decades the Catholic Church has been trying to control this problem. Whatever they are doing doesn’t appear to be working very well. It’s my opinion though that the root of its problem is that priests (generally) are forbidden from marrying. It’s not solely a matter of not having sex. It’s also a problem due to a lack of intimacy.

People become rounded out through having deep and meaningful relationships. Marriage is an excellent way to engage in such a relationship, providing you marry the right partner. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see him or her not only with their clothes off but with their souls bared too. As I have noted, when you are in a committed relationship you may discover the real meaning of love: not just to care utterly for another person, but also to reveal your real self to yourself. Lacking such relationships you are unlikely to uncover the real you.

The Church is proposing more of the same solutions: putting procedures in place to minimize these situations, oversight by the laity and maybe even background investigations of potential priests. It really needs to acknowledge the fundamental issue: priests are people with basically the same issues as the rest of us and thus need to have the privileges of people. Because priests are people, they can aspire to be Christ-like, but taking the sacrament of Holy Orders won’t make them so. The devastation is all around the church, mostly in the minors whose trust was abused, but also within these priests. Without deeply authentic and healthy relationships in their lives they can’t help but crave them. Given that they are expected to be celibate, they are going to crave sex too. The two together though are a toxic combination that pulls priests toward dangerous relationships. They must bring the minor into a shared secret of their own broken and scarred souls, in the process making it very hard for these children to escape a lifetime of trauma.

Pope Francis is a pragmatic pope. He has taken some daring stances recently, like saying the death penalty is wrong in all situations. I wish he’d take the next daring stand: to let priests marry again, and if their inclination is toward homosexuality, let them marry their own sex. This allows them to be authentic to themselves and others, and this will carry over to the people they minister to. It’s not like priestly celibacy was always a requirement in the Catholic Church. Many popes had wives and extended families. For the last five hundred years or so the policy has changed. Somewhere along the line theological wires got crossed. Jesus never had sex, or so the Catholic Church believes, although its never mentioned in the Bible that he was a celibate. It’s quite possible that he and Mary Magdalene were married, or what passed for marriage in those days, and they had children too. No one really knows, including the Catholic Church, but they think they know and demand it of their priests. The vast size of clerical abuse in its ranks though demonstrates that their approach to the priesthood has been horrendously wrong.

No marriage is perfect and certainly mine is not. However, marriage can let you see things through the eyes of your spouse and give you a much different perspective. To take one example: I am a much kinder person because I married my wife. She is kind by nature and takes delight in animals, which is why there are usually a cat or two in our home. She has made me more compassionate, and I suspect I have made her more human too. My own blindness of my good points though makes it hard for me to say how I have helped her, but I likely have in many ways too.

If you are a priest, I guess you are entitled to have deep and rich platonic relationships with other priests, if you can find one between being shuffled around parishes, but these are hardly a substitute for a committed relationship. In any event, while priests may be trained in theology and the tenets of their faith, they lack much in the way of practice of expressing feelings like empathy, compassion or universalism. You don’t get these things from reading about them. They come from living life. It’s hard to say how much of Jesus’s life was real or myth, but he certainly walked around Palestine and got to know people’s needs, problems and perspectives. This made him an effective minister.

I doubt there is much training like this in seminary. You may learn the Bible backwards and forward, but to really understand Jesus, don’t you have to minister like Jesus too? Don’t you have to walk around communities, listen to people, absorb yourself in their problems and help address them? Jesus at least got it, but I don’t think priests get much if anything like this kind of training. Instead, most likely after seminary they will end up in a parish, which is by nature a pretty closed and insular community.

A parish is not the real world that Jesus traversed in his ministry. Yet if you are going to have a priesthood of people who act like Jesus, these are the kind of people you would want to attract: people who broadly understand the world as it actually is from living it deeply and richly. They need to have the freedom to be true human beings and have fulfilling and messy relationships like the rest of us.

There will always be a few bad apples among ministers in any congregation. These steps the Catholic Church is taking so far is merely putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound. It doesn’t address the fundamental issues that cause these problems in the first place. For the sake of Catholic congregations worldwide, the sooner they let their priests marry, the better.

Dialing it to 12 with a new asbestos use proposal

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not hard to feel daily outrage at the Trump Administration. Doubtless it will be remembered as the worst administration in US history. The only part I am looking forward to (aside from the day Trump leaves office) are the many memoirs that will document the inside story. I strongly suspect that however much I imagine them that my imagination is not nearly broad enough.

One such soon to be released memoir is from Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of the few blacks with any power in the Trump White House. Her memoir, Unhinged: An Insider Account of the Trump White House sure looks juicy. The book’s royalties should more than make up for the $15,000 per month she says she was offered to shut her up after she was fired by Chief of Staff John Kelly. Manigault Newman also apparently has tapes of Trump and others. They may get more listens than Richard Nixon’s secret tapes. Some reported revelations though won’t be all that surprising: she says Trump is a racist, narcissist and lacks impulse control.

One bizarre theory going around is that when Trump was elected we entered an alternate universe, kind of like that episode “Mirror, Mirror” from the original Star Trek series. Yes, it’s crazy but lately has seemed to be the most plausible explanation. That’s because every day of the Trump Administration is full of events crazier than the day before. The crazy meter gets dialed to 11 every day. The one though that really got my attention this week and perhaps deserved more attention: a proposal from the EPA for asbestos to be used again. This proposal is definitely at Level 12. Naturally, Donald Trump seems to approve.

Let’s be quite clear here: asbestos is a human carcinogen. You breathe in asbestos dust and it could kill you. It’s associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. In the past it was used principally for insulation. If your home had it, it was hard to sell. You usually had to pay a specialized contractor to remove it. Even its substitute, fiberglass insulation, is not without issues, which is why workers wear masks when installing blown insulation. For more than fifty years we’ve known this, which is why asbestos can’t be used as insulation and its few uses are heavily regulated. The EPA proposal will allow the EPA to approve it for new uses. Naturally, this was one of former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s “great” ideas.

I literally didn’t think it was possible for an EPA to take an action more evil than its proposal this month to relax EPA fuel standards, which followed a 2017 proposal to relax power plant emissions. Apparently we don’t have enough pollutants in the atmosphere. These rules are truly toxic in that they actually kill Americans. They make the air unhealthier. In doing so, the additional pollution hospitalizes millions needlessly. Eight million people a year die from air pollution worldwide. It comes mostly from the particulate matter placed into the atmosphere by carbon polluters, including our cars. Those with lung problems and sensitive immune systems are most impacted.

While deaths by air pollution are indirect, by allowing for new uses of asbestos the EPA is promoting new ways for asbestos to directly kill people that don’t kill anyone anymore. I’m not sure, but it may have killed my father. As with air pollution, these effects can manifest over decades. My father coughed persistently most of his life and died of pulmonary disease. Basically, his lungs died before his body. He never smoked but he was exposed to industrial solvents in closed areas earlier in his career, and spent his time crawling around our asbestos-laden attics too. His lungs turned into a fibroid mass unable to put oxygen in the blood. Once we determined that asbestos caused preventable deaths, our government banned it.

The Trump Administration though simply doesn’t care. And now it is actively finding ways to kill more of us by reintroducing products like asbestos whose lethality is not even in question.

Why on earth would any administration want to do this? It’s because they are so evil and hateful that they simply don’t care. They want people to be more miserable. They want people to die. That’s because apparently they are a bunch of sadists. Sometimes though it bites back at one of their own. One of the infamously conservative Koch brothers, David Koch, has been battling prostate cancer for decades. It’s probably not related to the chemicals he and his brother’s industries have been pumping into the air, but who can say for sure? At 78, he is retiring.

But maybe it’s because the Trump Administration really believes its own bullshit: that everything is not related and that there is no limit to the amount of industrial pollutants we can dump into the environment because none of it impacts nature or people. I’d like to think that they aren’t really that dumb and just mentally ill sadists instead. But I’m sad to say I do believe that Donald Trump really is this dumb. Maybe I’ll read about it in Manigault Newman’s memoir.

Trade deficits don’t matter but tariffs sure do

The Thinker by Rodin

A couple of posts ago I pointed out that trade deficits don’t really matter. This is because trade deficits merely report the difference of the value of goods exchanged between countries. A trade deficit with China demonstrates that in general we get better bargains trading with companies in China than from buying them internally or from other countries.

Tariffs on the other hand do matter, a lot. Over the weekend Donald Trump, our “very stable genius” president demonstrated how profoundly ignorant he was on how tariffs work. Trump stated that tariffs are helping to pay down the national debt.

In the sense that higher taxes make deficits lower if spending is kept constant, Trump is right. But Trump apparently thinks it’s foreign countries that are paying these tariffs, like before a freighter from China unloads its cargo in Los Angeles the government of China wires the tariff to the United States Treasury. That’s not how it works at all. Chinese manufacturers don’t pay a tariff to bring their goods into our country either.

So who is paying? You: the American consumer. Tariffs amount to tax increases, but these tax increases are sneaky. Since you don’t buy directly from companies in China, you don’t see a tariff added to your bill of sale. But when a company you shop at does, like Walmart, they send a check to the U.S. treasury for the amount of the tariff.

Companies can absorb the tariff. Being profit-making though they will almost always pass the cost on to you by raising their prices. We saw this recently when Coke announced it was raising prices, because its cost for imported aluminum used to make its cans went up.

The Coca Cola Company of course can shop around elsewhere for aluminum. It looks like there is no better deal. The kind of finished aluminum they use is either not made in the USA or is cheaper to buy from China in spite of the tariffs. This is true of lots of products in our modern economy. One way for companies to make profits is to specialize. However, the tariff system seems to assume we principally trade commodities like oil and wheat, not rolls of aluminum with the exact thickness Coke needs for its soft drink cans.

Tariffs thus amount to sneaky indirect tax increases. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of their detrimental effect on our economy. When we have to pay more for the same goods and services, this is inflation. And inflation from tariffs is already showing up. In June 2018, prices rose .4% from May 2018, largely due to tariffs. If this continues at this rate for the next twelve months, prices will be 4.8% higher annually. This is a significant increase in inflation compared to rates we are used to of 2% per year or less. It’s likelier though that the effect of tariffs is just beginning, and that soon inflation in June will seem like one of our better months.

As long as wages keep up with inflation, then perhaps inflation doesn’t matter. Our unemployment rate may be 3.9%, but wage growth has been anemic at best. In fact, most American workers have lost money because wage growth has not kept up with inflation. Unless Americans borrow money to make up the difference, which unfortunately they are doing at record rates, then without commensurate increases in wages they will consume less, dragging down the economy.

So it’s pretty clear that the real effect of tariffs is to stifle overall economic growth. Strict tariffs caused the Great Depression. While they allowed us to do more buying local, retaliatory tariffs as we are seeing now also made it hard to export our goods. With fewer buying our products, commodity prices for things we do make tend to collapse. So when the government charges tariffs, it is playing a very dangerous game. I’d like to think our administration knows what it’s doing, but Trump’s remarks this weekend show he fundamentally misunderstands how tariffs work. Apparently his supporters don’t understand either, as they roared their approval.

In any event, with recent tax cuts that benefit primarily the very wealthy, these modest tariffs will do little to boost tax revenues; the Post article puts the effect at .1%. But even the Post article understates the true cost of tariffs. Here are some of the other direct effects:

  • It increases government spending for social security, government pensions and many entitlements that are tied to the cost of living
  • It increases the cost of medical care, including Medicare, Medicaid and health care for veterans by pushing up prices for imported goods and services like certain medicines
  • It increases the cost of borrowing, as inflation tends to raise interest rates, which means the U.S. Treasury will have to increase interest rates to attract investors
  • Subsidies already announced will cost the government, for example the $12 billion the Trump Administration wants to give farmers to offset the effects of its tariffs

And then there are the indirect costs, which include:

  • Higher prices and inflation in general
  • Reduced employment in sectors affected by counter-tariffs
  • Lower profits as fewer goods and services are bought and sold
  • Likely increases in unemployment

Try as it might, the Trump Administration’s tariffs policies won’t do much more than partially offset tariffs’ downsides. It is likely to raise prices, reduce employment, feed inflation and reduce economic activity. Quite frankly, these tariffs are a disastrous policy.

But don’t take my world for it. The wreckage is already unfolding. It’s only going to get worse and may hit a crescendo around the midterms.