The Republican unraveling

The Senate’s rejection of a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act last night was a bit of a surprise, but certainly symptomatic of a Republican Party in free fall. It was really a roll of the dice and could have easily gone either way but either way would have been bad for Republicans.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) certainly found a great time to go “mavericky”. Perhaps his brain cancer diagnosis gave him an opportunity to vote his conscience for a change and cement something of a legacy. McCain got most of the attention but Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also bucked considerable party pressure in voting against this bill. In any event it was clear that many Republican senators weren’t actually in favor of the “skinny repeal” bill. Many voted for it only on the condition that the House moves it to a conference committee and create something else. The bill’s failure appears to be a harbinger that the leadership’s ability to ram legislation through by bypassing its committees is nearing an end.

The White House hasn’t gotten the lesson. As usual seems to be doubling down on the stupid. This has the effect of making the White House even more chaotic and paralyzed. It’s like Trump wants to do everything wrong and in the worst possible way. In my last post I advised Americans to buckle their seat belts because the turbulence would only get worse. It has, and dramatically so. I often feel like we are living in a parallel universe because our politics is so chaotic and disordered that it is hard to believe it’s real. The only question is what parts of the aircraft fail first and whether the nation can make something of a safe landing. Consider:

  • On Wednesday Trump tweeted that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military. He said this decision was made after consulting with his generals, which appears to be a lie. He certainly didn’t consult with his Defense secretary, who was blindsided. It’s unclear if this tweet will become policy. But it has caused a hell of a ruckus, with prominent Republicans coming out against it. It’s not hard to figure out why Trump did this. He’s creating distractions and trying to excite his base, which is only excited when he does hateful things to groups they dislike. Trump says this decision will save money and improve our military. But if carried out it would remove tens of thousands of transgender people from the military who are serving honorably and who the nation has already invested considerable time and money. So aside from the blatant discrimination it makes our military less ready and less ready.
  • New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is busy trying to act nastier than Donald Trump, if that’s possible. In his amazing, profanity-laden interview with The New Yorker, Scaramucci called the man who is supposedly his boss, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and suggested Priebus was a leaker. He said of White House adviser Steve Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” He says he plans to fire everyone on the White House communications staff. Oh, and he wants to kill all White House leakers.
  • Trump continues trying to figure out a relatively benign way to fire his earliest and biggest supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he hopes can be done indirectly through his voluntary resignation. So far he hasn’t found the courage to fire him outright. Trump is very upset that Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation, figuring it was Sessions’ duty to make it go away because of loyalty. He either doesn’t know that the Attorney General is supposed to be independent so the law can be enforced impartially or simply doesn’t care. In any event his true target is Sessions’ deputy, the only person who can fire Special Counsel Mueller. Trump needs a new sycophant Attorney General who will fire Sessions’ deputy, which Sessions can’t do because he’s recused himself. If he can then he has to hope to have the acting deputy fire Mueller. All this is greatly alarming Republicans in Congress because Sessions is seen by them as an excellent conservative hitting all the issues they care about. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has already said that he won’t hold any hearings for a replacement if Sessions is fired. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) also announced that if Sessions is fired he would pursue legislation to prohibit Trump from firing Mueller.
  • John McCain’s call for the return of regular order in the Senate received applause from senators on both sides, who have had enough of their leadership disempowering them. A revolt against their leadership is likely brewing.

Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have squandered their political capital. Trump feels the need to shake things up and bring in an ever purer, nastier and more loyal staff. He can’t compromise because he sees that as losing face. He’s certain that the way he has always done things will work in a republican system of government that requires compromise.

Feeling the pressure to get things done, both House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are using insular and high-risk strategies to push through legislation that apparently is only supported by the slimmest of partisan majorities. Their system is breaking down, particularly in the Senate. Senators are immune from gerrymandering because the citizens of each state directly elect them. So the Senate is going to be more moderate than the House, and it’s this way be design, at least since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. In short, the institutional pressures and the simple desire for legislators to retain their seats are slowly overriding blind partisanship. We saw it yesterday in the votes of senators McCain, Collins and Murkowski.

Moreover, the executive branch is dissembling. The good news is that we have a competent Secretary of Defense, but it’s unclear if he can trump over a maniacal Donald Trump in a national security crisis. We also have a pissed off Secretary of State reputedly thinking of resigning and whose department is so understaffed that it is pretty much ineffective. We have branches of the executive at war with each other. And we have a president without the political skills to bring order to the mess he created and actually govern. In fact, we have a president that thinks not governing is governing. Thus it’s no surprise that there is massive dysfunction.

Look behind the scenes and it’s clear that institutional forces are marshaling, more significantly on the Republican side. Republicans are beginning to realize that they are better off without Trump. Fortunately, Trump gives them plenty of ammunition. Trump’s narcissism and cognitive dissonance will require him to become crazier and more erratic, which will feed the process. Ultimately, Republicans are going to war with each other, which should eventually render clear boundaries between traditional Republicans and Trump supporters. (Hint: the patriotic ones will eventually be seen as the traditional Republicans.) It’s all unnecessary if Trump would more toward political accommodation and begin governing rationally. It’s clear that he is incapable of doing so.

Time to buckle your seatbelts, America

I am back from our nation’s capital after having enjoyed two musicals, one movie, two ethnic restaurants, four American breakfasts (mostly omelets), barbeque, two museums on the Mall and a quick tour of the Capitol over three full days. I chose last Friday to go into D.C. It was odd to play the role of tourist considering I lived in the area for nearly 35 years.

DC weather rarely disappoints expectations in July. It certainly didn’t last Friday when the heat topped 95F and walking around the Mall felt like going into the sauna. Despite the horrid but predictable July weather, things felt, well, different. I remembered a time when you could get into the Capitol easily. You just passed through security and wandered around. Back then areas the public wasn’t supposed to go in were clearly marked off but otherwise you wandered around as you pleased. Now you go to the Capitol Visitors Center and get a ticket for a substandard tour. You won’t get to see either the House or Senate chambers. (There is a separate tour for that.)

Also new was the current occupant of the White House. During the Capitol tour the tour guide was agog over the slogan on our currency: E pluribus unum, or Out of many: one. I guess he couldn’t tell the truth: that our Congress has perhaps never been so undemocratic. It is so gerrymandered that moderates are nearly extinct in Congress. While we were there our narcissistic Cheeto-in-Chief was kicking off a special commission to look into the nonexistent issue of voter fraud. The only fraud is the actual intent of the commission: voter suppression so more of those people aren’t allowed to vote. Arguably these laws put Trump in the White House in the first place. Anyhow, the very limited access the public now gets to the Capitol is symbolic of our national dysfunction. It is harder than ever to meet your legislator unless you represent some interest with plenty of cash. Most likely the one giving the cash doesn’t even employ people in the legislator’s district. Congress critters are even giving up on town halls, unless the audience consists of prescreened partisans. To our new aristocracy, the rest of us are rabble and not worth their time.

Meanwhile, the acts in the Trump circus kept getting more bizarre. Trump’s interview with the “fake media” New York Times signaled a four-alarm fire. Trump clearly has no idea what he is doing, and has at best a minimal grasp of the issues. The acts kept changing when we were in town too. Gone is press secretary Sean “Spicey” Spicer, and in is former hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci as, of all things, White House Communications Director. I shouldn’t be surprised because apparently having no experience in a problem domain is a prime qualification for being chosen by Trump. Still, it was one more breathtakingly bad appointment amongst so many others. It’s also clear from the Times transcript and Trump’s latest tweets that he is obsessed with the Russian investigation, to the point that he has pretty much given up governing. Providing no national calamities happen, this is good news and explains why nothing is getting done even though Republicans control three branches of government.

In the Times interview, Trump made it clear that he reserves the right to fire Special Counsel Mueller and that his ability to pardon is unconditional, which apparently also includes being able to pardon himself. His lawyers are writing arguments to make the case, which suggests if push comes to shove he will pardon all his friends and family implicated in the scandal even though he continues to say there is nothing there. But if there is nothing there, why would he pardon anyone? Why is he so scared?

The answer is clear: it’s because there’s plenty of fire under the visible smoke. You don’t get this kind of response from someone who is innocent and confident that the facts will vindicate him. You get it from someone who knows he is guilty and is prepared to use every tool at his disposal to ensure no one pays a price, especially Trump. From all reports Trump spends most of his days obsessively watching TV to see how he is coming across in the media. Image is everything to him, but he can’t seem to make this Russia thing go away. So he is preparing for the nuclear option: pardon and fire his way out of it. The more scared he gets the more bizarre his behavior gets too.

From this we can reasonably infer things won’t get better, but they will get much worse as Trump senses a cage coming down around him. Which means that our country is at a moment of unique peril. The most perilous part of it is not whether Trump survives or not. It’s whether our enemies use this opportunity of national dysfunction to play their hand. We got a glimpse of it last week when we learned that Trump and Putin had an unannounced private meeting at the G-20 conference in Hamburg. Curiously it wasn’t log afterward that Trump announced that the United States would no longer give support to anti-Assad forces in Syria.

Trump constantly defends Russia so it’s not hard to infer that Russia has the goods on him, he knows it, and he is being blackmailed. All this is likely to come out in time as a result of investigations underway. As a narcissist Trump is driven into denial about his own failings, so he must project them elsewhere using a cast of predictable enemies: the “fake” news media, Democrats, disloyal Republicans and of course Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He’s also probably trying to figure out a way to exit this trap. He hopefully understands that can’t pardon himself out of this problem and remain president, although Trump may be delusional enough to think he can. Trump will look desperately for a face-saving solution that allows him to blame others. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin laid out the most plausible outcomes. It’s most likely #4 or #5, probably #4 as it’s the easiest path for a narcissist to deal with his cognitive dissonance.

One thing is for sure: it will be more than a bumpy ride. As a nation, we are going to go through months and years of airsickness, not to mention grave mortal danger to our nation. It’s quite unclear that Republicans will put country over party. We can hope for it but we should not expect it. The parallels with Watergate are murky at best. The best we can hope for is that Republicans will come to consensus that they are better without him, and vote to impeach and remove him. The hope then lies in Trump’s increasing franticness and that this turbulence will be very severe but relatively short.

Buckle your seatbelts folks and if you are a praying type, now is the time for fervent prayer.