Why I think Trump won’t go to war with Iran

The Thinker by Rodin

Traditionally, starting a war is a pretty one good way for a president to get reelected. It worked for George W. Bush, but his Iraq war was kind of a sequel to his war with Afghanistan, seen by Americans as a justified war after 9/11. The complications of his invasion were not totally understood by voters when they gave him a second term in 2004; he essentially got the benefit of the doubt. Reagan did some gunboat diplomacy and it served him well in his reelection. We’ll never know if Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion would have cost him the 1964 election. Teddy Roosevelt saw the Spanish American War as a good war, i.e. not too complicated, where America could flex its growing muscle and try the empire thing without too much cost. Much like our potential war with Iran, it didn’t have much in the way of plausible justification. Yet Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed great popularity.

The times though may be changing. Last night Donald Trump aborted three planned airstrikes on Iran while they were already in flight. Supposedly, this was because he was concerned about the reported 150 casualties that would have resulted from the strikes. (They didn’t brief him on this before authorizing the strike?) Most likely, Trump just got cold feet.

Or it could be someone on his staff looked at polling on the issue. For example, a May Reuters/Ipsos poll found that while half of Americans believe we will go to war with Iran within the next few years, 60% said the U.S. should not strike first. Also 61% of Americans still support the agreement negotiated between Iran, the Obama Administration, and many other countries to curb Iraq’s use of nuclear materials. Just 12% of Americans want us to strike first.

Iran recently shot down one of our drones near the Strait of Hormuz. It’s unclear whether it was done in international waters or not. Killing 150 people to avenge an attack on a bunch of metal does seem to be (forgive the pun) massive overkill.

It’s quite clear that Trump sees his 2020 reelection as essential and will do just about anything to achieve it. He’s already invited the Russians and other states (Norway?) to keep interfering in our elections, and Congressional Republicans seem not to care too. His reelection is literally do or die for Trump. If he can’t win reelection, then he may be charged for potential crimes documented in the Mueller report. But if he wins, the statute of limitations will pass, so at worst he’s charged for various state offenses. Starting a war with Iran is risky, but might be effective in ensuring his reelection.

Then maybe not so much. Trump is clearly no student of history, but it didn’t work well for George H.W. Bush, who ran a war against Iraq very successfully with a coalition of countries, yet still managed to lose reelection. If the 2004 elections had been held six months later, George W. Bush might not have won as the consequences of his botched Iraq war became more noticed and Americans turned decisively against it.

When it comes to armed conflict against a significant adversary, my bet is that Trump is mostly a paper tiger. He talks big about being ruthless with our enemies, but he seems to sense that running an actual war is something out of his league. To begin with, the senior leadership of his Department of Defense is largely gone. He has no Secretary of Defense, the acting one just quit and the acting-acting one is hardly the best person for the job. A president that actually managed his government would have filled these positions by now. Not Trump. He remains distracted and is unconcerned about tending to the mechanics of government. I think he senses that a conflict with Iran is better punted than acted on.

Why? Because he would actually be expected to manage the war and that’s hard and boring. It means convincing a reluctant Congress to fund it, which probably won’t happen. He would lose face and look weak. It’s much better, easier and most importantly less risky to punt on it, like he’s doing on North Korea, Venezuela or for that matter much of Central America. Many of his problems are caused by his neglect, i.e. refusal to actually govern. Governing a country at war is hard.

Reports suggest he’s already had open conflicts with John Bolton, his super-hawkish national security adviser who is openly salivating at the idea of a war with Iran. But when Trump acts on it, he’ll own it, not Bolton. Not that when it goes bad he won’t try to make others take the knee for it. But it paints a bad picture next year when he is running for reelection while this conflict likely becomes tit-for-tat actions instead. Any war or conflict with Iran will be a conflict of his own making. Remember that Trump belatedly called our Iraq War a mistake.

It’s much easier to tweet all day and make bullying noises, plus it avoids a lot of accountability. So I think he’s going to talk strong but ultimately do little in the way of a military response. I hope I’m right.

An appreciation for George H.W. Bush

The Thinker by Rodin

There is perhaps some irony in the passing of our 41st president and the sad sack of shit we currently have as president. I loathed George W. Bush as president, but his father was a good president, which is hard for this Democrat to admit. George H.W. Bush was a moderate Republican from a different era, and one of the few Republicans that I genuinely respected and whose presidency was effective and well managed. In the future, if Republicans want to have any hope of having their nominee elected, he or she will have to act and look a whole lot more like 41 and a whole lot less than 45.

That 41 (I will use his number for convenience) did not win reelection was something of a fluke. He should have. It’s just that the 1992 election was weirdly complicated. Specifically, it had a viable third party candidate, Ross Perot, who managed to siphon off 19% of the vote. Most of Perot’s votes came from Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. Both parties learned from Perot’s candidacy. Mainly they learned to nip these in the bud and not let an independent candidate get in an official presidential debate in the first place. Perot was in many ways a harbinger of Donald Trump: plainspoken, rich but unlike Trump transparently honest. Tea-partiers to be found a lot to like in Perot: something unconventional and different who was also very concerned about spending and outsourcing. So did some Democrats, who didn’t particularly like Bill Clinton as their nominee.

41 was an effective president for many of the reasons that disqualify nominees today: he was one of those elite insiders. His father was a senator from Connecticut who groomed him for public life. 41 was thrown at a variety of bureaucratic roles and mastered them all from U.N. Ambassador to CIA Director. Bush was basically a stereotypical New Englander: born in Massachusetts, residing in Connecticut through his childhood years and spending summers in Kennebunkport, Maine. Officially he resided in Texas, but he never really seemed Texan. He was a New Englander in spirit, and that included his moderate Republicanism. New England is one of the few areas of the country where you can still find moderate Republicans.

Of course he was not a perfect president. It’s not hard to find things about him that rankled me, such as his cutting of funding for AIDS research. But he was unusually sober, and fully versed on the complexity of the modern world from having experienced it in so many roles in service of his country. He was perhaps best as Commander in Chief, assembling a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, doing it at a modest and shared cost, and mindful (unlike his son) of the complexity of politics in the area, and the danger of removing Saddam altogether.

He was wise enough when running against Ronald Reagan to declare that Reagan was a believer in “Voodoo economics”, a term I’m pretty sure he coined. He was proven right; both Reagan, his son and now Trump ran up disastrous deficits. His attempt to stem the federal deficit by increasing revenues in a compromise with a Democratic congress earned him heaps of scorn from fellow Republicans, but it was a smart approach. Unfortunately this, plus an ill-timed recession largely due to the Gulf War ultimately doomed his reelection prospects.

In 2006, I rated our 20th century Republican presidents. George H.W. Bush is my pick as the best of the lot since Teddy Roosevelt. Pragmatic, world-wise, affable, sober and serious, he turned out to be the president we needed, just not the one we wanted.

History will treat he and his administration very kindly. It has already rendered judgment on his son’s, and it’s not flattering.

The Republican tax bill is really quite breathtaking in its audacity

The Thinker by Rodin

Those of us of sufficient age will remember when W’s father, George H. W. Bush was running for president. The elder Bush’s famous words during the campaign were: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” It was infamous because after he won election in 1988 he made a deal with Democrats that modestly raised taxes.

Since that time it’s been anathema for any Republican to even think about raising taxes.

Next week the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on its version of a tax bill that will raise taxes, just like the House bill. To make this worse, they are dramatically cutting taxes on the wealthy and making the already stretched middle and lower classes generally pay more in taxes.

And it doesn’t seem to be bothering Republicans at all, which is perhaps the most amazing part. Since Ronald Reagan declared government and taxes evil, never raising taxes has been the nonstop diatribe from Republicans. Now although trying to paint their legislation as a tax cut, no one actually believes it is one. Virtually every analysis shows that it will increase the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion plus add taxes for most middle and lower income people. It’s also likely the resulting exploding deficit will give them reason to cut social services back even further.

The Republicans think that if they can get through this through Congress and into law, it’s one point for their side in an otherwise miserable legislative year when they have controlled all levers of power. They think their voters will be thrilled. Any objective person though looking at this turd of legislation will see it as an abdication of nearly forty years of Republican bedrock orthodoxy. Any Republican rank-and-file who actually believed this stuff should be dumfounded.

Just last year when Obama was still president Republicans were threatening to shut down the government if proposed spending bills were not revenue neutral. “We can’t leave our grandchildren with a mountain of debt”, we heard in many variations ad nauseum. Now, adding another $1.5T to the debt? No problemo.

It’s not news to Democrats that Republicans were not sincere about debt reduction, at least not when they were in charge. It exploded under Reagan, and again under Bush II. When Bush II’s Medicare Part D bill was voted into law, it was done at 3 AM in the House chambers so it would be less obvious how hypocritical Republicans were being. Maybe they felt a little ashamed. They might try the same strategy this time but I don’t think it will work and I doubt feeling ashamed about what they plan to do has even entered their minds.

Still, it takes amazing audacity to give huge tax cuts and inheritance windfalls to the very richest while bleeding the working class even more. This is explainable: all Republicans really care about is the moneyed class and making them even more so. They got control of the Executive and Congress. Now is the time to squeeze the system for themselves and their special moneyed interests. It’s the culmination of decades of strategy to convince Americans to act against their own self-interest. That $1.5T deficit? The only reason that’s there is because they have to get this bill through the Senate using budget reconciliation rules, i.e. Republicans-only so it could only add so much to the deficit, at least officially. Without the rule maybe there would have been no lower and middle class tax increases. To give the rich this tax windfall though and keep the deficit spending to $1.5T, they had to squeeze someone. Couldn’t be them of course, so lower and middle classes it has to be.

And Trump? The guy who ran as an outsider and promised to help the working class? To make America great again? The candidate who during one of the first debates openly admitted he traded money for favor from politicians? The charlatan that Americans elected who ran promising he’d do exactly the opposite? Why he’s all in on this tax bill, of course! His family will reap at least $1B in estate tax relief alone from its passage in its current form. What’s not to like about that? It’s pretty clear what Trump is all about. He’s about bleeding the government dry mainly to enrich himself and his empire. He goes golfing pretty much every weekend at one of his resorts to make sure the Secret Service has to pay usury rates to rent his golf carts and stay in his hotels. Much of the rest of his administration is looking out for either themselves and/or their sponsors. Education Secretary DeVos is trying to move tax dollars toward charter schools. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is downsizing national monuments so private interests can mine and frack gas on nearby lands including possibly the Grand Canyon. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin when not posing holding sheets of dollar bills with his wife is trying to loosen regulations on Wall Street, the same regulations that caused the Great Recession.

In short Trump’s voters — but really the vast majority of Americans — are being played for suckers. It’s time for Republicans to give America that high colonic of their dreams. With the oligarchy in charge, it’s time to fleece the sheep just as winter approaches instead of afterward.

Or so they think. I think a wave is building and come November 2018 Republicans are going to discover the wrath of the American voter. It’s quite similar to the late 19th century when homeless urchins roamed the streets while the Carnegies and Rockefellers lived the life of Gatsby. Back then the voters spoke and a true progressive called Teddy Roosevelt won office, along with a massive wave of Republicans (who were the modern day Democrats of their time). Too big to fail corporations were broken up. National Parks multiplied. Government represented the people again.

Granted the challenge will be harder in 2018. In the late 19th century the art of gerrymandering had not yet been perfected. Blacks and women were disenfranchised but that was the status quo; however there were enough regular folk out there with voting rights to sweep the oligarchy out of power. I’m anticipating that’s what we’ll see in 2018. It’s not really Republican vs. Democrat anymore, it’s big business against the rest of us. It will be mostly Republicans but also a lot of corporate Democrats that will pay the price this time.

No time like the present holiday season for Republicans to play the part of the Grinch. In 2018 though Republicans and their ilk are likely to find their game is over.

Trump’s nuclear no-no

The Thinker by Rodin

Oy! It was another week of bellicose theatrics from our president. Trump, ever eager for more attention, went places that no recent president would have ever dreamed of going. As usual Trump picked the worst location to threaten nuclear war: the United Nations, an organization we helped create to promote peace and understanding and reduce the likelihood of war through the promotion of civil dialog.

Trump’s target this time was North Korea, which keeps lobbing missiles over Japan and recently concluded a likely hydrogen bomb test. Trump’s implicit threat to utterly destroy North Korea is today only possible using our nuclear arsenal. This means, if it’s true, that Trump is considering proactively using our nuclear weapons. He’s also assuming it can be done in a way that won’t send a nuclear warhead at us or our allies, a dubious assumption at best.

Trump isn’t the first president to threaten North Korea with nukes. President Eisenhower did too, mostly out of frustration because the interminable peace talks at the time were going nowhere. We were basically the only nuclear power at the time, with the USSR just getting into the game, so it was a viable threat. The threat didn’t bring peace in 1953, but it did lead to a cessation of hostilities, making the 38th parallel a neutral zone and an exchange of prisoners.

All these years later we are still grappling with a way to bring true peace to the Korean peninsula. Trump’s strategy seems to be to try Eisenhower’s strategy again, as if you can still scare the North Korean government into submission. All it has done so far is ratchet up the tensions and lead to ever more bizarre and bellicose statements from the “leaders” of both sides. With each exchange of insults, these “leaders” look more puerile. If only the United Nations could take them out of the sandbox and give them long timeouts instead.

As for utterly destroying North Korea, that’s exactly what our air force did during the Korean War with conventional weapons. It wasn’t enough. We had total dominion over the Korean skies. Toward the end of the war North Korea looked pretty much like Dresden after World War Two. The Chinese helped of course by supplying soldiers and material. As the Vietcong also learned, there are ways to move militaries without being seen. North Korean and Chinese soldiers were very fast with their feet and traveled mostly at night. So total destruction did not mean winning the war. Nuking North Korea would not end this war either. It would also not necessarily destroy North Korea’s nuclear program or its arms caches, which are likely well underground. It would likely kill tens of millions, including millions of South Koreans, and at best provide the illusion of peace. It would leave a generational memory that would resurface again and again.

Not content with chastising just North Korea, Trump excoriated Iran during his U.N. speech too. He called our nuclear deal with Iran the worst deal ever. Yet even his administration agrees that Iran has fully complied with the terms of the agreement. If the United States were to cancel the deal, the effect would likely be disastrous. Iran would be free to continue to develop its nuclear stockpile and work on nuclear weapons. It’s understandable that Republicans would be upset by what the deal doesn’t do. It doesn’t keep Iran from developing long-range missiles, but it wasn’t designed to be comprehensive. It was designed to keep a new nuclear power from forming in the worst possible part of the world. So far it’s succeeding in those goals. The Trump administration could open talks on these other issues, probably multilateral talks like the Obama Administration used. Or we can start a war with Iran instead. Which is likelier achieve our aims?

Like it or not, the United States can no longer use military power to achieve its aims, at least not with countries beyond a certain size. Most use of military power like this is counterproductive both in the short and the long term. The conflicts we are dealing with are much more complex than they used to be. Today they are less nationalistic than ideologically driven, and that includes here in the United States where a great conflict of ideology is underway. With Republicans in charge, the bias is toward using the military to achieve its goals, which means there is a bias not just toward war, but also toward creating wars.

Because Republicans respect force, they think it is the solution to all these problems. While certainly Democratic administrations have had similar proclivities (Kennedy and Johnson in particular, although they inherited the Vietnam War), it’s been mainly Republicans that have proctored our involvement in new wars. Eisenhower proctored proxy wars in Iran and Guatemala that were covertly run by the CIA. Our meddling in Iran eventually saw the eviction of the Shah and the creation of a deeply anti-American Islamic Republic there. In essence our involvement caused the animus Iran now has toward us. Reagan’s meddling in El Salvador led to civil war and right wing death squads that continue to this day. It certainly did not lead to stability in Central American. Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and Laos exposed a larger war but also proved ineffectual. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has proven to be disastrous and also based on lies. It led to among other things the creation of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria.

Trump seems almost eager to continue this Republican losing streak, perhaps reigniting the Korean War as well as setting off a potential war with Iraq. It’s really about showing American potency and relevance. It’s effectively being the muscular guy on the beach and taunting guys coming by so you can kick sand in their faces.

Solving these problems is going to be very hard and requires new thinking. It will require a bias toward multilateral solutions and diplomacy rather than force, in short using bodies like the United Nations more rather than less. It will mean dialog and engagement, particularly with those we find most difficult to engage with. It will take time and trust and verification. It will mean we will have to make concessions to affect a greater deal.

It’s painfully clear none of this will happen until not just Trump is gone, but Republicans no longer control the White House.

Trump is all hat and no cattle

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, our nation has been living in a Kafkaesque political nightmare. What a week it has been, a crazy week to somehow top all those other crazy weeks since Trump because POTUS. It’s like taking a bad tab of acid. But if you are like me then it’s not necessary because real life can hardly be a weirder bad trip.

I literally go to sleep every night with what I think is a comforting thought: “Well, as crazy as today was, certainly tomorrow can’t be worse.” And every day Trump proves me wrong. It’s like winning a game of improbable chance, like rolling snake eyes every time. But it’s impossible! This defies all common sense and the laws of probability! Surely there will be at least one day there when Trump comes off sounding reasonable, or doesn’t say or do something bizarre and totally off the wall!

The closest he came to this was his substitute for a State of the Union address and only because he read closely off a teleprompter. For almost a day press reports were positive. Then of course he reverted to form and hasn’t deviated since. Tonight he is off on a nine-day foreign adventure guaranteed to rankle both enemies and allies. It’s clear that Trump doesn’t want to go. He only wants to sleep at one of his properties, and there are none on this journey. He is avoiding foreign policy briefings and to the consternation of aides plans to mostly wing it. In Europe, leaders are preparing by keeping the agenda light, short and uncontroversial. It’s just as well because Trump’s ADD will mean after five minutes he will get bored, unless he is speaking of course. I am reminded of that scene from Airplane!

Air Stewardess: Would you like something to read?
Passenger: Do you have anything light?
Air Stewardess: How about this leaflet, ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends?’

The best Americans can hope for from this trip is that Trump has a whole briefcase of these pamphlets that he can peruse when his attention wanders, which it will be most of the time. It’s not hard to predict though that he will spend nine days stepping on toes and generating more controversy, just like on Wednesday when we learned he is the most picked on president ever. This would be news to Abraham Lincoln who was called among other things (and this just by one New York lawyer) “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla”.

I do feel sorry, but not for Trump. The people I feel sorriest for are his White House staff. Even though he picked them, or delegated the job to people (mostly Pence) to pick them, they are always to blame for all of his screw-ups even though they do their best to parrot the message of the moment. Then of course they discover that Trump has said something completely contradictory and undercut them moments later. And it’s their fault!

The only mystery here is why they haven’t all quit en masse. Perhaps they secretly enjoy being abused and berated constantly. That doesn’t seem to be the case. The leaks that Trump would have preferred that former FBI director Comey investigate instead of Russian-Trump connections are a result of staff becoming unglued due to constant stress and his abuse. For Trump’s staff, it’s therapeutic to talk to a Times or Post reporter “off the record” and it paints a portrait of total dysfunction inside the White House. Walking and chewing gum at the same time is apparently way too complicated. Just chewing gum is pretty challenging.

The crux of the matter is that Trump is woefully unqualified to be president, the exact criteria that excited voters. He’s always been about image, but it’s abundantly clear now that his image is just bluster, something his supporters chose to ignore during the campaign. Like Bush II, he’s “All hat and no cattle”. Surely we didn’t need another politician, voters said last November. We needed someone to shake things up. In that sense and in that sense alone Trump is winning: he and his minions are spreading dysfunction across the whole federal government. So if you voted for anarchy, surely you are happy, which is probably why there are vodka toasts hourly at the Kremlin.

There aren’t a whole lot of glimmers of light from all this, but there are a few. Our courts in general seem to be interpreting the law rather than rewriting it, much to Trump’s consternation. (When they do he calls them “fake judges”.) Wednesday brought welcome news that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who himself seems to have played an unseemly part in FBI Director Comey’s firing) has appointed an independent counsel to look into Trump-Russia connections. The ink from the order was hardly dry before Trump of course claimed victimization and persecution, while assuring us there is nothing there. So why be ruffled?

Meanwhile though the Trump bull continues charging through the government’s china shop. It’s unclear how much will be left before he either ingloriously resigns or investigations lead to his impeachment and removal. I’m convinced that he won’t survive this. The only question is when he goes. Trump has a long history of business failures and cashing in his chips. To be true to form he probably will do the same with the presidency at some point, and likely sooner rather than later. When the hand becomes too poor, he folds and walks away complaining. Rest assured when he does he’ll say it wasn’t his fault. Hopefully this will happen before we become embroiled in another war or before a huge diplomatic crisis unfolds.

In that sense I am rooting for his failure, and sooner rather than later. At this point the most patriotic thing Trump can do is resign and hope that by resigning any criminal charges get dropped by prosecutors or pardoned by Mike Pence. The Trump brouhaha though will outlast Trump and will likely tar those on tap to succeed him, certainly Pence who let Mike Flynn into the administration but likely Speaker Ryan too, the next in line.

Are we really living a Kafkaesque political nightmare? At least after Trump goes, I’ll be willing to peak out from under the covers again. What comes next won’t be much fun, but it is likely to be more like entertainment than nightmare, which will mean throwing a bag of popcorn into the microwave instead and hope it settles my queasy stomach.

Making the nation your fall guy

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not often that I get requests for posts, but I actually got one from my daughter the other day. She wants me to write about psychological projection and Donald Trump.

Well, I sort of have been, just not explicitly. I’m sure that it won’t be news to any psychologists reading my blog that Donald Trump has a bad case of psychological projection. But first, let me define it. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.

I have discussed this before, principally in the context of whom we choose to marry. None of us come into life cast from a perfect mold. We stumble and fall repeatedly through life as we try to find what works in the relational chaos around us. We tend to marry people that force us to confront our own inadequacies, who ironically appear under the guise of our soul mate. When it works in addressing our imperfections, it’s good but not much fun. It helps us grow as human beings in ways we otherwise likely would not grow.

The best way to get through these issues is to live an engaged life, where situations periodically force you to tackle your less than admirable spots. What happens though when you grow up in an insular world? Suppose life is presented in a predominantly false way so you never have to learn to deal with people as they actually are? For perhaps the most egregious case possibly ever, I give you Donald J. Trump.

When one of these people is given a lot of power, this warped perspective can be very damaging. Years ago, I opined that this was the problem with our last president, George W. Bush as he was insulated by Poppy from taking the fall for most of his mistakes growing up. George W. though at least had a father somewhat grounded in the real world. Donald J. Trump’s case is much more extreme.

Trump was a child of privilege from birth. His father told him to not feel ashamed of his family wealth. He was told he was naturally better than other people because of his race, ethnicity and family status. He was told he could clear all obstacles in his path to success because that’s what Trumps do. Trump never had to endure a public school. He never had to scrape for a living or know a day of poverty. He got a generous endowment from his father to start out in business. At least once as an adult his father bailed him out when his financial mistakes caught up with him. He grew up believing that more wealth could be acquired through brand, and that came from image. So he projected the image of the person he wanted to be: rich, confident, successful and glamorous even while his behavior made him a wreck of a man to most of us paying attention and many who encountered him.

Obviously many people bought into his projection. Some of them who partnered with him or bought his overpriced products found out that he was happy to screw them out of their money for the illusion that he offered them something special. Others, principally a lot of white people, see something in Trump they admire. They like that he speaks his mind. They see his bullheadedness as a virtue. I call these Powerball people because I see them all the time at the local convenience stores buying reams of lottery tickets. (I saw one working class Joe drop $80 on lottery tickets at a local Pride store just the other day.) They see themselves as temporarily inconvenienced future millionaires and Trump as a model of what is possible, forgetting that he was born into privilege. While waiting for life to reward their talent they hope for unlikely riches by winning at Powerball. They believe that the right uber-male with the golden touch can change a system they feel is rigged against them and favoring the others. Trump is their spokesman and change agent.

In reality Trump has failed many times in life but at least was smart enough to cushion those failures by foisting it on others, including taxpayers like us. When he acquired enough wealth he was also able to throw lawyers at people who gave him grief, like his creditors. This let him develop a reputation of someone not to mess with, so a lot of people didn’t even though he shafted them. He seems to have tacitly conceded that he is not a successful businessman anymore, but he does see himself as a successful brander. He now sells illusion that he has the Midas touch. This part of his career, as well as his ceaseless self-promotion and stomping on those who question it has been successful, at least until now.

Trump’s enormous ego means he believes that he can succeed at anything he puts his mind to, so the presidency became his irresistible lure. The only problem is that he is spectacularly unqualified to actually be president. He never held political office, which requires learning the language of diplomacy, creating coalitions and true leadership. He doesn’t understand how winning campaigns are run and publicly flouted the rules. A wonkish president is good but he simply does not have the ability to absorb information, analyze it and reach logical decisions. He operates on impulse, gut instinct and the unquestioning belief in his own greatness. It’s not surprising then that his campaign never really caught on except for those who shared his perspective, which turned out to be a plurality of Republican primary voters. He doesn’t know how to seal the deal with the rest of us because he has no experience relating to us.

Losing the presidency will be an epic failure for him, but one he cannot acknowledge. It would be to admit his brand is worthless which means he is worthless. But worse, it would mean he would have to confront his own shame. And what is this shame? It’s not that he’s a bully or ran perhaps the most inept campaign ever. It’s the shame that he cannot succeed in selling himself to a majority of American voters.

So it has to be someone else’s fault because if he confronts the awful truth about himself, his house of psychic cards collapses. It would mean that instead of being an uber-male he’s a human being like the rest of us, and not a particularly likable one. It would mean that in spite of his fortune he is a failure because he could not meet his own impossibly high mark.

To keep himself from confronting this awful truth, he will apparently do anything. This is exactly what people with bad cases of psychological projection do simply to mentally survive. And if that means encouraging his followers to harass voters he doesn’t like from voting or by claiming our electoral system is rigged when it isn’t, so be it. If that means breaking our democracy in a fundamental way and causing widespread civil insurrection, he’s good with that. That’s because it means he doesn’t have to confront himself. He never has and this won’t be an exception.

Perhaps by rejecting Trump the country can at least acknowledge its mistake in picking a similar but less-flawed piece of hubris: George W. Bush. Perhaps we are maturing at last. Don’t expect Donald Trump to do so.

Republicans jump off the cliff

The Thinker by Rodin

National party political conventions happen only every four years. This week’s Republican convention in Cleveland though makes me seriously wonder if Republicans will have one in 2020 at all. I’m not alone. No less than former President George W. Bush is wondering if he is the last Republican president.

If you managed to tune into the convention, it’s hard not to escape the feeling of doom unfolding there. The Republican Party shows every sign that they have careened right off the cliff. It’s being bungled in just about every way a convention can be bungled. In case you haven’t had your nose to the news, here’s a small slice of the craziness going on in Cleveland at their convention:

  • At the start, there was a brief but doomed floor fight when delegates from Iowa tried to call for a vote that would have allowed delegates to vote their consciences. It appeared to have the support of enough states to actually get a vote, but the chair ignored it, thereby cementing Republicans’ reputation for not actually following a parliamentary process.
  • Melania Trump’s speech lifted whole sentences from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, the sort of plagiarism that if done in school would get you a failing grade. It turns out that Melania admires Michele, a major problem for any true Republican. She said she wrote the speech herself, but later we were told that a speechwriter did, who eventually took the fall.
  • Last night former candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke, told delegates to vote their consciences and never endorsed Donald Trump, which got him plenty of boos. They let him talk anyhow even though he told them he would not be endorsing Trump. Trump eventually came out to take the spotlight off Cruz and back to where it belongs: on his glorious self. This will likely be mostly what people will talk about for days, rather than Trump’s convention speech but at least it puts the focus on Cruz and 2020. However, if Trump is true to form, his acceptance speech will likely be an incoherent ramble, so maybe not.
  • Less noticed was that House Speaker Paul Ryan also refused to explicitly endorse Trump at his convention speech. Like Cruz, he seems to know the ship is sinking and he wants to be one of the first rats to jump when it is politically safe to do so on November 9.
  • Tuesday was supposed to be a day to talk about how Republicans would fix the economy. Instead it became a day of vitriol where speaker after speaker went on the attack against Hillary Clinton, many calling for her to go to prison. One woman who lost a son in the Benghazi incident held Clinton personally responsible for his death, even though she did not explicitly authorize the ambassador’s trip to Benghazi. A state legislator in West Virginia called for Hillary Clinton to be hung causing United Airlines to suspend him as a pilot.
  • Apparently Ohio governor John Kasich was sounded out to be Trump’s running mate. The offer, apparently from from Trump’s son: you will do the actual management part and my dad will do the “Making America Great Again” part. Strangely, Kasich declined. It appears Trump is bored with the whole manage the country part of the presidency, and wants to outsource it.

Oh, and so much more! Tonight is likely to be equally as memorable as the first three days. Perhaps more memorable than the convention itself is the stunning lack of coherence out of the convention and the epic mismanagement behind the stage. Trump does not know how to delegate. He has a hard time getting people to work for him because he requires non-disclosure agreements and routinely sues employees who he feels have stepped out of line. His roster of speakers is mediocre and often surreal (Scott Baio, really?) and it’s not even clear if he really chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. It appears he had second thoughts and futilely tried to change it at the last moment.

Watching the convention on TV itself is just appalling. There is no way for an impartial viewer not to get the impression that Republicans are passionate and crazy lunatics. Democrats were pretty pissed at George W. Bush at their 2004 convention, but no one suggested that he was a lawbreaker, should be put in jail and hung. It never occurred to Democrats to be this kind of lunatic crazy. But we heard it from speaker after speaker, day after day at this convention. So how can you not escape the conclusion that Republicans are dangerously unhinged?

A convention is normally scripted and carefully stage-managed, but also the organizers think carefully about how they want to present the party to the voters. No one seemed to be doing either parts of this job, bungling the most important part of their sales job prior to the election. Also not going well: fundraising. The typical RNC donors cannot seem to pull out their wallets. Few staff are being hired to go into the field and organize voters. Trump himself seems wholly unconcerned about the party and his campaign’s anemic fundraising, assuming that force of personality will be enough.

The 2012 Republican convention looked like one where Republicans were teetering on the borders of respectability. This is clearly off track, off message and has little of what can be called organization. No wonder George W. Bush is concerned he may be the last Republican president. Republicans seem to be doing everything possible not just to lose, but also to lose epically.

To Democrats, this Republican train wreck has been coming for years. With a few exceptions though today’s Republicans just don’t see what’s coming. But if you want to destroy a party, well, have a party doing so! It feels like this convention will touch all the markers for what not to do. You had best stand aside of the wreckage.

Unwinding the crazy (or why Obama and Mitt Romney need to talk)

The Thinker by Rodin

So my daughter has been chatting with me on Skype. She wants to know: “Dad, have politics ever this crazy?” She would actually take some comfort in knowing that demagogues like Donald Trump have actually arisen before and have had a stake put through their hearts.

I had to tell her no, not in my lifetime anyhow and not within the United States. There are plenty of demagogues out there all the time, but few come around as Donald Trump has to create cyclones of ill will all for the purpose of acquiring something close to the pinnacle of political power in the world: being president of the United States. I see him getting the Republican nomination; hopes of a brokered convention are just fantasies. There have been deeply evil politicians and presidents. Richard Nixon comes to mind but at least he was trapped by a political system of checks and balances. It’s not clear if Trump becomes president whether the system still has the backbone to deal with someone like him. I’d like to think so, but I am skeptical.

Over the years this blog has been around, I’ve made something of a second career cataloguing these demagogues. Democrats are not entirely clean, with John Edwards leaping to mind. Both sides of the party can be pandered to and inflamed. Mostly though these demagogues have limited appeal. Some of the many I have blogged about include Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. I have read enough history though to know that Donald Trump is not quite unprecedented. Early in our history we had a president arguably as bad as Trump: Andrew Jackson whose portrait mysteriously adorns our ten-dollar bill.

We’ve also had our share of bad presidents but who were not demagogues. Woodrow Wilson was a racist who purged blacks from the government. President Harding dropped his pants for more than one woman not his wife and got embroiled in the Teapot Dome oil scandal. Herbert Hoover and a top-heavy Republican congress ushered in the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson made the Vietnam debacle much worse. And I’ve shown 12 years ago that Ronald Reagan was pretty much a disaster of a president. Then of course there is George W. Bush. Still with the possible exception of Jackson none of these presidents rise to Trump’s level. None had the mentality that the ends justified the means. Trump’s success makes him a singular danger to our democracy.

So sorry daughter, we are living the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. Polls suggest a Trump election win will be quite a stretch, but if anyone could pull it off Trump is demonstrating he has the skills and oratory to do it. Trump though is not unique, but simply the most articulate spokesman for the Republican brand. It’s a brand full of chest thumping, racism, classism and staking out unequivocal positions that have devolved into concerns about the size of Trump’s hands and penis. They are all doing it without qualification, except possibly John Kasich. These candidates will denounce Trump on the one hand but won’t take the next obvious step: saying they will not support him if he wins his party’s nomination.

This is because for all their claims of principle they really don’t have any. It’s not principle that drives them; it’s the lust for power. This puts them ever further on the extreme right as well as makes them back down from taking principled stands like saying they won’t support Trump if he wins their party’s nomination. They are all jockeying for power as best they can by keeping their options open. I was puzzling through Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump shortly after dropping out. Why was he doing this? The easy rationalization is that both are bullies and he identifies with a fellow bully. But the same can be said for most of the Republican candidates. I think Christie is hoping to be nominated as his running mate. I think he is further expecting that if Trump wins office he will eventually be impeached and removed, leaving him as president. It’s a tactic worthy of Frank Underwood; he was just the first to go there. While Christie may admire Trump for being a master bully, I think his real motivation is simply a lust for power.

The larger question is how do you undo something like this? It’s not like we are at the precipice. Lots of people are already jumping off the cliff into the political unknown. It’s time for the grownups not just to speak up but also to take real action. Mitt Romney says he won’t vote for Trump but did not suggest an alternative, which is hardly helpful. Establishment Republicans are trying to persuade voters in keystone states like Florida and Ohio to vote for someone else, but they appear too late to the game to change the dynamics. President Obama recently spoke out, but it was at a fundraiser. Changing the dynamics here though is pretty much impossible when the other party will refuse to even listen to you. Just for starters Republicans in Congress won’t even allow Obama’s budget director to present his budget, the first time this has ever been done. A Republican Senate also refuses to entertain a nominee for the Supreme Court.

We need an elder statesman with mojo and credibility to bring the parties together to tone down the rhetoric and is some marginal way change the conversation and up the civility factor. There is no one such person, unfortunately. Jimmy Carter comes to mind but Republicans would dismiss him.

We urgently need a national timeout. All these key muckrakers need to have a private conclave and hash this out. If I were President Obama I’d be on the phone with Mitt Romney. I’d be penciling in a date in a couple weeks at a private retreat like Camp David and use the power of shame (if it works) to bring all these blowhards together in one place to hash this out. This would include Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress and all the presidential candidates on both sides. It would also include chairs of the Democratic and Republican national committees. I’d include trained facilitators and psychologists to help ensure the meeting moves forward productively The topics would include: setting baselines for acceptable political behavior and setting up a process involving some compromise so that Congress and the President can work together in some minimal fashion through the election.

Would it work? The odds are against my proposal but someone needs to step forward and we need two brave people on both sides of the aisle. I don’t see any others who can play this role.

Sadly, nothing like this is likely to happen, but it needs to happen. Is there a grownup in the room?

State of the presidential race

The Thinker by Rodin

And we’re off with another of my analyses of the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve now had a few primaries and caucuses. Super Tuesday is a week away. Its results will clarify a lot of things and may very well show that my analysis today was quite off the mark. So it goes sometimes for us pundits. But these analyses are what people seem to want. I do notice that to the extent that posts get liked or shared, it’s from these posts.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has finally dropped out. Perhaps he felt he needed to make one last attempt in South Carolina to minimize family shame. Also gone are Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie. It appears that only three are really in the running now: Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Kasich is hanging in there along with Ben Carson but at this point those two are outliers. My betting is that Trump will be the nominee. I’m actually rooting for Cruz, not because I like him but because he’d be the easiest for a Democratic candidate to beat. He is so nasty. Rubio is the Democrats’ biggest threat. I expect that the Republican establishment will rally around Rubio but like with Jeb it’s probably a lost cause. Simply speaking, the Republican establishment simply doesn’t represent the Republican voters anymore. Republican voters don’t care about conservatism as they do about personalities. (Witness Trump’s recent takedown of George W. Bush on the Iraq War. It hasn’t affected his poll numbers.) They want someone who best channels their fears. Trump seems to do this best and is adroit and fending off competition. There is a slim chance of a brokered convention but such a convention would likely be the death of the Republican Party. Trump will bring the “establishment” in his coattails, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from them.

On the Democratic side, Martin O’Malley is gone. Clinton showed a little moxie by winning the caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, but only by five points after Sanders predictably shellacked her in the New Hampshire primary. In actual pledged delegates she and Sanders are tied at 55 each, but Clinton claims a huge superdelegate lead. Superdelegates however tend to move toward the people’s choice. Clinton should know this best as she was boasting about this eight years ago. By the time the convention rolled around the superdelegates dutifully got behind Barack Obama, their party’s choice. So don’t pay much attention to the superdelegate buzz. However, Super Tuesday does favor Clinton. Eleven states are in play plus American Samoa and Democrats abroad. My predictions:

  • Clinton wins Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas
  • Sanders wins Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia

Of course the system is not winner take all, but the big prize is Texas (222 delegates). My guess is overall it will break 60% for Clinton and 40% for Sanders. Clinton should have some momentum coming out of Super Tuesday, but wins will be primarily a factor of the values in the states and especially the number of African Americans voting in these states. The national and state polls are mixed, but overall Sanders is catching up with Clinton. He must catch up quickly otherwise the delegate math will work against him.

Democrats need Sanders to win the nomination. This is because (like Obama in 2008) Sanders gives Democrats a reason to show up at the polls. Clinton (like Trump) is judged more unfavorably than favorably by voters and it’s unlikely that will change. However, Republicans are highly motivated in this election and they will be most motivated if Trump wins the nomination. So Democrats will need to at least match Republican motivation to win and Clinton is hardly a reason to get enthused. Polls consistently show that Sanders will win against any of the Republican candidates.

Understandably some Democrats are unenthusiastic about a Sanders nomination. Some don’t see him as a true Democrat because he only joined the party recently, having caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate. There are concerns that his socialist platform won’t sell or that he is too idealistic to be a good president, and would be a poor commander in chief. Clinton arguably addresses these concerns, but it comes at the expense of a higher probability of losing the general election. Sanders however is also likelier to have longer coattails and should bring in a new wave of younger and enthusiastic Democrats. You can’t really govern well without Congress behind you. Sanders is betting the farm on Democrats retaking the Senate and with a massive turnout in his favor Democrats could even retake the House.

One wild card is whether former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg runs for president as an independent. Should Clinton win the nomination (and particularly if Trump wins the Republican nomination) then a Bloomberg run is good for Democrats. The worst case is that Americans choose Bloomberg, which negates the worry that Trump would win. The likelier case is a repeat of the 1992 election when Ross Perot’s independent run effectively kept George H.W. Bush from being reelected, and put Bill Clinton in the White House. No independent has ever won the presidency so Bloomberg’s odds are slim at best, even with all his money, something he should know. He would also be effective in taking down Trump. It may take another billionaire to bring down Trump.

Anyhow, that’s how I read the tealeaves at the moment.

Iraq: what now?

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.