The perfect storm

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you hadn’t noticed, Donald Trump suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, a side effect of his Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’d say give the man some Ritalin but in many ways his ADD simply helps speed up his unraveling. The more I watch the man, the more convinced I am that he subconsciously wants to fail. He’s in way over his head. He can’t acknowledge it to himself so he spends a lot of time doing stupid stuff.

Stupid stuff like spending Easter tweeting that there will be no DACA deal and he’s going to blow up NAFTA if he doesn’t get his border wall. This is likely to blow over rather than blow up because when you have ADD by definition you have a short attention span. So it’s likely a week from now he’ll have totally forgotten he tweeted this stuff. In any event, if you are hearing a chorus of “ho hums” coming from Capitol Hill, it’s because they’ve seen stuff like this so many times that it’s becoming rote. Even the press is starting to move these presidential tweets below the fold. Hopefully they’ll move to page A10 pretty soon.

It’s obvious Trump is not a politician, which is presumably what his supporters like about him. When he tries to schmooze it comes across as wholly inauthentic. In any case, politicians quickly learn if you want to get stuff done you have to do a lot of schmoozing. That’s because power in the government is decentralized and not even Trump can change that, although he is trying. For now at least if he wants to get something major done, it has to be done through Congress, not executive actions.

It’s likely when you were growing up if your parents scolded you it did not enamor you toward them. It works the same way in Congress, which is why so little of Trump’s agenda has gotten passed despite having a Republican congress. In some ways Congress is digging in their heels. They’ve pretty much blocked Trump’s outreach to Russia and passed veto-proof legislation to tighten Russian sanctions. Congress has trumped Trump, and even Trump has seen the writing on the wall by expelling sixty Russian diplomats who were likely spies.

Trump obviously didn’t read the FY18 spending bill even though congressional leaders met with him to get his agreement on it before moving it through Congress. When it was sent for his signature he rebelled then reluctantly gave in. The legislation funds election system reforms, targets Russian hacking of our elections and hits many of the items on the Democratic Party’s wish list, such as major increases in funds for domestic programs. The CDC is allowed to research the effects of guns on public health again. Who would have thought with Republicans supposedly controlling government?

In any event, if Trump actually makes a stand on his border wall, the proper thing to do is to stand up to him. That’s what you do with bullies and arguably Congress is doing a pretty good job of it already. Granted, there are some exceptions. The Republican congress finds it in their interest to give the White House a pass on its general corruption. Mostly the Congressional leadership is well aware of his ADD and uses strategies like the spending bill to work around him.

Trump can renegotiate NAFTA and take many actions, but he can’t cancel it. His leverage on DACA is mainly of his own choosing. It won’t take for too many DACA recipients to actually be deported before he learns how counterproductive it will be. And these measures certainly won’t spur Congress to build a border wall, or convince Mexico to pay for it, mainly because he can’t really block these imports from Mexico by himself. He has to convince Congress to change the law. As long as he is yelling at Congress, it ain’t happening.

All this is leading toward the midterms on November 6, which is likely to return Democrats to the majority in Congress. It will still be a tough hurdle for Democrats, given the extreme gerrymandering nationwide and further voter suppression efforts. But Trump is doing pretty much everything possible to empower Democrats back into the majority. Just today I read that China is imposing its own tariffs against selective U.S. imports in response to recent U.S. tariffs that Trump authorized. This dropped the DJIA some 450 more points, putting all stock indexes in the negatives for the year. We are a hare’s breath away from correction territory. The downturn is almost exclusively due to the tariffs Trump has put in place, which will have the obvious result of restraining trade and thus reducing economic growth. These Chinese tariffs are specifically chosen to hurt his base of support. European and other countries are starting to do likewise. Not much can convince Republicans to vote for Democrats, but policies that hit them in their own pocketbook can bleed off a number of wavering supporters.

Underlying all this chaos is the epic turnover among White House staff. Trump can’t even find a new lawyer, as his brand has become toxic. Administration is missing from the so-called Trump administration. What his bullying has caused is an epic reaction, causing people to appreciate democracy and sound governance. It is spurring people (mostly women) to run for office. By some estimates, the recent March for our Lives was the biggest march ever in Washington. Trump has engaged young people in particular against him. This hastens not just his disempowerment, but also the end of Republican governance.

Leading perhaps to the perfect storm on November 6. With no sign that Trump will change tactics and every indication that he will double-double down, it’s not too hard a prediction to make.

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

The Thinker by Rodin

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.

The oligarchy’s recipe for staying in charge

The Thinker by Rodin

If we reputedly we live in a democracy, then why are those in charge so out of touch with the needs of ordinary people? Ordinary people want jobs, but that appears to be the last thing that politicians in Washington are concerned about. Of course they claim just the opposite, but see what animates them. It sure isn’t jobs. Instead it’s tax breaks for the wealthy and ending abortion.

It might be because Congress has little in common with its constituents. For example, just one percent of Americans are millionaires, but 46 percent of Congress are millionaires. The problem got worse with the 2010 elections, which brought in a freshman class of senators with an average net worth of $4M each. It’s not impossible to get a seat in Congress and be of modest means, but it’s clear that it is very hard.

Running for Congress is not something you can squeeze into your evenings and weekends while you earn income at a full time job. Running for Congress is far more than a full time job. It consumes pretty much all the time you have, including a fair amount of your sleep. To even have a chance of winning against an incumbent, you need lots of money, so you spend most of your time not campaigning, but on the phone dialing for dollars or at fundraisers. So it really helps to be independently wealthy. If fundraising slacks off, you can always dip into your personal savings. But even many of the wealthy cannot self fund their own campaigns. Campaigns are so expensive they must seek out others with money.

For the most part, the rest of us are just trying to survive. If we have ambitions for running for political office, it might be for school board or dogcatcher, because that’s as high as we are likely to get. But even winning those kinds of elections still takes the ability to raise tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which is why you quickly find that you must affiliate yourself with a political party. Hopefully there is some congruence between your beliefs and the political party you choose, because if you run then you will need to animate members of your party to campaign for you. Which means you will tune your message, at least in part, to what they want to hear. To win, it helps enormously if you become more partisan, not less.

It also helps if you fire up your base while other voters stay mired in apathy. You want those who would vote against you to feel disengaged and not vote at all. When voters overall are engaged, this results in close elections, reducing the likelihood that you will win. However, if you can fire up your base but those who would vote against you are more inclined toward apathy than to vote, the chances of winning rise dramatically. On the other hand, particularly during presidential election years when turnout tends to be higher, if you can align with the winning presidential candidate’s ideas and philosophies, you can profit from the coattail effect. This is great if it works, but is dangerous.

Once in office, while you could work on issues your constituents care about, for the most part they won’t be calling or writing, since they are busy. Those who will be calling and writing are more likely those with particular axes to grind. Don’t expect many visits from those lobbying to end muscular dystrophy. Instead, expect those fiercely animated about something to knock on your door instead. This will be a lot of gun nuts and antiabortion zealots. You will find your path to reelection so much easier if you accommodate them instead of having them as obstacles, so most in Congress do. Mostly those who will be calling will represent corporate interests. In fact, most of them you will know already, because they helped fund your campaign. They did so on the understanding that you were aligned with their business interests, so you need to keep voting for their bills.

Since Congress has become an oligarchy run principally to meet the needs of American corporations, American corporations in particular know a good thing when they see one. Power is exercised through proxies. They will sponsor you to the extent that you vote with their interests, and will quickly pull money and support if you dare deviate from it. With money of course comes the opportunity to leverage more power. This is done in various ways. It is done by setting up think tanks stuffed with eloquent people that will act as an echo chamber. It will be done through setting up shell political action committees that are purportedly average citizens, but in reality are corporate CEOs. Since those with money tend to control the airwaves and the presses, it also means the media must reflect a corporate message. Over time it means using your advantage to win more political power, not just in Congress, but also in the executive branch and, most importantly, in the Supreme Court, where power can be extended over decades unchecked. It is not coincidence that our conservative Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, in spite of the fact that this has nothing to do with original intent.

What does have something to do with original intent is limiting voting power to men with property. This was how republican government was understood in 1776, but it reflected a society where slaves and women were chattel, and those without property were often indentured servants. Who could vote was a matter for states to decide, and typically these were only male property owners. Some see virtues in this today, and it is expressed in a variety of policies that give one class more power at the expense of another. At one time it was accomplished through a poll tax. Now it is done by raising barriers to voting: making it harder to use absentee ballots, requiring students to come home to vote, voter ID laws and tightening the window between when you must be registered to vote in order to vote. Vote suppression is only illegal if you get caught, and if you do get caught it won’t invalidate the results of an election, so it’s worth a try. Election officials can always claim later they did not know they needed more voting booths in poor wards. Mistakes happen.

There are more insidious ways to maintain power, and unfortunately they are being played out now. The wealthy understand that money is power, which is partly why it doesn’t bother the Supreme Court at all to call corporations people. If money is power, then those with more money have more power. Hence, you want those with less money to have even less of it, and you to have more of it, so lower those capital gains taxes and keep taxes for the rich artificially low in general. The key to doing this is to make it virtually impossible for anyone poor to get a leg up. You want people to be poor, because this leaves them disenfranchised. You want public schools to fail, so you underfund them. You want more poor people, since it further reduces the cost of labor, so you find it convenient to be antiabortion. You also want the poor to die early, since they do not burden society by being unproductively unhealthy, so it doesn’t bother you if they cannot afford health insurance. You want the poor to have insurmountable obstacles to wealth. In short, the poor become tools that let you live a richer life. They are to be used with no thought or concern that they are actual human being with feelings.

What you don’t want are people who manage to escape the barriers put in front of them, most recently manifested by presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Lessons learned: they managed to escape their social class through Great Society programs like Food Stamps and scholarships for poor and minority students. Practical men of action like them, who root for the common man, are extremely dangerous. This explains not just the dislike, but the hatred and loathing against both Clinton and Obama. They escaped the many traps put in place to keep them down. So get rid of welfare, get rid of Food Stamps, get rid of scholarships, and get rid of anything that can address their inequity. Say it’s all about self-reliance and that anyone with enough gumption can surmount insurmountable hurdles. It’s part of the American myth and it’s part of how the oligarchy stays in charge.

In a future essay I hope to suggest what we can do about this.