The odd advantages of having a stupid president

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump is pretty damned stupid. Obviously he is not retarded. His vocabulary, while often elementary school level, is enough to be understood. He still knows how to apply the spray tan, dye his hair, then lacquer it with industrial strength hair spray. Anyhow, if you have any doubt, watch Trump’s news conference yesterday.

In any normal times, this would have leaders of both parties rushing to invoke the 25th Amendment. And they should have, but of course Republicans in Congress are too cowardly to admit the obvious. He is so stupid. Any half self-aware president would not announce that their national emergency for a border wall with Mexico wasn’t really a national emergency, undercutting the many cases that will come before various courts. But more than a few of them were probably thinking: He’s so stupid he probably doesn’t have the wherewithal to follow through anyhow, so what does it matter? Donald Trump goes for nice shiny objects that are dangled in front of him, hopefully with mirrors that reflect his glorious visage. He has proven staggeringly inept at actually getting anything done.

Think about it: he had control of all branches of government for two years and his signature accomplishment was piling on more tax cuts for the wealthy, something the Republican Party can always agree on. I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that my federal taxes are actually going up, but I live in a relatively high tax state now (Massachusetts) and I can’t claim to be in the top ten percent of income earners. To the extent he has been successful, it’s been in putting minions in charge of various departments with unusual wile and animus, but who are usually deeply corrupt such as Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt. They have no problem throwing people under the bus if it makes millionaires and corporations richer. It’s obvious though that while Trump wants to appear as an effective president, he simply can’t bother to spend the time to actually be one.

So this in a way is an advantage. Yes, he can foul up the machinery of government, but he’s not smart enough to do it adroitly. This means if you are going to elect a fascist as president, he’s the best possible fascist if you want to keep your constitutional democracy. This is because he is so stupid and clueless. He can’t be bothered to actually spend the time necessary to be a mendacious fascist, as his official schedule shows because it is loaded with “executive time” (read: watching Fox News).

It must bother the heck out of Vladimir Putin, but doubtless he was smart enough to realize Trump’s limitations. You get the sycophant you have, not the one you actually need. He was better than nothing but he will hardly bring about the rapid collapse of the United States.

Under the circumstances, our democratic government is handling his presidency pretty well. Many of his cabinet secretaries work against Trump’s aims, and do so overtly. The civil service seems to be morphing as best it can to provide passive resistance. During the latest shutdown, air traffic controllers showed Trump who was really in charge. This is amazing if you recall that Reagan fired all air traffic controllers for going on strike. The courts seem largely untouched, but stacking them with more Republican jurists will prove problematic over time. And now that Democrats control the House, it’s pretty clear that Trump’s agenda is blocked. No wonder then that he is left to declare fake “national emergencies” to stop the flow of migrants into our country, which is just 25% of the peak of the problem during the Clinton presidency.

Although the precedence for this emergency is very bad, don’t lose too much sleep over any more wall actually getting built. While it’s unlikely that Congress will overturn it, it is very likely that it will be ricocheting through the courts at least until the 2020 election, by which time it is likely to be moot. Trump has to hope he can win reelection and convince the Supreme Court to uphold his bogus emergency. That is, if he can be bothered to focus on it for the remainder of his term. Most likely he will be off playing with other new and shiny toys instead.

Should this happen again though it’s unlikely that our next fascist president will be as stupid as Trump. Hopefully Congress will turn blue and rewrite the national emergency law to prohibit exactly what Trump is trying to do. Let’s just be glad that if a Republican had to be elected president in 2016, it was Donald Trump and not Dick Cheney.

Getting out … of a shutdown and a presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

The missus and me are getting ready to bug out of the United States for two weeks. Saturday we are off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While in the Galapagos, we’ll spend four nights on a yacht out of range of all Internet and cell phone towers. We’ll be diving into the ocean and seeing species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, in an area that is largely untouched by the scourge of man. Somehow we’ll have to survive for a while cut off from all media, particularly those four nights we spend on a yacht island hopping. But we’ll be wondering if there will be any TSA or CBP agents still on the job to let us back in on January 18th.

As vacations go, this one will be a departure. In theory, there is no jet lag to worry about, as Ecuador is in our time zone and the Galapagos Islands are basically on Central Time. There are no international flights to the Galapagos; you have to go through Ecuador. So we will spend a few nights in Quito breathing the rarified air at 10,000 feet up, seeing the cloud forests and putting one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. You can do that in Ecuador, which is basically on the equator. It will be the first time I will have ever been in the southern hemisphere. Still, there will be jet lag of sorts: rising around 4 AM for a flight to the Galapagos Island is equivalent to a red eye to Europe. But we’ll survive these trials and have a lot of fun.

So don’t expect much posting from me over the next couple of weeks, but I do hope to document our journey to this rarely visited area of the world, albeit belatedly. It all depends on how much time I have to write and if I have Internet access. We’ll be kept pretty busy.

Still, I imagine our thoughts will frequently be of home and how much wackier our country has gotten since we left. Democrats now formally control the U.S. House, which means that our crazy government is about to get a lot crazier. Our national parks are overrun with litter and our museums are closed. Those asylum cases underway: postponed; no money has been allocated to pay the judges. Something has to break so you have to wonder how it will break and when.

A couple of Republican senators seem ready to cry uncle, specifically senators Susan Collins (ME) and Cory Gardner (CO), both up for reelection in two years in states swinging blue. House Democrats are swiftly passing bills to reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to consider them if they are not acceptable to Donald Trump. There is another meeting tomorrow at the White House that probably won’t change the dynamics. In any event, it’s hard to see how a Democratic House with forty new and mostly progressive members can be convinced to add funding for a border wall, since most of them campaigned against doing just this. Speaker Pelosi is pursing a logical strategy of trying to pass individual appropriation bills, but she has to convince people who are not thinking logically.

Divided government requires compromise but it’s hard to see how it will happen. It will probably happen when the pain gets too bad to endure. I’m betting that Trump declares victory to make it all go away. Today’s tweets suggest he’s already preparing his supporters for this out: because of the new NAFTA treaty, Mexico will somehow pay for the wall, so problem over! Of course the treaty is not ratified, Congress has not agreed to allow a wall to be constructed, and there are no revenues there that will be paid by Mexico to the U.S. government that can be used for a border wall even if the treaty is signed. In the end though this probably won’t make much difference to his supporters: they will dopily follow Trump anywhere. If Trump says black is white, they’ll believe him. Mostly they want to see him stand up and fight for something, and mostly he’s been full of bluster instead of action.

If Democrats want to concede something symbolic, then how about a small wall near Tijuana? A nice, outwardly arching wall would obviate the need to throw canisters of tear gas across the border. I’d like to see Democrats propose to open the government by throwing the border wall issue to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to study. I doubt Trump would go for it, but it would defer the issue for another day and inject some honest research into the topic.

In reality, Trump has much bigger fish to fry. The subpoenas from House Democrats are going to come fast and thick. Hearings will be ramping up; Trump’s tax returns will be demanded from the IRS that must supply them by law. And of course we can expect Mueller’s report at some point, and it’s unlikely to be flattering to Trump.

Some posts ago I suggested that Trump won’t escape justice this time, but there is a way. It requires a deal, not with Congress or Mueller, but with Mike Pence. It is simply this: Trump agrees to resign if Mike Pence will pardon him for any crimes committed against the United States. He’d still have to deal with potential state crimes, but there is some hope that the Supreme Court will rule that states cannot prosecute people pardoned for similar federal crimes. This approach though assumes that Trump’s narcissism can abate long enough for him to execute something smartly in his self-interest. He’s obviously feeling the pressure, as his daily tweets get continually more unhinged. It’s clear he hates being president. He just has to figure out a way to justify his resignation. If he does resign, he will blame the deep state, Democrats and obviously anyone but himself.

And there is the 25th amendment route that Pence could choose, if he can get a majority of what’s left of Trump’s cabinet to agree. As an acting president, he could at least reopen the government. If it came to it, it wouldn’t be hard to find some top-notch psychiatrists to testify that Trump is dangerously mentally ill. I’m not holding out much hope on this. Pence is likely too much a coward, Trump’s base is too loyal and he would be seen as a turncoat.

It would be nice if it were all over when we return. But I’d best not hold my breath.

Shutdown dumbness

The Thinker by Rodin

There are lots of good things about being retired like me, but if you are an ex-federal employee like me, there is one truly great thing: not having to deal with yet another furlough from yet another government shutdown. These shutdowns became something of a regular thing during the last half of my career. They were always aggravating and pointless, as this current partial shutdown underway proves yet again. That’s not to say that they are easy to endure. Lots of federal employees live paycheck to paycheck, so even if they eventually get repaid it doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering. The ones who suffer the most are probably those required to work anyhow, the “essential” ones like your TSA agents. Lincoln freed the slaves but not the essential employees during a government shutdown.

Some people actually lose money, principally federal contractors. Most of them cannot work unless federal employees supervise them, and in that case their contract usually does not allow them to bill hours. Eventually though there is a whole host of connected people and businesses affected: childcare providers, local businesses, transit systems, the traveling public and those tourists who just want to visit a national park. The longer it goes on the more painful it gets. Sitting on your ass at home is really not much fun, as I discovered. There is a lot of angst to being furloughed as you have no idea when it will end and whether your bank account will hold out until then. And many federal employees were like me: very mission focused, anxious to simply do our jobs.

For me this is now moot. Somehow I will still get my pension payment on time. I guess that and delivering social security checks are considered essential. Chances are though if they weren’t, it would spur both Congress and the President to make choices neither wants to make.

So there is no such thing as a smart shutdown, but there are dumb shutdowns and dumber than dumb shutdowns. This current one is one of the latter. It happened because only at the last minute Trump changed his mind. He apparently was watching Fox News and found out he was being criticized for not being tough enough on his border wall. Suddenly the continuing resolution passed unanimously by the Senate that he had approved was no longer acceptable. It was put up or shut up time for Trump, or at least for a few shrill people in the media whose support he craves. This shutdown has the feeling of one that is going to linger a long time, which might make the 1995 shutdown look like small potatoes.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? We’re about to find out. Most likely it won’t end well, or quickly. Now that Trump is out on a limb, he has no way to back down without losing face, something a bully cannot do. Lose face and you look impotent.

He complains that it’s a Democratic shutdown, but until January 3 Republicans control all branches of government. And Congressional Republicans have decided to punt the whole leadership thing. When Democrats gain forty seats on January 3, they are unlikely to be in an accommodating mood. And since all spending bills must originate in the House, a Democratic House is not likely to add funding for a border wall.

The Senate could add it back in, but they didn’t feel it necessary last time, and if they send it back to the House with border wall funding it probably won’t pass. Meanwhile, the productivity of millions of federal workers and contractors are lost, while the “essential employees” continue to work without pay. How long before essential employees go on strike? Why show up for work when you have no income to give to the landlord for the January rent?

If the shutdown were about something that mattered, maybe it would be worth the price. But it’s about a border wall that two-thirds of Americans don’t want and that a Republican Congress has repeatedly refused to fund. Moreover, it’s for a wall that won’t even solve the problem that Trump is so concerned about. As Anne Applebaum points out, the number of people crossing the southern border illegally has fallen 90% since 2000. The real scofflaws? Those overstaying their visas, who mostly fly in, 700,000 of which are Canadians. Trump has not proposed building a wall along our border with Canada, so clearly the issue has much more to do with the color of the scofflaw’s skin than anything else.

As a method of keeping people out though a wall is a terrible idea. There are much cheaper ways to accomplish border security and they are working pretty well. One of the best ways is to invest in the countries sending these people, like Honduras. Given them safety and economic opportunity where they live and there is no reason to head north. Of course Trump is now threatening to take away what little aid we give these countries, exacerbating the problem.

Yesterday Trump threatened to shutdown the whole southern border. It’s not clear that he can do that but it would certainly get attention, as about half a million people cross the border legally every day. Considering the amount of trade that goes on between the U.S. and Mexico, including lots of produce and auto parts, doing this for any sustained period of time would be disastrous. If you are looking to tip an economy officially into recession, this should do it.

All this so Trump’s narcissism can be sated a bit. You have to wonder just how dumb his supporters are. Did they really believe all the bullshit he was claiming? If nothing else then perhaps this shutdown will finally reveal the fraud behind the curtain.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Will one side blink? I do suspect if it drags on long enough, Congress will find the wherewithal to override Trump’s veto. The Senate needs 20 of 53 Republican senators to overturn a Trump veto. With 40 new Democrats in the House, 55 out of 199 Republicans would have to vote against Trump, or 27% of the caucus. I think it’s doable if the pain gets bad enough. If Congress does it though it would set a good precedent by making Trump increasingly irrelevant. Here’s hoping.

Trump and the price of being a bullshit artist

The Thinker by Rodin

So basically our government is shutdown because of bullshit.

At midnight today much of the government shutdown again, but this time it was because Trump got caught in his own bullshit. For years he had been talking about a great, big, beautiful wall on our southern border to keep the “illegals” out. It was going to have a great big door, the best of course. I guess gates aren’t allowed on this border wall. And most importantly Mexico was going to pay for it. He said it over and over again. If there was anything about his 2016 campaign that will be remembered in the history books, it will be all the relentless repetitions on this theme:

So you would think that if he really wanted to deliver on his signature promise, it would be pretty simple: order the U.S. Marines to occupy Mexico’s National Palace where its treasury is located and loot the place of the $50B or so needed to build Trump’s beautiful wall and door. Take the money back to the U.S. and build the wall. He’s commander in chief and doesn’t need the approval of Congress to send in the Marines. Or he could order a small thermonuclear weapons to be used on a suburb of Mexico City to show the Mexicans we’re serious … they need to pony up the dough for the wall now.

But no. Apparently what he really meant was that if Mexico refused to pay for it, Congress has to pony up the money instead. He is now spouting the line that the shutdown is the Democrats’ fault, even though until January 3, 2019 Republicans still control Congress.

I guess reinforced fences aren’t enough. It’s got to be a wall, a wall that somehow won’t get tunneled under like happens now. It’s got to be a tall wall to keep the drugs from coming in, as if they won’t continue to come in the way they already have: tunnels under the border, hidden inside trucks and in airplane cargo, or by speedboats. It’s going to have to be a hell of a tall wall to keep a catapult from throwing drugs over the wall, assuming smugglers want to try such a brazen method. With over two thousand miles of border, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a spot to toss some of it over.

Here’s the saddest part: Trump never really wanted the wall. The wall was a means to an end: to get elected (which surprised him) but really to get the crowds at his rallies riled up. It gave him the adulation that he craves more than anything else. Trump as usual wanted to have his cake and to eat it too. Apparently Trump loves the “illegals”; at least he loves to hire them. Apparently the maid who cleaned his toilet at Mar-a-Lago was undocumented. Trump doesn’t want to pay pull price for anything, so of course he will have his managers look the other way to bring in the cheap help.

Anyhow, he apparently he did a good job of selling this wall thing with his base. Now they actually want him to build it. His base is only 25% of the public, but he’s convinced that somehow with this base happy he will win reelection, although a majority of Americans don’t want a border wall. Congress at least understands it’s kind of pointless: why spend $50B to build a wall that won’t even solve the problem?

In fact, if ever constructed it would make things a lot worse. It would be an eyesore for sure. It will get breached repeatedly. Like any other public infrastructure, it will require patching and maintenance. If Republicans’ willingness to spend money on highway infrastructure is any clue to how it will play out, the undamaged portions wall will simply deteriorate from neglect. Some migratory animals wouldn’t migrate anymore, not that this would bother them. Most importantly, the cheap labor we’ve depended on from the south to keep the economy humming might slow down, leading to our economic decline. I mean are you going to volunteer to clean all those airport toilets? Are you going to volunteer to pick crops in California and Arizona?

That won’t happen. But what will happen in time is that sufficient numbers of guest worker visas will get approved anyhow. Agribusiness won’t allow Congress to pull these visas anyhow; heck, Trump’s many resorts and winery depend on these special visas. Those from Central and South America who want to come here will do it the old fashioned way: on a tourist visa whose expiration date they will ignore. For the most part they will have to fly in, which is not cheap. Perhaps we’ll get a higher class of “illegal”.

This pointless shutdown is all about saving face for Trump. Someone pulled the mask of the old Lone Ranger. Ironically, Tonto did it.