The Republican unraveling

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defusing the angry Trumpsters

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry I haven’t been posting lately. For being sort of retired, my life has been plenty busy lately. Mainly I’ve been hosting family, who seem to have finally accepted that we have moved to Western Massachusetts and suddenly want to visit. My brother arrived for a weeklong visit. In the middle of it my sister arrived, along with my stepmother. For eleven days we enjoyed their company, fed them and took them places. Now things are getting back to normal and I can think about blogging again.

What thought that have been occupying my brain these last couple of weeks have not been Donald Trump, but the people who support him. Trump has been true to his form, going from crazy to crazier. I no longer worry at all about him winning the election. As I said in June, Trump is toast. I’d like to think he is smart enough to realize this, but he is surprisingly tone deaf to things like his ultra high negatives and polling that shows him pulling farther behind Hillary Clinton.

He seems convinced that he will somehow pull this election thing off somehow, unless it gets “stolen” somehow. (What a strange concern from a party that has been putting up voting roadblocks for poor and minorities.) Even Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) has thrown in his towel. For months he was dogmatically certain that Trump had us all hypnotized. He had said he had 98% confidence that Trump would win the election because he excelled at mass hypnosis and persuasion techniques. I do give him credit for one thing: Trump certainly has his followers hypnotized. It seems there is nothing too wild that he can say (the latest is that President Obama “founded” ISIS) that will dissuade his followers from voting for him. Fortunately this is but a sizeable minority of the country. To quote Bertrand Russell, the rest of us aren’t hypnotized; we are “uncomfortably awake”. You know you are in trouble when my stepmother, who reads Bill O’Reilly’s books and watches Fox News told us she couldn’t vote for Trump. Hillary will get her vote.

This is not my first rumination about Trump’s followers. This is America, and we’re entitled to believe any crazy thing we want, which is why many of us are dogmatically certain the earth is only 6000 years old. We don’t give up our prejudices easily and I’m no exception. Rest assured though that if Bernie Sanders were the pompous, gaseous windbag that Donald Trump is I would have been the first to run away from him. A few of Trump’s halfhearted supporters have seen the light, which is mostly figuring out what side their bread is buttered on. Establishment Republicans are working hard to shut their eyes and stop their ears until after the election. They too live in the real world and they know a political disaster of potentially Biblical proportions is about to be unleashed in November against them. They are hoping their firewall of gerrymandering will allow them to maintain some modicum of political control, at least in the House. The Senate is looking likely to flip back to the Democrats.

The late Eric Hoffer wrote a number of interesting books, including The Ordeal of Change and The True Believer. It is the latter book that I am thinking about tonight. Most of us are true believers in the sense that we have certain core beliefs that virtually nothing can change. I fall into this category too. We are not open to evidence that contravenes our predetermined positions, which is why it’s very hard to get someone to change those opinions and beliefs they are most passionate about. Sometimes it takes cataclysm. In the case of Japan, it took two nuclear bombs to get them to surrender and a benevolent overlord (the United States) to introduce rational government (democracy). Just to be on the safe side though we clipped Japan’s wings, not allowing it to develop nuclear weapons or an army capable of fighting in a foreign war. In Trump’s supporters I see a lot of people behaving a lot like the Japanese before their surrender, i.e. true believers. Trump seems to be egging them on with a recent comment that suggested that those who favor the Second Amendment might unseat a President Hillary Clinton using their guns, which most read as his sanctioning her assassination.

The most dangerous day for our democracy since the Civil War may be the day after the general election, November 9, and what comes out of Trump’s mouth when he loses. Based on his bullheadedness and lack of impulse control, I would not be surprised if he asked his followers to rise up. After all, it will be the only way to “make America great again” if we unwisely choose “Crooked Hillary”. It would probably land him in jail, but it’s unclear if this would bother him, as stoking his ego seems to be all that matters. Would his supporters actually try insurrection? And if so how can it be prevented?

I think at least some will, with or without an overt call. Trump will probably call for it using weasel words that will sound like he is not directly calling for such an action, but his supporters will know what he is signaling. I think even if he says nothing at least some of his supporters will attempt to take matters into their own hands. It may be a handful of incidents or it may turn into something much more long term: attempts at insurrection that could look indistinguishable from terrorism. After all, if your cause is just, terrorism is just another tactic.

It’s hard for me to feel sympathy for Trump supporters. If any group deserves to hit the concrete, it will be his supporters. In reality, the whole Republican establishment could stand for a tar and feathering. We Democrats though are too nonviolent to do something like this. His supporters though are full of energy and certainty about the rightness of their positions. If we know anything about energy, a pocket of energy will eventually burst its container if it grows large enough. So how does an enlightened society gently prick this Trump balloon so rather than explode violently it gently drains away? How do we lead the Tea Party and Trump supporters to a better and more productive place?

Ideally, Trump would be statesmanlike enough to do this, but that’s not a likely option here. Part of the solution would be for key Republicans to forcefully and repeatedly state that insurrection and violence are not options. It wouldn’t hurt if Republicans said that anyone advocating these things would be expelled from their party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be a good person to say this, as his loathing for all things Democratic is hardly unknown. Speaker Paul Ryan can and likely would do the same thing, but he has considerably less influence and power than McConnell. Doubtless the Bush family, Mitt Romney and most of the Republican presidential candidates would say the same. It’s important though for these people to speak up on this now, be clear and be loud throughout the general election campaign. At this point none of these people seem to be entertaining the idea that anyone in their flock needs such a lecture.

They also need a plan for the day after the election that Tea Partiers can latch onto with some measure of hope. It will be mostly more of what they did after Obama was elected: promising total obstruction, something Mitch McConnell was quite effective in doing. It won’t make a President-elect Hillary Clinton happy but it may staunch a rebellion. Hillary Clinton probably can and will speak forcefully after her election calling for calm and making it clear that she will not propose anything more than modest gun control legislation. (She is already doing the latter, but Tea Partiers aren’t listening or simply don’t believe her.)

What will prove key is how President Obama reacts to any scattered attempts at insurrection. We still have a National Guard that has controlling insurrection as part of its mission. However, when incidents are scattered and low-key, they won’t prove effective using traditional tactics. We do have police forces with plenty of armaments more suited to warfare than policing. That will help.

My suspicion is that Obama is already all over this, and this is part of his daily national security briefing. There are likely all sorts of contingency plans and all sorts of discreet surveillance going on by the NSA and FBI to nip a lot of these in the bud. But not even the NSA can be everywhere and it’s easy to acquire firearms. More lethal armaments are likely out there for those with the money and connections. All we can really do is hope they are doing their job. If they are, the bomb that are Trump supporters may mostly diffuse before Election Day.