One year of Trump: it’s beginning to look a little Stormy (Daniels) out there

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s hard to believe we are a year into the Trump presidency already. In one sense Trump has succeeded: he has kept the conversation on himself. It’s what he wants from a presidency since if you are a narcissist this is how you measure success.

Trump does have a strength of sorts: he intuitively knows when to spin toward another topic when something in his life becomes too uncomfortable. Like sheep the media go along because they are always looking for something new and shiny to report, and his Twitter feed provides plenty of this kind of fodder. So when he decides to rant about Hillary Clinton again that becomes their topic of focus, rather than whatever brouhaha he was being criticized about.

A year of a Trump presidency has however clarified a lot of things. He is exactly the man we Democrats said he was during the campaign. In many ways he’s proven worse that our worst fears. The one area where he has (so far) assuaged my fears was that he did get us into a new war. Trump seems to realize that this is a red line he should not cross, mainly because it will come back to bite him bigly. But it is consistent with a man who is 100% bluster.

During the filming of The Apprentice he fired people right and left. That was all for show. The show was entirely scripted. In real life Trump doesn’t fire anyone, at least face to face. Basically Trump is a coward. He wanted his White House Counsel to fire Bob Mueller, the special counsel looking into potential crimes against him. When his counsel refused to do it on threat of resignation, he backed down. Reince Priebus (his first chief of staff) was fired with a tweet while he was out of the White House. Former FBI director James Comey was fired with a letter hand carried by an assistant to his office. Trump was so clueless he had no idea that Comey was on the west coast. So at least we now know that Trump is like the Wizard of Oz: just a man behind the curtain generating a lot of smoke.

It’s also clear that we have a man-child as our president. The best analogy I can come up with is that Trump is a grown up version of Calvin (from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes.) In some ways though Calvin is more mature. Trump never left his terrible twos. This makes him utterly transparent. Just as a parent can read their child’s inner mind effortlessly, so can the nation read our president with ease. The only ones having trouble at it are those who voted for him. They see things like greatness in him that simply doesn’t exist. And they will excuse any behavior rather than face their own cognitive dissonance that they voted for this wreck of a man.

For example, there’s the latest Stormy Daniels controversy. It’s clear that Trump had an affair with the busty porn star about the time Melania gave birth in 2006. Trump of course denies it all. But there are three curious aspects of this affair that let you know it’s real:

  • In the Intouch Weekly interview, Stormy’s says they had sex, but not “porn sex”, just the unprotected kind. More tellingly in the interview she related Trump’s fear of sharks, something no one would know who had not spent a lot of time with him.
  • There is the picture of the two of them together.
  • The most damning proof is that when the allegations came out, Trump’s lawyers immediately issued a disclaimer from Stormy Daniels denying the affair. That’s right; Trump’s lawyers had this on file ready to issue the moment it came out.

No matter. His supporters and particularly the evangelical community seem happy to excuse him of this infidelity, one of many. They’ve excused plenty of other stuff too completely at odds with the morals they claim to follow. They are convinced the Lord is working in mysterious ways with Trump.

Trump has the attention span of a gnat and can’t remember a key point hammered in by an aide just minutes earlier. He constantly changes his mind because he can’t remember what his position used to be. The Washington Post documented more than 2000 lies and misstatements in his first year in office alone. Trump’s default response is to lie and he does it effortlessly and without thinking. He clearly does not feeling guilty about it. He doesn’t feel either guilt or shame. He can’t be trusted about anything, which is why Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says negotiating with Trump is like negotiating with Jello.

Trump though can be mendacious. He’s a pretty effective agent of chaos. He consistently appoints people uniquely unqualified for the positions they serve, but who are nonetheless capable of crippling institutions in their charge. This is because Trump is good at finding reprehensible people, as it takes one to know one. In general his appointees show contempt for the institutions they serve, dislike the people in their agencies, work to pervert its missions they are supposed to champion and are prone toward corruption. Some agencies are better than others at resisting the will of their new leaders. The courts are proving reasonably effective at restraining the worst of Trump’s impulses. Unquestionably though our constitutional system is under immense strain.

It’s also clear that Republicans don’t care about rule of law, at least when they are in charge. Whatever means are necessary to achieve their ends are fine by them. So they certainly won’t be impeaching Trump. I figured they probably would a year ago, but then I had more confidence in the integrity of Republicans than they have shown. It will take a wave election in 2018 to hold Trump accountable, and it’s clear that Republicans are pulling out all stops to discount their likely losses.

We can at least hope but not expect that 2018 will be less crazy than 2017. Given Trump’s track record though it’s a wan hope at best. So keep those seat belts buckled, passengers.

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.

See no evil

The Thinker by Rodin

To some extent, all political parties suffer tone deafness. Democrats are not immune. Bernie Sanders supporters are a little tone deaf to the reality that he will not be the party’s nominee. Uber-liberals were tone deaf in 2008 when John Edwards was running for president, excusing as unfounded pretty damning testimony that he was a womanizer. Liberals in general are pretty tone deaf to how difficult it will be to implement their progressive vision (for example, ending poverty) if they can win the political war.

Still, political tone deafness has hit staggering new levels with the elevation of Donald Trump, the presumed nominee of the Republican Party for the president of the United States. In January, Trump himself said that he could shoot people in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and he would not lose voters. Clearly he was right. Over and over again Trump has proved that there is nothing he can do or say that will dissuade his supporters.

After all, they are not voting for a man based on policies; they are voting for him because they like his packaging. The Donald himself changes his mind almost daily. With Bill Clinton, this periodic triangulation looked smart as it pushed him into positive approval ratings territory while infuriating many in the Democratic Party. But at least Clinton was selectively wishy-washy. He could smell a lost cause and tack away toward one that was doable. His pragmatism was almost refreshing and was in the spirit of horse-trading that used to be how Washington ran.

With Donald Trump, opinions change daily. He said going to bar all Muslims from entering the country. He made the point over and over again in rally after rally. Now he said it was just a suggestion. As for the new Muslim mayor of London, well, he’ll invite him over. He lies over and over again, even when repeatedly caught with his pants down for the same lie. Maybe you missed the latest: that recording of one of his media spokesmen “John Miller” back in the early 1990s, who was actually Trump, and which he admitted in court. Just a couple of days ago, he wholly disclaimed it was he. Then he said, what does it matter? It was so long ago.

None of this of course is a problem for his supporters, as he predicted. They see him as someone who will get the job done (whatever that is). Maybe they figure that to get it done it requires someone who just doesn’t give a damn about being consistent, or telling the truth, or having any character. It’s pure faith but faith based on information that shows he is probably the least qualified person for anyone to place faith in. After all what he wants to do one day for the country could easily be what he does not want to do the next day. The pinging back and forth will drive Congress and bureaucrats crazy. By never really sticking to some position, he ensures none of it will actually get done.

This is after all a man who cheats on his wives, allegedly raped his first wife, harasses women routinely and cheats his investors. His record of misogyny would appall even wife beaters. This is a man who brags about his financial prowess despite many failed businesses, who cheated students out of a real education (Trump University) and who let others purchase his brand but won’t mentor them in his business acumen so they can succeed.

None of this seems to matter to Republicans, except to a few die-hard conservatives, most of who are finding it expedient to look the other way. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus says, “people just don’t care” about Trump’s mouth or his controversies. By “people” he doesn’t mean most Democrats and many independents. However, it’s clear that Republicans mostly don’t care. Some things are more important than principle, and that’s power. And The Donald is their only ticket to power, so they either sink or swim with him. The pragmatic ones are hoping a kind-hearted Democrat throws them a life preserver. (It’s probably not covered by Obamacare.)

Bear in mind many of these same Republicans were hypocritically up in arms about all sorts of transgressions by Democrats, but mostly the Clintons. In the late 1990s I inhabited a carpool filled with Republicans gleefully chortling in Bill’s misdeeds with Monica. They just loved this proof that he was poor white trash in a suit with no morals or convictions and that he lied. Apparently Clinton’s real problem was that he was born “poor white”. This was never The Donald’s problem, as he came from wealth, but it’s clear that his lack of morals or convictions don’t bother him, or his womanizing. At least Bill Clinton was discreet about his occasional womanizing. Reince Preibus says it’s unimportant. IOKIYAR: It’s okay if you’re a Republican.

I’m not surprised. Republicans are highly selective in applying principle. They are for protecting the unborn but support policies that won’t even provide formula to poor kids once they are born. Just last week House Republicans voted to cut $23 billion in food stamps. They are for religious freedom, but apparently only for Christians and Jews, and only those Christians who are not religiously liberal, anyhow definitely not Muslims, and not if your religion tells you it’s okay to have an abortion. After all they support Trump’s call to keep Muslims out of the United States. They are for an opportunity society but won’t give anyone the opportunity to succeed who doesn’t come born with moneyed parents; in fact they keep cutting off the lower rungs of the ladder to make sure the poor cannot succeed.

Donald Trump though has at least provided clarity: all that principle stuff Republicans say forms the core of their party was just a bunch of hoo-ha. It used to be that inconsistency between principles and action would set up a case of cognitive dissonance, i.e. you’d lie about the inconsistency but you didn’t even know you were lying because you couldn’t face the hurt the truth would cause. Donald Trump though has at least allowed Republicans to progress. They no longer suffer from cognitive dissonance. Now they know they are being wholly inconsistent to their principles and acknowledge that at best their principles were wholly aspirational, not something they actually intend to live or govern by.

So there should be some sort of award given to every Donald Trump supporter. It would be for bravely and completely denying the obvious truth that Trump is the worst possible candidate probably ever with a chance of winning the presidency and being so knowingly indifferent to it.

As far as I’m concerned, all Trump supporters won the Washington Post’s Worst Week in Washington award. As Chris Cillizza (its author) puts it: “Congrats, or something.”

Republicans are simply racists and classists

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you watch the last night’s Republican debate; you know the one where Donald Trump snippily decided he would not attend because he doesn’t like questions that Megyn Kelly might ask? You did? Good for you and apparently you are more into politics than I am. I was certain I’d learn nothing new and from the reviews I was right. So now voters wait warily for the results of the Iowa caucuses next Monday night. Let’s hope the Republicans get it right this time.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the Republican Party after the next election. I’ll be lifting a glass of champagne if that happens to be the case. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognize his own party anyhow. Republicans after all freed the slaves and today’s Republicans want to make them slaves again. I won’t be lifting my glass too high though because as bad as the Republican Party is, I do think whatever phoenix emerges from its ashes could actually be worse.

What got me thinking this way was reading the latest Washington Post OpEd by conservative Charles Krauthammer. After the obligatory sentences saying how Bernie Sanders couldn’t get elected because America doesn’t elect socialists (conveniently ignoring the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four terms on an effectively socialist platform, and by overwhelming majorities), Krauthammer looks at the factions within the G.O.P. In particular he notes that Donald Trump is not really conservative, certainly not in the sense that he wants to rollback social programs. In the same paper, Fareed Zakaria notes that Republicans have given lip service to getting rid of social programs and in many cases expanded them. In fact, he notes polls that economically conservative Republicans are going for Cruz over Trump by 15 percent, while Trump wins by 30 percent over Cruz from Republicans holding “progressive positions”, such as on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and the benefits of unions.

Well, this is a head scratcher, until you think about it a little while. One possibility is that Trump is expanding the Republican base, pulling in (principally white) people that don’t tend to vote Republican, or vote at all, because no one in the party represents them. However, there is no evidence that Republican Party registration is increasing significantly nationwide, as this recent Gallup poll attests. Zakaria does quote Michael Tessler of the Rand Corporation, who provided his statistics. Tessler says: “Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.” This is a polite way of saying Trump does much better with the party’s racists. This is not surprising until you think about what this actually means.

What principally unites the Republican Party (to the extent it is united) is not fiscal conservatism. It’s not the importance of federalism (state control). It’s not God, an aggressive foreign policy and it’s certainly not Jesus. It’s not even guns. Their principle shared-value is that they think they are special and deserve a singular status over the rest of society, who they mostly look down on. In short, most of them are racists, even if they can’t even admit it to themselves. It’s more acceptable to be a classist, instead of a racist, which many will openly acknowledge. This basically means they don’t believe in egalitarianism and that some for whatever reasons (status, wealth, race, education, values) deserve to be privileged. Moreover because they are privileged, they should not feel (and apparently don’t feel) ashamed of this. It’s this energy that Trump is harnessing. When push comes to shove, this is what Republicans care about.

I believe it is part of Carl Rove’s master plan. He fed these primal fears to give the Republican Party oversize stature. They feel it slipping away, which is why Republican-led states enacted onerous voting restrictions. Their loss of their status, real or in many cases imaginary is their greatest motivation. Trump was savvy enough to cut through the bullshit and go for the jugular. This is why he is leading in the polls. (It does help to have so many competing candidates that the opposition is scattered.)

After all, if you want power it’s not about making a logical case; it’s about making a resonating emotional case. Fear is a great motivator and Republicans excel at looking behind their backs. Trump succeeds by saying that those others not like us are the cause of our fear of loss of status and privilege. Throw out the “illegals” and things may not be well, but they sure will be better. He has ruled out major changes to Medicare and Social Security because he’s read the polls and knows his fans support programs like these. Tax cuts go disproportionately to the wealthy but welfare goes disproportionately not to the poor, but to the middle class.

Medicare and Social Security are just two ways to keep the middle pacified, but it’s only the beginning. There is the employer health insurance tax credit, which annually costs three times as much as food stamps. There is the home mortgage interest deduction, tuition tax credits and even energy efficiency credits that go only to those who can afford to take advantage of them. Power is secured through keeping the rabble happy. Trump knows there are plenty in the middle who understand their standard of living is wobbly. The last thing most of these people want is more uncertainty to their standard of living, but they are perfectly happy to add uncertainty to those who don’t think and act like them: the others. Me first!

The Romans quickly realized that the rabble wasn’t happy unless the lions ate a gladiator or two now and then. They made it convenient for citizens to enjoy this entertainment by allowing everyone in for free. Trump is metaphorically doing the same thing: he is harnessing the power that is already there. He plays the crowd the same way Itzhak Perlman plays the violin. He plays up the juicy expectation of red meat to come: walls along the border with Mexico and less of the other among us. He says: less of them means more for us and will make us (the privileged) great again. And so they dance and he knows that the rest of the party will come along in time. The Republican Party leadership seems to understand which way the wind is blowing. Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus recently said as much, and even elder statesmen like Bob Dole seem to be acknowledging they will fall in line too. Power is what counts; whatever message gives them that power is okay.

It’s just that because of Donald Trump it’s now out in the open. Even Republicans can’t deny it anymore because their leading candidate simply won’t. They are the party of people like them: white racists and classists. They just can’t hide from it anymore.