Much worse than Watergate

The Thinker by Rodin

Our Chinese curse of living in interesting times continues. These days are truly extraordinary, although it may be hard for many Americans to see it. Our republic hangs in the balance on what happens over the next days, weeks and months.

It’s easy even for me to get caught up in the political drama of the moment, most recently the #ReleasetheMemo controversy. What’s harder to see is the big picture and how our republic is becoming increasingly tenuous. We are moving quickly toward an authoritarian state.

The #ReleasetheMemo controversy, with the said memo now officially released, allowed Republicans and Trump to release highly classified information to make the most tenuous possible case that the FBI and Justice Department is out to get Donald Trump. (A curious case to make since it is a department full of Republicans and has always had Republican FBI directors.) Releasing this memo also exposes sensitive intelligence sources and methods, which the Justice Department has said may result in people getting killed. You would think that this would give those approving this memo some pause, but not at all. Trump broadcast his approval of the memo even before even reading it. It’s not clear he actually has read it, as he has zero attention span.

How crazy is this conspiracy theory? Let Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press explain it:

Why Trump would do this is obvious: he’s trying to escape justice. It is now abundantly clear that minimally he and many on his team have obstructed justice. It’s also abundantly clear that Russia has the goods on him. Trump admitted as much after he fired former FBI director James Comey: he said it took the Russian heat off him. He wants to make this whole “Russian thing” go away.

The memo gives him the pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s report will never see the light of day if Rosenstein is gone and Trump’s own lackey is in charge. So I expect Rosenstein will soon be fired. Mueller doesn’t have to be fired, but Trump will probably require his replacement to fire him anyhow. Trump will not allow himself to be held accountable for his actions. He never has and never will. Escaping justice is all he cares about.

A side effect though would be to make the Justice Department partisan and for it to lose its independence. Think about what this means. The Justice Department and the FBI in particular are our primary means of enforcing the law of the land. If they didn’t do this, you don’t have justice. At best you get very selective justice.

And Congress, at least almost all Republicans in Congress, are all for this. That was the whole point of #ReleasetheMemo. Congress is supposed to execute oversight of the Executive Branch. What we got now is just the opposite: Congress is aiding and abetting the White House and abdicating its role in oversight, in particular its oversight in making sure the Justice Department operates impartially.

So for the first time ever both Congress and the Administration don’t want the Justice Department to actually impartially administer justice. I was about fifteen when Watergate broke, and this didn’t happen during Watergate. It’s true that Democrats controlled Congress, but once Republicans realized the scope of Watergate they worked with Democrats to hold Nixon accountable. Now it is just the opposite.

This should not be surprising. Republicans are just following through on a long-executed playbook. Their goal is to end democracy and our republican government. In 2016 we not only elected Trump, but we also disenfranchised millions of voters. If these voters could have voted most likely would have kept Trump out of office. Republicans worked overtime to reduce the share of minorities and poor people who were allowed to vote. They aggressively purged voter roles.

Of course it’s not just limiting voting that Republicans worked at, but also at populating the judiciary with conservative judges, “strict constructionists”. So we pretty much have one party control now: Republicans control Congress, the White House and effectively the Judiciary, at least the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down much of the Voting Rights Act, we watched conservative justices aid and abet the process of disenfranchising voters. One of Trump and Congress’s major tasks has been to put more conservatives in the judiciary by filling openings denied to Barack Obama during his presidency.

When you have a Justice Department that won’t administer justice; when you have a White House actively trying to keep the Justice Department from administering justice and setting it up so that it can’t do so in the future; when you have a Congress aiding and abetting by blocking the administration of justice; and when you have a court system that increasingly won’t uphold justice uniformly, you have a complete perversion of our form of government.

You have in effect removed the checks and balances from our system of government. We end up with a republican form of government in name only. Moreover, we set the conditions for authoritarian government instead.

That’s what we are up against at the moment. In the past I had faith in the American people to rectify the problem, which hopefully they will do in this year’s midterms. But our voting system is badly frayed due to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Depending how the Supreme Court rules in two gerrymandering cases it is considering this year, it could make our voting system even more disenfranchising. And we are also deeply polarized voting for our tribe rather than in the best interest of the country.

It’s abundantly clear that Republicans only want the “right” person to vote, which largely means only “white” people. We have a president who is openly racist. We have a Republican Congress that is pretty much the same way. The #ReleasetheMemo controversy shows just how far extreme Republicans will go on this issue. They will put party before country, not just a little bit but by taking a mile instead of an inch. There is no bridge too far for them as long as they can hold on to power. Democracy and republican government don’t mean anything to them. They are not patriots.

All this is going on right under our noses but it is hard for many of us to see the full scale of the wreckage they are unleashing. True patriots will of course protest and work hard to change this. Republicans though have gotten so skilled at manipulating the system to favor only them that it’s unclear if anything short of a new revolution can actually restore democracy. Arguably, we don’t have it anymore.

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.