Trump’s Confederacy Of Dunces

It’s something new–and depressing–every day.

Just last week, Trump fired both Andrew McCabe and Secretary of State Tillerson in the most humiliating manner possible; one of his close aides was escorted out of the White House without even being given time to gather his belongings (he was under investigation for “financial crimes” of an unspecified nature); and multiple rumors surfaced about the imminent replacement of National Security Advisor McMasters with crazy-as-a-loon chickenhawk John Bolton.

Now, we learn that an advisor to Ben Carson–he of the $31,000 dining room set and the repeated admonitions to America’s poor about “personal responsibility”–has quit among questions of fraud and the inflation of his biography.

He said he was a multimillionaire – an international property developer with a plan to fix America’s cities through radical privatization. He felt that Donald Trump’s administration was where he was meant to work.

“It was a natural fit,” Naved Jafry said in an interview. Citing connections across the military, business and academia, he said: “I bring, and draw on, experiences from different areas of knowledge, like a polymath.”

Jafry was contracted to work for Trump’s housing and urban development department (Hud). His government email signature said his title was senior adviser. Jafry said he used his role to advocate for “microcities”, where managers privately set their own laws and taxes away from central government control.

Among other things, Jafry had claimed control over a multimillion-dollar trust fund; a claim inconsistent with court records showing that he struggled to pay rent and bills.

Wasn’t a major part of Trump’s “attraction” that he was rich? Trump voters drew two (unwarranted) conclusions from that wealth– that rich people must be smart and that they would be less incentivized to (mis)use tax dollars for personal gratification. Those same claims were made about the cabinet of wealthy white guys he’s assembled.

Um…not so much….

It turns out that HUD had agreed to spend $165,000 on “lounge furniture” in addition to the $31,000 dining set that–it also turns out–had been personally selected by Carson and his wife for his office. The news followed an administration proposal to cut $6.8 billion, or 14%, of HUD’s annual budget.

Then there’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, a former Wall Street executive purportedly worth as much as $35 million, who managed to run up bills in excess of $800,000 in his first six months in office for travel on military jets, (and whose wife made news by bragging about her pricey designer clothes on social media).

Scott Pruitt may not believe in science (or, apparently, the importance of clean air and water), but he evidently believes in using tax dollars to avoid those pesky citizen types who do. The environment secretary has said he has to travel first-class because of threats from members of the public who object to his climate-change-denying, regulation-slashing approach to government.

He also spent as much as $43,000 on a soundproof “privacy booth” inside his office to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and $9,000 for biometric locks and to have his office swept for listening devices. Earlier this month it was reported that he used $6,500 in public money to hire a private media firm with strong Republican ties to help produce a report promoting his accomplishments.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, was the subject of a blistering report detailing ethical violations in a trip to Denmark and Britain that mixed business with pleasure, including a trip to Wimbledon and a cruise down the Thames.

When Interior secretary Ryan Zinke wanted to go horseback riding with Mike Pence, he took a government-funded helicopter – one of three such journeys in 2017 that cost a total of $53,000 of public money. In addition, Zinke, who favors oil, gas, coal and uranium mining on public lands out west, has been rebuked by the department watchdog for failing to keep proper records of his travel expenses and to disclose who paid for his wife to accompany him on work trips.

Health and human services secretary Tom Price was forced to resign last September after it was revealed that he used at least $400,000 and probably more than $1m in taxpayer funds on private and military flights for himself and his staff.

This Administration has clearly demonstrated that wealth doesn’t guarantee competence. As these examples show, neither does it promote ethical behavior.

But it sure seems to translate into a sense of entitlement.


Why Language Matters…

On the most basic level, language matters because the ability to use words accurately to convey one’s meaning is a critically important skill in modern society.

And let’s be honest: we assess the probable intelligence of the people we meet based largely on their use of language. That isn’t simply snobbery–fuzzy language more often than not signals fuzzy thinking.

An individual’s use of language is a reasonably reliable clue to that person’s conceptual agility.

Those of us who are unimpressed with Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that he is “like really, really smart” often point to his lack of language skills. Newsweek recently compared the vocabularies of the last 15 U.S. Presidents, and ranked Trump at the very bottom.

President Donald Trump—who boasted over the weekend that his success in life was a result of “being, like, really smart”—communicates at the lowest grade level of the last 15 presidents, according to a new analysis of the speech patterns of presidents going back to Herbert Hoover….

By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover, when measuring “off-script” words, that is, words far less likely to have been written in advance for the speaker,” CEO Bill Frischling wrote. “The gap between Trump and the next closest president … is larger than any other gap using Flesch-Kincaid. Statistically speaking, there is a significant gap.”

Of course, it’s also true that genuinely bright people rarely find it necessary to tell people how smart they are…

Effective propaganda requires the manipulation of language, and that’s another reason to be alert to its use. Trump’s former consiglieri, Steve Bannon, clearly understands that in order to change social attitudes, it is necessary to change reactions to certain words. As a recent, fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times recounts,

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

The author notes that this is a departure from the usual “dog whistle” approach taken by racists and xenophobes–Trump’s constant references to immigrants as criminals, for example, or the traditional, negative euphemisms for Jews and blacks. Bannon wants to eliminate the pretense, and change our reaction to words that convey straightforward bigotry.

Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous….

But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” …. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.

Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.

Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.

Remember “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? It was wrong.

Language matters.

So This Is What It’s Like Living In A Soap Opera

The last couple of days have been nothing short of surreal.

There was the ongoing, tawdry back-and-forth between porn star Stormy Daniels and the President of the United States (when did we ever see “President” and “porn star” in the same headlines?), culminating in a lawsuit against said porn star for breaching the terms of a nondisclosure agreement that the President has denied had anything to do with him. (I’ll just leave that here for a moment…).

The lawyer who brought that suit should be sued for malpractice.

Far more consequential, of course, was the despicable firing of Andrew McCabe–two days before his pension vested and his announced retirement. If we had needed any additional evidence of Donald Trump’s vindictiveness and utter lack of class, the discharge and the childish tweet that followed it should have provided it.

The purported reasons for the firing were lame enough, but let’s assume that “lack of forthcomingness” actually justified dismissal of a career agent. The legitimate goal of any termination is to rid the organization of a person who is not performing. Human Resources professionals will generally counsel management to avoid “burning bridges”–to effectuate the termination as cleanly and civilly as possible.

McCabe was set to depart in a mere two days. The administration would have been rid of him–presumably, the goal. But Trump couldn’t leave it at that–he had to punish a twenty-one-year civil servant both by publicly humiliating him (a la Tillerson) and by depriving him of the pension he had earned over more than two decades–by terminating him two days before that pension vested.

Whatever else one might say about these two high-profile events, one element stands out: they were both incredibly stupid. (The only person who still believes Donald Trump is intelligent is Donald Trump.)

If Trump wanted to insist that he hadn’t been involved with Stormy Daniels, suing her for disclosing that he was involved wasn’t a genius move. And if he wanted to make it look like McCabe (a lifelong Republican) and the rest of the FBI were engaged in some sort of nefarious vendetta against him, giving McCabe a reason to spill everything he knows about the President probably wasn’t the way to accomplish that.

As the Washington Post reported

After Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted late Friday night on Trump’s publicly-stated wishes to terminate former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe — just hours before he was set to retire with full benefits — the president celebrated the ouster as a triumph that exposed “tremendous leaking, lying and corruption” throughout law enforcement.

The move emboldened McCabe, who said in a public statement that his dismissal was a deliberate effort to slander him and part of an “ongoing war” against the FBI and the Russia probe being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Like former FBI director James B. Comey, who was fired by Trump last year, McCabe kept contemporaneous memos detailing his fraught conversations with the president, according to two people familiar with the records. The danger for Trump is that those memos could help corroborate McCabe’s witness testimony and become damaging evidence in Mueller’s investigation of whether Trump has sought to obstruct justice.

The most scathing–and appropriate–reaction was that of former CIA director John Brennan, who responded to the events on Twitter:

“When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America . . . America will triumph over you.”

As my grandmother might have said, from Brennan’s mouth to God’s ears.

Even The Graft Is Worse…

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, political scientists have been writing about the role played by the erosion of democratic norms and public ethics.

I recently came across an article titled “Whatever Happened to Honest Graft,” in a publication called Splinter. The article is a vivid illustration of that erosion; it began with a description of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband (my nominee for “America’s most evil man”) Mitch McConnell.

Last week, The Intercept’s Lee Fang and Spencer Woodman published a story about how the family of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, funneled millions of dollars to their family foundation from their own offshore tax shelters, which are incorporated in the Marshall Islands in order to hide their dealings and profits from the United States government. That is, the government that Chao and McConnell help to run.

The Transportation Department says, “Chao has no affiliation with the family shipping business,” though she did receive at least one officially reported gift of millions of dollars from her father…. McConnell, who has never had a career outside of politics, and who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985, somehow has a personal net worth of around $26.7 million. None of this is particularly unusual.

The article wasn’t about Chou and McConnell–the clue lies in the observation that the reported behavior isn’t “particularly unusual.” For example, there’s Bob Corker, who Matt Taibbi has described as“a full-time day-trader who did a little Senator-ing in his spare time.”

Corker is notable for the volume of his trades—in one extreme example, he made 1,200 trades over a nine month period in 2007, according to Taibbi—but not for the acts of making ethically questionable investments or carrying out trades seemingly based on information known only to members of Congress.

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was a longtime member of Congress; his Cabinet confirmation was nearly derailed by the emergence of reports that he had invested in a small Australian biotech firm and then had pushed legislation to speed the FDA approval process. During his seven months at HHS, he made a habit of buying healthcare-related stocks and then pushing for policies that would increase their value.

The article explained at some length how much various Senators will benefit personally from their “tax reform” bill–after all, a bill intended to benefit the wealthy could hardly help benefitting lawmakers, since most of them range from extremely comfortable to very rich. As the author of the article notes,

I think this blatant self-dealing, and thin-skinned outrage at the suggestion that it is what it plainly looks like, is another example of norm erosion. In a Twitter thread a while back, the writer Jedediah Purdy identified a version of this new shamelessness: the more you think others are cheating on their taxes, running agencies for their own interest, doing public service just to switch sides through the revolving door, the more useless it is for you to do differently.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but the basic outline of the story looks pretty clear. Bribery, graft, and naked self-dealing used to be commonplace in our politics, especially in the big urban “machines,” as exemplified by Tammany Hall. The professionalization of our politics—its takeover by serious lawyers and respectable, credentialed men—meant, first, that those practices were reformed away. Then it meant that they returned, totally legal but slightly disguised, as normal politics.

As is the case with most of the norms that have been swallowed by the sea recently, this one’s erosion is exemplified by Donald Trump, but he is the culmination, not the cause. Serious people who imagine themselves to be virtuous, or at least no less virtuous than their neighbors, have normalized what used to be easily recognizable as graft.

As the author points out, at least corrupt organizations in the past, like Tammany Hall,  actually built things (Tammany Hall built most of upper Manhattan) while they were skimming off the top and doling out overpaid patronage jobs.

Even in their corruption, today’s elites seem to lack the sense of civic or social responsibility of our crooks of old.

Is West Virginia An Omen?

When media reported that the West Virginia teachers strike had ended in victory for that state’s teachers and other public employees, a newsletter to which I subscribe (link unavailable) described the potential fallout:

 As striking West Virginia teachers win their demand for a 5% increase for themselves and all of the state’s public employees, teachers in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arizona are poised to follow suit, amid reports that “a backlash is brewing against the Republican tax-cutting frenzy.” The Payday Report’s Mike Elk reports that “West Virginia Governor Justice vowed to veto any bills that would fund charter schools, strip teachers of their seniority, or reduce or remove the deduction of union dues from their paychecks even if those dues are applied to political work.”

It was especially noteworthy that the bargaining effort was mounted despite the fact that it occurred without official union backing.  The union representing teachers in West Virginia–as elsewhere– has been hamstrung by state law; it was too weakened to attempt an action like this. As a column in the Guardian noted, “The teachers walked out on their own, fed up with a status quo that was leaving them nearly destitute.” It was an illegal wildcat strike.

Is this a turning point? A breaking point? With the rightwing Neil Gorsuch poised to cast the deciding vote in the Janus v AFSCME, the US supreme court is on the verge of dealing a devastating blow to public sectors unions. If it’s not a deathblow – unions in labor-friendly states will find ways to retain power, while those elsewhere will wither – it’s something not far off.

In West Virginia, there is hope. The first Gilded Age gave rise to labor militancy; oppressed workers across the country proudly organized unions to strike back against the oligarchs who were torturing them day and night. The eight-hour day, vacation days, and all the other labor protections we take for granted were born out of union advocacy.

Another column dubbed the strike an example of “real resistance.”

The victorious strike by teachers in West Virginia did not only result in a long overdue pay raise. With the exuberance of a nine-day teach-in, the teachers and their supporters have taught the nation a compelling lesson on the historical role of a true resistance.

The author then indulged in a series of “what if” questions: what if everyone who detested the NRA joined a nationwide strike for more stringent gun laws? What if all teachers, students and other school workers refused to come to work in buildings powered by fossil fuels?

This kind of resistance does not allow onlookers to look away, especially in an age of social media. It brings the story to those who have refused to read it. It forces everyone to take part in the national discussion, and engage in the still small possibility of justice.

Nationwide strikes of this sort remain highly unlikely, although West Virginia has arguably given impetus to more localized efforts.

On balance, we can draw a couple of important lessons from events in West Virginia: (1) You can only beat working people down for so long before they refuse to remain acquiescent; and (2) There are more of them than there are of the plutocrats and their bought-and-paid-for legislators.