The Trump Cabal–God Help Us All

Yesterday, facing massive opposition, Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary withdrew. But that was a minor victory; most of his ill-equipped nominees have been confirmed.

The most accurate one-liner about  the sorry lot that Donald Trump has assembled to run–or destroy– some of the nation’s most important agencies was by a Facebook poster who said he’d seen better cabinets at IKEA.

A more sober–and sobering–analysis has been made by a retired jurist and lifelong Republican, in a scathing guest column titled “It’s Time to Impeach Trump.”

The leader of the band of Mad Hatters occupying the White House has already insulted allied world leaders, issued illegal and badly written orders, impugned a “so-called” judge appointed by his own party, and appointed the least-qualified cabinet ever. The first secretary of state was Thomas Jefferson. Trump appointed a big-oil executive with close ties to Russia. The first treasury secretary was Alexander Hamilton. Trump appointed a former Goldman Sachs exec who got rich foreclosing on homeowners. The national security advisor lasted 24 days.

It isn’t just the Cabinet. People given important roles in Trump’s White House are even more troubling, to put it mildly. Steve Bannon is the most high-profile example of the white supremacist cabal surrounding Trump, but he’s hardly the only one: 

[Sebastian] Gorka’s name and views appear to have a higher profile among experts on Islamophobia than in the counterterrorism community.

Engy Abdelkalder, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, noted that like Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, Gorka has ties to anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney.

“He has frequently appeared on Gaffney’s radio program to further such fears and misconceptions about Islam and Muslims,” Abdelkalder told TPM in an email. “And what makes him particularly pernicious is his academic credentials and now, prestigious political appointment, extend an appearance of legitimacy to anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice.”

Then there’s newly visible Steve Miller, described thusly by a story in the Grio:

If there was any question as to whether Donald Trump is running a white supremacist, authoritarian White House, Stephen Miller should erase all doubt.

Yes, Trump has more than one scary in-house Nazi adviser named Steve. We all knew about Steve Bannon, the white nationalist senior adviser who came to Washington via Breitbart with ideas about making America white again. Now there’s Stephen Miller, who is only 31 and on top of the world as the White House policy adviser behind Trump’s Muslim ban.

Given his incendiary remarks on last Sunday news shows, the subsequent media revelations about his background aren’t surprising, although the details are definitely chilling.

In high school, this angry little man complained about Cinco de Mayo celebrations, Spanish language announcements, an LGBTQ student club and a visit from a Muslim leader, as Univision reported. When Miller ran for class president, he was reportedly booed off the stage by 4,000 students. In his high school yearbook, he wrote: “There can be no fifty-fifty Americanism in this country. There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else.”

When Miller attended college at Duke University, his racial hatred continued. Miller was affiliated with extremists such as neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer, white nationalist Jared Taylor and Islamophobic activist David Horowitz. Further, as Politico reported, Miller said that multiculturalism undermines American culture. He accused black students of racial paranoia. Although a practicing Jew, he decried the “War on Christmas.” He even went after professors who were registered Democrats, and hated Maya Angelou, calling her a “a leftist” full of “racial paranoia” and opposing her coming to campus for a keynote speech.

Miller later became a press secretary for Rep. Michelle Bachman and communications director for Sen. Jeff Sessions. During the 2016 campaign, Miller warmed up the crowds at the racially charged and violent Trump rallies. Now, he is writing Trump’s executive orders and speeches, including the Muslim ban and an inauguration speech laced with Nazi and antisemitic overtones.

Birds of a feather….

Judge Painter got it right.

We must admit we have elected a president who has immediately proved himself to be a grifter, a pathological liar, a mean-spirited bully and dangerous to American values. This not-ready-for-prime-time show is too dangerous to continue. America is at stake.

Get Thee to the Statehouse–TODAY

Despite all of the hard work done by the coalition working on Indiana redistricting reform–despite the recommendation of the Interim Study Committee and the support of Rep. Jerry Torr,  it has been an open question whether H.B. 1014  would even be scheduled for a hearing. But just yesterday–presumably in response to consistent pressure from hundreds of Hoosiers– the Bill was scheduled for a hearing. TODAY.

I’m told there will be a rally starting at 2:30 on the east steps of the Statehouse, and many people are going to the hearing from there. Indianapolis area readers: if you can go to either the rally or the hearing, please, please do.

In case you’ve forgotten why putting an end to gerrymandering is so critically important, if you have missed my multiple, repetitive screeds on the subject, I direct your attention to this article from yesterday’s Washington Post, which identified gerrymandering as the single biggest obstacle to restoring American democracy.

There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress – on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents – eight out of a body of 435 representatives – were defeated at the polls.

If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering – the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens – Democrat and Republican – should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

Thanks to gerrymandering, Congressional elections aren’t real elections in the vast majority of districts. As the Post article notes, a typical race in a gerrymandered district ends with either the Democrat or Republican (whichever party has been “awarded” that particular district) winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. (That’s a North Korea-style election…)

Competitiveness is so last Century….

Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less. Just 33 seats in total were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words, more than 9 out of 10 House races were landslides where the campaign was a foregone conclusion before ballots were even cast. In 2016, there were no truly competitive Congressional races in 42 of the 50 states. That is not healthy for a system of government that, at its core, is defined by political competition….

These uncompetitive districts have a seriously corrosive effect on the integrity of democracy. If you’re elected to represent a district that is 80 percent Republican or 80 percent Democratic, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise. Ever. In fact, there is a strong disincentive to collaboration, because working across the aisle almost certainly means the risk of a primary challenge from the far right or far left of the party. For the overwhelming majority of Congressional representatives, there is no real risk to losing a general election – but there is a very real threat of losing a fiercely contested primary election. Over time, this causes sane people to pursue insane pandering and extreme positions.

The article concludes with a point I have made repeatedly: low turnout is not explained by voter apathy or even disinterest; it is explained by powerlessness–by voters coming to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that their vote no longer counts, that legislators are choosing their voters rather than the other way around.

Why bother showing up when the result has been preordained?

If at all possible, attend today’s hearing!

Are We the Poisoned Darts?

Vox recently had a good analysis of an increasingly pertinent question: is the chaos emanating from Washington part of a diabolical plan to generate social unrest that can then be used to justify the imposition of martial law or its equivalent, or is it evidence (as if we needed any) of the incompetence and ignorance of the embarrassing buffoon sitting in the Oval Office?

That argument is already taking shape around Trump, as he ham-handedly issues executive orders poorly understood by his own bureaucracy and fires members of his administration. It is aptly captured in two recent essays.

The first is by Yonatan Zunger, a Google privacy engineer. It’s called “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and it reviews the news of the past day or two through the lens of a unifying theory: By putting confidant Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, cutting agencies out of rule-making, and defying a court order, Trump is systematically attempting to reduce any checks on his power. He’s trying to concentrate power in a small counsel of trusted advisers (the “coup”) and avoid legal review.

The second essay is by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, in response. It’s called “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” and it makes a simple point: The very same actions Zunger interprets as a devious, coordinated plan can also be interpreted as the bumbling, defensive moves of a weak leader who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

As Pepinsky points out, all we have to go on is “observable” action. For example, perhaps Trump put Steve Bannon on the NSC to consolidate power, part of his intent to sideline the establishment figures who actually know something about American foreign policy. On the other hand, perhaps he brought Bannon into the NSC because he doesn’t understand the discussions occurring in that venue (or perhaps everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging their feet and otherwise trying to keep him from doing something that will trigger a diplomatic crisis or a war), and he brought in Bannon because he felt the need for a loyal “interpreter” he could trust.

The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.

The author of the article, Dave Roberts, prefers the latter explanation; as he notes,

[N]arcissistic, paranoid tribalists are rarely geniuses, because genius requires a certain detached perspective, an ability to step outside oneself, which is precisely what narcissists lack.

In any event, Roberts says that the consequences of Trump’s behavior will be determined not by his intent, but by the strength of the institutions that have shaped our ability to resist.

If we’re looking to understand the course an authoritarian takes through a country and its history — what’s he’s accomplished, what’s likely to happen next — the place to look is not his intent, but the institutions and norms of the country he seeks to dominate. They, not his ultimate goals and desires, are what most determine the ultimate shape and consequences of a regime.

Think of a bull loose in a china shop. How much damage will it do? The relevant variable is not the bull’s intent. A bull’s gonna bull. The relevant variable is how equipped the china shop is to stop the bull. How many tranquilizer darts does it have, or, I don’t know, nets? (I didn’t think this analogy all the way through.)

The point is, how far an authoritarian can blunder forward, violating norms and degrading institutions, is determined by the strength of the norms and institutions he encounters. They determine when, or whether, he is constrained….

What will happen next depends not on Trump, but on America’s institutions and norms — the courts, the military, Congress, civil society, journalism. It is their strength, not his, that will determine how this story ends.

I like this analogy, muddled or not.

Trump is a raging bull. (As Jon Stewart memorably told Stephen Colbert a few nights ago on the Late Show, the “official language” of Trump’s America is bullshit.)

We the People must be the poisoned darts.

This Does Answer a Common Question

Each time Trump announces a new nominee for a position in his administration, the same question arises: where does he get these people? (The ones who aren’t family members, that is. Family may be equally unfit, but we do know where he gets them.)

Really, who knew there was a vast pool of corrupt, unqualified, mean-spirited people willing and eager to work with Donald Trump?

Juanita Jean points out that Texas is one good source of appalling folks.

You guys remember Yachting Randy Neugebauer – the west Texas congressman we love around here.  Randy bought a yacht with his campaign funds which is kinda strange since he lives in the desert, was the guy who chewed out the national park service ranger on tv for doing her job during the government shutdown that he voted for, yelled “baby killer” at a Democratic congressman during a debate, and called US border detention centers the lap of lovely, and a whole mess of other stuff including how the hell did his son, Toby, become a billionaire.

“Yachting Randy” had retired from Congress, but it appears he will be joining the Trump Administration. In a match most definitely not made in heaven, he is being considered for a job as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Donald Trump is considering Randy to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren’s old job.  Did you hear me? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Why aren’t you hollering and stomping?

Hell, people, you could not trust that guy with a dime.  He will steal the gold out of your teeth.  Plus, he’s crazier than an internationally syndicated Donald Trump tweet.  He’s got loco camped out in his eyeballs.

So “Yachting Randy” joins the growing parade of “you’re kidding, right?” nominees….

Not long ago, I was having lunch with a friend; we were glumly assessing the various harms likely in a country governed (if you can call it that) by this collection of truly appalling choices, and we concluded that their very incompetence might be our salvation–that most of them were too inexperienced and uninformed to be effective. The Trump Administration seemed likely to resemble the Keystone Kops.

But people like “Yachting Randy” and “Oops Rick Perry” and (most terrifying of all) “Sheriff” Jeff Sessions do have government experience. Their prior performance wouldn’t exactly recommend them for positions in a competent administration, and they may not be the sharpest knives in the drawer, as the old saying goes, but they may actually be able to do a considerable amount of harm.

I keep telling myself I’m just having a nightmare…..Could someone please wake me?

 

Real Americans

Each day–or so it seems–we are treated to news of yet another set of attitudes or beliefs that divide American citizens. Some of those divisions are beginning to seem insurmountable.

Case in point: According to a recent Pew poll, thirty-two percent of Americans believe that you have to be Christian to be a “real” American. (It would do no good to point members of that 32% to contrary writings by the nation’s Founders–like the occasional commenters who come to this blog to cite Fox News as authority for their evidence-free assertions, these are people for whom history inconsistent with their preferred beliefs is irrelevant. Or “fake.”)

According to Pew,

In 2014, Christians accounted for 70.6% of the U.S. population. Non-Christians and those unaffiliated with any religion totaled 28.7%.

About a third (32%) of Americans say it is very important for a person to be a Christian in order to be considered truly American. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) contend that one’s religion is not at all important.

Presumably, people who identify “American” with “Christian” do so because they believe that the values of Christianity are central to America’s values. (Of course, they ignore that pesky fact that there are some 34,000 different Christian denominations, and a lot of them appear to prioritize rather different sets of values…)

Adam Gopnik addressed the centrality of religious pluralism to our system of government in the most recent New Yorker.

America is not only a nation but also an idea, cleanly if not tightly defined. Pluralism is not a secondary or a decorative aspect of that idea. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, the guarantee of religious liberty lies in having many kinds of faiths, and the guarantee of civil liberty lies in having many kinds of people—in establishing a “multiplicity of interests” to go along with a “multiplicity of sects.

When I saw the Pew poll, I thought about a column I wrote not long after the 2004 election, which was widely seen as a “values” election. I’m reproducing it, because it is a list of what I consider to be “real” American values. It needs updating–the targets of American resentments have changed somewhat–but it remains uncomfortably relevant.

Let me be quite explicit about my values, which are shared by millions of others—values that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, values that are absolutely central to what it means to be American.

Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.

We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.

We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging their civic responsibilities.

We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize gays, or blacks, or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is un-American and immoral.

We believe, as Garry Wills recently wrote, in “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”

We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even non-American mankind).

We believe in the true heartland of this country, which is anywhere where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness.

We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.

We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.

In our America, borrowing from our grandchildren so that we can pay for a costly war without taxing the President’s buddies and campaign contributors is not moral. Dividing the nation into red and blue, gay and straight, moral and immoral, welcome and unwelcome, is not moral. Excusing our own sins by pointing to the sins of others—torturing people, or engaging in “holy war” because “they” do it too, is not moral. Lying—about sex or Weapons of Mass Destruction or an opponent’s war record—is not moral.

On Election Day, claimants of the “ Christian values” label came to the precinct where my youngest son was working and said they were there to “vote against the queers.” In my precinct, when I handed a Democratic slate to a voter, he accused me of being a “friend of Osama.” A friend’s son registering voters for Baron Hill in a church was called a “fag lover.”

The people who live in my America need to reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism and values from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different.

Unfortunately, that column remains pertinent.