Tag Archives: Trump

Truth Or Power

One of the very few (inadvertently) positive outcomes of Trump’s election has been an eruption of public soul-searching by thoughtful Republicans. Pundits like David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum and Michael Gerson have cut through the dissembling and hypocrisy of Congressional Republicans, and haven’t hesitated to point out the consequences of electing a spectacularly naked “emperor.”

A recent column by Gerson contained a scathing and utterly accurate summary of the man demanding (and receiving) Republican loyalty.

President Trump is remarkably unpopular, particularly with the young (among whom his approval is underwater by a remarkable 48 percentage points in one poll). And the reasons have little to do with elitism or media bias.

Trump has been ruled by compulsions, obsessions and vindictiveness, expressed nearly daily on Twitter. He has demonstrated an egotism that borders on solipsism. His political skills as president have been close to nonexistent. His White House is divided, incompetent and chaotic, and key administration jobs remain unfilled. His legislative agenda has gone nowhere. He has told constant, childish, refuted, uncorrected lies, and demanded and habituated deception among his underlings. He has humiliated and undercut his staff while requiring and rewarding flattery. He has promoted self-serving conspiracy theories. He has displayed pathetic, even frightening, ignorance on policy matters foreign and domestic. He has inflicted his ethically challenged associates on the nation. He is dead to the poetry of language and to the nobility of the political enterprise, viewing politics as conquest rather than as service.

Trump has made consistent appeals to prejudice based on religion and ethnicity, and associated the Republican Party with bias. He has stoked tribal hostilities. He has carelessly fractured our national unity. He has attempted to undermine respect for any institution that opposes or limits him — be it the responsible press, the courts or the intelligence community. He has invited criminal investigation through his secrecy and carelessness. He has publicly attempted to intimidate law enforcement. He has systematically alarmed our allies and given comfort to authoritarians. He promised to emancipate the world from American moral leadership — and has kept that pledge.

The Republican lawmakers who continue to support, excuse and enable this deeply disturbed man demonstrate where their values truly lie, and what their priorities truly are. For Ryan, McConnell and their obedient GOP minions in the House and Senate, clinging to power is far more important than serving the nation. Most of them know how dangerous Trump is, and how much harm he is doing, but they won’t desert his sinking ship until it costs them at the ballot box.

The irony is, the GOP is reaping what it very deliberately sowed.

From Nixon’s “Southern strategy” on, the Grand Old Party has been encouraging racial and religious resentments, rewarding “base” voters (in both senses of that word) with red meat rhetoric and divisive policies. It has colluded with rightwing media, supplying “talking points” to the talk radio ranters and Fox News, and defending racist and misogynist messaging.

As the party has become ever more cult-like, it has lost the so-called “country club” Republicans and the fiscally conservative, socially-liberal voters who used to make up a considerable portion of its membership. (When we see reports that majorities of Republicans still support Trump, we need to recognize that the percentage of Americans who identify as Republicans is far smaller than it used to be. Those supporters are the majority of a shrinking minority.) More recently, the party has lost the conservative pundits who genuinely care about policies and principles.

The question now is: how long will it be until the inevitable backlash–and how much harm to America will have been done in the meantime?

Speaking of Two Americas…

As I noted yesterday, sociologists and historians tell us that economic insecurity and inequality provide fertile soil for racial and cultural resentments. Economic stresses don’t create those resentments, however.

Like everything else, economic conditions are experienced through a cultural lens–that is, how we interpret economic circumstances and react to them depends upon the value structures and worldviews of the people doing the interpreting. When an observer says “those people are voting against their own self-interest,” for example, that observer is applying her own definition of “self-interest”–a definition that may not be shared by the voter.

In other words, although economic conditions often trigger socially undesirable behaviors, efforts to draw a straight line between cause and effect can lead us astray.

Two recent Washington Post articles focus on some stark differences in values between urban and rural America. The first, titled “Rural Divide,” reports on a study of rural voters.

The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans — including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas and small towns — finds deep-seated kinship in rural America, coupled with a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”

That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with about 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are “very different.”

Alongside a strong rural social identity, the survey shows that disagreements between rural and urban America ultimately center on fairness: Who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans.

The rural/urban divide was dispositive in the 2016 election, given the way in which the Electoral College favors rural states.  Hillary Clinton won urban counties by 32 points, while rural and small-town voters backed Trump by 26 points. But the percentages of rural and urban voters who were economically distressed was the same.

Although rural voters expressed concern about jobs and economic growth, researchers determined that the “largest fissures” between Americans living in cities and those in less-dense areas were based in “discomfort about the country’s changing demographics.” Rural residents were far more likely than urban dwellers to believe that immigrants are a burden to taxpayers, and that African-Americans receive undeserved government benefits.

That sense of division is closely connected to the belief among rural Americans that Christian values are under siege. Nearly 6 in 10 people in rural areas say Christian values are under attack, compared with just over half of suburbanites and fewer than half of urbanites. When personal politics is taken into account, the divide among rural residents is even larger: 78 percent of rural Republicans say Christian values are under attack, while 45 percent of rural Democrats do.

Commenting on that survey and its conclusions, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin was blunt: She began by dismissing the widespread belief that rural inhabitants voted for Trump because he paid attention to their economic plight.

We’ve never really bought that explanation, in part because Trump voters on average were richer than Hillary Clinton voters. Now there is powerful evidence of a disagreeable truth: Trump’s base was far more motivated by cultural provincialism and xenophobia than by economic need…

Trump magnificently exploited the resentments of white Christians and their anxiety about cities, which he falsely portrayed as experiencing a crime wave…

As we reenter a national conversation about anger, polarization and rhetorical excess we should expect more diligent, reasoned behavior from both politicians and voters. It is a gross exaggeration to tell rural voters that Christianity is under assault because they cannot dominate societal rules (e.g., businesses cannot discriminate against LGBT customers, official organized school prayer violates the First Amendment). It’s flat-out false to say we are being swamped by illegal immigrants. This sort of propaganda lacks a grounding in reality and amps up the already dangerous political environment, which in turn paralyzes our democracy.

No kidding.

Power to the People?

As Americans hold our collective breath watching an increasingly deranged Chief Executive (did you see that Cabinet meeting?), political scientists ponder the short- and long-term consequences of this unprecedented Presidency. How much damage will he do, and how long will it last?

Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution has a recent article speculating on what happens next: she describes the possibilities as 1)Trump learning and his presidency becoming more normal or at least adapting to what she delicately terms his “impulsiveness;” 2) the chaos continuing and power moving away from the presidency as a result; or 3) Trump being forced to leave office.

I suppose the good news is that any of these scenarios spells doom for Dick Cheney’s wet dream of a “unitary executive.”

If I were a gambling woman, I’d put my money on #2. The chaos will continue, and the federal government–at least the Executive Branch– will no longer be the center of domestic or international policy. Power abhors a vacuum.

As Kamarck writes,

The second model involves little learning and no adaptation. This is a model for continuing chaos, with the likely result that power will begin to drain from the White House towards other centers. For instance, power can move from the White House to the states and to the private sector. In the area of climate change, California Governor Jerry Brown has already stepped into a leadership role. It is likely that governors and corporate leaders may begin to take action regardless of what the White House thinks. Power can also move to Congress where possibilities for a limited tax bill and some infrastructure spending can move more or less without White House leadership. And internationally, power can move to the heads of Germany and France in Europe and also to China, as the United States pulls back from the world or offers leadership that is too unstable to count on. It’s unclear whether turning the presidency into a sideshow would be permanent or not. But continuing chaos from a Trump presidency could do it at least temporarily.

During the turbulent Sixties, “Power to the People” was a popular slogan, but the scenario painted in Kamarck’s second model is hardly benign. Despite Americans’ longstanding distrust of central authority, numerous aspects of our national life require a measure of uniformity if we are to remain the United States.

In normal times, we would expect Congress to step in to fill the power vacuum. That would certainly be the best-case scenario–if we had a functioning legislative branch. But we don’t. One result of the Republicans’ exceedingly thorough 2011 gerrymander was the election of what has appropriately been dubbed the “lunatic caucus,” reactionary ideologues and culture warriors uninterested in the nitty-gritty details of governance and unacquainted with the concepts of pluralism or the common good. They are “led”–to the limited extent they are tractable–by men who have elevated party over country and power over the rule of law.

Devolving power to the states can help to ameliorate some of the immediate damage being done to American institutions, but the only real solution I see is a “wave” election in 2018 that gives us a Democratic Congress capable of containing Trumpism.

The 64 Thousand Dollar Question is whether the Democrats can get their act together, recruit responsible and attractive candidates, and forgo their usual intra-party fratricide.

The whole world is watching….

Missing the Point

In the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords, apologists have gone into overdrive. Even those who recognize that climate change is real have pooh poohed the significance of our withdrawal; after all, the goals were voluntary and weak, and anyway, America’s cities and states are stepping up to the plate, so we’ll probably make our goals even without participating in a formal agreement.

A recent article in Time is typical of the many arguments that what looks like a sow’s ear might really be a silk purse in disguise:

Trump knew his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the climate agreement would provoke global outrage, and it did. For Trump, the economy is the priority. But Trump’s promise to revive the coal industry isn’t going to happen; instead, the opposite will occur. And it’s safe to say that by 2020 — the earliest date that the U.S. can technically withdraw from the climate pact — Trump could point to his decision even as he points at all the shuttered coal plants, and say: “See, I told you we didn’t need the Paris deal. America’s emissions went down regardless, and our economy became stronger without it.”

Let’s parse that paragraph. If Trump knew the decision would provoke outrage, he should have recognized that such outrage would make it more difficult to achieve other goals, both domestic and international, so why do it? As even the apologists have conceded, the targets we had endorsed were entirely voluntary; the administration could simply have ignored any that they felt were bad for the American economy.

What we’ve seen of this deeply disturbed man suggests that he withdrew because it would provoke outrage. Trump likes to stir the pot, and he desperately needs to be the center of attention. Achieving his goals quietly (assuming he has goals unconnected to his ego), without fanfare, doesn’t feed his narcissism.

And what about that statement that the economy is his priority? Where’s the evidence that Trump has even the slightest understanding of economic policy? His insistence that he will bring back a coal industry that even coal company CEOs admit is no longer viable should have been a clue to his cluelessness.

And arguing that we will meet our emissions goals without being party to the Paris Accords misses the point. The point is: symbolism matters, and it matters a lot.

When President Obama led the negotiations that produced the Paris Accords, he was signaling that the United States remained the world’s leader. He was demonstrating this nation’s willingness to work with countries around the globe to address common challenges, and our willingness to do the hard work of analyzing relevant science and working through thorny political barriers in order to hammer out an agreement.

Obama’s commitment to the process sent a message to the rest of the world, and it was a message that enhanced American stature and our ability to exercise global “soft power.”

The message sent by Donald Trump’s exit from that hard-won agreement was exactly the opposite: America is no longer a steadfast global presence, no longer a source of reassuring leadership in a dangerous world.

Under a volatile, unpredictable, and profoundly ignorant President and his cabinet of intellectual and moral pygmies, America is withdrawing from global leadership. (As Angela Merkel put it, in her typically understated way, America is “no longer a reliable ally.”)

Whatever the practical effect of withdrawal on our ability to fight climate change, the symbolism was devastating. Far from making America “great,” it diminished us and significantly weakened our influence around the world.

It was yet another unforced error by a man who tweets them daily.

 

Thoughts on the Comey Hearing

Today’s post will be brief because my husband is having a surgical procedure this morning (outpatient and cringe-worthy, since it requires cutting into his eyeball, but not major or life-threatening). I’ll return, undoubtedly in full verbose mode, tomorrow.

I have very little to add to the mountains of commentary that issued before, during and after Comey’s testimony. I’m not a criminal lawyer, was never a prosecutor (when I did practice law, I drafted contracts and mortgages and articles of incorporation), so my grasp of the fine points of obstruction of justice law is worse than imperfect.

With those caveats, a couple of observations:

  • Love him or hate him, James Comey is a professional with a reputation for integrity. He understands how to navigate Washington and how to speak to a camera, and his calm professionalism was on consistent display. His responses were forthright, but never exaggerated or over-reaching. He was neither defensive nor evasive. His entire performance was impressive.
  • The question whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice will inevitably require interpreting the President’s statement to Comey that he “hoped” the investigation of Flynn could be dropped. Senator Risch questioned whether a Presidential “hope” could really be considered a directive, although Comey responded that–given the context–he took it to be. Both Times reporter Charlie Savage and Senator Angus King responded with the perfect analogy: “I hope” is like the famous line Henry II uttered about Thomas Becket, which his minions understood to be a direction to murder him: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
  • Senator John McCain has passed his “sell by” date.
  • Judging from the reactions of Paul Ryan and other luminaries of what passes for the Republican party these days, patriotism of the sort displayed by Eliot Richardson, William Ruckleshaus, then-Senator Barry Goldwater and others during Watergate is long gone. It evidently eloped with those other bygone  qualities, honor and integrity.

The United States placed a dangerously ignorant, clearly incompetent, unstable man in the Oval Office. We’ve known that. What we didn’t know, and are slowly discovering, is the degree to which the members of his party value power over country.