State of the Union, MLK Version

It has been a year, close enough, since the billionaire populist gave his rousing  Inaugural “American Carnage” speech to the mostly invisible millions on the Capitol Mall. Anticipating his first State of the Union address in just two weeks, I thought Martin Luther King Day seemed a fitting occasion to squeeze in what is sure to be a dissenting perspective.

In that year we have had constant tweets, pronouncements, and actions from the White House, any of which taken individually would have constituted a show-stopping crisis or scandal for any previous administration. Yet, while the majority of Americans have responded or watched in horror, fully one-third of the electorate has been unwavering in its support of the president, even as he has repeatedly betrayed his economic promises to his white working class base. Why? That may be the most frequently repeated question of 2017.

The first explanation that has made solid sense to me was in a recent column by Charles Blow in the NY Times.

Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in the 1960s to a young Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the “lowest white man,” he is still better than Barack Obama, the “best colored man.”

In a way, Donald Trump represents white people’s right to be wrong and still be right. He is the embodiment of the unassailability of white power and white privilege.

I don’t know about you, but this was a hard assessment for me to read. In 2008, didn’t most of us believe the U.S. had turned the corner on race with the election of Barack Obama? And yet, Blow’s argument rings true. It explains the obsession by Trump and many on the right to obliterate any trace of the Obama legacy. It explains how Trump and the GOP Congress could so brazenly enact massive tax cuts for big corporations and the uber wealthy, confident in their ability to sell it to their base as a boon to the middle class.

And now, like an exclamation point on the year that started with the Muslim travel ban, Trump has grown comfortable enough in the Oval to make clear his world view: America First should be open to countries like Norway, i.e. white, and not to shithole countries like Haiti, El Salvador, and those in Africa, i.e. black and brown.

Naturally, this opinion has caused a negative sensation throughout the country and the rest of the world. That was to be expected. But, don’t be fooled. Pay attention to the sizable fraction of the country that was not repulsed and offended. Those who say that Trump is merely using colorful language to express what is obvious. Those who excuse his racism as telling it like it is. Those who are silent in the face of hate and ignorance emanating from the White House.

Consider the possibility that a large portion of American adults– one-fourth? one-third?– share Donald Trump’s racism. He did not create it in them, but he has exposed, exploited, and liberated it. He will, possibly, hold office for 3 more years. (I’m ignoring the spectrum of alternate possibilities from early impeachment/resignation to, godhelpus, a second term.) Then, he will be gone. But racial divisions and resentments will remain, even more intractable than political ones I expect.

Here’s the thing. In the spirit of Dr. King, this is a challenge we can begin to address now. Instead of railing at every outrageous utterance from Trump’s mouth or Twitter finger, our energies should be going into finding ways to counter the damage being done and the conditions that made Trump possible in the first place.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.    -MLK, “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963

Tips for combatting TFS (Trump Fatigue Syndrome)

Trump Fatigue Syndrome. Yes, it is a thing. I checked on Google. To be honest, it hasn’t made it to Wikipedia yet. But, even if this is the first time you have heard the term, you get the reference, don’t you? The condition is characterized by: weariness from the sheer volume (i.e. quantity) of Trump in the daily news; repulsion at the sheer volume (i.e. decibels) of Trump tweets full of all caps; depression from the constant reminders that this is only month 7, 8, or 9 of a 48-month term; impulses growing in strength and frequency to avoid print, tv, and radio news … sigh. There’s more, but just writing this paragraph is sapping the energy needed to finish this piece.

It is understandable that so much of the country might be affected by TFS. In fact, without using that term, I have written about it in this column a couple of times previously and a commenter gave a good description of its effect on her. One of the very first opinion pieces I read after the 2016 election was by Garrison Keillor. In the disoriented dawn hours following election night, Keillor gave his prescription for TFS long before the malady appeared:

We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses.
– Garrison Keillor, Washington Post, Nov 9, 2016

Hmm … Yes …  Well … Oh, sorry! I was drifting there for a moment. Tomatoes, beers, travel, and roses sound pretty good.

Of course, I am fairly certain Keillor was being sardonic with “we liberal elitists.” Those who oppose Trump cannot be summed up in a three word phrase any more than his supporters can. Yet, the man occasionally occupying the White House is doing his best to encourage such simplistic tribalism. It is what he does. It is who he is. It is US vs. THEM. If you are critical of him, he will demonize you, come after you.

That is another thing that contributes to Trump Fatigue Syndrome. It is thoroughly disheartening to witness the dishonesty and dumbing down of our discourse. And on important topics, too. How can we hope for intelligent conversation and the airing of rational disagreements when the public forum has been subverted and supplanted by Twitter? By a president whose “legitimacy” depends upon 30-40 million followers who hear from their chosen leader directly? By news media condemned as fake forced to treat the tweets as real?

So, TFS has an impact. We withdraw. We convince ourselves that there is not much we can do. That Trump and his supporters deserve each other. That we do not want to be drawn into the US vs. THEM paradigm.

Ah, let’s camp on that last one for a moment.

We were having dinner with a few long-time friends a week or two ago. Touching briefly and half-heartedly on some Trump topic or other, we were living evidence of the impact of Trump Fatigue Syndrome. Someone brought it up without naming it. Someone else observed that it seems that the “echo chamber” nature of today’s bifurcated media consumption results in everyone preaching to their own choir. So what, to put it bluntly, is the point of preaching at all?

This is where we come to the tips part of the column.

Unless you followed Keillor’s suggestions– you’ve spent all your time gardening, reading British romances, or traveling abroad for the past year– you are keenly aware that our party politics have begun to resemble WWI trench warfare. Furthermore, our stalemate began well before November, 2016. Trump was just the apotheosis who has proven masterful at amplifying divisions and disgruntlement.

I have come to believe that this instinctive genius is the plutonium that powers the president’s ship. Lacking the intellectual discipline that could harness that power, Trump is ill-suited to become a successful tyrant as he careens from crisis to crisis. But he could do a lot of damage before he self-destructs. (Incidentally, IMHO, this is what made Trump so attractive a candidate for Steve Bannon, whose ambition was and is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”)

The inclination for “liberal elitists”, or anyone else horrified at the dismantling of democratic institutions and suffering from TFS, is either to withdraw as described above or to find a way into the Resistance. To be part of THEM against Trump’s US.

I have begun to wonder if these responses simply play into the hands of Trump, Bannon, and anyone who has practiced the politics of division and hate since the election of our first African American president. Either withdraw or get into your side’s trench. Go dig in your garden or dig in and start fighting. They relish making their enemies relinquish the field, but they need THEM, an enemy they and their side can target and fight and hate.

Most of those 30-40 million Trump Twitter followers have stuck with him in spite of the increasingly obvious fact that he and the Republicans and his hand-picked deconstructors in the Federal agencies are actively engaged in legislation and deregulation that will directly harm them. Aside from his blatant lies about that work is his (so far) continuing success in pitting US vs THEM with himself as their champion.

What if we started to find ways to leave the trenches, the pitched battles? Not to cede the field, but to outflank the other side? After all, we should be clear. As frustrating as it is for millions of our fellow citizens to be dug in against us, they are not our enemies. They want mostly the same things for their families and their lives as we do. And Democrats have for at least three decades done a poor job of listening to them, advocating for them, seeing them.

Our battle is against those, whoever and wherever they are, who use deception and division in order to keep wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. They do so with little or no regard to everyone else, particularly the voiceless and disadvantaged. Saying they are all on the Right ignores many conservatives of integrity and compassion. It strengthens those who seek division. And it blinds us to the fact that there are plenty on the Left who do the same.

Let Trump tweet and rant, lie and misdirect. Let us focus on what he and his minions actually do. Or try to do. I will try not to react to his provocations, but I will react when he and his party present a tax package designed to further enrich the rich and burden our children with greater debt. I will try to set aside the sorrow and embarrassment I feel watching him debase and discredit our highest office, but I will speak against the epic assault against science and regulatory protections.

I believe I was wrong when I told my daughter last winter that supporting Bernie Sanders was too idealistic. The current trench warfare in Washington is not winnable and only benefits the status quo. I am ready to give up on conventional party politics, but not ready to give up.

I don’t have much more than that right now. I suspect there’s wisdom in the conventional: Think globally (or nationally), act locally. But mainly, act. I’m starting by writing. Perhaps there will be something more. But I plan not to be sidelined by Trump Fatigue Syndrome. I’m retired, not dead. The goal of this blog remains. Looking around, I can’t help thinking: we do not seem to be leaving this earth or our country in great condition for our children. What can we do about that?

Letting Trump be Trump

This is not what I expected or wanted to write when I returned to the blog. As the desire to get back to it has built the past few weeks, numerous delightfully non-political topics have paraded across my thoughts. All the while, efforts to ignore the orange-tinged elephant in the room (in my mind) have been futile. He looms there, demanding attention, just as he does in the consciousness of the nation. So be it. This is where I pick up.

Ann and I were in Chicago a few years ago, necks craning to admire the buildings being pointed out during the wonderful river cruise conducted by the city’s Architecture Foundation. Sliding past the Tribune Tower, with its splendidly Gothic Revival style, and the brilliant white terra cotta of the iconic Wrigley Building, we were confronted with the glass-encased Trump International Hotel and Tower. Inarguably grand, a significant architectural achievement, the second tallest building in Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Big Shoulders”, it was nonetheless diminished by the gaudy ostentation of the giant letters spelling T R U M P on a brightly lit background across the entire lower facade. Actually the letters spelled T R U M, as the P was inexplicably, but presumably temporarily, missing.

We chuckled and shook our heads. This seemed consistent with our perception of Trump at that time: wealth, ego, real estate success, but something decidedly off.

We took a different kind of notice of him when he co-opted the campaign to reveal Obama as a Kenyan pretender to the presidency. Now he was demonstrating the Art of the Lie to amplify the noxious racist undertones that had characterized some of the resistance to and rejection of the President. Now he was messing with our democracy.

When this national exposure led to his candidacy, the spotlight he so craved illuminated a man that most in the country recognized to be narcissistic, dishonest, uninformed, unfit. It was inconceivable that such a man could win the Republican nomination.

When he did, it was even more inconceivable he could be elected. Katy Tur’s book, Unbelievable, describes Election Day hour by hour and how virtually no one, including most in the Trump campaign itself, was prepared for his victory.

(Here, I imagine Fezzini fromThe Princess Bride, with his oft-repeated response to reports of being chased: “Inconceivable!” To which Inigo Montoya finally observes, “I do not think that means what you think that means.”)

Conceivable or no, Trump was inaugurated in January and the people who did not vote for him (a majority it turns out) held their collective breath. It was going to be bad, but the pundits floated various hopeful scenarios that might mitigate the danger. The day to day running of the government would continue to be in the hands of career professionals. Surely there would be some responsible members of the administration who would balance the imbalanced. The other branches of government would serve as a check on the executive. Simply occupying the Oval Office and confronting the awesome attending responsibilities would serve to restrain and perhaps even reform some of The Donald’s baser instincts.

Even such dire hopes have since dwindled and now might be described as Pollyanna-ish.

When I took a break for selling, buying, and moving residences, some four months ago, I was writing an opinion that I soon noticed cropping up and being developed in more worthy publications. Too much energy and time was being expended on daily reactions to daily provocations by Trump. It was exhausting and largely unproductive. Better to focus on issues and places where we can affect change or maintain social progress. He is petty and mean, incompetent and arbitrary. He will eventually self-destruct. Furthermore, the institutions of our democracy have withstood assaults before. Surely, he will not be able to continue on this course. Nor will he will have any lasting effect. Inconceivable.

Well, it IS conceivable, of course. But not because Donald Trump is a 21st century Machiavelli. He is merely what he has always seemed. No more, no less. J.K. Rowling aptly and famously proclaimed him a “little, little, little man.” But, he is not harmless. Driven by an impatient compulsion for the spotlight and the applause of his chosen audience, he is a master at pushing buttons to get his desired and immediate response. Thus his need for the ongoing “campaign” rallies. Thus his obsessive tweets. He has not changed. But, he has been given access, God help us, to a terrifying array of buttons to press.

What now? Our head of state is a con man, a bully, a narcissist, and a provocateur who has no skill or patience for governing. He is the Wizard of Oz, all show and flim-flam. Behind the curtain, like in the story, is a traveling salesman who landed in the capital city through a fluke. What is keeping him from being exposed and sent back to Kansas, um, New York?

It’s excruciatingly simple. His base, who are reshaping what the Republican Party will be, are still mainly behind him. (Understanding the confounding reasons for this is NOT simple and may hold the key to determining what kind of nation we become.) The Never Trump Republicans in Congress fear this base and are convinced their only chance of passing Tax Relief for the Rich and staying in office is to swallow their contempt for the president and let Trump be Trump.

Then this past week began with two former presidents giving unprecedented high profile speeches with detailed criticisms and warnings about the current administration. This was immediately followed by scathing denunciations by three sitting, albeit retiring, Republican senators. “Finally,” we sigh. “Maybe now courage will supplant cravenness in Washington.” Hmmm. Right.

Still, the dam doesn’t necessarily break all at once. Retiring or not, speaking out was not nothing. Republican voice has been given to protest and resistance from within Congress. Staying silent for lawmakers has lost the cover of conformity.

Senator Jeff Flake was especially eloquent in laying out what is at stake and charging all stakeholders, voters and elected officials alike, with complicity if they do not stand against this assault on decency, democratic values, and the common good. I encourage you to read his address and/or the fine summary and commentary by Amber Phillips in the Post.

The health of our democracy is at stake. It is time for all of us to find our own voices in our own ways and to demand the same from our leaders and representatives.

Make America Great At Last

(Scott Threlkeld/AP)

A sense of our own greatness has always been part of the American psyche. And not without reason. A fresh start in a new land with unexplored but limitless potential. Manifest destiny leading us across a magnificent continent, brimming with resources– and pesky natives. Development of a robust economic engine, fueled in part by the labor and expendable lives of an enslaved population. The endurance of, and prevailing over: civil war, world wars, economic depression. The status of being the envy of the world for our democratic freedoms, standard of living, and independent, self-sufficient lifestyle.

A sense of this greatness diminishing was the basis for the Trump phenomenon in 2016. Trump identified the genuine and poignant plight of a segment of working Americans whose livelihoods and towns have been deteriorating in the face of advancing technology and world economic forces. He successfully exploited it with the time-tested strategy of scapegoating immigrants with different shade skin.

I first witnessed this strategy in action in January, 2016. My daughter lives in Vermont and has her office in Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. The Trump campaign chose this location, three blocks from Bernie Sanders’s campaign headquarters, for a January 7 rally. Stacy sent me links to coverage of the event, including a phone video that someone attending had recorded.

At that early date, the hallmarks of Trump’s campaign were already appallingly evident: the lies about crowd sizes (“25,000 people are in line outside” when it was actually 2,000); the xenophobic hate speech; the incitement to physical violence (“Get them out! Get them out!” to encourage physical removal of anyone suspected of not being a real supporter); the promise to make America great again.

The campaign unleashed racial resentment and hatred that had never disappeared from our society, but had been suppressed by judicial progress and evolving awareness and conscience among a majority of citizens. The victory in the election validated what the campaign had exposed.

We have seen this resurgence of racism in many forms. The emboldening of white supremacists. Violence and vandalism against Muslims and mosques. Physical and vocal antagonism in schools, north and south. Policies and budgets in Congress and statehouses that disfavor immigrants and the poor.

And it is playing out in the South over the issue of removing Confederate monuments from public spaces.

This is what I’ve been getting at. In an odd way, I wonder if there is a silver lining in the storm clouds. It is difficult to engage with attitudes that lie below the surface. But Trumpism has given “political correctness” a negative connotation, while simultaneously encouraging expression of long suppressed racial resentments. The controversy over the meaning of Confederate monuments is putting those attitudes on open display.

Charlottesville, VA, has faced protests to its recent decision to remove a prominent statue of General Robert E. Lee. State lawmakers have lined up on either side of the issue. About two weeks ago, white supremacist leader, Richard Spencer, led a protest in front of the statue, complete with torches but minus the robes. You may recall that Spencer achieved prominence with his “Hail Trump” appearance at a white nationalist conference in DC shortly after the election. This protest elicited many public denunciations and expressions of support.

Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy, has also revived its previously unsuccessful campaign to remove six Civil War statues from its famed Monument Avenue. Public polls and media commentary abound.

People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Perhaps New Orleans presents the most interesting example of this public discourse. As you probably know, the city council voted to remove four statues  in different parts of the city and relocate them in a museum to provide historical context. Fearing violent protests, the first three were removed at night. The last, a 16 foot bronze figure of General Lee, was removed in the light of day on May 19. No violence occurred.

Not that some did not think that violence was called for. The next day, state representative Karl Oliver, Republican, made this Facebook post:

The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, “leadership” of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.

Let me restate that, to make sure you got it. A sitting state legislator called for the LYNCHING! of other public officials whose actions he disagreed with. Nicely symbolic form of execution, I’ll give him that.

I’m happy to report that Rep. Oliver has been roundly condemned for his post by members of both parties and stripped of his committee chairmanship. Racism boldly, and baldly, expressed in public is rarely an attractive thing, save to other die-hard racists. That is why I have hope, albeit slim, that the Trump brand of nationalism could result in a greater number of Americans seeing it more clearly and rejecting it.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech on May 19 regarding the meaning of removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

How might that look? New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a remarkable speech on the same morning the Lee statue was being removed. The vision he eloquently proposed is both aspirational and attainable. The entire speech is here. If you would like just some of the highlights, try here. But this is the part that best speaks to the point of this post (bolding is mine):

A friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

I am aware that in some places and circumstances, I could be pilloried for saying or even implying that America is not great. It’s just that saying it doesn’t make it so. Neither does a slogan on a baseball cap. Neither, it turns out, does electing the first African-American President. If only it were so easy.

No, there are many many things about America that are great. And she has, perhaps more than most if not all other countries, the potential for greatness. But to realize that potential, to become truly great at last, the potential must be equally available to all within her borders. Because when some are denied, oppressed, slighted, or attacked, we all fall short.

This Can’t Continue! Can It?

I cannot believe I’m saying this, but it may be time to start thinking about the 2018 elections. “Sure,” I can hear you thinking, “right after I finish hot waxing myself and listening to a 2-hour compilation of Kellyanne Conway’s most irritating interviews.”

But, any American citizen who is appalled at the spectacle of immense power in the hands of an “infantalist”, as David Brooks called him, needs to think in practical terms about what it is going to take to get Trump out of office. And whether there is anything we can do about it besides wish.

We are starting to see the term “tipping point” appear with some frequency in the “failing” NY Times and the “dishonest” mainstream media in general. The reference is to the question of whether the self-sabotaging president has racked up enough offenses– against ethical standards, the constitution, intelligence protocol, etc.– and exhibited sufficiently shocking, irrational, unhinged behavior to spur Congress to finally fulfill its intended role as a check on an executive branch that is abusing its power.

It is my belief that, if the current avalanche of jaw-dropping events does not push House and Senate Republicans over that tipping point, it is unlikely to happen. Journalists are reporting that those legislators are increasingly expressing their dismay and concern off the record. But only the occasional lone voice, and none of the leadership, will publicly stand against the president.

Why is that? Primarily, you can chalk it up to three factors.

First, Trump voters don’t agree with you. Polls are showing almost no slippage in support on one vital question. Sizable numbers register disapproval for certain traits or actions, resulting in somewhat lower approval ratings since January. But 96% of those who voted for Trump still say they would vote for him now.

Again, why is that?! I expect you know. Read the polls (e.g. something like 85% of Republicans place more trust in Trump to tell the truth than the media) and listen to Trump voters interviewed about their reactions to current events. You find that they buy into the narrative that the president is trying to do what he promised, is being thwarted by (fill in the blank), and is being lied about in the press and by opponents.

Second, as long as this base does not erode, Reps in Congress believe they can’t afford to anger them and end up getting defeated in the primaries next year.

And third, they still have an agenda they know Trump will sign if he doesn’t get in the way of passing it: repeal and replace Obamacare, tax “reform” i.e. cuts, budget cuts, and regulatory cuts.

What it will take

If the current majority party does not act, the 2018 mid-terms become a referendum to elect to Congress those who will defend our democratic institutions and traditions, to say nothing of the constitution.

Every Democratic seat must be defended. Every current Republican incumbent must find him or herself challenged by the highest quality candidate possible. The process of identifying, vetting, and supporting those challengers needs to begin now.

If Democratic infighting can’t be banished, it at least needs to take a vacation. Encourage great local leaders to run. And to run positive primary campaigns that result in a general election candidate that enjoys united support.

There may be places where an Independent candidate emerges as the strongest option. There may even be situations where a moderate Republican who is also appalled at what has become of the party and the presidency turns out to be the smartest vote in order to oust the Trump-enabling incumbent.

The point is this. The portentous possibilities that were forewarned in 2016 of electing a man so unfit and unprepared are materializing with growing speed and impact. It should not be allowed to continue, but it may. If it does, we can shrug, console ourselves with Colbert, and gradually become desensitized to the new normal.

Or, we do what we can do. Support and read a vigilant press, keeping our opposition informed and intelligent rather than partisan. And act locally, while thinking nationally, to help elect a Congress who will be willing to fulfill its responsibility.

I would like my grandchildren to grow up in a great America. But excuse me if I choose Lincoln’s definition over Trump’s. That would be an America where the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It survived the Civil War. I think it can survive Trump.

Just Turn the Lights Off: A Trumpian Metaphor

If it weren’t happening against the backdrop of a potential Constitutional crisis, it would be humorous. Well, it’s actually kind of humorous anyway. But it is also a perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, as you will see.

On Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to match his boss’s classy behavior in notifying Director Comey of his firing via TV news, Sean Spicer and staff kept trying unsuccessfully to inform the press of the same news via an email statement, according to an article in the Washington Post. Finally giving up, after three hours of technical problems, Spicer stood in his office doorway and shouted an announcement to the reporters who were within shouting range. He then ducked inside and his staff locked the doors.

The White House was reportedly taken aback by the speed and harshness of the blowback, with criticism building from Republicans as well as Democrats. Having previously said there would be no more statements, Spicer and two staffers “were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox, and Fox Business,” where their reporters and camera crews did interviews with the White House itself as backdrop. Upon completing those, the intrepid press secretary was facing a conundrum.

It was now after sunset and Spicer found himself hiding in the hedges in the dark, wanting to hightail it back to his office. But between the bushes and the building were “a swarm of reporters wanting to know why President Trump suddenly decided to fire the FBI Director.”

After a few minutes, he sucked it up and emerged, telling the reporters he would answer some questions. But only with the cameras off.

“‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered. ‘We’ll take care of this. Can you just turn that light off?’ Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness…with more than a dozen reporters gathered around him.” After ten minutes of Q&A, he abruptly turned and escaped.

See what I mean? Metaphor, ready made. (If I thought the president might read this, however, I would definitely spell it out. You know what I mean if you saw the May Day interview of Trump in the Oval Office by CBS’s John Dickerson. Dickerson commented on the quote by George W. Bush regarding the office being oval and having no corners to hide in. Trump agreed that there are no corners, so the room has a certain openness and anyone outside looking in the windows would be able to see him, but of course no one could get that close. Dickerson started to explain that it was a metaphor, but gave up.)

But, back to Spicer’s metaphor. This anecdote unintentionally encapsulates the Trump administration modus operendi. Everything will be fine if we can just shed a little darkness on it. Fine for Trump. Not so much for our democracy.

Democracy Dies in Darkness

James Comey was just the most recent career law enforcement official to be fired by Trump while engaged in unwelcome investigations. Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for Southern New York, and Sally Yates, the acting US Attorney General, were let go with similarly suspicious timing. They, like Comey, had reputations for independence and integrity and were seen as threats to his independence.

An independent investigation of Russia’s influence on the Trump election by definition would shed much needed light. In spite of his erratic behavior regarding Clinton email, Comey’s FBI effort was seen as the best hope for that light and an honest report. On the other hand, the president and the Republicans on the congressional committees charged with that investigation have made their target anyone who can be found who has leaked information.

If these actions weren’t enough to prove the point, Trump tweets spell it out. With increasing stridency, he broadcasts his demands to stop the Russia investigation and find those who talk to reporters instead.

The battle lines are becoming clear. The Washington Post ran a front page article on Wednesday to give a more complete picture of all that transpired in the previous 24-48 hours. They cited 30 sources from the White House, Justice, and the FBI. Thirty. 3-0. These people don’t like what they are witnessing and want the rest of us to know about it.

Ah, yes. The press. To be fair, it is a thorn in the side, a pain in the neck (and lower) to all administrations. Their job, when they do it well, is to keep the government honest by keeping klieg lights on its activities. No one likes to be that exposed. But that is the price of democracy. And the media isn’t perfect, nor are politicians, so at times we just muddle through and count on checks and balances to keep the country on the rails.

What is brand new in 2017, totally unprecedented, is that this Oval Office occupant has declared war on the press and is waging that war daily. Consider:

  • Trump used his rallies and tweets for months to repeat epithets and slogans to demonize and undermine the press. This message became gospel for his congregation.
  • The ugly language and constant refrain of “fake news” aimed at the media continued and was amplified after assuming office.
  • In this environment, the State Department was stripped of most of its senior officers and staff, and a Secretary of State installed who refuses to engage with the press in any meaningful way.
  • The president’s spokespeople reflect his contempt in their own interactions with the “mainstream” media.
  • Numerous federal departments, under Trump appointees, instituted gag rules, prohibiting staff to communicate with the press or even with Congress. Some but not all of these have been walked back.
  • Access by the press to Spicer’s communications department has been restricted, at times with favorable access rewarding favorable coverage.
  • Updated item on May 12:        

I mentioned the Washington Post earlier. If you have read it in the past couple of months you have probably seen their masthead. Since February, they have added a motto for the first time ever. I was surprised to learn that it has been in the works for about a year, so was not a direct response to the Trump presidency. But it could have been and it resonates.

The executive branch clearly hates the glare of the light. The legislative is in the hands of a party that has shown little interest in flipping the switch yet. Fortunately the judiciary has so far shown a willingness to stand up to the challenges it has received. And the fourth estate is under attack. But, it seems that many in the press see this moment for what it is. A time to stand in the breach. A time to just turn the lights on.

 

Fake Win

I was working on a post for the blog when I read this column today by Maureen Dowd saying much the same thing, only better. I hope you will read it. The thing is, Trump neither knows nor much cares what is actually in the Republican health-care-for-the-young-and-healthy/tax-cut-for-the-wealthy bill. He expects to keep getting away with claiming things are great that aren’t– and selling them. He needed a health bill passed. No matter that it hurts most those who most need help. A win for him is a win, regardless of the lives trampled along the way. That is the art of his deal.

Trump: Hazardous to Our Health – The New York Times, by Maureen Dowd

President Trump sprinkling flimflam dust in the Rose Garden Thursday to deflect attention from the health care bill House Republicans had just passed. Credit Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump and Kindergarten Lesson 2: Play Fair

Lesson 2: Play Fair

Part 2 in a series      (See Part 1: Tell the Truth)

Every president since FDR has measured what they have accomplished in their first 100 days. We rate President Trump’s the worst on record, with no major legislative victories and a string of policy and personnel embarrassments. A common theme that ties these calamities together is a contempt for ethics. Trump’s conflicts of interest and other ethics troubles contributed to each of his major stumbles, and will continue to hobble his administration unless he takes corrective measures.   – Painter and Eisen, USA Today 4/26/17

Richard W. Painter is vice chair and Norman L. Eisen is chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is issuing a report Friday on Donald Trump’s first 100 days. The authors were chief White House ethics lawyers in the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively. Follow them on Twitter @RWPUSA and @NormEisen.

Can you remember playing a board game with a 5-year old son or granddaughter? If so, you should easily grasp the point I’m about to make.

A 5-year old understands that the point of a game is to win. He understands it so well, he will likely invent rules, lie about spaces moved, or may even knock over the board in order to keep from losing. This is the right developmental time to teach him that for the game to be fair, and therefore fun for everyone, we all follow the rules of the game. Level playing field and all that.

That’s why playing games, and later sports, are considered great preparation for life. Be competitive and strive to win, but within the rules. Play fair. If you have ever followed professional golf, PGA or LPGA, you may have noticed the ultimate example of this principle. Players are expected, and do in fact, call penalties on themselves, even if no one else noticed the infraction. Seriously.

So, there are those of us who learn and embrace the importance of playing fair, who come to understand that this simple principle underpins such critical values as income inequality, social justice, equal opportunity, and ethical governance.

Examples also abound of those who believe themselves exempt. It may be that the drive to win overpowers the constraint of the rules. Thus, footballs get deflated and visiting teams’ signs are electronically poached and transmitted to the home team. Or, a businessperson cheats in order to beat a competitor, or takes advantage of clients to achieve personal gain.

It may also be that a sense of entitlement has developed to the point of believing oneself in a category where the normal rules don’t apply. Or, in the case of someone with a bent toward narcissism, believing one’s world is subject to his own rules.

Gosh, where could I be going with this?

The legion of Americans mystified by Trump’s election– with reactions ranging from head scratching to garment rending– have wondered how his voters will react if (when?) they find themselves in the same crowded boat as previous lenders, contractors, and Trump University students.

Well, the President’s track record of not playing fair is consistent, so at least he is unlikely to surprise anyone in this regard. Recent interviews of Trump supporters suggest most are willing to accept this trait so far. It will be interesting to see if they are in it for the long haul.

Meanwhile, he is treating the rest of us to an unprecedented presidential display of flaunting established protocol, traditions, standards, rules, and possibly laws. Some of this behavior is aimed at reinforcing his disingenuous populist image. Indeed, this was the election when both Left (remember Bernie?) and Right were fed-up with establishment politics and primed for an iconoclast who would blow things up.

But he hasn’t set out to blow up entrenched practices and policies that encourage corruption. Nor does he show any interest in “draining the swamp” of lobbyists and others who have made the unlevel playing field a playground for bankers, the wealthy, and large corporations.

Instead, the occupant of the Oval Office, the man from Mar a Lago, seems to be the magnetic north of his own moral compass.

Winning is clearly important to Trump, witness how often he talks about it and the lengths he goes to claim it. Everything he does has to be not just a win, but a big win. Getting elected was not enough. He persists in insisting that his Electoral College victory was the greatest since whatever (it wasn’t) and that he really won the popular vote because Clinton’s more than 3 million vote margin was due to illegal voting (nope.) His inaugural crowd was the largest ever, please ignore any visual evidence to the contrary.

After spending months pre- and post-election promising he had a great plan for repealing and replacing Obamacare, he revealed his hand was empty. He also proved he was willing to throw vulnerable Americans, including his supporters, under the bus with a series of capitulations in order to get a legislative win that never happened.

More sobering is how little regard Trump has for established norms designed to insure ethical practice. Contempt really. Inadequate attention to vetting has led to numerous appointments that are ticking ethical time bombs. Flynn already blew up but seems not to have run out of explosives yet.

We suspect he never did intend to release his taxes. He has taken so much political heat for this, some writers have speculated that what could be found in his tax returns must be worse than the political price is is paying to keep them private. That price will only become steeper now that he has released his one page tax “plan” and will continue to grow if actual legislation comes from it.

Where this contempt and the perspective of a narcissist takes us way beyond the pale is in the catalog of conflicts of interest being compiled. In November, sitting for an interview with the NY Times, Trump boasted, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That is sort of true sort of not, but with a telling twist from someone who always thinks it’s all about him.

The law says that the responsibilities of the President and Vice-President are so broad and far-reaching, it is not practical to expect them to recuse themselves from involvement in matters where a possible conflict might arise. Nor is it reasonable for them to be vulnerable to prosecution. Nonetheless, the expectation remains that the executive should strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety and undue influence through business interests. Before now, Presidents have been scrupulous to divest or otherwise separate themselves from such interests once in office.

Far from putting country above self, Trump has virtually paraded his conflicts of interest, giving the appearance of impropriety and relishing it. There is income flowing to the President and his family from near (Trump International DC and Mar a Lago, among many US holdings) and far (many business dealings in and with countries around the globe) that could easily intersect national interests.

Sooner or later, we will know whether or not Russia is one of those entanglements and to what extent.

He has chosen a not-so-blind trust for his businesses that appears to do little to keep him from accessing the assets or preventing involvement with the trustees, who happen to be his sons.

Which brings us to Jared and Ivanka. If they prove to be positive contributors, I will be glad. Yet, Trump’s making them such a prominent and powerful part of his administration seems an act of monumental hubris. They bring along their own portfolios of potential conflicts of interest and no government experience. But they are loyal family members and they reinforce the Trump doctrine that “I alone can fix it” and that special rules apply.

 

The Trouble with Trump? He Must Have Skipped Kindergarten!

[Part 1 in a series]

We are sent to school to be civilized—to be introduced to the essential machinery of human society. Early on in our lives we are sent out of the home into the world. To school. We have no choice in this. Society judges it so important that we be educated that we must go. It is the law. And when we get to school we are taught the fundamentals on which civilization rests. These are first explained in language a small child understands.

Across the course of our lives we will wrestle with questions of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies. Again and again and yet again, we will come around to that place where we came in—to that room where the elemental notions about humanity were handed to us with great care when we were very young.

Of course it wasn’t literally all you really needed to know. Certainly not. But if you didn’t get this basic stuff to begin with, you and society will pay a heavy price for your failure. If you did learn it and do practice it, then all the rest of what you needed to know has a lasting foundation.

“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum

We all know people who obviously missed or have forgotten those early fundamentals. At least some of them. We could all use reminders. The consequences of such lapses may be minor for us and irritating for those around us. Or they may be major and, as Fulghum says, we and the society in which that person moves pay a heavy price.

But how heavy might that price be if the person who “didn’t get this basic stuff to begin with” occupies the highest and most powerful office in the country? Arguably the most powerful in the world? The initial answer to that question may be coming into focus in these first 100 days of the Trump presidency.

Yesterday’s post suggested that this president poses the challenge of learning how to filter out all the intentional static he generates in order to distract and manipulate. This will be an ongoing challenge, as long as he is in office. To focus on what he does rather than what he says. To direct our own responses constructively. Still, executive orders and legislation, however objectionable or damaging they may seem to some of us, can be tempered or reversed down the road. This is the way of politics in a democracy.

The deeper danger, the more serious threat– to our society and our democracy, to the global community, even to the planet itself– is posed by the exercise of presidential power and influence by someone who evidences a profound lack of those “fundamentals on which civilization rests.” Starting today and with the next few posts, we will look at the effects of Donnie skipping kindergarten.

Lesson One: Tell the Truth

Donald Trump is a liar. Donald Trump lies. There it is. Not exactly a newsflash nor an original observation. But for our purposes we need to be clear. No point pussy-footing around. Sorry, poor choice of words there. No point beating around the bush. Shoot, not good either. Let’s just say it is important to label him bluntly because this fact may be his most obvious defining characteristic.

No point throwing stones either. Who among us qualifies to pick up that first one? We all lie sometime, at least in some way. We all expect politicians to lie. So what sets Trump apart? Why and how does this matter? This isn’t about condemning, it’s about understanding that one of “the fundamentals upon which civilization rests” is under attack and is already seriously injured.

Lying and politics have been natural bedfellows forever, elevating to a profession something that we civilians practice as amateurs. But, this profession has normally been governed by rules that define the distinctions between lying and telling the truth. Rules that impose penalties when the lies are of a certain kind or trespass certain limits.

Once, practitioners of this profession mostly adhered to the rules. The truth remained a valued standard. It might have suffered plenty of stretching, but it was still recognizable.

That began to change a couple of decades ago. While other factors have contributed, the explosive growth and reach of cable news and the Internet have played a crucial role. In that time, news outlets have proliferated, diluting the influence and authority of the major networks we Boomers grew up with, with Fox News making the greatest impact. Further, web-based campaigns from email to Facebook to Twitter, have become primary sources of “information” for many millions, never mind where they originate.

This environment, where support and “proof” for any opinion or bias is just a click away, was fertile ground for Donald Trump. Decades of honing his skills in the tabloids of New York City were the dues he paid to enter this era’s political arena. His trial run was the false campaign to delegitimize the first African-American President. Finding that obvious lies were no obstacle for millions who wanted to believe them, he did what he does even now: he doubled down on the lie. He ran for President.

Is Donald Trump a greater liar than any other politician? Than a president like, for example, Richard Nixon? I don’t know how to gauge that. But, I do know that we are seeing something we have never seen before. This president lies as easily as you or I might discuss the weather. He lies so often, I suspect that neither supporters nor opponents take his words seriously and the supporters shrug while the opponents rage.

Worse, we may start to accept the lying as normal and stop giving weight to it at all. It may have been his strategy all along.

I have begun to believe that his lying is so much a part of him that Trump himself may not always keep track or care whether he is lying or not. Losing the ability to know the difference is truly an ominous situation when we are talking about POTUS. Not only do we worry whether he can distinguish his own truths and lies, we have to seriously question whether he has the capacity to discern when an advisor or a foreign official (cue Russia red alerts) is being honest with him. Bizarrely, the Commander-in-Chief, with the most extensive intelligence apparatus in history, tweets impulsively based on baseless conspiracy theories he finds on TV or the Internet.

All right. Time to check in on our theme. Children learn the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The lesson was the importance of trust and how it is lost through lying and that the results can be devastating, even fatal. (Sheep can die!) Tell the truth!

That’s the price. Trust. Remember the original question? How heavy might the price be for our president to have gotten an ‘F’ in Tell the Truth? To have missed Kindergarten altogether?

Think of it. The leader of the free world is widely believed to be a liar. How do we, citizens of the United States, follow someone whose word we do not trust? How can our allies trust our participation in the alliance, let alone have confidence in our leadership? What response is prompted in our enemies? How can our diplomats, if there are any left, negotiate in good faith?

Oh, and remember. There was something else lost in the story beside trust. Yeah. Some sheep died too.

Our First 100 Days with Donald Trump

If you’ve done anything more than stream Netflix this week, you know we are approaching a milestone. April 29 marks what the French* would call les cents jours du Trump. (Translation: a friggin’ eternity.) The first 100 days of a presidency have become an arbitrarily significant measure of a new administration’s impact. The media seems to love the neatness of framing a President’s activities and achievements in this storyline. In fact, the media hating/loving Trump embraced it even more enthusiastically. These final days before the 29th promise to be fraught for the President and the Republican Congress as they bicker over what priorities, if any, to try to jam through.

Starting with an impossibly momentous Day 1, this initial three-plus months was the gift box into which Candidate, President-Elect, and Rookie President Trump shoveled his promises to his base. A couple weeks before the election, he released a document titled, “Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter,” which touted 60 promises in a “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.” The fact that only a small handful of these promises have been kept or even look promising by now has been met by Trump with characteristic humility and equanimity. Ha, just kidding. Met, that is, with a characteristic tweet:

No, nothing unexpected here. But, the coming week could be an opportunity to recalibrate our perspective after three months and focus on the things that make this administration a unique threat.

Whether he is now downplaying the 100 day mark, Trump & staff, along with Congress, will be very active this week. Revive the House healthcare bill? Tax reform legislation, i.e. tax cuts for guess who? Allow the government to shut down? Should be some interesting debate about funding that wall.

So, while they are trying to sort that out, the rest of us could be doing some sorting of our own. First off, is it fair to say that Trump is a threat to our democracy? After all, neither side typically likes most of the policies of the opposing party. But even Richard Nixon does not hold a candle to Trump in matters of the truth, ethics and conflicts of interest, ignorance in public and foreign policy, and more.

A shorthand method I’m using to test my own view of the Trump threat is to read what conservative writers have to say about it. We get the impression from Trump’s base and most of the polarized, paralyzed DC Republican delegation that they are OK with him. But, listen to or read some of those on the right and a different picture emerges. Just a few that I appreciate are David Brooks and Russ Douthat in the NY Times, David Frum of the Atlantic, George Will of the Washington Post, and Stephen Hayes, editor of the Weekly Standard.

By now, we are recognizing that the frenetic and often chaotic jumble of news and pronouncements are likely to be a hallmark of these next four years. Trump’s obvious strategy is to keep the noise at a level and timing to distract from the things that deserve our attention and resistance. We need first to identify what issues matter, focus on those, and let all the noise go, regardless of how outrageous it might be.

Commemorating the 100 days, this blog is going to try to follow its own advice this week with a series of posts. As one of our favorite cable commentators says, “Watch this space.”

*Note: The use of French in the first paragraph above was prompted by a couple of things. As you may already know, the “first 100 days” standard traces back to Napoleon Bonaparte, who left Elba, raised an army, and waged an extensive military campaign before being defeated at Waterloo, all in less than four months. The other thing was today’s French presidential election, where Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen emerged to qualify for the runoff on May 7. Gardez les doigts croisés.