2020 Election, Politics, Trump

Have We No Decency…

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the United States has reached an inflection point: mass shootings now a regular, sickening occurrence, the FBI identifying “fringe conspiracy theories as a factor in domestic terrorism” and a level of racial unrest unlike anything since George Wallace campaigned in Michigan in 1968. 

An inflection point. (REUTERS/Joe Penney)

Uruguay, a country known more for soccer than diplomatic leadership, has warned its citizens traveling to the United States to “take extreme precautions in the face of growing indiscriminate violence, mostly hate crimes, including racism and discrimination, which killed more than 250 people in the first seven months of this year.” New Zealand, Canada, Germany and other allies have said much the same. 

And, of course, there is a president unable and unwilling to provide the moral leadership the country so desperately needs; unable because of who he is, unwilling because stoking division is his political strategy. 

But, at the most fundamental level we have reached this inflection point not because of the profoundly flawed man occupying the Oval Office, but because of a widespread abdication of principled, pragmatic leadership in response to this man. 

It is difficult to tell what is more discouraging, or reprehensible: the wild, constant scrambling to justify and defend the president’s actions and lies from the political enablers around him like White House advisor Kellyanne Conway or the silence and acceptance from people like Idahoans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, otherwise decent people who are no longer just ignoring the indecency, but clearly accepting it. 

Institutions have failed us. Political leadership, mostly Republican, but also Democratic, have retreated from, or in a wholesale fashion abandoned, a sense of fair play, and honest and legitimate compromise. ‘Whataboutism’ dominates every political debate. Ethical transgressions that Republicans would have condemned in a New York minute in a previous administration are ignored, accepted and normalized. 

The most serious presidential misconduct in our history, carefully documented in a textbook example of prosecutorial diligence, is intentionally ignored as if facts about malfeasance at the highest level of the Republic are, what, suddenly OK because our side won? 

A litany of high crimes and misdemeanors

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”

The words in the previous paragraph come from the leadership of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. who published an urgent statement entitled “Have We No Decency? A response to President Trump.”

Most of us understand – if we look deep into our hearts and the American doctrine – what has happening to our politics. Many Americans have become blind, heedless partisans, members of a tribe that subscribes to only one overriding rule: win at all cost. The details don’t matter and facts are inconvenient so it’s acceptable to ignore them.

Democrats, of course, shoulder some level of political blame for this awful place, this inflection point. But this is not an either/or moment. Only one man is in the White House and fundamentally only one party can check his abuse. Few are willing. Very few. 

Nebraska Republican state Senator John McCollister is the latest to raise his head and his voice and suffer the consequences. “The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” McCollister recently said on Twitter. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”

The chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party demanded immediately that McCollister re-register as a Democrat. No discussion of the substance of his comments. No debate about the details or the facts, just a demand that he adhere to the party line or hit the road. 

Politico reporter Tim Alberta has written a profoundly unsettling new book – American Carnage: On the Frontlines of the Republican Civil War– that is really a history of the GOP over the last decade. As one reviewer noted, the books abiding theme “is that almost every influential figure in the Party has come to accept or submit to the President.” And this is the unsettling part: not because they admire or even believe much of what he has done, but because they have found it easier politically and personally to just go along. 

A history of the GOP over the last decade: internal strife, power politics and willingness to accept Donald Trump

A central figure in the book is former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who candidly spoke with Alberta about his own willingness to go along with morally outrageous behavior and presidential ignorance. (Former Congressman Raul Labrador is also prominent in the book and comes across as more committed to remaking the GOP into the Tea Party than restraining a morally, ethically and incompetent leader.) 

In his surrender to expediency, Ryan, for example, says Trump “didn’t know anything about government” and didn’t try to learn. But Ryan went along. In essence swapping his profound misgivings, even dread, for a corporate tax cut. The former speaker confessed to feeling physically ill when he realized Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination and now that he is out of office and off the hook comes clean about the mess that has been made. 

This is the modern GOP. Aware, as I am confident people like Crapo and Simpson must be, that they have surrendered their party to not only an ignorant con man, but given his white nationalist tendencies, by their silence, they continue to embolden him to ever more outrageous and dangerous actions. 

At some point, we can continue to hope, good, caring, decent people will put their country and its future above their party. We can hope, because a Mike Crapo and a Mike Simpson have to grapple with the question leaders of the National Cathedral asked us all recently

“When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.” 

Federal Budget, Politics

Our Grandkids are Going to Hate Us…

House and Senate leaders and the president apparently reached a two-year budget agreement this week that increases federal spending by $320 billion, and conveniently for everyone running for re-election next year extends the debt limit until after the 2020 election. The deal also does away with budget caps placed in law in 2010, but regularly ignored since. 

The sound you hear is the nation’s fiscal can tumbling down the road, while in the background you can detect the not-so-faint odor of political hypocrisy. A review of the numbers provides some stunning figures that our grandkids are going to hate us for. 

McConnell: the gravedigger of American democracy

Discretionary federal spending is growing at a substantially faster rate than it did under Barack Obama and by the Trump Administration’s own estimates the deficit for the current year will top $1 trillion. It was $799 billion last year and $587 billion in Obama’s last full year in office. The total national debt was about $19 trillion when Obama left office and it went past $22 trillion this month. Our grandkids are going to hate us. 

Yet, cynicism in defense of partisan advantage is no vice apparently. White House officials confirmed to the Washington Post recently that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told the president of the United States in the run-up to the budget and debt deal: “no politician had ever lost office for spending more money.” 

It’s not for lack of good reason that McConnell has been called “the gravedigger of American democracy.” According to polls in his home state he seen as the most despised member of the Senate, which if you think about it is quite a distinction. In a statement touting the new budget deal McConnell made no mention of the deficit or debt, but he did applaud spending increases for military establishments in his state. 

The U.S. defense budget, meanwhile, seems to be the only place where no increase is too large to warrant bipartisan support. Long gone are the days when members of Congress actually debated whether the Air Force needed a new plane or the Navy a new aircraft carrier. The U.S. now spends more on defense than the next six countries combined. When did you last hear a deficit hawk squawk about that?  

Both parties, of course, share blame for the national fiscal mess, but for sheer hypocrisy it’s tough to beat the GOP and guys like McConnell and Idaho’s Mike Crapo. Eight months ago McConnell called the ballooning deficit “very disturbing” and said too much spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were to blame. Not to blame, according to McConnell, the massive GOP tax cuts that every honest person knows has made the mess worse. 

Erick Erickson, the flame throwing conservative pundit, actually said something important about all this. “No leaders in Washington want to restore any fiscal sanity,” Erickson wrote, “Why is it always only a [Democrat] in the White House and [Republicans] in Congress that get us fiscal sanity, i.e. [Bill] Clinton balanced budget & sequestration under Obama?” Or, put another way, for Republicans deficits only matter when a Democrat is in the White House. . 

“Deficit hawk,” but what has he really done?

Crapo has literally built his political brand on being a deficit hawk. He still has a national debt counter on his official website. That counter has clicked often enough to add several hundred thousand dollars in new debt in the time it takes you to read this column. The clever visual is meant to display Crapo’s deep concern about the nation’s fiscal trajectory, but you have to ask yourself what has Mike Crapo really done to address his signature issue? 

He still touts his involvement with the Simpson-Bowles Commission back in the Obama era, but that once promising effort collapsed when Obama realized congressional Republicans would automatically reject anything, even spending cuts married to tax increases, that he endorsed. Crapo did endorse the Simpson-Bowles framework, but when it all fell apart he meekly acquiesced to McConnell’s determination to never give Obama a victory – on anything. The Idaho senator might have used his seniority – he’s 15th in Senate years of service having been there for 20 years – and worked to fashion his own bipartisan solution. That’s what legislators used to do. He didn’t.  

Meanwhile, Crapo has never met a deficit increasing tax cut that he didn’t like. When Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff – the co-chairs of the fiscal commission – predicted that the 2017 tax cut legislation was “reckless” and would worsen the fiscal picture, adding $1.4 trillion in new debt, Crapo dismissed their concern

The tax cuts we now know went overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans and to corporations that have largely used the windfall to buy back stock thereby enriching shareholders and CEO’s. Nevertheless, Crapo predicted the tax cuts “will ignite our economy with levels of growth not seen in generations.” Nope, but they did help grow the deficit. 

Crapo recently said the solution to the deficit and debt problems required us “to address the drivers of spending, and frankly those drivers are the mandatory spending programs in the federal government. That’s where we need reform.” OK, where’s the plan? No Republican, including Crapo, has offered a serious plan. 

Fast forward to this week where Crapo hasn’t commented on the latest deal, but for those who have been paying attention for any length of time it’s pretty easy to see where he is going. 

When the deal comes to the Senate floor Crapo will take the one vote on which he’s willing to buck Donald Trump. He’ll vote against the deal, as will Idaho’s other Senator James Risch. In doing so they will literally have their spending cake and eat it, too. 

If Crapo and Risch stay true to form they’ll issue sober statements lamenting the growing debt and deficit and then come back to Idaho and tout some new spending at the Idaho National Laboratory or Mountain Home Air Force Base. As long as you can say you voted against the spending, while also being confident the spending will occur you’re ready for the next election. 

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Politics

The Fault Is Ours…

This piece first appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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Historians, philosophers and ethicists have been debating for nearly 60 years – perhaps longer really – the notion that a person can do evil without being evil. That question is at the heart of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who implemented Hitler’s slaughter of six million Jews during World War II. 

Eichmann was abducted from his Argentine hiding place in 1960, taken to Jerusalem, tried for war crimes and executed in 1962. Arendt covered Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker and found the defendant to be a rather ordinary, unassuming little man. Thomas White wrote about what Arendt called “the banality of evil,” and says she found Eichmann “neither perverted nor sadistic”, but “terrifyingly normal” acting “without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy.” 

It is an interesting – and still controversial – notion: that “normal people” are capable of abnormal, even horrible things in service to their own ambition, or perhaps due to their inability to assess the moral dimensions of their actions.

Watching the recent viral video of a U.S. Justice Department attorney appearing before a panel of three federal judges and being unwilling to say that migrant children in government custody being denied basic sanitation, soap and a toothbrush, or a decent place to sleep was unacceptable left me thinking again about Hannah Arendt’s theory. 

And before you think that I’m equating a government lawyer with a bureaucrat of the Holocaust, I’m not. The question is rather about the human capacity, even the need, to look the other way, to disengage, to accept the unacceptable, to reduce what we all know to be wicked, wrong or malicious to, well, the banal, the commonplace. 

A bumper sticker was in wide circulation some years ago: “If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.” It should make a comeback. 

The fault is in all of us. We too easily become numb to an outrage, a scandal, a violation of norms and traditions, particularly if it all fits comfortably with an otherwise settled and pleasant personal opinion. 

Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate and senator from California, for example, recently said if she happens to become president she wants to see that the Justice Department goes “forward with those obstruction of justice charges” against Donald Trump. Harris was roundly criticized, as she should have been, for saying, as the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes wrote, “that as president you would supervise that person’s prosecution, as Harris did, is poisonous stuff in a democracy that cares about apolitical law enforcement.”

Trump, of course, has done the same thing by encouraging “lock her up” chants at his rallies and suggesting that his political opponents should be investigated or in jail. That Trump would engage in such poisonous stuff is wrong and that a Democrat would mimic the poison is just as wrong. You cannot accept one and condemn the other unless you have become numb to outrage. 

When the president of the United States was once again credibly accused – actually for the 22nd time – of sexual assault, a crime he actually admitted to in the infamous Access Hollywood tape, there was a collective yawn. Many major news organizations barely covered the story, even when Trump dismissed the allegation bizarrely saying: “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened, OK?”

One of the great normalizers of the abnormal in our times, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, simply said: “He’s denied it and that’s all I needed to hear.” Graham, of course, had a much different reaction to Trump’s comments in that infamous videotape in 2016: “Name one sports team, university, publicly-held company, etc. that would accept a person like this as their standard bearer,” he said. That was then. This is now. 

“When you know you can lie constantly and effectively not be held accountable,” the commentator John Ziegler wrote recently, “it is like an offensive line in football free to break any rule they want, secure that even if they get called for holding, the penalty will not be enforced.” 

We believe what we want to believe and we discount the lies we find at odds with what we want to believe. We casually dismiss a troubling outrage if confronting it requires a reckoning with our own values. In such a situational world the inconvenient is just a temporary nuisance. How else to explain a government official justifying keeping kids in abhorrent conditions as if the government had no power to change those conditions?  

Saudi journalist Jamil Khashoggi, murdered by the regime to which the U.S. is selling weapons

Or a Saudi journalist working for an American newspaper is brutally murdered with credible evidence the Saudi crown prince was involved, but those inconvenient facts aren’t allowed to stand in the way of selling billions in military equipment to a profoundly corrupt Saudi government. An Idaho politician is in a key position to make a stink. His silence is deafening. 

The chief executive repeatedly demeans the head of the Federal Reserve, undermining more than 100 years of tradition that the country’s central bank is insolated from political interference. An Idahoan chairs the key Senate committee that plays a critical role in ensuring that independence. He has never said a word, let alone used his influence to affect such behavior. 

A top Democratic appointee in Idaho state government, a state tax commissioner, mysteriously is placed on “administrative leave” and just as mysteriously returns. No explanation is offered. No accountability is demanded. Democrats are silent. Republicans are mute. 

Offer a hundred other examples of the normalization of outrage from the perspective of your own worldview, but also ask why is any of this acceptable? Why has such behavior on so many levels in so many ways become banal? 

The fault, as the bard so eloquently wrote, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. If you’re not outraged, you really are not paying attention. 

Boise, GOP, Human Rights, Politics

Focus…

It is often said – and correctly so – that we live in tumultuous times. Our devices spew forth a never-ending avalanche of information, much of it of dubious veracity. The “news cycle” is non-stop, populated by presidential tweets and cable news talking heads that aim not to inform, but mostly seek to agitate and “win” the narrative story line of the day. 

The wheat is easily lost in the chaff. Disinformation and misinformation flourish. It can seem impossible to keep up or make sense and it is increasingly likely that we miss the important, while overwhelmed by the irrelevant. 

Here are three stories that hit my screen in the last week, stories that seem to me to demand urgent attention and comprehensive political action.

The Brookings Institution rolled out a study of four U.S. cities last week, Boise included, that is both fascinating and sobering. In a nutshell the study finds that Boise’s economic engine, the principle power behind Idaho’s sustained economic growth, is fragile and subject to collapse. 

Boise: Prosperity may be fleeting

The goose that laid the golden egg for the Idaho economic has been high tech, but Brookings starkly notes, in language you rarely hear from Idaho policy makers, that the goose is ailing. Hewlett Packard, which once employed 7,000 in the Boise Valley, now has 1,500. Micron, the homegrown success story, has half the 12,000 workers it paid at its peak. And, “despite Idaho’s generous state subsidies and a long local history as a darling firm in Boise, Micron chose Manassas, Virginia for its newest expansion, a $3 billion dollar investment expected to create about 1,000 jobs.”

“Recent economic growth has primarily come from non-tradable service sectors rather than from growth-sustaining, export-driven sectors,” the Brookings researchers said. “Population growth resulted in part from retirees who drive housing prices, but who have less incentive to fund public goods such as education and workforce development.” 

And, not surprisingly, at all levels Idaho’s woefully inadequate educational system is in no way ready to support the kind of jobs that can continue to fuel the state’s economic growth. The Brookings study said “the Idaho Department of Labor projects 49,000 unfilled jobs by 2024, 36,000 of them in science, technology, engineering, and math,” but that the state produced only 2,000 graduates in those fields in 2016. Little wonder decent jobs flow to places with better educational stories to tell. 

Idaho’s much ballyhooed efforts to improve college graduation rates have been a demonstrable failure. As Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Reichert noted recently, “With a completion rate mired at 42 percent, Idaho has made little progress toward the 60 percent threshold.” Even if Idaho some how sees a dramatic improvement in college completion rates it likely can’t meet high-tech needs that Reichert said “might take a completion rate approaching 80 percent.”

The second story, with a Spokane dateline, might not seem all that connected to the Brookings study about the state’s fragile future economy, but it is. Associated Press reporter Nicholas K. Geranios’s story was about how far-right extremist groups have never really left northern Idaho and eastern Washington despite the fact that two decades ago, the high profile Aryan Nation’s compound near Hayden Lake was wiped off the map. 

A street sweeper follows a parade led by white supremacist Richard Butler, riding in car with megaphone, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2000, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Aryan Nations leader Butler filed for bankruptcy on Monday, Oct. 30, days before he was to relinquish control of his 20-acre compound to satisfy part of a civil rights lawsuit. (AP Photo/Tom Davenport, File)

Idaho’s national image, with direct impact on the state’s economic vitality, has too often in the past been linked to white supremacist and hate groups. It still is and, at some level, support for those on the dangerous fringe has gone mainstream, or at least what passes for mainstream, in the region’s Republican Party leadership. 

“In the county that is home to Hayden Lake,” Geranios wrote, “Republicans last month passed a measure expressing support for U.S. entry of a prominent Austrian far-right activist who was investigated for ties to the suspected New Zealand mosque gunman.” 

The woman who made the request of Kootenai County Republicans “was a big promoter of the hoax known as ‘Pizzagate,’ telling her online followers Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats were involved in satanic rituals and child sex trafficking tied to a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.” That conspiracy theory, completely debunked of course, is still being widely promoted by various right wing media outlets. 

That Republican Party officials would traffic in such nonsense is cause for profound concern and should immediately be repudiated from the highest levels, including from Gov. Brad Little. That GOP leaders haven’t disowned such behavior will only encourage more extremists to be more extreme.

The third story is related to the second. The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) made a deep dive into various efforts to influence the recent European Union elections by what it called “tactical adoption of the ‘Putin playbook’ by non-state actors, from far right online militias to populist parties in their use of automated influence operations.” In other words, far right actors are continuing with renewed determination to undermine democratic institutions in Europe and, as special counsel Robert Mueller made crystal clear this week concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election, also in the United States. 

ISD is a collection of business, academic and political leaders dedicated to pushing back against those who are “promulgating hate, division and conflict.” The group succinctly described the methods, including campaigns aimed at “distorting the political debate through the promotion of outrage, amplified by social media (often inorganically) and exploiting the traditional media’s desire to appear impartial to seize the agenda.” 

In Europe the groups “build up their own highly partisan media channels” and they “take aim at the courts, forcing judges to retire early as in Poland and Hungary and pack the courts with compliant officers.” 

“Public officials that don’t toe the new regime’s line are sidelined or replaced” often with a campaign of “smearing and intimidation, as happened to the Hungarian central bank governor.” 

If you don’t believe the very foundations of representative democracy are under assault you’re not paying attention. Which closes the circle back to persistent inadequate attention to education. Without better education at every level, combined with knowledge of how to discern facts from disinformation, we risk being overwhelmed by our tumultuous times. 

We must focus on what’s important. 

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(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on May 31, 2019)

American Presidents, Politics, Trump

One Speaks Up…

One of the great ironies of modern American conservatism is that the party that claims to champion “limited government” is really in a constant push to expand the scope and power of the executive branch. 

It amounts to the political equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


F. Scott Fitzgerald, holding two opposing ideas in mind…
(From the “Sight Unseen” exhibit at the George Latimer Library in downtown St. Paul)

The concept – expanding the power of the presidency, while seeking to limit power everywhere else in government – may not equate to “first-rate intelligence,” but it certainly has become the mantra of a host of Republicans dating back to at least the presidency of Richard Nixon. 

Nixon, of course, made the laughable claim that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” The same logic was applied when then-Vice President Dick Cheney adamantly refused to disclose whom he was consulting with in crafting an energy policy during the George W. Bush administration. Even more importantly Cheney invoked the concept of an ever-expanding power of the executive when he aggressively defended a president’s power to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant. 

Remembering what he saw as a diminishment of presidential power during the post-Watergate period and during his time as chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Cheney questioned whether Congress had erred in creating the War Powers Act, a 1973 response to presidential overreach in Southeast Asia. The law was “an infringement upon the authority of the president.” Cheney said, and may be “unconstitutional.” Never mind that the Constitution grants the exclusive power to declare war to Congress. 

The effort to expand and then defend executive power has found a new conservative champion in Attorney General Bill Barr. “I don’t know anyone that has a more robust view of inherent presidential authority than Bill Barr,” says Walter Dellinger, who, like Barr, once ran the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. “There is nobody who is to his right on this issue.”

The president’s chief defender Attorney General Bill Barr

After 40 years of diligent work in and out of government by conservatives like Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and one-time Solicitor General Robert Bork, among others, Barr’s views of presidential power are widely shared by most on the political right.

Yet, these are many of the same people who decried Barack Obama’s widespread and often questionable use of “executive authority” on all manner of policy where he could not convince Congress to act. Conservatives still bemoan, and correctly so, the expansion of presidential power when Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the “imperial presidency” in order to respond to the Great Depression. Yet, most conservatives acquiesced – the entire Idaho delegation included – with hardly a whimper when Donald Trump declared a “national emergency” and unconstitutionally appropriated money to build his border wall. 

Which brings us to the news of the week. A Republican congressman from Michigan, once a Tea Party darling, defied his party and came to the conclusion that anyone who has dispassionately read the Mueller report would reach. In fact, more than 800 former U.S. Justice Department officials have come to the same conclusion. The president did attempt to obstruct justice to derail the investigation into Russian election meddling and was clearly open to “collusion” even as the special counsel determined the threshold of proving a conspiracy was difficult to meet. Crossing the threshold, of course, was made more difficult, even impossible, by Trump’s own refusal to be interviewed and his active efforts to prevent others from talking or telling the truth. 

“They say there were no underlying crimes,” Republican Congressman Justin Amash said in a Tweet that will surely find its way into the history books. “In fact, there were many crimes revealed by the investigation, some of which were charged, and some of which were not but are nonetheless described in Mueller’s report.”

Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Amash, it must be remembered, was described in March of this year, as “probably one of the most, if not the most consistent and honorable members of Congress that I met in the eight years I was there. He always outlined what he believes in, why he believes in the things that he does and why he makes the decisions that he makes.”

The former Republican congressman who said that was Raul Labrador.

The president of course immediately denounced Amash, the House Freedom Caucus rumbled about how misguided he is and the minority leader made noises about his party loyalty. 

Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled this week that the chief magistrate is not above the law   even as he continues to “fight all the subpoenas,” refused to allow even former White House staffers to testify before Congress and, predictably, fights a legitimate request by a congressional committee to review his tax returns, which he promised repeatedly before the election to release. A man not hiding something doesn’t work so hard to hide something. 

The attorney general, now largely serving as the president’s personal lawyer rather than the nation’s top law enforcement official, seeks to limit the legitimate investigation of a president plausibly implicated in real crimes. But the argument is a chimera, a constitutional illusion that actually amounts to yet more obstruction of justice. 

If you’re a Trump partisan try to put those sentiments aside for a moment and pull out your copy of the Constitution. Ask yourself just two questions. If the name attached to the facts so obvious to Rep. Amash were Obama or Clinton would you see all of this differently? Would the assertions of presidential authority, the idea that the president isn’t answerable to Congress or really to anyone, would this wholesale resistance to transparency be as palatable then? 

James Madison, that fussy old Founder, wrote about this in Federalist 51: “If [people] were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern [people], neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The Constitution wasn’t written for angels. It was written to constrain the ugly impulses of men and presidents.

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(This piece originally appeared in the May 24, 2019 edition of the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)

History, Politics, Trump

Too Smart to be President…

I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”

“Dollar Bill” Bradley, too smart to be president

My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.

I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.

Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.

But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.

The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.

The President of the United States at Mount Vernon…giving “branding” advice

During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.

One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.

We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.

And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?

Award-winning Princeton historian Kevin Kruse provides an answer.

“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”

We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.

If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.

Economy, Politics, Trump

Just Say No…

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is about to get his moment in the wacky spotlight of U.S. Senate confirmation politics.

Barring some last-minute change of heart, something never to be dismissed in Trump World, the president of the United States will nominate to the Federal Reserve Board a guy whose ethical and financial baggage would have immediately disqualified him during any other time in modern history. In the past, would-be cabinet secretaries or senior administration appointees have seen their appointments collapse for lesser transgressions than those hovering around Trump’s latest ethical outrage.

Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C.

It seems almost quaintly secondary that Stephen Moore, a frequent Fox News gabber and Trump idolater, is also demonstrably unqualified for the job of overseeing the U.S. banking system and assuring the economy remains sound.

If Trump goes through with Moore’s appointment, Crapo will preside over his confirmation before the Senate Banking Committee and we’ll see how the mild-mannered Idahoan straddles the stupidity of the president’s nominees and the senator’s fealty to the big banks and financial interests, whose water he carries and whose campaign cash he hordes.

Will Crapo go with Trump and the Tea Party wing of the GOP or will he stand with the sane, sober financial realists who openly scoff at Moore’s lack of qualifications to serve on the Fed, not to mention his long record of incompetence?

Let’s review the “accomplishments” of the man who could be a heartbeat away from chairing the Federal Reserve by acknowledging that Moore is no Alan Greenspan, no Paul Volcker, no Ben Bernanke and certainly no Marriner Eccles, the Utahan who presided over the central bank during the Great Depression.

Stephen Moore, Donald Trump’s candidate for a seat on the Fed

Rather, Moore owes $75,000 in back federal taxes and was held in contempt for failing to pay $330,000 in spousal support to his ex-wife. As the New York Times noted, “In 2013, (a Virginia) court ordered him to sell his home to raise money to pay the debt and forced him to set up an automatic bank transfer each month. After Mr. Moore paid $217,000 toward the debt, Ms. Moore asked the court to revoke the order to sell his home, which it did.” Moore calls his dispute with the IRS “a misunderstanding.”

So much for ethics. How about competence? Economics columnist Catherine Rampell assembled a “greatest hits” list of Moore’s crazy theories and predictions, including the old favorite that big tax cuts pay for themselves. The Congressional Budget Office said recently that the Trump tax cut, supported enthusiastically by Crapo, would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit during the next decade.

During the Great Recession, Moore predicted runaway hyperinflation like that visited on Weimar Germany in the 1920s, with people needing “wheelbarrows full” of cash to visit Albertsons. Moore was a principal architect of the disastrous tax policy implemented in Kansas in 2013, a policy he promised would miraculously lift that state’s economy, but instead slowed economic growth and crashed the state budget. As Rampell has suggested, Moore has been wrong so often — he’s not an economist by the way, but merely plays one on Fox — that he obviously doesn’t know how to use Google to check basic facts.

Moore was so often wrong in his pronouncements about the Kansas economy that he was banned from the editorial pages of the state’s largest newspaper. His lack of political independence was on full display when he said Trump deserved the Nobel Prize in economics. You can’t make this up.

Moore’s appointment comes, of course, in the wake of Trump’s continuing assaults on Fed Chairman Jerome “Jay” Powell, a respected conservative who seems determined to continue the Federal Reserve’s long struggle to remain independent of the kind of partisan meddling the president has raised to an art form. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Trump, who has publicly contemplated firing Powell — he legally can’t fire Powell who serves a fixed term — criticized the chairman on three different occasions recently before mumbling to Powell in a phone call, “I guess I’m stuck with you.”

Outside of the Fox News echo chamber, few people who know anything about the Fed and the economy think having Moore on the job makes any sense.

“Steve is a perfectly amiable guy,” says Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, “but he does not have the intellectual gravitas for this important job.” Before Trumpers dismiss Mankiw as just another pointy-headed Ivy League academic, we should note he is a conservative Republican who worked for both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

But back to Crapo’s dilemma. In a normal political world, a senator in Crapo’s position — the conservative Republican chairman of the Banking Committee, a favorite of Wall Street and big banks, the 15th most senior member of the Senate — would have everything to say about this kind of appointment. A genuinely powerful chairman might even be expected to have his own candidate for the Fed, perhaps a trusted conservative economist with a track record of real accomplishment. There must be a few hundred of them available.

Banking Committee chairman Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican

A real power in the Senate would have quietly signaled the White House that spouting sound bites on television just wasn’t adequate preparation for such an important job. A senator with a shred of independence would have never allowed a Stephen Moore to get in front of his committee.

All Crapo has said is that it’s a priority to fill vacancies on the Federal Reserve and he would not prejudge Moore’s nomination, while giving “it prompt attention.”

Maybe Crapo will yet head off this economic train wreck, potentially one of the most consequential, indeed disastrous of all Trump appointments. Or maybe he’ll do what Idahoans have come to expect of him and he’ll go along to get along and, in the process, further concede senatorial power and prerogatives to a man Crapo once said was so abundantly unfit for the office that he couldn’t support him for president.

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(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on April 5, 2019)

Journalism, Politics, Trump

A Carnival of Buncombe

The journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken was made for the Trump era. Unfortunately Mencken, a guy given to using words such as buncombe, knaves, fanatics and fools in his Baltimore Sun columns and magazine articles, died in 1956, no doubt convinced that a Trump-like character was in the country’s future. 

“As democracy is perfected,” Mencken wrote, “the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

We have arrived. 

The Sage of Baltimore, Henry Louis Mencken

Not many Americans remember Mencken these days even though he was once the best-known journalist – and the most full-throated cynic – in the country. Mencken was an equal opportunity basher of politicians. One suspects he would have loved the daily business of scraping the hide off our current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls and he would have had an absolute field day with our deranged national tweeter. 

In 1920, while Republicans and Democrats jockeyed for position and the chance to succeed President Woodrow Wilson, Mencken took on the entire field. He might have been writing about Beto or Biden or Bernie.

“All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form,” Mencken wrote. “This is to say, they are all extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job; the necessary equipment of unescapable issues, immutable principles and soaring ideals can wait until it becomes more certain which way the mob will be whooping.” 

We can only imagine what the Sage of Baltimore would have made of Trump and the president’s whooping mob, but charlatan was one of his favorite words. Fraud was another of his prized descriptions.  

I got to thinking about Mencken this week after the most powerful man in the world spent most of last weekend attacking a decorated Vietnam veteran, prisoner of war and one-time Republican presidential candidate on social media. “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be,” the man with many grievances told us once again, seven months after most decent people came together, at least for a moment, to mourn one man’s courage and patriotism. 

Thoughts came again of Henry – Franklin Roosevelt, who detested the writer for his barbed takes on the New Deal and FDR’s patrician privilege, called Mencken by his first name hoping to diminish him – when the Tweeter-in-Chief took time out from ravaging American agriculture with his tariff policies to assault the husband of his White House counselor as “a total loser.” The reality show presidency has morphed into “real house husbands of D.C.”

Henry would have mocked such idiocy, such buncombe, such complete claptrap. 

What would one of America’s great social critics have made of the president’s daughter working in the White House while piling up patent approvals with a country we’re engaged with in a trade war? And what of the president’s grifting son-in-law, denied access to state secrets because he’s so clearly susceptible to – there’s that word again – fraud. And what of a political system that tolerates the nation’s chief magistrate maintaining a government lease on a gaudy hotel where every shade of influence seeker pays the rent knowing that their dollars flow directly to the cheater, the conman at the top? What a load of unmitigated rubbish. 

Henry Louis Mencken often bemoaned the American predisposition to be hoodwinked by shameless scoundrels. A favorite target was a prominent populist blowhard of his day, William Jennings Bryan, although unlike our own prominent populist blowhard Bryan had some genuine principles. Nevertheless to Mencken the three-time presidential candidate “was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted … [and] ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.” He could have been writing for tomorrow’s paper. 

William Jennings Bryan

“A culture,” the conservative writer Peter Wehner wrote this week in The Atlantic,“lives or dies based on its allegiance to unwritten rules of conduct and unstated norms, on the signals sent about what kind of conduct constitutes good character and honor and what kind of conduct constitutes dishonor and corruption.” By those standards, or better yet by the decline of standards observed long ago by a Mencken, we have ceased to progress as a culture. We’re settling for buncombe when we might better demand brilliance, or at least competence.

Often H.L. Mencken reserved his most scathing takes on American politics not for the fools and knaves who occupied the hallowed halls of government, but for the gullible voters who put them in power. “The whole aim of practical politics,” Mencken once wrote, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” And to think he didn’t even know about the make belief “invasion” of the southwest border, or the “witch hunt” or the “fake news.”

“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” Mencken once wrote. Cynics aren’t often the best judges of the overall direction of things, but our current tomfoolery is such that we’re left to a long-dead cynic to remind us that eventually “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

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Bush, Politics, Trump

The Last Non-Despised President…

          “The nation has become spectacularly meaner, to the point that George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the Republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population.” – Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker

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Former President George H.W. Bush is being fondly remembered as a man of character and kindness, a president who certainly made serious mistakes (don’t they all), but one who also exercised power with – to use one of his favorite words – “prudence.” The remembrances make the contrast between the late president and the current one all the more stark.

George H.W. Bush – 41

Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a fierce critic of Donald Trump and author of a scathing critique of the modern Republican Party called The Corrosion of Conservatism, wonders “how, in the space of a quarter-century, did we go from President Bush to President Trump?” The answer is complicated, as one suspects Bush 41 understood. He could be a self-reflective president, unlike the current one.

Mr. Rogers and John Wayne…

The comedian Dana Carvey made a mini-career of impersonating Bush on Saturday Night Live, exaggerating the preppy president’s gestures and speech for comic effect.

Comedian Dana Carvey performs his imitation of President George Bush in 1992.

After hearing of Bush’s death, I watched Carvey’s surprise White House appearance toward the very end of his presidency – H.W. had just lost to Bill Clinton – and came away thinking it takes a comedian to begin to understand the ying and yang of Bush. The 41st president was a genuinely brave Naval aviator, an aristocratic New Englander remade into a Texas oil man, a failed Senate candidate, a fierce partisan, a CIA director, a loyal vice president and a man who ruined his presidency by doing the right thing.

Perhaps Bush should have known that a new breed of Republican disrupters – read Newt Gingrich – would never cut him slack for raising taxes in service of reducing the deficit. Unlike the rest of the GOP, Bush never forgot that cutting taxes almost always leads to bigger deficits. Voodoo economics is not fake news. The moment marked a turning point away from responsible, bipartisan governing.

Carvey said his Bush voice was a mixture of Mr. Rogers – “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” – and John Wayne, a certain clipped, confident shorthand that often saw Bush mangle a phrase, but still convey his essential meaning. In a way Bush governed – evidence of his better angels – like Fred Rogers. He was prudent, careful and kind. He signed the Americans with Disability Act, a landmark piece of legislation that showed the country and its politics at its best. Bush, surrounded by adults like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, presided over a peaceful end of the Cold War, a moment we now take for granted that might have gone horribly wrong. Bush knew that an international coalition was needed to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and also knew that a contained Saddam, as thuggishly brutal as his regime was, was better for the region than the decades of turmoil his son unleashed by engaging in regime change.

Prudent isn’t a bad epitaph.

But, if Bush governed like the essentially decent, pragmatic, mostly moderate Republican he was, he campaigned as something else. After losing the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bush embraced, or at least accepted, the sharp, divisive, negative style that came out of the election cycle. We remember the Reagan landslide (with Bush as his vice president) as a major turning point in American politics, but that election also featured the first widespread use of the independent expenditure campaign. Exploiting the liberalization of campaign finance limits, independent campaigns went on the attack in a major way in 1980. Reagan benefited, but so did a new generation of political operatives, including Paul Manafort, Roger Ailes, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater. Their essential negative tactics, constructed of fear, division and, yes, racism, continue to shape GOP campaigns, conservative media and the current occupant of the White House.

When Bush got his own shot at the White House in 1988 he campaigned like John Wayne, all American flag factories, assaults on the ACLU and race baiting with the infamous Willie Horton references. Horton, an African-American convicted of murder, raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while on prison furlough, a program in place in Massachusetts when Bush’s opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, was in office.

The ad…

Technically the Bush campaign didn’t run the “Willie Horton ad,” but left that dirty work to something called the National Security Political Action Committee, an independent expenditure campaign supposedly independent of the Bush campaign. Bush did, however, repeatedly invoke Horton on the stump and Atwater, his campaign manager, really did say: “If we can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.”

Bush insisted to his biographer Jon Meacham that the references to Horton and the furlough issue were about Dukakis being soft on crime and none of it was meant as a race-based “dog whistle” to fire up the increasingly white base of the Republican Party. Yet as Meacham notes, “In truth, in the tangled politics of that difficult year, as so often in American life, [the references] ended up being about both.”

Bush and Dukakis, 1988

Dukakis, of course, was a perfectly awful candidate – remember him riding around in a tank with a funny looking helmet – and Bush won that election decisively, if not altogether honorably. Bush recorded in his diary, as Meacham reports, that critics would long complain that he had taken the low road to the White House. Bush, ever the pragmatist, wrote simply: “I don’t know what we could do differently. We had to define this guy [Dukakis].”

When the pragmatic Bush tried to compromise with a tax and budget deal his “prudent” approach was rejected by many in his party, none less than Gingrich, who cared less about governing and the nation’s future than he did about a generation of political power for the political right. It’s ironic that while people across the political spectrum praise Bush’s style and basic decency, one of his signature accomplishments – the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – is daily trashed by the current non-governing Republican Party. In the end, Bush – Willie Horton and all – was too much the pragmatist, too much a pro, too much a policy wonk for a party owned now for a man as far removed from Bush as decency is removed from vulgarity.

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          “How different is Trump’s Republican party from Bush 41’s? George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disability Act in 1991. Donald Trump mocks the disabled. George H. W. Bush summoned a coalition of 35 countries for the first Gulf War. Donald Trump attacks even our closest allies, England and Canada, and talks about NATO like it was a deadbeat tenant. President Bush negotiated the original North American Free Trade Agreement. Donald Trump calls Mexicans ‘rapists’ and brags he has ordered armed U.S. troops to respond with deadly force to brown people throwing rocks at the border. George H. W. Bush celebrated charity and kindness. Donald Trump mocks a ‘thousand points of light.’ George H. W. Bush enlisted at 18, the Navy’s youngest pilot, in civilization’s last great battle against tyranny. Donald Trump dodged military service multiple times, celebrates tyrants and defends Nazi’s as ‘good people on both sides.’”

          –  Republican strategist Stewart Stevens

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Thinking about George H.W. Bush I’m reminded of the words of the great British historian Julian Jackson, author of a marvelous biography of “le grand Charles” De Gaulle. “All biographers,” Jackson writes, “must guard against the temptation to impose excessive coherence on their subject.” And so it is with the 41stAmerican president.

A Man in Full…

Let’s remember Bush then as a man in full, a Mr. Rogers with a John Wayne side.

Bush was furious about this cover…and now we know it was wrong

By all accounts Bush loved being president and he was at his best when making friends. As the greatest political journalist of our age, Richard Ben Cramer, wrote in one of the best political books of our age, What It TakesBush was once asked what made him think he could be President? The answer: “Well, I’ve got a big family, and lots of friends.” Indeed he did and I for one won’t quibble with the statement that his was the most successful one-term presidency in American history. It would be prudent.

But the man also badly, badly wanted a second term in 1992 and was willing, as Cramer wrote to do what he had to do to win. Bush actually told interviewer David Frost that he would, in fact, do anything – whatever it took – to win again. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot had different ideas and Bush lost.

Richard Ben Cramer’s landmark book on the 1988 presidential race

And we are left to wonder how we got from the man with all those friends, the guy who wrote the thousands of thank you notes and befriended, of all people, his old opponent Bill Clinton, the prudent guy, how we got from that guy to this guy.

Part of the answer has to be that leaders of the Republican Party, as well as the conservative media echo chamber created by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes, have been telling their supporters, at least since Bush 41, that compromise is bad, moderation is capitulation, Democrats are evil and that fear tactics in the service of winning elections are acceptable, indeed necessary. Part of the answer is also that the Republican Party has now fully bought the Trumpian notion that politics is about “feeding the angriest instincts of his base.

So much for Mr. Rogers.

It is a complicated story and the man being remembered this week was, too.

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Media, Politics, Trump

We Never Learn…

Note: My column this week in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune 

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Just when it seems that our politics can’t possibly produce yet one more head spinning moment we get one.

An amazing thing happened this week. The world laughed at the American president. While he was making a speech. At the United Nations.

Oh, I know, Trump fans will discount the importance of a spontaneous outburst of chuckling from the world’s diplomats. European elites, they will scoff. A reaction coming from African nations that are, well, it rhymes with lit holes.

Trump said the world was “laughing with me,” but of course that isn’t true

While it’s tempting to toss off yet another Trump moment as just the latest Trump moment the reaction to the president of the United States boasting about his greatness at the U.N. is really a symptom of a larger, more serious problem for the United States and the world. At the same time the United States has retreated from a position of international leadership we continue to suffer a difficult to correct deterioration of democratic practice at home. Unfortunately we are not alone.

As Edward Luce, a writer for the Financial Times, notes in his brilliant little book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary.)” Luce is, of course, using the term “liberal” in the classic sense: liberal democracies encourage people to vote in free elections, they welcome dissent, they value a free press, they respect differences and find ways to compromise in the cause of an unruly, yet broadly universal understanding of progress.

Yet, the prevailing momentum in the world is not toward greater equality either political or economic. By one recent estimate, a third of the world’s people now live in democracies in decline. All the energy from the British exit from the European Union to new U.S. trade wars is in the direction of isolation, retrenchment and conflict. We see the telltale signs of this new world order playing out in real time. For 70 years the NATO alliance has provided security for Europe, Canada and the United States, yet the current administration, apparently ignorant of that history, picks fights those allies and plays nice with a Russian dictator. Rather than thoughtful engagement with China – Ed Luce calls the emergence of China as world power “the most dramatic event in economic history” – we apply time dishonored methods of tariffs and taxation that will soon enough hurt Idaho potato growers, Montana wheat farmers and Iowa soybean growers. China, meanwhile, consolidates its influence across the Pacific basin, while we tax ourselves thinking we will bring them to heel.

Americans are badly, one hopes not fatally, distracted at the moment. The constant political turmoil, the blind partisanship, the disregard for fundamental political and personal decency is part of a pattern across the globe. As the European scholar

Anne Applebaum put it recently, “Polarization is normal. More to the point … skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”

Ask yourself a question: How much of what you hear and read about politics today do you really trust?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan

Authoritarians like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey have mastered manipulation on public opinion, they control the sources of information if they can, intimidate those they can’t and dominate and denigrate the rest. Democracy does not thrive in spaces where leaders label as “fake” or a “hoax” that with which they disagree. But demagogues do get ahead in societies where distracted citizens come to believe that nothing is real, that there are versions of the truth. More and more political leaders, even a candidate for governor in Idaho, seem comfortable with their own versions of Trump’s “fake news” mantra.

It used to be that political leaders, real political leaders, practiced the old political game of addition. How do I add to my support? How do I bring people together? How do we solve problems even if my side can’t prevail completely? How do we strengthen the often-fragile norms that define acceptable behavior? How do we strengthen the rule of law rather that assault it? Those were the days. Now it is all about juicing the base or perhaps even worse, depressing the vote.

The retreat of western liberalism is happening at precisely the moment the United States is fighting to lead the retreat. At a moment that demands American leadership, fresh thinking about old problems and a commitment to pluralistic societies, we are hunkered down building walls and denying climate change. And the world is laughing at words like, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”

Ironically, Donald Trump’s moment at the United Nations this week is, like so much of the man’s story, a fulfillment of his own expectations. Trump “has always been obsessed that people are laughing at the president, says Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution. “From the mid-’80s, he’s said: ‘The world is laughing at us. They think we’re fools.’ It’s never been true, but he’s said it about every president. It’s the first time I’m aware of that people actually laughed at a president.”

Hegel: What we don’t learn…

The laughter is on us, as is the future. It is nowhere ordained that American democracy will forever flourish and carry on. In fact the opposite is true. Modern world history is the story of one democracy after another – Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s and Poland, Brazil and India today – facing internal turmoil, political polarization, decline or worse. We are not immune.

Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher put it succinctly, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”