“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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.’”
Let’s remember Bush then as a man in full, a Mr. Rogers with a John Wayne side.
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 Takes, Bush 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.
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.
Note: My column this week in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune
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.
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?
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.”
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.”
The President of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounds himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound. He is manifestly unfit for the job. Who knew? Everybody did.
Masha Gessen, The New Yorker
I am not inclined to read the new Michael Wolff blockbuster that purports to detail how utterly unfit for the presidency is Donald J. Trump. Why read the book? We’ve all been watching the play for nearly two years.
The fact that Wolff’s “revelations” have been widely described as an “open secret” among Washington reporters and members of Congress tells us a good deal about how perilously screwed up our politics have become. Virtually everyone knows the president of the United States is a dangerously unbalanced narcissist, hard pressed to control his instincts whether he is eating a second Big Mac or tweeting his daily insult.
Is anyone really surprised? No, of course not. Because we see it all with our own eyes every time we turn on the television. Trump has an attention span to match his tiny hands. He doesn’t read anything – ever. He can hardly string together a coherent thought. His grasp of the details of the most difficult job in the world are way, way beyond him. His grasp of history begins with his birth and ends with The Apprentice. And the president’s court enablers are a shameless collection of hacks, bootlickers and family members and, as is increasingly obvious, there is a lot of corruption in this crowd.
No one save Trump and his sleaziest current operative Stephen Miller – well, OK Sarah Sanders too, but she hardly counts since she has been appropriately cast as the Trumpian Court’s chief prevaricator – is really denying the essentials of the Wolff book. Quibble over the details, if you will, and bemoan Wolff’s own self-importance and his sloppy copy editing, what he writes still has the overwhelming stench of truth. We’ve all seen it for months. Who you gonna believe? Donald Trump or your lyin’ eyes?
The essential truth is this: Trump is not up to the job. He’s not even remotely intelligent in the way leaders must be. He lacks a shred of empathy and Trumpian self-awareness is as rare as a degree from his phony university. The man is a world-class con man who by virtue of a political fluke became president of the United States. To say that Trump is out of his depth is to say that Lincoln was a “political genius.” Neither label does either man justice.
The fact that our political process cannot provide the information and action to correct this disgusting and dangerous show is the real story here. Good for Michael Wolff, I guess, for making a bundle while pointing out the obvious.
Still, this mess – yes, it is a bigly one – does beg a few ongoing questions. I know it is difficult to sort out what really matters from the daily barrage of nonsense, so here goes.
There are increasingly serious questions concerning Trump’s cognitive decline and the fact that we have no realistic way to deal with that issue. A medical doctor, James Hamblin, recently wrote a piece every member of Congress – and the public – should read. Hamblin carefully avoided passing medical judgment on Trump’s mental state, but he did note several issues that raise serious questions.
For example, consider Trump’s practice of repeating and repeating and repeating the same point, while rarely articulating substantive – or coherent – thoughts:
“If Trump’s limited and hyperbolic speech were simply a calculated political move—he repeated the phrase ‘no collusion’ 16 times in the Times interview, which some pundits deemed an advertising technique—then we would also expect an occasional glimpse behind the curtain. In addition to repeating simplistic phrases to inundate the collective subconscious with narratives like “no collusion,” Trump would give at least a few interviews in which he strung together complex sentences, for example to make a case for why Americans should rest assured that there was no collusion.
Or there is this from James Fallows writing recently in The Atlantic: “We have something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more limited someone is in reality, the more talented the person imagines himself to be. Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger put it in the title of their original scientific-journal article, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”
Trump World has festered into a steamy swamp of tawdry, ludicrous craziness that keeps most of us – and the political press – on edge, all the time. It’s hard to see the forest for the crazy trees. The white nationalist joker Steve Bannon is the latest case in point.
Elevated first by Trump who made Bannon his chief campaign strategist, then brought into the White House where every D.C. reporter vied to be the one to see the chicken scratches on his “strategic” white board – remember this disheveled clown actually sat for a while on the National Security Council – then dismissed by Trump only to re-emerge as the political genius behind Roy Moore’s campaign in Alabama.
Having directly contributed to the loss of a safe Republican Senate seat by embracing a credibly accused child molester, Bannon returned to his click bait, conspiracy theory peddling “news” site to troll Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and preach the old populist gospel of white nationalism, protectionism and retreat on the world stage. Finally, Bannon gets, temporarily one assumes, his comeuppance thanks to Michael Wolff’s word processor.
But wait! Bannon has now, as the Washington phrase describes such things, “walked back” his criticism of Donald Trump, Jr. and kind of apologized. He did not, however, say he was misquoted by Wolff, but instead that he was really trashing a guy under indictment (Paul Manafort) as opposed to the president’s son who will soon be under indictment. For the record, Bannon did not “walk back” his portrayal of Trump he just changed his story in hopes of changing the story.
The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg said it perfectly. “Bannon is a common character in Washington: a megalomaniac who made the mistake of believing his own bullshit.” Anyone in politics for any length of time encounters characters like Bannon – full of themselves, full of BS, and totally devoid of accomplishment, other than, of course, self-aggrandizement. In a curious way, Trump and Bannon deserve each other: two classless, clueless “smartest guys in the room” who wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in a responsible corporate board room or in a serious political office.
And, yes, the D.C. press corps, which should be able to spot this kind of charlatan as far away as “K” Street, has been utterly complicit in Bannon’s rise and now fall and soon his resurrection. It is so completely telling that Bannon offered Trump his faux mea culpa about the Wolff book though the daily newsletter of Axios’ Mike Allen rather than using his own “news” organization. Allen is Washington’s prime example of an access journalist who values nothing more than being the transmission belt for the kind of B.S. Bannon and the White House dish daily. And like Trump, Bannon craves the attention of the establishment that he works so hard to dismiss as evil.
Prediction: And you heard it here first, Bannon will successfully patch things up with Trump. He has to. And Mike Allen will be the first to report it. In order to survive Bannon needs to breathe the same oxygen Trump inhales. Any little slice of this absurdity is all the proof you need that the White House is, as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said before he subsequently lost his nerve, “an adult day care center.”
So, nothing – nothing – you have read or heard or shook your head about over the last several days represents any shocking new surprise. There are no revelations here really. We’ve seen this level of incompetency, bizarreness, craziness and danger for months and months. And it will get worse.
There are only two questions left to ask: how badly will this end and why does anyone with an ounce of integrity or a thimble full of honor work in this carnival funhouse?
The answer to the second question can only be that power or proximity to power, status or the perception of status, and money or the prospect of making more money are powerful motivators. It may be a circus, but it least the clown suit fits.
But how to explain a Rex Tillerson, a H.R. McMaster, a John Kelly? Serious people, apparently, who one must conclude are just hanging on to keep this runaway train more or less on the tracks. Explaining Congress is easier: Unprincipled, unbridled opportunism is an old, old American political trait.
Still, imagine telling your grandkids: the highlight of our professional life was working in/with the Trump Administration! The grandkids will return the Christmas presents.
The answer to the first question is more difficult – how will this end? Instability breeds instability. Madness begets madness. The immediate future is more instability beset with more madness.
As Masha Gessen says in a New Yorker column, “A year in, the Trump Presidency remains unimaginable. To think that a madman could be running the world’s most powerful country, to think that the Commander-in-Chief would use Twitter to mouth off about whose nuclear button is bigger or to call himself a ‘very stable genius,’ verges on the impossible.”
But, it has become possible. This entire tragic circus exists no matter how defiantly Congressional Republicans avert their eyes or White House aides or Cabinet secretaries abet the emperor with long ties, but no clothes. We are headed for the inevitable Constitutional crisis over Russia – yes, there will be collusion uncovered and money laundering and likely a good deal more – or, perhaps even sooner, we will be forced to confront Trump’s unfitness in some other way. It will happen.
My wish for the New Year: As long as we are going to have a Constitutional crisis let’s get it over with.
“They were careless people. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The convergence of two monumental political events – a Democratic victory in a weird Senate election in Alabama, of all places, and the emergence of the remarkably cynical and damaging GOP tax bill – bring into stark focus the degenerate state of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
In the Alabama election, the leader of the Republican Party made it clear that he was all in for a reliably accused child molester, while slandering the eventual Democratic winner for being “bad on crime.” The guy who won the Alabama Senate seat, Doug Jones, is a former prosecutor who convicted the Ku Klux Klan murderers of five little girls in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Doug Jones is bad on crime like Donald Trump is good on the facts.
While Trump touted the creepy Roy Moore – the New York Daily News called him “teen-loving Moore” – holding a rally, tweeting and recording robo calls, the rest of the Republican Party, with very few exceptions, sat on its duff, unable to rouse even mild indignation at such moral degeneracy.
As conservative commentator Charlie Sykes put it: “At every stage of the run-up to this special election, Republicans could have resisted, pushed back, or drawn lines, but their failure to do so led them inexorably to this moment: the defeat of an unreconstructed bigot and ignorant crank who had the full-throated backing of the president they have embraced and empowered.”
To assert that the modern GOP – and the man-child heading it – lacks an intellectual, moral or ethical foundation is a little like observing that the décor at Mar a Lago is a bit overdone. The reality of where the new GOP and its supreme leader have taken the country – and increasingly the world – has become difficult to fathom, and that is a major part of our problem. There is so much turmoil, so much wrong, so much corruption and degradation – where to start?
As the country we once knew slips ever closer to authoritarian kleptocracy – and worse – the enablers of this increasingly dystopian nightmare pass tax cuts to enrich themselves and their donors and refuse to bestir themselves to offer even the most tepid condemnation of behavior that just months ago would have produced universal rejection.
We are caught in what the military and diplomatic historian Tom Ricks recently called the tragedy of a Trumpian America, where lying has become governance, where reckless ignorance masquerades as policy and where demagogues are unconstrained and therefore empowered. For the first time, Ricks says, and I agree, we fear for our country, a country were things are bad and all too likely to get much worse.
Ricks wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “People stuck inside tragedies often make the mistake of thinking they are nearing the end when they are only in Act I. And that is where I think we stand, still at the beginning of this long ride. All around us, the selfish and malevolent are thriving, flatterers are rising, and good people feel simply powerless.”
Let’s Cut Taxes for the Wealthy…
The GOP controlled Congress will pass a tax bill this week that violates almost everything the president said about taxes during the last campaign. His supporters, enablers and political functionaries are lapping it up. Lies have become policy.
The tax legislation is not directed at the middle class, as Trump said it would be, but at corporations and the wealthiest among us. After saying the tax legislation won’t benefit him we now know it certainly will, likely to the tune of millions of dollars due to a last minute slight of hand that helps real estate investors. The president’s children benefit, too, of course. Fiddling with the estate tax made sure of that. This is the kind of self-dealing enrichment that we once might have condemned in a third-world country presided over by a tin horn dictator. Rather than preventing this type of corruption, the GOP is writing it into law. And our tin horn dictator, feared by timid Republican souls who don’t dare risk the wrath of his Twitter habit, daily corrupts a government he knows little about and cares about even less.
But, hey, the tax cutters are getting what they dream about. Cutting taxes is, after all, what Republicans do and damn the consequences.
For years we’ve heard Republican politicians – guys like Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a very conservative, Harvard educated lawyer – take to the stump to howl about exploding annual deficits and warn against the dire consequences of a ballooning national debt. Back in 2011, Crapo said, “The single greatest issue facing the nation is the ever increasing federal deficit. Congress, and particularly the Senate, needs to engage fully on a course of bold and productive actions to end the debt crisis in America that is stifling the economy and stalling the fragile recovery.”
That was then. Now Crapo, who once endorsed the work of the Simpson-Bowles Commission to comprehensively fix tax and revenue problems, is embracing a tax bill that will do precisely what he has spent the last decade warning against. Various estimates say the GOP legislation will add a cool trillion or maybe two trillion to the debt. No remotely sane economist says, as Republican lawmakers do, that the tax cuts will pay for themselves.
Meanwhile, the debt ticker runs on Crapo’s website, while he regularly accumulates a political war chest courtesy of the people he really works for – high rollers in the financial services industry who handsomely reward his service on the Senate Finance and Budget Committees.
The conservative National Review generally praised the GOP tax handiwork, while ignoring the obvious self-deal in the legislation, but even the heirs of Bill Buckley had trouble with the debt issue. “Most Republicans say that the tax cut will generate so much extra growth that it will increase revenues,” the NR said in an editorial. “No economic model of the tax cut, not even any of the models produced by conservative economists, backs this claim. It is convenient, though, in letting Republicans offer tax cuts to various constituencies without having to impose any restraint on spending.”
Crapo, in perhaps the most secure Senate seat this side of Alabama, is surely going to get away with this breathtaking display of intellectual gymnastics now that deficits don’t matter again. Or perhaps we should just mark this type of intellectual rot as the perfect example of the school of “I can say and do whatever I want since alternative facts are all that matter in Trump’s America.” And, of course, “the base” – the folks who voted for Roy Moore – will believe the Fox News spin and all will be good.
GOP tax bill writers ignored the experts, ignored corporate CEO’s who said they would give their new tax breaks to investors rather than workers, and they ignored basic facts. Their legislation doesn’t simplify the tax code, doesn’t address vast income inequality, won’t jump-start the economy and won’t improve wages for middle class workers, but it will please the GOP donor class. Give Republicans credit: once they are bought they stay bought.
Congress or the Russian Duma?
If the policy specifics of the tax legislation don’t give you pause then consider the process used to pass the legislation. In the not to distant past the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee would have produced separate proposals developed during long hours of hearings and committee mark up. The two houses of Congress would then act. There would be ample time for amendments and real debate and the differing versions of legislation would be hashed out in conference.
This process would have seen expert witnesses brought in to discuss issues like whether giving a tax cut to corporations currently sitting on trillions of dollars in cash would really do anything for the economy or for workers. Reducing income inequality, now at the worst level since the Great Depression, might have been discussed and policies incorporated into the legislation to provide a boon to middle class spending, which would really boost the economy. Factual information about how few Americans are impacted by reducing the estate tax might have been brought to light. Perhaps even one Republican would have expressed discomfort in passing legislation that would directly benefit the president and his family. Perhaps even one Republican would have said it would be appropriate to see a certain someone’s tax returns before voting.
None of that happened.
There were no hearings. The slippery Orrin Hatch slipped in sleazy provisions benefiting individual members of Congress and the president of the United States at the absolutely last minute. The conference committee met, but there was no debate or voting on a true conference report. That was all settled out of sight of public or press scrutiny. This isn’t legislating; it is how the Russian Duma makes “laws.”
It requires a willful suspension of common sense to undertake massive cut taxes, while unemployment is low and the economy is in pretty decent shape and while we continue to pile up enormous debt. Only a crackpot economic theory would support such idiocy. Welcome to Trumpian America.
In at least one important respect the Trump presidency has succeeded. The congenital liar has degraded common sense, common decency and common purpose. What a set of accomplishments. His is the tool kit of the authoritarians and his handy enablers are helping him not only enrich himself in the most flagrant manner, but to denigrate the whole public square. It would be shameful if it were not so frightening.
Trump didn’t start us down this path of fact free public policy, but his rants against “fake news” and the steady erosion of public ethics that have been the by-products of his consistently abnormal behavior have now succeeded in polluting an entire political class. It only took a year. That is why we are only in Act I of this tragedy. Or as Tom Ricks writes, “things can get far worse than we ever suspected, and end horribly.”
Fasten your seat belts: The worst is yet to come.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote about them in a novel in the 1920s. The careless people. They are now fully in charge and this is no fiction.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Donald J. Trump Inaugural Speech, 2017
“We trust what we know in our hearts to be right,” he said. “We trust our freedom. In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want.”
Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association.
The American politicians who enjoy support from the National Rifle Association (NRA) are not bad people – well, at least most are not bad people – but they are scared. Scared of the gun lobby, scared of their constituents, scared to confront the reality that the types of guns that would not be out of place on an Afghan battlefield have no place in a Las Vegas high rise hotel.
Fear – unbridled, unreasoning fear of unreasonable political forces – is a very, very powerful thing. The NRA has made fear a lucrative business and arguably the most powerful lobby in the country.
Yet I suspect in the wake of the latest horrific mass murder, in which the gunman used a modified automatic weapon, there is also something else at play with those politicians who have sold their souls to the NRA. They are embarrassed; embarrassed by the immorality of their nation – alone in the world by the way – that tolerates frequent mass murder and catastrophic injury by guns.
As the Washington Post noted in a gruesome story about the gun shot injuries suffered by the victims of the Las Vegas massacre: “Gun deaths are this nation’s third-leading cause of injury-related fatalities, with the most recent data showing that firearms accounted for more than 36,200 deaths in 2015. Over a nine-year period, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 971,000 people were hurt or killed by firearms in the United States — with a just-released study finding that such injuries cost nearly $25 billion in hospital emergency and inpatient care from 2006 to 2014.”
Imagine being a member of Congress whose only response to the deaths of 59 fellow Americans and the horrible injuries to hundreds more is to say, as South Dakota Senator John Thune said: “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions to protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try to stay safe. As somebody said — get small.”
No other aspect of American political life, no other amendment to the Constitution is as off-limits to debate, reflection or reform as the gun amendment – The Second Amendment. The NRA and its wholly owned minions in Congress and the White House – the NRA spent $30,000,000 to elect Donald Trump and $27 million to support GOP senators who vote with the organization – remind me of the pre-Civil War defenders of American slavery. For years prior to the unraveling of the nation due to the Civil War a “gag rule” prohibiting talk about slavery was in effect in the House of Representatives. The rule, instituted in 1835 decreed that “all petitions, memorials, or resolutions regarding slavery should automatically be tabled and that no further action be taken upon them.”
The NRA’s gun restriction “gag rule,” enforced through a massive political war chest and an ability at a moment’s notice to mobilize a grassroots army of gun right fanatics, now prohibits all but the most cursory discussion of the national disease of gun violence.
As Esquire columnist Charles P. Pierce noted this week: “We hear serious arguments about all the other parts of the Bill of Rights: that the First Amendment has limits on what T-shirts high-school students (“Bong Hits 4 Jesus!”) can wear; that the Fourth Amendment has limits that allow wiretaps without warrants; that the Fifth Amendment has limits that allow drug-testing without cause; that the Sixth Amendment has limits that allows the states to poison convicts to death. But only with the Second Amendment do we hear the argument that the only tolerable limit on its exercise is that there are no limits. Only with the Second Amendment do we hear that the price of freedom is the occasional Stephen Paddock, locked away in his own madness on the 32nd floor of a luxury hotel and casino, deciding coolly whose brains he will blow out next a few blocks away in the 273rd such unfortunate exercise of Second Amendment rights this year.”
The NRA has largely succeed through propaganda, political intimidation and encouragement of social division – the organization regularly promotes conspiracy theories about the inevitable need for a gun toting population to rise up against an authoritarian government – to regularize the murder of little children in classrooms, movie fans at a cineplex, church goers in a sanctuary, people at a nightclub and music fans at an outdoor concert.
In the aftermath of the worst mass murder in modern American history the NRA appears ready to entertain a tiny, tiny tweak of gun laws by endorsing a move to regulate so called “bump stocks” of the type that turned the Las Vegas shooter’s guns into fully automatic weapons. This would constitute the most modest step away from the NRA’s absolutist doctrine, but perhaps it is an indicator that the gun lobby can read the polls as well as the rest of us.
Most Congressional Republicans have willingly embraced the Faustian bargain that demands unflinching support for an incompetent, dangerous president. In the glaring light of the post-Las Vegas massacre it remains all too clear that the NRA, through fear and intimidation, has succeed in creating another awful bargain for the GOP.
As my friend Bob Mann wrote recently in the New OrleansTimes-Picayune: “The NRA has persuaded its members and many politicians that nothing can be done about mass killings. Forget the other tragedies and calamities we have addressed. Stopping gun violence, it seems, is an impossible feat for a great nation that eradicated polio and put men on the moon.
“As someone observed on Twitter the other day after a gunman in Las Vegas murdered 59 people and wounded another 527: ‘American can-do vanishes when the @NRA check arrives.'”
In the beating heart of every politician, well almost every politician, is something most of us live with every day – a conscience. In the privacy of their conscience – in their hearts – it must be a daily embarrassment for these people to repeatedly make excuses for the inexcusable.
I have rarely – as in never before – thought of the televised Emmy award show and at the very same moment also reflected on Aldous Huxley’s 85-year old novel Brave New World.
Sean Spicer, yes that Sean Spicer, provided the connecting tissue between the glitz, phony seriousness and absurdity of the Emmy’s and the stunning relevance of a book written when Herbert Hoover was in the White House.
Spicer, the truth challenged former White House press secretary who shamed himself with six month’s worth of daily prevarications from behind the White House podium before finally resigning when The Donald brought The Mooch into the White House, was the talk of this year’s Emmy show.
How far, how very far, we have fallen.
Spicer, as everyone on the planet no doubt has seen by now, made a surprise appearance at the top of the award show pushing his podium on stage. It was all part of an elaborate inside joke, the kind that both Washington, D.C. insiders and celebrity A-listers find so irresistible. (Politics is show business for ugly people, as they say.)
Spicy was, it was pointed out, poking fun at himself from behind the same kind of moveable podium that Melissa McCarthy and Saturday Night Live used to make him, a political hack in service to a political disaster, into a national celebrity. By delivering a slight variation on his lie about the size of Trump’s inaugural day crowd and applying it to the Emmy broadcast, Spicer was apparently hoping that poking fun at his lying would remove the stink of his White House tenure. It was as if he were hoping that joking about being a lying joker would be as good as a confession before Saturday Mass.
As Mark Leibovich wrote in the Times, Spicer “for all his professional sins, achieved something far more pertinent to the current environment: In the space of barely half a year, he became the most famous White House press secretary in history, hands down. After a while, the celebrity itself becomes the thing. Spicer’s embattled narrative became its own subplot in the greater Trump reality show. How long could he last? How much could he take? How low would he go? People tuned in to watch his briefings in record numbers.”
Yet, now a small time political operator who made White House “alternative facts” the new normal has a visiting fellow gig at Harvard and a seat next to Jimmy Kimmel on late night television. And he’s a “star” posing for photos with complete strangers and lining up speaking engagements like someone who might have something important to say. He doesn’t.
Spicer is alive and well on national TV and on the lecture circuit even if he is not yet quite settled into a well padded sinecure on cable TV. None of this is because he has done anything significant or great and not because he’s a thoughtful fellow (who just happened to lie and bluff his way to the top of the Trump heap), but simply because he’s now considered amusing.
Postman, who died in 2003, was a professor at New York University and perhaps our most authoritative analyst of the intersection where modern communication collides with culture and politics. Our great national reality show has prompted a wide revisiting of Postman’s prescient work, to read Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Age of Trump is to come face-to-face with the perilous nature of our times.
Postman’s great subject thirty years ago was television and its role in shaping and diminishing American life. His 1985 dissection and critique of the vast wasteland of the blinking tube amazingly applies perhaps even more to our present Facebook/Internet-centric age. Television remains a huge force in modern lives, but the new sinister force that daily wads up truth and sends it to the trash lurks not in the corner of our living rooms, but on our laptops, smart phones and tablets. Spicer and his former boss remind us daily – hell, minute by minute – that distraction, diversion and decidedly fake news are always just a click away.
”When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” Postman wrote in the 1980s, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” This is where we are, my friends, starring down the national vaudeville act that threatens everything from the rule of law to the law of common sense.
Neil Postman didn’t really predict that America in the second decade of the 21st Century would place a faux billionaire whose real claim to fame was hosting a reality television show in the most important job in the world, but he would not have been surprised. He predicted the enthusiastic embrace of ignorance that inserted Donald Trump into a role that he is demonstrably unfit to manage let alone master.
Postman, predicting our appetite for stupid over substance, would not have been surprised that Trump actually declined to fire Sean Spicer earlier this year because the guy “gets great ratings.” Postman would not have been shocked that the president of the United States began his Tuesday by delivering a juvenile and disjointed rant before the United Nations – praised by his “base,” of course – then ended Tuesday with a tweet bemoaning the poor ratings for the aforementioned Emmy awards show.
“The fundamental inability of people to differentiate fact from fiction has always been a critical problem,” Plothow wrote recently. “The percentage of any population with highly developed critical thinking skills has probably always been low. When technology allows the spread of ‘alternative facts,’ and altered or invented ‘photographs,’ and it makes possible the viral proliferation of sources that intentionally spread fiction, the stakes are magnified beyond even Postman’s imagining. It creates a circumstance in which a man can be so convinced that a presidential candidate is operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria that he appears at the restaurant armed and ready to act. Amusements are so readily available that families sitting at a restaurant table may be more engaged with their smart phones than with each other. Taken separately, these are troubling. In aggregate, Postman would consider these circumstances a grave danger to our very survival.”
Trump’s great triumph was not his improbable and unprecedented winning of the White House (while losing the popular vote) it is rather the success he has had in destroying objective truth among a significant number of Americans. And, of course, the president has succeeded in replacing facts and most all political norms with chants of “lock her up” and “Make America Great Again.” He can call for terminating the internationally supported Iranian nuclear agreement without ever really grappling with the substance of the deal or what might replace it. He lobs Twitter barbs at North Korea’s “rocket man” with no apparent attention to the real world dangers that bombastic miscalculation might have on literally millions of people.
Sean Spicer, a small man with a small brain always so obviously on display is just one of a thousand exhibits in Trump Museum of Mendacity. The president of the United States lies about everything and trivializes all things. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has been keeping track and records 588 lies (and counting) of varying seriousness since January. Meanwhile the Trump “base” and Republicans in Congress, most of whom really do know better, just keep smiling, amusing themselves en-route to the mid-terms.
Trump Tweets a short, fake video where he appears to drive a golf ball into Hillary Clinton’s back. He brags that the economy has never been stronger. He boasts that he has had the most productive start of any president, ever – period. The Russian election interference is “fake news” and, oh yes, his opponent last year is the “crooked” one.
It is all a show, a roiling, distracting, disgusting show of trivia and piffle, a show that Neil Postman, God rest his soul, forecast a generation ago. These smiling idiots, Postman warned, will destroy the very nature of democratic culture, which brings me back to Huxley.
Postman’s book is in some ways an analysis of the two great 20th Century dystopian novels that dealt with our communication culture – George Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932. Postman correctly concluded that while Orwell’s book was supremely interesting Huxley’s was spot on correct.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one,” Postman wrote. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
Andrew Postman, the professor’s son, wrote recently in The Guardian about the renewed interest in his father’s thinking about our willingness to replace relevant reality with phony amusement. “While fake news has been with us as long as there have been agendas, and from both sides of the political aisle, we’re now witnessing – thanks to Breitbart News, Infowars and perpetuation of myths like the one questioning Barack Obama’s origins – a sort of distillation, a fine-tuning,” Andrew Postman wrote.
Postman continues: “’An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,’” my father wrote. ‘Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
“I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by ‘technopoly.’ It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.”
There is no easy solution to a political culture rotting in real time. Obviously, as my publisher friend Roger Plothow has shown, we must begin to foster a more media literate citizenry. This starts early with education and must include a genuine recommitment to education in the humanities, particularly courses in basic civics and American history. We all need to burst out of our bubbles and be willing to confront information – and facts – that we find uncomfortable and at odds with our own well-baked views. And we must engage, all of us, in citizenship. Put the country first. Think and behave with inclusion in mind rather than tribalism. In other words, act like a citizen who deserves a place in a society that was created around the ideal that all are created equal.
Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in European history, reminds us in his tiny and profound book that 20th Century history holds great lessons for our time. “Believe in truth,” Snyder writes. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then it is all spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Failure of the world’s most important and enduring experiment in democracy is not a laughing matter, yet we confront the very real possibility that we are permitting the essential fact-based, serious work of citizenship to be perverted simply because we don’t care enough to keep from being amused to death.
Sean Spicer doesn’t matter. He really doesn’t. What he represents matters a very great deal.
“We were party to a very big lie…Seemingly overnight, we became willing to roll back the ideas on the global economy that have given America the highest standard of living in history. We became willing to jettison the strategic alliances that have spared us global conflict since World War II. … We gave in to powerful nativist impulses that have arisen in the face of fear and insecurity. … We stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power. … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
“Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked. Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense. … It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and to stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.”
Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, from his new bookConscience of a Conservative.
Let us now praise Senator Jeff Flake.
Loyal readers know that I have been using this space for months to worry and wonder when an elected Republican would really speak candidly about the abomination occupying the White House and taken over the Republican Party.
Never Trumpers like Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol and Steve Schmidt have had the president’s number for a long time, but the elected Republican willing to speak to “the base” about Donald J. Trump has been as scarce as tenure in the White House communications shop.
Now comes Flake with a new book (written quietly and without, he says, the knowledge of his political advisors) and a scathing piece in the most inside of inside D.C. tip sheets, Politico. Flake has taken the title of his book from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 tome – The Conscience of a Conservative.
The book should be widely read and vigorously debated. It may or may not mark a turning point in our long national nightmare, but it is siren call to real conservatives about what they and Donald Trump have done to their party and the country.
“Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process,” Flake writes. “With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.”
The senator’s musings amount to a profoundly damning indictment of the party’s Congressional leadership, particularly Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. These Republicans, Flake says, have made “a Faustian bargain” with a man most of them secretly despise in order to try and gain some short-term policy and political advantage. “There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty,” Flake says, “that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party.” He mentions Republicans like Lugar, Baker and Dole, while condemning current leaders who lost their way “and began to rationalize away our principles in the process.”
In some ways Flake, a very conservative first termer from Snowflake, Arizona, is an unlikely Trump truth teller. He barely won election in 2012, has never been particularly popular at home and faces an almost certain primary challenge from an Arizona Republican who will claim Flake’s consistent criticism of Trump makes him a RINO – a Republican in Name Only. Flake also regularly votes the way the White House would have him vote, a fact that has led some to call him a hypocrite for not using his position to stop the Trump agenda. This is misplaced criticism and is precisely the kind of political nonsense Flake is condemning.
Flake’s easy path would be to do what the vast majority of elected Republicans are doing and go along with Trump in order to get along with his followers. The fact that he isn’t and won’t will likely earn him a place along side the one-time Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who had the courage in 1950 to call out her party over Joe McCarthy’s antics. Smith called her famous speech A Declaration of Conscience. Flake is hitting similar notes.
In reality Flake has basically been here for a while; at the head of the line, for example, working for bipartisan immigration reform, while Trump wants to build his silly wall. He says Trump is wrong about NAFTA and Flake has blasted “the Muslim ban.” When Trump took after Muslims on Twitter, Flake and his wife, who are Mormon, visited a mosque in Arizona and spoke about the importance of religious freedom.
Criticism of Flake from the left – and even more incoherent yelling from the right – miss what I think is Flake’s essential point. He is not arguing policy. He is saying the Trump lies, the demonization of opponents, the wholesale abandonment of conservative thought and democratic norms is the real issue and Republicans own the mess they have made.
In making his case Flake has done something that few other Republicans have had the guts to do – maybe Ohio Governor John Kasich is in the same company – namely call out the intellectual rot that has hollowed out the soul of the grand old party and paved the way for the grand old demagogue. And Flake’s stinging indictment bears all the more credibility simply because it comes at a time when it could and probably will cost him politically.
New York Times columnist David Brooks correctly says Flake knows the stakes of this moment in American history. “The Trump administration is a moral cancer eating away at conservatism, the Republican Party and what it means to be a public servant,” Brooks wrote recently.
He quotes the Arizonan asking the correct questions about just some of the things Trump has said or done: “Is it conservative to praise dictators as ‘strong leaders,’ to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents …? Is it conservative to demonize and vilify and mischaracterize religious and ethnic minorities …? Is it conservative to be an ethno-nationalist? Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue?”
I’ve wondered for months if any Republican would really risk a political career by calling out the failings of the party and its hijacker. Jeff Flake may well lose his Senate seat because he has told the truth. Trump is already positioning to support a primary opponent. Yet, it seems Flake has decided this is a small price to pay for trying to save the country.
In an insightful piece recently in The Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins wondered if Flake was too nice for the Senate. He related a telling anecdote from a Flake town hall earlier this year. The senator was repeatedly and rudely booed and interrupted through the event, but he soldiered on unlike most of his colleagues who avoided town halls to avoid engaging with their constituents.
Finally, as Coppins wrote, “One constituent—a friendly guy who would later reveal himself to me as an MSNBC connoisseur—leaned in to deliver Flake a parting message. ‘Even if you disagree with us on legislation and everything, when the president says these insane things, if … [you] can just stand up and go, ‘We don’t all believe that’—that’s all we’re asking. Just stand up.’
“Flake nodded affably. ‘I appreciate that,’ he said, smiling. “I’ve tried to do so.”
It is not complicated really. This situation is easily explained. Donald Trump is jerk. A bully. A man sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States who clearly has no regard for the role of the Department of Justice or the quaint (and nearly out of fashion) notion that the attorney general isn’t the president’s personal lawyer. Rule of law. What’s that?
Trump is belittling Jeff Sessions because, as the New York TimesMaggie Haberman put it recently, “he can.” Trump Tweeting and fuming about the man he picked to be attorney general is just Trump being Trump. This is who he is and what he does. We’ve all known this now for months.
Our president is a supremely unfit man in the most important position in the world. He’s also awful at the job and likely to face months and years of legal and political trial. His first six months have been a disaster of Franklin Pierce-like proportions. And like the textbook narcissistic sociopath he is, Trump never accept a thimble full of responsibility for his actions and failures. Hs is never going to get any better. Never.
Donald Trump turning on Jeff Sessions, the first member of the U.S. Senate to endorse him, is therefore textbook Trump. Trump demands complete loyalty and offers perverse Tweets in return. President Ingrate is a serial bully who has demeaned John McCain, the Khans, a Miss Universe contestant, Jeb Bush, Mika Brzezinski, Ted Cruz, Ted Cruz’s father, Ted Cruz’s wife, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, congressmen, senators, Rosie O’Donnell, oh hell, the list is too long to even remember all the garbage he has dished.
Trump being Trump…
No, the question isn’t why Trump is berating Jeff Sessions (and Reince Priebus). The question is why anyone, including the pixie from Selma, would put up with this nonsense?
The fact that Jeff Session, who is now reportedly not on speaking terms with the president – not a good situation when the next domestic terror crisis erupts – is willing to absorb daily public ridicule from a deeply disturbed man tells us as much about our politics as it tells us about the already cringe worthy Jeff Sessions.
Principle and honor have largely disappeared from our politics. We are now in an ethical free fall zone where clinging to power or lurking in the vicinity of power is all that matters. Donald Trump has brought us this low and we are surely going lower.
Asked about the free fire zone Sessions now occupies, the always accommodating House Speaker Paul Ryan basically said “so what.” Ryan, who has suffered his own humiliations at the small hands of the president said, “Look, the president gets to decide what his personnel is, you all know that. He’s the executive branch, we’re the legislative branch, he determines who gets hired and fired in the executive branch, that’s his prerogative.”
It is apparently of no consequence to the Speaker that Trump is miffed at his attorney general for following the law and properly recusing himself from the ongoing Russian investigation and for not engaging in what would be a real “witch hunt” of again litigating Hillary Clinton’s emails.
For more evidence of Trump’s malevolence consider the case of now fired White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a minor entity of even more minor integrity, who has reportedly whispered to the man-child in the Oval that he should be allowed to hover around the edges of power because he alone is able to shakedown big GOP donors for contributions to a White House legal defense fund. The little man from Kenosha makes John Ehrlichman – look him up – appear to have been a paragon of moral superiority.
With Trump’s blessing the new White House communication director Anthony Scaramucci – The Mooch – launched a public feud with Priebus, accusing the chief of staff of leaking state secrets and being something we won’t discuss with our families over dinner. Next to dysfunction in the dictionary you’ll find a group photo of this administration. All this drama was simply about humiliating the little man from Wisconsin before firing him on the airport tarmac.
Some Republican lawmakers have stirred themselves to come to Sessions’ defense, but few – or none – seem able, and then only obliquely, to actually take on the Abuser-in-Chief. Perhaps these spineless characters fear a Trumpian Twitter barrage of a type the president has rained down on his debased attorney general or maybe they fear the fickle rightwing media will train its fire on anyone who really pushes back on Trump.
Why Do They Put Up With It…
There is a remedy for the dysfunction, a remedy that should be more deeply rooted in American political principles than it has been since, well, William Jennings Bryan quit the State Department. But the remedy requires a backbone, a body part rarely seen any longer in Washington, D.C.
The remedy for a Session or a Priebus is simply to quit, resign as a matter of principle or as a point of honor. Don’t buy the garbage that Sessions needs to stay in order to head off the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller. If Trump ordered a Justice Department purge under a new attorney general there would be holy hell to pay. It would make Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre look like an office Christmas party.
With some degree of his integrity left, Sessions could resign on the basis that the president has made it impossible for him to do his job. That would be honest. It would be principled. He’s already given up a seat in the United States Senate to serve Trump, climbing down as attorney general can’t be a much bigger step. Sessions will go down in history either way. He might as well go down as a person with some tiny amount of principle, among the first to draw the line on what is unacceptable behavior by a president of the United States. I’m not holding my breath.
The irony in all of this is that the first Republican who really, really breaks with Trump will be widely proclaimed a person of real principle, putting country above partisanship and reason above politics. Certainly those who break with Trump – really break – will engender the hatred of the Trumpian hard core and may even risk political defeat or exile, but what kind of person tolerates degradation by a tinhorn autocrat?
Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter reports that from the beginning of his tenure Trump derisively referred to his chief of staff as “Reincey” or “my genius Reince.” The Washington Post says Trump once told his top staffer to fetch a fly swatter and dispatch a pesky insect that was buzzing the swamp around the president of the United States. He might have just told Reincey to check his manhood before entering White House grounds.
Even better given this environment, a few Congressional Republicans might find a backbone and say directly to the man-child: “The conduct of the president of the United States has made him unfit for public office. He should resign.”
Imagine the cascade of praise – and of course fury – that would come down on the first elected Republican to actually say it is beneath me to associate with such a tiny, ignorant, incapable man. Epic story. History books. Cable TV gigs. The Op-Ed opportunities abound.
Resigning on Principle: What a Concept…
In 1980, in the wake of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned after having failed to persuade President Jimmy Carter not to use military force in an attempt to end the hostage crisis. Vance feared the research mission would fail and diplomatic efforts to end the standoff would then suffer. He was right. The rescue effort degenerated into a mess – eight U.S. servicemen died – and Carter’s already troubled presidency was further burdened with the searing image of burning American aircraft in the Iranian desert.
Vance’s resignation, not surprisingly, was referenced in the first paragraph of his obituary where it was noted, correctly, that a principled man had resigned as a matter of principle. [William Jennings Bryan is the other American secretary of state to resign out of a matter or principle. He did so in 1915 when the president was Woodrow Wilson. And, yes, I wonder whether Trump would recognize either name.]
The tradition of the principled resignation is deeply embedded in the political culture of most every western democracy – except the United States. Here, unlike the U.K., Canada, France, Germany and many other countries, acquiring and maintaining political power supersedes all other considerations, particularly including honor and a sense of right and wrong.
That Cy Vance is remembered as the exception to this rule is worth contemplating as the swamp of Donald Trump’s government oozes and seethes with a level of vulgarity and impairment that makes a sub-Saharan dictatorship look pretty good by comparison. Vance resigned over a policy difference of great import. The Trumpians knowingly hunker down in service to an incompetent who can’t control his basest instincts. It is a case of dumbing stupidity down.
The real message here for Republicans with any sense of decency is actually pretty simple: distance yourself from this fiasco and establish yourself as a person of principle. Honor a long tradition of American political norms and decency and step away, not slowly but with a stutter step and a sprint to daylight.
The option is to stay and grovel and become, well, become Jeff Sessions and Reince Priebus. Everything this president touches will eventually turn to dust and dishonor. History, if we survive this mess, will judge harshly those who stayed. It will richly reward those who go. And if you think incoming chief of staff John Kelly can make this mess of a White House function with some degree of normalcy I’ve got a bridge you might buy in Brooklyn. Trump will never change and sooner or later Kelly will have his fly swatter moment.
My goodness, Sean Spicer of all people is suddenly looking like a genius. Despite all of his, well, shading of the truth and his White House briefing inspired spoofs on Saturday Night Live Spicer bucked himself up and quit rather than abide Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci in the office down the hall.
Now, in a development totally consistent with the ongoing White House circus, Spicer may end up as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. Talk about a way to save your reputation.
“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” the president of the United States said a while back. And he said that after promising during the last campaign that every American would have health care coverage and that the wallet impact of paying for health insurance will be a “lot less expensive” for everyone – taxpayers, consumers and providers. Who knew?
That the Republican health care plan is almost completely disconnected from reality should be no great surprise. Republicans have been making political hay out of trashing Barack Obama’s signature legislative initiative for eight years, while never proposing any rational plan to replace what they succeeded in convincing their political base was nothing short of a socialist plot. It was a ruse. A big con.
Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey provided a textbook example of a Washington political gaffe – defined as what happens when a politician stumbles and speaks the truth. “Look, I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win,” Toomey told voters this week. “I think most of my colleagues didn’t, so we didn’t expect to be in this situation.” In other words, demonizing the other party’s health care approach was really all about politics never about policy.
History will record, even if few Republicans acknowledge the fact, that the broad outlines of Obama’s Affordable Care Act were once the basis of conservative health care policy. I know its old news, but a guy named Mitt Romney implemented essentially the same policies as governor of Massachusetts and then spent the 2012 election trying to deny he had ever heard of the coverage mandate. But, admittedly that was way back when conservatives actually cared about policy. Or cared about something as basic as trying to get as many Americans as possible insured against the vagaries we all face regarding health and wellness.
Just a reminder: For health insurance to work, both in terms of actuarial soundness and individual affordability, you need to have the greatest possible number of people covered by an insurance plan. The whole idea of insurance is to spread the risk, flatten out the cost to everyone and control costs both for consumers and providers of care. This is why every state in the nation mandates that when you license your automobile you must provide proof of insurance. We don’t allow an individual motorist to avoid coverage that serves to protect their interest as well as the interests of the rest of us simply because some yahoo in a pick-up truck hates a “government mandate.” You either buy the auto insurance or you don’t drive, at least not legally.
Insurance isn’t about “freedom” to chose. It is about sharing risk and spreading cost. It is a responsible we are all in this together way to broadly address a greater public good, which is why the ACA mandated coverage and provided subsidies for the millions of Americans who would otherwise be priced out of the insurance market. At the same time, Obama’s health insurance plan expanded the existing government program called Medicaid in order to address the needs of millions of Americans – including many, many children – struggling to make ends meet on low incomes, living with disabilities or closing out their days in a nursing home.
The End of Medicaid as We Know It…
The legislation Republicans are attempting to advance in Washington, D.C. would end the individual mandate requirement and dramatically reduce the national commitment to Medicaid to the tune of $750 billion over the next decade.
As Thomas Edsall wrote recently in the New York Times, “Since its inception in 1965, Medicaid has become an integral and major part of the American safety net. Not only does it cover health care for the poor, it prevents millions of members of the working and middle classes from losing all their savings and falling into bankruptcy when they or their family members become too old, sick or disabled to work. Medicaid also provides essential help in family planning, preventing premature births and supporting infant and child health.”
Edsall correctly notes that a significant majority of Medicaid beneficiaries are the very people who elected Donald J. Trump last year and gave Republicans control of Congress. “In McConnell’s Kentucky,” Edsall wrote, a recent Georgetown University “study found that Medicaid has become a crucial source of coverage for adults. Before the passage of Obamacare in 2010, 13 percent of adult Kentuckians were covered; after passage, in 2013-14, the percentage more than doubled to 28 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of uninsured adults in Kentucky fell from 26 to 10 percent.”
The dog’s breakfast that is the GOP health insurance plan is in the sorry shape it’s in – polling indicates a tiny fraction of Americans support it – because Republicans have, despite what House Speaker Paul Ryan might contend, abandoned real policy for almost any mishmash of gobbledygook that seems to resemble a “fix” to Obamacare. So desperate are Republicans to have a political “win” that they willfully misrepresent what their proposals will accomplish, a strategy that increasingly appears to have caught up with them back home. With this approach – say pretty much anything and hope to get past the 2018 mid-terms – McConnell and Company have essentially embraced a Trump strategy – promise big change, fudge (or lie) about the details and hope against hope that the entire spectacle will make numb all but the most ardent and partisan believers.
It Will be Great, But If It Isn’t That’s OK…
One of the rich stories of the recent charade involved a made-for-television meeting at the White House where Trump invited all 52 Senate Republicans downtown for a chat about health care legislation. Trump, positioned with two of the most skeptical senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – on either side of him, promised that a great, great bill would emerge from McConnell’s log rolling. Then he stepped all over that message by suggesting that if it all fell apart, well, that would be all right, too.
As the Timesreported in a story that Trump immediately decried as “fake news,” one supportive senator “left the meeting at the White House with a sense that the president did not have a grasp of some basic elements of the Senate plan—and seemed especially confused when a moderate Republican complained that opponents of the bill would cast it as a massive tax break for the wealthy.”
But, of course, the president displays next to no interest in the complicated, life-and-death details involved in these issues and is in fact almost certainly unable, thanks to intellect and disposition, to learn anything that might help fashion a path forward. He reportedly told lawmakers earlier this year that they should focus on the “big picture” and “forget about the little shit.” Essentially that is what Republicans have been doing for eight years.
Over the last eight years Democrats made a fundamental political mistake by never adequately and compellingly explaining what they were attempting to accomplish with the Affordable Care Act. There was no clear message from supporters of the Act beyond wanting to bring down the number of uninsured Americans. Little sustained effort was made to explain why more people being covered meant a better system and Democrats compounded their message mismanagement when they made Faustian bargains with drug and device manufacturers in order to pass legislation. Those bargains have clearly exacerbated the job of controlling costs.
The Republican message can be summed up succulently, if incorrectly: Democrats were putting us on the road to socialism. What American health care required, Republicans said again and again, was more competition. “We’ve got to do something to reinject free-market forces into this environment,” Utah Senator Mike Lee said recently on CBS’s Face the Nation. “If we can bring free-market forces to bear, we can bring down costs for middle Americans.”
That is, of course, another pipe dream and ignores the way the American system of health care actually works. Republicans seem to embrace, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, a health care economy that they wish existed rather than the one that actually does exist.
Vice President Mike Pence recently touted the “market based” system as the country’s only solution to a broken health care system, while in reality it is a major cause of the American health care mess. Pence and many embracing the market ignore all the vast data that proves the American system with its wacky incentives and general lack of accountability is wildly more expensive and delivers worse results than any county in the rest of the developed world.
Data compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, for example, shows that “the United States spends close to 20 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, nearly $10,000 per person [annually], roughly twice as much as countries like Britain, which has a nationalized health service. Americans, as a whole, pay more to get less.”
Costs More, Produces Less…
In an important new book on what’s wrong with American health care Elisabeth Rosenthal, the editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News made an observation that most of us can identify with.
“Who among us,” Rosenthal writes in An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, “hasn’t opened a medical bill or an explanation of benefits statement and stared in disbelief at terrifying numbers? Who hasn’t puzzled over an insurance policy’s rules of copayments, deductibles, ‘in-network’ and ‘out-of-network’ payments—only to surrender in frustration and write a check, perhaps under threat of collection?”
Rosenthal argues that the health care market simply doesn’t work the way Home Depot or Safeway works.
“More competitors vying for business doesn’t mean better prices; it can drive prices up, not down…. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more…. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.”
As the New York Review of Books noted in a recent review of the book: “Rosenthal’s indictment extends well beyond insurance companies. She looks carefully at hospitals, and the reader learns how they have been transformed by marketing consultants and administrators with business degrees to generate large profits, though many still enjoy a tax-exempt status as ‘nonprofit institutions’—meaning that they pay ‘almost no US property or payroll taxes.’ Instead of profit, tax-exempt hospitals call it ‘operating surplus.’ In 2011, the US government calculated that hospitals were getting an annual tax advantage of $24.6 billion. Steven Brill, who highlighted the predatory pricing that occurs in calculating costs of care in America’s Bitter Pill (2015), recently listed the yearly pay of the CEOs of large hospital systems, which often amounts to many millions of dollars. Rosenthal points out that ‘total cash compensation for hospital CEOs grew an average of 24 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone.’”
Both parties – but Republicans more than Democrats – have over promised and under delivered on the matter of health care insurance. But now the GOP faces the stark reality that the dozens of votes to “repeal” Obamacare were, as Senator Toomey has now admitted, just so much political rhetoric designed to gin up confused consumers and build a partisan advantage in Congress. Republicans have never had anything like a “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act and that policy failure is now wrapped around Mitch McConnell like one of those flimsy hospital gowns with the ties in the back. Anyone who has donned one of those garments knows it doesn’t cover much. Now the majority leader’s inadequacies are all too visible.
Fact Free, Hyper-Partisan…
The debate over health insurance policy has tripped into the same fact free zone of hyper-partisanship that dominates virtually every public policy discussion these days. Yet, the real news for millions of Americans is both obvious and frightening. Millions of Americans are still without health insurance and Republican plans will only make things worse, with many folks just a paycheck or two away from economic disaster.
The “system” is hugely inefficient and rewards many of the wrong things such as paying providers for performing procedures rather than improving health. Costs for everything from a hospital stay to a blood test are often widely out of whack with what the service actually costs. Primary care doctors are overworked and under loved, while the local orthopedic surgeon – you can look it up – is doing very, very well thank you.
I have long felt that the mess of policy known as Obamacare was ironically both a political loser for Democrats and a vehicle to move health care policy in a better direction. In a real working political system, unlike our broken system, lawmakers would keep the best features – an insurance mandate that provides basic coverage centered on preventive care, for example – and work to put in place real incentives that actually bend the cost curve and improve affordability. But such pragmatism is another pipe dream and in the current political environment nearly impossible to contemplate.
It has also been clear to me that the ultimate “fix” for American health care will eventually lead to what exists in most of the rest of the western world – a single payer system that some have started to call “Medicare for All.”
It is generally the American way of politics to gradually chip away at the margins of a problem hoping to slowly, incrementally change things for the better. This approach has given us Obamacare as well as Mitch McConnell’s approach and left us with the most expensive health care in the world and some very marginal outcomes. This truly is not sustainable.
Better to vastly simplify the system with a program that covers basic and preventive care, regulates expensive medical procedures and drug costs the way we regulate public utilities and let insurance companies figure out how to offer gold plated supplemental plans for those who can afford them. We certainly have enough money in our health care “system” to do these things. What we have is problem of how the money is allocated across the health care landscape and, of course, we have a surplus of partisan political posturing that makes real solutions nearly impossible to craft.
This much is true: whatever happens with Republican plans to “repeal and replace” what Barack Obama helped create, the GOP will own the fallout for what comes next. It is not a huge surprise, in fact it’s quite obvious, that both parties have an interest in fashioning health care policy that insures coverage for millions, reduces costs and improves outcomes. The problem is that not enough people in either party are willing to admit the obvious.
Jared Kushner [the president’s son-in-law] and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.
“I have a sense that Americans are only now beginning to realize what has happened. Even leading Republicans are demanding to know what is going on. But unless something even more extraordinary occurs in the next few weeks, Russia’s American coup has already succeeded. No matter what happens next, the United States, its institutions, its place in the world, all have been left dangerously weakened, fractured, diminished.
“European leaders are openly questioning America’s role in NATO. Beijing is flying nuclear bombers over the South China Sea. Russian and Syrian troops are retaking Aleppo from the rebels. That’s the sound of thunder in the distance; the world has changed.”
How do we explain the reality of the president of the United States?
At his core he is a reality television host with a string of real estate bankruptcies and a host of conflicts of interest. He’s had three wives. He settled hundreds of claims for operating a fraudulent “university.” His long, long record of mendacity about everything from the number of floors in his Manhattan high rise to the size of his inaugural crowds has now carried over to his presidency where he continues to change positions like the rest of us change socks. The man clearly suffers from a severe personality disorder that requires constant affirmation of all that he does, but simultaneously seems to prevent him from exhibiting even a sliver of empathy, self-reflection or sense of remorse.
That he is a deeply flawed individual is obvious even to many who voted for him and yet millions continue to pretend there is nothing to see here. On one level you can understand that Trump voters made a commitment last year and, unlike their hero, they find it difficult – even impossible – to shed a commitment.
Yet, how to explain the political loyalty on the part of elected Republicans to a man who hijacked their party and by all accounts has never exhibited any loyalty to anyone? Most elected Republicans came only reluctantly to Donald J. Trump after trying out other alternatives. Meanwhile Trump stormed his way through the GOP field with an outrageous helping of bombast, hyperbole and insult, while his chief competitors largely attacked one another hoping to be the last man standing against a huckster. The last campaign may go down in political history as the first where virtually everyone abandoned the classic strategy of attacking the front-runner, while the frontrunner attacked everyone. Republican failure to see Trump for what he is and campaign accordingly was a fatal mistake compounded by even more fatal mistakes from Democrats.
And, now again we confront an astoundingly chaotic and dispiriting few days that only accumulate the sins of the president against American democracy.
Bear with me while I recount and know that this accounting leaves for another day the president’s trip to the Middle East and Europe and the new revelations about his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Russians in the Oval…
The director of the FBI, leading a national security investigation into possible collusion between the president’s election campaign and the Russian government, was fired. The handling of the firing and its aftermath compromised the integrity of the deputy attorney general and many of the White House staff, not to mention the president himself.
Then the day after James Comey’s dismissal the president invited the Russian foreign minister – described by one foreign policy official as “a complete asshole” – into the Oval Office in the company of the Russian ambassador, a man implicated in Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. The optics alone were awful, including the fact that U.S. journalists were barred from photographing the meeting, but Russian cameras recorded the event and the Russians released the pictures for the world to digest.
During the meeting the president shared some of the deepest secrets from within the United States government with Vladimir Putin’s principle deputy in his mission to discredit western style democracy and weaken the NATO alliance. No wonder the photos show a smiling Sergei Lavrov.
The president’s defense of the indefensible was simple and simply incredible: I can do it and I did, he said. It is true that a president can declassify information whenever he wants, but that crazy and ludicrous justification came only after the administration’s national security advisor attempted to mislead the country about the substance of what his boss had done.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general who you may remember authored a splendid book called Dereliction of Duty about why people who knew better failed stand up to another flawed president in an earlier generation. General McMaster is now an object lesson in what duty actually requires. Hint: duty is not covering for a nitwit.
It was also widely reported in the midst of all this chaos, and without contradiction, that the president of the United States leaned on the director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to support his contention that the Trump campaign has not colluded with Russia. Both men refused and apparently considered the request completely inappropriate.
Remember all of this happened in the space of a few days, hours really.
Next a senior American official shared with the New York Times the specific words Donald J. Trump shared with those crafty Russians. Trump said he fired the “nut job” FBI director in order to take the heat off the investigation into his own campaign’s conduct. Think about that for a moment.
A senior staffer to the president of the United States is sharing the most damning information possible about his boss with newspaper reporters. You have to wonder why. There is only one plausible explanation: some on the White House staff have concluded what the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have not tumbled to – the president is reckless and ignorant about national security matters or even more seriously a genuine danger to the country and the world.
Just for good measure add this context: amid the wringing of hands about what was said in the Oval Office and how damaging it might be, Vladimir Putin smilingly offered to provide a Russian account of the meeting. That could only have been a threat to expose what some on the White House staff immediately rushed to expose themselves. Slap your forehead in disbelief. This is not fake news. This is the Republic of Trump.
The many and constantly shifting explanations of why we have Donald J. Trump in the White House are mostly inadequate to explain why a manifestly unfit individual has his finger on the nuclear button. Disdain for “elites” doesn’t explain it, nor does the economic condition of too many white working class Americans. The strange attraction of Americans to the simple and often wrong answers of a “strong man” who acts “decisively” remains inadequate to explain this weird moment in our history. The only real explanation is the simple one on display daily in the Republican controlled Congress. Twenty-plus years of Republican intellectual rot and ultra-partisanship have combined to give us Donald Trump.
I’m a member of the old school. I learned my journalism and politics generations ago in the school of, if not perfect objectivity, then at least rigorous fairness. In those days there was a rough equivalence between the major political parties. No one group or faction had a lock on wisdom or truth. You could report the position of a Republican and a Democrat with a sense that each point of view had a large measure of value and intellectual honesty. But something changed.
The change in politics we are now living with came at first gradually. It was a trickle in the beginning, but then a dam gave way. And we all find ourselves engaged in a running and increasingly destructive national argument that is about little more than tribal partisanship where facts disappear and lying multiplies.
The explanation for “why Trump” is actually quite simple and political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have described it with great precision in their important book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. “However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge,” Mann and Ornstein note,“one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
That explanation was written in 2012, long before we could envision the Age of Trump.
Here is a more current assessment from Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s top strategist in 2008, who says the “rotten, fetid and corrupt culture that has metastasized around an intellectually bankrupt GOP” is horrible for the country and will take years to correct.
Or put yet another way: national Republicans have now for some years advanced an often internally incoherent and essentially dishonest set of policy ideas that have debased the intellectual rationale of a once genuine conservative – and responsible – party. Tax cuts trump deficit reduction under GOP presidents, but are ruining the country when the other party is in power. A “feckless” foreign policy is to be condemned under Barack Obama, but Trump trashing NATO, cooing with dictators and praising Putin is now somehow just fine under a Republican.
Republican leaders are now facing the consequence of such a craven and opportunistic approach to politics. The consequences of misleading, misinforming and misusing their followers now sits in the White House, which brings me to the junior Senator from Idaho, James E. Risch.
Idaho’s Dubious Claims to Political Fame…
Idaho, a state I called home for nearly 40 years and where I worked in and around the state’s politics for all of that period, has a decidedly mixed political history. The state has produced a small collection of truly impressive political leaders, including William E. Borah, an old-style progressive Republican, and Frank Church, an old-style western liberal. Borah chaired the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920s and was a major power in Washington. Church chaired the same committee in the 1970s and investigated the excesses of the nation’s intelligence agencies, probed foreign corruption by American businesses, passed important conservation legislation and stood up to a president of his own party on the issue of a disastrous war. Jim McClure, a Reagan conservative who served in both the House and Senate, could be a tough partisan, but was also known as a serious legislative workhorse. After those three Idahoans of national prominence the state’s Congressional gruel gets pretty thin.
Take George V. Hansen for example. A lumbering six foot, six inch 300 pound ultra-conservative, Hansen in a way symbolizes Idaho on the national stage. As a congressman Big George made a showboating trip to Iran in 1979 to negotiate the release of the American embassy hostages. The move failed, of course, but it generated a lot of news coverage that Hansen milked for all its worth. He was anti-IRS, anti-OSHA and anti-EPA. He voted against civil rights and never passed a piece of legislation even remotely important to his constituents. Twice convicted of various financial shenanigans, a judge actually said Hansen wasn’t really an evil man just a stupid one. Look it up.
The first line of Hansen’s 2014 New York Times obituary captured the essence of his wacky career. Hansen was, the Times noted, “a Republican politician whose open disdain for federal authority made him a popular figure in Idaho, where he was elected to Congress seven times, and who twice landed in federal prison.”
More recently one-time Senator Larry Craig became a laugh line for every late night comedian when his “wide stance” in a men’s restroom in the Minneapolis airport resulted in an arrest by an undercover cop who charged the senator with lewd conduct. Craig plead guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, quickly said he would resign from the Senate, then reneged and spent months fighting his own admission of wrongdoing using campaign funds to finance his legal action. The Federal Election Commission sued Craig for misusing campaign funds. He lost on appeal.
When a sex scandal involving House members and pages erupted in the early 1980s, Craig denied any involvement even though no one had accused him of wrongdoing. Many Idahoans just shrugged and elected Craig to the Senate where he warmed a seat and engineered earmarks from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. Beyond the sex scandals Larry Craig’s main claim to Senate fame was to champion a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that his own party never supported and to carry reservoirs of water for the National Rifle Association. Although he served in the Senate for 18 years and six years in the House you can search long and hard to find a significant legislative accomplishment with Craig’s name attached.
The Junior Senator from Idaho…
Although never touched by the kind of personal scandal that came to define the careers of Hansen and Craig, current Senator Risch, a wealthy trial lawyer who prides himself on being the most conservative senator, is every bit as much a non-entity. Risch, a senior member of both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, has been among the most outspoken defenders of Donald Trump. Risch wears his extreme partisanship and the GOP’s moral bankruptcy on his sleeve.
Without knowing the full extent of Trump’s remarkable sharing of super-sensitive intelligence with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, Risch hurriedly regurgitated White House talking points on three different news programs – CNN, Fox and the PBS NewsHour – declaring that the bumbling president did nothing wrong when he shared state secrets. The real offense, Risch insisted, came from “the weasels” within the White House and the administration that leaked the details of Trump’s crazy actions.
“The real story here is there’s a weasel here,” Risch told The NewsHours John Yang. “They betrayed their own country, they betrayed their families and their neighbors, and when you disclose classified information … it is an act of treason. It’s unfortunate we can’t get that person identified, but he or she should be identified and treated as any treasonous person would be.” In another interview Risch said it was time to question the Washington Post about the sources of the leaks.
As a senior member on the two most important committees assessing the extent of Russian interference in the last election, and with extensive access to information and sources in the intelligence community Risch might have chosen to play the role of truth seeker or even wise skeptic. Instead he’s gone full partisan calling Trump’s disclosure “a good act.” You can’t find a person in the intelligence community who agrees with such sophistry. No serious person thinks Trump acted out of anything other than ignorance or arrogance.
“It’s part of this anti-Trump fervor that the national media has to try to make him look bad every time he turns around. This was a good act that he did, not a bad act that he did,” Risch said on PBS.
Risch has found no words to express even mild concern that a president under investigation has fired his investigator. When asked a few months back about Russian interference in the election Risch brushed off any concern. “I don’t think they interfered. I think they attempted to interfere,” Risch told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
The CNN host felt it necessary to remind Risch that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies came to a different conclusion.
These are simply astounding statements by a U.S. Senator with broad access to intelligence and foreign policy knowledge. So astounding in fact that former Idaho attorney general and state Supreme Court justice Jim Jones, a Republican who once harbored his own Senate aspirations, observed in a recent newspaper column that he was “having a hard time understanding the Republican Party that I joined back in the early 1960s.”
With Risch no doubt in mind, Jones, now retired, asked “Has the Republican Party turned into such a hyper-partisan entity that it is not willing to get to the bottom of this alarming mess? Seems so.”
The glaring reality of the “intellectually bankrupt GOP” is clearly on display with politicians like Jim Risch. His knee jerk defense of Trump stands in stark contrast to his knee jerk denunciations of the previous president. He excuses behavior today that he would have condemned as treasonous a year ago. It is the behavior of a political hack, not a serious senator.
Risch’s behavior and hyper-partisanship conjure up memories of another Idaho Republican senator from the 1950s. Herman Welker was another political non-entity with no legislative accomplishments who nonetheless drove fear of Communism into a single, forgettable Senate term. To the extent Welker is remembered at all today relates to his slavish devotion to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, an earlier demagogue not infrequently compared to our current American demagogue. Welker defended McCarthy to the bitter, bitter end, condemned McCarthy’s “unfair” treatment by the press, berated McCarthy’s critics and voted against McCarthy’s censure. History has treated Welker harshly – there are no monuments to the man in Idaho – and will, I suspect, treat Republicans like Risch just as roughly.
The party that once made it an article of faith to abhor almost any coziness with a dictator in the Kremlin now regularly apologizes for a president who acts more and more in the interest of Putin and at the expense of America’s standing around the world. It is simply a remarkable transformation and unlike anything we have witnessed in politics of our lifetimes.
Pause and review for a moment the developments of the last two weeks, including former CIA director John Brennan’s recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, a portion of which is quoted above. Then ask yourself what being a United States senator really entails?
Is independence part of the job? Maybe embracing a penchant for facts over rank partisan obfuscation is what the founders had in mind when they gave the Senate power to check the excesses of a reckless chief executive. Maybe the guts to stand up to a clown is part of the job even if it puts a senator in the uncomfortable position of bucking the prevailing sentiment of his party. Perhaps country really should come before partisanship.
The unprecedented leaking from the White House and the intelligence community might well be a reason for concern if the president of the United States were even remotely capable of exercising his responsibilities. But that is not the state of play in American politics. Jim Risch would shut down the “weasels” that are helping all of us understand the dangers of a president both intellectually unprepared for the job and too ignorant to know what he doesn’t know.
At a moment when history demands political leaders who stand for something bigger than their own party and who believe in something more important than the next election, the junior senator from Idaho is playing a role that has become all too common. It may be politically safe, at least for a while longer, to cozy up to Trump, but excusing his behavior has absolutely nothing to do with duty, honor and country.
There will be a day of reckoning with all the nonsense and incompetence and possibly worse that Republicans have embraced in their subservience to Trump. Some in safe seats will survive the ultimate blowback, while others will be shown the door. All will live and die with the taint – or the stink – of a kind of immoral collaboration that already has them being labeled “Vichy Republicans.”
Meanwhile, looking at the conduct of craven politicians like Jim Risch I almost find myself longing for a politician who was just a stupid crook. Ol’ George Hansen suddenly doesn’t look so bad.