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.
“Not everything done by Lenin was carefully conceived. In particular, he had little foresight about what he was doing when he set up the centralized one-party state. One of the great malignancies of the twentieth century was created more by off-the-cuff measures than by grandiose planning…Lenin eliminated concern for ethics. Lenin justified dictatorship and terror. Lenin applauded the political vanguard and the need for firm leadership. Lenin convinced his party that his Marxism was pure and that it embodied the only correct policies.”
In many ways the “revolution” that toppled the Russian Czar and ultimately led to the formation of what we used to call the Soviet Union was an unthinkable event in both Russia and in the rest of the world. Across the political spectrum, American politicians, with a few exceptions, recoiled at the thought of a Lenin, a Stalin or a Trotsky establishing the first communist state and not incidentally a bridgehead from which to export revolutionary political thought and action. The coming to power of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, just as unthinkable in Mother Russia.
As Anne Applebaum, an insightful historian of all things Russian, pointed out in a recent Washington Post essay: “At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who would become known to the world as the Bolsheviks had very little to show for their lives. They had been in and out of prison, constantly under police surveillance, rarely employed. Vladimir Lenin spent most of the decade preceding the revolution drifting between Krakow, Zurich and London. Joseph Stalin spent those years in the Caucasus, running protection rackets and robbing banks. Leon Trotsky had escaped from Siberian exile was to be found in Viennese coffee shops; when the revolution broke out, he was showing off his glittering brilliance at socialist meeting halls in New York.”
A few months later these losers of distinction were in power exercising a ruthless stranglehold on the population and eliminating every visage of what had been for a few months a fledgling democracy. Oh, and of course, they brutally eliminated their opponents.
At the heart of the “revolution” of one hundred years ago – Applebaum says it was more correctly a coup d’état – was, for sure, violence, but also audacious and persistent lying.
“All through the spring and summer of 1917,” Applebaum writes, “Trotsky and Lenin repeatedly made promises that would never be kept. ‘Peace, Land, and Bread’?” The Bolshevik leaders lied about their own past and they lied about the scandalous deal Lenin struck with the Kaiser’s Germany that allowed him to return from exile to be in Petrograd when his moment came.
Putin and the Politics of Lying…
It was the birth moment of decades of lies, misdirection and tragedy that finally seemed to end with the dramatic break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. But, that conclusion may well have proven to be premature – or fatally incorrect – given the state of the Russian experience since Mikhail Gorbachev gave the world fleeting hope that the old Soviet empire might indeed enjoy a new birth of freedom. Vladimir Putin took care of that hope.
The former KGB goon now stands astride a government as corrupt and venal as most anything Lenin could have dreamed up. Putin has also succeeded where so many of Lenin’s successors failed. He has gotten the United States and much of the West to question its own democratic exceptionalism, while helping advance a new narrative based on old Soviet tactics of constant misrepresentation, doing away with opponents, press manipulation and – that word again – steady, unremitting lying.
As a special counsel and several Congressional committees probe the level of Russian influence in the last election and quite potentially the active collaboration with Russian actors by a host of individuals in Donald J. Trump’s political orbit, we should remember some recent and not-so-recent history.
How far we have come, or better yet how far we have fallen.
During decades of Communist rule in the old Soviet Union, skepticism or outright hostility to the leaders in the Kremlin became an article of political faith for American political leaders. Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan were always wary and occasionally warlike in denouncing the dangers emanating from a non-democratic state ruled by greedy men consumed by their own lies. Stalin pioneered the Russian practice of simply erasing his opponents from history. Putin, his modern day successor, now controls a vast international propaganda network – it operates openly and brashly in the United States – that embeds the modern Kremlin line in your daily social media feed.
In the not too distant past most Americans who argued for some type of accommodation with the Soviet Union – think of Henry Wallace, a one-time vice president who saw his political career crumble under allegations of being “soft on the Reds” – were relegated to the political margins, their reputations tainted.
Skepticism of Russia Was Once Just Good Politics…
Entire political careers – Nixon, Joe McCarthy, Reagan, even JFK – were built around the belief that Soviet Russia presented an existential threat to the west and, in particular, to the United States. Few elections were lost from 1920 to 1990 by candidates who adroitly played this Russia card. The last real Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was mocked for his prescient observation that Putin’s Russia continued to present the gravest kind of threat to American interests.
My how things have changed. With Trump in the White House his Republican Party appears to work every way from Sunday to cozy up to Putin, the new Russian Czar. On this level alone Putin’s classic disinformation campaign directed at western democracy has succeeded beyond Lenin’s wildest dreams.
As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin observed recently, the Trump Administration is up to its neck in Russians. “We have never seen such a multiplicity of connections,” Rubin wrote, “to a hostile foreign power and lack of transparency in a presidential campaign or administration — nor have we ever had a campaign in which Russians interfered in such a widespread and deliberate manner.”
Up to Its Neck in Russians…
Consider just some of the news of the last several days:
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was found to have his own Russian connections – with members of Putin’s own family no less – thanks to the leak of a trove of offshore banking and corporate documents. It was reported earlier in the year that Ross had helped engineer deals with Russian oligarchs while the vice chairman of that interesting little Cypriot bank.
The comically inept Carter Page, another Trump campaign operative, appears destined to become the G. Gordon Liddy of the current Russian caper. (Liddy, for the post-Watergate generation, helped plan and carry out the break in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex in 1972. He was a conspiracy theorist and more than a bit odd. Liddy served nearly a year in prison for his Watergate role before becoming a rightwing radio talk show host.) Page’s recent testimony to a House committee marks this nutty Trump campaign character as either a fool or as a deeply implicated collaborator with the Russians, or perhaps both.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have recently testified about the extent – as far they know or are willing to admit – of Russian propaganda contaminating their technology platforms. It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that Russian agents accomplished a massive disinformation campaign designed to influence the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor, while generally creating havoc in the American body politic.
The conservative Drudge Report website, the second most visited Internet site in the United States, has also repeatedly linked to stories that originated within the Russian propaganda universe. One headline posted at Drudge on November 7, 2016 – Election Day – simply said “Obama Encourages Illegals to Vote.” The story was total B.S. and totally manufactured by Putin’s RT.com lie factory.
Meanwhile the president of the United States continues to side with Vladimir Putin against the unanimous conclusion of the nation’s intelligence services on whether Russia meddled in his election.
“He says that very strongly,” Trump said in describing his conversations with Putin during a summit meeting in Vietnam, “he really seems to be insulted by it, and he says he didn’t do it. He is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it. You have President Putin very strongly, vehemently, says he has nothing to do with that. Now, you are not going to get into an argument, you are going to start talking about Syria and the Ukraine.”
For good measure Trump described the former directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, men who have testified under oath about Russian interference, as “political hacks.” As The Atlantic’sDavid Frum notes, “These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn, or uniformed.”
Back to Anne Applebaum, the Russian scholar. “Remember: At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins of society,” she wrote recently. “By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and eccentric movements cannot be counted out. If a system becomes weak enough and the opposition divided enough, if the ruling order is corrupt enough and people are angry enough, extremists can suddenly step into the center, where no one expects them. And after that it can take decades to undo the damage. We have been shocked too many times. Our imaginations need to expand to include the possibilities of such monsters and monstrosities. We were not adequately prepared.”
Who You Gonna Believe…
And, of course, we wait with trepidation to discover if the president of the United States, a man woefully ignorant of history and consumed by ego was himself an active Russian collaborator, an ignorant dupe, a greedy businessman or, as seems increasingly likely, all of the above.
As Chico Marx – no relation to Karl, but Groucho’s brother – once said, “who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes.”
Putin has already won a great victory in the West by using disinformation to fuel deep doubts about American institutions and the fundamentals of a democracy, particularly a free press. His victory has advanced the interests a perverted and dangerous 21st Century version of the kind of tyrannical state that Lenin set out to create a century ago, a place were truth and reason are turned upside down.
The questions for us a year into the Trump presidency is whether Putin will continue to get away with sabotaging American democracy or whether American institutions, including what remains of the political party Trump has hijacked, can end the corruption and begin to roll back the damage already done.
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.
Karp, a historian at Princeton, has produced a truly fine book that not only manages to make interesting what might seem to be a dry subject in American history – pre-Civil War foreign policy – but he also illuminates why slaveholding southerners fought so hard to shape the country’s international posture. Spoiler alert: It was all about preserving slavery and its perceived economic benefits not only in the United States but also in much of the western hemisphere. Cuba and Brazil, for example, were slave nations and southerners reckoned that the U.S. could best preserve its “peculiar institution” by encouraging its survival, indeed expansion, in the hemisphere.
Southerners and others favorable to slavery dominated the American government and particularly our foreign and military policy, until 1860. Karp makes the observation that, “the antebellum president least sympathetic to slavery,” Zachery Taylor, “owned 300 slaves.” Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was therefore seen as a profound threat to the “peculiar institution” and by the time Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861 the path to disunion was well worn by the secession of seven southern states.
“The national triumph of the Republican Party, a political organization that existed almost entirely in the non-slaveholding North, had no precedent in the history of the United States,” Karp writes. “Never in eighty years of American existence had the country been governed by a chief executive who openly opposed black servitude.”
Donald J. Trump doesn’t operate at this level of historic detail or nuance and never will. His amazing comments a while back seeming to express surprise that Lincoln was a Republican should have had every GOP precinct worker in American scratching their heads in disbelief. And his remarkably incoherent recent ramblings about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War present in striking relief just the level of the man’s lack of awareness, or even more seriously, his lack of interest.
Why Was There a Civil War?
Trump’s ignorance of history, and I’m talking just basic eighth grade level stuff here, was fully on display recently when he told journalist Selena Zito, “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?”
The guy who likely couldn’t pass the civic and history test immigrants take to qualify for citizenship then opined that his new hero Andrew Jackson, dead 16 years before the Civil War began, was “really angry” about the whole business.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” the president said. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said “There’s no reason for this.’”
Actually there was a reason – a very good one – for the Civil War: slavery.
It should probably be no great surprise that a president who wants to end federal support for libraries – the arts, humanities and public broadcasting, too – has a more tenuous grasp on American history than anyone who has ever occupied the office.
Trump’s historical – and historic – ignorance is no small, laughing matter, but rather deeply dangerous, potentially catastrophically so. For as the esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner has said, “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a ‘usable past’: a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”
Trump’s Drunk History…
Writing in the New Republic Jeet Heer compared Trump’s historical ignorance to the “inebriated ramblings found on Comedy Central’s Drunk History.” We have come to expect a basic level of intelligence from the chief magistrate about the nation’s history, but Trump could no more pass a basic history quiz – an AP history course would leave him muttering – than he can speak in complete sentences. It is profoundly obvious that this vacuum of basic knowledge impacts policy and priorities, sometimes dangerously so.
The president’s claim that it will be easy to bridge the Israeli-Palestine divide is the boast of someone who has never heard of the Balfour Declaration or has only a fragmentary understanding of the history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Trump’s essential arrogance is on display in all these areas and a dozen more and his grasp of how history relates to current issues is driven by the worst possible combination of ignorance and hubris.
One more example: Journalist Dave Owen is out with a new book on the Colorado River, the over appropriated liquid lifeline of the American Southwest. As part of his reporting on the challenges which confront the Colorado, Owen talked at some length to candidate Trump. Owen’s assessment of Trump’s knowledge of the issues is both brutal and a quite typical of nearly everyone who has studied the guy.
“He knows as little about water as he does about anything else,” Owen said of the president. “He said you could solve your problems out there with a big pipeline to bring the water in, or you could do that thing when you take the salt out of the ocean – desalination.
“He definitely thinks there’s an easy solution, and he’ll discover that it’s really complicated. Water is a lot bigger than he is, and it will defeat him. The relationships, the legal structures, the international agreements – it’s all beyond anything that he could possibly comprehend.”
Any westerner with even a passing understanding of water, its uses and the complicated and contentious history of the resource knows that the president’s policy prescription – a big pipeline – is not just ridiculously naïve, but completely unrealistic.
A growing group of American historians have joined the “resistance” to such fundamental ignorance. Penn State historian Amy Greenberg recently told The New Republic, “I haven’t critiqued a sitting president before. I’m a historian.” But Trump’s broad misunderstandings and extraordinary lack of knowledge have her “speaking out in favor of elected officials knowing basic, elementary level U.S. history.”
“If we had an undergrad who wrote what Trump said in an essay,” Greenburg said of the president’s Civil War and Jackson comments, “that student would not pass that exam. That student would fail.”
A particularly pernicious aspect of Trump’s fumbling around with Civil War history is that it helps embolden the still very active “revisionist” view of what America’s great tragedy – the Civil War – and its enduring historical stain – human bondage – meant in the 19th Century and how those battles continue to play out.
As historian Manisha Sinha noted recently in the New York Daily News, “If nothing else, President Trump and the Republicans are making Civil War revisionism great again. A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina GOP state Rep. Larry Pittman argued that Abraham Lincoln was ‘the same sort (of) tyrant’ as Adolf Hitler, and was ‘personally responsible’ for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in an ‘unnecessary and unconstitutional’ war.”
The revisionist arguments go all the way back to the post-Civil War memoirs of various players in the great national conflict and was cemented on the silver screen with the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind, a classic film that is also a classic case of spinning the war and its aftermath into a glorious narrative of chivalry, state’s rights and an elegant way of life.
Look no further than the current turmoil in New Orleans where Mayor Mitch Landrieu has led the charge to remove various Confederate monuments that the mayor says don’t illuminate southern history, but rather distort it. Demonstrators waving Confederate flags have disrupted the removal and contractors doing the work have received death threats. The entire episode, as the New York Times notes, “demonstrates the Confederacy’s enduring power to divide Americans more than 150 years after the cause was lost.”
Having a historically ignorant president stoking the already hot embers of “why was there was a Civil War” is simply piling on the racial and other divisions Trump has ridden all the way to the White House. He may be ignorant of his country’s history, but the ignorance serves his own, but not the nation’s, political interest. A president who cannot differentiate between Chinese and Korean interests in the matter of nuclear weapons or who views Middle East peace as a simple deal to be hashed out on the golf course only serves the interest of confusion and chaos, a dangerous mixture in a hair trigger world.
Harold Evans, a distinguished British historian and journalist, has the perfect way of describing what Trump (and others) do when they distort or refuse to understand history. “Dishonest leaders,” Evans wrote recently, “have learned nothing and forgotten everything.”
The United States in 2017 – this is where we are. Hug a historian, or at least read one. You will be doing what our president can’t and won’t do.
“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Donald J. Trump, shortly after his election, dismissing concerns about conflicts of interest.
Prior to January 20, 2017 the United States had endured two periods of political malfeasance that have served to define presidential corruption. Donald J. Trump, in fewer than 100 days in office, has given us a third era of presidential sleaze. In fact, in terms of personal and administration corruption and conflict of interest Trump may well have entered a zone that Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding never came close to inhabiting. (The Washington Post’sJennifer Rubin, a conservative opinion columnist, made the same point recently.)
Grant and Harding have long been the presidential poster boys for corruption in high places. Grant’s two terms right after the Civil War were plagued with a cast of sleazy characters motivated by personal gain. Grant’s corrupt administration included his Secretary of War William Belknap who ran a scam that involved channeling huge kick backs to the secretary from a crook Belknap had appointed to operate a lucrative Indian trading post in Oklahoma. Belknap resigned hoping to avoid impeachment, but the Senate tried him anyway with a majority of members concluding he had accepted bribes.
Harding populated his administration in the early 1920s with a cast of his oddball political friends – the Ohio Gang – who fleeced government agencies, peddled influence and secretly sold federal oil concessions. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior went to jail. Harding famously remarked, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
While both president’s were politically naïve – some might say stupid – about the vast trouble some of their closest associates caused, neither was man was truly a grifter. Grant’s and Harding’s encounters with corruption were more like accidentally brushing against a patch of poison ivy and coming away with a rash. Neither man purposely decided to get naked and wallow around in the poison.
Donald J. Trump, on the other hand, has willfully waded into a swamp of poisonous corruption during his first three months in office. Among all the norms and traditions Trump has trashed, making corruption great again may be the most serious offense of his startlingly disastrous presidency.
The potential and actual conflicts in Trumpland are so vast as to defy list making, but let’s give it a try. A brief survey of recent news coverage reveals a long list and these are just the issues we know about:
China: Trump is being “informally” advised on economic policy by Steve Schwartzman, the CEO of the Blackstone Group, a giant private equity firm with extensive holdings in China.
China is no longer “a currency manipulator,” Trump says, after repeatedly making that claim during the campaign. What has changed? He’s now being coached by Schwartzman who stands, by his own admission, to win or lose big depending on what policies Trump applies to China.
“Even if Schwarzman was acting in the capacity of an economic expert, those policy changes directly help Schwarzman’s bottom line as CEO of Blackstone, the private equity giant,” Politico reports. “And Blackstone has gone so far as to warn its investors about the stakes of Trump’s China policy. In a recent regulatory filing, Blackstone explicitly warned its investors that Trump’s tough talk on China threatened to hurt Blackstone’s portfolio.”
Is Trump making economic policy for the American people or a billionaire buddy?
And there is this: Ivanka Trump, the president’s “unpaid” White House advisor, recently received lucrative Chinese trademark licenses valuable to her clothing line. The First Daughter received the Chinese approval the same day she and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the Chinese president at a dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Were Ivanka Trump’s extensive business interests in China “a factor leading Donald Trump to change his previously tough approach to Beijing,” asks columnist Walter Shapiro. Make an educated guess.
Speaking of Mar-a-Lago, every time the president visits his resort – and in the first 100 days Trump trips to Florida have been numerous – American taxpayers are in effect paying him for food and other services to support the White House entourage and foreign guests. Trump’s resort has charged the Secret Service thousands of dollars for the rental of golf carts apparently needed to protect the guy who owns the place and he pockets the rental fees. This arrangement is the very definition of a conflict.
Turkey: “Are President Trump’s business ties to Istanbul stopping him from reprimanding the Turkish president for his authoritarian power grab,” asks the right leaning website Conservative Review.
“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said last year. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” It is also a textbook example of a conflict of interest that apparently in his own less than self aware way even Trump recognizes.
Russia: Where to begin. The whole ball of wax is beginning to melt, but it will take time before the level of corruption by Trump associates, and likely the president himself, is fully exposed. I still think the corruption is mostly about money and one hopes the Republican controlled Congress is not slow rolling a serious investigation. But if the GOP stonewalls on a serious review of what has gone on and this house of cards begins to tumble, the post-Watergate era for the GOP will look like a mild setback in comparison.
The most recent Russian outrage involves, predictably, the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil Rex Tillerson, now serving as Secretary of Russian Oil Deals, but confirmed by a sleeping U.S. Senate as Secretary of State.
As the Wall Street Journal reported recently Exxon/Mobil has long sought U.S. permission to drill with the Russian state-owned oil company, Rosneft, in areas banned by the sanctions imposed against Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime. The oil company, the Journal notes, “renewed a push for approval in March, shortly after its most recent chief executive, Rex Tillerson, became secretary of state.”
Approving the waiver – at least at the moment – was apparently too big a leap even for the Trumpers since the administration quickly declined the Exxon request. But stay tuned. It will be back.
Greasy palms: It has now been reported that Dow Chemical has been lobbying the Trump administration to discard pesticide rules the company doesn’t like. The big push to thwart the rules began after Dow’s CEO was installed as a top outside advisor to the president. Oh, yes, and after the company wrote a $1 million check to the Trump Inaugural committee.
Stories are only now emerging that detail the massive level of corporate giving to the Trump inaugural. The total haul, a record, is about $107 million – for an inaugural.
As the Washington Post reports, “In all, more than 45 individuals and companies donated at least $1 million each to the effort as Trump broke with the practice of most recent inaugural committees and placed no limits on corporate or individual donors.” The Trump inaugural committee has reported contributions, but not how the money was spent or whether, as had been promised, any money has gone to charity.
Trump Inauguration committee. This whole episode is vaguely reminiscent of the U.S. dairy industry illegally funneling Richard Nixon’s campaign $2 million in exchange for a pledge that the Nixon Administration would increase federal milk price supports. That scandal eventually resulted in several plea bargain agreements that were struck by the Watergate special prosecutor. History does have a way of rhyming.
Hiding in plain sight here is that unlimited contributions to the Trump festivities is really thinly disguised “pay-to-play” money that curries favor with the new administration – read “Dow Chemical” – while avoiding any level of accountability. It is essentially legalized bribery of a type that every new administration has engaged in, but now the Trump crowd has taken the practice to an entirely new level of sleaze. Even to the point of accepting money from foreign sources.
Foreign government money to the American president: As has been widely reported various lawsuits are moving forward based on the “emolument clause” of the U.S. Constitution that seems to provide – its never really been litigated – that the president cannot enrich himself through payments from foreign governments. But, of course, that is exactly what is happening when a foreign ambassador decamps to Trump’s Washington, DC hotel or one of Trump’s foreign properties benefits – and the president benefits, too – from an exchange of money. All of this could have been avoided had Trump done what every respected ethics expert says he must do and divested his foreign and domestic interests and created a true blind trust for his investments. His smoke and mirrors steps to date are woefully inadequate to the task of avoiding conflicts of interest.
A new USA Today investigation finds that Trump owns “at least $250 million of individual properties in the USA alone. Property records show Trump’s trust and his companies own at least 422 luxury condos and penthouses from New York City to Las Vegas, 12 mansion lots on bluffs overlooking his golf course on the Pacific Ocean and dozens more smaller pieces of real estate. The properties range in value from about $200,000 to $35 million each.
The USA Today report says since his election Trump has sold millions of dollars worth of real estate often to shell companies that make it impossible to track the real buyer. “Anyone seeking to influence the president could set up an anonymous company and purchase his property,” Heather Lowe, director of government affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a D.C.-based group aimed at curbing illicit financial transactions told the newspaper. “It’s a big black box, and the system is failing as a check for conflicts of interest.”
And, of course, “Unlike developments where Trump licenses his name to a separate developer for a flat fee,” USA Today reports, “profits from selling individual properties directly owned by his companies ultimately enrich him personally.”
Trump Tax returns: Certainly the greatest potential conflicts lurk in thousands of pages of Trump’s tax returns, the returns he once blithely promised to release and now vows will never see the disinfecting power of sunlight. The conflicts here are both staggering and unprecedented. The president of the United States may soon be pushing a tax reform proposal that will personally enrich his bottom line. His coziness with Russia may be due to existing or previous business loans with Russian banks or the Putin aligned Russian billionaires who operate like a Mafia enterprise. The tax returns would explain much about Trump’s conflicts of interest which is precisely why he will never, short of legal or Congressional command, release them.
I’m certain I left out a few other examples of actual or perceived corruption or conflicts of interest off this list, but you get the drift. Trump has succeeded in record time in trashing the ethical norms of American political behavior across the board, but no where has it been more striking than in his wonton disregard for basic ethical standards.
It is striking how quickly and completely it has happened and how little push back has ensued from political people who once would have found any one of the examples I’ve listed as a scandal of significant consequence. Or as the Post’s Jennifer Rubin puts it, “What is striking is the degree to which the Trump clan publicly flaunts its ethical laxity and disinterest in complying with norms that every other president and his family have managed to follow.”
Die-hard Trumpanista’s will continue to ignore the ethical swamp that their man has expanded rather than drained, so it will be up to the courts and few bipartisan voices of reason to try to hold this willful man to something approaching normal standards. Technically and narrowly the conflict law is on Trump’s side since, unbelievably, Congress has never made a president subject to the ethics statutes that apply to everyone else in government from a clerk at the Interior Department to a cabinet secretary. Morality and decency, however, are not on his side and the flaunting of long established ethical norms only makes the egregious list of conflicts more disgusting. Trump and his cronies, way more than a Grant or a Harding or a Nixon, have taken political ethics into as a place that increasingly resembles a third world dictatorship, or a kleptocracy more in keeping with Putin’s Russia or the weird blend of Communism and billionaires that rule China. What Trumpism is not is anything resembling American democracy.
The evidence of corruption – personal, family and by associates – threatens to become so widespread and persistent as to be considered, well, normal. And it is not normal.
And it has all happened so quickly. The ethical norms of American government and politics have been trashed by a man who ironically accused his opponent of being crooked and then pledged to drain the sleaze from our politics. It took the Watergate scandal and the resignation of a president to establish the broadly bipartisan standards that have applied to every president since.
It is hard to believe a real sense of ethics at the highest levels of government can be restored as quickly as the conman-in-chief has torn it all apart. In fact with this president it is increasingly difficult to believe that ethics as we once defined the term can be restored at all.