2016 Election, Catholic Church, Congress, Politics

The Great Decline…

     “Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives: the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are supposed to protect Americans’ earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”

Gallup survey, June 2016

————

If you want to set off a spirited discussion at a family dinner or spark a debate around the office water cooler you need not go to the trouble of mentioning a Trump presidency, just mention Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s biggest banks.

The big bank’s apparent wide spread embrace of various scams to create two million phony accounts in order to secretly squeeze bucks out of its unsuspecting customers is just the most recent example of the financial industry’s disconnect from the most basic notion of ethical behavior. It is a scandal that perfectly illustrates the great decline in public confidence in American institutions.

OAKLAND, CA – OCTOBER 11: A sign is posted in front of a Wells Fargo bank on October 11, 2013 in Oakland, California. Wells Fargo reported a 13 percent increase in third-quarter profits with a net income of $5.6 billion, or 99 cents a share compared to $4.9 billion, or 88 cents a share one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Wells Fargo has taken a public relations beating as a result of the fiasco, but the former CEO still walked away with a $130 million dollar golden parachute even as 5,300 bank employees lost their jobs. The bank’s stock price has recovered nicely. Members of Congress are making noise while demanding more information from Wells Fargo about its response to what might safely be called fraud, but there seems little chance that any senior person at the bank will suffer much. Wells Fargo, like many of the big banks who contributed to the economic meltdown in 2008, will probably skate by paying a fine – de minimis likely compared to bank profits – but no individual is likely to get nailed for the flagrant misconduct.

Oh, by the way, only 27 percent of Americans according to a June Gallup survey have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks.

Disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law

You can set off other kind of outrage by mentioning the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals that went on for years while various senior leaders of the Church did little or nothing to stop or hold accountable those guilty.  Even worse in a way was how some bishops covered the tracks of their own culpability. Catholics – I’m one – are particularly outraged because so little accountability has been doled out. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston during the worst of the scandals, was publicly shamed but still trucked off to comfortable retirement in a cozy villa at the Vatican. Presumably the Cardinal’s judgment day will come in another more decisive form.

Only 41 percent of those surveyed by Gallup expressed confidence in churches or organized religion.

Pick any of a dozen or a hundred other scandals: the revolving door that spins the former congressman from lawmaker to lobbyist to multi-millionaire, or the EpiPen manufacturer accused of gouging those who need the lifesaving medicine, or the recent story that Sinclair Broadcasting – the largest owner of television stations in the country and therefor a massive owner of the public’s airwaves – gave favorable and disproportionate coverage to Donald Trump during the campaign.

I could go on, but I also suspect you can easily come up with your own list of outrages. It does all accumulate. The confidence numbers for health care institutions, for example, are south of 40 percent, the media confidence numbers are in the very low 20s and Congress, well, Congress is in used car salesman territory checking in at a robust nine percent on the public confidence scale.

The verdict is clearly in: America suffers a crisis of confidence in basic institutions and it has been going on and getting worse for some time. The Gallup survey six months ago reported that only the U.S. military and the police have public approval numbers above 50 percent. Other institutions, political and social, that one could easily argue have long been at the center of American life are held in such low esteem as to call into question the essential institutional framework of our democracy.

But, wait just a minute. Institutions by themselves did not create this crisis of confidence. Institutions don’t either have or lack credibility. Institutions depend on people and we’ve been failing our institutions through neglect, ignorance and hubris. We are experiencing a crisis of institutional confidence, at least in part, because we are accepting standards from those institutions that cannot possible instill confidence.

I think this reality may go some distance in explaining the next president of the United States. Donald J. Trump, the disrupter-in-chief, has merely accelerated the deterioration – or out and out destruction – of long established norms, which I would argue has contributed over a long period of time to this erosion of confidence in a whole host of American institutions.

There is a myth that American institutions, political or societal, are “sturdy” and “resilient” all by themselves. They are not. Survival of institutions, particularly in a political system like ours that features both defused power and built in rivalries, not to mention considerable opportunity for corruption, requires more than rules. It requires adherence to a broad collection of often-unwritten requirements – norms – that function to uphold tradition, while reflecting common sense and well-established time tested approaches.

It has been a norm for more than 40 years, for example, for presidential candidates to voluntarily release their income tax returns. It’s not the law, but rather a function of how we once expected candidates to behave in a vital democracy. The norm was to reinforce transparency and discourage self dealing by folks in high public office. Until this year it was normal for all of us to see and evaluate for ourselves those revealing documents.

Public confidence: Nine percent

But the president-elect will sail into office next month having violated that norm and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seems on the verge of considering a multi-millionaire oil executive to become secretary of state without forcing more than a cursory review of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. An institutional framework is thereby weakened and a long-time precedent set aside. It will be hard to get it back.

There is no absolute requirement that the United States Senate consider a president’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. They should. That would be normal, but Senate Republicans have exploited for months now all the possible wiggle room in the Constitution in order to deny even a hearing on the nomination of federal Court of Appeals  Judge Merrick Garland, a demonstrably qualified candidate.

They had the power to do it, so they did, while shamelessly arguing it was just business as usual. But don’t believe for a second that it is normal – or right. Stiffing a president – any president – on a Supreme Court nominee has now become the new normal.

American public schools, it is said over and over, are failing. But are they? There is wide discrepancy in performance from state-to-state or city-to-city, but the blanket indictment of “failing schools” often masks a fierce partisan battle over resources and governance. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, only 30 percent of American express “confidence” in public schools.

Republican legislators in North Carolina recently used a post-election special session to strip the incoming Democratic governor of many powers traditionally exercised in that state, including the power to appoint members of the governing board of the state’s university system. This was after North Carolina lawmakers aggressively suppressed or minimized minority voter participation in various ways. North Carolina legislators had the power to run roughshod over voters and political opponents so they did it, but it is not normal. It violates a basic sense of fair play and abuses the system’s unwritten rules about responsible political behavior. The situation in North Carolina is so far out of control that the academic and nonpartisan Electoral Integrity Project classifies the state as no longer “democratic.” North Carolina’s scores for how it handles elections and registers voters compares, shockingly, to Iran and Venezuela. Meanwhile protesters objecting to the power grab were arrested.

In the flush of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 many congressional Republicans vowed to make him a one-term president and then proceeded to oppose virtually every move he made. That is not how the system is supposed to work. Of course there will always be bitter and passionate partisan debates about all kinds of things. Its fine to favor your candidate over the other guy’s candidate, but not OK to obstruct. We only have one president at a time and the norms of American politics require for partisans to work for solutions to big problems like, for example, a shocking lack of health insurance among millions of Americans. Politics involves resolving or mitigating the differences. Compromise has been the norm. The kind of blind obstruction Obama has typically faced is simply not normal.

Nor is it normal for a president to regularly resort, as Obama has, to “executive action” to carry out a policy agenda. His excuse for doing so – that Republicans failed to function normally – is understandable, but still not normal and over time it will only become more corrosive to our concept of confidence in political institutions.

It is not normal for a president-elect to engage in foreign policy while he is waiting to assume the job. It’s not normal, as California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher has, to embrace as “terrific” the Russian hacking of American emails in order to permit a foreign power to meddle in a U.S. election in favor of its candidate.

There is absolutely no evidence of voter fraud in the country, widespread or otherwise, yet candidates and political leaders routinely call into question the validity of elections in order to score debating or partisan points. No wonder more and more people think the system is rigged.

Every politician without exception has a beef with the media. I’ve got my own beef – or a side of it. It is a story as old as the republic to dislike the scribing classes, but there has also long been an expectation that a free and vigorous press, even one occasionally wrong or unfair, is an absolutely essential check on corruption or improper exercise of power. When a politician rides to power in part by declaring reporters who expose his inconsistencies or question his logic “dishonest,” while never engaging in the substance of the reporting you get what we have – a decline in confidence in the media. As a result a bedrock institution of the American system is further diminished.

We have experienced a decline in respect for American institutions – and it’s about to get worse – in large part because we have allowed a deterioration in what I’ll call “standards of normal behavior.” Institutions fail to hold individuals personally accountable for outrageous or unethical behavior. Traditional political norms that offer no immediate political payoff are eagerly cast aside in favor of securing a short-term advantage. Opinions are shifted and shaped and passed off as facts in order to win a news cycle or a Twitter confrontation. It is not normal.

We tend to take for granted that American “institutions,” including all the institutions that buttress a free society, can weather any storm. We’ve muddled through for nearly 250 years, after all. But perhaps we’ve just been both lucky and good and continued muddling depends on both factors continuing to favor us.

Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond authored a persuasive and sober piece in The Atlantic back in October – before the election – in which he argued that we have rarely had reason to doubt American resilience – until now.

“Democracies fail,” Diamond wrote, “when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage.”

Diamond recalled Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel – It Can’t Happen Here – published in 1935 just as Adolf Hitler had consolidated power in Germany and Huey Long promised to run for president. “For more than half a century, Americans have blithely assumed that democracy is so rooted in their norms and institutions that nothing like that could happen here,” Diamond said. “If Americans do not renew their commitment to democracy above all partisan differences, it can.”

The first step in stepping back from the edge is to insist – individually and collectively – that long-established traditions of accountability, transparency, fair play and commitment to country over partisanship are again treated with the respect they deserve and the future of the country demand.

We have entered a period where American institutions of every type will be challenged as much as any in modern time by a political class with less respect for norms, traditions and facts than any since perhaps 1860. The challenges come at precisely the moment when those institutions are weaker and less respected than they have ever been.

Not a happy thought for the New Year, but I think patriots will fight back against this reality. At least I hope so. It will be the defining struggle of the next four years and beyond. Each of us will decide how – or whether – to engage in the struggle. No institution will save us.

Romney, Trump

The Shaming of Mitt…

       “It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country. My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”

Mitt Romney announcing the end of his campaign to be Secretary of State

———-

I have never had much truck for Mitt Romney. He always struck me as a stiff suit filed more with ambition than anything really important. Then a few months ago I took a second look at the chiseled millionaire and thought – briefly – that I had been wrong to write him off as an opportunistic lightweight. Turns out I was right the first time.

Romney’s essentially opportunistic nature led him to a run for the Senate in Massachusetts years ago against Ted Kennedy. Romney’s basic strategy was to shape his positions in order to get to the left of the man who was his generation’s paragon of liberalism. He failed. Kennedy humbled him.

Humbled…again

Undeterred Romney returned to capture the governorship of his adopted state and then governed as a genuine Northeastern moderate. What the hell, the guy was a Republican liberal back when we had such an endangered creature.

He wasn’t anti-environment, he supported Roe v. Wade and the health care plan Romney championed was essentially a state-level version of the Republican-hated Obamacare. But when the “savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics” ran for the White House he had to reverse course and move sharply to the right. He discovered the pro-life movement and had to spend most of his campaign explaining why his state level Affordable Care Act really wasn’t nearly identical to the ideas his opponent, Barack Obama, championed. Obama humbled him.

Romney might have run again this year, but probably knew that his time had come and gone. Nevertheless Romney emerged briefly – and facetiously it turns out – as a serious person, once again a political player. When he called come lately Republican Donald Trump exactly what he is, a dangerous man, Romney was back in the game. It turns out that was an act, too. Romney’s last act.

The man who will soon be president could not abide the Romney criticism and, of course, he struck back. Mitt had “choked like a dog,” Donald J. Trump said, and he was “stiff.” Well, I agree with Trump about that much.

Using his favorite attack tool – Twitter – Trump left no insult behind. “Mitt Romney, who totally blew an election that should have been won and whose tax returns made him look like a fool, is now playing tough guy.” That was after Romney called Trump a “fraud” and a “phony” unfit for the presidency and back when I was doing my own reassessment of Romney. I should have saved the energy.

“When Mitt Romney asked me for my endorsement last time around,” Trump Tweeted, “he was so awkward and goofy that we all should have known he could not win!”

With his forceful indictment of Trump earlier this year it seemed for a brief time that Mitt Romney was finally caving to principle. But for Mitt flirting with principle was both short term and an aberration. Romney, as so many others have, soon came to grovel before the most unqualified, ignorant and dangerous man to win the White House since, well, maybe since ever.

Romney said in June that he found Trump “so troubling, and I know a lot of folks are saying, ‘Mitt just get off your high horse on this and get behind the guy.’ But these things are personal. I love this country. I love the founders. I love what this country is built upon and its values and seeing this is breaking my heart.”

Romney was visibly emotional and appeared to tear up when making the remarks. But all that emotion soon enough gave way to enabling – Trump enabling.

A few days ago Romney tucked his political tail between his legs and slinked into Trump Tower to be interviewed to be The Great Man’s Secretary of State. The cringe worthy photo of the two men at dinner with Reince Priebus should be widely re-produced and mailed to every politician who cavalierly sells out principle in the name of ambition. That photo will be in the dictionary next to the definition of “humiliation.”

Frog legs and crow. Did it taste like ashes?

Romney later posted on his Facebook page that it had been a great honor to be considered for the top job in the Trump Cabinet, but of course it was all a sham and likely everyone knew it but Mitt. Trump was slapping Romney around in public said Roger Stone, a man almost as reprehensible as Trump, in order to “torture” him for daring to speak ill of the Authoritarian-in-Chief.

What a spectacle. Mitt participating in his own public humiliation. Sad. Shows what craven ambition can do to a person.

Mitt Romney, the guy who has always placed his aspiration above all else, might have ended his public life as one of the genuine truth tellers about Donald Trump. He might have been remembered as a person of principle with the guts to call out a charlatan. Instead he allowed the petty, little, mean guy who will become president play him like a fiddle. Trump humiliated him. It has become a pattern for Romney.

Once you surrender principle and put your character in hock to pursue a personal desires, particularly in the face of great evidence and despite your own words, there is no going back. When – not if – Donald Trump gives Mitt Romney cause again to speak  truth about our new president Romney will be silent. He will have no choice. He caved when character counted and got nothing to show beyond a very public lesson in dishonor. Anything he might ever say about the future of his party and the presidency will now be seen through the filter of the pained expression on Mitt’s face while Trump shamed him – publicly and repeatedly.

Mitt Romney had his moment and spent it on a dinner of frog legs with Donald Trump at a Michelin three star restaurant in Trump Tower. Romney went to that dinner to eat crow and surrender his pride. Then he said all that Trump demanded of him. Then he posted on Facebook what a great honor it had been – to be humiliated by a man he knows is unfit.

You almost wonder if Trump also stuck him with the dinner check.

2016 Election, Trump

Regularizing the Irregular…

 

          “I’m gonna tell you what I really think of Donald Trump: This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth, and in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.”

Senator Ted Cruz in May before endorsing Donald Trump in September

————

As opportunistic politicians go it is not an overstatement to say that Texas Senator Ted Cruz occupies a niche all his own on the scale of opportunism. Cruz, a Republican who condemned Donald Trump as harshly as any – remember the president-elect accused Cruz’s father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination and insulted Cruz’s wife for good measure – made a show of opposing Trump at the GOP convention and then totally capitulated to him.

Ted Cruz: From Trump dismissal to embrace
Ted Cruz: From Trump dismissal to embrace

Cruz is a fine example, maybe the best example, of what I’ll call “the regularization” of the man who will be president.

For the last year and a half Republican presidential candidates, most establishment media, and Hillary Clinton embraced the fiction that Donald J. Trump could be dealt with by conventional political methods. They all blew it.

Republicans “Regularized” a Man They Detest…

Republicans, like Ted Cruz, thought if only they could get Trump in a one-on-one situation they could finish him off. That belief resulted in one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in politics. The Republicans candidates who were maneuvering to be the last man standing against Trump spent weeks attacking each other rather than going after the clear frontrunner. Only when it was too late did anyone try to take down the leader. It was amazing and oddly it served to “regularize” Trump as the face and voice of the Republican Party.

Trump could claim and, of course, did that he beat them all, but those who lost to him let him off without a real challenge out of fear they would alienate his core supporters. Now he owns them all.

The media for the most part treated Trump as an outlandish, but not wholly different character in American politics. By the methods of false equivalency Trump’s abjectly irregular methods – threatening to jail his opponent, cavorting with Russia, refusing to release his tax returns, lying about everything under the sun – were balanced against Clinton’s emails and untrustworthiness. He was regularized.

Media "regularization" of the most irregular candidate in modern times
Media “regularization” of the most irregular candidate in modern times

Media attention was lavished on Trump, certainly in order to driving ratings, but also because many in the media seemed to think his own words would do him in. The coverage of his campaign, often live coverage of his rallies, served to regularize him as just another politician with a big following.

Admittedly this guy said outrageous things, but Trump was still just a variation on an old campaign theme. To many in the media he was a politician, but he isn’t, of course. Trump is a phenomenon, a media and self-created personality, a cult of personality really, and wholly unlike anything we’ve seen before.

As the campaign post mortem is conducted it is also becoming clear that the Clinton campaign, fixated on re-fighting the campaign of 2012, never got what was going on with Trump. They thought, as the media did, that Trump’s outrages would sink him, Democrats would turn out and Clinton would slip into the White House to begin Barack Obama’s third term.

The Clinton team used all the old tactics – television, policy pronouncements, debate traps – while never confronting their own candidate’s huge shortcomings or the opponents appeal. They fundamentally treated Trump as just another wacky Republican, but of course he is not just another Republican.

The regularization of Trump, from Cruz’s eventual capitulation – Cruz actually said, “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” but then he did – to Clinton’s treatment of his candidacy as an aberration that would be disposed of with talking points and policy papers now reaches an entirely new level as Trump measures the White House drapes.

I’ve heard it said that Trump in office “will behave pretty much like a New York-style Republican” and that he will inevitably come around to the norms of political Washington. It’s said that Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally and therefore we should, too. Actually being able to take him seriously, but not literally and having him morph into a New York-style Republican would be, under the circumstances, a highly desirable outcome for the country and the world.

But it seems just as likely those expectations are as unfounded as the notion that Ted Cruz would, just once, take a pass on political opportunism. The odds aren’t that great.

After making the mistake for the last 18 months of thinking that Trump is just another politician, many are about to double down on that calculation. He’s not a regular politician in any way, which of course is part of his appeal, but even more fundamentally he harbors no regard for any norm of political behavior and that ultimately makes him both completely unpredictable and entirely dangerous.

Here’s the Worry…

The president-elect is a deeply flawed human being with a serious personality disorder. He is obsessed with himself. There aren’t enough binders inside the Beltway to brief him, that’s how little he knows or cares about policy. He makes it up every day and the organizing principle is simple and always has been: he will do what is best for Trump.

Reading Trump’s life story – there was plenty of opportunity to do so during the long campaign if anyone wanted to do so – reveals a person unmoored from the norms – that word again – that govern most of the rest of us. He’s different. Special. Better in all ways. He has the best words. He’s the greatest. No one – ever – has come to the American presidency with such a glaring image of himself as a savior, while portraying the country as being in the final stages of destruction.

Why would Trump start behaving differently now that he has reached the pinnacle of a life that is all about him, his words, his image of himself? The answer is – he won’t.

The first rule of living under an autocratic, it is said, is to believe what the autocrat has said and promised.

Here’s the worry: Every president is challenged every day in a thousand ways. If the campaign revealed anything about Trump it was that he doesn’t suffer criticism or rejection well. He lashes out and punishes. He’s a bully, even when the offense is small or particularly when it’s valid. With Trump every confrontation becomes a question of who wins and who loses. To “regularize” the president-elect you must now embrace the idea that all his bluster, his threats and, yes, all his hatred will suddenly disappear. Somehow you have to believe a man who has never behaved differently will now behave differently.

President-elect and new White House Chief Strategist
President-elect and new White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon

And, of course,  the president-elect spent the Sunday morning after his unexpected election bashing the New York Times on social media, but only after sending his chief surrogate out to the talk shows to threaten a siting United States senator who has been sharply critical of him.

Then in the afternoon he named Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist, a guy who runs a white nationalist website that routinely traffics in outrageous conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic and anti-gay hate speech. Regularize that, America.

In a few weeks when he finally gets his hands on all the levers of power you have to believe that a “regularized” President Trump will be able to resist the temptations of great power that men of vastly more accomplishment found difficult to avoid when they held the job. Will a President Trump avoid reaching into the FBI or the CIA or the IRS to deal with a critic? With a white nationalist whose “media” empire regularly attacks Muslims and gays and women soon sitting a few feet from the Oval Office will Donald Trump bring America together?

To “regularize” the president-elect, as journalist Masha Gessen, a close observer and critic of Vladimir Putin, has written, is to suddenly accept that “Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself. It was as though those statements and many more could be written off as so much campaign hyperbole and now that the campaign was over, Trump would be eager to become a regular, rule-abiding politician of the pre-Trump era.”

To believe that is simply the triumph of hope over experience. Accept it at your peril.

 

2016 Election, Clinton, Trump

Missed it by a Mile…

     

        In midtown Manhattan, Amtrak train conductor Joe Mazzola, 35, said that many of his fellow rail workers, all of them unionized, were voting Trump. He said he was sick of what he called corrupt, inept politicians. “I’m done with all this crap. I love my country but our government, uh-uh,” he said.

 Quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail

———-

Well, put me firmly in the company of the legions who missed this thing by a mile. In the grey light of the morning after it seems both historic and surreal. It is impossible not to conclude that something has profoundly changed in American social and political life. We had the change election few saw coming. Now what?

As regular readers know, I’ve been dissing and dismissing Donald J. Trump for a year and a half. “Manifestly unfit’ was one of the milder things I alleged. I still believe that – perhaps more than ever – but today my mind drifts on to other, perhaps even bigger things.

The President-elect claims his mandate
The President-elect claims his mandate

If the president-elect attempts even a quarter of what he has proposed – abandoning existing trade deals, going squishy on NATO, overturning the Iranian nuclear deal, drastically reducing taxes, undoing Wall Street financial regulations, building his wall, weakening libel laws, replacing Obamacare, banning Muslims, using torture on enemies, indicting his opponent – you need to ask how the implementation of those objectives might alter the fundamentals of the 240 year American experiment?

Historical Parallels? Not in America…

To those looking for historical parallels, something I always attempt, you won’t find them, at least not in the United States. At a critical moment when the fragile bonds that have held together the American experiment – reverence for the Constitution, respect for the rule of law and the legal system, the influence of “the establishment” – were broadly discarded in favor of a man with what can only be described as harboring authoritarian tendencies. When we needed a Lincoln and his better angels we got “lock her up.”

The United Kingdom’s decision earlier this year to split from the European Union marked the unmistakable rise of a new phenomenon in western liberal politics – the radical populist, anti-immigrant, anti-elite, mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more crowd. The Trump victory brought the passion home. The ugliness of the campaign from both the candidate and some of his followers, the anti-Semitism, the disdain for women (particularly her), the boasts and the bald faced lies were never, we now know, going to be enough to derail a man tapping into deep anger.

He knew something, or at least mobilized something, that amounted to screaming “the hell with all of this.” Once revered and protected institutions from the Catholic Church to the military suffered his denunciations. Heck, Trump picked a fight with the Pope and claimed he knows more than the generals. Turns out he really could have shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lost a vote.

So, sorry there are no American historical parallels and no parallels of any kind that provide comfort. For parallels we need to go to Europe in the 1920s or to a South American dictatorship any time.

The toxic brew of nationalism, white identity, economic and social dislocation, fear of the present and deep anxiety about the future has nearly always resulted in the rise of a strong man with all the answers. America, until Trump, had resisted such folly. Now we’ll see how this turns out.

Their tests will come...
The tests will come…

One particularly critical question the day after is whether the “regular” Republican enablers of Trump – Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Richard Burr, and all the rest of these “elites” now safely returned to power – will do what they inevitably will be called upon to do and what they so cleverly avoided during Trump’s rise and during their own struggle to remain in power.

Some of them may harbor the belief, still, that they can “work with him” or regularize his behavior. Not likely. And then what? Will they place position and power over country? This has always been the greatest question in a constitutional democracy: when do you stand up to great power? There will be a reckoning for all of them and for all of us.

I’m reminded of the old adage that America can always be assured of defeating any foreign enemy. After all we took care of the Nazis and Imperial Japan and once upon a time helped break apart the Soviet Union, but that the real threat to America will come from within. The ultimate unraveling of the country will come not through an invasion of Syrian refugees, but by a gradual or not so gradual abandonment of our imperfectly lived ideals.

Concentrated Power…the new American norm…

We are, for example, a good way down the road toward an ever more powerful American president, and in this regard Barack Obama followed George W. Bush in actually expanding the unilateral power of the executive. Where do we go with a man who campaigned with the authoritarian pledge that only he could fix what is wrong with the country? What are the real and practical constraints on the actions that lurk behind such boasts? Who protects the people from the president? Surely we will find out.

We have a Republic, Benjamin Franklin famously said at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, “if you can keep it.” We’ll see about that – again.

Franklin: A Republic...if you can keep it
Franklin: A Republic…if you can keep it

A reckoning is in order as well for all of us – yours truly included – who blithely went along with the fiction that nothing had fundamentally changed in the land that once elected a Reagan and an Obama. Too many of us bought the fiction that it would be enough to beat a skilled mass media marketing expert by nominating the ultimate technocratic insider, a consummate member of the elite.

You also don’t beat a celebrity TV star who long ago mastered the dark arts of media manipulation with an opponent who has a tin ear for authenticity and has been relentless defined, often by her own missteps, as dishonest.

The Clinton candidacy wasn’t even close to being enough to head off the heat of the half of the country that feels aggrieved by almost everything. It was always also going to be a stretch to replace the first African-American president with the first woman president and it turned out exactly so.

It is often the case in our politics that defeat brings out something in the defeated that had it been more obvious earlier might have changed the course of history. So it is with Hillary Clinton. “Scripture tells us,” Clinton said in her concession statement today, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”

Clinton’s statement was profoundly patriotic, wholly gracious, bravely optimistic and seemed more genuine that most of her poll tested speeches during the long and awful campaign.

But for this American, at least for today, my optimism is muted. Oh, I accept the outcome, while not liking it, because we have only one president at a time. But accepting the outcome of an election is a good deal different than believing that the long American experiment will rumble steadily on.

I study history. I know the country has endured many things and triumphed through many, many trying times. I hope to high heaven it will again, but I’m not quite there today.

 

Baseball

Fly the W…

 

      “People ask me a lot about the values I got from playing (there) for so many years. The value I got out of it was patience. A lot of people these days are not very patient.”

 — Ernie Banks

———

Many of my best baseball friends – maybe most of my real baseball friends – are fans of that team from the north side of Chicago that once upon a time hadn’t won a World Series since the last time William Jennings Bryan was on the ballot.

Fly the W...
Fly the W…

These fans are true fans. There is not a sunshine patriot among them. They have never folded their tents nor tucked away their loyalty when the harsh winds of autumn turn brown the ivy on that outfield wall. They solider on through winter with warm anticipation for another spring when again, hope becomes eternal.

They smile when reminded of goats and geeky guys wearing headphones. They laugh at ‘wait until next year’. They have their favorites: Santo, Banks, Williams, Sandberg, Fergie or Zim. They can remember the first time and every time they crowded into that old cathedral at 1060 W. Addison. Many of my best baseball friends are in a way, spiritual. They accept with Grace that when it was meant to be, it will be.

Many of my best baseball friends have known only the wait and the expectation and the hope of a series. Their mom’s and dad’s or granddad’s knew the wait, too. They’ve been close a few times only to see the favorites blow it or jinx it or kick it away. But they never give up. Other fans come and go. Those other fans can’t remember the right fielder is this year or they have ceased to care if the bullpen is thin. Other fans have other teams and hopes and disappointments and victories. Many of my best baseball friends have just kept the faith long past when they had reason to do so.

As the late, great Bartlett Giamatti, once our commissioner and still our bard, wrote of baseball fans: “Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

Many of my best baseball friends never grew out of sports. They were not the tough among us devoid of illusion, just the loyal, the hopeful, the determined among us. They were tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. And now – this day – they have finally found that perfect green field, in the sun.

For years and years and years they will remember the bottom of the 10th, in Cleveland, in November when all the best friends cried and hugged and lived that experience they have always known would happen – someday.

Someday is today.

Cubs Win! Cubs Win!

2016 Election, FBI, Montana

Round Up the Usual Suspects…

    

       “Amusing thing about Comey debacle is that there were still Ds (and now Rs) who are delusional enough to imagine the FBI might be apolitical.”

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation

———-

Many Democrats are shocked and many Republicans gleeful at the news that Hillary Clinton’s emails, thanks to a letter sent by the director of the FBI to several members of Congress, have again surfaced as a big issue at the 11th hour of the presidential campaign.

The Clinton campaign termed the public disclosure of the new information, which apparently had not yet been seen by the FBI and may or may not be relevant to Clinton’s ongoing email problems, was “inappropriate and unprecedented.

Inappropriate perhaps, unprecedented hardly.

FBI Director Comey
FBI Director Comey

At the time FBI director James Comey wrote his letter to Congress exposing the need to investigate emails found on the laptop of a Clinton aide who is married to a creepy former Congressman under investigation in an unrelated matter (involving sex, of course) the Bureau had not received a search warrant to even look at the laptop in question.

Cries of foul have dominated the news cycle, interspersed with shouts of “lock her up” and official hand wringing that the FBI has violated its own standards stipulating the avoidance of injecting itself into the last stages of a political campaign.

American Myth: The FBI is Above Politics 

Whatever your views of Clinton’s email habits or the propriety of the FBI director going public with scant information about what might or might not be involved in the emails on aide Huma Abedin’s creepy husband’s laptop you should disabuse yourself of the notion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has ever been “above” politics.

Politics is baked into the DNA of “the Bureau” and has been since a young J. Edgar Hoover tried to smear a United States senator who was investigating the Department of Justice in the 1920s.

Young J. Edgar Hoover
Young J. Edgar Hoover

“Hoover stands at the center of the American century like a statue encrusted in grime,” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tim Weiner wrote in his meticulously researched book Enemies – A History of the FBI.

“Hoover was not a monster,” Weiner said. “He was an American Machiavelli…a masterful manipulator of public opinion. He practiced political warfare and secret statecraft in pursuit of national security, often at the expense of morality.” Hoover ran the Bureau for 48 years, intimidated six presidents and used and abused power in the name of national security. Hoover’s name is on the side of the building in Washington, D.C. that houses the organization he built. His DNA is the FBI.

As we approach the end of the worst presidential campaign in my lifetime – I don’t say that lightly – Americans cling, at least some of us do, to a belief that the professed standards of American life and American institutions is really the norm, but occasionally we are forced to confront that the “standards” often don’t meet the reality of what is actually happening.

The Art of the Political Smear…

The American image of the FBI is the upright Eliot Ness (who was actually a prohibition agent) rounding up the bad guys, gunning down Dillinger and more recently battling terrorism. That’s the standard. The historical reality is something altogether different. And before you conclude that I’m issuing a blanket indictment of the FBI and everything its ever done, I’m not.

The history, however, does point to a law enforcement agency that from its earliest days has been deeply enmeshed in the country’s politics, often in extremely unsavory ways. The current director is a product of that culture and his violation of the “norms” associated with law enforcement investigations is of a piece with the history of the agency he leads. Some examples.

FBI critic Max Lowenthal
FBI critic Max Lowenthal

In the early 1950s a long-time critic of the FBI, Max Lowenthal, a brilliant attorney who conducted Congressional investigations and advised Harry Truman, published a book entitled simply The Federal Bureau of Investigation. As scathing indictments go Lowenthal’s book, carefully researched and largely based on written records, was pretty tame stuff even as it asked serious and important questions that amazingly remain pertinent today.

Lowenthal asked, for example, to what extent “a federal police agency is needed for the curbing of crime,” what the proper functions of such an agency might be, and what in an open society are “the possibilities and methods of controlling the police agency.”

Perhaps Lowenthal’s most telling question – remember he was writing nearly 70 years ago – hangs unanswered and ominous over the last days of this awful campaign: what is the “impact of a central police force on American society?”

Here’s what the FBI did to Max Lowenthal.

Knowing that his book on the Bureau was about to be published, Hoover, working with the leadership of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), saw to it that Lowenthal was denounced on the House floor. His publisher was pressured to abandon or at least not promote the book.

Then, just as the book finally went on sale, Lowenthal was subpoenaed by HUAC to answer question about his alleged associations with various leftist or Communist individuals or groups.  Lowenthal testified, under oath, in a private session that under committee rules was to remain confidential. Of course it didn’t remain out of public view, but was leaked to newspaper reporters almost certainly by the FBI.

There was nothing incriminating in Lowenthal’s testimony, but Hoover and Bureau had achieved their objective, linking the lawyer and civil libertarian with the on-going Communist witch-hunt that would eventually vault Joe McCarthy to national prominence. What better way to discredit a FBI critic that to suggest he was a Commie and, of course, Lowenthal was Jewish which made him doubly suspicious.

Lowenthal’s book never became the best seller it might or should have been, his impeccable reputation was sullied in a thousand newspapers and, of course, Hoover stayed on the job until Richard Nixon’s administration.

King, and the Klan and Mark Felt…

The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King
The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King

American history is replete with other examples: the FBI spied on Dr. Martin Luther King and threatened to expose his ex-marital affairs, the Church Committee in the 1970s exposed the Bureau’s domestic spying – a program called Cointelpro – on anti-war activists and civil rights advocates, FBI informants were implicated in Klu Klux Klan violence in Mississippi in the 1960s, including the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo.

And, of course, it was FBI deputy director Mark Felt who was Bob Woodward’s Watergate “deep throat,” a man whose leaks of information about Nixon’s embrace of corruption helped alter history. But its also worth remembering that Felt acted in part out of revenge, or something like revenge, after being passed over for the top job in the Bureau.

“Unprecedented?” Not at All…

One more example from the long history of the FBI proves that Director Comey’s letter to Congress which has roiled the last days of the campaign is not, as the Clinton camp has maintained, “unprecedented.”

In 1924, Montana Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler won Senate approval for a wide ranging investigation of alleged corruption at the U.S. Justice Department. Wheeler’s real target was Republican Attorney General Harry Daugherty, a close associate and political fixer for former President Warren Harding. Daugherty had stayed on as attorney general when Calvin Coolidge became president upon Harding’s death in 1923.

Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924
Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924

When Daugherty got wind of Wheeler’s investigation, coming on the heels as it did of an even more sensational probe of political corruption – the Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal – conducted by Montana’s other senator, Thomas J. Walsh, the attorney general dispatched Bureau agents to Montana to gather “dirt” on both senators. Hoover was an eager participant in the scheme even down to instructing agents on how they should file their field reports so as not to reveal that they were in Montana on a political fishing expedition.

With the help of a less-than-scrupulous U.S. Attorney in Montana, the Bureau’s agents concocted a story that Wheeler, an attorney, had improperly used his political office to enrich himself and a wealthy Montana client. A Montana grand jury – the foreman was a old political adversary of Wheeler’s – indicted the senator just as he was concluding his own investigation of the attorney general and just as he was about to join the third party Progressive ticket as the vice presidential candidate.

The Senate’s own investigation exonerated Wheeler, but the legal case went on for months, tarnishing Wheeler’s reputation, before a Montana jury returned a not guilty verdict. One juror joked that the jury would have returned its decision more quickly, but they were incensed enough with the government’s prosecution of the case that they took extra time in order to stick the feds with the cost of dinner.

Harry Daugherty was forced to resign and Wheeler’s investigation, while not producing a spectacular smoking gun did paint a stark picture of a fundamental unethical attorney general surrounded by a pack of unsavory cronies bent on enriching themselves in government service. Of course, Hoover escaped the blame and kept right on being Hoover.

New Yorker cartoon
New Yorker cartoon

Jim Comey, the FBI director, has gotten himself in a political pickle and if the Wall Street Journal’s reporting over the the weekend is to be believed he has also shredded his own credibility within the Bureau and ignited a vicious internal feud. Meanwhile, the FBI is leaking like a galvanized bucket hit by buckshot.

Maybe Comey was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, but in one fell swoop he has, as J. Edgar Hoover did time and again, put another big, smudge mark on the Bureau.

Comey is learning an old lesson: it’s impossible to be above politics when  you act like everything is political. His job isn’t to avoid criticism, which he’s clearly failed to accomplish in any event, but rather to stay above the fray and maintain the credibility of a professional. Instead he’s taken the FBI – again – into a political swamp. It’s an old story.

You can, take your pick, be shocked or gleeful about Comey’s last minute letter, but you shouldn’t be surprised.

 

Baseball

They Gotta Win…Really

       “Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can’t get you off.”

One-time Cleveland Indians owner Bill “Rhymes with Wreck” Veeck

———-

The Cubs vs. Indians World Series is a welcome break – distraction – from you know what and since Americans love an underdog both teams have some claim to being the sentimental favorite. The Cubs, naturally, get most of the attention since a century-plus of futility that may soon be broken is indeed a great storyline.2016worldseries-logo

Just to put this whole thing in perspective, Teddy Roosevelt, not a baseball fan if I remember correctly, was in the White House when the Cubs last hoisted the World Series flag. I wonder if TR even noticed? He was probably too busy carrying a big stick and swimming in the Potomac.

The Cubs have been absent from the World Series since 1945, longer than some teams have been in baseball, and while Cleveland has played in the fall classic more recently the Tribe has not won a world series since Harry Truman was in the White House.

2016 Election, GOP, Trump

Cue the Recriminations…

      

         “Character matters. (Trump) is obviously not going to win. But he can still make an honorable move: Step aside and let Mike Pence try.”

 Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse  two weeks ago

———-

         CHRIS WALLACE : “I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?”

         DONALD TRUMP: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time.”

The third presidential debate October 19, 2016

———-

Sometime in the late evening of November 8 as it becomes clear that Donald J. Trump has led the Republican Party over an electoral cliff the recriminations will begin. For students of politics, and particularly for those who abhor the charlatan that has held the GOP hostage for the last 18 months, it will be good sport to watch the blood letting, but soon more important issues will become obvious.

The ultimate loser...
The ultimate loser…

Surely there will be a price to pay for those who aided and abetted Trumpism. The elected officials who condemned the man, but managed to twist their logic in such a way that they could still cast a vote for him will wear that scarlet letter for the rest of their days. A cosmetic patch of political Bondo will not easily repair what Republican strategist Steve Schmidt has called “the intellectual rot” at the heart of the Grand Old Party.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has asked the right question, a question we will be hearing more and more post-Trump: “What is the Republican Party?”

Dionne wonders “whether Republican congressional leaders have any connection with the seething grass roots whose anger they stoked during the Obama years but always hoped to contain. Mr. Trump is the product of their colossal miscalculations.

“And then there are the ruminations of millions of quiet Republicans — local business people and doctors and lawyers and coaches and teachers. They are looking on as the political institution to which they have long been loyal is refashioned into a house of bizarre horrors so utterly distant from their sober, community-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, conservative approach to life.”

Much time and attention will be lavished on the future fortunes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Trump denouncer who nevertheless continues to say he will vote for a man he likely can’t imagine having dinner with. Mr. Speaker will struggle. You heard it here firste.

The GOP's odd couple.
The GOP’s odd couple.

And what of John McCain, once a truth teller on the budgetary excesses of his own party, a pragmatist about the need for immigration reform and a realist about the impact of money on politics? Facing the very real political dilemma of repudiating Trump – remember Trump early on attacked McCain’s military service – and alienating his core of angry voters or wringing his hands over Trump’s embrace of Putin and disdain of personal character,

McCain has been like horse droppings after a Fourth of July parade – all over the place. He finally and certainly belatedly abandoned Trump after “the tape,” but some how saw fit to stick with Trump through his attacks on a federal judge, the Gold Star family and revelations about Trump’s taxes, charity scams and business failures. Sex and vulgar talk about sex was apparently the deal breaker.

The cynical might dismiss McCain’s election year straddle as merely the pragmatic machinations of a old pol riding to the last roundup, but how to explain a waffle like that of Idaho Senator James Risch who is not on the ballot this year and would have little to lose by standing up to a loser? Risch, an early Marco Rubio supporter then a reluctant Ted Cruz guy, still sticks with Trump despite what the senator call the “the vulgar and indefensible revelations relating to the Republican nominee’s character.”

It all comes down to the Supreme Court, Risch says, “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country. I will cast my vote for the Republican nominee.” The country will be fine, senator, as to abandoning character as a presidential requirement, that is problematic.

By Thanksgiving it will be difficult to find anyone who will admit to having voted for the most unfit presidential candidate in any of our lifetimes, but the political battlefield will be strewn with the remains of the gutless Republicans who stood with him at the edge of the cliff and then beyond. If Trump turns out to inflict as much damage to the Republican Party as seems likely – loss of younger voters, suburban women and minorities for a generation perhaps – supporting the guy who took the party into the gutter will be in the first paragraph of many political obituaries.

Ohio Governor John Kasich
Ohio Governor John Kasich

As conservative commentators Michael Gerson (George W. Bush’s speechwriter), George Will, David Brooks and Max Boot – all “Never Trump” critics – have said repeatedly, the GOP has faced in this campaign its modern day McCarthy Moment. What do you do in the face of a deeply troubled, dangerous and profoundly unfit political figure? Most elected officials have buckled in the face of the moral challenge that demanded a repudiation of Trump. Those who have not – John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Condoleezza Rice among a few others – will be remembered for putting country before buffoonery.

Those who pulled a McCain or a Risch will be remembered for their profiles in political cowardice. They will continue to try to dress it up as merely sticking with the party, but the recriminations will take care of that fiction.

“Trump’s descent into ideological psychosis is tainting the reputation of all who were foolish enough to associate with him,” Michael Gerson wrote this week. He took particular note of vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, “one of the chief promoters of Christian morality in politics employing the ethical reasoning of 9-year-olds in the schoolyard. Someday Pence (and others) will look back on their shattered standards and ask: For this cause? For this man?”

Joseph McCarthy’s antics – character assassination, wild exaggeration and lying demagoguery – defined the Republican Party in the early 1950s, but a decent and well-intended man, Dwight Eisenhower, keep the GOP from falling completely under McCarthy’s sway. Barry Goldwater, never on his worst day as totally unfit for office as the current nominee, redirected the GOP rightward in the 1960s and eventually passed the reigns to Ronald Reagan, a president who stood for virtually everything Donald Trump fumes against. That history leaves us to ponder who will emerge from the coming wreckage to re-build a party suffering from “intellectual rot” after having sold its soul to a huckster?

So many who might aspire to that job will have to spend the next many months picking through the Trump wreckage, attempting to salvage their own sense of purpose after caving to a craven opportunist. How much better for these Republicans to have pulled a Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine GOP senator who denounced McCarthy early as an act of conscience, rather than continue to try and explain the inexplicable.

After all how do you explain next month, next year or ever why it was you stood for this cause, for this man?

 

Uncategorized

The Manifestly Unfit…

      Anderson Cooper: You’ve said you want to end Obamacare. You’ve also said you want to make coverage accessible for people with pre-existing conditions. How do you force insurance companies to do that if you’re no longer mandating that every American get insurance?

       Donald Trump: We’re going to be able to. You’re going to have plans…

       Cooper: What does that mean?

      Trump: Well, I’ll tell you what it means. You’re going to have plans that are so good, because we’re going to have so much competition in the insurance industry. Once we break out — once we break out the lines and allow the competition to come…

Transcript of Second Presidential Debate

———-

I suspect it will take a few days for the full impact of the second presidential debate to truly sink in with American voters. Fresh garbage, after all, takes a few days to ripen and begin to, well, you get the idea.

The looming and continuing threat - Trumpism.
The looming and continuing threat – Trumpism.

Two thoughts dominate the day after what was surely the sorriest spectacle in the modern history of presidential campaigns. The first thought relates to the second, but seems more immediate and at least today more sobering: Donald J. Trump has brought a level of coarseness, hate and un-Americanism to politics that will shape the near and long-term trajectory of the country.

And I write that without any further analysis of “the tape.”

You don’t easily, or perhaps even at all, put the vileness of this man’s approach to politics back in the bottle. Trumpism is like a tiny dollop of plutonium – even a small amount contaminates and kills.

2016 Election, Trump

Stay Classy….No, Really

 

         “Nice hotel. Under budget and ahead of schedule. Isn’t that nice? No, it is a great honor. This is our brand-new ballroom.”

Donald J. Trump free-associating and praising his new D.C. hotel

———-

I knew a guy years ago that I’m tempted to say reminds me of the Republican presidential candidate, but i can honestly say no one really reminds me of Donald J. Trump. But this guy I knew does remind me of Trump in one specific way.

This really rich guy had a lot of money, several homes, expensive cars and he spent serious money on his apparel. You may know the type. Silk shirts, custom made sport coats – loud plaids and patterns – patent leather shoes. Expensive it was, but classy not so much. All of which proves something my old man used to say: you can spend a lot of money and still be a bum. A thousand dollars spent on a pair of polyester pants still means you’re wearing polyester pants.

Stay "classy" Toronto
Stay “classy” Toronto

The one and only time I have stayed in a Trump branded hotel – my excuse was that it was on a trip for a client and they booked the room – was in Toronto some years ago. I thought of that guy with the patent leather shoes as I entered my room. Not my style. Not my taste. Too much bling, not enough class. No portrait of The Great Man hung over the king sized bed, but you could feel him in the room. Creepy and did I say tacky?

Stay Classy…

I know that writing about a presidential candidate on the basis of his taste in bathroom faucets and bedroom headboards risks demeaning the whole idea of a presidential campaign, but let’s face it after praising Putin, fleecing his foundation, conning his contractors, harassing Hispanics, belittling blacks and assaulting half the population of the country this is where DJT has taken us.

Since I don’t understand – even a little – how anyone can support this guy based on his experience, temperament or policy ideas (he has, in order, no experience, a sociopath’s temperament and incoherent and dangerous ideas) then his taste – or lack thereof – seems to me to be completely fair game.

The grand Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. pre-Trump.
The grand Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. pre-Trump.

Political reporters assigned to cover Trump, the journalistic equivalent of a daily root canal, are still venting over the hoodwinking they suffered recently when the Republican candidate summoned them to his gaudy new Washington, D.C. hotel ostensibly to declare that he finally “believes” Barack Obama was born in the United States. He eventually got around to that statement, more or less, but spent most of his time before the cameras praising his new hotel.

I’ll never set foot in the dump.

I’ve been in the Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C. – now the “newest luxury hotel” in the Capitol – and before Trump got hold of it the structure was all that he is not – full of detail, sensitive to history, a study in character, sturdy and principled. Some knot head at the General Services Administration (GSA) momentarily lost his/her mind and gave the job of “refurbishing” the building to Mr. Red Ties. Mistake.

Pray to God the man never gets any closer to the White House than the Presidential Suite at what use to be the Old Post Office. Still, as Monica Hesse of the Washington Post observed after spending a night in Trumpsalvania, the faux billionaire “has already taken over the city, at least in some filigreed, metaphorical way.”

One former GSA official recalled wondering, as BuzzFeed reported, “Are they going to tart the thing up? How do you maintain the dignity of the building?” You don’t. Not with Mr. Tasteless in town.

The “Deluxe” room was going for $805 a night when Hesse cased the joint last week.  Online hotel booking sites were offering rooms for half that price more recently. I predict a lot of vacancies. Hesse wrote that the lobby was full of gawkers, but not guests. “Make America Curious Again.” For the reporter’s sake I hope Jeff Bezos approves her expense account.

The Quest to Be Taken Seriously…

Will he re-do the White House in gold leaf?
Will he re-do the White House in gold leaf?

Trump, it is increasingly clear, has spent his entire life trying and mostly failing to be taken seriously. The forthcoming Frontline documentary on PBS will apparently make that case explicitly with an interview by Roger Stone, the Nixon-era hatchet man who is now Donald’s conspiracy theory whisperer.

Stone says that Trump decided to run for president when Obama kneecapped him over the “birther” issue at the White House Correspondent’s dinner in 2011. Trump sat through Obama’s speech fuming all the way, unable to laugh at himself or the absurdity of the big lie he has been peddling for years. All the swell people in D.C. laughed at him. He was humiliated. He was made a fool. Worst of all he was made to look a fool by a smart black man in a tuxedo, a guy who has actually read books and written them and knows what the nuclear triad is all about.

Commander-in-Chief as revenge play

Trump both got mad and decided to get even after that dinner. He’d show ‘em – take a grand old historic building and make it an amusement park and, by the way take the White House, too. Comforting thought, heh? Commander-in-Chief as revenge play.

All the endless boasting, the pathological lying, the gaudy buildings, the slinky ex-and-current wives, the name plastered on everything (even the bath mats at Trump Toronto), the insults, the funny hair, it’s all an act. Most of us grow out of our insecurities or at least find a way to manage them. Instead Trump makes a play for the nuclear codes.

Most of us, assuming we had the ego or ambition to seek high public office, might actually try to assemble some degree of preparation for that task. You might invite interesting, informed people to help provide an education on all that you don’t know. You might read something beside your own Twitter feed. But that’s just too much work and too normal for a Great Man, particularly one in need of constant reassurance that he is the best thing since the invention of the Taco Bowl.

The radio host and essayist Garrison Keillor has, I think, nailed Trump better than anyone, better certainly than many reporters who struggle to treat this singularly abnormal man as though he was anything but abnormal.

Trump having a grand time at the White House Correspondent's dinner in 2011
Trump having a grand time at the White House Correspondent’s dinner in 2011

Keillor, speaking directly to Mr. Needy, wrote recently in an essay: “The New York Times treats you like the village idiot. This is painful for a Queens boy trying to win respect in Manhattan where the Times is the Supreme Liberal Jewish Anglican Arbiter of Who Has The Smarts and What Goes Where. When you came to Manhattan 40 years ago, you discovered that in entertainment, the press, politics, finance, everywhere you went, you ran into Jews, and they are not like you: Jews didn’t go in for big yachts and a fleet of aircraft — they showed off by way of philanthropy or by raising brilliant offspring. They sympathized with the civil rights movement. In Queens, blacks were a threat to property values — they belonged in the Bronx, not down the street. To the Times, Queens is Cleveland. Bush league. You are Queens. The casinos were totally Queens, the gold faucets in your triplex, the bragging, the insults, but you wanted to be liked by Those People. You wanted Mike Bloomberg to invite you to dinner at his townhouse. You wanted the Times to run a three-part story about you, that you meditate and are a passionate kayaker and collect 14th-century Islamic mosaics. You wish you were that person but you didn’t have the time.”

They Know He’s a Huckster…

Most Republicans, of course, know all this. Even those who have endorsed the gaudy hotelier know it. Chris Christie knows it, but he’s grasping for any political life raft. Rudy Giuliani knows it, but he craves the spotlight almost as much as the guy from Queens. Ted Cruz – oh, boy – even Lyin’ Ted knows that the guy who insulted his wife and accused his dad of killing JFK is profoundly unfit. John McCain, remember him, Mr. Straight Talk? He knows. He wouldn’t let Trump close to Sedona or within a football field of his wife and daughters.

They all know, as Garrison Keillor also wrote, that “Trump is a man whom few Republicans would care to invite into their homes. So what’s going on here? An epidemic of hippocampus poisoning from bad enzymes in cheap beers? The man is a fraud, a compulsive liar and a clueless playboy whose presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for the country. If you would make us the laughingstock of the world just to irk your liberal sister-in-law, you are someone who should not be allowed to come within 500 yards of an elementary school.”

Staying classy in Atlantic City (AP Photo)
Staying classy in Atlantic City (AP Photo)

But the otherwise smart people who have endorsed and enabled this joker have twisted themselves into a political pretzel. They’re not voting their conscience, but their ambition. They justify their betrayal of democracy, not to mention common sense, by selling their souls for control of the Senate or a seat on the Supreme Court. They’ve bet the country that they can control a race baiting, foreign policy ignoramus. They can’t. Most of them don’t even want to mention his name. They wouldn’t share a Big Mac with the guy, but he’s got to be better than Hillary, right? But they know – they really know – that he’s not.

Only Business…

Trump, of course, got the lease on The Old Post Office by promising a bunch of things that he has now completely reneged on and, of course, he worked every angle to minimize his tax burden and cage ever subsidy. It’s only business, right?

I think the whole hotel thing and Trump’s desire to be taken seriously and to not be humiliated go a long way to explain his unwillingness to release his tax returns. He may yet get away with being the first candidate since Nixon not to reveal his worth, his charitable contributions, his debts, his overseas bank accounts, his Russian ties, etc. etc.

But his real motive is not to be shamed. He’s not worth what he says he’s worth. He’s likely not paid a cent in taxes for years. He’s almost certainly has dodgy investments and a mountain of debt. The Washington Post’s remarkable stories have confirmed his philanthropy consists of using other people’s money to buy paintings of himself and cover his legal bills. It’s all a scam. And the tax returns would prove it, which is why we’ll never see them.

Despite much of the politics that take place there Washington, D.C. is a great place to visit. Go see the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Mall and the National Gallery. Visit the new African-American Museum, a place where you’re not likely to encounter Donald Trump or many of his followers. Great restaurants dot the city. Rock Creek Park is fun for a walk. And if you want to stay in a really great hotel, classy and tasteful try the Willard, the Hay-Adams or the Madison. Walk by The Old Post Office, gaze up at the handsome clock tower and contemplate the seat of government. Hope Trump’s seat never gets near it.

By the way, that Toronto hotel that I still causes a cringe when I think about two nights there, well – it’s troubled. Trump doesn’t own it, as usual with his “real estate empire,” he just “manages” it for the real owners and not well by all accounts.

As the Toronto Star reported earlier this year: “After 15 years of controversy, an investor revolt and now a U.S. Republican leadership campaign that has seen the billionaire businessman morph from bombastic long shot to presidential prospect, Talon International, the property developer, wants to erase his name from the Toronto skyline. They believe Donald Trump has tarnished his brand and the tower that wears it.”

Imagine what he’ll do to the country.