The Lewiston Tribunethis week published my remembrance of Mike Mitchell a long-time Idaho legislator and one-time chief of staff to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus. Here’s the piece, written with a smile and a heavy heart.
Generally speaking there are two kinds of people in politics: the show horses and the workhorses. The show horses are often in the game for the title, the attention and because its makes something of them. The workhorses are different. They don’t crowd to the front to take the bows. They go to the meetings, read the bills, master the budget and are in politics because they think they can do something, not just be something.
Long-time Lewiston state legislator Mike Mitchell, who died last week at 91, was a workhorse, or more correctly a draft horse. He pulled the heavy loads in state government and he did so for decades motivated by a fierce commitment to Nez Perce County, his state and to those people at the edges of our system who never seem to have a platform, but deserve an effective voice.
I first met Mike Mitchell in the late 1970s. I was a very junior statehouse reporter. Mitchell, already a legislative veteran, was a minority Democrat on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the legislature’s budget committee. It didn’t take long for even a novice political reporter to appreciate his encyclopedic grasp of the state budget. He was approachable, authoritative and incapable of the kind of partisan animus many politicians can’t seem to avoid. He was funny, often at his own expense. My regard only grew as I came to know him better and better.
During his long years of public service Mitchell mastered the hard, essential, but not very unglamorous work of government. He forgot more about the state budget than most legislators ever learn. He was an expert on corrections and education and, of course, Lewis Clark State College. He knew more about roads and bridges than most Idaho Transportation Department district engineers. Mike was a student of government and his fingerprints are all over Idaho from social work licensing to services for troubled kids.
It is often said, incorrectly, that government must operate more like a business. Mitchell knew something about business – he was a successful businessman, too – but he also knew that government is different than the private sector. Operating successfully in the public arena, particularly as a Democrat in Republican Idaho, requires an appreciation for facts, a commitment to accommodation and a belief in the art of the possible. Success depends on build relationships and trust and credibility, all of which Mike did and that is why so many people who knew him and worked with him praise his ability to bridge the partisan divide. To know him was simply to like him and respect him.
Mike Mitchell wasn’t a big guy, but his heart was. It was made of gold and his backbone made of steel. Mike wasn’t one to shy away from a fight, but he was more comfortable making things work and he did make things work time and again.
I had the singular honor of my life to work with Mike Mitchell and for Cecil D. Andrus, the man Mike replaced in the state senate when Andrus was elected governor for the first time in 1970. Mike became a mentor, a friend, a golfing partner and one of the best joke tellers I’ve ever laughed with.
When he “retired” after Andrus’ 1990 re-election – that retirement didn’t stick and he had a whole second act in politics and public service – I followed him as chief of staff to the governor. I didn’t replace him, however. No one could. He was Mike Mitchell.
There was only one of his kind. He is missed already.
“I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
In February 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the U.S. government to forcibly remove the entire Japanese-American population of the west coast. Within months 110,000 men, women and children were moved to concentration camps in the interior of the country, including Idaho the state I called home for more than 40 years. History records this unconstitutional treatment of thousands of people, the vast majority of them American citizens, as one of the worst violations of civil liberties in our history.
Driven by fear, racial prejudice, national security hysteria and even economic considerations, then-Idaho Governor Chase Clark, a Democrat, and most every other political leader in the country willingly embraced the politically popular notion that citizens of Japanese ancestry represented a security threat. They “act like rats,” Clark said in a scathing indictment of all of Japanese ancestry. If they where to be brought to Idaho, Clark maintained, they must be kept under military guard in “concentration camps.” A better solution to the “Jap Problem” was to “send them all back to Japan, then sink the island.”
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act authorizing modest compensation for the Japanese-American citizens incarcerated by their own government a half-century earlier. Reagan remarked that the government’s “action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race.”
Now, history repeats with a new dark chapter.
Seventy-five year after Roosevelt’s grievous violation of civil liberties another American president is using an un-American standard – religion – to discriminate and persecute American citizens, foreign citizens legally in the United States and desperate refugees, primarily women and children, seeking to flee mayhem in Syria and elsewhere.
As with the events of 1942, Donald Trump’s recent sweeping Executive Order is driven by fear, misinformation about threats to national security and apparently by a misguided belief that all Muslims, even those who have put their own lives at risk to add American military efforts in the Middle East, present a danger.
So far the response of Idaho elected officials to the arguably unconstitutional Executive Order has been faint-hearted acquiesce. This capitulation to fear and bigotry, particularly given Idaho’s troubled history of racial and religious discrimination, including battles against the Aryan Nations and anti-Mormon bigotry, deserves the strongest possible condemnation. This is an Idaho fight.
Racial and religious intolerance has been stoked recently in south central Idaho by the alt-right website Breitbart, not coincidentally the same region where thousands of Japanese-Americans were incarcerated 75 years ago. Major political leaders have been silent, while Breitbart’s former CEO, Stephen Bannon, becomes the top political strategist to the president with a seat on the National Security Council. Breitbart’s immigration policy is now America’s.
As the late Dr. Bob Sims, a Boise State University historian of the Japanese-American internment, wrote of Governor Clark’s position in the 1940s, that it “may have seemed fearless and patriotic, but in retrospect it appears to have been nothing more, or less, than a combination of xenophobia and racism.” Sims acknowledged that Clark, who later become a respected federal judge, deserved to be remembered for the totality of his career, but also for “his shortcomings in World War II, for they were not his alone but America’s.”
In the life of every politician there comes a moment when moral reality presents a stark choice between principle and party, between what is momentarily popular and what is consistent with American values. This is such a moment and the timid, spineless response from Idaho leaders is truly reprehensible.
If you oppose the president’s action as an un-American, unconstitutional religious test targeting one vulnerable group then adopt the all-American response – oppose it, loudly and consistently.
And a footnote: Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 never mentioned Japanese-Americans, but the order was clearly directed at that population. The Trump Administration says its order is “not a Muslim ban.” History does repeat.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
President Donald J. Trump, January 20, 2017
As surreal as it was to watch Donald J. Trump place his hand on the Lincoln Bible and assume the presidency, that image was hardly the most unsettling of the unsettling start to his administration. An even more surreal scene played out immediately after the inaugural ceremony inside the U.S. Capitol. Those moments indicate with a starkness that is both surreal and stunning the degree to which the old, conservative Republican Party has become, like Trump, a nativist, nationalistic, anti-trade, immigrant bashing, truth free zone of opportunism and incompetence.
Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt has called what has happened to the GOP “intellectual rot” – the inability or unwillingness to stand on genuine principle rather than cave to the craven charlatan who has now come to completely define the Republican Party. As Schmidt said in October, Republicans in embracing Donald Trump have repeatedly and consciously placed “their party ahead of their country, denying what is so obviously clear to anybody who’s watching about [Trump’s] complete and total, manifest unfitness for this office.”
“The magnitude of its disgrace to the country is almost impossible, I think, to articulate,” Schmidt said while speaking real truth to the power hungry. “But it has exposed the intellectual rot in the Republican Party. It has exposed at a massive level the hypocrisy, the modern day money changers in the temple like Jerry Falwell Jr. And, so this party to go forward, and to represent a conservative vision for America, has great soul searching to do.”
After January 20, 2017 the intellectual rot only grows.
As tradition dictates, the new president was feted at a post-swearing in luncheon hosted by the Congressional leadership, the same bipartisan group of “elite insiders” whom Trump just spent significant parts of his speech lambasting.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” President Trump fumed. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
Who was he talking about? All the people sitting behind him glumly thinking their country was committing suicide in slow motion, that’s who. Was Trump talking about Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush? Barack Obama and Joe Biden? Maybe Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? As the New York Times’Frank Bruni wrote Trump “stood just feet from four of the last six presidents [and] he trashed them, talking about a Washington establishment blind and deaf to the struggles of less fortunate Americans.”
Later Trump lumped all these losers together and said, “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.” There he might have been referring to McConnell, the king of obstruction, the prince of delay, the guy who singlehandedly established the new precedent that no Supreme Court vacancy can be filled in the last year of a president’s term, the senator who made it his only job to oppose – everything.
But just moments later McConnell was offering a toast to the new president, the same man McConnell reportedly told fellow GOP senators back in February of 2016 that they could “drop like a hot rock” if he started hurting their re-election prospects.
The Trump he toasted on Friday, McConnell said, has now become “big, bold, energetic, resilient, always looking to the next horizon.” This is the guy who has repudiated virtually everything Republicans have stood for since Dwight Eisenhower, but he won and they won so let’s go big and bold, embrace intolerance and Putin and dismiss any criticism. The Age of Trump means never having to say or believe anything coherent. Power is enough.
It was also enough, had you any sense of shame, to make you choke on your lobster, but the Republican politicians who know in their hearts that this man is a fraud, dangerous, unprincipled and ignorant nevertheless smiled and toasted and embraced our national disaster.
While McConnell’s smarmy embrace of Trump is, at least for him, par for the course – he’s a political game player of the first order who undoubtedly thinks he can mold the new president to his aim, and besides his wife got a seat at the Cabinet table – the near total party capitulation to a bumbling incompetent with an authoritarian mean streak is still an amazing thing to observe.
In the life of any politician there comes a moment when the decision is to risk popularity and position in the interest of principle. Do you place party first or country? The GOP stormed through that moment without breaking stride. The GOP establishment has decided that power is what counts and is determined, and here I paraphrase their leader, to protect itself and not the citizens of the country.
“I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine. My wife and I, we have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.” Chaffetz punctuated his statement with “I’m out.”
Obviously, he found his way back in.
The intellectual rot displays in other ways, as well. The party that has defined itself by an emphasis on national security now condones a man ready to cast off NATO and facilitate Russian dominance of Europe. The free traders in the GOP stand in the corner while their leader embraces the elixir of protectionism, a concoction that “will lead to great prosperity and strength.” The party that spent eight years and four elections demonizing an effort to make health insurance available to millions more Americans now prepares to repeal that law with absolutely no notion of what will replace it. The intellectual rot is deep and deadly.
As the incisive Michael Gerson – George W. Bush’s speechwriter – observed Trump’s inaugural speech was really a “funeral oration at the death of Reaganism, and of conservatism more broadly.” Stoke the funeral pyre. Mitch McConnell and Jason Chaffetz are holding the gas can.
Donald Trump’s “base” will undoubtedly love the antics of his first moments in office – his dark, dystopian, nativist disavowal of U.S. leadership in the world, including proclaiming “from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” his fact free fights with reporters about the size of his crowds and his dismissal of the millions who peacefully protested his presidency over the weekend. The man Mitch McConnell considers “big” and “bold” stood before the wall of honor at CIA headquarters where Americans who have died in service to their country are commemorated and riffed – inaccurately – on the number of times he has appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. This is the new Republican Party.
The Republicans “elites” have found comfort in their own echo chamber consisting of carefully gerrymandered Congressional districts, a compliant propaganda operation led by Fox, Breitbart and now the White House, an embrace of misinformation and a disdain for facts. As Steven Waldman pointed out recently in the Washington Monthly, “Trump’s waning popularity with the general electorate doesn’t matter to [Congressional Republicans] as long as conservative Republicans still like him.”
Yet even the enabling Republicans, at least most of them, must quietly be stressing over a president who they continue to know is manifestly unfit and even dangerous. They are playing a risky, high stakes political game, gambling all the nation’s chips on the long shot chance that Donald Trump won’t eventually implode taking them down with him. In the meantime, all who draw close to this disaster will be tainted by their proximity.
At the expense of placating an overwhelmingly white, nationalist, anti-immigrant base that yearns for a strong man to disrupt and destroy the “elites,” the leaders of the Republican Party find that they have embraced their own destroyer. They deserve their fate even if the country doesn’t.
“I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Representative John Lewis, D-Georgia
John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, was beaten, bloodied, bullied and might have been killed while marching for voting rights toward the Edward Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965. He knows a thing or two about standing up to evil.
When John Lewis said the other day that he did not consider the soon-to-be president of the United State “legitimate” he both stretched the bounds of political discourse and he spoke the truth. I’ll explain.
The comment from Lewis, delivered in his typically low-key, but straight forward way predictably teed up a good deal of outrage including, predictably, the kind of vitriol we have come to consider normal behavior on the part of the man who will be president in a few days.
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” the Tweeter-in-Chief said in a pair of Twitter posts.
“All talk, talk, talk — no action or results,” he added. “Sad!”
Where to begin?
Well, how about beginning with pointing out that the original birther – our soon-to-be commander-in-chief – rose to political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president, not once or twice but repeatedly over many years. It was a monumental lie that he personally perpetuated.
Or we could begin with the fact that the nation’s intelligence community has unanimously concluded that Russia participated in widespread cyber crimes, as well as a propaganda and disinformation campaign and may have colluded with the GOP candidate’s campaign to assist with his election. To deny that this Russian activity influenced the election is to ignore that the beneficiary of the Russian help repeatedly cited information – by one count 164 times during the campaign – from Wikileaks documents, leaks undoubtedly facilitated by the Russians, to advance his campaign. You can check the videotape.
Or we could examine the fact that the president-elect mounted, as his tweets aimed at John Lewis make crystal clear, a race-based campaign that mobilized and gave voice to the nation’s white supremacist, immigrants hating alt-right elements in a manner unseen in American politics since at least 1968.
The next time you hear an apologist for the man who will be president say that a major element of his appeal was not about emphasizing race and social division, just reflect on the fact that he explicitly said, two months after his election, that a black congressman could only represent a district “in horrible shape and failing apart (not to mention crime infested).” Like his attacks on an American judge of Mexican heritage or a Gold Star mother and father who are Muslim, failing to see the attacks on John Lewis as profoundly racist is to look the other way at the hate and bigotry this man has put in the center of American politics.
John Lewis, by the way, represents the Fifth District of Georgia, most of Atlanta and home to the toney Buckhead neighborhood with a real luxury hotel, the Ritz Carlton, as well as the world’s busiest airport, the Centers for Disease Control, the campuses of Emory and Georgia Tech Universities and the corporate headquarters of Coca Cola and Delta Airlines. Nearly 60 percent of the district population is African-America, but as the Atlanta Journal points out if the president-elect “believes Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District is ‘falling apart,’ then he believes Atlanta is falling apart.”
And, of course, it isn’t.
And then think about this: a truly legitimate president dedicated to the job of leading the nation and representing all its citizens might have devoted a few minutes of the last two months to a real effort to tone down the volume of division that he has placed front and center in our politics and our culture. But, of course, he’s not capable of such moral leadership. It’s almost enough to conclude that he is not, to coin a phrase, a legitimate president.
The dictionary definition of “legitimate” says: “conforming to the law or to rules.” Synonyms include legal, lawful, licit, legalized, authorized, permitted, sanctioned and my favorite – constitutional.
By the measure of most of the nation’s most authoritative experts on the Constitution, include White House ethics watchdogs for Presidents Bush and Obama, the new guy will be violating the Constitution the moment he utters “so help me God.”
Or, as the majority of us who voted for someone else last November might express it, “so help us all, God.”
The president-elect made a mockery of “conforming to the law or rules” last week in a circus of a news conference where he and his enabling lawyers flaunted the Constitution and the long history of bipartisan presidential efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Genuine commitment to financial disclosure, avoidance of conflict and adherence to the Constitution might have gone a good distance to legitimizing a president who will enter office later this week with the kind of unchecked ethical baggage that makes Warren Harding look like a candidate for sainthood.
But the big-shot-in-chief can’t be bothered with such “legitimate,” “lawful,” “sanctioned” or “constitutional” actions and that, among much else, does make him less than legitimate.
The critics will say that John Lewis has a duty to recognize the duly elected president even in the face of policy differences and the violation of decades of political practice. But neither patriotism nor moral clarity requires anyone to accept the unacceptable.
Besides the duties of a citizen aren’t really any different than the duties of a president. To be legitimate you must display legitimacy and when you have given a majority of the country reason to question your commitment to the rules, laws and the Constitution you don’t automatically receive the benefit of the doubt. You can win an election under our bizarrely undemocratic rules, but you still need to earn your legitimacy.
John Lewis is right, if not politically correct in calling the man less than legitimate. And as our thin-skinned new leader has so often told us being right is always better than being politically correct. Or as he might say: Get over it.
He will take the oath, assume the office, have the power, but he has made himself less than legitimate to a vast number of Americans and most of our friends around the world. He did it himself through his actions, words, insults, crudeness, rudeness, and by defying the rules and defiling the norms. He did it by lying about everything big and small, important and petty. He did it by dividing us in ways that no president has in generations. All this is on him. He did it. His illegitimacy is his problem.
All the tweets in the world will not make that John Lewis’ fault.
“Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”
WASHINGTON — The chiefs of America’s intelligence agencies last week presented President Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr. Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.
One of the dangers to American democracy inherent in a Donald Trump presidency is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to political norms that he has and will touch off. It’s frankly almost impossible to keep track of chaos he has sparked. I’ve taken to reducing his soon-to-be presidency to “the outrage of the day.”
The upsetting of what is normal is, of course, precisely what many of his supporters like most about Trump and his approach. As long as he’s able to keep his core supporters stirred up with his brand of political chaos – many of those supporters long ago abandoned any desire or ability to think critically about the man-child – he will believe that he is riding high and being successful. And given the stunningly short national attention span that afflicts us, as well as our desire to be entertained, he may just have discovered a new rule of political effectiveness – keep them guessing and above all keep them distracted.
Trump will almost certainly and eventually crash and burn (I hope before bringing on a war; trade or shooting), and he will eventually need to confront the age-old problem of over exposure. Every reality TV show has a shelf life after all and his expire by date looms even before he takes office. A 37 percent approval rating is not the raw material of long-term political credibility. He has no where to go but down.
But man-oh-man what damage in the meantime, which brings me to my outrage of this day: the amazing political gymnastics on the part of some on the American right who are joining Trump is his embrace of Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB agent intent on destabilizing western democracies, including our own. This has been clear for months and long before the most recent salacious material surfaced publicly, yet the Putin embrace grows stronger.
From before Franklin Roosevelt’s trip to Yalta in February of 1945, the American political right has held as a cardinal principle of conservative orthodoxy a deep and abiding distrust of all things Russian. From Robert Taft to Ronald Reagan no Republican strayed from that gospel. Richard Nixon’s remarkable opening to an arms control agreement with the Russians and diplomatic relations with China were possible, in no small part, because of Nixon’s life-long hard line stand on both countries. It really did take an anti-Communist Republican like Nixon to go to China since any Democrat, with the possible exception of Senator Henry Jackson, would have been immediately characterized as “soft” on Communism.
Most American’s old enough to remember Reagan remember his 1983 labeling of the then–Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The larger context of that famous line was Reagan’s warning that the country must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
In order to understand the full scope of Reagan’s speech, one his most famous, delivered by the way to the National Association of Evangelicals, a group ironically now totally in thrall to Trump, I went back and read the speech. Several lines resonate all these years later and in the context of the vast rightwing acceptance of Putin, election meddling and all, none rings more true than this:
“Some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses,” Reagan said of the Russians in 1983. “But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”
It remains the single most stunning reversal of 75 years of conservative thought that so many on the political right have strayed so far from the warnings of Reagan – until Trump, the secular saint of the GOP – that they they can actually embrace Vladimir Putin as some kind of legitimate global partner in a new Trumpian world.
And while I suppose it is possible to question the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin ordered interference in the recent election in order to destabilize our democracy and help Trump, it is really not possible to ignore the record of the man John McCain correctly calls “a thug, a murderer, a killer and a KGB agent.”
Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded the Ukraine, fought a war with Georgia, threatens the Baltic states, backs the Syrian regime at the expense of fighting ISIS, finances rightwing nationalist movements in western Europe and has created both a cult of personality and a kleptocracy that rules Russia in ways that Lenin or Stalin might envy. Reagan is rolling over.
“Russia’s record of destabilizing actions against the Soviet Union’s former dominions is established beyond doubt,” Porter wrote late last month. “In 2007, the Baltic state of Estonia, which Russia basically regards as being on loan to western liberal democracy, experienced a full-blown cyber-attack on its banking and media networks after the Estonian government relocated the Soviet-era ‘Bronze Soldier’ memorial. Russia launched a cyber-war against Georgia prior to the Russian-Georgian conflict. Ukraine became the target of sustained attack exactly a year ago this week. Hackers took control of the power grid through a denial-of-service attack and caused outages across one region. During the last 12 months, the Germans have sent repeated warnings about attacks on their political system and perceived operations to stir up hatred with false news stories. In May, Germany’s domestic security agency said there had been attempts, reportedly sourced to Russia, to compromise the computer system of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Reports of a previous attack on the Bundestag, which disabled the lower house’s network, was also tied to Russian actors.”
There are clear signs that the Russian meddling in the American election – the cyber crimes, the planting of “fake news” that more correctly should be labeled propaganda and the empowerment of various alt-right actors – was merely a tune up for coming elections in France and Germany. We’ve had a major warning. Will it be heeded? Apparently not by many Trumpers.
As James Kirchick, a never Trump conservative, wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Pro-Russian converts on the American right appear to take two forms. The opportunists simply want power and are willing to sacrifice principles in pursuit of it. The ideologues, meanwhile, see Russia as nothing worse than an occasional nuisance, if not a potential ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.”
Among the pro-Putin opportunists, those who cravenly seek power or access, Kirchick lists Newt Gingrich, various Fox personalities including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, all of whom have praised Russia, Putin and the creepy Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the conduit for John Podesta’s hacked email’s. Even Sarah Palin has gone from keeping an eye on Russia – remember she once said she could see it from her porch in Alaska – to apologizing for once thinking ill of Assange.
Elected Republicans have gotten into the praise Putin act. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks bizarrely reasons that the Russian email hacks – if they happened and he’s not sure they did – “succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.” One wonders how the Congressman would feel if Putin had his emails. It’s likely he does.
And what would any modern political controversy be without a conspiracy theory angle. Enter Oliver Stone. You can generally assess where the truth lies by seeing where Stone comes down and then take the opposite point of view. Stone essentially passes off the entire Putin-Trump phenomenon as an invention of the New York Times and Washington Post and actually suggests any further investigation focus on a supposed leaker from within the Clinton campaign rather than Russian hackers. This from the guy who has peddled more conspiracy theories than, well, Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up, or if you are Oliver Stone maybe you can.
As for me, as I think about the bizarre Putin-Trump relationship, I keep coming back to the old Watergate adage – “follow the money.”
Back in October and before the election, The Financial Times, hardly any kind of apologist for left of center politics, published a remarkable if little noticed analysis of the vast web of connections between Trump, his children and various advisors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
One of the experts consulted by the FT was David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who has written, among other things, a biography of Trump entitled The Making of Donald Trump. Johnson – no relation – says he’s convinced the real Putin-Trump story has yet to emerge and observes that “Every time Vladimir Putin is mentioned, Trump goes out of his way to express deep respect for him, which suggests there’s something very important which we simply don’t know.”
It has got to be either money or sex. Since the Billy Bush “grab ’em by the…” tape didn’t sink the faux billionaire last fall, I’m betting it all about money. Trump’s empire is surely highly leveraged. He has big, big debt, which many observers have long suspected is at the heart of his refusal to release his tax returns or undertake real divestiture of his assets. I would bet my inaugural tickets that the money trail leads back to Putin and his Russian billionaire oligarch pals.
Imagine the possibilities and then remember that Putin is a former KGB agent: Perhaps Trump was caught on some Russian videotape secretly recorded during one of his trips to Russia, as some of the new allegations suggest. Or perhaps there are intercepts of Trump telephone calls. Or maybe the Kremlin has access to what we mere American citizens don’t, the Trump tax returns, bank statements, off shore accounts and debts. Perhaps Trump advisors like one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has well-established ties to Russian businesses and political leaders, actually colluded with Putin’s intelligence agencies. It’s a plot line too bizarre for a John Le Carre novel, but considering where we are and who is headed to the White House can you really rule any of it out?
The most significant paragraph in the intelligence community’s report on Russian efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election and assist Trump is quoted at the top of this piece: “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests (emphasis added) made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”
Trump’s resistance to further investigation of the Russian role in the election – we should just get on with our lives he says – and his continuing stance that the matter is no big deal looks very much like the leading edge of a cover-up. Real digging by reporters and U.S. senators will undoubtedly expose what cannot be seen above the surface of this murky pond. The future integrity of American elections is at stake, not to mention the idea that an American president really is putting the nation’s interests above his own.
In his path breaking 2005 book Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, the late and supremely talented historian Tony Judt, a man who understood the postwar world as well as anyone, has only two references to the then still new Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Both reference Putin’s authoritarian instincts and his drive to recover Russia’s international “respect” after the break up of the Soviet Union.
Judt astutely points out a reality about Russia that many are ignoring – the old Soviet approach to governing never really changed after the official fall of Communism. “High-ranking officials from the old regime were quietly recycled back into power under Vladimir Putin,” Judt wrote, “Communist-era silviki (prosecutors, police, and military or security personnel) constituted over half of the President’s informal cabinet.”
Putin is a thug, he dispatches his enemies in brutal and effective ways and he is an increasingly desperate dictator who presides over a crumbling economy. He is also smarter and much more disciplined than Donald Trump and he has the goods on the “useful idiot” who will soon be occupying the Oval Office. Above all Putin is hell bent on destabilizing and weakening western democracies. The soon-to-be president of the United States, either through ignorance or corruption or both seems determined to help him. This cannot stand.
“About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.”
Report of the Pew Research Center
Who doesn’t read books? Doesn’t everyone read books? Everyday? Who doesn’t use a library? Who can get along without books? Or libraries?
I can scarcely imagine going a day without picking up something to read – the latest non-fiction title that is making me think differently about the legacies of The Great War, or the Jim Harrison novel resting on my bedside table, or the slim volume of William F. Buckley’s essays that has been just about the perfect companion to fill a pleasant and informative ten minutes.
Who doesn’t read book? Or frequent libraries? Turns out about a quarter of the American population did not crack a book in the last twelve months. A Pew Research Center survey, not surprisingly perhaps, says less educated, more financially insecure Americans don’t read books and the same group fails to take advantage of the wonders at the local library.
Here’s a paragraph from the Pew report: “Given the share that hasn’t read a book in the past year [26 percent according to the survey] it’s not surprising that 19% of U.S. adults also say they have not visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year. The same demographic traits that characterize non-book readers also often apply to those who have never been to a library. For example, men, Hispanics, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000 and those who have no more than a high school diploma or did not graduate from high school are the most likely to report they have never been to a public library.”
I’m tempted to make some sweeping social comment about the non-readers and the fate of the country – Donald J. Trump, a kind of rich guy with time to burn never reads books, either – but I’ll resist the social commentary and merely observe that I can’t imagine a life without books. Those who don’t read – or visit the library for that matter – are simply missing out on one of life’s most rewarding and pleasant experiences – getting lost in a book. It is simply part of what makes life worth living.
So…eleven – why stop at ten – of the best books, in no particular order, that I read in 2016:
Between the World and Me– Ta-Nehisi Coates. A defining book on the still defining American issue – race. Coates’ book is a must read for those of us in the dominant culture who want to begin to understand what it’s like to live as a person of color in a deeply divided American society.
Custer’s Trials– T.J. Stiles. I thought I had read everything there was to read or that I needed to read about the ill-fated George Armstrong Custer, but Stiles, who won the Pulitzer for this book, showed me plenty of new material. He puts Custer in his times in a way no other book on Custer has and he doesn’t even write about the Little Big Horn.
All the Truth is Out – Matt Bai. This book came out in 2014 and received a lot of attention (that is clearly deserved), but I only got to it last year. Bai, a superb reporter and writer now with Yahoo News, tells the old story of Senator Gary Hart’s fall from the next president to a laugh line. You might think you know the Hart story, but I guarantee you won’t until you read this book. It also tells us so much about why politics and the media have become what they have become.
Spain in Our Hearts – Adam Hochshield. Another great reporter and writer tells the story of Americans enmeshed in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It is a compelling and often tragic story.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay – Michael Chabon. Comic books, Nazis, Gotham and a rip snorting good read. I could not put it down.
The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes. The talented Mr. Barnes imagines the life of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich who produced great music while constantly wondering when the KGB would come knocking at his door. The book is in part a meditation on how people behave in an authoritarian society under the constant threat of violence. Somehow Shostakovich lived in such a world – making many tradeoffs – and wrote his Fifth Symphony, one of the great symphonic works of all time.
The Immortal Irishman– Timothy Egan. Read anything the intrepid Tim Egan produces, including his weekly column in The New York Times. This wonderfully told story resurrects the legacy of Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish rebel, Civil War hero and Montana legend and in the process tells us much about the Irish diaspora and why we are all Irish, or want to be.
Prisoners of Hope– Randall B. Woods. We’ll see how much of Lyndon Johnson’s world remains after a new president and GOP Congress get down to business, but since 1964 we have all been living in a world LBJ made. Woods tells this powerful story with color and skill. Johnson emerges as a political genius and a deeply flawed personality and therefore is fascinating.
Bobby Kennedy – Larry Tye. Another fascinating and very complicated politician is treated both critically and with affection.
Finale – Thomas Mallon. This book offers another of Thomas Mallon’s deeply researched fictional takes on American politics and the book puts us right in the middle of the Reagan presidency. You’ll never think of Ron and Nancy quite the same way after reading this.
Dark Money – Jane Mayer. This book may be the best thing ever written about the deeply corrosive effect of vast money on our politics. Deeply researched and objectively presented it is difficult to read Jane Mayer’s awarding winning book and not be worried about our political future.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.