Where we go from here

We’ve endured the Democratic and Republican parties’ conventions, which spit out the nominees for president that we’ve been expecting for many many weeks.  What are we faced with, looking at the 100 days left before the general election?

Donald Trump is not well known, perhaps in his inconsistencies unknowable, but what he has shown us, or what we’ve been able to learn despite him, troubles many people–including some leaders of the Republican Party, who even now refuse to endorse him.  Hillary Clinton is not an unknown, and what we know isn’t especially inspiring. She is not well liked by many Democrats and has been demonized for so long by her enemies on the right that it’s hard to imagine her being able to work with Republicans in Congress and get much done.

Ezra Klein on Vox.com makes the case that we have a choice between normal and not normal.  It seems to me that, given today’s dysfunctional dynamic between Republicans and Democrats, making a “not normal” choice could be a good thing, and I guess many of those who support Trump feel the same way.  But let’s agree that while something better than what we have would be welcomed, simply being different doesn’t automatically make a thing better.  A Trump presidency would not be better.  Not by a long shot.

The Washington Post calls Trump “a unique threat to American democracy”:

He is mounting a campaign of snarl and sneer, not substance. To the extent he has views, they are wrong in their diagnosis of America’s problems and dangerous in their proposed solutions. Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.

Any one of these characteristics would be disqualifying; together, they make Mr. Trump a peril.

Frank Bruni in The New York Times finds that Trump’s simple patriotism “doesn’t add up.”:

But there’s nothing simple about a patriotism that allows someone to brag, as Trump has done, about paying as little in taxes as he can possibly get away with, and that permits him to flout an important political tradition of candidates’ releasing their tax returns.

There’s nothing simple about a patriotism that advocates torture, as Trump has also done, when our conduct in waging war is ideally what sets us apart from less principled countries and earns us the respect of the world.

And there’s nothing simple about a patriotism that’s really an amalgam of nativism, racism, isolationism and xenophobia and that denies this country’s distinction as a land of fresh starts, its arms open to a diverse world.

The specter of Trump was enough for Mr. Republican, George Will, to decide to terminate his membership in the Republican Party, for former GOP congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to urge Republican candidates to keep their distance from the top of the ticket, and for Republican political pro Mark Salter to deliver a clear and concise list of reasons why Republicans with any sense of integrity or shame should avoid him, including:

He’s an ignoramus whose knowledge of public issues is more superficial than an occasional newspaper reader’s. He casts his intellectual laziness as a choice, a deliberate avoidance of expert views that might contaminate his ill-informed opinions.

(snip)

He’s a charlatan, preposterously posing as a business genius while cheating investors, subcontractors, and his own customers. He’s rich because his father left him a great deal of money. He couldn’t turn a profit with a casino, for crying out loud.

(snip)

He possesses the emotional maturity of a 6-year-old. He can’t let go of any slight, real or imagined, from taunts about the length of his fingers to skepticism about his portfolio.

(snip)

He doesn’t appeal to a single honorable quality or instinct in our society. He exploits fear and incites hatred. They are the emotions that impel him. He wants us to make our way in the world as he does: selfish, insecure, angry, scapegoating, small.

Do we want change for the better?  Sure we do.  But do we want to change to someone who is radically outside of the norms of political activity as we’ve known it, and as it’s developed in this country over hundreds of years?  If this is the available choice, I don’t think so, and I’m not alone.  Today Houston’s Leading Information Source joined the group of publications that are already endorsing Clinton because Trump is so damn terrible!

An election between the Democrat Clinton and, let’s say, the Republican Jeb Bush or John Kasich or Marco Rubio, even the hyper-ideological Ted Cruz, would spark a much-needed debate about the role of government and the nation’s future, about each candidate’s experience and abilities. But those Republican hopefuls have been vanquished. To choose the candidate who defeated them – fairly and decisively, we should point out – is to repudiate the most basic notions of competence and capability.

Any one of Trump’s less-than-sterling qualities – his erratic temperament, his dodgy business practices, his racism, his Putin-like strongman inclinations and faux-populist demagoguery, his contempt for the rule of law, his ignorance – is enough to be disqualifying. His convention-speech comment, “I alone can fix it,” should make every American shudder. He is, we believe, a danger to the Republic.

After more than a year of campaigning–a hell of a slog for us voters to endure, if you ask me–this campaign still has more than three months to go, and there’s a danger that we may become inured to the outrageousness of Trump’s actions and words.  Let me warn again: please, do not let the craziness of Trumpism become normal; don’t let yourself come to believe that what he’s doing and saying isn’t so bad because we’ve been hearing it for so long.  They are far from normal, and we need to still be able to see that when election day finally gets here.

Fight the normalization of Trumpism

A year ago the Republican establishment felt pretty good about its prospects, crowed about the outstanding group of people who were running for president, and acted confident about the party’s chances of winning back control of the executive branch of the national government.  Today we see party leaders trudge to the microphone with all the cheer of a condemned man on the way to the gallows to endorse He Who Has All But Won the Party’s Presidential Nomination, while a growing Greek chorus is warming up a “not so fast” refrain for an electorate faced with two bad choices.

Stepping out from the chorus today, in National Review, Charles Murray issues an important challenge to what he calls the conservative establishment: go on the record—now; right now—with your view of Donald Trump.  It’s not good enough for Republicans or conservatives to shrug their shoulders and side with Trump because they disagree with Hillary Clinton on the issues and think she’d make a worse, or much worse, president, he argues.  Although voters often have to pick from among two or more bad choices, Murray calls on those who make politics their livelihood to assess Trump as a candidate for president without comparing him to the presumed Democratic nominee or any other particular candidate.  Tell us, does the man meet your standards as a potential president; what’s your real opinion.

Murray answers his own challenge: “Donald Trump is unfit to be president in ways that apply to no other candidate of the two major political parties throughout American history.”  OK.  It is not, he says, just that Trump is greedy and venal and narcissistic, or even that he’s a liar…anyone could miss a few facts:

Then it gets a little more important, as when [Trump] says Paul Ryan called to congratulate him after his victory in the New York primary, announcing a significant political event that in fact did not happen. Then the fictions touch on facts about policy. No, Wisconsin does not have an effective unemployment rate of 20 percent, nor does the federal government impose Common Core standards on the states — to take just two examples plucked at random from among his continual misrepresentations of reality. That he deals so heedlessly in those misrepresentations makes it impossible for an opponent to conduct an authentic policy debate with him.

It’s one thing when a candidate knowingly deceives the public on a few specific topics. Hillary Clinton has knowingly tried to deceive the public about her flip-flop on gay marriage and her misuse of her e-mail server. That’s bad. It should be condemned. This aspect of her character should affect one’s deliberations about whether to vote for her. It’s another thing entirely when a candidate blithely rejects Pat Moynihan’s (attributed) dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”

Murray links to other writers who have made their own contributions to the growing collection of reasons why Trump is unfit, and it turns out they are some of the very same pieces I’ve been saving for future reference: Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, among others.  They have identified aspects of the candidate’s character that should make any reasonable person nervous at the prospect of a President Trump: the bullying, the unreconstructed pandering to voter fear and racial prejudice, the threats against journalists who dare ask pointed questions, the unrealistic view of the modern world and America’s place in it.

I am told that it is unfair to speak in such harsh terms of a person I don’t know personally: Look how nice his kids seem to be. Look at all his friends who say that he’s really a pleasant fellow in private. Sorry. I don’t need any secondary sources. Donald Trump makes the case for David Brooks’s assessment in every public appearance. When a man deliberately inflames the antagonism of one American ethnic group toward another, takes pleasure in labeling people “losers,” and openly promises to use the powers of the presidency to punish people who get in his way, there is nothing that person can do or say in private that should alter my opinion of whether he is fit to be the president of the United States.

I know that I am unlikely to persuade any of my fellow Establishmentarians to change their minds. But I cannot end without urging you to resist that sin to which people with high IQs (which most of you have) are unusually prone: Using your intellectual powers to convince yourself of something despite the evidence plainly before you. Just watch and listen to the man. Don’t concoct elaborate rationalizations. Just watch and listen. [emphasis added]

That’s important.  His ability to (apparently) win the nomination of one of the two major political parties for president of our country, as stunning as it is, shouldn’t be our excuse to relax and think, well, if the GOP thinks he’s fine then I guess he must be; I must’ve misunderstood some of what he said (or the media reported it wrong!).  It will be tough to do, but don’t let the sheer lunacy of what he says wear off—don’t just get used to the outrageousness and let it become normal, become just another opinion.

And, one more thing from Murray:

…contemplate this fact about history: We have had presidents whose competence once in office was better than we could have anticipated. Truman, for example. We have had presidents whose characters were subsequently revealed to be worse than they had seemed during the campaign. Kennedy, for example. We have never had a president whose character proved to be more admirable once he was in office than it had appeared during the campaign. What you see on your television screen every day from Donald Trump the candidate is the best that you can expect from Donald Trump the president. “Hillary is even worse” doesn’t cut it.

Dear candidates for President of the USA,

It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention to all you’ve been up to for the past six months or more, it’s just that I can’t maintain interest in this made-for-TV “reality show” the way some of my fellow Americans can, and I’m long past faking it.  Plus, there’s no good reason why it should take the people of our fine little country this long to make a decision.  Strikes me that the only reason why the campaign for president runs for two damn years (and even longer than that, behind the scenes) is that the political industrial establishment has kids in college or wants a new boat.

First off, let me say that I’m disappointed at the overall quality of the candidates, and I don’t just mean the ones of you who are still in the race now.  The Republican Party crowed about putting up such a highly-qualified collection of candidates, but so many of them turned out to be real dopes.  I don’t need to go into details, you know who I’m talking about…and most of you agree with me.  The Democrats who made an effort aren’t inspiring anybody, either.  (Is the simple fact that a person puts him-or-herself up as a candidate for president prima facie evidence that they’ve really got a screw loose and can’t be trusted with the job?)

Watching the Republican race from the sidelines has been a demoralizing experience.  I get it that people are unhappy with the quality of our national political leaders and want a change, but I’m saddened at the utter lack of critical thinking that seems to have gone into the winnowing process that’s produced two favorites who are demonstrably unfit for the job.  You lie right to our faces, act like eight year olds in a playground argument, say anything that comes to your mind and scream that it’s true because you said so, and we cheer you on?  Maybe we’re enjoying the catharsis, getting a rush from screaming that we’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more…that’s fine, as far as it goes.  But if we’re not careful one of you could end up with the responsibility of defending our asses from enemies foreign and domestic, and I’m not too keen on that prospect.  I mean, what would happen to our country if one of you wins?!  I take some solace recognizing that far less than half of Republican America is supporting any of you, and as a student of history it will be exciting to watch a political convention where the winner of the nomination is not known before the first gavel falls.

The Democrats?  Meh.  Will any third-party candidates, or ultra-rich independents, get on the ballot and make the general election really interesting?  I hope so.  Will national cable news channels stop pretending this is just a fun-and-interesting way to pass the time until they launch the next branded coverage of some run of the mill disaster?  THAT would be really interesting…

Anyways, this is one for the history books and I sort of envy the future students who will read about it and wonder, “how the hell did that happen?”

It’s still too early for the 2016 campaign, but…

The first vote that counts in the 2016 presidential election is still four months away, so I remain committed to the belief that it is still too soon to be caring about this.  Of course, I’m vastly outnumbered by people in both the Democratic and Republican parties, in the news media, and of course in the political-industrial complex which makes its living off the perpetual campaign.  Nevertheless, I found something I want to share in case you haven’t already seen it.

I admit to being a little amused by the specter of Donald Trump leading the public opinion polls among Republican candidates, and bemused by the conceit of the Hillary Clinton camp that the nomination is hers because…well, because Hillary.  As a government contractor employee I’m far more interested right now in whether or not the do-nothing Congress can pass a simple budget resolution and keep the doors open, and at last report that seems a pretty good bet.  If it doesn’t happen, though, the most likely reason will be that some right-wing extremist will have decided that advocating lost causes is more important than good government…thank you, Sen. Cruz.

It’s those guys (and some gals, but mostly guys) who drove John Boehner to decide to give up his speakership rather than try to further advance his career herding cats.  It’s almost heroic when you think about it: Boehner decided to fall on his sword rather than let the loud-mouthed minority of his party seriously damage the overall operation by keeping up their effort to drive him out of the chair.  I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about his courage and selflessness…and nearly giddy when I read the suggestion that this could be a step on the road to the self-destruction of the party that the extremists grudgingly call their home.

In today’s New York Times (“Anarchy in the House”), Geoffrey Kabaservice argues that the Boehner resignation drama can be seen as a symptom of the kind of conservatism led by Barry Goldwater in the 1960s.

The radicals who coalesced around Senator Barry Goldwater’s insurgent presidential campaign were zealots. They had no interest in developing a governing agenda. Their program consisted mainly of getting rid of the New Deal and every other government effort to promote the general welfare…Goldwater’s followers viewed any Republicans who wanted to govern as traitors to be stamped out. They accused their own leadership of conspiring with Democrats to thwart conservatives…They had no strategy other than taking over the party and nominating Goldwater. He would win the 1964 election, they believed, because a hidden majority would flock to the polls when presented with a candidate who wasn’t what we would now call “politically correct.”

(snip)

The present resurgence of anti-governing conservatism is also likely to end badly for Republicans. The extremists have the ability to disrupt the Congress, but not to lead it. Their belief that shutdowns will secure real concessions is magical thinking, not legislative realism. And the more power they gain, the less likely it becomes that a Republican-controlled Congress can pass conservative legislation, or indeed any legislation at all.

It’s true that sometimes no legislation is better than bad legislation. But the United States faces real problems, including stagnant wages, family instability, infrastructure collapse and long-term indebtedness. If Republicans can’t advance their own solutions, they’ll have to deal with what Democrats — or harsh realities — impose on them. Paralysis is not a plan.

The rebranding of Republicanism as a force for anarchy has spilled into the presidential contest and threatens the general election chances of the eventual nominee.

Does the Republican Party have time to turn that around before the general election?  I think so.  Do the people who run the party these days want to turn that around?  If so they better get started proving it, because soon enough even I’ll be paying attention to the campaign.

The only “real” reality show is just too depressing to watch

Americans today “are turned off and tuned out of the sequestration mess in Washington. To a person, they are sick of the antics of those to whom they have entrusted enormous power.”  So begins David Gergen in his column today, and I can’t find anything in his argument with which to disagree.

The clowns we elected to represent us in Washington—and in many many cases, re-elected…shame on us—have failed to take care of one of the most fundamental things we send them to Washington to do: set a budget for the operation of our government.  Actually, as Gergen correctly notes, they have failed to do that one thing for four years running—so far.  Back in the summer of 2011 they set a trap to force themselves to act, promising across the board budget cuts at the end of 2012 at such a severe level that it was inconceivable they wouldn’t act to stop them from going into effect; when they still couldn’t beat that deadline they passed a law giving themselves two more months to wrap it up.  Well, here we are, two months later, but this time there doesn’t even seem to be the possibility that they can get together to give themselves more time.  The ineptitude is astounding!

It’s not unusual to have the legislative and executive branches of government  disagree about taxes or spending or any other policy issue; historically, someone on one side or the other finds a way to force a resolution.  But as Gergen points out, “we have a rare moment when both Congress and the president are retreating from their responsibilities. It’s hard to recall a time when we were so leaderless.”  The Republicans and the Democrats, the president and Congress, everyone is busy running from microphone to microphone insisting that there’s nothing they can do about it.  And the whole argument has become so tiresome that even in the face of budget cuts that threaten basic services, things we can all pretty much agree that government should be taking care of, a lot of Americans are just yawning and looking the other way.  How many times can the boy cry “wolf” before the villagers ignore the call?

Let’s hope we haven’t thrown in the towel yet, because this sequestration circle jerk isn’t the end of the line: whether these cuts go into effect this Friday or not, there’s a potential government shutdown only four weeks down the road if there’s no agreement on new spending authorization.  If we don’t dig up some leadership somewhere, what’s been going around for the last few years is going to come around again and again and again.  No winners here, America, not if we aren’t willing to find a compromise that keeps the whole thing from crashing down on our heads.