It’s been a hell of a year

If you want to try to narrow down the chaos that is Trump’s America,  try for a moment to put aside the things the president has done, and those you fear he might do, which you feel threaten the security of our country, or maybe even the safety of the entire world (there are some things!), and just focus on corruption.  There’s too much, right?  Well, not if you’re CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.  Earlier this month it published its cumulative list of actions that it considers to be personal conflicts of interest for President Trump…things he has done to financially benefit himself and his family, things that no previous president has ever done (at least not so blatantly and openly).

CREW researchers spent a year tracking every known interaction between the Trump administration and the Trump Organization in a daily timeline. Here’s what they found:

  • President Trump spent a full third of his first year in office—122 days—visiting his commercial properties.

  • Seventy executive branch officials, more than 30 members of Congress and more than a dozen state officials visited Trump Organization properties during the first year of the Trump administration.

  • President Trump and his White House staff promoted the Trump brand by mentioning or referring to one of the president’s private businesses on at least 35 different occasions during the president’s first year in office.

  • There have been more than 40 instances of special interest groups holding events at Trump properties since January 20, 2017.

  • At least eleven foreign governments paid Trump-owned entities during the president’s first year in office, and at least six foreign government officials have made appearances at Trump Organization properties.

  • Political groups spent more than $1.2 million at Trump properties during the president’s first year in office. Prior to President Trump’s 2016 campaign, annual spending by political committees at Trump properties had never exceeded $100,000 in any given year going back to at least 2002.

Are you OK with all of that?  I’m not.  But a thing that is in some ways even worse—although frankly I’m having trouble deciding what thing is worse than the next thing anymore—is the revelation of the heart and soul of the national Republican Party in this first year of the Trump Administration.  (Yes, it’s only been one year.)  Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin gives a stark but honest reading in the Washington Post:

The sight of conservative Republicans cheering President Trump as a great success in his first year in office tells us much about the state of conservatism and the future of the GOP. There are two components to the reverential treatment of Trump: first, praise for allegedly conservative wins, and second, a willingness to tolerate falsehoods and attacks upon democratic norms and the American creed, as though these are matters of style.

As to the first, “conservatism” these days has become (both in the eyes of liberals who think conservatism is interchangeable with “right-wing extremism” and those claiming the conservative mantle) a cartoon version of itself. A tax cut that grows the deficit and gives disproportionate benefits to the rich is a “win” and “conservative” because, because … why? Because conservatism demands that whatever the needs of the moment and whatever the politics, the first order of business is to starve the government of revenue? Tax cuts unmoored from reasonable ends (e.g. fiscal sobriety, focused help for the working and middle class) are not “conservative”; deficits and widening of income inequality should not be cause for celebration.

Likewise, denying climate change or calling all regulatory repeal “conservative” (is it conservative to allow restaurants to take away employees’ tips?) doesn’t strike us as evidence of truth-based, modest government. In sum, much of the cheering for “conservative” ends skips over the details, disregards the substance and ignores context — none of which are indices of conservative thought. It is not conservative to favor reversing everything President Barack Obama did without regard to changed circumstances or alternatives. That doesn’t make Obama’s political legacy wonderful; it makes those advocating blind destruction without reasoned alternatives anything but conservative.

(snip)

The “shithole” episode vividly illustrates this. The sentiment underlying Trump’s attack on African immigrants entails a repudiation of the “all men are created equal” creed, a disregard of facts (e.g., education levels of African immigrants) and a rejection of economic reality verging on illiteracy. (We do need skilled and unskilled workers, we do not have a finite number of jobs, etc.) Put on top of that the willingness to prevaricate (Well, if we say it was “shithouse” and not “shithole,” we can say Sen. Dick Durbin was lying!) and you have an assault on principles that are the foundation for our democracy and for conservatism (or what it used to be). It’s not a minor episode. It’s in many ways a defining episode, not only for Trump but, worse, for his defenders.

OK, just one more today.  As bad as I feel this has been, I am persuaded by Leonard Pitts, Jr., in a column entitled “Trump’s definitely not the brains of the operation—and that’s a good thing” that it could be worse:

But what if Trump were smart?

More to the point, what if there arose some future demagogue who combined Trump’s new media savvy with a toxic ideology? It’s not far-fetched to wonder if Trump is not simply writing that individual’s playbook, showing her or him how easily a stable democracy can be subverted.

So even as we grapple with the daily outrages of this presidency, it would be smart to begin inoculating future generations against one that could be worse. Now, then, would be an excellent time to push even harder for Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter to find better ways of purging their platforms of false news and hate.

Now would also be an excellent time for schools to beef up their teaching of philosophy, history, civics, social studies. Teach those things as a means of helping people to think critically, value truth and internalize the ideals that are supposed to make America America.

All I can hear in my head right now is Whitney Houston: 

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way

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What you can do for your country

Let’s please just get this over with.

The good news is that a ton of people have already voted: here in Texas it’s reported 30% of the 15 million registered voters have already cast their ballots; there are an estimated 4000 people in line in Cincinnati right now waiting to vote.  When you add in all the people planning to vote on Tuesday (including me) we could be looking at a(n) historic voter turnout, and while I think that’s good in a general sense—more of us should take our responsibility as citizens more seriously—it also would lessen the chances that Donald Trump will win…and there’s nothing that could be better than Trump not becoming president.

That is not to say that I’m looking forward to four years of Hillary Clinton as president; the truth is, I can’t believe she even won the nomination.  In mid-2015 when candidates were starting to be serious about the primaries, I felt confident that the Democrats wouldn’t be so blindered to reality as to nominate Clinton.  To a large segment of the country she is the personification of all things evil; I don’t share their irrational hatred of her, but surely, I thought, the Democrats wouldn’t handicap their attempt to maintain control of the presidency by choosing a candidate who had no chance at all of winning support among Republicans.  After two terms from Obama, Democrats would pick another fresh face from that generation, someone without Clinton’s political baggage who could generate some excitement.

And Republicans?  Well, I didn’t (and still don’t) have much confidence in that organization.  In winning the White House in 1980 with Ronald Reagan it sold its soul to the social conservative, vaguely racist, radical Christian evangelical wing that meant to use the political system to institutionalize its religious agenda.  They have the old fiscal conservatives—the old Bush types, the Rockefeller Republicans—so whipped into submission that there was no reason for me to suspect they’d pick someone I’d like, but they might choose someone I could support.  I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times: though I disagree with their goals I recognize and applaud the radical conservatives for working the system as it’s designed.

I did not think both parties would select such polarizing candidates.  If the Republicans had picked a more mainstream candidate than Trump, I don’t doubt that that person would beat Clinton handily, and if the Democrats had selected anyone other than the historically unpopular candidate that they did that person would probably be pounding Trump in the dust.  Now we’re left to pick from between two really bad options.  Yes, there are third party and independent candidates on the ballot, and a protest vote for one of them was feeling like the right way to go…until you consider just how ungodly awful Trump really is, and think about the kind of damage he could do to our country if we gave him the keys.

That’s always the bottom line in a presidential race.  But never before in my experience (my first vote for president was 1976) has one of the choices been so irresponsible and frightening.  I sympathize with people who are fed up with the state of our politics, and the glaring inability of our representatives to do their jobs, and who want to throw all the bastards out and start over.  But this isn’t the way.  This option is too dangerous to the future of our country.

If you haven’t done so, please take a few minutes to read David Frum’s essay in The Atlantic in which he thoughtfully explains why he chose to vote for Clinton, and think about what you can do for your country.

Those attempting to rally reluctant Republicans to Trump seldom waste words on the affirmative case for the blowhard businessman. What is there to say in favor of a candidate who would lie even about his (non) support for a charity for children with AIDS?

Instead, the case for Trump swiftly shifts to a fervid case against Hillary Clinton.

(snip)

Demonology aside, most conservatives and Republicans—and yes, many non-conservatives and non-Republicans—will recognize many of the factual predicates of the critiques of Hillary Clinton’s methods and character. The Clintons sold access to a present secretary of state and a potential future president in pursuit of personal wealth. Hillary Clinton does indeed seem a suspicious and vindictive personality. For sure, a President Clinton will want to spend and regulate even more than the Obama administration has done.

Like Henny Youngman, however, the voter must always ask: compared to what?

One of only two people on earth will win the American presidency on November 8. Hillary Clinton is one of those two possibilities. Donald Trump is the only other.

Yes, I fear Clinton’s grudge-holding. Should I fear it so much that I rally to a candidate who has already explicitly promised to deploy antitrust and libel law against his critics and opponents? Who incited violence at his rallies? Who ejects reporters from his events if he objects to their coverage? Who told a huge audience in Australia that his top life advice was: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it”? Who idealizes Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and the butchers of Tiananmen as strong leaders to be admired and emulated?

(snip)

To vote for Trump as a protest against Clinton’s faults would be like amputating a leg because of a sliver in the toe; cutting one’s throat to lower one’s blood pressure.

I more or less agree with Trump on his signature issue, immigration. Two years ago, I would have rated immigration as one of the very most important issues in this election. But that was before Trump expanded the debate to include such questions as: “Should America honor its NATO commitments?” “Are American elections real or fake?” “Is it OK for a president to use the office to promote his family business?” “Are handicapped people comical?”  

(snip)

We don’t have to analogize Donald Trump to any of the lurid tyrants of world history to recognize in him the most anti-constitutional personality ever to gain a major-party nomination for the U.S. presidency. I cannot predict whether Trump would succeed in elevating himself “on the ruins of public liberty.” The outcome would greatly depend on the resolve, integrity, and courage of other leaders and other institutions, especially the Republican leaders in Congress. To date, their record has not been reassuring, but who knows: Maybe they would discover more courage and independence after they bestowed the awesome powers of the presidency than they did while Trump was merely a party nominee. Or maybe not.

(snip)

The lesson Trump has taught is not only that certain Republican dogmas have passed out of date, but that American democracy itself is much more vulnerable than anyone would have believed only 24 months ago. Incredibly, a country that—through wars and depression—so magnificently resisted the authoritarian temptations of the mid-20th century has half-yielded to a more farcical version of that same threat without any of the same excuse. The hungry and houseless Americans of the Great Depression sustained a constitutional republic. How shameful that the Americans of today—so vastly better off in so many ways, despite their undoubted problems—have done so much less well.

I have no illusions about Hillary Clinton. I expect policies that will seem to me at best counter-productive, at worst actively harmful. America needs more private-market competition in healthcare, not less; lighter regulation of enterprise, not heavier; reduced immigration, not expanded; lower taxes, not higher. On almost every domestic issue, I stand on one side; she stands on the other. I do not imagine that she will meet me, or those who think like me, anywhere within a country mile of half-way.

But she is a patriot. She will uphold the sovereignty and independence of the United States. She will defend allies. She will execute the laws with reasonable impartiality. She may bend some rules for her own and her supporters’ advantage. She will not outright defy legality altogether. Above all, she can govern herself; the first indispensable qualification for governing others.

So I will vote for the candidate who rejects my preferences and offends my opinions. (In fact, I already have voted for her.) Previous generations accepted infinitely heavier sacrifices and more dangerous duties to defend democracy. I’ll miss the tax cut I’d get from united Republican government. But there will be other elections, other chances to vote for what I regard as more sensible policies. My party will recover to counter her agenda in Congress, moderate her nominations to the courts, and defeat her bid for re-election in 2020. I look forward to supporting Republican recovery and renewal.

(snip)

I am voting to defend Americans’ profoundest shared commitment: a commitment to norms and rules that today protect my rights under a president I don’t favor, and that will tomorrow do the same service for you.

Vote the wrong way in November, and those norms and rules will shudder and shake in a way unequaled since the Union won the Civil War.

I appreciate that Donald Trump is too slovenly and incompetent to qualify as a true dictator. This country is not so broken as to allow a President Trump to arrest opponents or silence the media. Trump is a man without political ideas. Trump’s main interest has been and will continue to be self-enrichment by any means, no matter how crooked. His next interest after that is never to be criticized by anybody for any reason, no matter how justified—maybe most especially when justified. Yet Trump does not need to achieve a dictatorship to subvert democracy. This is the age of “illiberal democracy,” as Fareed Zakaria calls it, and across the world we’ve seen formally elected leaders corrode democratic systems from within. Surely the American system of government is more robust than the Turkish or Hungarian or Polish or Malaysian or Italian systems. But that is not automatically true. It is true because of the active vigilance of freedom-loving citizens who put country first, party second. Not in many decades has that vigilance been required as it is required now.

Your hand may hesitate to put a mark beside the name, Hillary Clinton. You’re not doing it for her. The vote you cast is for the republic and the Constitution.

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.

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?”

Advice from the right to the right-er

Anybody can sit back and disgorge him-or-her-self of comments on the outrageous stuff in the news and on the Web; tut-tutting what Donald Trump says doesn’t really require you to burn many calories.  This year I’m renewing my effort to keep an eye out for things that are less obvious, but offer some insight that we could all find useful.

You don’t have to be conservative, or “a conservative,” or even “a Movement Conservative,” to get something out of Jennifer Rubin’s “Right Turn” blog in the Washington Post (there’s a link in the Blogroll over there) , and I’d like to offer this link to her recent list of suggested resolutions for Republicans for this year.  Here are my favorites, with comments.

“2. Do not imagine that the entire party is made up of the most vocal, extreme elements in talk radio. There is no sign — not in respected polling or election results — that the party is entirely, or even primarily, made up of nativists and “very conservative” voters. You might think so if you are elected from Texas or Alabama, but thinking that is a microcosm of the country leads to disastrous results.”

  • Many of us forget this one.  The most radical elements of the GOP make the most noise and have worked their tails off to become politically powerful within the organization; but as is true with many groups, the loudest members don’t necessarily speak for the majority.  But the non-radical center had better come to play, or one day there won’t be a place for them in the party of Lincoln and Reagan.

“3. The country has accepted gay marriage, so move on. There are not sufficient states for a constitutional amendment nor is any president going to be able to stack the court with justices willing to overturn the gay marriage ruling. (The court won’t even find Obamacare unconstitutional.) Preaching defiance of the court is crazy talk and simply tells voters that Republicans are out of touch.”

  • Time to let this one go: it isn’t about the sacrament of marriage in your church, it’s about equal protection and equal treatment under civil law, and you don’t want to be arguing against that.

“7. Give up the fixation on the mainstream media. Yes, there is coverage that is tilted, invariably in the liberal direction. Yes, conservatives are held to a different standard. It should be called out. But so what? It’s not an excuse for failure, and voters don’t want to hear a lot of whining about how the deck is stacked. Moreover, Republicans benefit from being tested in interviews and debates by those with whom they disagree.”

  • Journalists are supposed to question the statements and beliefs of candidates and officeholders; they do it to Democrats and Libertarians and independents, too, but we don’t hear them complaining like you.  If you don’t like the critical attention, get a new line of work.

First step on the new path…don’t know where it’s going to lead.