Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Patriot Shames

Winston Churchill once observed that everyone claims to support free speech, even though it is painfully obvious that they do no such thing. That’s certainly the case in contemporary politics. The notion of free speech currently held dear by a lot of prominent self-righteous gum flappers boils down to this: “I have the inviolate liberty to say and do what I want, but you better just shut your pie hole. Or else.”

Churchill being Churchill, he was a skosh more eloquent than I. What he actually said was:  “Everyone is in favor of free speech … but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”  Well, we’ve had a week of free speech four-flushers positively vibrating with outrage because football players insist on deliberately disrespecting our flag, flouting our values, and insulting law enforcement officers and military veterans. What outrage do they commit to express such comprehensive contempt for all things American? They, um, silently take a knee during the national anthem.

Assuming a crouch while the notes of the sovereign hymnal hang in the air is seen by some as a grievous insult to the Republic and all it stands for. And while football players might be descending from the vertical quietly, the choleric response is rocketing skywards with a high-decibel roar. Many are now calling for sanctions, boycotts, and even pink slips — they actually want these individuals deprived of their employment because they sat down during a song. Chief among these, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is the president of the United States. Donald Trump is in high dudgeon over all this genuflecting on the gridiron, saying team owners should respond to such insolence by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.”  It did not go unnoticed that his was a full-throated, no caveats denunciation of mostly black football players. There was none of the there’s-some-good-people-in-there equivocations bestowed upon the mayonnaise-hued tiki torch trust recently observed defending confederate statues and proposing a little light ethnic cleansing.

I’m not sure how silently planting a patella to convey a sincerely held view about racial inequity gets interpreted as a deliberate insult to the United States, the values it represents, and the people—especially in law enforcement and the military–who defend them. But so it goes. Some military and law enforcement veterans do seem to feel pretty sore about the whole deal. Others who wear, or have worn, a uniform seem to be saying, fair enough. First Amendment, land of the free and all that (I count myself among this latter group). I completely get disagreeing with the message, but responding to it with boiling outrage that Americans have the temerity to express a legitimate viewpoint and should be prevented or punished for doing so seems, well, kind of un-American.

And it’s worse than that. On some level, this whole debate is just silly. The message underlying the gesture has, at this point, largely been obscured. Egged on by our president, we’re now doing little more than playing nasty and vicious patriot games, groups at each other’s throats all because a few millionaires cop a squat during the jingoistic yodeling before a sporting event.  It’s kinda surreal, and makes one wonder why America is so uniquely insistent on mandatory public professions of patriotism every time someone blows air into a leather bladder. Other countries manage to put on domestic athletic contests without national anthems, flags the size of Delaware, fighter jets, and sundry collective affirmations of national self-worth.  Maybe we could follow their example and, you know, just play ball?

Fat chance. Poseur patriots are clamoring for politics to be taken out of the game, but certainly not all the symbolism about the polity. They want to keep the anthem and flag waving and its opportunities to deliver the shut-your-gob treatment to those who refuse to abide by the deferential norm. Sure, football players should be free to express a viewpoint, but not actually on a football field. They should do it outside the stadium on their own time. Hmmm. Well, I could be wrong here, but I’m pretty sure if jocks all over the country took to prostrating themselves alone in their kitchens it wouldn’t have quite the same impact. Tellingly, very few of those now taking umbrage at the knee droppers also seem to get huffy about players shoving their beliefs in our face when they credit a deity for the touchdown, gather for a prayer circle after the game, or pull a Tebow on national television.  The whole brouhaha seems less about players expressing a viewpoint to a sporting audience, than expressing a viewpoint that makes a big chunk of that audience uncomfortable.

Football players quietly refusing to place themselves in the upright and fully locked position during the national anthem represents no serious threat to the Republic. When people in high office stoke outrage at such expression, and explicitly call for those who articulate it to be coerced into censoring that expression—to threaten them with losing their livelihoods—well, now we are talking some measure of peril. Perhaps those screaming the loudest about American values should remember freedom of expression is one the most important of those values—even, and especially, when it is done in a place and a manner that some take offense to.

The Art of the Squeal

People frequently and foolishly assume that the president of the United States holds enough power to get pretty much anything they want done. Presidents, presidential aspirants, and certainly a current 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue leaseholder I could name, frequently and foolishly encourage such bosh. Presidential power in fact is a surprisingly limited–and limiting–thing.

No one knew this better than Harry S. Truman, who famously grumbled that, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.” Truman predicted that his successor Dwight Eisenhower was going to have a rough adjustment period. Top ranking generals in the Army can act like real authoritarians. Presidents, not so much. “He’ll sit here and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ Truman snarkily predicted. “And nothing will get done.”

Truman’s words struck a particular chord with Richard Neustadt, who at the time (early 1950s) was a freshly minted Harvard PhD hanging around Truman’s White House as a special assistant. Neustadt was a political scientist who was unlike most of his academic tribe in that he spent a considerable amount of time interacting with actual politicians.1 Neustadt went on to become famous among my polyester-loving people (political scientists are called Das Sansabelt Volk in German) for writing the definitive book on presidential power. With the typical wit and wordplay that political scientists are known for, Neustadt titled his magnum opus, wait for it, Presidential Power.2

Joking aside, Neustadt’s book really is the definitive study of the subject and its conclusions about the actual power of the presidency shade astonishingly close to Truman’s cavils about the constraints of the office. When you get right down to it, the president’s formal powers are (at least in theory) pretty limited. He really hasn’t got the political juice to just make government do what he wants it to. He can’t make law and he can’t raise money. He has to get Congress to do that. He can veto things. But that just means admitting Congress wouldn’t do what he wanted. He can sign Executive Orders, which makes for a cool photo op, but is weak tea compared to actual legislation.

Neustadt argued that the real power of the presidency rested not on the formal tools of the office, but on three intangibles associated with whatever individual happened to occupy it: public esteem, professional reputation, and, above all, the ability to persuade. In short, the true source of a president’s influence is his (or her) deal-making skills. Powerful presidents are those that successfully nudge, nag or sway Congress into doing what they want them to do. To do that it helps to be popular with the public, it helps to have professional respect, but bottom line is you gotta be able to cut a deal.

Donald John Trump clearly lacks two of the three. His approval rating is lower than squid pee and rapidly diffusing into the salty currents of public opinion. His professional esteem basically rests on reality show star power—he rates, like, seven Lindsay Lohans on the TMZ Index of Sideshow Celebrity. His cred as some sort of business whiz, on the other hand, is pretty much PR and pixie dust. Between Trump University, Trump Steaks, Playboy videos, wrestling appearances, and the epilogue of his business books invariably concluding in Chapter 11, the president’s record as some sort of business titan covers more blemishes than Clearasil. Making a deal, though, that’s something he is supposed to be good at.

Except maybe he isn’t. Thus far, git-‘er-done deal making has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration. Deals have either never been made (health care), never got off the ground (making Mexico pay for that wall), or seem to exist completely in the never-never (NAFTA renegotiations). The central strategy of Trump’s deal making approach seems to involve royally pissing off all the important players he needs at the bargaining table, and heaping scorn on those who won’t do what he wants. And, well, maybe that works in the reality-TV-porno-business world. Democratic politics, on the other hand, is less the art of the deal than the art of the meal. It’s all about making sure you can get half a loaf. Trump seems to think the goal is to swipe the entire thing and gorge on it in front of the starving eyes of your vanquished foe.

Trump’s approach to deal making was in full head-scratching mode this week as he actually did cut a deal. With Democrats. The losers who left the bargaining table rattleboned and deprived of their much needed share of whole grain political carbohydrates were Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Trump blindsided them—and even members of his own cabinet—by agreeing to a Democratic plan to attach hurricane relief spending to a short-term (three month) increase in the debt ceiling. To put it mildly, that’s not what the GOP wanted. Ryan looked understandably constipated coming out of the meeting. He was so tight-lipped and monosyllabic he clearly was suffering from irritable vowel syndrome. McConnell looked even worse. He was so thin-lipped his incisors had practically disappeared up his nostrils, the tips just peeking out like some sort of angry vampire boogers.

In the short term this gives Trump, with some degree of credibility, the right to claim he cut a deal by shoving aside the status quo way of doing things. In other words, just the sort of shake-it-up, non-politician hoi polloi hogwash he was elected on. In the long-term it almost certainly reduces his ability, perhaps catastrophically, to make future deals with Congress. Even with his own party. Why would Ryan and McConnell trust Trump, let alone stick their necks out to carry his water when he’s just shown he’s perfectly willing to hold their heads under it? Sure, it’s plenty amusing to watch Democrats and committed anti-Trumpers like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi give props to the president—their words of praise mumbled like they were still dealing with the after-effects of a particularly nasty dental procedure. But as Trump has spent eight months heaping infamy and opprobrium on both their heads, they represent the minority party in congress, and, oh yeah, their voter base is seething with virulent anti-Donny sentiment, it’s hard to see this as a long-term deal making partnership.

The bottom line is that less than a year into his term, Trump has managed to seriously corrode his working relationship with just about everyone on Capitol Hill. It’s truly an awe-invoking accomplishment. And it’s seriously going to crimp his ability to cut deals. If that last remaining leg of the power source gives, Trump may prove to be a very weak president indeed. That’s what Truman and Neustadt would surely predict. This week’s gobsmacking smoochie with the Dems may simply be Trump hankering for a win at any price to prop up his fading art-of-the deal cred. If Congress decides to go its own way, though, Trump, like Truman, will find that it can make a president scream. So, no one should be surprised if Congress is about to give the president a lesson in the art of the squeal.

  1. I’m not joking. One of the things that most surprised me about becoming a professional student of politics is the relatively low levels of interaction between this set of academics and government officials. As a political reporter I’d spent years of my working life in the company of pols. I’ve met scads of political scientists who–I kid you not–have spent less time interacting with the humans who actually practice politics than I did in any randomly chosen week, and certainly any month, of my career as a journalist. It’s a weird world I inhabit.
  2. In later editions he jazzed it up a bit, using the snappier title Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. You can buy a copy here. Ignore my snotty editorializing about beige language—his main thesis holds up six decades on and is well worth the read.

Shriek Bile: How Not to Handle Nazis

Hillary Clinton, the pant-suited succubus of the alt-right, caught a lot of deserved flak for describing half of Donald Trump’s supporters as a basket of deplorables, a bushel of the craven and condemnable not fit for polite democratic company. The implied fifty-fifty probability that they were a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, an Islamaphobe, or some other trafficker of tolerance-abhorrence, understandably ticked off pretty much one hundred percent of Trump backers.

And, fair enough, Clinton’s proportions were way off. Roughly 63 million people cast a ballot for Trump and surely there’s no way half of them—31.5 million Americans—are the sort of –ists and –obes that get the Southern Poverty Law Center’s dander up. Still, that basket clearly wasn’t completely empty. And however small the actual fraction, they are starting to give the president and his supporters a collective whiff of dishonor and censure that is positively sulfurous.

Last weekend’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and the events since certainly made that pong considerably harder to ignore. Those guys in the Tiki torch parade at the Unite the Right rally were Nazis. That’s not hyperbole. They were not femi-Nazis, not PC-Nazis, not I-disagree-but-can’t-be-bothered-to-argue-so-I’m-calling-you-a-Nazi Nazis. They were real deal neo-fascists, swastika-waving Hitler fanboys publically advocating the most odious tenets of National Socialism. These were not just testosterone-addled youngsters throwing sieg heil salutes in some rebels-flouting-our-flaws prank aimed at getting up the snoots of liberal elites. They gave every indication of genuine commitment to the racist blood and soil twaddle spewing out their cake holes. They espouse a political creed—openly racist and religiously intolerant–that truly could only be embraced by, well, deplorables.

Which is why it’s so gobsmackingly surreal that the president could not quite seem to grasp the moral, let alone the political, calculus of Charlottesville. The Cliff’s Notes version of the White House response to this political gasoline fire reads like this:  Well, sure, Nazis and the bedsheet boogeymen of the Ku Klux Klan are bad, but so are the “alt-left” who showed up to protest them. Nazis and anti-Nazis, it’s a potato, potahto sort of deal. Intended or not, Trump left the impression that he saw people like Heather Heyer as somehow analogous to the grub-stage Gruppenfuhrer who killed her for the crime of standing up to racists. In the context of the American political system, that’s going to be hard to top as an act of political self-immolation.

Even with full acknowledgement of the ugly state of our polarized politics, Americans are, surely, pretty united on the proposition that Nazis are bad news, that people who march in solidarity with them are not “good people,” and that just because you show up to register disgust at fascism does not mean  automatically descending into some comparable moral sink hole. A list of luminaries in the president’s own party have forcefully made exactly that point. John McCain and Marco Rubio pulled no punches.  Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—a proud son of a Confederate state and no stranger to his own race controversies—hesitated not a bit in condemning what happened to Heyer as “domestic terrorism.

They were all rightly praised across the political spectrum for unhesitatingly sticking up for basic decency and American values. Public plaudits for the president were mostly limited to, well, deplorables. David Duke, for example. When not stocking up at a Bed, Bath and Beyond white sale for KKK sartorial purposes, Duke is a perennial pusher of a political philosophy that might be called a dread, wrath and beyond white fail. This is a guy who has made a career out of trafficking in racial purity gutter-sweepings of the lowest order. His take on the president’s handling of Charlottesville? He praised his “honesty & courage.” The Daily Stormer, leading lights of the shame-scream media, also weighed in with an appreciative smoochie. The Nazis basically came out and said we know the president of the United States is on our side.

That is kind of hard to process. Maybe Trump really isn’t a not-so-closet booster of white nationalism, but at a minimum he’s such a cack-handed political amateur he’s conveying exactly that impression to a large section of American society. Don’t take my word for it. Conservatives as disparate as Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks have lit into Trump not only for tone deafness, but moral abdication. Business leaders scrambled to cut their ties with the Trump administration. Leaders of the United States military took the extraordinary step of taking a pointed, public swipe at their commander in chief. Even people on Fox & Friends were calling Trump “morally bankrupt.” If Trump’s lost Fox & Friends (motto: We Don’t Just Do Trump Fancy, but Trump Sycophancy) you know things are bad for the White House.

This also does not reflect well on the voters who put him there. Principled motives for supporting Trump electorally I can buy. Trying to shift blame for the consequences of that election, well, not so much. The what-about-the-lefty-bully-boys-and-don’t-forget-Hillary’s-email response to white nationalism elbowing its way into mainstream political debate is pretty lame. Did I mention the Nazis? Yes, the left also has knuckleheads with an iffy commitment to respecting the government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. But they’re not pushing a doctrine of a racial superiority, and they are most definitely not publicly gloating that such a repugnant agenda is getting a nod and wink from the most powerful office holder on the planet. These days, Nazis are.

Now that truly is deplorable.