Tag Archives: Donald Trump

The State of Dis Union

I’ve spent the last few days carefully analyzing comments and reactions to the SOTU by the POTUS, including remarks, spin, body language, fashion choices and secret masonic signs flashed by FLOTUS, SCOTUS, the VP, the GOP, the DNC, NPR APBs, ASAP polling, pundit OMG-ing and many other acronyms. I’ve come to two conclusions: (1) the media needs to settle its kettle and end the pre-pubescent fascination with abbreviated text talk. WTF? It’s BS that leaves the grownups PO’d. (2) Our union is in a state.

Exactly what sort of state is a subject of some disagreement. Judging by last Tuesday’s speech Donald Trump clearly sees us in a state of historic political felicity and achievement, we’re a rejuvenated republic wisely led by a competent and beneficent government. All that positivism and pep made for a nice bookend to his inaugural address. Remember it was only a year ago he was warning us of “American carnage,” social havoc and misery that he, and he alone, could save us from. Well, problem solved, apparently. Twelve months in and we’ve gone from a society one step away from a sphincter-clenching episode of The Walking Dead to a happy collective growing fat on 401(k) dividends and hiring itinerant welders with our tax returns.

Well, that’s nice to know. Sure, the news came in a bit of a self-congratulatory swag fest.  The administration’s achievements are tremendous, historical, yuge, bigly, unpresidented, etc etc. But, if the whole “mothers and children trapped in poverty,“crime and gangs and drugs,“factories shuttered and leaving our shores” problems are now under control, as the president hinted, it’s hard to begrudge the guy a victory lap.

According to Trump, what’s needed to get the rest of the big to-do list done—infrastructure, immigration, healthcare—is a big dose of bipartisan, git-‘er-done cooperation. And no worries there, because the president is on it. He generously called on all the biased, incompetent, very unfair and TOTALLY DISHONEST losers on the other side of the isle to come together and agree to do what he wants.

Putting out the call for unity and togetherness was no doubt intended to be inspiring stuff.  I’m guessing, though, that it’ll be a tough slog fusing together a democratic glee club out of “Jeff Flake-ly”, “really sad” Lindsey Graham, that “dummy” John McCain, “Pocahaontas” Elizabeth Warren, “Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer, “dumb” politicians generally, and “crooked” Democrats in particular.* Still, the president should be given credit for magnanimously offering room on his bandwagon for all the crybabies who have felt the rough edge of his twitter feed. I’m guessing the shithole country-of-origin crowd are still off the invite list, as is the FBI, the EPA, most of the state department, all us pointy-headed academic types, liberals of all species, anyone from CNN, the New York Times, or any other news organization not called Fox, plus the FBI, short sighted generals, and, well, a long list of others currently considered infra dig. Norwegians are good though, so focus on that generous hand extended to all the Hansens and Johansens yearning to paddle up the fake news fjord.

President Trump’s self-portrait of his administration was basically a Bob Ross mash-up of Lincoln’s wisdom, Washington’s dignity, FDR’s brilliance, Churchill’s defiance, but better than all these because it gets Kim Kardashian ratings (huge!). That’s a good state to be in, so he must be well pleased with where we’re at. Some in the audience, though, were clearly not getting that picture. Seats in the House chamber seemed to be exerting some sort of massive gravitational pull on Democratic butt cheeks. That’s a big contrast with Republicans, who spent an hour-and-a-half doing jack-in-the-box applause burpees, a jump-up-and-clap marathon synchronized to insure the president wouldn’t have to talk longer than an average tweet. It looked like a real cardio and glute workout. “LYIN’ TED” Cruz was sucking wind toward the end, but the “ineffective” “disloyal” Paul Ryan didn’t even break a sweat. Must be all that P90X-ing he does.

Throughout all this vigorous GOP huzzah-ing Democrats stubbornly remained in a state of amoebic high dudgeon. Except for “wacko” “very sad!” Bernie Sanders. He sat in his usual state of high curmudgeon. Anyway, the Dems looked like exactly what they are—impotent onlookers to a political state that displeases them mightily. To get help them get back on track they drafted a young, good looking Kennedy — there always seems to be an endless supply of them — to deliver their party’s official response. The basic precis of that was, “character counts.” It obviously doesn’t, of course. Right after the speech, a porn star was on Jimmy Kimmel Live basically fessing up to bonking the prez and taking hush money to keep it all under the sheets.  Honestly, you’d think a Kennedy, of all people, would know what character counts for in politics.

Anyway, for all the huffing and puffing triggered by this extended piece of political theater, the president’s state of the union revealed nothing that we did not already know about, well, the state of union. Trump and his backers are still in a state of schadenfreude bliss, and everyone else is still in a state of blistering pique and vexation. Trump’s words and “weak on crime” Nancy Pelosi’s sour lemon phiz didn’t change any of that a lick. It just clarified the agreement on our disunion, the unanimity of our dedication to political partition. And that’s a terrible state to be in.

*Everything in quotes in this post is an actual public insult delivered by the president about the person in question. To see a comprehensive accounting of who he’s insulted and how click here. It’s a long list.

The Stars In Our Eyes

P.T. Barnum, flapdoodle merchant and bunkum plugger par excellence, got filthy rich by embracing the premise that the vast majority of Americans are chumps. Stitch a monkey’s head to a fish tail and say it’s a mermaid and they’ll believe it (and pay to see it). Ask for a nickel to see the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington and credulous hands will dip into pockets. There’s no real evidence that Barnum actually said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but, boy, he sure put that hypothesis to the test.

Barnum is, of course, best known as a showman and entertainer, a sort of nineteenth-century mashup of Donald Trump, Robert Ripley and the Kardashian family. What’s less known about him is that he was also a politician. He served several terms in the Connecticut legislature, was elected mayor of Bridgeport, and was a serious candidate for the United States House of Representatives (he lost in a tough race to his cousin, William Henry Barnum).

In the political arena Barnum was a lot more serious than the carnival huckster caricature he left to history.  He was a vocal advocate of progressive causes (notably equality of African Americans), a big wheel in the temperance movement, and helped found Bridgeport’s hospital. It’s a fair bet, though, that Barnum’s take on voters wasn’t too far removed from his assessment of the gulls he hornswoggled with tabloid sensationalism and sideshow hoaxes. Indeed, he basically said as much, writing with more than a bit of a wink that, “need I explain to my own beloved countrymen that there is humbug in politics?”

While Barnum was far from the first to point out that that politics involves a heavy ration of babble and balderdash, he probably understood better than most that Americans are not policy wonks. Not even close. They respond less to ten point plans than a bit of glam and glitter, they like to see government magnificoes dusted with a bit of star power. Nobody likes a politician, but we love our celebrities. As a group we are quick to conflate fame with accomplishment, to assign to VIPs on the other side of the velvet rope the power to make our economy cabin lives better.

Indeed, there is a very long list of TMZ tribunes the electorate has put into office. And after all, why not? Looking good on camera or possessing a preternatural ability to fling around an inflated leather bladder surely is qualification enough for office? Barnum, of all people, would get that we’ve elected governors because they’re famous wrestlers (Jesse Ventura) or body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger), people to Congress because they were TV stars, singers or comedians (e.g. Fred “Gopher from Love Boat” Grandy, Ben “Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard” Jones, Sonny “I got you babe” Bono, Al Franken). We elected a movie star to the presidency in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan). In the 1990s voters in Tennessee made silver screen make-believe a reality by voting Fred Thompson–an actor known for playing politicians–into the United States Senate. Big light names from sports have also traded stardom for a political career, including luminaries from the big three of football (Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne), basketball (Bill Bradley), and baseball (Jim Bunning).

Given this, it’s hard to be surprised over serious speculation that the next presidential election might come down to a contest between an incumbent best known for being a combative staple of reality TV and a famous talk show host. A duo so famous pretty much all Americans know them just by the first names–Donald and Oprah. And what better place for Oprah to float a presidential campaign trial balloon than at a celebrity awards show. Winfrey’s speech at last week’s Golden Globes kicked off an enthusiasm for a White House run that hit “yes we can!” levels in some Democratic circles.

If this is where politics is headed–and let’s face it, we’ve been shuffling down this road for a while– maybe we should go the whole hog and start appointing people to run the government from the same talent pool. What about Johnny Galecki as secretary of education, he plays an academic on TV (Prof. Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory). Kevin Costner for secretary of agriculture, he played a farmer in Field of Dreams. Maybe Tom Hanks or Tom Brady to run the Defense Department (Hanks was a great soldier in Saving Private Ryan and Brady is a pretty good field general).  Make Whoopi Goldberg attorney general–given her stands on The View, she seems pretty into justice.

This all makes about as much sense as picking our presidents from the ranks of the red carpet and Entertainment Tonight set. If we’ve lost our faith in expertise, after all, why not put our faith in people who are not experts, but play experts for our amusement? The big argument against doing this sort of thing, of course, is that it’s wackadoodle crazy. It’s like choosing a surgeon for your cardiac procedure from the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Or maybe like choosing a president because he stands in the public arena like Maximus from Gladiator and smugly says, “are you not entertained!”

Which is to say, it’s not crazy at all from preferences historically and currently expressed by the American voter. Doesn’t matter how serious the stakes, we want to be entertained, not be responsible, and certainly not responsibly led.  To achieve that we’re perfectly willing to believe political plot lines and promises that make no sense outside a scriptwriter’s fevered dreams or Jerry Springer’s studio. We are, in short, pretty much what PT Barnum thought we were. Suckers.

 

Fact and Friction

The alt-truth, fake news, facts schmacts world we seem to be living in rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Living in verity’s version of the upside down might salve the addled ideological souls of some, but it gives the rest of us the fantods. Especially us empirical scholars. If society decides to call off the search for verifiable truth, after all, we’re out of business. Lacking the fib and fabrication skills readily monetized in the corporate, political and entertainment worlds, we’ll be reduced to shilling empirical verification for coppers on street corners and editing Wikipedia entries on spec.

Well, good news. Despite all the hand wringing, there’s reason to believe that the reach and impact of fake news is, um, fake news. Even more cheering for those of us in the learnin’ biz, there is some persuasive evidence that facts are not quite the ideological Play-Doh some people clearly want them to be.

This isn’t to say the past couple of years hasn’t seen a particularly nasty beat down of bona fide veracity, especially by certain presidents of the United States I could name. Everyone expects a degree of truthiness from politicians, but respectable fact checking sites suggest Donald Trump is less guilty of the occasional white lie than the madcap production of technicolor extravaganzas. Politifact lists ten pages of verified false claims made by the president. The New York Times has a running tally showing Trump telling more provable falsehoods in 10 months than Barack Obama told in his entire eight-year administration.

Aiding the White House as the new home of the whopper is the full-on weaponization of social media. Russian trolls seem to work Facebook’s algorithms with impunity while Twitter enables the wholesale spraying of perfidy and perjury. For the past couple of years a careful observer could be forgiven for concluding that our political system, with premeditation and purpose, was abandoning the truth wholesale. Just how many people were consuming fake news? Did it herald the decline of mainstream media and the professional norms of journalism? Were facts being kicked to the side by voters? Have we gone completely nuts? The people tasked with sorting signal from noise and answering these sorts of question systematically are my tribe–empirical social scientists–and they operate on slower timelines than the 24/7 news cycle. The rise of alternative realities happened so fast that the only honest answer we had to these sorts of questions was, “damned if we know, but it’s pretty worrying.”

That’s starting to change. A couple of studies have recently surfaced that suggest fake news is scary but not enough to frighten the Republic into fact-addled delirium, and, even more comforting, they find that facts themselves still trump fibs, or at least give fibs a good argumentative wedgie.

The first of these studies does contain some kind of scary numbers (you can find the full study here) . Roughly a quarter of American adults, or 65 million people, visited a fake news website* in the month leading up to the 2016 election, most of them making that connection through a Facebook link. Moreover, most of these fake news consumers almost never visited reliable fact-checking websites.

The good news is that heavy consumers of fake news make up a very small proportion of Americans. Roughly 60 percent of the visits to fake news sites came from a small group (about 10 percent of adults) who were older, conservative and (very) pro-Trump. So perhaps the fact-free fabulist babble bubble everyone is so worried about is not a dome covering the Republic, some sort of hermetically sealed covering threatening to asphyxiate the electorate with the gas of toxic make-believe. Maybe it’s just a pocket-sized greenhouse in the backyard where your crazy uncle is getting light headed from inhaling alt-media political poots and discussing conspiracy theories with the geraniums.

The second study  is deep empirical dive into what’s known as the “backfire effect” (you can the full study here) . The basic idea of the backfire effect is that if you present someone with a fact that counters or corrects a politically pleasing falsehood it makes people more not less likely to support that untruth. Evidence of the backfire effect has popped up in previous research and raised some interesting questions. Are people really so committed to their political alternative realities that pointing out contradictory facts will only make them more committed to insisting on the truth of falsehoods?

Given what’s happened over the past couple of years in the political arena that’s a pretty important question. This study sought an answer by giving people factually incorrect claims made by prominent figures on the left (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama) and the right (e.g. Donald Trump, Sarah Palin). They then randomly exposed some subjects to a factual correction of those statement, and asked everyone to evaluate the original claim. The difference in evaluations between those exposed and those not exposed provides a measure of the impact of factual information on political claims. Through five studies and more than 10,000 subjects, they did not find a single instance of backfire across more than 50 policy issues. Indeed, what they found is that people, regardless of ideological orientation, are pretty responsive to facts contradicting their political preferences, and will shift their evaluations towards the factual evidence when it is presented with them.

Neither of these studies should be considered definitive, and both come with the usual cautions and caveats of empirical social science research (my tribe’s motto is plus research opus, i.e. more research is needed). Still, given the hand wringing over fake news and the embrace of alternative realities and their potentially corrosive impact on politics, I think it is okay to view these findings with a small measure of relief. There’s a reasonable case here that most citizens are not voraciously consuming fake news inside their own political echo chambers, though Facebook and Twitter can make it look that way. And, even if they are, facts still seem capable of putting the brakes on fake. Let’s hope we get more of that sort of friction in 2018.

*What exactly constitutes a fake news website is a matter of some controversy. The authors of this study relied on previous research identifying “news” websites that repeatedly published demonstrably false stores.

The GOP’s Sunset Judges

John Adams, second president of the United States and noted puritanical sourpuss, had a tough start to 1801. The election of 1800 had been brutal to Adams and his Federalist Party, an epic fanny kicking from that insufferable know-it-all Thomas Jefferson and his smug gang of waffle whisperers, the (to us) oxymoronically named Democratic-Republican Party.

Even worse than losing control of the executive and legislative branches of government was the dawning realization that as a political force, the Federalists were spent. While the party would stagger on as a regional player in New England for another decade or so, the Federalists were done as a national-level electoral threat. The rump of their Congressional caucus retreated into opposition and soon receded into nothingness.

So, you can understand Adams’ agony in the first months of 1801. Under the rules of the day, Jefferson–who Adams saw as little more than as a cheese-eating Gauloises puffer–didn’t take office until March. Adams, therefore, had plenty of time to contemplate the electorate’s rejection of his political party and marinate in the vinegary knowledge that the Democratic-Republicans would be ruling the roost for the foreseeable future. How could the Federalists retain even a smidge of influence if the voters viewed them as toxic?

Well, there is one other branch of government that, luckily for Adams, was largely insulated from the electorate. Members of the federal judiciary never have to chance the ballot box to keep their jobs and once appointed, unless they engage in felony-level naughtiness, they are in for life. And thus the Adams administration hit upon a formula for insuring long-term influence for a political party just categorically rejected by the voters. The Federalist congress jammed through a bill creating a bunch of new federal courts. Adams stuffed these with the so-called “Midnight Judges,” last-minute appointees specifically selected to insure the Federalists would continue to rule on the big issues of the day for years to come.

I kind of wonder if we’re seeing something similar going on with Donald Trump and the Republican Party right now. The comparison might be a little strained because, electorally speaking, they are not lame ducks, but young fowl still dipping their beaks into the sweet, sweet spoils of victory. Yet if public opinion is any guide, the president and his party are already less popular than the Federalists. Indeed, their polling numbers are so low they have to look up to see whale butt (Nate and crew over at FiveThirtyEight can give you all the gory details). So, while there may be no official lame ducks, recent election results and survey trends suggest the Republican Party definitely is developing a bit of a gimp.

Even if it is headed for an electoral smash-up, though, the party’s long-term influence is being secured through a pell-mell drive to appoint judges. And, thanks to the GOP’s bang up job of sidelining Barrack Obama’s appointments, there’s a lot of judgeships to fill. So, if you’re pro-life, pro-business, pro-corporation, anti-environment, anti-public schools, no probs. Even a complete tanking at the ballot box by Republicans means the black robe set will be there to help insure that your bank or hedge fund is safe from predatory customers wanting to know where their money went. These aren’t midnight judges so much as sunset judges. Right now, there’s still plenty of light falling on Republicans, but these appointments are like early stars that will continue to provide ideological illumination for the GOP should its electoral fortunes go dark.

While it all smacks of unseemly partisan fiddling with the scales of justice, Adams’ appointments showed this sort of sneaky-beaky could have an upside. One of his midnight judges was none other than Chief Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, one of the most important and influential jurists of his and any other era. Trump’s appointments, though, don’t seem quite in that league. Take Matthew Petersen. At his confirmation hearing, under gentle questioning from a Republican Senator about his qualifications for the bench, Petersen all but said, “I don’t know jack about the law, but think I could swing a mean gavel” (you can watch a cringe-inducing video of this exchange here). But there’s also Brett Talley who, among other things, posted online smoochies to the KKK and forgot his wife worked in the White House office. How did a guy like that end up getting nominated? Well, Talley’s job—I’m not making this up—was deciding who would make a good judicial nominee for the Trump administration. Not hard to connect dots there. There’s also Jeff Mateer, who was so impartial and committed to due process for all that he declared transgender children as part of “Satan’s plan” and disgusting.

These three guys’ nominations failed because even Republicans dedicated to the lickety-split process of stuffing as many conservatives onto the court as possible blanched. Yet they’re completely fine with giving the likes of Leonard Steven Grasz a lifetime appointment, even though Grasz was rated unqualified to serve by the American Bar Association. The basic consideration for being rated qualified by the ABA is pretty minimal. Having a law degree and the power of speech is usually does the trick (less than one-tenth of one-percent of nominees get rated unqualified). The ABA interviewed a couple of hundred people about Grasz and heard a consistent story that, among other things, Grasz was an unrelenting ideologue and was “gratuitously rude.” To the GOP, that was just sort of guy who should be a federal judge.

Grasz, along with the rest of Trump’s huge swath of nominees, will spend decades on the bench, their appointments encasing in political amber the ideals of the party currently holding power. Whatever the electoral future of the GOP, its sunset judges ensure its influence will continue. Adams would be proud.

A Very Uncivil War

William Tecumseh Sherman famously argued that war is an unpleasant, bloody slog, and to pretend otherwise is fudge and folly. The optimal policy is not to fight a war in the first place, especially a civil war. If war it is to be, however, the best option is to ruthlessly rain harm on the other side as much as possible as fast as possible. If the gloves come off, get in there and mercilessly punch your opponent’s mug to a pulp, even if that means taking a few nasty licks yourself. “War is cruelty,” he said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

It’s a brutal philosophy, but as any Southerner stuck between Savannah and Atlanta in late 1864 can attest, an effective one. It works in politics, too. Intramural fights within political parties can be just as vicious and nasty as the most ferocious throw-downs between them. The most malevolent of these internal shootouts can devolve into Cain and Abel sorts of situations, ideological death-matches where the goal is not to lead your partisan brother to the light, but to stick a shiv in his back and put him and his movement down for good. If the ideological or policy split within a party is big enough–historical examples in the United States include slavery, trust busting and civil rights–you get the political equivalent of a full-blown civil war. As Sherman said, it is best not to get into that position in the first place. If there’s no avoiding it, though, hit first, hit hard, and don’t stop hitting until you see white flags from the other side.

Of course, all this metaphorical pugilism is presumed to serve a larger strategic goal. In other words, you commit savagery on behalf of a principle, a creed or a value so sacred it justifies do-or-die, or at least a good social media bitch slapping of people on your own side. But what if the whole point of carrying out that civil war is the sheer sport of carrying out spiteful and rancorous assaults? How do you bring that to a rapid and reasonably amicable end?

If you have a good answer to that question, the Republican Party will be (or at least, should be) glad to hear from you. The GOP is currently engaging in a particularly nasty and vicious civil war. It’s gone way past the usual jockeying for power and position of competing factions of a political party. That typically involves a lot of back-stabbing and double-crossing, but it’s mostly done behind closed doors and almost never gets to the point where the combatants are in the streets howling for each other’s heads. But that’s exactly where the GOP seems to be finding itself.

There seems to be no overarching ideological or policy goal motivating this fight. The media mostly portrays it as a conflict between the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the populist wing of the Republican Party. And, I guess, it is. The people involved certainly seem to think so. Stephen Bannon, relishing the part of Republican Party Dr. Evil, has publicaly declared “a season of war against the GOP establishment.”  The Bannon banner-men lose no opportunity to call the establishment fuddy-duddies “RINOs”, “cucks”, “booger heads,” and “snot lickers.” Okay, I made the last couple up, but some of it does smack of a 10-year-old’s you’re-not-the-boss-of-me foot stamping.

The establishment isn’t standing for it. Bob Corker and Susan Collins have wagged serious fingers (heavy on the middle digit) at Donald Trump. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lost his temper and called his boss–the president of the United States–a moron. Dubya and John McCain are doing their best stern dad impressions, giving lectures along the lines of, “You dern kids need to stop foolin’ with all this newfangled Trumpism and listening to those hippity-hop nationalists.” Meanwhile the Republican leaders of the two houses of Congress can barely get along with each other, can barely stand the president, and seem helpless to prevent their party–the party that won everything in 2016–going into the next election bare-assed.

The end result is that Republicans keep doing inadvisable things with their own feet–shooting them, masticating them, and planting them in each other’s butts. At the center of this meltdown is President Trump, who is, hands down, the party’s champion mug-puncher. The list of sore-jawed include Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, pretty much his entire cabinet (notably Tillerson and Jeff Sessions), and most GOP members of the United States Senate (McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lyndsey Graham, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse and on and on and on). Of course Trump has not limited his slugging to Republicans. Or even Democrats. He gets licks in on, of all people, hurricane victims and Gold Star families.

The bottom line is there is a lot of extremely nasty infighting going on within the political party that controls all the major power centers of the national government. The collateral damage could get ugly. Some of the major combatants (one in particular) do not seem to be fighting for principle. They just seem to like meanness for its own sake. The goal doesn’t seem to be to end the fight quickly but to prolong it as much as possible. Then start a new one.

Given that, I can’t hazard a guess at which side of the GOP civil war is going to win. I am pretty sure, though, which of those sides is going to lose: Both of them. War, as Sherman so eloquently put it, is hell.

 

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.