Where we’re at

While it’s true that being appalled by Trump is terrific sport, we should be careful not to let it overshadow what’s going on policy-wise in the meantime. Trump’s appointees are quietly trying to implement an agenda that the right has been craving for years, but has been unable to deliver in the light of day.

There’s a limit to what they can do, thank goodness. Many of the regulations of the EPA, for example, have been encoded into law, and are beyond the reach of the executive branch alone. We can be grateful for the incompetence of the Republican congress.

They’re also hamstrung by Trump’s infantile rants, or rather by calls to condemn them. You’d think it would be a simple thing to respond to the atrocious statements coming out of the WH by just reiterating statements members of the Republican party have said many times before, but the problem is that they don’t want to risk alienating Trump for fear of halting the afore mentioned slow, stealthy march of the right-wing agenda by his minions.

They’re walking a delicate line. If they let him go too long, the risk becomes losing control of congress, but if they stand up to him too soon, they risk derailing the progress toward conservative policies they’ve been lusting after for years.

Many years ago, when I ran a crew of surveyors for a couple of penny-pinching bosses, the crew truck I was driving broke a front axle at 60+ mph on the highway. I managed to coax it to the shoulder, and called my boss. I told him what had happened, and that the right front wheel was barely hanging on by a tie rod. He said, “Could you nurse it home?”

The wheels are slowly, steadily coming off the Trump administration truck, one at a time. I have a feeling that congressional Republicans are just trying to nurse it home.  Disaster, from their point of view, is almost inevitable.  I’m mentally preparing myself for the pleasures of schadenfreude.

Politics as usual?

With Trump in the presidency and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, liberals, or progressives, if you prefer, are apparently in a rout. We’re certainly behaving that way, with Democrats quibbling over the direction the party has to take in order to win everything back by the next election, temporary Democrats back in their old roles as independents or third party provocateurs, and the legions of newly, if vaguely, defined remnant left posting stern lectures on social media.

The gist of these last is that Democrats have lost control because they have drifted too far from their principles, and what is needed is retrenchment, a purge of whatever the self-appointed Guardians of the Left consider apostasy. They point to the Tea Party as a Republican movement back to the fundamentalist right, and see this purge as the reason for the party’s success in last year’s election. It worked for them, they say, so we should do the same.  Yet how many of us engaged in this lofty debate have actually read the 2016 Democratic Party Platform?  Certainly not those people claiming that there’s no difference between the two parties, the two candidates.

But is it even true that Republicans prevailed because of a purification of ideology? The truth is that most people couldn’t care less about ideology, or if they do, they fear it.  They are political pragmatists, and this explains the otherwise incomprehensible shift of many voters from Obama to Trump.

Today’s Republican party is actually a loose coalition of theocrats, libertarians, corporatists, and outright fascists. These groups have very little in common except a fear and hatred of the left, yet they voted, all of them holding their noses, for Donald Trump, a man who not only lacks a coherent ideology, but very likely doesn’t even know what the word means. A demand for ideological purity by any one of these constituencies would have resulted in a rout of Republicans instead of Democrats.

Yet, we hear from the Sanders wing of the Democratic party that that is exactly what we must do in order to win in the future, that what we need is to purge all that is not leftist dogma. Throw out the doubters, the apostates, go with an unabashedly socialist program, and “the People” will rally round.

It is not at all clear why “the People,” who went in unexpected numbers for the Republican party, would suddenly decide socialism was a great idea. Fear of socialism, or what they thought was socialism, was pretty much the glue that held the right-wing coalition together long enough to vote. We love to cite the fact that Clinton got over 3 million more votes than Trump to show the bankruptcy of the system, but neglect the obvious conclusion that the Democratic coalition, yes, the current Democratic coalition so abused by leftist purists, was sufficient to beat Trump if the vote had not had to be filtered through the electoral college.

If the United States were a parliamentarian democracy, like the vast majority of European nations, retrenchment would make sense; go with a pure (and therefore exclusionary) message, get as many votes as you can, then join a coalition to have a share of the governing system. But we’re not. Like it or not, the US is a kind of hybrid beast, a republic in which the executive and legislative branches are elected separately.  The only possible result of a less than plurality vote is a loss, and therefore coalitions must be made before the elections, not after.  If we want to prevail in the next elections, we have to find ways to draw in as many of the electorate as possible, not ways to exclude as many as possible.  And we have to find a common denominator for decent people to rally around, a glue.  Donald Trump is doing his level best to give us that.  Not only are his actions so far unacceptable to most Americans, but he’s exposing Republican cadres as spineless sycophants.  Let’s not sacrifice this gift on the altar of ideological fundamentalism.

The king is dead! What king?

In 1478 BCE, give or take a year, Hatshepsut ascended to the throne of Egypt, her recently deceased husband, the Pharaoh Thutmose II, leaving as heir only his infant son, Thutmose III. Thutmose II, the son of Thutmose I by a secondary wife, married Hatshepsut, the daughter of the same Thutmose I (bear with me here) because she was T. I’s daughter by his primary wife, and thus had a stronger claim to the royal lineage. T.II thought, apparently, that this would cement his position permanently.

It worked, sort of. The only thing is, Hatshepsut was a much better leader than her husband, and when he died after a decade or so, she took control and refused to let go, even after T. III got old enough to rule on his own. I always thought of Thutmose III as being kind of like poor old Prince Charles, whose mom refuses to step down so he can be king.

In any case, Hatshepsut finally kicked the bucket around 1458 BCE, having had an illustrious career as only the second female pharaoh that the Egyptian chroniclers would admit to, and Thutmose III finally got his shot. But his Aunt Hattie’s reign must have stuck in his craw, because eventually either he or his son Thutmose IV (AKA Amenhotep II; are you still with me here?) set about obliterating as much of the record of her accomplishments as he could. This was no mean task, since royal memoirs in those days were literally carved in stone.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and the Republican Congress (nice transition, eh?). It will not do for a man of Trump’s boundless ego to succeed someone who, well, succeeded. So, in cahoots with the congress, which has been doing its level best to make Obama a failure, and failing at that, Trump will try to see to it that any vestige of Obama’s success be obliterated.

The process has already started with an executive order cancelling unspecified parts of the health care act, and will soon continue with more executive orders.

Care to take any bets the congress will suddenly stop whining about the “imperial presidency?”

We well might ask how effective this kind of exercise is. Did it work in ancient Egypt? Ironically, two and a half millennia later, Hatshepsut is not only remembered, but honored as one of the most effective pharaohs Egypt had.

I suspect Obama’s reputation will be restored much sooner than that.  His accomplishments may not be carved in stone, but I predict it won’t be long before people start pining for the good old days when he was in charge.

Trumped up

So now it appears that Mr. Hyde is hidden, and Dr. Jekyll has come out.  It’s hard to know what to make of that.  Trump has completely reversed his opinion of both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, both of whom he’s warmly complimented in the last two days.  It is, of course, completely opposite what he has said about them during the campaign, but contradictions have not exactly been unusual for him.  In a way, it’s reminiscent of his meeting with  Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, during which he was all smiles and conciliation; he seemed cowed by the presence of a head of state.  That didn’t last 24 hours; by that evening, back across the border, he was his old obstreperous self again, apparently to the extent of lying about what was discussed during the meeting.

Many people who supported Trump, and presumably voted for him, are holding out an olive branch, saying that what Trump said during the campaign was just rhetoric, and he’ll calm down now that he’s been elected.  I can’t help feeling that if we don’t fall in line, we will feel the sting of that olive branch, converted into a whip.

I caught the tail end of an interview on the radio with a CEO who supported Trump.  Her take was that, yes, Trump is a jerk, but he has a talent for hiring competent people to actually run his businesses, so his personality is irrelevant.  I’m not sure reducing his unprecedented gall to merely annoying is justifiable, but there is a ray of hope, albeit small and not very satisfying.  If Trump appoints normal Republicans to his administration, and goes off to play golf, his administration will only be a normal Republican disaster, that is, slightly mitigated rather than unmitigated.

The big question for the rest of us is, what next?  The Democratic Party is in disarray at the moment.  I doubt that will last, but we’re between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  Does the party move to the right, to try to accommodate moderate Republicans, or does it move left, and offer its own brand of populism?

I doubt very much that ideology played any part in the election of Donald J. Trump.  We brought, as they say, a knife to a gun fight, and now we’re licking our wounds and arguing about what kind of knife to bring to the next one.

There are almost as many reasons given for his victory as there are pundits, desperately trying to salvage their reputations, after failing miserably to predict almost everything about the election.  There is, however, one factor which I find the most disturbing.  NPR reported on All Things Considered yesterday on a new app-centric polling company called Brigade, which found in results from election day that as much as 40% of registered Democrats crossed over to vote for Trump.

In a campaign full of ingenious imagery, the one that sticks with me is that people just wanted someone who would tip over the table, reset the process to point zero.

We can only hope that Trump is a one-off, and when people see his policies in action, they will be disabused of their illusions, and we can pick it up from there.  Right now, I see neither hope nor despair, just a long wait.

Courage, America, s’il vous plait

At this writing, the governors of 24 states, all but one of them Republican, have announced they will block the settlement of refugees in their states. It seems clear they don’t have the authority to do that under the constitution they are always on about revering, but it makes for political fodder in a year leading up to a major election. Conservatives contrast themselves from liberals by claiming they respect loyalty and duty above all. Such generalizations mean nothing if you can change the particulars any time a risk is involved.

I don’t generally bandy about words like courage and cowardice; God knows I’ve fallen short too many times in the past. But the bar for the settlement of refugees seems low enough even for someone like me. Yes, there is some risk involved, but relatively little. Only one of the attackers in Paris was identified as a possible refugee, the rest were either French or Belgian citizens. Even that one case is far from clear. The fact that the Syrian passport survived the suicide bomber’s destruction suggests it was meant to be found. French police are looking at the validity of the passport as a result.

In spite of your favorite movie or video game, courage is not a matter of acting without fear; it is acting in spite of fear, because a greater good will result. Surely we Americans, so proud of our toughness, can accept the small risk involved with the settlement of refugees from the very people we are so afraid of.

Actually, it would be comforting, in a weird way, to think all of these governors were simply cowards, but I think their real motivation lies in the realm of politics. The Republican party’s lifeblood is fear. They miss no opportunity to exploit it to their advantage, and this latest move falls right into place alongside their rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. This, to me, is far more despicable than mere cowardice, over which one may have little control.

I’ll keep this short. Do you remember all those veterans you were falling all over yourselves to thank last week? Well, this is your opportunity to step up and accept a small amount of risk, and show what you’re made of. That will make all that gratitude so much more meaningful; it won’t look so much like you were just glad to be off the hook for courage.

The Republicare debate

The conservative fury over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is disingenuous, at best, and outright fraudulent at worst.  The American public seems to have a memory limited to only a few months; almost no one remembers that the ideas forming the foundation of the ACA began life as the Republican alternative to the Clinton attempts to reform the system in 1993.  The alternative, introduced by John Chafee, and even the alternative to the alternative, submitted the following year by Don Nickles (that’s Nickles, not Rickles, although the confusion is understandable) contained most of the provisions of the bill that today is called Obamacare.  Most notable were provisions that mandated individuals to buy insurance, and the formation of exchanges.  Clinton’s efforts were, in any case, hounded out of contention by conservatives on both sides of the congressional aisle, and economic bombardment from the health insurance industry.

But because reforming health care was one of the major pillars of Obama’s campaign for the presidency, and because he won handily, Democrats began working on it soon after he was sworn in in 2009.  Most favored a single payer plan: in a nutshell, nationalized health care, like every other industrialized nation in the world, and a few who are not industrialized, enjoys.  It was immediately clear, however, that conservatives in Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, would never go for it, due to their paranoia about socialism (which they don’t seem to understand, but we’ll set that aside).

Because most of the provisions of the earlier Republican alternative plans had been passed into law in Massachusetts in 2006, and because this law was not only very successful, but wildly popular among conservatives, who were beside themselves with praise for it, it was decided that this would form the basis of the new Democratic reform proposal, in order to ensure bipartisan support.

Unfirtunately, they forgot one small detail: soon after the election, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell stated on the Senate floor that the number one priority of his party was to limit Obama to one term.  So much for bipartisanship.  It was clear that Republicans would do whatever they deemed necessary to achieve that goal, even to the point of directly contradicting their own position on the provisions of the health care reform they themselves had put forward a few years earlier.  In 1993, not one single Republican made the slightest whimper concerning the constitutionality of the insurance mandate.  In 2009, it suddenly became a constitutional crisis.  What had changed?  Certainly not the constitution; it was the matter of who would benefit politically if the bill passed.

It is often pointed out that no Republican in Congress voted for the final version of ACA.  That is certainly true.  Hardly anyone points out that it passed anyway, because voters had elected more Democrats than Republicans.  Remember majority rule?  Republicans don’t, except when they’re the majority.  GW and his congressional cronies lost no time gutting every Clinton program they legally could, many by executive decree, when it seemed unlikely it could pass Congress.  Now that Democrats control the Senate, Republicans moan about being left out, by which they mean the majority won’t immediately cave in to their demands.

All of this could be dismissed, with a lot of eye rolling,  as business as usual, but for two things:

First, the conservative Supreme Court has decided that corporations can spend as much as they please on political advertising.  Virtually all of political advertising these days is negative.  The end result is that people are daily bombarded with negativity about not only programs that corporations fear will affect their profits, but also about the government in general.  The strategy seems to be obstructionism from the political side, mitigated by a stream of “a-pox-on-both-their-houses” advertising from the corporate side.  Keep pounding that stuff, and people start to believe it.  Amazingly, in spite of this, Obama was reelected with a larger majority that his first term, in an election that was characterized in no uncertain terms by conservatives as a referendum on Obamacare.  They not only lost the presidential race, but also lost seats in both houses of Congress.  Suddenly, mysteriously, it turned out not to have been a referendum after all.

Second, since many state legislatures are controlled by conservatives, widespread gerrymandering all but guaranteed safe seats for conservative Republicans, effectively insulating them from blowback for their obstructionism.  We see the result every day.  Conservatives say the most outlandish things, and suffer no consequences.

What to do?  First of all, gerrymandering must be made illegal.  I am fully aware that Democrats are just as guilty of this, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.  Unfortunately, nothing will help much without reversal of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates of corporate political money, much, if not most of it from multinationals with no particular loyalty to the United States.  You’d think that that, at least, would be unconstitutional.

At the very least, I hope I have set the record straight, although, to be honest, I know this little posting has about the effect of a blow dart in a hurricane.

Why not to call a pox on both houses

It’s quiz time again, boys and girls!

Consider this:  You have a tree in your yard.  It’s fine and healthy, but a neighbor keeps getting drunk and running into it with his car.  Soon, you begin to worry that it might be causing lasting damage.  Do you

a)  Move your tree,
b) If he hits it again, move it again,
c) Throw up your hands, denouncing the sorry state of drivers, or
d) Try to get your neighbor off the road until he stops drinking.

It may or may not be true that all politicians are corrupt, but this observation does nothing to improve the situation we find ourselves in.  I read a blog post the other day that maintained that the real problem was that public servants should be selfless, and they’re not.  This brought to mind two observations: when I hear people criticize someone for being selfish, what they usually mean is they’re not paying enough attention to their needs; the other thing is that hardly anyone, let alone politicians, is selfless to an ideal degree.  Our elected representatives are going to have their own interests at heart; after all, don’t you?  The problem is how to structure things so that doesn’t conflict with the public interest.  Never mind that we don’t all agree with what that is.  After all, those 40 or so Tea Party congressmen were voted into office, and, by all accounts, their constituents tend to agree with their actions.

In any case, the irony is that these people are apparently acting out of principle — that is to say, out of a feeling that they are doing what the country desperately needs.  You can always reason with cynics, by convincing them what they’re doing is not in their best interests.  If someone is acting out of principle, however, forget it.

If you say the whole government is corrupt and irredeemable, you are really falling in line with the Tea Party.  If that’s what you want, say so.  If not, don’t muddy the waters and let the real perpetrators get away under the cover of cynicism.