Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Trump's new Afghanistan strategy

Monday night, President Trump addressed the nation to discuss his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, about to enter its seventeenth year as the longest war the US has ever been engaged in.

I did not watch it live, but I did hear and read extensive discussion and analysis later by experts who know much more than I do.   Advance rumors had it that Trump would announce an increase of some 4,000 US troops on the ground.  Instead, he indicated that there would be some increase in troop levels but did not specify a number.  He said that both the number of troops and the ending of  US involvement would be determined by conditions, not by a timetable.  He also said that our mission will not be nation-building but rather eliminating Taliban terrorism and strengthening the self-government of the people.

This was a soberly delivered speech.   Its content clearly reflects the thinking of his group of advisers who have been engaged in discussions for months, and gathered last weekend at Camp David for a meeting with the president to define a new Afghanistan strategy.

Just prior to the weekend, and with Steve Bannon gone from the White House, the hair-brained scheme, being pushed by Bannon, to privatize the mission to Eric Prince's Blackwater army of mercenaries, was dropped from the agenda.  So the options came down to three, which were presented to the president:  (1) pull out;  (2) send in more troops;  or (3) shift to a CIA led covert, counterterrorism stategy.

The top military advisers said that pulling out would leave Afghanistan at risk of becoming another terrorist haven for the Islamic State.   And CIA Director Mike Pompao was against taking on such a large scale operation for his agency,   So it left option 2, which the president reluctantly signed off on.

The next step was to clarify what our objectives are and what would be criteria for ending our involvement.   In his speech, Trump spoke about continuing to train Afghan troops and convince them to take more responsibility, as well as trying to combat the corruption in the Afghan government -- all with the ultimate aim of their taking control of their own country, so we can leave without creating the vacuum for the Taliban to take over again.  Details of all this were deliberately left vague.

In fact, there really is not much difference from the later Obama strategy.  Although Trump spoke of "winning," his plan sounds much more like containment than winning.   As one commentator said, there are really only two new elements:  (1) a much tougher stance toward Pakistan over their providing havens for the Taliban;  and (2) trying to bring India into closer alliance,  knowing that will also put pressure on Pakistan, given their long-standing rivalry.

My take-away is best summed up by comments from an NPR guest, whose name I did not get because I tuned in after the introduction.  He said that, given Trump's diametrically opposite campaign positions (insisting we should "get out now"), his observation was that the turn-around shows that Trump "is capable of listening to competent advisers" and changing his mind.   That in itself is encouraging.

However, a word of caution.   Trump has proved before that he can read a speech someone else wrote for him, and then within hours completely undermine and undo the good effect.

Let's see what happens at his controversial campaign-style rally in Phoenix. on  Tuesday night.  Will he does what he has hinted -- pardoning Joe Arpaio, the so-called "toughest sheriff in America," who has been convicted of contempt of court for defying a judge's order to stop profiling Hispanics for immigration status?

Even if he doesn't, there's little doubt he will further inflame the tensions between his core supporters and the growing anti-Trump counter-protesters.  That's why he holds these rallies.   And besides, he's just "given in" and done what he had to do about Afghanistan;  so he's going to have his overpowering urge to let loose and make up for it by acting out.   That's just who he is.

Phoenix's mayor, Greg Stanton, a Democrat, has urged him to delay his trip.  In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Stanton wrote:
"America is hurting . . . largely because Mr. Trump has doused racial tensions with gasoline.  With his planned visit to Phoenix on Tuesday, I fear the president may be looking to light a match."
The Phoenix police department is preparing.   Let's hope it turns out more like Boston than Charlottesville.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

ACLU modifies free speech defense limit

In the wake of violence at the Charlottesville's white supremacy rally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has modified it's blanket endorsement for protection of the right to free-speech.

Founded in 1920, with Helen Keller as one of its founders, the ACLU is the guardian of the Constitution's guarantees of liberty, fighting in the courts and legislatures to, e.g. oppose Trump's Muslim ban, protect voting rights and LGBTQ rights;  but it has also engaged in the controversial defense of the rights of neo-Nazis to hold a protest march in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s.  It's mission has always been to protect free speech, even when the content is repugnant.

Even First Amendment purists accept some exceptions, famously exemplified as not allowing one to shout "Fire" in a crowded theater.   It's a bit more complicated than that today, as explained by's Dara Lind.  Unlike the 1970s neo-Nazi rallies, today there is more divisiveness, more flashpoint anger, more guns, more readiness to use guns.  It's a much more explosive situation.

Nevertheless, the ACLU had sued the City of Charlottesville for the right of the "Unite the Right" organizers to hold their rally in the downtown area.  Now that it has resulted in such violence, the ACLU is rethinking it's position -- or at least the practical interpretation of its position.

Executive Director Anthony Romero has announced that the ACLU will no longer defend free speech rallies where participants plan to carry loaded firearms.  This is consistent with former ACLU director Nadine Strosser: "Government may not censor speech because of its viewpoint, but it may censor speech because of its effects."

Essentially, what this compromise points up is the difficulty of resolving a conflict between two guaranteed rights.  Here it's the right to free speech vs the right to bear arms, as that right has been interpreted (incorrectly, in my opinion) by a divided Supreme Court.  (Forgive a moment of levity, put perhaps we could say there was a misspelling in the Second Amendment.   The founders really meant "the right to bare arms.")

But what if a group applying for a rally permit objects and insists that they be allowed to carry arms.   Romero has a ready answer for that:   "Well, we don't have to represent them.   They can find somebody else."   In other words, the ACLU is not the police;  they're just lawyers.

But very powerful lawyers, who have successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court, as well as every-day kinds of defense of liberty and rights.  It's a worthy cause to support.


Monday, August 21, 2017

What should be done about the Confederate monuments?

Mostly in the Old South, but literally all over the country (Brooklyn, Boston, San Diego) there are monuments and plaques to generals and other leaders of the secessionist Confederate States of America.

The movement to take them down gained momentum after the 2015 massacre in a Charleston church by an avowed white supremacist intent on killing African-Americans.   South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, now President Trump's Ambassador to the United Nations, ordered the removal of the Confederate flag that flew on the state capitol grounds;   and that was accomplished with support from the state legislature amid little protest.

But now the radical right groups have taken up the cause. Last weekend a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia planned by white supremacists, was ostensibly to protest the planned removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.   It turned violent and resulted in three deaths.

Now the question of what to do about the hundreds of monuments has become urgent, as the protest fervor increases and is fueled by comments from President Trump.   North Carolina passed a law last year forbidding their removal, but a group of defiant protesters pulled down a statue in Durham.   Some of those protesters are now demanding to be arrested -- they did break the law -- to further dramatize their act of civil disobedience.

President Trump says we should not destroy "our history and culture."   Tina Fey had a quick answer:   Donald Trump wouldn't hesitate one minute to tear down a historical statue if he could build condominiums on the plot.  He already proved that when he defied the "historic preservation" designation of a renowned Art Deco building in New York to build some fancy new condominiums.

Aside from comic quips, though, what is the serious answer -- especially now that a Democratic minority leader in the Georgia state legislature and a leading candidate for governor, Rep. Stacie Abrams, is calling for removal of the biggest Confederate monument of all:   the Rushmore-like, monumental carving on the side of Stone Mountain?

Stone Mountain Park is now a 3200 acre park surrounding the largest granite outcropping in the world, with lakes, hiking trails, and camping sites.   It is a major outdoor recreational venue, site of concerts, fireworks displays, as well as family outings.   The mountain base has a circumference of five miles.  On one side, a carving depicts three Confederate leaders on horseback, President Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

This presents a far bigger controversy than a single statue occupying a few square feet of ground in an often forgotten site.   In addition to being the central focus of an outdoor recreation park and a veneration of the Old South, Stone Mountain was the site in 1915 of the revival of the Ku Klux Klan as an organization.   The land owners, at the time, granted the Klan the perpetual right to hold celebrations there, although that right was abrogated when the State of Georgia bought the property in 1960.

The carving itself was begun by the sculptor who later worked on Mount Rushmore.   The Stone Mountain project began in 1916, was abandoned for some 30 years, then restarted after the state bought it; and it was finally completed in 1972.

Please don't misunderstand.   Those are merely historical and logistical challenges that make this particular monument more difficult to remove.  It does not change the basic moral question.

So let's begin to tackle that basic question.   These monuments do have historical significance.   But some have asked:   Who puts up statues to those who start wars and lose them?   Are these men heroes?   Or are they traitors?    After all, they attacked and fought against our nation, albeit a divided nation from which their states had seceded, dividing the young United State.

They were on the wrong side of history.   Not just because they lost but because the core of their argument -- states' rights -- was based on the preserving the institution and economic power of slavery,  which we now consider antithetical to democracy and our national values.

There is no moral argument for slavery. 

It is one of the immutable wrongs in a civilized world.

Unquestionably the issue was slavery, however much later revisionists want to claim that it was a question of states' rights.   But I submit that the question of self-determination for states was not sufficient to fight a war over -- except as the issue that they wanted to self-determine was the right to continue to own slaves.  That was the "states' right" that they fought a war over.

So, here's Point 1:  These monuments commemorate the men who led the South in losing a civil war, based on a universal wrong.  Yes, I know the tired arguments that it was about valor and honor and sacrifice of ancestors that were fighting for what they wanted to preserve -- their way of life.    But, while true for them, it is no longer credible as a rationalization for the horrors of slavery.

Point 2:  The statues were not erected in the aftermath of that Civil War but much later -- during two periods when the racial struggle was being fought once again.  Those two time periods of Confederate monument building were:  (1) The early years of the 20th century, when the Jim Crow laws were being enacted and white people wanted to reassert their dominance after the economic devastation of the war and the Reconstruction that followed.   (2) the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s-70s over the rights of African-Americans to have the same civil and humane rights as white Americans.

These were both periods of black people asserting their equality and white people resisting.   That's when they put up statues to their dead heroes and the Lost Cause.   The statues represent the wish to return to the past, to white privilege and white supremacy.

That is, that's what they represent for white people:  privilege and supremacy.

But think for a moment what they represent for our black citizens.  Oppression, slavery, cruelty, dehumanization, forceful separation of families, night riders terrorizing black communities, lynchings -- and no education, no voting rights, nothing but what the white owner allowed you to have.

Now, think about that for a while.    Is that what we want to honor and celebrate?


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Winning protest signs

Of the tens of thousands of counter-protesters at the right-wing "Free Speech" rally that fizzled in Boston, there were thousands of home-made signs.   Here are my favorites of the ones I saw in pictures of the crowd:

"Justice, Not Just Us"

"You know things are bad when
a straight white guy makes a sign."

"Will trade racists for refugees"


Boston does it right. Sheer number of counter-protesters overwhelms rally

Boston's response to the planned "Free Speech" rally benefited from Charlottesville's experience.   As Shakespeare has Hamlet say:  "The readiness is all."

Boston had a week to prepare, following the debacle in Virginia -- and they did.   Police had fenced off two separate areas of the Boston Common and had deployed as many as 500 police officers to keep the rally-goers and the counter-protesters separated.    Good will, as well as Bostonians' city pride, made for determined get-out-the-crowd efforts.

The group planning the rally insisted that they were not affiliated with the white supremacist, racist, or neoNazi groups that sponsored the Charlottesville rally.  However, the advance list of planned rally speakers left no doubt which side their "Free Speech" movement sympathized with -- the ones who claimed that marching with Nazi regalia and racist signs and carrying bats and shields was simply their free speech expression;  and that, if only the counter-protesters hadn't showed up, there would have been no violence.   Nice try.

In the end, the sheer numbers of good Boston people overwhelmed the paltry crowd on the other side -- 15,000 peaceful protesters were marching through the streets toward the park by noon, with thousands more arriving in the next hour.  The whole event just fizzled.

USA Today reported that "only a handful" of rally-goers, wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats were trying to make their way to their area of the park, which was made difficult just by the huge numbers of people on the streets leading to the park.    Other sources estimated that maybe two dozen rally-goers actually showed up in their designated area.

By 1:30, roughly 90 minutes after the "Free Speech" rally was supposed to begin, the Boston Police Department tweeted out a formal notice that the rally was "officially over," and the demonstrators had left the Commons.

It's not clear how much the paltry number who made it to the rally area was due to people staying away or due to simply being unable to get through the massive crowds surrounding the Commons.   There were a few reports of counter-protesters surrounding a lone rally-goer to prevent him from getting through.

There were a few skirmishes and some bad behavior.    But none of the violent fist-fighting and beatings seen at Charlottesville.

What a difference a week makes!    As discouraged and pained as last weekend left us feeling, there is sheer joy this weekend in feeling that goodness has triumphed over evil.    Oh, how we've been needing that in this fraught Trump world.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

White House resignations and firings

1.  A White House spokesperson said the Gen. Kelly and Steve Bannon had mutually agreed that today would be Mr. Bannon's last day on the president's staff.   Bannon reportedly offered his resignation, and Trump had told senior aides that he was planning on letting Bannon go.  Other sources said he was fired. Either way, his ousting very good news.

   At least that was my thought, until I saw evening news shows, which report that Bannon is returning to Breitbart News to a position of power;  and he has told outside sources that he's "going to war for Trump."   Repeat:   for Trump.  Apparently, his view is that the Trump presidency has been taken over by the generals, bankers, and New York liberals in the White House.  And they are the once he's going to war with -- with all the media tools he knows how to use.

2.   In addition to the resignations earlier in the week of large numbers of CEO's who were members of Trump's corporate advisers, it was announced yesterday that all the remaining members of the president's Council on the Arts and Humanities have resigned.  

These arts and humanities advisers were holdovers from the Obama administration who had agreed to remain until replacements were named -- replacements that had yet to be chosen.    Their letter to the president was tough and candid, including these words:
"The false equivalencies you push cannot stand. . . .  We cannot sit idly by, the way your West Wing advisors have, without speaking out against your words and actions. . . .  Your values are not American values. . . .  If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office too."
The CEO resignations is a different matter.   Trumps thinks of himself as being of their same world;  these are appointments that he made himself.   But they turned against him for similar moral reasons, in addition to seeing that a failed presidency would also lead to severe economic consequences.    Top financier Carl Ichan, someone that Trump had greatly admired and sought advice from, also announced late yesterday, that he is withdrawing from an informal advisory role.,

3.  At least eight big charity groups have cancelled plans to hold their fund-raising events at Mar-a-Lago because of the Charlottesville fallout.  These include the Cleveland Clinic, the American Cancer Society. the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the Susan G. Comen Foundation.  Each event cancelled represents a loss in revenue to Mar-a-Lago of between $175,000 and $250,000.

4.  Although none of them has resigned, the top five military chiefs -- the Chiefs of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Coast Guard -- each has released a statement condemning racism, white supremacy, and the neo-Nazi movements, in obvious contradiction to what Trump said.  None of them named Trump in their statements, but the significant thing is how unusual it is for active duty military leaders to ever make any statement that could be misconstrued as taking a political position.   They obviously felt that their speaking out on this subject was worth taking that risk.

5.  Numerous Republicans in Congress have made statements in direct contradiction to the position taken by President Trump.  The two former Presidents Bush issued a joint statement.  Former Vice President Al Gore, when asked what Trump should do at this point, had a simple, one-word answer:  Resign.

It is quite apparent that the president is becoming increasingly isolated.   Losing his chief strategist;  losing his advisory boards;  losing support of the military chiefs, as well as Republicans in Congress -- this is a major defeat, clearly of his own making and against the advice of those close to him -- except perhaps Bannon.  Which makes it all the more confounding that some of his staff have told reporters that Trump says he feels free and energized after having spoken his mind.

Or dare we hope that his "free and energized" means he's already anticipating how he will feel . . . after he does resign?


Friday, August 18, 2017

Trump's embrace of white supremacy groups has far-reaching effects

The split sparked by President Trump's embrace of the white nationalist groups, which so delighted David Duke and Richard Spencer of those groups, is not only a replay of the civil war over racial divisions.   It has wide-ranging implications, including the economy.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management, told a CNBC anchor on Thursday that, if Trump's economic adviser Gary Cohn were to resign over this, "it could crash the markets."  

That White House Economic Adviser, Gary Cohn, who is Jewish, was reported by the New York Times to be "upset and disgusted" by Trump's response to the violence at the Charlottesville rally.   The groups Trump has been defending includes the Neo-Nazi, swastika-wielding, Heil, Hitler-saluting marchers.  Thus far, Cohn has made no public comments about his boss's remarks.

As a former Goldman Sachs financier, Cohn is not alone in the finance community.  Trump had appointed two advisory councils, made up of CEO's of leading corporations.   Elon Musk had resigned some time ago in protest of Trump's climate policies;  two others had resigned some time back over immigration policies and one over the transgender tweet.

But then an avalanche began this week with Kenneth Frazier's resignation over Trump's comments on the racial conflicts in Charlottesville.   Five more followed suit;  and, after one group had already written a letter to tell Trump they were disbanding their group, he quickly tweeted out a statement that he had dissolved both advisory groups.

When a Republican president loses the support of such a select groups of corporate CEO's -- not over economic policies, but over a moral issue that they know will sharply affect the economy, as well -- then he might as well resign right now.

Donald Trump cannot repair the problem he has created.   This latest issue is about race, nationalism and, yes, immigration;   but it is only the last straw.   This is not a blunder on Trump's part.   This is a revelation -- finally and undeniably -- of the lack of moral substance and moral compass in the very heart of this administration, the president himself.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Paraphrasing Walt Whitman -- "Charlottesville contains multitudes."

About the time I began a two-week vacation from writing a daily blog here on ShrinkRap, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman published a piece about Trump-overload, Trump-weariness that struck a chord in me.   I saved it;  and, with each passing day, it has become more apt for the continuing saga of this maddening Trump presidency.

Krugman describes having a friend send him an email suggesting he read an article about how Trump's brain works.  He says a voice inside his head said, "No thanks, I would prefer not to. . . . I'm full."

Thanks exactly the way I have come to feel about the daily, sometimes hourly, avalanche of news that Donald Trump generates.   And that is never more true than what I came back to from my break -- the weekend events in Charlottesville, the president's inadequate reaction, and everyone's feelings about that.

Condensed in this one weekend is a microcosm of the failure of the Trump presidency. As Walt Whitman might have said:   It "contains multitudes," including:  (1) the racist/fascist mentality leading up to the clashes and the murder;  (2) including the several insufficient statements President Trump made supposedly to put it to rest, but which inflamed it;  (3) the appalling, disaster of a press briefing on Tuesday , when the charge "temperamentally unfit for the presidency" finally focused, laser-like, for all to see;  and then (4) what does it all mean for where we are as a nation, with this president, and what do we do about it?

That is a multitude too many for me to deal with in one post.   It's something we'll come back to, as we will as a society, again and again.    What I want to focus on in this one is the president's role as a moral leader, a role that Donald Trump is so woefully inadequate, as a human being, to fill.

HuffPost's Igor Bobic put it this way in his August 16th essay:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said the presidency ispreeminently a place of moral leadership.” By drawing an equivalence between white nationalist groups and people protesting on behalf of equality . . . Donald Trump has ceded that responsibility.
Trump ignited a firestorm of bipartisan criticism this week when he blamed "many sides" and "both sides" for the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and defended racist demonstrators there. Protesters . . .  waved Nazi flags and burning torches, and shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans as they marched, but Trump ― after describing racism as "evil" on Monday -- insisted Tuesday that many people at the rally “were there to innocently protest” the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
What Trump did today is a moral disgrace,” Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer said Tuesday. Prominent conservative radio host Charlie Sykes called Trump’s equivocal condemnation of white supremacists a "moral dumpster fire."

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) framed the issue in a similar way, tweeting:  “There is no question who he [Trump] is. The critical moral question is: who are we? We can not surrender America to Trump.”
Other Democrats, like former Barack Obama aide David Axelrod, wondered whether Trump would make some sort of effort to heal wounds and bring the nation together . . . .  It’s become increasingly clear, however, that Trump has no interest in taking such steps.

During an angry news conference in New York on Tuesday, Trump parried questions about the so-called alt-right movement by asking, “What about the alt-left?” While in the past he’d been happy to issue moral judgments about other politicians, fellow heads of state, journalists and clothing retailers, here, facing questions about racism, he appeared to reject the role of moral arbiter.
“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” he said, after a reporter asked whether he was placing white supremacists and those who protested against them on the same footing.
It wasn’t just pundits and politicians who urged Trump to live up to the moment. Historians, too, said that with his reluctance to single out racism and bigotry for condemnation, Trump has ceded the presidency’s moral authority and threatened America’s leadership at home and abroad.
Trump lost “the moral standing to speak for or about America,” Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol told HuffPost. “Every second he is in office he damages and endangers us. In this instance, he is directly encouraging organized, violent white supremacists who will bring public agony to many places for months to come.”
Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer, called Trump’s remarks on Tuesday “morally ambiguous” at best. He predicted that Trump’s behavior will further erode the public’s trust in political institutions.
We have to be in a position, both as a country and as a global community, where we believe what the president says, where you have some innate confidence that things are in fairly good hands,” Meacham said.  “And I think for a lot of people, that level of confidence started low [with Trump], and it’s gotten to be almost nonexistent. So I think it’s an exacerbating moment.”. . .
Barack Obama biographer and Washington Post editor David Maraniss was more explicit, calling on all living former presidents to make a joint statement urging Trump to resign.

Veteran NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, meanwhile, said he doubts whether Trump can reverse the damage he’s done in the wake of Charlottesville.  "He's going to have to find a way to stitch the country together again, and frankly, I don't know if he's capable of doing that in his own mind," Brokow said.  He's the moral authority by the office that he has, and it's about time for him to exercise that."
People on both political sides are calling this a "pivotal moment" for Trump's presidency.   Privately, a large number of Republican leaders are said to be aghast, horrified.   One Republican strategist said that "Every member that I've talked to has been apoplectic" about Trump's news conference.  This is not a good day for the Trump presidency.  It is not a good day for race relations, nor for America.

And yet, the smoldering racism has been there for some time, putting the lie to the false narrative that Obama's election to the White House meant we were in a "post-race" society.    It is a national conversation we need to have.

Services were held yesterday for Heather Heyer, the 32 year old activist who was killed by a neo-Nazi's ramming his car into the peaceful counter-protesters crowd.   Her mother spoke eloquently about Heather's positive activism, saying that her Facebook motto was:  "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."  The mother said that she'd rather have her daughter here, but if that can't be, "let's make her death count."


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A president's words really do matter

Democrats and Republicans both sharply criticized President Trump for waiting almost 48 hours to denounce,  by name, the hate-filled, violence-prone white supremacist groups that gathered in Charlottesville for a rally -- one that resulted in the death of a peaceful counter-protester.

When he finally did manage to name the "KKK, Neo-Nazis, white supremacy, and other hate groups," he was reading from a script prepared for him.   They were not his own heart-felt words.

That was Monday afternoon.   Then he got to work sending out tweets -- and they were not reinforcements of his speech, nor expressions of regret for his tardy reluctance.   In fact, they seem more like dog whistles to reassure his base that he's still got their back.

In contrast to the 45 hours it took him to denounce hate groups, he needed only 45 minutes to send out a snarky, insulting response to the protest resignation of Kenneth Frazier, an African-American member of his Council on Manufacturing and the CEO of Merck Pharmaceutical Co.   As of this writing, now a total of five CEO's from that group have resigned in response to the president's delay in denouncing the alt-right groups.   And Trump's response to those resignations from his Council?  A tweet:

"For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!"
- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2017

But put aside the back and forth attack and counterattack.   What are the facts on effects of a president's bully pulpit words?

Brian Lervin, of the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism, was interviewed by Ari Melber on MSNBC's "The Beat" Monday night.   Levin supplied the following data:
   1.  Following President George W. Bush's emotionally moving speech in the wake of 9/11, in which he said "Islam is peace" -- in the six days following that, there was a 66% DECREASE in hate crimes.

   2.  When then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump first called for a Muslim ban, during the ensuing five days, there was an 87.5% INCREASE in hate crimes.

Another bit of evidence of the effectiveness (good or bad) of the bully pulpit -- even when the message comes in code or dog-whistle disguise:   just look at the response of David Duke and the bloggers representing the white supremacy groups.   They took it as good news for them that Trump didn't initially denounce them by name.   Even when he eventually did name the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, the long delay told them that he only did it for political expedience.   It did not come from his heart or his principles.

Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke called Saturday's rally in Charlottesville "a turning point" for their groups who want to "take back our country" and "carry out President Trump's promises."   Eli Moseley, a leader of one of these new alt-right groups, told ProPublica that Trump has served as "a megaphone" for far-right ideas.

They know what he promised all during his campaign.   A delayed, scripted, forced speech for political expediency doesn't fool them.   A president's words from the bully pulpit can have a strong effect -- if his people believe he means it.   This president has no credibility, except with his base.   And he's losing that.

It's going to take strong action if he wants to undo that -- changing some policy initiatives, firing some people, speaking from his heart about his change of direction.   Otherwise, we're going to see more rallies from these folks, escalating violence, more chaos in the White House.   And a more divided country than we already are.

In order to save the country, Trump will have to lose his base.   Or else the Republican Party will have to lose Trump.   Maybe Mueller will give them convincing evidence to do just that.


PS:   Once again, in this rapid news cycle we're in, news keeps upstaging what I had already written to post the next morning.   Trump spoke to the media again Tuesday afternoon -- and essentially went back to his original "many sides are to blame" for the violence.   "What about the alt-left?" he asked.    Some of them were armed, too, he claimed.   He seems incapable of understanding a moral position.

This media event showed an angry president, verbally almost out of control.  It was his reaction to being forced (by public pressure, by his staff) to read that statement yesterday.  He has to do something to retaliate.   We almost overlooked his first try at that Tuesday morning, when he said he was thinking about pardoning Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was recently convicted of contempt of court for not obeying a judge's order concerning over-zealous policy of ID checks of immigrants.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

If only . . .

2000:    Al Gore won the popular vote; but a challenge to the vote count in Florida wound up at the Supreme Court which, in a very controversial decision to end the recount, gave Florida, and thus the electoral college majority and the presidency, to George W. Bush.
   2001:   President Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Climate Protocol, an international agreement on climate.
   2003:  President Bush led the U.S. into an unnecessary war in Iraq.

2016:   Hillary Clinton won the popular vote;   but in a great surprise outcome, Donald J. Trump won three rust belt states by small margins, giving him the majority of electoral college votes and the presidency.
   2017:   President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement.
   2017:   President Trump flirts with war with North Korea.

Think how much would be different if only Al Gore and Hillary Clinton had been our presidents . . .


The pattern of news cycles we've become inured to in just six months of the Donald J. Trump presidency is this:   whatever dominates the news today will be replaced in a day or two by something else of equal or greater concern.

Last week, the calmer heads in the Trump administration (Kelly, McMaster, Tillerson, and Mattis) began to prevail in reassuring the public that we are not, after all -- despite the commander-in-chief's rhetoric and bombast -- about to go to nuclear war with North Korea.

So would we then, maybe, have a few days respite, while our publicity-craving president vacationed at his golf club?


With potential terror from North Korea temporarily on hold, the tides shifted to domestic terrorism.   True, the gathering of nationalist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi, KKK groups -- the "Alt-Right" -- in Charolttesville, Virginia to protest the removal of Robert E. Lee's statue had been planned without regard to the president's schedule.   A local, alt-right blogger, Jason Kessler, organized the "Unite the Right" rally to bring together all these "take back our nation" groups to "carry out Trump's agenda" to "Make American Great Again."

About 1,000 showed up, many from out of state, plus hundreds of local counter-protesters -- and we know what happened.   Torchlight, night-time parades (no crosses burned but reminiscent of KKK rallies and night-rides, nevertheless);  then the next day, violent clashes with police and anti-fascist counter-protesters.  There were minor injuries, until a 20 year old, Hitler-admirer from Ohio decided to use his car as a weapon, plowing it into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many others.

There are two big stories here:   (1)  Who are these new Alt-Right people?   They don't look like the old crowd.   Mostly young men, who look better educated and better dressed than previous generations.  In fact, some of the crowd pictures -- if you removed their symbols and signs -- could be mistaken for a pre-football game, college campus rally.

(2) The other big story here, and the one that has dominated the news, is President Trump's response -- specifically his refusal to denounce by name these hate groups who brought their white supremacy and violent intent to a peaceful town.

As is now famously known, Trump condemned the violence -- but then he had to add "from many sides."    And then, in case you missed it, he repeated:   "from many sides."

In other words, he was making a moral equivalence between neo-Nazi and KKK groups with peaceful, democracy-protecting counter-protesters.    And no amount of public outcry seemed to convince him he had made a mistake.   Even though his National Security Adviser, his daughter, and numerous Republican political leaders put out their own statements calling the hates groups out specifically.

This doesn't come in a vacuum.   We have observed, again and again, that Trump insults and picks fights with leaders of our democratic allies, but refuses to utter one negative word about many autocratic leaders -- Russia's Vladimir Putin, Egypt's el-Sisi, Turkey's Erdogan, Phillipine's murderous Duterte.

All of which led Paul Krugman to address this in his New York Times column yesterday, in which he made the dramatic statement:  "In short, these days we have a president who is really, truly, deeply un-American, someone who doesn’t share the values and ideals that made this country special."

Disputing Sarah Palin's claim about the "real America" being its rural and small town residents who agree with her narrow political views, Krugman defines "real America" as:
". . .  a multiracial, multicultural land of great metropolitan areas as well as small towns. More fundamentally, what makes America America is that it is built around an idea: the idea that all men are created equal, and are entitled to basic human rights. Take away that idea and we’re just a giant version of a two-bit autocracy.
"And maybe that is what we have, in fact, become. For Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the murderous white supremacists in Charlottesville finally confirms what has become increasingly obvious: The current president of the United States isn’t a real American.

"Real Americans understand that our nation is built around values, not theblood and soilof the marchers' chants . . .["blood and soil" was a chant used at rallies in Nazi Germany] . . .  what makes you an American is your attempt to live up to those values, not the place or race your ancestors came from. And when we fall short in our effort to live up to our ideals, as we all too often do, at least we realize and acknowledge our failure.

"But the man who began his political ascent by falsely questioning Barack Obama’s place of birth a blood-and-soil argument if ever there was one — clearly cares nothing about the openness and inclusiveness that have always been essential parts of who we are as a nation.

"Real Americans understand that our nation was born in a rebellion against tyranny. They feel an instinctive aversion to tyrants everywhere, and an underlying sympathy for democratic regimes, even those with whom we may currently have disputes. . . . 

"Real Americans expect public officials to be humbled by the responsibility that comes with the job. . . .

"Real Americans understand that being a powerful public figure means facing criticism. . . . 

"Finally, real Americans who manage to achieve high office realize that they are servants of the people, meant to use their position for the public good. . . .

I wouldn't go so far as to call Trump "un-American," although I agree with Krugman that his performance of the office of president often gives the appearance of coming from an autocrat, not a democrat.

How much responsibility falls on this president for what happened?   There is no doubt that, especially at his campaign rallies -- which he continues to have, by the way -- he encouraged this rage and hatred and divisiveness.   Many at the Charlottesville rally wore the red, Trump MAGA hats.   David Duke, former KKK leader and sometime office-seeker, was there.  He praised the gathering to unite these groups, which he promised "would fulfill the promises of Donald Trump."

I'd love to know what Donald Trump, the man, is thinking about all this right now.  Any regrets?   Does he take it in?    Does he think about his role in this?   I'm not sure that he does, at all.


PS:  After I wrote this on Monday, Trump held a press briefing and read another statement, saying:  "Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans."

Frankly, it's too late -- coming two days later on his third attempt, and only after so much pressure and public denunciation -- so that it really does not change anything.

He made his position very clear with his first statement.   That's the way these Alt-Right groups heard it:  saying "on many sides," they heard as including the counterprotesters, whom they blame for the violence.  If they hadn't showed up, one wrote, their "Unite the Right" rally would have been non-violent.   Never mind the fact that the Alt-Right groups came with torches, sticks, shields, and bats.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions gets slightly better marks than his boss.   From the beginning, he was willing to call it "domestic terrorism" and said the Justice Department is opening a civil rights investigation of a potential hate crime.

Monday, July 31, 2017

August break

Dear Friends and ShrinkRap readers:

Now that Republicans have blown their chance to repeal Obamacare and have nothing further to offer on that;  now that chaos and staff turnover in the White House have reached new heights, promising ever more vulgarity and infighting, and with a wannabe Mini-Trump as the new communications director;  now that Congress has tied Trump's hands to prevent him from lifting sanctions on Russia;  and now that Sessions is sitting tight, and Mueller keeps on digging deeper --- 

And now that the leaders of the Boy Scouts of America and the New York Police Department have both felt the need to send out letters that disassociate their organizations from elements of the president's official speech to their groups -- 

And now that our military chiefs have refused to accept a presidential tweet as an official order, saying they will make no changes in their transgender policy until a formal order, with a plan for implementation, comes down from the Pentagon --

And now that August is upon us,

It seems a good time to take a break from the daily routine of writing a blog post.   I'm going to try a two week hiatus and see if I can bear the restraint.

If the president resigns, or gets impeached, or charged with crimes, I probably will have to comment.   Otherwise, I'm going to take a rest from politics and news.

Many thanks for your interest.   I suggest you check  back on August 15th and see what's going on.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

One more attempt to explain Trump's impulsive firing of trans military. Plus -- another rebuke for a speech he gave

Let's start by acknowledging that Donald Trump does not always have reasons that make any sense to others for what he does.   But something as disruptive to the lives of thousands of trans men and women already serving in our military forces needs a reason -- or needs to be revoked.

We've already run through these possibilities:
1.  Always, anytime, with Trump, it could just be to create a distraction from some other chaos going on in this administration -- or even just to get attention focused back on him.
2.  It may have been to fulfill a campaign promise to anti-LGBT groups, like the Family Research Council.
3.  It may be part of negotiating the budget proposal, in which Trump is trying to find money to pay for his Wall;  so he saw trans medical expenditures as a trade-off.   Problem is that the total spent on a small number doesn't really add up to a significant amount -- actually it's less than 15% of what the military spends every year on Viagra.
4.  It could be to solve a problem of disruption in the military ranks -- but that "disruption" is non-existent, from anecdotal accounts, official reports, and from research by the Rand Corporation.
5.  It could be pure politics.   By abolishing something that was started by a Democratic administration, they think they will force Democrats, in Rust Belt working class areas, to defend taxpayer money being spent on sex change surgery.  In fact, early responses suggest that Trump's tweet-order is backfiring as resistance to trans people falls away with actual experience.

But overnight, another possible rationale was identified.   It was, at first, a surprise to me;  but it makes sense.

Trump has been bullying and humiliating his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, trying to get him to resign.  He's angry because he was counting on Sessions as AG to protect him from any investigation by the FBI -- and then he went and recused himself.   Actually, he had to;  it's the rule in the FBI.   But Trump obliviously just continues to act as though it's nothing but a betrayal and personal affront to himself.

The result of all these unfair attacks and bullying of Sessions is that the crowd Trump considers his base is beginning to turn against him.   See, if there's anybody they like more than Trump, it's Sessions.   He's been their champion for years -- and they like very much what he's been doing as AG on immigration, voting rights, going back to law and order policies, and reigniting the war on drugs.

So, finally, here's this thinking.   By sacrificing transgender service members, Trump tried to placate those ultra-conservative, alt-right supporters that were drifting away from him because of the way he's treating Sessions.

Nothing in any of these plausible explanations makes Trump look any better.  He plays to a 40% and shrinking base;   he's beginning to lose the opportunistic Republicans in Congress who just want to get their agenda passed while they can -- and then they'll pull out of the dive and turn against their albatross.

They're in danger of waiting too late on many important things.   But at least they held firm on the Russian sanctions, a potential showdown with Trump on whether he will veto it.  And Sen. Grassley, Chair of Senate Judiciary Committee, sent out a tweet to discourage Trump from sacking Sessions.   He said the committee agenda was so full, they couldn't get to confirmation of a new AG before the end of the year.

We may be seeing the beginning of the end for Trump.


PS:  Update: This was written several days ago and has been in the waiting queue behind all the breaking news.   As far as we know six days after Trump sent out the original tweet, he has not followed up with any actual orders to the Department of Defense;  and military chiefs are saying they will make no changes until they have been given actual orders and an implementation plan to follow.

Don't be surprised if Trump just drops the whole thing.  He quickly pivoted to encouraging police officers to "not be so nice to those thugs," you know, the ones that have been picked up but not yet convicted of anything.  He told a group of officers this -- which prompted corrective responses from the New York Police Department, and others, re-iterating their standards for treatment of suspects, which does NOT include roughing them up.   Twice in one week, Trump has been rebuked for the content of a speech:  first, the Boy Scouts and now the police.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Republicans' attitude about health care

Sometime after midnight Thursday, the showdown came.   Senate Republicans had exhausted all their options, and all they had left was what they call the "skinny repeal" -- and what I call their "bait and switch" plan.

They took the existing Affordable Care Act, which they have taught people to hate, and proposed repealing certain aspects (like the individual mandate) that they hoped would appeal to this or that senator -- and they put it up for a vote, with the bespoke understanding that the House would not later vote it into law.

It was to be merely a ruse -- the "bait," if you will -- to trigger a negotiated compromise bill, worked out by House and Senate members together in a reconciliation conference committee.   They couldn't go to conference with the House unless they got 51 votes for something.

When the roll call vote began around 1:30 am, it was expected that all 48 Dems and 2 Repubs (Collins and Murkowski) would vote No.   Even though probably half the Repubs would have strongly opposed the skinny repeal as law, they were willing to vote for it as a means to the goal.  That would have led to a 50-50 tie, and VP Pence would have cast a Yes vote to break the tie.

But that wily old maverick, John McCain, one week out of surgery for a brain tumor, cast his vote as No.   And the bill -- the bait and switch -- failed.

But here's what I was setting this up to tell -- an observation on what's become of our society.   We no longer have each other's backs;  or, put another way, we are not "our brothers' keepers."   At least not when it comes to arcane legislative procedures, far removed from your neighbor's actual sickbed -- or his house destroyed by hurricane.

Reaction the morning after from the conservative, "Fox and Friends" host, Steve Doocy, was snarky and sarcastic.  He said:  "Congratulations.  The healthy people are paying for the sick people."   The implied message, it seemed to me, was:   'You nincompoops.  You just agreed to keep on paying for all these losers who refuse to take responsibilities for their own lives.'

It's the same as wanting a flat tax, or a consumer tax, so that the billionaire pays the same tax rate as his golf caddie or his wife's cleaning woman.    They don't really want a society that takes care of all its members.   They don't want to recognize that the billionaire can't get there and stay there without the consumers of his products, the construction workers who build the road to his factory, the servants who make his life easy.

But leave aside even moral economics.   They don't even, when you come right down to it, they don't believe in the concept of insurance.   You pay a small amount over the years, when you don't need insurance, so there's a pool of money to pay your big expenses when you do need it.    That's what it comes down to.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Republican health care bill defeated

1:40 am.  Vote on partial repeal, the skinny repeal, of the Affordable Act.

 Senator John McCain joined Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and all 48 Democratic senators in defeating the Republican Partial Repeal of Obamacare bill, the so-called "skinny repeal" bill, with a vote of 51 to 49.

The Affordable Care Act survives.  Since the Republican bill did not pass, all the talk of conference committee is irrelevant.   However, Minority leader Chuck Schumer called for bipartisan members to work together in the Health Committee to make improvements in the ACA.

What kind of bill can we expect as a compromise between a terrible House bill and a disasterous Senate bill?

[I'm writing this just before midnight, with an expected vote on the Senate "skinny" health care bill expected around 2 am.  It's fate is unknown at this point.]

In this whole absurd process of Republicans settling for a nothing bill just so they can go to a conference committee with House members, nobody seems to have thought about what can possibly come out of this.

Here's what will happen.   It will nominally be a bipartisan committee, but Republicans will have a majority.   Unless they all agree to do something different, the usual thing is to find compromises that both House and Senate can vote to pass.   So Democrats don't hold a lot of cards at this point.  It is essentially a reconciliation of the differences in the House Republican bill and the Senate Republican bill.

So take the best parts of the House bill and the best parts of the Senate skinny bill, and what have you got?   Still a disaster that will have its own death spiral.

And, if they can't agree and the negotiations break down, as sometimes happens, then the House can quickly pass the Senate version -- and it will be law.   Graham and McCain and others, who say they are only voting for the skinny bill with the assurance that it will not become the law, better think again.

Republicans set to vote Yes on a bill they don't want to become law -- and other absurdities of our government today

Senate Republican leaders were still working on their "skinny" repeal bill that they plan to try to pass in the wee hours of Friday morning.   But they are openly saying they hope their colleagues in the House doesn't pass it.

What kind of madhouse is this?   By today's White House-Capitol Hill standards, it's just another ordinary day -- surreal and maddening.   Here's how Donna Cassade, the Associated Press's Congressional News Editor explains it.
"Vote yes, hope no.

"Senate Republicans want to back a still-being-written bill to erase some of Democrat Barack Obama's health care law, but they don't want the House to quickly approve it, send it to President Donald Trump and have him sign it into law. . .

"The GOP hope [is] that whatever they pass — skinny, a bit more robust, anything — is the means to an end. And the end is a House-Senate conference in which lawmakers hammer out a final health care bill fulfilling their years-long promise to repeal and replace Obamacare."
Remember that the House has already passed its version and sent it to the Senate. It was so bad the Senate tossed it aside and tried to craft their own bill, only to fail miserably.  They could only come up with something even worse, and the senate defeated it 57 to 43.   Then they defeated a bill to repeal to take effect in 2 years;  that was voted down 55 to 45.

So what they really want is this bait and switch deal.  Vote on . . . just something . . .  anything that can get 51 votes so they can schedule a conference with negotiators from House and Senate, probably in September, and hammer out a real health bill -- well, a Republican health care bill.

The risk is that the House would grab this skinny repeal, vote to pass it, and put it on the president's desk.   He's applying intense pressure for them to get something done, and he really doesn't care what.   But a lot of them do.

And those who really care about their constituents -- or fear their wrath if they take away their health care -- want a good bill.    It will be a disaster if the House accepts their bait and then doesn't do the switch.   Sen. Lindsey Graham says that about half of the 52 Republican senators "would not tolerate the skinny bill being our final answer on health care.   We want to have a chance to build it out."

Many Republican senators say they want assurances from Paul Ryan that they will get the conference process;  and he has sort of half-way promised it, saying he's okay with it, but he wants the senators to really pass something substantive, not just pass the buck to the House.

What are they going to come up with that has eluded them for seven years -- and even now, in these months they've been intensely fighting this out for real?  I'd advise them not to pass something they don't want to have to own.   And they will own the health care debacle, if the skinny bill becomes law.

Graham is blunt, saying:  "The skinny bill as policy is a disaster;  the skinny bill as a replacement for Obamacare is a fraud."    And yet he will probably vote for it anyway, with the understanding it will be only a means to their end, not the end itself.

Advocacy groups, medical associations all advise against passing this.   Even a group of insurance companies sent an urgent plea, saying in effect:   "Don't you dare."

Let's see who has the courage to stand up for sanity and real health care for the American people.   President Trump is rapidly losing his clout.   They don't need to fear his retribution.  House and Senate have both just passed the Russia sanctions bill that takes away his power to lift the sanctions.   The military chiefs are paying no attention to his tweeted announcement about transgender people serving.   A tweet is not a military order.  They say that, until they get an official order, they are not changing anything,

His threat to fire Jeff Sessions is backfiring as Sessions' former colleagues in the Senate back him and criticize the president.   Sen. Grassley, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have to approve a replacement, sent out a note saying that the committee agenda is so full that they could not take up hearings on a confirmation until next year.  And they can go on vacation without actually recessing, to prevent him from making a recess appointment that wouldn't have to get a confirmation until a new Congress convenes in 2019.

Even Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts of America jamboree backfired.   Who would have thought a president could go wrong in addressing the Boy Scouts?   Well, Trump did, badly.  The head of the BSA released a letter of apology for the President's turning what is traditionally an uplifting, inspirational speech about duty, truth and honor into his usual political diatribe, as well as some colorful anecdotes that were a bit crude for the youth.

So Trump is having a very bad week -- all of his own doing.   What's different is that people, including Republicans, are beginning to push back.  My gut tells me that we're seeing the beginning of the end of his presidency.    If he fires Sessions and then Mueller, there are a number of Republicans, including Lindsey Graham, who are ready to pull the plug on him.   And he used the word "impeachment."