Monday, October 23, 2017

Donald Trump's fake Renoir painting

Tim O'Brien, author of the 2005 biography, TrumpNation:  The Art of Being Donald Trump, has a story about how Trump believes his own lies.   O'Brien tells of being with Trump on his private jet while researching the book.  

Trump pointed to a painting on the wall of the plane cabin and boasted, "That's an original Renoir."  O'Brien said he replied:  "No it's not, Donald.   I grew up in Chicago, and that Renoir is called 'Two Sisters on a Terrace' and it's hanging on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago.'  We get on the plane the next day, and he points to the painting again, and he said, 'You know, that's an original Renoir."'

O'Brien continues:   "One of the reasons that story is so emblematic of him is, he believes his own lies, in a way that lasts for decades, and he'll tells the same stories, time and again regardless of whether the facts are right there in front of his face."

A spokesperson for The Art Institute told the Chicago Tribune that they are "satisfied that our version is real."   Yet despite this, and 12 years later, the same fake Renoir appears in the background in a TV interview with Trump and Mike Pence in the penthouse in Trump Tower, apparently moved there when he sold his plane.

There is nothing wrong with hanging a copy of a famous painting on your wall.  I have framed photo prints of two Picasso paintings and another print of a Matisse painting hanging on my walls -- because I love the paintings.   But they are not fake paintings;  they're clearly identified as printed copies and tell what art museum has the original painting.  The duplicity is in trying to pass off an artist-painted copy and falsely tell people it's the original.

I find it very disturbing -- but true -- that there is a serious question of whether Trump does actually believe his lies.   And, if he doesn't actually believe them, then what is behind his repetition of the lies, even when someone has exposed the lie as O'Brien did here?

Or, to put it another way, which has equally ominous implications for his state of mind:    Is he perhaps oblivious to the difference between reality and fantasy?

This is one of the strange, burning questions about how Donald Trump's mind works.   How can our allies possibly trust such a man to negotiate cooperative agreements with them or -- heaven forbid -- how could an adversary like North Korea ever negotiate any sort of nuclear arms treaty with him as our president, given the demonstrated unreliability of his word?


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Trump's constant need to create fights -- and now dragging Gen. Kelly in too

We have come to an unmistakable conclusion that Donald Trump instinctively starts fights either (1) because that's where he's comfortable or (2) as a distraction and diversion from other things he might be held accountable for.   The latest public version of this is his fight with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, an African-American woman from Florida, who is known for her colorful outfits and her multiple versions of cowboy hats.

This started with reporters asking President Trump why he had gone so long without saying anything about the four soldiers who were killed in an ambush in Niger.   Instead of answering this question about his glaring silence on what happened, Trump pivoted and responded as though he had been accused of not making condolence calls to the surviving families.

In doing so, he defensively accused Barack Obama of not making condolence calls (a lie) and claimed that he himself always does (another lie).   So then he hurried the next day to make the call to the wife of the latest fallen soldier from this Niger ambush, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson, whose body was just being returned to the U.S.

Rep. Wilson happens to be an old family friend of the Johnsons and had known the sergeant all of his life.   She was in the limousine with the wife, Myeisha Johnson, on the way to meet the returning body of her husband, when the president's call came.   So she turned on the speaker phone so that it could be heard by other family members in the car.

Thus Rep. Wilson heard the president's words, which she says included the statement to Ms. Johnson that her husband "knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but it still hurts."    And after Trump's false statements to the media about how he handles condolence calls, Rep. Wilson spoke to the press to say that this comment had felt to the family like disrespect coming from the president.   And the whole episode, then, caused a backlash of bad publicity for the president.

Of course, the Tweeter-in-Chief didn't take long to send out a tweet, attacking Wilson, saying she had "totally fabricated" his words and claiming that he had "proof."

Now here is the first mistake.  An appropriate response from an empathic president would have been:   "I regret that what I said came across to those hearing it with a different meaning from what I intended .   I deeply apologize for adding to the pain and terrible sense of loss at this difficult time."   Period.  Leave it at that.

But the ever-defensive Trump had to accuse the family friend of lying, then added to the insult by accusing her of inappropriately "listening in" on a private conversation, and then spreading her "lies" to the media.   Somewhere in this flurry of tweets, Trump also said, in response to the backlash from those defending Obama's sensitive handling of condolences, "Ask Gen. Kelly if Obama called him."

An aunt of Sgt. Johnson, who was also in the car and heard the president's words, confirmed the accuracy of Rep. Wilson's account. That is, they contradicted the president's statement.   The nuance may have been misunderstood, but no way was it "totally fabricated," as Trump had claimed.

Chief of Staff Gen. Kelly, then went to the press room to give a 20 minute, deeply moving discourse on exactly what procedures are followed in handling the bodies of fallen soldiers, emphasizing the reverence and respect.  He detailed the process of notifying the families and the almost sacred tone that they try to maintain.

In doing so he spoke publicly for the first time about his own loss, saying that, when his son was killed, a military condolence officer had told him something similar -- that his son had signed up for this life, knew what the risks were, and that he was doing what he wanted to be doing.   Further, Gen Kelly said, that was helpful to him;  and so, when the president asked him what he could say to Sgt. Johnson's widow, he had suggested saying something similar.  {Which, by the way, confirms that Wilson's quote was not "entirely fabricated."]

Again, that would have been fine, if Kelly had stopped there.    But he didn't.  He went on to attack Rep. Wilson himself, calling her "selfish" for politicizing this and claiming that in 2015 she had used the occasion of the dedication of a new FBI headquarters building in Florida to brag about her own efforts in getting funding to build the building.    He said she had claimed that, with one phone call to President Obama, she had gotten him to approve the $20 million for the building.  Gen. Kelly called Rep. Wilson an "empty barrel," meaning that an empty barrel makes a louder sound when struck.

But what Gen. Kelly said about Rep. Wilson has been proved false by a video of the speech she gave.   She did mention her role in speeding up the legislative process to get congress to approve naming the building for the two FBI agents killed in the line of duty;  but it was not so much self-aggrandizement as it was about how the legislative leaders had cooperated to speed up the process so the FBI heroes' names could be on the building when it opened.

But Gen. Kelly's point was that she had bragged that she had gotten the funding for the building from President Obama.  Rep. Wilson was not even a member of congress when the funding for the building was raised.    Gen. Kelly was wrong, perhaps from a mistaken memory.  But the White House has only doubled down on its defense, has not admitted that Trump was wrong or that Gen. Kelly was mistaken.

Instead they have continued attacks on Rep. Wilson, Trump even saying that she is "killing the Democrat [sic] Party!."   And blaming her for grandstanding by "listening in" and politicizing what should have been a private, "sacred" conversation.    They completely ignored Rep. Wilson's long-standing relationship with the family and the fact that it was Sgt. Johnson's widow who had switched the call to speaker phone so that all the family could hear.

And let's pause a moment to think about pots and kettles being called black.   Does anyone grandstand and take credit more undeservedly than Donald Trump, who just two days ago ludicrously gave himself a "10" rating for the FEMA response in Puerto Rico?

Maria Cardona, writing in The Hill, called Kelly's news briefing "a stunning development in what already had become a vulgar couple of days; a sacrosanct ceremonial act -the president calling the families of fallen soldiers to express his deepest sympathies - had turned into a series of insults and accusations, started by President Trump, himself."  [emphasis added]

Cardona called Gen. Kelly's remarks "jaw-dropping," in that they were made from the press room of the White House, "whose occupant was the perpetrator of the vile actions that violently stripped the sacredness out of the very things -- and people -- Kelly was talking about."   She then mentioned Trump's attacks on Gold Star parents during the Republican national convention, his repeated attacks on Sen. John McCain's heroism because "he was captured.   I prefer people who aren't captured."    And what about his attacks on the mayor of San Juan, PR who dared to say that the federal government was not doing enough to help the hurricane victims?  Cardona continues:

"I understand why Gen. Kelly was upset.  After all, his own son's death had been brought into the putrid spiral of Trump rhetoric.  What's more, I am not convinced that it was Gen. Kelly's choice to come out and play the role of partisan pundit and political henchman for Trump.

"But he did, and by doing so, he has descended into the muck of uncivil partisanship that he himself was deriding.

"Did Gen. Kelly have to insult Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) who was standing up for the young Gold-Star widow who felt Trump had disrespected her, the memory of her fallen husband and their family?   What's worse, we now know some of the things Gen. Kelly asserted about the congresswoman are not true.

"Yes, the Congresswoman took it up a notch by going on TV to stick up for the young wife who was upset by Trump's call.  But Gen. Kelly is a retired four-star Marine general and chief of staff to the president of the United States.  Isn't it his role to calm the storm, represent real valor and integrity and seek to unify the country after an incredibly difficult but self-inflicted misstep, especially when his boss is completely unable and unequipped to do so?"

Cardona further suggested that Gen. Kelly's advice to Trump about what to say was inappropriate, given the very different circumstances:

"I don't believe Gen. Kelly intended to give his boss bad advice, but . . . The words 'he knew what he was signing up for . . .'  or any variation thereof, will fall very differently on the ears of an older, lifelong Marine general than they would on the ears of a 24-year-old mother of two -- who has another on the way -- especially when they are coming from someone who didn't even seem to know her husband's name."

And I [Ralph] am further disillusioned by this whole, extended exchange, because we've all been hoping that Gen. Kelly could somehow -- if not able to make his boss grow up and grow into his office -- at least be able to provide stability and sanity and honesty and integrity to the office of the presidency.

What this proves is that Gen. Kelly is only human -- that he had to respond personally to try to clean up one of his boss's messes, and that perhaps he was thrown somewhat off balance by the necessity to talk in public about his own still-painful loss of his son, which he has always wanted to avoid.   The act of talking about his son -- in order to clean up Donald Trump's mess -- must have been excruciating and maddening.

Even if Gen. Kelly's behavior is understandable, I feel even less secure than I did when we could still believe he had magical powers no one has ever had over Donald Trump.  Instead, it seems that Trump has tarnished Kelly.


PS:  So what was all this supposed to distract us from?   Oh, yes.   Why were our soldiers in Niger?   And why were they ambushed by forces that we obviously didn't expect, since we had provided no air cover for them?    Was it an intelligence failure?    We, the public, do now yet know.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

"Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us."

Want to take a guess at whose quotation this is?   "Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us."    No, it's not Barack Obama or Al Gore.  And it certainly is not President Trump, who is too busy dismantling what those two have been able to do to slow down our contribution to climate change.

No, the quote above is the president of the country that is stepping into the gap left by Trump's policy.   It's from a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the opening of the Communist Party congress in Beijing on Wednesday.

He told the group that China has taken a "driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change."   And he continued:

"No country alone can address the many challenges facing mankind.  No country can afford to retreat into self-isolation.  Only by observing the laws of nature can mankind avoid costly blunders in its exploitation.  Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually come back to haunt us.  This is a reality we have to face."

President Xi is emerging as the world leader on climate change.  China has already outstripped the U.S. in manufacture and use of solar panels.  In contrast, President Trump has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement; and his EPA Director has overturned almost all of his predecessor's regulations.

Here's a typical Trump tweet from 2012:  "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

China has worse problems than we do, with brutal levels of air pollution and industrial carbon emissions.   But at least they are taking a vigorous approach to make rapid progress in the right direction.   They have pledged to cap carbon emissions by 2030 and invest $380 billion in renewable power generation by 2020.  They have a plan to phase out vehicles that run on fossil fuels as soon as 2030.

Only a short time ago, Trump was still referring to climate change as a "hoax."  And he opposes the "Clean Power" plan and endorses the actions of his EPA director.

"America First" is turning into "America Alone."  Trump is leading us in a retreat from world leadership.   Sad.  Bad.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Sen. McCain awarded 2017 Liberty Medal

The National Constitution Center has awarded the 2017 Liberty Medal to Senator John McCain for his "lifetime of sacrifice and service."  Following appreciative remarks to the Center and to former Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke admiringly of their long friendship and their work together in the senate, McCain then addressed the group.   Here are some excerpts:

*     *     *     *     *
"Thank you, Joe, my old, dear friend. . . .  We served in the Senate together for over 20 years, during some eventful times . . .  "We didn’t always agree on the issues. We often argued – sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in. We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems. We believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity. . . . 

". . .  What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.

"We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.

"We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.

"To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

"We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

"I am the luckiest guy on earth. I have served America’s cause . . . .  I see now that I was part of something important that drew me along in its wake even when I was diverted by other interests. I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past.

"And I have enjoyed it, every single day of it, the good ones and the not so good ones. I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me. I’ve seen Americans make sacrifices for our country and her causes and for people who were strangers to them but for our common humanity, sacrifices that were much harder than the service asked of me. And I’ve seen the good they have done, the lives they freed from tyranny and injustice, the hope they encouraged, the dreams they made achievable.

"May God bless them. May God bless America, and give us the strength and wisdom, the generosity and compassion, to do our duty for this wondrous land, and for the world that counts on us. With all its suffering and dangers, the world still looks to the example and leadership of America to become, another, better place. What greater cause could anyone ever serve. . . . "

*     *     *     *     *

I"ve not always agreed with Senator McCain.  In fact, I have been highly critical of him at times.   But John McCain is a man of honor -- note his sacrifice for his country during five years as a Viet Cong prisoner of war, and his refusal to accept their offer of early release unless his fellow prisoners were also released.  He stayed in a brutal prison and endured torture rather than take advantage of his rank and having an uncle who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.

Now he is continuing his work in the Senate, casting the decisive vote to defeat his own party's Obamacare repeal effort, while undergoing chemotherapy for a very aggressive brain tumor.   Which makes it all the more disgusting that the reaction of the President of the United States to McCain's speech was to try to pick a fight.

Does it surprise anyone that the current squatter who occupies the Oval Office reacted to these noble words as a personal attack on him and tried to pick a fight with Sen. McCain, saying in response to a reporter's question:  "Yeah, well I heard it.  And people have to be careful because at some point I fight back.   I'm being very nice.  I'm being very. very nice.   But at some point I fight back, and it won't be pretty."

Asked for his response, Sen. McCain simply said:  "I've had tougher adversaries." 

Let's leave it at that.  Measure the two men by their behavior under stress.  We've seen Sen. McCain at his best, and we've seen President Trump at his way-under-par self (although he can be, and has been, far far worse).


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Small bites

1.  Travel ban #3:   President Trump recently issued a third version of his travel ban, the strategy presumably being to try to stay a step ahead of the courts so that you always have a new one when they block the last one.  But now #3 has been blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii.

2.  Opioid crisis:  We are in the midst of the worst opioid death epidemic in our nation's history.  In 2016, there were 64,000 deaths from overdoses, an increase from 40,000 five years ago.   President Trump was asked by a reporter whether he would declare a national emergency.   He said yes.  But he also said the same thing in August -- and did nothing in the ensuing two months.  Meanwhile both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of Drug Control Policy are currently without directors.

3.  Trump lies:   This, of course, is not news;  but it has repeatedly been debunked by fact-checkers.   Yet the president just keeps repeating the lie that "We are "the highest taxed nation anywhere in the world."
    What's news is that he was challenged by a Scripps reporter, on camera, who asked the president why he keeps repeating that "when it's been repeatedly seen as objectively false?"  Without missing a beat, Trump replied, "Well, some people say it differently;  they say we're the highest among developed countries.   You can say it that way, but I prefer to say the highest, and I really think it's true."  He blathered on a bit, then turned to another reportere for a question, so the Scripps reporter could not follow up.
   But MSNBC's Chris Hayes had the facts on his show a few hours later.   Showing a bar graph of 33 developed countries and their tax rates, the U.S. was fourth from the bottom, with Denmark at the top as the highest taxed nation.  At 26% the U.S. is even 8% lower than the median of 34%.
   Many acknowledge Trump's political skill at reading the mood of a crowd and responding with what they want to hear.   I think we've under-acknowledged his skill at lying -- so adroitly, so smoothly -- so that the uninformed believe him, and the informed tear their hair in frustration and anger.

4. Climate change:   A rise in sea levels of 6 feet by 2021 would make nearly 2 million homes uninhabitable in the US, adding up to a lost value of almost a trillion dollars, according to a report from ZillowZG.   They also estimated the price level of affected homes.  Unlike our stereotype assumption, only 39% are in the category of luxury beachfront second homes.    About one-quarter would be in the lowest-priced category, owned by people with few resources to take preventive measures or to rebuild.

5.  Trump's many positions on fixing Obamacare.   Pass the vertigo pills.  The multiple, rapid position-reversals that President Trump did on the subsidy payments were just mind-reeling.  Monday, he announced that he was ending the payments, an undisguised act of further sabotage to make the markets fail.  The next day, Senators Alexander and Murphy announced their compromise plan that, if passed by congress, would continue payments with some other changes that satisfied both Republicans and Democrats.    Trump was asked about it in a press event, and he praised their work and the bipartisanship and said he looked forward to moving forward on it.   He all but claimed personal credit for fixing something he himself had caused just days before.
   A few hours later, back at the White House -- and getting conservative pushback -- he switched again, putting out a statement that he definitely was not endorsing the bill but still praising bipartisanship.   But his press secretary didn't get the word until after she had told reporters what an important first step this was and encouraging Congress to continue.  Then later Trump tweeted out messages that went even further against it, ranting about what a disaster Obamacare is and deriding the subsidies as "enriching pharmaceutical insurance companies."
   Trump has no principles, doesn't understand health policy, and doesn't really care.   For him it's all about winning.   He's for what looks in the moment like a win.  No matter what it does, winning is catnip for him.

6.  Confusing the message:   President Trump has been touting tax reform as "benefiting the middle class and denying that the rich will get a "net tax cut."  But a Wednesday interview with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin contradicted this claim.  Mnuchin said:  “The top 20 percent of the people pay 95 percent of the taxes. The top 10 percent of the people pay 81 percent of the taxes.  So when you’re cutting taxes across the board, it’s very hard not to give tax cuts to the wealthy with tax cuts to the middle class. The math, given how much you are collecting, is just hard to do.”
   I'm sure we could find a math whiz up to the task, if that were really the problem.  Paul Krugman put it this way:  "It's not difficult to see how the plan is tilted toward the very top.  The main elements of the plan are a cut to the top individual tax rates;   a cut in corporate taxes;  an end to the estate tax;  and the creation of a new loophole that will allow wealthy individuals to pretend that they are small businesses, and get a preferential tax rate.  All of these overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, mainly the top 1%."


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Does Trump know what it means to "vet" a nominee?

Does Donald Trump know what it means to vet someone he's nominating to run an important part of government, or to be a federal judge?

Vetting someone for government office means scrutinizing their record for everything imaginable:  job history, financial irregularities, conflicts of interest, overseas travel, qualifications for the job, political affiliations, personal relationships, behavior that might cause a scandal or simply reflect badly on the administration.

From the nominations Trump has made it appears that either:  (1) he has no concept of even considering someone's qualifications or appropriateness for the job;  or (2) he perversely appoints foxes to guard henhouses.

In support of #1 is the high percentage of his nominees who have had to withdraw as there is more scrutiny of their finances or prior activities that raise public objections.  Not because they are deemed to be unqualified or have conflicts of interests with the mission of the position.   Those don't seem to matter to Trump.

This latest withdrawal will be the 12th Trump actual nominee to do so.  That doesn't include names that were floated and dropped before an announced nomination.  Twelve is not an unusually high number -- except when you consider that Trump has made relatively few nominations so far (about one-third of ones important enough to require confirmation by the Senate).

I'm leaning toward #2, because he has in fact made a few good appointments -- and thanks be for those few, like Gen. Kelly, Gen. Maddis, and Gen. McMaster.  And at least Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch has a good legal mind, even if his conservative mind-set is much further to the right than we want.

And Tillerson at least seems to want to be a good Secretary of State but is operating with a scandalously reduced staff.   For example, we still don't have an ambassador in South Korea, as important as that post is right now.   And they seemed to have just eliminated the whole level of Deputy Secretaries, usually the crucial diplomats with vital knowledge of and relationships with counterparts in the region or country that they oversee.

And then there are all the others.  For example, picking Scott Pruit to run the EPA, when his main claim to fame was that, as Oklahoma's Attorney General and as a climate change denier, he had sued the EPA fourteen times challenging its regulations.   Or Tom Price to run Health and Human Services, when his notoriety came from his working to defeat the Affordable Care Act and his scandal-level, inside-trading in med company stocks.   We got rid of him, not because of his conflicts of interest but because he loved chartered jet travel too much.

And then there were the two really really bad choices, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, neither of whom must have had any vetting at all.  They both had so many red flags if you wanted to see them.   They came in from the campaign -- and brought Russia and money woes with them.

The behavior in office of all these men (as well as others like DeVos, Zinka, Mnuchin, Ross, and Perry) could well have been predicted by vetting, and even by what was publicly known about some of them.

Which brings us to Trump's latest nominee, Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) to be Trump's "drug czar," meaning Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy.  He was awaiting Senate confirmation when the Washington Post and "60 Minutes" both ran investigative stories about his past that should have disqualified him for any such post.   Marino had led a successful effort to pass legislation in the House that made it harder for law enforcement to prosecute opioid manufacturers.   As described by the Post:

"A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation's major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills."

Trump was asked to respond to that, in reference to Marino's nomination;  and, as he's done so many times, he pretended not to know about this and said he would look into it.   Two days later Marino withdrew his name from consideration.

But it's not that the Trump people didn't know.   Marino's name had been floated -- by them -- back in the spring as a possible nominee to head the whole Drug Enforcement Administration.   Marino's legislative tilt toward drug makers was known at the time, and after public airing he withdrew from that nomination, citing an illness in his family.   When his name came up again for this new position, a former person holding the office said, "I was shocked . . . it's all part of public record."

Trump really wanted to give Marino a good job.   "He was an early supporter of mine. . . He's a great guy."   But we'll look into the report, he said.   You see, it's never until there is public scrutiny that can't be denied that Trump seems to care about such things.   Whenever he can get away with putting foxes in henhouses, he will do so -- except when it comes to national security, it seems.   We can be grateful that he has respect for "my generals," at least.

Trump's priorities seem to go in something like this order:  (1)  loyalty, rewarding supporters;  (2)  political payoffs and campaign promises;  (3)  getting rid of anything that Obama did;  (4) conservative policy advancement;  (5)  what's good for the American people;  (6)  qualification for the job -- or not;  doesn't much matter.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Political scientists discuss the future of democracy's Sean Illing reported on a very important conference held at Yale last week, where a group of top political scientists discussed the state of democracy in America.   According to Illing, ". . . nearly everyone agreed [that] American democracy is eroding on multiple fronts -- socially, culturally, and economically."

And yet, no one thought that we are near the end or that it's too late to solve the problems.   At least, so far, our governing systems of checks and balances are holding.    Still, there was a sense that "alarm bells are ringing."

One professor of politics (at both Harvard and Princeton) said "Democracies die because of deliberate decisions made by human beings. . . . [People in power] become disconnected from the citizenry. . . .  They push policies that benefit themselves and harm the broader population.   Do that long enough . . . and you'll cultivate an angry, divided society that pulls apart at the seams."'

But -- I want to ask the good professor -- isn't that exactly where we are?

Adam Przeworski, a democratic theorist at New York University, said that "democracies thrive so long as people believe they can improve their lot in life."  This basic belief has been 'an essential ingredient of Western civilization during the past 200 years.'"

But Illing also points out that "fewer and fewer Americans believe this is true" -- i.e. that they can improve their lives.   This is due to wage stagnation, growing inequalities, automation, and a shrinking labor market.   "Americans are deeply pessimistic about the future."   In 1970, 90% of 30 year olds in American were better off than their parents at the same age.  In 2012, only 50% were.   "Numbers like this cause people to lose faith in the system.  What you get is a spike in extremism and a retreat from the political center.   This leads to declines in voter turnout and, consequently, more opportunities for fringe parties and candidates."

Beyond polarization, Przeworski suggested that "something more profound is going on."   He believes that American democracy isn't collapsing so much as deteriorating.  "Our divisions are not merely political but have deep roots in society.  The system has become too rigged and too unfair, and most people have no real faith in it."

This includes basic components of democracy like commitment to rule of law, a free press, the separation of powers, and to the basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.   Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard calls these "the soft guardrails of democracy."   Research has shown that Americans "are not as committed to these norms as you might expect."

It goes all the way to the top.  Our current president has little knowledge of what our Constitution mandates and what rights it guarantees.   He bangs the drums for building up our military power, but is unconcerned that our collective security agencies have determined that Russia really did hack into our electoral system -- and we fully expect them to do it again in our next election.   Instead of caring about that, Trump set up a phony commission to investigate the virtually non-existing "voter fraud," led by the nation's zealot-in-chief Kris Kobach, who has made a career as Kansas's Attorney General, trying to suppress minority voting and opposing immigration.

Many of us think that Trump and some of his administration would really like to just ignore -- or better yet, do away with -- all this messy democracy stuff.  Just let our wannabe-king decide everything and order it to be done, his way.

But, back to facts.  In a survey cited at the conference, 18% of Americans agreed that a military-led government would be a "fairly good" idea.

Harvard's Daniel Ziblatt identified two "master norms" of a democracy:  (1) mutual toleration, meaning we accept the basic legitimacy of our opponents:  and (2) institutional forbearance, meaning politicians responsibly wield the power of the institutions they're elected to control.   He says we are "failing miserably" on #1, and we're hardly better on #2.  Ziblatt continues:

"Most obviously, there's Donald Trump, who has dispensed with one democratic norm after another.   He's fired an FBI director in order to undercut an investigation into his campaign's possible collusion with Moscow;  and he has . . .  regularly attacked the free press and refused to divest himself of his business interests.

"The Republican Party, with few exceptions, has tolerated these violations in the hope that they might advance their agenda.   But it's about a lot more than Republicans capitulating to Trump."   He mentions the unprecedented blocking of Obama's nomination of a Supreme Court nominee and endangering the nation's credit rating by shutting down the government to try to defeat Obamacare.   He sums up:  "American democracy is increasingly less anchored by norms and traditions -- and history suggests that's a sign of democratic decay."

Duke University professor of economics and politics, Timur Kuran, argues a somewhat different point.   He says:  "the real danger isn't that we no longer trust the government but that we no longer trust each other."

He says we are divided into separate "intolerant communities," where each defines itself by opposition to the other.   "They live in different worlds, desire different things, and share almost nothing in common.  One group, which he calls "identitarian" activists "concerned with issues like racial/gender equality;  the other group he calls the "nativist" coalition made up of people suspicious of immigration and cultural change.

Kuran continues:  "The practical consequence of this is a politics marred by tribalism.  Worse, because the fault lines run so deep, every political contest becomes an intractable existential drama, with each side convinced the other is not just wrong but a mortal enemy."

Again, some statistics:  In 1960, 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats objected to the idea of their children marrying across political lines.   In 2010, it's 46% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats.    Pew Research studies show something similar in their finding that in 2014, 36% of Republicans and Republican leaners say that Democratic policies "threaten the nation."  And 27% of Democrats say the same thing about Republicans.  Pew says that those numbers have doubled since 1994.  And "it's not merely that we disagree about issues;  it's that we believe the other side is a grievous threat to the republic."

Illing ends his report on this conference of political scientists on a pessimistic note:   "Something has cracked.  Citizens have lost faith in the system.   The social compact is broken.  So now we're left to stew in our racial and cultural resentments, which paved the way for a demagogue like Trump.

"Bottom line:  I was already pretty cynical about the trajectory of American democracy when I arrived at the conference, and I left feeling justified in that cynicism.   Our problems are deep and broad and stretch back decades, and the people who study democracy closest can only tell us what's wrong.  They can't tell us what ought to be done."

*     *     *
Well, yes, that is a real downer.   But it mirrors what I feel these days.

I do know one thing:   Donald Trump may not have created this, but he definitely makes it worse -- because he revels in the adoration of even this small base of angry, unthinking, right-wing people who want someone to stoke their anger and to promise them easy solutions.   Trump is just the demagogue for that job.  But I don't know what's going to happen when that small band of "lock her up" shouters realize that he can't (and never intended to) come though for them.

My best hope is that Robert Mueller's investigation will reveal some things so bad (money laundering, criminal financial dealings with oligharchs with mob connections, as well as obvious obstruction of justice), that Republicans in congress cannot not impeach him.    But . . . what then?


Monday, October 16, 2017

No, Harvey. No excuses for sexual assault

Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has been credibly accused by multiple actresses and models of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and even rape when they were young aspirants and he was the big man with power over careers.

This has been going on for decades and was apparently a pretty open secret that nobody really talked about -- because he was so powerful and could make or break careers.  He also apparently used legal threats and pressure to silence victims.    But there are several instances where comedians or presenters at the Oscars would make jokes about it.   So there's also the problem of why was it tolerated?

Harvey has now been fired by the company that bears his name and that he co-founded with his brother.   Several of the board members resigned when the news came out;  the four remaining board members, including his brother, voted to terminate his association with the company.

And Harvey's reaction?   It took less than a few hours for him to start saying he "needed help" and talking about therapy to help him overcome this problem.   No, Harvey, you don't get off that easy.    You can't -- after decades of treating women this way and pretending that it's normal for powerful men to have their way with women -- then suddenly seek sympathy by calling it a "problem" and you look forward to getting help and "being given a second chance."  Why hadn't you sought therapy during the last thirty years?

No, for three decades you play the predator-as-normative in this environment, rely on your  power to squelch or buy off accusers -- and then, when finally exposed . . .  it's you who is the pitiful victim of "a problem" who merits a "second chance?"    I don't think so.

We need more sincere evidence of contrition;  convince us that you really see what you did and got away with -- and reveled in getting away with.   And then you serve some long penance to prove your sincere remorse.  Then the industry may give you a second chance, because you are a very talented man who has produced some really good movies.  And you've also done a lot of good with your money going to progressive causes.

But none of that gives you the right to use vulnerable young women for your selfish, invasive demands.   Exactly how much have you done to try to make up for the damage you did -- other than to buy and intimidate them into silence -- before you were exposed by some very brave women and some courageous, persistent journalists?   True contrition, penance, and second chances require more than suddenly becoming an advocate of therapy for your "problem" -- after money and high-paid lawyers can no longer buy your way out of scandal and possible criminal charges.

You can't manipulate your way back by playing the "therapy card."   I speak as a retired member of the therapeutic community.   You have the right to a good therapist who will try to help you look at what you have done and why, in the overall context of your life -- and work to resolve that.  It requires work -- on your part;  it will take years, and real success depends largely on how genuinely you delve into yourself.   It isn't something you can just purchase and wave like a flag.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

A bit of light in our world of darkness

In 2014 Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peach Prize.   She was 17.

Her father ran a school for girls in an area of Pakistan that was largely under the control of the conservative Taliban.  When she was only 11, Malala began her activism with a speech she gave to the press club titled "How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education."

In 2009, at age 12, she began writing a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban, which issued an edict forbidding the education of girls.  They subsequently destroyed over 100 schools for girls.   Malala was becoming more widely known as a high-profile advocate for girls education.  In 2011 she was awarded the National Youth Peace Prize.

All of this put her on the Taliban's hit list.   On October 8, 2012 when she was 15, a Taliban gunman entered the school bus she rode, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head and neck.

She was severely wounded but survived, with expert medical treatment in England, where she and her family moved and currently live.   The Taliban's attempt to silence her, and her heroic courage to continue advocating for the education of girls in Pakistan, made headlines around the world.   She was invited to speak at the United Nations and was runner-up for Time's Person of the Year -- at 16.    She has met with President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.

In the face of continued threats from the Taliban, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2014.

This fall Malala, the girl who was shot for speaking up against the Taliban's attempt to suppress the education of girls, began her undergraduate studies at Oxford University.   Like other students, she is embarking on a great educational adventure at perhaps the most prestigious university in the world, where she plans to concentrate on philosophy, economics, and political science.

But now, at the ripe old age of 20, she already is a Nobel Peace Laureate, along with Albert Schweitzer, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Cries for help from White House staff

Michael Gerson was President George W. Bush's speechwriter and is now an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.   He wrote this.

"It is no longer possible to safely ignore the leaked cries for help coming from within the administration.  They reveal a president raging against enemies, obsessed by slights, deeply uninformed and incurious, unable to focus, and subject to destructive whims."

This was, I presume, written after General Kelly, the Chief of Staff, held a press conference today to deny rumors that he was about to resign or being fired.  He said the following about his job:

"It is the hardest job I've ever had.  It's also the most important job I've ever had.   It's not the best job I've ever had," and then explained that, as he has said many times before, being a marine sergeant was the best job he's ever had.   He is now a retired four-star general.

President Trump later told the press, as he praised Gen. Kelly:   "He said it's the best job he's ever had."   He said this to the same people who had heard for themselves what Kelly had said in the press meeting.  Trump doesn't seem to know that people know that he is lying.

The question is:   Is this just another of Trump's lies?    Or does it represent how he automatically distorts what he hears into what he wants to hear, and doesn't even know that he does it?   Kelly clearly said:  "It's not the best job I've ever had."

Either way, Trump has zero credibility -- and both our allies and our enemies know it.  Only he seems not to know it.

Max Boot, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on MSNBC Thursday night:  "The #1 threat to our security . . . is the Commander in Chief.  The man in the Oval Office is the greatest threat that we face."


Maybe it's time to stop "containing" Trump and just get him out office.

Much has been said in the past week about relying on "the generals'" and Sec. Tillerson's efforts to "contain" the president from going completely off the rails.

Maybe it's time to consider, rather than containing him, that we just get rid of him.   I'm afraid he will break everything, if we wait too long.

Look at all he's broken just this week -- or at least tried to break.    The Affordable Care Act, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the rescue mission in Puerto Rico, the nuclear disarmament treaty, the fragile stand-off with North Korea.

Meanwhile, he's condoning his EPA Director's slashing most regulations designed to save our planet.   His "voter fraud" tzar is finding ever more ways to suppress minority voting.  His Attorney General is gutting civil rights, voting rights, racial justice, prison reform -- and that's all before breakfast.    And, if Trump could, he would have taken control of the first amendment right to free speech and would have revoked broadcast licenses for CNN and MSNBC, the networks that dare to tell the truth about him.  And now he's going to address a convention of the rabidly anti-LGBT Family Research Council.

His decision to gut the ACA and stop subsidy payments is opposed by a super-majority of Americans.  According to a Kaiser Research poll, 71% think he should be doing everything he can to make the ACA work, while only 21% agree with the sabotage strategy.   That's more than a third less than his base of supporters.

And he thinks these people will blame Democrats?   No,  Trump now owns any failure of Obamacare.