Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What If Hillary Had Volunteered Classified Information to Russia?

Today I am thinking about the following hypothetical. Keeping firmly in mind that Russia is and long has been one of our most important geopolitical adversaries, what if--
  • Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election;
  • Our intelligence community unanimously and with a high level of certainty agreed that Russia intervened in that election with the aim of helping her win, not directly by ballot box tampering but in other powerful ways designed to sway public opinion;
  • Clinton's campaign staff had numerous well-documented ties to Russian officials and Russian businessmen known to be close to Vladimir Putin;
  • The Clinton campaign was under FBI investigation to determine if, and if so to what extent, it was complicit in Russia's election intervention;
  • Instead of saying "I welcome this investigation because it will prove that I'm innocent and have nothing to hide," she dismissed the whole "Russia thing" as a hoax and fake news and repeatedly tried to deflect attention from it;
  • She fired the FBI director shortly after he asked for more resources for the Russia investigation;
  • The next day, she met with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador behind closed doors in a meeting to which the Russian press was admitted but the US press was not;
  • A few days later, the Washington Post reported, and the New York Times confirmed, that Ms. Clinton, in the course of bragging about her access to "great intel," had shared some of the most highly-classified intelligence we have about ISIS -- intelligence provided by an ally and so sensitive it was closely held within our intelligence community and not shared with our allies;
  • The official response from White House staff, while couched as a strong denial, did not squarely address the Post's report (i.e., they didn't deny a voluntary disclosure of classified information but rather focused on the fact that specific "sources and methods" were not expressly revealed);
  • The next morning Ms. Clinton admitted in a tweet that she had shared the information with Russia but said it was for "humanitarian reasons" and an attempt to convince Russia to "greatly step up their [sic] fight on ISIS?"
If you were in Congress, regardless of your political party or your assessment of Ms. Clinton's prior actions, wouldn't this one fact pattern alone make you sit bolt upright and say, "Holy shit, we need to get to the bottom of the Clinton-Russia nexus immediately if not sooner!!!"? It would me, and I voted for her.

Perhaps more disturbing than the fact pattern itself, which of course is true if you replace the name "Hillary Clinton" with the name "Donald Trump," is that the Republican leaders in Congress by and large seem willing to continue brushing off the Trump-Russia nexus. These are the same people who traditionally have been highly skeptical about and tough on Russia, and the same people who wanted to put Hillary Clinton in jail because she used a private email server. (For the record: as someone who had a security clearance and was subject to federal agency record-keeping rules for many years, I, too, was very troubled by Ms. Clinton's email arrangement and did not, like some of the more strident Clinton apologists and Democratic partisans, try to pretend it was a non-issue.) 

It should be obvious to everyone, especially those who were concerned about Hillary Clinton's email, that, if true, what Mr. Trump did last week is orders of magnitude worse. The Clinton email case involved a reckless decision that had the potential to, but ultimately did not, permit an adversary to obtain unauthorized access to a relatively small amount of classified information. By contrast, Mr. Trump allegedly has voluntarily and knowingly provided super-top-secret information (which, again, we didn't even share with our allies) to a long-time adversary with respect to which his campaign is under federal investigation for possible collusion in election tampering. 

Yes, the president is legally permitted to de-classify and share top-secret information, which is a power all presidents until now have understood is meant to be used rarely, in only the most extraordinary of cases. Does anyone in their right mind think such authority is meant to permit sharing this kind of information in this context? Does anyone in their right mind think the effect of this will be anything other than to greatly undermine our intelligence agencies and their reciprocal sharing arrangements with other countries? 

Even if what Mr. Trump did was technically legal, taking such an action with no articulated reason relating to US interests, no prior consultation with our intelligence and diplomatic communties or the source country of the information, and no regard for the longer-term consequences is unjustifiable and outright dangerous. It is equally unjustifiable and outright dangerous for those in Congress with appropriate clearance to refuse to seek a complete, accurate, and immediate understating of the details of what Mr. Trump told the Russians last week and a true explanation for his unusual (at best) attitude toward Russia. If the Post's story is confirmed -- and Mr. Trump already seems to have confirmed at least the basic contours -- then the Congress must hold Mr. Trump accountable in the same manner and to the same extent that it undoubtedly would have done had the actor been Hillary Clinton. Anything short of a full investigation followed by appropriate action based on the results would be an outright betrayal of the oath they took "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" and "bear true faith and allegiance to the same."

We should all recognize that this ultimately is not a test of party loyalty -- rather, this is a test of the very bedrock on which our nation rests and its security and status in the world. There is a point when a clear-headed assessment of our country's best interests and a due regard for its rule of law and political norms must prevail over partisan politics. The time for that is long-overdue and must not be postponed any further.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of the author.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trumpcare, Part II -- the Perils of Politics Divorced from Policy

Here's my assessment of the content and political prospects of the second attempt at Trumpcare, and some thoughts about how we got to this point and where we go next.

The Bad

The bad news is that the recently-passed House bill is an abomination. As Paul Krugman points out, in the process of trying to fulfill the political goal of doing away with Obamacare, the bill shatters all Donald Trump's promises relating to affordable coverage for everyone. This version likely would take an even higher human and economic toll than their earlier attempt, which would have left 24 million people without health insurance, yet House Speaker Paul Ryan rushed the bill through before the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office could quantify the damage. This bill got rushed through not in spite of how awful it is, but because of how awful it is. I am not sure how much lower the bar for what counts as legislating can possibly get, but I no longer underestimate Paul Ryan's capacity to outdo himself.

The Good

The good news is that this bill will never become law. Thankfully, there are reasonable Republicans in the Senate who already have panned the House bill and said they would start from scratch. It will be interesting to see their proposal. Unlike their House colleagues, they are likely to make a serious effort to produce coherent legislation, but at the end of the day their efforts probably won't matter. Unless they can craft a bill that garners significant Democratic support, which at this point seems unlikely, any bill that can pass the Senate stands little hope of passing the House and vice versa. Even if the Senate were to craft a broadly-supported bipartisan alternative, there is a good chance that opposition from the far-right Freedom Caucus, to which Paul Ryan has given disproportionate power, nonetheless could doom its fate. Right now, therefore, it looks as if a health care overhaul won't happen in this Congress. As discussed below, however, there is glimmer of hope for more modest reform.

The Ugly

Congressional inaction, while better than enacting an incoherent and broadly harmful law, nonetheless does a gross disservice to the American people. Obamacare -- which, lest we forget, has some clear roots in a Heritage Foundation proposal and a plan Mitt Romney implemented in Massachusetts -- is a reasonable start at reforming a flawed market-based insurance system. But, it has its own problems, which appear to be getting worse. Responsible policy makers would address those problems. Instead, if Donald Trump & Co. fail to either enact their own version of health care reform or fix the existing law when they control both houses of Congress and the presidency, they will continue sabotaging Obamacare so they can try to blame the Democrats instead of themselves for the unacceptable results of their ineptitude. Unless the Democrats overcome their own ineptitude regarding messaging and spin, this blame-shifting exercise might well succeed.

The Potential for Greater Good

A possible silver lining is that if the House bill or something comparably bad actually passes or if we are left with a severely hobbled version of the status quo, then that might prompt a move toward the single-payer solution that virtually every other wealthy industrialized country in the world has managed to implement successfully. That seems unlikely in the near term because the visceral negative reaction to single-payer runs so high, but it is interesting that people on both sides of the political divide are now discussing the possibility. For more about this, I refer you to right-leaning columnist Charles Krauthammer and left-leaning columnist Eugene Robinson, each of whom have speculated about why and how a pivot to single-payer could happen.

The Explanation

As with most political matters, the explanation of how we got here is multifaceted. One of the recurrent themes, however, is that the politics of health care reform have become completely divorced from any coherent policy vision relating to that topic. The primary reason for that, in turn, is the inability of the Republicans to agree internally about what their policy vision should be. 

While promising to repeal Obamacare for over seven years, the Republicans were never forced to articulate a policy vision of their post-Obamacare world. Sure, they talked in broad terms about getting government out of people's health care and a free market system, but they never explained what their free-market alternative would entail, the mechanics of undoing Obamacare, or how people's lives would be affected. Secure in the knowledge that their repeal efforts would not succeed, their talk was an easy way to fuel anti-Obamacare furor and reap short-term political gains. Repealing Obamacare was a purely political goal untethered to any concrete policy vision.

Then along came Donald Trump. First was his laughably content-free promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with "something terrific." This eventually was followed by a promise to repeal and replace with "[health] insurance for everybody" that would result in "great health care" that is "much less expensive and much better." This notion of universal, affordable health insurance coupled with better health care actually passes muster as a concrete policy goal, albeit incomplete as a total policy vision because he gave us no clue about how he planned to achieve the stated goal.

There are some congressional Republicans, particularly from states that benefited from Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, who agree with some version of Mr. Trump's universal coverage goal. In light of their limited government principles, there's only so far they'll go in terms of government involvement to achieve that goal. Nonetheless, this group seems inclined toward expanding or at a minimum preserving coverage, and has clearly signaled they won't support a bill that takes coverage away.

This is directly at odds with the Ayn Rand free marketers such as Paul Ryan and the anti-government Tea Party and Freedom Caucus members. They want to significantly reduce, or ideally eliminate, the government's role in health care and let an unfettered free market work its will. That this would result in millions of people losing coverage or paying far more to maintain it is seemingly irrelevant to them.

The fact that the Republicans have been of two minds about health care policy remained hidden beneath the surface of their united, but ultimately empty, "Repeal Obamacare" sloganeering. When their party won the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congresses, however, their bluff was called and they were forced to act.

How the House leadership has chosen to act has been telling, and not in a good way. They neither tried to translate Mr. Trump's promise of affordable health care for everybody into reality nor attempted to craft a solution that satisfied their pure free market tendencies. Nor did they sit down and think about ways in which they might be able to advance these apparently conflicting goals simultaneously (maybe because one obvious answer to that is "Obamacare"-- more about that below).

Instead of coalescing around an articulated policy goal as a starting point, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump decided that passing something, anything, that could be labeled as undoing Obamacare was an end unto itself, and Mr. Ryan reverse-engineered the content of the bill to achieve that goal. In the process, he revealed that he will do whatever it takes to appease the Freedom Caucus, which is a mistake that will haunt him for the remainder of his speakership. The sad but predictable result is an incoherent bill that doesn't even pretend to advance the public interest.

Even people who hate Obamacare because they are affected by its shortcomings would rightly be appalled by this callous disregard for basic principles of governing. Indeed, they especially should be appalled, because if this bill by some miracle became law it almost certainly would make them worse off. Even if this bill dies in the Senate, the electorate should not forget that a majority of the House of Representatives -- the "People's House" -- was willing to vote for a political end unattached to any coherent policy goal relating to their constituents' physical and economic well-being.

What Should the Goal Be?

Until the Republicans either choose which of their two competing policy goals to unite behind or somehow find a way to reconcile those goals, their legislative efforts are going to stall. So which goal is the better one?

I am far more sympathetic to Mr. Trump's stated goal (something I never thought I'd write), for two reasons. First, the health care market prior to Obamacare, to which Mr. Ryan apparently wishes to return, was never really a free market. It was rigged by the insurance companies, working in coordination with mainstream medical providers, and when people without coverage got sick or injured and couldn't afford their care under that system the rest of us bore the cost. Second, even if the pre-Obamacare system really had been a well-functioning free market, so what? Health insurance and health care services are not like widgets that can be allocated solely based on market forces of supply, demand, and ability to pay.

I might or might not want a widget, and if I want one I might or might not be able to afford it, and that is all fine. Health care, by contrast, is a basic need we all share to varying degrees, and our individual demands are largely unpredictable and in many cases not a matter of choice. Nobody asks to have a catastrophic illness or injury. Yes, some of us face, or voluntarily take, more risks than others. Nonetheless, the reality is that each of us, no matter how healthy we might seem, is continually at risk of getting sick or injured and needing medical services. In addition, many people need preventive services that aim to improve overall health or reduce specific risks.

When the inevitable need for health care arises, how many of us honestly think that a person's medical fate, perhaps even their life, should depend primarily on a combination of how rich they are and where they live? I sincerely hope that the vast majority of my fellow Americans do not think that. Even if you do believe in a total free market system in which the rich fare better than poor, remember this: until hospitals are allowed to turn people away, the costs of leaving people un- or under-insured still will be borne by the rich. The fundamental question isn't whether the rich subsidize the poor, but rather through what mechanism that subsidy occurs. 

A Case for Obamacare Reform

I am hopeful that a majority of Americans are coalescing around the goal of affordable health care as a basic right, and thus a valid reason for federal government involvement. If that is the case, then the existing Obamacare law is good starting point for reform. Interestingly, Obamacare also is a good starting point for reform for free market proponents who don't embrace the universal coverage goal.

The genius of Obamacare, and Romneycare before it, and the Heritage Foundation paper before that, is that they offer something for liberals and conservatives alike to embrace. There is the goal of universal coverage that liberals like, but that goal is achieved by improving the existing health insurance and health care service markets and using market-based mechanisms and incentives, which should appeal to conservatives. Right now, Obamacare is not doing a good enough job on either the coverage goal or the market-propelled execution, and that, I believe, should be the focus of any reform. Policy experts have been looking at these issues since Obamacare became law. We, and our representatives in Congress, would do well to solicit, listen to, and think critically about the solutions they propose.

Fixing Obamacare would require congressional Republicans to admit they mischaracterized the law all along and renege on their long-standing promise to kill it, which would appear to doom this as an option. But maybe, just maybe, those crafty Republicans will fix Obamacare after all, only they'll repackage and rename the law and pretend that's not really what they're doing and hope the rest of us don't notice. That, really, is the only viable reform path I see at this stage, and history has shown that the Republicans have the capacity to pull off something like this.


Although I don't hold out a whole lot of hope for sensible health insurance reform in the near term, I still think it is an issue worth examining and debating, because eventually its time will come. I urge you to examine what you believe about health care and why, and what the logical consequences of your preferred belief would be for health-related markets and human well-being. If you disagree with my views, I welcome your explanation as to why and hope we can have a constructive discussion. Who knows, maybe the best answer is something no one has thought up yet because the various camps continue to talk past, instead of to, one another.

The other thing I would suggest is that once you identity your preferred goal, tell your elected representatives. Our representatives and senators do after all work for us, and we must hold them accountable. At a minimum, we must tell them that legislating with no coherent policy vision on a topic that concerns every American is unacceptable.

* The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Trumpcare and the Lost Art of Governing

In spite of what the Republicans have been telling us for the past 25 years, government is not an evil to be feared and avoided. To the contrary, government is hardwired into our Constitution as the means by which we promote our general welfare and maintain a civilized, democratic society. There can and should be healthy debates about the appropriate size and scope of government. Such debates, which otherwise are known as "governing," ideally involve bringing intelligence, integrity, and skill to solving societal problems through a rational process that allows for consideration and reconciliation of different viewpoints. When held to that standard, the Republicans' Trumpcare proposal, which suffers from the mutually reinforcing problems of being ill-conceived and virtually unvetted, isn't an example of governing but rather a mockery of it.

After categorically criticizing Obamacare for seven years, it turns out the Republicans did not actually have an alternative to it. It seems they didn't see the need for one until Mr. Trump unexpectedly won the presidency after promising to "repeal Obamacare and replace it with something great." House Republicans then hastily drafted something behind closed doors, which they now want to enact even more hastily without any meaningful consideration of the bill's potential human and economic consequences and without any regard for the views of citizens, the health care and insurance industries, and other experts.

Apparently, fulfilling their campaign promise to rid us of Obamacare is more important to them than the substance of what they are doing. House Speaker Paul Ryan all but admitted this on Sunday, when he said that if Republicans fail to repeal and replace Obamacare then they will be breaking a campaign promise to their voters. Perhaps they will, but if what they replace Obamacare with destabilizes health insurance and health care markets and negatively affects wide swaths of the American public, including in many cases their own constituents, then they will be betraying the public trust. That is a fate far worse than breaking a campaign promise, but they appear to either not understand this or not care. By prioritizing fulfillment of their campaign promise over substantive results and due process, their behavior ranges from merely hypocritical to downright reckless.

First the sheer hypocrisy. After all their criticism of Obamacare as a complete disaster, their proposed replacement essentially adopts the basic Obamacare framework, only without some of the key elements that are necessary to sustain it. After Mr. Trump's promise of "healthcare for everyone," the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Trumpcare proposal would not expand coverage but rather strip existing coverage from 24 million Americans over 10 years. After criticizing Democrats for rushing passage of Obamacare -- a claim that was thoroughly debunked in yesterday's Washington Post Fact Checker -- they propose to go from having no bill to having an enacted law in a matter of weeks, virtually ignoring the "regular order" of legislative process that traditionally applies to a proposal of this magnitude.

Then there's the substance of their proposal. What they seek to accomplish in this bill is not only reckless but also cruel.

Mr. Ryan says that the Trumpcare plan will allow people to choose the level of coverage that is right for them, which implies that some people will be free to not buy coverage at all. Indeed, Trumpcare would replace the Obamacare coverage mandate with a penalty that would be assessed when a person signs up for coverage after letting it lapse, which would likely incentivize younger and healthier people to postpone purchasing insurance. Their absence from the insurance pool would be expected to drive premiums up for those who do participate. Moreover, Mr. Ryan apparently has forgotten that having uninsured people, voluntary or otherwise, is what brought the health insurance and health care markets to such a problematic state in the first place. Uninsured people, even those who are young and appear healthy, nonetheless sometimes get deathly ill and have accidents. When they do and can't afford their care, the cost is shifted to the rest of us. Mr. Ryan's underlying assumption that people should be free to remain uncovered (or undercovered) and the incentives Trumpcare provides for them to do so are therefore reckless.

A further implication of Mr. Ryan's logic is that all those who opt out of coverage will do so by choice. As details of the bill emerge, most notably the CBO estimate, it is increasingly clear that millions of people who want and need coverage, including many who now have coverage because of Obamacare, will not be able to afford coverage under Trumpcare. Trumpcare would replace need-based subsidies with flat tax credits based on age, increase the premium surcharge insurers could charge older people, gut the Medicaid expansion that helps the needy, and give a tax break to the wealthy, who would no longer be asked to chip in to assist the less fortunate. In combination this would effectively redirect the assistance now received by older, sicker, and poorer people to richer and healthier people who have a lesser need. This sets a new bar for legislative cruelty. It also falls abysmally short of Mr. Trump's promise to provide good health care for everybody, but he nonetheless inexplicably appears prepared to push for the bill's swift enactment.

In sum, as several commentators have already noted, Trumpcare is essentially a tax cut for the rich masquerading as a health care bill. If you ever wondered which segment of their base the Republican leadership really cares about, this bill should remove all doubt.

Not surprisingly, numerous affected constituencies oppose the current Trumpcare proposal. Within the health care establishment, critics include the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Associations, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AARP is opposed. Conservative Republican lawmakers and media outlets are opposed on the theory that it is too much like Obamacare and still represents a government entitlement. On the other hand, more moderate Republican lawmakers, including a number of US Senators and governors, have expressed particular concern about the proposed gutting of the Medicaid expansion. Democrats oppose the bill because it throws the baby out with the bathwater instead of identifying and addressing the gaps and flaws in Obamacare.

Mr. Ryan's apparent intent to rush the bill through the House in spite of these objections is arguably worse than the problematic content of the bill. Legislation expected to have significant national consequences ordinarily is preceded by preliminary hearings and meetings with stakeholders to help lawmakers understand the issues. Once lawmakers craft a bill that takes this preliminary input into account, there then are hearings and meetings about that specific bill. The goals of this stage are to develop a full understanding of the bill's likely consequences should it become law and identity desirable changes. Only after a reasonable period of study and analysis does a bill proceed to amendment by relevant committees and the full chamber.

This process of regular order serves at least two important purposes. First, it enables both the lawmakers and their constituents to assess and weigh in on the merits of the proposal in reasonable time to influence it. Second, it lends legitimacy to the ultimate product. Even if you don't like a final law, it is much harder to argue with it when it was produced through a transparent, thorough, and fair process. Both of Mr. Obama's signature legislature achievements, Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Act, were the product of such a process. In each case that process took many months, because understanding a significant and complicated problem and crafting a sound response takes time.

Trumpcare, by contrast, was written with little in the way of outside input. According to the Washington Post fact checker mentioned above, there were a handful of general subject matter hearings that preceded drafting of the bill, but that is inadequate for an issue of such complexity and a bill of such consequence. Moreover, there were no hearings to examine the actual text of the bill, and two committees rushed to mark it up within days of its release. Without the benefit of legislative hearings and other traditional forms of outside input, those markups were little more than charades. In his continued push to go the House floor as quickly as possible, Mr. Ryan told his troops that the bill he has proposed is their last and only chance at enacting health care reform, which indicates that he is not interested in significant amendments to his proposal let alone alternative approaches. This is a reprehensible way to handle a proposal that would have such wide-ranging effects on human health, health insurance and health care markets, and the economy more broadly.

To be clear, Obamacare is far from perfect. It was an important first step toward 100% insurance coverage and better health care, but very real challenges remain regarding participation levels, participation cost, and access to care. These very real problems deserve thoughtful, thoroughly vetted solutions. The Trumpcare proposal doesn't even pretend to be a coherent solution to these problems; if anything, it appears designed to make them worse.

One hopes the Senate, which thankfully includes a handful of Republicans who are at least as interested in the longer-term consequences of their actions as they are in scoring quick public relations points, will save us from this slapdash proposal. In a best case scenario, they reject Trumpcare, admit that Obamacare, which after all began as a Republican idea, is a reasonable but imperfect approach, and work in good faith to address the shortcomings of the current law. If that occurs, then there will be some hope that the art of governing -- and it is an art -- has not been entirely lost. If instead Mr. Ryan's Trumcpare proposal carries the day and becomes law in short order in spite of considerable objection, then the art of governing will have been abandoned. Once the consequences of such a miscarriage of public duty become apparent to the governed, it will be long past time for the Republicans who so callously forced this damaging plan upon us to go.

*This blog post consists solely of the view and opinions of its author.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Donald Trump Is a Danger to Our Country

So much from Donald Trump's February 16, 2017, press conference is worthy of commentary that one scarcely knows where to begin. This post will focus on the two things that struck me most -- Mr. Trump's repeated turning the truth on its head, and his almost inexplicable position on matters related to Russia.

Donald Trump and the Anti-Truth

Mr. Trump's first few weeks in office have been, to use one of the phrases he frequently applies to others, "a total disaster." He has attempted to govern by fiat through a series of ill-considered executive actions. He has questioned the legitimacy of our judiciary and our press when they challenge or disagree with him. He has asserted ballot box fraud based on nothing more than his egocentric belief that he could not possibly have lost the popular vote in a fair election. He has needlessly provoked our allies, done about-faces on diplomatic positions long espoused by presidents of both parties, and called into question the usefulness of the international bodies through which we maintain alliances and promote international stability. He has dealt with a national security matter in public at one of his resorts. He has chastised a company for not doing business with his daughter. His national security advisor was forced to resign when news broke of his premature policy talks with a Russian official.

In response to the chaos he has wrought, Mr. Trump offered us even more chaos by calling a press conference in which he painted a picture of the world that is exactly the opposite of what I suspect most of us perceive. Some of his basic points are set forth below, along with parenthetical reality checks.

  • He had the largest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan. (Both Obama victories, both Clinton victories, and George H.W. Bush's victory were larger than Mr. Trump's. When informed that his claim was false, Mr. Trump responded by saying that he was "given that information" and that he had "seen it around.")
  • He inherited a mess from Mr. Obama. (Although the country he inherited was by no means perfect, by many measures, including those related to economic stability, illegal immigration, and crime, it was doing quite well -- certainly much better than when Mr. Obama inherited it.)
  • He is fulfilling his campaign promises and getting things done. (He is signing executive orders and saying what he plans to do, but as discussed in previous posts he has not really made many meaningful changes because that requires working with Congress, which he has yet to do.) 
  • His administration is a fine-tuned and well-functioning machine. (See the introductory paragraph to this section.) 
  • The rollout of the travel and immigration ban was smooth but the court's reaction to it was wrong. (The immediate aftermath of this ban included nationwide protests, confusion at airports worldwide, swift court challenges, and a hasty White House clarification regarding its scope.)
  • The media is categorically dishonest, full of hatred for him, and promoting "fake news." (The media consists of human beings who sometimes make mistakes, but in general they are doing their job by printing assertions for which they have solid sources and challenging politicians, not limited to Mr. Trump, on their words and deeds.)
  • The leaks about Michael Flynn's contact with a Russian official were real but the news about that incident is fake. (This flunks the basic logic test. If classified information was leaked and the leak was real, then reports of the leak cannot simultaneously be fake news. Especially when Mr. Trump claims to have fired Mr. Flynn not for what he did but rather for telling the Vice President that the very information contained in the leak was untrue.)
  • He has no relationships with Russia and the media's focus on that issue is a ruse. (There are very real questions about his relationship to Russia, which he could answer at least in part by releasing his tax returns and providing other concrete information about his businesses and political dealings. Instead he asks us to take his word for it and changes the subject.)
My last post was devoted to how Mr. Trump's attempt to control the narrative is a serious threat to democracy, and his performance on Thursday was a clear case in point. It should be clear that Mr. Trump is creating fake news, not combating it. It also should be clear that Mr. Trump is making a mess of the imperfect but relatively stable situation he inherited from Mr. Obama, not untangling a mess he inherited. The real danger here is that the more Mr. Trump asserts his falsehoods about the state of the world to be true, and the more he makes the press expend energy to show they are not "fake news," the more people will distrust the press and instead believe his untrue claims. George Orwell's "1984," here we come.

What is Going on Between Donald Trump and Russia?

Mr. Trump's attitude toward Russia has long raised eyebrows. He has consistently praised Vladimir Putin. He invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's email, which they took him up on. He pilloried the US intelligence agencies for concluding that Russia sought to sway the election in his favor. Although he since has reluctantly said he believes the Russians were involved, he apparently does not feel the need to either publicly condemn their actions or investigate this very serious matter.

The statements he made with respect to Russian-related matters during his press conference, however, elevated concerns about his relationship to that country to a whole new level. In addition to what we already knew about Russia's role in the election, the intelligence agencies now have evidence that members of Mr. Trump's campaign staff had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. Although the nature and extent of those contacts is not yet clear, the mere fact of them is downright chilling. Mr. Trump on the one hand indicated that he believed the people reportedly involved in such contacts when they denied involvement, yet on the other hand he refused to answer definitively the press's questions about whether such contacts occurred. Instead, he tried to distract us by claiming concerns about Russian contacts were a ruse. They're not a ruse. The extent of his campaign staff's interaction with Russian intelligence, and what Mr. Trump himself knew and did on that score, are very serious questions to which the American people deserve a clear and fully-documented answer.

And that's not the only serious question regarding Mr. Trump and Russia. He claims that the real problem with Michael Flynn wasn't the substance of what Mr. Flynn did, although the conversations Mr. Flynn had arguably were illegal, but rather the associated leaks through which the rest of us learned what Mr. Flynn had done, that he lied about it to the Vice President, and that Mr. Trump knew all this for weeks before it became public. Indeed, Mr. Trump did not see fit to take action against Mr. Flynn until after the leak. What this essentially indicates is that Mr. Trump thought everything was OK until he and Mr. Flynn were publicly exposed, and now instead of taking responsibility and seeking greater clarity he is shifting blame to the people who exposed them. Even if the leaks themselves were inappropriate, this attitude toward the underlying information they contained is appalling.

In addition, Mr. Trump did not have a coherent answer about how he might respond to Russia's recent deployment of a cruise missile in violation of an international arms control treaty or the presence of a Russian spy ship 30 miles off the East Coast. Understandably he doesn't want to telegraph the details of specific actions, but again, the American people deserve to know the general stance our country plans to take when a geopolitical foe challenges us like this. Is Mr. Trump refusing to tell us his general approach because he doesn't have one, or because he doesn't want us to know what it is? Either of those answers is unacceptable.

To all appearances, Mr. Trump's stance toward Russia is at best bizarre, and the overarching question the American people need answered is "why?" Mr. Trump tells us to trust him that there's nothing amiss, but he refuses to provide any hard evidence, most notably his tax returns, that would support his assertion and ease our minds. Until either Mr. Trump provides a coherent and evidence-backed explanation of the tack he is taking or the intelligence community and Congress investigate and get to the bottom of the Russia-Trump nexus, the rest of us are left to speculate about the reasons for his stance on Russia. Three possibilities occur to me.

(1) It's once again all about Mr. Trump's ego, which Mr. Putin has flattered, in which case we could expect Mr. Trump to remain enamored of Russia as long as Mr. Putin keeps "being nice" to him, especially if our press and intelligence agencies continue to uncover unflattering truths.

(2) Russia knows something about Mr. Trump that he would rather not have the rest of the world know, perhaps related to Russia's role in the election or to the content of the dossier compiled by a former MI6 agent. In other words, political blackmail.

(3) Most ominous would be if Mr. Trump were actively colluding with the Russians. One fervently hopes that is not the case, but in light of all the oddities in his approach to Russia it is a possibility that cannot yet be ruled out.

We still don't know which of these, if any, explains Mr. Trump's highly unusual attitude toward Russia, but we should all, regardless of party or ideology, be demanding an answer because our national security and integrity are at stake. Until we get an answer, how can we trust our president? And if the answer indeed turns out to be any of the three possibilities identified above, how can we let him remain in office?

Conclusion and Next Steps

In short, Donald J. Trump in a few short weeks is simultaneously threatening a constitutional crisis at home and starting to upend the entire postwar order abroad. He is a serious danger to our country, not only to our national security but also to the very foundations of our democracy. I would go so far as to argue that Donald Trump is a more serious threat to our country right now than China, Russia, or ISIS.  Talk about a sentence I never thought I'd write.

I'm not sure if Mr. Trump has brought us to this point because he is totally inept, an evil genius, mentally ill, or still pursuing strategies that worked in his business dealings and campaign but do not translate well to governing. Although understanding the root cause of Mr. Trump's behavior is important, there are more important questions still as to whether Mr. Trump understands the issues facing our country and the magnitude of what he is doing with respect to them, whether he can learn from his experiences and improve his performance, and whether he can set in place a team that can help him govern responsibility. The answer to those questions so far appears to be "no." This should gravely concern us all, regardless of partisan or ideological bent.

The question now is what we citizens should do. I have three suggestions.

First, consider signing the "We the People" petition at whitehouse.gov, which requests the release of Mr. Trump's tax returns. You must provide your name and e-mail address and verify the latter, and agree to terms & conditions and a privacy policy. There are other petitions you might find worth signing as well.

Second, call and write letters to members of Congress and urge them to support an independent investigation into Mr. Trump's ties to Russia. I plan to focus my outreach in two ways, by approaching (1) Republicans such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, and, remarkably, Mark Sanford, who already are pushing back at Mr. Trump and (2) Republicans in leadership positions who should be standing up to Mr. Trump but thus far have not, primarily Paul Ryan and Jason Chaffetz.

Finally, check out a group called Indivisible, if you have not already. It was started by former progressive Hill staffers who are deploying grass roots tactics, which the Tea Party used so effectively against Obama, to resist the Trump agenda. It involves a network of small groups that coordinate outreach to their local members of Congress. I recently learned, to my great surprise and delight, that the very red congressional district in which I live has an Indivisible group, which I plan to join.

I remain hopeful that if all of us who are deeply concerned engage actively and articulately, our Congress, which is the institution best poised to rein in Mr. Trump, will no longer be able to ignore what a serious threat he presents to our country.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Donald Trump's Dangerous Control of the Narrative

Although much of what Donald Trump is doing is disturbing, his single-handed attempt to control our entire national narrative warrants special scrutiny because this aspect of his modus operandi permeates everything else he does in ways that make the foundations of our government quake. All presidents attempt to control the narrative to some degree, but three things put Mr. Trump's version of this activity in a qualitatively different and more damaging category -- (1) he is personally silencing those who don't agree with him, (2) he is flagrantly ignoring the the truth, and (3) he is telling a profoundly negative story about our country.

Silencing dissent

Mr. Trump's attempt to silence the dissent has several pernicious aspects.

Delegitimizing the press. Our system of government relies on a free and independent press to bring carefully vetted information to the public and hold political actors accountable. For this reason, the press often is called "the fourth estate," or "the fourth branch," of government. Mr. Trump, however, asserts that the press is "the opposition party" with which he has "a running war," and that journalists are "among the most dishonest human beings on the planet." Whenever journalists demonstrate that Mr. Trump is being dishonest or ask him tough questions, he inevitably responds by saying the press is lying and making up "fake news." Mr. Trump in effect shoots the messenger and refuses to engage meaningfully on substance. This makes it difficult for the press to fight falsehoods with actual facts and hold Mr. Trump accountable, but they continue to try.

One wonders, in light of Trump strategist Steve Bannon's comment that the press should "keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while" (a principle he never practiced while running Breitbart News), whether at some point the Trump administration will try to silence the press altogether. Even if Mr. Trump doesn't go that far, his indiscriminate discrediting of the press and substitution of his own version of reality for independent reporting serve to distract and confuse the electorate. Mr. Trump's treatment of the press therefore undermines a system of government that relies on an informed citizenry.

Muzzling federal agencies. Our tax dollars pay for federal agencies to not only craft regulations but also do the important work of collecting, analyzing, and publishing information about developments in their respective areas of expertise. Mr. Trump so far has muzzled three agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior -- but who knows what others agencies might be next. He also asked for names of individuals who work on climate change at various agencies. The purpose and outcome of this request remain unclear, but at the very least it injects an element of fear and uncertainty among those who work on this topic. Who knows what other topics might be next.

Although it is expected and proper that a president, especially a new one, will exert some level of control over the policy pronouncements of executive branch agencies, a blanket ban that prevents agencies from disseminating factual information is scary. By controlling what the public hears from certain agencies, Mr. Trump is cutting off a vital source of information and expertise. This further complicates the press's fact-checking role and impedes the ability of the citizenry to develop fully informed views on important issues. Denying the people access to the information and analysis for which they are paying, whether directly or by limiting the press's or lawmakers' access, undermines the integrity of a government designed to be by, for, and of the people.

Firing or publicly berating individuals who disagree. Mr. Trump fired the acting Attorney General, it appears he also fired top officials at the State Department, and his press secretary suggested that State Department officials who disagree with Mr. Trump should look for new jobs. Mr. Trump publicly berated the Bush-appointed judge who stayed his immigration ban, and even called his legitimacy as a judge into question.

Mr. Trump appears to view any form of disagreement as a personal betrayal that must be punished, rather than an important element of how a democratic system of government works. If he continues this punitive pattern, it is possible that key officials in the executive branch and the judiciary might become reluctant to challenge Mr. Trump or, if his ire proves severe enough, leave their posts and be replaced with people who will toe the Trump line. Either of these outcomes would further entrench his personal power and weaken the institutional safeguards meant to check it.

Attempting to direct the actions of an independent agency. In a development that has received relatively little attention, Congressman Patrick McHenry, apparently acting in coordination with Mr. Trump, recently sent the Federal Reserve Board a letter that (1) questioned the agency's participation in international work groups designed to promote global financial stability and (2) told the Fed to cease participating in these groups because "continued participation in [them] is predicated on achieving the objectives set by the new Administration."

In addition to mischaracterizing the nature of these groups' work and the Federal Reserve's role in them, Rep. McHenry's letter evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of the authority and mission of the Federal Reserve. By clear and intentional statutory design, the Federal Reserve operates independent of direct political influence or changes in party control of Congress or the White House. I eagerly await Fed Chair Janet Yellen's response to Rep. McHenry, which I trust will make these and other interesting points. 

The bottom line is that Mr. Trump's combination of undermining the free press, controlling the flow of information disseminated by the government, and attempting to control the actions of specific individuals within the government undermines the core principles of our democratic society. (This will be a topic unto itself on another day, but one wonders what the Republicans in Congress would be saying now if Hillary Clinton had won the election and tried any one of the above tactics. . . .)

Utter Disregard for Truth

Another insidious aspect of Mr. Trump's narrative about the state of the world and his plans to change it is his complete disregard for the truth. There are numerous fact checkers devoted to debunking the Trump administration's dishonest assertions, including FactCheck.orgPolitifact, and the Washington Post's real-time tweet fact checker, and numerous individual stories reported by the major papers and other non-partisan news sources. Most important for purposes of this post, the policy changes Mr. Trump advocated during his campaign and now seeks to implement are predicated on false claims about our country, as the next section will amply demonstrate.

Sheer Negativity

The 2016 presidential election campaign revealed that large numbers of hardworking Americans were concerned about issues such as jobs, income disparities, and access to affordable health care. These are all very real concerns that are worthy of serious attention. Instead of identifying root causes and proposing credible solutions, Mr. Trump played to public anxiety and created a fear-based campaign that painted the United States in an overwhelmingly negative light.

The underlying assumption of his slogan -- Make America Great Again -- is that America is no longer great. In explaining his grim assessment, Mr. Trump relied upon the following lines of rhetoric. Each of his rhetorical points repeatedly failed fact-checking exercises, as I will briefly note in the parentheticals below.
  • Illegal immigration is getting worse. (Although border security can be difficult to evaluate, on balance there is a strong argument that Mr. Obama strengthened it, e.g., the number of border patrol agents went up, illegal border crossings went down, and deportations of illegal immigrants were at record highs.)
  • Immigration threatens jobs. (Many more jobs have been lost to automation and shifting priorities, such as a move away from fossil fuels, than to immigrants; plus, the overall unemployment rate is well below the historical norm.)
  • Immigration threatens the safety of American citizens; Mexicans brings rape and drugs and Muslims bring terrorism. (Experts agree that most domestic terror and crime is homegrown.)
  • Our cities, particularly the black communities within them, are marked by carnage, chaos, and rising crime. (The overall crime rate steadily decreased during the Obama years. Although there was a slight uptick in the rate of some violent crimes in 2015, crime rates when Mr. Obama left office still were comparatively low historically.)
  • Our military has become weak and "a disaster." (Although military spending has gone down, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, "At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.") 
  • Other countries and international organizations like NATO and the UN take advantage of us and are unnecessary. (The United States typically provides military support and aid to other countries because doing so is in our own self-interest, and NATO and the UN are bodies through which we foster alliances and promote international stability.)
  • Obamacare is "a disaster." (While the rollout was rocky and health insurance remains too expensive for some, the uninsured rate is the lowest on record and more people have access to decent care.)
  • Our election system is rigged. (State election officials of both parties and others who study the electoral process say ballot box fraud, which is the focus on Mr. Trump's claim, is exceedingly rare. However, the U.S. intelligence community agrees that Russia engaged in other forms of election tampering, which Mr. Trump only recently and reluctantly acknowledged.) 
It may at first seem trivial to focus on the negativity of Mr. Trump's message, but on further reflection this facet of his narrative is critically important. Playing on the public's fears is a conniving yet time-honored tactic to get people to vote for someone who seeks to centralize power. This tactic also rests on the idea that kindness, openness, and peacefulness betray weakness while tough talk and brute force signal strength, when our experience as a country often has shown the opposite to be true. Finally, we humans, both individually and collectively, tend to weave the facts of our lives into narratives we tell to and about ourselves, and tend to act from the mindset cultivated by our chosen narrative. The light in which we choose to cast ourselves and the world around us has great power. When our president repeatedly tells us that we live in a dysfunctional, unsafe, and weak place, have been taken advantage of, and get no respect, how long before the citizenry behaves as if that is true?


The Unknown Commenter on my last post argued that Mr. Trump's muzzling of the agencies was the most troublesome aspect of his conduct thus far. Although so much of what Mr. Trump is doing is troubling that it is difficult to point to any one thing as the worst part, I tend to agree with Unknown Commenter that muzzling federal agencies and other forms of narrative control are at the top of the list. Narrative control relates to every other aspect of what Mr. Trump is doing, and the manner in which he is controlling the narrative is anti-democratic in spades.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep said the following: "OK, this brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That's why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we're gonna need them going forward, and they'll need us to safeguard the truth."

I just took Ms. Streep up on her request to donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists and ask you to consider doing the same. We need a free and independent press now more than ever to hold those who seek to abuse power accountable.

I also think that those in charge of humor and satire are critically important to holding politicians accountable nowadays. Humor is powerful and fun, and can reach audiences that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio (and this tiny blog) can never hope to reach. On that note, I leave you this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8W7LtIS4aBA. Please make sure your bladder is empty before you watch it.

* This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Assessing Donald Trump's First Week: Some Thoughts about Autocracy and "Alternative Facts"

Based on the first week of his presidency, Donald J. Trump appears to think he can use his office to do and say anything he wants, constitutional limits and norms be damned. The motivation for much of what he's doing and saying appears to be his own ego and need for power, and he's dragging our country with him into the alternative version of reality he uses to sustain his ego. This is worse than I imagined, but I fear it will have to become even worse before he will be meaningfully restrained.

The Deeds -- "Governing" by Fiat and Publicity Stunt 

Some of the more notable actions of Mr. Trump's first week include-
Collectively, this autocratic modus operandi flies in the face of our constitutional system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and deliberative government.

Executive Action

Executive orders and memoranda have been used by presidents of both parties and are neither new nor necessarily troubling. In Mr Trump's case, however, the content of his actions and the manner in which he promulgates them raise serious concerns.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump appears not to have vetted the substance, legality, or likely consequences of his actions with anyone except his closest White House advisors before proceeding. The immigration ban on people from Muslim countries and preference given to Christian immigrants appear unconstitutional on their face. The Department of Homeland Security's initial implementation of the ban, which prevented people with valid green cards from re-entering the country, has sparked worldwide confusion and already is being litigated. Some of Mr. Trump's orders also purport to make major changes regarding complex issues that are governed primarily by statute -- e.g., health care and immigration -- which makes one question what they truly accomplish and whether he is within the scope of his authority.

Mr. Trump appears to either not realize any of this or not care. His hasty issuance of unvetted actions on myriad topics looks more like a publicity stunt intended to allow him to say he fulfilled campaign promises than a serious attempt to govern. This unfortunately is not surprising coming from someone who claimed "I alone can fix it."

Governing by Bribe and Threat

During the transition, Mr. Trump used the carrot of tax relief to convince Carrier to keep 800 jobs in the United States. As president, Mr. Trump is using the stick of threatening to impose steep border taxes on some of America's prominent companies if they outsource jobs.

Micromanaging business decisions of individual companies, either by threatening them or promising them a reward, tends not to go over well in a democracy and is not a particularly effective way to implement economic policy.  As Paul Krugman explained in response to the Carrier situation, trying to stop jobs from going to foreign countries one company at a time will not have any meaningful impact in a $19 trillion economy that employs 145 million people. This, too, looks like a publicity stunt that allows Mr. Trump to appear to be doing something meaningful when in fact he is not.

Mr. Trump's attempts to intervene here also are glaringly inconsistent with his own decision to outsource the manufacturing of a significant amount of the merchandise bearing his name. It's unclear if Mr. Trump doesn't see this inconsistency or has somehow found a way to rationalize it. Either way, it is troubling to have a president who sees himself and his business interests as apart from the law he seeks to impose.

Muzzling Agencies that Disagree

Mr. Trump's administration has instituted polices at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior that prohibit various parts of those agencies from communicating with the press, and in one case also with lawmakers, without pre-clearing their remarks at the highest level.

We, the taxpayers, fund these agencies and deserve full and transparent access to their research and proceedings. We now instead will have ready access to only those portions of their work Mr. Trump chooses to share. In the case of climate change, one of the most pressing issues of the day, it is possible that Mr. Trump will try to bar the release of any information at all.

This is something one would expect from Vladimir Putin, not the President of the United States. It is, however, something we'd expect from someone with an incredibly large but fragile ego, who cannot abide to be challenged let alone contradicted.

An Inconsistent Stance on Election Fraud

Mr. Trump has vowed to launch a "major investigation" to look into his unsupported claim that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally. In so doing, he is ignoring state election officials of both parties, mostly his own, who say that ballot box fraud is exceedingly rare. Mr. Trump also apparently has forgotten that, when seeking to block vote recounts, his campaign asserted there was no credible evidence of voter fraud. 

Mr. Trump is poised to investigate a claim about ballot box fraud for which he sets forth no credible evidence yet continues to ignore well-supported claims of our intelligence community that Russia interfered in other aspects of our election. This wastes tax dollars by focusing on the wrong issue and undermines the integrity of an election process that is essential to our system of government. The end result likely will be to suppress legitimate voters. The public should be outraged by this.

The public also should be outraged by Mr. Trump's inconsistent and ego-driven response to this whole issue. He dismisses allegations of election tampering when they call his electoral vote win into question, but simultaneously argues that election tampering is the sole reason he lost the popular vote. It is impossible to have it both ways here because a single election produced the divergent electoral and popular vote outcomes, but Donald Trump's ego blinds him to that reality.

As a friend recently said, "Mr. Trump's ego blinds him to most of reality," which brings me to what Mr. Trump and his closest advisers, namely counselor Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sean Spicer, have been saying lately.

The Statements -- "Alternative Facts" and an Assault on the Truth

In his first week, Mr. Trump consistently has offered the American people "alternative facts." As "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd pointed out to Ms. Conway when she coined this phrase, "'alternative facts' are not facts, they're falsehoods."

The "alternative facts" given to date seem so ridiculous it's tempting to laugh them off. On deeper examination, however, the repeated reliance on "alternative facts" may be the single most insidious aspect of Mr. Trump's first week in office.

The "alternative facts" offered thus far are easily refuted with objective evidence. See NPR's fact checker and this New York Times video clip for a more comprehensive accounting, but some of the most striking examples are these--

Why would the President of the United States deal in such obvious falsehoods?

One theory is that Mr. Trump will say anything to protect his ego and actually believes what he's saying. Because he believes his own greatness, his crowd must've been the biggest ever and it could not possibly have rained while he spoke. His rocky relationship with the CIA must be someone else's fault. No one could possibly care about tax returns that might reveal he's not as rich or generous as he claims, or irrefutably show his conflicts of interest. He must have won the electoral vote fair and square, but Hillary Clinton can't possibly have won the popular vote fair and square. It's all about him, and the only "facts" he recognizes are those that affirm his greatness.

Another theory is that Mr. Trump and company understand that what they're saying is false yet choose to deploy falsehoods strategically to inject confusion into the public discourse, deflect attention from some of what they're doing, or avoid accountability and protect their power (or some combination).  Ultimately this theory also relates back to Mr. Trump's ego, particularly his need to win and maintain power.

By prioritizing the protection of his own ego and power over truth and responsible governance, Mr. Trump betrays the public trust. This betrayal is made worse because the "alternative facts" on which he relies range from the ridiculously petty to the critically important. This require us to devote a similar level of energy to matters large and small and fosters the impression that they are all equally important, when in fact they are not. Over time, it could prove challenging to hold Mr. Trump accountable for all his obvious falsehoods while keeping their relative importance in perspective.

When the media calls Mr. Trump out on his "alternative facts," he responds by saying, again with no evidence, that the media is lying and trying to demean and undermine his presidency. On the merits, the media clearly has the better of the "who is lying" and the "who is demeaning whom" arguments. Nonetheless, the administration's repeated berating of journalists and journalism has the effect of undermining the media's credibility at a time when Mr. Trump's propensity to disregard the truth makes the media's work more important than ever.

Perhaps most troubling is that a core minority of people has shown a willingness to believe Mr. Trump instead of their own eyes. If people continually prove willing to believe up is down and the midday sky is green simply because Donald Trump says so, then the media's job will go from difficult to nearly impossible. As the article referenced above states, "If a significant portion of Trump supporters are willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging fabrications with facts will be difficult." Indeed. 

Don't laugh at or underestimate "alternative facts." They are potentially as powerful as they are untrue, they "frame" messages in a perverse and unproductive way, and the Trump Administration can use them toward all sorts of ends. "Alternative facts" do us a disservice at best and threaten our basic freedoms at worst.


We should continue to assess whether Mr. Trump and his advisors recognize that their "alternative facts" are false or instead believe they are true. Perhaps the answer depends on the specific issue, and either way is bad, but there's a difference between being cunningly manipulative and outright delusional. Determining which, on balance, they are will help inform how those of us who prefer to live in reality might seek to respond to them. Based on what I've seen thus far, my money says Trump is delusional and the others manipulative, but time will tell.

Speaking of responding to Mr. Trump, while I was drafting this post, some Republican members of Congress, including Mitch McConnell and John McCain, began speaking out against his immigration ban.  So far they have not taken concrete action to reject or reshape it, but it is early yet.

Defying a major policy action by a president of one's own party is very rare and comes with numerous political risks, particularly if Mr. Trump remains popular with the party base. It will be interesting to see if, and at what point, a conscientious core of Republicans will conclude that the risks of not defying Mr. Trump outweigh the risks of defying him and choose to seriously challenge him. I think there will need to be a clear and persistent track record of irresponsibility before enough Republicans will get to that point. However, Mr. Trump's early attempts to wield his power without regard for its limits, norms, and implications, along with his adherence to to a set of "alternative facts" wholly of his own making, are laying solid groundwork for opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike. And that, all things considered, is a very sad state of affairs for our country.

* This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Thoughts on Sexism, the Election, and the Worldwide March

The Women's March on Washington, DC, as evidenced by this New York Times photo album, turned out to be a Women's March Everywhere. Accordingly, this post explores sexism as a pervasive force, our 2016 presidential election result as prima facie evidence that sexism continues to exist in the United States, and yesterday's march as a monumental and transformational global statement that sexism is unacceptable and must stop.

Mr. Trump's campaign exploited many classic dividing lines among people, including class, race, national origin, religion, and gender.  While there are many classes, races, religions, and nationalities throughout the world, there are only two genders. We humans have had our entire history to practice sexism, and in my observation all classes, races, religions, and nationalities have done so to varying degrees. In some cases sexism is blatant and obvious, but in others it has worked its way beneath the surface so that we sometimes don't easily recognize it. Sexism is a dividing force that lacks the demographic limits of the other "isms," and this potentially universal scope is what makes it so powerful and pernicious.

The United States has a history of discrimination against women but also has made great strides to overcome that. Women fought for and won the right to vote. Women went from severely limited job opportunities to entering traditionally male-dominated professions, such as law, medicine, finance, politics, science, engineering, and the military. Women fought for and won reproductive freedom.

In spite of this progress, challenges remain. Preserving reproductive freedom is an ongoing struggle. Workplace discrimination persists in many forms, including the under-representation of women in some fields and specific institutions, and the lack of equal pay for equal work. A tendency also persists among some to blame sexual assaults on the victim.

Much of the foregoing is well-understood and openly discussed. The elephant in the room is the role sexism played in our 2016 presidential election.

My first blog post attempted to explain how we elected someone like Donald Trump, and a few commenters noted that that I hadn't addressed the point that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was viewed by many as a deeply flawed candidate. Putting aside for the moment that Mrs. Clinton received nearly three million more individual votes than did Mr. Trump, it does appear to be the case that there were many "Never Hillary" voters, including some Democrats, who refused to vote for her because they viewed her as some combination of dishonest, untrustworthy, corrupt, and self-serving.

While that might explain an unwillingness to vote for Hillary Clinton, it does not adequately explain why Mr. Trump was a better alternative.  Based on his own direct statements and additional information that presented itself throughout the campaign, Mr. Trump, when judged by any objective measure of these integrity-focused criteria, should have been deemed equally objectionable.  Although I don't know anyone who personally cited the candidates' respective genders as the main reason for their decision on whom to vote, the striking double-standard used to evaluate them with respect to this set of "general integrity" issues suggests the possibility that latent sexism was indeed at work.

Perhaps there are some Trump voters who would disagree that there was a double-standard with respect to these integrity-focused criteria because they genuinely believed Donald Trump to be honest, trustworthy, free from corruption, and motivated by a desire to further the common good.  Even if we give Trump voters the benefit of the doubt regarding their analysis of this set of issues, we still must examine the role of the overt sexism that was so prominent in Mr. Trump's campaign.

By election day, it should have been beyond dispute that Mr. Trump had a pattern of repeatedly denigrating women as individuals and as a group. His pattern went beyond sexism into the realm of misogyny, which involves not only discrimination against women but also a downright contempt for them. Most people are familiar with Mr. Trump's track record here, so instead of rehashing all of it I will simply point you to the Telegraph's Donald Trump "Sexism Tracker" for a running tally.

One example that is worth highlighting is the Access Hollywood footage from 2005, during which Mr. Trump said, “I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her [referring to the woman he and host Billy Bush were about to meet]. . . . You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. . . . And when you’re a star, they let you do it. . . .You can do anything. . . . Grab them by the pussy. . . . You can do anything.” Mr. Trump tried to downplay these comments by characterizing them as private "locker-room banter" from many years before, but that excuse (1) rang hollow in light of his overall history and (2) did not render the underlying comments any less revolting.

This one piece of footage alone should have ended Donald Trump's campaign on the spot.  In a country with a low tolerance for sexism, these comments would have prompted even the most ardent partisans and "Anybody Except So-and-So" voters to say "enough is enough" and find another choice.  Instead, someone who repeatedly denigrated women and even bragged about sexually assaulting them amassed enough electoral votes to become President of the United States.  Sit back for a minute and think about what it means when the person who holds the highest office in the land, and the only elected office for which all of us vote, can get by with that kind of behavior. How soon will others feel free to follow his example?

Thankfully, some among us did not have to think about it for more than a second.  The call for the Women's March on Washington, DC, went up almost immediately. Anyone who was halfway paying attention knew this was going to be a big event in DC and other major US cities. Nonetheless, I'd venture to say that even those of us who were paying attention were stunned at the sheer magnitude and global scale of the response.

On January 21, 2017, an estimated 500,000 people marched on Washington, and collectively another 500,000 are estimated to have marched in other cities and towns throughout the United States. It didn't stop at our shores. Large crowds abroad stood with the women of America and marched in scores of other places on every continent on this planet. Yes, there was even a show of solidarity on a vessel in the waters just off the coast of Antarctica (this for me was one of the most compelling photographs in that New York Times photo album I mentioned above).

Because sexism's divisive potential knows few bounds, neither does our potential to unite against it and say we won't have it, or other forms of division that so often accompany it.  When the world's most powerful nation finally went too far down the path of fear, division, and negativity, it's women rose up, and men and women at home and around the world rose with them, to say, "This is wrong. We will not tolerate this. Together we must overcome this, and to that end oppose those who would stand in the way of progress."  This kind of worldwide, simultaneous, organized mass protest of a domestic election outcome is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Donald Trump inflamed the basest aspects of human nature to win an election in the United States, and the entire world responded by telling him, and indeed all of us, that our shared sense of human dignity and decency is greater than that. Although the worldwide marches were prompted by and focused on Mr. Trump's derisive treatment of women, the signs and chants and speeches and other forms of expression within the crowd touched other issues such as LGBTQ rights, climate change, racism, religious intolerance, and, at the London march, Brexit.  The common thread that coursed through all these various issues was that the forces of equality, justice, freedom, openness, and love can and must prevail against the baser aspects of hate and fear of "the other."

An election that seemingly divided one country 10 ways to Sunday has inspired the world to unite for all the right reasons and focus on our common humanity! What a beautiful and encouraging silver lining this is.  I suspect yesterday was not a one-time event, but rather the beginning of a movement. Oh, how I hope that will be the case, because that is exactly the kind of force required to overcome the sexism and other divisive forces that have weakened us as a country and a community for far too long.

As Dr. Martin Luther King tried to tell us long ago, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hatred cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Yesterday wide swaths of the world told us they were choosing to be the light and the love.  May that continue to be so, in our organized protest moments but even more importantly in our daily lives.

*This blog consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Donald Trump Is a Party of One (which Might Help Heal the Partisan Rift)

The last post argued that Donald Trump won the presidency by leveraging the forces that dominate our culture, including the tools used in an extreme and highly toxic form of partisanship, and that his election therefore could be viewed as a natural product of that culture. This post will explore the paradox that Donald Trump is not really a part of the partisan political culture that spawned him, and how that might provide an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to heal their partisan rift.

Ours is basically a two-party system, in which Democrats battle Republicans in an "Us vs. Them" game with familiar partisan tactics, which they wield within unwritten yet recognized bounds. Candidates run as individuals, but the vast majority of them have a political identity that is integrally linked to a major party. They are in it to win one for their team, not just themselves.

Politics as a team sport is not inherently bad. Elections by their nature are competitive events, and party affiliation helps guide voters' choices by providing a fairly reliable indicator of where a candidate will stand on many important issues. Party affiliation also holds politicians accountable based on a core set of beliefs. It is expected and proper that a thinking politician will disagree with the party line at times, but there are negative consequences for doing so repeatedly.

Neither are the parties themselves inherently bad. I'm a Democrat, but I fully support the Republican Party's right to exist and have policy positions different from mine. It has produced some of our most extraordinary presidents -- e.g., Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt -- and a number of great legislators, judges, and statesmen. Conversely, there have been members of my own party with whom I have disagreed.

I think most of us, both those in political power and the citizens who support them, want to make our country better and stronger. That we disagree about how to do this is not a problem, but rather a strength. By allowing competing views, our system helps us identity the most desirable goals and means for achieving them. The problem lies in the manner in which we have been disagreeing.

Our system functions best when it has two healthy parties each of which will win some and lose some, when elections and governance proceed according to discernible norms, and when the parties generally manage to work together in good faith. Since the mid-1990s, the "working together in good faith" part of the equation has fallen by the wayside, and the norms have changed for the worse.

Partisanship has become so extreme that it involves not only advancing a party's own goals but also actively seeking to thwart the other party simply because it is the other party, without examining the merits of its proposals or the quality of the individuals its president nominates. Winning has become more important than governing, and demonizing one's opponent and preying upon the public's fear have become the norm in both the electoral and governing phases.  This is not OK.

This toxic level of partisanship among the party leadership, to which many citizens claim to object even as they debate politics amongst themselves in a similar fashion, has completely outdone itself by contributing to the election of a president who ultimately is of neither party. Donald Trump ran ostensibly as a Republican and his campaign leveraged the Republican Party's familiar partisan tools and some of its rhetoric, but two remarkable things set him apart from a typical partisan--
  • although he behaves as if all aspects of life are a competition, to him the relevant competition does not appear to be the familiar "Us vs. Them" variant so prevalent in our politics, but rather "Me vs. Everyone Else," including members of his own party; and 
  • he doesn't play by any set of discernible rules, but rather does or says whatever he wants and thus far has been accountable to no one.

Donald Trump is a Party of One, playing by his own rules for his own benefit.

We began to see evidence of this during the Republican primary, as Mr. Trump didn't merely disagree with the positions of his opponents but also mocked and bullied them. Mr. Trump's message throughout his campaign did include some classic Republican goals, like repealing Obamacare, tightening immigration laws, and cutting taxes. However, his foreign policy and national security positions largely went against the party line, as did his proposals to increase infrastructure spending and preserve Medicare. Throughout the process, he maintained his trademark bombastic style and offended one demographic group after another.

Donald Trump didn't sound or act like a typical Republican candidate, yet the party brass were unable to prevent his rise and eventual nomination. He beat them at their own game by leveraging their tactics and portions of their message. In so doing, he paradoxically presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate and won the votes of people frustrated with politics as usual.

By sharing a partisan label with Republicans but not really being one of them, Mr. Trump tests the limits of their partisanship. A number of prominent Republican officials and members of the media objected to Mr. Trump on principle early in the campaign and have stood by their stance. Others criticized him sharply during the primary but went on to support him, sometimes reluctantly, in the general election. Some supported him all along. Others opportunistically distanced themselves when it seemed inevitable that Mr. Trump would lose and take their party down with him but have cozied up again since he won one for their team.

Those Republican leaders who are reveling in Mr. Trump's victory are in for a rude awakening when they realize that Donald Trump didn't really win one for their team. He co-opted their brand to win one for himself.  Now he is poised to do many things they don't like. They should be concerned for the future of their party.

More troubling is what a Trump presidency will mean for our country. When Mr. Trump won, many people, myself included, hoped that he would choose to govern more responsibly than he campaigned.  His behavior so far is not encouraging.  Off-the-cuff calls with foreign leaders. Currying favor with Russia while simultaneously dismissing the US intelligence community. Claiming that he by law cannot have conflicts of interest because one provision of federal ethics law doesn't apply to the president, when it is obvious that his conflicts are real and significant. Not fully vetting cabinet nominees. Continuing to communicate primarily by tweet. Denigrating a CNN reporter at his one press conference. The list goes on.

Our government, which is based on laws, institutions, and norms, is about to be led by a president who seems unlikely to be guided or constrained by those laws, institutions, and norms. Mr. Trump appears to think that because he has been elected president he can now do anything he wants. Such imperious tendencies are antithetical to our system of government, with it constitutional checks and balances and other legal and cultural norms.

If Mr. Trump in fact attempts to disregard our constitutional checks and balances, or if he attempts to do something patently ridiculous or dangerous, Republicans and Democrats alike should oppose him and hold him accountable. Similarly, the Republicans should oppose him when he does something contrary to their party's conservative principles. The ultimate test of the limits of the Republicans' partisanship, therefore, will be how they respond to President Trump when he does one or more of these things. Will they stand behind him no matter what he does because he has an R after his name, or will they attempt to stop him when he starts to go too far?

Also of critical importance will be how the Democrats choose to respond. Will congressional Democrats embrace the "Politics of No!," which the Republicans consistently used against President Obama, and oppose President Trump at every turn solely for the sake of obstructing him, or will they choose to "go high" and base their positions on substance?  In many cases their opposition will be substantively justified, but when it isn't will they work with the Republicans? Although in the minority, will they demonstrate initiative and affirmatively reach out to the other side to try to find common ground, particularly on issues that until recent decades were not particularly partisan? Ending the toxic partisan rift is not a one-party exercise; it will require the Democrats to adopt a more constructive approach, too.

Maybe I am deluding myself because I am optimist who always looks for the silver lining, but I think the Trump presidency could bring about positive changes in our political culture.  Having just elected a president who ultimately is of neither party, each party would be well served by conducting an honest assessment of what it stands for and how it presents its message.  If President Trump starts to go off the rails, as I suspect he inevitably will, that will provide a perfect opportunity for the parties to abandon the current brand of partisanship that has hamstrung our government and replace it with a model in which they work together in a more principled way, motivated by their mutual concern for this country, its rule of law, and its constitutional principles. If the Trump presidency inspires such changes, it could help right the badly broken political culture that helped produce it.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.