Saturday, January 21, 2017

Best part of inauguration: the sparse crowds. Worst part: Trump’s fascist-inspired speech


There were many moments when I found the imagery and words of the inauguration inspiring, and they were all the same moment: the views of the sparse crowds. The Pence family walking by empty grandstands. The aerial comparisons of the jam-packed mall in 2009 and the deserted mall of 2017. The news that groups rented more buses to bring people to the Saturday anti-Trump march—the Women’s March—than to the inauguration itself. Nationwide more people will take to the streets in Washington, D.C. and nationwide to protest the policies of the new administration than to celebrate it. 

These images warm my heart because they prove that the United States is still a free country. 

If we were living in a dictatorship, the streets would have been crowded with cheering admirers. Censorship would have suppressed the reporting of the comparison photographs and factoids. The surveys that show Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity would have been rigged to pretend the man is universally beloved. 

The mass revulsion and renewed activism motivated by the Electoral College’s decision to elect this unqualified no-nothing gives me cause for optimism, although I can’t help but wonder how many of the marchers voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or stayed home on Election Day. 

Both a friend of mine and I noticed that in most of the video streams and photographs (but not the one gracing the front page of the New York Times), the Trump family looks grim and unhappy. I shrugged it off as the typical awe and trembling that the nouveau riche feel when confronted by century-old traditions which fill them with the anxiety of those who believe in their hearts that they are unworthy. They focus on playing their role to perfection, which gives them a certain stiffness and seriousness of purpose. Contrast with the smiles, kidding and other grace notes that have brightened the inaugural performance of every other president in my lifetime. Of course all of them, even Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, were long-time insiders who participated in transfer of power ceremonies before and knew how government worked.   

My friend, a practicing psychotherapist, saw an unhappy family in strife. For unhappy families, milestones and public events often provide a battlefield for playing out their problems. Mentally stable people, no matter how pissed off or disappointed they are at their spouse, child or parent, will hide behind a public mask. We know Hillary Clinton learned to do that during the 1990’s. But the more troubled a family or an individual, the less they can control themselves in public settings. Does family unhappiness explain the first family frowns? Before their grand entrance, did Trumpty-Dumpty berate everyone with commands, chides and insults? 

As to Trump’s speech, I think MSNBC’s Chris Matthews put it best. It was Hitlerian. 

Not so much specifically Hitlerian, but with many attributes of speeches given by fascists and totalitarians since human history began, including:

·       References to the people as an organic unity that feels, moves, suffers and exults together. “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny” sent a shudder down my spine because it fit right into a speech by Mussolini or Hitler. Or the ancient Greek tyrant Pisistratus, for that matter.

·       Explicit and implicit linking of the people to the ruler, as if the ruler is the people and the people are the ruler.

·       The big lies, which in the inauguration speech focused on the current state of the country. To the degree that there ever was “American Carnage,” it has ended over the past 25 years, as crime rates, shooting of police by others and terrorism have gone way down. The education system is not flush with cash, as Trump averred. As the unemployment rate and income equality suggest, the problem is not a lack of jobs, but the low wages paid for most jobs nowadays. We have not, as Trump claims, depleted the military.

·       The cry to put the country first, unlike what the old regime did, at least according to the incoming fascist dictator. “America First,” the rallying cry of the virulently anti-Semitic American fascists in the 1930’s and 1940’s, sounds no different from the Nazi proclamation to put “Deutschland ┼▒ber alles.”

·       The evocation of a special destiny for the country, the idea that the country is better, purer, more advanced. Both times that Trump declared American exceptionalism he implied or stated that it’s god’s will: the first time when he called us a “righteous public,” and more explicitly when he said that “we will be protected by God.”

·       Glorification of a past that never existed. The past to which Trump refers is industrialized America during the twentieth century. Yes, we were an industrial nation, but always because we exported. As Sven Beckert’s magisterial Empire of Cotton demonstrates, the United States built its economy on trade from its very origins. Our manufacturing flourished in the 20th century because we were able to sell our goods everywhere. The other major inaccuracy in discussing our past was the idea that everything was wonderful back then—it was only wonderful for workers once they unionized, and then only for whites. 

Embedded in the fascist rhetoric that both tore down the current state of the country and glorified the national ideal, were a mere three policy recommendations. Let’s pretend that we’re living in a logical world and consider those three initiatives the cornerstones of the Trump Administration:

1.      Protectionist trade policies

2.      War against “radical Islamic terrorism”

3.      Investment in rebuilding our infrastructure of roads, bridges and highways 

That’s a paltry program compared to what Regan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama laid out in their inaugurations. Paltry, and mostly wrong-headed. Protectionist trade policies have been a contributing factor to most depressions in American history, as trade wars close off markets. Singling out Islam suggests a religious war, not a fight against terrorism. Rebuilding our infrastructure is something I and other left-wingers have been advocating for at least a decade. Too bad Trump didn’t say that he would pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy, nor note that a national building program gives the country the opportunity to create the infrastructure needed for a post-fossil fuel economy.   

But unlike other inaugural addresses, Trump’s remarks seemed less about describing a program and more about reminding people how lousy their lives were and how great they will be now that the big man is in charge. 

While Trump channeled fascism in his inaugural address, his Administration got started with two symbolic acts that reminded me of Hemingway’s dictum not to confuse motion with action. Trump signed an executive order that allows agencies to dismantle those parts of the Affordable Care Act it is legal for the president to dismantle. No specifics, no commands, no timetables. Thus no real action.  

All references to global warming suddenly disappeared from the White House website the moment the transfer of power occurred. But again, the act was symbolic at best, since the White House did not countermand any single regulation or rule. 

I recently wondered if the Trump Administration would engage only in symbolic acts of branding and rebranding.  I speculated that the kind of gridlock that this approach to running the country both reflects and initiates would be the best-case scenario for a Trump Administration. So far, so good.  

Friday, January 20, 2017

Our best hope for Trump years is that he does nothing but what he does best: Brand & rebrand

I’ve sat in front of a blank screen for the past hour trying to grapple with the enormity of what has happened: An ignorant, autocratic, erratic, irrational, racist, misogynistic narcissist has assumed the presidency of the United States and with it control over a vast rule-making administration.
 
Erratic though he may seem, Trump’s cabinet speaks to a consistent agenda: lowering taxes on the wealthy and making it easier for a handful of large businesses in a handful of industries to operate while turning the federal government into one giant business-making machine for cronies. Trump’s cabinet promises to take national the disastrous Kansas experiment under Governor Sam Brownback—starving government to the point that it can’t even deliver basic services such as public education. We’ve seen how this approach to governing has failed not only in Kansas, but in states around the world.
 
Since Trumpty-Dumpty has made the same deal with the devil that other economic rightwingers have made since at least the middle of the 19th century, we will also get a large dose of nativism and racism in how we pursue social and economic policy. Besides the dangers created by cutbacks to funding, the harsh administration of justice and more voter suppression laws,  minorities, immigrants and women also face the ire of Trump’s “basket of deplorables.”Reflecting Trump’s own loose-tongue explicitness, this latest generation of hate-mongers seems ready to become more overt in both word and deed under a Trump presidency.
 
I believe that, despite voter suppression laws and the rise of the militant white power movement (AKA the alt-right), history, demographics and the facts are on the side of social democrats. Eventually the demographic majority in favor of the left’s platform will turn into a voting and electoral advantage on the state and national levels.  I am, for example, convinced that even if Trumpty-Dumpty survives the next four years without assassination or impeachment voters will sweep him out of office, perhaps even denying him the Republican nomination.
 
But unfortunately, Trump, Jeff, Betsy, Paul and their cohorts could do a lot of damage in a very short amount of time.
 
One of any of a large number of actions that Trump and the GOP-led Congress have threatened to do would be disastrous:
·       Ending the current healthcare system without putting in place either a single-payer system or a system that looks like the current one down to virtually every detail.
·       Lowering taxes on the wealthy, with or without gutting safety net and other government programs.
·       Installing a Supreme Court that will continue to grant rights historically reserved for human beings to corporate entities, while constraining the rights of actual individuals.
·       Replacing our public education system with a voucher-based system good for either assembly-line, for-profit charter Mac-schools or parochial private schools.
·       Turning our back on the Paris Accord and promoting the development and use of fossil fuels instead of moving towards alternative fuels.
·       Walking away from international trade agreements and creating barriers to trade except for those related to the environment, safety and compensation for workers.
 
Like he does with his bankrupt companies, when Trump leaves office, either in disgrace or in a cloud of gilded faux glory, he will leave it to others to fix what he has broken.
 
But that’s the way of the world. Who suffered when Athens decided to go to war more than the slaves and hoplites who had to do the fighting? It is the poor and the innocent who suffer in wars, not the rich old men (and now women) who send them to fight or order others to attack and plunder their lands.  Who suffers when a Chief Executive Officer, driven by ego and blinded by his (and now sometimes her) ignorance does something stupid like expand too quickly, take on too much debt or borrow money to pay bonuses? The CEO walks away with a golden parachute and the workers lose their jobs and sometimes get shorted on their pension. (Anecdotally, years ago I observed a president of a Fortune 500 company fueled by a cocaine habit drive his company into a chapter 11 bankruptcy and massive layoffs; when he was fired, he walked away with a large severance package).
 
It’s also not the first time in world history that a large population has fallen under the spell of a mendacious charlatan. Nor the first time that a society has lived by a series of lies or myths.  I would assert that since World War II, we in the United States have based our society on a few wrong-headed ideas that turn out to be based more on ideological belief than facts:
1.    All emotions, rituals and human relationships can be reduced to commercial transactions.
2.     The suburban lifestyle built on cars, malls and few public spaces is superior to the urban lifestyle built on diversity, mass transit and lots of public spaces and institutions.
3.     The free market provides better solutions to social needs and challenges than government does.
4.     There is something suspicious, antisocial and/or uncool about intellectualism, intellectual endeavors, learning and science.
 
Celebrity culture represents the logical endpoint of the confluence of these false beliefs, and Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of celebrity culture a failed businessman who plays a successful one on TV, someone who is famous merely for being famous, gallivants from one expensive place to another acting out his inner demons in front of a national audience. Entertaining to some, but not the way to run either a business or a government.
 
While ignorant, bullheaded, self-centered, vindictive and crass, Trump also has a genius in one area—branding, which on an operational level consists of making people want something more than they should by attributing to the thing values and meaning that go beyond its use value. “More than they should” is the important concept here, because in the case of an end to the Affordable Care Act or the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico, the average person should not want to see it happen at all. This one skill Trump has may prove to be the salvation of the country during his years in office.
 
My best case scenario for the Trump rule is that he focuses on branding and nothing else. For example, the entirety of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act could be replaced by itself but with new names—the exchange could be called a “Freedom Market.” The standards that insure that no one will buy a worthless policy could be called the “Patients’ Bill of Rights.” The individual mandate could be relabeled a user fee—those who go to expensive hotels and vacation resorts should be used to user fees for something they don’t use!
 
In a similar way, the Trump Administration might rightfully conclude that the cost to modernize our stock of nuclear weapons is too expensive and instead institute a program that pretends to modernize but really decommissions hundreds of our unneeded thousands of nuclear warheads. Trump could call it “Peace through Strength.” The Donald could also very easily do nothing to change our immigration intake process and still call it extreme vetting, wait six months and declare victory in the war to protect our borders, using statistics that reflect the Obama years. Same with crime.
 
Our best hope, then, is that Trump remains true to his inner Barnum and spends his time in office doing nothing but bullshitting people (and engaging in feuds, of course). Maybe his family and friends will cash in, but we survived Jackson’s, Grant’s, Harding’s and Bush II’s gang of thieves. We can survive a little more kleptocracy and an administration full of empty slogans.
 
Gridlock never looked so good.
 
 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Trump’s reply to John Lewis comment displays usual Trumpian ignorance of facts and symbols

John Lewis said what a lot of us have been thinking: that Trump is not a legitimate president because of voter suppression laws in a handful of states that broke to Trump by micro-thin margins and decided the results of the Electoral College. The Georgia Congressman also implied that Trump delegitimizes himself with his behavior and language towards minorities, immigrants and women. Finally, Lewis rejects Trump’s vision for America as its putative symbolic leader for the next eight, four, two or one year(s) that he’s president.
 
When not trying to bully women or his campaign adversaries, Trump often takes off on figures with halos over their heads, people who both the religious and non-religious consider saint-like: A Gold Star family. The Pope.
 
And now John Lewis.
 
On both the factual and the symbolic level, Trumpty-Dumpty’s recent tweet attacking Lewis was as wrong as wrong can be. After mischaracterizing Lewis’ vibrant and relatively wealthy Congressional district as a crime-infested rat hole, Trump said “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results.”
 
John Lewis. No action?
 
On the factual level, the district itself belies Trump’s accusation that Lewis doesn’t spend time helping it.
 
On the symbolic level, John Lewis epitomizes the man of action. Remember that when police officers and soldiers put themselves in harm’s way, they carry weapons and are willing to use them and, if American, they typically outnumber the other side.
 
But John Lewis went out to face the enemy with nothing but the courage of his conviction that peaceful disobedience was the most powerful weapon to achieve social, civic and economic justice. When he led the demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama that bloody Sunday in 1965, he knew he was going to take a bad beating, and he took it. He took it for Dr. Martin Luther King, who didn’t march that day. And he took it for the civil rights movement. He took it for the entirety of the United States and for everyone who ever believed that the right to participate fully in society belonged to all men and women, regardless of their color, religion or condition in life.  I’ve read the Gospels and a lot of history and I’m still not convinced that such a man as Jesus Christ ever existed. I definitely question the concept of a person suffering for the sins of the collective. But if there were ever a Christ-like human being, it was—and is—John Lewis.
 
The simplified form of the twentieth century philosophy called existentialism is “You are what you do.” By that measure, Lewis is an existentialist’s existentialist, the highest form of the man of action.
 
While John Lewis has lived his life as the embodiment of true heroism, every public act of Donald Trump’s existence manifests the extreme narcissism and greed of a spoiled but very dull four-year-old. While John Lewis has dedicated himself to the ideals of helping others, Trump and his cabinet of billionaires and multi-millionaires have dedicated their time on earth to selfish ends or to rolling back the gains made by Lewis and others to bring social and economic equity to all.
 
Some people are bemoaning that Trump is an accidental president, a product of a bizarre series of one-off events. Others blame racism and misogyny for the still hard-to-imagine horror of 60 million people voting for him. Still others say Republicans fixed the Electoral College vote with voter suppression laws. All of these explanations for why this ignorant loutish racist who lost the popular vote by almost three million still ended up president is enough to delegitimize his moral authority for John Lewis. And for tens of millions others, too.
 
Including me. Donald Trump may assume the office of the presidency in a few days, but he’ll never be my president.
 
On the other hand…if he would keep and extend Obama’s energy and environmental policies; fund infrastructure improvement with new taxes on the wealthy; veto all legislation that would end the Affordable Care Act or the individual mandate or cut funding to Planned Parenthood; come out in favor of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian mess; embrace the Iraq nuclear deal; advocate raising the minimum wage and lifting the cap on incomes assesses Social Security taxes; nominate Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice; encourage parents to give their children timely vaccinations, stopped using Twitter to create prosecute personal feuds, stopped dissing our allies while praising Vladimir Putin…
 
In other words, if Trump acted presidential, I would consider him president.
 
Fat chance of that.