Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Owning Our Leaders in the Time of Trump

The current, Republican-led, U.S. federal government is an unmitigated, bipartisan shitshow. And by bipartisan, I don't mean both sides of the aisle are to blame. I mean that from an objective viewpoint -- or at least as objective as one can muster -- we're staring at a dumpster fire here, one that's going to burn for at least two years, and possibly eight.

The most obvious offender is President Donald Trump. My personal list of complaints against Trump is longer than...well, it's long. But my focus here isn't on his effort to undercut liberal policies: his failing travel ban, his undermining of progress on climate change (which is a partisan issue for some reason), his push for financial deregulation, or his proposed budget cuts to vital programs in the social safety net. Idiotic as I believe these ideas are, I recognize that to some degree they're simply an extreme version of normal arguments between Republicans and Democrats over ideological priorities.

But much of Trump's failings have nothing to do with partisan issues. First, let's look at Russia. We know that the Russians attempted to influence our 2016 presidential election -- and in favor of Trump. They even attempted to tamper with voting machines. We know Trump officials have connections to Russia in various capacities. It's unclear if Trump or his aides colluded with Russia in any way, but there are concerns about conflicts of interest and blackmail, and Trump's reluctance to release his tax returns (a custom dating back to the 1970s) only raises suspicions.

Those suspicions were magnified over Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, a decision Trump admits was influenced by Comey's continued Russian probe. The day after Comey's firing, Trump held an oval office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, where he admitted that Comey's departure relieved a great deal of pressure; then he went on to leak information gathered by Israeli intelligence to the Russians at that same meeting, just for good measure.

Last week, we learned from Comey's testimony that he felt pressured into a patronage relationship with Trump, prompting Comey to record his encounters with the president and to subsequently leak those memos in the hopes of forcing the appointment of a special prosecutor. Yesterday, we found out Trump is considering dismissing that same special prosecutor.

Trump's failures extend far beyond the Russia mess. Trump has yet to fill 553 key, Senate-confirmable positions; what's more, he hasn't even put forth a nominee for 89 percent of those openings.

This shortfall in staff might partially explain the hollowness of his economic policy. Writing for the the Atlantic, Derek Thompson summarized Trump's economic policy well: "There is no policy." Virtually everything Trump has done on this front has been all sizzle, no steak. Last week's infrastructure signing ceremony was simply Trump sending a memo to Congress requesting they act. His proposed tax plan is less than a page long and scant on detail. His budget only balances if the GDP growth doubles the forecast -- and if you double-count that growth, as his budget folks did, resulting in a $2 trillion math error.

Additionally, in his brief tenure, Trump has show complete disregard for ethics. Hiring Ivanka Trump and Jared Kusher ignores antinepotism norms, and potentially laws. He's also requested an unprecedented number of ethics waivers allowing former lobbyists to oversee the very industry sectors for which they lobbied (so much for draining the swamp). Recently, Maryland and D.C. have filed a lawsuit against Trump alleging that he has used his position rather egregiously for his own financial gain.

The Republican Congress, which is meant to check the president's power, has tripped over itself in rather pathetic attempts to defend Trump. Speaker Paul Ryan's excuse: "The president's new at this." Really?
Still, Sen. Lindsey Graham's backhand-compliment defense is perhaps the most succinct summation of the Trump White House: "
He doesn't believe he did anything wrong with the Russians, and I tend to believe him. He can't collude with his own government. Why do you think he's colluding with the Russians?"

In attempting to stand by Trump, the Republican Party leadership has in actuality undermined him. When Trump's best defense is that he's either to inexperienced or dimwitted to be guilty, it raises the question of whether he's to inexperienced or dimwitted to be president.

But he is president. And he will continue to be. And it's because voters are often stupid and always tribal.

This morning, I read an op-ed in The New York Times about the Senate's handling of the Trumpcare bill. Essentially, it looks like Mitch McConnell and the Republican leadership will attempt to ram something through by early July. The leadership is constructing the bill in secret, with no scheduled hearings or attempts to compromise with Democrats -- a particularly infuriating move seeing as that was their main complaint against Obamacare. (And a false one at that. Obamacare was debated in open sessions for a year, with several Republican amendments added, effectively killing the public option, among other proposals.)

Heres how the article concludes:

Republican leaders seem to think they will gain a tactical legislative advantage if they can negotiate a deal behind the scenes and then suddenly spring it on the full Senate. Those gains will quickly evaporate when voters learn what they have done.

The NYT editorial board seems to believe voters will revolt against policies that negatively affect them and support politicians who act to their practical benefit. In my estimation, this is a rather naive view, and the 2010 midterms bear this out. 

President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010. Though imperfect, it was a vast improvement over the existing system: more Americans are insured, premiums have stabilized, and job growth hasn't suffered. In part, that may account for steady increases in support for the ACA since it's passage (54 percent of Americans approve of the ACA, while only 32 percent approve of the proposed replacement).

What did the Democrats get for those efforts? They lost six governorships, six Senate seats, and 63 seats in the House.

The lesson? Perception is more powerful than the reality and tribalism is more powerful than common sense. Obamacare wasn't a government takeover of health care, nor was there ever any attempt to institute death panels to kill your grandmother. But that's the false narrative that confused and misinformed voters relied on to oust the Democrats from power.

The ideological spin of the narrative of events was more crucial than the practical results of the events themselves -- and it will be again. 

Obamacare was and is a private sector reform passed through bipartisan negotiation. In many ways it's more Republican than Democratic. But Republicans couldn't support it because Obama did it. American politics now operate on one rule above all others: Better to deal a defeat to the American public than allow a victory for the other team. 

And the fragmented media environment that offers each of us our ideal augmented reality makes it possible to reframe each blow to the average American as somehow the other guy's fault. In reality, it's our own.

At the outset of this post, I feel I laid out a fair account of the facts in the case against Trump's general competency and the case for his possibly illegal behavior. But Trump is and will likely remain insulated from any meaningful consequences up to and including impeachment. To impeach a president, a majority vote in the House is required. Then the president is tried in the Senate, and removed only if a two-thirds majority elects to do so. Currently, to remove Trump would require 22 House and 19 Senate Republicans to vote in favor, assuming Democrats and Independents all do. Not going to happen.

Why? Trump's approval rating. Yes, Trump's is historically low. According to Gallup, as of June 11, 2017, he sat at a meager 37 percent. But if you look deeper, you'll notice an unprecedented partisan gap: only 8 percent of Democrats approve of Trump, but 83 percent of Republicans back him. So for senators in conservative states and representatives in conservative districts who are routinely elected without having to win over many -- if any -- Democrats, there's no incentive to move on Trump, especially considering Democratic turnout in midterm elections is abysmally low. That could change, but if there's little threat of losing one's seat, there's little to gain in checking Trump.

Since Trump's election, I've heard many of my fellow liberals claim he's not their president. Yes he is. And it's important to remember that he is. It reminds us of the agency we have as citizens and voters in a representative republic and the responsibility we have to uphold its values.

But I'm not naive. I know it's Team R vs. Team D. I'm firmly on the latter side here, so it's easy for me to throw stones at our president. It's not fun to admit when your guy is wrong, but sometimes he is. Obama was wrong on many occasions, from the strengthening of the surveillance state, to the expansion of drone use without oversight, to his noncommittal stance on Syria, to his lie that you could keep your plan via the ACA (though there's a lot of nuance on last one).

Now we're at a point where Team R needs to step up. Trump is a failed experiment on what happens when a novice is drafted to the big leagues. He's not capable enough to do the job, nor intellectually curious enough to ever become capable. He's placing himself above the law, or at least positioning himself outside it. His willingness to ignore every democratic norm, to violate any principle, and to lie and con for his own personal gain are affronts to public service in its most basic terms.

These should be egregious offenses in the eyes of all Americans, not just Team D. In fact, I know they are, but we've become too tribal to face an obvious and objective threat. And for the folks on Team R, what do you gain for this erosion of the American soul? A bag of empty promises and a cheap red hat, probably made in China. So much winning.

No comments:

Post a Comment