Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Unhinged: The 2020 Campaign Begins

Just before Donald Trump's inauguration (which happened just 33 days ago - seems a lot longer than that doesn't it?), I was having lunch with several of my work colleagues all of whom voted for Trump in last fall's election. They were talking about how pleased they were at how Trump was going to "shake things up" in Washington.  As I finished my meal I predicted that Trump would become highly adversarial toward the media and that this would ultimately lead to fewer press conferences, more mass rallies, and more direct communication by Trump through twitter.

This past Friday and Saturday featured a great example of what I thought might be coming.  After an unusually combative press conference, Trump rushed down to Florida where his supporters formed a line a mile long waiting to applaud and voice support for the president.  The event was billed not as an "official" presidential visit, but rather as a "campaign" affair.  The 2020 campaign officially began in Florida as Trump has discovered, to no one's surprise really, he is more comfortable campaigning for president than he is at actually serving in the office. 

While his overall approval rating has been declining, Trump remains solidly competent and effective in the eyes of his voter base.  The fact that the White House is in turmoil has not affected his core supporters.  In fact, they are actually pleased with the chaos Trump is either causing by design or stumbling through due to ineptitude - as indicated by my work colleagues (I suspect highly typical of Trumpkins everywhere). 

Despite an impressive pace of executive orders and half-baked policy announcements (the immigration thing, the healthcare thing, the protectionist thing, etc.), Trump has accomplished absolutely nothing so far other than to look either puzzling or stupid (or both) to most of American and the rest of the world.  The president is on the receiving end push-backs from every aspect of the alleged "swamp" that a plurality of voters sent him to DC to "drain" as well as a strong grass-roots movement intending to disrupt him and impact the 2018 mid-term elections.  

Amidst all this Trump held a radical news conference last Friday where he spewed 77-minutes of hubris at the media and the American public. He denied the White House was in turmoil.  He whined that he "inherited this mess."   It was a moment without precedent in American political history. You can read a transcript of the entire performance here.  Things were so ridiculous that Trump's choice for National Security Advisor decided he didn't want the job after witnessing the incredulous news conference.   Even Fox News called Trump out on the way the president portrayed the media. 

Recent events have shown President Trump is a disgrace to the office of the presidency.  Republican Senator John McCain has pondered the apparent inability for the administration to separate truth from lies where the facts of governing are concerned.  McCain also rightly declared Trump's attitude toward the free press as the way "dictator's get started."  Further, McCain frets of the apparent inability of the Trump administration to "separate truth from lies." 

Senior officials say they have never seen such chaos within an incoming administration. Much of what Trump belches in his public appearances is simply untrue.  The president seems to have no concept of what facts actually are.  Actually, that is probably not true.  Trump knows the facts but chooses to spin his own reality with "alternative facts." 

This is an absurd situation.  We are at a point where not only are we polarized in terms of our political perspectives but we can no longer even agree upon such basic things as what is and what is not a fact.  This renders authentic debate and dialog of opposing political views (the heart of our democracy) impossible, as soon no one will be able to agree upon the basis for validity, let alone the conclusions to be logically drawn from a reasonable exchange of perspectives upon vetted and substantiated facts.

Take the "mess" Trump supposed inherited.  This is classic bullshit. Trump, faltering at the polls and rudderless at something as basic as putting together a political team, chooses to attack one of the few institutions less popular than himself - the American media.  So, he invents a "mess" that is separate from his lack of leadership and governing ability. What exactly is this vague "mess"?

Trump inherited a slowly growing economy with low unemployment.  His predecessor, Barack Obama inherited a full-blown financial crisis and skyrocketing unemployment. On the other hand, Obama clearly left Trump with a foreign policy mess.  But Trump doesn't seem to care about that specifically as he is only making America's foreign standing messier.  So, I'm unclear as to what the "mess" is exactly. Obamacare?  Seems the mess lies in attempting to dismantle it rather than anything the unfortunate policy actually caused.  Mexican immigration?  Trump's wall idea is more of a mess than that - including the fact that Trump has disrupted relations with Mexico, one of America's best trading partners.

The comparisons between Trump and Hitler are mostly overblown.  The United States is weak but it is not the Weimar Republic that spawned Hitler. Trump is an authoritarian narcissist but he's not a genocidal maniac. No, Trump is unique.  I don't see him as evil so much as someone incompetent and unqualified who prefers to surround himself with people even less competent and qualified. 

However, Trump's intentionally adversarial conduct toward the free press and his emerging preference for mass rallies is rather Hitleresque. Trump's outrageous, unstable, and arrogant behavior has led to the resignation of long-time National Security Council member Edward Price. This weakens the Council further after the ridiculous appointment of the utterly unqualified (he's just a banker/film maker, nothing more) Steve Bannon. (To be fair, and to possibly reflect the sheer weigh of opposition to Trump's nonsense, it was announced today that the White House might be walking back a bit on the Bannon thing. So maybe there is some small hope for all the resistance to Trump after all.)

This has merits comparison with Hitler's initial rise to power. When he took office in 1933 the Nazi's control only 3 of 11 cabinet posts.  His opponents thought this was sufficient to keep him in check. But these three positions effectively gave the Nazi's control of the police which led to the various crack-downs that further elevated Nazi power.  Putting people like Bannon on the Council and losing people like Price and Harward does not bode well for the Council's future

Federal law enforcement and the intelligence community are somewhat insulated from the National Security Council.  So, there is no immediate danger of a Hitler-like control of the police by Trump.  But, like the Reichstag fire episode, one wonders what the affect might be should a major terrorist attack hit this country at this time.

Such an attack could legitimize the full-blown violation of privacy that security state advocates seek and lead to a radicalization of the "war of terror" that was unthinkable under more stable leadership by Presidents Bush and Obama. The possibilities are truly chilling.

But, let's not get overly speculative when there is so much to factually critique about Trump's first two months in office. So far, ill-conceived executive orders, adversarial relations with the free press and the intelligence community, stacking the Security Council, and actively campaigning to solidify his voting base are all the accomplishments of this administration.  Nothing else has happened yet. But we are early in the game and a lot can change over the next few months.  

I told many of my friends who, as opposed to my work colleagues, were depressed with Trump's improbable election that I just didn't think he would be able to do all those silly things he promised on the campaign trail. So far, he seems to be pissing off everyone who can actually make policy happen. Maybe Trump will end up being all bluster with no substance. Or maybe it could be as bad as everyone fears.  Stay tuned.