Shameful

It was a sad day for our country in Charlottesville Virginia yesterday when white supremacists, including self-avowed Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, Anti-Semites and others demonstrated, resulting in the loss of three lives — one woman killed in a white supremacist terror attack and two Virginia State Police Troopers helping to protect the citizens of Charlottesville died when their helicopter crashed.

I could hardly believe that this was happening in our country.  Not so much that such people exist — it is a sad but true fact that they do — but that so many of them came from around the country to impose their twisted vision of America on the good citizens of Charlottesville.

More unbelievable, and vastly more disappointing and troublesome to me, our president refused to denounce the white supremacists and refused to call it an act of terror when a car deliberately plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters denouncing the white supremacists .

Shameful.

I just happened to see the president’s remarks live, as they happened.  Many of you probably saw them replayed on various news stations.  The clip most played is the president saying:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

Watching it closely, and paying attention to the body language, it was clear to me that President Trump was ad libbing the “many sides” phrase.  Which he repeated with his characteristic hand gestures usually utilized in conjunction with “believe me.”  What is not shown, and astounded me in the moment, was during his prepared remarks, he deviated from the script several times, including a long riff in the middle of his remarks about the unfolding tragedy in Charlottesville to assure us, as a nation, that he was doing a great job.

“Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record — just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they’re coming back to our country. We’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”

It always has to be about him.

Not only did he fail his course on Presidency 101 and what to say and do when faced with a tragic event, he totally failed in calling out the white supremacists and in making clear that there was no place for them in our United States.  On “many sides” indeed.  He doesn’t have the guts to call out Nazis? The KKK? He has the guts to call out the immigrant parents of a United States Army officer killed in action defending our country but not these yahoos?  What the heck?  My father and father-in-law were World War II veterans, what did they fight for if professed Nazis can carry swastikas in the streets and the president refuses to call them out?

The only answer I can come up with is that he doesn’t want to upset his “base.”  One would hope that he doesn’t want white supremacists in his base, but apparently that isn’t the case.  Am I hyperventilating? Perhaps. But I am not making this up from thin air.  Look at the comments from the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke on the eve of the demonstration.

“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”

Was that a one-off?  Let’s take another sample from a white supremacist who said the following after the president’s remarks.

“Trump’s comments were good.  He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa [I looked this up — it is short for antifascists] are haters.”

“There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”

You get the picture.  That’s why words matter and especially from the president.  He knows that and if he doesn’t then his staff sorely let him down.  But having watched his remarks live, he appeared to deviate from his prepared remarks on several occasions so as not to be specific about the groups behind the hate.  I guess he just cannot bring himself to separate from his so called supporters.

As I write, the White House staff is in full damage control mode saying essentially that of course the president denounces all hate groups.  Why would they go into damage control mode if the president’s remarks were not in fact totally inadequate?  Because he didn’t and he hasn’t actually rebuked these far right-wing extremists and terrorists.  How hard is it to say that driving a car into a peaceful crowd to purposely maim and kill is an act of terrorism?  He certainly is not shy.  Except in these cases.  Where is Mr. I’m-not-politically-correct?

Thankfully politicians of every stripe from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) to former Vice President Joe Biden came out in full-throated condemnation of the white supremacists and also chastised the president for his missed hand slap to the violent white supremacists.  There is hope that all of us will stand up for what we believe actually makes America great and not let this behavior continue unchallenged. And we should voice our opinions to President Trump to let him know how badly he let us all down, both as president and as a person.

Clearly these far right-wing nuts think that the president is on their side.  With so called alt-right (a nice name for white supremacists) supporters on his personal staff in the White House — Mr. Steve Bannon and alleged doctor Sebastian Gorka to name two — they have good reason to think so.  The only way that he can disabuse them of that notion is to clearly, forcefully and unambiguously tell them to climb back into their holes and that he refuses their support in any way, shape, or form.  Otherwise, he is not the president of the United States that I know and love.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

We are now just a bit over a month into the administration of President Donald J. Trump.  Many of us that pay close attention to current events and especially to national politics already feel a bit worn out. Based on recent reports, some are thrilled with the way that the Trump Administration is taking action and carrying out his campaign promises.  Others worry that a political disaster is looming just over the horizon. It will impact our national way of life due to the unbridled pursuit of absolute power by those in the White House, or conversely by an administration that has no real idea of what it is doing.

I am closer to the view of an impending disaster than the to the rosier view of our president.  I think President Trump, just as he demonstrated on the campaign trail, has no realistic understanding of what it means to be President of the United States.  He may be the most unprepared and undisciplined president we have had in our lifetimes.  I continue to be troubled by the apparent lack of intellectual curiosity to find out what is actually going on and in particular, how the government functions. He belittles or ignores the contextual surroundings of why certain customs and traditions came to be important in running the country.  I am sure he is a smart man.  I surmise that he just does not care to learn about all of that.  As he might say, he doesn’t have to — he won.  As a result, he has no boundaries.

In fact, that may be what got him elected.  A large segment of our population wanted him to “blow things up in Washington” and that is certainly what he is doing.  As the old adage goes, however, be careful what you ask for.  Once he finishes blowing things up, his administration still has to govern and I wonder what will take the place of the current system.

There are some clues, and yesterday, the president’s chief adviser Mr. Steve Bannon gave direct testimony as to his vision, and by extension, the president’s vision on the future of the federal government.  I find it deeply troubling.  I will explain in a moment, but part of what troubles me is that I am not convinced that President Trump has a personal vision of governing and he does not have a governing ideology, be it conservative, liberal, or something else.  In my view, he has ideas that pop into his head and then he acts on them when he perceives that they get a positive response from his base. They are seemingly random and are merely manifestations of the things that popped into his head on the campaign trail. Indeed, I am not sure that the president has much enthusiasm for the mundane aspects of governing.  If possible, he would be on a permanent campaign as evidenced by his rally in Florida last weekend that he touted as the beginning of his 2020 re-election campaign — less than a month into his current presidency.  I am sure there will be plenty more.

My view is that the flurry of activity since the president entered office is a distraction. The Executive Orders and other actions are meant to give the perception that the president is carrying out his promises to those that elected him and are based on his campaign promises.  Looks great.  The reality, ignoring for the moment whether or not it is good policy, is that not much is actually happening. He makes empty statements that may sound good to his base, but has no substance behind it.  For example, unlike numerous presidents from both parties, no significant legislation has passed since he took office.  Most past presidents rolled out some milestone legislation and had it passed in the first 30 days of their term. President Trump has yet to send any major proposals to Congress.  Meanwhile, leaders in Congress are ignoring the, shall we say, shenanigans taking place in the White House.  Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are taking the long view and trying to ignore the day-to-day turmoil created by the president’s tweet storms and press conferences and the like.  (One may wonder, however, how long of a view they are taking.  It has been over six years since they promised to repeal and replace The Affordable Care Act and they still have nothing close to a realistic proposal to do so.)  They may end up being ambushed and/or deceived by the White House in unexpected ways that limits their ability to pass a health bill and other long awaited legislation.

Another piece of the puzzle in figuring out the future intentions of the president, and more accurately Mr. Bannon’s plans, comes in the form of foreign policy and cabinet positions.  Although he has a few outstanding Americans in key cabinet positions — such as Secretary James Mattis at Defense (I briefly served with him in the Pentagon during the transition from the President Bill Clinton to the President George W. Bush administration), Secretary Rex Tillerson at State (although his Russian ties are still troubling), Secretary John Kelly at Homeland Security and the new National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster — one wonders as to their influence in the White House.  Several examples seem to indicate that they may have little to no influence on decision-making.  In particular, Secretary Tillerson does not seem to be much involved in crafting foreign policy.  His assignment seems to be more of a public relations job.  The three secretaries mentioned above have spent more time going around to various foreign leaders, along with Vice President Pence, explaining “what the president really meant to say” and patching up the resulting frayed relationships with friends and allies.  When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the United States and President Trump fundamentally changed decades of U.S. Middle East policy, no representative of either the State or Defense Departments were present in the meetings.  The president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner was there.  Mr. Bannon was there.  Mr. Bannon’s acolyte Mr. Stephen Miller was there.  But by all credible reports, not one member of the departments responsible for the policy was included.

Other signs that the cabinet may not have much influence in the White House include the fact that individuals picked by several Secretaries for their staffs were summarily fired by the White House when staffers learned that they had made critical comments about Mr. Trump during the campaign.  Another clue is that nearly all political appointees were summarily removed after the inauguration.  While clearly the incoming president has every right to put his own people in those positions, the usual practice is to keep some appointees from the previous administration in place to keep the government running while the new nominees go through confirmation hearings.  Every Ambassador overseas was removed.  It is hard to keep things rolling smoothly along when there is no one there to do the job.  While much criticism is directed at the Democrats for “slow rolling” the confirmation process of Cabinet officials,  the truth is that many of them were poorly vetted prior to their hearings.  One Cabinet nominee and two Service Secretaries nominated by the president withdrew their names when unusual entanglements were uncovered.  This of course doesn’t include retired Lt. General Michael Flynn resigning as the National Security Adviser weeks into the administration. More significantly in terms of actually making things work, there are roughly 549 political positions in the federal government that require confirmation by the Senate.  14 slots are filled with about 20 others nominated.  That means that roughly 515 senior and vital positions in the government have not been nominated.  While such hearings can go slowly, previous administrations would have nominated or known who they want to nominate to those positions by now. For info, there are about 3500 additional political positions in the federal government that do not require Senate confirmation.  Nearly all of them remain empty.

Here is another piece in the puzzle leading up to my conclusion that something nefarious is going on in the White House.  President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, the intelligence community (yet another one just today), and the press may be his childish backlash to decisions or stories he does not like.  I am beginning to think that there is more to it.  It may be the president’s own doing or he may be put up to by key members of his staff.  Either way, it is potentially dangerous.  I am beginning to think that it is a concerted effort to delegitimize those bulwarks of our freedoms. So far Congress seems unable or unwilling to push back against the president.  The only institutions that are attempting to keep the president honest are the ones he is attacking.  If they are undermined, or ignored, or intimidated, then there is no institution ready to call him out when required.  His power would increase. This is not a pretty picture for a man who knows no boundaries.

Least we get distracted, please remember that a foreign power tried to interfere with our election and as late as yesterday, the president called the whole investigation a “ruse.”  And we still have not seen any of his tax returns.

So, what is it that I am leading up to?  Yesterday, Mr. Bannon — former editor of the alt-right publication Breitbart news and current senior adviser to the president — went before the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) and declared that the goal of the new administration is to dismantle the federal government and re-build it in his image.  Or has he said, they are entering in an unending battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”  In their view, the “administrative state” is the career civil servants in the government that do not see their role the same way as do Mr. Bannon and his cohorts.  Included in his vision of the “enemy” is the intelligence community, judiciary, press and the other institutions that they continually attack.  As delineated in the article linked above, Mr. Bannon proclaimed that the president will never moderate his positions or seek consensus.  Apparently, it is as we used to say “my way or the highway.”

What will replace the old order?  It would take me too much time to go into all of the devilish details of their world view.  A short explanation would be that in their view the world order that has prevailed in economics, politics and foreign policy since the end of World War II is no longer relevant for the future and has to be dismantled to give power back “to the people.” “Power to the People!”  Sounds familiar. It is also fiercely nationalistic, thus the slogan “America First.”  Trade pacts, military alliances, and other areas that you have seen President Trump and his minions talk about as being “obsolete” and “bad for America” are manifestations of this world view.

One may argue that it is time to shake things up (Yea Trump!) and there may be a case to be made there. I am not sure if President Trump fully avows to such a world view or whether it was merely a convenient path to the presidency.  He used Mr. Bannon to achieve his ends.  The unsettling part is that Mr. Bannon is also using the president to get what he wants.  In either case, Mr. Bannon espoused his “pride” in the president for his unwavering pursuit of his new world order and his unwillingness to compromise.  To me that does not bode well for our future.  Contrary to hard-liners on both sides of the aisle, politics is by nature a compromise.  Without it, nothing will get accomplished.

The deeper one dives into Mr. Bannon’s vision and specific statements the more worrisome it becomes that he and his minions in the White House — Mr. Stephen Miller and other former Brietbart writers — are in charge.  When one puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together, it is eerily reminiscent of many a work of political fiction outlining a path to autocratic power in our nation.

Whenever one or two people in power declare that they alone know how to set things straight it should be troubling.  I think that there is a method to the seeming madness in the White House and in my view it could easily result in a direct assault on the values we hold dear.  Our democracy is only as good as the people in it.  It will be incumbent on all of us to look with clear eyes as the next few months unfold and to cry foul as appropriate.  To our great benefit, it is already beginning to happen in the many town halls held (or not — and that is very telling as well) around our nation with our representatives in Congress.

Whether President Trump represents the good, the bad or the ugly depends on one’s political view-point. None-the-less, we live in interesting times.  Hold on to your hat, because I think our national journey is going to get pretty wild in the coming months.