Monday, November 28, 2016

Here we go again.

He considered any publicity good.  He “spun one narrative after another that was palpably untrue, [finding it] …next to impossible to say anything that is not in some crucial way untrue.”  “He [didn’t] let anybody get too close.  …Those who worked with him found him curiously elusive.”  He had no interest in briefing books.  “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed.”  Sound familiar?  This is how the distinguished historian and UNC Professor Emeritus William Leuchtenburg described Ronald Reagan in his 2015 book, The American President.  So what Gerald Ford might have aptly called our current “Nightmare” isn’t entirely new.  Here we go again.

I couldn’t help being struck by the similarities between the Gipper and the Donald.  Reagan was sworn in at age seventy, so too will Trump.  Being six months older he will be the oldest ever.  Both disregarded facts on the stump and beyond.  Periodic fabrication and outright lying is something Reagan took all the way through his tenure.  It reached its peak late in his second term when he denied both selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras.  Leuchtenburg contends that his actions – trading with an enemy and unauthorized arming – constituted impeachable offences.  Only because Democrats (who controlled Congress) feared having to face George HW Bush as an incumbent in the upcoming election did he escape prosecution.  Reagan represented the then radical right of his party much as Trump represents an extreme today.  We Americans have a short memory and may have forgotten how ominous we thought the Reagan presidency would be.  We survived.

Survived, but Reagan, the GOP mythical icon, had a profound and lasting impact on the country’s direction.  So much so that twelve years on, Bill Clinton, despite liberal inclinations, determined his only path to the presidency lay in pulling his party to the right of center, to govern as a New Democrat.  That produced, among others, “an end of welfare as we know it”, (after pushback from the military) “don’t ask don’t tell” and “three strikes”.  It wasn’t enough for the opposition.  Tokened by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract” the right never lost its focus on regaining power and extending Reagan’s conservative “revolution”.  Barack Obama moved further left but met bitter resistance from the start.  His progressive legislative initiatives had no Republican support and others had to be accomplished by Executive Orders, many of which can – probably will – be reversed by Trump.  Democrats are said to be the majority party – Hilary Clinton outpolled him in November’s election – but that “majority” has proved ephemeral.  Republicans, dominated by the hard right, hold the executive mansion in a majority of states and beginning in January will control all three branches of the federal government.   We will survive Donald Trump, but not without paying a significant price.  The Supreme Court, especially, is likely to skew conservative for decades to come.

I reach back to Reagan’s election and our survival as a reassurance, but that doesn’t mean we should be sanguine about the immediate future.  Quite the contrary.  The fact that there are similarities between Trump and Reagan doesn’t mean they are the same.  I ran into Bill Leuchtenburg here in Chapel Hill a few days before the election and we shared our dismay in watching the 2016 campaign.  I said that to my knowledge, there had never been anything like it, never a candidate like Trump.  He concurred, and of course from the perspective of a scholar who, unlike an opinion blogger like myself, actually can back up his assessment with a lifetime study of the presidency.  I’m privileged to live in the same community and to have him as an acquaintance.

In significant ways, Donald Trump is very different than Ronald Reagan.  Professor Leuchtenburg describes Reagan’s politics as “divisive”; Trump’s are polarizing.  While being “grossly ill informed” relative to earlier presidents, Reagan had served as governor of our largest state.  Trump has zero government experience, which makes him not merely ill informed but inexperienced and totally unprepared.  Like Reagan, Trump is a performer who knows how to move and indeed manipulate a crowed, but unlike him he has shown himself to be an obsessive misogynistic and xenophobic narcissist.  Also, while Reagan worked within a clear ideological framework and surrounded himself with experienced people, Trump seems to function with no such compass, relying on loyalists, some with no credentials for carrying out their assigned job.  Perhaps most important, Reagan may have been a rightist ideologue, but was never mean spirited.  His persona didn’t give license to the kind of audience hate speech that often was heard at Trump rallies nor did he give an essential White House role to the likes of the alt-right Steve Bannon.  We know what Reagan did as president, we don’t yet know what Trump will do once he is sworn in on January 20.  His actions since November 8 are hardly reassuring, in fact they point to our worst fears not our best hopes.  His continued use of tweets, the latest to claim that absent millions of fraudulent ballots he would have won the popular are frightening.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

Our first and still relatively primitive car “GPS” systems offered us less than perfect turn by turn directions from here to there. To say that the resulting trips were often circuitous, even torturous, would be an understatement.  Following such directions once took me on an hour long drive to a destination I discovered upon arrival was just fifteen minutes away.  The American story is very much like those circuitous road trips; the opposite of a straight line.  More often than not, that means two steps forward and one back or even one step forward, two back.  President Obama likes to refer to our democracy as “messy”.  It can be very frustrating, even unnerving.  Mirroring the human condition, it is complex not simple.  We should keep that in mind when characterizing this past (or any) election and those who drove its perplexing outcome.

Trump voters, and indeed voters in general, are not a monolith.  One vote can reflect current views and emotions, but long term it can’t change fundamental facts.  For some, this election represented a white person’s rebellion against a change in our racial and ethnic balance – of who is in control – but it can’t alter demographics.  Some voters may have expressed discomfort with growing secularization or marriage equality.  That won’t alter the views or practices of the upcoming generation.  Some – more than would admit – simply didn’t want a woman in the Oval Office.  But that will come to pass, must come to pass.  Some, as evidenced by a rise of hateful speech and actions, are simply bigots.  They represent not only something reprehensible but also a real danger that dare not be underestimated or overlooked.  It will present a test for the new president’s own identity and intent.  Much, perhaps most, of the vote expressed frustration about the economic and social stalemate that has come to characterize their lives and, worse, spell a dismal outlook for their children’s future.

One thing is for certain.  None of us, regardless of how we affiliate or how we voted, should either over read or under read the results.  Warning signs were and are present for both Republicans and Democrats, for the right and the left.  Whoever is up at bat, should understand that at present “all is not well in Mudville”.  Victory parties and loss wakes should not be read as more than they are, another fleeting moment in time.  Work will be required to repair our still imperfect union, step by often painful step.  We’ve seen much in the past, ups and downs.  Here we go again on another roller-coaster ride, but let’s not allow ourselves to be either complacent or cynical.  What comes after this is not inevitable, but rather lies in our hands.  If many like myself were deeply disappointed, indeed shocked, by the election results, I believe many of those who voted for Trump, who believed his unrealistic promises, are destined to be deeply disappointed by what is to come, what is not to come.  We’ll have to find a way of coming together if we want to move forward.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Falling in line.

President Obama invited Donald Trump to the White House two days after the election.  He reached out his hand and said, “I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds”.  For many of us, and I suspect for Obama himself, those were jarring words.  We hadn’t yet accepted in our own minds that the man sitting across from him is our President-Elect.  For Obama, both the words and the meeting were essential.  As our president it is his responsibility to see the peaceful transition of power.  Our democracy is built and dependent on that.  Perhaps that’s even more important after such a contentious and bitter election.  You and I probably couldn’t have brought ourselves to extending an invitation much less saying those words to such an awful ill-prepared man, but that’s the luxury of being an ordinary citizen. 

Obama isn’t the only person who has had to move on and exercise his sworn obligation to the Constitution.  Members of Congress in both parties are preparing their own adjustment to the new order.  Democrats don’t want to get marginalized or be painted as kneejerk obstructionists.  Yes, the Republicans did just that and paid no price for it, but Chuck Schumer and his new leadership team which now includes Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are playing with a weaker hand in 2016.  Republican, or conservative, control has shifted to all three branches of government.  Democrats want, as reported in the Times, to find areas of common ground where they can get some things done and claim some credit.  Whether that will work with as untried an administration as we have ever known remains unseen. Beyond the obvious ideological differences, this administration has not only potential for but real conflicts of interest that will sorely teste them and the Congress.  Moreover, we can look forward to legislation with which Democrats can’t and shouldn’t agree.  That said, painful as it may be, elections count and this one didn’t go our way

There is a big difference between public officials who have taken an oath to carry out their duties -- the President and Congress -- and the press.  You think?  Well, get ready for those it’s not so bad articles.  If you haven’t seen them, they’re coming, and soon, to a newsstand, TV, computer or smart phone screen near you.  The press has played a significant and often shameful role in creating this president in waiting.  The amount of “ink” they gave him compared to anyone or anything else is nothing less than breathtaking.  Often what they wrote or said was critical, but the fact that they lavished so much attention to his every gesture or tweet and that they so grossly underestimated him did us an unbelievable disservice.  The latter was part of why we were so blind sighted by his victory.  Whether they were doing “their job” or not, whether they maintained either appropriate independence or were driven more by self-greed -- his reality show hype drove ratings -- will long be debated.  What’s clear is that they, both during the campaign and now, have set a very low bar for his performance.  So expect that positive “reporting” in the very near future.  “He’s not as bad as we expected”.  Right.

The first days of transition have not been, to understate it, encouraging.  Only two appointments have been made, neither of which require Senate approval.  His named chief of staff reminds us that the Paul Ryan GOP has taken charge; his chief strategist that the alt right fringe has been mainstreamed.  Taken together, both our disappointment in Hilary’s loss and our fears about what the Trump victory will mean have been measurably reinforced.  The potential cabinet members who have been mentioned only heighten those feelings.  We citizens are not constrained by any oath of government service or the conflicts inherent in the for-profit news media.  We are all, party affiliations or not, independents in the true meaning of the word.  We are the ultimate checks and balances, both in exercising our freedom of speech and more importantly of vote.  President Obama and others have often said that we have the most important title in our democracy: Citizen.  The time ahead will test how well we live up to it.  In some ways, we will all -- those in government and we the citizens -- have to fall in line with respect to living with the election results.  We will need to function day-to-day under this new administration.  But it’s on us not to confuse functioning with maintaining vigilance and speaking out when all that we hold dear is threatened.  If your moral compass is sitting in a drawer gathering dust, take it out, dust it off and keep it close at hand.  The waters are likely to be choppy and we’ll need it as a constant reference point.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Identity Crisis

We are still suffering collective shell shock.  Even Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton didn’t expect this outcome.  Pundits and pollsters seemed so sure that we’d be talking about the historic election of a woman, a continuation of the last eight year’s progressive policies.  Hilary supporters looked forward to them, those who supported Trump dreaded them.  Now, with our expected world turned on its ear, we all are in sort of a daze; people like me in an extended funk, of disbelief.  While conventional wisdom expected the GOP to be in disarray and in need of a hard re-think, it’s the Democrats who find themselves in that position.  My own view is that we all, -- people in both parties, supporters of the victor and of the vanquished -- should be asking the very same question: who are we?  Moving from Obama to Trump, two polar opposite leaders, not to mention the mixed message of the popular verses Electoral Collage vote, throws us into a national identity crisis.

Perhaps you don’t agree, perhaps you’re convinced the “your side” knows exactly who and what it is.  I think that’s a big mistake and counter productive.  Some of what was brought out in this election should make us all evaluate, if not our individual values, but then the values of the body politic.  There are people on the streets of cities across the land marching in protest, expressing their displeasure but also, from what I can see, reaffirming the values that they think are integral to our identity.  They could be sitting home, licking their wounds of despair and indeed fear, but they want the new president and equally their fellow Americans to know that they won’t be marginalized by last Tuesday’s vote.

I have had some doubts about these demonstrations, primarily a concern that we will need them in the future to express opposition to specific actions taken.  We don’t want people to look at us and, to paraphrase Reagan, dismissively say, “there they go again”.  But I’ve been convinced by my son Jesse, who together with (his wife) Rachel marched on Saturday in New York, that there is good cause for public protest not merely private disappointment.  Donald Trump ran a hateful campaign or as Jesse put it, “…an openly racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic campaign, courted the KKK, and lied repeatedly to the electorate.”  The encouraged chant, “go lock her up” was, and remains, deplorable in a free society grounded by the rule of law.  This incendiary approach to a presidential campaign deserves immediate protest if only to remind those who voted for him, but equally America at large, of how wrong and dangerous it was.  Perhaps, as I said in my last post, not all of Trump’s votes came from those who buy into his campaigning and its very dark side, but its potential for danger is clear.  In New York City, Swastikas were plastered on some walls at the New School and in the midtown elevator of one of Jesse’s graduate students.  Days before the election, an anti-Semitic flier was distributed nearby me here in North Carolina.  Given his authoritarian rhetoric, not to mention the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon to a top White House job, we all should be deeply alarmed by these acts.

Not only Trump but the Republican Party has to decide who and what they represent.  They have opened the door and, actively or by standing silently by, to being seen as the “Save Christian Whiteness in America Party”, an idea embodied in Trump’s Make American Great Again.  Great again, certainly in the context of his campaigning, can be read as “when we didn’t have to share power and our jobs with The Other.  Perhaps that’s too strong a reading, but the burden of proof to correct it lies with the 2016 GOP.  They will have to define, perhaps redefine, who they are and what they believe.  Trump especially will have to articulate what his presidency means and set specific goal for the next four years.  He says he wants to represent all of America but, based on the campaign season, we’ll remain skeptical, even if hopeful, that he means what he says.

It is said that Clinton could not bring along the so-called Obama Coalition, and a number of analysts have, correctly I believe, suggested that it is an Obama dependent coalition.  The President has never been of the Democratic Party establishment.  His candidacy was insurgent from the outset and somehow he has remained largely separate from it throughout.  This is often attributed to his being standoffish, not socializing sufficiently with people on the Hill.  Perhaps, but I think more to the point, the establishment never came to Obama or more importantly transformed itself in wake of the rank and file ¾ the coalition’s ¾ wish for new blood, more like him.  In 2010 Democratic incumbents didn’t embrace their president they ran away from him.  They paid for it at the polls and we have never recovered.

When the party set about to nominate a successor, new faces in the Obama mode didn’t emerge or more accurately were suppressed.  Following the pattern (of both parties), the default was to crown the “next in line”.  That doesn’t suggest Hilary wasn’t and isn’t fully qualified.  But that built in routine gives us aging candidates representing perhaps not Trump’s yesterday but yesterday none the less.  Perhaps Democrats have to think about really becoming the party of Obama’s generation and younger rather than keeping on singing the same Happy Days Are Here Again nostalgic songs.  We need new faces, new approaches and we need to align ourselves again with some of the very people who out of desperation went for Trump.  Many among them should be our people.  In theory the Democrats are the party of the young, and of diversity, the party of the future.  We must more aggressively bring that natural constituency into positions of leadership, we need to hand over the reins and not speak for them but let them speak for themselves and indeed for us as well.

Larger America, Democrats, Republicans and independents, need to come together to find common ground or at least whatever common ground there is.  We need to listen, to understand that all our truths may not be their truths but that there are truths upon which we can agree.  We must separate tactics from beliefs and to understand what swords are really worth falling on, what core beliefs we must defend to the end.  Nations can and should stand divergent opinions, but to survive they also have to agree on what constitutes the common good, the place where we stand together.  Without that, no one will be able to stand at all.  Then we’ll truly be locked into an unending crisis of identity.