Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Plot Against America

In 2004, the great American writer Philip Roth published what, looking back from 2017, was a prescient novel, The Plot Against America.  It is the fictional story of how America Firster Charles A. Lindbergh won the presidency.  Roth grew up in Newark New Jersey.  My siblings and I followed him in attending the same high school.  Some of his famous novels including this one are set in the community where we all grew up.  While a work of fiction, he injects a good number of historical figures into the narrative including my father, a Hitler refugee and American civil rights leader who was rabbi of one of city’s largest synagogues.  He was among those leaders opposed the Lindbergh administration.  Roth story, set in the 1940s, focuses particularly on anti-Semitism, but his underlying message is that it could happen here.  Substitute Muslims and immigrants for Jews (and we have seen signs of renewed anti-Semitism since the election) and you will know that not only could it happen, it feels like it has.

The well-worn anti-Semitic trope is that Jews are bent in the most sinister way on controlling the world.  A clear echo of that can be seen in statements and speeches by Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, key members of Trumps inner circle, suggesting that Islam is some kind of spreading cancer.  I am not saying that Donald Trump is an anti-Semite, his daughter married Jarred Kushner and converted to Judaism.  His son-in-law is perhaps his closest advisor in the White House, but then one of Roth’s key Lindbergh supporters was a fictional rabbi named Bengelsdorf.  What I do believe is that whatever community pushes back on the new president can expect a harsh reaction including name calling a mischaracterization.  This administration is sure to systematically caricature and question the loyalty-to-country of any and all who challenge its policies or actions, including elected officials and, just wait and see, the judiciary.

I’m still waiting for some positive action coming out of the retooled White House, something that commends itself to bi-partisan support.  I’m waiting for some words that can’t be seen as some sort of dog whistle.  I’ve already written about Trump’s attack on the free press and now we can add their “get with the program” or get out threat to career public servants.  One only has to hope that they will grit their teeth and hang on because the onslaught is meant to drive them first to despair and then out the door.  If the civil service is undermined, we will be all the less protected.

In a stunning development, EU President Donald Tusk has added Donald Trump to Radical Islam, Russia and China as principal threats to the Union.  Fair assessment or not, this is the EU, membered by our closest allies.  Considering the president’s support of Brexit and having expressed the opinion that other EU members should follow suit it’s not surprising that Tusk is concerned.  For sure, the threat posed by Trump is quite different than those of the other three – Tusk is not concerned about military action against it by the US – but the very fact of this fear could have serious consequences.  We’re not in a go-it-alone world and can’t afford the luxury of dissing friends.  But then collaboration with others is not part of the Trump playbook.

In an unprecedented way, the Republican controlled senate blocked even the most rudimentary consideration of Merrick Garland nominated for the Supreme Court by Barack Obama, with still almost a year left of his presidency.  Now they are complaining about the due diligence being exercised with regard to Trump nominees and what will clearly be a major fight over his court appointee.  Normally new presidents have somewhat of a honeymoon period with congress but most importantly with the American people.  Trump has a historically low 36% approval rate coming into his presidency.  He continues to talk about a mandate, which is hard to argue with such numbers.  Other presidents have used executive power upon entering the White House, especially when taking over from a chief executive of the other party, including Obama.  The question here is when Americans writ large and their elected representative will start considering his moves as an abuse of power.  From a legal standpoint that may not have happened yet, but it’s hard to believe we’re not headed in that direction.  Meanwhile, while Philip Roth hardly needs me hawking his books, you may want to pick up a copy of the Plot Against America.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Abridging the Free Press.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Vladimir Putin does it, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan is does it, so too does Kim Jung Un.  With just one week in, Donald Trump seems headed in the same direction.  Here in the United States of America?  What’s to stop him?  Ah that pesky First Amendment protecting freedom of speech and of a free press.  Even so, apparently White House Senior Counsellor Steve Bannon missed that class in his civics course leading him to assert that the press “should keep its mouth shut”.  Perhaps he also forgot that he is no longer lord of Breitbart but a government official.  That’s the same government to which his boss pledged allegiance on January 20 and to which he himself swore specifically to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” two days later. 

It seems clear now that the Trump administration is bent on subverting or restricting any voices that might disagree with or question it.  First came the then President-Elect’s attack on the intelligence community and now, in office, their assault on the press.  Press secretary Sean Spicer used his very first appearance before them in the White House Brady Press Room to berate the press for denying that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever.  When challenged on this, Kellyanne Conway defended his contention as presenting “alternative facts”.  Considering that “alternative facts” are in fact untruths – in this case record crowd size claims debunked by aerial photographs – we must all be deeply alarmed when they are being spouted not only by his aides but by the president himself.  To put it bluntly, Obama may have been falsely called a liar by Rep. Joe Wilson in 2009, but sadly the title does fit for this president and his inner circle.

Attacks on the press and the fostering of “alternative facts” are two ominous signs since both have characterized authoritarian dictatorships.  What’s frightening is that Donald Trump’s campaign already evoked such associations, which is one of the reasons many of us believed he could never be elected in this democracy.  It was frightening then and is part of what set us on edge on November 8.  Now we have good reason to feel that our worst fears are coming to pass.  In many ways, these fears have been further reinforced by his executive order imposing a ban on some Muslims entering the country, probably illegal under U.S. law.  Making the discriminatory nature of his ban even more egregious, the NY Times reported, “Mr. Trump also established a religious test for refugees from Muslim nations: He ordered that Christians and others from minority religions be granted priority over Muslims”.  Reflect again on the text and spirit of the First Amendment.

In one disastrous week, Trump has sown the seeds of trade wars, further alienated one of our closest neighbors, raised the specter of heightened Muslim-Christian tensions and sought to thwart the Founding Fathers by ignoring the Constitution to which he swore allegiance.  This is not a matter of disagreeing with policy, something good people can, and often should, do.  This is a potential threat to everything we hold dear.  It is a commander-in-chief raising his middle finger to the women and men who have spilled their blood across the globe defending the flag upon which he now treads.

Republicans met this week to plan ahead for the government that they now control.  If I’m right that our democracy is under threat, then these Americans in particular are facing perhaps their greatest test.  So, too, is our Supreme Court facing what could be its greatest test, certainly in the post-Civil War era.  Will both legislatures and the judiciary treat checks and balances seriously or will they become a rubber stamp?  From what we’ve seen thus far, the press is not rolling over, not keeping silent.  Will our elected and appointed officials step up as well?  We the people will be watching.  We will remain in verify mode for at this juncture we have absolutely no reason to trust.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

America First

Donald Trump is president and, along with countless others here and around the globe, I remain in a state of disbelief.  President Obama, now Citizen Obama, told the many assembled to bid him farewell at Andrews that we should look at this moment as “a comma not a period”.  Taking the long view, I think – truly hope – he is right, but that doesn’t change the enormity of the moment, or its danger.  The oath was taken and power shifted from admired steady hands to ones of, at best, uncertainty.  It remains hard to believe – please tell me it isn’t true – and I can’t erase its enormity from my conscious; it still disrupts the peace of my sleeping hours.

Trump’s brief inaugural was both underwhelming – it certainly won’t make the list of memorables either in words or delivery – and very disturbing.  Not surprisingly, it was totally consistent with his negative campaign and its dystopian view of America.  It reflected a man who remains untouched and unmoved by the awesome responsibility that comes with taking the oath.  He shows no sign of growth.  Aimed squarely at his base, the speech failed to reach out to all of us.  Indeed, it did just the opposite.  Moreover, he actually seems to have narrowed his own base by dissing all existing officeholders, the majority of whom are Republicans, as “all talk and no action”.  In that, it was fully consistent with the transition that showed no sign that he had moved from campaign to governing mode.  That continues to be the case.

To me, the most concerning part of the speech came around midpoint.  We assembled here today”, he declared, “are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first. America first.”  It’s not the first time the idea of America First has been put forward and it has never been a positive thing.  It speaks protectionism which can have huge economic consequences, but suggests much more.  For sure It can impact on our national mindset, but more to the point is seems to line up precisely with Trump’s psyche.  America first is an egotistical construct voiced by the prototypical supreme egotist.  Before and since the election he has exhibited what is an almost clinical, and thus unnerving, case of paranoiac egotism.  One can hear a petulant child within: “me first, me first” when anything is on offer.

Beyond all else, America First driving policy implications is “so yesterday”.  Say what you will about globalism and the assumed cost of trade agreements, we live in an interconnected world.  There is no way to go it alone, certainly not successfully.  In the long run, deniers notwithstanding, the climate alone mandates a less selfish mindset.  The globe has become too small for that as we are headed for diminished resources as the population grows.  We are all dependent on the same air and are ultimately drinking from a common well.  Both are likely to become scarce.  Trump my shout America first, but he can’t change the reality that everyone of us has become accustomed to source the world for goods we use every day.  It may be true that companies produce abroad to lower costs and maximize profits, but we too look for and depend on bargains.  Reversing all that is far easier said than done, not to mention that bringing it all “home” is likely to have an inflationary impact.  Trump voters in the heartland will feel an uptick in prices more than anyone else.

Last weekend’s great march was impressive.  That so many moved into the streets in protest was encouraging.  We will all need to activate ourselves.  We dare not sit on the sidelines at such a critical time.  Nonetheless, ultimately much more than going to the streets will be needed.  Whether Trump can carry through his agenda will depend on the support he gets politically, specifically the votes he has when proposing his agenda.  At the moment, he commands a majority on the hill and in many states.  Legislators may be moved by protest, but moving them out by vote is what probably will be required.  Ultimately existing majorities in Congress and in legislatures around the country will have to be challenged, Trump’s support undermined.  The first opportunity to do so is only two years away and we need to get working.

Beyond that, as David Brooks suggested in the Times, we need to think and focus beyond the issues that are important to us and address the core issues of those who were moved to vote for Trump.  The economic pain and sense of losing place is real and, despite winning the popular vote in November, we ultimately can’t move forward without those who feel left behind or ignored.  That is true nationally, but more so on the local and state level, both our current Achilles heel and the sole battleground for 2018.  Any rebuke of Trump at the polls must be decisive, making it more difficult to deny.

But that’s two years off and much can and undoubtedly will happen before we get there.  Looking at the content of his inaugural and what has happened in the very first days of his tenure should alarm us all.  That probably begins with his fragile psyche and his need to be seen as a winner even when he’s not.  That he should still be talking about millions of fraudulent votes by unauthorized immigrants ominously points to an undermining of the democratic process, a suggestion that votes don’t count or can’t be taken as legitimate.  That’s the kind of talk one hears from autocratic dictators and that seems to reflect the tone and substance of his nasty campaign.  Alarming too is that dissing of office holders which suggests that only he can save us.  While he avoided the overuse of “I” in the inaugural one only has to think back to his convention speech last summer to see from where he was, and continues to be, coming.  And finally, that America First theme evokes an arrogance of self and a “rest of the world be damned” direction.  Unlike John Donne, he does seem to believe that he and we are an island unto ourselves.  That simply is not the case on this small planet.  It can’t be let to stand if we are to move forward.