Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 November 2016

Trump’s Reality Show


[For a brief, belated Thanksgiving message, click here. For analysis of how anti-nepotism rules should apply to Trump and his family, click here.]

It’s no accident that our president-elect got his fame from a TV show whose very description is an oxymoron. “Reality” means what’s real, maybe the sum of all that’s real. A “show” is something a single individual or group of people make up and put on—a spectacle or play.

It’s hard to square the one with the other. You might try if you believe there are people, like Dubya or like Merlin (the mythical wizard from medieval times), who can “make their own reality.” But so far, no one has done that for very long. Not Caesar. Not Hitler. Not Stalin. Not Mao. Certainly not Dubya, who already stands discredited and despised, ostracized by his own party, as the worst US president in a century, maybe ever.

Starting with Caesar’s “bread and circuses,” what each of these men really did was not make his own reality, but make people believe his own fictitious vision. Eventually, the real reality caught up with him and overwhelmed his vision and his people, and both suffered mightily. It’s not just Nature that bats last; it’s that whole nasty thing called “reality”—not the “cool” show on TV, but the real one.

So now comes Donald Trump. He’s a master of media manipulation. He beat the GOP establishmment—hands down—at it using its own formula to win elections: distraction, demagoguery, and delusion. He’s even doing it now.

How many people noticed the recent news that Trump has settled students’ multiple suits for his “Trump University’s” alleged fraud for $25 million? As has become routine in settlements by the big boys (including Wall Street), there was no admission of liability or guilt, just payment. But would a penny-pincher and employee-and-customer stiffer like Trump have paid out that kind of money over a weak case? The settlement came just ten days before trial, which presumably would have shown evidence about Trump that he wouldn’t want made public. He might even have been called to testify.

Remember the evil Marquis in A Tale of Two Cities? the one whose carriage ran over and killed an urban peon’s child in the streets of Paris? The Marquis sneers, lobs a gold coin at the peon’s feet, gets back in his guided carriage, and rushes off. How is Trump’s belated settlement with all the “students” whose lives he ruined fundamentally different?

Maybe it’s that Trump has more than just gold and fast horses. Why did so few notice or comment on his settlement? Because of his Tweets. He made a cause celebre of the post-show “petition” of a singe actor in the musical “Hamilton.” After the show, the actor called on Vice-President-Elect-Pence, who was in the audience, to give a care for the rest of us, who didn’t vote for the ticket.

The petition was short, sweet, and respectful. It was almost obsequious. But it took far more than 140 characters to express. Trump demanded an apology, in less than 140 characters. Guess who caught the public’s attention?

Say what you want about Trump. He gets us. He gets our culture. He knows how much we have become a nation of hustlers and onlookers. He knows how few of us have the patience to read, let alone think through, any thought that requires more than 140 characters to express.

And he knows how few have the patience and skill to follow the consequences of his actions. Most of his reality shows ended with his declaring to some hapless apprentice, “You’re fired!” For the apprentice, it was the modern equivalent of “Off with his head!” without the blood. Did anyone ever wonder what happened to the fired afterward? They were, after all, people like the rest of us. Without the blood of Elizabethan England, they still are.

Pence later said he didn’t mind the gentle petition and thought it had been done politely. He called it “what freedom sounds like.” But Trump blew it up into a Tempest in the Twittersphere. His $25 million settlement simply vanished in the smokescreen, as did the possibility of his testifying in the case, thereby perhaps giving voters a severe case of buyer’s remorse.

Last month, the New York Times ran a feature on the “retirement” of one of the last three-card-monte artists in Manhattan. He had worked the streets for decades, gently separating the rubes from their money using sleight of hand, in a shell game done with cards. Maybe he retired because he was old and getting tired. More likely, he retired to watch a master far more skilled at sleight of hand than he.

Even before ascending to our highest office, Trump has changed all the rules by which we, the people, might presume to watch and judge him. According to PBS, his last press conference was in July. Instead, the focus of “breaking news” is now Trump’s own Twitter account, plus a few reporters standing outside his castle, Trump Tower, watching the comings and goings that Trump himself carefully stages.

Sometimes Trump’s end runs around the media so far have been facile and well-deserved. I’ve always wondered what real purpose a White House press conference has. You take few dozen presumably skilled reporters, who could be doing honest work plying their confidential sources outside in the cold. Instead, they spend hours in a nice, warm press room listening to (and questioning) someone exquisitely trained to give them only the information that the president wants to give, and with the president’s approved “spin.” Wouldn’t written press releases accomplish nearly as much without such a patent waste of reportorial time and talent?

No rational person will cry if Trump, as president, abolishes the daily West Wing press conference. That act would only make reporters go back to doing what real reporters are supposed to do: constantly ply their sources for hints and leaks, dig deep in musty documents (or modern databases), and then begin to connect the dots.

What will change our Forth Estate, likely beyond recognition, is Trump becoming successful in his grand design. Apparently he would like to change reporters’ playing field to Twitter and the like, and their depth of their nuance to the scope of 140 characters.

Right now we the people aren’t paying much attention to all this. We’re entranced by the spectacle. It’s almost like the eighteenth century again. You’ve got the Royal Castle, Trump Tower. You’ve got the press standing outside in the cold of winter, trying to get a glimpse of, and comment from, the important, glittering nobles who come and go. And you’ve got the future king, Donald the First himself, controlling the whole process like a puppet master.

We Yanks can watch this sort of stuff for a long, long time. We have an appetite for spectacle and fiction that would make any other society blanch. We generate the world’s best fantasies, and we are constantly devising better media for them. So-called “virtual reality” is next.

But sooner or later, reality shows and “virtual” reality must meet the real thing. In the short term, that would be China, Russia, Iran, Israel and Syria, not to mention all the refugees the latter generates. In the longer term, that would be a warming world that, in less than a century, will be far warmer than it was at any time during our species’ evolution on this planet.

Sooner or later, the foreign hordes or our own native mobs bearing torches and pitchforks will crash into the theater and stop the show. The results will not be pretty, any more than was the fall of Rome, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, or World War II.

Maybe Donald Trump dimly senses that. Although of far lower character, he seems to surpass Dubya in intelligence by a considerable margin. Maybe he dimly perceives that the sycophants he has nominated so far—Steve Bannon and the sniveling racist Jeff Sessions—will be no help whatsoever when reality breaks through the door.

Maybe that’s why Trump is self-evidently slowing the transition process down, taking more time, and speaking to a wide range of people. Maybe that’s why folks as diverse as Michelle Rhee (the D.C. Democratic school chancellor who was fired for cleaning things up too fast), Mitt Romney (among the first people to notice that Trump was and is unqualified and unprepared), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D. Haw.), and Henry Kissinger have very publicly crossed his threshold.

Maybe Trump is finally coming to know what he doesn’t know—the first and perhaps most important sign of real intelligence. If not, his big show will be fun to watch for a while. Then will come the Axe, in the strong hands of the Grim Reaper. And the ghosts of Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao will be laughing hysterically at the audacity and the lunacy of the man who has bested them all at showmanship but will meet the same inevitable fate: every one of them destroyed his country while trying to make it great.

Footnote. Here, in its entirety, is the actor’s appeal to Pence:
“You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.”
“Very rude,” as Trump’s Tweet claimed? I don’t think so. But at 805 characters, it’s more than five Tweets. Therefore it will quickly disappear into the modern oubliette for real information that Trump and our tech sphere have made for us.

Footnote 2. For details on this comparison of intelligence, see this post, Comments 2-4.

Anti-Nepotism Laws and the Trump Family

Let’s face it. President-Elect Donald J. Trump has a trust problem. The clear popular majority that voted for Hillary or fringe candidates doesn’t trust him at all. Many of those for voted for him don’t trust him either. They only voted for him because they trust Hillary less. With abysmal candidates from both “mainstream” parties running, they voted for Trump to roll the dice and “shake things up.” Some Trump voters even told reporters that they’ll vote him out quickly if he doesn’t deliver.

This trust problem runs both ways. Trump doesn’t seem to trust anyone outside his family. Furthermore, he has a thin skin and apparently low self-esteem, despite his bluster. Every time he thinks someone has criticized or insulted him, he goes crazy on Twitter, no matter how minor the incident or how insignificant the person. The spectacle of Trump firing a 3:00 am Twitter blast at an unknown former beauty queen (as too fat) has got to be one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of our species’ top-level government.

Does Trump trust his appointees and nominees so far? In particular, does he trust General Michael J. Flynn, blogger and advisor Steve Bannon, or Senator Jeff Sessions? By virtue of a distinguished military career, the general knows things that Trump doesn’t know. Maybe Trump trusts that. He might trust Bannon a bit for teaching him about digital media. Ditto Sessions for the law.

But all this trust is less than skin deep. When Trump says he’s known these men for a “long time,” he probably means since early in his bizarre campaign for president. With the possible exception of Flynn, all three men are political grifters. They glommed onto Trump when everyone else despised him, when no one thought he had a chance of winning, and when the electorate and media all seemed to recoil from his brass.

So their “friendship” with Trump is as deep as slime on a pond. To the extent they have recognizable policies —Flynn’s “class-of-civilizations” ideology, Bannon’s white nationalism, and Sessions’ longstanding racism—they glommed onto Trump because nothing and no one else came as close to their own lunacy as Trump’s brilliant demagoguery. They had and have nowhere else to go. But that makes them, at best, sycophants and yes-men, not advisers to be trusted.

In a crisis their “advice” will be as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise, and likely wrong. Trump is probably smart enough to know this, if he thinks about it for a minute.

So whom, pray tell, does Trump have now: (1) whom he trusts implicitly; (2) who has his own best interests, as well as the country’s, at heart; and (3) who knows him well enough to help him stifle his worst instincts? No one except his family.

Long before I dreamed (is “nightmared” a verb?) that Trump might become president, Donald Jr. and Ivanka struck me as the best speakers at the Trump Convention. They are good kids, sensible, balanced, well spoken and pragmatic. They have known Trump from their birth. So I want them in the White House, near the Oval Office, where they can walk in while Trump is fuming, make him laugh, and say, “Hey, Dad, have you thought of this?”

The same reasoning applies to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and apparent confidant. I don’t want him off in the Middle East, trying to do what every president since Jimmy Carter has failed to do—bring peace to Israel and Palestine. I want him steps from the Oval Office where he can moderate the new president’s explosive and erratic personality and give him sense.

Of course none of the family belongs in the Cabinet. None has the training, experience or contacts. Like Trump for the presidency, they are unqualified by training and experience for any Cabinet job. But unlike everyone else, they are uniquely qualified for keeping the new president on a even keel and focused on the nation’s business, not his own stinging ego.

In his recent New York Times interview (NYT 11/23/16 at A15), Trump moderated his expressed desire to weaken libel laws so as to make it easier to sue news media. Here’s what he said:
“Somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right, I never thought about that.’”
If that “somebody” weren’t one of Trump’s family, it certainly could have been.

Our current anti-nepotism statutes stem from the time when JFK, as president, appointed his brother Robert Kennedy as attorney general. In retrospect, that appointment sounds dangerous, but how quickly they forget. In the aftermath of our failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy was the only member of the Cabinet who advised JFK against a much bigger invasion that might have started World War III.

As we know now, the smaller confrontation with the Soviet Union that then existed came within minutes of igniting a Nuclear Armageddon that would have extinguished our species, or most of it. Three men avoided self-extinction: JFK himself, then Soviet General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev, and an obscure Soviet Submarine Flotilla Commander, Vasiliy Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, who decided not to fire his nuclear torpedoes.

Might JFK have been on that list without the cool counsel and emotional support of his younger brother? No one can answer that question today. But if his brother Robert’s presence in the Cabinet moved the needle even just a smidge toward human survival, the nepotism was well worth the political risk.

So here’s what Congress should do. It should waive the anti-nepotism rules for any non-Cabinet West Wing post not in the direct line of command. Let Donald Senior have his family with him, as much as he wants. They will make him a better person and a better president.

As for conflicts of interest, they’re going to be an inevitable part of Trump’s presidency. Unless he divests totally, which he so far adamantly has refused to do, overlaps of policy with his global business empire will inevitably crop up.

That may not be a bad thing. Congress will always have ammunition to impeach and remove him. In the final analysis, what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a political question, not a legal one. Our Founders gave our courts no role in reviewing impeachment by the House or removal by the Senate.

With a volatile, erratic and unpredictable man like Trump sitting in the White House and holding the nuclear codes, having perpetual cause or pretext for impeachment is an essential precaution. So let the conflicts rip, as long as none rises to the level of fatal errors of policy. But at the same time, let Trump have his family close at hand, so that people he trusts and knows can help keep him sane. His family is as vital to Trump’s mental balance and clear thinking as meds to a manic-depressive’s.

Belated Thanksgiving Message

Thanksgiving messages are a tradition on this blog, so I’ve prepared the following, just in time (11:40 pm EST):

Sometimes it seems as if there’s not much to be thankful for this year. Progressives are not happy to see Trump as president-elect. People who like certainty—most of us—are not pleased to see him making it up (literally!) as he goes along, or nominating people with little experience and/or extreme ideologies. And if you look at the world, especially Egypt, Hungary, the Philippines, Syria and Turkey, not to mention Russia and China, a reversion to cruel strongmen seems to be gripping our species hard.

But there are silver linings in every cloud. Trump’s indecision suggests that he might actually wait until he knows something before acting. His military picks suggest that we will not be fighting World War III with Russia anytime soon, and we may leave Syria’s destruction for the Russians and Assad to complete. If Trump can get his infrastructure plan through a Congress bent on using tax cuts and deficits to cut the safety net and undo the Civil War, we may actually put some skilled people to work and soon have new trains, roads and airports to admire.

But Thanksgiving’s not just about today. It’s about a timeless memory of our national beginnings. It’s about some religious extremists called Puritans who came, undocumented and unasked, to the shores of this continent. The natives didn’t ask for papers. They didn’t jail, kill or deport the newcomers. Instead, they taught them how to grow corn and what plants to eat, and helped them throw a huge feast.

That’s what we celebrate today, and every year at this time. It’s a marvelous story of inter-tribal friendship. It shows the chief evolutionary advantages of our species—empathy and cooperation—at their best. And it shows how the natives, misnamed “Indians,” enjoyed those virtues even though they were not Christians.

If we can all keep that first feast and its meaning in mind, we just might muddle through. Happy Thanksgiving!



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