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

26 August 2017

Gary Cohn and the Subtle Treachery of Self-Importance


[For a comparison of Cohn’s with Tillerson’s response to Trump coddling bigotry, click here. For the usual catalogue of popular recent posts, click here. For a recent essay on how and why our Civil War continues today, click here].

As a front-page story in the New York Times reported on August 26, Gary Cohn almost resigned over Trump’s coddling of Nazis and racists. He’s Trump’s director of the National Economic Council and, as such, the principal architect of Trump’s economic policy (if Trump really has any). Cohn is also Jewish and therefore no fan of Nazis, neo or otherwise.

According to the NYT, Cohn actually wrote a resignation letter. For several days after Trump’s bigot-coddling initial response to the events in Charlottesville, Cohn agonized over whether to deliver it.

But in the end, he didn’t, despite the urging of many friends and reportedly even his own wife. Cohn contented himself with a generalized broadside against racism, which failed to identify Trump by name, in an interview with the Financial Times—a British newspaper widely read by the international financial elite.

Cohn told himself (and whoever else would listen) that he could do more good inside the Trump administration, by helping shape and pass tax reform, than by being temporarily out of a job and out of the centers of power in Washington. In short, Cohn thought he could do more by whispering in the would-be tyrant’s ear than by fighting division and tyranny as a private citizen, albeit a fabulously rich and powerful one.

This is, of course, how tyrannies are built, brick by brick and co-option by co-option. At least that was how it happened in Germany, as Adolf Hitler morphed from an unknown World War I corporal, to freely-elected Chancellor of Germany, to Die Führer. So many, including the great industrialists Krupp and Thyssen, thought they could do more “inside” and could “control” the maniac and the dark tides of history.

This is how even leaders of great democracies prolong and entrench their most terrible mistakes. Don’t take my word for it. Take Lyndon Johnson’s.

Somewhat like Trump, Johnson was a big, gruff, crude, overbearing and egotistical man. At the height of our national division over our misguided war in Vietnam, someone asked him why he kept inside his administration people who opposed the war, including his Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Johnson replied, “Better to have ‘em inside the tent pissin’ out than outside the tent pissin’ in.”

So go ahead, Mr. Cohn! Stay inside the tent and continue pissing on the rest of us. Continue to delude yourself that you can cure what ails us by lowering taxes on the wealthiest men and corporations while the rest of us are fighting each other in the streets.

But as you do so, please recall also a speech by one of our two greatest presidents—a speech that every high-school student still reads today. “A house divided against itself,” said Abraham Lincoln, “cannot stand.”

We Americans are not divided because we are weak. We are weak because we are divided.

Among many other things, we are divided about North Korea’s imminent nuclear threat. We are divided on what to do about subtle Russian meddling in our democracy. We are divided about how to address China’s rising global influence, especially in regions from which we are withdrawing to save money. We are divided into racial, ethnic, gender and gender-orientation cliques like poor students in a dysfunctional high school.

And in all these things and many more, our current president is our divider-in-chief. No amount of tax reform—even one that gives some relief to ordinary workers—will cure our most fatal disease: our deep and growing division. That disease simply may not be curable if it is based not on policy or methods, but on who we are.

That’s how Nazism, racism, misogyny and bigotry of all kinds work: they make division incurable by basing it on who and what we are. African-Americans, Mexican immigrants, peaceful Muslims and even Jews are excluded or disfavored, not because of what they know, support, do or think, but because of who they are. Trump fans the flames of this division by speaking of “beautiful people” on both sides, and of “beautiful statues” of people who pledged their lives to and fought fiercely for slavery.

Think about it, Mr. Cohn. We have a Congress that can pass no major law because it’s divided. We have a House with a thing called the “Hastert Rule,” which lets no bill even reach the floor unless a majority of the majority is for it; this rule entrenches any small minority (like the so-called “Tea Party” or “Freedom Caucus”) and excludes the true bipartisan majority of the whole House from all practical influence in legislating. We have a Senate in which filibusters and Senate “holds” (single senators’ mere threats to filibuster) kill bills and presidential appointments. We have a nation in which warring factions are assembling in our streets, one side of them is armed, and sometimes the police do nothing.

With all this going on, can a uniquely American version of “Krystallnacht” be far away?

It is now absolutely clear how Trump intends to govern. Whether as Jekyll to his occasional teleprompter-fed Hyde, or whether as a straight-out strategy, Trump will hew to and rely on his “base”—the third or so of us who believe in division, exclusion, racial supremacy and violence. He has done so again and again, despite opposition from those inside his tent pissing out and many outside his tent pissing in.

What makes you think you are so much stronger and wiser as to make a difference? What makes you think that your field of expertise, banking, has any cure at all for what ails us, or for the Trump-injected virus that feeds the ailment?

Trump is 71 years old. He’s not going to change. He will always revert to type. When push comes to shove, he will never understand or respect your expertise and experience as you hope. In the final analysis, all your wisdom as a banker will prove useless.

We can’t cure hate with capital formation or tax reform. We need a real leader who will bring us together by taking us to common ground, with understanding and empathy.

So please, Mr. Cohn. See your leverage and your influence as it really is, not as you’d like it to be. See this president as he really is, not as you’d like him to be. See your divided and clueless party as it really is, not as you’d like it to be.

Drop your subtle treachery of self-importance and understand that your only real influence comes from your wealth, your many friends in high places, and your profession. Get down in the trenches with the rest of us, and fight bigotry and division with everything you’ve got.

You know in your heart that that’s your sole faint hope of helping to make America great again. So resign, speak out, name this abomination of a president by name, and get to work!

Endnote: The facts of this piece are based on two stories on the front page of the New York Times of Saturday, August 26, 2017, under the respective headlines “Condemnation For President By a Top Aide,” and “After Gunshot, Officers at Rally ‛Never Moved.’”

Rex Tillerson: A Beacon of Hope from the Dark Tower

Charles Fried (pronounced “freed”) is a Harvard Law professor who was Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan. He recently described President Trump’s appreciation and enforcement of the rule of law as follows:
“You come with a certain level of constitutional literacy, and he is totally illiterate in these domains. You think every day it can’t get worse, and then it does.”
Another law professor, Michael Waldman, President of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, described Trump’s attitude toward the rule of law as follows:
“When the president says, ‘Make sure to hit the heads of people on the door of the police car,’ or pardons a sheriff accused of racial profiling, it redefines the law as just brute force.”
With all the lawyers now up in arms about the president’s casually negligent treatment of the rules that make our system great, there is something striking about Rex Tillerson. He’s the top appointed official in our Cabinet. As Secretary of State, he’s fourth in order of succession to the presidency, after three elected officers. Of the three ahead of him (Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Orrin Hatch), only two (Pence and Hatch) have professional postgraduate degrees. Tillerson is the only engineer among them.

Unlike all but a handful of people in our government, Rex Tillerson is not a lawyer. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas in 1975. In a steady rise of 31 years, he became the Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil—the American corporate behemoth that keeps the wheels of our cars and trucks turning.

Why does this matter? Well, lawyers deal with verbal abstractions called “law,” which are subject to interpretation (by precedent and otherwise) and “spin.” Civil engineers deal with things made of rock, cement, and steel. They either work or they don’t. And when they don’t, the effects can be disastrous. There’s not much room for interpretation and “spin.”

Take the Great BP Blowout and Oil Spill, for example. It killed eleven workers and polluted the Gulf of Mexico, probably for decades.

To a lawyer or PR man, “damage control” meant convincing the public and juries that the disaster wasn’t so bad, and that anyway BP wasn’t responsible for all of it. To someone like Tillerson, “damage control” means building and installing oil-well blowout preventers that work, and so making sure the next such major disaster never happens.

Thus it didn’t surprise me when, of all the senior members of Donald Trump’s government, Tillerson came out the strongest against hate. Like a blowout-preventer that doesn’t work, hate can’t be “spun.”

If someone hates you because of who you are—your race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation—there’s no room for negotiation. There’s not much you can do to shed the yoke of hate.

You can try to change your religion—if that’s what’s at issue—but even that’s no guarantee. During the Spanish Inquisition, Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (who was himself the grandson of Jews) condemned many converted Jews to torture and death for not having been converted “enough.”

When the reason for hate is in the mind and imagination of the hater, the hated are never safe or free. Ask the descendants of Armenians who survived the Turkish genocide, the Jews who survived the Holocaust, the remaining Sunnis in Syria, or the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar today.

Hate based on personal characteristics, rather than on actions or policy, can’t be “spun.” For the hated, it’s an existential call to resist, be oppressed for no other reason than being, or die. It’s just one short step away from a call to violence or to war.

Leaders like Rex Tillerson understand this awful truth. You can “spin” yourself as a “white supremacist,” a “white nationalist,” a member of the “alt.right,” or even a “populist.” But if you believe that you are superior to others because of your racial or religious heritage or national origin, or just due to the color of your skin, you are a Nazi. Society needs a functioning blowout preventer to keep those like you from ever gaining a foothold of power in America.

That’s why, when it came to repudiating the President’s awful vacillation on hate, Tillerson didn’t shirk his duty as a leader and a human being. He didn’t, like Gary Cohn, publish his dissent in a foreign periodical read mostly by the global financial elite.

Tillerson went straight into the lion’s den, on Fox. Asked whether the president had spoken for American values, Tillerson was as straightforward as a blowout preventer that stops an undersea explosion before it starts. “The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said.

In addition to being a courageous rebuke by an underling, Tillerson’s reply was probably the single most pithy and accurate summary of Trump’s presidency so far, including his Tweets.

Unlike Cohn, Tillerson is not a Jew. He’s nowise a “minority”—not a Muslim, Hispanic, African-American, or the descendant of refugees from the Middle East or Eastern Europe. But he’s an American who knows what that means.

As an engineer who knows how bad blowouts can be, he knows that, once hate gets ahold of our body politic, we are lost. Not just the hated, but all of us, are lost.

So keep your eye and ear on Tillerson. Right after special counsel Robert Mueller and (just by a smidge) the new FBI head, comes Tillerson. If Trump ever fires him, you will know that our Republic and our values are in grave peril.

Endnote: The facts and quotations underlying this post can be found on page A12 of the New York Times, for Monday, August 28, 2017.

Tillerson’s forthright response to Trump’s coddling of bigotry vindicates my initial assessment of the man. Over nine months ago, I judged him the best pick in all of Trump’s cabinet, both for his solid and unusual background and for his role, once he became CEO, in reversing Exxon Mobil’s denial of global warming in public while its scientists had proved it in private.

Catalogue of Popular Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For other popular recent posts, click on the links below:] permalink

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