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

22 May 2017

Is the end nigh?

The Other Mitch

Are you tired of Mitch McConnell of Kentucky—the mealy-mouthed, catatonic lackey for the bosses and the rich? Are you tired of him coddling our man-boy president, who hasn’t a clue how closely he and his team have flirted with treason? Are you tired of watching so many men and women in our public sphere go low, so often, when we no longer have Barack and Michelle in the White House to go high for us? Are you tired of hearing and seeing our nation tear itself apart into clans and cliques like some high school from Hell?

Then take 23 minutes off to watch the other Mitch. Watch Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, explain why his city has taken down four towering monuments to Confederate leaders who fought, so long ago, against our nation and our common values. Watch a man of passion, articulation and divine eloquence explain the facts of history of the South. Watch him recount our nation’s original sin, how it haunts and divides us today, and why it’s time, at last, to confess and repent.

Mitch Landrieu’s speech is one of the most eloquent and moving of our still-young new century. It’s also one of the most hopeful.

True, New Orleans is the San Francisco of the South. It’s a unique place. But if what this Mitch said, as a white man on race, catches on, you can see a whole new vision. You can imagine former President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder turning back voter suppression and gerrymandering throughout the South, as they apparently intend to do. You can imagine them and countless others rising up and creating a truly new South, and with it a new America and a brave new world.

Don’t just read the speech. Watch it. Watch a great orator moved by both passion and reason. Rejoice that we still have pols like him. Rejoice doubly that this one comes from the South’s heart. And wonder, as we suffer and struggle under moral midgets in the White House, whether a giant like this Mitch might some day be president. This is what it means to lead.
[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: The end of the world is not nigh, although nuclear proliferation or global warming could bring us close. But we may be near the end of three generation-long causes of rapid decline in our government and society, their international prestige, and their credibility at home and abroad.

The first and most obvious trend—obvious from Trump’s presidency and its almost daily setbacks and scandals—is the dramatic and appalling decrease in our presidents’ practical experience.

Ronald Reagan began the trend in 1980. He had only eight years of experience in politics, as governor of California, and a bit more in private politics as leader of the screen actors guild. At the time, he had the least experience of any president in our history, if you count the military experience of our general-presidents (such as Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower) as the equivalent of political experience.

Look, for example, at my 2007 table of previous low-experience candidates, such as Kennedy and Lincoln. You can see that all exceeded Reagan’s experience by at least two years. Even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both exceeded or matched it as candidates.

But subsequent Republican presidents rapidly outdid Reagan’s “record.” Dubya had only six years as governor of Texas, nothing more.

Trump, of course, is the natural conclusion of the GOP’s mathematical progression. Before being elected president, he had had absolutely zero political experience of any sort, even on a city council. And he had absolutely zero military experience.

Insofar as concerns politics, government, and war, Trump is a babe in the woods. His first five months in office have showcased his inexperience well. So far, they have culminated in his providing, from his own mouth and Tweets, evidence of his obstructing justice in firing FBI director Comey to tamp down investigation of “Russiagate.”

The second cause of our government’s rapid decline is the trend toward simplistic abstract ideology, rather than specific policy proposals. Again, the GOP has led the way. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, GOP candidates and presidents spoke of “freedom” and “opportunity,” without specifying specific ways to increase them. They never spoke much about how the vast majority of Americans would get them. Instead, they spoke of things that would give them to the rich (lower taxes, less regulation) and maybe let some benefits “trickle down” to the middle class.

I was surprised to discover that Ronald Reagan, not Dubya, invented the political-ideological slogan “It’s your money!.” In so doing he ushered in a two-generational reign of personal selfishness that has: (1) given virtually all our nation’s GDP and productivity increases to the top, not the average worker, and (2) brought selfishness out from under universal condemnation in our churches, synagogues and mosques as a central value and motive force of the American right wing. For vast numbers of Americans, it’s now OK to be mean and selfish because your political party says so.

I have written two whole essays about the consequences of this tectonic shift in American morals. One describes how our students and poor have fared: not well. Another outlines something that may be surprising to some: how this ideology of personal selfishness has weakened our once-massive national advantages in education and the military, and how it has made our industries less competitive globally by saddling them with social obligations that our foreign competitors don’t share.

The points are just as true, and just as debilitating, as when I wrote that essay in 2008. And Trump may represent the high-water mark of this selfish ideology; he certainly personifies it.

Of course the first and second debilitating trends are related. If you have no experience in politics, you don’t know much more than abstract mush or bumper-sticker mantras. In fact, you don’t know much of anything substantive in policy. And if the people become accustomed to your pabulum, they will see it as normal and not seek pols who have specific ideas to improve their lives. Thus does the GOP both breed cynicism and destroy government at the same time.

The result is a vicious circle that may have culminated today, in which a proposal to deprive 24 million people (including 8 million poor) of health insurance, and to fail to insure pre-existing conditions without “gotchas,” is supposed to improve health insurance. Orwell would be proud that his prescription for “newspeak” in his dystopian novel 1984 has come so close to real life, only 33 years after he predicted.

The third debilitating trend in our recent national history is bossism. Simply put, it’s raw authoritarianism, American style. It asserts that the boss man (who is seldom female) knows best, and you’d best knuckle under.

This ideology comes most powerfully from our South, where it morphed from slavery based on race to today’s roughly equal-opportunity subjugation of the poor and unfortunate. It underlies the anti-union co-called “right to work” laws. It undergirds the notion that banks and businesses are best run freely by their CEOs, regardless of whether the cheat us as consumers, tank the economy, or pollute our air, water or soil.

Bossism elevates the notion of subservience, servitude, and following the alpha male to some fictional higher moral ground. It’s a call to our evolutionary primate past, to follow the alpha male even if he leads us into the Jaws of Hell. You don’t have to be a genius at cause and effect to understand how this philosophy has led us directly to an arbitrary and erratic leader like Trump.

But there are reasons why these trends also may be ending with Trump. He’s showing us—graphically, constantly and in clear practical consequences—exactly where they lead.

Of course Trump represents the final step in practical experience. He has none in politics or government. He ran an allegedly successful business composed of his family, with probably less than thirty or so managers. He has no clue about running a vast bureaucracy of tens of thousands of workers, all of whom are far more diverse and have far more diverse views (and far more practical experience at what they do) than Trump’s family and employees, let alone Trump himself.

Not only does Trump not know how to manage or work with such a huge organization. He doesn’t even know he needs to. To this date he has filled about half of even the Senate-confirmable positions in the federal bureaucracy. The halls of government lie partly empty, and its operation is hobbled. Even the courts are understaffed, notwithstanding Trump sneaking Justice Gorsuch through the Senate after McConnell and the GOP stonewalled Judge Garland.

As for loyalty, Trump’s pathetic attempts to assure Comey’s by pleading with and questioning him, and then by firing him, are not how things are done in America, whether in government or large corporations. Here you earn people’s loyalty by working with them and standing by them over many years, through thick and thin.

Trump has none of the longevity of work with anyone in government required to build or test real loyalty, so he has none. His “loyalists,” if any, are sycophants who hitched their wagons to his star in the last few weeks or months of his campaign, hoping he could raise their dismal prospects. (Jeff Sessions comes to mind.) Not only do they have no reason to persevere with him through difficulties; he has no reason to be loyal to them. They are not much more than hangers on.

So Trump really has no team at all but his family: Jared, Ivanka and Donald, Jr. That’s a little thin to run a nation of 320 million people, isn’t it?

For Trump, ideology is a bit sticky. As many have noted, he doesn’t have much of any. I and others thought that might be a good thing. Maybe he might think problems through on his own without reflexively following the GOP’s dogmas and simplistic campaign mantras.

But things haven’t really worked out that way. In the absence of an organized philosophy, Trump’s id rules. Deep down in his psyche, he reflexively follows the dominant ideology of bossism. In his own mind, he was always the boss. He was the guy who got to say “You’re fired!” on his reality show.

He doesn’t realize that in a nation of laws, checks and balances, and infinitely diverse interests, bragging to domestic and foreign officials that you fired a guy who was officially investigating you because he wasn’t loyal and wouldn’t stop does not lead to a bright future. That might work in Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey, but not here. At least not yet, and not ever if we decisively reject Trump’s raw, un-American authoritarianism.

Just so with his own staff. You build loyalty in your own staff by protecting them and making their jobs easier, as much as you can in the world’s most difficult job. Trump has undercut his own staff and made fools of them repeatedly. He has done so not just with his spokespeople, but with his hand-selected Vice President Mike Pence.

The problem in Washington is that virtually everyone likes to think of himself or herself as a boss of something. Members of Congress are bosses of their own constituencies, at least for two or six years. Members of their own bureaucracy have their own bailiwicks, in which they reign supreme or have substantial freedom of action. You tread on their toes repeatedly, as Trump has done, and they don’t like it. More to the point, they don’t like you.

So Trump has been a bull in the china shop of political Washington. He has broken almost every shelf and every bit of China. That made him popular with his core base, but not with anyone in Washington, which, sad for him, will fix his fate.

Trump seems to have alienated even the sycophants who thought he might be their last grasp at greatness. He has left his own spokespeople mired in infighting, blame and despair. He has the very last orthodox GOP ideologues (like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) wondering whether, having captured all three branches of government, they will be enable to enact into law even one-quarter of their soak-the-people ideological agenda.

The basic problem is that Donald J. Trump is not a good person. He’s not a likable person. He has no compassion or empathy except in the abstract, for dead, gassed Syrian children. He’s not a rational, predictable or reliable person. He doesn’t often say or do what makes sense, even in his own best interest. He lies a lot. He’s a self-obsessed, half-rational, half-crazy narcissist who gets his news and facts by watching TV (God help us!)

And because of his zero longevity in politics, he has no real friends or allies in Washington. He has only temporary allies and partners of convenience and sycophants who will fade away, like Alberto Gonzales, when their fifteen minutes of fame for genuflecting are over. Deep down, all his so-called political “allies” who opposed him in the campaign hate his guts for insulting them, beating them and gloating about it.

All this was pretty obvious from his candidacy and his performance in his campaign. Those of us who can judge character were pretty sure that Trump would become our very own American Caligula or Nero.

In ancient Rome, Caligula and Nero lasted long enough to do terrible damage to the Roman enterprise. But checks and balances and governing society have evolved considerably since those days. So have international relations. We no longer need senators to surround Caesar in the Senate and stab him to death. We have peaceful institutions to do that, figuratively, and expel the crazy and dangerous.

Those institutions may take a long time and a lot of effort, but they work. Already both Republicans and Democrats are starting to mention impeachment and declarations of incapacity under Amendment 25.

Either will take time, of course. Congress is full of people who can’t see the writing on the wall until it’s highlighted in flames. Hence the general reaction to global warming.

But Trump’s likely meltdown is much closer in time and much more up their alley. So the immune system likely will expel the germ.

Slowly but surely, one by one, the pols will take Trump’s measure. They will understand that he is psychologically and personally incapable of helping them and their cause, whatever it may be. They will see that he can only make things worse with his fickleness, unpredictability, erratic action, childlike temperament, and real loyalty focused only on himself, and as he sees himself reflected on TV.

When that happens, Trump’s removal from the seat of power will be assured. I originally predicted it by his third year in office, but now it might be sooner. I think the chances are at least 75%, if only because Trump is 70, and his personality and character are fixed.

He can’t get better. He can only get worse, as he tries to respond to events and challenges that are totally beyond his experience, character, emotional maturity, and attention span. And at his age he can get worse quickly. Who knows? Maybe his inability to remember what he said yesterday is simple senile dementia.

As soon as enough of those in Washington make the right call, we will be rid of him. Then the raging of these three rampant trends in our decaying society may slow by half. But it may take a “thumping” (Dubya’s word) of the GOP in the 2018 midterms to make that happen and to make the writing on the wall clear even to the slowest pol.

Footnote: See Elizabeth Warran, This Fight is Our Fight, at 29 (Macmillan, 2017) for discussion of this point.



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