Friday, June 1, 2018

President Stradivarius and the two Kims

SO MUCH FOR “fire and fury.” Goodbye to “a campaign of maximum pressure.” Adios, apparently,  to “a menace that threatens our world.”

That’s the language that animated the House Trump relationship with Kim Jong Un and the hermit kingdom of North Korea as far back as January, at President* Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, and as recently as last August. Now? Meh. Not so much.

Why? Because it’s all different now. The summit between Trump and Kim, once set for June 12 in Singapore, then canceled, is back on again. But what’s been positioned as a meeting that Pyongyang desperately wants will be anything but. The denuclearization issue that was a tripwire for the United States is now, amazingly, not such a big damn deal after all. Such is an object lesson in the risks of improvisational diplomacy at the hands of Donald Trump.

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In a June 1 grip-&-grin from the Oval Office, Kim Yong Chol, spy chief and the warden king of a North Korean gulag thought to hold as many as 200,000 North Koreans, was welcomed at the White House, huddling with Trump in a long meeting in the Oval. He presented Trump with a letter from Kim Jong Un — a message inside a comically oversize envelope, the kind of thing they use to hold the winning check in the Publishers Clearing House ads on TV.

It was Kim Jong Un’s opening gambit, an overture that Trump will be hard pressed to regard in antagonistic terms.

Trump made a mid-course correction on Friday in terms of his new expectations for the June 12 summit — he’s calling it “a getting-to-know-you meeting, plus,” whatever the hell that means — but it’s a shame he didn’t do that in March, when the summit idea first surfaced. If he had, he’d have more credibility on the issue than he does now.

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AS IT STANDS, Trump’s doing more or less exactly what he’s accused his Oval Office predecessors of doing: slow-walking the process of diplomacy with Pyongyang. It’s what a CNN analyst on June 1 called “a carrot-and-stick approach,” with the current negotiation being the carrot — negotiation that will certainly include Trump soft-pedaling on sensitive issues like human rights, a guaranteed nonstarter with Pyongyang.

Which makes sense since the rhetorical sticks of the past — Trump’s “fire and fury” gibberish, his cheap “Rocket Man” taunt at the United Nations — didn’t get anywhere.

For his trouble, Kim Jong Un acquires instant credibility. And leverage: The issue of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula — one of the main reasons for the summit, and something Trump and his minions have tried to hammer home for months — may not even be on the table in Singapore.

The meeting that Trump now characterizes in anodyne terms comes just eight days after it was previously canceled. (Which is curious in itself: Eight days ago Trump announced plans to “terminate” the June 12 summit date. Isn’t it strange that in the eight days since then, nothing else emerged in Trump’s presumably busy schedule to fill that June 12 date? It’s like time was standing still, just waiting for the summit to be back on again — in exactly the same time and place as before, with nothing in the Trump schedule intervening in the meantime ...)

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All this lurching from lane to lane points to the way Trump apparently intends to do business. On CNN, political analyst Ron Brownstein got it right: “The controlling dynamic to the president’s approach to diplomacy is volatility.” And that’s not just true for diplomacy, it’s been just as true for Trump’s approach to domestic politics, campaign politics, and congressional politics.

So when one willfully volatile leader faces off with another, it’s foolish to expect a smooth glide path at the negotiating table. The two Koreas have been in conflict for more than 60 years. Anyone who thinks the differences between them will be magically erased in one or two shiny, happy Kum Ba Yah moments needs an intervention.

When he walked away from the summit before, Trump was playing to his base in crafting a rationale for that meeting being canceled, waving the flag and rattling sabers in equal measure. But months of bluster and bellicose tweets scarcely concealed an administration on the back foot when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell understands. “You have to not want the deal too much,” he said on Friday, at an event in his home state of Kentucky. “If you fall in love with the deal, and it’s too important for you [not] to get it, and the details become less significant ... you could get snookered.”

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THE TWO KIMS may be wondering if Trump can be taken seriously. The two Kims may also wonder how seriously Trump takes himself.

Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former senior White House official and scholar at the Carnegie Institute, grasped the situation in a May 24 piece for Politico after the summit was first scuttled: “Don’t be fooled. Trump wants the meeting as badly as ever, and will jump at the chance to reschedule if and when the time suits him.

“For the past six months, Trump has been reacting to events both in North and South Korea and as a result, North Korea’s position has greatly improved at the expense of the United States. Now, by canceling the long-anticipated summit, Trump is trying to play hard to get with Kim, claiming that the meeting was ‘requested by North Korea’ but cannot take place ‘at this time.’

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Duchess Meghan: Race, marriage
and the substance of symbolism

FOR THE LAST year they’ve called Meghan Markle everything but a child of God, on this side of the Atlantic and the other, but now they can call her the Duchess of Sussex. With the nuptials of Markle and Prince Harry on May 19 — with all the pomp and circumstance we in the States are inured to, if not exactly used to — life and society change, however slightly, in the island nation whose racial equation has long relied on the habits of history, tradition and family lineage to have weight over the past xteen-umpty-hundred years.

More than just a marriage, their union points to the power of symbolism in the service of substance — indeed, it shows how, in a world tearing itself apart with racial and ethnic divisions, symbolism is very much its own substance.

Doreen St. Félix of The New Yorker got it: “Love brings together Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, whose train of identifiers—biracial, actress, Angeleno, divorcée, feminist, former life-style blogger—complete the Mad Libs of the new American vogue.”

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Symbolism didn’t take the day off — couldn’t have possibly done so. It was there front row center when Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, the first black leader of the Episcopal Church, borrowed from the homiletic themes of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., even as he made the royal wedding sermon his very own.

“There's power in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't even over-sentimentalize it. There's power, power in love. If you don't believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved.

“Oh there's power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There's a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it — it actually feels right.”

And there was symbolism in the quiet, electric dignity of Doria Ragland, Meghan’s mother, who sat next to Queen Elizabeth and symbolized generations, legions of black women for whom such a moment — its seeming impossibility given history’s enormous weight — might as well have been a barefoot jaunt on the surface of the moon.

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THE transcontinental reverberations were underway a long time before the ceremony at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor on Saturday last.

At the end of last year, some in the UK went out of their way to indulge in a kind of passive-aggressive damnation with strange praise. We can thank our cousins across the water for the exoticization of Markle as she rode a storybook carriage en route to the real one.

In December, the London Zoo rushed to board the Meghanmania Express, deciding to name its latest animal resident after the soon-to-be Duchess. The okapi named Meghan is a short-necked, ungainly critter, part of the giraffe family. The zoo’s new addition, officials said, was so named as a way to bring public attention to the plight of the okapi, an endangered species of which there are said to be only 25,000 in the wild.

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While that was perfectly defensible from the perspective of defenders of animal rights and (more generally) the welfare of the environment, it’s still a push to share your name with such an exotic animal whose black and white stripes couldn’t be more clumsily appropriated in the current context.

Context is everything, it’s often said, and that behind the okapi named Meghan is goofily benign. Give the London Zoo an A-minus for effort, and a C for timing.

Less easily massaged into relative insignificance is the other thing that happened in December. Princess Michael of Kent, a royal with a history of being uh racially provocative, apologized for wearing a blackamoor brooch, widely seen as racially insensitive, to the Queen’s Lunch, which was attended by Markle, in one of her first appearances since she and Harry announced their engagement.

Princess Michael, who is married to the Queen’s first cousin, has pulled this crap in the past. And last month, three weeks before the wedding, news surfaced that Princess Pushy once owned two black sheep she reportedly named Venus and Serena. Way to stay classy.

And then there was the comment by the moronic Rachel Johnson, a journalist (and ergo, someone who shoulda known better) who wrote in The Mail on Sunday that Markle would bring “a rich and exotic DNA” to the royal line.

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THE BRITISH commentator Afua Hirsch suggested in November that when Harry married Markle it would “change Britain’s relationship with race” forever. “Don’t underestimate the symbolism of a royal marriage,” she wrote in The Guardian. “From now on, it will be impossible to argue that being black is somehow incompatible with being British.”

Hirsch would prove to be half right: The marriage may have changed Britain’s relationship; time will tell how it changes the UK’s relationship with racism. Rachel Johnson and Princess Michael would seem to indicate that may not change at all.

“Britain is not in the grand scheme of things a multicultural country, especially compared to the States,” said Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, deputy editor of gal-dem, an online magazine written by women of color, to NBC News late last year. “We’re very much a minority here and there is a lot of prejudice against black people.”

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“I think a lot of people think we’re in a post-racial society but it certainly doesn’t feel that way for the black and brown people living here,” Brinkhurst-Cuff said. “Racism is still alive and cooking here.”

It’s an attitude that sheer population size makes it easy to get away with. Only 3 percent of the population in England and Wales self-identified as Black British, Black African or Caribbean, according to data from the 2011 census. Only 2 percent of respondents identified themselves as of mixed ethnicity.

“When we start unravelling everyday racism then we can talk about race relations moving forward,” said Paula Akpan, founder of Black Girl Festival, to NBC News. “People are ignoring that there is still so much work to be done."

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STILL, IT WAS a milestone moment some could see coming well before it happened. “This is a marker in 21st-century history,” said Nell Irvin Painter, history professor emeritus at Princeton and author of “The History of White People.” “This could not have happened in a previous generation, in a late-20th-century generation,” she told The Guardian, in December.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised this has happened. When you consider how British acting royalty and the makers of American movies have been tying up for decades, or how the music of the British invasion didn’t gain critical mass until it reached American shores, it’s clear that the marriage on May 19 was the culmination of a transcontinental affinity that’s been playing out for a long, long time – with each party bringing something unique to the table.

And that’s not going to change. Much has been made in the previous months of how Markle would have to change her ways, subdue her irrepressible Americanness in order to become a part of the royal family. Which may not happen, and really shouldn’t happen at all.

Aspects of her personality dovetail with her nationality — period (or as the Brits say, full stop). Trying to change that, to alter or subdue the effervescence of her American DNA, deserves to be a fool’s errand; the Crown might as well try to turn an SUV into a cocker spaniel.

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That was made clear on May 26, when it was announced that Meghan, er, the Duchess has a new coat of arms that acknowledges her California roots. The blue in the shield represents the Pacific Ocean, while the flowers spread along the bottom are golden poppies, the California state flower. The Queen approved the coat of arms, which the Duchess had a hand in designing.

Similarly, and just as important, aspects of her confidently biracial identity won’t be smothered by hidebound, monochromatic British tradition. Bet the ranch (or the castle): Meghan and Harry wouldn’t have it any other way. In the short term, at least, Meghan Markle has colonized the imagination of the British public, by accident genially repaying the once-empire whose own colonial exploits have been a lot more troublesome.

Among other things, this marriage will be a test of American and British resolve that both nations go on being much of what they’ve been to each other for centuries: best friend, geopolitical ally, and most reliable cultural trading partner.

The U.S. and the U.K. both have a dubious history vis-à-vis race and discrimination — history that's very much a current affair. What love has brought together may, just may, start to undo some of that ugliness we regrettably have in common.

Image credits: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images. Ragland: Okapi: EBL News/You Tube. Princess Michael: Getty Images. Jagger's flags: via Pinterest. Coat of Arms: Kensington Palace.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Paul Ryan, the short-distance runner

IT HAD BEEN going so well, or, at least as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The Washington Post reported recently how, days earlier, political advisers to Rep. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives “announced he had already raised $54 million over the last 15 months, $40 million of which was directed to ... GOP campaigns through the National Republican Congressional Committee.”

The speaker’s reputation as a top-tier fundraiser was soaring, even if his cred as herder of fractious cats — leader of the Republican caucus — was under fire and his ability to navigate the turbulence of the Trump White House was always in question.

But then he went and spoiled it all by saying something shocking like “I’m outta here.”

Ryan, who replaced John Boehner in 2015, announced April 11 that he would not seek re-election to either his leadership role or his congressional seat. His reasoning is as understandable as it is commonplace in today’s Congress: Ryan, the father of three children, said he wants to spend more time with the family, a rationale for retirement lately invoked by everyone from Orrin Hatch to, well, whoever drops out next.

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“This was really about two things,” Ryan added. “I accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids are not getting any younger. And if I stay, my kids are only going to know me as a weekend dad and that is something I cannot do. That is really it right there.”

Since then, Ryan has been circling the wagons in his own camp, doing what he can, maybe whatever he can, to husband his powers as a short-timer that everyone knows is a short-timer.

And the House itself is still in a wait-and-see mode. When Ryan’s bombshell dropped, House members went into hair-on-fire mode contemplating a successor. Today? Not quite so much. Last week’s slam-dunks to succeed Ryan may not be such a sure thing after all. In short: it’s business as usual in Washington.

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WITH RYAN set to exit the scene, we can start the protracted farewell to one of the more reliable (and reliably ham-fisted) shapeshifters in modern Washington politics. Ryan has been an acolyte of Jack Kemp, the late New York Republican whose political equipoise — balancing centrist social policy, “big-tent” party aspirations, and conservative economic principles — would be mighty damn refreshing on Capitol Hill today.

But Ryan the student fell a long way from Kemp the teacher. Since he assumed the speakership in October 2015, Ryan has practiced a sometimes clumsy situational politics, hitting just the right optic tone in moments of social crisis — the NFL protests, Charlottesville — but failing to follow through when it otherwise counted. Like in photo-ops with, and political support of, a president whose naked bigotry and dogwhistles to white supremacy have gone a long way to polarizing this nation.

The pending exit of the speaker, amid the woofers and tweeters loose in the nation’s capital, endangers the Republican House majority in some important ways. First, it compromises, at least in the short term, the fundraising that Ryan did superbly well. His ability to grow money for the GOP was the result of relationships cultivated over time, relationships that won’t be easily or immediately transferable to his successor.

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Second, Ryan’s walkaway is an optical disaster for the GOP, sending the signal that the despair disease infecting numerous Republicans earlier in the year has now been contracted by the Speaker of the House. The incumbency factor Republicans have employed to great effect in solidifying GOP objectives, identity and majorities in both houses of Congress has been nullified, thanks to this wave of Republican resignations — of which Ryan’s is among the latest.

It keeps getting worse: The day after Ryan announced, Florida Rep. Dennis Ross said he wouldn’t seek re-election either. On April 17, moderate Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, already planning to retire at ear’s end, announced plans to hang ‘em up “in the coming weeks,” presumably by the end of April.

John Bresnahan of Politico observed in an April 12 podcast: “The message, the image it gives — ‘the Speaker is leaving, why should anybody vote Republican?’ The Democrats are already spinning this. ... How can he lead them if he’s leaving? ... I think Ryan has a big problem.”

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FOR HIS part, Ryan is in a mindset to soldier on. “I want be clear here,” he told reporters on April 11. “I’m not done yet. I’m going to run through the tape.”

Maybe. Ryan’s professionally reflexive desire to Finish The Job may be — will be — complicated by a desire among some in the GOP House majority to show Ryan the door sooner rather than later, as a strong signal of continuity to the base, an announcement of an intent to start fresh with a new speaker before the predictable headwinds of November. The thinking: Better to deal with this now and all at once than to endure the longish goodbye of Speaker Paul Ryan for another eight months.

Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei said as much to The Post, when he called for advancing the timetable for the leadership elections. “No disrespect to Paul,” he said, “but quite frankly, you want somebody who’s got skin in the game for after the election.”

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Rep. Peter T. King begs to differ. The reliably combative New York Republican wants to let Ryan ride it out. “Depending on how the elections come out, we can see what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and that can determine who should be the speaker,” King said to The Post. “There will be some maneuvering behind the scenes, but we don’t need a public campaign right now.”

But the operative phrase in that whole passage is “[d]epending on how the elections come out.” It’s conditional by definition, an endorsement of a roll of the dice that everything’s gonna come out all right in the end, maybe. A lot depends on the willingness of the Republican caucus to get behind that idea.

It’s not as if there aren’t people already waiting in the wings. Ryan’s announcement had barely hit the interwebs before the names of possible successors emerged.

On the short list: California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who bid for the speakership in 2015, and who is now championed by Ryan himself; and Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip whose survival of and triumph over gunshot wounds suffered in a 2015 incident in Washington, make for a compelling personal comeback narrative that could be emotionally galvanizing for a House majority on the ropes, if not on the rocks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

4/4/68: What was taken and what remains (republished)

Fifty years ago today was one of the most pivotal days in the history of black America, and just another day in black America. The fact that the same date could occupy two spaces, accommodate those two realities at once is some kind of testament to the power of African American identity against the backdrop of the nation as a whole. The essay below was first published April 5, 2013, just after the 45th anniversary of his assassination. I'm bringing it back today, five years later, fully aware of its ironies -- and fully believing in its necessity -- in the time of House Trump. — MER
FORTY-FIVE years ago, a skinny, rusty-butt African American boy left school and came home to find the lights down and his mother crying. His brothers, both of whom were younger than he was, were absent, somewhere else in the house that seemed larger than before. But his mother’s tears jarred and frightened him. He hadn’t seen that for a while. At least three years. Or four.

His father emerged from one of the rooms, his eyes bearing the rheumy sheen of someone who’d been crying too. Pops had just retired from the army the year before, after 22 years in, and he was no pushover, no lightweight. So to find him in the same condition as his mother filled the kid with alarm. Something big must have happened.

His mother, finally regaining her self-control, wiped the tears from her face long enough to get maternal again. She stepped to her son, the oldest of three, and spoke softly.

“You boys don’t go to school tomorrow.”

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It goes without saying that when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis this date in 1968, the nation lost its most populist moral compass, and African Americans lost their distilling messenger, the one who, since the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, articulated and defended the aspirations of black America in every precinct of the national life.

In the years since, the social and political advances this country’s made have rightly been viewed against the metric of King’s own aspirations for his nation — measured against the particulars of the “I Have a Dream” speech that's part of the double helix of the spiritual DNA of our modern United States.

From the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, from the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009, to the still-emerging legislative evolution on marriage equality, our nation’s leaps or lurches toward social justice and personal freedom have used King’s vision as a benchmark.

'It Is Still 1968: 50 years after, the struggle continues (Mother Jones)

What remains of King’s “dream” is more than the grainy newsreel footage of the man speaking truth to power at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s percolated heartily into the bedrock of reality. In the last 45 years, African Americans have achieved pinnacles of leadership in the worlds of entertainment and the media — taken summits whose importance isn’t defined by mainstream America, but on its own terms, sufficient unto itself. They’ve seen America elect its first African American president, a signal event King would have praised with tears in his eyes.

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BUT THERE’S more work to do. What also remains is the persistence of old inequities, imbalances of race, culture and class. We’ve only to look at the protest today by about 400 workers at several different fast-food restaurants in New York City — a protest sparked by people who’ve had enough of minimum wage, everyday people pushing back against the same economic injustice that King made his last mission.

We only have to consider the fact that the Voting Rights Act, one of the crowning achievements of his career, is thought to be targeted for dismantling by conservatives in Congress and, quite possibly, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said in 1965, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an 19th-century abolitionist whom King admired. And what was true in Parker’s distant day and in King’s more immediate lifetime is a fact today. But that arc doesn’t bend all by itself.

What we lost 45 years ago was irreplaceable; what’s left 45 years later is inescapable: It’s left to us to further the “Dream” and make it both closer to reality and more of a reality than it already is. It’s up to us to be the weight that makes that arc bend.

Image credits: Detail from King statue, Washington: BBC News. Times Square fast-food worker protest: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

John Bolton: The fire starter this time

WE MUST, as a nation, be more unpredictable ... and we have to be unpredictable starting now,” President* Donald Trump said on March 22 from Washington, uttering the breathtakingly foolish words that may be the defining language of the Trump Doctrine, right before introducing the Cardinal Richelieu who will advise him on how best to achieve the angry inscrutability that Trump demands.

Trump named John Robert Bolton, the ardent überhawk who helped engineer the disaster of the Iraq war, to become his third national security adviser in 14 months. Bolton replaces Army lieutenant Gen. H.R. McMaster, thought to be a relative moderate in the Trump inner circle — and thus, subject to banishment from House Trump.

The New York Times reported March 22 that “General McMaster struggled for months to impose order not only on a fractious national security team but on a president who resisted the sort of discipline customary in the military. Although General McMaster has been a maverick voice at times during a long military career, the Washington foreign policy establishment had hoped he would keep the president from making rash decisions.”

So much for that. The oversize child scratching up the Resolute Desk has moved on to bigger things. With Bolton by his side in the West Wing (he starts on April 9), he’s about to break all the furniture in the White House at once.

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It’s difficult to think of a more automatically divisive, ideologically narrow figure to sit at the literal right hand of an American president* than John Bolton, whose appointment is a major pivot point in American national security.

As recess-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, Bolton helped establish the pretext for the Iraq war, and create a global view of America as Warrior Nation. Bolton worked with Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and the Bush II neocon cabal in helping popularize the domestic and foreign notions of the United States as a superpower victimized — a perception widely, eagerly amplified in the zeitgeist in the fearful days and months after 9/11. Over the years, Bolton became a longtime contributor to the Fox News political-media ecosystem.

He’s been a man on a mission for some time. The New York Times reported March 23 that in 2014, his political action committee, the John Bolton Super PAC, hired Cambridge Analytica, shelling out about $1.2 million over two years for “survey research” and “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.” The Bolton PAC allegedly knew that Cambridge Analytica, lately accused of misusing personal data from perhaps as many as 50 million Facebook users, was using Facebook data to do its work.

Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica co-founder who blew the whistle on his former company’s actions, said Bolton’s PAC was “obsessed with how America was becoming limp-wristed and spineless,” saying it wanted “research and messaging for national security issues [which] really meant making people more militaristic in their worldview.”

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BOLTON’S PENDING arrival might accelerate debate about the next shoe to fall. There’s already handicapping under way that points to John Kelly, the beleaguered White House chief of staff, being shown the door next." Ron Klain, a former aide to President Obama, made that case on March 23, on MSNBC:

Kelly, Klain said, “is a military man who understands the huge cost, the human cost, of war and [is] not a war hawk. I think seeing John Bolton come into the White House with his proposals for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, for war with Iran – he even wrote recently about the idea of a war with Cuba – this is a person who is going to get this country into a military conflict. And I don’t think that’s what John Kelly wants.”

It’s not. The Times reported March 22 that “Mr. Kelly ... prevailed in easing out General McMaster but failed to prevent Mr. Trump from hiring Mr. Bolton, whom they said Mr. Kelly fears will behave like a cabinet official rather than a staff member.”

To the extent that Kelly doesn’t want a fulminating ideologue like Bolton in the White House (“we’re all full up here, thanks”) but Donald Trump does ... well, that puts Kelly and Trump even more at loggerheads. And we know how one-on-ones with the boss always work out, sooner or later.

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Kelly, once thought to be the principal adult persona in the White House (if only by a little) actually shares common cause and frontline experience with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a pragmatic ex-military man still held in very high regard by U.S. military leaders.

Mattis has what Republicans would no doubt call a nasty streak of moderation. He’s pushed back on Trump overtures more than once, both before his tenure as SecDef and since. As a veteran who knows the sting of combat firsthand, Mattis is likely to oppose Bolton on some of his more hawkish intentions.

Politico reported on March 23: “He opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, decertify the Iran deal, slap tariffs on steel and aluminum, and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He opposes the president’s proposed ban on transgender service members ...”

And The New York Times reported Saturday that “Mattis, the retired general who has ... warned that military confrontation with North Korea would result in ‘the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes,’ told colleagues on Friday that he did not know if he could work with Mr. Bolton.”

Which likely pits Mattis and Trump against each other.

And we know how that always works out, sooner or later.

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THIS IS THE DYNAMIC of the New Trump Order, a simple thing, if not downright simplistic: The Donald is tired of gettin’ pushed around. This is his playground, see? It’s all his, it all belongs to him, it’s all about him, see? He’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the White House and he’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the world. And he thinks he’s got just the right pit bull on steroids to deal with both problems at the same time. You can bet that Bolton, not on the clock until April 9, already has The Donald’s ear, singing his praises, validating his bellicose rhetoric ... one angry militarist provocateur in league with another.

This is the concern, if not the fear: That Bolton’s ascension as national security adviser is an implicit, pre-emptive rejection of the idea of moderation in geopolitical tone and tactics — really, a rejection of the value of international negotiation itself. That Bolton’s appointment emboldens conservative hawks in Congress to double down on bloating the Pentagon even more.

That Bolton’s appointment effectively tells the nation and the world that Trump is fed up with doing what he’s told — by which he means doing what the Constitution, generations of White House protocol and geopolitical reality tell him to do — and that now, with id fully unleashed through the conscious mind, he’s ready to raise hell, to run things His Way: like the autocratic CEO of a major (and majorly dysfunctional) corporation instead of the United States of America.

The only declaration of independence Donald Trump may care about now is the one he’s just created for himself.

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Something about this choice – its sheer, brazen, willful disregard for Trump’s own biography and the risk of lasting damage to the country – makes it look like an intentional feint, a manufactured distraction a la Wag the Dog. But in a context where distraction is an everyday thing, what the hell would he be distracting us from?

Is it Stormy Daniels? Robert Mueller? The Russia investigation? The parade of shaky staff hires in recent months? Is it the White House curio cabinet of knaves, mushwits, stooges and fools who’ve been there from the beginning? The skeptics and defectors among high-profile Republicans? The possibilities are endless.

Some think Trump’s gambit with Bolton was a way to pre-emptively assuage the far-right, who eighteen hours later, on March 23, would be apoplectic over Trump’s signature of a $1.3 trillion spending bill that gave Democrats and progressives Christmas in March, with no new funding for the border wall or 1,000 new ICE agents (cherished Trump objectives), and fresh sanctions against Russia — among other things.

Giving the Pantone-red conservatives Bolton, as a kind of counterbalance to the impact of that left-leaning bill signed into law, might be seen by those conservatives as a fair exchange. Much of the world already wishes this devil’s bargain wasn’t going to happen.

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WILLIAM RIVERS Pitt, writing at Truthout, has got the Fear.

“Bolton's gruesome personal behavior with staff and others has become lore. He once got crossways with a federal contractor named Melody Townsel, and chased her through the halls of a Russian hotel while pelting her with shoes and other available missiles. Over the next several days, he stalked Townsel around the hotel, shouting threats and shoving threatening letters under her door. This is not a guy you want to give a staff to. ...

“The people who agree with him are still freaked out by him, because he is a ball of terrifying war hubris made flesh, yet somehow he keeps landing jobs within walking distance of the Oval Office. George W. Bush made him UN ambassador while Congress wasn't home. He was fantastic at alienating other nations, but wasn't really in a position to do the kind of serious damage he's capable of.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That may be about to change. From a historically traditional and fundamentally advantageous position, as a kind of Rasputin vulture affixed to the shoulder of the president, the national security adviser is more often than not, as Pitt observes in his piece, “the last person in the room.” That also presumes he or she would, logically, have the last word on whatever issues are top of mind in the Oval.

Pitt: “The job of the National Security Adviser is to judge and filter intelligence data for the president. In this incredibly powerful position, John Bolton will literally be creating reality for Trump according to his own twisted, violent vision of how US military might is best used. The man is a manufacturer of corpses, and has been so for a very long time.

“It has been firmly established by now that the most powerful person in the country is the last person Trump speaks to before making a decision. This phenomenon has been on vivid display as he staggers through debates on repealing the ACA, tax cuts, the budget, DACA and gun control. In every instance, Trump trumpeted nearly by rote the opinion of whoever had his ear five minutes before. There is more whiplash in Congress because of this than you'll find at a demolition derby. It is fact.”

◊ ◊ ◊

IT'D BE ONE thing if Bolton was an outlier, a crackpot Cassandra with no paper trail of experience and perspective. He is, in fact, a known quantity. “John Bolton is not some gray bureaucrat whose views are unknown to us,” said Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama, and now a Stanford University professor, to The Times. “He’s very clear that there should be regime change in Iran and North Korea, and military force should be used to achieve those goals,” he said. “If you hire him, you’re making a clear signal that’s what you want.”

Given what’s at stake, you can’t help but think about that doomsday clock created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. On Jan. 25, the group’s Science and Security Board advanced the clock’s hands by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight. That minute hand hasn’t come closer to striking midnight since 1953.

We may get closer still. John Bolton, the embodiment of the military hawk, Buck Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove rolled into one, has the absolute undiminished ear of the president* of the United States, and the world doesn’t have a second to lose. We’ve had a taste of his previous incarnations as a firebrand, a political figure with only aspirations of the incendiary. The rhetorical flamethrower we know as John Bolton may have never had a better time, or opportunity, to set the world on fire. Literally.

Image credits: John Kelly:  Cliff Owen/Associated Press. James Mattis: via @thehill. Cambridge Analytica logo: © 2018 Cambridge Analytica.  Trump: via @davidaxelrod.  Truthout logo: © 2018 Truthout. Doomsday clock graphic: © 2018 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

John Kelly in hell

TRUMP WHITE House Chief of Staff John Kelly is said to have a predilection for Irish whiskey, once the sun has crossed the yardarm and the day’s work is done. It’s a fair surmise that the last eight months at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have made that libation a regular event.

They may have rolled a keg of Tullamore Dew up to the service entrance at the White House last week. That was when Kelly was tweet-midwife to the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was cashiered by Trump in a tweet released early March 13, asTillerson returned from a trip to north Africa. According to different sources, the former Exxon Mobil CEO was on the can when he found out he'd been dumped, from Kelly, who  called him on the phone.

Who could blame Kelly for his style of unwinding? It’s been a wild and rocky eight months, choked with intrigue and double-dealing. And then, of course, he had to deal with the president*.

◊ ◊ ◊

Since last July, the former Marine Corps general and head of the Department of Homeland Security has moved — some will say “lurched,” and they’re not wrong — from one crisis to another at the mercy of a relentlessly mercurial boss, plagued by noisy bad hires, intrusive Trump family members, and internecine squabbling that hasn’t stopped from either day one of his tenure or day one of the administration itself.

It’s all led him to say, on March 1, at an event marking the 15th anniversary of the agency he once directed, to say that “[t]he last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”

Was it just a burst of dark Irish wit, or something more? No matter, Kelly’s arc in the most functionally deficient White House in modern times may have less to do with Irish wit than with English drama.

Never mind the man in the Oval Office: John Francis Kelly is the most fascinating fixture of House Trump today, and, not quite coincidentally, the one most susceptible to Shakespearean analogy: a headstrong, brutally plain-spoken but presumably well-intentioned public servant tragically manipulated by — hoist on the petards of — duty, hubris, and the unstable leader he is unswervingly committed to serve.

◊ ◊ ◊

WHEN KELLY took over on July 31 as chief of staff, in the wake of Reince Priebus’ untimely departure, sighs of relief spread all over Washington. Finally, the thinking went, the Trump White House would be subject to some adult supervision. Kelly, whose stellar Marine career was no doubt a big selling point in his selection to begin with, sure as hell looked the part: ramrod-straight, with a steely, no-nonsense gaze, an unfiltered vocabulary and a personal bearing straight outta Central Casting.

Early signs were promising. The day Kelly started the job, he fired showboat White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci after Scaramucci’s infamously profane interview with The New Yorker.

Kelly cut former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski from the herd, denying him “badge access” to the White House. At year’s end, he fired the deeply loathed director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, Omarosa Manigault Newman, whose prickly self-importance had been rubbing White House staff the wrong way for months. She was cashiered specifically for using the White House car service as a delivery service, forbidden by the federal government.

Since then, however, the former general has been a party to the circling of the drain that’s been underway at the Trump White House since he started. As Tillerson’s firing shows, Trump is answerable to no one on matters of personnel. Not even the man charged with marrying personnel, policy and public persona within the White House. John Kelly.

◊ ◊ ◊

TO THE PUBLIC at large, the job of White House chief of staff is a somewhat mysterious one. Part president whisperer, part administration megaphone, the job has requirements that seem to have a lot to do with deciding presidential access. The job title itself — “chief of staff” — suggests a kind of White House air traffic controller, the one with go-no go authority over who lands at Oval Office Airport and who doesn’t.

It’s also true that the chief of staff is often meant to act in unpleasant roles, a Son of a Bitch in Chief, kicking asses and taking names when the need arises (and it always does). In this, by any measure, John Kelly has done exceedingly well.

But Kelly faced (and faces) the singular challenge of trying to manage the unmanageable, attempting to restore order and establish decorum and discipline in a White House whose prime occupant — loathe to any influence but his own — is more problem than solution.

◊ ◊ ◊

“It’s almost mission impossible here for a lot of different reasons,” said historian Chris Whipple to Politico. “His credibility was already really seriously damaged going all the way back to his appearance behind the podium in the WH briefing room. Now I think his credibility is really beyond repair and moreover, very few people will really believe he’s really speaking for the president.”

A slight rejoinder to Whipple’s assessment: With 14 months of presidential style in the public eye, and a presidential campaign before that, it’s safe to say no one ever really thought Kelly speaks for the president, any more than Priebus or Lewandowski did.

With Twitter as his megaphone of choice, Trump has weaponized White House public discourse like no president before him. His late-night/early-morning tweets have contributed to the polarization of the country, and point to Trump as a loose cannon who revels in that status, regardless of the consequences. Kelly is enduring some of those consequences himself.

◊ ◊ ◊

NOT THAT Kelly hasn’t put his foot in it himself from time to time. On Oct. 19, he wrongly asserted that Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson took the credit for federal funding required to build a new FBI field office in Miami in 2015. Despite a statement of reprimand released by 17 female members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kelly doubled down, saying he would not apologize for his claims against Wilson.

“Not only was Kelly's claim false but his manner was rude, degrading, and racist,” wrote the activists at, which circulated a petition demanding Kelly apologize to the congresswoman.

That arose from another dispute with Wilson, one in which Kelly defended the tone and context of Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed Oct. 7 with three other American soldiers in southwestern Niger, in an ambush by Islamist militants. Wilson, a Johnson family friend, listened in on the call, which upset Kelly to no end. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me,” Kelly said, as reported by The New York Times.

◊ ◊ ◊

And Kelly played footsie with the media when asked about information that suggested Johnson survived the initial assault, but had died some time later. “I actually know a lot more than I’m letting on, but I’m not going to tell you,” he said on Oct. 19, indicating the ability to be as tone-deaf about White House optics as his boss.

In early February, Kelly drew the ire of advocates of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, among millions of other Americans, when he referred to some immigrants as “lazy" while visiting the Capitol.

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and half times that number, to 1.8 million,” Kelly said, as reported in The Hill. “The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”

Nice. Stay classy, general.

◊ ◊ ◊

It gets uglier. An October piece by Jon Schwarz in The Intercept explores the ways that Kelly, seemingly the sane one in the loony rooms of House Trump, has his own fairly recent history of, and relationship with, the irrational and the xenophobic.

“Any examination of Kelly’s past public remarks makes clear he is not a sober professional, calculating that he must degrade himself in public so he can remain in place to rein in Trump’s worst instincts behind the scenes. Rather, Kelly honestly shares those instincts: He’s proudly ignorant, he’s a liar, and he’s a shameless bully and demagogue.”

He may be subject to situational blindness, too. Witness the Rob Porter incident. Porter, formerly the White House staff secretary, resigned Feb. 7 amid highly credible allegations of domestic abuse of his first ex-wife, allegations documented in a story in The Daily Mail that included a photograph of the ex-wife with a black eye. Responding to the allegations, Kelly initially accepted Porter’s denial about what happened, siding with Porter in a reflex that was as good-old-boy as they get. Porter, Kelly said, was a "man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional.”

◊ ◊ ◊

THEN HE GOT called on it. Politico reported: “Kelly was aware weeks before the Daily Mail story that Porter’s background check had turned up red flags — though not the full extent of the abuse — but Porter never rose to the top of his list of problems to deal with.”

Kelly seemed to masterfully pivot from the Porter mess on Feb. 16, when he issued a five-page memo to staff outlining a series of changes in the White House security clearance process, one that saw top-secret access revoked for some, even though at that time others in the House Trump food chain were exempt, including senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. According to The Washington Post, Kushner’s had more asks for classified intelligence than anyone else on the White House staff, except National Security Council staff.

“The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted -- especially those who work closely with the President or handle sensitive national security information," Kelly wrote. "We should -- and in the future, must -- do better.”

◊ ◊ ◊

On Feb. 27, Kelly pulled the trigger. He restored more of his credibility, specifically sidelining Kushner, Kelly’s West Wing bête noire from the start, by downgrading his White House interim security clearance, which, up to that point, made him privy to some of the nation’s most sensitive, most important intel.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

After 'Black Panther'

When you fight for a seat at the table long enough, it seems that you get to run the table—for a minute, anyway. That’s one takeaway from Black Panther’s already phenomenal success—a success whose casting and narrative essence force Hollywood to make some overdue decisions on casting that the industry can’t avoid.

In its four-day holiday weekend opening, the film roared to a $241.9 million debut, beating out Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the second-highest grossing weekend opening in history. Ryan Coogler’s runaway hit, coming on the heels of both the #OscarsSoWhite social-media firestorm and broad changes in the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the kind of wake-up call Hollywood can’t ignore: one with the sound of cash registers attached. ...

Read the full story at Geeks

Image credits: Black Panther promo image: © 2018 Disney/Marvel. Geeks logo: © 2018 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

More Time With the Family

A new year, like a new broom, sweeps clean, at least for a while. Before and after the start of this still minty-fresh jaunt around the sun called 2018, several Republican lawmakers have decided not to seek re-election. The rush for the out doors will include the retirements of relative newcomers to Congress and an institutional lion of the Senate.

These exits, the ones that came before, and those likely to follow in the months between now and November have dire implications for a Republican party struggling to find its future stars amid an increasingly depleted cast of existing characters. ...

Retirements from Congress are hardly party-specific, of course. Democrats in Congress have been dropping out, for reasons of exhaustion with the partisan atmosphere, and in response to various allegations of wrongdoing (Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers among the two most prominent Dems to be caught up in sexual harassment charges).

But if you sense there’s a louder, more populated Republican sprint to the exits, you’re right. Going away. ...

Read more at The Swamp

Image credits: Swamp logo: © 2018 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Trump's State of the Union: A tale of two GOPs

IT WAS A juxtaposition whose irony was cruel, unusual and inescapable: Hours before President* Donald Trump made nice across the aisle at the 2018 State of the Union address, proposing to govern in a new spirit of bipartisanship and commonality, a Republican senator called for the arrest of any DREAMers who dared to attend ... the State of the Union address.

Politico reported that, before the SOTU speech, Paul Gosar, Republican congressman from Arizona, tweeted that “Of all the places where the Rule of Law needs to be enforced, it should be in the hallowed halls of Congress. Any illegal aliens attempting to go through security, under any pretext of invitation or otherwise, should be arrested and deported."

When Gosar acted as an apprentice to the tweeter-in-chief, he was setting the stage for a State of the Union address that had more news in it than usual. Some of that was the address itself; more of what made it news will have to do with whether it marks a turning point for a reliably mercurial chief executive, or merely sets a pattern of behavior in stone. There’s a lot to suggest the status quo will have the upper hand.

Or not. The true character of today’s Republican party, and the party of the inescapable future, is caught up in navigating that existential dilemma: Which is the real GOP? Which one will Donald Trump serve? And which one will serve Donald Trump?

◊ ◊ ◊

He began with the fat, uplifting topic sentences: “Less than 1 year has passed since I first stood at this podium, in this majestic chamber, to speak on behalf of the American People — and to address their concerns, their hopes, and their dreams. That night, our new Administration had already taken swift action. A new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land.

“Each day since, we have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission — to make America great again for all Americans.

Much of the speech’s early going was not an overarching vision of the country’s direction, but was punctuated by Trump name-checking people in the gallery, picking them out for truly deserved recognition for their roles in various major events: the volunteers of the “Cajun Navy,” who rescued scores during Hurricane Harvey. A Coast Guard officer who performed admirably during the same Gulf storm, saving dozens of people.

A firefighter who braved one of the recent California wildfires to rescue some 60 people. A married couple running a small business in Ohio. One of that business’ more stellar workers. An Army staff sergeant who valiantly worked to save the life of a fellow soldier in Raqqa. Those who helped shield victims of gunfire from country music fans on the Las Vegas Strip. And a shoutout to Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalice, the congressman gravely wounded in June 2017 by a shooter at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was a cherry-picking of the national mosaic that led to Trump’s calls for unity: “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve. ...

“This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream.

“So to every citizen watching at home tonight — no matter where you have been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything. ...

“[T]onight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed.”

◊ ◊ ◊

HIS SPEECH sounded as close to full-on presidential as anything he’s said in the last year and ten days in office. While a lot of it wasn’t Trump so much as the stagecraft, the affect, the trappings that made Trump look presidential almost by default, he talked a good game, hit all the anodyne, ameliorative notes we’ve come to expect from any modern president delivering a SOTU in prime-time.

A State of the Union address, properly delivered, isn’t just a laundry list of objectives or an honor’s list of accomplishments. The best SOTU speeches are acts of smart rhetorical weaving, combining the factual, the granular and the unabashedly aspirational, statements of where we’ve been joined with those containing some bigger, broader objective sense of where we hope to go as a nation.

                       State of the Union 2018: The transcript   |   The speech

Trump accomplished much of this, performing, in some ways, better than this observer thought he would or could. But the man can’t help himself. Trump wasn’t above taking shots here and there, at adversaries real and imagined: North Korea, terrorists, immigrants ... his usual targets of opportunity.

◊ ◊ ◊

He of course mentioned the economy’s 2.4 million new jobs, a figure that, whether Trump thinks so or not, has a lot to do with programs and policies created and executed in the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump mentioned increasing new highs on the stock market, again, a manifestation of momentum from the Obama years. There’s no denying the advances the market’s made in the past year; there’s also no denying the origins of that financial velocity, a product of the past eight years. On that basis, Obama could have taken as many as bows as Trump just did.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

House Trump: Hearing footsteps in the new year

WHEN IN THE COURSE of human events you’re faced with so many events in a short time that you don’t know where to begin ... you don’t begin.

That’s the challenge facing yours truly and every political analyst, blogger and opinionated American with the dawn of this new year — not just any new year. For me it started late in 2017: creatively frozen, trapped in an interminable funk fed by the ongoing series of wildfires in California; the baffling inanities and geopolitically provocative tweets from the White House; and a general malaise I’m led to believe was an expression of the current collective unconscious. Christmas felt forced, vacant, bereft. New Year’s Eve at midnight was spent howling “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” at the drivers passing my house in East Hollywood, waving a bottle of cold duck. More than a few honked or shouted in agreement as they drove by.

Not surprised. Understatement of the decade: We’ve been eager to turn the page on 2017. Any year that could usher out Chuck Berry, Walter Becker, Charles Bradley, Fats Domino, Glen Campbell and Tom Petty, and usher in the quasi-presidency of the most dangerous carnival barker in history is a year that deserves to be forgotten, asterisked, if not for the upheaval that occurred in that 365 days we just got out of, a little more than three weeks ago.

◊ ◊ ◊

But now it gets interesting. On a number of political fronts, last year was a building prelude to the storm that’s about to be unleashed at the White House, the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill. Florsheims have been dropping for months now, not just in Washington but in places and with results that will have an impact on Washington, from now to the election less than eleven months away.

The biggest chicken roosting this election year will rest on the head of the beast that is the Republican Party. Years of gridlock – not just the interparty gridlock we’ve come to expect, but also the philosophical gridlock within the party, the conflict that’s typified the GOP since at least the Tea Party’s rise in 2009 – are about to yield, ironically, the kind of painful, forced evolution required when a voluntary evolution apparently isn’t possible.

The Republican Party is about to be dragged kicking and screaming into a future it’s been haplessly designing, and denying, for years.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE PROBLEM for the GOP begins with a White House on a vendetta. From the jump, Donald Trump made it clear that his Job #1 was to undo as much of the eight years of the legislative and political legacy of Barack Obama as possible. He maybe never actually said it, word for word, but he never had to. With a flurry of executive actions and tweets, Trump set his intentions in motion and began rolling back various Obama-era initiatives and policies.

The Trump White House thus defined its own first year in the White House by the metrics of its able predecessor. For that reason, there’s been little or nothing affirmative about House Trump a year in. Trying to undo that predecessor’s work has negated Trump’s own agenda. To the extent he ever had one.

Michael Caputo, a Republican operative and another veteran of Trump’s presidential run, blamed Congress for inaction on the Trump first-year “agenda.” “I think we all trusted the Congress too much,” he told The Daily Beast in November. “Today we know leaders of both houses have not been able, or even willing, to deliver on the President's agenda. If I knew we would have so many problems on Capitol Hill, I would have urged the president to move immediately on tax cuts and infrastructure after the Inaugural.”

Trump apologist/mouthpiece/cheerleader Scottie Nell Hughes said much the same thing to The Daily Beast on Nov. 8: “President Trump and his team should have been ready to introduce and push for the vote almost immediately of his top three campaign promises,” Hughes added. “Tax reform, repeal and replace AHCA & legislation to build the wall (in that order) should have been ready, introduced and voted on before the opposition could organize against. Instead, this administration lost their focus in the fog of the swamp and was swallowed up by the status quo.”

This underscores a major problem for the Trump administration. Leaders of both houses haven’t followed through on the Trump agenda because, strictly speaking, there isn’t one.

◊ ◊ ◊

From Trump’s efforts to marginalize Muslims and immigrants to his monstrous “shithole countries” comment about Haitians, Salvadoreans and people from African nations; from actions rolling back environmental protections to breathtaking contradictions and inconsistencies in dealing with other countries, the transactional, small-hearted actions taken since last Jan. 20 — spasmodic treacheries, callous deceits — don’t qualify as an agenda. They barely qualify as “actions.”

Yes, Trump scored a much-needed win with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — his signature piece of legislation to this point. But with that exception — and we still don't know who'll really benefit from that besides the smitten multinational corporations, and their CEOs — there’s been nothing ennobling and pragmatic from House Trump, no throughline to most of his works in the Oval Office except the mercurial rage of their author, and his punitive intent. It’s all been very angry and small.

Trump, careening from lane to lane since before day one, doesn’t really have an agenda. The central reason why he has no agenda? He may not really want one.

In his 2016 campaign, Trump presented himself as a true maverick, a hothouse carnivore, a seat-of-the pants outlier whose promised willingness to improvise in office wasn’t just a quirk or a bullet point; it was central to the ethos of the Trump campaign. Inimical to the traditions of the presidency, the outsider got inside and started doing things His Way. The last thing a man wants to do, after vowing to “drain the swamp,” is to adopt the swamp-dweller's language.

An agenda of his own, a doctrinal overview in the classic political sense, a granular platform thoroughly defining his vision, his worldview, his picture of the United States and its interaction with the evolving college of the world’s nations .... well, doing that, in his mind, might mean breaking a campaign promise to not think and talk like the pointy-heads on the Potomac. OK, that last part's over the top. It might just be that much long-attention-span orderliness is simply beyond him, something outside his emotional and intellectual bandwidths.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE CLOSEST thing we have to that overview — Trump’s national security statement, released on Dec. 17 — leaves a lot to be desired. Intended to showcase a return to pragmatism, hard-nosed diplomatic overtures, and the conclusively persuasive powers of the world’s pre-eminent military force, the statement promulgates a national security framework that is, according to people in a position to know, a Trump policy in name only.

We might, for example, thank national security adviser H.R. McMaster for putting his spin on the events. A military man, McMaster reportedly characterized the summary statement by invoking a phrase from the Reagan days of yore: “Peace Through Strength.” His fingers certainly aren't the only ones deep in this pie.
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