Friday, February 10, 2017

Waterboarding America:
Trump’s days of executive disorder

Oh a storm is threatening
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Ooh yeah I’m gonna fade away

From “Gimme Shelter” (Jagger/Richards)

THESE ARE THE DAYS that try writers’ souls ... and burn out the batteries in their wireless keyboards, fast. He told us this was coming, he warned us that what he said he would do is what he would do ... and here we are.

The last twenty days have alerted us to just how resilient and how fragile our American democracy really is. In successive days and weeks, from almost the moment of his inauguration, President-presumptive Donald Trump has cemented his legacy as the most poorly received freshman president in modern American history. We’re just weeks into a flurry of executive orders from TheTrump™ and we fully absorb one body blow before we have to react to the next one.

There’s fear afoot; it feels like we’re on a cliff whose angle of climb is steepening while we’re on it; we’re game but the aching fear is that we’re quietly holding onto the last handhold on the cliff wall, with a fraudulent sang-froid.

We try to cope, retreating to snark and quips on the social tip, all of us captives of a madman with a gun holding us hostage, But there’s hope — not just hope but real action. We’re defiant at the grassroots, pushing back hard in a broad swath of rejection of the Trumpian status quo, a civic engagement that bridges the usual demographics, a movement we haven’t seen this ecumenical and expanding since the height of the Vietnam War. Note to Trump White House & Brain Trust: This is what populism really looks like.

At least we hope so.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the last three weeks, in belligerent phone calls and tweets calling long-held protocols and agreements into question, Trump alienated and antagonized Mexico, Australia and China. He apparently soft-pedaled his own previous full-throated support for more Israeli settlements and side-stepped a campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (potentially antagonizing Israel).

After a series of ugly comments about the U.S. intelligence community, after skipping out on the intel briefings that would presumably make him a more learned president, Trump went to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and embarrassed himself in front of a CIA monument to its unsung heroes — those who died in defense of the country — by yammering on and on about the number of people who attended his inauguration.

He kept one of his original campaign pledges by signing executive orders ordering the government to start building a wall along the Southern border with Mexico, a project estimated by the Homeland Security Department to cost up to $22 billion, and take more than three years to complete. Trump also told Homeland Security and the Justice Department to cut federal funds from sanctuary cities.

◊ ◊ ◊

TRUMP approved, via executive order, construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, both sidelined indefinitely by President Obama over mounting environmental concerns.

He repeated numerous times his utterly fanciful claim that voter fraud kept him from winning the November election by the landslide proportion he’s conjured in his own mind since shortly after the election was over.

On Jan. 28, Trump named Stephen Bannon, his newly-minted chief White House strategist and a man deep in the embrace of white nationalism, to take a seat on the National Security Council.

Trump also effectively sidelined the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence on the council, kicking them to the curb in a memo that said their services would only be required at meetings when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”

He signed an executive order to begin the unraveling of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which gave the Federal Reserve wide latitude in regulating the nation’s banks, a direct response by President Obama to the 2008 financial crisis. And in a perversely cruel capstone action of his young administration, Trump signed an executive order banning visitors and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations from coming to America for 90 days. Syrian refugees are barred indefinitely.

◊ ◊ ◊

Peter Maass wrote in The Intercept on Jan. 31: “The order, which did not go through a normal review process, caused chaos and heartbreak at airports in the United States and around the world, where refugees with valid visas were turned back without warning, and even holders of green cards were detained.”

As a result, Maass reports, “Hundreds of diplomats at the State Department are signing an unusual dissent cable that gravely warns of political blowback, saying the ban will “alienate entire societies” and serve as a ‘tipping point towards radicalization.’

On Jan. 30, in response to the TrumpWall executive order, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama White House holdover with the courage to stay on through the opening of the Trump hellscape, refused to defend the Muslim ban in court. “I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” Yates wrote in a statement.

“At the present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities, nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.” Yates was fired hours later, in a blisteringly nasty Trumpian rebuke.

◊ ◊ ◊

IN A conference with sheriffs and law enforcement officials, a sheriff from Texas tells Trump about a state senator who’s making a fuss about ensuring that civil asset forfeiture takes place after a person is convicted of a crime, not before. Trump offers to “destroy” the senator’s career.

And the first flex of Trumpian military muscle — a Trump-authorized strike last month targeting al-Qaida militants in Yemen (through an executive order that wasn’t fully vetted) — was apparently less than successful. Civilians died in a firefight; a Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed ... and as of Tuesday, Trump’s 17th full day in the White House, Yemen withdrew its permission to allow anti-terrorism ground missions by U.S. Special Forces.

In The Intercept, Maass hit on one of the perfect metaphors to describe what has become a genuinely existential crisis for this country: the process of drowning.

“It’s as if we were caught in a rogue wave that has crashed down upon us, turning us head over heels, crushing our heads under pressure, filling our lungs with water, breaking our bones with its power. And somehow we still expect to fully understand what is happening to us, where the wave will take us, and what condition we will be in when the waters recede.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Maas is as gifted a stylist and acute an observer as they come, but this metaphor leaves too much to chance. This isn’t aquatic happenstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is all too deliberate. This is another kind of drowning, the kind that Trump wants reinstated as American policy for dealing with people it doesn't like.

What we’re experiencing now is a waterboarding of American values and the best parts of the country’s political culture. How this all turns out depends bigly on the protests that have rocked the nation since the day of the inauguration. They’ve been strong and ecumenical and exactly the kind of (really) populist endeavors the country needs. Here’s hoping they continue.

Without such strong stands on principle, without continued momentum, we may find that what we’ve been living for the past three weeks could metastasize over the next three or four years.

It’s not over, it’s barely begun. Stay woke. This could still be what autocracy looks like.

Image credits: Trump: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty. Trump at CIA: CBS News. Bannon: Carlo Allegri/Reuters. Sally Yates: Pete Marovich/Getty Images. William Owens: Navy Times.

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