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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A year of living very dangerously


“Trump is at war with the central ideal of the Republic — a vision of strength through inclusion and equality that makes our country special and exceptional.”
                                                                 — Michael Gerson, The Washington Post


SOMETHING about anniversaries. For all the attention we pay to a certain milestone on a Certain Date, the mood and tone and tenor of the thing itself are usually established well in advance. An anniversary is a train, or a train wreck, you can see coming from a long way off.

Well, we’re just shy of the official one-year anniversary of the Donald Trump White House experiment, and it doesn’t get much worse for him than this. With a handful of events in a short period of time, it’s been possible to grasp the gravity of the disaster unfolding, for the Trump White House, a sadly fractionalized Republican Party, and a deeply wounded nation. A snapshot of some events over the last week distills how we’ve gotten to where we are over the last year:

On Monday, Jan. 8, Trump walked onto the field of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where the NCAA championship football game in Atlanta was played. Trump faced a withering blast of jeers and curses from people in the stadium. The Daily Beast reported that “protesters projected the message ‘Fuck Trump’ on the front of the stadium. Trump’s appearance at the game — where he took the field to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’— also triggered scorn from Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, who appeared to yell ‘Fuck Trump’ ahead of the high-stakes game against Georgia.”

“The president stuck around long enough to sing along to part of the national anthem, though footage showed him apparently singing the wrong words,” The Beast reported.

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On Tuesday, Jan. 9, discussing with reporters the possibility of a presidential run by Oprah Winfrey in 2020, the braggadcious chief executive said he’d beat her in a head-to-head matchup. “Yeah, I’ll beat Oprah. Oprah would be a lot of fun,” he said.

Then, employing some novel linguistic gymnastics, Trump added: “You know, I did one of her last shows. She had Donald Trump—this was before politics—her last week. And she had Donald Trump and my family. It was very nice,” Trump said, not explaining, or probably even noticing, how he spoke of himself in the first person (“I did one of her last shows”) before switching to the second third person (“Donald Trump”) before switching back to the first person (“my family”).

On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would not seek reelection in 2018. On Wednesday, Jan. 10, Royce’s fellow southern Californian, Rep. Darrell Issa, former once-feared chairman of the House Oversight Committee, announced his retirement, after nine terms. “I am forever grateful to the people of San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties for their support and affording me the honor of serving them all these years,” he said in a statement. Issa’s retirement makes him the 31st Republican to bail on seeking re-election in 2018.

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ALSO WEDNESDAY, a new Quinnipiac Poll had nothing but bad news for Trump. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said Trump is not level-headed, and only 28 percent said he is, according to the poll. Sixty-five percent of Republicans said he is level-headed, 32 percent would beg to differ. Some 93 percent of Democrats said he’s not level-headed, which pretty much dovetails with long-held expectations.

Most people, 57 percent, said Trump is not “fit to serve as president.” The current occupant of the White House now lays claim to “the lowest approval ratings of any modern president at this point in his presidency, despite a thriving economy and record stock market numbers,” the poll reports.
Grading Trump's first year in office, 39 percent of voters responding to the poll give him an “F,” while 17 percent give him a “D.” Trump got an “A” from 16 percent of voters, a “B” from another 16 percent and a “C” from 11 percent.

Of course as of Thursday afternoon, Jan. 11, all letter grades for the presidency* of Donald Trump went sideways. That was when, in a candid immigration-related meeting with aides and others in the Oval Office, Trump said the following, in an angry, brief but corrosive hypothetical heard ‘round the world: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said in reference to people from Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries. Jaws have been dropping internationally ever since.

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If you’re looking for one way to distill the last year at the White House, a year of living very dangerously at the highest level, any of these events should suffice. Michael Gerson at The Washington Post recently tried to put the immigration debate under Trump into perspective: “Trump’s ping-ponging from dealmaking to feuding, from elation to fury, has come to define the contentious immigration talks between the White House and Congress, perplexing members of both parties as they navigate the president’s vulgarities, his combativeness and his willingness to suddenly change his position.”

Those things have come to define more than that. They define an administration that can’t think straight, one at cross-purposes with reality, one that seems to lurch from decision to decision with little consistency or relationship with what’s been promised in the past.

Another classic example: The United States' signing of the nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran, something Trump (doing the full transactional) called a terrible deal for the United States during the 2016 campaign. Fast forward to Thursday, Jan. 11, and the news that Trump had rolled over, waiving sanctions and extending for a third time the same nuclear deal with Iran that he bitterly opposed, foaming at the mouth, on the campaign trail.

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TRUMP INSISTS he won’t do this again absent some permanent way to keep nukes out of Tehran’s hands. But despite the ostensibly high-minded rationale and the threats of what’s next, you can’t get away from the first-blush perception: Trump the campaign-trail blowhard reluctantly faces his comeuppance at the hands of geopolitical reality — and saving face remains of paramount importance.

Gerson, writing Jan. 15th, in The Post, framed the Trumpian cult of personality in the context of those sad loyalists who drank the Kool-Aid: “The perfunctory criticisms, self-indicting silences, half-hearted defenses and obvious lies provided by most elected Republicans have been embarrassing and discrediting. Loyalty to Trump now consists of defending the indefensible. His advocates are becoming desensitized to moral corruption. They are losing the ability to believe in anything, even in their own courage.”

Welcome to the freshman presidential legacy of Donald Trump. This is the story of House Trump’s Year Zero.

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On Saturday, we mark the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, a benchmark of our government, our history and our culture that people on either side of a great national divide will greet with celebration or (most of us) with a deep, abiding dread.

Some of these Americans will be there in the gallery of the House of Representatives on Jan. 30, 10 days from now, when Trump makes his first State of the Union address.

Many more of these Americans will be in the streets across the United States in the morning, about 10 hours from now, as the 2018 Women’s March steps off in numerous U.S. cities and towns.

A year ago the Women’s March was naturally about anticipating what would likely be coming — what Draconian cuts in services, what preposterous advances in rationale for sexist rhetoric and policy — under House Trump. Today, a year later ... now we know.

We know we have elected to the presidency a man we do not know, and entrusted him with the care and well-being of people he does not care for, people whose wounds and frailties disgust him, people whose life stories amuse him, people whose fears and doubts are finally, for him, of no consequence whatsoever.

Image credits: Trump: © 2018 Getty Images. Issa: ABC News. Quinnipiac University logo: ©2018 Quinnipiac Uniersity. S**t for Brains front page: © 2018 New York Daily News. Washingtgon Post nameplate: © 2018 The Washington Post Company. Trump inauguration: Pool feed.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Wild West Revisited



“PROHIBITION ENDS AT LAST!” screams the cover of the latest LA Weekly, the one dated Jan. 1, 2018 — 84 years after the end of the genuine article, in December 1933. The cover of the popular alt-weekly was a bit over the top; Californians have been finding ways around restrictive marijuana laws for years — even as the country incrementally evolved its own position on recreational use. Like the original from the 1930s, the pot prohibition that ended with the year 2017 was, practically speaking, never much of a “prohibition” in the first place.

But there’s no denying that California, the Avatar State, is entering its own truly uncharted territory, a realm of civic experience that will change the cultural, economic and political landscape of the state that lays claim to the sixth-largest economy in the world.

Call it the Golden Rush: Like that first heady bloom of a high-potency hybrid, Cali is a bit ... staggered right now by all this. The patchwork of laws and regulations, and the slow speed of city and state lawmakers to get things done have helped make the post-Jan. 1 period what we should have already known it would be: A process and not an event.

Recreational smokers in California (and everywhere in the country, for that matter) have always worked around that, like a weed that winds its way through a fence. But coming in the wake of serial historic wildfires, the availability and affordability of recreational herb in California will ultimately have as much to do with the land as with the law. ...

Read the rest at Potent

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