Political To-Do

Both houses of Congress assembled for the State of the Union.
Convince Americans that the two parties are hopelessly broken and obsolete.

Unify everyone in the political universe who objects to Trump.

Restore the broken connection between the people and their federal representatives.

Create an entirely new political party organized around relevant and forward-looking governmental goals.

Neutralize corrupt actors, including all those who lobby or influence elections with money.

Convince disenchanted voters to support a new third party.

Cultivate a new generation of knowledgeable citizens and public-spirited leaders.

Lure decent moderates back into politics.

Turn off the television.

Cultivate national self-love.

Image: Both houses of Congress assembled for President Trump’s first State of the Union address, January 2017.

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Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

A Noteworthy Day in Politics

Tuesday, January 9, was a noteworthy day in politics, particularly if viewed with the question of Trump’s re-electability in mind.  On three different fronts, events cautioned against writing off or underestimating the president, whose manners and morals Americans rightly revile.  In other eras, the president’s lack of virtue would have posed an insuperable obstacle to his attaining office, but this is a more easy-going time, when Americans temporize more and cut others more slack when it comes to low and disreputable behavior.  Indeed, the cynicism that has prompted many formerly disapproving GOP party stalwarts to support and collaborate with Trump, has given him a boost and a shot at political viability, that’s disturbing.  That Trump’s leading detractors within the GOP would be so willing to make common cause with him would have been difficult to foresee just one year ago.  Yet this cynicism is the cornerstone on which the GOP establishment will build its Trump-era achievements.

Click here for the audio version.

1. The market is booming

The Democrats have every reason to be afraid.  For what if, despite Mr. Trump’s bigotry and ineptitude, his White House ends up being associated with prosperity and peace?  Since his inauguration, the stock market has climbed.  On Tuesday, stock indexes again closed at or near all-time highs.  The major indices rose about 20 percent in 2017, meaning that everyone with money invested in the market is significantly richer than when Mr. Trump took office just one year ago.

Trump has taken other actions on the economic front that will become “credits” for him if “good times” continue.  He opted for continuity and moderation at the Fed in choosing Jerome Powell to succeed outgoing Fed chair Janet Yellin.  Trump can also take credit for the poorly crafted “tax reform” bill that Congress has passed, which will lower taxes for many Americans, at least through the next election cycle, after which many of the benefits will expire.  (Note the cynicism again.)

2. Inter-Korean talks

Tuesday brought news of a positive break in the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula.  With little fanfare, representatives of North and South Korea met face-to-face and agreed that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympic Games, which will open in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 8.  In the US, the evening news aired startling footage of delegations from the two sides, shaking hands and grinning after their meeting in the Demilitarized Zone.  It was the first such meeting since late 2015, breaking up a dynamic of deterioration that North Korea’s worrisome advances in proto-nuclear bomb testing had brought on.

Though North Korea’s desire to participate in the Olympics mainly prompted the meeting, it was symbolically and diplomatically important, resulting in “gains” for the Koreas and the Trump administration.  The sudden thaw in relations is a win for North Korea, in that it will be spared the humiliation and “invisibility” of being excluded from the international games (an exclusion that Russia, for example, will be suffering).  Inclusion is meaningful to all Koreans as a symbolic token of unification. It also allows the North to share in the gratification and global recognition that comes from South Korea’s hosting the games.  The South’s concession gives credence to the prospect of better North-South relations, which its new president, Moon Jae-in, has promised.

Amid the happy buzz of this inter-Korean detente, whom did President Moon credit but Donald J. Trump?  Moon connected the breakthrough to Trump’s blunt promise to wipe the North Korean regime off the face of the earth should it attempt a nuclear strike on the US or its allies.  For the past several months, Trump has engaged in nuclear brinkmanship.  Now, though, he can argue that it’s paid off.

3.  Cuing Congress on immigration reform

Above all, Tuesday’s unusual meeting on immigration reform, which brought Congressional leaders of both parties together at the White House, illustrates what makes the president so politically dangerous.  This meeting, which was novel in its conception and effects, was the lead story in a news-heavy day.  What made the meeting novel was that Trump instigated bipartisan discussion of the immigration issue right there on the spot.  Pledging to “take the heat” and sign whatever immigration reform bill Congress might come up with, he prompted a nearly one-hour discussion between Democrats and Republicans, who sparred back and forth as the television cameras rolled.  At the end of the meeting, participants emerged with consensus on the four broad topics that an acceptable bill must treat.  Mr. Trump looked presidential, in that he gave direction to his party and the legislature, while reminding the Congress that working out the details of legislation was its Constitutional role, not his.

Video of the event showed Republicans and Democrats in the same room, publicly and spontaneously working out a point of policy: just what is supposed to happen routinely in the House and Senate chambers, but which in fact has not happened there in decades.  The publicity that used to surround such spontaneous exchanges is the very thing that once gave serving in the US Congress such enormous prestige.  One can only hope that the ballyhoo surrounding Tuesday’s activities will inspire senators and representatives to revive their historic tradition of open and authentic deliberation.

Word has leaked out that, in the unrecorded portion of this meeting, Trump used vulgar language to demonize immigrants from Haiti and African countries.  The fact that Trump is both immoral and a nimble politician is precisely what his opponents must reckon with more aggressively.  He is inept, unacceptable, and embarrassing; he is also intent on transforming American trade and foreign policy and restoring American prosperity.  Trump’s opponents mustn’t be satisfied with denouncing his latest outrage: they must devote their attention to figuring out how to defeat this thick-skinned monster and his party at the polls.  Trump is a change-agent without a heart, and he will continue to hold power and rack up “successes” until those who oppose him figure out how to chip away at his base by offering viable alternative policies.

Restorations

Lake Michigan, as seen from the terraced shore near the Barry underpass in Chicago.

The glory of the present is its offer of restoration: the chance to recoup on a loss, to recover from a painful reversal, to find redemption or liberation despite blows to one’s prospects or identity.  The American optimist wakes up of a morning intent on “making America great again,” though his or her vision of that greatness may substantially deviate from the official Trump version.  Chicagoans wake hoping for an end to the open-air homicides that mow down a few more of us every day.  And all Illinois hopes for something better from Springfield: something that will transform the state’s declining fortunes and liberate it from corruption and a seemingly inescapable pit of debt.  There is no reason (except for human folly) that the state cannot become the forward-looking powerhouse it used to be.

It all depends on synergy: a combination of individual energies–what we can spare of our selves, we whose cares might include a water-damaged apartment, a sick child, trouble at work, or a departed spouse.

I think of Teddy Roosevelt, whose cares included the grief of unexpectedly losing his mother and his young wife in a single day.  Hampered in childhood by health so bad he nearly died, Roosevelt nonetheless managed in adulthood to become strong while conceiving of himself as integrally one with an America every bit as bedeviled as ours is today.  His passionate commitment to public life ended up being a crucial force in turning the United States in a new more wholesome direction and away from the stultifying excesses of the Gilded Age.

Green America Will Prevail

Two cosmic figures regard the Earth, framed in a proscenium arch.
President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord embarrasses us all, partly because it makes no sense politically, but also because it reveals Trump to be shockingly out of touch with the direction of the country he supposedly leads.  In the end, his failure to support his own nation’s movement toward clean energy and environmental responsibility will matter mainly as another proof justifying those who view him as a laughingstock.  Far from halting the nation’s progress toward reducing carbon emissions, Trump’s decision will likely accelerate it.

Over the past few decades, green capitalism—that triumvirate of forces combining consumer demand, emergent technology, and corporate leadership—has gradually matured and gone mainstream.  Regardless of government action, green capitalism will soon be a determining force in the US economy.  It will transform Americans’ sensibilities and requirements as surely and completely as the Industrial and Digital Revolutions have.  Among the parties vainly urging the president to hew to the Paris accord were many large corporations who recognize that accommodating green values makes good business sense.  President Trump’s harebrained decision to cling to the past instead makes him look benighted and irrelevant.

The silver lining is the galvanizing effect his retrograde action will have.  In the US, major technological revolutions (with the exception of space aeronautics) typically begin in the private sector, generating new synergies between innovators and consumers.  American government is often many paces behind, facilitating and regulating change only after new technologies and ways of doing have taken hold.  Some sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US will decline only if subject to tougher state or federal regulation; others are highly responsive to consumer choice.  Ultimately, the Trump administration’s intention to sit out the fight for clean energy opens up a field where many more forward-looking actors will contend to prevail.  The work of easing the nation’s transition to a green future will fall to other and wiser American leaders.

Image: Wladyslaw T. Benda, “The Earth With the Milky Way and Moon” (1918),
from this source.