How Many Enemies Can Trump Make and Survive?

The list of powerful figures Trump has alienated, injured, and offended is growing.  Paradoxically, many of them are members of his own, rather than the opposing, party.  How many such enemies can Trump make and survive?

For more than a year, the GOP establishment has presented a “business-as-usual” facade.  Having tolerated the rise of candidate Trump, who vowed to wage war against the Washington establishment, leading Republicans have mainly tried to make lemonade out of lemons, sucking up to President Trump once he was installed.  House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prostituted themselves, claiming that the president and the GOP-controlled Congress shared the same values and political agenda.  Papering over their differences with Trump for the sake of personal and political gain, they collaborated instead of organizing a principled opposition to him on Capitol Hill.

Individually, some Republicans have spoken out against Trump: Jeff Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker, and Lindsay Graham come to mind.  Their criticisms, though brave, fall short of organized opposition.  As for Trumps’ former rivals for the presidential nomination—remember the legion of GOP candidates that included congressman Rand Paul and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz?—: despite Trump’s shameful treatment of them, these “leaders” have blended into the woodwork of the Capitol, as if to avoid further personal injury.  Republicans on the Hill who have followed the path of least resistance to Trump will go down in history as spineless, feckless cowards.

Belatedly, Republicans are beginning to reckon the costs of this unbecoming position.  Speaker Paul Ryan’s abrupt decision to leave Congress with no plan other than to spend time with his three teenage children in Janesville, Wisconsin, smacks of the political wilderness.  He joins some 36 House Republicans and 3 Senate Republicans fleeing the Hill.  The Republicans have not seen this level of quitting, according to Frontline, since World War II.

The question is, what will become of the free-floating political capital that these phalanxes of displaced and disaffected Republicans embody?  How long will it be before Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Flake, Paul Ryan, and their ilk find a new party model, or a new means of influencing a politics grown ever more chaotic and uncertain?   How long will it be before moderates of all stripes realize that it is very much in their interests to unite?  The GOP is becoming a Trump casualty.  Will its survivors stand against their destroyer now?

Advertisements

Unseen Fires

Flying west, I looked down on hundreds of miles of gauzy blue haze wreathing the mountains, which in time I recognized as smoke from forest fires.  Down there, something was raging: a cataclysmic process was underway, but from my vantage the details of the drama were lost, and what we classify as “a natural disaster” impressed me mainly as a profound, impersonal phenomenon, caused by forces of an epic scale.  Even after becoming aware that “something was wrong,” my primary response was awe, which, true to Burke’s famous observations on “the sublime,” was tinged with fear—appropriate given the danger and destruction unseen fires were generating below.

These were not the widely publicized forest fires sweeping Southern California, but spontaneous conflagrations in the northern Rockies, obscure fires that didn’t make the national news.  The sight of these unseen fires has stayed with me, supplying a metaphor for the state of the nation in 2017.  Despite the outwardly smooth operation of the federal government, political fires have periodically sprung up here and there, fires which must burn no matter how much Americans want to suppress them, no matter how much we tell ourselves these fires should not be.  These popular outbreaks, periodically rupturing the conventional veneer of the political order, point up a disconnect between our decrepit yet monopolistic party system and what ordinary Americans want and need.  Reckoning with the stunted and demeaning character of much of American life (let alone acknowledging it) is not exactly a priority on Capitol Hill.

Yet Americans’ unfulfilled cravings for respect and incorporation fueled many of the year’s top stories, including such diverse phenomenon as the #MeToo movement and the Charlottesville riots.  Sadly, as our political system becomes ever more consolidated into a national bureaucracy, picking candidates from Washington and funding them with outsider money, the need is ever greater for leadership that originates in and is oriented mainly toward the interests and distinctive character of localities.  Democrats looking for redemption could do worse than recommit themselves to the “reddest” and most woe-begone parts of the nation.  For only with good leadership at the local level will the dangerously divisive character of local culture wane.

Image: Aerial photograph of smoke from an unseen fire
in the Western US, @ 2017 Susan Barsy

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.

The Trump Years: Day 56

Ordinary Americans will soon learn how they are to figure in the grand story of the future the GOP is always telling.  It’s a story that sees America and Americans as trammeled by rules that bug them and taxes so onerous they can’t sleep at night, that sees happiness as a precipitate left over after “school choice” causes public schools to evaporate.  The Republican narrative promises to rescue Americans from a tyrannical government and recent policy “disasters.”  Long-term security will grow rather than decrease once the nation is liberated from the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and the tangible health benefits it guarantees.

This rhetoric is about to collide with physical reality.  Will a Republican-led Congress be so vain and rash as to abandon health guarantees that an entire nation has grown accustomed to?  Yes, Congress should act to constrain premium increases and restore competitive insurance options where they are lacking, but why deprive the nation of the happy consciousness that we’re all in it together, which is, at bottom, the signal benefit of Obamacare?  This is precisely what Republicans are most eager to destroy.

Under the present system, some well-off Americans are obliged to spend more for insurance than they would like; however, millions of Americans are newly insured, and hundreds of thousands are addressing health problems that have afflicted them for years.  Knowing that we are achieving something so gloriously humane makes the hassle and collective sacrifice worthwhile.  If Congress were wise, it would aim at enhancing this precious peace of mind.

Image: 80,000 miners listening to Theodore Roosevelt
(1905 daguerreotype by Underwood & Underwood),

from this source.

The Trump Years: Day 32

Panoramic view of Washington City (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Dynamics:
Underneath the Trump presidency are a pair of fragmented and outmoded political parties, contributing to the public’s rightful perception that national politics are inchoate. The Trump presidency itself represents a vertiginous jolt, one that delights those who supported him even while it startles and alarms everyone else.  A nasty political struggle that will take the US in a new direction has begun.

The press:  It is a particularly difficult time for them.  Journalists, opinionators, and social-science experts have just been through an experience that established the limits of their influence and damaged their authority.  The vote showed how much of the nation is indifferent to their views.  A majority of the states are inclined to reject the intellectual establishment’s worldview and its prescriptions regarding what is good for the US.  The nation’s need for a vigilant, balanced, and discerning press remains urgent. Unfortunately, some previously reliable figures (e.g. David Brooks) are wild-eyed and near hysterical post-election.  Is the nation heading toward a Constitutional crisis?  Toward tyranny?  If so, we need journalists who are calm and can help the public focus constructively on matters susceptible to its influence.  The public can do nothing about Trump’s personality.  Move on.

Chinks in Trump’s armour (my sister’s approach):  What aspects of the political situation offer leverage for averting national shame and moving the nation in a positive direction?  Strangely enough, the present constellation of power, which pits an outsider against all officialdom, may give rise to more unity of purpose across party lines.  Trump has made a few sound cabinet picks and shown some willingness to delegate to them.  We need more people like Mattis and Tillerson to stay in the mix.

Image: Panoramic view of Washington City from the new dome of the Capitol, looking west.
Drawn from nature by Edward Sachse. 1856.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

Day 43: Peace, Justice, and The Police

Aerial Chicago with harvest moon, © 2016 Susan Barsy

The spectacle of injustice can powerfully inflame beholders; its power is not statistical.  Many Americans have lately become convinced of the need to reform urban policing, as video and other media document the fate of a string of black victims—for so even suspected criminals must be called—whom police officers have killed (or neglected to death) while ostensibly doing their jobs.

Sandra Bland, Laquan MacDonald, Terence Crutcher, Freddy Gray, Philando Castille, Keith Lamont Scott, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling: each of these controversial casualties was different, yet all were the same in leaving behind doubt whether the death of the victim was warranted or necessary.

In each case, officers’ behavior cut off the path to justice, denying a process due both the fallen individual and society by right.  Justice satisfies our need for fairness by examining and weighing conflicting claims.  It dignifies all parties to a conflict, by allowing them to tell their respective stories in a court of law.  Yet in this slew of cases, officers’ manner of policing forestalled an orderly and dignifying process, supplanting it with reactionary violence and answering ostensible offenses with graver misdeeds.

Is it any wonder that many spectators across the country are uncomfortable, even outraged?  Or that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ people are protesting and demanding us to consider, ‘Did that black brother really have to die?’  Whether silent or raging, many Americans sense that these fatalities jar with the principle of presumption of innocence.  When a person who was said to have had a gun or committed a crime dies at the hands of the police, the police and public end up at odds over questions of justice that should have been determined in a court of law.

Local police exist to promote order and protect citizens from harm.  Their proper role is ‘to bring criminals to justice,’ not to administer an appalling sort of  ‘street justice’ themselves.  Because anger springs from injustice, real or perceived, peace will be difficult to achieve until less draconian methods fill the arsenals of police.

As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet to debate tonight, their takes on this disturbing and difficult topic may well influence the outcome of the campaign.

Image: Aerial of Chicago at night, with harvest moon.
© 2016 Susan Barsy.

Day 50: A Change in the Political Atmosphere

Day 50 beautiful aerial of blue ocean and sky
The atmosphere of the presidential race has changed, with ardent Democrats conscious of a tightening race.  Despite Donald Trump’s negative qualities, he has doggedly chipped away at Hillary Clinton’s lead.  Recent polls, whether from Reuters or CBS, show Clinton’s lead in the battleground states vanishing or perilously thin.  John Zogby, writing in Forbes, has the two candidates in a dead heat for the lead, with Jill Stein and Gary Johnson siphoning off enough support to deny either of the other two an advantage.  The particulars don’t matter as much as this general point: it’s getting more difficult to dismiss Trump and more necessary to admit he could end up in the Oval Office.

It might be unthinkable; but impossible, no.

Over the weekend, John Podhoretz published a column in the New York Post, excoriating Democrats for their misguided belief in Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.  He blames the establishment for failing to vet or challenge her sufficiently.  Even Bernie Sanders’ astonishingly strong showing against her in the primaries failed to awaken party loyalists to the stubborn limits of her appeal.  Some Democrats remain baffled as to why the electorate has not swung toward a candidate they regard as likeable and decent.  It’s painful to admit she offers too little in the way of the backbone and implacability the nation wants.

Meanwhile, Trump, formerly intent on misbehaving himself into oblivion, has subtly shifted his strategy, putting more time into dignified niche appearances (like Monday’s at the Economics Club of New York, which some business channels aired in its entirety) and less into vociferous and controversial rallies.  Fearful of throwing away his shot, Trump has stepped up his game.  He wants to win and senses he can.

Oddly, he suddenly chose to lay to rest the birther controversy, admitting last week (after years of claiming otherwise) that Barack Obama was born in the US rather than elsewhere abroad.  Why bother?  Because admitting the truth—that President Obama is an American—is going to help Trump with African-Americans more generally.  An LA Times poll registers increasing support for Trump among that constituency, prompting the president to warn African-Americans that he will view it as a ‘personal insult’ if they don’t turn out for Clinton.  Meanwhile, Trump’s simple message to urban blacks—that years of the Democratic rule have failed to deliver the safety, employment, and access to decent schools that they deserve—is resonating.

RELATED READING:
Niall Ferguson, “The Fight Isn’t Going Clinton’s Way” (Boston Globe)

Politicking at Saratoga

shows crowd arriving at Union Hotel in 1865.
Nineteenth-century politicians flocked to the springs in the summer after Congress adjourned.  The heat of Washington and other coastal cities and the attendant danger of disease made retreating to the wooded up-country sensible as well as agreeable.  Beginning around 1800, inn-keepers built large resorts there to accommodate the need.  The most well-known and successful of such resorts grew up around the site of healing mineral springs, in towns like Saratoga Springs, New York; White Sulphur Springs, Virginia; and Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania.

Each resort drew guests from across state lines, making these watering-holes ideal for politicking.  White Sulphur attracted visitors from throughout the Upper South, while Saratoga drew its custom mainly from New York and New England.  Bedford drew politicians from across the mid-Atlantic states.  It was also a haven for officials whose duties kept them in the capital during the summer months.  James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, spent the summers of his presidency at Bedford Springs.

The resorts really took off after the creation of steamboat and railroad lines.  In combination, the steamers and trains made it easy for travelers to reach the resorts from New York City or Washington, DC.  The Union Hotel in Saratoga, shown above, grew hectic after the arrival of the daily ‘steamboat train.’  Many of its passengers came by boat up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, where they caught a connecting train carrying them the rest of the way.

The trunks’ labels identify guests hailing from Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania.  The male crowd in the foreground means business, for they’re laden not only with trunks but with valises, no doubt crammed with correspondence and other papers.  They hobnob before blending into the pleasure-seeking crowd of women and men who throng the hotel’s ‘office’ (lobby).

Only an elite class of Americans could afford to leave home for the sake of summer leisure.  The wealthy and influential persons gathered at the resorts were exactly the sort whose support a politician needed to prevail in the November election or achieve the goals defining his political career.  The patriotic names given to many of the hotels at Saratoga and elsewhere (the Union, the American, the Congress) attest to the political functions they tacitly served.

Image:
‘Appearance of the Office of the Union Hotel, Saratoga, New York,
on the Arrival of the Steamboat Train from Albany,
from a sketch by Mr. Albert Berghaus,’
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 12, 1865.
From the Yates Collection of Saratogiana at Skidmore College.
For more information, click here.

The Democrats: Anger in a Different Key

low-angle black and white photograph of a startled-looking Hillary Clinton
For years, the Democratic Party has pursued a comfortably centrist agenda while relying on identity politics to sustain its popularity.  It has pursued social good without much regard for economy or efficiency, and, primarily for that reason, has alienated many business interests and ordinary, thrifty, business-like people.  In Illinois, the good that individual Democratic officeholders seek to do hardly makes up for the many instances of criminal corruption and abuse of trust that stain the reputation of the party.

Though Democrats purport to fight the scourge of poverty and ignorance, that goal has lost its urgency, the how of it suffocated under layers of bombast and bureaucracy.  Even health-care reform, which has given millions of Americans better access to medicine and stands as this era’s chief domestic initiative, has driven up premiums and supplied fresh evidence of federal ineptitude.

Whatever Hillary Clinton’s merits (and they are many), she personifies the compromised condition of the Democratic Party.  Like her party, she wants to be all things to all people.  That very characteristic disables her from accommodating and channeling the ire festering in the hearts of the Democratic electorate, the ire that is powering the “Feel the Bern” movement.

However worthy her intentions, Clinton cannot step out of her skin.  She can’t disavow her wealth and celebrity, can’t ditch her myriad A-list connections, can’t dis-entrench herself from the inner workings of her party.  She can’t re-imagine Democratic ideology for fear of upsetting the apple cart that’s carrying her along.  And she can’t set herself at odds with the past without diminishing the legacy of her husband, Bill.   Being so closely identified with the ex-president is proving a big liability.  All these factors prevent Hillary Clinton from being the change agent Democratic voters want and need.

Bernie Sanders represents this constituency, which amounts to approximately 43 percent of all Democrats voting in this primary season.  Sanders doesn’t want to please anyone, and he (like Trump) isn’t very concerned about the tenability of his program.  Sanders’ goal is to redefine the purposes of the Democratic Party.  Sanders’ voters will be lost unless someone else comes along who can do this well.

It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is ripe for radical reform.  It could transform itself into a proponent of internal economic growth, with a focus on the intensive cultivation of the nation’s human and physical capital.  It could be a party of peace, a party of green.  Once upon a time, the Democratic Party stood for reform, retrenchment, and economy.  Could the right leader make the Democratic Party great again?

Image:  “First Lady Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Tom Foley,
and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt speak at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol,”
1993 photograph by Laura Patterson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
For more information click here.