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?

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The Five-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five Shareholders

A color panoramic view of the US Capitol taken from the driveway circa 1898.
Donald Trump doesn’t know how to share power.  His companies are private and he has never had to be accountable to other stakeholders.  He would be terrible at running a public company.  Now he is the head of the federal government, where the key concepts are “limited powers” and inter-dependency.  Still he behaves as though he’s running the family hotel chain.  Displease the big boss and one’s head will roll.

The situation presents Congress with an unusual opportunity to reclaim its former status as a branch co-equal to the executive.  Trump’s style of administration suggests why the Framers did not go all in for an imperial presidency: to look to the present White House as a source of legislation and policy is sheer folly.  This president may be capable of reforming (that is streamlining) the executive branch, and he may learn how to defend and represent American interests ceremonially.  But, being reluctant to extend his trust to professional experts, his White House is not likely to become a font of innovative and workable legislative initiatives–which, after all, used to be Congress’s domain.

Once upon a time, the Senate was a center of intellectual excellence, where the chief leaders of the states spent endless hours in one another’s company.  It was a tight-knit group, often described as a club, where members knew one another thoroughly, and where they took a strange kind of pleasure in devising bills that would meet the conflicting demands of (wait for it) their constituencies.  The House, the Senate’s more rambunctious sibling, could not equal it in prestige and in certain periods was of such low quality that it could not sustain the interest of the press: quite different from the situation that prevails today.

What will Congress make of this opportunity?  This era could be remembered as one when one-hundred senators and 435 representatives restored Congress’s vitality, when their creative and constructive energies went into crafting workable and forward-looking legislation, and when their power vis-a-vis the presidency earned them the nation’s gratitude and admiration.   The fortunes of the nation would look less bleak if Congress’s full power to work for the good were being deployed.

Image: William Henry Jackson photograph of the Capital taken circa 1898
Published by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1949
The Library of Congress

The Trump Years: Day 74


I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election.  When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons.  Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being.  They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party).  The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me.  And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.

After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person.  The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited.  To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy.  Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.

The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals.  Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history.  They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings.  In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.

While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties.  Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.”  The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.

Image:
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.

The Trump Years: Day 63

Politicians without honor: Americans are discovering that the moral underpinnings of republicanism really matter, that our nation’s fate really does depend on the virtue of its leaders.  Given that Donald Trump is neither virtuous nor honorable, our entire system of government is in jeopardy.  The president can’t be counted on for honesty.  Twin editorials in Tuesday’s Washington Post and Wall Street Journal labored to sketch the dangers, the latter bluntly asserting that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

The social controls that formerly curbed and punished such behavior have fallen out of fashion in permissive times.  A person like President Trump, who makes reckless accusations, would have been instinctively shunned and ostracized in a more wholesome era.  Consigned to a region beyond the pale of respectability, his influence would have withered due to want of attention.  Instead, thanks to a salacious media, his bad character wins ever-greater publicity, and the power that he enjoys has only increased.  A society can’t demand honor if it never inflicts shame.

Early Americans recognized the grave threat that slanderous speech posed; reputable men treasured their “good names,” understanding that character was the currency of social trust.  Conversely, only the threat of death could induce liars and slanderers to govern their tongues.  So honorable men sometimes resorted to duels, challenging speakers who had wronged them to face off in a life-or-death confrontation on “the field of honor.”

Andrew Jackson, the president on whom some say Donald Trump is modeling his presidency, fought several duels, killing at least one man and living with a bullet from the encounter buried deep in his chest.  The object of unrelenting public criticism and scrutiny, Jackson stood up for his own character, calling out anyone who demeaned his virtue or uttered lies.  The man of honor could have ended up dead; without honor, though, what was the point of being alive?

Duelling was a frowned-upon and eventually outlawed practice whose utility has no equal today.  Creeping off to settle scores with dueling pistols was plain old murder and immoral.  The threat of mortal retribution promoted “civilization,” however, making scoundrels think twice before uttering the kinds of injurious lies we’re blinking at today.

Image: “At the dawn,” by Katharine Sheward Stanbery
from this source.

The Face of Power

Western home in junk-strewn landscape.
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally.  Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked.  Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding.  At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.

Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked.  For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies.  I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times.  Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency.  Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively.  If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down.  I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.

Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege.  I live in a city.  My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy.  This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away.  Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting.  The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.

Recounting Election 2016

Cartoon of Uncle Sam waking up with a surreal hangover

Jill Stein, who ran for president as the Green Party candidate, is demanding a recount of election 2016.   Stein, who garnered some 1.2 million (or roughly one percent) of all votes cast, says her aim isn’t to alter the election’s outcome but to verify its integrity.  She has netted over $6.2 million in online donations, enough to challenge the results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, swing states that went for Trump narrowly.  Stein claims that vote counts in some areas of these states are anomalous, at odds with exit polling, raising the possibility that the election was hacked.

Stein was a spoiler in the presidential race, in that she and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson drew off votes that might have boosted Clinton to victory over Trump.  Now, though, Stein is receiving a ‘miraculous’ flood of support from disappointed Clinton backers.  Clinton racked up a substantial lead over Trump in the popular vote, winning by over 2.2 million, but her support was too geographically concentrated to translate into an Electoral College victory.  Last week, Michigan was officially declared for Trump, bringing Trump’s electoral-vote tally to 306, versus Clinton’s 232.

Stein’s request for a recount rests primarily on the views of computer-security experts like J. Alex Halderman, who speculates that self-destructing malware could have been deployed to swing the results in a minimal number of counties.  Halderman thinks that electronic-vote records and machinery should be carefully examined and that paper ballots should be manually counted and checked against electronic returns in places where the digital-scanning method is employed.

Unlike in the 2000 election, when specific evidence from a specific locale provided clear evidence of procedural irregularities (the infamous ‘hanging chads’), Stein’s challenge is based mainly on speculation and theory, leaving open the possibility that another embarrassment for the big-data crowd is looming.

Given that Wisconsin’s recent gubernatorial recount of 1.5 million votes took more than a year, a recount of its larger presidential vote will likely be even more timeconsuming.  Meanwhile, though both President Obama and Hillary Clinton declared that Trump’s election represents the will of the people, the Clinton camp has since decided to get involved in the recount, ostensibly to see that the process is fair to all sides.  Earlier, Clinton, in considering whether to mount a challenge, had found no indication of foul play.

It’s doubtful whether a vote recount in three states could be completed before the Electoral College votes on December 19;  for states to participate, their elections must be certified by December 13.  Which brings us to the upshot of Stein’s undertaking: if recounts in the three states are ongoing, their 46 electors will be sidelined during the Electoral College.

 

Image: “The Morning After,” by Udo Keppler
for Puck magazine, November 6, 1912,
from this source.

On the verge (Election Day)

The shadow of a man and woman standing under a tree in autumn along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Today is Election Day, and we are each and all on the verge of something new.  Something unknown.  The campaign has been a time of trial—a time of bad dreams, friction, and more than a few out-and-out breakdowns.  Charisma, in the form of Donald Trump, has ruptured fault lines in the Republican Party and the nation that existed already.  Because of his candidacy, we as a nation and as individuals have gained some self-knowledge the hard way, which is how self-knowledge is always gained.  He has tested us, exposing our weaknesses, our normally veiled resentments, our various gnawing dissatisfactions.

Americans need.  Some truly live in a state of want, but others are fearful of the future, sensing decline and the increasing challenge of securing work and access to opportunity.  Others, not in need, want something other and better than what they already have, and, for that, they’re ready to trade something away.  Certainly, this is true of Republicans who have enjoyed considerable political power but insist the political order should be delivering something better than what it has managed to create so far.

Twitter sometimes delivers thought-provoking jewels, such as a tweet this morning quoting Gerald Ford: “Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

Hillary is not an innocent, but someone who has winked at the order herself and at acts within her province that are immoral or unseemly.  She is a tarnished political heroine, this ‘First Woman’—the other choice that all our earlier choices have made.  Many will vote for Hillary as a symbol of something she doesn’t really stand for, then expect her to wring something better from federal government and the political establishment.  She is the good-enough candidate, particularly in the eyes of those who feel no urgency about political change, whose hearts may have stopped bleeding some time ago.

 Whatever we stand on the verge of, it is best to acknowledge our complicity.  Whichever future we’re on the verge of, it will feature a world of political work that the republican model calls on ordinary people to perform.  My hope is that the election will usher in a period of broad ideological ferment and political reorganization, necessary precursors to restoring what is unifying and wholesome in American culture.

One Day More: The Ground

Washington DC (Low aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

We set back our clocks, adding an extra hour to an already interminable election cycle, suspending for just a few more minutes the climactic process that will end tomorrow.  At last, there will be an end to a certain kind of theorizing.  Election Day will produce a snapshot of national sentiment.  A new political adventure will begin.

The presidential race has generated abundant evidence pointing to the topsy-turvy condition of the country, its leadership and parties.  On the PBS NewsHour, Mark Shields noted the strange inversion that’s occurring: whereas ordinary blue-collar Americans used to tip the scale Democratic in national elections, the Democratic Party has become the ‘upscale’ party, while blue-collar America is flocking to Trump.  David Brooks noted that the nation was already divided at the outset, but that those divisions have become more calcified in the campaign.  He went so far as to say that ‘people are just going with their gene pool,‘ an unfortunate measure of how ‘identity politics’ and a growing reliance on demographic categories (common in the social sciences) are encouraging evenly highly intelligent people to adopt an essentialized and racist view of American voters.

Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, captured the incipient re-alignment that appears to be happening.  She argues eloquently that the people Trump represents are not a ‘wing’ of the Republican Party, but a huge constituency that has broken off from the Republican Party already.  The Republican Party was living on borrowed time even before Trump came along, with events of the past fifteen years rupturing the identity of belief that used to unite the party’s base with its leaders.  The party will either have to reunite around a new constellation of ideas or end up in pieces.  Meanwhile, the Democracy, formerly the party of change, is now the party of cozy continuity.  While Sanders’ challenge to Clinton should have been a wake-up call to the party, it’s difficult to imagine its ideology changing much under a Clinton presidency.

Whether Trump wins or not, his candidacy has established that voters who want to stick it to the establishment and ‘the system’ are nearly a national majority.  As my husband put it, a ‘Republican revolution’ is happening.  Whatever Trump’s personal destiny, his views on trade, immigration, terrorism, and the need to push back against an overreaching government will likely be taken up and refined—in fact, if Politico is to be believed, they already are.  Ideologues who have the patience to tune ideas to the times should be listening to the electorate, which is clamoring for a form of small-state protectionism that neither the Republican nor the Democratic party currently affords.

Image: Aerial of Washington DC in November
by Susan Barsy

Day 6: The Election Is in Play

Florida (aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Political observation is partly instinct.  My instinct has begun to insist that Donald Trump will win the presidency.   Since Friday, the chance of his winning has been rising and now stands, according to FiveThirtyEight, at just above 30 percent.  Despite the flaws of political polling, the polls’ general direction is significant.  They’re showing a movement in favor of Mr. Trump, a decline in the number of states Secretary Clinton can count on, and a bulge in the number of states in the ‘toss-up’ column.  RealClearPolitics shows roughly the same pattern, with several crucial swing states now expected to go for Trump rather than Clinton, or too close to call.

The polls have probably always underestimated support for Mr. Trump, whom many respectable figures have been excoriating.  When I went to see my eye doctor last week, he mentioned the near-total absence of presidential yards signs around Chicago.  Whereas in most years, such signs proclaimed support for candidates openly, voters’ choices are more opaque in 2016.  Jake Novak of CNBC has argued that the same may be true of many polls: they may suffer from a systemic bias, caused by respondents refusing to participate out of a reluctance to admit support for a controversial candidate whose fortunes are down.

Meanwhile, articles out by Ryan Lizza and Thomas Frank identify the disillusionment that Hillary Clinton is battling.  James Comey’s announcement last week that the FBI would investigate a newly discovered cache of Clinton’s emails, found on the laptop of the disgraced husband of one of her top aides, added powerfully to the public’s gathering impression of misconduct, whether on the part of Clinton or of her circle.  This is freeing ambivalent voters from the obligation of voting for her as ‘the lesser of two evils.’  It will likely galvanize heavier voting on the Republican side.

The stock market has been declining markedly in advance of the election, and gold stocks have risen, moves suggesting that investors are bracing for a possible Trump win.

Image: Aerial of Florida, a key battleground state,
@ Susan Barsy

Day 7: Yes, It’s Scary, But Is It a Critical Election?

stereopticon image of a crowd gathered around a train to hear Roosevelt speak.

For all its drama and dismay, the election of 2016 might not end up being a ‘critical election,’ in the sense of marking a permanent change in the makeup or ideology of one or both of the parties. Whether the election ends up producing such change depends on which presidential candidate wins and how his or her party establishment behaves afterward.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her victory will mainly mark a continuation of the Obama years and of the centrism that has prevailed among Democrats since Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Secretary Clinton adopted a progressive platform at the time of the 2016 Democratic convention to placate Sanders’ supporters, but the Democratic establishment in general has given few signs of having adopted a dramatically new constellation of ideas. Instead, the tenor of the campaign on the Democratic side has been defensive, couched in terms of defending past accomplishments and promising to advance along the established lines.

If Donald Trump wins, it remains to be seen whether his victory translates into a broad and permanent change in the philosophy and direction of the GOP.  There is no question of 2016 being a critical election if Trump succeeds in getting his party to move in the direction he is charting: if he succeeds in associating Republicanism with a more inward-looking, pro-citizen, and anti-global ideology. In order to do this, Republicans would have to renounce their history of support for big business, which is now typically a transnational enterprise. Republicans would have to take the lead on reforming trade, recasting themselves as protectors of American workers and American industry. Hawkish Republicans would have to get in touch with their isolationist side. And the issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives would likely take a back seat to those having to do with the economy.

In most cases, a critical election is the culmination of broad and concerted changes already occurring within a political party, often in connection with the emergence of a charismatic standard-bearer. In 1860, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s election was merely the capstone of a decades-long effort to incorporate anti-slavery into a broader platform of economic empowerment that would appeal to mainstream voters (who were white).  In 1828, Andrew Jackson’s election signaled the emergence of a new kind of party that combined a desire for retrenchment and austerity with an unwavering democratic appeal.  And, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election signified the arrival of a new kind of economic philosophy (henceforth known as ‘Reaganomics’), along with a newly potent faith-based conservatism intent on bucking certain types of modern secular change.

Trump is an outsider whose ideas the GOP mainstream has not embraced.  If he is elected, it’s unclear whether, or to what extent, other leading Republicans would feel pressed take up his agenda and ideas. Republicans in the House and Senate could act in contradistinction to him.  Were this to happen, the GOP as a whole would continue in a state of fragmentation and confusion.  Governmental paralysis, rather than lasting partisan transformation, would be the result.

Image: From this source