“Am I Ready To Be President?”

A child with an adult looking face and seated in a fine carriage.

“Am I ready to be president?”  An alarming number of Americans are asking themselves this question, and, after a quick look in the mirror, deciding that the answer is yes.  It is a large legion of astonishingly raw talent whose names we’ve never heard of and perhaps can’t pronounce.

They can’t wait to throw their hats in the proverbial ring.  A bell goes off in their heads, and they begin forming exploratory committees.  Losers from lower-level races imagine finding redemption as presidential wannabes.  From tweets and selfie videos come presidential contenders.  In no time, they are on the royal road, schmoozing the nameless kingmakers of Iowa and holding hands with Stephen Colbert.

 

Image: “Our future president” (c.1867),
from this source.

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A Legitimately Elected President

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michele Obama, and Jill Biden among dignitaries on inauguration dias.
The conclusion of the Mueller investigation presents leading Democrats with a fateful choice: whether to continue digging into the past in hopes of hobbling or delegitimizing Trump’s presidency, or to concentrate on the present and the future, when all their ingenuity will be needed to beat Trump and deny him a second term.

Though the latter would be better for the party and nation, turning away from the special investigation requires fortitude.  The Mueller report hasn’t been made public, and the pundits and pols who are against Trump aren’t satisfied with Attorney General William Barr’s disclosures and conclusions.  The Democrats want more information.  This desire, as reasonable as it is, distinguishes them from the mass of American citizens who are really tired of this subtle affair and who are dying for evidence that the government is still capable of . . . . GOVERNING.

If the Democrats want someone new in the White House in 2020, they need to persuade voters that their nominee and their vision will be better for the nation than what Trump offers.  Yet they are so far from presenting this impression that one can scarcely imagine their unifying around a tenable candidate and winning.

Democrats are procrastinating.  They are shirking the hard work that follows from acknowledging that Trump won office legitimately.  He enjoys an authority that is foolish to argue with: In 2016, he understood the rules of the electoral game and exploited them more effectively than did Hillary Clinton.  He won the electoral votes he needed by persuading enough citizens to go to the polls and vote for him in key states.  Two years later, most of the president’s opponents have yet to reckon with this reality, even though any political strategy leading to Trump’s defeat must be designed with this geography in mind.  To defeat Trump, Democrats must peel away moderate and independent voters in states fed up with stale Democratic memes.  The Dems face an uphill battle, even with teamwork, ideological innovation, and the right nominee.

And where is Democratic rage when it comes to the real bogeyman, Russia–the real villain who prejudiced American voters against Hillary by waging a campaign of misinformation, who smeared her and deployed assets to promote Trump, a candidate who, for various reasons, Russia wanted instead?  What is Congress doing to ensure that foreign nations don’t infiltrate and corrupt American political discourse in the future?

While real danger looms over American democracy, one wonders whether the Democrats will ever look up from their game of Clue and do something.

Image: Screen shot of leading Democrats attending Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
© 2019 American Inguiry

Ralph Northam’s Virginia

The national flap over Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page demonstrates how the affairs of states and localities are subject to external pressures that they were more free from formerly.  There is something to be said for the “nationalization” of political sentiment, in that it tends to make the states more like one another–something that the United States resists but needs.  Yet citizens can only be citizens of a particular place, and they above all others are entitled to decide who their leaders should be.  That Democrats outside Virginia have opined so freely on how Ralph Northam should behave at this point betrays an uneasiness about self-government that should be anathema in US society.

It’s doubly ironic that the Democratic Party, which is banking on its “zero tolerance” policy to distinguish it from the dog-whistle variety of Republicanism, should have gone so quickly for the bait that a right-wing website, Big League Politics, dangled.  According to Mother Jones, Big League Politics is “a young media outlet best known for defending white nationalists.”  The site is run by disgruntled Breitbart News staffers who view Breitbart as having gotten “too moderate.”  BLP represents an element of Virginia’s electorate that lost out when Republican Ed Gillespie beat their favored candidate, Trump enthusiast Corey Stewart, in the gubernatorial primary.

In publicizing an old photo from Northam’s yearbook, BLP  bet that Democrats would immediately throw Northam under the bus, no questions asked.  How right they were.  Many influential Democrats, responding almost viscerally to the “evidence” of a single old photograph (in which the governor is not identifiable), immediately called on Northam to resign.  Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, DNC chair Tom Perez, and presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Julian Castro all fell into the trap, needing no further information to declare Northam suddenly and completely disqualified.  The absolutism and self-righteousness of “zero tolerance” bid fair to destroy Northam, who gained office with the support of the more moderate and forward-looking part of Virginia’s population.

The Democratic vote in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary by county. Northam (blue) v. Perriello (green). Source: Wikipedia.

Though a distant observer, I followed Northam’s run for governor rather closely.  A relative who lives in Virginia decided early on to canvass for Northam, as a way to work for positive politics in the wake of Trump’s election.  Through her letters, I followed Northam through his primary battle with the Sanders-backed insurgent Tom Perriello, whose effort was seen as a bellwether for progressive Democrats nationally.  Despite Perriello’s losing, The Nation declared that Northam had “moved left in the course of the primary and is likely the most progressive Democratic nominee in the history of Virginia.”  Northam repeatedly denounced President Trump on the campaign trail, declaring that “we’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”

The Republican vote in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary by county. Gillespie the victor (red) v. Stewart (gold).  Source: Wikipedia.

Was it, in fact, because of Trump that Virginia’s own home-grown strain of hate flared so dangerously in the middle of the gubernatorial campaign?  In the Republican primary, George Zornick writes, “Corey Stewart ran an offensive campaign based heavily on Confederate nostalgia and almost knocked off former RNC chair Ed Gillespie for the nomination.”  Gillespie staved off Stewart by less than 45,000 votes.  Various publications report that Stewart’s campaign consultants, Reilly O’Neal and Noel Fritsch, became the owners of BLP soon afterward.   Both men had also worked on Alabaman Roy Moore‘s US Senate campaign, which failed amid allegations that he stalked and molested underage girls.  Fritsch and O’Neal are wide-ranging political troublemakers, who help the alt-right by casting aspersions on liberals and other proponents of racial and sexual equality.

The dangers of inflaming such divisions became clear at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, when a mêlée broke out between white-supremacist groups and their opponents, culminating in an act of domestic terrorism in which at least forty people were wounded and one person was killed.  (See this Wikipedia page for details and videos of the event.)  The assembly of so many extremists, armed and rallying around a symbol of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, left many Virginians (and the nation) painfully uneasy about the extent of militant intolerance in the state.  Where was Virginia heading?

The vote in Virginia’s November 2017 gubernatorial election by county. Northam (the victor) in blue; Gillespie in red. Source: Wikipedia.

Northam’s solid victory in November 2017 represented a general rebuke to factions stoking divisiveness and hatred.  On Election Day, Democrats and others opposed to Trump and alt-right extremism went to the polls in remarkably high numbers.  Turnout was the highest it had been in twenty years.  Nonetheless, the campaign exposed a thick sediment of bitterness over race and emancipation that had lain unresolved for many years, arguably since the time of the Civil War.

As Donald Trump joined with leading Democrats in condemning Northam as a racist, the alt-right nearly succeeded in making Northam indistinguishable from the very extremists he battled and triumphed over in the campaign.  When politics makes such strange bedfellows, be wary indeed.

The Nature of Our Political Crisis

Low-angle shot of Trump and smiling lawmakers.
Perhaps you, my reader, feel as I do, that it’s a challenge to act meaningfully in response to the present political situation—despite recognizing that, as the federal government shows signs of veering off course, all citizens have a responsibility to promote stability and work together to avert an all-out crisis.

So many Americans are unhappy—worried—distressed—alarmed—embarrassed—about the state of the union.  We doubt our president’s sanity, and we fear the real destruction that could follow from having entrusted the entire executive branch to someone who is vicious, immoderate, unenlightened.  We are unhappy and disappointed in the condition and posture of the political parties–both the Republicans and the Democrats lack unity, ideological clarity, and discipline.

Trump gained power partly by destroying many Republican reputations; and, since, as president, he has pushed the GOP to support his style of politics and ideological viewpoint, the influence of many moderate Republicans has been checked.  This has further weakened what was formerly the most effective and palatable element of that party, an element that far-right zeal has gradually eclipsed.  Many formerly respected Republicans have disgraced themselves by collaborating with Trump or, by their silence and inaction in the face of his outrageous condescension toward them, have shown themselves to be terrible cowards.  The hearings that placed a maudlin Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court displayed the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s Senate collaborators.

The condition of the GOP is highly worrisome because it is the nationally dominant party.  For nearly three years, Trump has been cannibalizing it, eating its heart out, and injecting it with a virulent moral rot.

Meanwhile, the Democrats remain riven; not only do they remain too weak to determine the direction of national politics, but they have yet to unite around a figure or an approach capable of undermining Trump’s popular appeal.

The condition of the parties and their inability to advance a legislative agenda that could rally the nation behind a set of positive political goals, demonstrates to the nation that Trump is in fact unchecked and unchallenged.  Congress can’t counter the president’s power.  Watching this bizarre situation unfold every day leads many of us to perceive the federal government, and hence the entire republic of the United States, to be dangerously near a breakdown of an unpredictable kind.

That there is no leadership—that there is no coalition mobilizing and unifying an opposition—is perhaps because, though we all perceive the political actions of the president to be highly abnormal, and we all perceive the relations between the president and Congress to be in near-paralysis—what danger we are on the brink of is very unclear.  Personally, I doubt the president can be impeached (that is, I don’t think the Senate has the will to convict him and throw him out–please see the post I have written on this subject), so even if we agree our affairs are in a critical state, the most constructive course is to concentrate on positive politics, on mobilizing opposition to Trump across party lines, and defeating Trump at the ballot box. 

I hope we will see a resurgence of party control and even deal-making among rival candidates—this is the only way to achieve the necessary degree of unity in either party. If the Democrats have a long slug fest like they did last time, there won’t be enough time before the general to get everyone behind the chosen nominee. The challenge is even greater on the Republican side, where I hope we will see some more conventional players (like Romney and Flake) perhaps teaming up to try to rob Trump of the nomination.

The prospect of a unified opposition isn’t too bright, however.  Presidential hopefuls who aren’t equipped to beat Trump or run the country are already throwing their hats in the ring.  If the national parties can’t exercise discipline over such narcissistic candidates, divisions will increase, allowing Trump to retain his ascendancy.  The lost art of pulling together is all-important now.

Day 46: Hillary’s Views, In a Nutshell?

Florida aerial, © 2016 Susan Barsy
It’s an asymmetry that may determine the election: in contradistinction to the Democratic nominee, Donald Trump has hammered away at the electorate with a few controversial ideas.  These ideas have been castigated, ridiculed, and discussed so much that the main 3 or 4 of them are easy to reel off.  Trump has a gimme cap that says ‘Make America Great Again.’  He ‘wants to build a wall.’  He favors: 1) establishing inviolable national borders and radically altering US immigration policies; 2) ending ‘unfair’ trade deals; and 3) radically reducing US commitments overseas.

Trump has been careful never to disavow these ‘unpopular’ ideas.  He has articulated them with intense discipline for more than a year, through countless interviews, debates, speeches, and rallies.  No matter how odious, these are the main ideas he stands for.  To the mainstream of both parties, any one of these goals is anathema.  So, American politics has been furiously warring over Donald Trump’s ideas for almost two years.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has run a far more sophisticated and decorous campaign.  Suddenly, though, commentators and allies are noting that her campaign is singularly empty of goals and ideas.  The bland sameness she offers is meant to be reassuring, premised on the assumption that most of the country ‘feels okay.’  But what does Clinton stand for?   Where would she lead?  What, in a nutshell, is her vision of our future?

Public intellectuals friendly to Clinton are prodding her to zero in on something.  But the asymmetry already established may continue to weigh heavily on her campaign.

Image: Aerial of Florida,
© 2016 Susan Barsy


RELATED:
Albert R. Hunt, ‘Hillary Needs a Better Slogan’ (Bloomberg View)

Power Lines: Hillary’s Nomination

Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky wedding, NYC
Interesting to find this picture circulating on Twitter soon after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination.  Of the millions of extant photographs of Hillary—whether taken from throughout her public career or in the company of her husband former president Bill Clinton—, the choice of this particular image to punctuate news of her unprecedented political achievement was almost shocking.

It pictures Hillary with her late mother Dorothy and daughter Chelsea, taken on the day Chelsea married.  Standing to one side of her aged mother, Hillary is the embodiment of conventional femininity and maternal pride.  She is simply a mother and a daughter, occupying a place in the generations celebrating a classic rite of passage.  Sartorially, the lady politician famous for her pantsuits has disappeared: if anything, her fancy dress wears her.

How far we have come, the picture telegraphs, particularly in light of Mrs Rodham’s story.  She managed to surmount a hard loveless childhood to raise and inspire a daughter who has bent tradition to become the symbol of something new in American history.  Mrs Clinton’s own ambitions, coupled with those of her husband, long ago catapulted them to the heights of political celebrity, a journey synonymous with radical social mobility.  The Clintons have grown dramatically more wealthy.  And who knows what the future holds for Chelsea?

Though a quintessential American success story, the Clintons are no longer representative of most Americans.  In that regard, Chelsea’s fancy wedding in Duchess County, New York, encapsulates everything that a segment of the American public dislikes about the Clintons.  The private and public lines of Hillary’s destiny are awkwardly entwined, as controversies over her email server make clear.

If this were a photograph of Kennedy men, taken back on the day of Jack’s wedding, say, how different our reactions would likely be.  Ah, yes, we would say: here is Jack getting married, perpetuating the Kennedy dynasty.  We might not pause to criticize the expense of his suit or the nature of his political ambitions.

Bill’s absence from the picture: yes, he may be absent.  Should Hillary become president, increasingly she will be writing her own story, and, as this photograph’s appearance on the internet suggests, the visual culture of the presidency, and women’s sense of their place in the nation, will also change.  The story line is being written even now, of the power lines that have gotten American women to where they are.

Image:
Photograph by Barbara Kinney

Related
Judith Shulevitz, How to Fix Feminism (NYT)

Bernie Sanders: Not Leading But Misleading

A dwarfed candidate slinks off as the world smirks at a campaign poster declaring him 'the people's choice.'

Yesterday, some two million Americans cast their votes for Bernie Sanders, in addition to the 10.5 million who had voted for him in earlier Democratic primaries.  But Hillary Clinton has simply out-polled him, garnering an estimated 13.5 million votes even prior to yesterday’s final set of state contests, the most populous of which (CA, NJ, and NM) she easily won.  In terms of  pledged delegates awarded on the basis of the primaries, Clinton won a total of 2,203 delegates, while Sanders racked up just 1,828.  Yet Sanders cannot bring himself to concede defeat: to acknowledge that she, rather than he, is ‘the people’s choice.’

All along, Hilary has had an advantage stemming from the fact that she enjoys the favor of many Democratic super-delegates, who do indeed wield an out-sized influence when it comes to determining the party’s presidential nominee.  The super-delegate system is a holdover from the days when party officials were entirely free to select at the convention any candidate on whom a majority of them could manage to agree.  Senator Sanders claims that this is undemocratic and unfair; but he would not make this claim if more of the party officials were inclined to favor him.

He is, in fact, exactly the kind of interloper whose self-interest is at odds with the communitarian nature of a political party, which requires internal discipline, compromise, and self-sacrifice, to remain ideologically coherent and unified.  Whereas Hillary Clinton has spent her entire career working within the network of the Democracy, Senator Sanders joined it only when he declared his candidacy, no doubt realizing that it would benefit him structurally.  But, having never given anything of himself to the party per se, he can hardly be surprised that its most influential members don’t feel they owe much consideration to him.

Sanders has little in common with his arch-rival, Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee.  Yet the two men are the same in failing to grasp the huge role that manners play in the presidency.  The president is the face of the nation, and sometimes that face is obliged to wear a gracious smile despite inward longings to sport a frown.  When, many months ago, I asked a friend her impressions of Sanders, she replied that he behaved as though he were still in college.  He does indeed resemble those intense young disciples we knew back then, with their no-frills backpacks and doctrinaire ideals.  Now in his 70s, Sanders has gained a fervent following, by feeding voters a vision that, without the support of a party, he would have no means of realizing, even if he were to rise to the presidency.

Ultimately, Sanders has deceived his followers, both by professing an imagined injury at the hands of Democracy and by perpetuating a fantastically exaggerated conception of presidential power.

Image:
‘The Day After: Licked, and the World Laughs at You’
(Puck Magazine),
from this source.

Seismic Forces Rock the Parties

White height, © 2016 Susan Barsy
The newspapers I glimpsed while traveling communicated a sense of political calamity, the dismay of wonks, journalists, and miffed members of the GOP.  Trump, the party’s likely nominee, was causing the commotion, but the kerfuffle spoke volumes about the muddled condition of the party itself.  Something seismic is happening: the GOP’s ill-assorted components are about to morph into something new, or break apart.

In ordinary times, politicians, the media, and a vast network of consultants and experts promote ideological order and continuity.  The nation’s leaders use the media, and influential constituents use the leaders, to shape the citizenry’s vision, mapping out choice in a limited way.  A centrist ideology that is pro-corporate and pro-global has dominated both parties since the Clinton era, while ‘hard-liners’ of various stripes have increasingly dominated the GOP.  These modern-day fire-eaters may be against federal debt, reproductive rights, or even religious pluralism, but, collectively, they have skillfully gained sway within the Republican Party, with the dream of imposing their minority views on a moderate mainstream.

Trump has attacked the precepts of this centrist-right ideology, making him anathema to many leaders in both parties.  Are Americans voting for Trump because they are hateful and benighted, or are they supporting him because he alone is promising to jettison a set of ideas that has left much of the population stuck in the past and impoverished?  In either case, his ascendancy shows how completely the GOP establishment has lost touch with the people’s will.  The hegemony of the social conservatives and GOP moderates is over.  Paul Ryan and others who want Trump to shift in their direction hope to perpetuate it.  They’ll fail.

Will Donald Trump allow other GOP leaders to ‘handle’ him?  If he accepts orders from the likes of Paul Ryan, voters will conclude Trump is being co-opted and abandon him.  Ryan claims his goal is to ‘unify’ the party: if so, he could hardly have gone about it in a less auspicious way.  Why grand-stand when more might be accomplished quietly?  This crisis has exposed leading Republicans as shockingly short on political skills.  But then, how can a party whose leaders are famous for digging in their heels suddenly develop a genius for collective compromise?

In general, we can hardly blame Trump for the downward slide occurring in our political culture.  He has divined a set of issues that voters care about most passionately, and his ideological response has been more apt than that of any other prominent Republican.  We can abhor Trump’s crudeness and bigotry, and we can impede him by voting someone else into the presidency.  If I were a Republican party leader, however, I sure would be trying to salvage whatever is feasible about his ideology, and trying to integrate it into that of my party.

Trump’s main talking points have to do with restoring broad economic prosperity, insisting on corporate responsibility, and burnishing American citizenship’s prestige.  Trump’s ferocious hatred of outsourcing and unfair trade, his demand that something be done to relieve blue-collar pain, are oddly reminiscent of the leaderless Occupy movement’s themes.  Trump might not have it in him to be a successful president, but he’s been smashingly successful at reminding us that politics is ultimately about ideas not money.  Those who want to stop Trump need to counter his ideas with a positive agenda.  Can his opponents disavow their complacency?  Can they disavow their role in perpetuating a dysfunctional status quo?

Photograph by Susan Barsy

Trump at the Top of the GOP Heap

The GOP heap (April 2016), © 2016 Susan Barsy
With Donald Trump’s sweep of five more states yesterday, his two remaining opponents in the GOP are looking more and more like also-rans.  Trump has not yet sewn up the nomination, but the odds that he will are increasing.  His victory in the so-called ‘Acela’ states demonstrated, perhaps more than any win up to now, that he is not a fringe candidate—that he has broad geographic appeal and can secure votes among diverse demographics.  Last night, for example, he carried the Philadelphia suburbs, defying those who imagine that Trump’s followers are mainly people of low means and education.

Last night, Trump won more than 53 percent of the Republican vote.  Ted Cruz, his nearest rival, polled dismally, placing third in four of the five contests, more damning proof of the Texan’s unpopularity in the moderate eastern regions.  In remarks following his victory, Trump deftly portrayed Cruz’s recent procedural maneuvering (e.g. wooing convention delegates) as ethically dubious and irrelevant.  While Cruz hopes to win nomination on the convention’s second ballot, Trump expects to win on the first, rendering Senator Cruz’s efforts nugatory.

And, honestly, if Trump continues to moderate his tone, it is difficult to avoid concluding he will be the Republican nominee.  Last night’s remarks showed him looking confidently ahead to Indiana and beyond that to the general election, where he will offer Secretary Clinton a formidable challenge.

Bernie Sanders’ Strong Hand

Of the remaining presidential candidates in either party, Bernie Sanders has the most power to influence the outcome of the general election.  He will not become president but can determine who will.  He has a strong hand, which his ongoing campaign is only strengthening. In the end, he can play it a number of ways: he can support or sink Hillary’s bid for the presidency, he can use the moment to force change within the Democratic Party, or he can direct the popular energies he’s mustered into starting a new third party.

Let’s be honest about Bernie’s status within the Democracy.  The establishment hates him and only wants to minimize the threat, practical and ideological, that he embodies.

Until recently, Sanders had some chance of pulling even with Clinton in numbers of earned delegates won through the primaries.  The presidential nomination remained out of his reach, however, because the super-delegates, who express the will of the Democratic establishment, were never going to abandon Clinton in order to back him.  Why would the middle and upper tiers of the Democratic hierarchy anger and betray Clinton, diminishing their chance of retaining control of the White House, and further destabilize their party for the sake of an interloper generally viewed as having no chance of winning?  Yet Bernie Sanders continues to run.  The more delegates he amasses, the greater his independent power, the greater his influence and authority.

Already a one-man movement, Sanders could bolt and run as an independent, though he has said that he won’t.  His candidacy has exposed the bland decrepitude of the Democratic party, the public’s yearning for a bold alternative, and voters’ tepid support for the competent Hillary.  Bernie himself enjoys a surprisingly fervent following and has proved surprisingly good at raising money.  He can afford to compete in every remaining primary, which is giving him valuable information about the nature of the electorate and where support is strongest for his ideas.

The Democrats cannot allow Sanders to leave the Party, for he would draw off a huge number of disaffected voters whose support Hillary Clinton will desperately need.  Because Sanders is committed to keeping Cruz or Trump out of the White House, he has said he would ‘certainly support‘ Clinton if she is nominated.  As long as the Republicans run one of these candidates, Sanders will feel bound to support Clinton’s run.  Making this pledge was unfortunate, increasing the likelihood that, in the end, Sanders and his supporters will be co-opted by an establishment that, in its coldness toward him, has already shown its staunch resistance to change.

To see Bernie get behind Hillary would be disheartening.  It would represent a betrayal of his ideas, ideas the Party has no intention of adopting.  His identity as a change agent would vanish as quickly as it materialized.  So, when it comes to that moment, will Sanders, despite his strong hand, choose to fold?