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Disasters and Normality

Nature has gone on a destructive rage lately in our hemisphere, and now the entirety of Puerto Rico is without power, the same hurricane caused it is headed toward the U.S. Virgin Islands that had already been largely wiped out by last week’s hurricane, and at least 250 people died in the second major earthquake in Mexico City in the past two weeks. After the devastation wrought on Texas and Florida from two other unusually large and intense hurricanes this month, catastrophe is starting seem commonplace.
The media are still all over it, complete with scary radar images, heartbreaking footage of downed buildings and bandaged people, and heroic stories of rescue and sacrifice, but by now they’re making more room for yet another Republican attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, the numerous noteworthy developments in the “Russia” story, and whatever else President Donald Trump might be up to. All sorts of historic disasters, both natural and man-made, are quickly becoming normalized.
One reason the latest natural catastrophes have been somewhat downplayed is that they happened in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which are part of America but not among the 50 states, and in Mexico, which is not part of America at all. Americans have always tended to take scant interest in anything that happens beyond our borders, and in the age of “America First” and a clamor for building a giant wall along the southern border that tendency is stronger than ever. The country is still obliged to pay its share of the costly recovery efforts in its territories, though, and would do itself a much needed public relations favor by chipping in something to help out the Mexicans, so some attention should be paid.
Eventually nature will settle down for a while, although probably not for so long as those 12 blissful years North America enjoyed without any hurricanes at all until lately, and at that point all the man-made disasters will retake their rightful places on the front page and the top of the hour. We’ll hope that the recent disasters are not forgotten, that a few of the reporters will stay on the long enough to scrutinize both the recovery efforts and the preparations for the inevitable next time, and that no one regards it as normal for two of America’s most populous cities to be underwater and two its territories wiped out altogether. Here’s hoping, too, that people don’t start to regard all those man-made disasters as at all normal.

— Bud Norman

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Living the DREAM

As if they didn’t have enough messy business to deal with this month, the congressional Republicans are now obliged to decide the fate of some 800,000 “dreamers.” The issue involves complicated policy questions, the political considerations are trickier yet, and given the way everything else has been going lately it could well end badly for the Grand Old Party.
President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he would phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed youths whose foreign parents had illegally brought them to America as children to avoid deportation for several years and be granted work permits and permission to apply for citizenship, and because the policy had been instituted by an executive order of President Barack Obama he’s constitutionally entitled to do so.
There are strong arguments for doing so, as well, starting with the idea that the constitution requires legislative approval, and that six state attorneys general threatened to file a very promising suit about it today. There are also all those oft-made arguments about the economic and social costs of failing to enforce immigration, and if there wasn’t a widespread public sentiment for stricter enforcement Trump probably wouldn’t be president. There’s also a theoretical possibility, at least, that the deliberations of a duly-elected House and Senate might come up with some wiser than the current or previous president could think of, and if they can’t, well, that’s a pretty sad state of affairs for everybody.
There are plenty of arguments being made all over the press that Trump shouldn’t have done it, however, and our guess is that a sentimental public will now find many of them persuasive. The arguments for Trump’s order are legalistic, involve abstract analysis of the very mixed social and economic costs and benefits that any intellectually honest person will acknowledge, and must be so carefully phrased as so to leave no suspicion that any unpleasant racial motivations are involved, all of which leave Trump at a rhetorical disadvantage. The arguments against Trump’s action come with true stories about the plucky offspring of illegal immigrants who have contributed to their schools and workplaces and the American military, the video footage will show many of them to be darned cute, and Trump’s antagonists in the press are very effective at that kind of rhetoric. There’s a valid argument to be made even without the sentimentality, too, as those true stories do demonstrate the social and economic benefits that immigration bring and which any intellectually honest person must acknowledge, and even Trump concedes that the 800,000 people who suddenly find themselves facing deportation to lands they’ve never known are entirely blameless for being here.
There’s surely some wise solution to the problem, but it’s proved elusive to both Democratic and Republican congresses for several decades now, so it’s hard to see how the Republicans of the moment are going solve everything in the six months Trump’s phase-out gives them. Even when Obama was getting great press and polling well and had huge Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress they couldn’t pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, an ugly formulation that yielded the acronym DREAM and that touching “dreamers” description of the children of illegal immigrants, and when Obama decided to enact the same policy by executive order he had to admit it would have been better if Congress had acted. Now that there’s a tough-on-illegal-immigraton Republican majority in Congress and a Republican president who prides himself on being tougher on illegal immigration than anybody, we wouldn’t be much surprised if the Democrats’ DREAM at long last comes true.
Polling shows that cute kids who have contributed to their communities and are here through no fault of their own enjoy considerable public support, far more than for the president and far, far more than the Congress, and the numbers are almost as bad as the ones that sunk their long-promised plan to repeal and replace the Obamacare law. The Republican majorities in Congress don’t march in the same ideological lockstep as that Democratic majority used to, with many taking a more business-minded approach to illegal immigration and appealing to districts that won’t tolerate any suspicion of racial intolerance, and a lot of Republicans these days feel free to clash with the low-polling Trump in ways that no Democrat would have ever dared with Obama. There are enough Democrats still left in Congress that it won’t take too many Republicans in Congress who don’t want to explain to their voters why they’re kicking out that cute and blameless A student who didn’t chose to be here to get some sort of permanent residency for most of the “dreamers” passed, and a lot of the usual arguments about illegal immigration doesn’t apply to a law that deports criminals and requires tax payments and expects social and economic contributions. We can even see Trump signing it.
Our guess is that Trump signed the order in an attempt to further rouse his most hard-core supporters, most of whom are willing to be far tougher on illegal immigration than Trump really is, and even less concerned than he is if you suspect racial motivations, but he also framed the decision as a constitutional matter and hoped that Congress would come up with something that had “heart,” and that sounds suspiciously tolerant. The decision follows Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was so famously tough on illegal immigration he was convicted of routinely violating the Fourth Amendment rights of natural-born citizens who looked like they might be illegal immigrants, and a now downplayed threat to force a government shutdown to get funding for a border wall that only the most hard-core supporters seem to want, and Trump does so love those who so love him, so it’s also possible that he’ll wind up vetoing all those cute blameless kids out of the country.
There’s an opportunity to craft some piece of legislation that doesn’t kick those cute blameless kids out of the country but also includes some bipartisan-supported measures that would more strictly enforce the border and mitigate some of the economic and social costs that any intellectually honest person would acknowledge, and for now we dare to dream. The law surely wouldn’t include enough money to build a wall along the entire border of Mexico, but Trump might well sign it anyway. His political strategy of rousing his base might bring out the crowds at his ongoing campaign rallies, but what most seems to please them is anything Trump says or does to outrage all the snowflake liberals in the rest of the country, which by now includes a lot of Republicans and the vast majority of everyone else, but if he gets some extra border agents and an E-Verify requirement that should make up for the cute blameless kids who get to stay in the country.
That’s what we’re hoping for, at any rate, and there’s six whole months to get it done. This month will mostly be about keeping the government open and the Treasury from defaulting and fending off a nuclear war with the nutcase dictatorship in North Korea, as well as the cost of a recent hurricane in Texas and maybe one that seems to be heading for Florida, but after that we expect it will be clear sailing.

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The Eye of the Hurricane

The storm that has recently hit southeastern Texas and now heads to southwest Louisiana has been an historic natural disaster, with at least 22 people dead and many thousands more left homeless and property damage that will eventually be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, but like everything else in the news these days it’s eventually another story about President Donald Trump.
Trump was largely out of the spotlight while the cable news networks filled their 24 hours of dramatic footage of homes flattened by hurricane winds and streets submerged in water reaching the second stories of buildings, as well as the usual encouraging reports of heroic rescue efforts and the luckier people on higher ground offering food and clothing and shelter to the victims, and he might have been wise to stay there.
Despite the 22 deaths the usual stories about looting and price-gouging and bureaucratic inefficiencies and other less-than-heroic things that always occur in a natural disaster, the general impression one gathers from a 24-hour-news cycle is that things could have gone a whole lot worse, and thus far the best efforts of Trump’s most strident critics to hold him to a higher standard have probably not been successful. Trump’s most ardent admirers have tried to claim him credit for the all the good work that has been done by career federal government employees and state and local officials and individual citizens and the rest of the establishment, which also probably hasn’t been successful, but so long as Trump stayed out of the limelight and wasn’t doing the boasting himself he was likely to get some small opinion poll bump out of it.
That’s not Trump’s style, though, so on Tuesday he embarked on a fact-finding and photo-op trip to Texas that provided his strident media critics and all the late-night comics with plenty to gripe about and his staunchest supporters with a lot to explain.
Even before Trump boarded Air Force One in a windbreaker and ball cap with “USA” emblazoned on the front, there were already a couple of troublesome controversies seeping up from the back pages and bottom of the hour. As well as the predictable op-ed pieces trying to pin the blame on Trump’s climate change policies there were some more reasonable questions about the relief funds might be affected by his recent threat to shut the government down rather, and some reporters with time on their hands dug up how Trump’s budget proposals proposed slashing the budgets for all the agencies he’s now praising, and of course some years-old “tweets” about how ridiculous President Barack Obama looked during his natural disaster photo-ops.
Obama did look pretty damned dumb standing there in the rain in his windbreaker and ball cap, but all presidents do in their obligatory post-natural disaster photo-ops, and Trump should have known that he wouldn’t fare any better. Perhaps it should be obligatory that presidents provide some visual image of national unity at a time of national tragedy, and we recall several occasions, from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address to President Franklin Roosevelt’s oration after a day that would life in infamy to the plainspoken thanks and determination that President George W. Bush shouted through a bullhorn atop the rubble of the World Trade Center, when a few sage presidential words in a fitting setting truly were a balm to the nation. Since then presidents seem to have lost the knack, though, and we never expected that Trump had it.
Trump seemed to think that the post-natural disaster fact-finding mission and photo-op was another one of his endless campaign rallies, and opened his remarks by noting “What a crowd, what a turnout.” He noted the “epic” and “historic” nature of the storm, a theme he’d already repeated throughout 22 “tweets” featuring 16 exclamation marks, and he somehow came across as more impressed than horrified by the storm’s power. He modestly said that he’d save his self-congratulations for after he’s made everything better than ever, generously shared some of the credit with the mostly-Republican state and local officials and even that Obama-era holdover he appointed to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and conceded that his work is not yet done, so it could have been worse.
Still, it could have been better. We couldn’t find the part where he praised the private charities that are raising funds and providing relief, or urged that Americans participate in the effort, or expressed any recognizable expression of empathy for those who have seen their loved ones and lives’ work washed away by a storm. Nor did he take the opportunity to assure those people that the longstanding relief efforts won’t be halted by a stubborn insistence on his fanciful notion of a large border wall across the entire Mexican border, and at a time when one of America’s most racially diverse cities was doing a pretty good job of dealing with a thousand-year-flood we thought he missed a ripe opportunity to speak of national unity.
There were some other “bad optics,” too, as they say in the politics biz. That “USA” ball cap Trump was wearing also had “45” emblazoned on one side and “Trump” in the back, and if you go to the Trump campaign web site you can purchase one just like it for $40, and the snarkier of his strident critics found that tacky. He was also accessorized by First Lady Melania Trump, who boarded Air Force One looking her usual dazzling self on a drizzly morning with a pair of dark aviator sunglasses, a faintly military style jacket, sensible black shirt and pants, as well as a pair of stiletto heels. It’s our policy to leave First Ladies out of our commentary, except on those sorts of occasions that Michelle Obama would occasionally provoke, and we’re not at all the sorts to notice women’s footwear, but the stiletto heels did strike us as an odd choice for a natural disaster photo-op, so we can hardly blame the snarkier critics for having their fun with it.
In any case, we don’t think Trump will take the same hit that Bush took after a disastrous storm struck New Orleans, or what Obama should have suffered for similar failures during other natural and man-made disasters. In Bush’s case the failures were largely due to the storm hitting one of the most dysfunctional cities in one of the most dysfunctional states in America, both of which he could have plausibly blamed on the Democratic Party’s longstanding rule there, but he chose instead to manfully accept his share of the blame. In Obama’s case the media weren’t so eager to notice his botched response to an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or how he barely seemed to notice a catastrophic flood in Nashville, and he shrewdly stayed out of the spotlight as best he could. Neither of these options, of course, are available to Trump.
No president should be given the blame for any national disaster, of course, neither should any of them be given much credit for the way that the country always seems to make the best of it. Our advice to Trump is to leave it that, and not let a stubborn insistence on stupid border wall muck things up, and tend to all those leaks about “Russia” that are starting to becoming another historic flood.

— Bud Norman

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Back when he started to woo evangelical Christian voters President Donald Trump liked to boast that the pastor at the Presbyterian Church he had attended as a child was Norman Vincent Peale, saying “You could listen to him all day long,” but it never seemed clear what lessons he had learned from the sermons. Peale was better known as the author of the famously best-selling self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking,,” and it does seem clear from Trump’s recent battles with his own party’s congressional leadership that he learned all the wrong lessons from that tome.
Trump escalated his ongoing war of words with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday with another series of “tweets.” He criticized both for rejecting his advice to attach a controversial debt ceiling increase to a popular Veterans’ Administration reform bill that recently passed with bipartisan support, claiming “Could have been so easy — now a mess!” A short time later he once again “tweeted” that McConnell was solely to blame for the Senate’s failure to pass an unpopular bill to repeal and replace the formerly unpopular Obamacare law. That came shortly after Trump had quite clearly criticized both Senators from Arizona in front of a raucous campaign rally crowd, even as he complimented himself for being so presidential as to not mention either man’s name, which followed several insulting “tweets” aimed at various other Republican congressmen who had criticized Trump’s response to the deadly violence that followed a white supremacist rally in Virginia.
No matter how much Trump positively thinks nones  of which seems likely to win him any new friends or influence anyone who isn’t already a die-hard supporter.
The idea that something as controversial as a debt ceiling increase could be easily snuck into a VA bill without anyone noticing, or everyone in both parties raising a fuss that would sink even such a popular and important piece of legislation, suggests to anyone at least vaguely familiar with the legislative process that the Senate majority leader and the House Speaker know a lot more about it than does the relatively neophyte president. McConnell does indeed bear much of the blame for the Republicans’ failure to get that unpopular health care reform bill passed, but there’s enough blame to spread around that fiasco that some of it surely falls on a Republican president who had run on a campaign promise that on the first day he’d repeal Obamacare and replace it with his beautiful but not very specific plan that would cover everyone and lower costs and it would be easy for your head will spin, and Trump would do well not to give his many critics another chance to mention that. Trump’s attempts to spread around the blame for the deadly violence that occurred at a white supremacist rally have not played well with the general public thus far, and he’d be wise not to drag that out any longer.
All of which seems to complicate some already darned complicated negotiations regarding that debt ceiling increase, along with a continuing spending resolution and various other matters that must be dealt with prior to some very hard deadlines looming in the near future in order to avert all sorts of political and economic disasters. Many congressional Republicans won their seats on the promise of ending the federal government’s endless borrowing and doing so without tax increases by drastically cutting spending, others ran on the same basic principles but with a begrudging acknowledgement that it would take some time and a lot of compromises on continuing spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases all the rest of that nonsense, and Trump exponentially complicates that internecine Republican complicatedness.
Trump became the Republican president with the usual Republican promises of low taxes and balanced budgets, but also some proudly anti-Republican promises of not touching the big entitlement programs that are driving the debt and adding at least a trillion dollars of infrastructure spending, as well as his assurances that he’d done enough big real estate deals that it would be easily achieved. We’ve never been in on any big real estate deals, but we’ve been watching how Congress works a lot longer than Trump seems to have done, so we’re skeptical that can keep all those promises and won’t further complicate things.
He added even more complications during that raucous rally in Phoenix, where he hinted he’d rather force a partial government shutdown than sign any continuing spending resolution that doesn’t include full funding for his campaign promise of a tall and formidable border wall stretching across the entire border with Mexico, which he now promises will also be translucent so you can see what those wily Mexicans are up to. During the campaign Trump routing led his die-hard supporters in a chant that Mexico will pay for the wall, as president he’s threatening that he’d cause a partial government shutdown and perhaps even a federal default if the Republican-led Congress doesn’t pay for it with taxpayer funds, and we can’t imagine of the Democratic minority wanting to help him out.
From our Republican perspective out here on the prairie it seems that Trump is less interested in averting political and economic catastrophes than in making sure he once again doesn’t get blamed for them by his most die-hard supporters. McConnell and Ryan and the rest of the Republican party are easy enough targets, we must admit, so there’s a certain self-interested reason for those insulting “tweets.” As pillars of the Republican establishment they’re already reviled by the entirety of the Democratic party, and they do indeed shoulder a share of the blame for the Grand Old Party’s recent failures to make good on the opportunity of its recent political dominance, and the talk radio talkers and most of their grassroots listeners have bitched and moaned out long enough that Trump got nominated and even more improbably elected on the promise to burn the down the establishment.
At the time we wondered how Trump’s mostly-reluctant 46 percent share of the popular presidential vote was going to prevail against the combined might of both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as all the economic and civic and academic and religious institutions that comprise the much-maligned establishment, and thought that “burn it down” was a peculiar rallying cry for conservatism, and at this point we’re hoping that some semblance of the pragmatic Republicanism we always voted for will somehow prevail. At this point that means rooting for the likes of McConnell and Ryan and against Trump and his and ridiculous border wall idea, and hoping there are still enough sensible Democrats to join with averting the looming political and economic disasters, but so be it.
For all their failures both McConnell and Ryan still strike us as more serious men than Trump, and we’re heartened they don’t seem at all influenced by Trump’s “tweets.” Ryan did his best to ignore Trump’s “tweeting” on Thursday, and instead had an impressive “town hall” appearance at a Boeing factory in the Seattle area, where he made a clear case for the Boeing-friendly corporate tax reforms that both he and Trump are working for. Some of the questioners questioned Ryan’s support for de-funding the Export-Import Bank that Boeing has taken generous advantage of, and he gave a very detailed explanation about how other reforms he’s pursuing would leave the company just as well advantaged, and we can’t imagine Trump giving a better answer. One Boeing employee asked a rather frank question about how he was dealing with Trump’s latest public pronouncements, which she seemed to find troubling, and Ryan deftly replied “It’s a day-by-day deal,” adding “I am kind of joking.”
We can’t find any press reports of questions about Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which aren’t likely to benefit Boeing’s largely export-driven business, and although Ryan is far more a traditional Republican free-trader than we suspect they were both glad of that. At this point we’re liking the Republican establishment that Trump vowed to burn down than we’re liking Trump, but we can’t say that give us a hopeful feeling.
Even a partial government shutdown would be a political disaster that can’t plausibly be blamed on that darned Democratic minority, a federal default would be a catastrophic global economic disaster that makes everyone in the American body politic culpable, so surely some sort of desultory-to-all-sides deal will eventually be struck, We’d feel a whole lot more hopeful, though, if any of the players seemed more interested in averting the looming catastrophe than avoiding any blame for it.

— Bud Norman

By the Time We Get to Phoenix

President Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign rallies are always the sort of thing that people who like things of that sort will enjoy, and we’re sure that his most ardent fans were wowed by the performance he delivered Tuesday night in Phoenix, but we doubt that anybodyabout else was much impressed. To our ears it seemed the most blatantly dishonest, deliberately divisive, and downright demagogic oration we can recall from an American president.
Trump started off with characteristic boasting about how both his campaign and presidency have stressed the values of truth, unity, and universal love, but after that most of it was devoted to explaining how the only reason anyone might have gotten the wrong impression about it was because all of his critics are evil people who hate America and are determined to thwart his singular attempts to make it great again, and just in case anyone harbored any doubts about his sincerity he added that he really believes that. By now that evil and America-hating cohort includes not only the “sick people” in all but a favored few of the media outlets, the entirety of the Democratic party, certain members of the Republican party that Trump coyly declined to name but you know who he was talking about, such rank-and-file Republicans as ourselves, establishment institutions ranging from the Boy Scouts of America to the people who make Campbell’s Soup, and according to the same opinion polls Trump used to cite back when they showing him winning the Republican primary it now comprises some 60 percent or more of the country.
None of whom, we strongly suspect, were buying any of it. He did did say all that about truth and unity and love in the deadly aftermath of a white supremacist rally in Virginia, and we know this because those “sick people” in the media ran all the lengthy footage of remarks, along with the the parts where he always claims the media isn’t recording his media-bashing, but he also spoke about spreading the blame over “many sides,” repeating “many sides” to make clear he really believed that, and he mentioned that the white supremacists had a permit and those protesting their presence in the community didn’t, and he spoke about how there were “many very fine people” marching in the torch-bearing and Nazi-flag waving rally, and there’s no denying the white supremacists who organized the rally “tweeted” their thanks for the response. It seems unlikely that any of the “sick people” in the media could have computer-generated these images on such short notice, however, and even the media outlets that Trump favorably mentioned wound up running the same footage, so Trump would have better quelled the now-ongoing controversy by frankly acknowledging that some very fine people might have gotten the wrong impression from the totality of his remarks.
Frank acknowledgements are not Trump’s style, however, so he doubled down on his message of truth and unity and universal love by doubling down on his hateful attacks on his critics in the Republican party with some pretty weaselly language.
Two of Trump’s most troublesome critics in his party are the Senators from Arizona, and he quite specifically excoriated both for their apostasy while congratulating himself for being so politically correct as to not mention their names. One of the Senators that Trump maligned is John McCain, whom the draft-dodging Trump had infamously criticized for being “captured” during the Vietnam war and had more recently cast a deciding vote against a Republican health care bill with a 17 percent approval rating in all the polls, and the other was junior Sen. Jeff Flake, who is on board with the repeal-and-replacement of Obamacare and most of the rest of Trump’s seeming agenda but has outspokenly expressed doubts about Trump’s temperament and rhetoric. Trump won Arizona’s electoral votes handily, and seemed quite popular with the five thousand or so Arizonans who attended the rally, but McCain and Flake were doing even better in the state back when Trump was a reality show star and Democratic donor, so there’s no telling how this will play in Arizona, but in the other 49 states we think Trump probably picked another losing fight.
Before the speech Trump’s White House had leaked that he wouldn’t pardon the Phoenix area’s former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and sure enough he didn’t mention Arpaio by his full name or officially offer a pardon, and thus any media outlet that says he did can be considered “fake news,” but one could easily come to the conclusion that a pardon for Arpaio is forthcoming. “So Sheriff Joe was convicted for doing his job? You know what, I’ll make a prediction,” Trump said. “I think he’s going to be just fine, okay? But I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to make any controversy.”
One needn’t be from Arizona to know that Arpaio was nationally celebrated for the tough treatment of his department’s jailed suspects and his even tougher enforcement of immigration laws, as well as being widely reviled for the violations of the civil rights of people who were just jailed suspects and a lot of other folks who were naturalized and hereditary-after-many-generations Americans who wound up in jail for no reason other than they looked suspiciously brown, and that he’s one of those divisive figures in American politics. A federal court found Arpaio’s clearly stated policy of jailing anyone a sheriff’s officer might suspect of looking like an illegal Mexican, in a city with such a large population of Mexican-looking but hereditarily-for-more-generations-than-Arpaio’s-family Americans, was a violation of the constitution, and even such rank-and-file law-and-order and tough-on-border-enforcement Republicans such as ourselves have to admit that he was rightly convicted of defying the court’s constitutionally authorized order to case and desist.
Announcing leniency for Arpaio, no matter how coyly, is an unlikely claim in Trump’s case for truth and unity and universal love. In the same speech Trump criticized the “sanctuary cities” that were offering protection to illegal immigrants suspected of crimes, a practice that has long offended our rank-and-file law-and-order Republican sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean we’ll go along with the pardon of a Trump-backing Republican sheriff in Arizona who just as brazenly defied a higher federal authority’s order to case and desist from locking up any Arizonans who looked at all Mexican.
In the further interest of truth and unity and universal love Trump quadrupled or quintupled on his original campaign promise of building a wall across the entire border of Mexico, which he now promises will be translucent so that we can see what those wily Mexicans are up to on the other side, and the enthusiastic audience responded with the rote chants of “build that wall!” By now Trump isn’t making the old claims about how Mexico’s going to pay for it and be glad for the privilege, but he did suggest he’d rather endure a government shutdown than let those wily Republicans pass a continuing spending resolution or debt-ceiling increase that didn’t require America to pay for his stupid idea about a suddenly translucent wall stretching across the entire Mexican border.
There were also cheers for the president’s better speech of the night before about continuing America’s long war in Afghanistan, and from pretty much the same Phoenix crowd that had lustily cheered his previous local promises of a quick withdrawal from the conflict just as lustily cheered, and except for fans of Steve Bannon and Alex Jones and the furthest fringes of the far right media he probably  didn’t lose much support even if he surely didn’t gain a single point. In any case, he didn’t bolster his case for truth and unity and universal love. Like all Trump campaign rallies it ended with The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and we’re still unclear what that’s all about.
So far as we can tell from the “sick people” in the national media and seemingly less sick people in the local Phoenix media, the numerous Trump supporters in the arena and the approximately equal number of Trump protesters outside it all managed to home without incident. That’s a fairly encouraging sign of truth and unity and universal, by current standards, but then again it might yet prove just a devious momentary tactic evil people who hate America.

— Bud Norman

The Center Asserts Itself

President Donald Trump specifically denounced the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists on Monday, with none of the talk about the bigotry and violence of “many sides” that characterized his earlier statement about the deadly events the white supremacists had provoked over the weekend in Virginia, and we suppose it was better late than never. Still, widespread suspicions will likely linger about his sincerity.
No one should suspect that Trump has any affinity for the violent sort of white supremacists who provoked the events in Virginia, but by now no one can trust his commitment to racial equality. Trump’s real estate business has been fined for discrimination against black tenants, he continued calling for the execution of five black teenagers convicted of rape even after scientific evidence had definitively proved their innocence, suggested that judges of hispanic descent were unfit to hear any case he was involved in, “re-tweeted” bogus statistics and racist “memes” from white supremacists web sites, and this weekend wasn’t the first time he was slow to denounce the violent sort of white supremacists who had openly expressed their support of him. The White House chief strategist is Steve Bannon, former editor of a web site he described as a “platform the ‘alt-right,'” other key aides have offered apologetics for the “alt-right,” and if you’re not hep to latest political lingo the “alt-right” is basically white supremacism with pretensions of intellectual respectability.
Our liberal friends would cite Trump’s border enforcement policies, restrictions on travel from some several Muslim-majority countries, and willingness to investigate the affirmative action policies at publicly-funded universities as further evidence of his racism, but except for that stupid wall idea we think there’s a sound conservative case to be made that each of these benefit the country as a whole. Those arguments have to be precisely stated, though, and with due respect to the complicated array of perspectives in such a polyglot country as this, and without any lingering doubts on the part of the listener about the speaker’s sincere commitment to racial equality. Trump, alas, seems the wrong guy for a job with those particular requirements.
Which is not good for the country at large, and as straight white conservative male Republicans out here in the heartland we’re bearing some small part of the burden. We’re “Bleeding Kansas” Republicans, whose political forebears signed up in record numbers to fight the Confederacy and the Nazis, whose flags those white supremacist idiots in Virginia were waving, and for years we’ve struggled to convince others on that complicated array of perspectives that our commonsensical views on taxation and regulation and defense spending all the rest of it are not tainted by association with those noxious causes. Trump’s delayed denunciation of the KKK and neo-Nazis, and continuing silence about the re-branded white supremacism of the “alt-right” elements that are still next door to the Oval Office, do not make our task any easier.
Nor do Trump’s apologists further the conservative Republican cause. Some of the first punches that were thrown when those white supremacists gather in Virginia came from counter-protestors, to be sure, but others just as surely thrown were thrown by the armored-and-armed protestors who started the whole mess, and it did turn out to a white supremacist who is charged with ramming his car into a crowd of protestors and killing an especially non-violent counter-protestor, and it was not a time to be equally condemning of “many sides.” There have indeed been far too many case of similarly unprovoked violence by the worst elements of the left, including assaults on people leaving Trump rallies, which the left is indeed not similarly condemned for, but the aftermath of a deadly melee that started with a bunch of armored-and-armed white supremacists invading a picturesque college town is not the right time to be making that argument.
Most of the Republican party, at least, moved quicker and convincingly to disassociate themselves from the KKK and neo-Nazism. Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz is widely vilified by the left as an extremist conservative, but he went to “Twitter” shortly after the deaths to denounce the racism that clearly the cause of the tragedy, and it vindicated our vote for him the Kansas Republican caucus. The party’s congressional leaders and the Vice President and the president’s favorite daughter were also well ahead of him in singling out the KKK and neo-Nazis for condemnation, as were the more respectable quarters of the conservative print media. The comments sections were full of people still fuming about the past violence by the sleazier segments of the left, along with all the usual conspiracy theories about George Soros and Jewish cabals paying for it all, but the mainstream Republican reaction was enough to prompt Trump’s more specific remarks on Monday.
So for now the center holds, and the news will likely soon return to North Korea and that Russia thing, with a difficult debt ceiling fight in Congress quickly coming up, but those stories probably won’t be helpful, and Trump and such Trump-wary Republicans as ourselves will be diminished. The KKK and neo-Nazi story grew another day’s new pair of legs when the chairman of the giant Merck pharmacy corporation, one of the very few black Fortune 500 chief executive officers, resigned his post on a White House advisory council in protest of Trump’s initial statement, and Trump “tweeted” back a petty insult about the company’s “ripoff” drug prices, so that also doesn’t help the free market conservative cause.
Trump’s specific denunciation of white supremacism is better late than never, though, and a hopeful sign that the center will somehow hold. Nudging the country’s path slightly to the rightward direction we’d prefer, though, won’t be any easier.

— Bud Norman

A Hard-Earned Vacation

Today President Donald Trump starts a planned 17-day vacation at his swank private New Jersey golf club, and we can hardly blame him for wanting to get away from the swamps of Washington, D.C., for a while. Thursday brought fresh leaks of some embarrassing phone calls Trump had with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia, as well as the news that the special counsel investigating the matter of what Trump now calls “Russia” has convened a grand jury, and that’s despite the best efforts of tough new chief of staff who was installed after a major administration shake-up and another week of rebukes by everyone from the Boy Scouts to America’s police chiefs to the Republicans in Congress.
The ostensible reason for the time away is that the White House is replacing its 27-year-old air-conditioning and heating system, and after the couple of sultry summers we’ve spent in Washington that seems plausible enough, although we’re not sure if President Andrew Jackson would have though so, and the timing does seem suspiciously fortuitous. Trump had long criticized his predecessor for spending too much time on golf courses, just as his predecessor had even more hypocritically criticized his predecessor for the same thing, and with his own private golf course being reimbursed by the government Trump will probably take an even worse public relations hit than either of them, but by now it could be a lot worse. If Trump can keep his thumbs gripped to a golf club rather than tapping out a “tweet” on his telephone, and stay away from interviews and otherwise avoid compounding his problems while his lawyers and remaining staff do their best to sort things out, that would probably be 17 days well spent.
The leaks about those embarrassing phone calls with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia had already been partially leaked way back in Trump’s second week of the job, but despite the momentary embarrassment Trump was able to dismiss them as “fake news” with with the politely oblique help of the other countries involved, and it was quickly forgotten in all the other news that kept coming. This time around there are full transcripts of the conversations, which are even more embarrassing in full context, and the White House is neither confirming nor denying their veracity, and neither are the other two governments involved, and by now the guy embarrassing himself on those transcripts sure does sound an awful lot like Trump.
The phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull reveals Trump trying to weasel out of a deal the United States had during struck his predecessor’s administration to take in 1,250 refugees, getting the numbers involved and other basic facts of the deal wrong along the way, frankly worrying how it would “It would make me look terrible,” and abruptly ending the conversation after saying that he’d had a much more pleasant telephone call that day with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Worse yet, as far as Trump’s most loyal supporters might be concerned, in the phone call with Mexican President Pena Nieto he seemed to concede that he’d never really meant all that campaign rhetoric about making Mexico pay for a wall across the entire southern border, but expected the Mexican government to play along with it for the ruse for a while. Nieto bluntly said Spanish equivalent of “nyet,” so far the Republican majorities in Congress have been similarly reluctant to cough up the funding for a border wall, and this is not a good time for people to be reminded about it along with all the further “fake news” leaks that can neither be denied by confirmed by the White House.
The leaks about the special counsel convening a grand jury to issue all sorts of subpoenas in that “Russia” investigation have also been neither confirmed nor denied by the White House, so they’re also looking pretty credible, and although you can spin it so it’s not such a bad thing there’s no way of making it out to be a good thing. That special counsel has a formidable reputation as a dogged but by-the-book investigator, and according to the book the paneling of a grand jury implies some pretty darned prima facie evidence that something fishy’s going on, and for now all questions about it are being referred to the president’s and his family’s and staff’s outside legal counsel.
Given all the other leaks about “Russia” that have neither been confirmed nor denied over the past eight months or so, and instead been to referred to all the various outside counsels that are now involved, we can easily understand why Trump is wanting some rest and relaxation on a familiar golf course. Someone pretty high up in Trump’s administration  is leaking the latest leaks, too, so all the more reason to take some time off from whomever that might be. We’re sure he’ll still be in constant communication with the rest of the executive branch while he’s contemplating a chip shot, just as his predecessors claimed to do, and we hope he at least breaks par.
According to some rather embarrassing leaks to Golf Magazine and Sports Illustrated, though, Trump is also  a notorious golf cheat who routinely claims to have broken par, and so far the White House neither confirms nor denies this.

— Bud Norman

The Second Hundred Days Begin

President Donald Trump’s most ardent admirers admire his blunt talk, so we’ll just go right ahead and say that his second hundred days are off a to a rocky start. He gave a couple of interviews that invited ridicule by his liberal critics, signed a spending bill that offered nothing his conservative supporters were hoping for, and had a “very friendly” phone call with the Philippines’ crazy-pants president that alarmed pretty much everybody but Trump’s most ardent admirers.
One of the interviews was aired Monday morning on CBS’ “This Morning” program, and featured host John Dickerson asking Trump about his relationship with preceding President Barack Obama. Trump said “He was very nice to me, but after that we’ve had our difficulties.” Pressed further, Trump said “You saw what happened with surveillance, and everybody saw what happened with surveillance.” Unsure what happened and everybody saw with surveillance, Dickerson asked for clarification. “You can figure that out yourself,” Trump replied. A seemingly befuddled Dickerson stammered about question about Trump “tweeting” that Obama was “sick and bad,” and Trump again replied that “Look, you can figure it out for yourself.”
At that point the interview was already going badly, except for those viewers who always revel in watching Trump be brusque with an interviewer, and then Dickerson had the impudence to ask “But you do stand by that claim about him?” Trump replied that “I don’t stand by anything,” and by then it was destined to go down in history as one of the most disastrous interviews ever. Even Trump’s most ardent admirers will have to admit that “I don’t stand by anything” isn’t something you can post on YouTube with the title “Trump absolutely destroys CBS reporter.”
Trump added that “I just — you can take it the way you want,” and something about how it’s all been proved and everybody’s talking about it and how it should be discussed, and “we should find out what the hell’s going on,” and some more short snippy answers to tuhalf-asked questions before terminating the interview with a polite “OK, it’s enough. Thank you. Thank you very much.” We doubt it did much good, though, and expect that only the line about “I don’t stand by anything” will wind up in future editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Trump also sat down in the Oval Office for an interview with the far friendlier Salena Zito of the far friendlier Washington Examiner, but even that friendly conservation went badly awry. As Zito was reading off a carefully chosen list of questions about current issues, all of which provided the president an opportunity to make the case for his policies, Trump suddenly interjected — “apropos of nothing,” as Zito would explain to one of her subsequent interviewers — a rambling soliloquy about his high regard for President Andrew Jackson, whose portrait was hanging nearby.
“They said my campaign and is most like, my campaign and win, was most like Andrew Jackson with his campaign. And I said, ‘When was Andrew Jackson?’ It was 1828. That’s a long time ago. That’s Andrew Jackson, and he had a very, very mean and nasty campaign, because they said this was the meanest and nastiest campaign yet.” Not content to confess his previous ignorance of 19th Century American history, Trump further speculated that “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the the Civil War. He said ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that not have been worked out?”
All of which, alas, was irresistible fodder for all the left-wing critics and late-night comics and more respectably leftist press pundits. They had Trump on tape once again veering off topic into some self-aggrandizing non sequitur, and once again into territory he didn’t know much about. Jackson did indeed run an historically nasty campaign against John Quincy Adams, but emulating that it not something that politicians should brag about. Adams did run an historically nasty campaign against Jackson, who plausibly blamed his scandalized wife’s death on the bad press, but Trump getting sentimental about how Jackson visited her grave every day almost writes its own own punch lines.
Jackson sure enough was a tough guy, with the evidence of a lifelong facial scar from the saber of a British officer inflicted on the sassy 13-year-old prisoner of the Revolutionary War — or one of those guys “who got caught,” as Trump put it in another disastrous interview — and a distinguished record in several conflicts with Indians and historic and folk-song worthy victory in the Battle of New Orleans. But given Trump’s military and tough guy record, which involved bone spurs and a “personal Vietnam” of dodging venereal disease on the New York City dating scene, he really shouldn’t be inviting any comparisons. As for Jackson’s “big heart,” Jackson was the guy ordered that the peaceable and productive Cherokee people be forced from their Carolina’s on a death march along the Trail of Tears, and even in his final, frail years he was using his cane against any impudent pressmen. All of that might play well with Trump and his most ardent admirers, but for everybody else it’s a disastrous interview.
Jackson was also an ardent defender of the peculiar institution of slavery, so a less friendlier interview might well have asked Trump how he thought Jackson might have averted a Civil War in a way that Americans of that time or this time would have found acceptable. Although Trump seems not have given it much thought until recently, the question of why the Civil War happened as been a matter of ongoing debate ever since, and most Americans who have passed a sixth grade history test or earned a doctorate in the field have reached the same conclusion President Abraham Lincoln did in his second inaugural address: “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
There were also arguments between North and South over tariffs and taxes and all the immigrants pouring into the north, to be sure, but so far that’s not the sort of thing Americans have civil wars over. Trump is clearly speculating, apropos of nothing, that the pro-slavery guy would have settled the far more pressing, far more irresolvable question of slavery, and that such a savvy deal-maker and tough guy with a big heart would have done the same, and unless you’re an ardent admirer that’s a hard interview to defend.
Several of Trump’s usual defenders were too busy, though, grousing about that spending bill that got passed and signed and was hopefully overlooked in all the rest of the chatter.
We won’t recount all the gripes that the talk radio hosts had, but we’ll link you to the gloating of The Washington Post that headlined it “Eight ways Trump got rolled in his first budget negotiation.” They note that Trump not only didn’t get his one billion dollar request for a border wall, which sometime supporter called a “measly one billion,” but the bill includes explicit language against any spending on a border wall. Trump had vowed no increase in spending, but the bill includes no cuts and $4.6 billion for Trump’s Appalachian coal miners and $295 million for the Puerto Rican Medicaid recipients that Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi insisted on, and the $61 million that Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer got for the New York City and Palm Beach, Florida, law enforcements that are paying for Trump’s frequent visits, which even the right wing talk radio hosts are starting to sour on.
Obama’s $1.2 billion funding for a “moonshot” cancer program was renewed, the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget was cut by 1 percent rather than the requested one-third, and Planned Parenthood was defunded at all. The defense budget was raised by less than half of what Trump insisted on, 160 Republican riders were dropped, and as early as last week the White House was agreeing to keep stringing along the Obamacare subsidies. There’s more, but The Washington Post ran out of column inches for its gloating. Lest you think it’s all “fake news” from “The Washington Compost,” all the talk radio hosts seemed to be grousing about the very same things.
It’s all temporary, with more battles vowed to be more vigorously fought, and there’s plenty of blame to go around to those establishment Republicans that Trump vowed to bring to heel, and as always the Democrats are nothing to brag about, but for now there’s no denying it makes for a bad news cycle. The headlines and the poll results would been even worse if a Republican president and Republican congress hadn’t come up with something to avert a government shutdown, but we doubt even Trump will tout that victory.
That’s enough to keep even such political junkies distracted, but we couldn’t help noticing that phone call between Trump and the Philippines’ Duterte. It’s a long story but we were born in the Philippines and have tried to keep abreast of the news there ever since, and we’re aware that the current leader is a foul-mouthed and boastfully murderous fellow who has lately been waging a “war on drugs” that has gunned thousands of people who might or might not have been involved in drugs, as no courts or evidence were involved, and has had the most profane words for American ambassadors and Roman Catholic Popes but a friendly relationship with the dictatorship in China. Trump has had only kind words for the man, though, and his own State Department’s synopsis of their most recent phone call described it as “friendly” and including an invitation to the White House, which Duterte has yet to accept.
That’s more fodder for the left, especially after his recent congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Raccip Erdogan after winning a clearly rigged election to give his Islamist government dictatorial powers, and anther move that the right is struggling to defend. There might well be some brilliant strategy at play here, and we surely hope so, but if Trump is just trying to drive a plot line he’s going to need some new writers.

— Bud Norman

His Back Against the Wall

President Donald Trump has lost the first round of negotiations for his promised border wall, big league, and he should be glad of it. If he plays it just right, he might be able to wriggle his way out of the ill-advised promise altogether.
That won’t be easy, though, as Trump made it the centerpiece of his campaign. His rally audiences would serenade him with chants of “Build That Wall!,” which was also emblazoned on many of the t-shirts in the crowded arenas, and he frankly admitted to The New York Times that “You know, if it gets a little bit boring, if I see people starting to so of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall,’ and they go nuts.” As the negotiations for the big spending resolution started he insisted that funding for the wall be included but he was already starting to be a little less insistent when he told the Associated Press over the weekend that “People want the border wall. My base definitely wants the border wall. My base really wants it — you’ve been to many of the rallies. OK, the thing they want more than anything is the wall.”
Trump always played The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as he exited his rallies, too, so the base should have been forewarned that some promises would be hard to keep. He’d also promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, and when he’d ask his rallies “Who’s gonna for pay for it” they’d chant back Mexico, so asking Congress for the money was already a big concession. Trump did “tweet” his reassurance that “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying in some form, for the badly needed border wall,” but he eventually was forced to concede that it’s not the thing most badly needed at the moment.
If some spending resolution or another doesn’t get passed by Friday, right around the time everyone will be writing their “First 100 Days” stories, the government will go into another one of those occasional partial shutdowns. They’re fine by us, but most people seem to intensely dislike them, and they always get the most awful press, and no matter what all the fuss is about the Republicans always seem to get the worst of it. With the Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House even most the creative talk radio hosts would find it hard to blame it on the Democrats, so at the moment job one is avoiding poll-damaging unpleasantness.
Trump seems to have thought this would give him the needed leverage to get the money to start building the wall he’d promised his base, and within the 100-day deadline he’d promised, but he quickly realized that these sorts of negotiations are different from a real estate deal.
As much as those people at the rallies wanted the wall, all the public opinions polls showed that a solid majority of the country was against it and only 38 percent or so had any real enthusiasm for the idea. The opposition included all the Republican-held border districts, too, where landowners were facing eminent domain seizures of old family ranches and Indian reservation land and the occasional non-Trump-owned golf course, and all sorts of local economies were going to be inconveniently cut off from valued neighboring customers and friends. There were also unanswered questions about the wall’s cost and whether the money would be more effectively spent on drones and increased patrols and checking up on visa overstays and other more traditional methods of border enforcement, and just how Mexico might be forced to pay for it, and whether such a strain on relations with a neighbor was really needed at a time when net migration from Mexico is about zero, so there were likely to be some other Republicans resisting as well.
With his own approval ratings around 42 percent in an average of all the polls Trump doesn’t enjoy the kind of political capital that would cow a border Congressman enough to defy his district, and those other reluctant Republicans are also in districts where some distance from the president might be advised, so he shrewdly agreed that he’d sign whatever spending resolution the congressional Republicans could come up with to avoid a shut-down. A big victory for the base in time for those 100 day stories would have been nice, but having all the stories be about a government shutdown because of the president’s insistence on a wall that most people don’t want and even members of his own party opposed would have been disastrous, and Trump understands the publicity game well enough to know that.
Trump “tweeted” enough tough talk that his rally-going supporters can console themselves that “at least he fights,” and we expect most of them will be satisfied with that. They’re still promised that Trump will fight again for the wall, eventually, in some form, but it’s hard to imagine any time in the near future when there won’t be some new spending resolution or other impending crisis that’s more pressing, and all the arguments those border counties and the rest of the country are making will still be valid, and Mexico almost certainly won’t be any more inclined to pay for it. At this moment the wall seems another case of you can’t always get what you want.
“But if you try sometimes,” as the Stones’ song goes, “you might just find you get what you need.” Trump’s already touting all the more traditional border enforcement that he’s beefed up, most of which we and a majority of the rest of country heartily approve of, and we’re quite confident that the funding for it won’t be affected whatever spending resolution the congressional Republicans come up with to avert a government shutdown. This is a happy enough resolution for us, at the moment.
After all the court interventions and more moderate counsel the president has been getting lately his more-muscular-than-Obama approach to border enforcement is pretty much what all of those supposedly soft-on-immigration Republican presidential contenders endorsed, and about the same as the Mitt Romney plan that Trump then decried as inhumane, but the base will probably be satisfied by the familiar argument that only Trump could have made such an audacious opening bid with something so outrageous as a wall stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean as a brilliant ploy to reach these common sense solutions. His more ingenious apologists are also fond of saying that you have to take Trump seriously but not literally, and Trump is already suggesting that c’mon, he was talking metaphorically about common sense border enforcement and not an actual big, beautiful wall that no Mexican could find a ladder long enough to climb over, because c’mon, that idea’s so outrageous no one would take it literally.
We think a lot of those people at the rallies took it literally, and were looking forward to seeing some chastened Mexican handing over a literal check, but sooner or later they’ll come around. Although some of his supporters are already sore about his newfound moderate positions on issues ranging from China’s alleged currency manipulation to a Syrian missile strike that didn’t seem to have an “America First” rationale, if Trump keeps up the robust border enforcement he can let his big, beautiful wall fade into memory without taking too much of a hit in the polls. Gradually dropping the wall issue probably won’t win over any of Trump’s most determined critics, but it will deprive them of a potent issue, and he’ll have easier dealings in the future with certain Republican congressmen to accomplish something more popular.
Trump was shrewd to take a loss this round, and we hope he’s shrewd enough to lose that crazy wall idea altogether.

— Bud Norman