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Smart and Stable Is as Smart and Stable Does

There’s something slightly unsettling about hearing an American president reassure the public that he’s intelligent and emotionally stable, as President Donald Trump felt obliged to do over the weekend. It reminds us of President Richard Nixon’s assurance that “I am not a crook.” or President Bill Clinton’s vow that “I did not have sex with that woman,” or Fredo Corleone’s cry in “The Godfather Part II” that “I’m smart, not like everybody says, like dumb, and I want respect,” and we remember how all those turned out. Trump’s boasts that “I’m, like, really smart” and “a very stable genius” have a similarly ominous ring.
Trump has been conspicuously defensive about his smarts and sanity ever since he took that elevator ride in Trump Tower to announce his improbable campaign for the presidency, but his sensitivity has been heightened by the publication of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which has lately been flying off the shelfs with a considerable publicity boost from Trump’s futile efforts to prevent to its publication and his ongoing insistence that it’s all fake news. The book depicts a dysfunctional White House trying to cope with a not-very-bright and downright childish president, with some pretty unpleasant quotes coming from people once very close to the president, which prompted Trump’s “Tweets” and public remarks about being “like, very smart” and a “stable genius.”
As he did throughout his improbably successful campaign for the presidency, Trump answered his critics with characteristic braggadocio. He boasted of his academic excellence at a top-notch college, the billions of dollars he’d made in private business, his status as the star of highly-rated reality television show, and the fact that he’d won the presidency on his very first try. Such cocksureness played a large part in his improbable electoral college victory, along with an admittedly uncanny knack for convincing West Virginia coal miners that a billionaire New York City real-estate and reality-show mogul was their messiah, and it might work now. All of it was questionable all along, though, and we still suspect it worked mainly because the alternative was Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump did indeed graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, which indeed plays its football and basketball games in the prestigious Ivy League, but he spent his first two years at second-tier Fordham University before his father’s money got him into Penn and nobody there recalls him as an exceptional scholar and his academic records are as tightly as restricted as President Barack Obama’s. He has made billions in business, but nobody who follows the big money believes he’s made even half what he claims, and most contend he would have done better by investing his inheritance in a solid mutual fund and spending his time reading up on history and public policy, and there were many embarrassing bankruptcies and business failures along the way. He did indeed improbably wind up as President of the United States, but there hasn’t yet been a public opinion poll showing most Americans glad of that.
As much as we’d like to we can’t deny Trump has a rare genius for making his character bugs seem a a feature to enough of the voting public to pull off an improbable electoral college victory, even it was against the likes of that horrible Clinton woman. Trump’s otherwise alarming tendency to say any crazy thing that popped up into his head was lauded as refreshing honesty, his glaring racism and sexism were celebrated as a blow against “political correctness,” the illiterate crudity of his ad hominem responses to any valid criticisms was cheered the “authenticity” of his “punching back twice as hard,” and a lot of West Virginia coal miners and other disaffected white folk in flyover cover wanted to vicariously live the gaudy decadence of his boastfully adulterous and self-indulgent lifestyle in a way they never did with Bill Clinton’s zaftig affairs.
As appalled as we were by that horrible Clinton woman and her hound dog husband and had been since way back when Clinton was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to his third wedding and calling her the greatest Secretary of State ever, we never believed a word of it, no matter how many times Trump said “believe me.” The guy who draws the “Dilbert” cartoon and other thinkers would try to explain how Trump was a “master of persuasion” whose seemingly un-parsable pronouncements were the cutting edge of political rhetoric, and we had to admit that he was far better than we or Socrates or Daniel Webster could ever be a persuading broke suckers to sign up for Trump University or the rich fools who owned United States Football League franchises to go head-to-head with the National Football League and somehow win in the civil courts, but we doubted it could have the same effect on the presumably more sensible you hope to find in the Congress and federal judiciary and the free press and other institutions promised to vanquish. We also doubted that all those taunts and nicknames and National Enquirer stories would culminate in any positive policy results.
Trump and his apologists will point to the recent stock market records and holding-steady jobless rates and the absence of any nuclear mushroom clouds on the Korean peninsula, and they have a point that of course they’ll vastly overstate. Trump’s de-regulating executive orders and the tax bill the Republican establishment delivered to his desk have no doubt nudged the stock markets on an even higher trajectory that they’d been since before he took office, but at least one or two of those de-regulated regulations are likely to fuel some future scandal with multipole fatalities, that tax bill is polling horribly, and job creation has actually slowed compared to the last two years of Obama’s administration. The North Korean dictator that Trump has taunted as the “short and fat” “little rocket man” with a nuclear button that’s not nearly so manly as Trump hasn’t yet exploded any nuclear missiles, and he’s suddenly opening talks with South Korea that Trump claims credit for but isn’t involved in, and the rest of the world seems just as pleased to leave Trump out of it.
Meanwhile there’s the whole “Russia thing” and that messy business of what to do with all the “dreamers” who were unwittingly became illegal immigrants as children and yet another continuing resolutions that’s needed to keep the federal government running, along with numerous other matters that Trump hasn’t yet comprehensibly commented on. as well as a lingering concern that there’s something no quite right about the president. The worry is widespread enough that Trump spent a weekend “tweeting” and telling reporters that he’s very smart and sane, and reports suggest that its shared in hall of power of both allies and adversaries, and that’s bound to have eventual consequences.
Trump might have been an excellent student at that top notch college, but the seventh-grade English teacher at our otherwise second-rate junior high school would have riddled his “tweets” with red marks for spelling and punctation and syntax and general comprehensibility. He’s no doubt richer than we are, but even our limited entrepreneurial abilities could have at least broke even with a casino and we know enough about football not to go head-to-head with the NFL and we’re too kind-hearted to sucker anyone into investing in a phony baloney real estate course, and until he offers up his tax returns and the rest of the full disclosure that presidents are supposed to offer up we’re skeptical of any claims he makes. If we make it through the year without any mushroom clouds over the Korean peninsula we’ll give him some credit for that, but we’ll never agree that the nuclear button size comparisons had anything to do with it.
We’ve had the good fortune to know many brilliant people over the years, and we’ve long noticed that not a single one of them ever bragged to us that they’re, like, really smart, and all of them would have scoffed at being called a genius. Nor have any of the very stable people we’ve happily know ever felt the need to reassure us that they’re, like, very stable. We’ve also had the good fortune to know some highly ethical people, too, and none ever had to contrast their ethics with those of that awful Clinton woman.

— Bud Norman

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The Latest Contretemps and the Coming Deadlines

The fallout from President Donald Trump’s response to the deadly violence that ensued from a white supremacist rally in Virginia over the weekend continued on Wednesday. Several more Republican congress members announced their objections to Trump’s statements, and the Fox News network reported that it couldn’t find any who were willing to speak on camera in the president’s defense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement that was clearly an implicit rebuke of their Commander in Chief’s comments, and several administration officials were anxiously leaking that they had nothing to do with any of it. Also, the mayor of Phoenix asked Trump to cancel an upcoming rally in the city, and Trump had to shutter two advisory panels comprised of the nation’s top business executives and labor leaders rather than accept the mass protest resignations that were soon coming.
Sooner or later the news will move on to something else, including fresh twists on the old stories about “Russia” and White House in-fighting and the Republicans’ stalled agenda of unpopular legislation, but Trump will wade into all of them as a weakened president. The opprobrium of everyone from the leaders of the Democratic and Republican party to the nation’s top military brass to the chief executive officer of Campbell’s Soup will only shore up Trump’s “anti-establishment” credentials with his most stubborn base of support, but although they’re still numerous enough to fill an arena in Phoenix he’s going to need more help than that to start winning.
That stalled agenda of unpopular Republican legislations was already stalled and unpopular largely because of Trump’s low poll numbers, which are lower than any previous presidents’ had been at this point in a first term, and its hard to see how Trump’s past few days will win any new supporters. Trump’s past feuds with his party’s congressional leadership and his own cabinet members and the military’s top brass and the economy’s most successful executives were also largely responsible for the Republican agenda being both stalled and unpopular, which is what’s mostly driving those low poll numbers, and heightening the hostilities seems a questionable strategy.
An unpopular and defiantly anti-establshment president is going to have muster some some pretty ubermensch-ian will to power to prevail against the established order and the popular consensus that sustains it in the more consequential stories that are bound to soon come. The world is at least a troubled place as ever, with more than usual number of hot spots that have lately been forgotten, and it’s worth noting that many of our democratic allies Trump had already been feuding with also stated their objections to his statements on that white supremacist rally in Virginia. The Republicans’ stalled and unpopular agenda is coming up against some very hard deadlines next month, too, and some unifying presidential leadership is going to needed to avert all sorts of catastrophes.
By the end of September the Congress needs to pass some sort of convoluted continuing resolution or some such congressional gobbledygook to keep the government open for business, as well as yet another debt-ceiling increase to pay for it, lest the government suspend many services and perhaps even default on its debt. Both Trump and the more usual sorts of Republicans ran on a promise of a return to good old days of budgets bills that went through committee and got passed by both chambers of congress and were signed into law by the president, as well as promises of a quickly balanced budget, but at this point they’re highly unlikely to keep those promises right away, and even that convoluted continuing resolution and another round of borrowing is going to be hard to achieve.
The mild political consequences of a partial government shutdown and the far more dire economic ones of a default on the national debt give every Republican member of Congress some leverage in the upcoming negotiations on that convoluted continuing resolution, none of the Democratic members will have motive to offer the majority party any help, and Trump’s reputation as a master deal will be tested more severely than it was in any of his real estate or casino negotiations. When Trump’s casinos went bankrupt he came out many millions ahead while his creditors lost collective billions, and during the campaign he temporarily roiled the world’s markets by suggesting that American could win with the same methods, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the next dreary round of continuing resolution and debt-ceiling debates involves more than usual amount of brinksmanship.
We’ll hold out hope that most dire circumstances will somehow be forestalled, just as the more-than-usual-amount of brinkmanship with the North Koreans seems to have provided a brief respite from that round of news, and we’ll count on some sort of established order prevailing at least a little while longer. If the president could be please refrain from picking any more fights with the growing majority of Americans who aren’t among his most stubborn fans we’ll feel better yet.

— Bud Norman

Crazy Possibilities in a Crazy Year

By all reliable accounts this past weekend’s Libertarian Party convention was quite an unconventional affair, replete with the party’s chairman stripping down to his underwear at the podium and the eventual nominee being heavily invested in the more-or-less legal marijuana industry, but in this crazy election year none of that is at all beyond the pale. The hypothetical ticket of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld was already poling at 10 percent before it actually won the  Libertarian nod, and in this crazy election year nothing that happened at the crazy convention seems likely to budge that significant number.
At least the party chairman didn’t boast about what was hidden by his underwear, as the Republican party’s presumptive nominee has done on a nationally-televised debate stage, and whatever quibbles one might with have the nominee’s dealings in a business that is still technically illegal according to federal law if not in the states where he is operating, it seems a rather small point in the post-legal age his thoroughly corrupt Democratic opponent and her lawless “Choom Gang” successor have wrought. The presumptive Republican nominee has run casinos and strip joints that were until rather recently illegal and social proscribed in most sane jurisdictions and still strike us as pandering to worse vices than marijuana use, and the crimes credibly alleged against the presumptive Democratic nominee involve national security, so that ten percent of the public willing to vote for someone they’ve never heard of might well persist even after they find out who he is.
At this point there’s no telling how that might affect what is shaping up as a close election. The Libertarian Party’s radically laissez-faire economic policy is the exact opposite of stubborn Democratic challenger Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s self-described socialism, but we expect that Johnson’s pro-dope stance will lure some of them away from from the presumptive Democratic nominee, who is so quintessentially establishment in this crazy anti-establishment year that she’s a former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State, and was awful in every single post. The Libertarians’ insane isolationist foreign policy is at this point no more worrisome than what the major parties’ presumptive nominees are offering, and unlike either of the major party nominees they’re at least for free speech if you want to gripe about it. In this crazy anti-establishment year there are a lot of otherwise Republican voters who are just tired of being bossed around, though, and aren’t nclined to be told “you’re fired” and “shut up” by some proudly bossy reality show star, so the Libertarians should peel off a few Republican votes as well, and even if both members of the ticket are twice-elected governors they’re still so far outside the mainstream they’re a deadlier  blow to the hated-on-both-sides “establishment” than either major party ticket..
In this crazy year it’s hard to tell how it will shake out, as there are bound to be other twists and counter-twists in the plot. The brilliant but ever-hopefudl Bill Kristol of the essential Weekly Standard is still clinging to some faint  hope that a third or fourth or fifth party deus ex machina will provide some plausible alternative to what the established two-party system has vomited up, and at this point in this crazy year one can only hold out such hope.

— Bud Norman

Trump at Long Last Considers a New Haircut

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has long been notorious for paying his creditors less than promised and threatening  lawsuits more costly than the remainder if they objected, and while bragging about his untold and undocumented wealth has on four occasions resorted to bankruptcy filings to pay out mere pennies on the dollars owed for his failed casinos and strip joints. We’re told by his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters that such ruthlessly unscrupulous business practices are precisely what’s needed to deal with those duplicitous Democrats and “establishment” Republicans and wily Chinamen and assorted other foreigners to make America great again, but even as we contemplate the horrible alternative of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton becoming president we do not find the argument at all persuasive.
With our government already $19 trillion in debt and the shortfalls on all its grandiose entitlement promises rapidly approaching all-the-money-in-the-world levels, Trump has already proposed several you-can-believe-him-they’re-great solutions. He told The Washington Post that he could entirely eliminate the national debt within eight years with no tax increases just by renegotiating all of the country’s trade deals in a really great way, believe him, and then a couple days later he told Fortune Magazine that he’d never said he could eliminate all the debt within 10 years and only expected to reduce the debt a “percentage,” because of all the other great things he plans to do about infrastructure and such, and when asked what percentage he replied “It depends on how aggressive you want to be,” and that “I’d rather not be so aggressive.” More worrisomely yet, he also told the CNBC cable news network that he’d handle the debt of the casino and strip joint that America has lately become by the same means that have worked out so well for himself in the past, by asking the country’s creditors to accept less than what was promised.
Asked by his stunned interlocutor if he was really talking about renegotiating sovereign bonds already issued by the government of the United States of America, Trump replied in typically un-parsable English that “I don’t want to renegotiate the bonds, but I think you can do discounting, I think, you know, depending on where the interest rates are, I think you can buy back — you can — I’m not talking about with a renegotiation, but you can buy back at discounts.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s typically un-parsable English allowed him much wiggle room as he inevitably walked back his comments, as the notoriously straight-talking truth-teller so often does, so the very next day he was on CNN assuring another national television audience that “People said I want to go and buy and default debt, and I mean these people are crazy. This is the United States government. First of all, you never have to default because you print the money, OK?” None of which is at all reassuring.
Call us crazy, but our best reading of Trump’s earlier comment suggests that at least in one particular moment in time Trump was actually talking on national television about paying the country’s creditors less than was promised but somehow achieving this feat without a renegotiation. This is what’s known in economics as “crazy talk.” Any debt that is paid at less than what had been contractually promised has most certainly been renegotiated, whether acknowledged or not, the entirety of the financial and political world would surely regard it as a default by the world’s biggest-or-second-biggest-economy-depending-on-the-accounting-methods, and although this method has previously worked out to the benefit of Donald J. Trump there is simply no explaining how it might work out to the benefit of America or the rest of the world. Given the chance to print his own money, just as President Barack Obama has done during the past seven-and-a-half years or so while doubling the national debt, we aren’t at all certain that the failed casino-and-strip-joint owner would avail himself of the opportunity. It didn’t work out well for the Weimar Republic or Zimbabwe or any of the other casino and strip joint countries that tried to inflate their way out of debt, but we’re assured by his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters that the oft-bankrupt Trump is such an exceptionally shrewd businessman that this time will surely be different.

Which is not to say, alas, that the most likely alternative is any better. The presumptive Democratic nominee has also pledged to keep her hands off those entitlement programs that are driving the country toward inevitable bankruptcy, which would involve a fight that neither of these self-described fighters have the stomach for, and unlike her most likely rival she’s not only ambiguously open to negotiations on taxing the public to keep the economy limping along even if those tax increases hinder economic growth and wind up reducing public revenues but is enthusiastically for them, so we take care not to endorse either of them. We’re still  looking around for some third  or fourth option that might be more appealing, and although haven’t settled on any yet,  and although we admittedly don’t hold out much hope that there is one, be assured we’ll keep trying.

— Bud Norman

On Texas, Christmas Eve, and What Else Matters

Our holiday travels have now taken us deep into the heart of Texas, where most of the paternal side of the family now resides, and as much as we hate to be away from God’s own Kansas it’s good to be here. The weather is warm even by heart-of-Texas standards, which will no doubt encourage all the global warming alarmists, while reassuring all those social justice warriors who worry that a “white Christmas” is somehow racist, but we’re nonetheless enjoying the warmth of family on a Christmas Eve.
The drive down unlovely and casino-clogged and incongruously up-to-date I-35 was surprisingly grueling — who knew that a jaunt through relatively tiny Temple, Texas, would be even slower than the legendarily clogged Dallas-Fort Worth area or even out-of-control Austin — but for the most part we enjoyed a respite from the even more grueling news of the day. Most of the drive was spent listening to ancient family lore and the music of Ernest “Texas Troubadour” Tubb and Jim Ed Brown and Hank Snow and other mellifluously nasal old-time honky-tonkers on the folk’s newfangled Sirius radio system, and except for a brief update from the Fox News station and a quick reading of the news after our beloved aunt somehow recalled the password for the internet wi-fi that a more tech-savvy daughter set up for her we mostly ignored all the latest political and economic developments. Given what we found on those brief looks at the news, it was probably best to stick with the old-country music.
Barring something unexpectedly catastrophic, we’ll stick with Christmas carols and old-time country music and family lore today, and we urge you to do the same. There’s still good news out there, even if you have to turn off the news to hear it.

— Bud Norman