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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

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Of Polls, Presbyterians, and Seventh-Day Adventists

At this point in an election cycle the presidential opinion polls are about as meaningful as a first quarter score in a National Basketball Association game, and we really ought to be paying more attention to that awful budget deal President Barack Obama is cooking up with whatever Republicans are still purportedly in charge of Congress, but for the first time in too long we recently saw a couple of polls that didn’t have Donald Trump in the lead, so we can’t help reveling in the numbers.
The latest frontrunner, according to no less but no more an authority than the combined efforts of The New York Times and The Columbia Broadcasting System, is Dr. Ben Carson. If true, this is fine by us, as the Republicans seem intent on nominating someone who has never held any elective office, and of the three candidates who meet that criterion Carson strikes us as much preferable to Trump. It’s not just the stylistic differences between the blustery and bragging billionaire real estate mogul Trump and the soft-spoken and humble physician, although that does matter and obviously favors Carson, but also that Carson has been more consistently conservative in his policy views and seems to have a superior character, which of course matters even more. We’re still inclined to look at the broad field for someone has held elective office, and leaning toward Texas Sen. Ted Cruz because of his steadfast conservatism and otherwise impeccable anti-establishment credentials, but we can see the party doing a lot worse than Carson.
Trump has also lately found himself trailing Carson in the crucial early state of Iowa, where the conventional wisdom has long that evangelical Christian voters are the most important Republican constituency, and he seemed annoyed by the turn of events. In one speech he repeatedly mentioned that he was a Presbyterian, adding that people don’t believe it, and bragging that “boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness.” In an apparent reference to Carson’s denominational affiliation, Trump added, “I mean, Seventh Day-Adventist, I just don’t know about. I just don’t know about.” Being heartland evangelical Christian Republicans ourselves, and thus more familiar with the type than Trump, we can’t see it as an effective strategy.
We also know little about Seventh-Day Adventism, except that its day of worship and rest is on Saturday, which we have to admit makes a certain amount of Old Testament sense, we also have to admit that none of our many Sunday morning sermons have ever explained any New Testament reason they’re wrong, and we figure that we don’t know much more probably speaks well of the church. By now we know all about Sunnis and Shiites and the Koran and the Hadith and taqqiya and hudna and dhimmitude and jizya and all sorts of other Islamic concepts, but that’s only because it’s been more necessary than reading up on relatively placid Seventh-Day Adventism. We also understand that the denomination sprang from the fervent Millerite movement that predicted the end of Earth on a certain date in 1843, which is still known as “The Great Disappointment,” and that it retains a certain fascination with the eschatological scriptures, but this does not seem so incompatible with a constitutional republic as jizya or dhimmitude or Twelfth Imams or certain other religious concepts, and we note that most enlightened of the secularist humanists have their own fervently-blieved end-of-times theories that involve all sorts of onerous carbon taxes and pie-in-the-sky light-rail systems.
We’re more familiar with Presbyterians, and count several of them among our good friends, and the general impression we’ve gleaned from their infrequent talk about their faith is that it is indeed down the middle of the road. John the Revelator might have even called it diocletian, which is an obscure word and even more obscure Biblical reference, but a lot of heartland evangelical Christian Republicans will and they’ll probably be less impressed by Trump’s Presbyterianism than Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventism. We can’t look into a man’s heart and have no right to render a final judgment on his everlasting soul, but we can look at Trump’s three marriages and his public boasts of buying off politicians and using the bankruptcy laws to skirt his debts, and one can’t help noticing the haughty spirit and pride, as well as the unmistakable love of filthy lucre, so for the earthly purposes of casting our vote we will adjudge that he’s even less Presbyterian than the most fallen of our Presbyterian friends. Carson certainly seems more steadfastly Seventh-Day Adventist, and for those who are still clinging to their suddenly idiosyncratic religious beliefs, which are suddenly more perilously right-of-the-middle as the culture has lurched so far the irreligious left, that will likely trump Trump’s Presbyterianism. The peculiarities of the Seventh-Day Adventists has earned them a reputation for being litigiously devoted to religious liberty, and at this moment when Catholic nuns are being forced to purchase contraceptive coverage and Baptist bakers are being forced to provide same-sex wedding cakes, and when any fervently held religious beliefs other than jizya and dhimmitude are considered slightly crazy, and astrology and anthropogenic global warming are not, so at this point we’re impressed that the Seventh-Day Adventists have produced such a soft-spoken and humble physician and relatively sane person as Carson.
There’s still plenty of politics left, and that awful budget deal that’s being cooked up will surely figure in it, and somebody who has actually won an election before might wind up winning this election after all, but if it comes down to Trump’s Presbyterian and Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventism we expect the heartland evangelical Christian Republican vote will start trending away from Trump.

— Bud Norman

Meeting the Press

By happenstance we spent much of Wednesday evening in the company of some veterans of the local news media, and not once did anyone mention the government’s latest assaults on their profession. It was a friendly social gathering, with the conversation mostly devoted to the pleasant weather we’ve been having lately and a good bit of personal gossip about colleagues and local notables who were not present, but the absence of any alarmed shop talk was conspicuous nonetheless.
More than 30 years in the news business have taught us that journalists are typically as self-interested as they are self-righteous, and they instinctively regard any perceived infringement of their occupational rights as a threat to democracy and civilization. There are valid reasons for this attitude, aside from how neatly it serves a journalist’s heroic self-image, and it has usually been a popular topic of conversation in journalistic circles. In past years news of the Department of Justice snooping through the Associated Press’ phone records, treating a cable news reporter’s efforts to question sources as a criminal conspiracy, and allegedly poking around in a network reporter’s computer, along with an administration’s longstanding disdain for an adversarial press, would have been topics of inexhaustible interest at a party such we as attended on Wednesday.
The obvious explanation for the noticeable disinterest in these outrages is that they have all occurred during the Obama administration, a cause much of the press has been passionately devoted to since it was first proposed, and we cannot think of anything more convincing. Other than ourselves, one radio guy, and one outsider who has never worked for any media, everyone present at the gathering had voted for Obama or would be embarrassed to admit they had not, and had we been rude enough to broach the subject of the recent bullying of the press we suspect they would have felt obliged to defend their man against any allegations of wrong-doing. The Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups for audits and harassment did come up briefly, with one reporter making a brief attempt to defend the practice before backing out of that quicksand, but the conversation quickly moved on the subject of a local celebrity’s wife’s recent weight gain.
This was in Wichita, where the conservative-to-liberal ratio was probably skewed rightward by several degrees relative to the nation at large, and most of the almighty Washington-New York-Los Angeles news media seem even more uncomfortable with the conversation. The editorialists at The New York Times have done some obligatory harrumphing about the administration’s treatment of the press, The Associated Press has been predictably peeved, there has been some rallying around at the usually hated Fox Network, and the administration’s spokespeople have lately been amusingly flustered by unaccustomed hard questions, but it has all been lacking in the outraged vigor of the recent past. Compared to the clamor that would have surely occurred if a Republican administration was responsible it has been rather quiet.
Conservatives have long pipe-dreamed about the possibility of the press turning on Obama, which would surely be a catastrophe for his presidency and an end to his legislative agenda, and the stark evidence of his hostility to a free press has fueled these hopes. A few hours and a couple of glasses of wine with a circle of reporters can dash these hopes, however, and the best that can be hoped for is that the press will be a little bit less adoring of the powers that be.

— Bud Norman