The Desultory State of the Democrats

President Donald Trump is facing an impeachment trial and numerous other pressing problems entirely of his own making, but he can console himself he’ll likely wind up running for reelection against a Democrat. Judging by the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses that kick off the primary election race, the Democrats have problems of their own.
According to all the many polls going into the debate there were four candidates within the margin of error for winning or losing the Iowa caucuses, with a few others with realistic hope of catching up, and according to our traditional Republican instincts and what our Democratic friends are telling us they’re all flawed. Our more emotional Democratic friends revile the so the so-called centrists in the race, while our more cerebral Democratic friends worry that their party is veering too far the left, and from our current perspective here on the political sidelines we don’t like any of the candidates any more than we do Trump.
Nothing that happened in Tuesday’s debate will likely change many minds.
At this point, and as usual, the Democrats are obsessed with all that race and class and gender stuff, so that started off the debate. Putative Independent yet Democratic candidate and self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was recently accused by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts of saying a female candidate could not win a presidential election, which is arguable given the nation’s history but nonetheless a gross breach of Democratic etiquette, and as both are among the four front-runners and vying for the emotional left-wing Democratic vote it was a very big deal. Warren stood by her claim, Sanders didn’t exactly deny it but pledged his support only Democrat who might win the nomination, and after some back-and-forth that also included the centrist Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the only other woman on the stage, he seemed to come out all right.
We have a mostly delightful but severely feminist Democratic friend who so loves Sanders she would sit out an election even against Trump if Sanders weren’t the nominee, and was outraged that her sister and the mainstream media would make such a slanderous claim, and we’re sure she’ll be satisfied with the answer.
The rest of the debate was mostly limited to foreign trade and international affairs and health care and homelessness and other boring topics of greater importance. We can’t say how the candidates fared with a Democratic audience in Iowa or elsewhere, but from our traditional Republican seats here on the political sidelines we were unimpressed by the entire field.
Our traditional Republican instincts are appalled by Trump’s assaults on the carefully established international free trade order that has enriched both America and the rest of the world over the past few post-Reagan decades, and we’re thus far unimpressed by what he’s negotiated in return, but the Democrats are mostly as protectionist as ever. Biden is old enough to remember a time when there was a bipartisan consensus for the free trade agreements that have since made America and the rest of the world richer, so we give him credit for his unapologetic stance in favor of the so-far so-good status quo, but for the most part the Democrats. Even the most centrist Democrats seem more isolationist in the rest of foreign affairs than Trump, and are annoyingly apologetic about it.
We’ll give the Democrats credit for at long last having a serious debate how to pay for their pie-in-sky promises about how to make health care more universal and less costly, but so far they haven’t come up with anything better than what Trump has to offer, which isn’t saying much. We’re glad they acknowledge the homeless problem, not only in Democratic states but in places like here in Wichita, but the best that can be said for their solutions is that they’re less intentionally cruel than Trump’s.
The growing national debt didn’t come up, much to the relief of both parties, and nobody stood out as the next President of the United States. Given our desultory choices we might pick the front-running pick Biden, in the unlikely case we were Democratic primary voters, but that within-shouting-distance Klobuchar has decisively won races against Republican men in Republican districts of Minnesota, and she seems as sane as anyone in politics these days, and quite electable as well. Our endorsement will surely doom her in a Democratic primary race, though, so we’ll withhold that for now.
One of the Democratic front-runners is openly homosexual, another has falsely claimed Native American status, another has been videotaped acting creepily around young women, and the other is a self-proclaimed socialist. Which would not ordinarily bode well for the Democratic party, but they’re lucky to be running against Trump.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is admittedly a homosexual, but he’s also a decorated military veteran, which is more than Trump can say, and Trump isn’t an exemplar of traditional Judeo-Christian morality. Biden has been videotaped acting creepy around girls and is gaffe-prone, but he hasn’t been heard boasting about grabbing women by the genitals and can’t keep up with the daily gaffes Trump’s fans don’t seem to mind. Sanders did falsely claim Native American heritage, but if it comes down to a one-on-one debate she’s feisty enough to cite all the false claims Trump has made over his spotty career. Sanders is a socialist kook, but he seems to actually believe all the nonsense he’s spewing, which makes him the more “authentic” candidate. That nice Klobuchar woman from Minnesota could do well in a general election, and might even win our vote and make a good president, but she’s still a long=shot in a Democratic primary race.
There’s a lot of politics between now and November, though, so we’ll try to enjoy the warm weather and hold out hope.

— Bud Norman

“BoJo,” “Brexit,” and Trump

Over the past many decades there have often been intriguing similarities between America’s presidents and the United Kingdom’s prime ministers.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a conservative Tory and President Franklin Roosevelt a liberal Democrat, but both men came from aristocratic backgrounds and excellent educations and they shared an instinctive abhorrence of Nazism, and Churchill came to share the Cold War stage with President Dwight Eisenhower. Prime Minister Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher was an iconoclastic conservative Tory whose election paved the way for President Ronald Reagan’s equally iron-willed and controversial conservative Republicanism. Reagan was succeeded by the more cautiously conservative President George H.W. Bush at about the same time that was followed by Prime Minister John Major, a cautiously conservative tory with the same sort of establishment pedigree as his American counterpart. President Bill Clinton ended 12 years of Republican presidencies by promising a centrist “third way,” and he was soon joined by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who ended a long run of Tory residence at Number 10 Downing Street on a similar centrist platform.
Since then Republican presidents have sometimes had to get along with Labour Prime Ministers and Democrats have overlapped with Tories, but for the most part the Special Relationship persisted. Putatively Republican President Donald Trump often clashed with Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, who had a more refined style and didn’t share his nationalist instincts, but she’s lately been forced to resign, and will now be replaced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is about as close a copy of Trump as the United Kingdom can find.
Johnson has a longstanding reputation for making up facts that suit him and bluntly insulting anyone who disputes his version of the truth, he’s a Britain-first nationalist who shares Trump’s distrust of international alliances and institutions, he was born in New York City to a wealthy family, and he arguably has an even more ridiculous hair style than the American president. Trump had signaled he would have preferred the even more anti-European Union politician Nigel Farage, who campaigned for Trump during his presidential race, but we expect that he and Johnson will get along quite well at the upcoming economic summits.
Johnson first gained notice in Britain as a journalist, which is a marked contrast from Trump, but we think Trump would have liked his style. He was an anti-European Union crusader at a time when Britain’s entry into the economic alliance was a hotly debated issue. There were plenty of good reasons for Britain to retain its independence, including nosy regulations and open border policies and one-size-fits-all currency, but Johnson wasn’t satisfied with that and invented all sorts of fanciful tales about condom size regulations and other outrages, getting fired from the Times of London for falsifying a quote but later finding a home at the Tory-leaning Telegraph. He parlayed his popularity into eight controversial but not at all catastrophic years as Mayor of London, and then somehow wound in May’s cabinet as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
Britain’s limited involvement in the European Union remained a controversial issue, with the country eventually voting by a slim margin in a referendum to “Brexit” from the agreement. Negotiating the terms of the divorce proved difficult, however, and eventually brought an end to May’s prime ministership. The United Kingdom had wisely followed Thatcher’s advice to retain its Pound Sterling currency rather than accept the Euro that the poorer country’s were using to rack up ruinous debt and require huge bailouts, but it had agreed to accept some very stupid immigration rules and other annoying violations of its sovereignty, so there was ample reason to cut ties with the continent, but on the other hand EU membership also offered very lucrative free trade with the world’s third biggest economy. The EU naturally used that leverage to demand concessions that Johnson and Farage and Trump and other “hard Brexit” advocates resented, and May wound up resigning in frustration with her failure to please anyone.
Perhaps Johnson will have better luck with the negotiations, but the conventional wisdom of American and Fleet Street media is that he’ll have the same problems as May. His Conservative Party and the “Brexit” are both unpopular, Britain’s economy needs the EU more than the EU needs Britain, the country has lately been having its oil tankers seized and harassed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a problem that will require North Atlantic Treaty Organization assistance, and much like Trump he’s widely regarded by the establishment types as a rank amateur who’s in over his ill-coiffed head. The anti-EU Trump has said he’ll reward Britain with a sweetheart trade deal if it makes a “Brexit,” but no matter how sweet it probably won’t be worth as much as free access to the far closer and nearly as large EU economy, and Johnson and Trump have some disagreements on matters ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to the importance of the NATO alliance.
Still, we wish “BoJo” and Trump the best of luck working it all out, as America and the United Kingdom have helped one another do ever since that unpleasantness back in 1812. In a couple of years there might a crazy left Democratic president and a crazy left Labourite prime minister who find themselves simpatico, and if so we’ll hold out work that doesn’t end badly.

— Bud Norman

The First Casualty of the Trade War

Trade wars are good and easily won, President Donald Trump assures us, but we have to admit they make us nervous. Somehow we can’t find a single case in the past several millennia of economic history where a trade war was anything but disastrous and anybody actually won, and with the bluntness Trump’s fans so admire we’ll just come right out and say that we don’t expect his generalship will make his ongoing trade wars come out any better.
Since taking office Trump has been taking on pretty much the entire world, having won the presidency partly on the gripe that the entire world has been taking advantage of America ever since it emerged from the post-World War II ashes as the world’s preeminent economic and military and cultural power, but his biggest battlefront has been with China. On Friday Trump further raised the tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from an already-high 10 percent to 25 percent, which he apparently is allowed to do under the current constitutional order, and before the closing bell on today’s stock markets China is expected to retaliate in kind. The stock markets have been wildly down and then incrementally up throughout the squabble, on fears that Trump is screwing up a carefully built post-World War II international economic order that has for the most part brought increased peace and prosperity to the world and then faint hopes that the great dealmaker might yet deliver on his promise of the greatest deal ever made.
China is indeed a devious trading partner that dumps its excess supplies on world markets and steals intellectual property and occasionally manipulates its currency and exploits more or less slave labor, as Trump claims and even the looniest Democrats agree, so we’ll not deny that a tough negotiating stance is required. Even so, China has emerged from its post-World War II ashes with an economy that is huge by any measure and even bigger than ours by some suspect measures, and it’s a major client of the agricultural and aviation export industries that make up a huge chunk of our beloved Kansas economy, and we’d prefer it was dealt with in a cautious, carefully deliberated way, informed by history and the best expert opinion. Cautious and carefully deliberated and informed by history and expert opinion is clearly not Trump’s style, on the other hand, so for now we’ll remain just as nervous as the stock markets.
We’re just as rank amateurs about all this global economic order stuff as Trump, but with a bravado he might admire we’ll say we’ll go right ahead and say we would have played it differently. China is indeed taking advantage of America in various insidious way, but it’s doing the same to the rest of the world, so we would have availed ourselves of that Leader of the Free World status America’s wiser leaders rightly earned in the post-war years to unite the rest of the Free World and its overpowering economic might against China, which would surely realize it couldn’t take on the rest of the planet, and might even agree to free trade and human rights and full membership in the modern world. Rank amateurs that we are, we note that even the looniest Democrats and the most impeccably credentialed old-fashioned Republican foreign affairs and trade policy experts seem to agree.
Trump is a bolder sort of fellow than ourselves, however, and he chose to take on the rest of the world, so we have no choice but to hope he’s right. His routine renegotiation of the re-branded North American Free Trade agreement has a few billion in upsides for Wisconsin dairy farmers and a few other industries, which Trump claims are the difference between the worst and best trade deal ever negotiated, but it’s currently stalled in the Republican-majority Senate because of the tariffs Trump used in the negotiations that are currently hurting the economies of states held by free-trade Republicans. Meanwhile in the rest of the Free World the European Union is going through a nasty divorce from the United Kingdom. and Trump is taunting the British Prime Minister with sneering “tweets” and threatening the EU with higher tariffs, and demanding they all pay more for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump’s Latin American foreign policy seems in retreat in Venezuela, we can’t discern any policy for the “shit-hole” countries in Africa, North Korea is once again conducting missiles test in Asia, where we’re threatening trade wars against everyone, and the possibility of a united front against those undeniably devious Chinese seems remote.
Trump and his most ardent admirers would have us believe that he’s a self-made multi-billionaire who can easily best these Chinese bums in international trade negotiations, but we’ve read enough of the “fake news” to know that he’s a billionaire’s son who’s gone bankrupt six times in casinos and strip-clubs despite house odds and bare breasts, and ran airlines and football teams and scam universities and other ventures in into the ground, and given his well documented business record we don’t trust in his acumen to run an international economy. He’s lately been crowing about all the money his tariffs have been bringing to the federal treasury, but his national economic council director Larry Kudlow had to acknowledge on one of the Sunday news shows that the money is coming from American consumers rather than China, and sooner or later the average Wal-Mart shopper will notice that Trump tells a lot of lies about his trade wars. Our guess is that those wily Cheese have already noticed, and that we’re in for a bumpy ride.

— Bud Norman

America First, Morality After That

President Donald Trump sat down for an interview with Lesley Stahl of the “60 Minutes” program that aired on Sunday, far away from the friendly confines of “Fox and Friends,” and of course it was full of news.
He suggested that Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, widely considered a restraining influence on Trump’s more rash foreign policy impulses, is “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” and might soon be leaving the White House. He wouldn’t comment on how long Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be around, except to say “We’ll see what happens come midterms,” which suggests that something will happen after the looming midterm elections. He denied mocking the woman who alleged that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault while they were both high schools, although Trump sure did seem to revel in all the laughs he got talking about her at a recenta campaign rally. He effused about the trustworthiness of murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, but added “That doesn’t mean I can’t be proven wrong,” which is newsworthy for its uncharacteristic modesty.
More striking to us, though, was Trump’s continued affinity for murderous Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and murderous Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammad bin Salam, and his apparent insouciance about murderous dictatorships in general.
Although Trump  now grudgingly acknowledges that yeah, Putin probably did meddle in America’s past presidential election, which all of America’s intelligence agencies insist with complete certainty,  he added that China’s murderous dictatorship probably did the same, which no intelligence agency has suggested, and he seemed to shrug it all off as business as usual. Way back in the campaign Trump told friendly Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly that yeah, Putin occasionally a journalist or dissident or political opponent or two, but “There a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, do you think our country’s so innocent?,” and he told the far feistier Stahl the relies on Russia, and he noted with apparent satisfaction that Putin none of Putin’s recent assassination attempts have happened in America or to Americans abroad.
Trump has talked tough about “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if it’s proved the government brutally murdered and dismembered self-exiled Saudi dissident and Washington Post writer and legal American resident Jamal Kashoggi, as all of the world’s intelligence agencies and every sane observer has concluded, but we expect it will require some rather extraordinary proof before he’s nudged to say that yeah, they probably did it. Even if he is somehow convinced that the Saudi friends who treated to him to such a flattering state visit and do billions of dollars of business with American corporations of millions of dollars of business with his own still wholly-owned companies, he’s already pointed out that the alleged killing happened in Turkey, “and to the best of our knowledge, Kashoggi is not a United States citizen.” An American president should speak with more certainty about such easily learnable facts, and should also be aware the a legal residency in the United States also entitles one to the protection of the state, but Trump clearly thinks America lacks the moral standing to fuss about such things.
Trump bluntly told the country as much before he was elected. He said so not only to O’Reilly and his Fox viewers but to all the revved-up rally crowds that chanted along with his “America First” slogan, not knowing or caring it faithfully echoed the pre-World War II isolationist movement that thought Fortress America could get along just fine in a world otherwise ruled by the Axis powers. Long before he started his unlikely political career Trump had hired a ghostwriter to pen “The Art of Deal,” which explicitly described his Machiavellian worldview of everything in life from love to business to foreign relations as a zero-sum game that comes down to winners and losers, with the rules being strictly for suckers. Even as he successfully courted the evangelical Christian vote, he made it quite clear he didn’t believe in all that nonsense loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek and the meek being blessed.
On one warm and sunny Hawaiian December day in ’41 America realized that despite two oceans and a couple of placid neighbors to the north and south America could not get along just fine with the Axis powers, and with the help of some carefully cultivated democratic allies the country waged a costly but ultimately victorious war against those murder dictatorships. The allies also  much needed the help of a murderous communist dictatorship in Russia, which waged a fare more costly war but a sizable victory of it, as well as an unpleasantly authoritarian regime in China that soon fell to an even more murderous communist dictatorship, but somehow the free and democratic nations of the world cobbled together trade agreements and diplomatic arrangements and military alliances that have worked the necessary moral compromise out pretty well for most part over the past 70-plus, at least relative to most of humankind’s bloody and impoverished history.
There have been plenty of wars and moral compromises along the way, of course. Fighting Chinese and Soviet communism involved a couple of horrific wars that resulted in a still-troublesome tie on the Korean peninsula and a arguable loss to a unified and more-or-less capitalist Vietnam that now offers potential strategic advantages to the United States, and America has overlooked some unsavory behavior from anti-communist regimes and any country that can help keep the international economy well lubricated with oil. There were greater moral exigencies to be arguably considered at the time, though, and at no point did any Republican or Democratic president ever signaled that he didn’t much about such behavior. Those bipartisan fancy-pants “experts” got a lot of things wrong, but they also rebuilt former vanquished adversaries into formidable friends, nurtured the free and democratic nations they had rescued from murderous dictatorships, and we think they know better than Trump, and we’ll hate to see the last few of them leave his administration.
Trump is quite right that America has done a lot of killing, and that like any country populated by mere human beings we’re not so innocent, but we think he’s quite wrong to suggest America should begin to atone for its sins by giving the green-light to any of his favored murderous dictators to keep killing off any pesky journalists or political opponents or assorted dissidents. We don’t think it will help make America great again.

— Bud Norman

Trade Wars on an Otherwise Delightful Summer Day in Kansas

Tuesday was another sunny yet unusually temperate top-down summer day here in Kansas, and we had a nice meal with our California brother and his delightful longtime partner and our excellent parents, and then dropped in on Mort’s Cigar Bar in Wichita’s Old Town district to enjoy some swinging standards from the Great American Songbook performed by a crack quartet that included our favorite local chanteuse and a brilliant young musician we’ve happily known since the day he was born. After that we came home to check in on the news, though, and wound up grousing about the ongoing trade wars.
The latest development is that President Donald Trump is proposing $12 billion in subsidies to all the farmers whose bottom lines have lately been hit hard by the rest of the world’s expected retaliation to Trump’s tariffs, which offends our Kansas Republican sensibilities. Kansas grows more wheat and corn and alfalfa and all those other crops we can’t quite identify on our drives through the country than even America’s obese consumers can eat, so the state’s all-important agricultural sector has long been reliant on hungry foreign markets to buy up the excess production, and no one around here seems at all pleased that Trump has chosen to demolish such a mutually beneficial world trading order.
That $12 billion in subsidies is a nice gesture, especially if it actually happens, but it’s going to be distributed around a large number of far more populous agricultural states and amounts to a rounding error in the trillion-dollar deficit that America is predicted to incur, and around here it’s not playing well. Both of the state’s stalwart-as-usual Republican Senators are defiantly not on board with Trump’s trade war policies, and we hear the same sentiment on the ag stations we tune into on our drives around the state’s big city. The farmers and the politicians they’ve elected around here have long advocated the food stamp and subsequent welfare programs that buy up a lot of their excess production, and they’ve long relied on crop insurance and other federal subsidy programs, but with stubborn Kansas pride they’d rather make a living by selling their excellent crops on a free international market than get by on welfare.
Our own family here in the state’s big city is far more invested in the second-most-important aviation sector of the state’s economy, which is also dependent on a world market to buy up its but up its excess production of excellent aircraft, and it’s going to take a whole lot more than mere $12 billion in deficit spending to make up the difference if the rest of the world cancels all its American airplane contracts.
Here in Kansas we have our squabbles but mostly try to get along with everybody, a lesson we learned back in the “Bleeding Kansas” days, and we’re pleased to notice that Trump’s trade wars are not popular. The strategy might prove popular in the steelmaking and aluminum-produceing states that are being protected by Trump’s tariffs, but they’re probably unpopular in all the steel- and aluminum-bying states, and we don’t see it working out well for the country at large. Which might not make any difference in the coming mid-term elections at all, and given the local Democrats’ crazy turn to the far left it  probably won’t flip any seats in Kansas, except maybe in that educated and upper-crust district up in the Kansas City suburbs.
No matter how it shakes it out, we have family and friends and good music here in the state, and we  trust we’ll eventually get by.

— Bud Norman

Trump Takes on Harley-Davidson

Harley-Davidson has long made the motorcycles of choice for American cops, criminals, and male middle age crisis sufferers, and ranks with Louisville Slugger baseball bats and Fender electric guitars and apple pies as one of America’s most all-American products. Nonetheless, President Donald Trump now regards the company as one of his  enemies in the world trade war he’s waging.
It all started with Trump imposing punitive tariffs on imports from the European Union, which predictably resulted in the EU imposing retaliatory tariffs on certain industries in the states that cast their electoral votes for Trump in the last election. Wisconsin was one of those states, and the Milwaukee-based manufacturer of the only significant American motorcycle was hit with tariffs that would raise the cost of their product by than $2,000 in the company’s second-biggest market, which predictably resulted in Harley-Davidson’s announcement that it would avoid the tariffs by building motorcycles for the European market in Europe.
Which predictably resulted in a series of “tweets” by Trump denouncing the company as un-American, threatening to impose new taxes “like never before” on it, and predicting its American customers will soon go bankrupt as its customers go elsewhere.
All of which, of course, is balderdash. Harley-Davidson’s decision to build motorcycles in Europe is the predictable self-interested economic response to the predictable consequences of Trump’s ill-advised trade war, which seems pretty American to us, and we’d note that Trump and his favorite daughter have long had the products they peddle manufactured in other countries for far less necessary reasons. Presidents are restrained by the Constitution from levying taxes on their political enemies, and even if Trump persuaded Congress to do so it would be a bill of attainder that is explicitly unconstitutional and downright un-American. If Harley-Davidson’s proudly American customers do decide to choose another motorcycle to show their solidarity with Trump, they’ll almost certainly wind up buying a German or Japanese model and paying much more for it because of Trump’s tariffs.
Pretty much everything about Trump’s trade war against the world is similarly stupid. Those employed in the steelmaking industry might benefit, but those employed in the more numerous steel-using industries are going to take a hit and anyone who buys a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or anything else made with steel is going to wind up paying much more for it. The Kansas wheat farmers and airplane-makers around here who rely on lucrative export markets to get by are going to take a hit from all the retaliatory tariffs, too, and so will all sorts of workers in all sorts industries that don’t need Trump’s protection and aren’t in his favor.
The post-World War II order that everyone agreed to at Bretton Woods and established a global market doing business with the Yankee dollar as the reserve currency unit has brought about an unprecedented era of global peace and prosperity, and despite all the ups and undeniable downs along the way America is also better off. Trump is convinced that by his sheer Nietzche-an power of will he can negotiate the rest of the world into cutting up the post-war world order goose and giving America all the golden eggs, though, and he seems to have persuaded a significant number of fans that he can.
At one of his continuous campaign rallies on Tuesday in West Columbia, South Carolina, Trump got big laughs by insulting an outgoing Republican South Carolina congressman and a dying Republican Senator and former Republican presidential nominee who haven’t been properly obeisant to the president, as well as a couple of late-night television comedians who constantly lampoon him. He also got big cheers for promising an escalated trade war against Germany, which he blames for selling more cars in America than America sells in Germany and thus creating a trade deficit, which he considers an unforgivable offense, even though everybody runs a trade deficit with somebody, which is how the world works.
The crowd loved it, even though the biggest employer by far in the nearby and thriving town of Greenville is Bavarian Motor Works, which is as iconically German as Harley-Davidson is iconically American. Those low-paying sweat-shop textile mill jobs South Carolina used to get by on have long since been outsourced to even the lower-wage and less-regulated countries where Trump and his favorite daughter have their branded neckties and women’s apparel made, but the state is by far better off with BMW running its biggest factory in the state, and why those rally-goers have more faith in Trump than the post-war world order that has brought them such peace and prosperity is hard to explain.
We have no particular affection for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, as their customers regularly interrupt our conversations on the local taverns’ outside drinking areas with their loud flatulence, and the last time we rode a motorcycle was decades ago and on one of those Japanese “rice burners,” but we’re now rooting for this iconic American brand and the rest of the world in their war with Trump.

— Bud Norman

The Pros and Cohns of Protectionism

Even on a Tuesday day when a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, the departure of National Economic Council director Gary Cohn was the biggest news out of the White House. The frequent comings and goings of Trump administration officials are usually newsworthy only because of the colorful characters involved and the chaotic situation they represent, but in Cohn’s case it could have serious consequences.
Cohn was one of economic advisers who tried to talk Trump out of imposing the steep steel and aluminum tariffs that were announced last week, as well as the rest of the protectionist agenda Trump has proposed, and his resignation suggests that talking Trump out of such cockamamie ideas is beyond his ability. The congressional Republican leadership also tried persuade Trump to reconsider, and although Trump is invoking national security reasons for imposing the tariffs so did his Defense Secretary and Secretary of State, as well as some of most stalwart defenders in the conservative media, so it appears that no one’s up to the task.
Cohn’s continued role in the White House gave faint hope to the free-traders, though, and his exit suggests the fight is over. His resignation wasn’t announced until the stock markets had closed for the day, but we expect the news will be met glumly when they open again today. Except for the aluminum and steel makers and a few other unionized industries hoping for similar protection from foreign competition, pretty much everyone is planning to pay more for aluminum and steel and try to pass the hit along the supply chain and down to the end consumer, steeling themselves for the inevitable retaliatory tariffs on American exports by friends and foes alike, and worrying what comes after that.
Cohn and the other sensible administration officials and the congressional Republican leadership and the conservative media defenders should have seen it coming all along, though, as well as all those steel-and-aluminum buying companies and export industries and other critics. Trump made quite clear during his seemingly quixotic campaign that he intended on waging a global trade war, and although he spouted off a lot of crazy talk that no one took seriously he was quite clearly sincere in about this particular threat. He’d been publicly critical of America’s trade with the rest of the world since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, claimed that America had been taken advantage of in every foreign relation since the Marshall Plan of President Harry Truman, and offered himself as the artful dealmaker who alone could set things right. Over the years Trump has been all over the place on abortion and immigration and “transgender rights” and almost anything else in the news — we like to joke that he’s taken more positions than Stormy Daniels — but he has never once wavered from a core conviction that he alone could renegotiate the entire world economy to America’s rightful advantage.
Although an estimable fellow, Cohn was never going to talk Trump out of this delusion. Cohn was always a controversial pick, with critics to both the left and right, and ill-suited to any role in Trump’s reality show. His only previous employer was at the too-big-to-fail Goldman-Sachs investment bank, where he rose through the ranks to a top spot, and the conspiracy theorizing sorts of liberals and conservatives have long noticed that Goldman Sachs has landed a noticeable number of former executives in both Democratic and Republican administrations for an noticeably long time, so that left him vulnerable. The stock markets and other centrist types were slightly reassured that at least Trump honored some of the time-honored presidential traditions, and held out hope Con would restrain Trump’s populist impulses, but a buttoned-down riser-through-the-corporate ranks has never prevailed in any reality show ever aired.
Cohn lasted on the reality show island longer than most of us expected, given all the anti-globalist conspiracy theorists who got a vote in each week’s cliff-hanging exile. He outlasted the defiantly nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon, oh-so loyal and kinda cute communications director Hope Hicks, onetime establishment whipping boy and later chief of staff Reince Priebus, currently under-indictment former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, that Omarosa woman who held some job or another before returning to a lesser-rated reality, along with countless others can’t quite recall. We think he did some good along the way, too.
As an observant Jew with universal human values, Cohn reportedly considered resigning after Trump insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside the neo-Nazis at a deadly rally in Virginia, and although he stayed on he helped fuel the public’s indignation. By sticking around he helped he shape and shepherd trough the Congress a tax bill that so far seems one the best things the Trump administration has done, and he’s also played a role in all the deregulation that has so far worked out well enough. He couldn’t talk Trump out of his crazy trade war, but at least his resignation might spook the stock markets and fuel the public’s indignation and give those congressional Republican leaders and other critics some chance of restraining the president’s populist impulses.
We’ll hope for the best for Cohn and all the rest of us, including that unfortunate visiting Swedish Prime Minister who wound up standing next to Trump during a joint news conference where both the American and Swedish press were asking all sorts of pointed questions about potential trade wars and the ongoing “Russia thing.” The video would have fed all the snarky late comics’ monologues if not for the lawsuit by the porn star, but even those easy and smutty jokes were among the first casualties of the trade war.

— Bud Norman

Steeling Ourselves for a Trade War

The smart money on Wall Street didn’t much like President Donald Trump’s announcement he would be imposing steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, with the Dow dropping 500 points before recovering to end the day with a mere 400 point plunge.  Our own dumb money here on Perry Street in Wichita, Kansas, also didn’t much like it.
Neither did we like it when Trump was running for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States on an aggressively protectionist platform, but you know how that turned out. The protectionist racket is always tempting to the populist demagogues of both parties, and although we always prided our Republican selves on the the historical fact that our Grand Old Party has usually been less susceptible to such nonsense we must admit it does succumb from time to time. This time around we think that Trump triumphed in the primaries despite his protectionist policies, not because of them, which makes for some damned complicated politics, and as always we think it’s bad policy.
Which is damned complicated to explain, which makes it all the easier for a populist demagogue from either party to exploit. One can easily see how a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum will bolster the fortunes of American steel and aluminum companies, not to mention their employees, and such a prodigiously glib populist demagogue as Trump can rightly note to his xenophobic followers that all that foreign steel and aluminum is made by foreigners, and that all that domestic steel and aluminum is made is made by Americans. Aluminum-makers don’t have quite the iconic status in American mythology as as those square-jawed and hard-hatted steelmakers in countless folk songs and Works Progress Administration murals, but you throw in wily foreigners and the feckless government negotiators who allowed them steal America’s wealth, and it’s a pretty compelling argument.
For now it’s harder to convince someone of the objective fact that to whatever extent the proposed tariffs benefit the steel-and-aluminum-selling industries they’re going to be just as costly to all the steel-and-aluminum-buying industries. All the official statistics show that domestic steel-and-aluminum-buying industries employ more Americans and make up a bigger share of the economy than steel-and-aluminum-selling ones, as one might expect, and eventually all the final consumers of the suddenly more expensive steel-and-aluminum products will also figure that out, as the smart money on Wall Street seems to have already done.
Not to mention that the rest of the world isn’t going to take Trump’s blustery threats lying down, as all his supine Republican primary opponents eventually did, so of course this mean trade war. All of the countries that Trump is slapping tariffs on can and have already announced that they will impose retaliatory tariffs on the stuff we sell them, as one might expect, and that’s also a bigger chunk of the American economy than steelmaking and aluminum-making. Trump is simultaneously threatening withdrawal from the North American Free Trade agreement, demanding a severe renegotiation our trade treaties with the European Union, has already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership without offering any alternative but “America First,” and Wall Street isn’t the only stock-exchanging avenue in the world where they’re feeling jitters about the end of the post-World War II global economic order.
The post-World War II global economic order has worked out pretty good from our Republican perspective here on Perry Street, and even the smart money seems to agree. The global economy has expanded at an unprecedented rate,  all the predicted mass famines and global conflicts and nuclear holocaust have been largely averted, life expectancy rates have soared, and technological and cultural revolutions have provided plenty to do with the spare time. The Yankee dollar is still the word’s reserve currency, which sustains the otherwise unsustainable debt the Republicans are currently racking up, and America retains an economic might that Trump likes to boast about. Countless countries have joined the modern economic and Democratic and middle class world, and it’s hard to see a downside unless you think those wily foreigners stole all that money from us, and are the reason you don’t own a bigger boat of broader-screened television.
A lot of Republicans and Democrats apparently believe that, as they always have, but in the end bad policy is always bad politics. The self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s leftward wing of the Democratic fully agrees with Trump’s protectionist policies, but probably by the mid-terms and certainly the next presidential election they’ll be moving toward the center. For now those hated establishment types who crafted the post-World War II economic are reviled by the Trumpian Republican Party, but that also might not last long.
The protectionist racket is only popular so long as  it works, after all, and isn’t really a matter of political ideology or party affiliation. If you’re in an industry that’s vulnerable to foreign competition, you’re for it, and if you do a lot of export business with those wily foreigners you’re against it. Here in the reliably Republican state of Kansas the two biggest chunks of the economy are agriculture and aviation, respectively, which happen to be America’s biggest export industries, respectfully, and although Trump beat the likes of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton handily in the general election he came in a distant third in the state’s Republican caucus.
Despite his popular vote thumping Trump’s protectionist promises put him over the Electoral College top in such rust-belt states as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which are saddled with industries more in need of protection from foreign competition, but in the end that won’t do him much good. Even in the protectionist states there are more steel-and-aluminum-buyers than steel-and-aluminum sellers, however, and the Democrats there aren’t going to vote for Trump even if he defies the National Rifle Association and brings about a single-payer national health insurance policy. With the smart money on Wall Street abandoning him, and the rest of the post-World War II global economic order retaliating, and economic logic holdings its usual sway, we think he’s already lost this fight.
At least he fights, as we’re sure the die-hard Trump defenders will say.

— Bud Norman

The Ongoing Campaign’s National Insecurity Statement

Ever since the Reagan administration — and oh how we miss those days, by the way — the congress has required that presidents provide a general statement of their foreign policy objectives and plans to achieve them. Every president has complied, always with a low-key and little-noticed publication carefully written to avoid antagonizing any adversaries or alarming any allies, but of course President Donald Trump seized the opportunity to deliver yet another campaign speech on Monday.
There was some good stuff in the official written statement, we must admit it, despite that “America First” slogan that always reminds us of the pre-World War II era.. Trump vowed that America’s foreign policy would be back up by an ever-more muscular military, and warmed our old-fashioned Republican hearts by quoting President Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of “peace through strength,” although without attribution. He spoke of “rallying the world” to confront North Korea’s nuclear provocations, which holds out some hope of a diplomatic solution, and of reaching a better deal than the current deal to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although he didn’t get very specific about what it would be or how he might get it. One sentence promised “gradual reform, not radical change, should be our guiding objective” in the Middle East, and there were other allusions to international alliances and American leadership that had a similarly reassuring steady-at-the-helm sound about them. He mentioned Russia as one of America’s more troublesome countries, but was vague about their interference in the past presidential election.
There was also a lot of nonsense from past national security statements that was left out, we must admit. Climate change wasn’t among the national security threats mentioned, no apologies were offered for pursing American interests, and didn’t describe the obvious threat of radical Islamist terrorism as “religious extremism.” On the whole, the brief written statement wasn’t half-bad by Trump standards.
The much longer campaign speech Trump delivered was far worse, though, for all the usual reasons. It began with his characteristic boasts about the tens of thousands of miles he’s travelled and the hundreds of world leaders he’s met as president, which reminded of us vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s similar campaign boasts about her tenure as Secretary of State, and it was quickly followed by some flattery about how the American people have been “among the greatest forces for peace and justice in the world.” That was followed by the characteristic boast that “just one year ago, you spoke out loud and clear. On Nov. 8, 2016, you voted to make America great again.”
Notwithstanding his three-million-or-so-vote loss in the popular vote, Trump then took the opportunity to criticize at least five of his most recent predecessors, although without mentioning any names. He criticized pretty much all of America’s current trade deals, which date as far back as Reagan, and he blasted “nation-building abroad while they failed to replenish our nation at home,” which clearly means President George W. Bush and the rest of the Bushes and the rest of the Republican establishment. He also spoke of how “they put American energy under lock and key” and “imposed punishing regulations and crippling taxes,” which can only mean Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and lamented how “they” had neglected to solve the North Korea problem, with the “them” presumably stretching back to the administration of President Harry Truman.
All of those darned “them” also negotiated all of the worst-ever trade deals that have done so much damage to the American economy, which Trump frequently brags is humming along better than ever, but Trump made his usual vague promises to set that right. Trump also blamed them for letting a lot of illegal aliens into the country, which is a fair enough point, but followed it up with the usual crazy talk about building a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, even if he didn’t add the long lost crazy talk about making the Mexicans pay for it. Much of the speech was devoted to boasting about America is stronger than ever and standing up for itself like never before, but overall it struck as strikingly whiny.
Trump is quite right that pretty much of the entirety of American history, the past several presidential administrations included, have left him in a rather tough spot. Every president could say the same, though, as could any other world leader about his country and its past several governments. The best of them have never disparaged the past leadership of their countries or the people who put them in power and instead moved forward with steady-at-the-helm leadership, and the worst them have always made vague promises to set things right.
Back in the campaign Trump promised he would never apologize for America, despite a few missteps it has undeniably made, and he would do well to acknowledge that the entirety of its history has also left him a position most of history’s world leaders would have envied. America’s military does need a boost, but it had been the world’s mightiest for more than 75 years before Trump office, despite all those Democrats. The past decades of free trade have driven innovations and increased prosperity not only in America but around a relatively placid globe, and the past 11 months of Trump haven’t much changed that trajectory.
Trump’s campaign speech probably got about as much attention as those low-key and little-read previous national security statements did, but it probably got the usual scrutiny from our anxious allies and recently emboldened adversaries. If they glean the same impression we gleaned of a megalomaniacal yet desperate politician pandering to his base rather than conducting a steady at the helm of American foreign policy in the country’s interests, all the good stuff will be for naught.

— Bud Norman

Prophetic Words From a Burning Bush

Something deep in our old-fashioned Republican souls feels a certain nostalgia for the administration of President George W. Bush, and lately even our most newfangled Democrat friends will admit to some degree of the same feeling. Bush was an imperfect president, as we freely admit and our Democrat friends and our Democrat friends often remind us, but on Thursday he gave a rare and remarkable speech that reminded us all he could have been a whole lot worse.
With characteristic classiness Bush has mostly retreated from the public stage since leaving office, preferring to spend his time with family and paint some surprisingly fine portraits of the servicemen and servicewomen who carried out his controversial foreign policy, and otherwise devote himself to the happily apolitical good works of his family’s foundations, which has eventually endeared him to most of the American public at large. He re-entered the political fray on Thursday with that remarkable speech, though, and it heartened us as well as our Democrat friends.
Bush’s oration at the George W. Bush Institute welcomed a Latino amigo who had served in his administration’s military, as well as several foreign visitors in the audience, along with Secretaries of State from both his and President Bill Clinton’s administrations, then launched into a an eloquent defense of such cherished American values of liberty and democracy. He lauded the post-World War II order of free markets and free trade, decried the current Chinese and Russian threats to that order, and lamented that too many Americans now fail to appreciate its benefits. Bush further denounced the recent degradation of America’s political discourse, warned against rising nativist sentiments, unequivocally denounced white supremacy, and called for a new civility in America’s public square.
Such anodyne sentiments wouldn’t be at all remarkable in ordinary times, but these days it’s the stuff of controversy. With characteristic classiness Bush didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, but no matter how old-fashioned a Republican or newfangled a Democrat you might be there’s no denying it implied a severe criticism of the current and putatively Republican president, so there was an unavoidable flap.
Bush’s assertion — completely correct as far our old-fashioned Republican souls are concerned — that “free trade helped make America into a global power” is an obvious response to Trump’s claims that the rest of the world has been stealing America’s wealth. When Bush griped that now “bigotry seems emboldened” and “Our politics seem more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication” the metaphorical shoe fit Trump well enough that he has to wear it. “we have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush said, and although he might have been talking about all the talk radio hosts that used to defend him, but everyone knows he was talking about a president who has mocked a reporter’s physical handicap and his political opponents’s heights and the plainness of their wives. His warnings about the cyber-attacks on American democracy by foreign adversaries were just as clearly aimed at Trump, who continues to deny against mounting evidence that it’s a problem.
All of the casually cruel talk radio hosts who used to defend Bush were properly appalled, of course. By now they’re all obliged to rally ’round the current putatively Republican president, so they all denounced Bush as an “elitist” and “globalist” and worse yet “establishment” voice. None of them could articulate a persuasive point-by-point refutation of what Bush said, but these days such meaningless calumnies as “elitist” and “globalist” and “establishment” will suffice for their audience. Although we’re not at all elite nor globalist, and in fact are barely getting by these days, we’re still nostalgic for the good old days when they were defending to the death even Bush’s worst moves.
These days even our most newfangled Democrat friends are giving Bush some long overdue respect, and we’ll hold out hope it provides some common ground on which to find a way out of our current difficulties. Some of our most newfangled Democrat friends share Trump’s aversion to free trade and traditional role in sustaining world order, and are every bit as un-civil as Trump in their discourse, but we appreciate Bush’s help in any case.

— Bud Norman