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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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A Quick Start to a New Year

The annual holiday lull in the news cycle is officially over, and we head into the first weekend of the second year of President Donald Trump with more stories than we can keep up with.
There’s that soon-to-be-bestselling book that paints of a picture of a dysfunctional White House led by an attention-deficit-disordered and dangerously impetuous president, for one thing, and the mere excerpts have already generated several headline-grabbing subplots. Several of the damning excerpted quotes come from Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign “chief executive” and administration “chief strategist, who is now officially banished from Trump World and cut off from the kooky billionaire family that had been funding his efforts to primary challenge pretty much every Republican incumbent in congress who has been insufficiently loyal to Trump, so that’s a noteworthy development. One of Trump’s many lawyers has issued a “cease and desist” letter to the soon-to-be-bestselling book’s publisher, along with Trump’s characteristic threat of a lawsuit, and despite its obvious futility that assault on the First Amendment was also newsworthy enough to bolster the book’s inevitable sales.
Whatever the errors that are bound to be found in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” its picture of a dysfunctional administration led by an attention-deficit-disorcered is made all the more convincing by other stories currently in the news. Buried deep in the papers was the news that the White House has pulled the plug on its once-ballyhooed commission to investigation of voter fraud, which Trump has long claimed explained his three-million-votes-or-so loss in the popular election but somehow didn’t prevent his victory in the electoral college. The commission’s fact-finding requests had been rebuffed not only by Democratic states who resented the implied allegation that they had cheated Trump of millions of votes, but also by several Republican states who resented the assault on their longstanding Republican principle of states’ rights to conduct their own elections, and no one ever really believed that it was going to explain away that embarrassing popular vote loss to the likes of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The story is of particular interest here in Kansas, because Secretary of State Kris Kobach was in charge of the commission, and its abysmal failure is thus likely to hinder his gubernatorial campaign. He’s instituted some common sense rules about voting and generally did well in the ob, as far as we’re concerned, but the Republican party infighting between the extremist and establishment wings is particularly intense right about now, and we won’t mind at all if his efforts to aid Trump only aid the establishment candidate.
We have two brothers who live in California and Colorado, so we also noticed the news that Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has issued a directive to more strictly enforce federal marijuanas in the many states that have legalized the medicinal and recreational use of the devil’s weed. There’s an obvious legal case to made, and Sessions will likely convince many of his fellow senior citizens on policy grounds that it’s much needed to make America great again, but it strikes us as a political disaster. By now clear majorities of the public have a live-and-let-live attitude about pot-smoking, which includes fastidiously abstinent Republicans who just as rigorously adhere to a state’s rights principle, along with a whole lot of Trump-voting Republicans we know who avail themselves of an occasional toke on the devil’s weed, and although the youth cohort doesn’t partake at the same rate of their elders they seem far more permissive about the practice.
Even the most abstemious among us is tempted to take a long and deep bong hit when confronted with the latest dispatches about the ongoing nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula. In case you haven’t been following this all-too-real reality show, the nutcase dictator of North Korea recently boasted that he had a button on his desk that he could push to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, and the President of the United States responded by “Tweet” that, yeah, well, his button was bigger. The obvious Freudian implications of the riposte fueled late night comedy show monologues, while the South Korean government commenced very talks with their North Korean antagonists and the rest of our allies seemed similarly unimpressed by Trump’s boasts.
Elsewhere in the news there are stories about those “dreamers” who were illegally smuggled into the country as children and now find themselves hoping to maintain their quasi-legal status as mostly law-abiding and tax-paying and college-going and military-serving almost-citizens, and Trump’s attempts to use them as negotiating chips to build his long promised wall of a border wall. There’s also the matter of the recently defunded program that provides health insurance to children whose parents are too rich to qualify for Medicaid but too poor to pay for private insurance, and that has to be worked out in the context of yet another continuing resolution to keep the entirety of the federal government limping along on deficit spending that’s not likely to be alleviated by the Republican’s recent big victory of a tax bill. That’s likely to make for a bad news cycle.
On the other hand, the stock markets are up and the unemployment rate is down, Trump’s deregulations and that budget-busing tax bill clearly have something to do with it, and so far there are no mushrooms clouds over the Korean peninsula and no smoking gun in that Russia thing. Trump’s approval ratings climbed into the low-40s over the holidays, but the new year seems off to a bad start.

— Bud Norman

Bannon Bows Out

That awful Steve Bannon fellow was back at the top of the news on Wednesday, but at least we can at long last hope it will be for the last time.
In case you haven’t been following President Donald Trump’s tawdry reality show, Bannon is the former Naval officer and Goldman Sachs executive and Hollywood investor who went from the “alt-right platform” of Breitbart.com news site to become Trump’s campaign “chief executive officer” and then the “chief political strategist” and National Security Council member for the Trump administration. He was largely credited for crafting the nationalist and populist platform that won Trump the presidency, or largely blamed for it depending on your political perspective, and he was also largely credited and blamed for holding Trump to his nationalist and populist promises after the election. This made him an enemy of the more traditional Republicans who somehow wound up in the administration, as well as the Democratic daughter and son-in-law of the president, and Bannon’s prominence clearly an annoyed a president who prefers all the attention be focused on himself, so a while back he was predictably defenestrated.
He continued to converse frequently with the president, who still said nice things about him, and in his reassumed editorship of Brietbart.com he continued to propagate the more nationalist and populist elements of Trump’s presidency. With financial backing from a billionaire family he threatened to run primary challengers against any Republican congress member who wasn’t sufficiently loyal to Trump, and thus establish a brand new Grand Old Party along nationalist and populist lines. One of his early efforts included his full throated support of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who had twice been kicked off the state’s Supreme Court for defying federal court authority and professed antebellum opinions about slavery and women’s suffrage and homosexuality and was clearly an unusually lousy candidate even before credible accusations arouse that he’d sexually preyed on underaged girls surfaced, and when Moore somehow lost a senate seat in Alabama of all places that should have been the last we ever heard of Bannon.
It probably would have been, but a reporter named Michael Wolff has a soon-to-be-published booked called “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” and the excerpts that have been run in New York Magazine are already dominating a still-slow post-holiday news cycle. The excerpts paint a picture of a dysfunctional and infighting administration presided over by an inept and immature president, and for the moment the media mostly seem interested in the quotes attributed to Bannon. Among other things, Bannon called Donald Trump Jr.’s by-now admitted meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirty of Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton not only stupid but “treasonous,” added some similarly and by now familiar disparagements of Trump son-in-law Jarden Kushner, and seems to suggest that the investigations into Trump’s relationship with Russia isn’t a witch hunt. There was no way to keep that off the top of the news.
Trump promptly responded with a statement that “Steve Bannon has nothing to with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” The statement went on to blame Bannon for Moore’s loss in the Alabama senate race, allege that Bannon had long leaked damaging information to the hated mainstream media, and dismissed Wolff’s book as fake news.
All of which is at least partly true, but none of which is at all helpful. Bannon has indeed clearly lost his mind, but that happened long before Trump made him his campaign’s “chief executive officer” and his administration’s “chief political strategist,” so it’s far too late to lie he had nothing to do with Trump or his presidency. Trump did give a half-hearted endorsement of Moore’s establishment primary opponent, telling a rally crowd that “I might be wrong,” but he did wind up more fully endorsing Bannon’s crackpot anti-establishment candidate even after the credible allegations of creepy behavior toward underage girls, and they both share in the blame for that debacle. Bannon almost certainly was one of the frequent unnamed sources that the hated mainstream media cited, but by alleging that Trump concedes it wasn’t all “fake news.” Wolff’s book is bound to include some errors, too, but it’s bound to include some verifiable bombshells and with Trump’s unwitting help looks to be a huge best-seller.
At least Trump seems to be finally rid of Bannon, and perhaps so are the rest of us. All those nationalists and populists who rooted for Trump will continue to do so, all those newfangled liberals and the more old-fashioned sorts of conservatives who loathed Bannon will continue to loathe Trump, and Bannon seems left without any support except maybe that billionaire family of right-wing kooks. He never was an appealing character in the Trump reality show, even in the public-loves-to-hate-’em sort of way as Omarosa Manigault or Anthony Scaramucci or various other grotesque cast members, and we’re hopeful he’ll soon be consigned to the dreary sort of anonymous life one can buy with Goldman Sachs and Hollywood and Trump money.
Trump is still stuck with the worst of the populist and nationalist platform he ran on, however, and it’s not yet known if Bannon’s promise to burn down the Republican establishment will eventually be kept.

— Bud Norman