The State of the Union, Such As It Is

President Donald Trump has had a good week so far. On Monday the Democratic party thoroughly botched the opening contest in its presidential nomination process, on Tuesday he got to brag on prime time television for an hour and half about his achievements with all the pomp and circumstance of a State of the Union address, and today he’s almost certain to be acquitted of the impeachment charges brought against him by the House of Representatives. He should enjoy it while it lasts.
That botched Iowa caucuses will be long forgotten by Election Day, and the damage to the Democratic party could have been worse. The embarrassingly long delay in releasing the results was prompted by concerns from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and a failure to address them would have further convinced his supporters that the Democratic National Party is rigging the game against him in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders wound up in a tight race against South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg as the last votes were being counted, Biden was far behind in fourth place, and as incompetent as it clearly was the process didn’t seem corrupt.
Trump stuck to the script on the teleprompter, which was better written than his usual fare, and except for those audible sniffles that preceded every sentence the delivery wasn’t bad. He also had plausible reasons for bragging, as the unemployment rate is low and the stock markets are up, but Trump characteristically overstated how good things are now and how bad things were when he took office.
The gross domestic product grew at a perfectly respectable 2.3 percent rate last year, but that was down from the year before, and well below the 3 or 4 percent growth that Trump had promised, and worse than in the last years of the President Barack Obama’s administration. He only slighted overstated the job creation that occurred during the first three years of his administration, which is a bit below the number created during the last years of President Barack Obama’s administration. He claimed credit for America becoming the world’s leader in oil and gas production, but the country’s held that title since 2013. We don’t give Obama much credit for the upward trajectory of the American economy that Trump inherited and has more or less maintained, which mainly goes to the entrepreneurial genius of the American people and their still mostly free economy, but as Obama did Trump is claiming credit where credit is not due.
Trump also claimed credit for 12,000 new “factories” built during his administration, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 80 percent of them are “manufacturing establishments” with five or fewer employees, and overall the manufacturing sector of the economy is in a technical recession, with other “blue collar” sectors such as construction and mining seeing slower growth and farm bankruptcies rising, and most analysts blame that on Trump’s trade wars. The president boasted that the trade wars have yielded great deals, but the re-branded United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is little more than the usual biannual tweaking of the old North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump falsely claimed had destroyed a fourth of America’s manufacturing jobs, and the deals he’s still seeking with China and the rest of the world don’t look much more promising.
He also bragged that “All those millions of people with 401(K)s and pensions are doing far than have ever done before with increases of 60, 70, 80, 90 and even 100 percent,” but that’s obviously crazy talk. According to Census Bureau only 32 percent of Americans are invested in 401(K)s and pension plans, and according an analysis by Fidelity Investments the increase in their accounts has been more like 1 percent. There was a pledge to always force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions, even though the Trump administration continues to press a lawsuit that would completely undo Obamacare and it’s protections for preexisting condition and has offered no replacement plan. We also noticed Trump promised to get tough on all the big pharmaceutical companies while bragging how he’s streamlined the Food and Drug Administrations safety reviews, which Big Pharma probably won’t mind. He further bragged about criminal justice reform to release prisoners and paid maternity leave and planting new trees, which isn’t likely to endear to either or his admirers or his critics.
Unmentioned was the fact despite that the Greatest Economy Ever Trump is presiding over deficit spending even bigger than Obama saw when he had a Democratic Congress and severe recession to deal with, and that Trump had two years of a Republican Congress to strike the infrastructure deal Trump is still proposing and that’s less likely to win the support of all the Democrats Trump routinely mocks and taunts.
Trump’s impeachment trial wisely went unmentioned, too, even if the entirety of the speech was infused with an unmistakeable triumphalism about his inevitable acquittal today. Acquittal does not always equal exoneration in the court of public opinion, though, and Trump’s former friend O.J. Simpson might warn not to get too cocky about it. A few Republican Senators have been frank enough to say they’ll vote for acquittal even though they concede that Trump did do what’s charged with, and that it was something very bad which he ought not to have done, and a big chunk of the country will still feel outraged by the clearly rigged and evidence-free verdict even after the long slog toward Election Day.
On the other hand, Trump is such an eerily lucky fellow we sometimes suspect the famous deal-maker made a Faustian bargain, and he’ll have the good fortune to run against a Democrat. So far as anyone can tell the big winners in Iowa were the self-described socialist Sanders and the openly homosexual Buttigieg, which might be a step too far even in this age of taboo-breaking in both parties. Biden might make a more respectable showing in New Hampshire and regain his front-runner status in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, but he’s not a very formidable campaigner. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar did well in Iowa to remain in the race, and she’s a relatively sane centrist who has a long record of winning Republican votes and strikes us at the Democrats’ best bet, but this year that probably dooms her chances.
From our perspective here in the middle of the country and on the political sidelines, the state of the union is somewhat worrisome.

— Bud Norman

Yanny, Laurel, Blue Dress, Gold Dress, Green Needles, Brainstorms, the “Russia Thing” and the “Deep State” Conspiracy

First there was that dress that some people see as blue and others see as gold, and more lately there’s that recording that some people hear saying “laurel” and others hear saying “yanny,” but for weird experiments in differences of perception. Some people look at what’s been reported in the news and testified to before congressional committees and courts of law and revealed by e-mails and other documents and see a conspiracy by the Russians and the campaign of now-President Donald Trump to illegally affect the presidential election, while others see a vast “deep state” conspiracy attempting to unseat Trump in a “silent coup.”
So it is with the latest twists and turns in the exceedingly complicated “Russia thing” reality show. The New York Times and the Washington post both reported late last week that an undercover informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation had at least three contacts with Trump campaign officials prior to the election, and we assume that most of their readers took that as evidence the FBI already had good reason to believe that something fishy was afoot. Those who see things Trump’s way usually like to call the papers “The New York Slimes” and “The Washington Compost,” and insist that their reports are usually “fake news,” but in this case they accepted the “lame-stream media’s” finding as unassailable fact and damning proof that the “deep state” conspirators were “spying” on Trump even before his righteous victory.
Over the weekend Trump himself “tweeted” about it at unusual length but with the usual Arbitrary Capitalizations and stream-of-consciousness syntax and sneering mentions of “Crooked Hillary,” and announced that he was “hereby” — which he correctly spelled, this time — demanding a criminal investigation of President Barack Obama’s possible espionage on his campaign. By Monday deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who finds himself in the difficult job of overseeing the “Russia thing” after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was obliged to recuse himself from the whole, and announced that he was having a Department of Justice investigator general look into this latest plot twist.
People had different perceptions of that, too, of course. Many of the ones convinced that Trump cooperated in Russia’s meddling in the election thought Rosenstein was abetting Trump’s ongoing obstruction of the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing,” while most of those who see things Trump’s way were disappointed that he didn’t go whole-hog and appoint a special counsel to investigate the special counsel who’s currently investing that “Russia thing.”
From our current perspective here on the sidelines, with no rooting interest in either the Democratic party or our erstwhile Republican party, we fine ourselves sympathizing with this Rosenstein fellow. When Trump promoted the life-long Republican and career civil servant to his current position Trump called him a “great guy” and his press secretary said he was the “gold standard” of governmental integrity, but after he appointed the lifelong Republican and former FBI head honcho Robert Mueller as the special counsel to continue the investigation that had begun under the lifelong Republican FBI director that Trump admittedly fired because of his interest in the “Russia thing” he became a darling of the Democrats. At the moment he’s being pilloried from both sides, but we can’t blame him for splitting the difference.
Despite their disappointment about the lack of a special counsel to to investigate the special counsel investigating the “Russia thing,” those who see things Trump’s way on talk radio and other “conservative” media are certain that an investigator general will surely expose the “deep state” conspiracy. Despite their disappointment that Rosenstein agreed to even a inspector general’s investigation into the investigation, they’re still holding out realistic hope that he’ll find that the FBI had good and by-the-book reasons to have a trusted undercover agent ask a few questions about some numerous damned suspicious and now admitted contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign.
Whatever that poor fellow who somehow wound up as the inspector general for the Justice Department about the “Russia thing” might conclude — for now we don’t know his name, although it will surely be widely known when he writes his report — different people will surely have different perspectives. If he concludes that the FBI had reasonable reasons to have a trust undercover informant ask a few questions the people who see things Trump’s way will say that the career civil servant who had risen to the level of inspector general is part of the “deep state” plot, and if he concludes that FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign others will conclude he’s complicit in Trump’s ongoing obstruction of justice.
From our man-without-a-party perspective here on the sidelines we don’t see anyone coming out of this “Russia thing” untainted, but expect that Trump and his apologists will get the worst of it. The FBI’s fired-by-Trump director clearly did mishandle its investigation into Democratic nominee “Crooked” Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and other suspicious matters, whether you’re a Republican still annoyed that they didn’t “lock her up” or a Democrat annoyed that he openly investigated Clinton and publicly chastised her for the “extreme carelessness” of her e-mail practices but didn’t publicize investigations into the “Russia thing,” but for the moment we feel sorry for that poor fellow and longtime civil servant as well.
The next experiment of differences of human perspective to go “viral” will probably be a video of a weird device that says either “green needle” or “brainstorm” depending on which word you were thinking of. Sure enough, we defied the mathematical odds by hearing whichever of the two words we were thinking of every time.
Still, we believe in an objective reality regarding more prosaic matters such as the “Russia thing” and the the “deep state” conspiracy, and at this point our only rooting interest is that the truth will somehow prevail. Way back when O.J. Simpson was being tried for murder we perceived a wholly different reality than even our most sober-minded black friends, but by now they’ll pretty much admit that yeah the guy was guilty even though they still have understandable suspicions about the criminal justice system, and we’ll bet real money that even our most Trump-addled white friends will eventually come to the same desultory ambivalent conclusions about Trump and the “deep state.”

— Bud Norman

Simpson vs. Trump in the Ratings War

On an otherwise nice early spring Monday, two remarkably unsurprising headlines grabbed our attention. One was about former football hero O.J. Simpson’s “hypothetical” confession to double murder in an old but only recently aired interview with the Fox News Network, and the other was about the Republicans on the House committee investigating the “Russia thing” soon releasing a report that there’s nothing to it.
At this point we won’t worry about a libel suit and will come right out and say that Simpson damned sure seemed guilty of that long-ago double murder from the start, and we never doubted that sooner or later he’d eventually get around to confessing it in some weaselly way. Still, if you were anywhere near a television or newsstand way back when the trial occurred you couldn’t escape it, as it was the runaway reality show hit of the year, even if the whodunnit part of it was obvious from the outset. It featured a handsome football hero and a gorgeous ex-wife and her hunky younger suitor, it happened in a famously ritzy Los Angeles suburb, there were colorful lawyer characters involved, so Hollywood’s best screenwriters couldn’t have written a more blockbuster script. The handsome football hero and accused murderer was black while the gorgeous ex-wife and her hunky younger suitor were white, too, and with the combination of Los Angeles’ troubled racial history and the ritzy suburban location and the domestic violence it also made for all sorts of think pieces about race class and gender in the more serious media.
The prosecution had Simpson’s blood at the crime scene, the victims’ blood at his home and on his automobile, serial numbers and credit card receipts proving Simpson owned the bloody glove found at the crime scene, and the fact that Simpson had attempted to flea justice on the a live broadcast that got bigger ratings that any Super Bowl or the series of finale of “M*A*S*H.” Simpson’s defense offered no plausible alibi and a bundle of vague conspiracy theories so crazy they wouldn’t fly on “InfoWars,” and if you were sticking to the facts it was pretty simple. At the intersection of race and class and gender it’s hard to stick to the facts, however, especially in our reality show culture, and the Simpson trial provoked all sorts of reactions.
We had several white friends — mostly women, oddly enough — who insisted that Simpson couldn’t be guilty of such a heinous crime because he seemed such a nice guy in all those post-game interviews and the movies and commercials he’d done after his playing days. Pretty much all of our black friends bought into the conspiracy theory that the racist police had pulled off an elaborate conspiracy to frame the black guy. All in all it made for a damned convoluted debate about the outcome.
Two of our better black friends are a couple of colleagues at the newspaper where we labored at the time, both of them fine journalists who usually adhered to the facts of a story, but they both believed the conspiracy theories, and it made for some strained conversation over coffee. We tried to point out that it would take one hell of a conspiracy to so quickly plant the defendant’s blood at the crime scene and the victims’ blood on his automobile at at his home, not to mention that very specific glove, and that the same racist police had let Simpson off lightly after repeated complaints of domestic abuse, but they were unconvinced. Simpson’s ex-wife’s had put pictures of her bruised and bloody face in a safe deposit box to document the repeated domestic abuse, just in case she wound up murdered, but several of our mostly women white friends still insisted he seemed too a nice guy to murder his wife.
At this point in the distant future pretty much everyone figures that yeah, O.J. did it and might as well confess, as there’s not much to do about it now, but the same sort of superficial considerations still cloud the public’s assessment of more pressing matters. The Republicans on the House committee investigating the “Russia thing” have their own obvious reasons for concluding there’s nothing to it, as do many of our white friends and fellow Republicans, and by they have own ┬álegitimate racial grievances and are as obstinate about as their conspiracy theories as our black friends once were about Simpson’s innocence.
We try to point out that even the Trump-appointed heads of all the intelligence agencies agree that the Russian government meddled in the past presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and that various Trump campaign and administration officials have already either pleaded guilty or been indicted or recused themselves for various suspicious and undisclosed contacts with Russian officials. We note that the top-notch special counsel investigation has come up with even more circumstantial than those hapless LA County prosecutors could muster against Simpson, that the hapless Trump defenders on his legal team in the House investigating team and talk radio are offering up conspiracy theories that would have embarrassed Simpson’s lawyers, and it makes for some strained conversations over coffee.
Sooner or later the heat of the moment dissipates, though, and the cold hard facts of the matter become apparent. In retrospect we’re not at all surprised that a mostly black jury from Los Angeles would vote to acquit Simpson, and even in this moment we’re not surprised that an all white group of House Republicans would conclude that there’s nothing at all to that whole “Russia thing.”
People are like that, no matter their color nor their political persuasion.

— Bud Norman