Advertisements

A Blue Moment in a Red State

After a full week of counting and re-counting votes, the Kansas Republican party at last has a a gubernatorial nominee. The by-the-skin-of-his-teeth winner turns out to be Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and we expect he’s in for a tough general election.
Although a reliably Republican state in congressional and presidential elections, Kansas hasn’t rewarded either the Republicans or Democrats with a third consecutive term since the 1960s, when conservative Democrat Robert Docking won four straight two-year terms, and the past eight years of Republican rule haven’t gone so well. For seven of those years the governor was former Senator Sam Brownback, whose radical tax cut agenda required purges of establishment Republicans in some ugly primary fights and didn’t deliver the promised economic boom and enhanced revenues, and after he resigned to become something called Ambassador for Religious Freedom in the administration of President Donald Trump his Lieutenant Governor and accidental Gov. Jeff Colyer could do little to reverse the state’s fortunes in a year’s time, even though his fellow establishment Republicans had won a second round of ugly primary fights against the hard-liners and some common-sense fixes to the tax code were enacted.
Kobach further complicates the Republican’s problems. He only beat Colyer by a hundred votes or so, with about 60 percent of the party voted for another of the crowded field of candidates, and his audaciously far-right stands on various issues will be a hard sell to a state that’s lately reverting to its cautiously center-right character. Nationally-known for his obsessions with illegal immigration and voter fraud, Kobach won our votes in two races for Secretary of State with such common sense reforms as photo identification requirements for voting, but since his reelection many Kansans such as ourselves think he’s taken things a bit too far.
He was tabbed by Trump to head a federal commission to prove that more than three million illegal immigrant voters had robbed the president of his rightful win in the popular vote, but that went down in flames when both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state refused for both Democratic and Republican reasons to comply with the commission’s demands for their voter data, with even Kansas refusing on the basis of state law to comply with all of it. Some rather stringent voter registrations requirements that we’re not sure we could comply with were challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, and when Kobach represented himself in the lawsuit he not only wound up on the losing side of the verdict but racked up thousands of dollars in contempt of court fines and much public ridicule in the process. Kobach has fully embraced the snarling Trump style of campaigning and credits the president’s endorsement for his victory, but more than 70 percent of Republican caucus-goers voted against that in ’16 and about 60 percent of Republican primary voters didn’t fall for it in ’18.
Longtime state legislator Laura Kelly won more than 50 percent of the Democratic party’s votes against a crowded field that included such formidable challengers as former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and the folksy rural legislator Joshua Svaty, and we can’t imagine any Democrat in the state opting for Kobach. Democrats are only about 30 percent of the state, but that’s always a good start in any race, and our guess is that most of Kansas’ numerous independents are leaning Democratic about now, and that many of the state’s stubbornly independent Republicans are getting fed up with their party. Trump won the state’s six electoral votes by the usual Republican landslide, but he was running against the historically horrible Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and such a scandal-free and not-at-all-shrill centrist as Kelly is unlikely to inspire such widespread loathing in the Grand Old Party.
The wild card in the race is independent candidate Greg Orman, a rich businessman making his second electoral run in Kansas. Back in the state GOP’s anti-establshment fervor of ’14 longtime Sen. Pat Roberts narrowly escaped a primary challenge, so Orman ran an independent campaign to the right of Roberts, and the Democratic nominee was so lame that the party withdrew him from the ballot and hoped that Orman would at least remove a sitting Republican from the Senate, but he wound up losing by a lopsided margin and Roberts is still in office and at least resisting Trump’s stupid trade wars. This time around Orman is running on the argument that a two-party system of democracy is a rigged game that has brought the state to its knees, and that only a rich businessman can make Kansas great again, and he’s offering few specific plans.
This strikes us as a losing argument around here, but there’s no doubt some significant number of Kansans will fall for it, so it’s a question of whose voters it will attract. The answer, we dare say, is that the vast majority of Orman’s support will come from the Trump-endorsed Kobach’a column.
Kobach’s national notoriety will probably funnel plenty of out-of-state money to Kelly’s campaign coffers, too, and we expect she’ll spend that far-left money on some very centrist advertisements. We don’t expect Kansas’ nationally notorious mega-donor Charles Koch will make up much of the difference, given Koch’s libertarian views on immigration and genteel aversion to the snarling Trump style of campaigning, and the funding gap will be a problem in the expensive media markets up in those well-educated and well-off Kansas City suburbs that are typical of the places where the Republicans have been having a hard time lately.
November is a long time from now, but the days grow short when you reach September, as the old song says, and on this rainy August day we’re wishing Colyer had won. As things now stand, we might have to vote for a damn Democrat.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

A Dispatch from the War Against the Press

Say what you want about the guy, but you’ll have to admit that President Donald Trump is a belligerent fellow. He’s waging global trade wars, and “Twitter” wars with any old celebrity who dares criticize him, and although he’s no longer threatening the annihilation of North Korea he’s still hinting in capital letters he might do it to Iran, and he’s lately escalated his most heated war against those “enemies of the people” once known as the “free press.”
All of this offends our cautiously conservative sensibilities, not to mention our instinctive pacifism and “let us reason together” religious beliefs, but the worst of it to our ears is Trump’s clash with the “Fake news.” We take it rather personally, having toiled for decades in the hated “mainstream media,” and more recently been preoccupied with our our more-or-less daily independent criticisms of Trump on the far fringes of the internet as we don’t consider ourselves “enemies of the people.” Trump re-“tweeted” that charge over weekend, and has lately been kicking Cable News Network reporters out of public events, and leading cheers against a penned-up news corps at his rallies and telling the adoring throngs to “don’t believe what you’re seeing and reading.”
There’s something chillingly Stalin-esque about that “enemy of the people” phrase, for one thing, but we’ll give Trump the benefit of the doubt that he’s was as unaware of the historical precedents as when chose “America First” as his foreign policy summation, despite its historical association with the objectively pro-Nazi isolationist movement of the late 1930s. We’ve been kicked out of enough public events by the left and right at this p point to resent it happening evening the Trump administration, and we hate to think what might have happened to us if we’d been carried out to the blood-thirsty cheers of a Trump rally.
There’s no denying the blood-thirstiness of some of those black-clad fellows on the left of the local political street brawl, and each and everyone of those mainstream newspapers and television networks frequently make embarrassing mistakes. Even so, we’re not buying Trump’s argument that both mainstream media and the vast majority of the Democratic party are “enemies of the people.”
For one thing, Trump and his administration officials and personal lawyers and other apologists say more demonstrably untrue things every day than the entirety of the “fake News,” and they only seem to make a correction when an under-penalty-of-law filing disclosure requires them to do so. For another thing, only the most far-left fringes of the internet endorse that black-clad violence on the left, and Trump continues to find fault on both sides. Nor do we think that criticism of Trump makes one an “enemy of the people.”

— Bud Norman

On Friends, Family, and Trump

Some old friends and close family members have lately encouraged us to go easier on President Donald Trump, but none of them are obliged to publish political commentary five times a week, and thus they haven’t noticed how hard it is to find anything else to write about these days. Most of the media took time out on Wednesday to report on a near-fatal heroin overdose by a pop singer named Demi Lovato, but as sad as that is we have to admit we had not previously heard of her and have little to say about her apparently troubled life, and as usual almost all of the rest of the non-sports news was about Trump.
Also as usual, we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a convincing defense of Trump about any of it, and our old friends and close family members aren’t offering any helpful suggestions.
The story that took up the most newspaper space and cable news airtime on Wednesday was an audio recording of a telephone conversation between Trump and his longtime but now former lawyer Michael Cohen concerning a $150,000 payment made through the notorious National Enquirer tabloid to a former Playboy centerfold model named Karen McDougal who alleges she had an affair with Trump shortly after his third wife and current First Lady gave birth to his fifth child. Once upon a saner time in America such a story would have had a five-column headline and round-the-clock updates on all of the networks, but these days it’s just one column above the fold and ten minutes at the top of hour, and it’s all so damned complicated that Trump and his apologists found something slightly exculpatory in it.
Trump has already indignantly “tweeted” about “What kind of lawyer would tape a client,” which is indeed a good question, but by now many snarky columnists and all the late night television comics have rightly answered that it’s apparently the kind of lawyer that Trump hires. Due to the low-fidelity nature of the recording there’s some dispute about whether Trump said he would or wouldn’t want to pay the hush money to a Playboy centerfold model in cash, and his die-hard fans believe he insisted on paying with check and therefore demonstrated his commitment to complete transparency. Cohen is the same lawyer who set up a Delaware shell corporation to make a $130,000 payment to a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels to stop her from alleging a one-night-stand that allegedly occurred around the same time as the alleged affair with the Playboy centerfold, and federal search warrants have been executed on his office and home and hotel room, and some scary federal and unpardonable state indictments about all sorts of things seem likely imminent, so there’s also an argument to be made that he’s now flipped to the dark side and is complicit in the “deep state’s” and “fake news'” ongoing “witch hunt” conspiracy to make Trump look bad.
Maybe so, but by now there’s no denying that the boastfully adulterous Trump and the lawyer he now admits is sleazy made six-figure payments to a porn star and a Playboy model to hush them up about some quite credibly alleged affairs, and once upon a saner time in America during a Democratic administration all of our old friends and close family members and other fellow Republicans would have been appalled by that. Maybe Trump did insist on paying by check, even though current Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani recently told a cable news interviewer that “he’d be a fool to do that,” but that still seems a weak defense of our president’s character.
Meanwhile, the European Union has offered to negotiate an end to the trade war Trump has waged against it, which the Trump triumphalists see as another big win, but it remains to be seen if the negotiations will go as well as that free-trade treaty the EU recently negotiated with Japan that left America out of a third of the world’s economy. North Korea continues advancing its nuclear threat despite Trump’s “tweeted” assurances that we can all sleep soundly that’s there’s no longer any threat, and Trump has postponed his White House sequel to the much-panned Helsinki summit with Russian dictator until the “Russia thing” investigation in wrapped up.
Meanwhile, on the freedom of speech front, the Trump administration also barred a Cable News Network reporter from from a public event because of her pesky questions, threatened to revoke the security clearances of high-ranking officials from the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush who have been critical of Trump administration policies, and Trump advised a cheering crowd of sycophants in Kansas City that “What you’re reading and seeing is not what’s happening.” That was at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, whose leadership later apologized for the members who had booed the press, as the press were invited members of the public gathering.
As much as we hate to be at odds with our old friends and close family members and other fellow Republicans, by now there’s no denying that Trump says several things a day that are obviously untrue, and that the “fake news” has a far better batting average for verifiable accuracy than our president. Our old friends and close family members and other fellow Republicans can still make a very convincing hypothetical case that a President “Crooked” Hillary Clinton’s administration would be even worse, but they can’t yet convince us that any of this is making 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

There’s Still a Threat on the Korean Peninsula, and Elsewhere

According to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the National Broadcasting Corporation, all the American intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea’s nutcase dictator Kim Jong-Un is still pursuing the development of nuclear weapons despite his recent vague promises to President Donald Trump to pursue denuclearization. Given all the broken promises the three generations of nutcase Kim family dictatorships have offered to previous American presidents, we can’t dismiss this as “fake news.”
Trump continues to insist that the nuclear threat from North Korea has been eliminated by his historic summit and much-photographed handshake with the latest Kim, and his rally crowds are chanting “Nobel Prize!” when he mentions the matter, but given Trump’s track record for veracity and North Korea’s record of playing American presidents we have our doubts. With all due respect to Trump’s boasts, our best guess based on the most reliable sources available suggest that North Korea and America are still at the same scary standstill with pipsqueak North Korea that the two nations have maintained through our entire lives.
Kim Jong-Un got a world-wide photo-op shaking hands with the American president during that historic summit, as well as fulsome praise of his brutal dictatorship from the American president, as well as security guaranties and the cessation of join American-South Korean military exercises, and in exchange he gave the same vague promises of denuclearization that his nutcase dad and granddad had offered and then reneged on. Trump’s die-hard fans can chant “Nobel Prize!” all they want, but we’re more inclined to believe The Economist’s front-page headline that “Kim Jong Won.”
Which is is worrisome by itself, but all the more so considering Trump’s current relations with the rest of the world. For the past several months Trump has been waging rhetorical and trade wars against our most longstanding military allies and trading partners, and he’s got another big summit and photo-op handshake scheduled this month with Russia’s nutcase dictator, whose assurances that he didn’t interfere with America’s last election are contradicted by all of the intelligence agencies but are eagerly accepted by the President of the United States. All of which comes at a time when President of the United States is feuding with our European Union allies and talking about how they shouldn’t be so self-righteous about Russia’s invasion of a sovereign neighbor, and we don’t seem that summit ending well for the self-proclaimed dealmaker.
We’re still hoping it will all out work somehow, but at this point we don’t have much faith in any agreements between Trump and those even more dubious dictatorships he seems to prefer to make deals with.

— 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

Feuding with Allies and Adversaries

President Donald Trump is in Singapore today, finishing his final preparations for tomorrow’s high-stakes summit with North Korea’s anti-American and nuclear-armed nutcase dictator. We’re holding out hope that it goes well, but the debacle Trump made of a routine meeting in Canada with six of our most stalwart allies over the weekend is not heartening.
Trump arrived late for the Group of Seven’s annual gathering, was tardy to or skipped altogether several of its planned meetings, and left early with trade wars and “Twitter” spats brewing against the other six nations and complaints that Russia’s anti-American and nuclear-armed nutcase dictator wasn’t invited. He was especially harsh about the host country’s pro-American and democratically elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “weak” and “dishonest” in in a series of “tweets,” and one of his advisors telling the Sunday morning shows that “there’s a special place in hell” for world leaders who dare invoke the wrath of Trump. He even rescinded America’s routine endorsement of the ritual “final communique “these things usually end with, and although Trump boasted that on a scale of zero to ten America’s relationships with it’s most stalwart allies was a solid ten, and blasted the “fake news” for saying otherwise, the world’s stock markets and most other objective observers around the globe will likely agree things did not go well.
America suddenly finds itself in a war of words and tariffs with Canada, of all places. Canada has an annoying tendency to punt on third downs during their football games and hold its news conferences in both English and French, and they can be awfully smug about their single-payer health insurance program, which we don’t want here, but that hardly seems reason to be feuding with its pro-American and democratically-elected Prime Minister at a time when Trump is lavishing praise on the anti-American dictators in North Korea and Russia. Except for that brief “fifty-four-forty or fight” contretemps way back in 1846 the Canadians have been polite and reasonable neighbors, and given that the size of the population and economy of the country is much smaller than America’s we don’t see them as an economic threat to the United States. Trump might well have some legitimate gripes about existing trade policies over soft lumber or dairy products, but those have always been worked out through existing world trade courts and other institutions without any personally insulting “tweets,” and given that Canada has been stalwart ally in nearly every actual war America has ever fought we can well understand why they resent Trump starting a trade war on the grounds of national security concerns.
Trudeau bluntly told the international press, in both English and that annoyingly redundant French, that although the Canadians pride themselves on being polite and reasonable they won’t be “pushed around,” and that he would go to to the trenches in any old trade war that Trump might want to start. The newly-and-dubiously elected populist leader of Italy agreed with Trump about letting Russia back in the former Group of Eight gathering, but he and the other five heads of states all agreed to retaliate against any tariffs Trump might impose. If this is a ten on a zero-to-ten scale of relations with our most stalwart allies, we shudder to think what a zero might look like.
Trump’s die-hard supporters will love it, of course. Over the weekend we talked with one who regards Germany’s previously pro-American and still democratically-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel as America’s most formidable adversary, and is glad that at long last we have a president who stands up to those snooty Europeans. On all the Sunday morning news shows Trump’s spokespeople were talking about Canada “knifing us in the back,” and explaining that it was a brilliant three-dimensional chess move meant to warn that nutcase North Korean dictator that if Trump is so hard on his most stalwart allies they should surely fear what awaits his adversaries. We can’t shake a lingering worry, though, that Trump is instead playing 52-card pick-up with the post-World-War-II order.
We also can’t shake an even scarier worry that this is all somehow personal for Trump, and has little to do with the more important geo-political and economic realities. Until he rode down that escalator in Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign we never paid much attention to the failed casino-and-strip-club mogul and reality star, but since then we’ve watched him carefully enough to note that he takes things personally, and that he cares little for geo-political and economic reality. All of the other six heads of state in the Group of Seven, including that populist and dubiously-elected Italian, clearly regard Trump as a boorish and uneducated vulgarian intent on disrupting the post-World-War-II international order, and Trump surely knows that they make fun of of him when he’s not around, just like those swells on Manhattan’s social used to do when the vulgar usurper from Queens once showed up at their gatherings,
There’s also no shaking a worry that Trump’s peculiar antipathy to Trudeau is because the Canadian Prime Minister is objectively a more physically-fit and full-haired and handsome fellow than Trump, with bi-lingual skills and far better poll numbers in his homeland since his feud with Trump started, and that Trump can’t stand that. It’s especially worrisome when Trump segues from his Canadian debacle to that hight-stakes summit in Singapore about the Korean peninsula.
Kim Jong Un is several inches shorter than Trump, and even fatter, with just as ridiculous a hair-do, but we don’t expect he’ll be intimidated. He’s got nuclear weapons and inter-contintental ballistic missiles on his side, as well as an imbalance of power of conventional weaponry poised within range of South Korea’s essential-to-the-world-oder capital, and Trump’s trade wars with the more intimidating nuclear power of China haven’t yet yielded the expected negotiating advantage, even if they have enriched the Trump family’s various businesses. The fact that Trump is feuding with America’s most stalwart allies probably doesn’t worry him at all.
Still, we hold out hope.

— Bud Norman

Trump vs. Everybody Else

President Donald Trump is in Canada today for a Group of Seven meeting, and it will surely be awkward. Not only is Trump is currently waging trade wars against the other six countries in attendance, he’s also feuding with them on issues ranging from the climate to Iran to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has irked all of them on such matters as terrorism and immigration, and in several cases has personally insulted the countries’ heads of state.
Recently Trump even blamed the host country for the War of 1812, even though Canada wasn’t yet a nation at that long ago point in history.
Trump won’t get the warm welcome from our democratic allies that he got from the authoritarian governments of China and Saudi Arabia, he’ll have to spend the night in a hotel he doesn’t own, the international press will be asking pesky questions, and to the extent he’ll be the center of attention it will be for all the wrong reasons. Economic advisor Larry Kudlow assures The Washington Post that “The president wants to go on the trip,” but we’re more inclined to believe the newspaper’s unnamed administration sources who say that he’s dreading it.
Canada and Great Britain and Germany and Italy and France and Japan have all made it clear that they’re allies in each of the feuds Trump is waging against them, and it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to charm or bully them into submission. What’s more likely is that Trump will double down on his defiance in some petulant way that provokes outraged headlines in each of the Group of Seven Countries. The hard-core fans will love it, as they share Trump’s belief that entire world is out to get them and must be confronted, but the more sensible members of his administration will probably be wincing.
Trump is reportedly annoyed that the G-7 summit is a distraction from his preparations from a planned upcoming summit with North Korea’s nutcase dictatorship, although he’s told reporters he doesn’t really need to prepare because it’s all about his “attitude,” as he expects it to be Nobel Peace Prize-winning and universally acclaimed hero there. We hope that turns out well, although our notion of “well” is anything short of a nuclear mushroom cloud, and we think that Trump would have better chances of that outcome if he arrived with at the summit with an American president’s usual standing as the acknowledged leader of the still-almighty diplomatic and economic and military and cultural power that is the Free World.
Instead Trump will be dealing with Kim Jong Un — formerly a fat and short “Little Rocket Man” according to Trump, but now an “honorable” and “excellent” leader — as just another world leader he’s trying to take advantage of. He’ll be asking Kim to agree to a nuclear disarmament deal even as his erstwhile allies are trying to salvage the disarmament deal they and America struck with Iran and Trump reneged on. He’ll have the advantage of imposing America’s economic power through sanctions, but he won’t have needed help from Japan and South Korea and China and the European powers and the rest of his trade war foes. Trump does have the bigger “nuclear button,” as he characteristically boasted about, but Kim has enough conventional military poised within artillery range from South Kore’s densely populated capital to largely negate that advantage. As for the Free World’s former cultural clout, Trump has already promised not to mention North Korea’s abysmal human rights and is promising the country prosperity instead.
We hold out hope it will turn out well, mostly because our former congressman and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be keeping a watchful and frequently wincing eye on the proceedings, but at this point we don’t have much faith in Trump’s much bragged-about negotiating skills.

— Bud Norman

The Avoidable and Inevitable Stock Market Swoon

Monday was another down day on Wall Street, and so far as we can tell there are several reasons for the recent stock market swoons. Part of it just the usual economics, but so far as we can tell the worst of it is some unusually stupid politics.
The seemingly biggest reason is that the Chinese have predictably imposed steep tariffs on many American products in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s unilaterally imposed tariffs on many Chinese products, and it seems a trade war has begun. At the same time, though, Trump is also waging war on some major American businesses, another heavy hitter has come under congressional scrutiny, and the usual economic disruptions are at play.
Trump has “tweeted” that “trade wars are good and easily won,” but the smart money on Wall Street and most sane observers elsewhere strenuously disagree. Trump has also retreated from some of his “tweeted” threats, which has always prompted stock markets rallies, but then he “tweets” another threat, such global economic powers as the European and Union and our neighbors to the north and sound issue retaliatory threats and the stock markets once again swoon. If the cycle continues until the rest of the world meekly accedes to Trump’s demand for American dominance of the global marketplace, we expect it will take a while.
In the meantime, one of the most dynamic sectors of the American economy is facing political problems, which are the worst kind of problems these days. Some of the biggest players in the high-tech industry that keeps coming up with all sorts of world-changing gizmos and gadgets and thingamajigs are now being “tweeted” about and summoned to congressional committees, which is not good for business, and the tech-heavy NASDAQ stock exchange has taken the worst hit lately in the recent downturn.
The on-line retailer Amazon.com has recently surpassed Wal-Mart as the world’s biggest store, and Trump has recently been “tweeting” that it’s a tax cheat which drives Main Street stores out of business and is bankrupting the United States Postal System. Much of that is entirely untrue and the rest quite debatable, but it’s been an undeniable drag on the drag on the company’s stock price, and given its enormous size there’s a big drag on the overall averages. For now there’s not much Trump can do about Amazon or its owner’s other notable property, The Washington Post, other “tweet” about it, what with those pesky constitutional prohibitions against bills of attainder and infringements of freedom of the press, but at least Trump is inflicting quantifiable financial pain on his even-richer nemesis.
The on-line social media giant Facebook has its own similar political problems, but for very different reasons. A web site that became extraordinarily profitable and powerful by allowing people to share videos of their cats and cell phone pictures of the taco they were about to eat and whatever else they had on their minds also wound up disseminating political propaganda from Russian-based “troll farms” through a firm tied to the Trump campaign during the last presidential election, and the resulting headlines have not been good for the company’s once red-hot stock price. All the propaganda was apparently pro-Trump, so Trump hasn’t “tweeted” anything about it, but the Democrats on those pesky congressional investigative committees have at least managed to inflict some quantifiable financial pain of their own. Facebook ended Monday down 16 percent from its recent high, and given its outsized influence that also accounted for much of that broader decline.
The computer chip-making giant Intel also took a huge on news that Apple Computers, another outsized company tech-sector and one of Intel’s biggest customers, is considering making its own computer chips. That’s the sort of business page news you’d expect on any day in the fast-moving and nerve-wrackingly dynamic high tech sector, though, and we’re the sort of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists and old-fashioned Republicans who are content to let the marketplace sort that out. As much as we love that old corner store that Mom and Pop once built out of brick and mortar, we equally hate bills of attainder and infringements on a free press, and we’ll let Amazon do whatever the state legislatures and the marketplace allows it do, and we’ll stay on Facebook just to keep apprised about which of our friends have recently divorced, so as to avoid any awkward comments.
Although we’re rapidly growing too old for such economic disruptions, we’ve long since learned to accept them as part of the ebb and flow toward something like progress. As rock-ribbed Republicans and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists we’ve long believed that all those sorry-assed consumers at the pay line could choose more wisely than the politicians, and we still resent those darned Democrats for presuming to make better picks of the winners and losers.
Nowadays, though, that seems to make us “Republicans in Name Only” or “cuckservatives” or “globalists,” as both parties have chosen their winners and losers. Steel and aluminum companies seem a good stock bet at the moment, but car makers and beer brewers and any other industries that use steel or aluminum look risky. If you have a stake in any of the several industries China is now slapping tariffs on, you might want to talk to your financial advisor about that. The Democrats can try to deprive all the social media-addled youth of Facebook, but we’d advise them that most of the political content from our friends is annoyingly liberal.
Oddly enough, yet another reason for the current nervousness on Wall Street is that the unemployment rate is currently low by historical standards and the overall economy seems to be doing well, so there’s the ever-present danger that the Federal Reserve Board will raise interest on loans past the virtually free-money rates that have sustained the whole enterprise since that last big crash. Such adjustments are another one of those disquieting disruptions we’ve learned to accept, but otherwise we’d prefer politics just stay out of it.

— Bud Norman

An Uneasy Labor Day

Labor Day is supposed to provide a brief respite from the news, but lately there is no escape.
On Sunday the nutcase dictatorship running North Korea successfully tested a thermonuclear bomb five times more powerful than anything in its previous arsenal, which comes shortly after provocative tests of long-range missiles that could reach as far America’s west coast, and follows decades of verbal provocations that have lately been ramped up to an alarming level. This seems a particularly inopportune time to pick petty fights with our longstanding allies in the very sane democracy running South Korea, but that is exactly what President Donald Trump has chosen to do.
Trump “tweeted” shortly after North Korea’s nuclear test that South Korea’s ongoing efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis amounted to “appeasement,” adding that the North Koreans “only understand one thing,” with an exclamation mark added for emphasis, and he also reportedly instructed his aides to begin preparations for a unilateral withdrawal from a free trade agreement with South Korea. Neither stand seems to comport with the very complicated facts of the situation, and neither seem likely to do anyone any good.
South Korea’s efforts at diplomacy are easily understandable, given the devastation that the country would suffer even in a brief war involving only conventional weaponry, but Trump should be aware that they’ve also backed up their efforts with a strong military posture. The South Koreans are currently conducting bombing drills, practicing ballistic missile strikes on key North Korean targets, and defiantly continuing other large-scale military exercises with American forces. They’ve also reluctantly agreed to proceed with a American-made missile defense system that President Barack Obama negotiated, all the more reluctantly after Trump tried to make them pay billions of dollars for the equipment that is mostly intended to shoot down any missiles heading toward America’s west coast, and won’t offer any protection from the old-fashioned artillery barrages that could rain down on the more than 10 million people of Seoul who are just 30 miles away from the supposedly demilitarized border.
So far as we can tell South Korea hasn’t offered any concessions of land or other strategic advantages to maintain the tenuous peace, which is the definition of appeasement that has informed the past many centuries of diplomacy, and our guess is that after 54 years of coping more or less peacefully with their nutcase neighbors to the north they know them better than Trump ever could.
There are some strong arguments to be made against that free trade agreement with South Korea, which didn’t increase overall American exports to the country as promised and instead increased the trade deficit, and Americans can rightly complain that our very sane democratic allies have taken full advantage of some badly negotiated loopholes, but of course the facts are more complicated than that. There’s also a strong argument to be made that for all sorts of complicated reasons our exports to South Korea might have fallen even further without the agreement, that America’s trade deficits with other countries are no more troubling than your own swelling trade deficit with your local grocery store, and that in any case South Korea’s doubling of its financial investment in America’s economy since the agreement was made more than makes up for the difference.
All politics is local, too, and here in Kansas and other red states it’s widely noted that beef exports to South Korea have increased by an impressive 150 percent since the agreement. We suppose that the local aircraft plants have also been among the winners, and given how very good the world-class steaks are around here we’re sure that some epicurean South Koreans have also benefited.
Some future economic historian might definitively prove that both sides came out ahead, with South Korea relatively slightly better off from the deal, which is fine by us but is surely anathema to every fibre of Trump’s being. Trump might flip-flop on all sorts of other positions, but he has always maintained with a granite consistency that every negotiation comes down to a matter of winners and losers, and that no matter how far ahead you get if the other guy gets even further ahead you’re the loser. This view has always had a certain appeal to the “America First” types from pre-World War II up until now, and seems work well enough in the New York real estate biz, but it’s never been the way for the country’s preeminent economic, military, and cultural power to conduct business with the rest of the world.
Especially when you’re dealing with a complicated situation between a sane democratic ally and the nutcase dictatorship just to the north of them who might now be able to launch a missile with a thermonuclear bomb atop that could devastate one of the cities on America’s west coast. Trump is safely ensconced on the east coast, where he’s talking tough on both trade and thermonuclear war, and can be sure that no matter how devastating the war at least he and most of America came out the relative winner, but we’d prefer he take a broader view of the situation. That $20 billion or so trade deficit with the South Koreans is a mere rounding error in the context of a multi-trillion dollar economy, and nothing close to the hit that the stock markets the rest of the American economy would take if Seoul or Tokyo were flattened or an international trade war broke out, and there’s also a strong argument to be made for the lives of all those millions of people in Seoul and Tokyo and now America’s west coast, so now hardly seems the time for  petty spats with the South Koreans.
According to press reports all the military generals and Goldman-Sachs veterans that Trump has surrounded himself with have been urging that he speak more softly while still  wielding the big stick he inherited from all those previous hated presidents, as another populist Republican president with more bona fide tough guy credentials once advised, so we’ll hold out some hope they’ll prevail. During the campaign all of Trump’s reluctant supporters assured us that he’d hire such seasoned hands and heed their counsel, but he kept talking about how he knew more than the generals and that he was his own main security advisor and could make decisions without all the information that those squishy establishment types seemed to need, and we guess we’ll have to wait to see how that turns out.
In the meantime we plan to have some charbroiled Kansas beef and a couple of Colorado-brewed beers, watch some baseball, and otherwise celebrate America’s labor and take a day off from the rest of the news. We hope it turns out pleasantly for all you, as well.

— Bud Norman