Broken China

Henry Kissinger once described diplomacy as “purposeful ambiguity” – don’t say too much, don’t say too little. Let the opposing party think that things are going their way, but also let your allies know you’re not selling them out – somehow. This is difficult. Creating effective ambiguity is an art, and perfecting that art takes practice. Years of experience help. A deep knowledge of what is in dispute, and the history of the dispute and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, helps too. It also helps to know exactly what you want, as long as you never blurt that out. Provide the illusion of flexibility – otherwise the opposing party will have no reason to talk to you at all. Or be flexible as a last resort. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, if you try real hard, you get what you need. Yes, hum that Rolling Stones tune. That might help too.

Otherwise it’s war – diplomacy carried out by other means, as Clausewitz put it. That won’t do. People die. Countries are ruined, on both sides, or on all sides. Years and years of uncomfortable ambiguity are preferable to even one week of war. The United States and the Soviet Union decided that in the fifties. We could blow them up. They could blow us up. Which would it be? Only fools wanted to resolve the uncomfortable ambiguity of “mutually assured destruction” – Stanley Kubrick made a move about that of course.

The closest we came to a resolution of that ambiguity was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – but that was resolved diplomatically. The Soviets pulled their nuclear missiles out of Cuba. We pulled ours out of Turkey. Only Curtis LeMay was unhappy – as Chief of Staff of the Air Force he had told Kennedy to just nuke the Soviet Union and be done with it. Kennedy ignored him. Everyone ignored him, except for Stanley Kubrick – “Mr. President, I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. I do say, no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops! Depending on the breaks…”

Everyone laughed at that line, and then in 1989 the Soviet Union finally collapsed under its own weight, resolving all outstanding ambiguity. That would do. Diplomacy won. Purposeful ambiguity, extended over time, saved the world – but it was hard work, and it wasn’t pleasant work. Humans seem to be hardwired to hate ambiguity. It’s not bold. It’s not decisive. It’s uncomfortable. It must be wrong. Politicians will not advocate it, which is why presidents have secretaries of state. Let the secretary of state look like a wavering wimp. The president will be the bold leader.

Donald Trump will be the bold leader. That’s what he says, and he does seem to be hardwired to hate ambiguity, but he has yet to name a secretary of state, and more than three weeks after the election no one on his team has spoken to the State Department at all, where all the deep knowledge of what is in dispute here and there, and the history of those disputes and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, resides. He’ll be bold all on his own.

This has not been going well:

President-elect Donald J. Trump inherited a complicated world when he won the election last month. And that was before a series of freewheeling phone calls with foreign leaders that has unnerved diplomats at home and abroad.

In the calls, he voiced admiration for one of the world’s most durable despots, the president of Kazakhstan, and said he hoped to visit a country, Pakistan, that President Obama has steered clear of during nearly eight years in office.

Mr. Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

Mr. Trump’s unfiltered exchanges have drawn international attention since the election, most notably when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with only one other American in the room, his daughter Ivanka Trump – dispensing with the usual practice of using State Department-approved talking points.

Those unnerved diplomats at home and abroad don’t know what to make of all this. For example, India and Pakistan both have nukes. They have threatened to nuke each other for decades. He told the prime minister of Pakistan that he was a fine fellow, in a casual way, and that the United States would do anything he wanted to help out over there. Trump was just being nice, but do we now help Pakistan nuke India over Kashmir? Isn’t India our ally? A chat with the State Department before that call might have helped. A little purposeful ambiguity might have helped.

A day later it was this:

Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial president of the Philippines who has drawn widespread comparisons to Donald Trump, may soon be headed to the White House.

During a Friday phone call that a Duterte aide described as “animated,” Donald Trump extended an invitation to Duterte to visit the White House next year. Reuters reports that the conversation between the two leaders lasted about seven minutes.

Of course this may have been just business:

News of the invitation comes days after Duterte appointed Jose Antonio, a Trump business partner, to serve as a special envoy to the United States – raising yet another potential conflict of interest for the president-elect. Last month, he called for a “separation” of relations between the two countries, but later retreated from the statement.

Yeah, this is the guy who said the United States should get the hell out of the Philippines, the military, all American corporations – they’d align themselves with China now. He rethought that, but didn’t rethink this:

The Philippines leader, who once compared himself to Adolf Hitler, has drawn international condemnation for the thousands of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users that have taken place since he became president, and for similar killings when he was mayor of a city in the southern Philippines. He has also ranted against the United States and President Barack Obama, whom he once referred to as a “son of a whore.”

Our position, like the position of pretty much every other country on earth, is that a policy of allowing any citizen to kill any other citizen they think might be a drug dealer is absurd and immoral and assures anarchy. It’s a human rights thing. Our ambassador conveyed that to him. That was the United States’ position – and that’s why he hates Obama and America. He was personally insulted, but he likes the new guy:

Duterte has spoken favorably of Trump. After Trump’s presidential victory, Duterte said, “Long live Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest reason. We are alike.”

This guy is a bit odd, but Rodrigo Duterte has his White House invitation. Perhaps Trump didn’t know about that policy of allowing any citizen to kill any other citizen, and the world’s condemnation of that. The State Department might have explained that to Trump, but Trump has yet to speak to them about anything – or maybe Trump heard about Rodrigo Duterte calling Obama a “son of a whore” and liked that – or maybe Trump doesn’t know this guy from Adam. No one knows. A deep knowledge of what is in dispute, and the history of the dispute and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, might have been helpful here.

That might have been helpful considering what happened later in the day, as Doyle McManus explains here:

On Friday, Trump spoke on the telephone with Taiwan’s president, something no U.S. president or president-elect has done since 1979.

That’s a big problem, because ever since the Jimmy Carter administration the United States has officially recognized the People’s Republic of China – the very large country with its capital in Beijing – as the only fully legal government of China.

Not only that, the Trump transition issued a cheerful official statement about the phone call, lauding “the close economic, political, and security ties between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.”


All of that was taboo under normal U.S. diplomatic practice – and virtually certain to enrage China. (Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush, noted on Twitter that he wasn’t even allowed to refer to the government “of” Taiwan; he had to call it the government “on” Taiwan.) And China is, of course, a considerably more important country to the United States – economically, politically and militarily – than Taiwan.

This is a bit of a mess:

It wasn’t clear how the telephone call came about. It’s possible that President Tsai Ing-wen just got lucky, and that Trump and his staff made a rookie mistake.

But the Taipei Times reported that the call was “arranged by [Trump’s] Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan.”

And on Friday evening, Trump fired off a defensive tweet: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”

Did Trump deliberately touch off a diplomatic tiff with China, the biggest power in Asia, even before settling on a secretary of State?

The answer might be yes:

The call to Taiwan is a serious problem. China’s communist government is sensitive about its recognition as a major regional power – and hypersensitive about anything regarding Taiwan. Don’t expect this one to go away easily.

It won’t, but is it time to reverse Nixon’s “Opening to China” and the “One China” policy we’ve had since 1979 and declare Taiwan the only “real” China? It seems so. China will not accept a “two China” policy from us. They could shut us out. Do we really need the mainland China market over there? Do we need their goods and services? Why not just deal with the little island? This is curious. Did America want this? Boeing and GM and KFC and many others won’t like this. Mainland China is the largest foreign market in the world. Oh well. They’ll have to do without. Trump won.

But perhaps Trump was just calling to ask for a business favor:

The mayor of Taoyuan confirmed rumors on Wednesday that US president-elect Donald Trump was considering constructing a series of luxury hotels and resorts in the northwest Taiwanese city. A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to Taoyuan in September… Other reports indicate that Eric Trump, the president-elect’s second son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, will be coming to Taoyuan later this year to discuss the potential business opportunity.

Kevin Drum adds this:

Who knows? But foreign policy wonks are blowing a gasket over this, and the question of the hour is: Did Trump set off this diplomatic shit-storm accidentally or deliberately? I have to believe it was deliberate. Even Trump’s team isn’t so pig-ignorant that they’re unaware of our policy toward China and Taiwan.

But if that’s the case, it means that Trump is dead set on pursuing a hostile policy against China from the get-go. Perhaps, thanks to his decades of steely negotiating victories, he believes the Chinese will eventually back down once they realize they can’t mess with him.

That’s possible, and there’s this:

It’s worth noting that Trump has an odd kind of advantage here. For a little while longer, anyway, he can do this kind of stuff just to see what happens – and then, if it blows up, he can pretend he wasn’t up to speed what with all the staffing work etc. etc. Then he calls someone in China and declares that everything is fine, China is a fantastic place, he has nothing but the highest respect for them…

Will this work? I suppose it might, but not for much longer.

And there is the background that Trump missed, as David Graham notes here:

It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.

That’s worth remembering:

Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.

That would be the odd history here:

Why would Trump not speak with Tsai? Here’s where the strangeness starts. The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.

That’s purposeful ambiguity at work:

The roots of this particular fiction date to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was routed by Mao Zedong and the Communists, and Chiang fled to Taiwan. The U.S., in Cold War mode, continued to recognize the ROC in Taiwan as China’s rightful government, and so did the United Nations. But in 1971, the UN changed course, recognizing the People’s Republic of China – or as it was often called then, Red China – as the legitimate government. In 1979, the United States followed suit. Crucially, the communiqué proclaiming that recognition noted, “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”

Officially, this has also been the policy of Taiwan for almost a quarter century. Under the 1992 Consensus, another artful diplomatic fiction, both Taipei and Beijing agreed that there was only one China and agreed to disagree on which was legitimate, as well as maintaining two separate systems. During the Bush years, the U.S. said it would defend Taiwan in an attack, but Bush also pushed back on Taiwanese moves toward independence.

So we kept things ambiguous, until now:

Despite recognizing the PRC, the U.S. has kept close ties with Taiwan since 1979. The State Department notes that “Taiwan is the United States’ ninth largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner.” More importantly, the U.S. has sold some $46 billion in arms to Taiwan since 1990, which are intended as defensive. Last December, the Obama administration sold $1.8 billion in anti-tank missiles, warships, and other materiel to Taipei. Of course, the “defensive” purpose to all of this is against China, the most plausible aggressor against Taiwan. Naturally, the arms sales have consistently annoyed the Chinese. (Recently, China has been on a campaign of land-grabbing and saber-rattling across the South China Sea, trying to assert greater control and influence.)

Though the triangle between the U.S., China, and Taiwan sometimes flares up, the general goal of all three has been to maintain the fragile status quo. By speaking to President Tsai, and praising U.S. relations with Taiwan, Trump threatens to upset that delicate balance.


Reaction to the call was immediate and, for the most part, aghast.

“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House National Security Council, told the Financial Times. “Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for U.S.-China relations.”

Well, that might be the idea:

There are various reasons Trump might be intentionally poking China. Trump spoke harshly about China throughout his presidential campaign, accusing Beijing of currency manipulation, land-grabbing, and taking advantage of the United States. He also showed willingness, if not an eagerness, to slaughter nearly every sacred cow of American foreign policy.

Some Trump confidants have suggested existing policy on Taiwan should become one of them. John Bolton, who served as Bush’s ambassador to the UN, has been advising Trump, and Bolton has been a very public advocate of the U.S. cozying up to Taiwan in order to show strength against China.

That could be, or maybe not:

It’s also possible that Trump just stumbled into the matter, Being There-style. Trump tweeted Friday evening that Tsai had called him, presenting himself as just the guy who picked up the handset. It is unclear how studied the decision to take it was, or whether it was studied at all…

It’s also hard to know how big a deal Trump’s call is. China did not immediately comment. A White House official told The New York Times that the administration was only informed of the call after the fact, and said the fallout could be significant. There were other questions. Wouldn’t Beijing see that what Trump did was a blunder, but not a major shift in policy? Isn’t the Chinese government sophisticated enough not to take Trump at face value?

That’s possible:

China is perhaps a more sophisticated foreign-policy player than Pakistan; it’s certainly a more important one. But a China that sees Trump as buffoon probably isn’t good for American interests either.

They may be grinning over there now. This guy is going to be a breeze to deal with. They sent him a dare:

On Saturday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in his government’s first official reaction, played down the call.

Stressing the good relationship between the United States and China, he said, “I also believe this will not change the One China policy upheld by the American government for many years.”

Mr. Wang, speaking to reporters in Beijing, characterized the call as initiated by the Taiwanese government. “We believe it’s a petty action by the Taiwan side.”

Okay, Donald Trump, work your way out of that one! The One China policy will stand. You’ll find that out soon enough. You have no choice. You really don’t want to pay the massive cost of ending that. You’ll just have to learn to live with uncomfortable ambiguity, and by the way, you’re being used by your little friends on that little island. Enjoy your little hotels in our province. Get richer. Knock yourself out. It makes no difference.

This diplomacy stuff is hard. Donald Trump needs to get himself a secretary of state, fast. And he might want to consider the virtues of ambiguity. That can save the world.

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The Transition to a New World

Americans wanted a change, and they got it – they elected Donald Trump, although what most people wanted is unclear, as Jeremy Stahl notes here:

Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote has now topped 2.5 million, the New York Times reported on Thursday. That 1.9 percent margin over President-elect Donald Trump is larger than that of nine previous presidents.

This doesn’t mean anything for the election results, obviously, as the presidency is decided by the Electoral College, which was clearly won by Donald Trump.

Trump has made it matter for this reason, though: He is publicly contesting that he lost the popular vote, a challenge that could have far-reaching consequences in terms of mandates, popular legitimacy, and a potential future assault on voting rights.

Those are the questions. Does he have a mandate? Is he really all that popular, given far more than half of all voters did not vote for him? And if he is right about the “real” vote for him, should America start a massive crackdown, to make it extremely demanding for anyone who wants to vote to prove that they have the right to vote? That would be a change – discourage voting – discourage participating – prove that you have a right to participate in this democracy, or else sit down and shut up.

That would be a new world for us all, but Stahl notes that CNN aired a segment that demonstrates how Trump’s claim is leading there, with what Stahl calls the “the elaborate feedback loop through which conservative media and the Trump campaign invented elaborate myths of voter fraud” – which somehow became proof of voter fraud. That’s what was on display:

In the CNN segment, a Trump supporter argues that 3 million people voted illegally. “Voting is a privilege in this country and you need to be legal not like California where three million illegals voted,” a Trump supporter told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.

When Camerota challenged the voter, she cited the “media” for her claims and argued that “California allows” illegal voting.

And there’s the problem:

The apparent origin of the three-million figure and that false claim that Trump would have won the popular vote had it not been for illegal voters – cited by both the Trump supporter and the candidate himself – is the conspiracy theory website Infowars. Trump, by the way, called Infowars founder Alex Jones to thank him for his support after the election and has appeared on his show…

Politifact thoroughly debunked that Infowars article, which was based entirely on a pair of tweets by a former Republican official. The former official offered zero evidence for his claim that he had analyzed “180 million voter registrations” and that the “number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million.” Only about 127 million people voted in this election, well short of the number purportedly “analyzed.”

Still, Trump’s claim – apparently based on this false report – was enough to have it repeated by Kansas Secretary of State and potential Trump Homeland Security secretary Kris Kobach. “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular vote margin between him and Hillary Clinton at this point,” Kobach said on Wednesday, further spreading the lie. Kobach cited a 2014 report claiming that a large percentage of votes were coming from illegal citizens.

“If we apply that number to the current presidential election … you’d have 3.2 million aliens voted in the presidential election, and that far exceeds the current popular vote margin between President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton,” Kobach, who could soon have a cabinet-level position, argued.

The problem is that this study was repeatedly debunked by researchers who demonstrated that the actual “rate of non-citizen voting in the United States is likely zero.”

It seems that doesn’t matter, and one thing leads to another:

The Trump supporter on CNN repeated another piece of misinformation to back up her contention that mass numbers of illegal immigrants voted.

“I think there was a good amount because the president told people they could vote,” she said.

This claim was based on an out-of-context quote from President Barack Obama that was interpreted in right-wing media circles to have shown him encouraging illegal immigrants to vote when in actuality he did no such thing.

The source of that mangled quote: Fox Business News.

Stahl has all the links for those who wish to watch all that, but Jack Holmes links to Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes saying this:

Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s – on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, “‘No, it’s true.” And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts – they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way – it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd – a large part of the population – are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some – amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.

Holmes is not happy with this:

This is an astounding claim.

It’s an attack not on Trump’s detractors, but on the idea of objective reality. Modern society is built on the idea we can observe things in the world, use the scientific method to verify them and form a consensus that a certain set of things are true. This set of things constitutes the reality in which we live. Hughes, Trump, and his campaign have set out to undermine all of that in order to claim that the truth is anything they want it to be right now – as long as enough of the people who support them believe it.

(No, this idea did not begin with Trump, but he seems to have perfected it.)

Take a look at the line about Trump’s supporters believing there are facts – which are never provided – that prove Trump’s claims, whatever they may be.

Scottie Nell Hughes simply explained the new world we’ve transitioned to – there’s no such thing anymore as facts – but Holmes notes that everyone should have seen this coming:

Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway once claimed it didn’t matter that Fox News’ allegation that Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted wasn’t true, because “voters are putting it in this large cauldron of impressions and images and individuals and issues from which they eventually make a choice.” She also claimed her boss couldn’t have lied about debate moderator Lester Holt being a Democrat because he didn’t actually know what Holt’s party affiliation was.

If this Catch-22 un-splaining is any indication of how the incoming White House will operate, then the conversation will be about more than any specific claim. It’ll be about whether there’s still such a thing as truth – and lies – in America.

This is a brave new world that has such people in it, as Miranda said to Prospero in The Tempest. Aldous Huxley borrowed those words for the title of a book about hypothetical “developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that combine profoundly to change society” – and it wasn’t pretty. This is like that.

And the arguments about what’s truth have begun:

The raw, lingering emotion of the 2016 presidential campaign erupted into a shouting match here Thursday as top strategists of Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused their Republican counterparts of fueling and legitimizing racism to elect Donald Trump.

The extraordinary exchange came at a postmortem session sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where top operatives from both campaigns sat across a conference table from each other.

This wasn’t pretty:

As Trump’s team basked in the glow of its victory and singled out for praise its campaign’s chief executive, Stephen K. Bannon, who was absent, the row of grim-faced Clinton aides who sat opposite them bristled.

Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri condemned Bannon, who previously ran Breitbart, a news site popular with the alt-right, a small movement known for espousing racist views.

“If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost,” she said. “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, fumed: “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?”

“You did, Kellyanne. You did,” interjected Palmieri, who choked up at various points of the session.

She did. They did give white supremacists a platform. Enough has been said about Steve Bannon. It’s all on record including this:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,'” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?'” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.'”

Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, Bannon wasn’t supposed to be the issue:

“Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters?” Conway asked. “How about, it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about, they have nothing in common with her? How about, she doesn’t have an economic message?”

Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist, piled on: “There were dog whistles sent out to people. … Look at your rallies. He delivered it.”

At which point, Conway accused Clinton’s team of being sore losers. “Guys, I can tell you are angry, but wow,” she said.

Bannon is a fine fellow, who loves everybody, like the Pope or Jesus, and if Trump ever hinted at anything racist, that just didn’t count:

“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” [former Trump campaign manager Cory] Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes – when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar – you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

There’s much more of this. It was nasty. There was shouting, but the argument the Trump crew was making was clear. Trump says things. No one takes him literally. Only a fool would do that. Of course that means that now, as president, someone will have to explain to all world leaders, allies and adversaries alike, that the American president just says things. What he just said may or may not be the position of the United Sates government. Sometimes you just say things, right? Of course they’ll understand that.

This is a brave new world of diplomacy:

President-elect Donald J. Trump inherited a complicated world when he won the election last month. And that was before a series of freewheeling phone calls with foreign leaders that has unnerved diplomats at home and abroad.

In the calls, he voiced admiration for one of the world’s most durable despots, the president of Kazakhstan, and said he hoped to visit a country, Pakistan, that President Obama has steered clear of during nearly eight years in office.

Mr. Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

Mr. Trump’s unfiltered exchanges have drawn international attention since the election, most notably when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with only one other American in the room, his daughter Ivanka Trump – dispensing with the usual practice of using State Department-approved talking points.

He’ll wing it. He’ll just say things. Only fools take him literally, but that may not cut it:

On Thursday, the White House weighed in with an offer of professional help. The press secretary, Josh Earnest, urged the president-elect to make use of the State Department’s policy makers and diplomats in planning and conducting his encounters with foreign leaders…

Mr. Trump’s conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan has generated the most angst, because, as Mr. Earnest put it, the relationship between Mr. Sharif’s country and the United States is “quite complicated,” with disputes over issues ranging from counterterrorism to nuclear proliferation.

In a remarkably candid readout of the phone call, the Pakistani government said Mr. Trump had told Mr. Sharif that he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.” When Mr. Sharif invited him to visit Pakistan, the president-elect replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.”

That was nice. Butter-up the guy, no harm in that, but for this:

The breezy tone of the readout left diplomats in Washington slack-jawed, with some initially assuming it was a parody. In particular, they zeroed in on Mr. Trump’s offer to Mr. Sharif “to play any role you want me to play to address and find solutions to the country’s problems.”

That was interpreted by some in India as an offer by the United States to mediate Pakistan’s border dispute with India in Kashmir, something that the Pakistanis have long sought and that India has long resisted.

“By taking such a cavalier attitude to these calls, he’s encouraging people not to take him seriously,” said Daniel F. Feldman, a former special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “He’s made himself not only a bull in a china shop, but a bull in a nuclear china shop.”

Yes, India and Pakistan both have nukes. They have threatened to nuke each other for decades. What is our position on that now, that we’ll help? No one knows, and there’s that other matter:

Mr. Trump’s call with President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan raised similar questions.

Mr. Nazarbayev has ruled his country with an iron hand since 1989, first as head of the Communist Party and later as president after Kazakhstan won its independence from the Soviet Union. In April 2015, he won a fifth term, winning 97.7 percent of the vote and raising suspicions of fraud.

The Kazakh government, in its account of Mr. Trump’s conversation, said he had lavished praise on the president for his leadership of the country over the last 25 years. “D. Trump stressed that under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev, our country over the years of independence had achieved fantastic success that can be called a ‘miracle,'” it said.

Is that true? Who knows? Donald Trump just says things, but the New York Times lists some other problem areas like North Korea:

An early test may be North Korea, which could soon have enough nuclear fuel for 20 bombs and could deploy warheads on missiles capable of hitting South Korea, Japan and American assets in the Pacific. Experts say the North’s production of more and better bombs has increased the chance of a military confrontation. Mr. Trump has threatened to slap tariffs on China’s exports, in part to force Beijing to exert more pressure on Pyongyang. As the North’s main supplier, China is vital to resolving the nuclear issue. But raising tariffs on the Chinese would risk a trade war and make cooperation less likely.

Someone should mention that to Trump, and then there’s the Islamic State and Syria:

American forces are engaged in major battles to liberate Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria from the Islamic State and are fighting extremists elsewhere, including Mali. Mr. Trump, who has said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals,” has not offered any plan beyond “I would bomb the [expletive] out of ’em.”

On Syria, he has talked of abandoning American support for rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad and joining the alliance between Mr. Assad and Russia, Mr. Assad’s partner in bombing Syrian civilians. After 500,000 deaths, there’s no end to the five-year civil war, which has created chaos, allowing ISIS to thrive and claim large parts of Syrian territory. A united effort to fight ISIS would require a peace deal between Mr. Assad and the opposition forces. But Secretary of State John Kerry has not been able to get Russia to push Mr. Assad in that direction. Mr. Trump seems confident he can work with Mr. Putin, but it’s unclear that Russia would accept any deal unless Mr. Assad is allowed to remain in power indefinitely, which the Syrians he has brutalized are unlikely to accept.

Someone should mention that to Trump too, and then there’s Iran:

Mr. Trump has vowed to tear up the 2015 deal under which Iran halted its most dangerous nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions. The agreement is working, as many of its critics in Congress and the Middle East acknowledge. Mr. Trump, however, has chosen a national security adviser and a CIA director who are both adamantly opposed to the deal, regardless of the consequences of ending it. If it is jettisoned, Iran would almost certainly resume its nuclear program. America’s partners in the agreement – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – will not re-impose sanctions as part of Mr. Trump’s quixotic quest for some “better deal,” and American businesses will be further disadvantaged in the competition for Iranian markets.

This is the kind of self-made crisis a new president cannot afford. Iranian moderates open to engagement with the West are battling for power against anti-Western hard-liners. The hard-liners hope to exploit Mr. Trump’s hostility to ensure that President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the nuclear deal, is defeated for re-election next year. It should matter to America which side prevails.

Someone should mention that to Trump too, and those are only three items from a much longer list. Some nasty things are just true. There actually are facts. Surprise!

Oh, and Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, by a wide margin, not that it matters. We’re in the middle of a swift transition to a brave new world where there’s no such thing anymore as facts. We’ve been told that, explicitly and repeatedly. No, we just have to live with that, and live through that, if we can.

Posted in Donald Trump, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

American Populism in Action

“Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, manages to convey the aspect of intelligence.” ~ John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith understood America’s unique form of populism. Here, the little guy never wanted to take control of things and stick it to the rich. He himself was an incipient millionaire – that would happen one day – maybe he’d win the lottery. He was a rich man, temporarily sidetracked, somehow or other. He was not the scum of the earth, and he closely followed the rich. That was on televisions all the time, and in the movies. They know how to live. Their stuff is cool stuff, and they obviously know what’s what.

This is not some sort of Marxists populism where the workers arise and take things over from the capitalists. Here, the little guy wants to be that capitalist. Our populism is envy, or sadness, sadness that what should have happened, and what would happen, hadn’t happened yet – the bigs bucks rolling in. It wasn’t fair. They should be the one hanging around with Donald Trump, swapping manly stories. He was the populist hero this time around. He knew things. He’d fix things. He may have won the presidency not because he was like the little guy and understood the little guy but because the little guy understood him. He was so damned rich he could do or day anything he wanted, and he could sneer his way to the presidency. That was so damned cool.

Still, life was hard for the little guy, and the answer to that was to elect a surprisingly vulgar and vindictive billionaire who would appoint other billionaires to all key cabinet posts, which would somehow “drain the swamp” – whatever that meant – because they would know nothing about how the government runs, or even what it does. They’d bring “fresh eyes” to everything, and they were “winners” – they would make America “win” again. The little guy would win too. That might be why we’re about to begin a Trump presidency.

That’s an odd sort of populism, and maybe that’s not populism at all. Paul Waldman argues that’s the wrong term:

Donald Trump has named Steve Mnuchin – a Goldman Sachs alum and hedge fund manager – to be his secretary of the treasury, in keeping with his repeated promise to take on Wall Street and the powers-that-be on behalf of the little guy.

So can we stop pretending that Trump’s campaign “populism” was anything other than just one more con?

Envy aside, the little guy is about to get screwed:

It isn’t just the next Treasury secretary. This morning on CNBC, Mnuchin outlined his people-centered plan for the country’s economy.

“Our number one priority is tax reform,” he said. “We think by cutting corporate taxes we’ll create huge economic growth and we’ll have huge personal income so the revenues will be offset on the other side.”

At last, a Republican administration that believes in the wonder-working power of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy! If only George W. Bush had known about that, we would have had spectacular growth through the 2000s and the Great Recession never would have happened. Oh wait – this is exactly the economic program Bush pursued, to such disastrous effect.

In fact, Mnuchin has a direct connection to the recession: While it was unfolding, he and other investors bought IndyMac, a purveyor of the kind of shaky mortgages that fed the crisis. After foreclosing on thousands of homeowners, Mnuchin and his partners sold the company and made billions.

And millions lost their homes, but there’s more:

Mnuchin is just one appointment, though, right? Well, Trump also just announced that his secretary of commerce will be Wilbur Ross, a billionaire private equity investor. And his secretary of education will be Betsy DeVos, a billionaire opponent of public schools. And his transportation secretary will be Elaine Chao, who served in the administrations of both George Bushes and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Before entering politics she was a banker, and according to Politico, “She made at least $1,074,826 from serving on boards of directors in 2015, according to public records.” Trump is also reportedly considering Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn to be his budget director. “It’s the most conservative [Cabinet] since Reagan,” says one supply-sider, and that may be an understatement.

This is not the people’s government:

You may remember Trump’s closing ad of the campaign, in which he said, “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people” over images of Wall Street, piles of money, financiers like George Soros and other symbols of established power and wealth. “It’s a global power structure,” he went on, “that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

So in order to take on that global power structure, Trump is hiring a bunch of billionaires and Wall Street tycoons, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, scaling back regulatory oversight of Wall Street and offering an infrastructure plan that consists mostly of tax breaks to corporations to encourage them to build projects that they’ll then charge the public tolls in order to use.

No, those cool billionaires are never going to save the little guy, even if “the myth of Trump the populist” persists:

Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to Trump and perhaps the party’s foremost advocate of trickle-down economics, recently proclaimed, “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.” His trips to the Rust Belt with Trump, Moore testified, made him realize just how much help the working class needs. And he intends to help Trump deliver that help – in the form, of course, of tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. What a heartwarming tale.

It’s also an odd tale:

Republicans have always struggled with a quandary presented by their economic ideology, which is that it’s difficult to get majority support for a set of policies intended to shower benefits on a small portion of the population. When they argue about it explicitly they use a kind of rhetorical redirection, claiming that cutting rich people’s taxes isn’t really about rich people at all, but is actually intended to help the middle class and even the poor. The rich themselves are merely a vehicle to accomplish this noble end, unselfishly accepting the government’s largesse on behalf of their lessers.

Needless to say, there are only so many people you can persuade with that argument. So in order to compensate, Republicans have complemented their economic case with a menu of social issues with which they can demonize their opponents. Those Democrats hate America, Republicans would say, they’re weak, they don’t love God the way you do, they want to take your guns, they want to force your kids to get gay abortions. Often enough, it worked.

It worked for Trump, but Waldman still calls it a con:

Trump said most of those things in the 2016 campaign, but you could tell that he was just going through the motions, ticking off the boxes to reassure ideological conservatives that they didn’t have anything to worry about. The true beating heart of his appeal was a slightly different kind of culture war, one based on rage and resentment at cultural change and the declining status of working-class white men. With his attacks on immigrants, racial minorities, and an “establishment” of Washington politicians and economic powers-that-be, Trump convinced them that it was finally their turn: their turn to say whatever they want, their turn to have their interests put first, their turn to see their communities revived and their pride restored.

But now, Trump is filling up his administration with, guess what, Washington politicians and representatives of the economic powers-that-be, whose top priorities are tax cuts, deregulation and destroying the safety net, including the privatization of Medicare. The idea that they’ll be laboring to serve the interests of the working class is a joke. Yet it’s a joke people somehow keep telling with a straight face.

That’s because the joke works – “You’d be a billionaire, just like us, if it wasn’t for those ‘other’ awful people.” The working class folks are just billionaires in waiting, after all.

They’ll have to wait a long time, because Trump’s new “populist” cabinet looks like this:

When George W. Bush assembled his first Cabinet in 2001, news reports dubbed them a team of millionaires, and government watchdogs questioned whether they were out of touch with most Americans’ problems. Combined, that group had an inflation-adjusted net worth of about $250 million – which is roughly one-tenth the wealth of Donald Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary alone.

Trump is putting together what will be the wealthiest administration in modern American history. His announced nominees for top positions include several multimillionaires, an heir to a family mega-fortune and two Forbes-certified billionaires, one of whose family is worth as much as industrial tycoon Andrew Mellon was when he served as treasury secretary nearly a century ago. Rumored candidates for other positions suggest Trump could add more ultra-rich appointees soon.

Now add this:

Many of the Trump appointees were born wealthy, attended elite schools and went on to amass even larger fortunes as adults. As a group, they have much more experience funding political candidates than they do running government agencies.

They aren’t going to fix anything in the little guy’s life:

“It fits into Trump’s message that he’s trying to do business in an unusual way, by bringing in these outsiders,” said Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. But Trump and his team, she added, won’t be able to draw on the same sort of life struggles that President Obama did, in crafting policy to lift poor and middle-class Americans.

“They’re just not going to have any access to that” life experience, she said. “I guess it will be a test – does empathy actually matter? If you’re able to echo back what people are telling you, is that enough?”

So far that’s enough, but maybe not for long:

“This isn’t a criticism or a conspiracy, but it’s important to recognize that everyone’s perspective and policy and government is shaped by the kind of life you’ve lived,” said Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke University. “The research really says that when you put a bunch of millionaires in charge, you can expect public policy that helps millionaires at the expense of everybody else.”

No kidding! Who would have guessed? And Kevin Drum flags the other issue of the day:

Donald Trump tweeted this morning that it is “visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.” As a result “legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations.”

Despite this, the New York Times says that “skeptics” aren’t satisfied. There’s a good reason for this. Two good reasons, actually. First, we live in a new era. As a matter of fact, not of cynicism or partisan griping, Trump tweets should be treated as lies until proven otherwise. That’s just the way it is. Second, removing himself from business operations doesn’t accomplish a thing. Trump still has massive conflicts of interest. The only way to resolve this is to sell the Trump Organization, which he will never do. In the meantime, every two-bit autocrat in the world knows that the quickest way to Trump’s heart is to do something nice for Trump’s business: approve his permits, hook up his kids with connected financiers, move government offices into his buildings, whatever. It’s just a way of showing respect, you know?

Our new “populist” president is a fabulously rich man who will get even richer because he’s president, but that’s just the way it is:

I suppose there are worse things than having the United States run along the lines of a Mafia family. Nuclear war. An economic crash. Miami settling into the sea. Unfortunately, the odds are at least nontrivial that we’re going to get all of those things too.

Still, as the New York Time’s transition commentary notes, Trump’s new crew will have some relatively poor folks running things:

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ massive network of hospitals and clinics has been under a microscope since scandalously long waiting lists and allegations of cover-ups burst into public. The management morass seemed so intractable that in 2014, President Obama pushed out a decorated former general, Eric Shinseki, and hired a former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, Robert A. McDonald, to sort it out.

Now, according to people close to the transition, Mr. Trump is thinking of taking Veterans Affairs in a new direction, handing its reins to former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Given Mr. Trump’s passionate campaign pledges to the nation’s veterans, the response – if she is chosen – would be … interesting.

Ed Kilgore’s response is interesting:

Palin has no obvious qualifications for the Veterans Affairs job. If appointed and confirmed, she would be the first non-veteran to head VA. Yes, she is the mother of a veteran: Her son Track did a tour of duty in Iraq. But it’s unlikely that would be cited very often as a credential, since Track has had a troubled life since returning to Alaska; indeed, he was arrested on assault and possession of firearms while intoxicated charges subsequent to an alleged domestic-violence incident the very day his mom went to Iowa to endorse Trump.

Perhaps this would not matter to Team Trump, but since she would at VA supervise a large and complicated health-care system, it is probably worth noting that her principal career contribution to health-care policy was the heinous “death panels” lie about the Affordable Care Act. As for her administrative capacities and stamina for hard work (an important criterion to Trump, we know, given his constant expressions of concern for Hillary Clinton’s fitness for the presidency), it is hard to forget her abrupt resignation as governor of Alaska just over halfway through her one term in office.

Such concerns might be no more than problematic for many jobs in the Trump administration. But you’d think they’d be deal-killers at VA, given the very high priority Trump himself has so often placed on giving vets the best possible treatment (in both the medical and general sense). I’d say consigning the nation’s former service members and their families to the perpetual sideshow sure to be generated by La Pasionaria of the Permafrost would be a broken promise of the highest order.

Perhaps Trump should have found another billionaire for the job, but the New York Times notes this too:

Spotted at Trump Tower on Wednesday afternoon: Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, an outfit the president-elect has some experience with…

“The meeting went great,” she told reporters. “It was really nice to be up, and I was honored to be asked to come in. Anytime I think the president-elect of the United States asks you to come in for a conversation, you’re happy to do that. We talked about business and entrepreneurs and creating jobs, and we talked about the Small Business Administration.”

She’d head that. That’s the position, but she might fit right in:

Her connections to Mr. Trump go beyond their mutual love of bloated men in spandex suits. Her net worth, estimated at around $855 million, would put her in the same income brackets as the candidates tapped to be the secretaries of Commerce, Treasury and Education, as well as the deputy Commerce secretary.

Does that make her a populist too, like the rest of them? That word has an odd meaning these days, and as CNN reports, it also has a dark side:

In the days following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, students in Kansas chanted, “Trump won, you’re going back to Mexico,” to students from other countries, according to a high school teacher in a suburban community within the state.

In Oregon, a high school teacher photographed vandalism in the boys’ bathroom, which mentioned the KKK and used the n-word.

In Tennessee, a black student was blocked from entering his classroom by two white students chanting, “Trump, Trump,” according to a high school teacher at the school where this happened…

Those are just a few of the examples given by more than 10,000 educators, 90% of whom are teachers, who responded to an online survey sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is dedicated to reducing prejudice and improving relations among school children across the country. The organization has been critical of Donald Trump following comments from the candidate it characterized as fueling racism and bigotry. The educators were asked to answer a series of questions about the climate at their schools following the presidential election.

In the first national snapshot of what teachers are observing, nine out of 10 educators who responded to the survey said the election has negatively impacted students’ behavior and mood. Forty percent said they have heard derogatory language used against students of color, Muslims, immigrants and other students based on gender or sexual orientation.

“We are still daily experiencing the effects of the outcome,” said Lindsey Polkl, a fifth-grade teacher in Minnesota. “My students have begun playing a game called ‘Trump’s Coming,’ in which one non-Hispanic student yells ‘Trump’s Coming’ and all of the Hispanic students need to hide.”

Someone has to be to blame for not everyone being a billionaire yet, and the source is that notion is obvious:

Nationwide, there have been more than 867 incidents of “hateful harassment” in the first days following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center says. In a press conference Tuesday, Richard Cohen, the center’s president, said he fears those incidents are underreported.

“These incidents of hate occurred in schools, on public streets and parks and in retail establishments. People were even targeted in their homes,” said Cohen. “These incidents have been ugly. And time after time the perpetrator has invoked Mr. Trump’s name. The level of hate that has been unleashed is unprecedented.”

That’s not surprising, but this is:

One of the teachers who responded to the survey, who didn’t want to share her name publicly or the name of her school for fear of retaliation, told CNN that incidents of harassment and vandalism were left unpunished at her school.

“There was no investigation as it was determined it would be impossible to know who committed these acts,” she said via email. “Many incidences are unreported or under reported, as there is a fear of retaliation. This is an area of the country where most adults voted for, and avidly support, Trump.”

Another teacher who responded to the survey, a high school teacher in Kansas who reported that students were chanting to the English language learners that they would be sent back to Mexico, believes the total number of negative incidents across the country is probably much larger than has been publicly reported so far. She says teachers are not able to report incidents directly to the press meaning many of them are never revealed to the public.

“We’re supposed to keep everything in house,” said the teacher who also didn’t want to use to use her name, saying school policy forbids her from independently talking to the press. “That’s pretty standard for most districts and most schools. If there’s a problem, you take care of it internally but you don’t go out to the press with it.”

Okay, this is more widespread than the initial reporting, which was depressing enough, but Trump is the populist hero of our times. There are millions who want to be like him. If you’re not rich, and you know, really, that you never will be, and least you can be as mean as a rich man who can do or say anything he wants. That’s populism too.

Alexander Burns then adds another factor:

In a period of just over 24 hours, stretching from the early hours of Tuesday into Wednesday morning, President-elect Donald J. Trump raced through perhaps the most frenetic day of activity since the election. With a series of surprise announcements and impulsive public gestures, he brought into sharp focus the freewheeling and compulsively theatrical style he will bring to the Oval Office.

There was the incendiary pronouncement about the flag: After Fox News aired a segment about protests that included flag-burning, Mr. Trump suggested stripping people who burned the flag of their citizenship, even though the act is constitutionally protected free speech.

There were hazy but headline-grabbing statements of policy: Mr. Trump announced a tentative pact with the air-conditioning company Carrier to protect some jobs at an Indiana factory, and pledged again to sever ties with his real estate empire, without offering specifics.

There was a new and indiscreet round of tryouts for secretary of state, featuring reviews from the president-elect in something like real time. Having paraded David H. Petraeus, the former military commander and CIA director, past a throng of reporters for a meeting on Monday, Mr. Trump dined on Tuesday with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 and another candidate for the job.

That’s what was telling:

While Mr. Trump’s focus appeared to careen unpredictably from hour to hour, the larger pattern he followed was a familiar one. As a candidate, Mr. Trump operated largely on gut instinct, with publicity-seeking provocation as his chief tactic. Trusting few people outside a circle of intimates, Mr. Trump thrived in a daily cycle of controversy and cultivated an atmosphere of often-public drama and division within his campaign.

That’s just who he is:

Mr. Trump’s method, friends and allies say, matches the reputation he built first in New York and then on reality television – less as a traditional corporate executive, like Mr. Romney, than as an eager impresario who experimented freely, welcomed conflict and flopped repeatedly.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House who has advised Mr. Trump, said Mr. Trump’s transition process “very much resembles the way he operated in ‘The Apprentice,'” the NBC show in which Mr. Trump functioned as an imposing protagonist subjecting aspiring entrepreneurs to contests of business acumen.

Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Trump plainly relished personal contact with possible appointees and favored a free-form leadership style. Mr. Trump did not emerge, Mr. Gingrich said, from a “corporate, staffed background,” but from a more personality-driven, improvisational environment.

Of course, that might be a populist thing:

It would be difficult to overstate the extremity of Mr. Trump’s departure from recent presidential practice. His immediate predecessors prided themselves on orderly, fastidious deliberations: George W. Bush as the first president with a business degree, Mr. Obama as a candidate branded by aides as “no drama Obama.”

Even Republicans concede that it is not clear how Mr. Trump’s roller-coaster approach to the transition will carry over to governing. Mr. Gingrich predicted during the Republican primary contests that a Trump administration would function as a kind of daily adventure. “If Trump does end up winning, you will have no idea each morning what’s going to happen,” he said in a January interview, “because HE will have no idea.”

Ah! That makes him just like the rest of us – scattered and boldly faking it. Of course, unlike us, he can get away with that. He’s a billionaire. Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, does manage to convey the aspect of intelligence, and may even make you a populist hero, at least in an America filled with envy and sadness, and anger. He’s one of us, but that’s actually the problem. It will be a rough four years.

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The Price of Price

Now everyone knows what happened. All the polling was wrong. Donald Trump won the election by skillfully riding a wave of economic and cultural backlash. Too many people felt left out of the recovering economy. The rich got their lost wealth back after the George Bush crash. Corporate profits soared. Wages didn’t. They finally edged up a little, too late and far too little. And gays were getting married, and the country was edging nearer to the day when whites would be just another minority – the largest minority, but a minority none the less. Spanish was being spoken in the streets, along with a whole lot of other odd languages, and the number of people who claimed no religion at all – they just didn’t care about such things – exploded. Jesus didn’t seem to matter anymore. People were also saying, as George Bush had said, that Islam was a religion of peace, that that terrorism stuff was an aberration, but it didn’t feel like that. And what was with that Black Lives Matter nonsense? The cops are the good guys. Everybody knows that.

Hillary Clinton had no answer to any of this. What was she going to do, extend and expand Obamacare? Sure, more people would have health insurance, but everyone else would somehow pay for it. Ordinary people would be supporting the poor, and minorities, obviously, and there were all the new rules. Some were fine – insurance companies couldn’t turn anyone down because of a preexisting condition – but insurance companies were required to provide contraceptive coverage. Some saw that as totally immoral – and there were those fines for not buying some sort of health insurance from someone. That went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court looked at the Commerce Clause and ruled those fines were perfectly fine. Many felt betrayed by what was supposed to be a reliably conservative Supreme Court – so Obamacare had to go. Donald Trump could make Obamacare go away – and he said he could fix all the other stuff. He didn’t say how he could fix all that other stuff, but that didn’t matter. He said he could. That was worth a shot. Ordinary folks would get their country back.

They should have asked how they’d get their country back. The core of Trump’s support was those left out of the economy, the largest bloc of which seemed to be straight white Christian male seniors. The ongoing severe shifts in the culture appalled them, as did Obamacare. That was a bridge too far. Medicare was fine – Medicare kept them from financial ruin, or death itself. Keep that. Social Security was fine too. Don’t mess with that. They lived on that. They paid for that. They were entitled to that. Just go back to the Reagan years, when the culture was stable, and familiar.

Donald Trump promised that, more or less. Ronald Reagan was quite thoroughly dead of course, but Trump might do – and that is getting history all wrong. There was that 1961 LP Reagan made, financed by the American Medical Association, of a speech he often gave, all about how Medicare, if passed, would be the end of America as we know it – “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

That was a great line. In 1980, Jimmy Carter called him out on that. Reagan bumbled about and finally said he never opposed Medicare, really – old folks should be cared for by this sort of program – but he had opposed it. The evidence was there, on vinyl. He hated the idea of social insurance, a government safety net for everyone who is foolish enough to get old without being smart enough to get rich. If that happened, well, that was their problem. What about personal responsibility? We all should be free to succeed, or fail, and the consequences of either are ours alone. That’s what freedom is all about, and Medicare was socialized medicine. If it passed, as it did four years later, our precious freedom would be gone forever.

Medicare actually was socialized medicine in a way, it passed, and our precious freedom wasn’t gone forever. But now it seems to be 1961 again, as Jonathan Chait explains:

During the campaign, coverage of the issues was blotted out by coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s broad suite of sociopathic tendencies. And of the issues that did receive any attention, a conspicuously missing one was Paul Ryan’s plan to push Medicare beneficiaries into private health insurance. Reporters just assumed that, since Trump never talked about it, it won’t happen. But Paul Ryan still wants it to happen. And in a Fox News interview with Bret Baier, Ryan said Medicare privatization is on.

“Your solution has always been to put things together, including entitlement reform,” says Baier, using Republican code for privatizing Medicare. Ryan replies, “If you’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare, you have to address those issues as well. … Medicare has got some serious issues because of Obamacare. So those things are part of our plan to replace Obamacare.”

Ryan tells Baier, “Because of Obamacare, Medicare is going broke.”

That last bit may not be true, but if Donald Trump won’t be Ronald Reagan, circa 1961, Paul Ryan will be. Ryan made no secret that he loathed Donald Trump, but he supported him anyway. If Trump won, as Speaker of the House, and with a Republican Senate, he could make Reagan’s dream come true. Trump never talked about any of this – he said things would be just fine in his usual vague way – but this would happen. Trump just had to get out of the way – and since Trump is not a policy wonk or even much of conservative, he would get out of the way. He’d hand the whole thing off to one of Ryan’s buddies and move on to other things. What did Trump care?

That seems to be what just happened, and the Los Angeles Times covers the unexpected war that just started:

President-elect Donald Trump reassured voters during his insurgent political campaign that he would protect Medicare, Social Security and other popular federal assistance programs.

But in tapping Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to be his Health and Human Services secretary, he has elevated one of the most aggressive proponents of dramatically overhauling the government safety net for seniors and low-income Americans, a long-held conservative goal.

Trump also took a step toward a potentially explosive political battle over the entitlements, which account for close to half of all federal spending.

Such a battle – and the threat of benefit cuts to more than 100 million Americans – risks alienating some of the very working-class voters who fueled Trump’s unexpected victory.

He threw Paul Ryan a bone – Tom Price – but Price comes at a price:

His advisors and prospective Cabinet already include several figures whose wealth and political connections are at odds with Trump’s populist rhetoric.

“The pressure here will ramp up significantly,” warned John Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has led numerous fights against GOP efforts in recent years to overhaul entitlement programs.

Even the smallest cuts in federal support can spark a backlash, Lawrence added, given people’s attachment to Medicare and other programs. “It can be $20, and they’ve got serious trouble on their hands,” he said.

Trump may not have thought this through. This isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it infomercial thing. This is life and death to millions of Americans, but he’s new to public policy. Forgive him, or don’t:

Congressional Republicans voiced strong support Tuesday for Price, whom Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called “the right person to lead the charge” to repeal Obamacare.

But Democrats moved quickly to highlight Price’s calls for more far-reaching entitlement changes.

“Washington Republicans are plotting a war on seniors next year,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming Senate minority leader.

Several Senate Democrats, including red-state lawmakers such as Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, announced they would vote against confirming Price. “Tom Price has led the charge to privatize Medicare, and for this reason, I cannot support his nomination,” Donnelly said.

That was news to Donald Trump:

Trump, in announcing his selection of Price, called the 62-year-old six-term congressman “exceptionally qualified to shepherd our commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare and bring affordable and accessible healthcare to every American.”

The president-elect did not mention Price’s calls for major changes to Medicare and Medicaid, which Price has made a centerpiece of his legislative agenda.

Oops. Someone didn’t do their homework:

Price, like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), advocates replacing the government-provided Medicare health plan with a program that provides seniors with a voucher to purchase private health coverage.

This system, which supporters call premium support, saves the federal government money by gradually shifting costs onto beneficiaries, independent budget analyses have shown.

Price also advocates a new system of block grants to states that would sharply cut federal aid for Medicaid, which primarily serves poor Americans.

That spells trouble:

“Medicare is not seen as the same type of issue as the ACA,” Harvard University political scientist Robert Blendon, an authority on public opinions of healthcare, explained at a recent forum by the Alliance for Health Reform. “Most voters of both parties think Medicare is working.”

Even Medicaid, which began as a welfare program, and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program have established strong bipartisan support, reflecting in part the large role they play in providing coverage to children and elderly Americans in need of nursing home care.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans said that Medicaid is a “very important” government program in a 2015 national survey by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. That was only slightly below Medicare, which was rated similarly by 77% of Americans, and Social Security, which 83% of respondents said was very important.

Yeah, well, Trump kind of knew that:

Though he did not discuss healthcare and entitlement policies frequently, Trump insisted several times that he would protect programs serving vulnerable Americans.

“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Trump said last year in an interview with the Daily Signal, an online news site operated by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“Every other Republican is going to cut, and even if they wouldn’t, they don’t know what to do because they don’t know where the money is. I do,” Trump said.

Actually they do know. He’s the one who doesn’t know where the money is.

He was just talking, as he does, but Michael Hiltzik has the details:

There’s no secret about what specifically Ryan has in mind. He intends to replace traditional Medicare, an efficient program offering guaranteed treatment and featuring rock-bottom administrative costs, with a privatized program. Seniors would get a federal voucher to help them pay premiums charged by commercial insurance plans. Ryan calls this system “premium support.”

But since the value of the vouchers would rise at less than the rate of healthcare inflation, and the costs of private insurance typically rise faster than those of Medicare, an ever-larger share of healthcare costs would land on seniors’ shoulders.

The government keeps the money, or saves a whole lot of money, and seniors will have to make up the difference, if they can, but there’s more to it than that:

Ryan’s plan would do nothing to rein in healthcare costs, but would likely increase them, in part because Medicare beneficiaries would be saddled with paying not only for their care, but for the shareholder dividends and executive pay of private insurance companies. The savings Ryan touts would be illusory: They would merely be shifted from government to seniors.

His plan threatens to increase seniors’ costs in another way: by severing the link between the reimbursements paid to doctors and hospitals by traditional Medicare rates and those paid by Medicare Advantage plans, which are semi-privatized plans that offer enrollees more services but narrower provider networks.

Medicare Advantage is growing in popularity, with an estimated 31% of all Medicare beneficiaries enrolled. But those private insurance plans’ reimbursement rates are benchmarked to traditional Medicare rates, which are set by the government. Ryan has proposed removing the benchmark and allowing Advantage reimbursements to be set by competition. As healthcare commentator Andrew Sprung observes, “That would likely lift the lid on the payments insurers make to healthcare providers – and then, as costs rise, shift an ever-rising share of them to seniors.”

And then there’s that other matter:

Medicare faces fiscal problems, but it’s not going broke, and according to both the Medicare trustees and the Congressional Budget Office, the Affordable Care Act has in fact alleviated those problems rather than caused them. The trustees reported in 2010 that passage of Obamacare had postponed the projected exhaustion date of the Medicare trust fund by 12 years – to 2029 from 2017. Projections of Medicare spending growth have consistently come down, year after year, at least in part due to changes in the program imposed through Obamacare.

The program’s fiscal situation would be “substantially improved,” the trustees said, because the ACA instituted new cost controls and provided new tax revenues for the program. Both those features would disappear if the GOP repeals the ACA, as is its intention.

Ryan and Tom Price explain the issue backwards. Obamacare didn’t kill Medicare. Obamacare keeps Medicare solvent. Get rid of Obamacare and Medicare fails. They’re linked now. Ryan and Price know this. Get rid of one and the other has to go – their plan all along. No one told Donald Trump. Maybe they did but he wasn’t listening, or he found the details boring. He may have been tweeting at the time, but they made him a liar. Perhaps he doesn’t care.

Others may care, and Greg Sargent offers this overview:

So what does this mean for poor and working-class white Trump voters who are currently benefiting from the law, some no doubt enjoying health coverage for the first time in their lives?

Price has at least given a lot of thought to how to replace the ACA. But Price’s own replacement proposal would roll back the Medicaid expansion, a substantial portion of financial assistance for others getting coverage, and a fair amount of regulation of the individual market. And so, the likely end result (again, at best) is that a lot of the 20 million people who would lose coverage due to repeal will remain without coverage, and protections for those with bad medical conditions will be eroded.

Perhaps Trump voters didn’t know what they were voting for:

The core philosophical difference here is that conservatives want far less in government spending and regulations designed to cover poor and sick people, protect consumers and enforce a minimum standard for coverage. As a result, they are willing to tolerate far lower standards in those areas, though some also want conservative reforms to strive to make very cheap bare-bones catastrophic coverage widely available. Liberals think we should spend and regulate to the degree necessary to move toward universal care and see expanded and improved coverage as part of a broader effort to progress toward a higher societally guaranteed minimum standard of living. Conservatives won the election, and apparently, we are now going to do it their way. Elections have consequences.

Indeed, all this should immediately cast doubt on the notion that Trump will clash with congressional Republicans over the future of the safety net. During the primaries, Trump famously said he would not allow people to “die on the street,” which, along with his vows not to touch entitlements, led many to see him as an unorthodox Republican when it comes to the proper scope of government protections for the poor and unhealthy. But now Trump appears prepared to go along with the most conservative congressional Republicans on these matters.

That may be because he’s a complete novice at public policy. The most conservative congressional Republicans are not novices at all. As with his neckties and whatnot, here he simply outsourced the manufacturing to those who seem to be the best craftsmen and moved on – he doesn’t need his own necktie factory – but this is not a matter of menswear:

Did people benefiting from Obamacare who voted for Trump really expect repeal to happen? I think we need more reporting on this question. Yes, Trump did repeatedly say he would repeal Obamacare. But he also said he would replace it with “something terrific.” And he explicitly went out of his way to create the impression that he does not agree ideologically with Republicans who are hostile to government efforts to supply health care to those who can’t afford it.

Now, it’s always possible that many voters backed Trump in the full knowledge that their Obamacare might be repealed, for other reasons – because, for instance, he’ll supposedly bring manufacturing and coal jobs roaring back. Before long, those voters will learn whether their bet was a well-placed one. It’s also possible that Trump will surprise us all and insist on some kind of replacement that somehow preserves much of Obamacare’s coverage expansion. And a kick-the-can-down-the-road scenario which keeps deferring the harshest fallout from repeal is also a possibility.

But that’s unlikely:

It now looks more likely that we’ll see a substantial rollback of the progress toward universal health coverage we’ve seen in the past few years. News organizations love to venture into Trump’s America to hear voters explain that Trump spoke far more directly to their economic struggles than Democrats did. Maybe now we’ll get more coverage of those inhabitants of Trump’s America who are set to lose their health care, too.

That should be interesting. This is free-market economics. Some of those Trump voters might be jumping for joy at losing their new health insurance. Others might be jumping for joy at losing their Medicare. Big government was always the problem. Let’s go back to the Reagan years.

They could say that, but they may not be able to keep that up for four years. This is just the beginning. They’ll pay the price for that.

Posted in Donald Trump, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Sausage Factory

You really don’t want to know how sausages are made and you can blame Upton Sinclair for that. It was his 1906 novel The Jungle that changed everything. This was a tale of the miserably hard life of immigrants in Chicago at the time, but that’s not what people remembered. His novel was set in the meatpacking industry in Chicago – “Hog Butcher to the World” as Carl Sandburg called the city – and soon everyone knew what filth and nasty stuff went into their morning sausage. Oops. As Sinclair later said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach” – but that led to the Meat Inspection Act the next year, and all food-safety inspection since, so it all worked out. And a cliché was born – you really don’t want to know how that sausage was made. As for Upton Sinclair, he was sometimes a Socialist and sometimes a Democrat, and in 1934 he ran for governor out here in California. He lost.

That’s a bit of a shame, because our government – as things have worked out – is a bit of a sausage factory. You really don’t want to know how a bill becomes law. The folks on your side of things give up concessions that would appall you – the folks on the other side do the same – and no one is supposed to know about those nasty parts. Each side gets to claim victory. No one’s the wiser – and the same thing happens with major appointments. Lincoln assembled his famous “team of rivals” to get things done. They may not have been the best men for the job, but each had a constituency. He could play them off against each other, and Kennedy really didn’t like Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson didn’t like him, but Johnson could help Kennedy carry the South, and Johnson was a master at twisting arms in the Senate, in his own crude way. He was useful, and he was a counterweight to the dashing young urbane (and urban) Kennedy and his ethereally elegant wife, who spoke French of all things. Johnson would do. Kennedy would make do.

Will Donald Trump make do? He seems to be considering Mitt Romney as his pick for secretary of state, and the two have come to loathe each other. Romney famously and publicly declared Donald Trump unfit for the presidency. He’d never vote for him. His comments were blunt and extensive. He didn’t vote for him. Trump was outraged and hit back. Romney was a loser. He “choked” and lost to Obama in 2012 – he was a total loser, but Romney has thought long and hard about foreign relations. He knows the territory. He’s sober and serious and careful. He’s a counterweight to Trump in a way that Rudy Giuliani, the other likely option, isn’t. Giuliani is rabidly loyal to Trump, but that’s the problem. Giuliani hasn’t aged well. He rants, and he hasn’t thought long and hard about anything in decades, if he ever did. And he doesn’t know the territory. He’s not a statesman. He never was – and then there’s Bob Corker, the present chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He’s safe. He’s also dull. Trump has no tolerance for boring people.

Of course there’s someone else. Charles Krauthammer is excited about that someone else:

But I do think we should keep our eye on a third possibility… and that would be David Petraeus, who to the world represents America at its strongest and most decisive. He is the guy who saved the Iraq War, and is a man who has written and thought deeply about the new kind of warfare that we are involved in. And that, I think, would be a spectacular choice.

Kevin Drum isn’t so sure about that:

Krauthammer, of course, was part of the chorus claiming that Hillary Clinton had betrayed the republic as Secretary of State because she occasionally discussed the administration’s drone program over unclassified email. The emails were all carefully worded; there weren’t very many of them; everything in them had almost certainly been widely reported already; there’s no evidence that anyone ever hacked them; and James Comey said clearly that it wasn’t even a close call to determine that Clinton had done nothing illegal. Nonetheless, she had endangered the country and was obviously unfit to hold office.

But David Petraeus – that’s a different story. Petraeus was head of the CIA; he got smitten by an attractive woman; he knowingly and deliberately passed along classified information to her; he tried to hide the email trail; and he was eventually convicted of mishandling classified information as part of a plea deal. For all I know, he may literally be unable to get a security clearance any longer.

But he would be a “spectacular” choice for Hillary Clinton’s old job. Good God.

Drum then adds this:

Of course, Krauthammer was also one of the conservatives who embraced the conspiracy theory that Obama used Petraeus’s affair to blackmail Petraeus into giving favorable testimony on Benghazi. So who knows what really goes through that head of his.

No one knows, but David Petraeus is a long-shot here. Donald Trump loves generals – he wishes he’d have been one, like Patton or MacArthur – so he’s met with David Petraeus. It could be Petraeus, or maybe not. Donald Trump likes to stir up trouble, but Petraeus may be more trouble than he’s worth. Explaining that the email thing with his mistress, and his resignation from the CIA with his admission of guilt, and the plea deal, was not nearly as bad as what Hillary Clinton did… well, that may not fly. Charles Krauthammer and the whole crew at Fox News would back Trump on Petraeus. But it’s likely that no one else would. Everyone else would laugh at Trump. He hates that. Petraeus is out, maybe.

Welcome to the sausage factory. In fact, let Michael Shear and Maggie Habermann take you on a walk through the sausage factory that is Donald Trump’s mind:

Kellyanne Conway, one of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s senior advisers, was about to board a flight back to New York on Monday morning when she caught a glimpse of the headline crawling across television screens in the terminal.

“SOURCES: TRUMP ‘FURIOUS’ OVER CONWAY COMMENTS ABOUT ROMNEY,” screamed the headline on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

Ms. Conway quickly dialed Mr. Trump, as well as Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and confidant, seeking reassurance that the headline was wrong.

She got it.

Ah, it’s a bit of a game:

Ms. Conway, the Republican pollster and strategist who managed Mr. Trump’s improbable campaign, said the president-elect was neither surprised nor angered by her public excoriation a day earlier of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a top prospect for secretary of state in the Trump administration.

“When he’s upset with someone, they know it,” Ms. Conway said in a telephone interview late Monday afternoon. While her public display may have bothered some members of Mr. Trump’s transition team, by all accounts, her close relationship with the next occupant of the Oval Office remains secure.

Mr. Trump, in a statement emailed Monday evening by his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said: “Kellyanne came to me and asked whether or not she could go public with her thoughts on the matter. I encouraged her to do so. Most importantly she fully acknowledged there is only one person that makes the decision. She has always been a tremendous asset and that will continue.”

That’s because she helps him make trouble:

To those on the outside of the Trump transition, her remarks on Sunday had all the hallmarks of a political staff member gone rogue. Amid reports of intense closed-door deliberations over who should be secretary of state, Ms. Conway had seemed intent on committing a heretical political act by an aide: boxing in her boss. She wrote on Twitter about a “deluge” of concerns from conservatives and appeared repeatedly on television, insisting that a Romney appointment would be seen by Mr. Trump’s supporters as a “betrayal.”

But little in Mr. Trump’s universe is simple. In fact, people familiar with the dynamic inside Trump Tower – who were granted anonymity to discuss the unusual process that Mr. Trump has allowed for his transition – said Ms. Conway had been neither insubordinate nor acting directly on the president-elect’s instruction.

By denouncing Mr. Romney even as Mr. Trump was preparing for their second meeting, this time over dinner on Tuesday, Ms. Conway was simply doing what she knows Mr. Trump likes: encouraging a public airing of conflicting views when he is unsure of what path to take.

So this was no big deal:

What some saw over the weekend as an act of political defiance by Ms. Conway – undermining a potential cabinet nominee – was seen by Mr. Trump as a demonstration of loyalty, according to people who had talked to him. Her criticism of Mr. Romney articulated a view her boss had at times expressed: that Mr. Romney had tried to “hurt” him during the campaign and had yet to fully acknowledge it or apologize.

This demonstration of loyalty is what really mattered, even if it confused the hell out of everyone:

Mr. Trump made clear throughout the campaign when he was unhappy with those speaking for him on television. Some cable bookers have been quietly told not to refer to someone as a “surrogate” for the campaign on a given day if the person has fallen out of favor.

On a conference call with top supporters at one point, Mr. Trump denounced some of his own aides and said they did not speak for him.

That is not a problem that Ms. Conway has encountered.

Still, everyone was confused:

Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host whose show is closely watched by Mr. Trump, accused Ms. Conway of trying to “intimidate the president-elect,” adding that “now all world leaders will be watching to see if a President Trump can be bullied by his staff.”

Ms. Conway responded to Mr. Scarborough on Twitter by saying, “Repeating 100th time decision is his & I’ll respect it,” and adding, “I already have the job I want.”

Again, welcome to the sausage factory, although Josh Marshall has a different take on this:

It would be entirely normal for someone like Mitt Romney, who had excoriated the incoming president in such blistering and personal terms, to be passed over when it came to putting together a new administration. Some criticisms and breaches are just too hard to get past. But the current drama over Mitt Romney’s possible nomination to be Secretary of State points to something quite different: the ritual humiliation of opponents, critics and all who have resisted that Trump yoke that is central to the Trump world. We saw it repeatedly during the campaign and it continues into the transition.

So, how does the best man for the job of secretary of state get the job? Ritual humiliation is the answer:

Trump staffers have been floating word for days that Trump will require Romney to publicly apologize if he wants to be Secretary of State – almost literally a ritual humiliation to enter the Trump inner circle. More pointedly, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway – now some sort of senior advisor to the transition – has repeatedly said in public that if Trump chooses Romney it would be a betrayal of Trump’s supporters. She said this most recently and floridly this morning on the CNN Sunday morning show.

Pundits are now debating whether Conway is actually being so audacious as to box Trump in by whipping him publicly on the issue or whether this is just stagecraft and Kabuki theater orchestrated from above to drag out Romney’s public humiliation. I have no idea which it is. My best guess is that it’s more organic or tacit than orchestrated. Dignity is the kryptonite of the Trump world. The dignity wraiths that have bowed down to Trump, and given him their all, instinctively look to destroy anyone who hasn’t. Like a mob capos that appear more eager to defend the boss’s honor and power than the boss himself.

That’s a hell of a way to make sausage:

Competence certainly – but also worldview seem largely irrelevant to Trump’s personnel deliberations. Loyalty is the only criteria. Conway seemed to state this explicitly in her comments on CNN: “There are concerns that those of us who are loyal have [about Romney].” This is of a piece with the central role of Trump’s children, his son-in-law and the open effort to turbocharge Trump’s licensing, management and construction business with the presidency. The entire presidency looks set to be personalized, with the difference between the president’s personal and public interests not a matter of conflict but simply an irrelevance.

Public policy means nothing when the presidency is wholly personalized, and a day later, Marshall considers another aspect of that:

Donald Trump craves acceptance and adulation. Much of his 45 year history at the literal and figurative center of Manhattan has been driven by a profound drive to be accepted as a peer by the city’s money elite and his general failure to achieve that. The drives the convoluted mix of neediness and populist, anti-elite grievance and grandstanding we associate with him. That’s the most salient thing about Trump’s candidacy. Even though Trump is a thoroughly New York creature, an elite of elites and a plutocrat, someone with virtually no connection to the people he energized to the polls, he had nevertheless an experience of anti-elite grievance that made the connection possible and galvanizing.

That’s why he’s talking to Romney:

Mitt is the widely respected elite who looked at Trump, regarded him as trash and told him so. For all the difference, for all the non-New York-ness of Mitt, it’s the kind of rejection and insult that we can see as formative and driving influence on Trump’s life.

Mitt is the real thing. Many of us see him as a touch dorky or square. But Mitt is widely respected even among political opponents. He has political pedigree, great success in business. I think there’s part of Trump – a big part – that, as much as he’d like to humiliate Romney, would really like him to join him, join his team, to accept him.

That’s because he’s not at all like Rudy Giuliani, not like what Marshall calls the Trump’s loyalists.

They are virtually all has-beens, unknowns, hotheads who the media and the political party elites see as embarrassments or jokes. Now, maybe Trump saw something in them these guys didn’t. He won the election after all – so maybe so. But still, they’re desperadoes and has-beens and unknowns. This applies to [Paul] Manafort (cashed out long ago, damaged goods), [Cory] Lewandowski (ne’er-do-well in the business), Conway (was a big deal in the 90s), and all the various press spokespeople and handlers. In a different way it applies to Rudy, Newt, and Huckabee. To paraphrase Trump, when they were sending Trump loyalists and surrogates, they weren’t sending their best.

The desire to humiliate is probably much the stronger with Trump. But I think Trump would like Mitt to validate him too.

So THAT’S how the sausage is made. If Marshall is right, Trump is a rather pathetic needy person, desperate for acceptance, while at the same time, eager to publicly humiliate anyone who won’t accept him, if he can get away with it. Dignity is the kryptonite of the Trump world. It takes away Superman’s amazing powers – or something.

That, of course, leads to things like this:

A member of the Electoral College representing Texas, Art Sisneros, wrote on Saturday that he will resign as an elector because he refuses to cast a vote for Donald Trump.

Sisneros had previously spoken out against Trump, telling Politico in August that he was considering voting against Trump even if he won the Electoral College. But in a blog post on Saturday, Sisneros wrote that he does not want to be a “faithless” elector and cannot bring himself to vote for Trump, so he decided to resign from his role as an elector.

The odd thing is that this is a religious act:

“I do not see how Donald Trump is biblically qualified to serve in the office of the Presidency. Of the hundreds of angry messages that I have received, not one has made a convincing case from scripture otherwise,” he wrote on his blog “The Blessed Path.” “If Trump is not qualified and my role, both morally and historically, as an elected official is to vote my conscience, then I cannot and will not vote for Donald Trump for President. I believe voting for Trump would bring dishonor to God.”

Any mention of God, of course, adds some of that dangerous dignity to this act, but it is a civic act too:

“Since I can’t in good conscience vote for Donald Trump, and yet have sinfully made a pledge that I would, the best option I see at this time is to resign my position as an Elector,” Sisneros continued. “This will allow the remaining body of Electors to fill my vacancy when they convene on Dec 19 with someone that can vote for Trump. The people will get their vote. They will get their Skittles for dinner. I will sleep well at night knowing I neither gave in to their demands nor caved to my convictions. I will also mourn the loss of our republic.”

He won’t be alone. Upton Sinclair ruined everyone’s breakfast. Donald Trump ruined everything else.

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Built on Sand

The election of Donald Trump tore the country apart, because about half the country decided the country should be torn apart. The issue was big government that didn’t respond to the little guy – too many out-of-touch fat cats running things for their own benefit. The answer was to elect a vulgar and vindictive billionaire who would appoint other billionaires to all key cabinet posts, which would somehow “drain the swamp” – whatever that meant – because they would know nothing about how the government runs, or even what it does. They’d bring “fresh eyes” to everything, and they were “winners” – so they would make America “win” again. That might have been the top-level argument for a Trump presidency.

The second-level arguments were a bit more troubling. Muslims were ruining America, or the whole world, actually. Or it was Mexicans, or maybe all Hispanics, that were ruining America. Or it was the Black Lives Matter folks who hate the police who keep us all safe, particularly from them – or maybe it was all black folks, who still whine about unfairness even after they got their black president for eight years. Or maybe it was gays and urban hipsters who mocked Real Americans, as Sarah Palin once called those who live in small towns and on farms, away from the cities and coasts, those quiet straight white Christians into country music and whatnot. Perhaps the gays and urban hipsters weren’t mocking anyone, but they seemed to, by being who they are. Or it was all of those Asian tech CEOs in California, or California itself, or the Jewish bankers. Or it was women who didn’t know their place. Or it was political correctness – a white guy couldn’t call anyone a nigger anymore – no one was allowed to mock the disabled – no one could say what they wanted to say, even Merry Christmas. Of course anyone can say Merry Christmas any time they want, but no one wanted to feel guilty about it, even if no one told them to feel guilty. Or it was Obamacare – but not Medicare or Social Security. Or maybe it was Hollywood.

The list seemed endless. It all came into play. Donald Trump used it all. He said, over and over, that only he could fix all this. All it took was one strong leader willing to say the words that made him famous – “You’re fired!”

He’d say those words. He’d build that wall. He’d deport those eleven million people. He’d tear up all our treaties – no Paris climate deal – Iran could go back to building their bomb and we’d wipe them out – NATO and Japan and South Korea, if they wanted our protection, could pay us big bucks or forget about it. NAFTA would be gone. If Mexico and Canada wanted to trade with us, now they’d have to pay big bucks for that privilege and do what we want – period. And he’d jail Hillary Clinton.

As many have said, except for the alarmist press, no one took him literally. Unless he dissolved Congress and shut down the Supreme Court much of this could not be done. But people did take him seriously. Somehow he’d take care of what was ruining America. That would be gone. “They” would be gone. Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” message wasn’t what people wanted to hear. People didn’t want to be “together” – not with those other folks. They’d had enough of that.

That’s what tore the country apart. That’s what Donald Trump tapped into. In his Thanksgiving message – not a national address, just a YouTube video – he said he wanted to be a president for “all” Americans. No one believed that for a moment. Who was this man, and what had he done with Donald Trump? This was just something someone had told him he should say. He looked bored.

It was too late for that. The damage had been done:

After a bruising presidential election featuring the two least liked major-party candidates in recent history, more than 8-in-10 Americans say the country is more deeply divided on major issues this year than in the past several years, according to a new CNN/ORC poll. And more than half say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in the US.

The poll’s findings, released Sunday, also suggest a sizable minority personally agree with both parties on at least some issues, and nearly 8-in-10 overall hope to see the GOP-controlled government incorporate some Democratic policies into its agenda.

A sizable minority is still a minority, and the hope of that eighty percent is just hope, based on nothing anyone has seen so far:

The percentage in the CNN/ORC poll saying Republicans ought to incorporate Democratic policies into their agenda is lower than the percentage who thought the Democrats ought to do the same in 2008 when they took control of the White House and both houses of Congress. That’s largely because Republicans now are less likely to think their party’s leaders ought to work with the Democrats than Democrats were in 2008 to say that their leaders should bring in GOP policies (55% of Republicans say so now vs. 74% of Democrats who said so in ’08).

In fact, the country has been torn apart:

The sense that the country is sharply riven is near universal, with 85% saying so overall, including 86% of independents, 85% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats. It’s also sharply higher than it was in 2000 when the nation last elected a president who did not win the popular vote (64% thought the nation more sharply split then).

The share that sees deeper divides now tops 8-in-10 across gender, racial, age and educational divides. The biggest difference on the question comes across ideological lines, with 91% of liberals saying the country is more divided on top issues compared with 80% of conservatives.

Okay, Donald Trump “broke” America, but maybe it had all been built on sand all along. In July, there was Brexit – Britain voted to leave the European Union. They didn’t want to be together with “those” people anymore, no matter what economic devastation followed. There were similar movements all across Europe, with votes still pending, even if the whole idea of a European Union was based on the idea that those two World Wars had been a bad idea. An economic union, possibly followed by a political union, would end that nonsense. “Stronger Together” – that was the idea.

That notion didn’t work for Hillary Clinton. That didn’t work on the other side of the pond either, perhaps because the peace and prosperity after 1945 had also been built on sand. That’s what Josh Marshall argued at the time:

Autocracy is government based on fear, domination and insecurity. It is of course billed as the opposite. But it is born of these three horsemen and in turn breeds them. One of the shaping thoughts of the generation of actors and thinkers who emerged from the Second World War was the seared perception that stability, trust, peace and virtuous cycles of all sorts are not natural phenomena or human norms. In fact, they are brittle creations and perhaps abnormal in human affairs. Of course, these beliefs and the ambitions and goals which grew out of them led to their own follies. One can jump from 1945 to 1965 and see the wisdom of this recognition leading the same luminaries to walk into a folly of an entirely different kind. The men who built much of the world we live in today also built a world that was perpetually on the brink of cataclysmic nuclear annihilation. Their creation, let us say with some understatement, had real shortcomings.

And yet, for all that complicated history and all that human folly, basic realities they understood remain. Democracy, borders that are peaceful rather than armed and bloody … none of these things are natural states of being like a rock that rolls to the bottom of a hill and then stays there until some greater force than gravity and friction pushes it along or hauls it back up the hill.

So a stable post-war Europe was a brittle creation and perhaps abnormal in human affairs, built on sand with lots of nasty stuff underneath, ready to shift violently. Virtuous cycles are not natural phenomena or human norms. The same might be said of America:

In the United States we have Donald Trump, a man of erratic impulses and petty but intense grievances who has, like all demagogues, ripped at the existing fissures of our society in order to grasp political power. American institutions have preserved political order and domestic peace for going on a quarter of a millennium with the very notable and brutal exception of four years of civil war 150 years ago. Those institutions can in all likelihood weather four years of his mental instability and toxic incitement. But not necessarily. Britain’s exit from Europe, Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom, the increasingly militarized border between ‘Europe’ and Russia can likely all be managed. But maybe not. Violence and instability can build quickly on themselves.

I believe generally in what Democrats believe in rather than what Republicans believe in. It informs almost everything I’ve written in almost twenty years as a professional writer about American politics. But both have been able to govern the country within a broad consensus of what we consider acceptable behavior.

Trump represents something quite different. The kind of menace he represents is amplified by the rise of complacent instability and reckless behavior we see today in Europe, in the conflagration in the Middle East and the still distant but rising specter of great power confrontation on the borders of Russia and in East Asia. The belief that we can roll the dice with no consequences, that we can provoke and act out with no consequences, is a dangerous illusion. We are indulging that illusion along with many other peoples across the globe. But there are consequences. They can come upon us suddenly, like a mugger in the dark and then multiply and spin out of control.

That may be where we are. There is no broad consensus of what we consider acceptable behavior any longer. Trump has shattered that, for better or worse, and now the whole idea of our election process is crumbling:

Donald Trump on Sunday used the platform of the presidency to peddle a fringe conspiracy theory to justify his loss of the popular vote, claiming without evidence that millions of people voted illegally Nov. 8.

Trump’s tweets marked an unprecedented rebuke of the U.S. electoral system by a president-elect and were met with immediate condemnation from voting experts and others. And they offered a troubling indication that Trump’s ascension to the highest political office in the United States may not alter his penchant for repeating unproven conspiracies perpetuated by the far-right.

The man likes to break things:

“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump wrote on Twitter. There is no evidence to support Trump’s claim and PolitiFact ruled it false.

Several hours later, he added more specifics, but again without any evidence: “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!”


Election law experts quickly rejected Trump’s claims as farfetched.

“There’s no reason to believe this is true,” said Rick Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at the University of California, Irvine. “The level of fraud in US elections is quite low.”

Hasen added, “The problem of non-citizen voting is quite small — like we’re talking claims in the dozens, we’re not talking voting in the millions, or the thousands, or even the hundreds.”

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and a former senior trial attorney in the Voting Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, agreed that widespread fraud was unlikely.

“We know historically that this almost never happens,” he said. “You’re more likely to get eaten by a shark that simultaneously gets hit by lightning than to find a non-citizen voting.”

Yeah, well, watch out for that shark that simultaneously gets hit by lightning, but that’s not the point:

A source close to the president-elect said he felt piqued by the Wisconsin recount demand of Green Party nominee Jill Stein, which Hillary Clinton’s campaign said it will participate in, so he hit back. Even though he’s won and it shouldn’t matter, he isn’t letting it go, the source said.

That’s just who he is and what folks love about him, but there’s a backstory:

The claims of voter fraud appear to have gained traction in conservative circle after Infowars, the conspiracy theory-laden website, published an article on Nov. 14 under the headline, “Report: 3 million votes in presidential election cast by illegal aliens.”

The story cites an analysis by Gregg Phillips, who claims to be the founder of a voting app named VoteStand and who was previously associated with Newt Gingrich’s Winning Our Future super PAC. Phillips has declined to provide any evidence to PolitiFact or reporters to support his assertions of fraud. But he tweeted Sunday evening that he would “release a comprehensive research study to the public, Attorney General [nominee Jeff] Sessions and all interested parties.”

Don’t expect that:

Radio host Alex Jones, who runs Infowars, has faced criticism for promoting unsubstantiated – and often bizarre – conspiracy theories, including that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which resulted in the death of 20 children, is a hoax, and that Hillary Clinton is a “demon from Hell.”

Trump called Jones just days after the election to thank him for his support.

There is no broad consensus of what we consider acceptable behavior any longer:

The president-elect has a long history of pushing debunked conspiracy theories, including the false claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and that the election was “rigged” by global elites to assure Hillary Clinton’s victory.

And now he’s angry:

Hillary Clinton is now ahead in the popular vote by about 2.2 million votes, though Trump won the Electoral College by beating Clinton in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.

Trump said on Twitter Sunday that he could have won the popular vote.

“It would have been much easier for me to win the so-called popular vote than the Electoral College in that I would only campaign in 3 or 4 … states instead of the 15 states that I visited. I would have won even more easily and convincingly (but smaller states are forgotten)!” he wrote.

To bolster his claims, Trump has cited a 2014 blog post in The Washington Post by the authors of a disputed study that estimated that “6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.” That study has faced intense scrutiny from election experts, with one analyst telling earlier this year, “Their finding is entirely due to measurement error.”

Trump’s critics have argued that Clinton’s popular vote victory raises questions about whether Trump has a solid mandate to govern.

That seems to be the real problem here, but not the only problem:

Presidential historians said Trump’s comments have little precedent.

“Trump is the first winning candidate to question the legitimacy of the process that gave him the White House,” said Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University.

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer noted that in 1876, both candidates for president – Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes – claimed voter fraud. “But in that case, there was evidence of fraud and corruption in certain areas,” he said in an email.

“In this case, we see the victor making blanket accusation of fraud to delegitimize 2.5 million votes,” Zelizer said. “Given there is no evidence to support the claim, this is simply stunning and troubling as a sign as to what he will do as president.”

Kevin Drum puts that this way:

It’s just twisting Trump’s guts that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for him. And this whole recount thing in Wisconsin seems to have driven him bananas. The result is a tweet alleging that the Clinton campaign orchestrated millions of illegal votes in 2016… This message went out to all 16 million of his followers, who will surely pass it along to another 16 million or so – and then the media will pass it along to yet millions more.

This is an obvious lie, and it will probably take a few hours for Trump’s TV shills to figure out how to defend it. That’s how it worked with the “thousands of Muslims celebrating on 9/11” thing. But eventually his spear carriers dug up a few internet factoids that provided them with a way to claim that Trump was right, and away they went. I’m sure the same thing will happen this time. I can’t wait to see how many will join in and exactly what dreck they’ll dredge up to justify it.

Alternatively, they could just admit that the Republican president-elect is an epically insecure liar who will say anything when his fragile ego is bruised. That’s not a very appealing alternative, is it?

And then there’s Michael Tomasky:

Let’s review: We have a president-elect who:

  1. Will end up having received around 2.5 million fewer votes than his main opponent.
  1. Whose campaign benefited, almost no one now disputes, from the help provided him by Russian intelligence agencies and other even more shadowy Russian actors – which is to say that foreign agents, whether Russian or any nationality, sought to influence this election to an unprecedented degree.
  1. Who is so tied up in compromises and conflicts because of his business dealings that past White House ethics lawyers, including at least one Republican one, say he will be in violation of the Constitution from his first day in office and argue that the Electoral College must not seat him.
  1. Has already told the American people that, with respect to number 3, his attitude is precisely that of Richard Nixon, back when Nixon declared the president to be by the very nature of the office above the law. Trump said that the president “can’t have a conflict of interest” – meaning, presumably, that it can’t happen simply because he’s the president.

This is a bit absurd:

Want to imagine any one of the above four statements applying to any Democrat, but especially to Hillary Clinton? Think about what we’d be hearing right now from Republicans if Clinton had won a substantial Electoral College victory but lost the popular vote by five more than Al Gore’s margin in 2000. Five hundred thousand was close, but 2.5 million isn’t, out of 137 million. It’s almost 2 percent. That’s a narrow win, yes, but a clear one – well above the threshold, for example, that triggers an automatic recount in the 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) that set such thresholds, which is most typically .5 percent or even .1 percent, but never more than 1 percent.

At the very least, we’d be hearing the right-wing radio people, some Fox hosts, and a fairly large number of prominent Republican senators and House members carrying on about the illegitimacy of Clinton’s victory. Recall back in 1992 when on election night itself, GOP Senate leader Bob Dole said Bill Clinton had no mandate because he didn’t win a majority of the vote. Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the vote, which was nearly 6 percent more than George H. W. Bush, and a whopping 370 electoral votes. But to Dole – and through him, to all Republicans, really, since he was the country’s top-ranking Republican at the time, and others echoed him – Clinton had no mandate.

So if Clinton had no mandate, does Trump?

That’s a good question. Who does? There is no answer. Virtuous cycles are not natural phenomena or human norms. The same might be said of America and its elections. Everything is built on sand, although Tomasky doesn’t want to believe that:

I hate to hear myself saying things like the electors shouldn’t vote for the person who did win under the rules. I don’t know if I can quite endorse that, yet. But by all means, these recounts should be pursued – whatever Jill Stein’s motives here, she’s stumbled into doing something right for once. Democrats from Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on down should be raising every question they can about Trump’s legitimacy and conflicts.

Three simple points: He was not the choice of the people; he prevailed with the help of a foreign power, a power to which he will clearly be indebted; and he tells us straight up that he will do as he pleases with his business and that he is above the law.

The Democrats ought to be able to stand up and oppose that – not in the name of party, but in the name of country. The press ought to, too – not in the name of “liberalism,” but in the name of the values we purport to defend. We are in a crisis. The next few weeks will show us who’s up to recognizing and acting on it.

And who would do that? Who would dare? The nation is divided as it never has been divided before. There’d be riots in the street. Putin would laugh his ass off. The next few weeks might show us that Donald Trump actually broke America. It was all built on sand anyway.

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The Holiday Pause

Just Above Sunset is going dark for a bit – Thanksgiving weekend with family, far from Hollywood. Expect the next bit of analysis and commentary late Sunday evening. Much will happen. It can wait. There are more important things.

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