Only the Base

In the late seventies, at the prep school in upstate New York, part of the job was to teach an elective in creative writing – which can’t be taught. There’s no set of rules on how to be creative. There’s nothing to learn. There’s nothing to teach, other than the obvious. Show, don’t tell. Write that the person smiles. Don’t write that he or she is happy. Let the reader see. And avoid stupid stuff like the sympathetic fallacy – the dark and stormy night. The world doesn’t work that way. People can be desperately unhappy on sunny days. Adding dark skies and rain is a cheap trick. Readers see right through that, unless those dark skies and rain are deeply ironic. Don’t be lazy. Do the work to establish what’s really going on.

Okay – forget that. It was a dark and dreary day back east in Washington, with intermittent small rain, and out here in Los Angeles it was heavy rain all day long, which almost never happens, and Donald Trump was sworn in as our most unlikely president, and then gave an inauguration speech that was angry and dark and dystopian. These are dark times. Things are awful. Only he can save us. And the light rain was cold and miserable. The universe seemed to arrange that. Go figure.

The speech was this dark:

“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

This American Carnage – that sounds like a PBS special or a special on Fox News – and Josh Marshall sums things up:

If you didn’t hear it, that’s about all you need to know. This speech was about grievance and reclamation, reclaiming power, wealth from those who’ve stolen it. These themes can make sense and be salutary for countries which are weak, battered and poor. When these become the rallying cry for the strongest and wealthiest of countries, that is always dangerous.

And it was familiar:

This was quite similar to Trump’s convention speech: dark, defiant, filled with talk of “American carnage” – a landscape dotted with tombstones.

Yes, we’ve heard such things before. This was a speech to Trump’s base – the folks that got him there. Democrats have been ruining the country. Hell, Republicans have ruined the country. In fact, politicians have ruined the country, and he’s not one of them. Screw them all. He’s with the people, who hate all of them – and the dark clouds rolled by.

George Will, an old-line conservative and solid Republican and not a fan of Trump, was not pleased:

Twenty minutes into his presidency, Donald Trump, who is always claiming to have made, or to be about to make, astonishing history, had done so. Living down to expectations, he had delivered the most dreadful inaugural address in history.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s White House counselor, had promised that the speech would be “elegant.” This is not the adjective that came to mind as he described “American carnage.” That was a phrase the likes of which has never hitherto been spoken at an inauguration.

Oblivious to the moment and the setting, the always remarkable Trump proved that something dystopian can be strangely exhilarating: In what should have been a civic liturgy serving national unity and confidence, he vindicated his severest critics by serving up reheated campaign rhetoric about “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape” and an education system producing students “deprived of all knowledge.” Yes, all.

But cheer up, because the carnage will vanish if we “follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”

“Simple” is the right word.

And obviously, something must be done:

“A dependence on the people,” James Madison wrote, “is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” He meant the checks and balances of our constitutional architecture. They are necessary because, as Madison anticipated and as the nation was reminded on Friday, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

Congress and the courts need to slap some sense into this Trump guy. George Will assumes they will. He may have put his faith in the wrong place, but as for the day’s events, the Washington Post covers those well enough:

Donald John Trump was sworn in Friday as the nation’s 45th president and delivered a fiery nationalist manifesto that promised a populist restoration by stripping power from Washington’s elites and ending an era of “American carnage.”

Framing his ascension as transformational and global in its impact, Trump delivered a dark inaugural address in which he pledged fealty to all Americans. But he made little overt attempt to soothe a nation still wounded from arguably the ugliest election season of modern times and signaled that he intends to govern as if waging a permanent political campaign.

Trump doesn’t want to soothe the nation. He prefers a continual dark and stormy night in America. That’s politically useful, and that’s what he got:

As Trump addressed hundreds of thousands of supporters from the West Front of the Capitol – a crowd plainly more sparse and subdued than the record one for Barack Obama’s historic inauguration eight years ago – scores of violent protesters clashed with police in the streets of downtown Washington.

They proved his point, as it really is all darkness now:

Trump reprised the central arguments of his candidacy and harshly condemned the condition of the country he now commands. He said communities had fallen into disrepair with rampant crime, chronic poverty, broken schools, stolen wealth and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones.”

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump declared in his 16-minute address.

“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power,” he added. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

That’s a change:

In his address, Trump was plain-spoken and direct, a deliberate contrast to the poetic oratory of his predecessor. Four years ago, Obama delivered a soaring ode to modern liberalism, from climate change to social transformation. In advocating for same-sex marriage, he became the first president to utter the word “gay” in an inaugural address.

Trump spoke of none of those issues, even though they have animated the Republican Party’s evangelical Christian base. He focused almost entirely on the economic anxieties of working people who feel dislocated and adrift.

Yes, things are dark-dark-dark:

“We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon,” Trump said. “One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.”

That may be a bit of an overstatement. Many are doing just fine. Unemployment is at record lows. Consumer confidence is high. Millions and millions of American workers have not been left behind, even if a good number have, and Fred Kaplan finds this “America First” stuff quite dangerous:

The main message from Donald Trump’s inaugural address – the message that leaders around the world are no doubt taking to heart, some of them panicking about – is that he really believes the things he said all those months on the campaign trail. There has been, and likely will be, no moderation, no maturation, as the weight of his office sets in.

In this speech, Trump explicitly endorsed protectionism. He proclaimed his “America First” slogan as official administration policy and added to those words, “Only America First.” He paid lip service to allies old and new but implied conditions for his commitment to their defense. We’ve been protecting other countries’ borders for a long time, he said; now he’ll defend our own.

There was no recognition, and probably beneath it no awareness, that America’s security and prosperity have rested all these years on the liberal international order, which our wiser leaders created in the wake of World War II and which Trump now deprecates.

That’s the real danger here:

Quite apart from the ignorance of history and economics that leads him to say, and probably believe, that protectionism will make America stronger and richer, this speech is likely to set off a cascade of consequences around the world.

One can imagine allies in Europe – suddenly aware that the United States may no longer be in their corner – drawing up plans for separate deals on security and trade, among themselves or with some other large power. One can imagine Ukrainians and possibly the Baltic nations – foreseeing the decline of NATO and the crumbling of the European Union – making the best deals they can manage with the looming specter of Moscow. One can imagine the Russian and Chinese presidents, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, shaking their heads in sheer wonder over the bounty that has fallen from the sky (though, in Putin’s case, the wonder may be that the plot he mounted to elect this guy succeeded).

One can also imagine African leaders – those who have aspired to democratic rule – stunned that American aid, even humanitarian aid (including health programs initiated by President George W. Bush), may no longer be forthcoming and that insurgent tyrants may no longer feel hesitant about overthrowing lawful regimes. As for the Middle East, it is hard to say what confluence of Russian, Syrian, and Turkish interests might align with Trump’s inclinations. But Israelis may soon feel the pains of getting what they’d asked for, as their security forces have warned Bibi Netanyahu of the violence in store, and the alienation of newly won Arab allies, if Trump makes good on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

That’s all pretty dark, but like George Will, Kaplan hopes for a bit of light:

There are plenty of people among Trump’s entourage – his incoming secretary of defense, his nominated secretary of state, and some of his appointees from the financial world as well – who understand the grave dangers that he embraced as bright beacons in that speech. The same is true of many Republicans in Congress, who have long championed free trade and strong alliances. Whether they speak up, challenge, persuade, and – if necessary – resist the agenda that Trump has clearly and even boldly laid out, that will determine the course the nation and the world take in the coming months.

Kaplan may also be putting his faith in the wrong place, hoping for the best, but Jamelle Bouie looks at the domestic implications:

“America First” has a specific history, as a nativist and isolationist slogan, popular among Americans who resisted entry into World War II and were associated with the demagoguery and anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh. And it’s a fitting slogan for Trump, who has channeled those same resentments and who now deploys them as the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” said Trump.

There is an irony in all of this. Trump has assembled a Cabinet drawn from the plutocratic elite of the country. His populism will be administered by billionaires and hedge-fund managers. His legislative agenda of tax cuts and small government will spark massive upward redistribution to the wealthiest Americans. Trump began his address by roasting those in politics who have “reaped the rewards of government while people have borne the cost.” That, in a real sense, describes his administration. And his speech gives us an idea of how he will resolve the tension: by doubling down on the language of “us” and “them,” of a blemish-free people besieged by foreign and hostile forces.

That’s playing to the base again:

Trump ran a divisive, ethno-nationalist campaign for president centered on the idea that some Americans had more standing than others and that “American” was a category defined more by race and ethnicity than by belief in the nation’s ideals. It’s the idea that animated his birtherism as well as his attacks on Muslim Americans and Hispanic immigrants. Trump didn’t bring that explicit racism to his inaugural, and he even gestured toward the nation’s diversity. But the stark tone of the speech – the broad attack on foreignness, the disregard for notions of liberty, equality, and constitutionalism – shows how that essential chauvinism isn’t far from the surface.

Most new presidents promise unity. What Donald Trump promises, instead, is a kind of dominance.

Jay Nordlinger, columnist for the thoroughly conservative National Review, says the same thing in far fewer words:

There is a gap between those who think that Trump is fit for the presidency, in mind and character, and those who don’t. That gap is damn near unbridgeable.

To my ears, Trump’s address was nasty and borderline un-American for all its talk of patriotism and “America First.”

My favorite part of the address was its brevity.

Perhaps this particular inauguration speech was un-American, and perhaps Trump is un-American. Michelle Goldberg reports on those who think so:

When Donald Trump came to Washington, D.C., this week, it was as if he’d brought all the anger in America with him. His triumphant supporters reveled in the pain of liberals; near Chinatown, red-faced white people taunted protesters who were stuck in a pen, screaming “Trump!” and “He’s your president now!” and “Crybabies!” Close to McPherson Square, asshole anarchists burned trashcans, smashed windows, destroyed a limousine, and spray-painted “PIG” across a D.C. National Guard vehicle. The police shot tear gas, and there were at least 95 arrests. At one point a police van tried to head up K Street; it was pelted with water bottles and other objects and sped backward down the street. Throughout the city, there were several fistfights between pro and anti-Trump forces. Apparently the white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched in the face, twice.

As I write this, I can imagine conservatives huffing and puffing at the injustice of blaming Trump for the actions of the black bloc. But anarchist street fighting is a pretty inevitable response to the elevation of an authoritarian who himself celebrates vigilante violence. I don’t want to defend thuggery and vandalism; like all responsible middle-aged liberals, I think such behavior is bad and counterproductive. I’m just not shocked by it. This is Trump’s America – the worst of every ideological tendency has been empowered, and we’re at each other’s throats.

Trump isn’t exactly bringing the nation together, and John Cassidy adds this:

We’ve never had a President who has adopted the public persona of a professional wrestler, baring his teeth, railing at his opponents, and trying to fling to the canvas anyone he deems to have crossed him, even members of his own party. We’ve never had a President with a far-flung business empire that he has refused to give up, placing him, according to many ethics experts, in contravention of the Constitution. We’ve never had a President who seems to spend most of his time watching cable news and firing off salvos on social media. We’ve never had a President who openly expresses admiration for an authoritarian Russian leader while simultaneously pouring scorn on U.S. intelligence agencies…

Impulsive behavior is one thing. The worrying thing about Trump is that his impulsiveness is combined with authoritarian instincts and, according to some accounts, an unhealthy interest in populist dictators.

That made Trump’s dark speech all the more worrisome:

Trump’s ugly rhetoric and disdain for liberal pieties don’t necessarily mean he is Hitler, or Mussolini, or even Vladimir Putin. But Trump’s Presidency does represent a challenge to American democracy, and the institutions upon which its vitality depends, such as an independent judiciary, a Congress willing to provide meaningful oversight of the executive branch, and an active citizenry.

It seems that the Constitution isn’t enough to guarantee “the preservation of liberty” – good folks need to do the right thing.

Josh Marshall sees that too:

What we are seeing transpire, because of the person and character of the man who is about to become President, is unlike anything any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Trump is a bully. He is not just ignorant but militantly ignorant. He is palpably driven by a need to dominate in every case. He has the most fragile of egos. His vision of leadership is one we find from strongmen in pseudo-democracies and soft dictatorships. His most driving needs are to be praised, loved and to dominate. All of these qualities, not simply in the abstract but in how we have seen them manifest in recent months, are wholly at odds with democratic leadership and the rule of law.

So do something:

We should have more faith in our values, our history and our country. America, in all its greatness, its variousness, its customs and history is far, far greater than any President. And that is not just some generic or abstract statement. A President has little power without popular support. I don’t believe that a President can change the country, on his own, the way many fear that he will.

Consider how much millions have done to preserve democracy in countries that have little heritage of democracy, few protections for democracy, no robust system of courts, press, and so forth. And then think what all Americans can do now. I just see no excuse for sulking or any feelings of powerlessness or resignation. This is America. It’s not Russia. It’s not a crippled and embryonic democracy in 1920s Germany. This is America.

Here we have the opportunity to be its guardians and protectors at a unique moment, perhaps a moment of especial peril. Who would not embrace that challenge? We know the curse: may you live in interesting times. We are living in interesting times. Most of us would not have chosen it. But we have it. I think many of us look back at critical momentous moments in our history, the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and other comparable passages in the country’s history and think, what would I have done? Where would I have been? Well, now’s your moment to find out. We are living in interesting times. We should embrace it rather than feel afraid or powerless. We have a fabric of 240 years of republican government behind us. We have the tools we need.

This isn’t naiveté. It’s not any willful looking away from anything that is before us. It’s being ready. It is embracing the challenge of the moment rather than cowering. It’s having some excitement and gratitude for living in a moment when a new and potent challenge to preserving who we are has fallen to us.

That’s a pep-talk in the darkness, but the darkness is descending:

Just as Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, the official White House website was updated with his portrait and his policies, which include many changes from what the site had said earlier this morning.

Among the first changes noted was the elimination of all mentions of “climate change” and the posting of Trump’s America First Energy Plan. The plan calls for rolling back regulations, including “harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”

The website’s sections on LGBT, civil rights, and health-care are nowhere to be found.

Okay, it is getting dark out there… or maybe not:

Trump White House officials said more information will be added to the site in the coming day and weeks. “The transition of the site is in progress as updates are made,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told the Huffington Post.

Don’t expect much, and Leon Neyfakh notes this:

The new White House website went live following Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday, and it contained a bracing message implicitly directed to supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement: Your kind is not welcome in Trump’s America.

“The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration,” reads a page on the website titled “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community.” It continues: “President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.”

In case it wasn’t clear who and what the Trump administration blames for this “anti-police atmosphere,” the website clarified: “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.”

The message is obvious:

Given the endorsement Trump received from the Fraternal Order of Police and his consistent praise of police officers on the campaign trail, it’s not surprising that he feels revved up about being a “law and order” president who will defend the honor of the nation’s men and women in blue. Still, it was chilling to see such unambiguous evidence of his contempt for those who’ve protested against police violence – and the strength of his apparent resolve to snuff out their movement – appear on the official White House website just minutes after he officially became president.

How this contempt will be turned into policy remains to be seen. But insofar as the Obama administration was an ally to Black Lives Matter – and it was, if only through the Justice Department’s series of scathing reports on systemic racism and misconduct in police departments in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and Chicago – Trump has now promised, in his official capacity as the 45th president of the United States, to be its enemy.

It only gets darker, but not everywhere:

About 100 Trump sympathizers, nationalists and spin doctors gathered at a trendy loft just a few hundred meters away from the Kremlin to celebrate Friday, with a triptych of Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen in the center of the hall.

An hour before Trump took the stage in Washington, the sound of opening champagne bottles echoed in the vaulted hall. The party was co-sponsored by the conservative Tsargrad TV channel, which is led by ultra-right ideologue Alexander Dugin.

It was not a dark and stormy night in Moscow, for what that’s worth.

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The Transformation

“We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.” ~ R. D. Laing

The present is disappearing. Here in Hollywood, which may or may not be the heart of American bleeding-heart liberalism, on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump, there’s on odd quiet in the air. No one here voted for him – no one that matters – and Trump won less than a third of the votes in all of California. This is a blue state, but we’ve been disappeared. Hollywood, and all of California, will have to get used to not mattering at all. They’re setting up for the Oscars down the street – setting up the bleachers and moving in the big gold statues and rigging the lights – but they’re moving slowly. No one’s heart is in it. It doesn’t matter. The people have spoken. Meryl Streep has spoken. She doesn’t matter. She’s not going to be sworn in.

Somehow, to the surprise of everyone, and perhaps to the surprise of Donald Trump, America has been transformed – or revealed – or split in two. Of course that split may have happened when Barack Obama became president eight years ago. He was black, he was an actual intellectual in a nation where intellectuals have been mocked from the start – there’s a famous book about that – and he was reserved and respectful and polite in a nation of brash and crude men of action who just get things done – as in every Hollywood movie from the old westerns to the spy movies to the sci-fi and superhero movies that make tons of money these days. Obama was the most unlikely of presidents. Half of the nation never did know what to make of him – but he did just fine, more or less. We got something that edged us closer to something like universal healthcare. There were no scandals. The economy recovered from the worst mess since the thirties. We didn’t start any odd wars in far off places. Obama was calm and steady.

That became the norm. That was America for eight years – no sudden moves – but now it has been transformed. It will be all sudden moves now, and the action won’t be in Hollywood. The action is back east:

Donald Trump’s arrival in Washington Thursday on the eve of his inauguration as the 45th president snapped the capital city into its new reality, as the buoyant business mogul celebrated his unlikely political ascent with signature bravado and spontaneity.

Kicking off three days of carefully orchestrated inaugural proceedings infused with pomp and guided by precision and protocol, the president-elect reveled in the moment and delivered a tribute to the populist movement that propelled him into office.

“We all got tired of seeing what was happening and we wanted change, but we wanted real change,” Trump said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “It’s a movement like we’ve never seen anywhere in the world, they say.”

Who says that? Trump didn’t say, but it didn’t matter. He just says things. Everything is stupendous. His new cabinet has a higher IQ than any group of anyone anywhere in the history of the world. He’s stupendous too. Go ahead, try to disprove that!

Why bother? He just says things, but he was lying about change:

President Obama’s appointees packed up their belongings and vacated their offices Thursday, although the Trump team is retaining 50 of them in critical positions throughout the government to ensure continuity until Trump can more fully staff his administration. The temporary holdovers include Brett McGurk, a special envoy coordinating the war against the Islamic State; Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center; and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

It seems that Trump doesn’t believe his own bullshit, because he can’t afford to believe it:

Trump and his team on Thursday sent signals suggesting an attempt to begin repairing relations with groups he demonized throughout his transition, including the intelligence community and the media. Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, calmly answered questions for an hour in his first formal briefing with journalists and confirmed that Trump would soon visit the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va., to express his gratitude to career intelligence officers.

If the intelligence community and the media turn on him, any more than they have already, he’s toast. He needs that data in one case and the grudging approval in the other case – he can’t tweet out everything. That limits the transformation. He won’t be sending our spies to small cells at Guantanamo for saying mean things about Vladimir Putin. He’ll speak to the press now and then.

But there has been a transformation:

With sirens blaring, a fleet of limousines and security personnel raced down Pennsylvania Avenue twice in less than the last 24 hours to deliver Donald J. Trump to inauguration events.

But he was not heading to the White House. He was going to Trump International Hotel.

It was a telling destination for those visits Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon. Perhaps more than any other location in Mr. Trump’s real estate empire, this 263-room hotel epitomizes the convergence of Donald Trump the global businessman and Donald Trump the president-elect.

This is new:

Conflicts that for months have been theoretical are now about to become real – most immediately a possible challenge by the federal government. It owns the building that houses Mr. Trump’s hotel and has granted him a 60-year lease. From the moment he is sworn in as president at noon Friday, Mr. Trump may be in violation of that lease, given a provision that appears to prohibit federal elected officials from renting the Old Post Office building, the Pennsylvania Avenue landmark that houses the hotel, from the government.

His own government could evict him from the place, unless he intervenes, as the head of that government, and tells his own government to stop picking on him. That’s a hall of mirrors, and then there’s this:

Guests at the hotel include foreign diplomats and politicians who could be looking to curry favor with Mr. Trump – but even the act of paying their bills as they check out after the inauguration may open Mr. Trump to a challenge that he has violated the United States Constitution, which prohibits federal government officials from taking payments or gifts from foreign governments.

That’s an issue, but Trump says he’ll give all the profits from those stays to the federal government – which doesn’t solve the problem. Foreign diplomats and politicians will still stay there. They know he loves his new hotel. They’ll want him to love them too. Where else would they stay? Anywhere else would offend him.

This will not go well:

“That building is symbolic of the minefield that President-elect Trump has decided to walk through,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, who is the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is charged with investigating any potential wrongdoing by government officials. “We are going now from the hypothetical to reality – and I myself am not sure where it is going to lead.”

Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, defended Mr. Trump’s continued close ties to the hotel. “That he’s going to his own hotel? I mean, I think that’s pretty smart,” Mr. Spicer said. “I think the idea that he’s going to his own hotel shouldn’t be a shocker. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a place that he’s very proud of.”

Mr. Spicer added: “It’s an absolutely stunning hotel. I encourage you all to go there if you haven’t been by.”

In fact, it’s stupendous. Everything is stupendous. That’s beginning to sound like the trailer for what the studios want to be a blockbuster Hollywood movie – but saying something is stupendous doesn’t make it so. Many big-budget movies fail miserably. Kellogg Frosted Flakes aren’t great – and Sean Spicer isn’t even as convincing as Tony the Tiger.

We’re in for change anyway, a transformation, but Eugene Robinson wonders about that:

Admit it, you have no idea what a Trump administration will actually be like. Neither does Trump, I would wager. He is a 70-year-old business executive and self-promoter extraordinaire whose lifelong working habit is to go to his office, see what opportunities the day presents and then improvise. He is not going to change.

If so, this had to happen:

Americans have elected as president a man who was caught on tape boasting of how he assaults women, kissing them and touching their genitals without invitation, and gets away with it because of his celebrity. It is fitting, then, that the biggest planned protest is Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, with scheduled speakers such as Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis. A-listers such as Katy Perry are expected to attend.

The star power at the inauguration itself promised to be of much lower wattage. It’s no surprise that a Republican president couldn’t get Bruce Springsteen to serenade him, but Trump couldn’t even get a Springsteen tribute band to perform.

And we get this, in four short paragraphs:

Trump has no fixed ideology. Once a Democrat, he commandeered the Republican Party the way a bank robber might hijack the nearest car to make his getaway. The GOP is Trump’s vehicle, not his cause, and there is a chance that some of his policies – perhaps even in health care – will give more heartburn to conservatives than to progressives.

He has no experience in government, the military or any kind of public service. In his whole career, he has worked only for his father and himself. Now he has 320 million bosses, and each of us has the right to tell him what to do. I believe this will be a difficult concept for him to grasp.

Trump lies all the time. All presidents have stretched the truth occasionally, of course, and some of them lied frequently and convincingly. But I cannot recall any other public figure – let alone any president – whose every utterance needed fact-checking the way Trump’s words do. In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump calls his rhetorical method “truthful hyperbole.” But there is no such thing.

The new president remains appallingly ignorant about much of the nation he will lead. He must have learned something on the campaign trail, but he seems unaware that most African Americans are middle-class, or that most Mexican immigrants are hardworking and law-abiding – or, judging from his Cabinet picks, that most billionaires are as out-of-touch as he is.

But there’s one thing more:

A leader has to be confident enough to let slights and insults pass; by being big, he makes his adversaries look small. Trump has what can only be called a pathological need to respond to any criticism with overkill – and if you try to swat flies with a sledgehammer, a lot of the furniture gets broken. When he is flailing away at someone like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) – the civil rights icon – Trump risks only his dignity. But what happens if he feels dissed by someone like President Xi Jinping of China, or by Trump’s Russian soul mate, Vladimir Putin? The risk is to all of us, and it is incalculable.

All of which is to say that the presidency itself has now been transformed, which leaves only the people:

Trump’s power is not unchecked. We, the citizens, are the ultimate authority. We must let him know, through our elected officials and with our own rude voices, when he threatens to go too far.

That’s underway, but there are other checks:

We’re now learning that President-Elect Trump wanted a full Soviet-style inaugural parade, with tanks, missiles and missile launchers. The Pentagon nixed that idea but agreed to a jet fighter flyover. In an interview published Wednesday morning Trump had spoken about his desire to hold military parades during his presidency. But this is the first sign he had tried to hold a Soviet-style military parade for his inauguration.

The Pentagon was reportedly not only concerned about the symbolism of such a show but also had more practical concerns about whether tanks, which weigh over 100,000 pounds, would do permanent damage to the roads.

Those tanks are a bother. How did the Soviets pull that off on May Day every year – lighter tanks, better roads? They still do that sort of thing in North Korea each May Day of course. It’s stupendous. The Pentagon doesn’t think so. One transformation is incomplete, for now.

Let that pass. The Pentagon won that one, but there are other concerns. The Hill has a scoop:

Staffers for the Trump transition team have been meeting with career staff at the White House ahead of Friday’s presidential inauguration to outline their plans for shrinking the federal bureaucracy…

The departments of Commerce and Energy would see major reductions in funding, with programs under their jurisdiction either being eliminated or transferred to other agencies. The departments of Transportation, Justice and State would see significant cuts and program eliminations.

The idea is to save one trillion dollars each year, for each of ten years, for a total of ten trillion dollars, and lay off of one quarter of the federal workforce. The numbers are absurd. The cuts are relatively small and dumping tens of millions of newly unemployed folks into the economy as the years go by would make us a real third-world country – but if the idea is to drown government in the bathtub, as Grover Norquist once put it, that would do the trick, and this has a source:

The proposed cuts hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition.

Bully for them, but most of this seems symbolic:

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.

That would mean there’d be no more of that clever programming and classical music from NPR – to make money it’d be talk radio shouting and Country and Western. No art of any sort work be funded, and opera companies and symphony orchestras would be on their own, and public libraries too – and local arts programs too. All this is targeted at liberal coastal snobs who sneer at Real Americans, as they say. The money spent, or saved in this case, would be minimal. This is symbolic. America has been transformed. Deal with it.

And there’s more:

At the Department of Justice, the blueprint calls for eliminating the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Violence Against Women Grants and the Legal Services Corporation and for reducing funding for its Civil Rights and its Environment and Natural Resources divisions.

The police would return to being military-style occupying forces. Violence against women isn’t a problem – grab their pussies. Legal services for those who cannot afford an attorney – the government can’t afford that either. Civil rights and the environment and natural resources stuff is what bleeding-heart liberals whine about. America has been transformed. Deal with it.

And there’s this:

At the Department of Energy, it would roll back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels, eliminate the Office of Electricity, eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Under the State Department’s jurisdiction, funding for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are candidates for elimination.

Screw science too. Yes, this isn’t about money. This is payback. America has been transformed. There’s a new sheriff in town.

And, as David Weigel reports, there’s a new resistance movement:

Democrats and the broader left, recuperating from an election few of them thought they could lose, are organizing one of the broadest – and earliest – opposition campaigns ever to greet a new president. It began with protests in the hours after Trump’s victory, but it has become bolder since, marked most dramatically by nearly 70 Democratic members of Congress boycotting the inauguration itself.

“To borrow the words of Joe Hill: Don’t mourn. Organize,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is embracing a vocal role in the Democrats’ anti-Trump resistance.

People may start singing that old song about Joe Hill again, but it’s more than that:

Part of the response, so far, has been a steady run of public protests, many of them endorsed by Democrats. It is a marked change from 2001, when protests of the incoming administration of George W. Bush were dominated by the political fringe, and a contrast even with 2009, when tea party protests were egged on by conservative organizations but only slowly joined by elected Republicans. In his farewell speech, President Obama departed from the usual homilies and urged activists to find their causes.

“If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” Obama said. “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”

Or go with Bernie:

This year, in his enhanced role as a messenger for congressional Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) successfully encouraged 70-odd rallies last weekend in support of the Affordable Care Act, organized on the ground by Democrats and labor groups. Local branches of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Sanders (and de Blasio) in 2016, have organized “Resist Trump Tuesdays,” in which activists have protested inside the offices of Republican legislators or filled the galleries of state legislatures. According to WFP spokesman Joe Dinkin, 450 community planning meetings took place the week before the inauguration.

But it’s more than that:

“We’re making the Trump nominations the first big fight of the new year,” Dinkin said. “Thousands of people are coming out to encourage Democrats – not just to vote against them, but to use every procedural tool to slow them down.”

Those tools are more limited than the ones used by previous out-of-power parties, thanks to a Democratic-backed 2013 reform of the filibuster that Republicans opposed but have not undone. But Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told The Washington Post last week that the reform was the right thing to do, and that Democrats who opposed nominees had to be ready to stand and debate them.

And there’s more:

Across the left, activists have tried to anticipate and adapt to the tactics of the right. They have highlighted legislation in at least five states that would increase the penalties for public protest, including a North Dakota bill that would legally protect a driver “who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic.” Earlier this month, the progressive group American Family Voices identified and exposed a conservative video sting artist who was trying to offer cash for violent protests. This weekend’s Democracy Matters donor conference in Miami, organized by David Brock, will include several discussions on how to reverse-engineer the right, such as one on “how the Trump administration presents opportunities for impact litigation to hold the president accountable to the law.”

In December, a group of former congressional staffers released an easily updated guide to effective protest and lobbying tactics, titled “Indivisible.” Over 26 pages, available for free online, the staffers delineated what had gotten their attention in Congress, spelled out simple steps such as subscribing to a congressional member’s schedule, and recapped how the tea party had beaten Democrats in 2009 and 2010.

“We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress,” they wrote in the guide’s introduction. “We saw them organize locally and convince their own [members of Congress] to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism – and they won.”

Maybe these guys can win:

At home in New York, and at work in Washington, Trump will be in proximity to hundreds of thousands of active Democrats. De Blasio, whose constituents will soon include the family of the 45th president, was scheduled to address a rally at New York’s Trump hotel on Thursday night. Resistance, he said, started with Democratic confidence that their progressive politics had won the popular vote, and confidence that Republicans would not act on the pro-infrastructure, anti-elite economic policies Trump had used to win the election. Republicans had won on theory, and Democrats would confront them with reality.

“Of course, we’re about to do to them what they did to us with those ridiculous town hall meetings,” de Blasio said. “Yes, that was a classic progressive technique, and yes, shame on anybody who’s too thrown off by people screaming at a town hall meeting to begin with. But if that’s what it takes, let’s scream at the town hall meetings. Let’s put the people who could die right in front of them.”

That’s a reference to the almost certain repeal of Obamacare. America has been transformed, but that was eight years ago. Another transformation might kill us all.

Perhaps it will.

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That Big Yellow Taxi

efIt’s a quiet night here in Laurel Canyon, and raining, which doesn’t happen much out here – but the road that winds up though the canyon is open again. The back yard of one of the odd houses up in the hills gave way and slid down and ended up in the road near Jim Morrison’s old place. It happens.

That took a few days to clear. We don’t do rain out here. Gene Kelly doesn’t dance through the puddles. Those puddles were on a soundstage down at the old MGM studios in Culver City – and Laurel Canyon will always be the sunny center of all that mellow but deep rock of the late sixties and early seventies. Everyone bought that Carole King album with the gauzy picture of her and her cat on the cover – sitting at the window of her place here in Laurel Canyon, in the sun. Joni Mitchell lived nearby and her album was Ladies of the Canyon – and the surprise hit from that album was Big Yellow Taxi – with that catchy refrain. Everyone was singing that to themselves – “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”

That’s banal enough, but this was more than a girl-loses-boy song. There was something in the air. The sixties were over. Something very cool and very good had ended. Joni Mitchell tapped into that, whether she meant to or not. And it’s raining in Laurel Canyon. And the Obama years are over. We may have a new national anthem, even if Joni Mitchell was Canadian.

People get it:

Barack Obama leaves office Friday with 6 in 10 Americans approving of his job performance, capping a steady rise that vaults him above the average final mark for modern presidents, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.

Obama’s high-note finish comes with plenty of dissonance, including persistent pessimism about the nation’s direction and deep divisions after Donald Trump’s victory in last year’s presidential race after campaigning strongly against Obama’s policies.

Yet Americans grew significantly more positive about Obama’s presidency through the acidic 2016 campaign as perceptions of the economy improved. The president’s approval ratings were underwater in July 2015, when 45 percent approved and 50 percent disapproved of his performance. But his overall approval grew to a steady 50 percent by January 2016, and rose again to 56 percent in June, never falling below the mid-50s through the fall campaign.

The latest Post-ABC poll shows Obama hitting 60 percent approval, with 38 percent disapproving – his highest mark since June of his first year in office, when 65 percent approved of him.

Donald Trump kept saying people hated Obama and everything he stood for – and should hate Hillary Clinton because she stood for the same things – but for most people the economy wasn’t as bad as Trump said it was and Hillary Clinton did win almost three million more votes than Trump. Obama had coattails, not that it mattered, given our odd Electoral College system – but of course she was a clumsy and often tone-deaf candidate. She wasn’t Obama, who was neither. In the end the numbers came around. Obama had been a pretty good president. It was finally okay to admit that, now that he was on his way out, and he ended up in a good place:

Obama’s final job approval mark is well above the 50 percent average for presidents from Franklin Roosevelt onward, and nearly twice as high as the 33 percent approval of his immediate predecessor George W. Bush as he left office in 2009.

Bush had been a screw-up. Iraq, Katrina, the total collapse of the economy – you name it. Obama just plugged along, fixing things as much as he could, with the whole Republican Party trying to keep him from fixing things at all, so they could prove he was an idiot, or a Muslim, or a socialist if not a communist. He was none of those things. He fixed what he could and smiled – and got old before our eyes. And the big yellow taxi will take him away. Actually that would be Air Force One flying him out here for a long vacation in the sunshine (Palm Springs not Laurel Canyon) with the wife and kids – the last flight he’ll ever take in that plane. He may not miss it. He says he’ll settle down in DC and write, and speak out only when he feels he has to. He seems to hope it won’t come to that.

Barack Obama used his departing words as President Wednesday to offer an assured – if not entirely optimistic – outlook for a country governed by Donald Trump.

“At my core I think we’re going to be okay,” Obama said as he concluded his final news conference at the White House. “We just have to fight for it, work for it, and not take it for granted.”

“I know that you will help us do that,” he told reporters assembled in the White House briefing room.

Yes, the word is that Trump might lock them out of the White House, but DC is a big place. They’ll find someone somewhere nearby who will let them know what’s going on. They’ll adapt. He did:

In his question-and-answer session with reporters, Obama said that after two terms of political warfare with Republicans, he was emerging unbowed in his faith in the US and its citizens. But he continued to express concerns about his successor’s stance on Russia and his readiness for office.

“I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad,” Obama said. “I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time.”

“That’s what this presidency has tried to be about,” he continued.

In short, the nation will survive Donald Trump. The nation is bigger than Donald Trump, with his small and odd ideas. Things will be fine, but he’s outta here:

Conceding that Trump may not take his advice on issues, Obama said he would avoid weighing in on specific policy matters during his post-presidency, using his time instead to write and “not hear myself talk so darn much.”

America, things will be fine, but you’re on your own. That Joni Mitchell song comes to mind.

Things will be fine? E. J. Dionne isn’t so sure of that:

Let’s start with the fact that most Americans are not happy that Donald Trump is about to become president. The Post/ABC News poll this week found that Trump enters the Oval Office with the lowest favorable ratings since the question has been asked. Only 40 percent view Trump favorably. That compares with 62 percent for George W. Bush as he entered office in 2001 and 79 percent for Barack Obama in 2009.

Dionne, however, doesn’t expect much of Trump:

In the past, presidents facing public doubts of the sort Trump confronts have practiced what you might call self-interested humility. Bush declined to acknowledge the anger so many felt at the time about how the Supreme Court paved the way to his presidency, but in his well-wrought inaugural address he did show how to reach out and reassure those who worried about what he might do with power.

“Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment,” Bush declared. “It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.”

You might say that since Election Day, Trump has chosen cynicism over trust and chaos over community.

Well, the sixties – love, peace, and cool music too – also ended, but that cantankerous conservative George Will says it’s more than that:

Donald Trump is the waterbeetle of politics. His feral cunning in manipulating the masses and the media is, like the waterbeetle’s facility, instinctive. The 72 days of transition demonstrated a stylistic seamlessness with his 511 days of campaigning, which indicates that the 1,461 days of his term that begins Friday will be as novel as his campaign was.

Its theme was often a pronoun without an antecedent, his admirers explaining their admiration by saying that “he tells it like it is.” Fortunately, a theme of his transition has been a verbal shrug: “Oh, never mind.”

Trump has already as much as said that:

He won by stoking resentments that his blue-collar base harbors about the felt condescension of elites. He has, however, transitioned with ease and celerity away from the most vivid commitments that made his crowds roar (prosecuting Hillary Clinton, making Mexico pay for the wall, banning Muslims from entering the country, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants within two years, restoring torture because “it works” but even “if it doesn’t work,” etc.). He shows an interesting disinclination to disguise his condescension toward those he effortlessly caused to roar by giving verbal prompts that he has now abandoned.

And there’s this:

Candidate Trump intimated a foreign policy less reliant on military measures than the policies of some recent presidential predecessors. But the most riveting moment of the transition received less attention than did Trump’s tweet snit about Meryl Streep. The moment was when Rex Tillerson, Trump’s designated secretary of state, told the Senate that China’s policy of building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea is “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea” and that America should tell China that “your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” China might not quietly accept this U.S. Navy blockading of the islands.

And there’s this:

The World Economic Forum that convenes every winter in Davos, Switzerland, will conclude Friday just as the Trump presidency begins. It has been well said that Davos is where billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class feels. Chinese President Xi Jinping attended. He is advocating a Chinese alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. initiative that probably was dying before Trump’s election killed it. The Communist leader offered an almost Thatcherite defense of free trade, which America’s president-elect opposes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is the principled conservative now? George Will goes on and on. Expect contradictory chaos that makes no sense and does real harm – and this from a guy who really did think Obama was an idiot. He’s singing that Joni Mitchell song too, although he may think she’s an idiot too. George Will doesn’t seem like a sixties sort.

Peter Baker surveys the situation:

In one way at least, President-elect Donald J. Trump has already surpassed all of his recent predecessors. It took Barack Obama 18 months in the White House for his approval rating to slip to 44 percent in Gallup polling, and it took George W. Bush 4½ years to fall that far. Mr. Trump got there before even being sworn in.

Indeed, Mr. Trump will take office on Friday with less popular support than any new president in modern times, according to an array of surveys, a sign that he has failed to rally Americans behind him, beyond the base that helped him win in November. Rather than a unifying moment, his transition to power has seen a continuation of the polarization of the election last year.

Expect a new nastiness:

Where other presidents used the weeks before their inauguration to put the animosities of the campaign behind them and to try to knit the country together again, Mr. Trump has approached the interregnum as if he were a television wrestling star. He has taken on a civil rights icon, a Hollywood actress, intelligence agencies, defense contractors, European leaders and President Obama. The healing theme common at this stage in the four-year presidential cycle is absent.

“He seems to want to engage with every windmill that he can find, rather than focus on the large aspect of assuming the most important position on earth,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on CNN on Tuesday. “And obviously, apparently, according to the polls, many Americans are not happy with that approach when he has not even assumed the presidency.”

Well, screw them:

Mr. Trump’s advisers said privately that his unexpected rise to power showed that such traditional barometers did not matter as much anymore. If polls were to be believed, he would not have been president, they said.

Still, the anemic numbers clearly irritated Mr. Trump, who lashed out on Tuesday. “The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls,” he wrote on Twitter. “They are rigged just like before.”

It’s just not true, none of it true, just like global warming perhaps, or those reports of Russian hacking. He did beat Hillary Clinton. He got far more votes. No, wait – oh, never mind. All the polls are wrong.

This may make for an interesting inauguration speech – which he may or may not be writing himself – in which he’ll say that everyone loves him, and loves his ideas, and his justifiable swagger, and if they don’t they’re idiots, and there WILL be consequences! Or he could be a humble pussycat and say that other people have good ideas too, and he’ll listen to them and respect them.

Everyone knows which is more likely. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?

That’s true in another way:

On the eve of its possible repeal, Obamacare is at its most popular, according to a poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal released Tuesday.

Forty-five percent of Americans surveyed said they think Obamacare, the outgoing president’s signature legislative achievement formally called the Affordable Care Act, is a “good idea.” Forty-one percent think it is a bad idea.

The poll, conducted between Jan. 12 and 15, started asking about Obamacare in April 2009, and this month marks both the highest percentage of respondents who signaled their approval for the law and the first time that more people surveyed said they like it than dislike it.

Sing the song:

Republicans in Congress and President-elect Donald Trump have vowed to repeal the law and replace it with some alternative, although there is no clear consensus on what form that new legislation might take.

The NBC/WSJ poll found that 50 percent of respondents have “little to no confidence that Republican proposals to replace the law will make things better.”

Expect contradictory chaos:

Congressional leaders had first advocated repealing the law immediately and leaving open a window before it would take effect so they can take more time to pass a replacement package. Trump and some others, though, have publicly pushed back on that plan.

Trump also said this weekend that he wants to guarantee that “insurance for everybody” under a Republican replacement. Congressional Republicans had not promised this.

One might expect contradictory chaos, but Eric Zorn suggests one might actually expect a single-payer system:

So far, the hazy outlines of Trump’s ideas on replacing Obamacare – just like the various ideas floated by Republicans in Congress – would have some combination of significantly unpopular results: Higher deductibles. Skimpier coverage. Increases in the number of people without health insurance.

Single-payer systems have their drawbacks, too, of course, not the least of which is that they smack so heavily of “socialism” that, despite their popularity and prevalence in most of the rest of the developed world, Democrats have failed for the better part of a century to advance proposals to guarantee basic medical coverage for all.

The very idea has been too identified with the far left to gain mainstream traction, even with polls showing 6 in 10 Americans agreeing with the statement that “it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage.”

Could Trump, the unorthodox populist blowhard, be the one to make it so?

That is possible:

Trump’s not even in the White House and he’s rhetorically led his party into a box canyon on health care. Even while bleating about what a “disaster” Obamacare is, he’s pledged not only to preserve the parts of it with huge public support, such as the ban on discrimination against those with existing medical conditions, but also to make it cheaper while not cutting funds for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

True, he has his finger to the winds of change generated by Obamacare and may be guided only by his desire for public approval and his instincts as a con man, but all his big talk has left his party no face-saving way to replace the existing program that isn’t something even closer to single-payer guarantees than what we have now.

If Trump is as good as his word – and yes, “if” insufficiently qualifies his track record of fake-outs, falsehoods and flip-flops – “Trumpcare” could go from a dark joke to a blessing.

It could, but that would be an accidental blessing. The real world is something like this. Sherri Underwood, a Midwestern woman in her fifties, explains that she voted for Donald Trump but now regrets it:

Most of my decision came down to my poor experience with Obamacare. In the ’90s, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic illness that causes fatigue, memory loss, physical aches, and soreness… I eventually was unable to work at all. I lost employer-based health insurance when I left the workforce and had to pay my health care costs out of pocket.

When Obamacare first came into effect, I was excited to get what I thought would be financial help with my costly medicine and treatments. But [my husband’s salary] put me in an earning bracket too high to qualify for any financial assistance… I’m left with a premium of $893, so high that I can no longer afford the cost of my medicines and treatments on top of the monthly premiums…

In the end, I voted for Trump because he promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, and that was the most important issue to my own life. Looking back, I realize what a mistake it was. I ignored the pundits who repeated over and over again that he would not follow through on his promises, thinking they were spewing hysterics for better ratings. Sitting on my couch, my mouth agape at the words coming out his mouth on the TV before me, I realized just how wrong I was.

That happens to a lot of people, but Kevin Drum thinks there’s more to this:

Lots of people have benefited considerably from Obamacare, but not everyone. Underwood found herself in the worst possible position: old enough to have a high premium but well-off enough that she didn’t qualify for assistance. So she was gobsmacked when she discovered just how much health care costs in America. Most people have no real clue about this, but per-capita health care spending in the US for someone 55 years old is about $10,000 per year. That means insurance premiums are going to be $10,000+ per year too. There’s just no getting around this.

If Republicans want to cover people like Underwood, they’re going to have to spend more money than Obamacare. If they want to reduce deductibles, they’re going to have to spend more money than Obamacare. If they want to increase subsidies for the middle class, they’re going to have to spend more money than Obamacare. This is an iron law, and no amount of blather about state lines or tort reform or anything else changes it more than minutely. But Republicans want to spend less, not more. Even if Trump had been sincere, there was never any chance that Underwood would do better under his plan than under Obamacare.

Cue the Joni Mitchell song. Another one didn’t know what she got, such as it was, until it was gone.

There’s a lot of that going around. Obama says we’ll be okay, somehow – but he just took that big yellow taxi, didn’t he?

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Learning Stuff

It’s personal. As a baby-boomer product of a well-funded and quite competent suburban public school system, and having taught for years at a private for-profit prep school for the kids of old money, and the kids of young professionals who just become relatively rich, with a few minority scholarship students tossed in for a bit of token diversity, it was easy to see that that education in America is a bit of a mish-mash. Those of us in the business, if it is a business, liked to watch Inherit the Wind now and then – about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial – because Spencer Tracey made a fine Clarence Darrow, defending the idea that schools shouldn’t teach biblical stuff as if it were science. Keep the two separate, but that young teacher, John Thomas Scopes, was convicted of teaching science, even if he was only fined a hundred bucks and the conviction was later overturned on a technicality. He still lost. Clarence Darrow couldn’t pull that rabbit out of that hat.

That battle is still being fought. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – Pastafarianism – was offered in 2005 as a mocking response to the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes there. There are complex designs in nature. That implies intelligent design. Intelligent design implies an intelligent being at work. That implies God. Science arrogantly denies that possibility. God did it. Praise Jesus – but that’s too narrow, and there’s that freedom of religion thing. Teach about the Flying Spaghetti Monster too. He (or she) did it. That’s equally valid.

Needless to say, humor didn’t work either, and no national problem was being solved anyway. Individual states mandate public school curriculum for individual states. Local school boards often disagree with the state curriculum and teach what they see fit to teach, and what not to teach. They like to ban books now and then. Sometimes it’s Harry Potter. Sometimes it’s Huckleberry Finn. Now it’s books that explain Islam, or yoga, or books that seem a little too un-American. There’s an amusing scene of that sort of thing in Field of Dreams. It’s actually quite realistic. America makes up its educational system as it goes along – at the state and local level.

That’s why Common Core was doomed – the “initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) that seeks to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or to enter the workforce.”

That was a fine idea. The states would compare notes and decide on what the basics would be for the nation. All the other nations of the world had been eating our lunch. We often ranked between twentieth and thirtieth in science and math and reading and whatnot. Denmark was often at the top. Finland was often at the top. So was Singapore. We sucked at this education thing but we could fix this. Cool – but more than half of the states are now in Republican control so this became a big-government states’ rights issue. The damned federal government should butt out – there’s nothing in the Constitution about this – and there was Jesus too. States had jumped in – then they jumped out. Common Core is pretty much dead now.

Common Core was a miscalculation based on a misunderstanding. We don’t have a national education system, even if we have a federal Department of Education headed by an actual Secretary of Education.

That’s not what it seems. That’s an advisory board with a chairman – to suggest policy, which can be ignored, and to make a few grants. That’s it. The federal government accounts for about ten percent of what we spend on education. States and local governments foot the bill – and they want their say. The federal government nudges. In the Bush years there was No Child Left Behind – mostly about endless mandatory testing, by law, and punishment for school systems that didn’t come up to snuff, by law, followed by a lot of fudging the test results to avoid punishment. That didn’t work out. In the Obama years there was the more informal Race to the Top – reversing the incentives – carrots not sticks – but both were playing around the edges. Neither was national education policy. We don’t have one. We only pretend to have one.

Another way to say that is that all we have is national policy, with no means to implement it. The Department of Education and its actual Secretary of Education exist to say how things should be, and that matters. They have little financial leverage to change things, but they have some – and they can shame and praise in significant ways. They can set direction, and now it’s time, with a new administration, to have a new secretary of education who will explain how we’ll save education in America from itself, even if others do the work, if they choose to do the work. The job is to say “this” is how it will be, or should be. The job is to provide statements of values.

That is Donald Trump’s new job too, even if his values range from questionable to laughable to despicable – but we’re not talking about grabbing pussy here. This is about Betsy DeVos, his nominee to become the next actual secretary of education:

Since her nomination, DeVos hasn’t said much publicly about her views on education – or whether she plans to defend the separation of church and state in public schools. However, in a 2001 interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, she and her husband offered a rare public glimpse of their views. Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on philanthropic dollars – rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers – Betsy DeVos replied, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education [versus] what is currently being spent every year on education in this country… Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”

Somehow it’s 1925 again and of course her nomination hearing did not go well:

Democrats attacked Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s education nominee, calling her unfit for the job during a contentious confirmation hearing Tuesday evening, while Republicans defended her as a bold reformer who would disrupt the status quo in U.S. education.

DeVos told skeptical senators that she looked forward to working with them to improve the nation’s schools. But she sidestepped several issues important to Democrats and their allies, declining to take a position on whether guns belong in schools or to commit to upholding the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to handling sexual assault on college campuses, and she called Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) ideas about free college “interesting.”

She was punting, but for good reason:

A Michigan billionaire, DeVos has lobbied for decades to expand charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools, but she has no professional experience in public schools, never attended public schools nor sent her own children to public schools. She also has not held public office.

That hurt:

DeVos’ inexperience in the realm of public education appeared at times to be a liability. During rapid-fire questioning by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), she seemed to demonstrate a lack of understanding of one of education’s major federal civil rights laws, which requires states that take federal funding to provide children with disabilities the services they need to benefit from a public education.

DeVos said states should decide whether schools should be required to meet those special-education requirements.

“So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, and other states might not be so good, and then what, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how their kids are being treated?” Kaine said.

When Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) – who has a son with a disability – challenged DeVos to explain whether she understood that the law was a federal civil rights law, DeVos said she “may have confused it.”

Oops. But then they got to the good stuff:

DeVos also declined to say whether she believes that all schools receiving taxpayer funding – public, public charter, or private – should be held accountable to the same performance standards. She also declined to say whether such schools should be required to report suspensions and expulsions, and incidents of bullying and harassment, to the federal government.

States’ rights had to come up, but one strange old man had her back:

Joe Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, introduced DeVos Tuesday and vouched for her leadership, arguing that her status as an outsider is an asset.

“She doesn’t come from within the education establishment. But honestly, I believe that today that’s one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job,” the former senator from Connecticut said. “We need a change agent.”

We need people who don’t know what they’re talking about? Isn’t Donald Trump enough for now? Some think so:

DeVos is an unusually polarizing nominee for education secretary; most of her recent predecessors have sailed through the confirmation process, winning Senate approval on voice votes. The strong feelings about DeVos were evident in the line of more than 100 people waiting to enter the Capitol Hill hearing room Tuesday evening, including supportive students in plaid uniforms and bright yellow scarves embroidered with “National School Choice Week,” and a large contingent of parents and teens from Detroit who came by bus to oppose DeVos’ nomination.

There will be no voice vote on this one, and there will be protesters, and this was about big government butting out of things:

GOP senators cheered DeVos’ nomination, saying they hope she will champion alternatives to the nation’s public schools and scale back the federal footprint in K-12 education.

“Betsy DeVos, in my opinion, is on our children’s side,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said in his opening remarks Tuesday. “She’s devoted her life to helping mainly low-income children have access to better schools.”

If those are Jesus-schools not held accountable to the same performance standards as public schools, or any schools, so much the better, but Alexander wasn’t finished:

He restricted senators to one five-minute round of questions, saying he was adhering to committee precedent and the “golden rule,” treating Trump’s pick as the committee treated Obama’s nominees. Democrats were dismayed, arguing that the committee has never before cut off questions, and that they needed more time to examine DeVos’ record.

“I think we’re selling our kids short by not being able to ask follow up questions,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Franken had asked DeVos for her views on the debate – common in education circles – about whether standardized tests should measure the progress students make during a year, or their grade-level proficiency. He was unimpressed with what he said was her lack of familiarity with that debate.

“I’m surprised you don’t know this issue,” Franken said.

This was turning out to be a disaster, as many expected:

Teachers unions and civil rights groups have argued that DeVos’ support for a free-market approach to education has undermined public schools, which they see as a critical civic institution. DeVos’ opponents also point to the fact that she has no record on higher education or protecting children’s civil rights, two areas critical to the work of the department she aims to lead.

By the way, Denmark doesn’t take a free-market approach to education. Neither does Finland. Neither does Singapore. All other nations have a national education policy paid for and implemented by the national government. Arranging for random private parties, some deeply religious, to make a hefty profit educating their kids, if they can, didn’t seem like a good idea to them. No one else wants their children educated by the Invisible Hand – and there is that civil rights thing:

Asked about her relatives’ contributions to anti-LGBT groups, DeVos said she believes in equality: “I believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination,” she said.

But she declined, under questioning from Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat, to say whether she plans to rein in the Office for Civil Rights, which investigates allegations of discrimination in schools.

It seems she hadn’t thought about that, and then Pocahontas pounced:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked questions about DeVos’ qualifications to run the trillion-dollar federal student loan program, with DeVos acknowledging that she has no experience running or managing anything near the size and complexity of the program. DeVos also acknowledged that she had never taken out a federal student loan for herself or her children.

There was a deer in the headlights, and then there was this:

DeVos declined to take a stand on whether guns belong in schools, saying that decision should be left to local and state officials. She pointed to a rural Wyoming school that is surrounded by a fence to keep bears out: “I would imagine there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Asked by gun control advocate Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – whose constituents include parents who lost children in the mass shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 – whether she would support Trump if he moves forward with his proposal to ban gun-free school zones, she said she would “support what the president-elect does.”

Yeah, she’s easy, and then there was this:

The hearing went forward Tuesday evening over the objections of Democrats, who are concerned that the Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for vetting presidential nominees for potential conflicts of interest, has not finished its review of DeVos’ vast wealth and financial investments.

She may not survive that, and she may not survive this guy:

During her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, if she was sitting in front of him due to the hefty contributions she has made to the GOP.

DeVos, whose father founded a manufacturing company that came to be worth more than $1 billion and whose father-in-law co-founded Amway, wasn’t able to recall how much money her family has contributed to the Republican Party over time, but said it was “possible” they donated $200 million. “I don’t mean to be rude, but do you think if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family has not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, you would be here today?”

That wasn’t very nice, but that was a good question, as was this:

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, avoided questions Tuesday evening about whether she would uphold the current guidelines and standard of evidence used to combat sexual assault on college campuses if confirmed to the position.

“Would you agree with me that the problem, and that’s an understatement in my judgment, but the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is a significant problem that we should take action on?” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) asked DeVos during her confirmation hearing.

“I agree with you that sexual assault in any form or in any place is a problem and no disagreement there,” DeVos replied.

“Would you uphold that 2011 Title IX guidance as it relates to sexual assault on campus?” Casey asked.

Oh shit. It was time to punt again:

“I know that there are a lot of conflicting ideas and opinions around that guidance,” DeVos said. “If confirmed, I would look forward to working with you and your colleagues and understand the range of opinions and understand the issues from the higher ed institutions that are charged with resolving these and addressing them and I would look forward to working together to find some resolutions.”

What was she saying? Teach me my job? Perhaps she was, so Casey did just that:

“We have a long way to go to addressing this problem. We took some good action on this issue, as part of the Violence Against Women Act,” Casey said.

“There’s an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education. They support a bill that would totally change that. They would force a victim to go to police departments to report and they would change the standard of evidence,” he continued. “Would you commit, as secretary of education, to retaining the standard of evidence that is currently the law?”

“If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and the current situation better and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim, the rights of the victims, as well as those who are accused as well and that the institutions-” DeVos began.

“I’m out of time,” Casey interrupted. “The organization that has that position, which is contrary to the law, current law, and contrary to the spirit of what we try to do in that piece of legislation, is the recipient of donations from you totaling about 25,000 bucks over four years.”

That wasn’t very nice either, but then none of this is nice, but then none of this matters very much. The job is to say “this” is how education in America will be, or should be. No one has to do much of anything to that end, and this woman doesn’t seem to be clear about how she thinks things should be anyway. There are those pesky details. She’ll look into them. The job is to provide statements of values. She wants to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom – but we’ve been there before too.

It looks like America does make up its educational system as it goes along. It would be nice to make America great again, but to do that you have to have been there in the first place. It would be nice to know what that looks like. At this rate we may never know.

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Running on Pure Spite

Donald Trump will fix things. He’s the only one who can. He’s said so many times, and say something many times and people eventually just give up. Just enough voters in just the right places just gave up – sure, fine, whatever, Donald – fix things. Bring jobs back. How? That doesn’t matter. Just do it – and get rid of Obamacare. Everyone hates Obamacare, although they’re not sure why – it does good things and many Trump voters are on Obamacare, one way or the other – and not everyone hates it. But whatever – it’s awful, somehow. That’s been said for six years, and there were those fifty or sixty bills to repeal Obamacare – essentially symbolic of course – so it must be awful. Why else would the Republicans go to all that effort? Now they hold the House and Senate and the White House. Just do it. What will happen is just going to have to happen, but at least there will be no more talk about this. America can move on to other issues. The Republicans wore America down. Repeal the damned thing. Be done with it.

That was the idea, but the Republicans have discovered it’s damned hard to just be done with it. The good parts that people like, and want the Republicans to keep – like making sure those with preexisting medical conditions can actually buy health insurance – are dependent upon the “bad” parts – forcing everyone to buy health insurance so there’s a big enough pool of funds to cover those with those preexisting medical conditions. And there’s the matter of those twenty-two million folks now insured through Obamacare. Repeal the thing and there’ll be twenty-two million folks hopping mad, or in despair, and they’ll know who to blame, and they vote – or those that don’t die will vote. That won’t do – so it’s Repeal and Replace – but there’s no replacement yet – but this should be simultaneous. More and more Republicans say wait – we need to think this through. Others can’t afford to do that. The voters they made very angry about Obamacare want action. Waiting would be political suicide. Not waiting is also political suicide of course. Things have ground to a halt.

Donald Trump will fix things. He’s the only one who can, so a few days before his inauguration he said he has a plan:

President-elect Donald Trump said in a weekend interview that he is nearing completion of a plan to replace President Obama’s signature health-care law with the goal of “insurance for everybody,” while also vowing to force drug companies to negotiate directly with the government on prices in Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump declined to reveal specifics in the telephone interview late Saturday with the Washington Post, but any proposals from the incoming president would almost certainly dominate the Republican effort to overhaul federal health policy as he prepares to work with his party’s congressional majorities.

In fact, he’ll tell his Republican congress exactly what to do – set up “insurance for everybody” – that’s it, case closed. Why did they think this was so hard?

It’s this simple:

Trump said his plan for replacing most aspects of Obama’s health-care law is all but finished. Although he was coy about its details – “lower numbers, much lower deductibles” – he said he is ready to unveil it alongside Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). …

As he has developed a replacement package, Trump said he has paid attention to critics who say that repealing Obamacare would put coverage at risk for more than 20 million Americans covered under the law’s insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion.

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.” …

“It’s not going to be their plan,” he said of people covered under the current law. “It’ll be another plan. But they’ll be beautifully covered. I don’t want single-payer. What I do want is to be able to take care of people,” he said Saturday.

There may be more than a few Republicans who sense that Trump has no idea what he’s talking about, that he doesn’t understand the issues at all, although they’d never say that publicly. Paul Waldman says they’ve made a bad bet:

When even the most committed Republicans came around to support Donald Trump in 2016, they made a kind of bet. It wouldn’t matter much that Trump had no apparent fealty to conservative ideology or that he was a complete ignoramus about policy, because he’d be leaving all that boring stuff to them. The Republican Congress would pass its agenda, he’d sign whatever they put in front of him, and they’d all live happily ever after.

But now it’s not looking so simple. In fact, Trump just dealt a huge blow to their top priority: repealing the Affordable Care Act. Accomplishing repeal without causing the GOP a political calamity is an extremely delicate enterprise, and the last thing they want is to have him popping off at the mouth and promising things they can’t deliver.

But that’s what he just did, and that’s the problem:

We should begin with the assumption that nothing Trump says can be taken at face value; the “plan” that he claims is being devised could be no more real than the secret plan to defeat the Islamic State he used to claim that he had formulated. But that’s not the point. What matters is this: Donald Trump just emphatically promised universal health coverage. That’s an absolutely gigantic promise, and it’s one that Republicans have no intention of keeping.

But now they’re stuck with it. Democrats will be saying, “President Trump promised that everyone would be covered!” every day for as long as this debate goes on. Every time a congressional Republican is interviewed on this topic, they’ll be asked, “President Trump said that everyone would be covered. Does your plan do that?” and they’ll have to bob and weave as they try to avoid admitting the truth.

That’s because the Republican plan, in whatever final form it takes, will absolutely, positively not cover everyone. Universal coverage isn’t even one of their goals. Republicans believe it’s much more important to get government as far away from health care as possible. In place of the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid and subsidies for the purchase of insurance that have extended coverage to 20 million more people than used to have it, they’ll be offering some tax credits and health savings accounts, which would be very good for the healthy and wealthy, but not so great for other people.

That’s what they always offer – tax credits and health savings accounts – but that’s not going to cut it:

The truth is that there are really only two ways you can achieve universal coverage: by having the government cover everyone in some form of single-payer, or with a set of extremely coercive mandates to carry coverage, much more coercive than the ones in the ACA. Republicans would rather pluck out their own eyes than agree to either one of those. So the trick is to make the public think they won’t take away coverage from tens of millions of people, while doing just that.

That requires some rhetorical subtlety, which is something Trump is just not capable of.

They may understand that now, but there’s more:

Trump’s insistence that the Republican plan will give people “much lower deductibles” is absolutely false – in fact, every extant Republican plan promotes higher deductibles, as a way of forcing people to become aggressive health-care shoppers because they have “skin in the game” and, thereby, through the magic of the market, driving down costs.

If Trump understood the political and policy challenges Republicans face, he’d know that high deductibles are supposed to be complained about and wielded as evidence that the ACA is a failure, but you’re not supposed to actually promise that any Republican plan will lower them. You want people to assume that, of course, but you don’t want to promise it directly, because then you might be held accountable for that promise.

But Trump says whatever comes into his head, and whatever seems like it might be popular. People hate out-of-pocket costs, so he promises low deductibles. People don’t like the idea of tens of millions losing their coverage, so he promises that everyone will be covered.

And now, congressional Republicans are going to have to answer for breaking a promise they didn’t even make.

Well, he’s their guy. They’ll have to live with it, but Waldman adds more:

There are a lot of reasons why repealing the ACA is going to be a disaster. But for now I want to focus on just one: what’s going to happen to the estimated 52 million Americans who have pre-existing conditions…

To begin, let’s remember what it was like before the ACA was passed. When you applied for insurance, you had to give a detailed accounting of every major medical procedure you’d ever had, every serious condition you’d ever had, every time you had sought treatment for anything for years prior. The insurer would comb over your application to see if there was any grounds on which they could reject you. That didn’t just apply to people with chronic conditions like diabetes or a major illness like cancer. In the bad old days, insurers could deny you coverage for anything. Tore some cartilage in your knee on the basketball court a few years ago? Denied. Had sinus problems? Denied. Carpal tunnel? Denied. If you were lucky, they’d cover you but just refuse to pay for anything remotely related to your old condition or that particular body part.

And when you did get sick, they’d sometimes undertake a “recission,” in which they went back through your records to see if there was any excuse they could use to cancel your policy now that you were going to cost them money.

Those of us who know people in the industry can verify that. Many of us have worked with complex software systems that track eligibility per person per contract per procedure, to make sure no one gets away with anything – systems that pay for themselves in increased profits. There were whole departments dedicated to cancelling policies, but no more:

Now here’s how getting insurance works today, with the Affordable Care Act in effect, if you have a pre-existing condition. See if you can follow along, because it’s pretty complicated:

You buy coverage. The insurer doesn’t ask you about your medical history. It’s covered. That’s all.

And with the repeal of Obamacare you get this again:

The application process for insurance will become much more cumbersome and onerous.

Insurers will be able to charge people with pre-existing conditions higher premiums.

Insurers will be able to impose yearly and lifetime limits on benefits, which affects people who have serious illnesses or accidents. This could apply to those with good employer-provided coverage as well as those who buy on the individual market.

“Job lock,” in which people are afraid to leave their job and do something like start a new business for fear of losing the insurance they have, will return.

Insurers will be able to charge women higher premiums than men, because they consider being a woman to be a pre-existing condition.

Insurers will be able to rescind coverage when you get sick.

All of that was eliminated by Obamacare. Republicans might take steps to fix some of that, but they haven’t decided any of that yet. It’s complicated. Donald Trump says it isn’t. That complicates things even more.

Kevin Drum further explains the complications, starting with the good stuff about Obamacare:

Obamacare has provided more than 20 million people – most of them low-income or working class – with health coverage. It has done this with no negative effects on either Medicare or the employer health insurance market. It didn’t raise taxes more than a few pennies on anyone making less than six figures. It’s had no effect on the willingness of companies to hire full-time workers. Health care costs under Obamacare have continued to grow at very modest rates. And it’s accomplished all this under its original budget.

And then there’s the bad stuff:

Obamacare unquestionably has some problems. About 20 percent of its customers choose Bronze plans with very high deductibles. Some of the least expensive plans have narrow networks that restrict your choice of doctor. Some insurers have left the exchanges because they were losing money. And premium increases have been volatile as insurers have learned the market. But every one of these things is a result of Obamacare’s reliance on private markets – something that Republicans support. Insurers are competing. They’re offering plans with different features at different price points. Some of them are successful and some aren’t. That’s how markets work. It’s messy, but eventually things settle down and provide the best set of services at the best possible price.

And then there’s the popular stuff:

Obamacare is popular unless you call it “Obamacare.” If you call it Kynect its negatives drop. If you call it the Affordable Care Act its negatives drop. If you ask about the actual things it does, virtually every provision is popular among Democrats and Republicans alike. Even Obamacare’s taxes on the rich, which are fairly modest, are popular. Aside from the individual mandate, the only truly unpopular part of Obamacare is the name “Obamacare.” (And even that’s only unpopular among Republicans.)

That makes Drum puzzled about the “continued rabid opposition” to Obamacare:

It’s not because the government has taken over the health care market. On the contrary, Obamacare affects only a tiny part of the health insurance market and mostly relies on taking advantage of existing market forces. It’s not because the benefits are too stingy. That’s because Democrats kept funding at modest levels, something Republicans approve of. It’s not because premiums are out of control. Republicans know perfectly well that premiums have simply caught up to CBO projections this year – and federal subsidies protect most people from increases anyway. It’s not because everyone hates what Obamacare does. Even Republicans mostly like it. The GOP leadership in Congress could pass a virtually identical bill under a different name and it would be wildly popular.

What could explain the opposition to Obamacare then? Drum settles on pure spite:

Republicans hate the idea that we’re spending money on the working class and the poor. They hate the idea that Barack Obama is responsible for a pretty successful program. They hate the idea that taxes on the wealthy went up a bit. They hate the idea that a social welfare program can do a lot of good for a lot of people at a fairly modest price.

What kind of person hates all these things?

That’s a good question, and a week earlier, Philip Klein answered that in this item on the politics of Obamacare repeal, which is long and detailed but comes down to this:

Republicans are in serious danger of repeating Obama’s mistake, because they are having a tough time stating a simple truth, which goes something like this: “We don’t believe that it is the job of the federal government to guarantee that everybody has health insurance.”

They’re not bad people, no matter what Drum says. They just believe that, and Josh Marshall adds this:

Indeed, this is the specter haunting the whole repeal process. This is the reason why Republicans were never able to come up with an alternative in six years of opposition under Obama and aren’t able to do so now. That’s what “replace and delay” is about. There’s no technical issue with pushing through a new plan. In fact, there isn’t really a shortage of plans. There are LOTS of plans. There’s just no plan that enough Republicans agree on.

The real issue is that Republicans appear to have accepted the premise that all the people who gained coverage under Obamacare should not lose it. That is a political concession for which there appears to be no policy solution.

That gets to the heart of the matter. This problem cannot be solved. All the people who gained coverage under Obamacare should not lose it, but Obamacare is evil, and Obama was evil. That’s been the line for his two terms – and Obama pulled off the impossible. He made them look mean and foolish. They will have their revenge. Trump is part of that, and Adam Gopnik takes that further:

American conservatism has as many clear, resolute devotees of constitutional democracy as any other stream of ideology – or it once seemed to. For, in truth, those of us Cassandras who predicted a slow collapse of “respectable” Republicans in the face of Trump’s ascension turned out to be, well, too conservative. The collapse has been almost total, and shockingly uncritical. A few resisters aside – in the press, the names Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, and David Frum come to mind – even those who know better, or did, have allowed the ancient habits of hatred to overwhelm their normal sense of right and wrong. Republican legislators who, a year ago, would have been aghast at any politician who praised the brutal dictator Vladimir Putin now have little trouble swallowing their tongues when Trump insists that Putin’s good opinion, however earned, is “an asset.” Those who made a fuss about pursuing any possible conflict of interest among Obama’s appointees now meekly allow the most conflict-ridden and least “vetted” of candidates for high office to walk through largely unmolested. And the insistence of the leader that he has no obligation to release any record of his financial entanglements, with the bold repeated lie that an “audit” – whose existence can’t be confirmed and wouldn’t matter anyway – prevents him from doing so, is simply and mutely accepted. The collapse – motivated for some by opportunism, for others by the intimidation of the mob – is complete.

No, the collapse is total. And at that terrifying first press conference of Trump’s, on Wednesday, we saw the looming face of pure authoritarianism. Rewards are promised to the obedient: those good states that voted the right way, the “responsible” press. Punishments are threatened to the bad: “They’re going to suffer the consequences!” Intimidation is the greeting to any critic. And look! There’s a claque alongside to cheer the big boss and deride his doubters. This is what was once called Bonapartism: I won and I can now do anything I choose. Victory, however narrow, is license for all.

That may seem a bit off-topic, but now they’ll also destroy Obamacare for no good reason, because they can. They won.

Gopnik can offer only this:

In such a moment of continued emergency, the most important task may be to distinguish as rigorously as possible between new policies and programs that, however awful, are a reflection of the normal oscillation of power, natural in a mature democracy, and those that are not. To borrow from Woody Allen’s distinction between the miserable (something we all are) and the horrible (fortunately suffered by only a few), we must now distinguish resolutely between the sickening and the terrifying. Many programs and policies with which progressive-minded people passionately disagree will be put forward over the next few years. However much or strongly one opposes them, they are, like it or not, the actual agreed-on platform of a dominant national party. On the issue of gun control alone, we’ll get a Supreme Court that won’t reverse the bad decision of Heller, a legislature that will only further diminish sane controls on military weapons in private hands, likely an increase in open-carry laws, and all the murderous rest. All of this will cost kids’ lives and bring much misery.

One may oppose these things – and one should, passionately and permanently – but they are in no sense illegitimate. They are just wrong. They are also reversible by the same laws and rules and norms and judicial and, perhaps most of all, electoral processes that created them. If we want gun control, we need to get more people caring about it and more people in more places voting for it; we cannot complain because people who don’t want gun control don’t give it to us.

That would also mean that we cannot complain because people want to get rid of Obamacare and we don’t want them to. No one likes a whiner. They don’t believe that it is the job of the federal government to guarantee that everybody has health insurance. Fine – engage the public on that. What they reverse can be reversed again.

On the other hand, they’re not making that argument. They never bring it up. Perhaps they really are running on pure spite – but luckily that spite has just been tempered by the rather dimwitted musings of the man they find that they have to accept as their leader. They can’t do anything that they had planned about Obamacare now. Some good may come of his presidency after all.

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Ripping Up Everything

By the time this is posted – after careful proofreading (but no one catches their own mistakes) and the specific formatting and then testing the links in the text (both tedious) and running the spell-check thing (generally useless) – it will be Martin Luther King Jr. Day – on Monday of course. That’s the day after King’s birthday, but the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act that took effect in 1971 is what it is – federal holidays now fall on Mondays. Everything should be tidy and systematic. Life is random enough already. King was an American hero, but he’d understand. America became more just. Much of that justice was made permanent by statute – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and so on – so a permanently-Monday holiday to celebrate the man that forced the issue and got things done seems right too. The matter is settled. This is how it should be – but for Donald Trump nothing is settled and nothing should be.

That’s what he promised. That may be why people voted for him – for big changes – even though perhaps twenty-two million of them will lose their health insurance and Medicare will be gone too. Perhaps they didn’t thank of that. Ripping up everything means everything. There was no reason for them to expect exceptions.

They’ll have to live with that, but that’s weeks away. This was the weekend, King weekend, that Donald Trump decided it was time to sneer at John Lewis, who marched with King, because Lewis had challenged him, setting back race relations in America back to 1953 levels – as if nominating Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to be his attorney general weren’t enough. Oh, and along the way, he doubled-down doing what he could to dissolve NATO – and the European Union too – to relieve pressure on Russia perhaps – and doubled-down on ending our forty-year One China policy too. We might formally recognize Taiwan, instead of just not mentioning them. The Chinese said this could mean war. Oh, and he plans to kind of evict the press from the White House. They can do their work elsewhere. He doesn’t want them around.

Donald Trump was ripping things up left and right, but first things first:

President-elect Donald Trump lashed out on Twitter Saturday morning at Democratic congressman and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), after Lewis said Trump’s presidency was not “legitimate” and that he would not attend the presidential inauguration.

Trump dismissed Lewis’ criticisms of him as “Sad!”

That was tweeted of course:

Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!

And the proximate cause was this:

In an interview for NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” released in part on Friday, Lewis said “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president,” citing the intelligence community’s assessment that Russian interference in the 2016 election had helped “destroy” Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

Lewis also said he would not attend Trump’s inauguration, his first time not to attend the ceremony in his congressional career. He will join a handful of Democratic lawmakers on the sidelines on Jan. 20.

“You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong, is not right,” Lewis said of his decision not to attend.

Trump could have said that he was sorry that Lewis felt that way, and maybe they should talk, but that’s not how Trump deals with such things. When someone hits him, he hits back ten times harder. He’s proud of that. That’s why people love him.

Some don’t. Talking Points Memo reports on the wide array of reactions like this from a Democrat:

“Mr. Trump said that John Lewis is all talk and no action. I say, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I say that John Lewis took action,” said interim DNC Chair Donna Brazile, in remarks that brought the audience to its feet at the DNC Future Forum. “He took action marching from Selma to Montgomery. He took action in marching towards men welding clubs across the Pettis Bridge. They fractured his skull because of the color of skin. But John Lewis never stopped marching for justice and equality for all people!”

And this from the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee:

“Number one, don’t tweet that. Number two, don’t go there. And number three, step back and try to appreciate what’s being said and what the concern is,” Michael Steele said during an appearance on MSNBC. “John Lewis has a walk that very few people in this country – least of all Donald Trump – have ever walked. So you have to respect that and pay attention to that in a real sense,” he added.

Trump was alone here, and the Washington Post adds a bit of background:

Trump started his presidential campaign with huge disadvantages among African Americans, in part because of his years-long questioning of whether President Obama was born in the United States. Trump also drew criticism for taking out a full-page ad in New York newspapers in 1989 urging the death penalty for five black and Hispanic teenagers accused of raping a woman in Central Park. Even after the young men were exonerated, Trump criticized the city for awarding them damages for the years they had spent in prison and continued to argue that they were “guilty of something.”

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Trump began appealing to black voters to give him a chance. Speaking at rallies, to overwhelmingly white audiences, Trump described black people as living “in hell,” stuck in crumbling, crime-ridden neighborhoods and failing schools. “What do you have to lose?” he asked.

For some people, Trump’s attack on Lewis – as well as his inaccurate description of Atlanta, a longtime haven for middle- and upper-middle-class African Americans – brought it all back.

And some people live in a dream world:

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said that if Trump was serious about reaching out to the black community, he would have to take responsibility for a campaign whose tone was “divisive at best, seriously offensive at worst” and “dangerous” with reports of an increase in racist behavior and actions directed at minorities by some whites. She said he will have to meet with and apologize to the civil rights community and young activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The burden of proof is on you. It’s not on everybody else to warm up to you because you’re the president,” she said of Trump.

That’s not how he sees things:

President-elect Donald Trump canceled plans to spend Martin Luther King Day at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture – losing a chance for much-needed goodwill after his feud with a civil rights leader.

The incoming president, who spent this weekend waging a war of words with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), had planned to visit the national museum in Washington, D.C. on Martin Luther King Day.

But senior level transition sources told ABC News on Sunday the visit was called off due to unspecified “scheduling issues.”

He’s too busy. These people can go fuck themselves.

No, he didn’t say that. He didn’t need to. The list of Democrats now boycotting the election is growing by the hour – and they can go fuck themselves too. He’s the new president.

This is ripping things up, all of race relations since the sixties, and there may be no more to say about it, but add this:

President-elect Donald J. Trump’s views of Africa have, until now, been a mystery. But a series of questions from the Trump transition team to the State Department indicate an overall skepticism about the value of foreign aid, and even about American security interests, on the world’s second-largest continent.

A four-page list of Africa-related questions from the transition staff has been making the rounds at the State Department and Pentagon, alarming longtime Africa specialists who say the framing and the tone of the questions suggest an American retreat from development and humanitarian goals, while at the same time trying to push forward business opportunities across the continent.

“How does U.S. business compete with other nations in Africa? Are we losing out to the Chinese?” asks one of the first questions in the unclassified document provided to The New York Times.

We are, but those people over there aren’t like “us” after all. That’s implied here, but it’s too late anyway. China moved in on Africa long ago, securing mineral rights and whatnot, and building roads and bridges and dams and schools, making themselves the good guys. Each country they stabilize will become a political ally – that sphere-of-influence thing. The only exception will be the sub-Saharan Muslim pockets, and there the Sunni folks will align with ISIS and the Shiite folks with Iran. We cede the continent. Way back when, in the Reagan years, the Cubans did what the Chinese are doing – they sent doctors and built hospitals in Angola. Reagan financed a civil war there to stop that nonsense – the Cubans would NOT be the good guys – but Trump doesn’t think that way. Bush sent all that money to fight AIDS in Africa – making us the good guys for a time. Obama’s father was Kenyan – that helped too. There was a connection. Now we walk away. Stop all aid? Pushing forward business of opportunities over there isn’t going to work when others are the good guys. Why would they do business with us?

Okay, write off Africa – rip that up too – and now add this:

Donald Trump called NATO obsolete, predicted that other European Union members would follow the U.K. in leaving the bloc, and threatened BMW with import duties over a planned plant in Mexico, according to two European newspapers which conducted a joint interview with the president-elect.

Trump, in an hour-long discussion with Germany’s Bild and the Times of London published on Sunday, signaled a major shift in trans-Atlantic relations, including an interest in lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia as part of a nuclear weapons reduction deal.

Quoted in German by Bild from a conversation held in English, Trump predicted that Britain’s exit from the EU will be a success and portrayed the EU as an instrument of German domination designed with the purpose of beating the U.S. in international trade. For that reason, Trump said, he’s fairly indifferent to whether the EU stays together, according to Bild.

The Times quoted Trump as saying he was interested in making “good deals with Russia,” floating the idea of lifting sanctions that were imposed as the U.S. has sought to punish the Kremlin for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and military support of the Syrian government.

Josh Marshall sees what’s going on here:

Most people in this country, certainly most members of the political class and especially its expression in Washington, don’t realize what Donald Trump is trying to do in Europe and Russia. Back in December I explained that Trump has a plan to break up the European Union. Trump and his key advisor Steve Bannon (former Breitbart chief) believe they can promise an advantageous trade agreement with the United Kingdom, thus strengthening the UK’s position in its negotiations over exiting the EU. With such a deal in place with the UK, they believe they can slice apart the EU by offering the same model deal to individual EU states. Steve Bannon discussed all of this at length with Business Week’s Josh Green and Josh and I discussed it in great detail in this episode of my podcast from mid-December.

Now we have a rush of new evidence that Trump is moving ahead with these plans.

It’s just business:

Today in a new interview with the Germany’s Bild and the Times of London Trump expanded on these goals dramatically. Trump leveled a series of attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, suggesting he’d like to see her defeated for reelection and saying she’d hurt Germany by letting “all these illegals” into the country. Trump also called NATO “obsolete”, predicted other countries would soon leave the EU, and characterized the EU itself as “basically a vehicle for Germany.”

Trump and Bannon are extremely hostile to Merkel and eager to see her lose. But what is increasingly clear is that Trump will make the break-up of the EU a central administration policy and appears to want the same for NATO.

My own view is that Trump and Bannon greatly overestimate America’s relative economic power in the world. Their view appears to be that no European country will feel it is able to be locked out of trade with a US-UK trade pact. An America eager to break up the EU seems more likely to inject new life into the union.

However that may be, Trump and Bannon clearly want to create a nativist world order based on the US, Russia and states that want to align with them. The EU and NATO are only obstacles to that goal.

That would be a change, but Adam Silverman points out the obvious:

The issue here is what the real purpose behind these two institutions is. It is true that both NATO and the EU were created at a different time and for reasons that are only partially why they are important today. The real genius of both NATO and the EU, regardless of how they’ve developed and recognizing that no institution or organization ever develops perfectly and that reasonable, rational adjustments to both institutions should be made as needed, is that they knit Europe together. Despite what the populist-nationalist or national-populists or whatever they finally agree on calling themselves say, the purpose of NATO and the EU isn’t the destruction of sovereignty or national independence. Rather both organizations serve as a forcing function. They force the European member states of both organizations to work together, to cooperate, to recognize that sometimes there are bigger and more important issues than simply national interests.

That’s not a bad thing:

The proof that NATO and the EU have been successful is that there has not been a war in Europe between European states over national interests, including national pride or economic disputes since the end of World War II. By stitching Britain and France and Germany and Belgium and Denmark and Spain and Portugal and France and Greece and Italy and Iceland and Norway and now all the member countries from Central and Eastern Europe together, NATO has made war in Europe among the Europeans less likely.

And it’s the same for the EU:

When Germany and France have a dispute they and their allies no longer spill blood and treasure across the fields of Belgium. Instead they meet in Belgium and talk it out. The forcing function, forcing these states and societies to work together, means that the uniformed and civilian personnel of all these countries have studied and travelled and worked and vacationed all over Europe. They all have counterparts and colleagues from the other European NATO and EU member states. Their children’s friends are the children of their colleagues from other countries. This is the real, tangible benefit of the EU and NATO. It’s not a common market or a mutual defense pact. The real benefit is that the EU and NATO have broken the reality of over a thousand years of conflicts, capped off by World Wars I and II, in Europe and among the people of the nation-states that make up Europe.

The only problem was the Russians:

Perhaps the biggest failure of the post-Cold-War period was the US and its allies losing sight of the real value of NATO and the EU. By doing so when NATO and the EU expanded they were unable for a number of reasons to expand to one crucial European nation-state: Russia. As is always the case the decision makers at the time believed they had good reasons for pursuing the policies and strategies they did after the end of the Cold War – policies and strategies that jettisoned the idea of including Russia within NATO or the EU. And as is always the case, successfully implementing strategy to achieve one’s policy creates new opportunities, challenges, and threats.

We are now facing one of those threats: a Russian led campaign to destabilize and break up NATO and the EU through the support of neo-nationalist and anti-EU parties and movements throughout Europe and the US. Regardless of what the foundational documents of NATO and the EU may say, the real purpose, whether explicitly or implicitly stated, has become to bind the nation-states and societies of Europe together to prevent future conflict.

It has worked very, very well even as the leaders of NATO and the EU couldn’t bring Russia in from the cold. Now we have to see if it worked well enough for them to survive an active attempt to dismantle them.

Yeah, well, Trump was elected to rip things up, even if no one expected a new nativist world order led by a new combined-US-Russia joint government. Did we sign up for that with our votes? Life is full of surprises, and early on Martin Luther King Day – time zones being what they are – there was this:

Two influential Chinese newspapers on Monday warned U.S. President-elect Donald Trump that Beijing will “take off the gloves” and Taiwan may be sacrificed if he continues to provoke Beijing over the self-ruled island once he sworn in on Jan. 20.

Do we go to war to save Taiwan? They may force Trump to make that decision, given what he’s been saying:

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Friday, Trump said the “One China” policy was up for negotiation. China’s foreign ministry said “One China” was the foundation of China-U.S. ties and was non-negotiable.

Trump broke with decades of precedent last month by taking a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, angering Beijing which sees Taiwan as part of China.

“If Trump is determined to use this gambit in taking office, a period of fierce, damaging interactions will be unavoidable, as Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves,” the English-language China Daily said.

The Global Times, an influential state-run tabloid, echoed the China Daily, saying Beijing would take “strong countermeasures” against Trump’s attempt to “impair” the One China principle.

“The Chinese mainland will be prompted to speed up Taiwan reunification and mercilessly combat those who advocate Taiwan’s independence,” the paper said in an editorial.

Expect war:

It said Trump’s endorsement of Taiwan was merely a ploy to further his administration’s short term interests, adding: “Taiwan may be sacrificed as a result of this despicable strategy”.

“If you do not beat them until they are bloody and bruised, then they will not retreat,” Yang Yizhou, deputy head of the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots, told an academic meeting on cross-straits relations in Beijing on Saturday.

Taiwan independence must “pay a cost” for every step forward taken, “we must use bloodstained facts to show them that the road is blocked,” Yang said, according to a Monday report on the meeting by the official People’s Daily Overseas Edition.

Here the proximate cause is this:

The United States, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, has acknowledged the Chinese position that there is only “one China” and that Taiwan is part of it.

Trump has said he’s willing to rip that up, to show them who the boss really is here. He’s that kind of guy. He expects awe, and new trade deals where the Chinese cave on everything. He may get something else.

And there’s that other matter where he expects awe:

According to three senior officials on the transition team, a plan to evict the press corps from the White House is under serious consideration by the incoming Trump Administration. If the plan goes through, one of the officials said, the media will be removed from the cozy confines of the White House press room, where it has worked for several decades. Members of the press will be relocated to the White House Conference Center – near Lafayette Square – or to a space in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House.

“There has been no decision,” Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, said about the plan today. But Spicer acknowledged that “there has been some discussion about how to do it.”

Spicer cast the possible relocation of the press corps as a matter, in part, of logistics. “There’s been so much interest in covering a President Donald Trump,” he said. “A question is: Is a room that has forty-nine seats adequate? When we had that press conference the other day, we had thousands of requests, and we capped it at four hundred. Is there an opportunity to potentially allow more members of the media to be part of this? That’s something we’re discussing.”

Okay, this is ordinary stuff, unless it isn’t:

Another senior official, however, suggested a more pointed motivation for the move. According to the official, the potential relocation reflected a view within the transition team that coverage of Trump has been so hostile as to indicate that the press has abandoned its role as neutral observer.

“They are the opposition party,” a senior official says. “I want ’em out of the building. We are taking back the press room.”

This too is ripping things up, specifically this:

For the media, the White House press room – situated on the first floor, in the space between the presidential residence and the West Wing – is not only a convenience, with prime sources just steps away. It is also a symbol of the press’ cherished role as representatives of the American people. In the midst of the George W. Bush presidency, when relations between reporters and the Administration were growing testy, the White House press corps was removed from the press room for nearly a year, while the facility was remodeled. The move prompted such concern that the president himself had to offer his assurance that it was only temporary.

Those days are now gone, or soon to be ripped up, but David Atkins sees a silver lining:

It’s an environment almost designed for bad news, more journalism-as-spectacle than actual journalism.

Putting the dreary spectacle to bed might be mutually salutary both for the press and the public. The Trump Administration will be actively hostile to the press, and the press should see itself as hostile in return. Journalists from major media organizations would likely do better reporting separated from the high-school-cafeteria environment of the briefing room, and would be better advised to seek out leaks from disgruntled Republicans than from cozy access granted by being a good “team player.”

Perhaps some things should be ripped up:

Mainstream networks would gain credibility by establishing themselves as investigative and accountability-seeking organizations, while letting the likes of Breitbart serve as organs of state propaganda. If the Trump Administration crashes and burns from its own incompetence, organizations that played a friendly, access-seeking role will look bad in hindsight, just as they did with the Bush Administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War. If the Trump Administration turns into a would-be dictatorship of our dystopian nightmares, then it would be better for news organizations worth the name to go down fighting rather than try to protect the norms of a bygone era.

In short, it might be a win-win for the press. By pushing the press corps out of the White House, Trump will look like the petty tyrant he is, and news organizations will gain credibility and better journalism in the bargain.

That’s possible. That would be a good thing – but when Trump rips up all the progress made in race relations since the sixties, and rips up NATO and the EU and lets Europe go back to going to war with itself, and rips up the delicate balance of interests we’ve worked out with China over all the years, assuring war, that’s a small thing. For Donald Trump nothing is settled and nothing should be. Now we know what that means.

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Preemptive Scandal

There was Watergate. There was Iran-Contra. There was Bill and Monica. There was the outing of Valerie Plame, and Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face with a shotgun – but there were no Obama scandals. Benghazi was no more than a tragic screw up. After all the investigations and committees, eight or nine, the Republicans seemed to lose track of just what the problem was, other than the problem was Hillary Clinton, somehow. No one knew how. Move on – and her email scandal was another screw up, and not intentional, with no real harm done. James Comey, the head of the FBI, enraged Republicans when he said he wouldn’t prosecute her, because he couldn’t. There was nothing there. He scolded her instead.

Trump ran insisting there was something there, and the press played along, but there was nothing much to work with – trivia isn’t scandal. Oh well. The impression of scandal would do – but as for Obama, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal didn’t have legs. There was nothing there either, or with the IRS scandal. The IRS checked for charitable organizations that were actually doing political work – there’s no tax exemption for that. They were worried about Tea Party organizations – and that wasn’t fair – until it turned out that they were worried about everyone. The IRS was doing its job. Oops. Move on – nothing to see here, folks. Obama seemed to be ethical, or boring. The Republicans would have to hammer Obama for his positions and policies, and that’s boring too. They needed a juicy scandal. They came up empty. They said they didn’t. The nation eventually shrugged.

That’s about to change. Donald Trump isn’t boring, and given how he’s run his businesses – stiffing contractors and screwing investors, not to mention his Trump University scam that cost him a bundle – he’s certainly not ethical, and proud of it. That sort of thing is for losers – but presidents are supposed to have scandals in office, not on the way into office. Settle in and then screw up. Preemptive scandal is ruining your presidency before you even start, but Donald Trump is an unusual fellow. He started early. He has Russia.

Now there’s this. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius posted a column that contained this about Trump’s new national security advisor Michael Flynn:

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Trump campaign later said it was just small talk, which is odd enough, but the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth ran a curious article that claimed that American intelligence officials just told their Israeli counterparts that they should be cautious about sharing their closest-held stuff with the Trump administration, because it might be shared with Russia and by Russia with Iran.

It seems that no one should be sure of Trump:

These fears, which began upon Trump’s election, grew stronger following a meeting held recently between Israeli and American intelligence officials (the date of the meeting is not mentioned to protect the sources of the report). During the meeting, according to the Israelis who participated in it, their American colleagues voiced despair over Trump’s election, as he often lashes out at the American intelligence community. The American officials also told the Israelis that the National Security Agency (NSA) had “highly credible information” that Russia’s intelligence agencies, the FSB and GRU, were responsible for hacking the Democratic Party (DNC) servers during the elections and leaking sensitive information to WikiLeaks which hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The American officials further added that they believed Russia President Vladimir Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump – but did not elaborate. They were apparently referring to what was published Wednesday about embarrassing information collected by the Russian intelligence in a bid to blackmail the president-elect.

The Americans implied that their Israeli colleagues should “be careful” as of January 20, Trump’s inauguration date, when transferring intelligence information to the White House and to the National Security Council (NSC), which is subject to the president. According to the Israelis who were present in the meeting, the Americans recommended that until it is made clear that Trump is not inappropriately connected to Russia and is not being extorted – Israel should avoid revealing sensitive sources to administration officials for fear the information would reach the Iranians.

Josh Marshall flags those two items and adds this:

These are, needless to say, highly disturbing claims.

To evaluate them, we should bear in mind that what we are hearing is what American intelligence officials supposedly told Israeli intelligence officials and which Israeli intelligence officials, by whatever means, passed on to an Israeli journalist. The sourcing is at best attenuated. But we should also note that the paper is Israel’s largest circulation daily and the reporter is a highly respected investigative journalist, Ronen Bergman.

That’s enough for Marshall:

We are in a totally unprecedented situation with the range of questions being asked about the incoming president and what can only be called odd behavior of the intelligence community. This is the case even if no one has done anything wrong. No fight between a president and the intelligence community, let alone with an incoming president, has ever cut so deep or been so public.

A couple days out it is even less clear what US spies made of the ‘dossier’ that was released by Buzzfeed. Did they share this with the outgoing and incoming presidents simply to apprise them of stuff that was “out there”? Was it some sort of brushback to Trump for his aggressive, scathing criticisms of the US spy bureaucracy? Are we supposed to believe that they believe some of it is true? James Clapper’s statement today was clear on some points but he rather conspicuously did not say the contents of the dossier were false or even unreliable.

Clapper said this about what he shared with Trump:

We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC [intelligence community] became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.

Clapped didn’t say this stuff was untrue, and Marshall adds this:

These are equivocal statements in what is clearly a closely worded statement. If I’m Donald Trump wanting this document dismissed as worthless hearsay or lies, I’d be quite disappointed. What’s going on? If US intelligence officials are telling close allies to be cautious, that’s really something Americans should be aware of.

Something is up:

Everything we are hearing is that disjointed, half-contradictory, actions are taken that have no clear rationale or explanation behind them. It is not just troubling. Much of it simply doesn’t fit together. One global explanation is that you have an impetuous, feral incoming President, a host of awkward and not fully answered questions and an intelligence community which is trying to address those questions, to serve the current president but also prepare to serve the next one – and this all in a climate of a deeply polarized country. The other explanation – not necessarily contradicting this one at all – is that there are other things happening which we are not seeing, and not seeing them makes all the rest seem out of joint.

But something is up, because Donald Trump is almost hysterically defensive about this:

Donald Trump on Friday morning continued to lash out against the media and the intelligence community over reports about a dossier containing information about alleged ties between the President-elect and Russia.

Trump appeared to reference reports that the dossier originated as an opposition research file for a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush, though the super PAC’s attorney denies that the file originated with the group.

The President-elect also continued to blame the leaks about the dossier on the intelligence community even though Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Wednesday that the leaks did not originate with the intelligence community.

That certainly called for a Trump Tweet:

It now turns out that the phony allegations against me were put together by my political opponents and a failed spy afraid of being sued… Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans – FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists.

Russia says nothing exists. Trump knows who he believes. Does that settle matters? A few hours later, the reporter who first broke that story, David Corn, decided it was time to clarify a few things:

Last fall, a week before the election, I broke the story that a former Western counterintelligence official had sent memos to the FBI with troubling allegations related to Donald Trump. The memos noted that this spy’s sources had provided him with information indicating that Russian intelligence had mounted a years-long operation to co-opt or cultivate Trump and had gathered secret compromising material on Trump. They also alleged that Trump and his inner circle had accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin. These memos caused a media and political firestorm this week when CNN reported that President Barack Obama and Trump had been told about their existence, as part of briefings on the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia hacked political targets during the 2016 campaign to help Trump become president. For my story in October, I spoke with the former spy who wrote these memos, under the condition that I not name him or reveal his nationality or the spy service where he had worked for nearly two decades, mostly on Russian matters.

In short, go to the source:

The former spy told me that he had been retained in early June by a private research firm in the United States to look into Trump’s activity in Europe and Russia. “It started off as a fairly general inquiry,” he recalled. One question for him, he said, was, “Are there business ties in Russia?” The American firm was conducting a Trump opposition research project that was first financed by a Republican source until the funding switched to a Democratic one. The former spy said he was never told the identity of the client.

The former intelligence official went to work and contacted his network of sources in Russia and elsewhere. He soon received what he called “hair-raising” information. His sources told him, he said, that Trump had been “sexually compromised” by Russian intelligence in 2013 (when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe contest) or earlier and that there was an “established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.” He noted he was “shocked” by these allegations. By the end of June, he was sending reports of what he was finding to the American firm.

The former spy said he soon decided the information he was receiving was “sufficiently serious” for him to forward it to contacts he had at the FBI. He did this, he said, without permission from the American firm that had hired him. “This was an extraordinary situation,” he remarked.

An established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit would be extraordinary, and even the FBI thought so:

The response to the information from the FBI, he recalled, was “shock and horror.” After a few weeks, the bureau asked him for information on his sources and their reliability and on how he had obtained his reports. He was also asked to continue to send copies of his subsequent reports to the bureau. These reports were not written, he noted, as finished work products; they were updates on what he was learning from his various sources. But he said, “My track record as a professional is second to no one.”

Corn checked that:

After speaking with the former counterintelligence official, I was able to confirm his identity and expertise. A senior US administration official told me that he had worked with the onetime spook and that the former spy had an established and respected track record of providing US government agencies with accurate and valuable information about sensitive national security matters. “He is a credible source who has provided information to the US government for a long time, which senior officials have found to be highly credible,” this US official said.

It seems the FBI trusts the guy and has been on the case since last July, but has not yet said whether any such any investigation is being conducted. The FBI is like that. They don’t comment on ongoing politically-sensitive investigations. That would not be fair, but then this just happened:

Embattled FBI director James Comey has refused to clarify whether his organization is investigating Donald Trump’s ties to Russia in a closed briefing on Friday for members of Congress, angering legislators who recall his high-profile interjections about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign…

Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who had pressed Comey during a September hearing about his criteria for acknowledging an investigation, sharply asked Comey if the director was applying a double standard to Trump.

Comey had said in September testimony that his standard was a “a need for public to be reassured, [and] when it’s obvious, it’s apparent, given our activities, public activities that the investigation is ongoing.”

Nadler, according to a different source, then asked Comey in the Friday meeting: “Do you believe that standard has been met with reference to the possible investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible connections to the Russian government? And if not, why not?”

That was a bit awkward. Ten days before Election Day, Comey announced to the world that there was a trove of new Hillary Clinton emails on the laptop of the husband of one of her aides, and he was reopening everything. Trump ran with that. She was going to be indicted – and then, two days before the election, Comey said sorry about that – there was nothing new there at all – carry on.

That drove the nail in the coffin for Clinton. She might have lost anyway, but probably wouldn’t have lost but for Comey – not that it matters now – unless it does matter:

Michael Horowitz, inspector general of the Justice Department, announced an investigation into the FBI’s handling of its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, including the now-infamous Comey letter. The review, which will also cover Justice Department actions in the email investigation, has been initiated at the request of members of Congress and the public, the IG’s office said in a statement.

The letter James Comey sent to Congress on October 28 informing members of new Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop has been blamed, in part, for Clinton’s loss. It resulted in a torrent of bad headlines, reigniting the email “scandal.” A second letter, released two days before the election, said the new emails were insignificant, but Clinton claims it did even more damage than the first letter. Just two days before polls opened, Trump’s complaints of a “rigged system” were given new life.

In addition to the timing of Comey’s letters, Horowitz will investigate whether members of the FBI and DOJ improperly leaked information about the investigation and whether certain officials should have recused themselves from the probe.

Comey is in trouble, and this doesn’t begin to address the mirror-problem, saying nothing about the investigation of Trump going on since last July or so – if it is going on. In that closed briefing, Comey said, over and over, that he couldn’t say a word about that. He never speaks of such things. That wouldn’t be fair. The Democrats were screaming bloody murder – but he would say nothing.

This is a hell of a way for Trump to start his presidency, and this Russia scandal may be as big as they get. Roger Cohen adds perspective:

There’s a mood of confidence in Moscow bordering on triumphalism. Russia is dictating the grim outcome in Syria. It has annexed with impunity part of Ukraine and set limits on the country’s Westernizing ambitions. It has influenced through hacking the outcome of the American election. It has fostered the fracture of the European Union. All this from a nation President Obama dismissed in 2014 as a mere “regional power” acting “not out of strength but out of weakness.”

In addition, whether or not Donald Trump was ever lured into some Moscow honey trap (the oldest trick in town for Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services) Russia has reason to regard with satisfaction the coming presidency. Trump has called Putin “very smart” and “very much of a leader” (more than Obama); he has cheered on a British exit from the European Union; he has signaled deep skepticism of NATO; he has, in short, intimated that he may be ready to be complicit with Putin in the dismemberment of the Western alliance.

America’s European allies are in a state of high anxiety. For the first time in decades there seems to be a possibility that the White House will deal with Moscow at Europe’s expense. The last thing Europe needs at a time of huge internal pressures, and in the year of the French and German elections, is a crisis in trans-Atlantic relations, or an American president who is openly dismissive of the European integration that brought peace to a war-racked continent.

Cohen thinks this needs fixed, fast:

No more important challenge awaits Trump than clarifying where he stands on Putin’s threat to the West. Hurtling into some macho love fest with Vlad based on the vague shared aim of smashing ISIS would be calamitous. Trump said that if Putin likes him, “That’s called an asset, not a liability.” Wrong. It’s a liability if Trump is so susceptible to being liked he forgets to be tough.

Trump must make clear soon after Jan. 20 that the United States stands by its NATO allies in the Baltics and that Article 5 of the NATO treaty guaranteeing collective defense is sacrosanct. Trump must leave no doubt that sanctions imposed on Russia for the annexation of Crimea and for interference in the American election will stand. He must warn Putin against attempts, in a reprise of the American operation, to sway the French and German elections through hacking and fake news.

Fine, but that’s unlikely:

Trump has gushed in support of the British nationalist bigot Nigel Farage and Brexit. It’s important that he not compound this error with backing for the French anti-EU rightist Marine Le Pen, who was at Trump Tower on Thursday, an ominous signal even if she did not see the president-elect. The French election is set for April 23. Putin wants nothing more than for Le Pen to win – still a long shot, but then so was Trump. Brexit plus Le Pen would leave the European Union in tatters.

“Putin believes the way to restore Russia’s great power status is at the expense of an American-led order, particularly in Europe, but also in the Middle East,” William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and the president of the Carnegie Endowment, told me. “Trump must recognize this without any illusions.”

That too is unlikely:

Dispensing with illusions means curtailing impulsiveness and the gut instincts that constitute Trump’s worldview, such as it is. Trump is drawn to Putin’s authoritarianism, toughness and embodiment of white Christian resolve against threatening (read Muslim) hordes. He needs to get over these inclinations fast and get on with defending the free world.

There are encouraging signs: James Mattis, the retired general who is Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, said during confirmation hearings that Putin “is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, said, “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.”

For now, however, Trump shows no indication of any such alarm. There is also no sign, a week from the inauguration, of any coordination between the president-elect, Mattis and Tillerson. Is anyone in charge here?

That’s a dismal question, but there was late-breaking news:

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said late Friday that his committee will investigate possible contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, reversing himself one day after telling reporters that the issue would be outside of his panel’s ongoing probe into Moscow’s election-disruption efforts.

Burr and the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said in a joint statement that the committee’s probe would touch on “intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns” as well as Russian cyberattacks and other election meddling outlined in an intelligence report released last week.

The committee will use “subpoenas if necessary” to secure testimony from Obama administration officials as well as Trump’s team, Burr and Warner said.

Expect a Trump tweetstorm, but some things have been worked out:

Burr said late Thursday that he did not plan to touch on possible contacts between Trump emissaries and Russia, asserting that the issue likely falls under the FBI’s purview. “We don’t have anything to do with political campaigns,” the Republican said.

But Warner had said during a Tuesday committee hearing that he wanted the probe to touch on possible contacts between Moscow or its emissaries and political campaigns, putting the two senators potentially at odds. Warner told reporters late Thursday that his view hadn’t changed, meaning that the Friday joint announcement effectively brought Burr around to the Democrat’s perspective.

This is beginning to feel a bit like the end of Watergate, when Barry Goldwater and a bunch of other Republicans walked over to the White House and told Nixon to give it up – it was over. Nixon resigned. Trump hasn’t even taken office, and a few hours later he was digging deeper:

President-elect Donald Trump suggested Friday he is open to lifting sanctions on Russia, though he plans to keep them for “at least a period of time.”

He told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Friday evening that he might do away with them if Russia helps the US battle terrorists or with other goals important to the US. The sanctions were implemented by the Obama administration last month in response to alleged Russian hacking during the election.

“If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” he said in the interview.

He should listen to his own nominees – Mattis and Tillerson, for Defense and State. He’s in a lonely place now. It took Nixon six years to get that same lonely place, before that knock on the door – but perhaps there can be a preemptive knock in the door in this case. His own people may have to tell him to give it up. That’s happened before.

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