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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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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