The Normalization of Buffoonery

A friend who recently visited Paris for the first time in forty years – he was just a kid back then – said he immediately felt relieved. He said it was the absence of buffoonery there. Perhaps it was the formality. One addresses others properly – Monsieur or Madame, as the case may be, no matter what their station in life. That goes for waiters too – Garçon won’t do. No one calls grown men “boys” – even Jefferson Beauregard Sessions knows that now, finally. And no one talks loudly in restaurants. Keep it private. Keep everything private. The evening’s discussion can be about food and wine, or politics or fashion, or philosophy or sex, but no one talks about how much money they make, and how they made it. That’s just not done. That’s unseemly. The room falls silent – and it’s the same for all personal details. Those can wait. Give it time – and in the meanwhile, be witty and insightful and thoughtful – no bullshit – and, above all, be courteous. Respect others. If you can’t, fake it. That’s what makes civilized life possible.

This takes some getting used to. All this is a surprise to Americans, who keep saying that the French are cold and rude. No, they’re formal, and that formality works for them. They’ve been working at this for centuries. They roll their eyes at buffoons, discretely.

Adam Gopnik was the New Yorker’s correspondent in Paris and wrote about this in Paris to the Moon – a collection of essays about settling in there – but that was seventeen years ago. He’s back in Manhattan now, but he was ruined by Paris. Live there and the culture sticks with you. Now he rolls his eyes at buffoons. Now he rolls his eyes at Donald Trump:

That’s crazy! That is the instant, intuitive, and, one might think, only possible response of a sane person to a week’s worth of tweets from President Donald Trump. Only crazy people make reckless charges, without any plausible foundation, and then simply shrug and sit on them. Take one recent example: “How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Gopnik knows a buffoon when he sees one:

This charge is mindboggling, not least for being self-exploding. For Obama to have wiretapped Trump – put aside that that’s not, technically speaking, what is done any longer – Obama would have needed his own private team of plumbers to break into, or hack the systems of, Trump Tower. And no one in his right mind suggests that Obama ever had such a team. The most obvious alternative would be that it was done by the FBI, in response to a court order spurred by genuine suspicion of grave wrongdoing. In that scenario, Trump would be asserting that someone in the Department of Justice had grounds for such suspicion, sufficient to convince a judge. But he couldn’t possibly have intended to say that. All this suggests that he may not be capable of the normal logic.

Maybe he’s just one more Ugly American blurting out personal nonsense, loudly, in a public place, or it could be something else:

One theory, of course, has it that this is a strategic form of crazy, a way of distracting the public from Trump’s circle’s Russian connections or the disastrous dismantling of Obamacare. But something similar happens with all the patent untruths Trump tells. Just as the media have a hard time calling crazy things crazy, we are also now reluctant to call lies, lies, even when it doesn’t seem that there’s anything else you can call them. Again, the rationale is not ridiculous: a lie is more grave than an untruth, which can be merely a mistaken conviction, and it implies conscious intention to deceive rather than inward-turning self-deception. But, really, the word “lie” isn’t an accusation when it comes to things like the Obama wiretapping; it’s a description. The alternative, of course, is to believe that extravagantly obvious untruths are sincerely held, in which case they could only be called… crazy.

Any Frenchman would step back and slip quietly from the room, but our Republicans aren’t French:

The great enablers in this business are not so much members of the media, who struggle every day between familiar practices and wild times, but the Republican representatives and senators who, by shrugging off the loony on a daily basis, do more than anyone else to make it normal. And here, perhaps, lies a link too easily overlooked. It’s not just a tribal reflex on the part of the Republicans to defend a President of the same party; it’s a necessity of the numbers. (There were three million more votes for the Democratic candidate for President and approximately six million more votes for Democrats in Senate races—yes, it was designed to be unjust, but that does not make it less unjust—and this was, of course, the second time in five elections that the Presidential candidate who won the most votes was denied the office, a previously unprecedented thing.)

As Timothy Snyder explains in his fine and frightening recent pamphlet “On Tyranny,” a minority party now has near-total power and is therefore understandably frightened of awakening the actual will of the people. Snyder writes, “The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular and several that are genuinely unpopular – and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.”

This is a toxic combination: a screw-loose leader ready to say anything, an unpopular party that wants to keep him from being exposed for what he is – even as the door swings wildly on whatever’s left of its hinges – for fear of having its policies exposed for what they are.

In short, he’s a buffoon, but he’s their buffoon. Their policies flow from that.

Matthew Yglesias notes that no one is even trying to hide that now:

At Friday’s press briefing, Sean Spicer told an absurd lie to the assembled members of the White House press corps. But he did it with a smile rather than a snarl, so everyone laughed.

The issue was the release this morning of a strong jobs report indicating continued growth in the economy, which many Republicans took the opportunity to crow about. Given the frequency with which candidate Trump had questioned the integrity of government economic data (calling them “phony numbers” and “one of the biggest hoaxes in American politics”), the question went, was President Trump confident that today’s report was accurate?

Spicer, with a wry grin on his face, said “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”

The buffoon had said that unemployment was running at forty-two percent – that was a fact – but now everyone is in on the joke:

Reporters laughed at the absurdity of the answer and the absurdity of the overall situation. And given the number of different things the White House is currently facing scrutiny over – from a national security adviser who was working as an agent of a foreign government to a health care plan that betrays all of Trump’s campaign promises to the bizarre assertion that White House staffers don’t need to follow government ethics rules – it’s a little hard to blame reporters for not wanting to get bogged down in an argument over some transparent BS.

That said, it’s a pretty good indicator of how much Trump has succeeded in lowering the bar in terms of standards of conduct.

He spent months routinely maligning the work of career civil servants for no good reason. And now that it’s convenient for him to accept their work, he’s going to start accepting it. But there was no apology and no admission of error – and it’s not even a big story. Just another day at the office.

Spicer pretty much admitted that his boss was a buffoon, and everyone laughed and moved on, but that other item was curious:

The White House tried to claim that federal ethics rules shouldn’t apply to its employees. The Office of Government Ethics, responsible for making sure those rules are enforced, says that’s not true.

Now Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have written the White House counsel asking for clarification on the matter. “The President’s staff needs to follow ethics rules – not flout them,” the letter read. “When they violate these rules, the President must impose discipline, not invent a legal fiction that these rules do not apply.”

In a letter last month responding to the flap over Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of first daughter Ivanka Trump’s Nordstrom merchandise, the White House said that “many” federal ethics regulations don’t apply to executive branch employees.

They’re not even trying to hide the buffoonery now:

The top White House ethics official – Deputy Council for Compliance and Ethics Stefan Passantino – defended Conway against allegations of ethical violations. Writing in response to the OGE, Passantino described the conclusions of a White House “inquiry”:

“Upon completion of our inquiry, we concluded that Ms. Conway acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again. It is noted that Ms. Conway made the statement in question in a light, off-hand manner while attempting to stand up for a person she believed had been unfairly treated and did so without nefarious motives or intent to benefit personally. Both before and after receiving your letter, I personally met with Ms. Conway and advised her that her comments regarding Ms. Trump’s products implicated the prohibition on using one’s official position to endorse a product or service. Ms. Conway has acknowledged her understanding of the Standards and has reiterated her commitment to abiding by them in the future.”

Passantino also claimed that employees of the executive office of the president aren’t bound by many federal ethics rules.

They are, but everyone moved on anyway. Don’t be French. Accept the buffoonery, and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker reports on how far this has gone:

Attorneys for Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that Flynn might need to register with the government as a foreign agent – a phone call that raised no alarms within Trump’s team, despite the unusual circumstance of having a top national security post filled by someone whose work may have benefited a foreign government.

The firm Flynn headed, Flynn Intel Group, was hired last year when Flynn was an adviser to the Trump campaign by the Netherlands-based firm ­Inovo BV, which is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Shortly after Trump was nominated, an agent of a foreign government was sitting in on the top secret daily intelligence briefings. They knew that. That raised no alarms within Trump’s team. That’s absurd:

The national security adviser is supposed to be an honest broker within the executive branch, pulling together military and diplomatic options for the president so he can decide what policy to pursue. But Flynn’s work potentially benefiting Turkey meant he was representing the interests of a country other than the United States at the same time he was advising Trump on foreign policy during the election.

Flynn’s firm was paid more than $500,000 for public relations and research work, including looking into exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania. His extradition is being sought by Turkey, which has accused him of fomenting a coup attempt last year.

Flynn wrote an op-ed on Nov. 8 for the Hill newspaper in which he called for Gulen’s extradition – a controversial diplomatic issue for the United States.

“The primary bone of contention between the U.S. and Turkey is Fethullah Gulen, a shady Islamic mullah residing in Pennsylvania whom former president Clinton once called his ‘friend’ in a well circulated video,” Flynn wrote.

“Gulen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist,” he wrote.

And few days later, Flynn received his final payment, for a job well done, but no alarms had been raised:

On Friday it was revealed that Flynn’s attorneys twice told Trump’s legal counsel team of his possible plans to register as a foreign agent – once in a conversation with Don McGahn, Trump’s counsel, before the inauguration and then in a conversation with another member of the White House legal team during the administration’s early days, someone with knowledge of the situation told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

And, once again, Sean Spicer had to make this seem no big deal:

In a week when the administration is making its biggest legislative push yet, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s Friday afternoon news conference was yet again overshadowed by unflattering reports about Flynn – with Spicer devoting precious time to defending a staffer who no longer even works for the administration.

 “The burden is on the individual to seek the legal advice or professional expertise to decide what they have to file and not,” Spicer said, parsing his explanation as to how someone who might have had to register as a foreign agent was hired as national security adviser.

“It’s not up to the transition attorney to go through someone’s livelihood and determine what they need to seek,” Spicer said. “They were given the proper legal advice at the time, which was to seek expertise in that matter.”

There was no laughter this time. No one knew what Spicer had just said, but it was the same sort of thing about the unemployment numbers:

When Flynn resigned last month, Trump defended his national security adviser as a “wonderful man” who had “been treated very, very unfairly by the media.” On Friday, it remained unclear whether Trump had changed his assessment of Flynn in light of the latest disclosures.

This is the normalization of buffoonery, as was this:

Roger Stone, President Trump’s former campaign adviser, on Friday admitted to having private conversations with a hacker who helped leak information from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during last year’s campaign.

Stone insisted to The Washington Times that the conversations were “completely innocuous.”

“It was so perfunctory, brief and banal I had forgotten it,” Stone told The Times of a private Twitter conversation he had with a hacker known as Guccifer 2.0.

Guccifer 2.0 is believed by the U.S. intelligence community to be a cover identity for Russian intelligence operatives. The intelligence community concluded that Moscow sought to interfere in last year’s election to help Trump win.

Nothing to see here, move on:

Stone tweeted on Aug. 21, “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Weeks later, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails were leaked to WikiLeaks, leading many to believe Stone was aware in advance of the hack.

Stone denied any connection to the hacks at the time.

That was just a coincidence, and, with the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, Ezra Klein notes more buffoonery:

There is a line worth noting in David Brooks’ column today: “The Republican plan will fuel cynicism. It’s being pushed through in an elitist, anti-democratic, middle of the night rush. It seems purposely designed to fail.”

Quietly, the idea that the House bill is designed to fail is percolating around Washington. I’ve heard it from a half-dozen people now. The law’s construction is shoddy. The outreach has been nonexistent. The hypocritical, hyper-accelerated process is baffling. Nothing about it makes sense.

But if you flip the intention – if you assume Republican leaders want to see a repeal-and-replace bill die in the Senate so they can say they tried and move on to tax reform – all of a sudden, it makes much more sense. It explains why more time wasn’t spent getting the bill right. It explains why they’re going so fast. It explains why they don’t care what the Congressional Budget Office says. It explains why they aren’t doing the outreach that would normally buffer them from this backlash.

The whole thing might be a kind of joke:

Why would they want their own bill to fail? Well, consider the predicament they’re in. Republicans have spent seven years promising to repeal and replace Obamacare. They won election after election atop that vow. But now that they have the power to make good, they’ve run into three problems.

First, Obamacare has become popular. Second, they don’t have an alternative plan that would make good on their promise to provide more people with more generous health care at lower cost. Third, implementing a repeal-and-replace plan – with all the complexity and disruption that entails – will drown the rest of the GOP’s agenda, and perhaps its congressional majority.

Arguably, the best outcome for Republicans is to try to replace Obamacare and fail. And if you believe that’s what they’re doing, much else falls into place.

Take the GOP effort to discredit the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis rather than working with the agency to build a better bill. For that play to work, they need credible, independent validators of their ideas. In 2009, when Democrats wanted to argue that the CBO was underestimating the savings from delivery-system reforms, they pointed to work by Harvard’s David Cutler, among others. The key to their argument was that top health experts disagreed with the CBO, and they made lengthy, plausible arguments explaining why. That’s what this looks like when you’re really trying.

The House GOP isn’t really trying.

That makes an odd kind of sense, as does this:

So far, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association, AARP, and a host of others have come out against the bill. This is important, because every House member has doctors and nurses and hospitals in their district. It’s a decision that scares legislators rather than comforts them.

And there’s the man behind this:

Paul Ryan isn’t an amateur. He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation. He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism. The backing he’s built for past proposals comes from painstaking work talking to allies, working on plans with them, preparing them for what he’ll release, hearing out their concerns, constructing processes where they feel heard, and so on. He’s good at this kind of thing. But he didn’t put in the work here. And there are consequences to that.

Imagine you’re a backbench Republican House member. You’re a conservative. You didn’t see this bill until Monday. All the think tanks you normally rely on – all the think tanks you normally agree with! – hate it. The hospitals hate it. The doctors hate it. The major conservative activist groups hate it. Your leadership appears afraid of CBO’s analysis – even though they appointed the director of the CBO! Wouldn’t this look a bit weird to you? You want to be a good soldier, of course. Paul Ryan says this is your only chance to repeal and replace Obamacare, and Obamacare is terrible. But you’ve got to be a bit antsy. How much would it take to shake you?

Let it die:

Republicans went into this process believing that failure was likely, and so tried to hedge against the consequences by putting hard boundaries around the process. They decided that if they were going to fail at this, they were going to fail fast, over the course of a month or two, not waste a year on the project.

But that decision – and the push for secrecy and mania for speed that have accompanied it – has left Republicans in an indefensible position, and with a very weak bill. In some ways, the scariest outcome for Republicans now isn’t that they fail, as expected, but that they unexpectedly succeed, and have to implement a bill no one really believes will work.

That’s too scary. The bill will fail. It now has to fail. All that buffoonery was wasted, but Paul Krugman has a few things to say about that other buffoon:

Has Ryan ever put together major legislation with any real chance of passage? Yes, he made a name for himself with big budget proposals that received adoring press coverage. But these were never remotely operational – they were filled not just with magic asterisks – tax loophole closing to be determined later, cost savings to be achieved via means to be determined later – but with elements, like converting Medicare into a voucher system, that would have drawn immense flack if they got anywhere close to actually happening.

In other words, he has never offered real plans for overhauling social insurance, just things that sound like plans but are basically just advertisements for some imaginary plan that might eventually be produced. Actually pulling together a coalition to get stuff done? Has he ever managed that?

What I’d say is that Ryan is not, in fact, a policy entrepreneur. He’s just a self-promoter, someone who has successfully sold a credulous media on a character he plays: Paul Ryan, Serious, Honest Conservative Policy Wonk. This is really his first test at real policymaking, which is a very different process. There’s nothing strange about his inability to pull off the real thing, as opposed to the act.

Be witty and insightful and thoughtful – no bullshit. Ryan is all bullshit, or something else:

Maybe this looks like amateur hour because it is. Ryan isn’t a skilled politician inexplicably losing his touch, he’s a con artist who started to believe his own con; Republicans didn’t hammer out a workable plan because there is no such plan, and anyway they have no idea what that would involve.

Or to put it another way, this could just be more malevolence tempered by incompetence.

This could also just be one more insufferable buffoon, and by the way, the friend who recently visited Paris for the first time in forty years is planning to run for Congress. We don’t need to normalize this.

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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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