Something Wicked

Okay, most of the country is worried about Donald Trump. About a third of the country isn’t – he really could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and they’d still say he’s wonderful. And then there are these people:

Nine percent of Americans say holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views is acceptable, according to a new poll.

The Washington Post ABC poll was carried out in the wake of the deadly racially-charged violence which erupted at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville earlier this month.

According to the survey, 83 per cent of Americans think holding neo-Nazi views is unacceptable.

Okay, forget those people. Nine percent is nothing, but it’s still about one in ten Americans, and that’s a worry.

Donald Trump is a worry, and some things bear repeating. The man never held political office before. His grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He has no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all – and starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, and moving on to Crooked Hillary, he humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. His tweets destroyed them. He was a winner. We’d all be winners, again, finally. He’d make America great again.

That was the general idea. He tapped into America’s deep pool of resentment of those who question us, and an even deeper pool of insecurity, that they might have good reason to question us. There’d be no more of that. No one would ever question us, or question him, ever again.

That’s a dangerous brew, the witches’ brew from Macbeth – “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble… By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”

That happened. Charlottesville and the neo-Nazis came this way, and much more toil and trouble, but perhaps what Steven Bannon and that crowd calls the “deep state” will save us. That may be happening. Robert Costa and Philip Rucker offer this:

High-ranking military officials have become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in American political life during Donald Trump’s presidency, repeatedly winning arguments inside the West Wing, publicly contradicting the president and even balking at implementing one of his most controversial policies.

Connected by their faith in order and global norms, these military leaders are rapidly consolidating power throughout the executive branch as they counsel a volatile president. Some establishment figures in both political parties view them as safeguards for the nation in a time of turbulence.

They did what was necessary:

In the wake of the deadly racial violence in Charlottesville this month, five of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were hailed as moral authorities for condemning hate in less equivocal terms than the commander in chief did.

On social policy, military leaders have been voices for moderation. The Pentagon declined to immediately act upon Trump’s Twitter announcement that he would ban transgender people from the armed forces, instead awaiting a more formal directive that has yet to arrive.

Inside the White House, meanwhile, generals manage Trump’s hour-by-hour interactions and whisper in his ear – and those whispers, as with the decision this week to expand U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, often become policy.

In fact, the president has three babysitters:

At the core of Trump’s circle is a seasoned trio of generals with experience as battlefield commanders: White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. The three men have carefully cultivated personal relationships with the president and gained his trust.

He now trusts them. They calm his tantrums and calm him down, which is a good thing:

“They are standouts of dependability in the face of rash and impulsive conduct,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “There certainly has been a feeling among many of my colleagues that they are a steadying hand on the rudder and provide a sense of consistency and rationality in an otherwise zigzagging White House.”

William S. Cohen, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said that Trump “came in with virtually no experience in governance, and there’s no coherent strategic philosophy that he holds. There has been a war within the administration, and that has yet to be resolved. … The military has tried to impose some coherency and discipline.”

Consistency and rationality and coherency and discipline are all good things – if a bit boring and not at all emotionally satisfying – and these are the right guys for the job:

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, praised Trump’s circle of generals and recommended McMaster and Kelly for their posts. He said the impression in some quarters that military leaders are hawks by definition is misguided.

“What many people in Washington don’t understand is that generals are usually the most reluctant to commit troops to combat because they are the ones who have to write letters home to parents when they have fallen,” Cotton said.

Or they’re not the right guys:

Some Trump supporters worry about blurring the line between military and civilian leadership, as exemplified by recent headlines at Breitbart News, the conservative website run by Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief White House strategist, who clashed with several military leaders over policy.

Trump’s announcement Monday that he would escalate troop levels in Afghanistan was covered on Breitbart with alarm. Headlines warned of “unlimited war” and “nation-building” led by military leaders without links to Trump’s base.

Commentator and Trump ally Ann Coulter tweeted Monday, “The military-industrial complex wins.”

This was a military coup, of course. These guys took over the government that was duly elected to do something about the resentments and insecurity of all Americans, or enough Americans to get Trump elected. That is what they did.

That had to be done, and that’s an ongoing project:

Together with other allies in the administration, Kelly, Mattis and McMaster see their roles not merely as executing Trump’s directives but also as guiding him away from moves that they fear could have catastrophic consequences, according to officials familiar with the dynamic.

But if a narrative takes hold that these generals are manipulating the president, Trump could rebel. He chafes at any suggestion that he is a puppet and at the idea of his advisers receiving credit for his decisions. He reacted angrily in February when Time magazine put Bannon on its cover with the headline “The Great Manipulator.”

In his first month as chief of staff, Kelly has kept a low profile, sitting for no major interviews and discouraging aides from self-promotion.

Kelly knows Trump’s ego is fragile, but this is not a coup:

“The only chance we have of trying to keep this thing from blowing apart is some military discipline,” said Peter Wehner, who served in the three Republican administrations prior to this one and who opposes Trump. “It’s not military rule or a military coup.”

And it may not work:

Although Trump mostly has been following the military’s guidance, he easily could turn away from his generals if new problems emerge, according to people close to the president. They described Trump as with the military in spirit but guided more by his transactional instincts. They pointed out that it took weeks for him to go along with a watered-down version of the initial proposal from Mattis and McMaster on additional troops in Afghanistan.

Trump has also had a strained relationship with McMaster for months, in part because of stylistic differences between the two men. The president has little patience for the methodical and consensus-oriented policy process that McMaster employs at the National Security Council, which counts two other generals on the senior staff.

Consistency and rationality and coherency and discipline are not at all emotionally satisfying, and Aaron Blake notes this:

President Trump assured us Monday night – repeatedly – that the United States will win the war in Afghanistan. But his secretary of state would apparently like to set the bar considerably lower than that.

In a classic case of Trump’s big talk running into stubborn realities – almost immediately – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday afternoon played down the idea that the U.S. military would walk away from Afghanistan with a victory.

He addressed the Taliban directly: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”

Tillerson shouldn’t have said that:

“We may not win one” is quite a different tune than the one Trump was singing Monday night. “We will always win,” he began one thought. “I’m a problem-solver, and in the end, we will win,” he added. Also: “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition.” And: “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.”

Tillerson should have known better, or Trump should know better:

This is Trump’s mode, of course, and he apparently can’t shake it. Everything is winning – so much winning that people will get tired of winning. Winning isn’t so much an outcome as it is a strategy. What’s your plan for the economy? To win, of course. For health care? To have the best coverage at reduced costs; to win. The Islamic State? To “obliterate” it – a total victory. Afghanistan? A “clear” win.

But a clear victory is something that basically any military expert will tell you is very difficult to foresee (much less predict) in Afghanistan – especially with only a few thousand more troops on top of already-far-reduced troop levels and an apparently limited amount of patience from the commander in chief. In light of Trump’s comments, the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada noted what Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who was then Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s chief of operations, said in that fateful (for McChrystal) 2010 Rolling Stone article: “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” Mayville said. “This is going to end in an argument.”

Many unhappy marriages are like that, but that’s another matter, and Eugene Robinson asks the essential question:

How unstable and divorced from reality is President Trump? We’ve reached the point where the nation has the right and the need to know.

We’re not accustomed to asking such questions about our presidents. We don’t know how to even begin inquiring into a president’s mental health, so we rationalize aberrant behavior as being part of some subtle strategy. We say that Trump is cleverly playing to his base, or employing the “madman theory” of foreign relations, or simply being unpredictable to gain an advantage by keeping everyone off balance.

But if Trump were really playing three-dimensional chess, presumably he’d be getting things done. His approval ratings would be rising rather than falling. Allies in Congress would be expressing admiration rather than increasing dismay.

Something wicked really has come this way:

Anyone can have a bad day. But according to many published reports, Trump often erupts into rage – especially when he sees something he doesn’t like on the cable news shows he is said to watch compulsively.

In his Twitter postings, he increasingly lashes out in ways that are counterproductive. I can see some method behind his incessant ranting about “fake news,” which may actually help him with his political base. But why attack Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) whose help the president needs if he is to get legislation passed or nominees approved? Why campaign against Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has been a frequent critic but ended up supporting Trump on health care? Is Trump unable to imagine how other GOP senators – whose votes he needs if he is to get anything done – are going to react?

Those are good questions, and the poetically eccentric Garrison Keillor adds this:

And now, a new anxiety that our history has not prepared us for, a fear that we have elected George III to the presidency and we may not survive three and a half more years of his madness. For the first time in our history, we are looking to generals to save us from democracy.

We Democrats bear some responsibility. Hillary Clinton was a symbolic candidate with a nice résumé who lacked the ability to connect with voters. This is a fatal flaw. She was almost beaten in the primaries by an elderly Vermont socialist. The party, bitterly divided, stuck to symbolism and tried to elect the First Woman President, though most women were not enthused about her. The party apparatus assumed she had to win. Who could possibly lose to an invincibly ignorant blowhard New York developer with a peroxide ducktail? As it turned out, she could.

And now we think about the man picking up the red phone instead of Twitter and ordering fire and fury like the world has never seen and the death of 10 million people. We trust the order will be disobeyed, a de facto military coup, and the man will be packed off to Walter Reed and what then?

We’ve never been here before.

We’ve also never been here:

The relationship between President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.

That’s the New York Times’ latest scoop:

What was once an uneasy governing alliance has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility, complicated by the position of Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine L. Chao, in Mr. Trump’s cabinet, according to more than a dozen people briefed on their imperiled partnership. Angry phone calls and private badmouthing have devolved into open conflict, with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him and Mr. McConnell mobilizing to their defense.

The rupture between Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell comes at a highly perilous moment for Republicans, who face a number of urgent deadlines when they return to Washington next month. Congress must approve new spending measures and raise the statutory limit on government borrowing within weeks of reconvening, and Republicans are hoping to push through an elaborate rewrite of the federal tax code. There is scant room for legislative error on any front.

A protracted government shutdown or a default on sovereign debt could be disastrous – for the economy and for the party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Yet Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell are locked in a political cold war.

It’s not been pretty:

In a series of tweets this month, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. McConnell publicly, then berated him in a phone call that quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

Mr. McConnell has fumed over Mr. Trump’s regular threats against fellow Republicans and criticism of Senate rules, and questioned Mr. Trump’s understanding of the presidency in a public speech. Mr. McConnell has made sharper comments in private, describing Mr. Trump as entirely unwilling to learn the basics of governing.

Trump simply wants McConnell to shut down all the Senate committees investigating him. Order them to stop that, right now. McConnell tells Trump that Trump doesn’t know a damned thing about the basics of governing. This is going to end in an argument, not a win for either of them, and there’s this:

The fury among Senate Republicans toward Mr. Trump has been building since last month, even before he lashed out at Mr. McConnell. Some of them blame the president for not being able to rally the party around any version of legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, accusing him of not knowing even the basics about the policy. Senate Republicans also say strong-arm tactics from the White House backfired, making it harder to cobble together votes and have left bad feelings in the caucus.

When Mr. Trump addressed a Boy Scouts jamboree last month in West Virginia, White House aides told Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from the state whose support was in doubt, that she could only accompany him on Air Force One if she committed to voting for the health care bill. She declined the invitation, noting that she could not commit to voting for a measure she had not seen, according to Republican briefed on the conversation.

The generals can’t fix that, or this:

Mr. McConnell’s allies warn that the president should be wary of doing anything that could jeopardize the Senate Republican majority.

“The quickest way for him to get impeached is for Trump to knock off Jeff Flake and Dean Heller and be faced with a Democrat-led Senate,” said Billy Piper, a lobbyist and former McConnell chief of staff.

Donald Trump wants those two Republican senators who said bad things about him, Jeff Flake and Dean Heller, gone. Does he want to lose the Senate? Does he want to be impeached? How unstable and divorced from reality is President Trump?

The answer came a few hours after the New York Times story broke, and it came from Phoenix:

President Trump, stung by days of criticism that he sowed racial division in the United States after deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Va., accused the news media on Tuesday of misrepresenting what he insisted was his prompt, unequivocal condemnation of bigotry and hatred.

After declaring, “What happened in Charlottesville strikes at the core of America,” Mr. Trump delivered a lengthy, aggrieved defense of his statements in the wake of the violence that left one person dead and the nation reeling at the images of swastikas in Thomas Jefferson’s hometown.

As usual, none of this was his fault:

In an angry, unbridled and unscripted performance that rivaled the most sulfurous rallies of his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump sought to deflect the anger toward him against the news media, suggesting that the press, not him, was responsible for deepening divisions in the country.

“It’s time to expose the crooked media deceptions,” Mr. Trump said. He added, “They’re very dishonest people.”

“The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself and the fake news,” he said.

And there was this:

Mr. Trump accused the media of “trying to take away our history and our heritage,” an apparent reference to the debate over removing statues to heroes of the Confederacy, which prompted the rally by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville.

“Heritage” is a code word of course. The proud and noble South will rise again. Niggers won’t, or Jews. That is the heritage here, but the news folks were the real enemy:

The president singled out a familiar list of malefactors – from the “failing New York Times,” which he said erroneously had apologized for its coverage of the 2016 election, to CNN and The Washington Post, which he described as a lobbying arm for Amazon, the company controlled by the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos.

Pointing repeatedly to the cameras in the middle of a cavernous convention center, Mr. Trump whipped the crowd into fevered chants of “CNN Sucks.” Members of the audience shouted epithets at the reporters, some demanding that they stop tormenting the president with questions about his ties to Russia.

It seemed he was inciting an anti-press riot. News organizations will now have to hire private security firms to protect their reporters – but they probably have already done that. Reporters have gotten death threats since the day Trump announced his candidacy, but it wasn’t just the press:

The list of people in Arizona on Mr. Trump’s enemies list includes both of the state’s Republican senators: Jeff Flake, a longtime nemesis whom Mr. Trump has described as “toxic,” not to mention a “flake;” and John McCain, who cast the decisive Republican vote to dash Mr. Trump’s effort to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in the Senate.

His voice thick with sarcasm, Mr. Trump said he had been instructed not to mention either of them by name. Of Mr. Flake, he said, “nobody knows who the hell he is.” Of Mr. McCain, he repeated over and over, “one vote” that cost Republicans health care.

Those are just the highlights, and Josh Marshall adds this:

There were a lot of random weird asides through the speech. One example: In the course of defending himself on Charlottesville he gave a shout-out to CNN Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord who was recently fired for using a Nazi slogan in a Twitter fight. He had kinder and lengthier words for Lord than he did for Heather Heyer. He had kinder words for Kim Jung Un.

But that wasn’t the main point:

President Trump spent something like forty-five minutes in a wide-ranging primal scream about Charlottesville, ranting at the press, giving what might generously be called a deeply misleading and dishonest summary of what was actually said. It all amounted to one big attack on the press for supposedly lying about him.

And other than that, there was this:

Trump essentially promised he would pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a major sop to the anti-immigrant, white nationalist base.

Trump suggested he would probably end up withdrawing from NAFTA because negotiations will fail. That statement will have major repercussions.

Trump threatened to shut down the government to force Congress’s hand on getting his border wall.

While grandiosely not mentioning the names of Jeff Flake or John McCain, he nonetheless went after them and made his opposition to both quite clear. Presidents don’t generally attack members of their own party going into a midterm elections.

How unstable and divorced from reality is President Trump? Marshall offers this:

Let’s be honest. He’s done worse. He’s done worse in the last week. This is the President. It’s who he is. It’s like letting an addict who’s been clean for a couple days hang out with his friends at the crack house. It’ll go downhill fast. And so it did.

There are those three witches in Macbeth – “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” It’s here.

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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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