The Power to Hurt Others

Some people get into politics because they have firm beliefs about how things should be and they want to use the political system to make things the way that they are certain is best for everyone. Liberals believe in community and cooperation and inclusivity. Everyone, without exception, should have affordable health care, and quality education, and some help in hard times. There should be a social safety net, and those left behind by past nastiness of any kind should get special consideration now, with Affirmative Action and that sort of thing. And black lives matter too – the cops need to back off a bit. We’re all in this together, after all – and of course war is a stupid waste of the nation’s blood and treasure. International cooperation, or at least long stalemates, is better for everyone. Long stalemates are uncomfortable but at least no one dies. National pride is a fine thing but too often that’s just jingoism – and posturing will get us all killed.

Conservatives go the other way. They believe in freedom, defining freedom as autonomy. Rugged individualism made this nation great. There should be more of that, more of people taking personal responsibility for their lives. The government is not there to solve their problems, problems which are their own damned fault. Conservatives see a world of Makers and Takers, with the morally inadequate demanding the hard-earned goodies of the good people. That’s why they often define taxation as theft – theft from the good people – and often define more government as the problem, never the solution. The less government the better – deregulate everything and let free men and the free market sort it all out – and the free market will sort it out. Adam Smith said so – the Inviable Hand of Competition will produce the greatest good for the greatest number at the lowest cost. That’s why private for-profits schools are far better than public schools, and so on and so forth. Sure, some people will be left behind, but that may be as it should be. Maybe they’re just miserable useless people. The government shouldn’t fix that. The government can’t. There’s no implicit “social contract” that says the government should.

These are two vastly different views of how things should be. People who are hot and bothered about such things get into politics, to try to make things as they “should” be. These two sides will argue forever.

There are “moderates” too, who seem to think there’s a middle ground in all this. They want the nation to find that sweet spot, but there are none of those left. Such folks are only imaginary now, and there are those who get into politics because that’s what they do.

What they believe is unclear. The Bush family is like that. Politics is the family business. The first President Bush, the son of a famous New England senator, made conservative sounds – read my lips, no new taxes – but then he raised taxes when he had to. He was a competent and unexciting president, who lasted only one term, perhaps because he was no more than competent and unexciting.

His son, Jeb, ran Florida the same way, as a conservative whose heart really wasn’t in it – he got caught being a nice guy far too often. He was also happily married to a Mexican woman. His brother, the second President Bush, who had married a pleasant white-bread librarian, offered “compassionate conservatism” – and no one knew what the hell he meant. He didn’t seem to know either, and he turned out to be spectacularly incompetent – but this was the family business. There were his two disastrous wars of choice, and Katrina, and the collapse of the financial system and then the whole economy, but he trudged on. This was the family business – he had to trudge on. This was the Romney family business too. This has been the Kennedy family business seemingly forever, although every Kennedy has had reliably liberal views. They weren’t just going through the motions – but two got shot and another died of brain cancer. The vague and the dull lived. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. Perhaps there isn’t.

There are, however, those who get into politics for the power, the power to call the shots for the nation, as best they can. What they believe is also often unclear. They just like the power over others, no matter how it is exercised or for what end. For them, getting into politics may be a response to existential despair, a way to hold off that late night demon that whispers in the ear that no one really matters that much, not even them. Political office can make them “important” for a time. One day they’ll be in a history book no one will read. Political office can be a safe place for the damaged and insecure.

That may explain Donald Trump, and E. J. Dionne explores that:

He presented himself as the guy who said whatever was on his mind, who didn’t talk like a politician, who didn’t care what others thought and who railed against “political correctness.”

In fact, just about everything that comes out of his mouth or appears on his Twitter feed is calculated for its political and dramatic effect. Trump is the exact opposite of what he tries to project: The thing he cares about is what others think of him. So he’ll adjust his views again and again to serve his ends as circumstances change. He’s not Mr. Fearless. He’s Mr. Insecure.

That means that there’s no “there” there:

Putting aside the catastrophe of his presidency, this approach has worked remarkably well for Trump. But when the input on which he bases his calculations is garbled or contradictory, he doesn’t know which way to go. Lacking any deep instincts or convictions, he tries to move in several directions at once, an awkward maneuver even for an especially gifted politician. In these situations, Trump offers us a glimpse behind the curtain, and we see there is nothing there.

This is the most straightforward explanation for the fiasco created by the president’s mean-spirited decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. Trump was trying to square incompatible desires: to look super tough on immigrants to his dwindling band of loyal supporters, and to live up to his expressions of “love” (you have to wonder why Trump throws this word around so much) for the 800,000 residents who were brought to the United States illegally as children, conduct productive lives and are as “American” as any of the rest of us.

That has led to chaos:

His solution is a non-solution. First, Trump showed how little he believes in his policy – of ending DACA but delaying its death sentence by six months – by having Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the administration’s ad hoc director of nativist initiatives, make the announcement.

Trump shifted responsibility for his impossible political dilemma to Congress. It’s true that Congress should have acted on this long ago, but Trump undercut his claim by not telling his allies what he wanted done. He was simply tossing the choices down Pennsylvania Avenue in the way a lousy neighbor might hurl unwanted debris into the yard next door.

And then, when the bad reviews poured in, Trump backed away from even his muddle of a policy. He tweeted that if Congress didn’t act, “I will revisit this issue!” So a six-month delay might not really be a six-month delay. It might be extended. Or maybe not. Who knows? Adding an exclamation point to your waffling doesn’t help.

Perhaps this was about using political office to do no more than fight off existential despair:

The improvised character of the Trump presidency owes to his inclination to see politics as entirely about public performance. He cares above all about the reactions he arouses day to day and even hour to hour.

There is no strategic vision of what a Trump administration should look like because he doesn’t have any clear objectives of his own. On some days, he buys into the Sessions-Steve Bannon-Stephen Miller nationalist worldview. On others, he goes with his practical generals or his business-friendly Wall Street advisers. He doesn’t resolve the philosophical tensions because they don’t matter to him.

That may be the essential problem:

Those who condemn the fundamental cruelty of using “dreamers” to make a political point are right to do so. The mobilization for decency in reaction to Trump has already altered the direction of his weather vane. But there is a larger lesson here: It is a genuinely bad idea to elect a president who worries far more about how his actions look than what they actually are.

Josh Marshall extends that argument:

Does President Trump want to end DACA? He seems to see the consequences of ending DACA as something it is incumbent on Congress to fix. He gives no sense that he’d veto such an effort – which is what you’d expect if he were really behind the substance of his decision to rescind DACA. Indeed, he puts it forward as another way he might best President Obama – getting the substance of DACA enacted as law. But the real kicker is: if Congress can’t get it together, he will “revisit the issue.”

This is highly odd. The whole premise is that DACA had no legal grounding. A President had no ability to act in this way. President Obama exceeded his presidential authority. In other words, President Trump now seems to be saying he will go back and try to resolve this matter through a new executive action even though the premise of everything that’s happened in the last 72 hours is that the President has no such power.

It’s okay to be confused:

Now, at one level, this is just the President’s persistent ridiculousness. While Jeff Sessions and the people executing the policy push forward an ‘end DACA’ plan with a clear message to ‘get ready to leave the country’, Trump is all over the place, seemingly unclear what he’s ordered, what eventual outcome he wants or even what his actual powers are. Mostly that’s cold comfort to those about to see their lives upended. Bystanders get to laugh at the President’s nonsense while hundreds of thousands prepare to be expelled from the only country they’ve ever known. But I’m not sure that is entirely the case.

This may be the case:

One of Trump’s cardinal impulses is to hurt people. A secondary impulse is to make deals if he agrees not to hurt people… But in this case, he very clearly seems very wary of getting blamed for the human suffering that his actions will cause.

That may be “core Trump” – the reason he got into politics – to be the big man who can hurt others. Then he boxed himself in. Then it became real. He had to blame others. Political office can be a safe place for the damaged and insecure, until it isn’t.

This just played out in another way too:

President Trump, a man of few allegiances who seized control of the Republican Party in a hostile takeover, suddenly aligned himself with Democrats on Wednesday on a series of key fiscal issues – and even gave a lift to North Dakota’s embattled Democratic U.S. senator.

Trump confounded his party’s leaders when he cut a deal with Democratic congressional leaders – “Chuck and Nancy,” as the president informally referred to them – on a short-term plan to fund the government and raise its borrowing limit this month.

The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

One of Trump’s cardinal impulses is to hurt people, and since hurting the Dreamers made him look like moral monster, it was time to hurt some Republicans:

The episode is the latest turn in Trump’s separation from his party as he distances himself to deflect blame for what has been a year of gridlock and missed opportunities for Republicans on Capitol Hill. It follows a summer of presidential stewing over McConnell and Ryan, both of whom Trump views as insufficiently loyal and weak in executing his agenda, according to his advisers.

Trump made his position clear at a White House meeting with both parties’ congressional leaders, agreeing with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on plans for a bill to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling for three months.

This put over McConnell and Ryan and all the rest in their worms-in-the-gutter place:

In siding with Democrats, Trump overruled his own treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who was in the middle of an explanation backing a longer-term increase when the president interrupted him and disagreed, according to a person briefed on the meeting who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. Trump was “in deal-cutting mode,” the person said.

After the gathering, McConnell said he would add provisions extending government funding and the debt limit through mid-December to legislation passed by the House on Wednesday providing $7.85 billion in Hurricane Harvey relief. McConnell introduced the legislation late Wednesday night, setting up a Senate vote as early as Friday.

“The president agreed with Senator Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi to do a three-month [funding extension] and a debt ceiling into December, and that’s what I will be offering, based on the president’s decision, to the bill,” McConnell told reporters. “The president can speak for himself, but his feeling was that we needed to come together to not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis.”

“The president can speak for himself.” Mitch McConnell was pissed, and beaten down, and then there was this:

During the meeting Wednesday, Trump also threw tacit support behind the Democrats’ push for a “dreamers” bill that would effectively formalize an Obama-era program shielding undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation.

And it only got worse:

Later Wednesday, Trump brought a special guest with him to an oil refinery in Mandan, N.D., to pitch his tax-cut plan: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat facing a tough reelection effort in a solidly Republican state that Trump carried in 2016 by 36 percentage points. He welcomed Heitkamp into his traveling delegation, affording her the chance to appear bipartisan by standing alongside a president popular with North Dakotans.

As Heitkamp stepped onto an outdoor catwalk at the Mandan refinery to join him on stage, Trump delivered play-by-play commentary: “Everybody’s saying, ‘What’s she doing up here?’ But I’ll tell you what: Good woman.”

That was twisting the knife, in this context:

McConnell and Ryan came out of the White House meeting in the weakest position – losing an opportunity to neutralize the debt-ceiling issue before the 2018 midterm elections and to exclude Democrats from major policy debates this fall.

The president’s decision came barely an hour after Ryan panned the idea of a short-term debt hike, accusing Democrats of “playing politics” with much-needed aid for Hurricane Harvey victims.

“I think that’s ridiculous and disgraceful that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment when we have fellow citizens in need,” Ryan told reporters.

Trump apparently disagreed.

He does like to hurt people. It makes him feel important. And Josh Marshall sees a pattern here:

Donald Trump’s core drive is dominance. We see that in his politics which is revanchist and destructive and in its less dire manifestations driven by a zero sum vision of human and economic relations. For me to win, you have to lose. The more fluid and collaborative aspects of human interaction seem entirely lost on Trump. This is why he is the leader of the revanchist, racist far right.

But the political or ideological manifestations are secondary to the personal one. Trump needs to dominate people. Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both. So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available.

I don’t say this to discount the two Democrats’ savvy in pulling this off. I think they managed quite a coup. I just think that’s the true driver.

That’s just who he is:

It’s not clear to me whether Trump doesn’t realize that he hurt himself as much as he did Ryan and McConnell or whether he does realize it and simply doesn’t care. The core take remains the same. Trump’s core personal drive is the need to dominate. It’s been clear for weeks that he feels routinely betrayed by these two men. They don’t produce for him. They embarrass. They fail to defend him. The need to dominate runs deeper than any policy agenda or ideological ambition. People who are driven by the need to dominate are also often self-destructive. None of this is surprising.

Perhaps we’ll learn that there’s some other explanation, some pivot, some something. No doubt there’s plenty I don’t know and plenty we’ll learn. But I’m pretty sure at the root of it will be Trump’s need to dominate, to be in charge and obeyed and praised.

With that answer, with Trump, you almost never go wrong.

Aaron Blake puts that a different way:

President Trump waged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination last year. Now he’s holding the entire party hostage…

That works too:

It’s no secret that Trump has never really had the interests of the Republican Party at heart. His party affiliation has always been subject to change, and he has never played ball with the GOP powers that be. He has instead forced them to bend to his will in the name of keeping the peace and not inflaming his passionate base of support. Those GOP leaders have also wagered that, whatever headaches came with embracing Trump, they would at least have a Republican president to enact conservative policies.

But it’s beginning to get ridiculous for GOP leaders.

They’re learning that he likes to hurt people:

That bargain they struck with Trump was always a tenuous and uneasy one, and he’s now openly violating it. What’s more, he’s repeatedly and publicly undermining GOP efforts to grow their Senate majority – you know, the one he insists isn’t big enough so he needs to nuke the filibuster – in multiple 2018 races.

GOP leaders’ response to all of this, of course, is likely to be muted. They’ve lived through Trump controversies before, and they’ve always assumed it would blow over. They’ll assume this debt-ceiling fiasco was just Trump Being Trump and hope it doesn’t happen again. And arguably more than that, they’ve reasoned that they can’t attack him, because it would tear the party in two and/or he would win.

But they need to ask themselves what happens when they stop being useful to Trump, and Wednesday was a preview of that.

Some people get into politics because they have firm beliefs about how things should be, and there are those who get into politics for the power. They just like that power over others, no matter how it is exercised or for what end. That may make no political sense, but political office can be a safe place for the damaged and insecure. It’s just not safe for anyone else, and the power to hurt others is intoxicating. Just enough voters, in just the right places, realized that too. This is what those voters wanted. This is what America got. And everyone, sooner or later, is going to be hurt by this damaged and insecure man. Who’s next?

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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