Assuming No Future

The talk of the day is the Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – and it is devastating – but it’s not everything. Donald Trump is still the president. He will do this and that, but now people will wonder if he knows what he’s doing. The man is volatile – reactive. He lashes out. He doesn’t seem to think things through. And he certainly doesn’t read much, if at all, and now Joe Scarborough tells this tale:

Mika Brzezinski and I had a tense meeting with Trump following what I considered to be a bumbling debate performance in September 2015. I asked the candidate a blunt question.

“Can you read?”

Awkward silence.

“I’m serious, Donald. Do you read?” I continued. “If someone wrote you a one-page paper on a policy, could you read it?”

Taken aback, Trump quietly responded that he could while holding up a Bible given to him by his mother. He then joked that he read it all the time.

Scarborough remembers that now:

I am apparently not the only one who has questioned the president’s ability to focus on the written word. “Trump didn’t read,” Wolff writes. “He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he didn’t have to… He was post literate – total television.”

That might explain Donald Trump’s reactive volatility, and that might explain this:

Despite widespread bipartisan opposition to offshore oil and gas drilling, both from lawmakers and the Pentagon, the Trump administration announced it would open nearly all United States waters to drilling on Thursday, according to multiple news reports.

It’s safe to assume that Donald Trump hasn’t read decades of news articles about decades of horrible oil spills, or to have reviewed the extensive data on the horrible cost of cleaning up those oil spills, but others have:

More than 100 lawmakers, the Pentagon, and even key Republican governors have expressed disapproval over the proposal by the Interior Department that would roll back an Obama-era ban on drilling that covered “more than 100 million offshore acres along the Arctic and Eastern Seaboard,” as the New York Times reported.

Several Republican governors, including Larry Hogan of Maryland, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott of Florida, have openly expressed opposition to offshore oil and gas production.

“In addition to their environmental and cultural importance, Atlantic Ocean waters also provide significant economic value to our state,” an August letter from Christie read. He added that he “strongly opposes any waters off our coastline being considered for inclusion in this leasing program.”

Those who read about such things know all of this, and those who don’t, well, don’t know:

Offshore oil and gas drilling has led to significant environmental catastrophes, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion “and subsequent spill of 215 million gallons of crude into the Gulf that fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida. The effects of the spill are still being felt more than seven years later,” the Post reported.

Who knew? Donald Trump didn’t know:

The decision strongly aligns with President Donald Trump’s aggressive energy and deregulatory agenda, with next to zero concern for environmental impacts. The move comes only a week after the Trump administration positioned itself to roll back the drilling safety regulations put in place following the 2010 spill, as the Times also reported.

In addition, the Trump administration recently halted “a study that aimed to make drilling platforms safer,” as the Post noted.

Bad things have happened in the past. Everyone has read about them. They could happen in the future. Bill Clinton successfully campaigned, twice, with that Fleetwood Mac song blaring at his rallies – Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow – and Fleetwood Mac performed that song at his inaugural ball in 1993, and that song was played for Clinton’s appearances at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Democratic conventions. Trump uses the Rolling Stones You Can’t Always Get What You Want – and the Stones did request that he cease all use of their songs immediately – and he ignored them. Trump never thinks about tomorrow.

For those who read, the New York Times item on this oil drilling thing is here and the Washington Post item is here – for what that’s worth these days. Donald Trump won’t be reading those.

But wait, there’s more:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will roll back an Obama-era policy that gave states leeway to allow marijuana for recreational purposes.

The Justice Department on Thursday afternoon released a memo announcing that the so-called Cole memo – which ordered U.S. attorneys in states where marijuana has been legalized to deprioritize prosecution of marijuana-related cases – would be rescinded effective immediately.

“Previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately,” the memo reads.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, the states’-rights guy from the Deep South, doesn’t believe in states’ rights in this case:

The move is likely to put the federal government in conflict with states where marijuana is legal for recreational use. California on Monday became the sixth state to legalize recreational marijuana. Massachusetts and Maine are set to join those states later this year…

Legalization has led to a booming marijuana business in some states, where wealthy growers and even hedge funds have invested millions of dollars in production and sales. Some industry analysts peg the North American cannabis market at $10 billion in annual sales.

That’s the future, and Jennifer Rubin has a few things to say about this:

The announcement was not taken well by Republicans who say Sessions assured them in his confirmation hearing that he wouldn’t go that route. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), representing a state with a robust legal marijuana business, was incensed. “This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation,” he tweeted. “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was less angry but still obviously miffed. She pronounced the decision “regrettable.”

Sessions may have lied (or not been in a position to make the promise) but these lawmakers were fools to take him at his word. His hardline approach to drugs was well-known, and the administration’s desire to court social conservatives has been obvious since the campaign.

In short, this was entirely reactive, and no one was thinking about tomorrow:

Even more irate than the senators will be the pro-legalization voters in Oregon, California, Colorado and the other 26 states plus the District that have loosened marijuana rules. And, in particular, this is another signal to millennial voters that the GOP is utterly hostile to their concerns. Beyond those states, support for marijuana has been rising nationally for years. According to Gallup’s October 2017 poll, 64 percent of Americans favor legalization. That includes 51 percent of Republicans.

Among millennials, President Trump and the GOP’s decision to enforce marijuana laws will also not sit well. The GOP was already unpopular with the vast majority of millennials. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, voters between 18 and 34 disapprove of Trump’s performance by a 68 percent to 25 percent margin; they favor a Democratic Congress by a 60 to 26 percent margin.

In Virginia, voters age 18 to 29 chose Democrat Ralph Northam 69 percent to 30 percent. In Alabama, these voters favored Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) by a 60 percent to 38 percent spread. The marijuana decision will not help.

That too is the future, and they’re throwing that away:

It’s not just the GOP’s position on pot that is a problem for younger voters. Virtually everything he does offends their sensibilities. He pulled out of the Paris climate accord, tried to ban transgender people from the military, is vehemently anti-immigrant (legal and illegal), approved the Muslim ban and a plan to punish so-called sanctuary cities, and tore up net neutrality. His treatment of women is yet another strike against him.

A president whose mind-set has always been backward-looking – filled with nostalgia for a time when white men were more dominant – was never going to be a big draw with younger voters who are more diverse, more environmentally conscious and more involved in the global economy than previous generations. However, in cheering on the president and enabling his policies, the GOP has made itself into a nationalist, protectionist and xenophobic enclave for old people. Trump’s aversion to globalization is at its core an aversion to the only world these voters know.

So this was a bad move:

“The decriminalization of marijuana is a generational issue that a majority of millennials support, including a majority of millennial Republicans,” says Steven Olikara, founder of the Millennial Action Project. “How the Sessions measure infringes on states’ rights and worsens government budget deficits, not to mention the tremendous human cost, will particularly concern younger conservatives and libertarians. And they will continue walking away from the party establishment.”

And as the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report, this was a bad move:

President Trump marshaled both his West Wing and his personal legal team Thursday against a new book that portrays him and his administration as incompetent and erratic – threatening possible libel charges against its author, its publisher and his former chief strategist, whose provocative comments pepper the book.

In an 11-page letter, Charles J. Harder, a Beverly Hills attorney representing the president, demanded that both Michael Wolff and Henry Holt and Co. – the author and publisher of the forthcoming book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” – “immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination of the book,” as well as apologize to Trump. The president’s lawyers also requested a complete copy of the book as part of their inquiry.

And they were treated just like Donald Trump treated the Rolling Stones:

The threats did not appear to work, at least as far as the book is concerned: Wolff and his publisher announced Thursday that publication had been moved forward four days to Friday because of what they described as “unprecedented demand.”

But someone’s not been doing their reading:

Legal experts and historians said the decision by a sitting president to threaten “imminent” legal action against a publishing house, a journalist and a former aide represented a remarkable break with recent precedent and could have a chilling effect on free-speech rights.

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, likened Trump’s actions this week to those of Richard M. Nixon, whose White House unsuccessfully attempted to stop both the New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the government’s entanglements in Vietnam.

Though several presidents – including Jimmy Carter and Theodore Roosevelt – have sued for libel after leaving office, it is uncommon and potentially damaging for a current occupant of the Oval Office to try to use the powers of the presidency to take on personal and political rivals, Brinkley said.

Everyone knows this, but Trump is a reactive and volatile man:

Trump’s decision was a deliberate one, according to people who have spoken with him following the publication of excerpts from Wolff’s book and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments.

Trump released an initial, lengthy statement Wednesday saying that Bannon had “lost his mind,” but he remained dissatisfied, advisers said. The president was especially furious at what he considered several confidences Bannon had betrayed by sharing with Wolff, as well as some alleged falsehoods and exaggerations in the book, and wanted to consult with lawyers who were experts on the topic, one person familiar with his decision said.

Harder had previously represented Trump’s wife, Melania, in a dispute with Britain’s Daily Mail, as well as son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump was eager to retain the lawyer hailed by aides as someone you hire “to crush the media,” a White House official said.

That never works out well, but for Donald Trump, there is no future:

Though some White House aides privately worried that mounting such a forceful response was neither presidential nor particularly effective, they also understood that Trump was unlikely to change his mind. “You can debate the strategic effect of what we’re doing, but the president was determined to take the legal action,” a White House official said.

That’s just who he is:

The president’s approach to the claims in Wolff’s book, which includes criticism of both him and his family, follows a familiar pattern honed during Trump’s time as a combative New York real estate developer.

For nearly half a century, Trump has used lawsuits – and often just the threat of them – as a primary weapon in his arsenal against critics and competitors, deploying libel and slander allegations to push back against those who might embarrass or contradict him. He has had his lawyers threaten book authors, business rivals, attorneys, and critics of his real estate developments and political views.

Competing hotel owners, casino managers and voices in the news media have all found themselves in receipt of sharply worded letters promising legal action that in most cases never happened.

The pattern continued during his presidential campaign. Trump threatened to sue the Times over an article about his alleged unwanted advances on women – but he never did. He threatened to sue the women who said he made the advance – but he never did. And he said during the campaign that he might take action to make it easier to sue journalists – but so far he has not done so.

Of course this is nonsense:

A host of legal issues complicate President Trump’s effort to block publication of a book highly critical of his tenure in the White House, according to legal experts who view it more as an attempt at intimidation than a genuine threat of litigation.

“It is unthinkably difficult to imagine a president suppressing publication of a book criticizing him,” said Floyd Abrams, a noted First Amendment lawyer who has represented the media. Journalism evaluating the president’s performance in office receives “the super-highest levels of First Amendment protection.”

This simply won’t work:

It is exceedingly difficult for any public official to prove libel. It requires a plaintiff to show that a writer knew the disputed statement was false but printed it anyway or acted with “reckless disregard.” That requires proof that the writer seriously doubted the truth of what he wrote.

“The demand for proof of reckless disregard is at its zenith when it comes to the president and the White House,” said Ronald Collins, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Washington School of Law…

Rare cases of blocking publication usually involve issues such trade secrets or concerns about privacy, such as a person’s medical condition.

In cases concerning libel and defamation, it is up to the publication to decide whether to publish, and the offended subject can then sue for damages.

Collins wondered what those damages would be in Trump’s case.

Someone is not thinking about tomorrow, and Jonathan Chait sees a pattern here:

When the president tweeted out a boast claiming credit for the lack of commercial airplane fatalities in 2017, it seemed like a very typically Trumpian gesture. There were the familiar elements: boasting about a trend that long predated his administration (airplane crashes have been exceedingly rare for two decades), the random capitalization (“I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation… there were Zero deaths in 2017”), and the l’état-c’est-moi assumption of total responsibility.

But this claim also sounded a distinctly un-Trump-y theme. It was boring. Indeed, the absence of a plane crash is the prototypical example of a news story that never gets reported. This alleged historic achievement contained nothing Big or Beautiful or certain to make us all so Rich. It centered on the management of risk, a rare consideration for a president normally consumed with instant gratification.

Indeed, another tweet, later in the same day, reflected the more familiar Trump approach to risk management. In it, he topped Kim Jong-un’s boast of nuclear capability with his own boast of “bigger and more powerful” nuclear capability.

So here, on the same day Trump was assuring the public that their chances of dying in a commercial plane crash remain exceedingly remote, he was elevating the risk that they will die in a massive nuclear holocaust. On the plus side, he got a fleeting sense of satisfaction from flaming an adversary on social media. The North Korea tweet is Trump’s usual idea of a shrewd long-term cost-benefit tradeoff.

In short, this is an odd view of the future:

Throughout Trump’s presidency, Michael Wolff observes, he has been “singularly focused on his own needs for instant gratification, be that a hamburger, a segment on Fox & Friends or an Oval Office photo opp.” This is not only a matter of cognitive ability. A monomaniacal obsession with the short term has characterized Trump’s entire career.

Chait sees a man who may not be able to conceive of any future:

He does not think strategically. He lives for the moment. Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal that he prefers to keep his workday unstructured, because “you can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to work each day and just see what develops.” He makes decisions impulsively and has leveraged his assets precariously – “I’m the king of debt,” he bragged – and went into bankruptcy six times. He specialized in unethical maneuvers that enabled him to take short-term profits while burning his partners – like tunneling money out of his failing casinos, defrauding customers, or refusing to pay contractors the agreed-upon price.

And one thing leads to another:

Why, besides ethics, haven’t more business owners tried Trump’s patented method of ripping people off? Because over the long run it poisons your ability to find willing partners. Indeed, mainstream banks eventually refused to deal with Trump, which is what led to his unusual dependence on Russia and other shady foreign sources for capital. In many ways, his presidency has followed the arc of his business career – short-term leverage plays that benefit Trump and his inner circle before his counter-parties wise up.

The Republican Party’s hostility to government has made it a willing partner for much of this agenda. Many, if not most, functions of government are designed to mitigate risk. Social insurance protects individuals from the risk of outliving their savings, or of facing unaffordable medical costs. Economic regulation protects society from dangers like financial risk, environmental danger, or crime and other social disorder. Laissez-faire ideology often amounts to an acceptance of greater risk. (This is a basic description of the trade-off, which holds regardless of whether you think Republicans are generally eliminating regulations that are important or unnecessarily burdensome.) By scaling back access to health insurance, they would expose more people to the risk of high medical bills, for the benefit of enjoying lower taxes and premiums right away. Much of their deregulatory agenda would allow business to operate more cheaply by taking fewer precautions to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.

None of them worry about the future:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gutted his workforce and driven out hundreds of experienced career diplomats, leaving the department a shell. The Department of Energy – which, among other things, safeguards the nuclear arsenal from espionage, theft, and accident – has been disastrously mismanaged… Trump has appointed nobody to run the Office of Science and Technology Policy. His administration has denigrated, and proposed a 25 percent budget cut for, the Office of Financial Research, a brain center created after the 2008 economic meltdown to help policy makers assess systemic risk in the financial system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which protects against threats like pandemics and bioterrorism, has hundreds of positions vacant. The Department of Justice “has begun 2018 without Senate-confirmed leaders in at least six of its most important divisions,” reports NPR.

The same story has played out across the federal government, where the workforce has shrunk across the board – not through any planned reforms, but through neglect and decay that drives away the most talented employees (who can most easily obtain better jobs elsewhere) leaving behind leaderless and demoralized bureaucrats teetering on dysfunctionality. Any modern state, and especially one that has assumed a leadership role in the liberal international order, requires competent administrators to protect its citizens from a wide array of disasters. They serve as a form of insurance. You can cancel your insurance policy and have some more money in your pocket right away. But when you are insuring yourself against as many risks as the federal government does – financial crises, wars, natural disasters, disease outbreak, terrorism, and on and on – the cumulative risk grows that something, or several things, will go terribly wrong.

And then we’re all in trouble:

What is most evident is the lack of strategy or planning. Because Trump lurches from day to day, his advisers are forced to do the same. They have held him off from blowing up the Iran nuclear agreement with a series of delaying tactics. Almost every day brings a new leak from an adviser terrified the president will blunder into war with North Korea… A war with North Korea that could kill millions is merely one of the skyrocketing risks that Trump has created. Our brains have difficulty measuring low-probability, high-impact events like this…

But the notion that Trump would represent a massive gamble was present in the minds of his supporters all along. Michael Anton, now the White House director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, wrote a famous essay before the election casting a Trump presidency as a desperate and probably doomed gamble akin to passengers on hijacked Flight 93 rushing the cockpit. Trump ally Peter Thiel has told friends, “There is a fifty percent chance this whole thing ends in disaster.”

Trump, his inner circle, and political allies are all currently cashing in on the short-term upside of a massive leveraged gamble with America’s future.

That’s not a gamble with America’s future. That’s an inability to conceive of the quite probable future – but Donald Trump doesn’t like to think about such things. Maybe he can’t think about such things. Maybe he really can’t read. And there goes our future.


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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One Response to Assuming No Future

  1. Rick says:

    All this daily “Trump Watch” stuff conjures an image of Americans watching from the sidelines as pieces of their country, small and large, go floating off in space, and remarking, “Oh, look!! There goes the State Department!!” and “Oh, look! Wasn’t that the Bill of Rights?”

    I think we may, at this point in American history, be making the mistake of assuming that, no matter how much damage is done during these Trump years, we will always be able, later, to retrieve all the broken pieces of America and reassemble them the way they’re supposed to be, without us now having to make any drastic moves to stop all of that from happening in the first place.

    After all, what can be done? The framers of the Constitution didn’t anticipate any of this, apparently assuming that future Americans would be suitably equipped with ample intelligence, honor and goodwill to figure out what to do. (Silly framers!)

    Maybe Congress needs to come up with some sort of “presidential competency test”, hopefully with a “reading comprehension” section, but maybe also a “mental competency” component, and definitely sections on familiarity with history, not just American but also of the world.

    Of course, such a test might never become law, since Trump could just veto it, but I think there’s just enough chance that Congress would override his veto.

    And in fact, maybe taking this test can be a prerequisite to running for office in the first place. You don’t need to “pass” the test to run, but you would have to take it, and have the results published for all to see.


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