Sliding Into Darkness

The world was changing in 1977 – in January, Jimmy Carter was sworn in as America’s most unlikely president. In June, the Supremes performed their final concert together at Drury Lane in London and Elvis Presley held his last concert at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. And Paul Simon had a big hit with Slip-Sliding Away – “God only knows. God makes his plan. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man. We work our jobs – collect our pay – believe we’re gliding down the highway – when in fact we’re slip-slidin’ away.”

And then there was the refrain – “You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-slidin’ away.”

That was a song for the times. Everything seemed to be slipping away, but forty years later an even more unlikely president was sworn in – Donald Trump – and much more seems to be slipping away. The peanut farmer from Georgia could be presidential. He had been governor down there, so he knew a bit about how to get things done, politically, and after the Naval Academy in 1946 he had worked with Hyman Rickover to get our first nuclear submarines up and running, so he knew a bit about the military in the then-new atomic age. He was a bit odd, and more than a bit shy and hesitant, but he knew what a president was supposed to do – manage the operation of the government, with the cooperation of Congress and the blessing of the courts, and manage foreign affairs, keeping us out of pointless wars and working with other nations to keep the world as stable as possible. The Camp David Accords brought peace to the Middle East for a time. Jimmy Carter could be presidential – not entirely successful – but presidential. He didn’t make things personal. He listened to the experts around him. This wasn’t about him, and Donald Trump is not presidential. It’s all about him, and having things his way. The old way of thinking about the presidency is slip-slidin’ away.

Donald Trump is making this a one-man show, and the latest example of this is reported by CNN’s Pamela Brown and Sarah Westwood:

President Donald Trump is increasingly relying on his personal cell phone to contact outside advisers, multiple sources inside and outside the White House told CNN, as Trump returns to the free-wheeling mode of operation that characterized the earliest days of his administration…

Sources cited Trump’s stepped-up cell phone use as an example of chief of staff John Kelly’s waning influence over who gets access to the President. During the early days of Kelly’s tenure, multiple sources said, Trump made many of his calls from the White House switchboard – a tactic that allowed the chief of staff to receive a printed list of who Trump had phoned. Kelly has less insight into who Trump calls on his personal cell phone.

While Trump never entirely gave up his personal cell phone once Kelly came aboard, one source close to the White House speculated that the President is ramping up the use of his personal device recently in part because “he doesn’t want Kelly to know who he’s talking to.”

This is a one-man show:

Some White House allies said they see Trump’s more frequent solicitation of advice outside the West Wing as a sign that Kelly’s status as a gatekeeper for the President has diminished.

“Definitely, the walls are breaking,” one source close to the White House said of the procedures Kelly initially established to regulate access to Trump. Another source close to the White House added that “a lot of meetings, a lot of things have happened lately without Kelly being in the room.”

Donald Trump sees the presidency as his personal thing, but there are a few technical problems here:

Mary McCord, who used to head the Justice Department’s national security division, says smartphones are notorious for their security vulnerabilities.

“Because the smartphones of high-level government officials – including the President – are obvious targets for foreign intelligence services, the government goes to significant effort to ensure that government-issued smartphones are constantly updated to address security vulnerabilities,” she said. “Use of personal smartphones, which may not have all of the security features of government-issued smartphones or be regularly-updated to address newly discovered vulnerabilities, present an obvious potential security risk.”

Another security expert said the President’s increased cell phone use makes his calls more vulnerable to eavesdropping from foreign governments.

“All communications devices of all senior government officials are targeted by foreign governments. This is not new,” said Bryan Cunningham, executive director of the Cybersecurity Policy and Research Institute at the University of California-Irvine.

Donald Trump hasn’t thought this “president” thing through, or maybe he has:

Another implication of Trump’s private cell phone use, Cunningham noted, is the possibility that Trump’s conversations may not be “captured for the purposes of government accountability and history.”

He may like that idea – no one will ever know what he’s done – but he has another odd idea about the presidency:

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said early Monday that Democrats must decide if they love the United States more than they hate President Trump as they mull CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to lead the State Department.

“Look, at some point, Democrats have to decide whether they love this country more than they hate this president,” Sanders told “Fox & Friends.”

That’s an odd way to put things, as the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake notes here:

With Pompeo in some peril, the White House and Republicans deployed the nuclear option of talking points: questioning their opponents’ patriotism…

But no one should be surprised:

Sanders employed a version of her quote above in January during the immigration debate. A week later, she said it again of Democrats who failed to applaud during Trump’s State of the Union address. Trump at the time suggested that those Democrats might be guilty of treason, which the White House clarified was just a joke. But Trump also said – with nary a hint of humor – that Democrats “certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

Trump’s campaign then released an ad calling the Democrats’ behavior “disgraceful” and saying they were “disrespecting our country.”

Blake thinks this is dangerous:

The GOP’s argument here doesn’t allow for principled objections to Pompeo’s nomination. This argument deems concerns over his comments about Muslims and gay people as invalid. The logical extension of this talking point is that no secretary of state nominee should ever be opposed for confirmation, no matter his or her qualifications, because it could hurt national security.

This kind of argument has seeped into national security and foreign policy decisions before. Back when Democrats opposed the Iraq War, some cast that as being opposed to the troops or rooting for failure. The angry takedown by then-Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) of his own party at the 2004 Republican National Convention sounded a lot like what the White House is saying today:

“While young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief. Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator. In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution.”

There’s also a bit more to that incident:

In his keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, delivered on September 1, 2004, Miller criticized the state of the Democratic Party. He said, “No pair has been more wrong, more loudly, more often than the two senators from Massachusetts – Ted Kennedy and John Kerry.” He also criticized John Kerry’s Senate voting record, claiming that Kerry’s votes against bills for defense and weapon systems indicated support for weakening U.S. military strength…

The speech was well received by the convention attendees, especially the Georgia delegates. Conservative commentator Michael Barone compared the speech to the views and ideology of Andrew Jackson….

Shortly thereafter, Miller appeared in an interview with Chris Matthews on the MSNBC show Hardball. After Miller expressed irritation at Matthews’ line of questioning, Matthews pressed Miller with the question, “Do you believe now – do you believe, Senator, truthfully, that John Kerry wants to defend the country with spitballs?”

Miller angrily told Matthews to “get out of my face,” and declared, “I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel.”

Zell Miller regretted that:

Miller later said about the interview, “That was terrible. I embarrassed myself. I’d rather it had not happened.”

After Bush won the election of 2004, Miller referred to the Republican victories in that election (including a sweep of five open Senate seats in the South) as a sign that Democrats did not relate to most Americans.

That might have been true, but at least he had stopped challenging this person or that to a duel at twenty paces. One can go too far, and Blake thinks that might be the case now:

It’s one thing to accuse the other side of playing politics on very serious matters and harming national security; it’s another to question whether they are acting in the interests of their country and how much they love their country. What these voices hinted at in the mid-2000s is now being said in much blunter terms – and seems to be coming up with a regularity that suggests that it will be a fixture going forward.

And that may be the most lasting impact of the now-momentary drama over Pompeo’s nomination. In the context of a norm-busting Trump era that has redefined the rules of political engagement, it may seem like a small bridge to have crossed. But it’s significant nonetheless.

Something important may be slip-slidin’ away, and Greg Sargent is worried:

Around the country, Republicans embroiled in tough primaries are increasingly emulating President Trump – by echoing his xenophobia, his veiled racist appeals, his attacks on the news media, and even occasionally his calls for imprisoning his political opponents.

Meanwhile, all indications are that Trump is heading for a serious confrontation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein over the Russia investigation.

So how long until multiple GOP primary candidates begin seriously running on the message that the Mueller probe is part of an illegitimate Deep State coup that justifies Trump shutting it down by any means necessary – that is, on a message of unabashed authoritarianism?

Sargent thinks that America may be slip-slidin’ away, into authoritarianism:

Two new articles – one in the New York Times, the other in National Journal – illustrate what’s happening in many of these GOP primaries. The Times piece, by Jeremy Peters, reports that in West Virginia, GOP Senate primary candidate Don Blankenship is running an ad that says: “We don’t need to investigate our president. We need to arrest Hillary … Lock her up!”

In multiple GOP races across the country, the Times piece reports, candidates are employing phrases such as “drain the swamp,” “build the wall,” “rigged system” and even “fake news.” The GOP Senate candidate in Tennessee ran an ad that promises to stand with Trump “every step of the way to build that wall,” and even echoes Trump’s attacks on African American football players protesting systemic racism and police brutality:  “I stand when the president walks in the room. And yes, I stand when I hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.'”

Meanwhile, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar reports that in the Indiana Senate GOP primary, Mike Braun, the candidate who is most vocally emphasizing Trump’s messages – on trade, the Washington “swamp” and “amnesty” – appears to be gaining the advantage. Braun’s ads basically recast true conservatism as Trumpism in its incarnation as populist anti-establishment ethno-nationalism.

It gets worse. As the Indianapolis Star recently reported, one of the Indiana GOP Senate candidates has bashed “Crooked Hillary Clinton,” and all three have cast aspersions on the Mueller probe. One called it a “fishing expedition,” and another claimed: “Nothing’s been turned up except that Hillary Clinton is the real guilty party here.”

Sargent is arguing that only third-world authoritarian despots, and Vladimir Putin, jail their political opponents, something no American president has ever done or ever would do, but the odder thing is that this is an almost universal call for the impeachment of Hillary Clinton, as if she were the president and Donald Trump isn’t – and maybe he isn’t. Sargent thinks that Trump has moved beyond that limiting role:

The question all this raises is whether there is a large swath of GOP primary voters who are fully prepared to march behind Trump into full-blown authoritarianism. The original plan was for Republicans to make tax cuts the centerpiece of their midterm campaign agenda. But in the Virginia gubernatorial race, the Republican candidate resorted to Trumpian xenophobia and a defense of Confederate statues to activate the GOP base, and in the Pennsylvania House special election, Republicans cycled the tax cuts out of their messaging. There just doesn’t appear to be much of a constituency for Paul Ryan Republicanism among today’s GOP voters.

Perhaps they don’t want a president:

What happens if Trump fires Rosenstein or makes a serious effort to remove Mueller? It is not hard to envision many GOP candidates siding with Trump as a way to energize Republican voters, thus further rallying them against the investigation and making it even less likely that GOP lawmakers intervene. In other words, the GOP’s slide into authoritarianism could get a whole lot worse.

That’s likely, and the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan suggests why that is:

For the past 18 months, many political scientists have been seized by one question: Less-educated whites were President Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. But why, exactly?

Was their vote some sort of cri de coeur about a changing economy that had left them behind? Or was the motivating sentiment something more complex and, frankly, something harder for policy makers to address?

There’s an answer to that:

After analyzing in-depth survey data from 2012 and 2016, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana C. Mutz argues that it’s the latter. In a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she added her conclusion to the growing body of evidence that the 2016 election was not about economic hardship.

“Instead,” she writes, “it was about dominant groups that felt threatened by change and a candidate who took advantage of that trend.”

Trump was their man:

“For the first time since Europeans arrived in this country,” Mutz notes, “white Americans are being told that they will soon be a minority race.” When members of a historically dominant group feel threatened, she explains, they go through some interesting psychological twists and turns to make themselves feel okay again. First, they get nostalgic and try to protect the status quo however they can. They defend their own group (“all lives matter”), they start behaving in more traditional ways, and they start to feel more negatively toward other groups.

This could be why in one study, whites who were presented with evidence of racial progress experienced lower self-esteem afterward. In another study, reminding whites who were high in “ethnic identification” that nonwhite groups will soon outnumber them revved up their support for Trump, their desire for anti-immigrant policies, and their opposition to political correctness.

Mutz also found that “half of Americans view trade as something that benefits job availability in other countries at the expense of jobs for Americans.”

That makes no sense, and Khazan has much more, but it comes down to this:

These why-did-people-vote-for-Trump studies are clarifying, but also a little bit unsatisfying, from the point of view of a politician. They dispel the fiction – to use another 2016 meme – that the majority of Trump supporters are disenfranchised victims of capitalism’s cruelties. At the same time, deep-seated psychological resentment is harder for policy makers to address than an overly meager disability check. You can teach out-of-work coal miners to code, but you may not be able to convince them to embrace changing racial and gender norms. You can offer universal basic incomes, but that won’t ameliorate resentment of demographic changes.

In other words, it’s now pretty clear that many Trump supporters feel threatened, frustrated, and marginalized – not on an economic, but on an existential level.

It’s all slip-slidin’ away, into existential darkness, but the presidency, once the job of managing the operation of the government, with Congress, and managing foreign affairs, with other governments – certainly not a one-man job – is now slipping into a brutal one-man authoritarianism that the threatened and frustrated and marginalized appreciate.

Michael Gerson explains one way that now works:

The attitude of President Trump toward federal law enforcement is, to put it mildly, mixed. The FBI refused to bend to his will. So the special counsel team is composed of “hardened Democrats” engaged in a “WITCH HUNT.” The FBI was, according to Trump, too preoccupied with the Russia investigation to prevent the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. The agency’s reputation “is in Tatters – worst in History!”

But Immigration and Customs Enforcement has passed the loyalty test. ICE’s enforcement surge “is merely the keeping of my campaign promise,” the president tweeted. Referring to ICE acting director Thomas Homan, Trump said, “Somebody said the other day, they saw him on television. ‘He looks very nasty, he looks very mean.’ I said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for!'”

This is territory more familiar in political systems of personal rule. The agency that defies the ruler must be discredited. The agency that does his bidding is viewed as a kind of Praetorian Guard.

That’s not a stretch:

Most of the professionals working in ICE would surely deny this characterization, pointing to an important legal role independent from any individual president. But they need to understand that their work is now being conflated with Trump’s nativism.

ICE’s 40 percent increase in arrests within the United States after Trump took office is now closely associated with the president’s political priorities. His sweeping executive orders on immigration broadened the focus of enforcement beyond serious threats to public order. Arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions have spiked. Routine “check-ins” with ICE officials can end with handcuffs and deportation. “Sanctuary cities” – a recurring presidential political obsession – are being targeted with additional personnel. Hundreds of children have been removed from parents seeking asylum and detained separately – compounding their terrible ordeal of persecution and flight. ICE recently announced a new policy that makes it easier to detain pregnant women. Asylum seekers have often been denied “humanitarian parole” while their cases are decided, effectively jailing them without due process.

This is the work of our new anti-president:

This is the bitter fruit of dehumanization – in a facility, in a system, in a country. It is unclear whether Trump would even regard such a reputation as undesirable. He has effectively given permission for bullying.

That’s new. That’s the final slide into darkness. Donald Trump is not presidential. He never wanted to be presidential, and just enough voters in just the right places really didn’t want a president. They wanted that bully, and now it’s all slip-slidin’ away. America has gone dark. Get used to it.

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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1 Response to Sliding Into Darkness

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    One of the most insightful, most powerful pieces you have written in all of the years I have been one of your readers. We are, indeed, at the end of an era and we are wandering around on uncharted ground🙄

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