Nostalgia for Competence

Donald Trump made it official. The next phase of his life has begun. He began his campaign to be reelected. But as the New York Times reports it, there was nothing much new here – no real news – just a promise of more of the same for those who want more of the same:

President Trump delivered a fierce denunciation of his rivals, the news media and the political establishment on Tuesday as he rallied a huge crowd of raucous supporters in Florida to officially open his re-election campaign, evoking the dark messaging and personal grievances that animated his 2016 victory.

Almost four years to the day since he announced his first, improbable run for public office from the basement of Trump Tower in Manhattan, Mr. Trump mocked and disparaged Democrats, calling them the leaders of an “angry, left-wing mob” and declaring that the 2020 election will be a “verdict on the un-American conduct of those who tried to undermine our great democracy, undermine you.”

The message was clear. Those people hate you. Those people hate America. Those people commit actual treason every hour of every day. And the news media won’t report that. The press is the enemy of the people. And so on and so forth. But he was and had been wonderful:

He extolled his record as president – especially his tax cuts, deregulation and the growing economy – but did not offer any new policies or a cohesive new agenda for a second term that might expand his political appeal. As he formally declared his intention to run again, he told the audience that his new slogan would be “Keep America Great,” pledging to wage a relentless battle on behalf of his supporters.

“Our political opponents look down with hatred on our values and with utter disdain for the people whose lives they want to run,” Mr. Trump told a packed arena…

That was about it – remember, those people hate you and hate everything about you. That was the message. The rest of the rally was just shouting, filling in the details – playing his greatest hits for a crowd that wanted to rock to the oldies but goodies one more time. There were no surprises.

There should have been surprises. The Washington Post’s account adds context:

In the 24 hours before President Trump was slated to formally launch his reelection bid here in the nation’s largest swing state, he pledged to begin rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants, undercut his top officials by downplaying attacks on tankers in the Middle East and announced that his acting defense secretary would leave the job after family domestic violence allegations came to light.

A similar rush of headlines might have seemed extraordinary during previous administrations. For Trump, it was just another day.

It was just another day of actual news getting in the way of what was supposed to be the big news of the day, his rally, which the Post also saw as no real news:

Polls have consistently shown that more people disapprove of Trump’s handling of his job than approve, but the president has not calibrated, instead redoubling his focus on his most avid backers.

At the Amway Center here, Trump told the crowd that his election in 2016 was the result of a great political movement that has been under attack ever since, despite what he described as the great successes of his presidency.

“We accomplished more than any other president has in the first 2½ years of a presidency and under circumstances that no president has had to deal with before,” he said, using the hyperbole that has marked much of his career.

Consider that a verbal tic. Everybody loves him. Everyone says he’s the greatest president ever. He really has done more than any other president ever. He’s also the most popular man in the world, and every single foreign leader not only respects him but is in total awe of him. Einstein said he was a genius. The pope endorsed him. And he has better poll ratings than Abraham Lincoln, or that Abraham guy in the Old Testament. People cheer. Not because they believe this nonsense. They cheer because he says those things. That’s so cool. That drives the liberal snowflakes crazy.

And then it was more of the same:

Trump’s argument for a second term then quickly became a rehash of grievances and false claims from his first campaign, along with a hit parade of Trump rally applause lines. He veered off script to rail at length against the “witch hunt” special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and revisited complaints about the media, “Crooked Hillary” and her missing emails.

“They are really going after you,” Trump said of the list of enemies he laid out for the crowd. “They tried to erase your vote, erase the legacy of the greatest campaign and the greatest election probably in the history of the country.”

And he warned of the threats posed by immigrants, a focus of his presidency that has thrilled his most ardent supporters and caused his critics to accuse him of promoting racism.

He once again said that immigrants, at least those from anywhere south are rapists and drugs dealers and murderers – so once again tales of sweet young white woman murdered by sloppy fat Mexican men who had been deported many times but sneaked back in again and again, to murder sweet young white woman. This happens all the time. This happens every day. This happens every hour. This has to stop.

There really was nothing new here, except the new slogan – Keep America Great. He did that. He alone finally made America great. No one in American history had ever done that before. That means new hats.

That was the only news in all of this. There was real news elsewhere, with that matter with Iran in the background. Slate’s Elliot Hannon outlines the problem there:

The Trump administration announced Monday it is sending an additional 1,000 American troops to the Middle East after it accused Iran of orchestrating attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. The Defense Department said the troops would be deployed for “defensive purposes” and, NPR reports, would primarily consist of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, or ISR, as well as force protection and engineers. The increase in troop levels is part of a more general, though still modest buildup that began last month after another series of attacks on ships in the region that the U.S. similarly suspects is Iran’s doing.

The U.S., it is worth noting, is still without a confirmed Secretary of Defense as relations in the region are increasingly strained.

That is, no one is sure how these decisions are being made, in the oddest of contexts:

The move comes as Iran has threatened to disregard uranium restrictions outlined in the 2015 nuclear deal that aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief. After years of deriding the nuclear deal as “the worst deal in history,” President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from what’s formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reinstated sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration, already suffering from a serious credibility deficit with allies, is now in the awkward position of demanding that Tehran comply with an agreement the American president has not only derided but pulled out of!

That is a bit embarrassing:

“Administration officials found themselves Monday grappling with whether to press the remaining parties to the deal, including Britain, France and Germany, to demand that Iran stay in compliance,” the Associated Press reports. “They must also consider if such a stance would essentially concede that the restrictions imposed during the Obama administration, while short of ideal, are better than none.”

Hannon sees the irony:

It’s almost like the previous administration weighed the pros and cons and made a decision in the best strategic interest of the country. That feeling you have right now is nostalgia for competence.

There’s a lot of that going around these days, because even the marginally competent disappear:

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration to be confirmed to the job permanently, President Trump said Tuesday, plunging the Pentagon into leadership upheaval for the second time in six months.

In a message on Twitter, Trump said that Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who has led the Pentagon on an acting basis since early this year, had “decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family.”

Trump thanked Shanahan for his “outstanding service” and said that Mark T. Esper, who has served as Army secretary since 2017, would become his new acting Pentagon chief.

A former top lobbyist with Raytheon and a U.S. Military Academy classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Esper served 25 years in the Army and the Virginia National Guard and was a deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. He was also national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and legislative director to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb).

Esper will officially take over responsibilities on Monday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

But it was uncertain whether Trump intends to nominate Esper to be confirmed in the job.

The defense secretary is the civilian in charge of the nation’s entire military – all of it – and since General Mattis resigned, because he could not work for Trump, honorably, Trump hired a temp, and now it will be another one, but this had to be done:

Shanahan pulled himself out of the running Tuesday morning as media organizations including The Washington Post published reports shedding light for the first time on details of his contentious divorce, including an incident in which his son attacked his ex-wife with a baseball bat…

Shanahan said he had decided “after significant reflection” to remove himself from the confirmation process and resign. “I would welcome the opportunity to be secretary of defense, but not at the expense of being a good father,” he said.

There’s much more to this – severe domestic violence of all sorts – involving all parties – but now that this man has walked away for one of the few key roles in the nation’s government, that’s nobody else’s business. Try a bit of charity. Wish him well. There’s no need to shame him further. There’s a larger issue here:

Shanahan’s decision upends what had been expected to be an imminent confirmation process, injecting a new element of uncertainty into the Pentagon’s highest levels at a moment when officials are scrambling to retain a technological edge over China and respond to recent threats from Iran.

The turmoil atop the Pentagon comes amid a broader leadership vacuum across the Trump administration, where many of the political positions remain unfilled or occupied by people serving in an acting capacity.

In addition to the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Small Business Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Aviation Administration are also being run by individuals serving in acting capacities.

Several other positions, including White House chief of staff, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and United Nations ambassador, are filled by those functioning in an acting role.

It is quite appropriate to feel nostalgia for competence now, because the defense department is in trouble:

When Shanahan joined the Trump administration as deputy defense secretary in 2017, he was seen as an experienced businessman who could oversee a massive military budget and advance reforms in acquisition, technology and space issues.

When Trump tapped him in late 2018 to become acting secretary after his predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned over differences with the president, Shanahan remained a relatively unknown figure outside the Pentagon.

As Pentagon chief, he faced a Washington establishment skeptical that he had the chops to oversee the world’s most powerful military at a time of transformation. At times, he fueled those concerns by deferring to subordinates during congressional testimony or taking a back seat to other officials when publicly addressing international crises.

Critics faulted Shanahan for failing to stand up to the president on issues that many within the Pentagon view as overly political, including using the military budget to fund the president’s border wall.

Even as Shanahan traveled the world, authorized military operations and met with his counterparts, his six-month tenure remained clouded by uncertainty about his fate.

There may have been no point in dealing with him in the first place, but Fred Kaplan suggests he shouldn’t have been there in the first place:

Shanahan’s nomination had never been a sure thing. Early on in his tenure as acting secretary, which he assumed after James Mattis resigned in January, he was accused of making derogatory remarks about Lockheed for its mismanagement of the F-35 fighter jet. The remarks were on the mark, but since Shanahan had been a senior executive at Boeing, one of Lockheed’s main competitors, concerns arose about possible conflicts of interest. (An ethics panel cleared him of the charge in April.)

Around the same time, Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he probably wouldn’t vote to confirm Shanahan to the post, citing his lack of “humility”—a strange accusation, as it could be applied to the vast majority of defense secretaries since the job was created 72 years ago.

Finally, Trump himself didn’t seem enthusiastic about his choice. NBC News reported earlier this month that, during his recent trip to Europe, Trump asked several people what they thought of Shanahan and whether they had any alternative recommendations – often a prelude to subject’s departure.

As recently as June 14, in an interview with Fox News, he replied tepidly when asked about Shanahan’s prospects, evading the question the first two times it was posed, and then finally saying, “I haven’t put in the final recommendation.”

Trump seems as if he never really thought this was all that important a job, or else he had been pissed when James Mattis actually stood up to him:

Shanahan was moved up to the Pentagon’s top slot, though temporarily, after serving as deputy secretary of defense, which is mainly a managerial position. In public appearances, he seemed both tepid in demeanor – one can imagine Trump describing him as “low energy” – and obsequious in his views. The latter was, in some ways, the natural product of his status – in a constant state of auditioning for the job – and knowing, from watching the downfall of the more forceful and independent Mattis, that Trump doesn’t like dissenters.

Kaplan, however, fears that a “yes man” is what Trump really wants:

This is hardly the time for someone of little experience or clout to take charge as the military’s civilian leader (second only to the president). Civilian authority in the Pentagon has significantly eroded during Trump’s presidency, sparking an exodus of midlevel officials. Senior military officers have also lost influence, especially since December, when Trump announced – a year ahead of time – the replacement for the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. The chiefs, including Dunford, have opposed several of Trump’s actions – his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and his recent saber-rattling moves with Iran.

The vacuum in defense circles has been filled by national security adviser John Bolton, who has long pushed for regime change in Iran (and has done everything he can to block Trump’s dubious détente with North Korea), and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who basically says and does whatever he thinks Trump wants him to – an attitude that has aligned him with Bolton, especially on Iran.

And that makes things dangerous:

In recent weeks, Trump has expressed alarm at the momentum toward war with the Islamic Republic, putting out the word that he meant for his “maximum pressure” policy to coerce Iran to the bargaining tables, to negotiate a “better” nuclear deal – not to spark a war. He has said he wants Iran’s leaders to call him and even gave Swiss officials, who have served as intermediaries in past periods of U.S.-Iranian tensions, a phone number where he can be reached.

But that might not work, and Trump has only himself to blame for that:

There is no one around Trump right now who has the inclination, the power, or the ability to steer him down a more diplomatic path. And that’s his fault. He has said repeatedly, since before he took office, that he only hires the “best” people. As he has demonstrated over and over, he has never known – and still doesn’t know – what that means.

But there will be new hats. There is a new slogan – Keep America Great – which seems odd now. Most of us would just settle for competence. And that is nostalgia.


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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