Telling Tall Tales

All of politics is telling tall tales. Conservatives, now, tell the angry and resentful that, if elected, they will make sure those who have ruined everything for everybody (everybody like them) will be punished. That might be “uppity niggers” – without using that term – or Muslims or Mexicans or gays. Long ago it was the Irish. At one point, when Henry Ford was distributing copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion nationwide, it was a secret cabal of wealthy Jewish bankers, somewhere in Switzerland perhaps, who controlled the world and were ruining everything, but the Rothschilds would be punished. That was a promise. The chant persists – “Jews will not replace us!” Donald Trump said those chanting that in Charlottesville were fine people, or some of them were. The general point was more important. It’s always someone else who was ruining everything. They would be identified, exposed, and punished. The candidate, if elected, would make them suffer. Hell, those bastards would die. So vote appropriately.

Of course that was nonsense. Public officials are limited in the amount of pain they can inflict on large groups of people, and special categories of just who had ruined everything, and exactly how they had ruined everything, were always a bit fluid. There are those damned Jewish bankers and George Soros, but there’s the heroic Netanyahu, if he can stay out of prison this time, and the heroic Israelis. On the other hand, Jewish-Americans are almost all liberal Democrats and big on tolerance of all sorts of people, and have been central in the news media and here in Hollywood. They don’t want to wipe out the Palestinians once and for all. What the hell is wrong will them? Some tall tales are more difficult to tell than others.

And it’s the same on the left. Liberals or progressive or just plain Democrats will say that, if elected, they will bring everyone together, because this is not a red country or a blue country but the United States of America. That’s a promise too, of “hope” and “change” and good will. Everyone will finally work together and get good things done, but that was the tallest of tall tales. Obama tried that. The world doesn’t work that way. But that really doesn’t matter. No one believes the tall tales. They just like to hear them. Those tall tales hint that the world is as they fear or hope it to be, respectively. They’re not truth. They offer emotional comfort.

And this continues once in office, as once again it was time for this:

President Trump released a $4.8 trillion budget proposal on Monday that includes a familiar list of deep cuts to student loan assistance, affordable housing efforts, food stamps and Medicaid, reflecting Mr. Trump’s election-year effort to continue shrinking the federal safety net.

The proposal, which is unlikely to be approved in its entirety by Congress, includes additional spending for the military, national defense and border enforcement, along with money for veterans, Mr. Trump’s Space Force initiative and an extension of the individual income tax cuts that were set to expire in 2025. Its biggest reduction is an annual 2 percent decrease in spending on discretionary domestic programs, like education and environmental protection.

This is not just unlikely to be approved in its entirety by Congress, it won’t be considered at all. Everyone knows this is simply messaging to the president’s base – “You know you’d love to see this, don’t you? Your government will do nothing for those liberal weenies and fools!”

And there will be nukes, lots of them, no matter what it costs:

Speaking to the nation’s governors at the White House on Monday, Mr. Trump said that his budget proposal would bolster the United States military and nuclear arsenal and bring the deficit close to zero in “not that long a period of time.”

However, Mr. Trump’s budget does not estimate wiping out the deficit until 2035 and gets there only through rosy assumptions about economic growth – an area where the administration’s past predictions have proved to be overconfident – and the continued ability of the government to borrow money at rock-bottom rates. It also projects adding $3.4 trillion to the national debt by 2024, at the end of a potential second Trump term.

Despite the hefty borrowing, Mr. Trump’s budget does not detail another round of tax cuts that his administration has suggested he will pursue if he wins re-election. Instead, it extends for 10 years the expiring cuts contained in the tax overhaul Mr. Trump signed in 2017, at an estimated revenue loss of about $1.4 trillion. The budget also assumes large amounts of new military spending, including $3.2 billion – a $459 million increase – to help develop a high-speed weapon capable of evading missile defense systems and $18 billion for the newly established Space Force.

“We’re going to have a very good budget with a very powerful military budget, because we have no choice,” he said, adding that he was aiming to reduce spending by rooting out “waste and fraud.”

No one expected that to happen, but here, intentions are everything:

The White House budget is largely a messaging document that reflects the administration’s spending priorities. While Monday’s proposal is similar to the president’s previous requests, it is a stark contrast with his leading Democratic rivals for the White House, who have proposed large tax increases on the rich and expansions of government efforts to provide health care, education, affordable housing and aid for the poor.

For instance, at a time when many Democratic candidates are proposing sweeping efforts to forgive student loan debt and make some or all public colleges tuition-free, Mr. Trump’s budget again recommends eliminating subsidized federal student loans and ending the public service loan program. The program is an incentive for teachers, police officers, government workers and other public servants that would cancel their remaining federal student loans after a decade of payments. Those proposals were in last year’s budget, but Congress did not adopt them.

There’s a message there. What “they” want they’re not going to get. And college is stupid anyway. That only ruins young people. They go in good people and come out four or five years later and they’re socialists and atheists and tolerate all sorts of things that Jesus said were wrong, somewhere or other. And anyway, education is for only the right sort of people:

The administration would drastically change the way states are allocated funding for programs that support disadvantaged K-12 students. The budget proposes consolidating 29 programs into a $19.4 billion block grant that would dispense funding to states, who would then determine how to use it. Among the programs that would be zeroed out to fund the grant are 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which funds after-school programs for low-income students; funding for programs in rural schools and magnet schools; and funding for homeless and migrant students.

We’re not paying that riff-raff, and no one should pay for someone else’s stupid medical problems:

It still makes major changes to health care programs, including several that would tend to lower federal spending on Medicaid, by reducing the share of medical bills the federal government will pay for the Obamacare expansion population and imposing new requirements on beneficiaries who wish to enroll. Altogether, it proposed combined cuts to spending in Medicaid and Affordable Care Act subsidies that equal a trillion dollars – cuts that would mean substantial program changes.

Democratic candidates, in contrast, have offered detailed plans, which typically cost trillions of dollars raised via new taxes on corporations and the rich, to expand health care coverage and reduce costs for American patients.

This will put them in their place, but there was some grumbling:

While Republicans have made relatively little noise about the ballooning federal deficit since Mr. Trump took office, some lawmakers suggested on Monday that the budget would not pass muster with fiscal conservatives.

“Presidents’ budgets are a reflection of administration priorities, but in the end, they are just a list of suggestions, as the power of the purse rests with Congress,” said Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming and the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “Bipartisan consensus will be necessary to bring our debt and deficits under control. I hope to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to put our country on a more sustainable fiscal course.”

And there was this:

Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, sent out two statements that, while initially complimentary of Mr. Trump’s efforts to cut federal spending, voiced concern with cuts to both defense and agriculture programs. Mr. Cramer said he disagreed with a number of defense provisions, including “cuts to intelligence-gathering resources for our military.” He also said that cuts to certain farm programs “would save little but inflict severe pain in American agriculture.”

But those cuts to intelligence-gathering resources for our military are necessary. They contradicted what Putin had told trump about what was really going on in the world. That’s treason, or something, so they have to go, and there’s this:

The administration reserved some of its deepest cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, which would face a 26 percent reduction in funding and the elimination of 50 programs that Mr. Trump deemed “wasteful” or duplicative. The budget would shrink the agency to funding levels it last saw during the 1990s and focus it on “core functions” like addressing lead exposure in water and revitalizing former toxic sites, while excluding efforts like beach cleanup. It does not mention climate change.

That’s because there is no such thing, right? At the National Review, Robert VerBruggen simply sighs:

The president’s new budget is out. I have not looked at it and probably won’t. It is an irrelevant document that mainly serves to give political journalists stuff to complain about. Oh my, look at the cuts to the safety net! Ha-ha, the economic-growth assumptions are really out there!

The fact of the matter is that the president does not set the country’s budget; spending and tax bills come from Congress. Congress is under no obligation to use the president’s suggestions as a blueprint, and the president has shown little willingness to veto spending deals that stray too far from what his budgets say he wants…

Ignore the purported budget plan. Pay attention to what the president and lawmakers are actually trying to enact.

Kevin Drum seconds that:

This is just a longer way of saying that the president’s budget is “dead on arrival,” a phrase that’s routinely used for every presidential budget proposal. And it’s true. So why do presidents bother with budgets in the first place?

Well, it’s been required by law since 1921, so there’s that. And perhaps back in 1921 the president’s budget was taken more seriously. But for at least the past few decades, the budget document has been nothing more than make-work for drones in the OMB and the various cabinet departments. Other than that, it does little except give the president a platform for make-believe growth forecasts and fantasy budget cuts.

Sure, but make-believe growth forecasts and fantasy budget cuts are the essence of politics. Those are the tall tales that no one really believes but feel so comforting, particularly if they outrage the other side.

But comforting tall tales can be dangers, as Michael Crowley notes here:

When an outbreak of the Ebola virus touched the United States’ shores in mid-2014, Donald J. Trump was still a private citizen. But he had strong opinions about how America should act.

Mr. Trump, who has spoken openly about his phobia of germs, closely followed the epidemic, and offered angry commentary about what he said was the Obama administration’s dangerous response. He demanded draconian measures like canceling flights, forcing quarantines and even denying the return of American medical workers who had contracted the disease in Africa.

“Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days – now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!” Mr. Trump tweeted on that July 31 after learning that one American medical worker would be evacuated to Atlanta from Liberia. “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back,” Mr. Trump wrote the next day, adding: “People that go to faraway places to help out are great – but must suffer the consequences!”

In nearly 50 tweets, as well as in appearances on Fox News and other networks, Mr. Trump supported flight bans and strict quarantines and branded President Barack Obama’s deployment of troops to West Africa to fight the disease as “morally unfair.”

That’s because Ebola wasn’t our problem. Why spend money our money on “those” people? That was morally unfair. But nothing is that simple:

Many health experts called Mr. Trump’s responses extreme, noting that the health workers would have most likely faced agonizing deaths had they not been evacuated to American hospitals. Former Obama administration officials said his commentary stoked alarmism in the news media and spread fear among the public.

Now Mr. Trump confronts another epidemic in the form of the coronavirus, this time at the head of the country’s health care and national security agencies. The illness has infected few people in the United States, but health officials fear it could soon spread more widely. And while Mr. Trump has so far kept his distance from the issue, public health experts worry that his extreme fear of germs, disdain for scientific and bureaucratic expertise and suspicion of foreigners could be a dangerous mix, should he wind up overseeing a severe outbreak at home.

“Having a head of state that is trusted, who is a credible message deliverer, consistent in communications and consistent with evidence, is absolutely necessary,” said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There’s so much misinformation out there, so a central role is for a leader to be a go-to source for credible information.”

Perhaps so, but there’s always delegation:

At the end of January, Mr. Trump created a 12-member coronavirus task force, which will be managed by the National Security Council.

That’s it? That’s it. But there was this:

In many of his remarks he has made, Mr. Trump has praised President Xi Jinping of China, even though his government has been widely criticized for a clumsy and initially secretive response to the coronavirus, and made some questionable announcements.

“They’re working really hard, and I think they’re doing a very professional job,” Mr. Trump said on Friday.

Speaking to a meeting of the nation’s governors on Monday, he predicted that the virus will have run its course by spring and again referred to the Chinese president.

“The virus that we’re talking about having to do, a lot of people think that goes away in April, with the heat, as the heat comes in, typically that will go away in April,” Mr. Trump said. Referring to the United States, he added: “We’re in great shape, though. We have 12 cases, 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.”

“I had a long talk with President Xi two nights ago,” he added. “He feels very confident. He feels that again, as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat generally speaking kills this kind of virus. So that would be a good thing.”

Well, he’s the expert, first on hurricanes and now on this, or not:

Public health experts questioned the speculative nature of his comments. “I think there is a lot we still don’t know about this virus, and I’m not sure we can say definitively that it will dissipate with warmer weather,” said Dr. Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.

“Relying on the fact that it’s going to warm up in April as reassurance that the virus will be controlled by then I think is arguable,” added Dr. James M. Hughes, a professor emeritus of medicine at Emory University.

That’s a diplomatic way of saying that the president don’t know Jack about any of this, but he is who he is:

Another factor is Mr. Trump’s lifelong obsession with personal hygiene. While he has shown little interest in health or science policy, he has often spoken of his extreme revulsion to germs.

In his 2004 book, “How to Get Rich,” the president declared himself “very much of a germaphobe,” and wrote that he was “waging a personal crusade to replace the mandatory and unsanitary handshake with the Japanese custom of bowing.”

As a result, Mr. Trump generally avoids the political tradition of shaking dozens of hands after his speeches and rallies, and frequently uses hand sanitizer. He is quick to banish aides who cough and sneeze in his presence.

Okay, fine, but that doesn’t explain this:

The Trump administration is eyeing steep cuts to global health funds in its 2021 budget proposal, slashing more than $3 billion in overall programs, including half of its annual funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the fight against the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate appropriations committees pressed officials from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at a briefing on Feb. 7 previewing the budget to explain why it made sense to scale back spending at a time when the world is facing the threat of a deadly virus in China that has spread in limited numbers to other countries around the world, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.

They didn’t get much of an answer:

Senior administration officials said they were allocating new resources, including an additional $15 million for the USAID Global Health Security Program, to fight the coronavirus, as government officials worked around the clock to evacuate American citizens from the region of China hit by the deadly outbreak. The budget proposal also includes a request for $25 million for a so-called Emergency Reserve Fund which, according to a State Department spokesperson, “can be quickly deployed to respond to pandemic outbreaks.”

“The budget protects against infectious disease threats at home and abroad, by bolstering country capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks and to prevent epidemics from reaching our borders,” Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told reporters at a briefing on Monday…

The administration’s budget also includes steep cuts to fighting some of the world’s deadliest diseases. It proposes a 58 percent cut to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, down to $658 million from $1.56 billion allocated in 2020.

“We’ve been down this road before,” said one Senate aide, noting that the White House has been trying unsuccessfully for three years to impose steep cuts in global health programs that Congress supports. “They don’t seem to learn anything.”

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said officials from the State Department and USAID were asked at the briefing to explain how they could, on the one hand, say their budget “asserts moral leadership through global health and humanitarian assistance” when in reality it cuts funding for both. The response, the aide said, was “essentially silence. There was no substantive explanation, but everyone knows they are simply carrying out the orders of the White House.”

“We said, ‘Of all things to be doing in the midst of a global pandemic, you’re cutting funds for global health,'” the aide added. “Their response was: ‘We did what we could with the funds we were told we could spend.'”

And of course the base must be fed its comfort-food to keep them happy. Everyone out there in the world is out to get us. Everyone out there in the world will be punished for that. It’s time they felt some real pain. That was the message with this fantasy budget. Troll the Democrats and let everyone else know you’re on their side, the oppressed little guy. That oppressed little guy is going to slit some throats now, or at least dream of that. Tall tales help him dream.

David Brooks, however, saw something different in Trump’s state of the union address:

Trump has cleverly reframed the election. I can see why Nancy Pelosi ripped up his State of the Union speech. It was the most effective speech of the Trump presidency. In 2016, Trump ran a dark, fear-driven “American carnage” campaign. His 2016 convention speech was all about crime, violence and menace. The theme of this week’s speech was mostly upbeat “Morning in America.”

I don’t know if he can keep this tone, because unlike Ronald Reagan, he’s not an optimistic, generous person. But if he can, and he can keep his ideology anodyne, this message can resonate even with people who don’t like him.

Perhaps so, but Kevin Drum hears only a slight modification to the original tall tale:

This is nothing surprising. All along, Trump’s obvious strategy has been to declare victory and go home. That is, no matter what the reality is, simply claim over and over that things have turned around during his three years as president and America is now great again. The economy is the best it’s ever been. Our military is stronger than ever. We are respected again around the world. No one takes advantage of us on trade anymore. NATO is paying up. It’s okay to say “Merry Christmas” again…

Can Trump keep this up? Of course he can. That’s because nothing is changing. Trump’s theme is and always has been that things are terrible when he’s not in charge and great when he is in charge. We’re now just seeing the second half of this.

We’re now just hearing the second half of the original tall tale, which, as Drum notes, was nonsense:

The economy is about the same as it was during Obama’s final years. The military is also about the same. Most of our allies think we’ve gone nuts and are just holding their collective breath until we come to our senses and elect a normal person as president. We’ve made no significant progress on trade, and what progress we have made is all stuff we could have had immediately if Trump hadn’t blown up TPP on his third day in office. NATO started paying up when Obama was president. It was always okay to say Merry Christmas.

But there’s no comfort in that. That’s why there are tall tales. That’s why there’s politics, so of course everyone should feel comforted and comfortable now.

They don’t? That’s odd.

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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