Fareed Zakaria on Trump’s Rocking Chair Presidency

President Trump’s news conference/tirade last Thursday was really something.   Much of the 70 or so minutes was Trump blasting the media for “fake news” that ignored his many achievements thus far as president and cast an unwarranted pall over his White House staff.  In the process Trump told several easily verifiable falsehoods himself and made illogical arguments, but to dwell on them is to dwell on distractions.   He always does that.

The heart of the matter is:  “….. in the midst of it all, what has he actually done?” That question is raised by Fareed Zakaria, one of my favorite political  commentators.  And his answer detailed in a recent column is:  “Hardly anything.”

Zakaria employs an analogy proffered by philosopher Alfred Montapert:  “Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.’ We are witnessing a rocking-horse presidency in which everyone is jerking back and forth furiously, yet there is no forward movement.”

Here is a synopsis of Zakaria’s main points.  Trump has claimed “There has never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time.”  Zakaria points to several presidents who accomplished much more in their first 100 days than Trump is likely to, including Barack  Obama.

Trump has said his White House “is running like a fine-tuned machine”, but it “has not even begun serious discussions with Congress on major legislation. (also) According to The Washington Post, of the 696 positions that require Senate confirmation, the president has yet to nominate 661 of them.”  

Also, while Trump has “issued a series of executive orders with great fanfare” the only one that affects much is the travel ban that was so badly conceived and written that it got stuck in the courts.  Seems like that machine has a lot of important parts missing.

Zakaria quotes a piece by Zachary Karabell in a recent Politico Magazine that sums up Trump’s presidency.  “So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done.”

In short, the fine-tuned machine works best blowing smoke.

Zakaria concludes with two aspects of the Trump presidency.  There is the “freak show” that dominates the headlines but there is also “the savvy businessman” who picked some intelligent heavy weights like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis to key positions.

It seems to boil down to this:   “For many people, the bargain of the Trump presidency was that they would put up with the freak show in order to get tax reform, infrastructure projects and deregulation. That may still happen, but for now at least, reality TV is in overdrive, and not much is happening in the realm of serious policy.”

Those interested in reading the full editorial can go here.

The Impending Reign of King Don

Observing the Donald J. Trump show since election day I am most struck by this:  We have not elected another president.  We have elected a king.  Every other American president has adjusted his life to this uniquely powerful position.   With Trump, our government and we the people are doing most of the adjusting, and at this point who knows how many more adjustments we will have to make.

Take King’s Don’s global business empire.   Because he can’t be forced to, he certainly won’t divest his businesses nor show his tax statements, so we’ll just have to keep guessing what conflicts of interest he has.   An ongoing distraction, but probably just one of many.  Get used to it.

And the rest of the world must as well.   For example, Trump makes an off hand comment or tweet vilifying NAFTA, and the Mexican peso goes down.   Or the Japanese Prime Minister visits his majesty at the tower and is probably surprised to find Princess Ivanka, who has her own business interests in Japan and no security clearance, joining them to chat.   Diplomatic protocols schmotocols.

In addition to protocols, Trump has ignored previous U. S. foreign policy positions, such as the one China policy (which recognizes big China as China, not little island Taiwan, which still thinks it’s the real China).   King Don has stated everything with big China is negotiable, including it being the only China.   This is likely but one foreign policy that the king will likely reconfigure in an offhand manner, while the rest of the world tries to figure out what he just tweeted.

Judging from the reaction of the heads of countries like China and Germany, they already realize the tweets of our boy king don’t mean much, which is a relief, as odd as it may be.

The label “King Don” occurred to me watching our soon to be No 1 Guy interviewing supplicants at Trump Tower seeking positions in the new administration.   I heard this described often as “going by to kiss the ring.”  Meanwhile New York City has been forking out about $750,000 per day in security and traffic control, and still will because King Don’s queen is staying put until their young son, the Barron, finishes out the school year.  Also, the king seems partial to sleeping in Trump Tower, so New Yorkers:  Get used to the detours and budget crunch.  The king is concerned about his comfort, not yours.

I think his royal majesty will largely reshape presidential life in whatever way that suits him.   For example, the White House might become more of a stopover  between Trump Tower and Mira Lago than a final destination.

After all he can make royal proclamations  (and slap back at critics) from anywhere a cell phone can be recharged.  Why get stuck in Washington with its often lousy weather, when VP Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus can take care of most of what Trump wants from congress, whatever that may be.

Also, his majesty’s royal court, his cabinet, are strong and capable (for the most part). Though many have never worked in government, most undoubtedly know more about his or her area of governance than King Don knows or would ever want to know.

Oh, I forgot.  His majesty has said he’d be putting his prodigious energy so fully into his job as president that he wouldn’t have time to go golfing or take vacations like other presidents who obviously were slackers in comparison.   So, maybe I’m completely wrong and he will stick to the national governing body like a tick.

I’m not sure which scenario I’d prefer.


P. S. – Barron’s remaining at his private school in Manhattan might work well for him, and Queen Mel, but others at the school aren’t so happy.  See this piece.

The Republican Convention: How more Surreal Can Politics Get?

I can barely stand to watch the Republican convention because I don’t believe anything Trump says.  Nor do I believe most of what those in the Republican party say in favor of him as many of them were sharply critical of him only a few months ago, including his VP running mate Mike Pence.

What makes the convention so surreal is that that most of the delegates are pretending this is a normal convention while it is actually an elaborate pretense.  Trump is pretending to be a Republican and the Republicans are pretending to believe him.  When it comes to party standards, no one knows what Trump actually believes, so how can anyone believe in him?

Talk of unifying the Republican party is a sham.  What holds it together with pins and needles is a common antagonism towards Hillary Clinton.   They have been hating her for so long many probably believe she is as bad as they say she is.

In the attempt to make the party seem unified phoniness prevails.  Did you see Trump and Pence with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes Sunday?  Pence has often criticized Trump but Sunday they acted as if whatever was said in the past doesn’t matter. They understand each other now and are basically on the same page.  Of course, whatever Trump has said in the past doesn’t matter because he changes the story whenever it suits him while acting as if what he says now is what he meant before.

Leslie pushed the points of apparent difference, but showed in the process once again how feckless the media are when trying to pin Trump down.  He never really answers a tough question – like how is he going to accomplish anything he promises.  He just keeps dodging or stonewalling  until the reporters finally give up.   He looks strong.  They look weak.  More image points.

Leslie was so congenial I wondered if she is not bothered at all by what a “faker” Trump is, as pointed out by Justice Ruth Ginsberg.  An inappropriate comment in normal times I think, but these are not normal times.  Trump erased the lines of political propriety a long time ago.

And in agreeing to play ball with a faker like Trump, Pence became one as well.  Speaking of fakers, I can’t wait to see Ted Cruz give a speech tomorrow backing in some way the guy who insulted his wife and the memory of his father while labelling him “lying Ted” the Canadian.

I’ll be curious if Cruz says anything good about Trump, thinking he’ll primarily just hit the Hillary piñata around, but he is such a weasel himself, he might say something nice here and there.  Whatever might help his future political life.

It is ghastly the way Trump has personified our politics at their worst.  Most unsettling he has taken the worst parts to new lows and turned them into a winning formula.  Jeb Bush said:  “You can’t insult your way to the White House?”  Well, Jeb, we’d better hold our horses on that one.

So, what do the reporters do?  Impotent in general, they try to pin Trump down where they can with some minutia like the plagiarized phrases in Melania’s speech last night.  Given all of the lies and distortions that are standard fare served up by the Trumpeteers, this stuff is miniscule.  And I think his supporters and the cliff hangers see it as more proof the press is out to get him.  Overall people seemed to like Melania’s speech.  That impression is what is important, not a few stolen words.

Haven’t the press learned by now that facts don’t matter in this surreal political world, especially puny ones like a little phrase borrowing in a speech.  It’s all about the impressions one leaves with the many.

The goal of this convention, besides heaping more scorn on Hillary, is to broaden the appeal of Trump as a good father and a loyal boss who many people actually like working for despite his demanding nature.  The campaign wants us to see the  “other Trump” who in private moments won over the likes of Ben Carson and may help swing some voters who have been troubled with the Mr. Bluster act.

I don’t think that is all bunk, which is why I have argued against labelling Trump a racist or any other “ist”.   I don’t think he is a bad man in his private life, but what makes him such a danger in his public one is his willingness to do or say anything to get what he wants.  While he acts like his wants are synonymous with the needs of our nation, his entire life has been characterized by self-aggrandizement.  Why would a man so preoccupied with himself for all these years suddenly become predominantly concerned about the rest of us?

I think his fans are dreaming, or to put it more harshly, reverting to an infantile stage with longings for someone to take care of them.  They are so tired of changes in American life which I think are mostly a result of changes in the entire world that leave us still great but not supreme as we had been for decades, so tired of these changes including the ever greater complexity of living day to day that many just want to hand over all those problems to someone who promises to fix them. Enter big daddy Trump.

Those who say Trump is more trustworthy than Hillary don’t mean the statements that he makes, in exactly what he says – they know he exaggerates for effect and attention, even making up stuff such as the things he has said about opponents.  What they trust is his proven ability to win.

They extrapolate from his past successes, topped  off by winning the nomination against all odds, that he will be a winner as president as well, whatever that might mean.  In contrast, I believe the skills it takes to be the President of the United States are greater in nature and more complex than what it takes to win the office, a subject I will give attention to in later posts.

My assessment of Trump is more along the lines of how Trever Noah of the Daily Show has described the scene in Cleveland:  “It is quite a thing to see a party succumb to the will of a ….really dangerous buffoon who has hijacked their party.”

What makes it so surreal is that most of the people at the convention are acting like this is not the case.

David Brooks says Republican Unity? No Way!

David Brooks is a moderate conservative and a brilliant analyst, with many insightful books and a regular NY Times column to his credit, as you probably know.  I was planning to put up a post today, but ran across his essay The Unity Illusion, which depicts Trump and his dysfunctional relationship to the Republican party so well that I’m happy to turn the microphone over to him.

Here is a nugget from the piece:  “The Republican Party can’t unify around Donald Trump for the same reason it can’t unify around a tornado. Trump, by his very essence, undermines cooperation, reciprocity, solidarity, stability or any other component of unity. He is a lone operator, a disloyal diva, who is incapable of horizontal relationships. He has demeaned and humiliated everybody who has tried to be his friend, from Chris Christie to Paul Ryan.”

Brooks’ essay is longer than my posts, but well worth the extra time.  Here is the link.

Our Trump Infatuation: Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

“I’m digging Trump. …his campaign has been entertaining as sh_t.”

Trump supporter Kid Rock in a Rolling Stone interview.

After initially laughing at his candidacy last summer I have become in awe of Donald Trump’s success in this race prompting a couple of Trump non-fan friends to question whether I have gone over to the dark side.  I have to admit its tempting as thus far he has been the perfect demagogue for our age. He plays our fears, resentments and hopes like a virtuoso a Stradivarius.  I sometimes think of him as Hitler-lite.

True, to many he plays off key, creating shrill sounds.  Sure he stretches the truth or generalizes it out of existence, is crass in speech and action but he is supremely confident that he can  make America  great again and that confidence is contagious.  Being entertaining and projecting strength seem to trump all other virtues in the contest.

The best the others can promise is to just make America better.  Kind of lukewarm in comparison.

In that interview Kid Rock also emphasized that nothing good seems to change in government no matter which party is in power and he’s tired of the same ‘ol same ‘ol.  Why not give the business guy a chance to shake things up?

So, besides being a good entertainer Trump prompts excitement about the possibility of seeing new things happen in Washington with him as chief.  His lack of any real plans, his occasional brutish ways and his penchant for unpredictability only adds to that excitement, even the scary parts.  After all horror movies sell, too.

Since the Trump show seems likely to be playing well for months to come, we’ll have plenty of time to think about his curious achievement in turning politics into show business and cash in on what I would argue has become, if not our foremost value, in contention at least:  Being entertained.

We have become addicted to being entertained and technology offers us more and more entertainment each day, hundreds of TV channels, big movie special effects, video games and all of the social media one could ever want.   In America, there is no excuse for being bored anymore.

We want to be entertained in every which way and Trump has made politics entertaining.  Sure, he pushes a lot of our emotional buttons but most importantly, he does it in an entertaining way.

Trump is cashing in on our collective addiction to entertainment.  He rides this wave like no one else, well enough to appear a shoe in for the Republican nomination for the presidency and making me wonder if his entertainment value will carry him to the presidency.

Putting aside for the moment the fears he may inspire along with whatever personal distaste you have for the man, wouldn’t a Trump presidency be the most interesting to watch unfold?  Just like in his campaign we’d never know what he might say or do next.

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P. S. – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is a book by Neil Postman published in 1986.  While we tend to think of political oppression coming from an outside source, such as big government – hence the emphasis of the right on the right to bear arms – Postman postured a bigger danger coming from our wanting to be entertained to the point that what we desire will ruin us.

Postman’s warning seems to be prophecy coming to fruition in the form of Donald Trump.  I will return to the book at various times as the race for the White House continues, as I think entertainment value will remain a crucial factor.

Here’s a taste of the book:

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”  

The Cost to Our Humanity to Defeat ISIS

Since those savage attacks Friday in Paris I hear more than ever how President Obama still has no strategy to defeat ISIS.   This implies that at least some of his critics do.

Most of the criticisms come not because he lacks a strategy, but because it is contingent on events and is working slowly.  Critics argue we should do more bombing and send more of our troops over there and work harder at developing our coalition.  Some of that may be true, but it isn’t radically different from what Obama is already doing.

Here I only want to deal with the bombing.   It could be more effective if used more broadly and less discriminately, but it would also kill many more innocents trapped under ISIS rule.

Our air attacks in Syria and Iraq have been called a  joke because there are so relatively few of them.  Why?  Because President Obama has placed tight restrictions regarding collateral damage to civilians.

I heard yesterday morning that truck columns carting oil were not bombed out of concern for the drivers of those trucks who seem more likely innocents than terrorists.  I think that is admirable in the president, but perhaps too admirable given the situation.

Yes, I’m saying there must be a degree of accepted collateral slaughter in war.  However, unlike a character in the TV show Homeland, I don’t think the answer to ISIS is to turn its stronghold “Raqqa into a parking lot.”

Yes, we could wipe them off the face of the earth, but for how long and how would that leave us?  Leaving aside the likelihood that this action would only spawn more of a Muslim jihad against us, which is exactly what ISIS wants.  How about where it would leave us as a people, what it would do to our souls and how would the rest of the world view us?

It is not simply because of our military and economic power that we are viewed as the world leader.

To defeat ISIS we will undoubtedly make deals with the devil.  Just this morning I heard that Russian and U. S. air forces are now “cooperating” in attacks on ISIS and I would bet the Russians are not as finicky as we have been about collateral damage.

War is hell and many innocents have died and are going to die in the battle with ISIS.   I’m just saying we need to take moral responsibility for our actions and take a measured approach, realizing this is not a video game, but landscapes filled with flesh and blood like our own.

From this perspective Obama does not seem nearly as feckless as his critics portray.  I want to see those who argue for sterner measures and more of them to be pressed to answer what degree of slaughter are they actually proposing with their grand plans?

Donald, since your strategy for dealing with ISIS has been:  “To bomb the sh_t out of them.”  Are you proposing a totally  indiscriminate slaughter?  Or if not, what are you proposing?

 

ONE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING DONALD TRUMP

Yes, I am back to Donald Trump.   Not because of him exactly but because of what his success in this presidential primary so far says about us.  Not that I  know, but the question intrigues me.

What I do know is how off base I was when I dismissed him simply as an attention craving “clown” in a post last July.   My excuse is that he appeared clownish during the last presidential race when he insisted that Barack Obama may well have been born in Kenya.   All I could see then was an attention monger who was willing to do or say anything to attract more of the spotlight.   Given events since then, I surmise there is much more than met my eye.  Back then I thought it easy to understand Trump.  Now it has become a project.

Though I have never read it, I imagine Trump’s The Art of the Deal gets to the heart of how he operates.   When negotiating a deal you don’t begin with what you are willing to accept (unless you are Barack Obama).  You begin far short of that, so you have room to bargain.   I view Trump’s demand to deport all illegal immigrants to be his starting point for a deal.  If the Donald were to be elected president he would start there and work his way to a more reasonable alternative.

If he then accomplished immigration reform he would admit:  You think I would actually try to deport 11 million people?  That’s crazy.

The people who seem to know him best insist that Donald is really smart and he has obviously been very successful.  I infer from that he does not believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, nor does he plan to deport millions and build a huge wall.  I  look back at the birther issue and wonder whether it was a trial balloon to see what would happen if he asserted something outrageous and stuck with it.  What he got was lots of media attention and the beginning of a base of political support.   What I saw as clownish, he saw as field testing.

In making his birther argument Trump often indicated he had people investigating the matter and discovering information that raised questions as to where Obama was born.   If he ever produced a shred of evidence, I missed it.   He was testing the media and they failed the test.   He could say whatever he wanted and it would be covered not confronted.   Employing that technique he has taken a political race and turned it into a bigger reality TV hit than his Apprentice.

As he reminds us  daily, he’s what is drawing the big TV audiences for the Republican debates.   Now the star wants to dictate to the debate organizers some new terms otherwise he will boycott.  For example, he wants the channels to donate some of their profits on the show to charities.  Or he walks.

How good is that?  It is a show of both strength and heart, very attractive traits in a president.  Add to those traits the sheer fact that he has parlayed what initially seemed like a joke to many  into a front running primary campaign.   In short, he tells us he is a winner and up to now he is demonstrating it.

By now you may think that I’m doing a lot of speculating, even if you can appreciate my points.  Here’s something more concrete.

Years ago, I can’t recall when, in an interview with Larry King, Trump revealed a key to his make up.  King noted Donald often seemed to get the edge when interacting with others and asked how he did it.  Trump’s response was something like this:  Before I go there, Larry, has anyone ever said you have terrible breath?   Really Larry, I mean it. I’m not trying to be mean but it really is terrible and I am surprised you don’t know.”

Years later I saw Trump on TV dissecting the exchange, pointing out that the terrible breath comment was him demonstrating to King how he got the edge on others.  I think King missed his point.

Now I think it is the rest of us who don’t get the picture.  While his responses aren’t the usual poll tested political pablum that irritates us (mostly the reverse actually) , they are not exactly authentic, either.  Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders are authentic.  They speak their minds and have been saying the same sorts of things for years.

Trump, on the other hand, has said various things over the years and, since the media never presses for details (such acts could make the star boycott them), I have no idea what he really thinks.  All I know is that he has impressed me with his ability to fashion a political race into the THE DONALD SHOW.

I now think of him as more of a Svengali than a clown.  And he looks like a winner until proven otherwise.