Monday, May 9, 2016

The Anti-Diss-the-Establishmentarian

Steve dissects Trump v. GOP, or more specifically the Trump/Ryan pas de deux.

After last week’s screening of Indiana Votes and the Temple is Doomed, there’s been a scramble among the Republican apparatchiks about what posture to assume regarding the party’s hair apparent. The choices appeared to be pathetic evasions, resigned abdications, and irrelevant protests.

That the grievously insulted Bush 41 and 43 would signal their patrician contempt through an official “no comment” was a foregone conclusion and largely inconsequential. Jeb Bush mustered the gravitas to declare that he could not support Trump’s candidacy in – yes – a Facebook post.  As of this morning, 26,000 people had “liked” it, which is one-tenth the number of YouTube views recorded for the top item in my search for “most boring Youtube video ever.” Decidedly low energy.

Reince Priebus announced that the Party must now come together behind their presumptive nominee with roughly the same enthusiasm that a warden “suggests” that it is time for the inmates of cellblock C to march to the cafeteria. 

Rick Perry, who famously characterized Trump’s candidacy as a “cancer on conservatism” has now either concluded that Donald Trump was just a brief and mild head cold on conservatism, or that cancer isn’t really all that bad after all. He’s on board.

The highlight was extremely vulnerable Republican New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who tried to slice the bologna razor-thin by offering that she plans to “support the nominee,” but does not “endorse Donald Trump.” Perhaps there’s a market for parsing a difference between “support” and “endorse”  for conveying varying levels of enthusiasm for former colleagues on LinkedIn, but when a sitting Senator is asked about her party’s nominee for President, the stakes are a bit higher than whether or not to “heart” a photo on Instagram.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll soon see a color coded scale like the Homeland Security threat alert that allows Republicans to announce that their level of allegiance to Trump was “mauve” but is now trending toward “taupe.”

It all seemed to be blowing over and we thought we’d finally see trailers for the ultimate new reality series, Clinton v. Trump XVI: Who Gets Fired?  But on Tuesday, Donald Trump took on a major blast of technically friendly fire.

Paul Ryan jolted Trump with the shocking statement that he was “just not ready” to support Donald Trump. Ryan accepted that Trump was the nominee; but he contested whether or not he was a Republican.

“I think what a lot of Republicans want to see is that we have a standard-bearer that bears our standards. I think conservatives want to know, 'Does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution? There are lots of questions that conservatives, I think, are gonna want answers to, myself included.”

This was not the whining of disgraced former Presidents nor the gambit of a desperate Republican Congressman in a blue state, this was The Speaker of the House – the most senior Republican official in the Federal Government, the party’s most recent candidate for Vice President, and the man most often mentioned as the go-to alternative in #StopTrump wet dreams. 

Reince, who had Priebiously sensed the chill between the two dominant men in the new Republican Party, took it upon himself to arrange a meeting to “clear the air.” Most people seem to expect that a truce will emerge, likely toasted at a press conference in which Donald Trump will announce that he “loves Paul Ryan,” and of course, that “Paul Ryan loves Donald Trump”… perhaps even as much as the Hispanics, the Blacks, the Women, and the Muslims.

Not so fast.

There is an equal chance that the two men will emerge from that summit much as Gorbachev and Reagan in Iceland, angrily at an impasse, each blaming the intransigence of the other. And if that is indeed the case, Donald Trump may have fully cemented the opposition of a man who is not low energy, not little, not lying, and not getting voted off the island anytime soon. In the long term, Donald Trump needs Paul Ryan more than Paul Ryan needs Donald Trump. Paul Ryan appears to have grasped this fact; Donald Trump has not.

In point of fact, Paul Ryan has many reasons to think extremely carefully before throwing his lot in with Donald Trump. For starters, Ryan is looking at everything that is happening today with what you might call “2020 Hindsight.” A man with his own presidential ambitions, Ryan can easily see three scenarios unfolding between now and the 2020 election cycle.
  • Trump takes the party down to an historic, Goldwater-grade defeat. But for sake of argument, let’s just say he loses, period. The good news for Ryan? He might emerge as the party leader. The bad news: by 2020, there may be more Whigs than Republicans.
  • Trump wins, and proves to be exactly the terrifying, destabilizing President that everyone worries about. Implication: see # 1 (above).
  • Trump wins, and turns out to be a great President.

Pretend you are Paul Ryan, and ask yourself whether you’d risk your career on the odds that Trump actually opens Door Number Three. Because you don’t want to be anywhere near the volcanic ash from number one or number two.

But let’s set aside interpolations about personal ambition. Paul Ryan comes across to this writer as a man of character and principle. I may not agree with him, but I believe he is motivated by a carefully considered and internally consistent philosophy of government.  In his defiance of Donald Trump, Paul Ryan is taking the position that the Republican Party actually stands for certain things, and that some of those things are so important that if forced to choose between nominee or principle, he will chose principle. Jeb Bush’s vapid Facebook post postured about how Trump didn’t have the temperament or judgment to be president; Paul Ryan is not playing guessing games about the man’s character. He wants to have a concrete discussion of policy.

Finally, I would submit one final motivation for Ryan’s stance.  Maybe -- just maybe -- Paul Ryan has been quietly seething as Trump has repeatedly delivered scathing and horrific insults to the Federal government, its leaders, and the Party establishment – and most notably to the man who chose Ryan to run for Vice President just four years ago. If Hillary Clinton is the democratic establishment incarnate, what other still-standing politician embodies the Republican establishment more than Paul Ryan?

Put it like this: Paul Ryan has been carefully building a very impressive resume and working within the system to try to make government work again. He is not going to allow some lazy reality TV star to grandstand about how he easily the world’s problems could be solved if only a great genius winner like himself was in charge. Trump’s whole raison d’être is to diss the establishment, and he lays it on way too thick for this Speaker. So Paul Ryan is on a mission… call him the Anti-Diss-the-Establishmentarian.

Indeed, I give Paul Ryan a great deal of credit, as he has laid a rather elegant trap for Trump. 

In seeking to “better understand” Trump’s positions, Ryan is daring Trump to publically double-down and triple-down on positions that are simply unpalatable to Ryan. The most obvious example is Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering the country. Paul Ryan immediately and emphatically condemned Trump’s proposal:  

“This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for.”

It is very hard for me to see the “compromise” on this issue. Ryan is creating a showdown in which Trump must declare that he will force the issue over Ryan’s protest, or beat a hasty re-tweet.  I can’t see either man backing off their very public stand on this issue; indeed, Donald Trump recently put it on his list of tasks for his first 100 days in office.

Ryan may then choose to educate Candidate Trump to the fact that no bill banning Muslims will ever receive legislative attention in Speaker Ryan’s House, revealing rather blatantly Trump’s core ignorance of the way legislation happens in our constitutional system. This would inherently challenge Trump to say that he will achieve his goal be executive fiat – handing a chunk of 100% kryptonite to Hillary Clinton – or force him to admit that he cannot execute one of the core promises of his candidacy. Ryan feels that strongly about the Muslim ban. He could choose take Trump to the mat on it.

The Muslim ban is just the beginning. Paul Ryan doesn’t need 2020 hindsight to realize that permanently alienating Hispanics is a demographic death trap for his own presidential ambitions. So Ryan may challenge Trump to double-down on his Living La Vida Loca plan to deport 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants and build a 40 foot wall.  Ryan’s idea of a great Republican President is the guy who was famous for tearing down walls, not building them.  But the wall and the deportation are so essential to Trump’s identity that he cannot walk either back an inch.

But banning Muslims and alienating Hispanics may actually take a back seat to Ryan’s biggest problem of all with Trump.

Barring some October surprise, by the time we get deep into the campaign, the heart and soul of Donald Trump’s candidacy is going to be trade policy. What has become clear in the primary season is that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have both used “trade policy” as the perfect metaphor for how the insularity and ineptitude of the Washington establishment has ruined the lives of ordinary Americans. Both Trump and Sanders have reduced the vast, nuanced, and complex issues of trading interrelationships and co-dependencies in a radically transformed global economy into a few unfathomably oversimplified assertions. These assertions sound perfectly logical, are easily digested, and help justify why Americans who have lost their jobs – particularly in manufacturing-related industries -- should feel victimized by the government.

For Donald Trump, trade policy has provided a rational platform for unifying his array of xenophobic positions. The “stupidity” of our leaders, specifically on trade policy, explains why we are “losing” to China and Japan; why we have lost our manufacturing jobs to the Pacific Rim, and why illegal immigrants from Mexico are taking American jobs at home.  Trade policy is ground zero of the Trump revolution. You can practically hear Rachel Maddow at a Trump rally asking a red neck if Trump is xenophobic: “Oh, yeah? Lemme tell you somethin,’ lady, Donald Trump ain’t afraid of no zenos.”

Give both Trump and Sanders credit: this is truly excellent marketing. Both of these candidates put their respective fingers on the deep anger and resentment of ordinary Americans toward a tax-everything do-nothing Federal government. Both instinctively knew what somebody’s husband once said (“It’s the economy, stupid”), and that short of war, Americans usually vote on their current financial status. Tying the two together was power: the Federal government’s stupidity about global trading is why you are suffering economically. It’s not your fault.

Here’s Paul Ryan’s biggest problem with Trump: many of the “stupid” people who made those trade deals and who support those trade deals have names like Kemp, Dole, and, uh, yes, Ryan. Paul Ryan idolized free market Jack Kemp; he worked as a staffer in Kemp’s congressional office early in his career. Kemp, who died in 2009, is not around to defend his legacy… and Paul Ryan is not going to let Donald Trump trample on it.

In fact, free trade is about as Republican as The Gipper and Nancy, I like Ike, and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Allow me to quote verbatim from the actual 2012 Republican Party Platform:

“A Republican President will complete negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open rapidly developing Asian markets to US products. Beyond that, we envision a worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets, what has been called a ‘Reagan Economic Zone,’ in which free trade will truly be fair trade.”

So, come Thursday, Paul Ryan will challenge Trump to double down-on proposed 45% tariffs. Once again, he will ask how Trump intends to get this done, and what he will do about the resulting 45% increase in our “everyday low prices” at Walmart. And once again, he will sit in judgment about whether Donald Trump is really a Republican or not.

I just cannot see this Thursday summit ending with a peace pipe, a few refrains of Kumbaya, and Paul Ryan standing up in front of the Washington press corps to announce that Donald Trump is right about Muslims, Hispanics, and trade policy. Not gonna happen.

The aftershocks radiating from Paul Ryan’s epicenter are now playing out. Trump claims to have been “blindsided” by Ryan, which would imply that it is o.k. for Trump to launch unannounced intercontinental tweets hourly, but a sorry wrongdoing when done unto Trump. Best of all: Sarah Palin eagerly jumped to Trump’s defense, promising to “Cantor” Ryan -- to support Ryan’s far-right-wing opponent in his upcoming primary battle.  Trump has to be nervous about unsolicited campaign involvement from the Iditarod Idiot; most Republicans now think hanging around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is safer than palling around with Palin.

And, to be sure, there will be those who think that Ryan’s move will backfire and he will become simply the latest establishment Republican that Trump devours as an hors d’oeuvre. Certainly the ardent Trump loyalists feel that Ryan is just another establishment loser; and the Trumpsters do not seem concerned with details like the legislative power of the Speaker of the House.

My bet is that both of these men see far more danger in backing down to the other than any benefit they’d gain by emerging from Thursday’s meeting with a rapprochement. There’s plenty of time to mend fences down the road. Both these men will see Thursday as the moment to stick to their guns.

Given Trump’s absolute refusal to back down, and Ryan’s invoking of Republican principle, it’s hard to see how these differences get patched over any time soon.

On Thursday, the Ultimate Outsider will meet with the Anti-Diss-the-Establishmentarian.

And you know what? A very big wall might get built after all. Between the two biggest forces in the Republican Party.

I have a feeling that Donald Trump is going to pay for this one.

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