Sunday, February 12, 2017

Not the Best. And Definitely Not the Brightest.

Steve's take on a tough week for the not-yet-ready-to-govern players...

In assessing the brilliant scholars and captains of industry assembled in John F. Kennedy’s cabinet, distinguished political scientist David Halberstam argued despite awesome IQs, resumes, and net worth,  JFK’s “best and brightest” still managed to lead us into a heap of problems, most notably the deeply flawed “domino theory” that caused Lyndon Johnson to tragically misunderstand the Vietnam war.

Gosh, I miss the days when the critique was that our government leaders were too smart for their own good.

Donald Trump’s Not-Yet-Ready for Prime Time Players – led by the Apprentice-in-Chief himself -- have somehow managed to pack two full terms worth of gaffes, errors, and constitutional ignorance into roughly the same time span it takes Tom Brady to score 25 points.    

Perhaps a new President should be cut slack, but an essential component of the sparse credentials that Trump offered the electorate was his alleged greatness as a corporate CEO and manager.  He famously and repeatedly castigated the “stupidity of our leaders,” and bemoaned their woeful incompetence in negotiating deals with foreign governments on everything from trade to nuclear armament. His inaugural address brashly promised that change begins “right here and right now.”  And thusly, he launched his reign of error.

In fairness, some of his more egregious lapses actually occurred before he was inaugurated, creating the illusion that he had managed to comprehensively mangle 70 years of post-war policy in three weeks. It has actually taken about twelve.

For example, his phone call to the President of Taiwan and subsequent public musing on his commitment to the “One China” policy actually happened back in December. This week, he learned that the actual leader of that real, one and only China was not going to bother talking to him on the phone unless he recanted his position and publicly endorsed the long-standing “One China” mantra. Meekly and obsequiously, Trump quickly caved in, leaving his buddy in Taiwan to conclude that The Donald was not a Taipai Personality after all.

Our readers have not the time and I not the stomach to provide a comprehensive compendium of the White House gaffe spree.  Therefore I choose to focus on certain specific events that are on the one hand the most deeply troubling in their implications and most entertaining in illuminating the ignorance, incompetence, and lack of common sense rampant among the not-so-best and not-so-brightest now running our government.

The signature mess of Trump’s young presidency is the de facto Muslim ban.  Badly conceived and yet still more incompetently executed, the ban created chaos largely because no one in Trump’s inner circle had contacted any of the organizations that would be required to communicate it, enforce it, and stand by it.  The justification for the immediate implementation of this sweeping new policy was the concern that if warned, terrorists would pour into the country to beat the deadline.  When the policy was challenged in court and indeed stopped cold by a temporary restraining order, Trump harshly blamed the “so-called judge” for the likelihood that terrorists would stream in during the delay, and he lustily tweeted that any blood shed as a result would be on the hands of the judiciary. As far as we can tell, if there are any such terrorists, they must be streaming into the country disguised as empty airplane seats.

But the highlight of Trump v. Pretty Much the Entire Judiciary Branch was a fascinating webcast of the oral arguments heard by the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court. The legal experts called in by MSNBC to comment on the proceedings were aghast by the lame arguments put forth by White House counsel in this episode of "Law and Order, Amateur Hour." Trump’s legal team asserted, in essence, that when the President of the United States makes a policy regarding immigration out of concern for national security, it – by definition – cannot be reviewed by the judicial branch. Apparently Trump’s team believes that the “separation of powers” means that they have power, and the judiciary does not.  

Compounding this Olympian overreach, Trump’s lawyers offered a dazzling second rationale for why the ban must stand.  Admittedly, I did not record their language verbatim, but it came off something like this:

“Hey, Judges! Over here in the executive branch, we know stuff – terrifying stuff! – stuff about terrorists that if you judges were only allowed to know, you’d like, totally, totally def agree with us and you would overrule that restraining order, like, now!  But it is top secret stuff, so we can’t tell you what it is – you just have to trust the President. After all, almost a majority of the country elected him.”

It was with ill-concealed disdain that the Ninth Circuit judges educated the White House counsel that as a matter of routine, highly classified information is confidentially disclosed to the judiciary precisely to handle such situations.

Trump’s initial reaction to the Ninth Circuit’s decision to not overturn the restraining order was to tweet “SEE YOU IN COURT.” The latest breaking news, however, is that someone apparently explained to Trump that sending this ruling to the Supremes would in the very best case result in a four-four tie that would only serve to lock in the original Seattle decision.  Others hypothesized that Chief Justice John Roberts would grow some and lead the Court to a full bipartisan 8-0 smack-down as a way of signaling to the new President that “so-called judges” are not going to let too much oxygen flow to a reality TV host with a weak grip on the Constitution.

At every turn and in every possible dimension, the travel ban has proven to be a richness of embarrassment for new administration. Trump has revealed a profound ignorance of, disregard for, and contempt toward the constitutional functions and role of the judicial branch of government which could have the ironic result of making the court far more combative with the so-called President than a 5-4 conservative court would ever have been.

And yet what is of still greater concern than the specifics of the travel ban – heinous as it is – is the message we are receiving about the institutional sloppiness and ignorance among those who have Trump’s ear. In attempting to implement the signature policy of his new administration, Trump is revealed to have assembled confederacy of dunces who view their roles as simply to figger’ out what da’ big boss wants and how to shove down America’s throat as quickly as possible.

It is these issues – the constitutional ignorance, blind loyalty to a person rather than the country, and simple organizational incompetence – about which we should worry most. When these characteristics are applied to immigration policy, the result so far is “only” a foolish executive order that inconveniences thousands of travelers and required the weight of our judicial system to thwart. However, should these same characteristics be operative when Trump seeks to undo the Iran nuclear deal, or battle some fresh, newly-opened front in Russia’s campaign of annexation plunder, or in responding to Kim Jong-un’s saber rattling, the potential carnage from such ignorance and incompetence is too terrifying to contemplate. And there will be no time for the Ninth Circuit to step in and say, “No, Mr. President, you can’t do that either.”

Would it be that the Trump team’s ignorance was limited to a bunch of legal flunkies trying to set public policy with the same intellectual rigor and scholarly discipline you find in the final exams in a “Rocks for Jocks” 101 survey course.

The New York Times reports that Steve Bannon told Trump that he should be appointed to the National Security Counsel without bothering to mention to Trump that it is wholly unprecedented and completed inappropriate for a political advisor to be given a seat on that committee. Trump apparently learned this from the blow back of news coverage against his decision.  What President would put ultimate trust in an advisor who leaves him open to intense ridicule as the advisor blindly pursues his own self-aggrandizement?

Kelllyanne Conway imagined that there had been a terrorist incident in Bowling Green, and then offered the absence of coverage of her hallucination as evidence that the media purposefully under-reports terrorist incidents to undermine Donald Trump’s calls for greater security.  The good news is that Conway was forced to back off and admit the error, thereby clarifying that a non-existent terror attack should not command the respect that should be accorded to her day-to-day “alternative facts.” It was not a good week for Conway, as the law against White House employees endorsing products is not a hallucination.  Kellyanne breezily violated it by insipidly hawking Ivanka’s line of jewelry as if Drew Carey had asked her to tell the audience what is behind Door #3.  As Rick Perry once so eloquently gushed in capturing the acute emotional trauma of egregious ignorance, “oops.”

If asked to cite one reason why our country ended up with a bloviating, serial-liar of a narcissist as its President, I’d offer the long term decay in our K-12 public education, creating a voting population that is ill-equipped to sort fact from fiction, ignorant of history, and therefore susceptible to demagoguery. Solution? Nominate Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education. DeVos is so unschooled on the major debates in public education that she could not answer Senator Al Franken’s request that she discuss the relative merits of measuring student progress by “proficiency” (attaining a score deemed to be adequate) or growth (improvement over time).  This is sort of like asking a light beer drinker to weigh in on the eternal debate between “great taste” and “less filling,” and getting a blank stare.  Ooops.

Micheal Flynn apparently had a nice chat with the Russian ambassador about the future of U.S. sanctions in a Trump administration. Unfortunately this happened before he was sworn in as National Security Advisor. For a private citizen to engage in such conversation with a foreign government is illegal. All rather bad on the merits, but if this allegation is true, then pile on the additional offense of lying to the new Vice-President of the United States about whether such a discussion took place. Ooops.

Ah, and there is Rick Perry himself, back in action, now in charge of one of the Federal agencies he vowed to eliminate, indeed, the very one whose name he famously forgot. Ooops.

Friends, it was a tough week, but worry not: I refuse to leave you high and dry on the downer.

There was good news in this past week, and I am not referring to the fact that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch secretly whispered to his new confidante Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal that he found Trump’s treatment of the Judiciary “demoralizing” and “disheartening.” No, that would have been good news if a Supreme Court nominee had the large size ‘nads to say it out loud for himself.

Actually, what was heartening this week is that Donald Trump may actually be losing ground in the far more important court case that is playing out on a daily basis, Popular Opinion of the United States vs. Donald J. Trump.

First, Rachel Maddow passed along the findings of a poll taken by Public Policy Polling that said that the citizenry of the United States was already evenly divided between whether or not to impeach Donald Trump:

“Just three weeks into his administration, voters are already evenly divided on the issue of impeaching Trump with 46% in favor and 46% opposed. Support for impeaching Trump has crept up from 35% 2 weeks ago, to 40% last week, to its 46% standing this week.”

On a scale of buyer’s remorse, this even tops when Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries divorced after only ten weeks of marriage.

Second: The New York Times reported this week that the ratings of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert have now pulled even with Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. The reason: Colbert made a strategic decision three months ago to devote his every nightly monologue to a scorched-earth ravaging of the Trump Presidency. Fallon – who famously coddled and cuddled Trump in an election season interview – is paying the price, as America is rewarding Colbert for emerging as the loudest voice of protest in the entertainment industry.

Third: Budweiser’s Super Bowl commercial. The King of Beers ran a spot about how Mr. Anheuser and Mr. Busch met, making an unmistakable statement about the epic role immigration has played in shaping the America we know today. There’s a nuance in this story that has not received much coverage. A commercial of that complexity and high production value must have taken months to create, meaning that it was conceived long before Donald Trump announced his immigration ban. When the ban was announced days before the Super Bowl, there’s no question that some worried brand manager at Budweiser raised the question of whether they should shelve a spot that would undoubtedly be interpreted as a pointed statement about Trump’s ban.

But the leaders of Anheuser Busch stuck to their guns. Right there in the heart of the heartland, selling a brand that is the mother’s milk of blue collar America, risking the inevitable Trump-loyalist “Bud Boycott” that indeed materialized within hours, the management of Anheuser Busch ran the spot.

Hey, Anheuser Busch, this Bud’s for you. Welcome to the fight.

The winds of popular culture are blowing ferociously, and yes, the answer, my friends, is blowing in those winds.  Donald Trump can huff and can puff, but only we can blow our house down. Judges can protect our rights, but only we can take our country back. This land was made for you and me.

So let’s all get on with the fight. History will tell us that this is a moment when the American people have to put forward our best, and when our commitment to justice, democracy, and our constitution must shine brightest.  

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