Friday, September 1, 2017

BTRTN August 2017 Month in Review: I Am A Wreck, I Am An Island

Tom with the month in review, another step deeper into the abyss.


No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

John Donne, were he alive today, would be forced to consider a rewrite.

Donald Trump declared war on the Republican establishment this month, adding those he needs most to accomplish his agenda to the long, long list of those he reviles.  Trump’s enemies begin with his bitterest adversaries, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the evil mainstream media.  But many others inhabit this ever-growing continent of Trump-animus – he launched his campaign two years ago with a bilious screed against Mexican immigrants and the enmity has accelerated unchecked ever since.  And now Trump’s own land is a tiny personal island inhibited only by a shrinking pool of supporters.  The “wait and see’s” have seen, and have become as appalled as those who had no need to wait.

Last month Donald Trump began, for the first time, to truly fray the nerves of the GOP.  His attacks on Jeff Sessions, the rise and fall of the hopelessly incendiary Anthony Scaramucci, the transgender military ban without input from his generals, the aftermath of the “repeal and replace” disaster, the Boy Scout speech, the police speech advocating violence to perps – all prompted harsh words not only from Democrats but from Republicans as well.

It turns out Trump was just getting started.  In this, his seventh full month in office, Donald Trump declared war on virtually everyone outside of “Trump Can Do No Wrong” groupies, including the Republican Party.

This was the month dominated by Charlottesville, when Trump flubbed presidential-post-tragedy protocol and ignored the expected soothing, unifying words (except when aided by a teleprompter).  Instead he opted for ambiguous statements and chaotic rants at both a Trump Tower press conference and a Phoenix “campaign rally” speech.  The statement equated neo-Nazi, white supremacist inflamers with their adversaries, and the rants essentially defended, and doubled down on, that statement. 

The exodus began, as GOP Senators Bob Corker and Tim Scott questioned Trump’s competence and moral authority, respectively.  Rex Tillerson pointedly refused to comment on Trump’s values after making his own disgust with racism clear.  Gary Cohn wrote an (unsent) resignation letter and publicly denounced the Administration’s response.  CEO’s abandoned Trump’s advisory councils, which he was forced to disband.  Paul Ryan offered modest approbation.  And so on.

But Charlottesville, hideous as it was, was hardly the only distancing act of the month.  Perhaps most significant politically was the public break with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, the man who holds the keys to tax reform, infrastructure and, just maybe, an impeachment trial.  Trump held him personally accountable for the failure to bury Obamacare, and suggested all sorts of legislative tactics that are anathema to McConnell, including eliminating the 60-vote requirement for most legislation, attaching a veteran’s funding bill to the debt ceiling passage, and, most outrageously of all, threatening a government shutdown if the Budget bill fails to include adequate funding to build the notorious Wall. (This demands ignores, of course, Trump’s own campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the Wall – a claim Trump conveniently undercut in a conversation with Mexico’s President earlier this year, in which he made clear that he understood that Mexico would not pay for it, and asked only the President Nieto stop talking about it publicly.)

And then came, relatively unnoticed by many in the onset of Hurricane Harvey, the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Bull Connor of his time.  Trump pardoned Arpaio without following the traditional pardoning process, and displayed, yet again, utter contempt for the judicial process that convicted Arpaio on – yes – contempt of court charges.  This amounts to contempt of the Constitution itself, and more of the GOP went a-fleeing.  (Paul Ryan went so far as to critique it explicitly.)

Come September, Trump and the GOP leadership must take their hands off each other’s throats and get some important legislation passed – notably they must raise the debt ceiling, fund the goverment and pass a budget, and make progress on tax reform (or more likely a “simple” tax cut).  All of these carry complexities, as the GOP factions that tore apart the ACA repeal are very much in play.  McConnell and Ryan will certainly rely on Democrats to raise the debt ceiling (the Freedom Caucus will not support a clean bill), and the Dems may decide to extract some conditions of their own.

Why would Trump alienate those he needs most, McConnell and his Senate colleagues, when every vote matters?  So many GOP Senators have broken with Trump on one issue or another – Corker, Scott, Flake, McCain, Sasse, Graham, Murkowski, Collins, Moran, Portman, Gardner, Rubio, Paul, Heller, Tillis, Alexander and Capito – that it’s not hard to envision who might be the 19 GOP Senators required, in addition to the 48 Dems and Independents, to reach the 67 needed to impeach.  (I just listed 17; I bet Ted Cruz and Mike Lee would not mind casting that vote either.)  All that is needed is for the Dems to assume control of the House in 2018 – at this stage, with an 8-point “generic ballot” lead, a strong possibility – and for Meuller to find an impeachable offense (of course the Senate make-up could change in 2018).  On that note, the recent discovery of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s 2016 overture to Russia for a Trump Tower in Moscow may or may not be significant in and of itself, but it does give Meuller an entry-point into the Trump financial empire, if he still needed one.

The answer to that question may lie in Trump’s own madness, but more likely he is looking for a scapegoat if his agenda continues to flounder.  And taken further, it is part of the strategy to cater to the base, who hates McConnell, Ryan and many of the others.  Congress has a ridiculous approval rating – only 10-20% depending on the poll.  Attacking the Congressional leadership is a sure way to curry favor among the Trump faithful, an even juicier target than the mainstream media.  And, as stated, it inoculates him against legislative failure.

Trump’s War has also, in effect, extended to a struggle with his own Chief of Staff, John Kelly.  Kelly has quickly forced out Scaramucci, Bannon and Gorka, and has taken clear control of the White House apparatus.  But Trump remains uncontrollable, and the Teleprompter battle shows that Kelly can only go so far and do so much.  When you pit the true Trump, the Trump One who shrieks, against the Trump Two who is dutifully (and dolefully) called out to clean up, there is no contest.

Trump Two has had the upper hand thus far in reacting Hurricane Harvey, but Trump One managed, in Corpus Christi last Tuesday, to slip in references to crowd size, his own competence, and the magnitude of the moment, while omitting any empathetic statement to those who have died or are suffering in Houston.  He also has fired off tweets that were irrelevant to the crisis, which should have commanded 100% of his focus.  He shows a singular inability to be truly presidential during times of national tragedy, which is simply unprecedented.

Where does this all go?  The careening train continues, the approval ratings drop, and Trump seems hell-bent on a strategy to delight the base – only – and hope they get out in droves to vote for him in 2020, if he lasts that long.  With such a strategy, we may invoke John Donne again, who ended that same sermon with words that need no revision:

Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.


Trump’s approval rating dropped by two more points in August, continuing the steady erosion of his support, roughly a point a month decline since January.  These numbers remain atrocious from a re-election standpoint, and underline the risks of that “rely only on the base” strategy.  It’s hard to wring 50% of the vote from 38% of the populace.



Trump predecessors who won re-election had far higher approval ratings just prior to their re-elections:  Reagan (58%), Clinton (54%), George W. Bush (48%) and Obama (50%), while the two who failed to gain a second term were exactly in Trump’s current range: Carter (37%) and George H.W. Bush (34%).

Trump has time to turn it around, of course.  While a path to legislative triumph is fraught with peril, Trump could emerge with a tax cut or an infrastructure bill; he could avert a war in North Korea and/or gain ground in Afghanistan based on his “new strategy”; the economy could continue to improve and grow.  Any or all could lead to improvements in his ratings.  After all, Reagan and Clinton both hit the mid-30’s in their first terms and bounced back well before Election Day.


The story of the economy is one Trump would do well to accentuate, as long as he can.  It is folly, of course, to attribute the economy’s whims entirely to the actions of the president.  This is particularly true of a president just a half-year into his first term.  The economic numbers over this span are consistent with Obama’s in his last year in office, which gives credence to the thought that Trump simply inherited a reasonably strong economy and has done no harm as yet.

However, the facts are that economy has strengthened modestly while Trump has been in office, and any politician would take credit for that.  The “Trumpometer” stands at +13, which means that the key indicators are, on average, 13% better than on the day he took office.  Whether this can be sustained is open for question, but the biggest driver is the 3% GDP growth this last quarter, which few believe can be repeated consistently.

End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 7/31/2017
Trump 8/31/2017
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)

+ 13%
  Unemployment Rate
- 6%
  Consumer Confidence
+ 8%
  Price of Gas
- 3%
  Dow Jones
+ 11%
+ 43%

We’ll keep a close eye on economic performance.  But remember, if Congress cannot pass a tax bill, or passes a modest one, Trump can then blame them for an economy that stumbles.


Just for fun – I used the Simon & Garfunkle song “I Am A Rock (I Am An Island)” that inspired the title of this article once before, late in the 2012 campaign, for a song parody that I called “I Am Barack, I Need Ohio.”  It was one of our better received songs, so here is a link to the lyrics if you want a laugh after reading this piece about this abysmal Administration.  (Back in the quaint old days when Dems could carry Ohio, days I fear are over.)

Obama did take Ohio in 2012 – and Colorado and Nevada, too, and even Florida (all referenced in the song).  And, of course, re-election.

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