Friday, January 19, 2018

BTRTN: The End of the Year of Living Complacently

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration. In this post, BTRTN looks back on Trump's relentless assault on our democracy, our principles, and our dignity. Steve wonders why Americans appear to be acquiescing.

We’ve all heard the “boil the frog” story:  if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, the adrenaline shock will cause it to desperately fight for its life. But if you simply put the frog into warm water and very gradually turn the temperature up to a boil, the frog will be lulled to sloth and lethargy by the deceptively gradual increase, and will not realize the threat to its life until it is too late.

On New Year’s Eve, glasses were raised to a toast no doubt repeated with minor variations in thousands and thousands of homes throughout the United States: “Let’s raise our glasses and thank the good Lord that we survived the first year of Donald Trump!” Rueful laughter followed with the clinking of fine crystal, and eyes returned to the screen showing frozen revelers in Times Square as the ball descended marking the arrival of 2018.

Did we? Did we survive the first year of Donald Trump? Or are we just all drowsy in neck-deep water that is already too hot? How close is our democracy, in the lingua of frog parables, to “too late”?

As we here at BTRTN sought to put a thematic frame on the first year of this presidency, we reviewed the precisely 100 essays and analytical pieces we’ve published since the day Donald Trump was inaugurated. One theme was the most recurring, most telling, and most frightening.  

Day by day, week after week, month upon month, we found ourselves confronted with stunning newsbreaks that we could only characterize as “a new low,” new developments that “couldn’t possibly get any worse,” and instances of “the most frightening behavior imaginable in a U.S. President.”

And yet, day by day, week after week, month upon month, it got worse. Donald Trump’s core life skill was revealed to be a knack for finding new ways to violate our decency, our sense of fairness, and our respect for fellow humans and the institutions that form the fragile web of our social contract.

Who could have realized at the time that the descending escalator Donald Trump rode on the day he announced his candidacy would become the essential metaphor for his administration… a machine built for and capable only of perpetual downward motion, eternally propelled toward rock bottom.

The biggest and most egregious shocks are easy to remember.  

The Muslim ban. Firing James Comey. Carelessly taunting the leader of a nuclear nation with belittling nicknames.  Charlottesville, with blame ascribed to “many sides,” thereby equating neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-Semites with those who protested their bigotry, hatred, and violence. Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.  Repeatedly attempting to torpedo ObamaCare and the insurance of millions of people without having a plan for replacement. Constant attempts to discredit the news media and labeling all unfavorable reporting as “fake news.”  Revelations that Trump’s campaign had many back-channel conversations with Russian operatives. Guilty pleas by some campaign staff members, indictments for others. The mounting evidence that the only unifying governing principle of the Trump administration is the dismantling of programs and policies created by Barack Obama. The repeated assertions that he should be allowed to direct the investigative arms of the executive branch to go after his political adversaries. Dictating an alibi from Air Force One to protect his son from being caught red-handed colluding with Russians. Callous inattention to Puerto Rico’s hurricane victims. Head-on accusations that the FBI and CIA are biased and politically motivated organizations bent on executing the will of a “deep state.” Endorsing a candidate for the U.S. Senate who was a serial predator pursuing underage girls for sexual favors. Signing a tax bill that was nothing more than a big, sloppy wet kiss for the donor class. Continuing to label as liars all sixteen women who came forward to complain about his sexually predatory behavior. Countering a tell-all book documenting that White House staff finds him unfit for the job and mentally unstable with the assertion that he is a “very stable genius.”  Proving himself a racist by advocating an immigration policy rooted in the belief that Haiti and a range of African nations are “shitholes.” Watching Republican Senators suck up to their boss by supporting the lie that he never said “shithole,” which, astonishingly, is simply one of over 2,000 outright lies or misleading statements that the President has told in his first year in office.  And, throughout it all, we heard the ever growing drumbeat of likelihood that the President of the United States colluded with a hostile sovereign nation to damage his opponent and thereby undermine American democracy, and then very likely obstructed justice to prevent American citizens from finding out. All while labeling the investigation led by a man of impeccable character and credentials -- a Republican and former FBI Director -- as a "witch hunt."

These, mind you, are simply the most egregious affronts to our Constitution, our culture, and our national conscience.

You are to be forgiven if you could not even remember some of the lesser indignities, deceptions, and abuses.  Consider…

Trump’s presidency began with the preposterous assertion that more people attended his inauguration than any U.S. President in history, followed by the equally absurd contention that he had actually won the popular vote if you eliminate three million “illegal voters.” Trump crudely shoved the Prime Minister of Montenegro so he could stand at the front for a NATO photo op. Trump made the unprecedented overreach of assigning his political advisor a seat on the National Security Council.  Trump casually disclosed highly classified information to Russians in the Oval Office that risked endangering Israeli intelligence operations. He retweeted fake Anti-Muslim videos that caused the Prime Minister of our closest ally to publicly rebuke the United States. He accused Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. He refused to follow precedents for placing personal assets in a blind trust, creating significant conflicts of interest. He violated long standing policy with his nepotism in staffing. He taunted a United States Senator by repeatedly calling her “Pocahontas.” He said that “nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” A stunning array of government positions remain unfilled, and a disconcerting number of his own appointees were fired before his first year in office was over.  His Secretary of State called him a moron, and a Republican Senator equated the White House to a day care center. Trump said that the “sons of bitches” who kneel in protest at NFL games should be fired. Trump viciously attacked a prominent MSNBC personality, at one point savagely mocking what he claimed to have been botched cosmetic surgery. Trump unilaterally banned transgender persons from serving in the military, citing phantom discussion with military leaders. He turned an invitation to speak at the annual Boy Scott Jamboree into an aggressively political stump speech. He attacked the Gold Star wife of a deceased combat veteran. He whimsically decided to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  He retweeting a bizarre photo-shop video that showed him beating up a CNN reporter. He engaged in an ad hoc meeting with Vladimir Putin attended only by Putin’s translator. He castigated a long-standing member of the Federal bench by calling him a “so-called judge.”

Some listen to news anchors who ridicule his thin legislative resume and assume that for all the talk and bluster, he actually has not accomplished much. He hasn’t done real damage, right? Wrong. That tax bill exacerbates income inequality while ballooning our deficit. Trump has used executive orders to wreak havoc on environmental policy from pipelines to offshore drilling to national parks. He ended the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He continues to put the lives of DACA dreamers in limbo. And he took the Supreme Court seat that Mitch McConnell stole from Barack Obama and turned it into a rigidly conservative seat for the next thirty years.

Every single month. Indeed, every single week. Sometimes, every day of the week.

With each affront to our dignity, with every insult to our intellect, with all the slurs casually launched at all but white males, the water temperature rose.

The U.S. Constitution is being slivered, the separation of powers is being undermined, the role and freedom of the press is being ridiculed and the rule of law is being brazenly assaulted.

The water is nearing a boil.

Our very political climate is changing, far more rapidly and with more immediate potentially disastrous consequence than even the disruption that our ecosystem that is having upon our planet.  Donald Trump is not weather, he is climate. He is changing who we are, how we interact with other nations, and how we govern ourselves.

And yet the simple truth is that we the people aren’t doing much about it.

It is time to talk about a new and different inconvenient truth: Americans do not appear overly worked up about the clear and present danger to our constitutional democracy.

We actually hear the wise commentators on political talk shows speak sagely about how “our democracy has held up well.” “The system is working.” “We can be proud of our democratic institutions.”


When our democracy functions well, a variety of safeguards are working in parallel to prevent the majority from persecuting the minority, and to prevent individuals and political parties from undermining the rule of law. 

When a democracy functions well, individuals in political parties are loyal first to the nation and second to the party, and are therefore capable of objectively assessing the actions of their own. Read again, if you will, the lists compiled above, only this time imagine Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton committing  any single one of the offenses on this list. Just one.  Can you imagine the Republican vitriol, venom, and calls for impeachment that would have faced Obama or Clinton if they had committed any of those heinous acts?

When the party in power pardons its own leader for every offense but crucifies its opponent for any offense, you do not have a functioning democracy.

The separation of powers serves as a check on the overreach of any single branch of government, but two forces serve as a check on the government as a whole: the press and the people.  We have witnessed dramatic evidence of the power of the two latter groups. In the 1960s, widespread civic protest propelled the government to enact sweeping civil rights legislation and ended decades of misguided policy in Vietnam. In the 1970s, the independent free press served as the investigative arm that revealed impeachable offenses by Richard Nixon.

Today, neither the press nor the people are effectively serving as a check on government.

The ineffectuality of the press is pretty easy to diagnose. We now live in a world in which news in consumed by a process of natural selection.  It is easy for devotees of MSNBC to dismiss Fox News as a captive Pravda-like organ of the Republican Party, but devotees of Fox view MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post with equal disrespect and contempt. Each side accuses the other of hopeless bias and manipulation of the truth. The net effect of the stalemate is that no news organization in the United States today commands the broad-based reputation for objective, truthful reporting that allowed Walter Cronkite to force Lyndon Johnson’s hand or enabled The Washington Post to bring down Richard Nixon.

If the press can no longer play this role, then the defense of our democracy is up to us. We the people.

In the 1960s, the people took to the streets en masse to protest the failure of government to protect the rights of African-American citizens in the south, and the endless quagmire of a foolish and pointless war in Vietnam. These protests were widespread, ongoing, and highly charged. They commanded coverage on local news stations. The protests reached a critical mass. The protestors were seen and they were heard. There was urgency to their demands and a ferocious will to force a public debate on the nation’s direction. The marchers in the south and the Baby Boomers fighting the war each demanded that a critically important issue not be left in the hands of mere politicians, but and returned to the people whose sons, daughters, friends, and neighbors were being denied their rights, subject to violence, or killed for no reason or purpose in Mississippi hamlets or Vietnamese jungles.

The contrast to our current political environment is stark. We have detailed at the outset of this essay a shocking assault on our democratic system, our institutions, our values, our international reputation, our civility, and our national pride. Today, there is no shortage of alienation and rage, but candor requires that we acknowledge the truth: there is no insurrection. There is little by way of civil disobedience.  Yes, there were important marches, and there are angry idealists outside of Trump Tower. But there is no critical mass to these protests. They are not sustained, and they are not growing exponentially in frequency and scale. We are far from any tipping point.

Why is it that a year of the most egregious, comprehensive, and corrupt attacks on our democratic principles in a century has been largely greeted with the rueful laughter of New Year’s Eve guests who can relax and sip champagne because we have “survived” Donald Trump? So far, that is.

We see four essential reasons for the lethargy that has apparently sapped our ability to act.

The first point is that the roaring stock market and the swelling of wealth in the educated class are functioning like a nervous flyer’s prescription for Ativan, smoothing out the climb through ferocious turbulence. The performance of the stock market can be attributed in large measure to the momentum established under the Obama administration, Trump's assault on any and all regulations (particularly in the energy and financial sectors), and a tax bill that helps business in the very short term while hugely expanding the deficit in the long term. Buyer beware: this market looks like a bubble screaming very short term. Additionally, for all of Trump’s bellicose language, the nation is not at war. Any historian will tell you that incumbent parties are punished for a sluggish economy and an unpopular war and rewarded for a robust economy and either a just war or no war. So far, Trump has been far more lucky than good, but the Ativan seems to be working.

The second difference between the broad-based protest and civil disobedience in the 1960s and the tame acquiescence of 2017 can be explained in part by the fact that innocent children in Selma, Alabama were being murdered by racists, and at the height of the Vietnam War, over 1,400 young Americans were being killed every single month. The pervasiveness of violence and death is certainly a difference in kind between then and now. Still, though, the recklessness with which Donald Trump taunts a nation with nuclear weapons should make us terrified that with this President, unimaginable human carnage – either here, or in the Korean Peninsula – is a constant possibility. The broader point, however, is the implication that our population is not galvanized to action until citizens are killed by governmental failure, incompetence, or ignorance. Curiously, our Founding Fathers went to war with Britain over matters of economic fairness, personal liberty, and the inalienable rights of man. Those rebels were willing to die for principles. Today’s Americans appear to have principles only when facing the risk of death.

A third factor that contributes to the absence of animated opposition is the fact that protest – like banking, retail sales, and music – has moved online. Today, the desire to convey anger, seek the comfort of like-minded thinkers, and fulfill the sense that one is taking action can be achieved without leaving the comfort of the den. Protest, today, takes the form of forwarded links, hasty retweets, and billions of “thumbs up” icons on mobile phones.

But virtual protest leads to virtual results. Social media platforms generate self-selecting audiences. There is no critical mass to these virtual protests. Social media protesters are not unlike the drone pilot who sits in an Air Force command post outside Denver using a joystick to guide an unmanned aircraft to a remote cave in Afghanistan. The computer insulates the protester from the heat of open conflict, and the social media platform muffles and homogenizes human anger.  Most important, such protest is largely unseen. The image of an isolated human being tapping on a MacBook Pro is not the stuff of television drama.  The outrage you express in a forwarded link may generate a few hits among your friends, but if you think it has an impact, check how many people preferred to read Katy Perry’s tweet providing her latest make-up tip.

For too many people, forwarding a thought-provoking article into the vast darkness of cyberspace, or enthusiastically “liking” the clever cartoon reposted by a friend feels like taking action. Unfortunately, it is -- at best – narrowcasting to like-minded people.  At worst, it is a placebo that can sometimes create the psychological effect of having taken medication without the dangerous side-effects of the real medicine.

Protest, it appears, is just the latest business to be taken online. Just like banking, retail, and music sales, it been made dramatically easier and vastly more convenient, but the absence of human interaction makes it sterile and transactional.

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not virtually cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Four college students at Kent State University did not die in a Vietnam War Protest chat room.  Civil disobedience can’t be emailed in. It is a real, human, flesh and blood outrage intentionally staged directly in front of the town hall.

Which leaves us one remaining hypothesis: apathy.

Does appeasement require an overt act, or is it simply what results when people take no action?

Tomorrow is January 20, 2018. One year ago, Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America.

If the trend that has been established in the first 52 weeks of his presidency holds, by next week we will all be horrified by something new, disgraceful, and vile that we would not have believed possible from the town drunk let alone the President of the United States. Will it be another despicable racial slur? Will Trump insult our allies and pander to dictators? Will Trump begin to make even more inexplicable decisions because – unbeknownst to all -- he is being blackmailed by Russians who have devastating information on him?

We may feel the temperature of the water rise. We may not.  We may accept that our democracy is at stake, or we may deny it. We may choose to do nothing simply because we don’t really care enough to figure out what to do.

The only thing that we know for sure is that the future of the United States of America will be shaped in enormous measure by the mid-term elections that take place this year. The stakes could not possibly be higher.  If Democrats can gain control of one chamber in Congress, we can stop Trump cold. If we win both, there is a reasonable chance that we can run the table and impeach him. If Democrats win at the state level, we can begin to undo the underlying gerrymandering that is making our democracy fundamentally unrepresentative.

But if Republicans keep hold of government, the carnage of Donald Trump will continue, largely unchecked.

There is hope to be found in the series of Democratic victories in numerous special elections in 2017. Check out Indivisible, a federation of local and grassroots activists who are fighting the Trump agenda in smaller races across the United States. There is work to be done, and ways to get involved. It is time to get out the front door and onto the street. Let’s meet at the town hall.

We here at BTRTN promise to help. We will tell you what Congressional races are the best shots to flip a seat. We will urge you to donate your money, your time, and your expertise. You may want to volunteer for a local candidate, or think about spending the first week of November in a town thousands of miles from home, helping to get out the vote, and get voters to the polls.

There are meaningful actions that can be taken. We must take them. This is the end of the year of living complacently.

The water will boil and it will boil soon. Now is the time to figure out how to the United States of America out of the pot.

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