Thursday, October 27, 2016

Republicans seem intent on destroying the Republic

Let's be clear, there's a straight line between this:

In a vintage return to his confrontational style, Sen. Ted Cruz indicated that Republicans could seek to block a Democratic president from filling the vacant Supreme Court seat indefinitely.
And this:
Jared Halbrook, 25, of Green Bay, Wis., said that if Mr. Trump lost to Hillary Clinton, which he worried would happen through a stolen election, it could lead to “another Revolutionary War.” 
“People are going to march on the capitols,” said Mr. Halbrook, who works at a call center. “They’re going to do whatever needs to be done to get her out of office, because she does not belong there.” 
“If push comes to shove,” he added, and Mrs. Clinton “has to go by any means necessary, it will be done.”
The connecting line: Conservatives have spent a generation arguing that Democratic governance isn't just wrong, but illegitimate. (Thus the Clinton impeachment, thus birtherism, etc.) If Democratic governance is illegitimate, then of course you block all judicial nominations, of course your partisans warn darkly of an armed revolution if the election doesn't turn out their way. It's an approach that invites disaster. We're about to find out if that disaster is finally at our doorstep.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The difference between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump: (Or, compartmentalization is a good thing)

Conservative thinker Hadley Arkes doesn’t understand why #NeverTrump Republicans can’t just get on the bandwagon already. Don’t they know what’s at stake?

I can hardly blame the Bushes for recoiling from the indignities and insults, the lies and calumnies, thrown off with such abandon by Donald Trump. But accomplished public men are even more obliged than the rest of us to respect the difference, searing at times, between personal wounds and public duties. To take those duties seriously is to raise the question of why the Bushes and people like them do not care as much for the things that other Republicans, ordinary folk, see at stake in 2016:
  • the prospect that medical care will be politically managed at the national level, with an independent commission rationing care, bringing everyone under their control;
  • the specter of federal courts filled at all levels with the professoriate of the Left, ready to install as law those fevered theories that have now become the fashion at the “better” universities; and
  • the crushing effects of Dodd-Frank, creating vast costs in compliance and damping incentives for banks to invest in new businesses.

I won’t argue with Arkes’ assessment of the issues. If you’re conservative, this must indeed be what the election of Hillary Clinton looks like.

But Arkes is mistaken, I think, in how he understands the stuffy refusal of people like the Bushes or Paul Ryan to give Donald Trump their full-throated support. In his telling, Trump is basically Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack” — gauche, “flawed,” but, in the end, one of the good guys.

The idea, hinted at more than a few times, is that Trump might end up like Bill Clinton — who was personally gross, perhaps even criminal, but who also happened to be (by many accounts) a pretty effective president in spite of his personal foibles.

Here’s the thing — and it’s why, I think, some #NeverTrump Republicans won’t just concede the point: Bill Clinton managed to be a reasonably effective in spite of his personal foibles because he understood and observed the line between “personal” and “public” to a degree that Donald Trump cannot fathom.

During Clinton’s impeachment, this trait was known as “compartmentalization,” and it was generally discussed pejoratively. As one writer put it: "Bill Clinton famously compartmentalized his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, convincing himself his relations with her were neither sexual nor related to his performance as president. He did not convince much of the country."

Well, he was found “not guilty” at the impeachment trial. More importantly, this seems to be model for what Trump’s advocates believe he can be as president.

But there’s very little in Trump’s history, or in his campaigning, to suggest he’s capable of such line-drawing. His whole career has been about stamping the “Trump” name on an endless array of products — real estate, in particular, but also steaks and wine and ties — so that the distinction between Trump the person and “Trump” the brand grew very blurry indeed.

As far as the campaign, I keep coming back to the third presidential debate, where Hillary Clinton and Trump were both asked how they’d make Supreme Court appointments. Here’s how Trump opened his answer:

Trump: Well, first of all, it’s so great to be with you and thank you, everybody. The Supreme Court, it is what it is all about. Our country is so, so, it is just so imperative that we have the right justices. Something happened recently where Justice Ginsburg made some very inappropriate statements toward me and toward a tremendous number of people. Many, many millions of people that I represent and she was forced to apologize. And apologize she did. But these were statements that should never, ever have been made. We need a Supreme Court that in my opinion is going to uphold the second amendment and all amendments, but the second amendment which is under absolute siege.

Observe: Trump processes a key policy question in terms of how he, personally, has been aggrieved by a member of the Supreme Court before he can start to get to the issue itself.

Let’s not forget Trump’s appearance at Gettysburg, where he spent 13 minutes griping about the women who have made groping allegations against him before getting down to the business, supposedly, of the day: Unveiling his agenda for the first 100 days in office.

Can Trump separate his personal issues from the job he’d be required to do as president? The evidence says “no.” He is not a compartmentalizer.

In this, he resembles not Bill Clinton, but Richard Nixon, whose dark resentments so occupied him that he self-destructed his way out of power, having lost the confidence of the country and even of the Republican Party that was supposed to have his back.

I’m not conservative. I’m not a Republican. I was never going to be somebody who might vote for Donald Trump. But Trump’s temperament is why, even if you’re 100 percent on board with his policy prescriptions, you should be hesitant to lend your support to his candidacy. He’s not simply a flawed man who will do the business of the American people; he is a flawed man who, it seems likely, will make those flaws the business of the American people.

Not all flaws are equal, it turns out. And the presidency is bigger than policy outcomes.

If you have lousy character and want to be president, you’d best be a compartmentalizer. Trump’s not. It’s why #NeverTrump Republicans are correct to withhold their support.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Hillary Clinton's debate problem: She's a woman named Hillary Clinton

I'm seeing friends, right and left, suggest that Hillary Clinton failed to land a knockout blow against Donald Trump in tonight's debate. I'm not so worried: I think Clinton knows, after Friday's release of the "Billy Bush" tape, that she's ahead on points, and she doesn't have to work too aggressively to win the championship.

Here's the problem: She's a woman named Hillary Clinton.

This is the woman who commentators tell to smile more one debate, smile less then next. She's a woman who faces the same issue many professional women do — act too aggressively and you're a bitch. Moderate your presentation and you come across as a shrinking violet. No woman can win by those standards — indeed, they're not supposed to.

Hillary, after decades in the public eye, is ultra-aware of the dynamic. So: If she presses the case too hard against Trump tonight, there's an excellent chance that lots of post-debate pundits are using b-word euphemisms to describe her tonight. The knockout blow expected from a man in her situation would likely be used against her.

So. She lets her opponent punch himself out. It's not like people are going to like the Billy Bush tape tomorrow morning. She just had to stay on her feet and not let Donald land a clean hit. It's not the genital-measuring contest we might've expected to see between two male candidates, but it does require patience. And for better or worse, Donald was right: She does have that patience. She never gives up. Her fighting style is the one that's best suited to who she is.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Teaching our sons not to be Donald Trump

This is the Facebook status of a friend. I'm so angry on her behalf that I can barely hold back the tears.

I've just had a conversation with my son. He's a good kid. But he lives in this stupid, fallen, fucked-up world.

We told him

Never touch a girl or woman without her permission.

Never call her names.

Never act disrespectfully in any way to a girl or woman.

There will be times when it might seem like the fun thing to do. When you see other boys acting that way. That doesn't make it right. There will be peer pressure. Resist. And talk to us, if you will.

I realize that there's only so much we can do. He spends so much time in this stupid, fallen, fucked-up world already without us. So it's imperative that we use the remaining time to affirm, and reaffirm, and reaffirm again, what those values are.

Look at Donald Trump, son. Do the exact opposite.

Friday, October 7, 2016

I am Billy Bush

By now, you've probably heard of Donald Trump's horrific recorded comments from 2005 about how he treats women. It's hard to see how he survives this and gets elected, but this is a weird and stupid election season: Never say never.

What interests me in the recording, though, is the acquiescence of Billy Bush, who just goes with the flow as Trump describes his interaction with women in ever-more-disgusting terms:

“And when you’re a star they let you do it,” Trump says. “You can do anything.” 
“Whatever you want,” says another voice, apparently Bush’s.
Trump today described the comments as "locker room banter." It's been a few decades since I spent regular time in a locker room, and I remember it could get rowdy and bawdy — but Trump's recorded comments exceed anything in my memory.

Still, I'm now racking my brain. Am I Billy Bush?

Have I sat by, maybe even chuckled, as a man — thinking he was speaking among men — spoke of a women or women in such disrespectful terms? I don't have a clear memory of it if so.

But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Indeed, it's all too easy to understand how, confronted with such comments, one might try to chuckle nervously and get the encounter over with. "Boys will be boys" and all that.

And yet.

I interviewed Fred Phelps, the notorious gay basher, once. It was brief phone call. A national Jewish group had put out a report demonstrating that Phelps was also a fairly accomplished anti-Semite. I asked Fred for his response, and his quote was this: "I welcome anything those Christ-killing fag lovers have to say about me."

I giggled.

I giggled because it was shocking. I giggled because I wasn't going to get into an argument with Fred Phelps while I was on the job and I didn't know what else to do. I giggled because, for whatever reason, I wasn't going to tell Fred Phelps he was wrong.

I've laughed at racist jokes, too.

The point is: This stuff happens unless we choose to make ourselves uncomfortable — if we choose to make other people feel uncomfortable — and confront comments that are so at odds with our values. It's tough. Oftentimes it doesn't feel worth it. But every time we don't — every time we chuckle — we signal our approval. We tell the person making the lewd, disgusting comments that it's ok to be that way. Even if we think otherwise.

So yeah. I've probably been Billy Bush. Probably you have too. What are we going to do about it?

Monday, October 3, 2016

In (sort of) defense of Donald Trump's comments about vets and suicide

This Donald Trump comment is making a lot of people mad today — the insinuation that vets who commit suicide are "weak."

"When people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you're strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it," Trump said, speaking Monday morning at a panel for the Retired American Warriors PAC in Virginia.
Sounds pretty bad, right? Well, ABC at least includes the rest of the quote — which is omitted from a lot of media accounts.
"We need mental health and medical, and it's one of the things that is least addressed and one of the things — one of the things that I hear most about when I go around and talk to the veterans," he said. "So we are going to have a very robust, very, very robust level of performance having to do with mental health."
Now: I'm not one to defend Donald Trump.

But in this case he's not dismissing a rival politician, a la his comments about John McCain's captivity. He's not insulting parents who took a stand against him at a rival party's convention.

By God, I think ... he's trying to be sympathetic. He's trying to be sensitive, in his clumsy ham-fisted way. He's trying to provide a policy answer to help veterans who need it!

Now. If you want to criticize him for a worldview that separates everybody into winners and losers, strong and weak, I get it. And if you want to get after him for having an understanding of PTSD that, I'm willing to bet, comes from action movies and old episodes of "24" instead of any firsthand encounters with soldiers, be my guest. (At one point, he references how the experiences of such vets are worse than what you'd ever see in movies.)

But I don't think Trump was trying to bash suicidal vets here. I think he was trying to offer help. There are plenty of reasons to think he's an awful person. This isn't quite the reason everybody seems to think it is. 

What's so bad about Obama?

Reading the pro-Trump website American Greatness, I come across this comment from Seth Leibsohn:
"There is all the justification in the world for conservatives, Republicans, Independents, and disaffected Democrats to support their one and last chance to stop an experiment in leftism that will rival in power and duration the New Deal and the Great Society."
Which made me wonder: What's been so awful about the last eight years?

Or, to put it another way: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

I'm not a fool: Obama's presidency began in the middle of the Great Recession and America has been somewhat slow to claw its way out of what once looked like a civilization-ending financial disaster. So your life might not be as grand as before the housing bubble burst, but then again — that happened before his watch. Me? It's an iffy question, but I work in a journalism industry that's undergoing generational changes that would be happening no matter who is president.

So. Is your life, personally, worse than it was eight years ago? Poorer in ways that don't measure on a financial statement? And if so, how do you attribute that worsening to President Obama?

My Trumpist Conservative friends seem to think everything's gone to hell. I don't think life is easy for many folks, certainly, but I don't know if most people have that same experience of feeling like we're on the precipice. Maybe I'm wrong. Anybody have answers?

What liberals can learn from conservatives, revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a short column for the Philly Mag website trying to distill what I'd learned from years of close interaction with conservative friends like Ben Boychuk, William Voegeli, and Steve Hayward — three strong ideas of conservatism that, perhaps, liberalism doesn't always get well.

Do the lessons hold up in the age of Trumpism? Let's revisit.
• They’re often better at recognizing the law of unintended consequences: Simply put, the attempt to fix a problem can sometimes end up creating new, unanticipated problems that also need solving. You can, for example, make the case that the federal government’s decision to seriously start fighting wildfires in the last century actually ended up making wildfires … worse. In Boulder, Colo., attempts to rein in that city’s runaway growth have driven housing prices skyward—ruining some of the grassroots charm activists there were trying to preserve.
Conservatives aren’t perfect at applying this principle—see the invasion of Iraq—and sometimes it becomes their excuse to do nothing, but liberals would probably benefit from applying this insight a little more consistently.

Some of this caution, I think, reaches back to the Declaration of Independence — a document whose signers declared revolution, and which also declares that you might not want to do this kind of thing that often. The Declaration says: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

Does the candidacy of Donald Trump qualify as a revolutionary act? Let's agree, at least, that it's one in which many previous norms — observed by both politicians and the press — have been tossed aside. Whether it amounts to "revolutionary" probably depends on whether he wins.

Here's "Decius," writing at American Greatness, offering his rationale for a Trumpist presidency. "A Trump victory could pave the way to a restoration of proper constitutional government. Note to speed-readers: I said “could.” Hillary surely won’t. Trump might. He at least offers us a chance to begin the process of achieving a restoration for ourselves."

Decius' best rationale for Trump is a "maybe, but maybe not." He sweeps aside talk of the consequences of a Trump administration all too lightly. Do Trump's advocates take the law of unintended consequences seriously here? It appears not.

They’re often better at recognizing that big bureaucracies can become oppressive: Anybody who has dealt with L&I or the city’s revenue department in Philadelphia can probably offer an amen here, as can anybody who has tried to clean up a trashed city-owned lot. It’s why conservatives are against “big government” instead of better government—they believe, not without reason, that bigger government can create problems and badly affect individuals just because of the insidious ways bureaucracies tend to try to claim more power without offering ore accountability.
I don't think even Trump knows his own vision well enough to know if the bureaucracy will grow or shrink during his presidency, so let's move on.

• They have an idea and stick to it: Recognizing there are several varieties of conservatism in this country, what most profess to have in common is a belief in the Founders, the Constitution, and limited government.
Trump is unusual for a Republican in that he hearkens back to the Founders with far less frequency than his predecessors. He's show fealty to specific parts of the Constitution — the Second Amendment — and contempt for others (the First) and done little to offer up any explanation of his Constitution vision. Suffice it to say, though, he's given every indication that he doesn't see any limits to the powers he might have as president. "I alone can fix" America's problems, he says, and that's the not the comment of a man who respects limits on the powers of the presidency.

So. Three years ago I offered three lessons liberals could learn from conservatives. Trumpist Conservatives, it seems, are ignoring or whistling their way past two of those lessons. It's bad for conservatism; I suspect it might be bad for the United States as well.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The endless rage of the Donald Trump election

Probably this is too personal, too emo, too revelatory, but here we go:

I'm pissed. All the time.

If you're paying close attention to the election, I suspect you are also pissed all the time. But maybe you're not.

It's clear, though, a lot of people are pissed all the time.

Now: Some of this is almost certainly fair. Donald Trump keeps finding new ways to demonstrate he'd be a very poor president. Possibly disastrous. It's rage-inducing to see smart people make implausible arguments for him, or — worse in my view — pretend his candidacy isn't the vehicle for the new ascendancy of white-nationalist anti-semitism it clearly is.

The problem is this: I don't trust my rage.

I don't trust it to help me make sound judgments. I don't trust it to help me deal with people fairly. I don't trust it to help me preserve friendships that I want to last beyond this stupid, stupid election.

On the other hand, I'm also worried that in my caution to keep rage from clouding my vision, I'll stop short of calling out bad things (like anti-Semitism) for what they are.

I have my biases, no doubt. But within those parameters, I do want to be fair to people who think differently from me.

None of this is paralyzing. But it does slow me down. Perhaps that's for the best. In any case: I'm tired of being pissed all the time. There's got to be a better way.