Trump and the Unbearable Pain of Self-Abnegation

Self-abnegation is a fancy term that aptly sums up, like no other word, the concept of denying oneself. It is a difficult and unpleasant thing to do.

As a human being, I can decry all kinds of things I don’t like – cauliflower, humidity, reality TV, phony evangelists – with a great degree of comfort. In some ways, the sum total of our dislikes even forms a significant part of our “self.”

What’s much harder, though, is denying parts of my self, particularly when they form an integral part of my identity. It might be easy to take swipes at myself for being overweight, or a procrastinator, or a poor sleeper.

But what if I were asked to deny my maleness, my chosen profession, or the color of my skin? That, of course, would come much closer to self-abnegation and self-abnegation is hard.

And that, of course, leads us back to Trump.

Over the course of the last several days virtually everyone has asked the question “why won’t he denounce white supremacist neo-Nazis”? You and I could do it with ease and in no time flat.  How hard could it be to muster just a little bit of revulsion at seeing a bunch of white losers with torches and Nazi flags?  Even Jeff Sessions, a man whose sympathies pretty clearly lie with the worst-of-the-worst, can muster enough gumption to denounce the Charlottesville marchers.

Yet Trump hasn’t been able to do it. On Saturday, just after the murderous hit-and-run, Trump was prattling on about “violence that’s on many sides” and urging Americans to “cherish our history,” meaning Lee, Stonewall Jackson and all they stood for and continue to stand for.  And, in case you didn’t get the point, he insisted on repeating the words “on many sides.”

And when he finally does denounce them when the pressure gets too great, he will grudgingly read it from a teleprompter like he’s making a hostage tape. Why is this so hard for Trump?

Many more-or-less rational explanations have been offered: (1) he’s in thrall to his alt-right advisors, Bannon, Miller, et al.; (2) he doesn’t want to alienate a part of his ever-shrinking base; (3) he wants to make sure to take a swipe at the Left protestors too, etc.

But that’s not it.

Rather white supremacy is Trump’s heritage and his identity. It’s in his DNA.  This month is the 90th Anniversary of Trump’s father, Fred, getting arrested at a KKK Rally in Queens.  The Trumps made their money red-lining neighborhoods and refusing to sell or rent to African-Americans (and there’s a 1975 federal consent decree resulting from it).  Trump first public “cause” unrelated to his real estate business and fancy life-style, was his condemnation of the so-called Central Park 5, a group of African-American kids accused – wrongly it turned out – of raping a jogger.  Trump took out full-page ads in the New York papers demanding return of the death penalty.

And, of course, Trump was the noisiest of the Birthers, claiming that our first African-American president was illegitimate because he was born not in the United States but in Africa. The tawdry list could go on and on.

For Trump, decrying white supremacy would be the ultimate act of self-abnegation, a rejection of his patrimony, of the basis of his fortune, and of his foundational political existence. You might as well ask Derek Jeter to condemn the Yankees or Mick Jagger the Rolling Stones.

It is his identify and it will not be denied, at least by Trump himself.

The Trump Administration: Side Effects May Include Stockholm Syndrome

You’ve probably heard of Sweden, a Scandinavian country that President Trump suggested had suffered a major terror attack in February of this year. (It hadn’t, of course.)

In any event, that got me thinking about an actual crime that occurred there, namely the August 1973 robbery of one of its largest banks, Kreditbanken. In that robbery, Jan-Erik Olsson and an accomplice held four hostages inside the bank’s vault for six days, physically and mentally torturing their captives over that period.

After release, none would testify against their captors in court and, in fact, they began to raise money for their defense. This curious and counter-intuitive incident gave us the psychological term “Stockholm Syndrome” in which victims develop positive feelings toward their captors as well as sympathy for their causes.  Disney, probably inadvertently, recently contributed to the genre with its live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Here in the United States, our most famous victim of Stockholm Syndrome was Patty Hearst, a young heiress and California debutante who was kidnapped by urban guerillas – the Symbionese Liberation Army – and ended up adopting the nom de guerre Tania and helping the SLA rob banks.  While Stockholm Syndrome failed as a defense in her court case – imagine how hated those Hearsts must have been in California – President Clinton eventually pardoned her.

As you might imagine, law enforcement folks aren’t too fond of Stockholm Syndrome which they often see as a phony version of an insanity defense. The diagnosis, however, did make an appearance in the Fifth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual under the rubric “Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified.”  It is characterized by the strong emotional ties that develop between a victim and another person who “intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses or intimidates the other.”

How, you might reasonably ask, does this relate to the Trump Administration? While I don’t think we’re quite there yet, I do believe we have to be on the lookout for manifestations of Stockholm Syndrome among the American Public, at least figuratively held hostage by the Trumpites.  Not only that, the canaries-in-the-coal-mine victims are most likely to be found in our equivalent of the Swedish bank vault, namely the members of the media and especially those most vulnerable, the media’s pundit class.

The Syndrome first hit my radar screen with the recent reaction of some media figures to Trump’s Tomahawk missile strike in Syria. Because it looked like something that more conventional mainstream politicians – e.g., George W. Bush, Hilary Clinton, etc. – would do, it was viewed with relief and even embraced by some large segments of the media.  Forget about the fact that it didn’t seem to be related to any long-term strategy, a missile strike – of all things – was taken as evidence of Trump’s magnanimity, sanity and overall wholesomeness.

Next came the supposed feud between the Bannon and Kushner factions (apparently coming to a head because of the Syrian missile strikes). Now I completely get it that Bannon is a scary and horrible person and that his faction in the Trump White House is made up of the worst-of-the-worst.  Yet the media Stockholm Syndrome reaction was to act as if the President’s favoring of his entirely inexperienced mid-thirties son-in-law was the equivalent of hiring a resurrected Howard Baker as his chief of staff.

In normal circumstances, i.e., without the prospect of Bannon and his alt-right cronies running the show, putting Jared in charge of everything from Middle East peace to relations with China to reinventing government would be about as appalling as anything imaginable.  When suffering Stockholm Syndrome, though, it comes as something of a relief.

And it shouldn’t be a relief. We’re not Patty Hearst, tied up in a closet by the SLA and psychologically bonding with the captor who brings her a doughnut rather than the guy who beats her every day.  We’re Americans and our reaction should be something along the lines of “Bannon is horrible, but Jared is pretty freaking bad too.”

Instead, we got a lot of media crowing about how Jared is really a decent guy and needs to be given a chance and maybe if we’re nice to him he won’t wreck our country (and maybe he’ll bring a doughnut to the closet where we’re bound and gagged).

Again, that’s not the way it works. Criticizing the Trump Administration can’t become about defining these departures from American tradition and good sense according to degrees of egregiousness.

If it’s bad, call it bad.  And, so far, it’s been almost all bad.

Novices Need Not Apply

Isn’t it about time for an essay about President Trump that discusses why he is totally unsuited to be President of the United States, but doesn’t concern his terrible character and horrible associations? Well, this is that essay.

For a purely empirical reason (and not because he’s an ill-informed and unsavory human seemingly without access to able and/or honorable aides), Trump is entirely unsuitable for his current position. It’s because of his total lack of experience.  And that palpable lack of experience was borne out in the recent Obamacare repeal debacle.

No one – not Fox News or even Trump himself – can claim he has any experience in government. This sets him apart from the other 43 men who have served as President of the United States.  (And for these purposes, we don’t count Grover Cleveland twice.)  Thirty-nine of our 43 Presidents had previously served in some significant role in government:  Vice-President, Senator, Governor, House member, or Cabinet Secretary.  Of the other four – Washington,  Zachary Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower – all served as major generals in major wars.  Leading an army is not an elective or appointive office, but invading another country (or taking on an invading army from another country) is a pretty big administrative task not unlike the executive functions a President faces.

Many of our presidents held multiple important governmental jobs before assuming the presidency.  Take James Monroe, for example.  Prior to becoming our fifth president he had been Vice-President, Secretary of State, and a Senator from and Governor of Virginia (as well as ambassador to France and the United Kingdom).  He may not be remembered today for much other than his Doctrine, but no one could ever say the guy wasn’t prepared to be President.

It’s true that not every President had extensive experience. Abraham Lincoln – certainly one of our best if not the best – served just one measly term in Congress.  President Obama served just two-thirds of a term in the Senate.  Nixon, though, who was a bit of a disaster, had been a Congressman, Senator, and Vice-President.  Thus, experience doesn’t necessarily equate with a good performance as President.

In the end, though, those 43 all had government experience. And Trump doesn’t.  Maybe all this outsider stuff isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.  At least that’s the way it looks after Trump failed so miserably in the effort to repeal Obamacare.

In the process, he got rolled by the mediocrities in the House Freedom Caucus. His efforts to sell “Trumpcare” were puerile.  “It’s a wonderful bill,” he was reported as saying.  (Whatever else you could say about the bill, nobody thought it was “wonderful.”)  Once the discussions about the bill got more than an inch deep, Trump’s lack of knowledge about healthcare policy left him speechless.

So much, too, for his vaunted negotiating skills. Hard to believe that a guy who had a book called The Art of the Deal ghostwritten for him, could have messed this up.

So Trump has (a) never been in government, (b) shown little interest in it, and hence (c) knows virtually nothing about it. All of these facts proved to be a toxic combination when Trump sought to enact one of his first and biggest promises, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.  Sad.

None of this was a secret, by the way. Pretty much all of us knew that Trump had no experience.  Some, though, thought that Trump could overcome this inexperience or even rise above it, based on a magic bullet, namely his experience and success as a businessman.  So far, it hasn’t worked.  And anyone who expects it to work in the future is dreaming.

This raises the more general question concerning how deferential we should be to the “businessman.” The willingness of something less than half of American voters to make Trump President is the apotheosis of something that’s been going on for a long time, namely the lionization of the businessman.  Sure the boss of a company is the chief executive officer (or CEO) and the President is the chief – he even gets hailed as such – of the Executive Branch, but c’mon.

The difference between running even a major corporation and running the main part of the U.S. government is night-and-day. Just look at Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon, one of the world’s largest companies, now running just one department, State.  So far, he looks like he’d be more comfortable performing at the Winter Olympics in Pairs Ice Dancing.  At Exxon, Rex had one constituency, Exxon’s shareholders, and one primary concern, the company’s price per share.  At the Department of State, he’s got to worry the other 180 or so countries in the world and what they’re up to.

Which is all a long way of saying that anyone who thought that Trump’s business experience as a real estate promotor, casino operator, and purveyor of name-branded ties was somehow going to make him capable of being President were kidding themselves.

With the failure of Trumpcare (and all the other myriad failures of the first two months), the myth of Trump (and the myth of the omni-competent businessman) may be finally melting away.

Lying When the Truth Suits

My late grandmother, who would have been 107 this year, had a phrase to describe a congenital liar (not that she would have used the term “congenital liar”).  She would say of that person that “he lies when the truth suits.”  In other words, the lies served no obvious purpose – the truth would have been perfectly suitable – but the person lied anyway.

There was no explanation for the lying.  Perhaps it was just the habit of lying.  Or maybe it was the sheer transgressive joy of telling a lie, even when it wasn’t necessary, in order to fool the listener.  It could have been that the part of the liar’s brain that separates fact from fiction was somehow impaired.  She didn’t know.  But she did know that he lied when the truth suited.

Neither can we know why the compulsive liar lies.  He just does.  It’s who he is.

Which, of course, brings us to Trump.  He lies constantly, unapologetically, and with no regard for the necessity or utility of any particular lie.  Thus, for example, if Trump says that the new Executive Order travel ban will be issued on Tuesday, the only thing that you can be sure of is that it won’t be issued on Tuesday.  It might come on Wednesday, or even Monday, and it might not come at all.  It won’t be on Tuesday, though.  To use the biblical phrase, the truth is not in Trump. If he ever utters something truthful, it won’t be on purpose, it will be inadvertent, a mistake made by chance.

As the author Mary McCarthy once said of another serial liar, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” So, too, with Trump.

It’s like the grade-school logic problem about the mythical island where half of the inhabitants never tell the truth.  Once you know an islander always lies, you can act accordingly.  If you keep holding out for the occasional truth, you have only yourself to blame.  You’re like the fraternity pledge in Animal House who lends his car to his disreputable brothers only to see it destroyed by them.  Their frank assessment: “you fucked up, you trusted us.”

So, Preet Bharara, welcome to the World of Trump.  One of America’s top prosecutors, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern of New York, the scourge of Wall Street white-collar criminals, Bharara just got Trumped.

In November, well before the inauguration, Bharara made the pilgrimage to Trump Tower and Trump told Bharara he wanted him to stay on as U.S. Attorney.  Bharara agreed.

Just months later, Trump demanded the resignations of all Obama-appointed U.S. Attorneys, including Bharara.  When Bharara refused, he was immediately fired.  A savvy prosecutor – a man who deals with liars all day and everyday – fucked up; he trusted Trump.  Sad.

Once you know that everything Trump says is a lie, though, it’s oddly liberating.  You don’t have to play the expectations game of “maybe he’s telling the truth just this once.” You don’t have to agonize over whether the external evidence indicates, just maybe, that he could be truthful this time.  You know it’s not true.  You may still a sad-sack like Charlie Brown, but at least you can tell Lucy you’re not going to play the game where she always jerks the football away.

The Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, wrote a seminal work on the subject called On Bullshit.  In it, he made the critical distinction between liars and bullshiters (who could have alternatively been called the congenital or compulsive liars).  “The liar,” according to Frankfurt, “is inescapably concerned with truth-values.”  Thus, “in order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.  And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.”

Contrast the bullshit artist:

“His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it.  He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. . . .  It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play.”

Using the professor’s formulation, Trump is a classic bullshiter. The truth means nothing to him.  Saying what matters in the moment – without regard to its truth or falsity – is the sole object.  In Trump’s case, it means everything he says is a lie.

So be liberated. Assume everything Trump says is a lie.  You won’t be disappointed.  And that’s the truth.

The Provocations to Come

Burning of the Reichstag 1933. Germany

In a chilling piece in the New York Review of Books called “The Reichstag Warning,” Yale history professor Timothy Snyder summarizes how the Nazis used various events such as the 1933 arson of the Reichstag building and the 1938 assassination of the German ambassador to France to justify their anti-democratic program and Kristallnacht, respectively.  Professor Snyder writes that Hitler rejoiced as the German Parliament burned knowing that he could use it to grab even more power and to punish his enemies, irrespective of their complicity in the arson.  Snyder also refers to new scholarship by Benjamin Hett at Hunter College which suggests that the Nazis themselves burned the building in a false-flag operation.

Snyder’s article makes it clear that responding to provocations – real, imagined, and sometimes self-contrived – is how authoritarians work within the system to aggrandize more power and, ultimately, destroy the vestiges of democracy. The last paragraphs of the article are the payoff.  They see the prospect of Trump and the people around him following the “history of terror manipulation” to seize more power.  Even James Madison gets into the act for his concerns about a tyrant using a “favorable emergency” to suspend civil rights.

It’s an excellent piece and a good reminder that Trump (and especially some of his more odious advisors) come from – and understand – the long history of opportunists who will try to use the worst events for their best self-interest.

In other ways, though, the piece misses the more obvious point which is that the last 20 years or so have been about nothing as much as how our leaders – and we ourselves – react to provocations that have come along with disturbing frequency. Snyder thus praises the Bush Administration for not calling for an anti-jihad against Islam after 9/11 (although their Iraq War part of the reaction comes in for some criticism).

President Obama’s reactions to provocations are not mentioned at all. If I had to guess, most of the virulent Obama haters would put high on their list of things they hated about him his cool reactions to the numerous provocations of which there was no shortage.  In just the last four years we had, among others, the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shootings, the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, and an attack at the Fort Lauderdale airport.  That list doesn’t even include the multiple shootings, stabbings, and street bombings that have occurred all around the country.

Through them all, President Obama remained a cool customer. His rhetoric was always measured – generally sounding sad and disappointed – as were the actions of his Administration.  Where was the anger, the outrage, the lashing out, the eye-for-an-eye (or more), seethed his critics?  “They pull a knife, you pull a gun” escalation wasn’t his thing.  And they hated him for it.

The provocations will keep coming in Trump’s America, just as they have for the past eight or 16 (or more) years. There should be no requirement to manufacture them.  Steve Bannon doesn’t need to find a patsy to blow up a congressman’s SUV in the Capitol parking lot.  Instead, he can count on some sad and sick kid from a majority Muslim country to commit an outrage in a suburban shopping mall or similar event tailor-made for a clamp-down.

First, we’ll get the tough rhetoric from the president (and likely his entourage of generals). Then the worst of go-along media will talk and write about how much more satisfying it is to have a genuinely angry president who can lead us in national rites of primal scream and catharsis.

Then the policy people will take over and begin to take away our civil rights. It may be slow (e.g. suspension of habeas corpus for non-citizens), but it could also be fast.  What about an omnibus bill passed through the Republican Congress ten days after the umpteenth mall shooting in the past 20 years that pretty much shreds the Constitution?

From there we can proceed to the courts and we all know what that will look like: one step forward and two steps back, capped by a Supreme Court decision ratifying most or all of it, with the requisite nods to our grand rhetorical tradition that the Constitution is “not a collective suicide pact.”

Professor Snyder ends his piece by reminding us that we need to understand history and be vigilant, but the real question is whether there’s anything we can really do beyond watching it unfold.

Four years from now, many of us may look back in fond nostalgia for the days when we had a president who didn’t fly off the handle.

The Rise of the Blond Beasts

In 1993, on the first Labor Day weekend of his presidency, Bill Clinton’s radio address spoke of the “idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children.” This idea, according to Clinton, had been instilled in generations of Americans by their parents.

I’m not entirely sure if this was the first formulation of the phrase “work hard and play by the rules,” but it will suffice for our purposes here. Clinton was invoking the type of Americans who get by on sweat, who pay taxes, and who basically live their lives in the middle of the road.

Even in 1993, the idea may have had the whiff of nostalgia that comes at the very beginning of putrefaction. America was about to usher in our modern age where hard work was for suckers and playing by the rules meant don’t get caught (or, if you do, pay a hefty fine and go your merry way).

In any event, the phrase evokes — intentionally, I think — the conventional people who live by conventional morality. These are the “just folks” of the American heartland, suburbs, and small towns.  The payoff for working hard and playing by the rules could be different for different people.  For some, maybe a college degree rather than a high-school diploma; for others a small house rather than a rental apartment.

Contrast that conventional morality with Trump. It’s not worth arguing about whether deal-making, reality show television, and golfing constitute “hard work,” so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt on that prong.  But when the issue is “playing by the rules,” there’s no question of our president doing that.  If you asked him, he’d probably proudly claim the title of rule-breaker.

And why not? For Trump, taxes are for the little people, as his spiritual godmother, Leona Helmsley famously said.  A contract won’t get you paid by Trump, only stiffed (or sued).

In the campaign’s most famous revelation that still didn’t hurt him — which will always be remembered as the grab-them-by-pussy tape — Trump said something more horrific (albeit less profane). Those were his largely ignored statements that book-ended the sentence that drove everyone nuts:  “when you’re a star they let you do it” and “you can do anything.”  In other words, no conventional morality for Trump.

The philosophical concept of the man who doesn’t play by the rules was embodied in Nietzsche’s “blond beasts” from his Genealogy of Morals.  Nietzsche famously outlined two versions of morality.  First was the standard (conventional) Judeo-Christian morality which he called “slave morality” (and which was basically for losers, although it oddly triumphed in the end).

Against that was what Nietzsche called “noble morality.” For starters, know that the English translation doesn’t mean “noble” in the sense of high-minded principles, but instead the more old-fashioned usage of belonging to the hereditary class (i.e., the “nobility”).

Nietzsche describes those practicing noble morality as “uncaged blond beasts” who “revel in their freedom from social constraint” and revert to what he calls the “innocence of wild animals” in which — guilt-free, of course — they engage in orgies of “murder, arson, rape, and torture, jubilant and at peace with themselves as though they had committed a fraternity prank.” Their actions are “bent on spoil and conquest” in a life which is “violent, rapacious, exploitative, and destructive.”

Life’s purpose, for the blond beasts, is to create ever greater constellations of power. “These men,” in Nietzsche’s words, “know nothing of guilt or responsibility,” but are “actuated by the terrible egotism of the artist.”  They hold to the slogan that “nothing is true and everything is permitted.”

Nietzsche’s blond beasts perfectly foretold the young Nazi functionaries or at least that role in every American and British World War II film from 1945 to the present.

Remind you of anyone?        

 

Mussolini . . . or Berlusconi?

By Peter Wentworth, Esq.

In their studies of world events, Karl Marx and his writing partner, Friedrich Engels, observed an unmistakable pattern. As Marx later summarized in his essay concerning the 1851 coup in France led by Napoleon’s nephew, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  In Marx’s particular example, he was contrasting the advent of Napoleon I, a world-historic personage who first seized power on November 9, 1799 (or the 18th day of the month of “Brumaire” under the calendar instituted by the French Revolution) with the later rise of the nephew.  The coup of the first Napoleon shook the Western World for the next fifteen years and left us with reshuffled political systems and new maps around the world.  (For our part, we got the Louisiana Purchase as a result Napoleon, a genuinely monumental event in U.S. history.)

Napoleon I’s nephew, however, wasn’t quite up to the standard of his uncle. He served first as President of the Second Republic and then, constrained by term limits, seized power in a coup in 1851 and declared himself Emperor,  a position he held until his defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War followed by his death in exile.  In the view of Marx, the nephew, as is often the case, was a farcical copy of the uncle.

The repetition of tragedy followed by farce is a prominent feature of history. A more recent Italian version of the phenomenon concerns two flavors of authoritarian leader, the tragedy of Mussolini followed, 50 years later, by the farcical Silvio Berlusconi.

Because the U.S. fought him in the Second World War, Mussolini’s story, at least in its broad outlines, is known to us. Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943.  A former socialist, he first came to power in a mostly legitimate fashion.  By 1925, though, he set himself up as a dictator and became known as Il Duce.  He was the founder of Italian Fascism and, we tend to forget, was actually a role model for Hitler who came to power many years after Mussolini.  Hitler only later became the “older brother” in their relationship once the war began.

Mussolini was famously remembered for “making the trains run on time,” considered a marvelous feat in otherwise laid-back Italy. With timely trains, however, Italians suffered totalitarian rule in the form of a police state, horrific state-sponsored violence, and general gangsterism by Il Duce and his cronies.

With the war basically lost, Mussolini was dismissed from government, fled to a northern Italian German puppet state, and, on April 27, 1945, was summarily shot by Communist partisans as he was trying to flee to Spain via Switzerland.

Italy’s recovery from Mussolini’s fascism took a long time. Some argue that Italy has never really recovered from the tragedy of his rule.

Silvio Berlusconi, a long-time (and still) Italian political figure and its Prime Minister from 2008 through 2011 was in many ways the return of Mussolini as farce. He created the Forza Italia party which was organized around his personality much more than any program of governing.  His reign was noisy, populist, scandal-filled, and, ultimately, ineffectual.

The parallels with Trump are unmistakable: he made his name as a businessman, founding the Italian media giant, Mediaset.  He used the media to advance his interests, his name, and his politics.  When elected, he reneged on his promise to sell Mediaset and, as a result, controlled most of Italy’s media, either through his own holdings or his effective control of state-owned media.

Like Trump, he was a big fan of Putin and was rumored to have an interest in a joint venture between an Italian energy company and Russia’s Gazprom. He was a constant defendant in the Italian courts, both in civil and criminal matters.  Some even opined that his desire to stay in power was largely based on avoiding prosecutions for tax fraud that were always hanging over his head.  He also faced one sex scandal after another.

When finally forced to resign, crowds in the streets of Rome sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and danced with abandon. Berlusconi was bad, but not Mussolini-bad.  He did great damage to Italy and its reputation in Europe and throughout the world, but he didn’t leave it a hulking bombed-out ruin.

Berlusconi, in other words, was the opera buffo version of totalitarianism.  In his heart, he probably wanted to be Mussolini, but couldn’t quite pull it off.

Which brings us to Trump and a critical question facing the United States: will he be Berlusconi – an ineffectual totalitarian who will be bad for the country, but probably not destroy us – or will he be Mussolini.  (And, by the way, unlike others, at least at this point, I’m not even going to mention the H-word.)

Essentially every important Trump policy move can be subjected to an examination of whether it is a tragic descent into totalitarianism or just buffoonery. The recent travel-ban executive order presents a an almost perfect case study.  On its face, it looks like a heavy-handed blind-siding of the American public intended to accomplish Trump’s darkest vision of his war with radical Islamic terrorism.  In it’s application, however, it was botched, confused and ultimately found unconstitutional by the courts in fairly short order.  It was Mussolini in motivation, but Berlusconi in execution.

If we’re in for all buffoonery all the time, it will be unpleasant (and horrible for the targeted groups), but the United States will survive. At this point, that’s about the best we can hope for.  But it’s still way to early to know.  And the fact that the New York Times is reporting on Senior Advisor Bannon’s love for obscure Italian fascist, Julius Evola, indicates that the question is still open.

Another open question, of course, is Trump himself. We’ve been pretty lucky with our Presidents for the past 226 years.  Sure, they’re not all Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, but the run-of-the-mill have been decent enough.  We’ve also had a few – Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Nixon – who were genuinely awful and/or dangerous.  Maybe Trump is the farce to their tragedy, but the obvious parallels are absent.

Maybe this sui generis politician is the first of his kind.  Sadly, that means get ready for the tragedy.

Why, President Trump?

Journalism has its the canonical Five W’s: who, where, when, what, and why.  The first four might require a bit of digging.  Who killed the Archduke?  A fellow named Gavrilo Princip did.  Where?  Sarajevo in Bosnia.  When?  June 28, 1914.  With what?  A gun.  The answers to those four can provide a neat little lede paragraph explaining the event that kicked off what we now call World War I.

The answer to the fifth W – why? – presents a qualitatively different challenge. To take our assassin Gavrilo again, why did he kill the Archduke?  The conventional short answer is that he belonged to a Serbian secret society, the Black Hand, seeking to free Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian rule, and the Black Hand thought the assassination could bring about that political change.

It’s a decent enough second paragraph. But it’s wildly over-simplified (and may be wrong altogether).  Books have been written – thousands and thousands of pages – trying to unpack that particular why.

Of course, the whys of a conspiracy will always be difficult to fathom. But the same is true of all kinds of whys.  In early November, Hilary Clinton lost – and Donald Trump won – the 2016 presidential election.  Since then, oceans of ink have been spilled trying to answer the question why.  For some, it was Comey, Russian hackers, and fake news.  For others Candidate Trump had a more resonant populist message compared to the warmed-over 90’s liberalism of Candidate Clinton.

In all, though, dozens if not hundreds of answers to why have been put forward and none is truly satisfactory (or ever liable to be). A hundred years from now, there may be some conventional wisdom for why Trump won, but it will likely always remain an open question.

The late, great sociologist Charles Tilly, in his short and fascinating book Why?, explains how confounding this three-letter word can be.  For Tilly, the ways in which we give reasons and try to understand them can be complex to the point of frustration.  Stated reasons, often, barely even make a pretense of offering an adequate causal account.  Yet, asking the question is a necessary part of seeking to understand our world and the people who live here.

Why the Archduke was assassinated is a question for the ages. Right now, though, we’ve got to get ready to answer a new series of “why” questions that can be generally characterized as “why-did-President-Trump-do-X?” questions.

The recent call with the Taiwanese president presents a good example. Trump broke years of precedent to speak directly to the leader of a country with whom we have no diplomatic relations, the Democratic Republic of China.  Its rival – the People’s Republic of China – professed upset.  The obvious question:  Why did Trump do it?

The answers are all over the map and underscore the general difficulties of providing explanatory reasons, particularly when dealing with an actor as enigmatic as Trump. One possible explanation is that he believes that U.S. policy is tilted too much in favor of the People’s Republic and he wants to re-balance the relationships.  Whether that’s right or wrong (an open question), let’s call that explanation the good-faith public policy answer.  In other words, he did what he did because he believes that it’s the best public policy for the United States.

Another possible answer, though, is that the Trump Organization has business interests in Taiwan and Trump was seeking to curry favor with the government in that country, i.e. a selfish commercial reason unrelated to the general welfare of the country.  A third possibility is that Trump simply made – or received – the call without even knowing that he was deviating from long-standing U.S. policy.  We’ll call this the pure ignorance reason.

A corollary potentially related to many of these, particularly ignorance, is that someone in Trump’s circle knew full well that this was an anomalous thing to do and tricked him into doing it for that person’s own reasons (also hidden from us). This could also apply, for example, to a commercial reason if an associate with some Taiwanese business interests inveigled Trump into making the call.  (I’m looking at you, Bob Dole.)

To summarize regarding the Taiwan call, we have answers to “why?” that run the gamut from Trump thought (1) it was good policy and in our country’s best interest, to (2) it was in his personal commercial interest, to (3) someone with an agenda made him do it, to (4) he had no idea why he did it. And, as we’ve seen so far, don’t expect cogent – let alone truthful – answers from Trump or his people after the fact.

As Charles Tilly pointed out, the reasons why anyone does anything are almost always more complex than they might appear at first glance. For Trump, figuring it out will be even tougher.  Yet, we have to continue to ask this question:  “Why, President Trump?”

Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

wildrumpus

“Checks-and-balances” is one of those quaint concepts that brings to mind high school civics classes with posters of American Presidents taped to the walls. We all know what it means, at least vaguely.  In our system, all the various branches and sub-branches can “check” one another, thereby leading to “balance” in our government.  Although it’s an integral and ingenious part of our system, most of us give it little thought.  As in the song, and like lots of important things we take for granted, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”  And guess what?  It’s gone.

Some species of Republicans now control – or soon will – all three branches of government. Trump is President and, after his cabinet appointments are all in place, he will control the vast federal executive bureaucracy.  In the House of Representatives it’s 241 Republicans to 194 Democrats.  The current count in Senate is 52 to 48 (depending on where the Independents caucus and barring defections to the Republicans).  The Supreme Court is a little trickier to count.  Limping along with just eight members, four appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats, it’s essentially split for the moment.  Trump, however , is expected to make his nomination soon and that nominee – based on Trump’s comments – is sure to be a solid conservative, a justice in the mold of the late Justice Scalia.

So the checks will be gone and the balances recalibrated. Where does that leave us?  The answer is provided by, of all things, Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are.  The book tells the story of little boy named Max who runs amok in his house and is banished to his bedroom.  Once there, he fanaticizes about a kingdom of monsters over whom he rules.  Having conjured these wild things, Max declares “let the wild rumpus start!”

No checks and no balances equals wild rumpus. I’m not just guessing here, but relying on my own experience as a citizen of the State of North Carolina where I’ve lived through the long wild rumpus of 2013-16.  By way of background, in the 2012 elections, the Republicans won the governor’s office and added to their majorities in the State’s General Assembly House and Senate.  Republicans also controlled the Supreme Court.  For the first time, they controlled all the branches.

I know I’m talking about just one State among 50, but bear with me because our experience here foreshadows what we are all about to experience as a nation. In North Carolina, a legislative coalition of country lawyers, “entrepreneurs,” retired dentists, and evangelical pastors swung into action.  Having obtained total control, they began the wild rumpus.

Those enactments fell into three basic categories. First, were the laws that always sounded so good when campaigning, but looked horribly ugly when enacted.  In this category where things like public school vouchers which are the raw meat thrown to certain voters, but which serve only to undermine public schools.  Voter suppression laws based on fantasies of voter fraud (and later declared unconstitutional) are also in this category.

The second category broadly included enacting various pet projects, as well as a whole series of laws designed for revenge and payback from legislators with axes to grind. The General Assembly enacted much ballyhooed laws favoring of oil and gas fracking even though there’s not much worth fracking in North Carolina and the industry has shown scant interest in it.  Coupled with that were laws designed to make alternative energy – solar and wind – less attractive even though North Carolina businesses were adopting them voluntarily.

The revenge and raw partisanship were most in evidence at the end of 2016 when the General Assembly, having lost the governorship to a Democrat, called itself into an irregular “special session” and began the process of trying to dismantle the governor’s traditional powers. Within weeks, the process of declaring those laws unconstitutional began.

In the third category, and none of these categories are necessarily exclusive, were the payoffs. This includes legislation enacted for big contributors and, sometimes, themselves.  The biggest group in this category belonged to a wholesale weakening of environmental laws  One state senator even helped create a fund to subsidize the extension of natural gas lines to rural farms and then applied for a $925,000 grant from the program he created.

If the substance of the laws were not bad enough, the process, in many cases, was even worse. Legislation, rather than passing through committees in orderly fashion, was crafted in secret, brought to the floor with virtually no debate, and then signed into law in the dead of night.  The infamous H.B. 2 – North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” designed to scapegoat the transgender community in an election-year stunt – perfectly fit this pattern.  It became law before most citizens even knew it was on the table, let alone had time to consult with their elected officials.  Like many ideas arising from the wild rumpus, it backfired as a political tool – the governor who signed it at night lost, for example – and it’s cost North Carolina millions in lost jobs, concerts, and sporting events.

Every morning, we faced the dispiriting spectacle of newspapers reporting one crazy proposal after another as our legislators sought to top the previous day’s dose of lunacies. Over the course of each legislative session, the craziness would build to a crescendo until they adjourned and finally left town, giving us some much-needed relief.  In the process, they managed to turn a reasonably well-functioning State into the poster child of the loony right.

And now we have this to look forward to on the national level. For those of you who have not lived through this, expect of wearying barrage of proposals designed to bring us back to the America of the 1950’s (or maybe the banana republics of that era).  Plan to be surprised every day as representatives and senators fall over themselves trying to top each other in the sheer insanity of the laws and regulations they propose.  Prepare to have rational arguments sneered at.  Get ready to feel powerless because, mostly, we are powerless.

Let the wild rumpus start!

Semi-Optimistic Postscript: The recent attempt from the House Republican Conference to do away with the independent Office of Congressional Ethics is straight from the North Carolina playbook. The pesky ethics watchdogs were a thorn in the side of representatives for whom ethics was just a nuisance.  The decision to rein in its independence was made behind closed doors and without any publicity until it was done.  Needless to say, no Democrats were asked to weigh in.  And yet, the power grab was so naked and so quick that public and media outcry forced them to back down the next day.  Even Trump got into the act once he saw which way the wind was blowing.  Does this portend some check on the wild rumpus?  Watch this space.