THE PARIS DISAGREEMENT
President Trump will probably have pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement before I finish typing this post. But whatever the president does and whenever he does it, the whole matter will still have left me with one big, entirely non-environmental question, begged by the following points:
It’s not just the Europeans whom Trump dissed on his big trip who are pledged to the Agreement, it’s the Gulf Arabs whom he embraced.
It’s not just the environmentalists Trump ridicules who have urged him to keep the U.S. in, but the fossil-fuel industrialists he claims to champion. Crucially, they are doing so on the grounds that participation in the accord would help keep U.S. energy companies globally competitive…which is, one might think, right in line with one of Trump's main objectives.
It’s not just sworn enemies of the President who will be bummed big-time by a pullout, it’s his very most credible defenders: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
All this has been completely clear for months. Yet, as the clock ticks toward the moment of decision, the right-flank warning keeps rising and getting redder: if Trump announces that he intends to keep the U.S. in, millions of his most loyal supporters will feel betrayed and there’s no telling what revenge they might exact. In other words, forget climate-change geeks, Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans, the whores of the media, the leakers of “the deep state.” If President Trump heeds his own, hand-picked military and diplomatic advisers; foreign allies who love him, and the job creators in one of his favorite economic sectors, he will enrage “the base.”
Which leads to the aforementioned, and lingering, question: completely apart from the merits or demerits of the agreement itself, who does Trump's “base” really consist of, and why won't they give their own team a win?
O! FOR A CHENEY OF COMMAND!
I can’t believe I miss Dick Cheney.
Remember the good old days when the opposition riff was that President George W. Bush was the figurehead and Vice president Dick Cheney was the force? That Bush was an amiable, pliable idiot and Cheney his evil tutor, plotting wars, enriching cronies, and knifing nemeses behind the scenes? Along with Karl Rove, Cheney was often characterized as Bush’s brain, but culturally speaking, he also served as Bush’s Bannon.
Today, alas, that scenario brings just two words to mind: If only.
W. was often derided as a puppet, but these days that is looking like a term of praise. Having been a governor and an old hand on his father’s campaigns, he knew that governing is the ultimate maze, and installed someone who knew all the turns.
By contrast, to call Trump a puppet is an insult to marionettes everywhere -- for they, at least, allow agile hands to pull their strings.
Faced with a White House overrun with media-monger monkeys eating one another, one actually pines for a White House run by a strong, silent predator who could eat them all.
Forced to contemplate an administration that takes one of the very few simple, straightforward issues in the whole of U.S. foreign policy and injects it with needless difficulty, as Trump has just done with NATO, one feels positively nostalgic for an administration that at least got things wrong vis-à-vis questions, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, that were, and are, legitimately hard to get right.
Amid high-level corruption that is so innate and yet so flagrant, one finds oneself with something of a soft spot for corruption that was cool and corporate, along the lines of the no-bid war-services contract awarded to Cheney’s old confreres at Halliburton-cum-KBR, in which case there was at least an argument that there weren’t a million competitors at the ready for that undertaking. And at least there, you could sort of see who was profiting and how. Apart from the low-hanging, if poison, fruit that has long been dangling in plain sight – the hotel down the street from the White House, the speed-approved Chinese trademarks and so on – Trump’s conflicts and potential conflicts remain hidden because he does not deign to show them.
(Come to think of it, I miss Hillary’s brothers Hugh and Tony Rodham, too. Remember when they caught holy hell for that hazelnut-distribution deal in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia?)
Veritably waterlogged by leaks that are disturbing in their incidence, their profusion, and their revelatory content, one dreams of a White House pervaded by that special mix of fear, loyalty and trust that (mostly) seals the faucet.
Opening the papers to an allegedly-proposed “back channel” to Russia whose creation was, if news reports are one-quarter correct, broached with less finesse than that involved in your average Verizon Fios installation, one retroactively salutes a transition run by a man who would never allow prospective appointees to try and circumvent U.S. intelligence unless they knew how.
As for the whole issue of Russian meddling in a U.S. election, one might fall short of the former vice president’s characterization of it as “an act of war.” Yet compared to the current crew’s “fake news” take on the whole thing, his concern is refreshing.
Of course, Cheney supported Trump from early on and for all I know, he still does. But I can’t help picturing him crouched in a custom-built bunker out in Wyoming somewhere, snickering and slapping his forehead, right along with the rest of us.
IS THE DOPE CATHOLIC?
On Wednesday, Donald Trump visited the Vatican and all we got were those odd, vaguely Addams Family photos: black-swathed Ivanka and Melania with their long veils and long faces; Donald grinning a grin that managed to be dopey, yet chilling; Jared doing his usual mug shot for GQ; and last but not least unsettling, Pope Francis looking uncharacteristically sour and flattened, as if the Father and the Son had conspired to suck the Holy Spirit straight out of him.
No, wait, the photos weren’t all we got: there was also came the commentary-cum-hilarity about the epic awkwardness that was obvious at the photo op and safe to assume about the two men’s private meeting. That was no surprise, given the shots they took at each other during the campaign and the depth of their differences on climate change, poverty, immigration and more.
For American political purposes, though, the biggest issue of all went largely unremarked, and it is one on which the Holy Father and the unholy president most definitely agree: abortion.
The Francis certainly does not seem to like The Donald. But an awful lot of American Catholics do like him — or at least they did, as of November. Catholics were absolutely key to electing Trump and they will be absolutely key to re-electing him, or not. In fact, Catholics will be key to electing U.S. presidents long after Trump exits the stage, whether he does so tomorrow or in January 2025. For all the attention that evangelical Christians perennially garner as a voting bloc, they are concentrated in the deeply red south, which means that they don’t get courted past the primaries. Once the major party nominees are settled upon, the big religious vote that is up for grabs is that of Catholics, who dominate in such places as the Rust Belt. Crucially, insofar as they vote on moral or religious grounds, Catholics tend to be much more liberal than their evangelical counterparts on one economic and social issue after another — except, oftentimes, when it comes to abortion.
Not, of course, that Catholics march in lockstep on this or any other issue. Pro-choice advocates love to say this, and it’s true: Not all Catholics oppose abortion rights, and even those who do often weigh up all the issues and vote for pro-choice candidates anyway. A majority of Catholics voted twice for the pro-choice Barack Obama, and of course Hillary Clinton tapped a proud product of the Jesuits, Tim Kaine, as her running mate.
Here, though, is something that is also true: There are millions of American Catholics who are deeply, morally troubled by the words and deeds of the Republican Party in general, and the Trump administration in particular, toward immigrants, toward Muslims, toward the poor and the working class, and as regards the environment. Many have absolutely no problem with government policies that buck the Church’s teachings on birth control, as a majority of American Catholics themselves do. Virtually none of these folks could be counted as natural political allies of those Protestants on the religious right — not all Protestants on the religious right, to be sure, but a notable subgroup — who openly describe Catholicism as a cult and the Pope as a puppet of Satan. In short, these Catholics should fit right in to the Democratic Party. Yet, if they oppose or even favor limitations on abortion — including limitations that would amount to less than those existent in many states already — the Democratic Party — yes, the party that is down two-thirds of the statehouses, both houses of Congress, and the White House — is actually engaged in a real debate over whether or not they should be allowed in.
Astonishingly, significant powers in the party are adamant that the answer is “no.” Pro-choice advocates in particular seem to sense an invisible but alarming problem of too many Americans flocking to the Democratic fold, upon whose gatekeepers the utmost vigilance must thus be urged. Just in May, NARAL Pro-Choice America actually reprimanded “Unity” tourists Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison for rallying with Heath Mello, a thirty-something Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, because he was pro-life. It is hard to imagine what reproductive liberty was served by easing the re-election of Omaha’s Republican mayor, and easy to imagine what Democratic aims could be stifled by other versions of this playing out in multiple, more consequential settings.
Finding himself at the start of a truly vertical electoral climb, freshly-minted DNC chair Tom Perez should not also find himself stuck in a life-or-choice tar pit, but there he's been since day one: first declaring that the party cannot demand perfect fealty to its platform on every issue…only to turn around and state that yes, it must demand fealty (“speak with one voice”) on the choice issue…the fallout from which then obliged him to set up a meeting where he could hear the “voice” of Democrats for Life. Meanwhile, red- and purple-state Democrats, such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, warn and warn against the self-defeating folly of demanding that candidates and office holders who are 80 or 90 per cent on board with the Democratic agenda — and often 60 or 70 per cent on board with the Democratic reproductive-rights agenda — should be thrown out for not being on board enough.
Look, I get the purists' argument: women’s rights are inextricable from reproductive rights, and (much less convincingly) reproductive rights which fall short of being absolute do not count as reproductive rights at all.
That, of course, is a point of view to which people are absolutely entitled, and for which its holders deserve credit, at least, for putting principle before politics. Way, way before, in fact, when you think about who swing voters are and where they live. Democrats have every right to tell all but the very most liberal Catholics to go jump in a lake. But they should not kid themselves: no matter how this Pope may scowl at this president, that’s a real problem, because the lake in question just might be Michigan. Or Erie, Superior, Huron, Ontario…any major swing-state body of water will do.
DONALD OF ARABIA
President Trump is flying off to the Middle East — and I'll bet, as far as the Arab Gulf states are concerned, straight into a warm bath of esteem and approval.
This assumption dates from my own, now-ancient stint in the region (2001-2004). But it has been only strengthened by a lunch I recently had with a very smart, very well-connected friend from the United Arab Emirates.
When I asked my friend — who is, as you might expect, Muslim — how Trump was viewed by the powers that be back home, he responded at length and in detail. But basically, his take boiled down to three words:
They love him.
The Gulf states love Secretary of State Rex Tillerson because he really understands the oil business. They love General Jim Mattis and feel hopeful that the likes of him will help resolve what they view as their number one problem: the raging civil war on their doorstep in Yemen. They hate Iran, they double-hate the Obama-brokered nuclear deal with Iran, and are thus delighted with the advent of an American administration that hates and double-hates those, too.
What about the Muslim ban — or, okay, the Trump administration’s proposed temporary moratorium on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries? Surely it is one thing to be vigilant about oil riches and regional realpolitik, another to have one’s religion tarred with what Trump never tires of calling “radical Islamic terrorism?” How can that label, and the executive order clearly born of it, be felt as anything other than a stinging slap to the nations that constitute the cradle of Islam and pride themselves as its chief stewards? “We do that stuff all the time,” my old pal shrugged, at the practice of denying or revoking visas from a given place or group, often including subgroups of Muslims. “We just don’t announce it.” No matter how abruptly taken, the thinking goes, such actions fall into the category of any sovereign government’s absolute right to secure its borders in any way that that sovereign government sees fit. They do it, they see no reason to fault Trump for doing it.
Admittedly moving down a few rungs on the ladder of outrages, I wondered about the other ban, announced in March, on laptops and other electronic devices on flights to the U.S. from ten airports, including those in Riyadh, Qatar and Dubai. Given the tremendous degree to which the business of the Gulf is business, doesn’t that, at least, earn a few demerits for The Donald?
“Nah, the airlines are already offering laptops to passengers to use for the duration of their flights,” my lunch companion said. “Bring your own data stick, you’re fine.”
Readers of this blog know that I am no fan of our current president, nor of his foreign policy — to the extent that he has one. Nor do I consider glowing reviews from the masters of the Gulf to be any great recommendation for the leader of the free world. But even — no, especially — for those of us who are experiencing this presidency as one cataclysm after another, it is important to remember that there is a whole world out there. And Donald Trump is by no means hated by everyone in it.
Recent though it was, this lunch took place before the FBI director was fired, the special counsel was hired, and key Republicans in Congress were starting to shift uncomfortably in their boots and distance themselves from the president in a way that could, in theory, mess with his mojo in heretofore-supportive capitals. So as I was typing this post, I texted my friend: “Scale of one to ten, how much do you think anyone in the UAE cares about the Russia investigation?”
He’s just texted back:
Trump is not nixon
So now the big word is “Nixonian.”
To recap: President Donald Trump recently fired FBI director James Comey, who was subsequently reported to have written a memo alleging that the president had asked him to shutter an investigation into the Russia-related activities of General Michael Flynn in his capacity as a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, but previous to his being hired for, then fired from, the post of national security advisor. In typical knee-jerk, media-frenzy fashion, this has everybody screaming “Watergate!” and equating Trump with Richard Nixon, the only one of his predecessors who resigned from his office rather than face impeachment for abusing its vast powers.
This is ridiculous. There are numerous key ways in which Trump bears absolutely no resemblance to Nixon, and it is a disservice both to historical record and current debate to ignore the distinctions. To name just a few:
Nixon had tremendous intelligence. As a high school senior, he received a full scholarship to Harvard, and later a full scholarship to Duke Law School. Throughout his life, he was routinely described by friend and foe as “brilliant.” Of course, many people criticized many of Nixon’s policies. But no one ever suspected him of an inability to grasp what policies were or how they came to be made.
Nixon was a truly self-made man. Notwithstanding that scholarship, Nixon didn’t actually go to Harvard, but rather to the far less illustrious Whittier College, close to home. His family simply couldn’t pay for his trip from California to Massachusetts, nor his living expenses once he got there. By many accounts, this disappointment seeded a lifelong bitterness and resentment that came to darken his character and perhaps to foster future misdeeds. But it also indicates just how far Nixon came in life, entirely on his own steam.
Before becoming President, Nixon had serious government experience. By the time he entered the White House, Nixon had served as a Congressman, a U.S. Senator, and a two-term vice president, in which capacity he had traveled to Asia, Africa, South America and the Soviet Union; informally debated Nikita Khrushchev, and helped to get the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate.
For much of his presidency, Nixon led a highly effective White House. Until he sunk it in scandal in his second term, Nixon’s White House worked, both in the sense of functioning and in the sense of achieving. The left may never forgive Nixon for giving Henry Kissinger the keys to U.S.. foreign policy. The right still hates him for placing the domestic-policy playbook in the charge of then-nascent Democratic lion Daniel Patrick Moynihan. One may love, hate or otherwise argue about the Environmental Protection Agency, affirmative action, Title IX, a vastly expanded social safety net, the normalization of relations with China, the desegregation of schools, the war on drugs, the war on cancer, or any number of other things that Nixon did as president. But one cannot remotely equate him with a chief executive who, from day one, by dint of his own missteps and misstatements, has prevented himself from doing anything.
Nixon had moments of real personal integrity. Although it would make for a convenient contrast with Trump, I'm not counting the fact that Nixon was married to the same woman for 53 years because a) bad marriages can happen to good people and b) for political reasons he bragged about keeping Pat in crummy cloth coats. But how about this: Having been born a Quaker, Nixon could have opted out of military service in World War II. Instead, he joined the Navy and ended up in the South Pacific. Can you imagine a young Donald Trump doing that?
Needless to say, these and all of Nixon’s admirable traits were compromised by years of red-baiting and dirty tricks, and then totally crushed under the weight of Watergate. All that intelligence, all that experience, all those achievements and potential achievements were washed away in a criminally paranoid sea.
That’s the great tragedy of Nixon: He allowed his negative characteristics so completely to overwhelm the many aspects of his public life that were inarguably positive.
The tragedy of Trump, by contrast, is that he seems to have no positive characteristics, at least as it relates to the presidency. Then again, in the classical sense, that can hardly be called a tragedy, for that would require a great moral height to fall from. Technically speaking, then, it's mere abomination.
Unable to bring myself to salivate at the prospect of the demise of any American president, I still hope against hope that there turn out to be no grounds to impeach this one. I still hope against hope that there will surface some reason, at some point, to applaud him for something. But so far, Trump has demonstrated much in the way of paranoia, little in the way of smarts. He is alive to every personal slight, yet blind to political nuance. His is a grimace without gravitas.
So yes, Donald Trump is very much like Richard Nixon —- without the trip to China.
comey the great?
Wait, wait, wait: Is Comey the good guy now?
It’s so confusing. As a Hillary Clinton supporter, I had gotten so used to viewing the FBI director as the errand boy of doom. It was, after all, he who was so widely said to have thrown sacred apolitical precedent to the dogs by announcing the reopening of an investigation into Clinton’s e-mails just before election day. In so doing, Democrats from Hillary on down have been insisting ever since, Comey had effectively thrown the election — and, by extension, all hope for humanity — to Donald Trump. Moreover, the contention went, he had done so not out of some tone-deaf Boy Scout scrupulousness, but to appease a nefariously anti-Clinton clique in the Bureau.
Now, this lowlife has been fired and in the eyes and cries of many who have fervently maintained all of the above, it’s a threat to the republic.
Don’t get me wrong. In its context, its pretext, and its timing, Comey’s termination is the soul of suspicious. In its manner, it is the definition of demented. In its rank deracination of a relatively independent, if problematic, investigatory figure, it is the apex of ominous. And in its status as merely one of the crisis-level shocks that this country has been obliged to absorb since January, it is a measure of the mess that Trump apparently wills his presidency to be.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that if Hillary Clinton had gotten elected and proceeded to axe Comey out of sheer spite, the reaction from some of the same quarters would have been of a rather different, “you go girl!” variety.
It’s become par for the course. Every development — scandal, Syria, FBI-director-sacking — is evaluated strictly in terms of its immediate effect upon clearly delineated political heroes and villains, and whatever clash they happen to be having.
Of course this tendency has existed forever, but it keeps getting more entrenched in our politics and no one seems to mind.
I mind. Don’t you?