It's Worse Than You Can Imagine

I have just finished reading Fire and Fury.  I confess to opening the Amazon package with a certain salacious eagerness.   In the upside-down world of the Trump Presidency, many of us have become almost addicted to the daily fix of bizarreness that reinforces our conviction that he is uniquely unfit for the job.  Fire and Fury will cure you of this tendency.   It will give you no pleasure. 

For those who haven’t yet read the book, let me share a few of the things that caught my eye:

1.      “Dope.” (General McMaster) “Dumb as shit.” (Gary Cohn) “A moron.” (Tillerson) “Idiot.” (Reince Priebus and Steve Mnuchin)  “A fucking idiot.”  “Irrational.”  “A child.”  (Various staff).  And those who created the monster: “A moron” (Rupert Murdoch) “An idiot obviously.” (conservative Fox news correspondent Liz Trotta).  And his “friends” when speaking privately to their own friends: “He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.” (Investor Tom Barrack) I could go on.  So, we now know what those whose careers and reputations are tied to his success, really think.  If you are one of those people who think the Trump phenomenon still falls within the range of some kind of normalcy, consider whether words like this ever have been uttered about any other President by those closest to him.

2.     Most of us imagined Trump buffered by people who, although perhaps ideologically extreme, were at least rational, informed, normally functioning humans.  Instead, those in the West Wing closest to the man, those doing the manipulating and enabling, are themselves revealed in the book to be a terrifying bunch of squabbling misfits.  Moreover, the crew that walked into the West Wing after the inauguration had almost no relevant experience in the business of government and no inclination to consult those who did.  Bannon told Miller to go the Internet to look up how to draft an executive order.   Katie Walsh, when she finally left her job as Deputy Chief of Staff, called it bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission.

3.     And what did Trump think about those around him?  Bannon: disloyal and looks like shit.  Priebus: weak and short, a midget.  Spicer: stupid and looks terrible.  Conway: a crybaby.  Jared and Ivanka:  a suck-up, never should have some to Washington.  Ever and only the reality-TV man, looks mean everything to Trump.   On the hiring for a senior national security position, Trump instructed: “That’s the guy I want, he’s got the look.”

4.     What does Trump believe?  The picture that emerges from those close to him is pretty clear: a man of many obsessions but no fixed views, and certainly nothing that can be characterized as conventionally ideological or political.  Katie Walsh called them a set of vague beliefs and impulses, some of them contradictory.  Converting these impulses into policy was, Walsh said, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.”

5.     It is scary how completely journalists failed to understand what was happening during the first year.  They diagnosed the problem as a White House that was “disorganized” or “dysfunctional.”  That is like calling an airplane crew disorganized when the real problem is that no one in the cockpit knows how to fly and all are busy fighting with each other as the plane rumbles down the runway toward disaster.   Apologies for mixing transportation metaphors, but the media missed the boat on how bad things were in the West Wing.

6.     It is particularly painful to read how those closest to him before and during the campaign mislead the public.  His business “friends” argued publicly that he was a brilliant businessman while observing to friends in private that he couldn’t read a balance sheet, had no appetite for details of any kind and was a terrible negotiator. 

7.     Some of the most frightening details concern his inability to process information.  He doesn’t read.  He doesn’t skim.  “If it was print, it might as well not exist.” An email attributed to Gary Cohn (and summarizing the views of staff) reported “Trump won’t read anything – not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing.  He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”  Some staff members concluded he was only semi-literate or dyslexic.  He mistrusts expertise and has faith only in his own intuition.  He doesn’t listen, except to television, and then only selectively.  And, if you don’t process information in the normal way, then you make it up.  As Trump bragged, “I’ve made stuff up forever, and they always print it.”  Is someone unable to absorb and process information “fit to discharge the duties of the office”?

8.     The book is filled with testimony from both long time “friends” and those working with him during the campaign and first year in office, of his fundamental mental incapacity.   They found that he was incapable of what doctors and neuroscientists call “executive function,” meaning the cognitive abilities to plan, organize, pay attention, focus, switch focus, exercise self-control or tailor his behavior toward the fulfillment of goals.  “Executive function disorder” is a step beyond, and more crippling than, ADHD.  The book paints the picture of a man “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” (in the words of the 25th Amendment).  It starts with his inability to understand the Presidency as an institutional or political concept, as opposed to a media platform.  The very idea of statesmanship is beyond him.  When an important decision presents itself, such as our response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Kushner and McMaster both reported that he was more annoyed about having to make the effort to think about and deal with it, than he was by the attack itself.   Staff report multiple moments of irrationality, “uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff . . . primal.”  He makes hugely consequential decisions (including the firing of James Comey) impulsively, without any process, consultation, or staff work.  According to Steve Bannon, the debate within the staff is not about whether the situation is bad, but whether it is 25th amendment bad. 

9.     Lacking executive function, he is easy to manipulate.  Imagine dealing with a man where nothing sticks.  Where the decision depends on the last person in the room.  Where everything is personal (amazingly, he views it as a “waste” to give a government job to someone he doesn’t know personally, which explains a great deal).  If you are rich, a celebrity, or powerful, or you are sufficiently flattering and obsequious, then you can say or do no wrong.  Until, that is, you disappoint him, in which case you are the subject of vituperative angry calumny.   

10.  If any single thing in this book should make you re-read the 25th amendment, it’s the image of him sitting alone in his locked bedroom in the early morning hours, three large screens replaying cable news, and the President of the United States making decisions by Tweet and publicly embracing whatever cock-eyed conspiracy story the provocateurs of the right are peddling that day.   You wonder how he could possibly praise beyond-the-pale white supremacists or retweet anti-Muslim videos from British hate groups?  Without knowledge, experience, and executive function there can be no judgment.  It’s not that he has bad judgement, he has no judgement.   

11.  I won’t belabor my long-standing theme that it all comes back to his narcissistic personality disorder, but some of the anecdotes in Fire and Fury will go down in the annals of psychological history.  When frantic staffers begged his “friends” to call him to get him to calm down and focus, “morning Joe” Scarborough advised him to figure out who in the West Wing he really trusted and sit down and talk things out before acting.  “Who can talk you through this stuff before you decided to act on it?” he asked the President.  “Well,” the President replied, “you won’t like the answer, but the answer is me.  I talk to myself.”  This should not be a surprise.  During the campaign, when asked from whom he plans to take advice, he answered, from “myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”  His narcissism is so all-consuming, that he regards all publicity as a zero-sun game – Roger Ailes explained, “If someone else gets on [the cover of Time], he doesn’t”.   

12.  We’ve long seen Bannon as a Svengali-like figure.  But the book paints the picture of a man as twisted, damaged, and angry as Trump, but much brighter and thus more dangerous.  If you breathed a sigh of relief when Roger Ailes died, think again.  You think the bungled executive order on Muslim immigration, or the “two sides” comment were failures?  Think again.  Bannon’s strategy (perfectly aligned with Putin’s) is to drive the wedge between the American right and left ever deeper, until no reconciliation is possible.  He wants nothing less than civil war resulting in total defeat of the left and destruction not only of the “administrative state” but the media, academic, and non-profit organizations that support it.  As Wolf puts it, the overt racism, misogyny and daily outrages are designed to “shock the liberals so the [right-wing] base [is] doubly satisfied,” this is, both by the original outrage and by the liberal consternation it foments.  Bannon’s plan: “the way to crush the liberals: make them crazy and drag them to the left.”  Democrats, you’ve been warned. 

13.  So, here’s the question for the Vice President and the Cabinet:  you all know about his disabilities and flaws and have observed that they have, on multiple occasions, rendered him unable to discharge his duties responsibly and effectively.  Do you wait until one of those occasions involves war or other fundamental interests of the country, or do you do your duty now?  And it is getting worse.  His staffers worry that his speech has become even more rambling and repetitious and his ability to focus, even momentarily, has “notably declined.”

The people working in the West Wing are desperate, “I am in a constant state of shock and horror,” said one.   Fire and Fury just cracks the lid on the pot, giving us an early glimpse.  It will all come out in due time, because a man who cannot be loyal has no one loyal to him outside his own family.  They all will spill their guts in return for six and seven figure advances, and, if we survive his tenure, future historians will have all they need to paint a vivid picture of American democracy’s most terrible failure.


Repeal of the Johnson Amendment

Repeal of the Johnson Amendment, if included in the final tax legislation, may prove to be its single most consequential provision.   This repeal, which its proponents formerly referred to as the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act,” has been one of the top priorities of the theocratic right for almost two decades.

My 2013 dystopian political novel Christian Nation posited that only a few key pieces of Federal legislation would be necessary to move the country toward the theocracy so ardently desired by at least a quarter of our fellow citizens.  Here is what I wrote in that story:

“Worst was the ‘Houses of Worship Freedom of Speech Restoration Act,’  which drove a stake through the principle that partisan political activity was not to be subsidized with a Federal tax deduction, but did so in a way that gave the benefit of the deduction to a single party.  The evangelical and Pentecostal churches of America were, of course, overwhelmingly Republican, and the largest single part of the charitable sector.   Although the Christian right had long been politically active, pastors were not allowed to endorse specific candidates or invest their charitable revenues in political advertising.  Although there were many egregious violations of these rules, most clergymen obeyed because loss of the Federal tax deduction would have been devastating to the tithing and other contributions on which the movement relied.  This would now change, with the $100 billion given to religious causes each year (about one-third of all annual charitable giving in America) suddenly available to support partisan politics.  And ‘speech’ included paid advertising.”

Repeal of the Johnson Amendment is all about money and not at all about free speech.   In a presidential election year total campaign (federal and state) spending is estimated to exceed $5 billion.  And now, another hundred billion potentially entering the game, overwhelmingly available to one side only. 

Consider who supports repeal.  If it really does benefit non-profits generally by removing limits on free speech, then you would expect them to support it.   They don’t.   Charities and foundations overwhelmingly oppose it.  The non-partisan National Council of Nonprofits explained, we “have worked for years, decades and centuries to build the public’s trust, and we don’t want to be dragged down by toxic partisanship.”  The repeal’s sole proponents are politically active evangelicals.   Doesn’t this alone tell you what you need to know?

In Christian Nation, the fictional memoirist, looking back from the theocratic future, speculates about the pivotal 2016 election, when a fictional demagogic theocratic populist defeated Hillary Clinton:

“[T]he ‘Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act’ [repeal of the Johnson Amendment] had changed fundamentally the dynamics of American politics.   The churches became the top sources – over PACs, corporations and individuals – of political advertising.   Partisan endorsements from evangelical pulpits virtually guaranteed the votes of those congregations; there was little that any candidate could do to change the mind of a voter whose trusted pastor had informed him or her that one of the candidates was backed by God.”

There was a time when U.S. Senators dreamed that a moment of courageous principled integrity would earn them a place in history, like the eight senators who were the subjects of Kennedy and Sorensen’s Profiles in Courage.   That moment is here.   Fifty-one of you have the chance to change the course of American history and join the pantheon.




Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Another day, the 392nd since November 9, 2016.   A morning like so many others.  The news is grim.  The US will recognize Jerusalem and throw the Middle East into violent turmoil.   Trump has endorsed Roy Moore, a crackpot theocrat twice expelled from the Alabama Supreme Court for ignoring Federal courts (and an alleged pedophile to boot).  In an act without precedent, Trump disposes of 2 million acres of permanently protected public lands.  It takes an effort to make my way through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.   To my limbic brain it is like I am holding my hand over a flame; the neurons are begging me to pull back and walk away.

We are exhausted and discouraged.  It’s an over-used word, but apt in this case:  traumatized.  And lethargy is one of the many perilous symptoms of trauma.  It’s far too easy to allow moral indignation and anger to fade into a soothing malaise that excuses action.

With this in mind, I have forced myself back to my desk.   We must not surrender to despair.  We all must do what we can.  

Trump First, American Last

Unless it threatens to drag us into war, the great American public tends to be uninterested in foreign affairs.   It’s time to get interested.   Domestic policy can be reversed.  But Trump is well on the way to squandering the prestige, power, and moral authority built by this country over the course of the past century. 

Trump has sought to personalize American foreign policy.  He disdains the analysis of our intelligence and foreign policy professionals, refuses to consult or use our diplomats, and has replaced the entire apparatus of foreign relations with his personal impulses and illusions about his relationships with other leaders.  And the result to date?

·      Our European allies now treat us as a pariah state.   Secretary of State Tillerson received a barely civil reception last week in Brussels.  Even our “special relationship” with the UK is on the verge of collapse, thanks to the U.S. President's unthinkable endorsement of a pariah UK ultranationalistic hate group.

·      The world chuckled in derision as Trump announced that the Middle East was “not so difficult as people thought” and dispatched Jared to make a deal.  They’re not laughing any more.   Every world leader, both parties, and every one of his predecessors understood why the US could not move its embassy to Jerusalem.   So of course doing it was irresistible to Trump.   Thousands will loose their lives in the ensuing violence, the cause of peace will be set back, perhaps by decades, and our friends in Europe will bear the brunt of invigorated terrorism.   And for what?  One man’s ego. 

·      By canceling the TransPacific trade deal (long championed by Republicans), pulling out of the Paris Agreement, risking millions of Asian lives by threatening North Korea with “fire and fury,” and kowtowing to China’s strongman (among many other sins of commission and omission), Trump has handed economic and political leadership of Asia to China.  The first battle in China’s plan for global leadership, conceded by a blathering reality TV star without a shot fired.

·      Republicans like to boast that Reagan won the cold war.  They now need to wake up to the fact that Trump is reversing that victory.   Even at the height of our enmity, the Soviet Union could not have dreamed of manipulating our democracy and installing a candidate guaranteed to weaken its enemy.  Trump’s hero Putin achieved this, whether with or without Trump’s acquiescence or participation remains to be seen.  But the result is clear enough.  Putin has gotten his way in Syria and is pushing the US aside in its relations and influence in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere.   

I could go on.   I beg Republicans and conservatives to follow the lead of John McCain here.  This is what he said in a speech on October 16:

“The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.  To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

A Request

In today's coverage of Trump’s endorsement of Moore, neither the Times nor the Journal referred to anything about his background or qualifications other than the sexual abuse.  This is also the case with most other media coverage.  This is a disaster.  A growing number of Americans have an issue with the fairness of destroying careers based on decades old sexual misconduct charges that have not been thoroughly investigated or proven.  The real issue with Moore is that he is as unfit for high office as any candidate in recent history.  Moore is a fringe fundamentalist theocrat who has twice ignored federal court orders on the basis that the Bible trumps the Constitution, and twice was expelled from his seat on the court.   Until Bannon/Trump turned the world upside down (and before the allegations of sexual misconduct), he was treated as a pariah. 

My request.  Please complain to your favorite media sources if they omit the relevant facts about Moore.  Please write on-line comments on news reports and postings that focus on the sexual allegations to the exclusion of all else. 

A Happy Thought

The obsession of every person afflicted by narcissistic personality disorder is to create a world where “it’s all about me.”  Donald Trump is the first to have succeeded, where the relevant world is not the bubble of family, workplace or community, but – literally – the world.  Since November 9, 2016, has there been a newspaper anywhere in the world without Trump on its front page? A newscast in which the man’s face did not appear?

Narcissism is an addiction.  The obsessive desire for attention and affirmation created by the addiction cannot be satisfied, because feeding those desires – as it does with all addictions – just stokes the fire and results in an unquenchable appetite for more.  

Two classic symptoms common to all types of addiction are the impairment of what psychologists call “inhibitory control over behavior” and “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” – that is, pathological impulsiveness, inability to focus, excessive activity, and inappropriate behavior; that is, Trump as he has been since childhood and will be until his death.

Here’s the happy thought.   Giving the world’s most extreme narcissist the greatest amount of attention and power that a human being can have is like presenting the junkie with an unlimited life-time supply of heroin.   There is only one way it can end: a spiraling descent to total self-destruction.   The only question is the amount of damage he will do on the way down.

The Path Forward

Sometimes the path forward is so obvious that we miss it in the search for more complex or subtle solutions.   

We are still, however imperfectly, a democracy.  Yes, Citizens United, gerrymandering, voter suppression, fake news, and hyperpartisan media silos all have undermined the foundations of our democracy.  But it hasn’t crumbled yet, and voting remains the best means for effecting change.

So if you believe that Trump is unfit for office and/or abhor the agenda of the so-called “alt-right,” then – regardless of your ideological preference or traditional party affiliation – I suggest that your path is clear: you must vote in every election and you must tick the box for every candidate up and down the ballot, regardless of personality or party, who has the best chance of defeating the Republican.   Let me be clear.  This means that if your sister is running for dogcatcher on the GOP line, you pull the lever for her opponent.   It’s not personal.  The point is that as long as the GOP is the party of Trump and the alt-right, you should treat pulling the lever anywhere on the GOP line as a morally indefensible act.  

The game plan of the Trumpist movement is clear:  if a GOP politician fails to swear fealty to the strongman, she or he will be primaried from the alt-right and lose, and – unless things change – nearly half the time the winner of that GOP primary will continue to be the de facto winner of the general election (FairVote calculated last month this continues to be the case in 208 of 435 House seats).   This could well lead to 16 years of Trumpism and the inevitable collapse of American prestige, leadership, and prosperity. 

The only way to derail this result is to break through normal voting patterns and achieve a temporary but massive re-set of voter behavior.   First, show up (the Trumpies will, that’s for sure).  Second, the 72% of Americans who now self-identify as independent or Democrat, hopefully joined by millions of patriotic morally centered Republicans, must treat any candidate’s Republican Party affiliation as toxic for so long as the GOP is providing a home for Trump and the alt-right.  It will take decisive defeats of GOP candidates up and down the ballot to persuade the party that Trumpism is not the horse to ride into the future.  It will take multiple elections evidencing overwhelming repudiation of Trump and the alt-right in order to put the genie of populism back in the bottle.

It grieves me to have to advocate for a solution that is even superficially partisan, when excessive partisanship is part of what caused the present train wreck.   I say “superficially partisan” because in intent and in the longer-term, what I advocate is not partisan at all.   If you were a Republican before your party was high jacked by Steve Bannon, this is the only way to get your party back.  Once the GOP escapes the unholy alliance between a narcissistic moron and a fringe movement with a repugnant agenda, then my many GOP friends can begin the important work of building a competitive center-right party for the 21st century.  And they again can be free, if they wish, to vote Republican for the rest of their lives.  But not now.  

To those who choose to ignore the ugly side of Trumpism on the expectation that your profits will increase and your taxes decrease, I can only ask that you rehearse in your own minds the defense you will offer when discussing the matter with St. Peter at the gates to heaven.

Roy Moore

In my 2013 dystopian novel, Christian Nation, one of the first actions by the authoritarian populist who defeats Hillary Clinton in 2016 is to nominate Roy Moore to the Supreme Court.   For many readers this was a step too far.  Moore is one of the crankiest of the far-right fringe cranks; they found it unimaginable that he could be elevated to a position of national power and prominence in America in the 21st century.  How times have changed.

Moore was, is, and always will be disqualified for high office by virtue of his record and beliefs.   This truth has been largely ignored by the national media, which now has put all its anti-Moore eggs in the basket of 40-year-old sexual crime and/or misconduct.

Forgive me for quoting myself, but I re-read this morning what I had to say about Moore in Christian Nation, and want to share with you an excerpt:

“Roy Moore was one of the greatest heroes of the evangelical movement but was only vaguely known to the rest of the country . . . . Moore was a fundamentalist Christian of the more robust sort, having worked as a cowboy and kick-boxer, attributing his pugilistic successes to divine favor and intervention.  As a state judge in Alabama, he displayed wooden Ten Commandments plaques in his courtrooms and opened his judicial sessions with prayers, sometimes calling on a clergyman to lead the jury members in conversation with God prior to the start of jury deliberations.  . . . To drive home his fundamentalist belief that God was the sole legitimate source of law, and that all civil institutions must be subservient to God’s will, in 2001 he arranged for a five-thousand-pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments to be placed in the rotunda of the state courthouse.  The federal courts ordered its removal, and Moore responded that the orders of the federal courts on such a matter had no legitimacy and that he obeyed only the orders of God and the great state of Alabama.  The great state of Alabama responded by establishing a judicial commission that proceeded to remove him from office.  . . . ‘Roy’s Rock’ then began is peripatetic travels in the American heartland, including appearances in thirty-one different states in one year alone.  Moore became a folk hero to the Christian right, and in 2003 drafted the Constitution Restoration Act.”

For those who don’t remember, the “Constitution Restoration Act,” among other things, denied federal jurisdiction in any case where an official action is challenged because it is based on “acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.”  In other words, it seeks to dismantle separation of church and state. 

Subsequent to the publication of Christian Nation, Moore was re-elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, found guilty of the following, and again (permanently) suspended:

  1. disregarding a federal injunction
  2. demonstrating unwillingness to follow clear law
  3. abuse of administrative authority
  4. substituting his judgment for the judgment of the entire Alabama Supreme Court, including failure to abstain from public comment about a pending proceeding in his own court
  5. interference with legal process and remedies in the United States District Court and/or Alabama Supreme Court related to proceedings in which Alabama probate judges were involved, and
  6. failure to recuse himself from pending proceedings in the Alabama Supreme Court after making public comment and placing his impartiality into question.

Over the years Moore has navigated the far right fringe (what we now legitimize as the “alt-right”) espousing the view that President Obama is a Muslim foreigner (among a putrid stew of other conspiracy theories) and bizarre opinions on everything from preschool (a precursor to totalitarianism), evolution (“no such thing”), homosexuality (should be illegal), 9/11 (punishment by God for tolerance of gays and the rest of the liberal agenda), and Muslim representatives (should be barred from Congress).

U.S. senators are required to take an oath to “support and defend the constitution of the United States.”  Moore, who has affirmed that he will not defend, or even obey, any part of the constitution or other laws that, in his view, conflicts with the word of God, cannot in good faith take the oath.

I fear that the exclusive focus on unproven long-past sexual crime and/or misconduct, which will strike some in Alabama as unfair, will backfire.  Instead, we should focus on the person, his record, and his views.  Like the President who now supports him, he is unfit for office, regardless of the truth of the recent allegations. 

We face a freely-admitted, well-funded, brilliantly executed attempt to convert the Republican party into a Trump-centered alt-right populist movement that disregards the rule of law when it conflicts with its agenda.    It is no surprise that Steve Bannon is so focused on this race.  The election of Roy Moore could be a tipping point after which -- untethered from the norms of truth, reason, decency, or our traditional political culture -- we tumble precipitously into the abyss.    





America’s allies quickly discovered, as we did, that Trump the President is exactly the same as Trump the man: an untrustworthy ignorant braggart without the sophistication, knowledge or temperament to participate in matters of state.  

The idea that any head of state would defer to his judgment as “leader of the free world” is laughable. And yet the country he leads, by virtue of the size of its economy, its traditional values and its military might, is the indispensable player in any world crisis. And there you have the conundrum faced by the world today, brought sharply into focus by the crisis with North Korea.

Imagine the nightmare being lived by the leaders of South Korea and Japan, whose populations face annihilation should Trump make an impetuous move. Imagine the nightmare of waking up to find the ally on which they have bet their existence, the most reliable of countries, the nation built on checks and balances, now led by a fickle buffoon whose capricious whims go unchecked by the institutions of government or established practices of our political culture. A man uninterested in the collective wisdom and experience of the tens of thousands of foreign policy professionals employed by his government. A man utterly convinced of his ability to manage the crisis single-handedly in the only way he knows:  dangerous bluff and bluster unleashed via Twitter that escalates, as opposed to diffuses, the risk of conflict. 

The crisis is of course a political gift to Trump. The instinct of the nation is to forget the niceties of the constitution and rally around the President when facing a significant threat from abroad.  

But there is something greater at stake here. Over ten million people inhabit Seoul.  Nine million people inhabit Tokyo. They must not be treated as pawns in a celebrity feud. History will never forgive the Secretaries of State and Defense if they don’t force the President to change course, or lose their jobs in the attempt. If Congress stands by without asserting its authority, it will create a stain on our democracy that can never be erased.






Illegitimacy is defined as “the state of not being in accordance with accepted standards or rules; lack of authorization by the law.” We have crossed some kind of line when serious people on the right start down the path of questioning the “regularity” and “legal soundness” of Trump’s presidency.

Jack Goldsmith is a conservative lawyer and scholar. A fellow of the Hoover Institution and Professor at Harvard Law School, he served as a senior official in the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. A serious man and a leading conservative voice.

In an extraordinary eruption of 17 Tweets yesterday, he wrote “Trump’s actions since January, and especially in [the] last month, take us so far beyond normal that it’s hard to have any faith in [the] Executive Branch.” He argued that the President’s personal actions have undermined the deference that our political culture says we owe to the Presidency and the Executive Branch.   “The impulsive, uncontrolled, ill-informed President infects the legal soundless of everything his administration does. As best I can tell, no President’s actions have ever so adversely affected trust in his administration, including Nixon during Watergate.” So we now have a presidency that has deviated so far from accepted standards and rules that it does not deserve even the simple presumption of regularity and legal soundness. In other words, a presidency that has squandered its legitimacy.

This is an extraordinarily consequential analysis. Goldsmith argues that the incessant lying, the manifest instability, the firing of Comey, the intemperate attacks on judges, legal process, long-standing allies, the intelligence services and the press exonerate us from having to afford the office the normal presumption of “regularity.” We – the people, the Congress, the courts, even the lawyers charged with representing him and Executive Branch employees who work for him ­– no longer need to presume that any of his words or actions are taken in good faith or constitute the regular lawful exercise of Executive Branch authority. 

As a result, Goldsmith writes, Executive Branch officials find themselves in a nearly impossible position. Is it morally or legally acceptable to defend Presidential prerogative when the President has proven he cannot wield it responsibly? How far can they go before resignation is their only option?

With Goldsmith’s analysis, we are starting to get a clearer picture of the slowly emerging constitutional crisis. This type of illegitimacy is not anticipated by the constitution. It is not simply incompetence; it is willful incompetence. It is not simply mis-government, it is the systematic undermining of government. It is a profound corruption, where the corrupt spoils are not so much in material gain as in the satisfaction of the ego; where the interests of the nation are traded for the indulgence of the man’s momentary impulse, narcissistic self-image and lust for attention. It is a pervasive and corrosive bad faith, where the crime is not just convenient mendacity, but a willful disdain for expertise and even objective truth. It is disinterest in details. It is disdain for advice.  It is failing to take the business of governing seriously. It is a perpetually raised middle finger aimed at our political culture and traditions.  At our friends and allies. At the very idea that relations with others can be anything other than a zero-sum transaction. At a world order painstakingly built over generations. It is “the state of not being in accordance with accepted standards or rules.” It is illegitimate.

Trump is no longer a president in any conventional sense. His tweets and words deserve no more respect than the blather of a reality TV star or the ignorant ranting of a crank. He is viewed as ridiculous by virtually all the rest of the world and by the majority of Americans. In that respect he is no longer a president. He may be the president under law, but he is not a president.  

Nothing in our constitution or political culture suggests how to deal with this. Nixon resigned because his confrères in the party told him it was over. Even if today’s Republicans had the same wisdom and courage, he would mostly likely refuse to go. He will hole up and lash out. We must prepare for the constitutional crisis that will follow.



June 1, 2017

In my book Christian Nation, the fictional narrator writes, “They said what they would do, and we did not believe them. Then they did what they said they would do.”

Trump told us what he believed about climate change and told us what he would do about the Paris Agreement. And now he has done it.

Ironically for a man who purports to be dedicated to the restoration of America’s prestige and power, he has at a stroke squandered much of the moral authority and prestige built up over the past century. America may be “first” in his alternative universe, but in the real world we now inhabit an exclusive club of climate non-participants with Syria and Nicaragua.  

Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism, supported mainly by fossil fuel sales, is now assured. China will pivot cynically but effectively into a climate leadership role, assuring that its workers, and not the disgruntled Americans who handed Trump the Presidency, have the millions of 21st century jobs in green energy.      

Earth is of course the biggest loser here. But close behind is American democracy. In polling after the election, 69% of voters said they supported remaining in the Paris Agreement. This included a majority of voters in every state. And even among voters who voted for Trump, only 28% said they favored withdrawal. 

Post-enlightenment civilization has been based on reason and science. Today my country repudiated both. I often wondered what it felt like on August 24, 410, when Rome fell to the Visigoths.   Now I know.