Institutional Government

In less politically correct times we used to refer derisively to “banana republics.”  Originally applied narrowly to a certain type of Central American country overly dependent on fruit exports, the term later was used more broadly to refer to countries that nominally take the form of constitutional democracies, but that lack the institutions and political cultures to sustain them.   As a result, they typically are run by autocratically-inclined rulers elected by populist forces motivated by empty talk of national greatness.  They maintain legislatures and courts, but these are not effective in reining in the impulses of the caudillo.  The most powerful families and companies live in symbiosis with the autocrat (who they despise), dispensing flattery and political support in return for protection of their interests. 

This type of politics is a tragedy for the citizens of these unhappy countries, but – because the “banana republic” countries usually matter so little – they became fodder for jokes, parodies, and satirical novels.  The United States is not a banana republic, but in some respects, it has started to behave like one.  Unlike Honduras and its ilk, America matters a great deal, and as a consequence, the world is not laughing.

The critical distinction between a mature nation-state (whether a democracy or not) and a banana republic is institutional government.   In a mature state, the political and governmental institutions are strong and high functioning.  The political process for decision making may be messy, but once decisions are made they can be communicated and relied on as the position of the government.   National policies and priorities have broad continuity over time, regardless of changes in political control.  Institutional government is like a supertanker – newly elected politicians may push the rudder hard to port or starboard, but the ship turns slowly. Standing bureaucracies assure that politicians, holding temporary power only, make decisions armed with the best information and analysis arising from a sprawling government.  This stability and coherence is what allows a country with strong institutions to lead.   

Events of the past two weeks illustrate the extent to which our long tradition of institutional government has been abandoned.   On Thursday our special representative in charge of the talks for Afghan reconciliation stated that the United States was committed to the fight in Afghanistan: “the United States will stand with the government and the people of Afghanistan.” On Friday morning, Trump, without informing our Afghan allies in advance, announced the drawdown of our troops.   

With respect to Syria, the National Security Advisor said “we’re not going to leave” and the Department of Defense reassured our allies that we are “continuing operations” and “remain committed.”  A few days later Trump announced by tweet that the U.S. was withdrawing its troops from Syria.   Congress, the State Department, and the Pentagon all are reported to have been “blindsided.”  The Secretary of Defense resigned, still smarting at not having been informed before his impulsive boss announced our cancellation of the Iranian nuclear deal, suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, or creation of a sixth branch (the “Space Force”) of the U.S. military.   

Banana republic:  impulsive rule by a single autocrat.  Lack of institutional deliberation and process. 

Michael Lewis’s meticulous reporting in Fifth Risk reveals that the executive branch of the federal government is led by a man with no knowledge of, interest in, or need for, the institution which he leads.   Even Steve Bannon, proponent of the “deconstruction of the administration state,” said of Trump’s attitude toward the government he is supposed to be running: “Holy fuck, this guy doesn’t know anything.  And he doesn’t give a shit.” 

Lewis details the President’s failure to fill vacancies, to appoint persons with relevant skills or experience, or to set policy agendas at the department or agency level.   Lewis’s reporting makes clear that while this approach to governing results in large part from not “giv[ing] a shit,” another part results from deliberate vandalism.  Trump wants the institutions of government to get out of his way.  When he does make appointments, the most relevant credential (other than personal loyalty to Trump) appears to be a declared dedication to dismantling or undermining the missions of the agencies they would serve. 

The American right, as a political strategy, has long stoked anger against the Federal government.    GOP candidates competed to list all the departments and agencies they would eliminate.   We’ll get rid of the IRS, the EPA, the Departments of Energy, Education, and Commerce.  It was all good fun, “playing to the base.”  No one took it seriously.  But now it has happened.  We still have these departments and agencies, but they have been gutted and neutered.  Donald’s dream has come true:  there is only Trump.

The President swears to defend the constitution and to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.”  This includes, as the particular duty of the President, to ensure the staffing, management, and effective functioning of the executive branch.   The institutions of the executive branch are mostly established by law.  Their missions and functions are not optional.  

No one reading Fifth Risk could conclude that Trump has “faithfully executed” his office.  Most GOP congressmen know he hasn’t and also know they have a constitutional duty to do something about it. Republican businessmen and financiers, who held their noses and accepted the farcical con-man in return for tax breaks and regulatory reform, now know they put the republic in peril. 

Banana republic:  the political and commercial establishment lives in symbiosis with the autocrat (who they despise), dispensing flattery and political support in return for favors and commercial opportunity





A Christmas Carol

Interior.  Trump, alone in bed, wakes up, roles over, and presses a button.  The three TVs on the opposite wall light up.   He sits up.

On one of the screens, talking heads discuss Bush 41, all agreeing that he was modest, selfless, empathetic, smart, experienced, prudent, a steady and wise leader, a model husband, a true patriot, etc.  Trump becomes agitated and picks up the phone.

Trump:  Get me Hannity.

Hannity:  Good morning, Mr. President.

Trump:  Tell the guys to go light on this Bush funeral thing.  You know, it makes Trump look bad.

Hannity:  Yes sir.  [he pauses]  But exactly how . . .

Trump:  You know, just tell them it’s fake news.

Hannity:  I’m sorry, Mr. President, you want us to tell them that Bush didn’t really die?

Trump:   Nah.  Just play up the wimp thing, tell ‘em that if he had been more like Trump he wouldn’t have been such a loser.   He was a terrible deal-maker.  Tell ‘em that.

Trump hangs up.    He burps loudly and rubs his belly, regretting the three Big Macs he had the Secret Service fetch as a pre-bed snack.  He feels slightly woozy.

His attention is seized by one of the screens, where the Fox anchor has just said, “Mr. President.”  He turns.  The anchor is silent, staring straight at him.   Trump closes his eyes and reopens them.  The anchor leans forward. 

Anchor:  Donald, I’m talking to you.

Trump:  What the fuck?

Anchor:  I am the ghost of Christmas yet to come.  

Trump:  This must be a dream.

Anchor:  No dream, Donald.  This whole Bush 41 funeral thing must be terrible for you.   I mean, it’s all about someone else.  And, let’s face it, the comparison is not flattering.

Trump:  Yea, it sucks.  Worse than McCain.  At least I didn’t have to go to that funeral.

Anchor:  You ever think about your own funeral, Donald?

Trump:  What?  Nah, Trump’s gonna live longer than anyone ever. 

Anchor:  But the day will come.   In fact, you’ll also die a few days before Christmas.   Want to see?

Trump:  Wake up.  I want to wake up.

Anchor:  Look over there. 

The anchor points to the adjacent screen.  Three talking heads sit around a table. 

Trump:  I’m not watching this. 

He tries to close his eyes, but cannot.

Talking Head #1:   So can we all agree that, just as there was never another President like Trump, there’s never been a Presidential death like Trump’s?  How will the nation deal with it?

Talking Head #2:   I think it’s the end of a tragic chapter in American life.   After all, he was the first President elected due to the machinations of a foreign enemy.  The first President suffering from personality disorders that made him a pathological liar and crippled his ability to take advice or make fact-based decisions.   The first President who was the subject of ridicule and derision by every foreign leader he dealt with.  A man who destroyed the political party that nominated him.  The largest election loss by any incumbent President in history.  The only President convicted of multiple felonies arising from his business activities and confined to a Federal penitentiary two years after leaving the White House. 

Talking Head #3, interrupting:  Remember, one of the convictions was under the RICO statute, establishing that the Trump Organization was a criminal enterprise.

Talking Head #1:  Fraud, tax fraud, tax evasion, accounting fraud, larceny, extortion, bribery – I can’t even remember the list.   Remember the interview where he said that running for President was the worst . . .

Talking Head #3, interrupting, laughing:  I seem to recall he said “only” . . .

Talking Head #1, laughing:  Right.  . . .“only” mistake he ever made.  He thought if he hadn’t been President, they never would have discovered the rest.  He said he would have lived out his life at Mar-a-Lago playing golf. 

Talking Head #2:  You know, one of the most remarkable things in retrospect was the lack of loyalty.  Every President leaves the White House with a group of loyalists who spend the rest of their lives defending his reputation and trying to build his legacy.  Can anyone think of a single member of the administration who defended him?  

Talking Head #3:  Just the opposite. They raced to write books, each filled with the lurid details of life in the West Wing.  He was incapable of loyalty to others, so of course in the end no one was loyal to him.

Talking Head #1:  Even Melania.   Her book received the largest advance ever.

Trump:  Enough.  Fake news, all of it.

Anchor, sounding gruff and pointing at the adjacent screen:  It’s not enough.   Look.

On the screen, a cemetery in Queens.   A casket is lowered into the ground.   Three of his five children are the only persons present.   They stand in a group, looking bored.   

Voice over:  It is a most extraordinary sight, unprecedented in American history.  Congress voted overwhelmingly to deny the ex-President a state funeral.   Congressman Menendez, minority leader for the New Republicans, said, “Where there was no honor, there shall be paid no honor.”

Trump throws his water glass at the second screen, breaking it.   He turns back and addresses the Anchor.

Trump:   This vision of Christmas to come, is it the only possible future, or can I change it?

Anchor:  The message of Christmas is that we all have a shot at redemption.   Even you, Donald.







The Morning After

Most of us woke up this morning with two questions on our minds:  what does it mean, and what do I do now?   In the next 24 hours you will be bombarded by talking points and spin.  Trump has already offered a typical Orwellian inversion:  the midterm election in which his party lost the House was a “big success” and a “tremendous victory” and he has received “so many congratulations” from “foreign nations.”  Moreover, he argues, Republicans lost only if they distanced themselves from Trump.  On the other side, talking heads suggest hopefully that a Democratic House will stop Trump in his tracks.  May I suggest that you silently resolve to keep an open mind for at least a week or two?  There are numbers to be crunched and analysis that needs to be done.  The situation, as usual, is more complicated.

While I don’t yet have a coherent big-picture “take” on the results, I will share some thoughts. 

·      First, don’t be discouraged.   Many ordinary people made extraordinary expenditures of money, time, and energy to influence the results, and hoped for more.  Don’t underestimate or undervalue what you’ve achieved.  The Trump Party has been denied the power to legislate.   Many of us feared that a decade of gerrymandering combined with relentless voter suppression would make it impossible to take back the House.  It was your time, money and votes that proved this wrong.

·      I watched with astonishment last night as Texas came close to electing a progressive Democrat to the Senate.   The seas of blue spreading from that state’s urban centers may soon offset the extreme conservatism of rural Texas.   This is encouraging.  The times they are a-changin’. 

·      In the long run, much will depend on which party controls swing state legislatures and governorships during the redistricting that will follow the 2020 census.   That will be determined in 2020, but last night’s results, when fully in and analyzed, should give a clue. 

·      The obvious benefits of denying the Trump Party control of the House are somewhat offset by its extraordinary utility to the President as an excuse.   In 2020, everything good will be his and his alone; everything bad will be the fault of the obstructionist dems.   This will resonate strongly with his base and provide the necessary exculpation for, e.g., the absence of a wall paid for by Mexico.

·      With the remarkable sight of a Fox “journalist” campaigning on stage with the President (not to mention the revolving door between the network and the government, and the daily collaboration between their respective leaders), the illusion that Fox News is simply a commercial news platform with an ideological bias has been fully and finally shattered.   Perhaps the single most salient fact of American political life at this moment is that most Americans get their news from a government-coordinated media outlet that, hour by hour, promotes the latest “alternative-fact” or spin from the White House.   When it started, Fox was simply an instrumentality of a rebellious movement conservatism.  But now that movement (as high-jacked by its ugly alt-right step-child) has moved into power, and so this long-standing alliance has become something very different.   I repeat, the majority of Americans – like the residents of authoritarian states everywhere ­– receive only government propaganda as their “news.”   Why my libertarian friends are not horrified by this is something I do not understand.   

Before last night’s election I wrote that the only question on the ballot was whether or not you approve of Trump.  I was wrong.  For well over half of Americans, the only question on the ballot yesterday was “Who am I?”   

For a significant plurality of Americans, politics is now a team sport.    Why do you support your team?  You support the Mets “Because I’m a Mets fan.”  You don’t switch to the Yankees when the Mets have a bum for a coach.   The pre-election mobilization against the “invasion” was called “Operation Faithful Patriot.”  This effectively reminded Trump Party voters who they are.  They are faithful.  They are patriots.  When they enter the election booth, they are, in essence, being asked only to reaffirm or deny that identity.   The 35% who “strongly approve” (the scary rally-attending core base) actually think he’s a great American doing a great job.  The additional 12% who voted yesterday for Trump Party House candidates may realize that he’s a vulgar lying moron, but that doesn’t matter:  he’s their vulgar lying moron.   Voting for the other side is just not who they are.

I, perhaps like you, awoke on Tuesday silently indulging the hope that it might be the day we awoke from a nightmare.  My dream was that many of the good people who – for whatever reason – voted for Tump in 2016, would send some kind of a signal that they didn’t much like what they saw – the bragging, bullying, lying, vulgarity, misogyny, racism, ignorance, amorality, and violence.   It didn’t happen.  So now we know our problem will not disappear overnight.  But the journey to bring this country back from the brink has begun. 




I read both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal most mornings.   I usually rise from the couch feeling some combination of incredulity, anger, and despair.   This morning, for the first time, I felt a sharp stab of fear. 

A shrinking gaggle of mostly Honduran refugees is slowly making its way north, still weeks away from the border.  In response, Trump has launched the largest quick deployment of active-duty U.S. military since 2010 by ordering over 5000 troops to counter what the President called “an invasion of our country.”  He calls it “Operation Faithful Patriot.”  “[Democrats],” he says, “want to open America’s borders and turn our country into a friendly sanctuary for murderous thugs from other countries who will kill us all.”   And are the American people buying it?  On the front page, the Times quotes a graphic designer from Illinois:  “I feel like we’re fighting for our freedom when it comes to our borders.  [The caravan will] destroy America, and . . . bring us to our knees.  I’m not going to take it – not going to go down without a fight.”

For tens of millions of our fellow citizens, this is the reality they will bring with them to the voting booth next Tuesday, not the actual reality that individuals steeped in the rhetoric of the Trump base sent pipe bombs to most of the leadership of the opposition party, and did murder 11 worshiping Jews for no reason other than their religion.   I fear that democracy cannot function in a society without the grounding reference point of a common reality, no less a shared culture or shared narrative of nationhood and history.   Who wins in what Chris Hedges calls “the empire of illusion”?    I fear the answer is the party that is comfortable peddling a manipulative narrative untethered from the truth and highly skilled at manipulating the levers of social and other media; the party that is willing to open Pandora’s box and unleash the powerful passions of hate, resentment, nativism, and prejudice.  

Reading on, I find that Brazil, by far the largest country in Latin America, elected as its president a far-right politician who said “Let’s go straight to the dictatorship,” as the only way to fix a broken country.   He told a magazine that he’d “rather his son die in a car accident” than be gay, and told a female politician on camera that she was not good enough to be raped.  Sound familiar?   So Brazil joins Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Austria.   I fear that we still view these elections as aberrant and fail to recognize that we are in the midst of a global epidemic.   Why are the champions of liberal democracy not fighting these outbreaks with the same vigor we brought to Ebola, SARS and other threatening pathogens?

When Trump was elected, I wrote that “cancellation of trade deals will send the global economy into a tailspin and devastate American business and workers.”  Instead, the long tail of our recovery from the 2008 recession drove the economy forward, and the stock market, artificially buoyed by a large corporate tax cut, floated ever upward.  This morning something changed.  The Wall Street Journal has previously opposed Trump’s multi-front trade war, but only in a pro forma way.  This morning, the paper chose to run an opinion piece with a stark verdict:  “That crashing sound you heard in the world markets last week wasn’t just a correction.  It was the sound of the end of an age.”  The end of an age when Washington emphasized “opening of markets and reducing barriers to investment and trade” and “the positive-sum logic of economics trumped zero-sum international politics.”   In its place, a far-right rage that seeks to destroy globalism and the Trumpist world view that international relations is a zero-sum contest between winners and losers.   As an investor, I have learned over a long period to ignore the ups and downs of the market.  But reading this, I felt an emotion toxic to markets:  fear.

And finally, finished with both papers, I was struck by what was missing.  Where were the voices of the opposition?   Consider this:  Both papers reported the deployment of Federal troops to the border together with the President’s explanation that we were being “invaded.”   And who provided the counterpoint?  Who called Trump out for this abuse of Federal power for transparently partisan purposes?  Speaker Pelosi?  Leader Schumer?  Neither the Times nor the Journal quoted a single Democratic politician in opposition.  (Ex-military leaders, however, were quick to react, and succinct:  “This is using the troops as props,” said an ex-Army infantry officer.)    I fear that no resistance can succeed without effective leaders.  I fear that the political establishment (or what remains of it) is not going to come to our rescue.  I fear that it really is up to each of us as individuals and the decisions we make next Tuesday.

Fear can be either enervating or energizing.  We can be paralyzed by fear or it can spur action that saves our lives.  I can only hope that I’m not the only one who has felt an escalation of fear in recent days.  If enough of those millennials, minorities, suburban women, centrists, moderates, and independents feel the same way, we might finally get some good news on Tuesday night.   





Which side are you on?

When you vote on November 6, don’t be fooled into thinking that this election is about the candidates whose names are printed on the ballot.  There will be only one headline on November 7.  The nation will either embrace or repudiate Trumpism.  You are being asked only a single question: “Which side are you on?”

The choices are no longer Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal.   The GOP we once knew, defined by ideology and policy, no longer exists.   Now there is only Trump and anti-Trump. 

The choice is between an ethnic nationalism hunkered down behind a wall, and an open society that values pluralism and diversity.  It is the choice between a moral vacuum in which the ends justify the means, and a political culture in which we demand honesty and decency from our leaders.  It is the choice between ignorance and learning, bombastic bullying and respectful dialog, all-consuming ego and empathetic compassion, a narrative of hate and a narrative of hope.

Republican primary voters already have made their choice.  All but a handful of Republicans in Congress already have made their choice.   So now it’s up to you.

If you stayed home in 2016, disaffected by politics in general or Hillary in particular, you in effect voted for Trump.   Now is the chance to atone.  This time there are no excuses.

Max Boot, life-long GOP partisan and former editor of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, argues in his new book that Americans must “vote against all Republicans.”   For many of us, this requires realigning our very sense of self.   I have always defined myself as a non-partisan rationalist, voting for person and policy, not party.  Not this time.  There will not be a single vote on my ballot under the GOP column.  

Which side are you on?




Trigger warning:  Reading this blog might ruin your day.

In my September 2016 blog, What is fascism?, I examined each of the core markers of fascism (nationalism, resentment of “others,” fetishization of strength and power, contempt for the rule of law, aggression, disdain for the truth, and rejection of political convention).  I concluded, “As hard as it is to swallow, there can be no denying that by these six measures, Trumpism is a proto-fascist movement ('proto' in this case meaning rising, or precursor to).”   Even those who accepted my analysis believed, as I did, that – in the unlikely event of his victory – the strength of America’s political culture and institutions would prevent Trump from implementing his proto-fascist agenda.

Most turning points in history are visible only in retrospect.  All too often we lack the perspective to see what is happening until it's too late.   I have tried to adopt the perspective of a future historian asking the question whether by 2018 the Trumpist political movement had crossed the line from proto-fascist rhetoric to actual fascism.  I believe our future historian would conclude that it had.  Here’s why:

The GOP Is Now a Cult of Personality.  Our governing political party is no longer defined by an ideological or policy agenda, but primarily by loyalty to Trump.  Almost 60% of registered Republicans now tell pollsters they consider themselves "more a supporter of Trump than of the Republican Party."   This is why virtually all of the GOP has stood silently as the President has reversed its long-standing commitments to, among other things, reduction of federal deficits, free trade, and our NATO alliance.  Those Republicans not unswervingly loyal to Trump are retiring from political life, and those who don’t will be defeated by well-funded Trumpists in GOP primaries.  Wall Street Journal and Fox News commentator Daniel Henninger now refers to “the Trump Party, formerly known as the GOP.”  And Mr. Trump himself dismisses any remaining GOP critics, including most notably the Koch brothers, as not being “real Republicans.”  Most disturbingly, 91% of strong Trump supporters say they trust Trump – more than any other source – for “accurate information,” notwithstanding his astonishing record of mendacity and his own express admission that he uses the “fake news” label to discredit anything critical or inconvenient to himself.   

O'Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended. 'How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?  And if the party says that it is not four but five -- then how many?'”  (George Orwell, 1984, Part 3, Chapter 2.)

When nearly a third of Americans are now in a mind-set where they routinely answer “five fingers,” we have to admit that we are in the grip of a fascist movement.

The Foreign Policy of the USA Is One of Extreme Nationalism and Nativism.  Nationalist and nativist policies can no longer be dismissed as populist rhetoric.  The cowardly Congress of the United States has stood by as the State Department and other institutional stewards of America’s diplomatic values and traditions have been gutted or ignored, allowing the foreign policy of the United States to be defined by the angry whims of one man and conducted mano a mano with the thugs and tyrants that our President finds most congenial.  The President has attacked our core alliances, celebrated and embraced fellow-authoritarians, launched trade wars against our allies, and unilaterally implemented immigration policies that have demolished our country’s reputation and standing in the world.   Travel anywhere outside of the US and you'll be reminded of an incontestable truth:  these are not Tump's positions and actions anymore, they are ours.  America now has a fascist foreign policy.

The Executive Branch Attacks the Rule of Law and Press Freedom.   The President launches personal attacks against judges whose decisions he does not like.  At his behest, millions of Americans no longer trust the integrity of law enforcement or the courts.  He illegally instructed his recused attorney general to terminate the Russia probe following months of relentless attacks on his own Justice Department.  The President has doubled-down on his “enemy of the people” attacks on the free press, which are now escalating and will climax this fall.   In September 2016 these things were the ravings of a populist candidate who few took seriously.  But for the past year and a half they have been the acts and words of the President.  Instead of a virus attacking the system from the outside, the virus now sits within – at the very core of our body politic – and has already started to cripple the institutions at the core of our democracy.

The Rise of Violence.   Most disturbingly, the final line  – the toleration and use of violent means – has been crossed.  Trump the candidate encouraged his supporters to beat-up protesters at his rallies, and now as President he countenances the threat of violence against the news media.  Mainstream media companies now need to engage security guards for their reporters covering Trump rallies.   The White House approvingly tweets videos of crowds threatening the press and declines to criticize their menacing behavior.  In response, left-wing extremists also have menaced Trumpies.  The depth and bitterness of our political divide, engineered and celebrated by Trump and Bannon, is having exactly the effect they intended: the morphing of our politics in the direction of violent conflict.   I predict that the 2018 mid-term campaign will be characterized by steadily escalating political violence.

*    *    *

Trump’s approval ratings stand at 40%, including 84% of Republicans.  34% of all voters strongly approve.  History teaches that in Trump’s unshakable 34% of Americans we have a political base sufficient to support and sustain a fascist populist regime.   Unless, that is, the rest of us turn out to vote and are unified in our opposition.  History might well show that the 2018 midterms were the last moment when Trumpist fascism could have been derailed.

Fascism is a heavy charge, which many will dismiss as alarmist.  But for those uncomfortable with drawing parallels to the 20th century, please consider what our future historian will see, looking back at 2018:  fascist or near-fascist regimes in countries as diverse as North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and elsewhere.  America is not alone in its struggle with this scourge.  And remember that political science and history teach that fascism comes in many flavors, but all are ultra-nationalist, all are designed to restore lost national “greatness,” all admire the strong-man in politics and are based on loyalty to a strong-man ruler, and all are fundamentally hostile to the rights of minorities, rule of law and pluralist democracy.   In addition to their fundamental political character, historians recognize fascist regimes by a certain style and rhetoric:  large theatrical rallies, repetitive chants, extreme and provocative speech, and the toleration or promotion of violence in political life.   We have been warned.   We’ll find out on November 6, 2018, how many of us listened.





Profile in Courage

A large number of Republicans know that it is their patriotic duty to put the interests of country before the interests of party, but sadly have lacked the courage to do so.   Two days ago John McCain reminded them what political courage looks like.   I believe that everyone should read the full text of what Senator McCain wrote.  Here it is, complete and unedited:

“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.

“President Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.

“It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout – as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience. But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician. These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin’s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties, and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.

“Coming close on the heels of President Trump’s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American Presidency. That the president was attended in Helsinki by a team of competent and patriotic advisors makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful and inexplicable.

“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad. American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.  

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.”

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.