Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Reading

Child King — Peter Wehner in The New York Times.

REPUBLICAN lawmakers have seen the Trump disaster coming for a while now. They simply have no clue what to do about it.

A couple of months ago — before we learned that Donald Trump Jr. wanted to spend quality time with people he believed represented the Russian government, before the president publicly humiliated his attorney general and was abandoned by top business executives, before he claimed “some very fine people” were marching in Charlottesville, Va., alongside neo-Nazis and white supremacists — a Republican member of Congress I spoke with called the president a “child king,” a “self-pitying fool.”

Even then, the words that came to mind when some congressional Republicans described the president were “incompetent” and “unfit.” There were concerns about his emotional stability. “There’s now a realization this isn’t going to change,” one top Republican aide on Capitol Hill said. Yet there is the simultaneous realization, as a House member told me when talking about Republicans in their home districts, that “we’re never going to have a majority of people against him.”

Maybe, but for now this presents Republican members of Congress who are privately alarmed by Mr. Trump with a predicament. Regardless of what he does, a vast majority of his core supporters are sticking with him. A recent Monmouth University poll found that of the 41 percent of Americans who currently approve of the job he’s doing, 61 percent said they cannot see Mr. Trump doing anything that would make them disapprove of him. Mr. Trump was on to something when he said in January 2016, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

The political problem facing Republicans is that Mr. Trump’s presidency is a wreck. His agenda is dead in the water. A special counsel is overseeing an investigation of his campaign. The West Wing is dysfunctional. And President Trump is deeply unpopular with most Americans.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll illustrates the dilemma Republican politicians face. It found that 28 percent of polled voters say they approved of Mr. Trump’s response to Charlottesville. But among Republican voters, the figure was 62 percent, while 72 percent of conservative Republicans approved.

The more offensive Mr. Trump is to the rest of America, the more popular he becomes with his core supporters. One policy example: At a recent rally in Phoenix, the president said he was willing to shut down the government over the question of funding for a border wall, which most of his base favors but only about a third of all Americans want.

Much of this mess is of the Republican Party’s own making. Let’s not forget that Mr. Trump’s political rise began with his promulgation of the racist conspiracy theory that President Obama was not a natural-born American citizen. The Trump presidency is the result of years of destructive mental habits and moral decay. So there’s no easy solution for responsible Republicans. But there is a step they have to take.

They need to accept, finally, the reality — evident from the moment he declared his candidacy — that Mr. Trump is unfit to govern. He will prove unable to salvage his presidency. As the failures pile up, he’ll act in an even more erratic fashion.

The mental hurdle Republicans have to clear is that in important respects the interests of the Republican Party and those of Donald Trump no longer align. The party has to highlight ways in which it can separate itself from the president.

So far the response of many Republican leaders to Mr. Trump’s offenses has been silence or at most veiled, timid criticism. The effect is to rile up Trump supporters and Mr. Trump himself without rallying opposition to him. It’s the worst of all worlds.

What’s required now is a comprehensive, consistent case by Republican leaders at the state and national levels that signals their opposition to the moral ugliness and intellectual incoherence of Mr. Trump. Rather than standing by the president, they should consider themselves liberated and offer a constructive, humane and appealing alternative to him. They need to think in terms of a shadow government during the Trump era, with the elevation of alternative leaders on a range of matters.

This approach involves risk and may not work. It will certainly provoke an angry response from the Breitbart-alt-right-talk-radio part of the party. So be it. Republicans who don’t share Mr. Trump’s approach have to hope that his imploding presidency has created an opening to offer a profoundly different vision of America, one that is based on opportunity, openness, mobility and inclusion.

This requires a new intellectual infrastructure to address what may prove to be one of the largest economic disruptions in history. People in positions of influence need to make arguments on behalf of principles and ideas that have for too long gone undefended. They must appeal to moral idealism. And the party needs leaders who will fight with as much passionate intensity for their cause as Mr. Trump fights for his — which is simply himself. There’s no shortcut to forging a separate Republican identity during the Trump presidency. Half-measures and fainthearted opposition are certain to fail.

If Republicans need more encouragement to break with Mr. Trump, they might note that the president, who has no institutional or party loyalty, is positioning himself as a critic not just of Democrats but also of Republicans. During his rally in Arizona, he went out of his way to attack both of that state’s Republican senators, including one battling brain cancer. He followed that up with tweets attacking the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and other Republican lawmakers.

A confrontation is inevitable. The alternative is to continue to further tie the fate and the reputation of the Republican Party to a president who seems destined for epic failure and whose words stir the hearts of white supremacists.

We are well past the point where equivocations are defensible, and we’re nearly past the point where a moral reconstitution is possible. The damage Mr. Trump has inflicted on the Republican Party is already enormous. If the party doesn’t make a clean break with him, it will be generational.

Pardon This — Jonathan Blitzer in The New Yorker on how Arpaio’s pardon could energize Trump’s opposition.

When Lydia Guzman, an immigrants-rights advocate in Arizona, heard the news that Donald Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff, last night, it felt to her like mourning the death of someone who’d long been ill. “I knew this was coming, yet I still wasn’t ready,” she told me.

When the fight against Arpaio began, a decade ago, Guzman was on the front lines. While Arpaio raided immigrant communities around Phoenix, arresting Latino residents en masse, she was one of dozens of community members who turned out with cameras and recorders to document what was happening. It took a few years for Guzman and other activists to gather evidence of the sheriff’s rampant racial profiling, and then several more for the courts to consider all the evidence. During that time, Guzman had to persuade Arpaio’s victims that sharing their stories was worth the trouble and the risk. “There were times when the community threw up its hands and said, ‘This is going nowhere,’ ” she told me. But last November, Arpaio was voted out of office, and then, earlier this summer, a court found him guilty of criminal contempt. Arpaio hadn’t just brutalized Latinos; he had flagrantly ignored a federal judge who’d ordered him to stop. The outcome was proof—belated but definitive—that the justice system could work. “Arpaio is no longer the sheriff, and his legacy is that he was a convicted criminal,” Guzman said. “Only criminals need pardons.”

That the pardon came from Trump—two weeks after backing white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and three days after staging a rally in Phoenix—only heightened the national stakes. “It’s a message to the country,” Carlos Garcia, the executive director of Puente, an Arizona-based human-rights organization, told me. “What Arpaio did—that’s coming to you, wherever you live.” Both Guzman and Garcia were angry but energized. “What we do now has to do with Trump,” Garcia said. Even before Arpaio was found to be in contempt of court, advocates and community members in Arizona beat him at the ballot box, which showed that Trump, too, could be defeated democratically. “When we started our fight against Arpaio he was the most popular official in Arizona. His approval rating was over seventy per cent,” Garcia said. “We took to the streets, took testimony, registered people to vote, and went to the courtroom. This is the fight we’ll bring to Trump.”

Puente was founded, in 2007, to fight Joe Arpaio. By then, he was nationally known for torturing inmates held at his jails, which he once described, boastfully, as “concentration camps.” But what ultimately mobilized the community against Arpaio was his decision to work formally and systematically with federal immigration authorities. The sheriff’s department began arresting Hispanic residents with little or no pretense at all, and if they happened to be undocumented Arpaio would turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation. “Before then, no one really had an official agreement with ICE; there was no police agency handing people over,” Garcia said. “Arpaio used to set up a perimeter around immigrant communities, and send out hundreds of officers who would arrest and detain anyone they wanted.”

The Trump Administration has spent the last six months trying to force local law-enforcement agencies to collaborate with ICE as Arpaio did, and many police chiefs and sheriffs across the country have resisted. Threats by the Justice Department to withdraw federal funding haven’t seemed to dim their resolve. Preserving the community’s trust is simply too important for public safety, and if residents are scared that local police agencies are working as de-facto immigration agents, then crimes will go unreported and leads will dry up.

Arpaio’s twenty-four-year career in Maricopa County was as a direct affront to the immigrant community. He gloated over the fear he caused. More than a hundred inmates died in his jails, and there were countless lawsuits filed against him. When local journalists wrote critical articles, he had them arrested. At one point, he launched an immigration raid in the town of a rival police chief apparently just to spite him. “Arpaio knows how to move the needle when it comes to appealing to the base,” George Gascón, a former police chief in the neighboring town of Mesa, told a reporter in 2012. “What he did very artfully is piggy-back on this fear of illegal immigration that was becoming so prevalent in border states like Arizona.” He was, in effect, a populist rabble-rouser, with a badge.

“Pardoning him encourages every other police office and sheriff to racially profile and to abuse their power, and there’ll be no consequences,” Garcia said. “This is just like when Trump mocked the ‘Mexican judge.’ ” Garcia was referring to Gonzalo Curiel, an American-born federal judge in Indiana whom Trump accused of harboring biases against him because of Curiel’s ethnicity. “The same monster that Arpaio was, is what Trump is,” Garcia told me. “He feels that he is above the law and that he can do what he wants to get rid of our community.”

Karina Ruiz de Diaz, a thirty-three-year-old immigrant who was born in Mexico but grew up in the Phoenix area, said, “Trump wants all the immigrants to follow the law, but then he decides which laws apply.” Ruiz de Diaz stopped driving in 2010 because she was scared of being pulled over and deported. The state had just institutionalized Arpaio’s practices by passing a law that allowed local law-enforcement officers to ask for the citizenship status of anyone they arrested. (It was eventually blocked in federal court.)

Two years later, President Barack Obama issued an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protected immigrants who had come to the U.S. as children, granting them a reprieve from deportation and enabling them to get driver’s licenses and work permits. Ruiz de Diaz is one of close to a million immigrants nationwide benefitting from DACA, which Trump is now threatening to end. In June, a group of Republican attorneys general from ten states said they’d sue the federal government to revoke the program if Trump didn’t act, and reports surfaced earlier this week suggesting that the President may dismantle the program himself.

“We have been fearless in the last few years, but pardoning Arpaio and cancelling DACA bring back the sentiment that we just don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything can be taken away from you—again,” Ruiz de Diaz said. Five years ago, she joined a group called the Arizona Dream Coalition, which defended the rights of young immigrants in the state. (Now she’s its president.) “Even though we’re full of fear, we’re just going to have to shake it up,” she said. “We’ve been fighting for so long, it’s the only option we have.”

Who Is That Guy? — Allegra Kirkland reports on the “Blacks for Trump” photobomber.

A familiar figure resurfaced at President Donald Trump’s campaign event in Phoenix, Arizona this week: Maurice Symonette, a.k.a. “Michael the Black Man,” could be seen on camera standing just behind the President, signature “Blacks for Trump” sign in hand.

Symonette captured the media’s attention during the 2016 presidential race after the Miami New Times noted that the frequent Trump rally attendee was a member of a defunct, violent black supremacist cult and had a checkered criminal history, including acquittal on two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. Although South Florida media have reported extensively on his ties to the Yahweh ben Yahweh cult and his promotion, via a radio show and multiple websites, of a bizarrely ahistorical and racialized worldview, Symonette always manages to land a prime spot behind Trump at the campaign events he attends.

When TPM first reached Symonette on Wednesday to ask how he snags such prominent seats at Trump rallies, he hung up after a few minutes, saying he was rushing over to an event Vice President Pence was holding with Venezuelan immigrants at a church in Miami’s Doral neighborhood.

Reached again on Friday, Symonette insisted in a meandering 30-minute phone call from the porch of his Miami home that he has no formal relationship with the Trump campaign. He said he uses his own funds to travel to campaign and administration events throughout the southeast.

“I just go on my own, that’s it,” Symonette said, adding that he knows plenty of people to “say hi to” but has no ongoing contact with any Trump staffers.

“I don’t know if they’re on the campaign,” he said of the individuals he greets at campaign events. “’Cause when I go there I make it my business to keep on business, cause what I’m really interested in doing is showing that the white man and the black man are in unity. Because the Bible says if we fight, God is going to kill everybody by fire.”

And the secret to snagging a spot so close to the President? Symonette said he simply arrives early.

“If you get there late you end up in the back, in the audience,” he said. “They’re used to seeing me so I just walk up to the front. And just walk in. I guess they’ve already vetted me or whatever they have to do and I just walk in, that’s it.”

TPM has made repeated efforts to contact multiple members of the Trump 2020 campaign by phone, email and Facebook messenger for comment on Symonette this week but received no response.

Symonette is no stranger to the President himself, though. At one October 2016 rally in Sanford, Florida, Trump took note of the supportive signs his fans were waving for the cameras.

“I love the signs behind me,” Trump yelled. “‘Blacks for Trump.’ I like those signs. ‘Blacks for Trump.’ You watch. You watch. Those signs are great!”

The signs Trump was referring to featured the URL of one of Symonette’s websites, Gods2.com, a poorly-formatted site full of screeds about a “race war” it says Hillary Clinton plans to carry out with the help of the Islamic State and MS-13 gang, and about how, as Symonette argued at length in conversation with TPM, Cherokee Indians bear responsibility for keeping black and white Americans down.

According to Symonette, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Confederate Gen. Albert Pike, president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, “almost all of the Confederate army,” the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, and segregationist former Birmingham, Alabama mayor Bull Connor have one thing in common: they were all “full-blooded Cherokees.”

He views Trump, on the other hand, as a “white gentile” who will impose taxes on the Cherokees and an “emancipator” who will provide economic liberation to blacks and to poor whites.

Symonette has long promoted these same fringey ideas on his radio show, YouTube channel and at tea party events. In 2012, he derailed a Rick Santorum campaign event where he was invited to give an introduction by calling Democrats “Nazis” and “slave masters” in disguise.

Born Maurice Woodside, Symonette, who took his father’s name as an adult, came to the Republican Party after years in the obscure Yahweh ben Yahweh cult, which had its headquarters in the gritty Miami neighborhood of Liberty City. As the Miami New Times has chronicled in rich detail, he was charged in 1990 with conspiracy to murder alongside Yahweh’s charismatic leader, Hulon Mitchell Jr., and other cult members. His brother testified that he stuck a sharpened stick into one victim’s eyeball; ultimately Symonette was acquitted. In separate cases, he was hit with charges for grand theft auto; trying to board a Delta flight with a gun; threatening a police officer; and driving a purportedly stolen car with a gun on the front seat, as the Miami New Times has reported.

Symonette brought up his rap sheet unprompted, proclaiming his innocence and lamenting that the press mentions those charges in stories about him.

“That’s why I agree with Trump,” he said of what he sees as unfair treatment by the media. “Because they’re doing him the way they do me.”

Now a singer and promoter, Symonette sees it as his duty to show the press that Trump, who won a meager 8 percent of the black vote, has African-American supporters.

“I sold a few things to get up there and I got up there,” he said of his attendance at the Phoenix rally. “That was a very important rally, that Trump be seen with his brothers, the black man of America.”

Symonette’s presence Tuesday gave the President cover in face of the heavy, sustained backlash he received for his delayed response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, remarks that Symonette characterized as “perfect.” He sees the other part of his mission as convincing black Americans that the President is on their side.

“I don’t care about who he is and what he’s about, I’m here because of his policies, that’s it,” Symonette said of the President’s promises to slash regulations and taxes. “Trump gives us liberty. That’s what I’m dealing with and the only thing I’m dealing with.”

As the call wrapped, Symonette offered a Trumpian plea not to write critical news about him.

“I know you’re gonna go write bad stuff about me,” Symonette said, “but remember: Yahweh loves you and so do I.”

Doonesbury — Four out of five doctors…

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. My take away: Trump is obviously a racist. He doesn’t even try to hide it. The black guy is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.

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