Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why Don’t You Love Me?

There’s been a lot of unpacking of Trump’s AP interview that was posted last weekend, but this part, highlighted and emphasis added by Josh Marshall at TPM, is both pathetic and scary.

TRUMP: You have to love people. And if you love people, such a big responsibility. (unintelligible) You can take any single thing, including even taxes. I mean we’re going to be doing major tax reform. Here’s part of your story, it’s going to be a big (unintelligible). Everybody’s saying, “Oh, he’s delaying.” I’m not delaying anything. I’ll tell you the other thing is (unintelligible). I used to get great press. I get the worst press. I get such dishonest reporting with the media. That’s another thing that really has — I’ve never had anything like it before. It happened during the primaries, and I said, you know, when I won, I said, “Well the one thing good is now I’ll get good press.” And it got worse. (unintelligible) So that was one thing that a little bit of a surprise to me. I thought the press would become better, and it actually, in my opinion, got more nasty.

You would have to be the world’s biggest ignoramus not to know that just being president means that you’re going to be attacked in the press.  It is as much a part of the deal as the big airplane and the Secret Service.  Did he honestly think that any of his predecessors automatically got good press just because they won?  Really?  Name one.

He sounds like a petulant and spoiled child, which, regardless of the job he holds, is sad and pathetic in a grown man of 70.

It’s scary because the presidency is not there to make you happy, and we have seen what people with thin skins have done when they also have a lot of power at their ready.  They lash out, and when they do, there are body counts.

Fair Game

I’m all in favor of leaving the First Family alone; attacks on a president’s children are out of bounds.  Unless, of course, they have a security clearance and an office in the West Wing.  Then they’re out on the field of play, and just because they’re a woman doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to the same scrutiny as anyone else on the job.

As Ivanka Trump’s influence grows within the administration of her father, President Donald Trump, so too will the degree to which people hold her personally accountable for his actions.

This was evident in Germany on Tuesday, when Ivanka was booed at a women’s panel she attended along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“He’s been a tremendous champion of supporting families and enabling them to thrive,” Ivanka said, as murmuring and booing became audible from the crowd. When the moderator asked Ivanka for her reaction to this — specifically mentioning Donald Trump’s history of misogynistic comments — the first daughter replied that “I certainly heard the criticism from the media and that’s been perpetuated by —”

After trailing off for a moment, Ivanka resumed, “I know from personal experience, and I think the thousands of women who have worked with and for my father for decades when he was in the private sector are a testament to his belief and solid conviction in the potential of women, and their ability to do the job as well as any man.”

I can understand a daughter defending her father; it’s natural to protect the family (not to mention that a lot of domestic violence sufferers make excuses for their abusers) but to say that it’s the news media that has perpetuated the criticism is classic enabling.  (To be fair, it is true that the news media did notify us of Trump’s propensity for sexual assault.  Thank you, Billy Bush and your sycophancy.)

Meanwhile, can someone please explain to me exactly what Ivanka Trump’s job is?

Short Takes

Trump backs away from wall funding.

White House refuses to turn over Flynn documents.

Court blocks sanctuary cities crackdown.

Trump blames Canada for soft wood trade tiff.

Chinese court sentences U.S. businesswoman accused of spying.

The Tigers walloped the Mariners 19-9.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

And The Wall Came A-Tumblin’ Down

At least metaphorically.

The White House sought Monday to calm a jittery Washington ahead of a showdown with Congress over spending, and President Trump softened his demand that a deal to keep the federal government open include money to begin construction on his long-promised border wall.

Despite one-party control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the brinkmanship that came to define spending battles in the Obama years has tumbled into the Trump era, as have the factional divisions over strategy and priorities that have gripped the GOP for a decade.

But with a Friday deadline looming to pass a new spending bill, the Trump administration projected confidence that a shutdown would be avoided. In the face of fierce Democratic opposition to funding the wall’s construction, White House officials signaled Monday that the president may be open to an agreement that includes money for border security if not specifically for a wall, with an emphasis on technology and border agents rather than a structure.

Trump showed even more flexibility Monday afternoon, telling conservative journalists in a private meeting that he was open to delaying funding for wall construction until September, a White House official confirmed.

Given Trump’s inability to maintain an attention span longer than that of a sugared-up six-year-old, by the time we get to September the wall will be a distant memory, and at some point he will deny that he ever said he would build it in the first place.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Reading

Scientific America — Charles P. Pierce on the march for science.

WASHINGTON—They named this town—Forgive me, This Town—after a man of science, a surveyor and an experimental farmer from down the cowpaths in Virginia. In 1783, while waiting to hear that the fighting part of the American Revolution was over, he took time to team up with another science aficionado, a not-altogether successful engineer named Thomas Paine, to investigate the phenomena caused by swamp gas in Virginia. Four years later, in a closed laboratory of politics in Philadelphia, he presided over the deliberations that produced a Constitution that, in the eighth section of its very first article, promised that the new government would,

“…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…”

Talking through a thick mist thickening swiftly into a hard rain, and talking from a stage beneath the obelisk dedicated to that one famous polymath out of an age famous for producing them, Bill Nye took it upon himself to remind the people who had gathered on Saturday to March For Science, that they were descended in every important way from men of science.

The Framers of our Constitution, which has become a model for constitutions of governments everywhere, included Article I, Section 8… Its intent was to motivate innovators and drive the economy by means of just laws. They knew our economy would falter without them, without scientifically literate citizens, the U.S. cannot compete on the world stage.

(Speaking immediately before Nye, Manu Prakash, a Stanford neuroscientist, argued that scientific literacy was a basic human right because, in so many places, it literally is a matter of life and death.)

Yet, today, we have lawmakers, here and around the world, deliberately ignoring or actively suppressing science. Their inclination is misguided and it is in nobody’s best interest.

This, of course, was the central paradox of Saturday’s event, which coincided with the 47th celebration of Earth Day. It was the brainchild of a senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, who had been on fire for what was then called “ecology” or “conservation” ever since he ran through the woods in and around Clear Lake, the small village in northern Wisconsin where he grew up.

As he came up through politics, Nelson was steeped in the Progressive heritage of his home state. In 1963, in his first year in the Senate after two terms as Wisconsin’s governor, an ascension to which Nelson’s environmental policies were critical, Nelson convinced President John F. Kennedy to embark on a series of speeches across the country concerning the environment, one of the most public demonstrations of White House commitment in that regard since the death of Teddy Roosevelt even though Kennedy was swamped on the tour with questions about a nuclear test-ban treaty that he’d recently concluded with the Soviet Union.

By 1970, Nelson was in his second term in the Senate and the news had become full of environmental catastrophe. In January of 1969, there was a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara in California and, almost exactly six months later, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland famously caught on fire. On April 22, 1970, Nelson helped organize Earth Day, which was a massive outbreak of activism around the country. That kicked off what became known as the Environmental Decade, wherein was passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental regulations, all of them based on a sturdy bipartisan scientific consensus.

That was then. This is now. In 2017, the country needs a series of marches across the landscape to remind itself that scientific progress and American democracy are inextricably bound for their mutual survival. The current president* has leaked a budget that decimates the federal government’s role in all manner of scientific research, from the fight against epidemic disease to the war on climate change. Which was why, walking through the drizzly day on the White House end of the National Mall, you saw epidemiologists sharing umbrellas with geologists, or a group of microbiologists huddling low under a spreading cherry tree alongside a knot of anesthesiologists. People walked around dressed as bees and as lobsters and as Beaker, the lab assistant from the Muppet Show. People walked around in overalls and in lab coats. They wore the now-classic pussy hats repurposed to resemble the configurations of the human brain and they wore stethoscopes around their necks.

“What do we want?” the signs said.

“Science!”

“When do we want it?”

“After peer review!”

(The musical interludes from the main stage were enlivened by the appearance of Thomas Dolby, who performed his hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” backed by John Batiste and Stay Human, which gave Dolby’s vintage techno-pop tune a bit of New Orleans second-line juice.)

There was a great deal of infighting—”Some very ugly meetings,” said one person familiar with them—about how specifically political the march should be. The older and more conventional scientists—most of them white males, for all that means in every public issue these days—tried to make the march and the events surrounding it as generic as possible.

The younger scientists, a more diverse groups in every way that a group can be, pushed back hard. The available evidence on Saturday was that their side had carried the day. Given the fact that, for example, Scott Pruitt, who took dictation from oil companies when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, is now running the EPA, they could hardly have lost. More than a few signs reminded the current president* that, without science, he would be as bald as a billiard ball.

Generally, though, there was more than a little sadness on all sides that it ever had come to this, that a country born out of experimentation had lost its faith in its own true creation story, that a country founded by curious, courageous people would become so timid about trusting the risks and rewards of science.

Beka Economopoulos runs something called the Natural History Museum, a project that takes her around the country not only educating students on the natural world, but also taking expeditions to places in which environmental damage is severe. “We collaborate with scientists, local community organizations, and museums across the country to address pressing community concerns and global challenges,” she said. “Science has never been apolitical. It’s always been situated within a context. All science is dedicated to pursue truth, but there are decisions made on what kind of science gets funded and what doesn’t, what kinds of questions get asked.

“The goal of science is not the popularization of knowledge. It’s the pursuit of truth. Scientists look to obliterate existing knowledge by finding something beyond it. Copernicus, Galileo, Rachel Carson, these are scientists that disrupted the status quo but, we look back at them now, and we see that they advanced humanity and the world we live in.”

When the speeches were done, all those people who’d hung in there through the rain walked up the wide boulevards past all the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in the 1840’s at the bequest of an Englishman named James Smithson. “I then bequeath the whole of my property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men,” Smithson’s will read. As they walked past the buildings founded out of Smithson’s generosity, you wondered in the mist and rain why it all seemed so much like archaeology now.

On-The-Job Training — Jeff Shesol in The New Yorker on learning how to be president.

“There’s just something about this job as President . . .” George W. Bush observed last week, in an interview with NPR. “You think one thing going in and then the pressures of the job or the realities of the world, you know, are different than you thought.” Bush wasn’t reminiscing about his own Presidency; he was “opining,” he said, about the current one. The reality that Bush had in mind—the one that he hopes President Trump will embrace—is that it is in America’s national interest “to be allies with Mexico and not alienate Mexico.”

Trump, of course, has invested a great deal of energy in denying that particular reality—along with many others, from the existence of climate change to the role of Russian meddling in last year’s Presidential election. Yet, in recent weeks, Trump has conceded that he might, in fact, have been wrong about a thing or two, and now stands corrected. “It turns out” and “nobody knew” are two of the signal phrases by which Trump indicates that an epiphany has arrived: that health-care policy is “so complicated,” or that North Korea is not a Chinese client state. “After listening [to President Xi Jinping, of China] for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Never mind the obviousness of these statements, or Trump’s weird guilelessness in presenting them as insights; they are being received, by some, as signs that Trump is growing in office. “I think President Trump is learning the job,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said last week.

Learning the job, in fairness, is a big task for any new President. “Regardless of his prior training, nothing he has done will have prepared him for all the facets of that job,” Richard Neustadt, the great scholar of the American Presidency, wrote in “Presidential Power,” his influential study, in 1960. All Presidents, he argued, enter office ignorant, innocent, and arrogant—liabilities it can take two, three, or even six years for them to overcome. Some never do. Neustadt saw “a certain rhythm” in the Presidential learning process, and, indeed, in most cases, it follows a well-worn path: the chaotic cram session of the transition; the headiness and disappointments of the first year; the midterm elections in the second (a “shellacking” of the President’s party, as Barack Obama described it in 2010, tends to dispel any lingering arrogance); and, of course, the crises—domestic and foreign—that come without warning. The education of a President is episodic, driven by events. The results, as we know, are uneven. They depend not only on fate but on the answers to three basic questions: what are the “particulars of [a President’s] ignorance,” in Neustadt’s phrase; does he have the humility to acknowledge them; and does he have the capacity—political, moral, intellectual—to address them?

John F. Kennedy faced all these questions. He entered the White House well prepared despite his youth: he had served fourteen years on Capitol Hill, had commanded, with distinction, a Navy torpedo boat during the Second World War, and had spent the better part of his life studying and exercising power. Yet, during his first few months as President, his particular ignorance emerged: an excess of trust in the C.I.A. and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who convinced him, despite his doubts, to approve an invasion of Communist Cuba by a brigade of exiles. Kennedy hesitated; he asked tough questions of his briefers, but, in the end, he acceded, taken in by their optimism. The instant and utter failure of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, in April, 1961, filled Kennedy with self-doubt and self-blame. “It is a hell of a way to learn things,” he said over lunch with James Reston, of the Times, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But he did learn things, and soon changed things, as well: he not only replaced the leaders of the C.I.A. but also, from that point forward, regarded intelligence estimates and military plans with far greater skepticism. The historian Robert Dallek, in his biography of J.F.K., writes that Kennedy saw his missteps as “object lessons in how to be more effective. His resolve stood him in good stead: he managed coming crises”—most significantly, the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year—“with greater skill.”

Bill Clinton, too, stumbled out of the gate. “Clinton terrified me,” one of his policy advisers, Bill Galston, later confessed, “because he almost always knew a good deal more about the subject, or at least some aspect of the subject, than you did.” Yet the disorder of the White House during Clinton’s first year—the famously long meetings that circled an issue but never really resolved it—raised the question of whether his intellect was always an asset. Clinton had a lot to learn in a hurry: about managing (and allowing himself to be managed by) the White House staff; about the hostility of the press corps and the snobbery of the Washington establishment; about the ideological stalemate in Congress; and, not least, about U.S. leadership in a shifting, often perplexing, post-Cold War world. Anthony Lake, his national-security adviser, and Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, urged Clinton to get more engaged in the foreign-policy process and to conduct himself as Commander-in-Chief. “It took a while for Clinton to do the commander bit, which is to say issuing orders crisply,” Lake recalled in an oral-history interview. “It’s in the little things.” It was also in the big things: in August, 1995, after two years of discussion and delay, the Clinton Administration decided to act against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, and led a successful NATO bombing campaign. By 1996, Clinton was more sure of his footing on the global stage. The Times—which had been quite critical of Clinton’s conduct of foreign policy—endorsed his bid for reëlection, noting that he was now “regarded internationally as a leader with a sophisticated grasp of a superpower’s obligation to help the world manage its conflicts and economic contests.”

What is Trump’s particular ignorance? It is not a stretch to say that Trump knows less about policy, history, the workings of government, and world affairs than any of the men who preceded him as President. Trump’s ignorance sends historians and commentators scrambling for sufficient adverbs: to Daniel Bell of Princeton, Trump is “abysmally” ignorant; to Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, he is “militant[ly]” so. “Proudly” is another popular one. Last summer, Trump told the Washington Post that he doesn’t need to read much because he makes great decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense.” The problem is not just what Trump doesn’t know; there is an expanding, alternative universe of things he imagines or insists to be true, from his claim that “millions” of illegal immigrants gave Hillary Clinton her victory in the popular vote to his charge that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. “He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote earlier this month. Trump is somehow both credulous and cynical; if he were “mugged by reality,” in the old, conservative cliché, he would pin it on Obama, or perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not to say that Trump is incapable of learning in office. His recent changes of tone, opinion, and direction—on the importance of NATO, for example, or U.S.-China relations—might be signs that his thinking is evolving. They could also be tactical moves, or head-fakes, or further evidence that—unmoored from any core convictions—he is easily swayed by certain advisers. Whatever the case, it is one thing for Trump to acquaint himself with reality; it is another thing to know what to do about it. The singular burden of the Presidency is not merely to acknowledge obvious facts; it is, as Neustadt wrote, to determine a course of action “when conventional wisdom fails, the experts disagree and confusion dominates.” It turns out this job is not so easy.

So Nice To Have You Back Where You Belong — Ben Brantley reviews the revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.

The pinnacle of fine dining in New York these days can’t be found in a Michelin-starred restaurant, though it will probably cost you just as much. No, you’ll have to get yourself and your wide-open wallet to the Shubert Theater, where the savory spectacle of Bette Midler eating turns out to be the culinary event of the year.

Ms. Midler — who opened in the title role of “Hello, Bette!,” I mean “Hello, Dolly!,” on Thursday night — not only knows how to make a meal out of a juicy part; she knows how to make a meal out of a meal. In the second act of this exceedingly bright and brassy revival, Ms. Midler can be found sitting alone at a table, slowly and deliberately polishing off the remnants of an expensive dinner, from a turkey bone dipped in gravy to a multitude of dumplings, while the rest of the cast freezes in open-mouthed amazement.

Ms. Midler brings such comic brio — both barn-side broad and needlepoint precise — to the task of playing with her food that I promise you it stops the show. Then again, pretty much everything Ms. Midler does stops the show. As for that much anticipated moment when she puts on fire-engine red plumes and sequins to lead a cakewalk of singing waiters, well, let’s just hope that this show’s producers have earthquake insurance.

Back on a Broadway stage in a book musical for the first time (can it be?) since “Fiddler on the Roof” half a century ago, Ms. Midler is generating a succession of seismic responses that make Trump election rallies look like Quaker prayer meetings. Her audiences, of course, are primed for Ms. Midler to give them their money’s worth in Jerry Zaks’s revival of this 1964 portrait of a human steamroller out to land a rich husband in 19th-century New York. The show was a scalper’s delight from the moment tickets went on sale.

But Ms. Midler isn’t coasting on the good will of theatergoers who remember her as the queen of 1980s movie comedies or as the bawdy earth goddess of self-satirizing revues from the ’70s onward. As the center and raison d’être of this show, which also features David Hyde Pierce in a springtime-fresh cartoon of the archetypal grumpy old man, Ms. Midler works hard for her ovations, while making you feel that the pleasure is all hers. In the process she deftly shoves the clamorous memories of Carol Channing (who created the role on Broadway) and Barbra Streisand (in the 1969 film) at least temporarily into the wings.

The show as a whole — which has been designed by Santo Loquasto to resemble a bank of Knickerbocker-themed, department store Christmas windows — could benefit from studying how its star earns her laughs and our love. Playing the pushiest of roles, the endlessly enterprising matchmaker Dolly Levi, Ms. Midler never pushes for effect. Her every bit of shtick has been precisely chosen and honed, and rather than forcing it down our throats, she makes us come to her to admire it.

Much of the rest of Mr. Zaks’s production charges at us like a prancing elephant, festooned in shades of pink. This is true of the hot pastels of Mr. Loquasto’s sets and costumes, and of Warren Carlyle’s athletic golden-age-of-musicals choreography, which is both expert and exhausting.

When an onstage laugh is called for, it comes out as a deafening cackle or a guffaw, which is then stretched and repeated. Double takes, grins and grimaces are magnified into crushing largeness, while the chase sequences bring to mind slap-happy Blake Edwards comedies. Even reliably charming performers like Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin, who play the plot’s supporting lovers (with Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein as their second bananas), seem under the impression they’re in a Mack Sennett farce.

My audience couldn’t have been more tickled by these hard-sell tactics, which hew closely to Gower Champion’s original staging. A tone of sunny desperation isn’t out of keeping with what seems to be this production’s escapist mission, which is to deliver nostalgia with an exclamation point.

Featuring a book by Michael Stewart and a tenaciously wriggling earworm of a score by Jerry Herman (given gleaming orchestral life here), “Hello, Dolly!” is a natural vehicle for rose-colored remembrance. It was adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” which grew out of his “The Merchant of Yonkers,” itself adapted from an 1842 Austrian reworking of an 1835 American one-acter.

With its folksy wisdom and air of life-affirming wonder, Wilder’s script translated fluently into the hyperbole of a big song-and-dance show, which spoke (loudly) not only of a more innocent age of American history but also of a time when musicals were upbeat spectacles, with outsize stars to match. (Ms. Channing was succeeded by a cavalcade of divas, from Ethel Merman to Pearl Bailey.) Don’t forget that “Hello, Dolly!” opened just two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the United States felt anything but united.

The genius of casting Ms. Midler as Dolly, a widow who decides to rejoin life by marrying the rich and curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Mr. Pierce), is that she built her career on making nostalgia hip. Even when she was sassing and strutting for the gay boys at the Continental Baths in her youth (when the original “Hello, Dolly!” was still on the boards), she was channeling entertainers from the days of burlesque.

With Ms. Midler, such hommages were never merely camp. She exuded bone-deep affection and respect for vaudeville stylings, in which impeccably controlled artifice became a conduit for sentimentality as well as rowdy humor. That affinity pervades every aspect of her Dolly, which is less a fluid performance than a series of calculated gestures that somehow coalesce into a seamless personality.

Consider, for starters, her hydraulic walk, made up of short, chugging steps. (A real train materializes for the big “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” number, but Ms. Midler is the real locomotive wonder.) Or her take-charge New Yawk accent, spiced with the insinuating inflections of Sophie Tucker. Or her stylized collapse into exhaustion in the middle of the title song.

Without stripping gears, she makes fast switches from explosive comedy to a sober emotionalism that never cloys. (Her pop hits, you may remember, include the weepy “Wind Beneath My Wings.”) And her final scenes with Mr. Pierce, who delivers a beautifully drawn caricature (and is rewarded with a solo that was cut from the original), may leave you with tears in your eyes without your quite understanding why.

Ms. Midler’s talents have never included a conventionally pretty voice. Yet when she rasps out the anthem “Before the Parade Passes By,” you hear her voice as that of a nightingale. And when she hikes up her period skirts to shuffle her feet, she gives the impression she’s dancing up a storm.

She’s not, of course. (Her kicks in her big numbers are only from the knees.) But a great star performance is at least 50 percent illusion, conjured by irresistible will power and cunning. Ms. Midler arranges her component parts with the seductive insistence with which Dolly Levi arranges other people’s lives.

After two acts of fending off Dolly’s charms, Horace finds himself proclaiming, in happy defeat, “Wonderful woman!” Nobody is about to argue with him. [Photo by Sarah Krulwich/New York Times]

Doonesbury — Action Figure.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Short Takes

U.S. “working with China” over North Korea.

Thousands of refugees saved off the Libyan coast.

Turkey’s Erdogan claims victory in referendum; critics cry fraud.

United changes their overbooking policy.

Border wall could leave some Americans in the Mexican side.

The Tigers are off to a respectable start: They’re 8-4 and atop the AL Central.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

True Test Of Leadership

If you can’t pull off an Easter Egg roll, how can you be expected to deal with North Korea?

Trump received an urgent warning in February, informing him of a crucial date he was about to miss.

“FYI manufacturing deadlines for the Easter eggs are near,” said a Twitter post directed at Mr. Trump; the first lady, Melania Trump; and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. “Please reach out!”

The message came from Wells Wood Turning & Finishing, the company that supplies commemorative wooden eggs for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, the 138-year-old celebration that has drawn 35,000 people to the South Lawn in recent years.

The staff of the company, based in Buckfield, Me., wondered whether the Trumps planned to continue distributing the wooden eggs as party favors, or whether they were even going to have a White House Easter Egg Roll at all.

By early March, the White House announced that the roll was on — Monday, to be exact — and soon followed up with a rush order for the wooden eggs.

By that time, the ovoid uncertainty had raised a question perhaps not as consequential as investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election, a legally dubious travel ban and a collapsed health care bill, but no less a window into the inner workings of the Trump administration: Could this White House, plagued by slow hiring and lacking an on-site first lady, manage to pull off the largest, most elaborate and most heavily scrutinized public event of the year?

Who would you rather have mad at you: Kim Jong-un, or several hundred five-year-olds?

Meanwhile, the Trumps skipped the White House Seder on Monday night, a tradition that had been instituted by the Obamas in 2009.  That was out of deference to the sensibilities of their white power friends, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

That Tears It

Betty Cracker at Balloon Juice has had it and goes on an epic rant.

I’m not sure why, but I’m as angry and depressed this week as I’ve been since the night of the election, when I realized with dawning horror that yes, my countrymen really are racist, sexist and/or fucking stupid enough to elevate an embarrassing, malignant turd like Donald Motherfucking Trump to the highest office in the land, a notion that, in my naivete, I’d considered impossible until it actually happened.

Why the rage now? The Gorsuch thing is part of it — the theft of that seat is as clear an example of evil cheats prospering as you’ll ever see. And also that pathetic peacock display of a bombing run and the media reaction to it. That a lumpy, gelatinous pile of possum scat like Trump is now appointing SCOTUS judges and ordering military action rubbed my nose anew in the cold reality of November 2016.

You can read the rest of it here.  But if your delicate sensibilities are threatened by cuss words and various vulgarities, here’s a cat video.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Thrill Is Gone

John Judis at TPM meets a Trump voter who realizes that he fell for a con.

“I guess the thrill is gone,” J says to me. J owns a small landscaping business. He drives a pickup truck. He is in his fifties with long hair. He is prone to conspiracy theories. He used to recommend these suspect websites to me. I was surprised last winter when he admired my “Bernie for President” sign. He liked Bernie. But his candidate was Donald Trump, and he voted for him last November. Now he was telling me that the thrill was gone.

Why, I asked, and he explained that he figured out that under the Trump-Ryan health insurance plan, he would be paying $8000 to $10,000 more a year than he is now. That had soured him on Trump, although he still didn’t think much of the Democrats, who, he thought, would oppose Trump even if he proposed something good.

I know some regular Republicans who are now disillusioned with Trump, but they were never that excited about him in the first place. They voted for him because he wasn’t a Democrat. J is different. He has the sensibility of the white working class voter. I don’t think he would call himself a Republican or a Democrat.

Some liberals believe that all Trump voters were consumed by racism or sexism and voted accordingly, but that’s not been my experience with Trump voters. It’s also defective political psychology. Like J, many of them thought Trump would make their life better rather than other peoples’ lives worse. And maybe a lot of them, like J, have now realized that Trump is full of hot air.

This happens with every candidate, every president; I know a lot of progressives who to this day still think Barack Obama sold them out to get elected and he turned out to be just another human being who had to make deals and think of the overall bigger picture than just become a shining symbol of liberalism and the hallmark of post-racial America.

This disillusionment would have happened with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or anyone else: nothing is as good as it is advertised.  There is always the fine print, the “batteries not included,” the “other items sold separately,” or worst of all, “some assembly required.”  The fact that it is now happening with Trump voters like J was as predictable as the sunrise.

What’s all the more predictable is that it was going to happen with Trump.  He oversold himself so much that even if he had the sincere belief that he could solve every problem and that he alone could fix them, anyone who has ever been to a carnival sideshow, bought a used car, or sat through a two-hour time-share pitch should have known the 90% of what they were hearing was bullshit and the rest of it was exaggeration, if not just plain unconstitutional.  But some people never learn and it keeps on working, which explains why you’re still getting calls from the guy from “Microsoft Windows” who is there to help you install his malware.

If the Democrats think they can scoop up the disillusioned Trump voter, they’re going to have to do it not by saying “Ha, told you so,” even if the temptation to indulge in schadenfreude is powerful and satisfying.  They’re not going to do it with their own version of left-wing overselling and promises they have no way of delivering.  It’s going to have to be done like an intervention: we have to solve these problems together, but first you have to realize the damage that has been caused by the guy you voted for and now it’s time to fix it.  The problem with that is that it doesn’t exactly fit on a hat.

Bonus Track: Alex Pareene looks at the implosion of the right-wing bubble.

Rather rapidly, two things happened: First, Republicans realized they’d radicalized their base to a point where nothing they did in power could satisfy their most fervent constituents. Then—in a much more consequential development—a large portion of the Republican Congressional caucus became people who themselves consume garbage conservative media, and nothing else.

That, broadly, explains the dysfunction of the Obama era, post-Tea Party freakout. Congressional Republicans went from people who were able to turn their bullshit-hose on their constituents, in order to rile them up, to people who pointed it directly at themselves, mouths open.

Now, we have a president whose media diet defines his worldview, interests, and priorities. He is not one of the men, like most of those Tea Party members of Congress, whose existing worldview determined his media diet—who sealed himself off from disagreeable media sources. He is, in fact, something far more dangerous: a confused old man who believes what the TV tells him.

This is just the beginning.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

All That’s Missing Is The Car

This has all the makings of a James Bond movie.

The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.

The meeting took place around Jan. 11 — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.

Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant, according to the officials, who did not identify the Russian.

Prince was an avid supporter of Trump. After the Republican convention, he contributed $250,000 to Trump’s campaign, the national party and a pro-Trump super PAC led by GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, records show. He has ties to people in Trump’s circle, including Stephen K. Bannon, now serving as the president’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos serves as education secretary in the Trump administration. And Prince was seen in the Trump transition offices in New York in December.

U.S. officials said the FBI has been scrutinizing the Seychelles meeting as part of a broader probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and alleged contacts between associates of Putin and Trump. The FBI declined to comment.

It’s got it all: secret meetings in exotic locations with princes and millionaires, scary groups like Blackwater and connections to people who could probably kill you with a paper clip, and of course denials from anyone in officialdom that anything like this could possibly be nefarious.  Even the name “Erik Prince” sounds like a Bond villain.  Throwing in his sister, Betsy DeVos, the woefully unqualified Secretary of Education, is the comic relief, but it makes you wonder why she got the job in the first place: payback or the price?

Anyway, the finishing touch should be the Aston Martin DB 5.  It was the coolest.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Friday, March 31, 2017

Who’s Left?

If Trump dumps all over that raggle-taggle gang of right-wing moonbayers that call themselves the “House Freedom Caucus” (and they use the word “Freedom” the same way North Korea calls themselves “Democratic”), then who is left to defend him and cover his base?

Trump threatened Thursday to try to knock off members of the House Freedom Caucus in next year’s elections if they don’t fall in line — an extraordinary move that laid bare an escalating civil war within a Republican Party struggling to enact an ambitious agenda.

In a series of tweets that began in the morning, the president warned that the powerful group of hard-line conservatives who helped block the party’s health-care bill last week would “hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast.”

The president vowed to “fight them” as well as Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, a warning that his allies said was intended in the short term to make members of the Freedom Caucus think twice about crossing him again. But Trump’s pledge was met with defiance by many in the bloc, including some members who accused him of succumbing to the establishment in Washington that he had campaigned against.

Advice to Democrats: stand back and shut up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Cracking Under Pressure

It’s not a big deal in the overall scheme of things, but you can get an idea of how things are going at the White House by how they deal with the press.  Based on this exchange, I’d say things aren’t going too well inside the West Wing.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer finally seemed to reach a breaking point Tuesday when it comes to questions about President Trump and Russia.

Spicer got testy in an exchange with American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan after Ryan announced a premise that Spicer disagreed with: that the White House has a Russia issue to deal with. By the end, Spicer accused Ryan of pushing her own agenda and even instructed her not to shake her head at him.

“No, we don’t have that,” Spicer said when Ryan cited the White House’s Russia issue. When Ryan continued with her question, he cut in again: “No, no. I get it. But I’ve said it from the day that I got here until whenever that there’s not a connection. You’ve got Russia.”

Spicer then offered this zinger: “If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection.”

When Ryan tried again to ask her question, Spicer said, “I appreciate your agenda here. … At some point, report the facts.”

Spicer pointed to those who have said there is no proof of collusion between Russia and the Trump team — which is true but is only a part of the inquiries and is still being investigated by the FBI. He added, “I’m sorry that that disgusts you. You’re shaking your head.”

Spicer then told Ryan that she was “going to have to take no for an answer” when it came to the idea of collusion with Russia.

Ryan moved on, asking about former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the White House and the fact that she wasn’t a Trump supporter. But Spicer again took issue.

“It seems like you’re hellbent on trying to make sure that whatever image you want to tell about this White House stays,” Spicer said.

After some more back-and-forth, Spicer again spotted Ryan shaking her head and told her, “Please, stop shaking your head again.”

What are the chances that Spicer would have treated a white male like that?  Somewhere between “hell” and “no.”

Melissa McCarthy will probably be doing another cold opening for SNL this week.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Government Isn’t A Business

Here we go again, reinventing government.

Trump plans to unveil a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises — such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction — by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements.

“All Americans, regardless of their political views, can recognize that government stagnation has hindered our ability to properly function, often creating widespread congestion and leading to cost overruns and delays,” Trump said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I promised the American people I would produce results, and apply my ‘ahead of schedule, under budget’ mentality to the government.”

[…]

Kushner proudly notes that most of the members of his team have little-to-no political experience, hailing instead from the world of business. They include Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council; Chris Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives; Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intergovernmental and technology initiatives; Dina Powell, senior counselor to the president for economic initiatives and deputy national security adviser; and Andrew Bremberg, director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter and Kushner’s wife, who now does her advocacy work from a West Wing office, will collaborate with the innovation office on issues such as workforce development but will not have an official role, aides said.

We’ve seen this before.  Someone running for office promises to run government like a business and get rid of all the red tape and bureaucracy.  It makes a great sound bite, but there are problems with the comparison.

For one thing, government and business may have similarities in terms of structure: they both work out of offices, they have a corporate structure in terms of chain of command, they have departments that handle various duties such as finance, legal, and public outreach, but there the similarities end.  Businesses exist to provide a product or service to a segment of the public and in doing so make a profit, thereby staying in business.  They don’t necessarily exist to serve all of the people all of the time and their most important product is a profit and a happy board of directors.  Governments, on the other hand and in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and the goal of that government is, as the Preamble to the United States Constitution succinctly puts it, “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”.  With all due respect to capitalism, that is not the mission statement of a business, and if it tried to do that, it would go out of business in a hurry.  That’s why we have government; to do the things no business should attempt or be expected to do.

The chief complaint of those in favor of running the government like a business is that government is slow, bureaucratic, and at times wasteful.  They have a point, but then this is a large and very complex country with a multiplicity of challenges and situations that face our most basic needs; getting essential services to the all the people both fairly and without endangering life and property isn’t like running a lemonade stand or even a Starbucks.  In my world, the task of providing elementary and secondary education to all the children of my county and meeting their needs is incredibly complex; it’s not a one-room school anymore.

And if there is anyone who is going to attempt to make government perform like a business, the last person who should be doing it is Trump.  His record of bankruptcies, shoddy and questionable dealings, and hyperbole in trying to pass off cheap crap as the crown jewels is well-documented and the stuff of civil suits.  If anything, he should be the first-year MBA seminar in how not to run a company if morality and honest practice are to be considered.

The best historical model of how Trump operates and probably how Jared Kushner would SWAT government is enshrined in business lore to the point that the very name has become a term for disaster.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Edsel.

Developed at the height of the fabulous ’50’s, it was to be the car of the future with styling and features to stagger the imagination and set the tone for cars to come.  Ford Motor Company invested millions of dollars in the concept, created a whole separate division, and built up the hype to the point that when it was unveiled in September 1957, the automotive world couldn’t wait to see it.

It turned out to be all of the above on a grotesque scale.  The styling was too radical — or laughable — even for the finned and chromed cars of the era, and underneath, it was just another Ford with a lot of features that either didn’t work or were just too much for the public who were still getting used to the idea of automatic transmissions.  Not only that, they weren’t very well built.  Ford, in an effort to keep costs low, built the cars on the same assembly lines as Fords and Mercurys so the people putting the car together might in their haste put the wrong parts on the vehicle coming down the line.

The car quickly became a laughing stock and furious efforts by Ford to save it by toning down the styling, cutting back on models, and merging the new division with Lincoln-Mercury failed.  A little more than two years after the Grand Opening the plug was pulled and the name Edsel entered the lexicon of America as a synonym for ignominious failure and a cautionary tale in business schools everywhere.

Given the record so far, I fully expect the name Trump to become the Edsel of government and a model for how not to run a country.

Bonus Track: At my request, CLW offered some thoughts on the subject.

As you note, the objectives of government and business are diametrically opposite. Businesses serve themselves. They exist to generate profit for the shareholders, and to insure not only their continued existence but their growth and success. The only real reason companies provide good customer service is that it tends to be good for further business, not out of some altruistic sense of “good.”

Government, on the other hand, is there to serve the country and insure its objectives: peace, tranquility, general welfare, etc. In that sense, the government could be considered the largest US non-profit. And everything about a non-profit is different — they exist for altruistic reasons, they often run extremely lean, they distribute or reinvest all profits, and they attract an entirely different employee. Employees of government or a non-profit are usually there because of the overall mission, and often forego more lucrative occupations in the for-profit world.

As organizations, government needs very different leadership. At the very least there’s scope. The US Gov’t has 4+ million employees (and perhaps that many contractors). That makes it at least twice the size of the world’s largest private employer Wal Mart with just over 2 million. The sheer scope of that means the organizational challenges are staggering. It takes an incredible depth and breadth of leadership skill to manage that, and it’s not a part-time job. That’s why the career employees in government are so important: they provide the experience and skill necessary to lead such a mammoth organization.

Finally as someone noted on the interweb the other day, we’re not customers of government, we’re the board of directors. You don’t do right by us, you’re fired. Try that at Koch Industries…

To expect someone like theDonald, or worse Jared Kushner, who have zero proven track record at managing organizations of more than a few thousand, to “fix” an organization that is 1000x larger is simply ridiculous.

Governing is the only profession where having no experience and open disdain for the mission is considered by some to be an asset.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Who Tweets For Trump?

Steve M digs into the weeds to see who’s really writing those early-morning 140-character blasts.

It’s long been known that Trump doesn’t write (or dictate) all of his own tweets. It’s possible to determine whether a Trump tweet came from an iPhone or an Android phone by looking at it in Tweetdeck, and it’s widely believed that Trump’s more inflammatory tweets have been posted on an Android device, while staffers have written the more staid tweets on an iPhone.

But The Guardian noted earlier this month that very Trumpy tweets are now being posted from an iPhone — at the time of the Guardian story, Trump hadn’t used an Android in eleven days, for any kind of tweet. (There’d been pressure on Trump to give up his Android phone, a very insecure Samsung Galaxy S3.)

[…]

So maybe some of the tweets Trump doesn’t write are now being sent via Android. Trump aides know that we know the old pattern. Maybe they’re trying to mix it up.

This reminds me of the days of the Soviet Union when you could tell who was in power in the Kremlin and who had the ear of the leadership by where they stood on the observation platform of Lenin’s tomb at the May Day parade.

Pretty soon every media outlet is going to have to hire a Tweet Analyst.