Let’s Make a Deal

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Donald Trump’s claim to fame is that he can make deals. He even wrote a book about it: The Art of the Deal. Okay, so he didn’t actually write it but he made a deal with someone else to do it for him. That has to count for something, right? For the moment we’ll ignore the number of deals that he reneged on or which failed to work out for all concerned—even him.

Let’s accept that Trump lives to make deals—especially deals made in public that make him look like a winner.

The deal he made last week with the Democrats (and some moderate Republicans) in Congress may be a defining moment in his so-far lacklustre presidency. The deal was not huge, just an agreement to raise the debt ceiling for three months and provide relief to Texas, but it was significant. It sent a clear message to America that the Republican Party, at present, is in disarray and not prepared to govern. This should come as no surprise to anyone. The GOP has suffered huge fractures in recent years and has spent much of the last ten years actively trying not to govern. They have become a party of wreckers not builders – but they can’t even agree on what they want to wreck let alone what will replace it.

America seems to like what they’ve seen, with many in Trump’s base happy to see something happen even if it means more debt and billions in Federal spending on disaster relief.

What happens next will determine much of what happens in America for the next 3 to 7 years.

This, of course, could be a one-off never to be seen again or it could drive the Republicans to paper over their deep ideological internal divisions. Or it could become a habit.

Much of that will depend on the Democrats. They could pursue more deals with Trump—say on Health Care or on Immigration or Infrastructure Renewal – all capital letter issues for the President. Obviously to do so they will have to swallow hard and make some concessions. They may not have to give Trump a wall to create a pathway for undocumented immigrants (especially the Dreamers) to gain citizenship but they will almost certainly have to concede greater powers of deportation, border security and so on to finally solve America’s immigration problems.

Health Care is also a real possibility. Trump is deeply angry at the Republicans for failing to repeal Obamacare. The ACA is hardly perfect and Trump might go for a deal that fixes the worst parts and keeps all the good ones, as long as he can claim that he built a better system than Obama. Never mind that it costs more and imposes more limits on insurance companies. A win is a win and a deal, a deal.

I suspect none of this will come about. Trump is far too mercurial to be relied on and too concerned with his own welfare to do deals that may not profit him directly or keep the masses of the very right in his camp. But you never know. The very flaw that makes Trump such a bad president—his greed and narcissism—might let progress be made.

If the deal is right.

And that’s ten minutes

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Knives at Gun Fights

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It is often argued that, if people were denied possession of guns, they would simply resort to other means to commit murder or acts of terrorism. This is not untrue. Witness the recent attacks in London, and the stabbing in Michigan, which apparently occurred after the assailant couldn’t get a gun. The largest mass murders in China – where only soldiers and police have guns – was committed using a knife. The largest, of course, if you don’t count state sanctioned mass murders.

After the London Bridge incident, Donald Trump seemed to tweet (one can never be too sure about his meaning: Covfefe!) that it proves that America’s lack of gun control was completely justified by the stabbings. I don’t know if this is another version of the absurdist ‘good guy with guns’ joke the NRA keeps trying to tell (Well, I laugh!) or a suggestion that knifes are just as dangerous as guns. I’d invite Mr. Trump to bring a knife to a gun fight and see how that works out.

And, of course, those who oppose control over guns always suggest that the next thing we might do is make people register their kitchen knives. Which maybe is not as far-fetched as all that.

I’m currently in England and when you use the self-checkout lines to buy wine the computer demands that someone come over to authorize the purchase. We don’t want 12 year olds buying bourbon after all (it would really be wasted on them, don’t you think?). The other day I had to buy a replacement paring knife for the cottage we’re staying in – and guess what? Someone had to come over and determine I was a responsible adult before I could complete the purchase. Obviously the standards are low because they approved it and the two bottles of wine without question but it does seem to suggest they could refuse to sell me a knife if I looked like a gangbanger eager to take a knife to school or had crazy psychopathic eyes or something.

And why not? Shouldn’t we at least question people who want to buy swords or other weapons lethal from more than, say, two feet away? I know that most sword owners are sensible law-abiding people but it only takes one (or three) to wreak havoc in a crowded bar. Of course, not as much havoc as one guy with a revolver or a semi-automatic rifle.

Now, I know some of my friends are members of the SCA or like to collect blades from around the world but most of them, I’m sure, keep their weapons out of the hands of kids and their drunk or otherwise unstable friends. So that’s it. The next time a gun nut argues that registering or controlling guns is as stupid as registering kitchen knives, I’m going to stare at him with my best crazy eyes and snarl: Seems like a reasonable idea to me.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Power of Art

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Many years ago, I was riding a subway in Mexico City when a young man boarded and began declaiming in a loud voice – not shouting but projecting. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to make out everything he was saying but I knew love was involved and the Spanish was very formal. Other passengers looked bemused – especially when he got down on one knee to several young ladies in succession. There was some blushing and a lot of laughter. As it turns out he was an actor performing in a Cervantes festival and he was quoting some love speeches from the play. The power of art to surprise, engage and excite people never ceases to amaze me.

A year or two later I remembered this event as we were preparing for “Freedom to Read” week in Calgary. I suggested that we go about the city and read from banned books in public. No warning would be given – these were to be guerilla readings. The committee agreed and a number of intrepid – and usually nervous – readers were dispatched to C-train stations, public squares and shopping malls. Most of the audience was – like the subway riders – bemused but were polite and mostly engaged by the event.

And that brings us to Julius Caesar and Donald Trump. The Shakespeare in the Park company in NYC has been preforming the Shakespeare classic with Caesar being portrayed remarkably like Donald Trump. It is meant to be satire and as such works quite well. Caesar was a man who claimed to be of the people (though in fact he came from a rich and powerful family) and was riding a popular wave toward the monarchy. Others – those committed to the Republic and democracy (you see where this is going) – did everything they could to thwart his ambitions and his attempts to buy the people with their own money. In the end, they fail in the greatest way possible – by assassinating Caesar, which act lead directly to the end of the Republic and the rise of the Emperors.

The point is, of course, that democracy ultimately fails when the only option people can see is political violence. This is not an incitement to assassinate the President but rather a harsh lesson in what extremism can do to damage society. The central message: never give up on the law.

However, Trump’s followers don’t see that point. Their man is being unjustly portrayed and they are bound to stop it. Several of them have stormed the stage and ranted loudly (and largely unintelligibly as they were yelling not projecting) and were then escorted to jail. In the wake of this, attendance fell – no wait, it rose to its highest levels in years. Good job!

Meanwhile, theatres that produce Shakespeare all across America – none of which have anything to do with this production of Julius Caesar – have been getting death and bomb threats, though no actual violence has occurred. I am almost speechless at the thought of this. It’s as if they think a play is like a movie and appears simultaneously all over the country. Or maybe they just want to teach that Shakespeare guy a lesson. “If we see him, we’ll thrash him.”

Apparently art still has the power to bemuse and engage – but also enrage in an incoherent and ineffectual way.

Do your bit – go to a play this month. And that’s ten minutes.

A Conspiracy of Lizards

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A small percentage of Americans (totaling 12 million) apparently believe that a group of lizard people – cleverly disguised as human – are operating all the governments of the world. The exact intent of these lizards is unknown but it can’t be anything good. Usually when people use the word conspiracy, a switch goes off in my head and all I hear afterword is ‘Yadda, yadda, yadda.’ If you want to know why, read the book “Voodoo Histories.”

Of course, a real conspiracy is only effective if it can’t be detected and if it can’t be detected it could hardly work its way into the public consciousness. So any conspiracies that people talk about are actually fake news, covering for the real ones that we cannot fathom. Confused yet? Join the club – you know the one with Steve Bannon and his other paranoid ‘deep state’ fumblers.

Still, if there were a conspiracy of lizard people, what signs might we look for? I would think an accidental slip-up where they reveal a bit of scale or perhaps tweet something in their secret slithering tongue. Is that what covfefe really means? Perhaps. The White House press secretary seemed to imply it meant something – but only to the president and a few select others.

And of course, there you have it. In a world that increasingly hates facts and evidence, where everything can be explained as a plot or a plan by some secret cabal, anything is possible. Meanwhile, the rest of us hang on every word or tweet, like supplicants outside the Oracle at Delphi, struggling to interpret the secret meanings behind every mumbled exhortation.

The sad reality is that most of what President Trump and those in the White House say means very little – it certainly doesn’t mean what they or what any rational person might think it means – as, for example, when they say they are going to build a better America when they actually mean they intend to wreck everything good about America. That sort of thing.

But perhaps there is no real conspiracy at all. The simpler explanation is that POG (Poor Old Guy) got up in the night to pee (he is over 70, remember?) and was struck with a brainwave. He grabbed his phone and, voilà, covfefe. I sympathize. What writer has not woken from a deep sleep with a sudden flash of brilliance, reached for his notepad and pen and scribbled it down for posterity? The next morning he finds a meaningless scrawl or, worse yet, a series of unrelated words – goose climbs dark wonderment stardust – and wastes several days trying to recapture the moment.

In any case, it is a waste of time to spend too much effort trying to find deep meaning in most of Trump’s tweets or other utterances. There is nothing complex there – he is a grasping old man whose only meaningful statement in the last twenty years was: You’re fired. And while we are fluttering and fuming over the meaning of a Tweet (and isn’t Twitter the perfect name for the cacophony of the dawn chorus?), POG is pulling out of the climate accord and wrecking alliances that have served America well for decades. Covfefe, indeed.

And that’s ten minutes.

The first 200 days

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I wasn’t going to write about the POTUS today but I weakened…

There was a great meme going around just after Donald Trump’s election last fall. It showed a smirking Trump with a list of proposed accomplishments. They weren’t what he had promised in the campaign; they were, according to the headline, the list of things presidents do in their final year in office. At the time it seemed like wishful thinking on the part of disappointed Democrats but now it’s not so clear.

While Trump’s firing of Comey as head of the FBI was perfectly within his authority, asking him to stop investigating General Flynn certainly verges on obstruction of justice and perhaps even crosses the line. He must have known he was being naughty if, as reported, he asked other senior officials to leave the room while he had a private chat. Before you ask how often Democrats asked the FBI to stop investigating Clinton’s (giant yawn) e-mails, note the difference. The FBI director reports to the president. The president has the power to fire him. Make the link – it’s not that hard.

The revelation of classified information to the Russians was also within the president’s power since he can de-classify whatever he sees fit. Whether it was legal or appropriate, it certainly shows poor judgement. Many people already think Trump is in the back pocket of the Russian government and his behavior undoubtedly throws gasoline on that fire.

It almost seems like he is daring his Republican colleagues to impeach him – which, given his aggressive macho approach to life, might be exactly what he’s up to. He always enjoyed embarrassing and belittling those whom he viewed as competitors and this could just be another example of the “You’re fired!” mentality of the former realty TV show star. Wanting to be the biggest silverback in the cage may work in the locker room but it is hardly conducive to getting things done in Washington.

Or, maybe, the explanation lies deeper in the man’s psychology than we think. His wife has referred to him as a little boy and his former ghost writer has called him traumatized and his own worst enemy. It is possible that Trump really can’t control his impulses – which doesn’t bode well for global stability.

Or maybe it is as I’ve felt all along that the man is incompetent, maybe so incompetent he doesn’t even know how bad he’s doing. While he might have been able to cheat his fellow cheaters successfully, he could now be out of his depth. A man who is drowning will almost always start flailing madly and is likely to pull down anyone who tries to rescue him. Pity the poor advisor who tries to make an intervention. There may be a lot more departures from the Trump administration before the man himself departs the White House.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Man Who Would Be King

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During the years between the end of the American Revolution and the drafting and adoption of the constitution, there were lots of ideas of how the new country should govern itself. Some even suggested a monarchy and, while that idea didn’t gain much traction, it must have made the drafters a little nervous because they made sure that no President could ever assume the powers imbued in a King.

The constitution was deliberately designed to limit the power of the president by checking and balancing his powers and responsibilities with those of Congress and the Supreme Court. The President of the USA is not called the most powerful person in the world because of his unlimited authority but rather for the size of the American economy and the power of its armed forces and nuclear arsenal. In terms of getting his own way, a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament can exercise more raw authority.

The drafters must have gotten it right since the American Republic (a better description than democracy) has survived presidents who were drunks, thieves, liars, and buffoons. Although the union (more perfect but not actually perfect) teetered at times – especially during the years leading up to and following the Civil War, it never collapsed.

There are those who worry that things have changed in America and that the current President might – by intent or by accident – break the system once and for all. There are reasons to fear. Congress has become increasingly partisan and, due to gerrymandering, the advantage of incumbency and the role of big money, less sensitive to bad polls or even bad election results. The Republicans have gained a tremendous edge in winning more seats that their popular votes warrant and seem unlikely to turn against the president, even as his approval ratings fall.

The recent sacking of the head of the FBI, while certainly neither unconstitutional nor unprecedented, is a worrying sign. The absolute insouciance of the Republican leadership regarding the matter is even more worrying. Worst of all are the rumours that Trump is demanding oaths of loyalty – not to the Constitution but to him personally. That begins to sound more kinglike all the time – or at least, more like a tin pot dictator of a banana republic, since kings are largely passé.

But there is hope on the horizon. Some Republicans have rediscovered their principals while others have begun to grow worried about their jobs. The courts have been consistently rolling back the efforts of state governments to gerrymander congressional districts in favour of their own party, which, if it continues, will severely limit the ability of the Republicans – who have natural advantages in the Senate and Oval Office – to dominate the House of Representatives, which was always meant to be a close reflection of the popular vote.

The renewed activism of American citizens is also a good sign but whether it can be maintained for two or four years is always open to doubt. Democracy is hard and fighting for your rights is a tiring business. The Democratic Party needs to change, too – finding ways to make allies in the Republican Party rather than vilifying them at every turn. I remain, as ever, optimistic.

And that’s ten minutes.

Loyalty Day

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Today – May 1st – is Loyalty Day. Never heard of it? Well, I don’t blame you; a lot of people have tuned out much of what the new President has had to say so you might have missed it.

Last week, the POTUS declared that today would be a national holiday to allow people to express their loyalty. Well, it’s not exactly a holiday. As near as I can tell, no one gets to take any time off – except perhaps Mr. Trump himself. Golfing, anyone? And it’s not exactly new — it’s been around, in its current form, since 1955. But this POTUS seems to have emphasized it a bit more than most.

And, of course, the real question is – loyalty to what, or more pointedly, to whom? Surely the President is not calling on the public to be loyal to him. Given he works for the citizens, that would be like saying the employer should be loyal to their workers – hardly in keeping with Donald’s treatment of those who have worked for him.

Some have taken it to mean, people should be loyal to the Constitution and have called on Congress to exercise their constitutional duties and impeach the president. I’m not sure Mr. Trump has done anything that deserves impeachment (yet) but mostly because his first 100 days has been filled with bluster and incompetence. True, he did get a Supreme Court justice appointed (and may have broken the Senate to do so) and we may regret that for years to come – but the rest? No change to the Affordable Health Care Act, no cuts to the public service, no wall on the Mexican border. He hasn’t even changed the libel laws.

Oh, he has done damage enough – a few of his Executive Orders actually mean something – but it’s pretty thin gruel so far.

The thing that strikes me is the choice of May 1st as Loyalty Day – in most places in the world it is International Labour Day, a day when billionaires and their lackeys should be looking over their shoulders for mobs carrying pitchforks and pushing tumbrels towards the guillotine. And maybe that’s what this – a desperate cry for help before the mob carries him off.

But in the meantime he can still claim to have broken the record for attendance at his Philadelphia rally – despite the eyewitness accounts and photos – and feel that at least some people are still loyal to him (despite the ever falling approval ratings).

Well, Donald, no one ever said being the President would be easy – that was just the voices in your head.

And that is ten minutes – back for a second run.