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.

Democracy in France

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Every one of my acquaintance (and yes, I’m ignoring you right over there) is pretty pleased with the results of the French presidential election yesterday. The victory of youthful, energetic and centrist Macron over the darling of the far-right, Le Pen, has made us all sigh with relief. But, maybe we shouldn’t sigh too soon.

Quite apart from the fact that 11 million French voters – some perhaps taken in by Le Pen’s questionable pretence at temperance – wound up supporting the former and soon-to-be-again leader of the National Front is hardly cause for celebration. Macron still has a tough road ahead to try to forge some sort of government out of the congress that will be elected in a month’s time. His own fledgling En Marché party is unlikely to win a majority and, while the National Front is unlikely to turn its moderate (funny word that) success yesterday into a substantial block of seats, it will be tough to bring together deputies and senators of both the left and right into a cohesive government. And if Macron fails, Le Pen will be back again in 5 years and she just might win.

But what may be more troubling about the election is the underlying fault in western democracy that seems to grow more serious with each passing year. Large numbers of French voters simply stayed home, unwilling to vote for anyone who wasn’t their first choice. Some conservatives but many more on the left were clearly prepared for a Le Pen victory if they couldn’t have the candidate of their choice.

This was the exact same phenomenon that occurred in the last American election – which saw some Saunders supporters stay home (though in the end not that many) and some apparently vote for Trump.  While everyone has the right to vote or not vote as they see fit, it is an odd thing for people to vote for someone the polar opposite of who they originally supported as seems to be the case where some far left voters in France swung over to the far right.

This is a bit like people who say they like ice cream but only if it is butterscotch. No other ice cream will do. People! That is crazy. Even vanilla ice cream is better than on ice cream. I mean, ICE CREAM!

And democracy is a lot like that row of ice cream (and, heaven forbid, sherbet) containers. We all have our favorites – and some of us of course are lactose intolerant and hate ice cream – but we are usually willing to settle for our second or third choices. And democracy is much the same. If you only have two choices – surely there is one that is better than the other.

Of course, this is a bit facetious. Democracy doesn’t taste nearly as good as ice cream. After voting, I’ve often had a bitter taste in my mouth. And sometimes when I watch the necessary compromises that politicians have to make in a world where we all have different interests but we still have to get things done, I get an ice cream headache.

But a world without ice cream or democracy? Now that I wouldn’t want to imagine at all.

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.

Party Unity

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While it may be a consummation devoutly to be wished, the question of unity within the Democratic Party remains in doubt. Or does it? A poll released yesterday suggests that 90% of hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters intend to vote for Clinton in November. Despite protests at the Democratic convention, it turns out that just as Bernie Sanders doesn’t control or even speak for his most rabid partisans, they, in turn, don’t speak for the majority of Sanders less active supporters.

Nothing new here. People who go to conventions are not the same is ordinary voters – they have more ego invested. Having been battle tested, they are always ready for the fight even if every victory they achieve is bound to by pyrrhic.

What will happen to the Bernie or Bust people? I expect a lot of them will take their ball and go home and won’t be heard from again until after the election. Others may turn their frustrated energy towards a campaign for the Greens or, illogical as it may seem, for the right wing Libertarian Party candidate. A few may even campaign for Trump. But most of those who remain active will work to get Democrats elected – they may not support Clinton directly but will pick local candidates for Congress or Governor to try to break the Republican stranglehold on those elected bodies.

The same cannot be said for the situation in Republican Party. Whereas the second place finisher for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders, called on people to elect Clinton, Ted Cruz, who finished second for the GOP, refused to endorse Trump and was actually booed off the stage. Meanwhile, numerous Republican leaders have been lukewarm in their endorsements or are actively working for the defeat of their own candidate. How that works out on Election Day is anyone’s guess, but the same Pew poll that showed the shift in Sanders supporters found that fewer than 80% of those who worked for another GOP candidate will vote for Trump. I doubt if many of those will wind up working for Clinton but it may give the Libertarian candidate a boost. Or, more likely, it will add to the huge number of Americans who simply don’t vote.

While many progressives and independents were somewhat shocked at the rhetoric at the GOP convention, they might take comfort in the fact that most of the convention-goers there, like the Bernie or Bust folks protesting at the DNC, don’t represent anyone but themselves. Radicals make great TV but seldom deliver what they promise. Trust me, after 45 years of activism on the left, I know.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Memes

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Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook which consisted of an unflattering picture of an angry looking Hilary Clinton and a caption “I’ll get you and your little bird, too,” a reference to the finch that landed on the podium during a Bernie Sanders speech. It was posted by a progressive woman (a Sanders supporter) with a note saying that it should be taken as humorous.

Let’s be clear: this was meant to remind you of the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz (who is eventually killed). The word ‘witch’ is often used as a euphemism for the word ‘bitch.’ What struck me about this is the number of times I’ve heard right wing white men make misogynistic and racist remarks and then excuse it with: It’s just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humour?

I get it. We often make rude jokes among ourselves – denigrating people for aspects of their character or background because attacking their policies is just too time and energy consuming. My wife and I have often said that it’s a good thing our living room isn’t bugged, given some of the snarky remarks we’ve made about politicians and, even, about tragic public events. We say things to each other that we would never dream of saying in public. Or on Facebook.

What’s the harm, you might say? When politics is reduced to memes, discourse is reduced to angry shouts, democracy becomes demagoguery and racists and sexists are given a free hand. It is no more acceptable for those on the left to do it than those on the right.

But it is so damn easy, isn’t it? I’ve been guilty myself. I made a meme showing a smarmy looking Ted Cruz with the logo beneath his face saying “Five Affairs” as if he were bragging. Below that was Vezzini from the Princess Bride (Cruz is a big fan) saying “Inconceivable.” With two images and three words I both call attention to the rumours around Cruz and question his ‘manhood.’

Here’s an easy one for Clinton supporters to use. Find a picture of Sanders making a speech – hand raised, preferably in a fist. The caption? “Old Man Shouting at Clouds” Now we get to point out that Sanders is indeed the oldest candidate for President ever and suggest that his policies are not only fuelled by anger but also that they are unlikely to change anything.

Would that be fair? Not in the least. Would it be funny? To some people maybe; others would see it as ageist and simple-minded. That’s what memes do. Make light of everything and reduce it to the lowest common denominator – usually by playing on half-truths or outright lies. Lies seem to be the main currency of modern politics in America.

The solution to division in America is not more insults, lies, invective or bad and unpleasant jokes. The solution is honest discourse and spirited but reasoned debate. You actually see that, for the most part, between Sanders and Clinton. It even, from time to time, appeared in the Republican debates. Maybe, whoever becomes the candidate for their respective parties, we’ll see it in the presidential debates.

But in America in 2016, I suspect it will all be reduced to an insulting picture and a few simplistic insults. Funny? In a sick kind of way, I suppose. I’m sure anti-democratic thugs the world over are laughing their heads off.

And that’s ten minutes.

Down in The Gutter

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American politics may have hit a new low with accusations that Ted Cruz engaged in extra-marital affairs. This comes after a nude picture of Donald Trump’s wife was used in an attack ad by a pro-Cruz SuperPAC. Never have such tactics appeared in American politics. Well, if you don’t count the outing of John Edwards and Gary Hart, the vicious attacks on serial monogamist Newt Gingrich, efforts to impeach Clinton over a blowjob, the various Senators and congressmen caught doing the dirty in public washrooms or the various rumours spread about Presidential infidelities going right back to the founding fathers.

Sex and politics have always been mixed up in the United States – not surprising for a country founded by Puritans and other fundamentalist Christians. Of course, this is also the country that gave us Mormonism, the religion that solved the problem of philandering males by letting them “marry” as many young girls as they like.

Of course, everyone says that it is not the sex that matters but the hypocrisy. I’m sure that if Cruz hadn’t been so rigid, I mean, firm, or rather, determined in his sexual purity, none of this would have come up. In any case, after a brief spurt of outrage, I’m sure we’ll soon return to more usual discourse – idiot, snivelling coward, jerk, liar – to which we’ve become accustomed.

All this is being driven by the on-going uncertainty about who will get the Republican nomination. Analysis of the latest polls suggest that Donald Trump will win just enough delegates for victory before the convention is held. Or he will be a few dozen short. Neither result will ensure he gets the nomination if the organizers adjust the rules to let delegates become unbound before the first vote. It’s all very complicated but you can read about it here. Trump has threatened lawsuits and predicted riots if such shenanigans occur. I think I’ll avoid Cleveland this July (or, well, forever. I mean, Cleveland!)

On the Democratic side, Sanders supporters have begun a ‘we was robbed’ narrative, starting some time ago but reaching a crescendo with the total mess that came down in Arizona. No one questions that it was a voting disaster but it was run by the state of Arizona and its hard-right Republican government. The gutting of the Fair Voting Act – which was implemented precisely because of states like Arizona with a history of depriving minorities with the vote – coupled by the archaic rules used by the state for registering voters was the source of the problem. It’s notable that voters were particularly impeded from voting in counties with high black and Hispanic populations, hardly fertile ground for Sanders based on past performance.

Of course, a few Sanders supporters probably think the clearly liberal, Ms. Clinton, is in cahoots with the Republicans to keep their guy out of the White House – highly plausible given the warm and cozy relationship the GOP has had with the Clintons over the years. Of course, Clinton hasn’t been exactly nice to Mr. Sanders either – though so far she hasn’t suggested he’s a closet communist. But as June approaches and if the race stays close – I wouldn’t be surprised if photographs of baby Bernie in the arms of Joseph Stalin appear.

And that’s ten minutes.