A Few Thoughts In Advance of the State of the Union

A year in and it is about as clear as it will ever be that we have a president both unequipped and disinterested in the job to which a quarter of the eligible population voted him into. The flailing in congress is now centered on second guessing him, improvising constantly with each revision that looks like policy, and trying to find a viable position in which to be when the final bill comes due and he is either impeached or resigns. By now, I imagine, most of them are hoping one of those happen, because the third course is trying to manage a complex, expensive nation through three more years and fearing the possibility of another four (plus possibly his vice presidential successor) should he be reelected.

I am quite serious about that, for the following reasons.

There was no way to reasonably expect him to win in the first place, but he did. All the flaws in our system came into play in a perfect storm to hand the wrong person the job. Between 40 and 47% of eligible voters did not vote. Even so, the popular vote totaled to give his opponent more. Had a mere five percent higher turnout happened…

The electoral college did its job as the representative bulwark to defend the smaller states from the larger, who in a straight popular election could swamp the Montanas and Wyomings and Alaskas all the time. If you do not understand why this is bad, just look at the consequences of gerrymandering on the state level which favors concentrations of one population group over others. Size matters. But in this case, it also failed because it does have the power to change its decision based on results that may be questionable. (A solution to this problem could be as simple as delaying the announcement of the E.C. results by a few days or a week. Unless I am mistaken, there is no law that says they must announce at the same time as the popular vote.)

Unless the Democratic Party fields a candidate that can stand apart from past problems and rally the base, Trump represents a focal point that may attract enough support to do it again.

The Republican Party misread its base as badly as the Democratic Party misread its base. The difference was, the GOP had fostered the base it then misunderstood, while the Democratic Party simply ignored its traditional base in favor of a base it represents rather well, but speaks to as if it were something else. The result was, that while the argument between the two frontrunners of the Democratic Party was, when broken down side by side, almost negligible, the difference between the final Republican candidate and those he ran against was as profound as can be even as the distinctions on policy were practically nonexistent. You might think I’m saying style over substance, but I’m not. Something worse—our president accepted the rhetoric of the GOP as if it were gospel while none of the rest of the slate did. Trump understood that a significant portion of the GOP base supported the rhetorical stances of the party in the most literal way, while the others thought they could conduct politics as usual and ignore the means by which they had gained power.

As for the electorate, the Trump supporters wanted what they got. (They probably didn’t understand what they were asking for and for some of them, maybe most of them, probably expected the changes they demanded to affect Other People and not them.) The Democrats created a chasm between their two candidates where none existed. Bernie Sanders was not going to run his administration significantly differently than Hillary Clinton. But the 24-hours news cycles, FaceBook, and the Talk Radio chaos fed the small differences between them and turned Hillary into a monster.

It is probably true that had Sanders gotten the nomination, more Democrats would have come out to vote. He probably would have beaten Trump on the simple basis that he did not suffer under an onslaught of unsubstantiated hatred. (That would have come, though, had he gotten the nomination. Still, I think he would have won, which is not to say he was going to be any better at the job than Clinton, only that the public perception of him might have allowed for more people to set aside biases they thought vital and participate. This begs the question of how such biases could have been such that the very act of participation could be seen as pointless given the choices.) He would have won because those who supported Hillary would have, while being disappointed, understood that a larger issue was at stake, put aside their disappointments, and voted for him. In spite of Sanders pleading with his supporters to do the same for Clinton, they stood by their shallow principles and allowed the country to be handed over to a real problem. In this way, they were no different than their rightwing counterparts who vote single issue even when that issue is based entirely on falsehoods and a complete misunderstanding of the issues involved.

Both parties, either by omission or direct action, have a share in the situation. Both are badly compromised by an overdependence on money. Both are hampered by a lack of focus on solutions. Both have accepted the diminishment of dreams and are fighting over fenceposts.

This is not to say that there is not now a clear moral difference between them. By default if nothing else the Democratic Party has become, if not a champion exactly, the advocate for ethical policy.

The electorate, on both sides of the divide, have been aware for decades that they are not being represented. They are also tired of the continual blaming that substitutes for cooperation and sound policy.

Both sides expected their candidate to make a thorough housecleaning of Washington D.C.

It may not have occurred to either side that a great deal of the mechanism they have been taught to mistrust and even hate actually works fairly well when you consider what it is tasked to do.

But that doesn’t fit a narrative of righteous rage.

At present we have a collection of apparent contradictions before us, some telling us things are better than they were, others quite the opposite. Prevarication, dissembling, and mendacity have always attended any political period, but to these we must add incompetence of a possibly dangerous level. With his supporters, all this passes muster because they see it as the hallmark of “their guy” being assailed by entrenched interests and having to fight back with the available tools. They are sure the apparent contradictions are more aspects of the hall of mirrors they believe D.C. to be than any flaw in his character. Again, this is familiar to any group of supporters of almost any candidate in a spotlight. He’s saying what he needs to say to stay in power and do the job.

The reduction to a form is a useful way to make sense of what can be a baffling complexity, but one which, if not tempered by sound judgment, can overwhelm our ability to recognize a real difference in kind. In this case, the usual dance of politics that supporters believe him to be performing does not explain what is clearly someone incompetent to the task.

One example is the recent attempt to bully a publisher into canceling publication of a book. Never mind what the book is about, whether it is factual or fair, this was an action taken out of petty spite and in clear violation of everything we are supposed to be about. I do not risk hyperbole in this—blatant censorship, of the kind we have always criticized in the worst dictatorships, is involved, in writing. That his lawyers had to explain to him why he could not do this should be enough to show that he is ill-suited to the job.

This has occurred several times already, the necessity of someone to explain the president the limits of his office. It remains to be seen if such discussions encompassed actual principle, that it would be unconstitutional. The continual and ongoing tussle over immigration is typical.

Then there is the pandering over American jobs. The recent tariff imposed on solar panels shows a profound disconnect over what he is supposed to be good at, namely business. Two plus years of pledges to secure jobs inside the country, and thus far he has demonstrated a lack of clear understanding. This tariff will eventually cause the loss of over twenty thousand jobs in a till now growing industry. An industry, by the way, that supplies a need but also fulfills the promise of a more environmentally friendly industry. Trump’s pandering to worker sympathies vis-a-vís the coal industry is the basest kind of cynical posturing. Environmental concerns aside, coal is a dying industry. It costs too much for too little gain. This is an example of the law of diminishing returns. Of course, this also demonstrates the skewed priorities of the party to which he is attached, in that public outrage over the lost livelihoods of coal workers is met not with any kind of sinecure for the workers but with protectionist legislation for the companies. It would never occur to them to simply pension these workers with full benefits and let the companies die the way companies do. Protect the people working the mines rather than hold them hostage to guaranteed profits for people who will even in the aftermath lose nothing but a bit of power.

Point being, there were ways to approach this that would have been capitalist-friendly and environmentally sound and progressive, but there is a burden of cronyism attached that makes sensible action incommensurable with most of those choices.

One benefit, an unintended one, to be sure, of this presidency is that the stage-managed mendacity of the last twenty years is being undone. Immigration reform, of the kind that would have resolved all the current issues, was proposed by, of all people, Bush. His own party refused to cooperate. Bush, at one time the darling of the GOP, could not get it done. Like other such issues, including abortion, the pattern has been clear and not always party-specific: certain issues make irreplaceable campaign topics. Votes can be garnered by stirring the base with the right rhetoric. Solve these issues, you take those away, and candidates would have to rely on other things, less visceral, on which to campaign. Now there is a president demanding action and threatening to topple the house of cards.

On immigration, the charade has been two-fold. Certainly it is easy to frighten certain groups with images of foreigners flooding the country and threatening our “americanness.” But it has also been a standard tool to make the economic argument that these immigrants, especially the illegal ones, are the reason wages are stagnant. (Of course, there are two elements to this, which coexist jaggedly if one cared to give it any thought: jobs being shipped overseas to take advantage of labor costs as well as immigrants coming in to threaten wages by lowering labor costs. There is something amiss with the calculus here, but people who are anxious or frightened think badly. The primary purpose of these issues is to maintain that condition. Consider just one factor: those coming here are coming here for jobs. Those jobs, obviously, have not been “shipped overseas” and require someone to do them. If actual labor costs were addressed to make wages fair, it wouldn’t matter who fills them, cost would not be the deciding factor. Similarly, jobs shipped overseas to take advantage of lower costs include regulatory costs here, bypassed by building plant in countries where such regulations do not exist. A simple solution would be to impose a reimportation tariff to essentially nullify that benefit and take away the justification for exporting plant.)

Mitch McConnell and his gang are running in panic because Trump is threatening their job security. If he were doing so intentionally, with some kind of purpose, it might be a good thing, but he has yet to follow through on any of this. It has all been a matter of unintended consequences.

People are pointing to the upsurge in economic activity as some kind of sign that his “policies” are working. Of course, these same people would deny other presidents credit on the basis that what we see happening has far more to do with the outgoing administration, because what can a president do in one year to cause this kind of surge all on his own? And that argument would be correct. A new administration’s policies take two, sometimes three years to show up all on their own. But in this instance, there is a bit of anticipatory greed at work, waiting for the gates of the city to be thrown open for the pillage to begin. We have actually fixed nothing in the wake of 2008 and are vulnerable to another meltdown because the political will is absent in D.C. to reimpose the kinds of regulations that would work to prevent it. In both parties, frankly. This is the one area where Sanders may well have been more effective. Be that as it may, there is no coherent policy to explain it in terms of the current administration. The tax reform bill came after the stock market surge, so they are not causally connected.

Tuesday night is another State of the Union address, Trump’s first. He has some explaining to do. Polls suggest that thus far he has done nothing his supporters sent him to Washington to do. He has not heard them. They want healthcare, jobs, cost-of-living adjustments, variety of things he has spent his life working to get out of paying for as a businessman. The failure to address any of these, certainly, is not all on him, he heads a party that is more concerned with keeping power than solving problems.

(The drawback to solving problems is, as I indicated, that once solved they cease to be effective campaign issues. And to be fair, this is human nature. If things are running smoothly, then the necessity of maintaining the things that make them run smoothly loses valence, and people wonder why they still have to be concerned with it. You can survey history in many areas to see this, where the cost of maintenance becomes burdensome when the need for it seems to disappear in the absence of crises.)

The sad truth is, the people who voted for him who are beginning to realize that they were betrayed believed they were getting something else. But they in fact got what they asked for—a blustering egoist chanting “Make America Great Again” while offering nothing other than nativist pabulum as a plan. What they wanted was someone who would make changes that provide them security, in jobs, in healthcare, in education. Never mind that some of their judgments on what to do about this are questionable at best. This is not to say some of these issues are not real, only that their solutions require something this man does not possess—ability.

He also lacks any kind of depth, either of intellect or character, the kind needed to get outside his own head and see the world through other eyes. His conflicts with his staff demonstrate this clearly. (Even if only a quarter of Wolff’s book is true, it is frighteningly chaotic in the White House, with most of the staff trying to mollify an intemperate egotist rather than conducting the business of the people.)

We have fostered in this country a suspicion of expertise, of intellectualism, of sophistication. We have nurtured a disregard for nuance, a quality essential for diplomacy. We have fed on a spring of poisoned waters that called itself news and we have given in to short term fear. It may well be that Hillary Clinton was not the right candidate—that candidate may not have been in the race—but she would not have broken everything the way it’s being broken now. All because we have given in to fear.

It doesn’t matter what he promised to do. For the people who still support him, you should start realizing he can’t give those things to you. It may be too much to hope that you begin to realize that you wanted the wrong things. Some of them—a country for white people only, a country with an oil well on every plot of land, a country where everyone, even children, can go armed wherever they want—are things ultimately contrary to any sane American’s vision for where and how they want to live. Do I blame Trump for fostering this? No, he’s just the face of it. And the mouth.

You have been had. And we’re all paying the price of that rejection of Better.

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