The Good, The Bad, and The UglyPosted: February 24, 2017
We are now just a bit over a month into the administration of President Donald J. Trump. Many of us that pay close attention to current events and especially to national politics already feel a bit worn out. Based on recent reports, some are thrilled with the way that the Trump Administration is taking action and carrying out his campaign promises. Others worry that a political disaster is looming just over the horizon. It will impact our national way of life due to the unbridled pursuit of absolute power by those in the White House, or conversely by an administration that has no real idea of what it is doing.
I am closer to the view of an impending disaster than the to the rosier view of our president. I think President Trump, just as he demonstrated on the campaign trail, has no realistic understanding of what it means to be President of the United States. He may be the most unprepared and undisciplined president we have had in our lifetimes. I continue to be troubled by the apparent lack of intellectual curiosity to find out what is actually going on and in particular, how the government functions. He belittles or ignores the contextual surroundings of why certain customs and traditions came to be important in running the country. I am sure he is a smart man. I surmise that he just does not care to learn about all of that. As he might say, he doesn’t have to — he won. As a result, he has no boundaries.
In fact, that may be what got him elected. A large segment of our population wanted him to “blow things up in Washington” and that is certainly what he is doing. As the old adage goes, however, be careful what you ask for. Once he finishes blowing things up, his administration still has to govern and I wonder what will take the place of the current system.
There are some clues, and yesterday, the president’s chief adviser Mr. Steve Bannon gave direct testimony as to his vision, and by extension, the president’s vision on the future of the federal government. I find it deeply troubling. I will explain in a moment, but part of what troubles me is that I am not convinced that President Trump has a personal vision of governing and he does not have a governing ideology, be it conservative, liberal, or something else. In my view, he has ideas that pop into his head and then he acts on them when he perceives that they get a positive response from his base. They are seemingly random and are merely manifestations of the things that popped into his head on the campaign trail. Indeed, I am not sure that the president has much enthusiasm for the mundane aspects of governing. If possible, he would be on a permanent campaign as evidenced by his rally in Florida last weekend that he touted as the beginning of his 2020 re-election campaign — less than a month into his current presidency. I am sure there will be plenty more.
My view is that the flurry of activity since the president entered office is a distraction. The Executive Orders and other actions are meant to give the perception that the president is carrying out his promises to those that elected him and are based on his campaign promises. Looks great. The reality, ignoring for the moment whether or not it is good policy, is that not much is actually happening. He makes empty statements that may sound good to his base, but has no substance behind it. For example, unlike numerous presidents from both parties, no significant legislation has passed since he took office. Most past presidents rolled out some milestone legislation and had it passed in the first 30 days of their term. President Trump has yet to send any major proposals to Congress. Meanwhile, leaders in Congress are ignoring the, shall we say, shenanigans taking place in the White House. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are taking the long view and trying to ignore the day-to-day turmoil created by the president’s tweet storms and press conferences and the like. (One may wonder, however, how long of a view they are taking. It has been over six years since they promised to repeal and replace The Affordable Care Act and they still have nothing close to a realistic proposal to do so.) They may end up being ambushed and/or deceived by the White House in unexpected ways that limits their ability to pass a health bill and other long awaited legislation.
Another piece of the puzzle in figuring out the future intentions of the president, and more accurately Mr. Bannon’s plans, comes in the form of foreign policy and cabinet positions. Although he has a few outstanding Americans in key cabinet positions — such as Secretary James Mattis at Defense (I briefly served with him in the Pentagon during the transition from the President Bill Clinton to the President George W. Bush administration), Secretary Rex Tillerson at State (although his Russian ties are still troubling), Secretary John Kelly at Homeland Security and the new National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster — one wonders as to their influence in the White House. Several examples seem to indicate that they may have little to no influence on decision-making. In particular, Secretary Tillerson does not seem to be much involved in crafting foreign policy. His assignment seems to be more of a public relations job. The three secretaries mentioned above have spent more time going around to various foreign leaders, along with Vice President Pence, explaining “what the president really meant to say” and patching up the resulting frayed relationships with friends and allies. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the United States and President Trump fundamentally changed decades of U.S. Middle East policy, no representative of either the State or Defense Departments were present in the meetings. The president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner was there. Mr. Bannon was there. Mr. Bannon’s acolyte Mr. Stephen Miller was there. But by all credible reports, not one member of the departments responsible for the policy was included.
Other signs that the cabinet may not have much influence in the White House include the fact that individuals picked by several Secretaries for their staffs were summarily fired by the White House when staffers learned that they had made critical comments about Mr. Trump during the campaign. Another clue is that nearly all political appointees were summarily removed after the inauguration. While clearly the incoming president has every right to put his own people in those positions, the usual practice is to keep some appointees from the previous administration in place to keep the government running while the new nominees go through confirmation hearings. Every Ambassador overseas was removed. It is hard to keep things rolling smoothly along when there is no one there to do the job. While much criticism is directed at the Democrats for “slow rolling” the confirmation process of Cabinet officials, the truth is that many of them were poorly vetted prior to their hearings. One Cabinet nominee and two Service Secretaries nominated by the president withdrew their names when unusual entanglements were uncovered. This of course doesn’t include retired Lt. General Michael Flynn resigning as the National Security Adviser weeks into the administration. More significantly in terms of actually making things work, there are roughly 549 political positions in the federal government that require confirmation by the Senate. 14 slots are filled with about 20 others nominated. That means that roughly 515 senior and vital positions in the government have not been nominated. While such hearings can go slowly, previous administrations would have nominated or known who they want to nominate to those positions by now. For info, there are about 3500 additional political positions in the federal government that do not require Senate confirmation. Nearly all of them remain empty.
Here is another piece in the puzzle leading up to my conclusion that something nefarious is going on in the White House. President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, the intelligence community (yet another one just today), and the press may be his childish backlash to decisions or stories he does not like. I am beginning to think that there is more to it. It may be the president’s own doing or he may be put up to by key members of his staff. Either way, it is potentially dangerous. I am beginning to think that it is a concerted effort to delegitimize those bulwarks of our freedoms. So far Congress seems unable or unwilling to push back against the president. The only institutions that are attempting to keep the president honest are the ones he is attacking. If they are undermined, or ignored, or intimidated, then there is no institution ready to call him out when required. His power would increase. This is not a pretty picture for a man who knows no boundaries.
Least we get distracted, please remember that a foreign power tried to interfere with our election and as late as yesterday, the president called the whole investigation a “ruse.” And we still have not seen any of his tax returns.
So, what is it that I am leading up to? Yesterday, Mr. Bannon — former editor of the alt-right publication Breitbart news and current senior adviser to the president — went before the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) and declared that the goal of the new administration is to dismantle the federal government and re-build it in his image. Or has he said, they are entering in an unending battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In their view, the “administrative state” is the career civil servants in the government that do not see their role the same way as do Mr. Bannon and his cohorts. Included in his vision of the “enemy” is the intelligence community, judiciary, press and the other institutions that they continually attack. As delineated in the article linked above, Mr. Bannon proclaimed that the president will never moderate his positions or seek consensus. Apparently, it is as we used to say “my way or the highway.”
What will replace the old order? It would take me too much time to go into all of the devilish details of their world view. A short explanation would be that in their view the world order that has prevailed in economics, politics and foreign policy since the end of World War II is no longer relevant for the future and has to be dismantled to give power back “to the people.” “Power to the People!” Sounds familiar. It is also fiercely nationalistic, thus the slogan “America First.” Trade pacts, military alliances, and other areas that you have seen President Trump and his minions talk about as being “obsolete” and “bad for America” are manifestations of this world view.
One may argue that it is time to shake things up (Yea Trump!) and there may be a case to be made there. I am not sure if President Trump fully avows to such a world view or whether it was merely a convenient path to the presidency. He used Mr. Bannon to achieve his ends. The unsettling part is that Mr. Bannon is also using the president to get what he wants. In either case, Mr. Bannon espoused his “pride” in the president for his unwavering pursuit of his new world order and his unwillingness to compromise. To me that does not bode well for our future. Contrary to hard-liners on both sides of the aisle, politics is by nature a compromise. Without it, nothing will get accomplished.
The deeper one dives into Mr. Bannon’s vision and specific statements the more worrisome it becomes that he and his minions in the White House — Mr. Stephen Miller and other former Brietbart writers — are in charge. When one puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together, it is eerily reminiscent of many a work of political fiction outlining a path to autocratic power in our nation.
Whenever one or two people in power declare that they alone know how to set things straight it should be troubling. I think that there is a method to the seeming madness in the White House and in my view it could easily result in a direct assault on the values we hold dear. Our democracy is only as good as the people in it. It will be incumbent on all of us to look with clear eyes as the next few months unfold and to cry foul as appropriate. To our great benefit, it is already beginning to happen in the many town halls held (or not — and that is very telling as well) around our nation with our representatives in Congress.
Whether President Trump represents the good, the bad or the ugly depends on one’s political view-point. None-the-less, we live in interesting times. Hold on to your hat, because I think our national journey is going to get pretty wild in the coming months.