Thursday, August 17, 2017

Charlottesville's Web: We Finally See #RealDonaldTrump

Three different statements in four days, and three entirely different versions of Donald Trump. Steve, with considerable input from Tom, on the carnage in Charlottesville, and on which Trump is the #RealDonaldTrump.

On Saturday, Donald Trump made an incendiary statement in which he created an implicit equivalency between the violent acts and racist chants of white supremacist and neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the actions of those who came in protest.  After a national outpouring of disgust at Trump’s assessment of the shameful violence, Trump stood before a teleprompter on Monday and condemned the actions of the neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and white supremacists.  Though the written text would hit the correct points, his delivery appeared tepid and emotionally detached.

On Tuesday, we found out why.

That is when Trump stunned the nation and the world by repudiating his carefully scripted remarks of the prior day, re-asserting his initial contention of Saturday that the two sides in conflict bore equal responsibility for the violence. That the President of the United States would place violent racists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists on the identical moral plain as the citizens who protest their loathsome philosophy of hatred and bigotry is stupefying.  

Moreover, his entire tonality experienced a tectonic shift from his dry, detached manner of the prior day. Tuesday, he was loud, petulant, angry, combative, and brazenly hostile to the reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower.  Trump did not merely go rogue, he went rage.

The outcry has been swift, bipartisan, and nearly universal.  Nearly, in that David Dukes and a wide array of white supremacists found Trump’s comments to be comforting and supportive. Andrew Anglin, founder of neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying:

 “He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."

To their credit, a wide variety of bold-face Republican names have made very public statements condemning Trump’s stand.  Rubio, McCain, Romney, Sasse, Gardner, Kasich, and the Bushes 41 and 43 made their disdain for the President abundantly clear.

So what exactly happened in this extraordinary spin cycle? Why was Donald Trump three different Donald Trumps in four days? Which is the #RealDonaldTrump?

The answer is perhaps the most disturbing x-ray yet into who this man really is.

Let’s start with a simple observation. For all the sharp criticism about Trump’s inaccurate portrayal of the events and reprehensible attempt to create a moral equivalency, there’s very little commentary on the possibility that Trump was once again simply making a political calculation. In the six months of this President’s time in office, we’ve seen over and over again that his actions are solely calibrated according to the only real thing he cares about: What is best for Donald Trump?

And yes, it is entirely possible that Donald Trump has allowed the office of the President of the United States to be associated with racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy simply because at this moment, he thought it is the right move for his own personal brand.

The essential question that has hung over Donald Trump’s ascendance to and assumption of political power is whether he is primarily motivated and guided by a philosophical belief system, or, alternatively, if he is simply motivated by ego and self-aggrandizement, and that his governing philosophy is not driven by ideology, but rather by his belief that his skills as a successful businessman and deal-maker make him a superior CEO of government, a negotiator par excellence who can make government work again.

Placed into this historical context, the question is framed within the particulars of Charlottesville.  One theory would hold that Donald Trump is, himself, deeply aligned with the belief system of the alt right, and that in his heart, he truly believes that the protestors in Charlottesville are every bit as morally repugnant and villainous as the avowed racists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. 

On the other side is the perspective that Donald Trump is biologically incapable of and uninterested in matters of philosophy or policy. This view holds that he makes every decision and judgment based on an immediate calculus of which answer serves the interest of Donald Trump. In this view, a protean Trump rapidly changes shape, form, and belief system to embrace vehicles and vantage points that he believes will serve his personal brand. And in this perspective, one must assume that Donald Trump decided to advocate for the white supremacists because he believes that it benefits him directly and immediately to do so. 

As we consider this question, it is worthwhile to first frame the seven most defining and proprietary elements of Donald Trump’s style of leadership.

The first is that Donald Trump is thoroughly convinced that his gut feeling – his instinct about how to handle any situation – is vastly superior to the analytical, historical, or experiential perspectives that anyone else might bring to bear on a knotty problem.  He campaigned for the presidency by going with his gut, and the fact that he was elected is, to him, the ultimate validation of his superior intuition and instinct.  

The second is that Trump can never admit he was wrong about anything. He believes that it is better to double down on a previously held position – perhaps even inventing new reasons he was right – than to ever admit that he made a flawed decision.

Third is the matter that facts in the world of Trump are defined as nouns that support his world view. They need not exist in the real world. They can be conjured at will to serve a particular purpose. The measure of the validity of a fact is whether or not some people believe it to be true. This world view empowers Donald Trump to believe that both history and objective reality are easily manipulated to serve his needs. 

Fourth is that he prizes personal loyalty above all else.  He surrounds himself with people who have vowed and who live an utterly selfless fealty to Donald Trump.

The fifth is a deeply unnatural hatred of Barack Obama. Donald Trump does not appear to be interested in the legislative process except when he can use it to undo aspects of the Obama legacy. Trump had little interest in the particulars of how the Republican healthcare proposal would actually work. Rather, he announced that he would sign any bill that the Republicans sent his way. Trump views himself constantly in a direct comparison with Barack Obama, and therefore a vital aspect of elevating his own brand is to use any and every opportunity to demean Obama.

The sixth is his obsession with his presidency as a media phenomenon. He attempts to control the portrayal of his presidency through a three-part strategy of tweeting directly to his base, favoring Fox News, and attempting to delegitimize most other news sources as “fake news.”  Donald Trump spends more time attempting to control the media presentation of his brand than anything else he does as President.

Seventh, and perhaps the most emotionally super-charged element, is an urgent drive to shut down the Russian collusion investigation.  From his seething bitterness at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the inquiry, to the firing of James Comey, to the endless accusations of “fake news,” it is clear that Trump views the Russian investigation as his own personal Kryptonite, the sole earthly substance that can bring him down.

Taken in sum, these guide rails of his governance argue strongly for the simple fact that Trump is first and foremost concerned about how events, decisions, and individuals color and shape his personal brand.  He cares about personal loyalty, about being perceived as “the best ever,” and about how his image is curated in the news… which is why he obliterates facts, slanders Barack Obama, and wants to fire Robert Mueller.

Indeed, Trump’s view of Charlottesville may have had as much to do with Mueller as it did with white supremacists. 

Right now, at this moment, Robert Mueller is operating a massive drilling machine that is boring into the soft, weak stone that underpins Donald Trump’s financial empire. Grand juries have been empaneled. Practically buried in the rubble of Donald Trump’s epic disaster in Charlottesville was the fact that Mueller’s team had secured a search warrant and raided Paul Manafort’s home before dawn just three days earlier, having convinced a federal judge that there was probable cause to believe that evidence of a federal crime would be found there. Mueller is now demanding interviews with key members of Trump’s White House staff.

Rumors that Mueller’s investigation would take years may turn out to be off by, well, years. The Special Prosecutor already appears to have grounds to believe that Manafort is a criminal, and the only question is whether the crime is related or unrelated to the investigation into Russian collusion. If so, Trump’s White House is already on life support. If the crime is something Manafort committed as a private citizen, Trump must worry that Mueller is intent on flipping him in exchange for testimony.

In either case, Trump must go to bed every night with the existential fear that the fantasy he is now living could soon be ripped out from under him, humiliating him and his family. For a narcissist of his magnitude, the threat to his ego must be calibrated relative to the size of the ego itself.

It's pretty easy to see his math. If Mueller finds out something explosive – a literal smoking gun in the Oval Office – it is still true that as long as Trump has 34 Senators in the bag then he cannot be removed from office through impeachment.

So right now, all Donald Trump cares about is having 34 Senators in the bag.  If Donald Trump can preserve the loyalty of voters constituting 34 Senate seats, he is untouchable for four years. And the best way to nail down 34 Senators is to shamelessly pander to his most fanatically loyal base.

We can all say that the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites that made up the alt right rally in Charlottesville are heinous, despicable, and sick people, but Donald Trump looks at them and sees fanatic, crazed loyalty to the Trump brand.

These are the people will stick with him even if “he shoots somebody on Fifth Avenue.”

And for every neo-Nazi vigilante who spewed racist filth in Charlottesville, in Donald Trump’s view of America, there are millions more voters just like them. Donald Trump believes, deep in his heart, that these are the people that constitute his most loyal base.

Donald Trump looks at every single decision as a calculus about what will help him personally. Trump saw the videotape from Charlottesville, and determined that an unalloyed, unilateral indictment of the alt right rioters would be a risk to his political base and to the 34 votes he know seems to realize that he will need.

Which is to say this: a pure and intensely cynical analysis of his current political standing and vulnerability explains the Saturday pronouncement. 

Then -- confronted with an overwhelmingly negative response to his comments of Saturday, Trump was cajoled by senior advisors against his will into his tepid and unconvincing teleprompter reading on Monday. He dutifully read from the prepared script, but the very act of penance and implicit public acknowledgement of his error caused a violent eruption in his psyche. In reading someone else’s words off a teleprompter, Trump wildly violated some of the most sacrosanct elements of his self-image. One can practically hear him berating himself for submitting to the teleprompter; his rage building as he scolds the reflection in his mirror:

Always go from your gut, Donald… you are always right!

Never admit you are wrong, Donald. If you are challenged, double down on your original position!

Assert your own version of the facts, Donald… your people will believe you, no matter what.

Personal loyalty is the only thing that matters to you. These skinheads, Nazis, anti-Semites, and white supremacists may be bad people but they are completely loyal to you and you cannot turn on them.

You are losing the media war on this one, Donald. You must go back on the offensive and take control! Grab center stage and dominate this conversation!

And remember one last thing, Donald: Those white supremacists share your inexplicably obsessive hatred of Barack Obama.

On Tuesday afternoon, Donald Trump was only two blocks from Fifth Avenue, and he did shoot somebody.  We are left only to wonder how long it will take him to understand the cataclysmic nature of his self-inflicted wound. 

Three statements, four days, three different Donald Trumps. Saturday was the pure political operator, trying to navigate a public statement without alienating an important constituency. Sure, Trump has racist inclinations and is a weapons-grade misogynist, but Saturday's Trump was pure political instinct and calculation.

Monday's Trump? You know, the one who actually said the right things? That was the fake news, the faux Trump.The disingenuous man performing the bland reading from the teleprompter was the least authentic of the three Donald Trumps.

On Tuesday, we finally saw #realdonaldtrump.

We saw the real, unfiltered, x-ray of a despicable human being: A man who embraces bigotry, hatred, and violence for political gain, and the man who is so in the grip of the worst of human emotions that he could not contain himself. We saw the perversely sensitive, defensive, pyrotechnic, vitriolic, unfiltered, attention-seeking egomaniac for who is really is.
 
And who he is not.

This is a man who should not be President of the United States.

As a nation, we have our flaws, and they may be many. But America is not, neither in its history nor in the overwhelming majority of its citizenry, a nation of skinheads, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, white supremacists, and racists.

All of the people who voted for Donald Trump may want to give some thought to who he thinks they really are.  

In Charlottesville’s web, we saw #RealDonaldTrump, unfiltered, unbowed, and unhinged.

We can only hope that from this ugliness, we, as a nation, may finally be drawing together in the realization that he is #notourpresident.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Call To Action: Step Down! A Letter to PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi

Wendy writes to PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi in the latest installment of her "A Call To Action" series.  She plans to write to every CEO on Trump's advisory councils.  Wendy encourages our readers to do the same.

Dear Ms. Nooyi,

As a former PepsiCo employee back in the days when the glass ceiling for women was impenetrable, I have followed your leadership at PepsiCo and on the Yale Corporation with great interest and admiration.  While your success is not related to either your gender or minority status, those attributes give you a platform from which to provide an example for those of us who do not have as much visibility.  

CEOs of six major US companies have resigned from presidential advisory councils in protest of Trump's statements about Charlottesville.  Yet you remain a member of the Trump Strategy and Policy Forum.  Your presence on that council is an affront to women and minorities, and it is a lost opportunity to make a strong statement on the right side of history.

I have heard and reject the argument that in order to affect change, one needs a seat at the table.  While that logic might hold in normal times, these are not normal times, and we can not reasonably expect that this council will be effective in the midst of the White House chaos. Your presence at the table is instead an affront to basic American values.  It is a particular slap in the face to women -- who Trump has degraded using the most base language -- and to minorities -- need I say more about his encouragement of white supremacy?

I implore you to stand up and do the right thing.  Step down from the Strategy and Policy Forum. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Flake News: The Republican Turning of the Screwed

Repeatedly during a crazy two week period, we find a common thread: Republicans are shoving back at their President. Steve reflects on what may have been the inflection point in the Trump Presidency.

Yesterday's breaking news that Robert Mueller has empaneled a new grand jury in Washington, D.C. triggered what was at least a Def Con 3 wave of impeachment buzz throughout the political blogosphere. Once again, we here at BTRTN expect a flurry of questions about the possibility of impeachment, and about the odds of Donald Trump not serving his full term. We always say the same thing: impeachment is at least as much a political calculation if not more than a legal matter. Until Donald Trump’s political support in Congress collapses, the odds of removal through impeachment appear slim.

And that is what makes the timing of Mueller’s grand jury so interesting. 

In the past two weeks, we have seen a startlingly broad sweep of evidence that Trump’s grip on Republican support in Congress is eroding. And beyond Congress, we have seen instances in which Trump was openly, brazenly, and fearlessly dissed by organizations that only very recently might have held their tongues and fallen in line. 

Indeed, future historians may very well point to the last two weeks as the turning point in the presidency of Donald Trump. Make no mistake: it is hypothetically possible that this inflection point will bend in Trump’s favor. The decision to bring in General John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff could prove positive, as a stern military taskmaster functioning as a Leon Panetta Redux may transform a weak and chaotic executive branch into a functioning organization capable of processing an aggressive legislative agenda on an orderly basis.  

Then again, most likely not.

We expect just another sequel of the same, tired movie: Trump will prove unwilling to cede authority to the former General (or anyone else), will continue to tweet irresponsibly, and will undercut and infuriate Kelly with undisciplined outbursts about policy, personnel, random delusions, and the raw bile of his anger and fear of the Russia investigation. Kelly will simply be the latest staffer who made the mistake of not having the surname “Trump,” and he has the self-respect to quit before being Reinced.

If this trajectory proves accurate, those future historians will view the appointment and subsequent failure of Kelly as just one more reason that this two week stretch was kryptonite to Trump’s presidency. 

Though far from the most substantive disaster of this ten day period, the headfirst dive into an empty swimming pool executed by short-lived White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci does serve as an epic metaphor for the trajectory of this White House. Plumbing previously uncharted depths of vulgarity, Scaramucci characterized Reince Priebus as “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” and summarized his stylistic, philosophical, and intellectual differences with White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon by noting that “I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” Asked to assess Scaramucci’s communications style, Rudy Guiliani enthusiastically defended “the Mooch” by noting, without a trace of irony, “What you’re seeing in Scaramucci is the president’s style.” Ahah! Well played, Mr. Mayor!
 
But the reason that the Icarus ride of Anthony Scaramucci may prove to be so metaphoric is because the Mooch – like Donald Trump – rose to the top by crudely insulting everyone in sight, and then was stunned to realize that all those people who he pissed off on the way up were delighted to watch him go splat on the way down. What made the past two weeks so startling were the hard-landing counter-punches eagerly thrown at the suddenly vulnerable president.

For starters, in this short span of time, Trump took major blowback from each of the Boy Scouts, law enforcement, and the U.S. military, which has traditionally been a sort of holy trinity of bedrock conservatism. Pissing off all three in ten days? That would even be a challenge for Jane Fonda. Perhaps Trump's next move will be to figure out a way to enrage the National Rifle Association.

The Boy Scouts of America – itself a sort of prepubescent paramilitary training corps, famous recently for its grudging and hostile handling of gay rights issues – should be a relatively safe haven for any flag-waving moment, particularly one featuring a Republican President. Yet Donald Trump gave a stream of unconscionable speech to the annual national Boy Scout Jamboree that was so politically charged and inappropriate that it required the Boy Scout organization to immediately issue a formal apology for the words of the President of the United States. When Trump later claimed that the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to tell him his speech was the “greatest ever,” the Boy Scouts denied that such a call had taken place and referred questioners directly back to the apology. Worth noting, Mr. President: the very first of the twelve words in the Boy Scout Creed is “trustworthy.” 

Trump abruptly tweeted a 180 degree reversal in military policy, suddenly firing all transgender personnel in all branches of the U.S. military. The Pentagon coolly rebuffed the news by dismissing the legitimacy of the tweet as having been merely an “announcement,” not an actual military order. "Orders and announcements are different things, and we are awaiting an order from the commander in chief to proceed." Nothing has happened since. For the record, the last time the U.S. military decided that a directive from the President of the United States could be ignored was when Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas starred in Seven Days in May.

Donald Trump gave a speech to law enforcement officers in Long Island condoning policy brutality. Suffolk County immediately posted a notice declaring their commitment to lawful police conduct. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that the comments had been intended as a joke, which will have many people like Freddie Gray in stitches. Literally

Yet – remarkably – none of these three firestorms carried the same significance as those that illustrated that the first crocuses of pent-up Republican rebellion against their president finally broke through the permafrost. This was the week that the Republicans finally grew a pair of brass, well, to be accurate, ovaries. Two gutsy female Republican Senators and one tough old goat with an axe to grind abandoned Trump to end the attempted “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. Is it mere coincidence that Donald Trump had personally threatened one of those Senators and crudely insulted another? After failing to support an earlier effort to repeal Obamacare, Alaska Senator Linda Murkowski had been threatened by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that her state would suffer a decline in support from the Federal government for her vote. And, of course, Trump had famously proclaimed during the campaign that John McCain was “not a war hero.” Instant Karma’s gonna get you, Mr. President.

Congress stuffed a sanctions bill down an unwilling president’s throat with the near-unanimous support of Republicans, ensuring an override should Trump be foolish enough to veto it. Herein we see the full orchestra and chorus of Republicans nauseated by a President who refuses to take the threat of Russian interference in our elections seriously.

Then, of course, there was the loathsome stink of Trump’s venomous public attack on his own Attorney General. Lindsay Graham spoke for his Republican Senate colleagues in warning Trump that if he fired Jeff Sessions, there would be “holy hell” to pay. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a more official notification to Trump that firing Sessions was a non-starter, tweeting that his Senate subcommittee would not even consider the affirmation of a replacement for Sessions until next year. 

The shelling from Congress continued when Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s new book was published, which shoved a very sharp spike directly up Donald Trump’s nose. Flake appears to be the first Republican Senator to have wholly escaped from Trump’s reality distortion field, offering the thesis that the Republican Party sold its soul in order to win the White House. Consider this quote, courtesy of CNN.com:

"It was we conservatives who, upon Obama's election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president—the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime."

Flake, in this pronouncement, invoked the words of Mitch McConnell, but indicted the entire campaign and presidency of Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s candidacy was keyed on pressing the hot buttons that triggered right wing hatred of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He never offered a vision of what he would do, only what he would undo. Flake’s words landed on Capitol Hill at the moment Trump’s lack of guiding philosophy was most clear: Trump told everyone he was ready to sign any bill at all that reached his desk repealing Obamacare. He could not care less what the replacement would be. All he wanted to do was to be able to say that he succeeded in repealing Obamacare. His failure to become involved in the granular details of healthcare policy both revealed his lack of commitment to actually improving healthcare and also sealed his party’s woeful inability to shape a coherent policy.

No one is suggesting that Jeff Flake is a bellwether for Republican sentiments: he was an outspoken critic of Trump throughout the campaign, and now has a target on his back from the right wing for a primary challenge. But Republicans will be more open to criticism from one of their own than from MSNBC. That’s the reason this Flake news is significant.

At the end of the day, the overwhelming reason that Donald Trump is testing the patience of his party continues to be his attitude toward Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election. Once again, it was Lindsey Graham who threw down the gauntlet, claiming that “any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong.” Respect for Mueller, and for the task he has been given, runs deep on both sides of the aisle. Yet Trump continues, to this day, to claim that the investigation is a “witch hunt” motivated by politics.

The steady drip, drip, drip of lies – whether directly related to Russia or not -- continue to bleed the President’s credibility.  Whether it is the revelation that he helped craft his son’s completely disingenuous explanation for the June 9 meeting with the Russians, or the leaked transcript of his phone conversation with the Mexican president that proves that Trump has known all along that Mexico would never “pay for the wall,” the willful deviance from truth is seeping into consciousness of the faithful. This week, the average of Trump's national poll approval ratings fell from 39% to 37%, which physicists might describe as a nuclear meltdown – uncontrolled fission in the fuel core.

Two months ago, we dismissed the odds of impeachment simply because of the math. Even if articles of impeachment could be squeezed through the House, the odds of reaching the 67 Senators required for conviction seemed remote. 

And yet in these short two weeks, we’ve seen Republicans in Congress begin to change their tune. 

Perhaps, in their hearts, they realize Jeff Flake’s flake news is actually the real deal: that this President has no overarching political philosophy, vision, or goal other than the veneration and glory of Donald Trump.

Perhaps they are now realizing that the President’s unmitigated fear of and hostility toward the Special Prosecutor is in and of itself an admission of guilt. 

Perhaps they are tired of a President who blames and insults them for his own failures of leadership, most notably on the central campaign promise of the Republican 2016 platform. 

Perhaps they have finally seen that he is perfectly willing to hang them out to dry for his own ineptitude.

But we sense a sea change, a moment when Republicans in Congress realize that that their leader is fighting a very different battle from the rest of them, particularly as 2017 marches inexorably towards 2018 and the midterm elections. His is a battle for survival, and they are just so much collateral damage.

Call it the turning of the screwed.