Monday, August 21, 2017

Loose Bannon: Watch Fox Get Primaried by Breitbart

Steve Bannon is out at the White House, and that may just mean that the threat he poses to the White House has just begun. Here is Steve on Steve Bannon, loose cannon.

One day President Trump asserts a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and violent racists relative to the protestors who are reviled by their bigotry, and two days later he fires Steve Bannon.

What is a white supremacist to think?

Perhaps this is just another instance of “reality Imitates reality tv,” but who would have predicted that the words “You’re fired” would be also be the signature motif of Donald Trump’s White House?  Between Spicer, Priebus, Scaramucci, and now Bannon, Donald Trump has recently set a pace for mowing down personnel that exceeds the weekly requirement established on The Apprentice.

The firing of Steve Bannon is generally considered the work of General John Kelly, who brilliantly intuited that the first step toward turning the White House from internecine gang warfare into a functioning executive branch was to eliminate the loudest, most self-involved, most combative, most impulsive, and most ruthless egotists. This explains Kelly’s two first beheadings – Scaramucci and Bannon – but surely he must realize that if he pursues this logic, it leads to the inexorable conclusion that the key person he must fire is, uh, Donald Trump.

The inclination is to view the termination of Bannon as a powerful signal from Kelly that he is determined to end the anarchy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, you would not have expected a general to be the one who makes the mistake of winning the battle but potentially losing the war.

Cutting Steve Bannon loose might make progressives and even traditional Republicans feel good for a news cycle, but if there was ever a person to muzzle with a bear hug, this guy is it. Torching Steve Bannon puts a fissionable nuclear isotope with a world class chip on his shoulder back in the control room at a media organization that makes Fox News look like Huntley Brinkley.  Muscling the Mooch out the end of the White House alimentary canal was great hard-ass theatre, but when it comes to Bannon, General Kelly may have wanted to think a bit harder – perhaps, as Dubya might say, with a bit more strategery.

You remember that old saying: “Hold your friends close, hold your enemies closer, and hold psychopaths long enough and tightly enough so that someone can tie them up in a straightjacket.”

It took Bannon the length of an Uber ride to be back in the editorial chair at Breitbart News, and no sooner had he settled in that he began launching ICBMs as fast and as erratically as Kim Jung-un. First was the vaguely orgasmic quote to The Weekly Standard, in which he noted that he was “jacked up” to be back at Breitbart, and once again had his “hands on his weapons.” It was The Mooch, you’ll recall, who had commented on Bannon’s rare physiological gift for self-gratification. We sense a pattern.

Then there was Bannon’s mildly enigmatic pronouncement that “the Trump Presidency that we fought for is over.” The clear intent here was to convey to Bannon’s faithful that Trump has somehow sold out, and allowed the “White House Democrats” to forcibly wrest the steering wheel on the ship of state from Bannon’s more deserving hands. Still and all, Bannon’s message that Donald Trump is not alt right by me seemed odd at the end of a week in which Trump had been tarred as a neo-Nazi sympathizer, a white supremacist enabler, and a supporter of anti-Semites. Geez, what does a racist have to do to please Breitbart, anyway?

The media was consumed with speculation about who in Trump’s White House would be targeted by the Bannonized Breitbart. However, the far more interesting topic is what Bannon intends to do with Breitbart.  Our bet: Bannon is planning to primary Fox News.

You know… to “primary” a candidate is when the far right or alt right decides that a Republican legislator is not being conservative enough, so they run an even more conservative candidate to challenge the incumbent in the party’s primary election.  The mere threat of being “primaried” makes many a Republican lawmaker think twice about not toeing the hard-right line. Well, the bet here is that Steve Bannon sees a huge opportunity in the recently splintered Fox News. Bannon wants to make Breitbart the home of true conservatives, and one way to do it is to discredit, diminish, and demonize Fox. He’s going to primary Fox News.

Poor Fox News. This is the pioneering network that invented the world-changing idea that a television news show is not obligated to broadcast news accurately. Unlike ABC, NBC, and CBS, which all are governed by the Federal Communications Commission, cable network Fox News does not have to worry about losing its broadcast license. Moreover, ABC, NBC, and CBS News were born during the period in television history when the best way to win the ratings war was to be the most trusted and most informative network. With only three networks fighting for the entire news pie, the one that was most appealing to the broad center was the one that would win. Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America” – also won the weekly Nielsen ratings, and made the most money for his company.

But Fox changed all that, co-opting the imagery and authority of silver-haired white men sitting behind big “anchor man” desks, and thereby creating the illusion that the Fox version of the news was every bit as responsible and truthful as the networks. Fox changed the economic model, too. Instead of being profitable by being the most broadly trusted news source, Fox positioned itself to a niche market: conservative viewers. If The New York Times promised “all the news that’s fit to print,” Fox offered conservatives “all the news to fit your views.”

But today’s Fox News is taking incoming from every conceivable side. Founder Roger Ailes died shortly after his reputation was ruined by charges of serial sexually predatory behavior toward his employees, and soon after Fox icon Bill O’Reilly lost his leading-man prime time slot for similar allegations. The network’s rising star, Megan Kelly, bolted for NBC. Fox host Eric Bolling was recently suspended for, ah, pulling an Andrew Weiner. You get the drift.

In the past week, the network found itself splintered in its reaction to Donald Trump’s handling of Charlottesville.  Fox CEO James Murdoch issued a scathing criticism of Trump, and popular anchor Shepard Smith publicly announced on his broadcast that Fox could not find a single Republican who would come on his show to defend Trump. African-American Fox host Eboni Williams ripped Trump to shreds in a scathing commentary in which she labeled the President as “cowardly and dangerous.” The rift at Fox was made clear as old reliable white sycophants Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, never ones to bite the hand that feeds them, defended the President relentlessly.

In short, Fox appears a bit adrift. Its endemic misogynistic culture has created wave after wave of scandal. With Ailes gone, it does not seem to really know whether it is time to grow up into a real news organization or simply become a better propaganda arm. It does not know whether it is supposed to be blindly loyal to President Trump, or whether its role is to advocate for conservative ideology.  It does not know when the Republican Party ends and the Tea Party begins, let alone where conservative ideology stops and the alt right picks up. In short, it perfectly reflects the fracture of the Republican Party, and is every bit as dysfunctional as a result. 

Fox is, in this regard, exactly where Steve Bannon wants them to be as he sets out to outfox Fox. For all the ambiguity and uncertainty at Fox, Breitbart is the opposite. It’s mission is singular and ruthless, and it takes no prisoners. Breitbart is the singular and unfiltered voice of the alt right.  

Perhaps Bannon’s brief and unsuccessful tenure in the White House and Ailes’ demise may have made Bannon realize that what he really wants to be is the next Ailes: the kingmaker who controls the Republican Party by functioning as the conduit to and from its ever-more animated bedrock conservative base.

In Trump, Bannon had the perfect vessel: a powerful demagogue who had an intuitive sense for populist rage, bigotry, and fear… but who lacked an organized, coherent philosophy through which he could turn voter support into actionable legislative programs.  Bannon disciplined Trump into core campaign themes: economic nationalism, military isolationism, and unrelenting savage attacks on Hilary Clinton’s trustworthiness.  Trump’s campaign was in shambles when Bannon arrived, and Bannon has every reason to believe that he is the reason Trump won.

Like Ailes before him, Bannon sees the opportunity to institutionalize this role as “kingmaker” by controlling the media that connects with the base. This means building Breitbart News as rapidly as possible, and challenging the pre-eminence of Fox News as the voice of the right.

If that’s indeed the goal, here are five things one might can expect from Bannon in the very near future.
  1. Rebrand the “alt right.” The term “alt right” suggests that it is a fringe group, not the heart of the party. Expect Bannon to come up with some new term – the “True Right,” the “Authentic Right” – that attempts to position Breitbart as the home of true ideological believers.
  2. Hand in glove with this effort will be an attempt to reposition Fox News as merely the mouthpiece of the traditional Republican beltway establishment.  Bannon will characterize Fox News as being loyal to party and personality, but not to ideology.  Fox will endure a barrage of fake news that attempts to stamp it as the network of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and aging establishment dogma.
  3. Expect some version of Breitbart TV soon. Disclosure: as this piece was being finished for posting, we saw today’s New York Times article on a similar topic. The Times journalist seemed to feel that television was not in the game plan for Breitbart, but it is hard to see how Breitbart could expand its scope and impact dramatically without the broad reach of television. Sure, this will require big money, but that is where the billionaire Mercer family comes in. It was of more than passing interest that The New York Times piece did not mention the words “alt right” a single time, which suggests that they are not seeing the opportunity as a classic exercise in market segmentation.  Bannon is out to segment Fox’s audience just as the original Fox segmented network news.
  4. Welcome back, Bill O’Reilly.  A short-cut to an instantaneous large audience would be to give Bill O’Reilly the 9:00 prime time slot, and watch the Fox faithful come home to Papa.Hannity and Carlson would then be hot commodities in a bidding war.
  5. Finally: if we thought that Fox News owned the market in sensationalism and fake news, get ready for master classes in fictional narrative. Breitbart manufactures fake news by the gross. But if you are trying to build audience fast, you will be looking to make headlines with bigger, bolder, shocking news stories that demand the attention of the establishment news industry. Watch out, Jared Kushner… you are about to become the red meat Breitbart needs to break through into the big time. If Steve Bannon knows anything that hasn’t gotten out about Russian collusion, Breitbart will bleed it out until Kushner himself is out. 
The bottom line: we can soon expect a curated news channel for every audience: Breitbart for the Alt Right, Fox for the Republican establishment, CNN for the center-left, and MSNBC for the Bernie-Baby progressives. And yes, this will simply make the world ever more parochially trapped in a downward spiral of ignorance born of symbiotic dependency and echo chambers: I watch Fox because Fox portrays reality in the way that I agree with.

And what does all this mean for Donald Trump?

A heavily funded, amped-up Breitbart with both an axe to wield and an axe to grind is nothing but trouble for Donald Trump.

At best, Bannon will selectively support Trump when supporting Trump is in his interest.

At worst, he will exercise his vengeful streak by gleefully lobbing grenades at the White House moderates who did him in.

But if our suspicions are correct – that Bannon’s goal is to become a gatekeeper and intermediary between Trump and Trump’s vital base – then Breitbart could actually become Donald Trump’s biggest headache.  We have noted repeatedly that Trump’s every calculation – from Charlottesville to global warming to immigration policy -- is rooted in his existential need to preserve his base. He does not want Breitbart to be creating the scorecard on how well he is keeping his promises… but that is pretty much exactly what Bannon will do. Bannon will hold Trump’s feet to the alt right’s ideological fire, and Breitbart will scream bloody murder if it feels Trump is straying from the alt right catechism.

To a White House run by a general who appears to be trying to move Trump towards becoming a more practical and reasoned negotiator and deal maker, Breitbart will be more an antagonist than ally, testing the loyalty of Trump’s most essential base, and making Trump ever more vulnerable to being primaried by one or more of the Republicans who already smell blood in the water.

Bannon will get his revenge. Fox News and Donald Trump are both about to learn a very painful lesson: Live by fake news, die by fake news.

Because Steve Bannon isn’t very fair, and he sure as hell does not appear to be balanced.

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.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

BTRTN July 2017 Month in Review: GOP Discontent With Trump Boils Over

Tom assesses the past month with the usual array of analysis and numbers.  It ain't pretty.

THE MONTH

I had originally intended to use a gimmick to recap this month, in essence by writing it three different ways:  from the left, from the right, and down the middle.  The intent was to dramatize the well-known tendency of us all to “pick our own” news and view events only through the lens that most resembles our own.

But, frankly, who would want to read about this month three different times?  July began on a discordant note, ended on a number of other discordant notes, and in between was an entire symphony of discordant notes.  Such is the state of the Trump Administration, which has struck only one positive sound in its six-month life, and that was Trump’s uplifting remarks of unity after the Steve Scalise shooting.  I am exhausting non-superlatives in describing the Trump White House; today’s word will be “execrable.”

The month started with the inexplicable and tasteless attack on Mika Brzezinsky – specifically for, of all things, some modest “facial work”, followed by the retweeting by Trump of a strange video portraying a cartoonish Trump wrestling a faceless, CNN–labeled opponent to the ground.  The strategy was clear – attack the mainstream media.  But there are countless tactics to choose to effect such a strategy, and these were among the most bizarre Trump could have possibly conceived.  (And the depiction of violence, however cartoonish, was particularly thoughtless in the wake of the recent Montana special election incident, when a congressional candidate literally punched a reporter on the eve of his special election, a race that he won anyway.)

Next Trump was off to the G20, making news by turning the US into an outcast by withdrawing from the Paris Accords, the historic global climate change agreement that fully 195 countries have signed, all except Syria and Nicaragua (the latter did not sign because they thought the Accords did not go far enough).   If you measure a person by the company they keep, we now stand with Bashar al-Assad.  Trump further fumbled with his meeting with Vladimir Putin, gently questioning Putin on Russia’s role in our 2016 elections, and apparently accepting his denials.  Trump later met with Putin in an unscheduled gathering to which he brought no one, not even an interpreter, and thus there is no record of what was said.

The main event of the month – at least until the events of last week, which we will get to – was the remarkable disclosure of an email exchange from last June between Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian-connected music promoter, that corroborated, for all to see, the Trump campaign’s interest in exactly what it has been denying -- colluding with the Russian Government to discredit Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump to the presidency.  While Team Trump was quick to assert that nothing came of the meeting, even that assertion validated the intent – one is only left to conclude that if the Russians did indeed have something on Clinton, the Trump campaign would have been eager to take it. 

The revelation of the Trump, Jr. emails was handled remarkably poorly, as every ensuing drip-drip of news revealed more and more Russians at the meeting, each with more nefarious (and relevant) backgrounds and connection to the “highest levels” of power.  Anyone who might have believed that the investigation was meritless was certainly de-fanged by this bombshell.

But two month-ending events rendered new meaning to the word “bombshell”, with the stars of the twin dramas being played out at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue being John McCain and Anthony Scaramucci.

Scaramucci burst upon the scene with the subtlety of a Molotov Cocktail and in ten short days managed to eclipse two titanic stories: the slow death of GOP attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, and the ongoing public evisceration by Trump of his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions.  After an almost-charming introductory press conference in which the Mooch promised to advance Trump’s agenda, he almost immediately instead launched open warfare on most of the incumbent White House staff, including Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and the entire communications department he was now running.  His profanity-laced on-the-record tirade with The New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza would have made Tony Soprano blush.  (It certainly makes you wonder what he might have been saying in private.)  First Sean Spicer was gone, resigning in protest to the Mooch’s hiring.  Then Priebus was out as well.  Finally, Scaramucci himself departed – his outlandish role in this drama, as it turned out, had an even shorter arc than Mike Flynn(10 days versus 19), when he was fired on the last day of the month by incoming Chief of Staff General John Kelly, with Trump’s blessing.

The other bombshell was the demise of the GOP efforts to pass legislation to repeal, replace, re-something, re-anything Obamacare.  To use the word “debacle” is an understatement for this so-called “legislative process.”  Mitch McConnell, genius legislator, managed to maneuver his party into a position where the only way forward was to vote for a measure that no one in his party actually wanted to see become law.  Huh?  This was the last-ditch so-called “Skinny Repeal,” which was the only bill left after the Senate voted down a repeal-and-replace bill rather easily (with 9 GOP votes along with the 46 Dems and 2 Indies), and then, also easily (7 GOP votes this time) a repeal-only bill.  Leave it to John McCain, reclaiming his tarnished “Maverick” label at his own darkest hour, just a week after receiving a diagnosis of glioblastoma (an insidious form of brain cancer), to kill the measure, joining Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski of his own party as well as all the Dems and Indies.

It is becoming a bit tiresome to keep labeling the latest unit of time as Trump’s “worst” month/week/day.  But this was truly an utterly disastrous week, because apart from the normal wailing from the Democrats, this week it is the GOP faithful who were extremely unhappy and/or flexing their independent muscles across a number of issues.

·       The humiliation of Sessions raised the ire of the base, who consider the Attorney General a conservative icon and admire his moves as AG to advance the hard right agenda.  Sessions was the first Senator to back Trump, and thus all GOP eyes could behold that the loyalty Trump so fiercely demands is a one-way street.  

·       Scaramucci was the proverbial kerosene-poured-on-the-blaze, resulting in the purge of Washington Establishment figures on Trump's team, with Spicer and Priebus gone and the smart money wondering if McMaster would soon follow.  There was no love for Spicer or Priebus among the GOP faithful, but the Scaramucci interview with The New Yorker was shocking to virtually everyone on both sides of the political spectrum.

·       Then there was the embarrassing announcement by Trump (via Twitter) that he was completely banning transgenders from the military.  He claimed that he took this action after consulting with nameless generals, but it ultimately came out that these generals did not include his own Secretary of Defense or the Joint Chiefs.  And this policy was swiftly opposed and roundly renounced on a bi-partisan basis, including many GOP military stalwarts, including McCain. 

·        Congress then handed Trump a stinging rebuke in passing overwhelmingly, and on a bi-partisan basis, a new round of sanctions against Russia (as well as Iran and North Korea), not only countering Trump’s strategy of reducing Russian sanctions, and also effectively stripping Trump of the usual presidential prerogative to unilaterally ease them at any future time. 

·       And the death of the health care bill was the ultimate promise-not-kept, art-of-the-deal-not-made, with much GOP muttering on who was to blame.  While McConnell was a primary villian, many pointed to Trump for refusing to engage in either the policy detail or in the selling of its alleged benefits --  beyond the oft-refuted claim that Obamacare was “imploding.” 

·       Should we throw in the way-too-political speech to the Boy Scouts, of all people, which drew a public rebuke by their leadership for being inappropriate for the largely teenage-or younger audience?  Not to mention Trump infuriating police officials by encouraging officers to “not be too nice” to suspected criminals, advice that violates standard (and strict) procedures.

Where to now?  How can we possibly know?  But the GOP natives are getting restless – finally.  The Kelly move may prove to be a step in the right direction, especially since it is now clear that the entire White House staff, including Jared and Ivanka, will report to him.  But the GOP Congress has clearly demonstrated that they no longer neither fear Trump’s wrath nor will take his lead on policy. 

Aren’t you glad you don’t have to read two more versions of this?

THE NUMBERS

Trump’s approval rating continues to sag, yet another percentage point lost in a consistent downward trend.  These numbers remain bad for a president that presumably wants to be re-elected – he must get to the high 40’s at least for that to become possible – but they are not disastrous by historical standards. Any number of recent presidents fell into the 20’s, including Nixon, Carter and Bush 43. 

TRUMP APPROVAL RATING

Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Approve
50%
47%
44%
44%
43%
42%
41%
Disapprove
46%
50%
53%
53%
54%
56%
57%
Net
4%
-3%
-9%
-9%
-12%
-14%
-16%







Plenty of people question whether, with our extreme level of polarization, there is a “floor” on how low Trump can go.  Our view is that there is certainly a floor, but it is far closer to 20% than 40%.  Consider these numbers from Rasmussen, which breaks their approval and disapproval ratings further into “strongly” and “somewhat” subsets of each, and thereby gives more insight into the dynamism of these ratings. 

RASMUSSEN APPROVAL RATING

Jan post-Inaug
July
Change
Strongly Approve
40%
27%
-13%
Somewhat Approve
16%
17%
1%
Somewhat Disapprove
9%
10%
1%
Strongly Disapprove
35%
47%
12%

As you can see, people are changing their minds about Trump, and quite dramatically since Inauguration Day.  (Note:  relative to other pollsters, Rasmussen historically favors the GOP, so these numbers are about three points higher than what you would see by averaging all the polls.)  The percentage that “strongly” approve of Trump has dropped by about a third, from 40% to only 27%.  And the “strongly disapprove” group has risen accordingly, up to nearly 50%.

So while the overall approval measure appears to be declining only gradually – a point a month, which is bad enough – the degree of approval is changing markedly, setting up the possibility for further change.  The GOP in total is hardly wedded to Donald Trump, only a subset of it.

It will be very interesting to see where all this goes in the next month, now that the GOP has failed in the health care arena, and Trump is alienating his own party.  Of particular note:  On the last day of the month, Trump’s approval rating on Rasmussen fell below 40% for the first time, to 39%.


THE TRUMP-O-METER

Trump would do well to focus all of his tweets and public pronouncements on the state of the economy.  That he deserves credit for the solid economic performance is a dubious proposition, given his short tenure, but the facts are clear:  the momentum built in the latter years of the Obama Administration has continued.  Since January 20th, the unemployment rate has dropped further from 4.7% to 4.4%, the stock market is up 11%, the Consumer Confidence Index has risen from 114 to 121, the price of gas is flat, and the GDP growth has increased to 2.6% (though well short of Trump’s stated 4% goal).

End of Clinton        1/20/2001
End of Bush        1/20/2009
End of Obama      1/20/2017
"Trumpometer" 6/30/2017
"Trumpometer" 7/31/2017

25
-53
0
-2
10
  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
4.3
4.4
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
119
121
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.40
2.43
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
21,350
21,797
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
1.4
2.6