Friday, July 22, 2016

Delusional.

Two months ago, Ted Cruz summed up what many had come to believe about Donald Trump:

"The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don't think this country has ever seen... Everything in Donald's world is about Donald. And he combines being a pathological liar, and I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory and he'd pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he's telling, at that minute he believes it."

In his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump believed every word he said. If anyone was surprised by the tenor of Trump's acceptance speech, it only means that they didn't watch any of his stump speeches over the course of the campaign. He might have been reading from a prompter, but the speech was vintage Trump. As is his custom, he either lied or misrepresented data to fit his narrative, he demonized individuals and institutions as part of the global conspiracy of corruption and incompetence--this time he added the FBI to his list--who stand in his path.

There was nothing new in the dystopian tenor of the picture he painted of America. This has been central to his rhetoric since the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015. His anti-immigrant, anti-trade and anti-Muslim themes, the anti-Semitic and white supremacist dogwhistles, have been interlinked in his vision of a working class America beset by crime, economic insecurity, and the predations of political and corporate elites.

Trump honed his skills at stoking the anger and resentments among older, working class voters as the leader of the Birther movement, and throughout his campaign he has never deviated from his core message. In his acceptance speech, Trump painted himself as the working class hero, who will champion the forgotten and voiceless Americans. Just as he did with the campaign slogan Make America Great Again, in his speech he succinctly summed up his message: I am your voice. In his narrative, and as rabidly embraced by those in attendance last night, the working class are the ones who have been the victims of crime and wage suppression at the hands of immigrants. They are the ones whose jobs have been lost and they are the ones who struggle to make ends meet as the result of trade deals that have enriched corporate leaders and politicians.

Many traditional Republicans--those who have been enriched by globalization, free trade and open borders--prayed that he would pivot in this speech. As if to signal that there would be no kinder, gentler, more compliant Trump in the offing, the day before his big speech, Donald Trump doubled down on his anti-NATO, pro-Putin stance that has enraged the Republican foreign policy establishment. Asked what he would do if Russian tanks rumbled into Estonia, Trump suggested that the United States has more important things to worry about than the fate of Europe. Americanism, not globalism, as he put it last night, has been his stance for a better part of a year now. So much for global leadership.

Trump did pivot in this speech, it just wasn't in the direction that establishment Republicans--or conservatives for that matter--had in mind. Conservative pundits have warned from day one that Donald Trump was not one of them. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. His mangling of "Two Corinthians" was a sure sign that there was no bible on his nightstand. He was, they warned, a New York liberal; balls-to-bones, as the Oracle would have put it.

Over the course of the convention, you could see the magnitude of the pivot coming. Over the course of this convention, the Trump children have moved front and center as the apostles of the Church of Donald Trump. In his speech on day three of the convention--a speech largely overlooked because he was the speaker immediately following Ted Cruz--second son Eric Trump began to shift the vision of what we should expect from a Trump administration. He offered barely a nod to conservative principles, suggesting instead the rebuilding of the nation's infrastructure, its run down neighborhoods, and its schools. Ford, Nabisco, Carrier and other companies would bring their factories back home. It was not just that Eric Trump's vision was more FDR than Ronald Reagan, but his appeal to an audience will beyond the normal range of the GOP.

To the unemployed voter sitting at home watching me right now, wondering how you're going to make your next mortgage payment, or rent payment, my father is running for you... To the schoolteacher forced to walk through metal detectors each and every day into an underfunded school, my father is running for you... To single mothers, to families with special needs children, to middle class families who can no longer afford medical benefits sufficient to cover their everyday needs, my father is running for you.

The next day, Ivanka Trump took it one step further. First, as if to confirm what skeptical conservatives had long concluded about her father, she let the partisan audience know that she is not a Republican. Then she proceeded to expand her brother's summation of the Trump vision to include affordable childcare for all, equality of wages for women, and paid maternity leave.

The speech that Donald Trump ultimately delivered was his standard stump speech appended to the most significant commitment to what can only be described as liberal, big government spending and social priorities--for lack of a better term--than I can recall. "Every action I take," Donald Trump stated, "I will ask myself: does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child America?"

And yet the partisan Republican audience went wild each step of the way, even as Trump's commitments wandered farther from the right and deeper to the left. The assembled hard core of the GOP--the same crowd that had cheered on Laura Ingraham's red meat attack on the leftward drift of modern society and assertion of the individual work ethic as the solution for what ails those same youths--similarly applauded their candidate's commiseration with unemployed African American youths and Latinos living in poverty as they did for his obligatory nods to the Second Amendment and deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

And then came Trump's comments about the Orlando terrorist attack, and his commitment to protect the LGBT community:

"The terrorist targeted the LGBTQ community. No good. And we're going to stop it... As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology."

[Note: Andrew Sullivan commented while live blogging the speech: "I keep giggling at “LGBTQ”. Who actually uses all five consonants, except those saying it for the first time? But Trump seems genuine in his support for gay people and our humanity. It’s cynical and sincere."]

And the crowd went nuts yet again, to such an extent that even Trump seemed to be perplexed at the enthusiastic response. This is, after all, the Republican National Convention that has restorative therapy for gay children as part of its platform. When the crowd settled, he went off script to comment: "And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering what I just said. Thank you. Thank you."

Trump's speech was a home run, from a political standpoint. From any objective viewpoint the tenor of the speech was nakedly authoritarian, and from a content standpoint it was utter nonsense. There has likely never been a convention speech that offered so much to so many, with so little to back it up. Bernie Sanders was raked over the coals for advocating a higher educational entitlement projected to cost $75 billion a year. Donald Trump, meanwhile, proposed $10 trillion in tax cuts, said he would pay off $19 trillion in national debt, and now proposes to rebuild the nation's transportation and other infrastructure at a cost of trillions more. He will eliminate ISIS and Islamic extremism (eliminating Saudi Arabia, perhaps?) Yet there is no uproar, only the cheers of a political party that has not only suspended disbelief, but seems content to move forward with a candidate who can only be described as delusional.

Donald Trump not only knows his audience, but their commitment to him now transcends their commitment to the Republican Party. From the early days of his campaign, Trump has been at odds with central tenets of modern Republicanism. This election year that was supposed to be dominated by billionaire campaign contributors and the social Darwinist principles advocated by House Republicans. Trump upended all of that from the get-go, with his attacks on globalization, free trade and the corruption of political money.

Rather than pivoting back toward the GOP mainstream, Trump used this speech to broaden his working class appeal, and to show his supporters--to their evident glee--the alignment of their interests with those of others in similar economic circumstances--single mothers, Latinos and African Americans. For decades, this alignment of interests among working class whites and minorities has been the Holy Grail in the Democratic Party. It was astonishing to see Trump pursue that path, just days before the Democrats gather in Philadelphia.

The success of this speech will be seen in the weeks ahead in whether it shifts Donald Trump's unfavorability rating in public polls. Like Hillary Clinton, Trump's success in the fall will depend on a combination between his success in driving up negative perceptions of her, as well as moderating negative perceptions of him. While this speech appears on the surface to constitute an effort to expand his voter base to include the single mothers, African Americans and Latinos that he appealed to in his speech, it is more likely that the pivot was targeted toward suburban white woman.

Suburban Republican woman living in the battleground states of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado have been a critical swing group for several election cycle. According to public opinion polling, more than half of college educated white voters, and women in particular, have indicated that they view Donald Trump as racist. For those voters, softening the negative view of Trump as a racist, xenophobic bigot is critical if he is to have a chance to win their votes, and in turn the election, in November. The Trump campaign needs to make it palatable for suburban women to tell their friends they are supporting Trump. Thus, a speech that put the travails of African American youths, struggling Latinos and the persecution of the LGBT community front and center.

The speech, like his campaign, was a tour de force of egoism and self-delusion. But as Ted Cruz suggested, he believes every word of it. And as we learned over the course of the week, his children believe every word of it. And if the roars of the crowd are any measure, the assembled base of the Republican Party has united as one and believe every word of it. Now it comes down to college educated Republican women. If they buy into the sincerity of his words--and set aside, or at least suspend, their revulsion at the years of racial, xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric that have defined his political career--this speech will come to be viewed as a critical moment in the election.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reaping what you sow.

For the third day in a row, the morning-after headlines were not what the Trump campaign could have wanted. Tuesday, the morning after day one, with its theme on Make America Safe Again, the media storyline was not of a Republican Party unified to save the nation from a Hillary Clinton Presidency, but instead on the plagiarism in Melanie Trump's speech.

Wednesday morning, after day two, and its focus on Make America Work Again, the media focus was not on the vision and leadership of Donald Trump, and his unique capacity to cure all that ails us, but instead the mangled responses to the plagiarism issue by Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and Donald Trump himself.

And as the sun rose on the fourth and final day of the convention, the headlines said little about how Trump would Make America First Again or the introduction of rock solid conservative, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as Donald Trump's running mate. Instead, the entire focus was on the prime time speech by Ted Cruz, not only refusing to endorse Trump, but giving license to conservatives across the country to not give Trump their vote.

The conventional wisdom is that conventions provide candidates with their last opportunity to send a controlled message to the voters, and, along with the debates, are one of the few chances a candidate has to shift voter perceptions. In that regard, the first three days of this convention have moved the needle in the wrong direction, as each morning the narrative coming out of the convention has been about campaign problems, not deliberately crafted campaign storylines.

Even more than allowing the plagiarism issue first to happen and then to fester, allowing Ted Cruz to reject the nominee from center state--in front of a prime time national TV audience--was an astonishing blunder. The Trump campaign has insisted that they knew what was coming, and no doubt they did. But they are damned if they knew, and damned if they didn't. If they knew the tenor of the speech Cruz was going to give, he should have been assigned a speaking role early on the first day, or even none at all. If they didn't know, they were not paying attention, perhaps a worse indictment.

Ted Cruz never endorsed Trump, and had not given any private assurance that he intended to. Perhaps as the convention approached, Donald Trump--the master of the deal, after all--believed that he could bring Cruz around, but if by Monday it was still up in the air, it was inexcusable to allow the third night speaking slot--positioned right before the introduction of the Vice President--to stand. Not since 1964--when Nelson Rockefeller refused to endorse Barry Goldwater--has a vanquished primary candidate declined to endorse a major party nominee, and Rockefeller was not allowed to make his feelings known in front of a prime time audience of twenty million people.

The RNC convention is an ingathering of a tribe of sorts. By design, the delegates represent a narrower political spectrum than that of the Republican Party as a whole. They share a proscribed world view and moral outlook, and represent a delimited demographic. By and large, the delegates are white and they are old. At one point, as I sat in the arena with my colleague Jay--both of us in our 60s--he leaned over at one point and commented that he felt like a kid in that crowd.

The third night theme was Making America First Again, though it will be best remembered for perfidy and betrayalRadio talk show host Laura Ingraham began the evening. Ingraham is a smart, aggressive partisan who gave a red meat speech narrowly cast to her audience inside the arena, a homily simmering with anger that affirmed the collective values of the assembled masses. We worked from the time we were young children. My parents didn't believe there were any jobs Americans wouldn't do.... I asked my mom once, when I was young, why are there people burning the American flag? Because their parents didn't teach them about respect.

It is all about respect.

Who is it that those people [Democrats, protesters] respect, exactly? Many in public office don't respect the rule of law. [turning to look into the camera] Isn't that right, Mrs. Clinton. 

It is sad to see this happen to the country that we love... We deserve better, and we can do better. Donald Trump understands that we have to turn this around. That we have to restore respect, on all levels of society. He is a leader who will restore respect.

This convention has been an irony-free zone. Lost on the crowd was the irony of Ingraham suggesting that Donald Trump was the man to model and restore norms of respect and decency to our politics and institutions. This, after all, is the man who built his campaign around taunts and name-calling reminiscent of a Kindergarten sandbox, who all but stood ready to bare his penis to the nation to prove his virility.

The most powerful speaker of the night was African-American pastor Darrell Scott, who preached his testimony to Trump's character. "I've known him for quite some time. I know he's not a racist. I know he's not a xenophobe. I know he's not a misogynist. And I just would love to be able to convince everyone of that." Trump, he continued, "is very image-conscious. He's very concerned about his brand and about his appearance." 

Those in the arena may not need convincing, but Scott's words, and those of others who spoke about him in glowing terms, stood in sharp contrast to the persona that Trump has deliberately cultivated over years in the public eye. His flirtations with, if not sponsorship of, the lunatic fringe as a leader of the Birther movement provided the jumping off point for a presidential campaign that has led to a widespread view that he is in fact a racist, a xenophobe, and a misogynist.

As was the case last night, the strongest case for Donald Trump was made by one of his children, in this case Eric Trump. Unlike his older half-brother Donald Jr. who speech the night before was well delivered, but oddly disconnected from anything that their father has said he stands for, Eric Trump provided an articulate argument for the Trump agenda as he has represented it over the course of the past year. In contrast to the mainstream conservative speech 24 hours earlier, this speech was pretty much New York liberal, with the exception of a nod to the Second Amendment. Eric Trump called out the unemployed, teachers and single moms, as people his father would fight for. He touched on race and gender. He promised that his father would rebuild that the nation's infrastructure, bring Ford and Nabisco and other manufacturing plants back home, rebuild urban neighborhoods, make our schools the envy of the world and put the fat cats in their place.

To his family, Donald Trump is a titanic figure, good and kind, respectful and uplifting, and both Eric and Donald Junior assure us that he can do the impossible. But they, of course, are his children. Yet little or none of this comes across in his public persona, were he comes across as nasty, petty, a sociopathic narcissist, a serial liar and a con man. These are not my words, they are from those he has run against, in a campaign built around attacking his opponents, not with opposition research or reasoned arguments as one might have expected from the man described by either of his sons, but with taunts and labels and what ultimately deteriorated into twitter-enabled, high-tech lynchings, as he leveraged his millions of followers on social media to publicly shame, blame or humiliate his opponents.

Perhaps for Trump it is all strictly business, just the sticks and stones of political campaigns, but just as Darrell Scott suggested that Donald Trump is very protective of his brand, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio--and others down the line--are protective of their's, and the belittling taunts, attacks and innuendo came to be seen as deeply personal. And last night was time for payback. Trump's attacks on Cruz were perhaps the most personal. Casting tweets out to a social media audience of millions, Trump made fun of Heidi Cruz's looks and intimated in that way that only Trump can that Cruz's father--whom he reveres much as Eric and Donald Trump revere their father--had been complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Revenge, they say, is a dish best eaten cold, and it is hard to believe that Ted Cruz did not take deep, personal satisfaction at the opportunity to stand before 20 million people and exact some measure of revenge.

I don't know if Laura Ingraham knew what was coming, but she did go out of her way to taunt the anti-Trumpers, those who had lost but who had not come on board. Perhaps that was about Jeb and John Kasich as much as Ted Cruz, but knowing what lay ahead in the evening, she appeared to be talking directly to Ted Cruz. Ingraham found the unwillingness of those who have chosen not to endorse Donald Trump outrageous and infuriating. But the moral lesson she had omitted from her speech was the one about reaping what you sow. To those in the arena, who exploded with rage as they realized toward the end of Cruz's speech what was coming, Ted Cruz was the traitor. But perhaps history will write the story differently.

Monday night was the defining night at this convention so far, because Monday night is when it became clear that the Trump candidacy is not about Donald Trump at all. It is not about who he is, or his fidelity to one wife or three. It is not about whether he can fix America as his son's so fervently argue, or if he actually hit his ceiling in terms of his ability to solve public problems when he fixed the Wohlman Skating Rink in Central Park. It doesn't matter if he releases his tax returns, or if he even paid taxes. Or whether he is a Christian or a Conservative, much less a Christian Conservative who has accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. And it certainly isn't about whether or not Trump has a successful convention. This campaign is only about Hillary Clinton, now described by Ben Carson to the wild endorsement of the assembled delegates as nothing less than an accomplice of Satan himself.

For those who have gathered here in Cleveland, that apparently is enough. But last night, Ted Cruz suggested otherwise. He suggested by what he said and what he didn't say that this year, it is the GOP that has sold its soul, and for that, he is reaping the whirlwind. It may earn him the enduring hatred of the conservative movement that he still hopes to lead, and cost him the future shot at the presidency that he covets.

But it does not mean he is wrong.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

RNC Day 2: Veering off message.

Day two of the Republican National Convention started auspiciously. Somehow, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort missed the memo about campaign crisis management that suggested that when you make a mistake you acknowledge it, deal with it and move on. Faced with the fiasco of Melania Trump's convention speech having taken lines from Michelle Obama's convention speech eight years ago, Manafort chose to deny that the similarity in the words was anything more than a casual coincidence. As the saying goes, if you put one million monkeys in front of a million typewriters, one of them is bound to peck out the complete works of Shakespeare. But it was not enough to deny the obvious, Manafort then pivoted to point a finger at the root cause of Melania's problem: The Clinton campaign. When Hillary is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy them. 

Manafort's strategy of denial and deflection was both bad management and bad politics. Trump's entire political career has been built on casting aspersions on individuals and groups alike, beginning with his championing of the birther movement. During the campaign itself, he began with Jeb Bush and the entire country of Mexico, and moved on from there. Now, for some reason, Manafort and Trump both seemed to think that Melania deserved the benefit of the doubt, as Trump lashed out at the media for paying any regard to the issue.

Manafort's efforts to stonewall the plagiarism problem only egged people on. By the time Trump staffer Meredith McIver stepped forward the next day to admit culpability for inadvertently including Michelle Obama's words in Melania Trump's speech, the damage was done. The focus on Melania had turned social media attention to the fact that she apparently lied on her publicly published bio, which states that she graduated from college in her home country with a degree in design and architecture, while according to her biographers she dropped out of college after her freshman year. Perhaps more damning, if less discussed, was that it proved both Manafort and Donald Trump himself to by liars and hypocrites. First they denied the facts, and then pointed the finger of blame at Hillary and the media. It may have started as an innocent mistake, but by their actions Manafort and Trump together compounded the damage, to Melania, to their convention, and to their own efforts to prove themselves ready for prime time.

Appropriate to the focus on Melania's education and work visa history, the convention theme of day two was Make America Work Again. It lacked the punch of day one, when the theme of Make America Safe Again was easily melded with attacks on Hillary Clinton as the root of our national sense of insecurity. Day one began with terrorism, moved on the immigration and then ended up with the urgency of sending Hillary Clinton to prison for her high crimes and misdemeanors. At best, for Republicans, the end result of day one was the articulation of a campaign strategy that will unite the Republican Party and put it on the path to victory in the fall. At worst, should Hillary prevail in the fall, the waves of vitriolic, anti-Hillary diatribes that constituted the day one agenda will serve as the basis for the nullification of the validity of the election and lay the groundwork for four years of ever more bitter national division.

The tone of the second day of speeches was plodding by comparison with the first day. Despite the fact that the deterioration in working class white worker wages was supposed to be the root cause of voter anger and catalyst of the Trump candidacy, the Make America Work Again agenda and discussions of policy or what a Trump administration might actually do sparked little evident enthusiasm across the delegate ranks. Speaker of the House and RNC Convention Chairman Paul Ryan (R, WI) tried to galvanize interest among the gathered delegates in his much-vaunted public policy agenda to little avail. Ryan is a protégé of former New York Congressman and Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp, often described as the voice of "bleeding heart conservatism" in the Republican Party. Ryan, who continues to resist a full throated embrace of his party's presidential nominee, is a true believer in the notion that politics is a contest of ideas, and that public policy is the anvil on which political parties should be measured and tested. Make America Work Again was right up his alley.

Yet as Ryan spoke, the arena was silent. Perhaps the apparent delegate indifference reflected the views presented in a Politico article on the convention that suggested that while the delegates "all seem to agree the Obama economy is a ghastly mess, except for the economy wherever they happen to live." Whatever the reason, those delegates sat on their hands as Ryan argued for ending identity politics and building an economy that offered respect for all. "So much that you and I care about," Ryan argued "...stands in the balance in this election." Nothing but silence. All that was left for Ryan to do was to appeal to the unity of the party--code now for the capitulation of anti-Trump forces--"What do you say that we unify this party..." Finally, Ryan won the big roar that he had sought, and he exited the stage.

Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R. CA) followed Ryan and made a plea for a more expansive Republican ethos. "Republicans," McCarthy suggested, "believe in an America that is not divided by race and ethnicity and gender." Wild cheers from a small wedge of California delegates seated right by the stage, while the rest of the arena was silent. "Government will help those who truly need it, and help all to rise." Cheers again from California alone. Like Ryan before him, McCarthy's only moment of engagement from the crowd came in his closing words, when he invoked the words guaranteed to win the crowd. "Ronald Reagan...City on a Hill..." McCarthy said, pandering to his audience, and finally bringing cheers and applause across the hall. And like Ryan before him, he was gone.

The theme of the final night of the convention is slated to be Make America One Again, yet the tenor of the crowd through the second day remained one of vilification of Trump's enemies, both within the party and beyond. The delegates on the floor roundly booed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R. KY) each time he was introduced on the podium. And each time state delegations entered the votes for other candidates during the nomination process, there were boos and catcalls. Donald Trump himself called into a radio show during the day one testimony of Patricia Smith--pushing the most vivid speech of the day from the TV screens--to trash Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has declined to endorse him. While Paul Manafort and Chris Christie both publicly castigated the Bush family for not signing on.

Donald Trump personally established the tone of nasty, personal invective and yet both he and his campaign staff seem genuinely surprised that he is viewed as a liar, a racist and a bitterly divisive figure, both inside and outside of the Republican Party. The testimonies of many who know him paint a picture of a man fundamentally different than the image that Trump has cultivated of himself in his political life, dating back to his embrace of the Birther movement. Trump has built his campaign around the art of blaming and labeling, and it continues to define the campaign. It began with his attacks on Jeb Bush, who this week penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, wistfully suggesting that Donald Trump does not reflect the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party. Paul Ryan has struggled to assert Bush's sentiments. But the crowd is having none of it, and is committed to the vilification of the enemies within, much less those without.

Chris Christie's speech took the attacks on Hillary Clinton to a new level. Each of the delegates I have met here have been friendly and affable, yet in the arena, as a crowd, they have been easily moved to the edge of being a riotous, angry mob. Role playing a trial of Hillary Clinton, with himself as the prosecutor and the delegates as the jury, Christie willfully encouraged the mob, amping the rhetoric up to new highs and giving license to the delegates for their continued chants of LOCK HER UP! Christie went beyond Benghazi and the email issues to put new arguments on the table. Most astonishing was his accusation that she was personally responsible for the kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Guilty, roared the crowd. LOCK HER UP!


Christie’s was the most powerful and most engaging of the night’s speeches, and its success tells much about how weak the Make America Work Again theme was. When in doubt, rip Hillary. And if Christie's speech was off the theme, Donald Trump, Jr's was not much better. Trump was tanned and articulate, brilliant if you were a fan, smarmy if you were not. His speech was a perfect example of why it is great to be a speechwriter. Conservative scholar Frank Buckley wrote the speech and used it as a platform to present his own ideas, in his own words, and hear those words coming out of the mouth of a handsome, articulate and aspiring politician.

The only problem with Junior's speech was that it had little or nothing to do with the economic agenda that Donald Trump has articulated to date. There was little or nothing about trade. Nothing about immigration. Nothing about corporate greed or Wall Street. Nothing about preserving social security. Nothing about the range of issues, incendiary or otherwise, that have become party of the Trump oeuvre over the past year. Instead of the Trump agenda--an agenda that has in many respects had more in common with Bernie Sanders than with the GOP--Buckley wrote and Junior gave a speech that was, quite literally, right off the pages of The American Spectator, a monthly conservative journal, with a focus on reducing regulation and allowing school choice. It was a good speech. It won wide praise. It simply had nothing to do with the campaign that his father has run to date.

Instead, Donald Junior offered a simple vision of how his father would Make America Work. Simply stated, his father can do anything. For him, the impossible is just a starting point, so he will simply fix it. Junior laid out one theme after another and said that with his father at the helm, the nation would be transformed. There were no programs, there were no proposals. The was none of the policy that Paul Ryan holds dear. Just his father. And there would be no more data. Trump's are not about data, they go with their gut. It bore a remarkable similarity to the campaign we are watching, and no doubt if Donald Trump wins the presidency, it will only affirm his confidence in his gut. He will fix America, his son is quite certain of it. I could only recall a story that former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt told about a conversation with George W. Bush in November 2009. "Barack Obama," the outgoing President commented, "is about to find out that it is not as easy as he thinks it is." 

The day came toward its close with the words of former presidential candidate Ben Carson. In his unique, soft spoken manner, Carson had nothing to say about making America work again, and instead offered the most scathing indictment yet of Hillary Clinton. With a syllogistic reasoning mirroring God is love. Love is blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. Therefore Stevie Wonder is God. Carson made the argument to the rapt faithful in attendance. Saul Alinsky cited Lucifer. Hillary Clinton wrote about Alinsky. Therefore Hillary Clinton is a Satanist.

Enough said.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Remember her in all you do.

Day One of the Republican National Convention may be remembered for many things. 

There was the floor fight over the adoption of the report of the Rules Committee. This was a key vote because adoption of the rules as presented by the committee would drive the last nail in the coffin of the Never Trump movement and their effort to free delegates to vote their conscience on the first ballot. The acting chair, Representative Steve Womack (R. Arkansas), called for a voice vote on the report of the Rules Committee and quickly awarded it to the Ayes, and indeed from up where I was sitting in the nose-bleed seats in the upper level of the arena, it sounded like 55-45 or so in favor of the Trump supporters.

The anti-Trump forces on the floor rebelled and called for a roll call vote. Under party rules, they were entitled to demand a roll call vote if they had the support of a majority of the members of at least seven delegations. The pro-Trump supporters tried to drown out calls for a roll call by chanting U-S-A., U-S-A, while the anti-Trump delegates changed Shame-Shame, in response.

Then there was the silence from the podium, as Womack left the stage and Trump forces scurried to squelch the opposition on the floor. After what seemed to be an uncomfortably long time, Steve Womack reappeared, with his counsel huddled by his side, and reported that while nine state delegations had petitioned for a roll call vote, a recount of the petitioning state delegations indicated that three of them no longer had sufficient votes to petition for a floor vote, as delegates in each had changed their votes.

One has to wonder what sort of backroom arm twisting had led to the change of heart--old school threats, or perhaps offers of future vacations at Mara Lago--but the end result was a second affirmation of the rules by a voice vote. "We are in now in uncharted territory," lamented anti-Trump Senator Mike Lee (R. Utah), though Lee seemed to have a short memory, as both the uprising and its denouement seemed tame by historical political convention standards. It lasted all of 20 minutes or so.

Or perhaps the first day of the convention will be remembered for Melania Trump's emergence from the shadows of her husband's campaign to give a careful, graceful speech, befitting the trained supermodel she once was. She promised a campaign, like all Trump undertakings, filled with “drama and excitement.” Few commented on the irony of the appearance of the new hero of the American conservative movement--a movement built on religious and moral principles of which fidelity and commitment are surely a part--on stage with his third wife. Melania's speech was overshadowed by the apparent cribbing of lines from an earlier convention speech by Michele Obama, a problem that was compounded first by Melania's suggestion that she had written the speech herself, and then the denial by Trump advisor Paul Manafort that any plagiarism had in fact taken place. But unless the campaign continues down the path of denial of the obvious, it would seem unlikely that mistake will have any enduring impact.

But the unchallenged star of the show on the first night was the woman who was not present. For the divided Republican Party seeking a path forward, the first day of the convention was all about Hillary Clinton. This will no doubt be the pattern of the days to come, and will constitute the core strategy for the campaign to come. The hatred of Hillary Clinton is raw, it is deep, and it is consuming.

Conversations I had with delegates over the course of the afternoon suggested that each had their own reasons for coming to embrace the New York billionaire. There was Diana, a delegate from Arkansas, who had built her own business over forty years. She picked Trump from the get-go from the field of candidates first and foremost because she wanted a candidate who knew what it meant to meet a payroll, and was tired of politicians.

There was Donna, from Boston, who embraced Trump early on. Terrorism is the issue that attracted her to Trump's campaign--in large measure in response to the Boston bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers--and particularly his unapologetic language. She said she is tired of having to be careful about what she says and how she says it, and things people need to toughen up. "I am sure you think I'm crazy," she said, smiling, "but I think Islam should be illegal." I reassured her that she was, as I smiled back.


There was Drew, from Texas, whose motivating issue was Obamacare paying for sex reassignment hormone therapy for a four-year-old. "The parents should be in jail," he commented, leaving aside the obvious question of where he had come up with a story that he fervently believed.

But if each of the people I talked two saw something different in Trump, they shared a common disdain for Hillary. Each day of the Convention is designed to have a different thematic spin on Making America Great Again, and the theme of the first day of was Making America Safe Again. While media reports have focused on the chaos around the rules committee vote and Melania Trump speech fiasco, inside the hall, the speeches were visceral and interconnected. And each of them tied back to Hillary Clinton's culpability for peoples fears and insecurity.

First came Benghazi, and the testimonies of young men who had fought there and older women who had lost children. Then came illegal immigration and the testimonies of those who had lost siblings and children in the gun and drug wars along our southern border and in other areas. Then came the deaths of police officers. Blue lives matter, and more important, rules matter. They are what bind society together.

At root of all of the testimony, on foreign policy, on immigration policy, and on domestic law and order, were the interconnected themes of the duplicity of Hillary Clinton--whose decisions were criminal, who was indifferent to the personal suffering that ensued, and who was herself above the law--and the courage of Donald Trump as the antidote. Hillary Clinton, one presenter commented, wants to be president because it is good for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump wants to be president because it is good for America. The Donald Trump of this GOP could not be more different that the Donald Trump seen by Democrats and in much of the media, much less as described by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and other vanquished candidates. Gone is the sociopathic narcissist, the man who makes it up as he goes along and says whatever it takes to keep his audience engaged, this Donald Trump--their Donald Trump--is a selfless patriot, poised to save the nation from impending collapse.

The most powerful speaker was Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who died in Benghazi. Her grieving testimony was riveting. "Hillary Clinton lied to me, and then called me a liar." A mothers grief. "Hillary Clinton is a mother and a grandmother of two. I am a mother, and a grandmother of two. How could she do this to me. Donald Trump is everything Hillary is not. He is blunt and strong. He will not hesitate to kill the terrorists who threaten American lives. He will make America stronger. The entire campaign comes down to a single question. If Hillary Clinton cannot give us the truth, why should we give her the presidency. She deserves to be in prison, she deserves to be in stripes."

For all the talk about chaos on the first day, the simple truth is that the Republican Party will coalesce around its nominee. Even die hard movement conservatives, who must recognize that Trump has become a conservative as a matter of political expedience, will not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Trump may only have 70% support among Republicans today, but come election day, and a binary choice between Trump and Hillary, that support will be well over 90%.

With the rules committee vote behind them, the path toward uniting the Republican Party is clear, and it is Hillary. The path for the Democratic Party is less clear. Certainly, the majority of Bernie Sanders supports will end up with Hillary, but unlike the Republican electorate, which tends to be older, Democrats--and in particular Sanders supports--are younger, and turnout in fall elections tends to be a function of age. In Hillary's favor is that her campaign must have always assumed low turnout among younger voters. Her problem will be that a fair share of most enthusiastic Democratic voters in the primaries were young and were for Sanders. Bringing them out in the fall may not be an easy task.

After the first day in Cleveland, it seemed apparent that the fall election will be less about reaching out to moderate voters than turning out the base. America is politically divided, and this election portends more of the same. The theme of the fourth night is supposed to be Making America One Again, but that is an illusion, if it is a sincere intention at all. But they have a good chance of Making the GOP One Again. In that regard, Donald Trump had a good first day. Forget the commentary about chaos, this was about red meat, and there was a lot of it. As long as Republicans remember Hillary in all they do, she will show them the path.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Puerto Rico, Congress and the rule of law.

Late last week, in a remarkably bi-partisan manner, the House of Representation passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. If the legislation makes its way through the Senate and onto the President's desk, it would establish a financial control board to govern the finances of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico--similar to how municipal financial crises have been handled over the past half century. A moratorium would be established on the repayment of more than $70 billion of Puerto Rico debt until the new financial control board determines what needs to be done.

The legislation achieved support across the aisle in part because it involves no appropriation of federal funds, and thus does not provide a bailout for Puerto Rico from taxpayer funds. Instead, it lays the groundwork for a "bail-in," by which whatever financial relief is made available to Puerto Rico government will come from holders of Puerto Rico bonds who will "voluntarily" provide financial relief to the Commonwealth by forgoing all or a portion of what is due to them.

Few of the actors on the ground seem to be particularly happy with the proposed solution to the Puerto Rico crisis, which is touted along with the bi-partisan support for the legislation as further evidence of its fairness. To Puerto Rican activists, the Congressional imposition of an undemocratic financial control board is a usurpation of Puerto Rican sovereignty and marks a return to colonial rule by Congress. To investors that hold Puerto Rico bonds, the legislation lays the ground work for the unilateral abrogation of legal contracts and constitutional protections upon which financial markets rely.

But both of these perspectives are flawed at the most fundamental level. The proposed Congressional action does not suggest a return to colonial rule for the simple reason that Puerto Rico is a colony. And the proposed legislation does not grant any new power to Congress to intervene in Puerto Rico's contractual relationships and unilaterally dictate the terms of a restructuring of Puerto Rico debt, as Congress has always had complete authority to do so. The Puerto Rico financial crisis is unlike any other state or local government financial crisis--or Greece for that matter--because Puerto Rico is unlike any other state or local government. Indeed the Puerto Rico financial crisis is not a financial crisis at all, but evidence of two deeper problems that that the House legislation fails to address. First, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and does not want to be. Second, Congress is responsible for the administration and welfare of the territories, but it does not want to be.

A bit of history and background are important to understanding how Puerto Rico and Congress got into the current situation. Puerto Rico is war booty, won by the United States--along with the Philippines and Guam--under the Treaty of Paris that marked the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, whose status under the U.S. Constitution has remained unchanged in the intervening century. Under Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution--in what is referred to as the Territories Clause--Congress is responsible for the administration of the territories. Territory is America-speak for colony. The United States has had many territories over the years. Some, like the Philippines, have gone on to become independent, while others petitioned for and were ultimately granted statehood.

In 1952, the people of Puerto Rico proposed, and Congress and the President approved, a constitution giving home rule to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In the Spanish version of that constitution, the name given is Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico--or literally the Associated Free State of Puerto Rico. However, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, neither the granting of home rule, nor adding commonwealth or associated free state to its name, changed the status of Puerto Rico as a territory, nor lessened the authority of Congress over its affairs. While in the eyes of many, the approval of the Puerto Rico constitution changed everything, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, it actually changed nothing.

This week, the Supreme Court once again affirmed the Constitutional status of Puerto Rico as a ward of Congress. At issue was the Puerto Rico Recovery Act that would have allowed Puerto Rico to bypass Congress and unilaterally set the terms of a restructuring of its debts. During oral arguments earlier this year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed intent on ignoring the essential fact of Puerto Rico's territorial status and its exclusion by Congress from the federal bankruptcy code when she suggested that Puerto Rico must have the latitude to restructure its debts. “It is inherent in state sovereignty that states have to have some method, [of addressing issues of insolvency]” Justice Sotomayor argued, conflating the rules governing states with what she seemed to feel should also apply to Puerto Rico.

In a similar vein, Justice Ginsburg asked, “Why would Congress put Puerto Rico in this never-never land? That is, it can’t use Chapter 9 [bankruptcy], and it can’t use a Puerto Rican substitute for Chapter 9.” But Congress did not put Puerto Rico in never-never land, the Constitution put Puerto Rico in the hands of Congress. Under current law, and as consistently affirmed by the Supreme Court, Congress is the bankruptcy court for Puerto Rico. It is the sovereign parent with full power and responsibility for the welfare of Puerto Rico. That may be never-never land in the eyes of Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, but it was not never-never land in the eyes of James Madison. And this week, in a 5-2 decision--with Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissenting--the Supreme Court once again reaffirmed the plenary authority of Congress over Puerto Rico, as set forth in the Territories Clause.

This week's ruling by the Supreme Court cast a light on the failings of the legislation that passed the House just days earlier. As satisfying as it might be in this era of anti-Wall Street hostility to solve the Puerto Rico debt problem with money taken from bondholders, the House legislation will do little or nothing to fix the constitutional dilemma that is the underlying problem: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States but does not want to be, while Congress is responsible for the administration and welfare of the territories but prefers to ignore its responsibility.

For decades now, Congress has failed in its essential Constitutional responsibility for the welfare of the territories, most notably in the case of Puerto Rico. Members of Congress sat on their hands as one Puerto Rico administration after another pursued policies destructive to the long-term health and fiscal sustainability of the Commonwealth, for their own political gain. In the early 1990s, pro-statehood politicians on the island advocated for the elimination of the Section 936 tax provisions that had been essential to the economic development of the island and that sustained an estimated 165,000 manufacturing jobs--and as much as 40% of the island's GDP. For years, Puerto Rican activists advocated for the closure of the Roosevelt Roads naval base and, in particular, military operations on the island of Vieques as part of their anti-colonial political advocacy. Political leaders of both major parties circumvented the balanced budget requirement of the 1952 English language constitution approved by Congress, choosing to follow a legal interpretation of the Spanish language version of the same constitution to sanction their layering on massive debts for operating purpose. And politicians of both political parties as well conspired in undermining the solvency of the worker pension fund that now stands as the most underfunded public pension fund in the country.

And all the while, Congress took one step after another--some by commission and others by omission--that undermined the viability of the Puerto Rico economy, giving little heed to the long-term implications of its actions, much less its Constitutional obligation. It conspired in the elimination of Section 936 of the IRS code, it approved the closing of Puerto Rico military facilities, it turned a blind eye to the underfunding of the Commonwealth pension system, and it looked the other way as one Puerto Rico governor after another circumvented the balanced budget requirements of their own constitution and built up debts they knew they could not afford.

Against this background, the Puerto Rico debt crisis is about constitutional principles and the rule of law as much as it is about fiscal mismanagement. Article VI, Section 8 of the Puerto Rico constitution approved in 1952, states that "In case the available revenues including surplus for any fiscal year are insufficient to meet the appropriations made for that year, interest on the public debt and amortization thereof shall first be paid, and other disbursements shall thereafter be made in accordance with the order of priorities established by law." This is a provision that was draft at the Puerto Rico constitutional convention, approved by Congress under its responsibilities set forth in the Territories Clause, signed by the President, and ratified by the people of Puerto Rico.

That kind of constitutional establishment of priorities only matters in bad economic times, such as Puerto Rico is experiencing today. After all, as long as things are going well and there is plenty of money to go around, such constitutional protections do not come into play. That is why we have constitutions, after all, to set forth the rules when problems arise, when people don't agree.

The problem of Puerto Rico dates back to the vision of James Madison for how the new republic was going to manage its territories. Last week, the House choose the easy path out of the current crisis by defining the problem narrowly as a debt crisis. Debt is an easy problem to solve in the short term, particularly when you have the power to change the rules with the stroke of a pen, as Congress does in the case of the territories. But the path that the House has chosen is fraught with unintended consequences. Should it choose the easy path forward of forcing a write-off of debts by bondholders, investors will be on notice that no territorial obligations will be secure going forward. If Congress chooses to undermine the sanctity of contracts and the rule of law and point the finger of blame at the bondholders, rather than in the mirror where true accountability lies, it will only undermine the long-term finances of all of the territories.

There is a solution that would uphold the rule of law and affirm constitutional governance, and it is a simple one. The laws securing each of the bond contracts should be upheld. As provided by Article 8 of the Puerto Rico constitution, those bonds that are general obligation bonds should be repaid from the first claim on all revenues as established therein. The bonds that are payable from a first claim on sales taxes should be repaid as those bond contracts require, so long as the sales tax revenues are sufficient to repay them. And so on down the line. Bonds whose claims are weaker, or that by law compete with the limited resources that will be left over, may not get repaid at all. That is what those bondholders agreed to, and the risk they undertook. This would not be a Congressional bailout, but rather an affirmation of the rule of law and the sanctity of contracts upon which so much else depends.

Congress is not obligated to repay any bondholder, Puerto Rico is. But if after paying the bondholders what they are contractually owed--under terms established in its own constitution--the Commonwealth cannot meet the health and safety needs of its people, Congress remains responsible to provide for the basic welfare of those citizens. Congress aided and abetted this problem as the building blocks of this crisis were put in place, one year after another, and it cannot now look in shock and horror at the mess that has come to pass on its watch, and change the laws and demand that others pay the bill.

The fundamental problem that underpins the Puerto Rico debt crisis rests in the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, decades after America has lost interest in being a colonial overlord. But until that basic fact of Puerto Rico's territorial status is changed--and the constitutional options are statehood or independence--Congress must do more than just lay off the consequences of its own failure on others. Justice Sotomayor may have been wrong on the law, as Justice Thomas suggested in his terse opinion for the majority, but with respect to public policy she is right. Both Puerto Rico and its bondholders must have a set of rules upon which both parties can rely when things do not work out. And in the present crisis, people should not ignore the fact that one of the main instigators of how things turned out was Congress itself.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tumbling down the rabbit hole.

So Se Pyong, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said it all the other day: There is no meaning, no sincerity to a word that Donald Trump says. Yet, somehow, this essential point that has penetrated the anti-reality shield that protects North Korea from the rest of the world seems to be lost on many Republicans, who have been flocking to support the New York billionaire.

I get it, Donald Trump is not Hillary Clinton, and that might be enough. After all, to a large share of the electorate, she is a liar and a shapeshifter and a believer in the nanny state. She is pro-tax and anti-growth, pro-choice and anti-gun, and stands against everything that Republicans stand for--except perhaps military interventionism--and that might be enough. Driven by the hatred of the other that has become the central psychosis of our politics, there has been an urgency to find their champion in the man who is the presumptive nominee of their party, but if they believe that Donald Trump stands for anything they believe in, they are deluding themselves.

Things were easier early on, when his support hovered around 20% of the GOP primary electorate and his campaign was built around a nativist appeal to beleaguered white folks who heard in his rantings about Mexicans and Muslims and building walls a man who offered an antidote to all that ails them. It was an ugly message, and one that even then was built around a lie: he never had any intention of doing what he said he would do. As So Se Pyong noted, there was no meaning to it, his rants were just words. Just words that he knew would stir the crowd.

In an ugly, anti-Washington year, Donald Trump has been the man for the moment. There is nothing quite so easy as penning a right wing rant--just probe for the soft spot of your audience and keep pounding away on it--and Trump is a demagogue of the purest sort. He bathes in the emotions of the crowd, his rhetoric ramps up as the fervor in the crowd grows, with no regard either for consistency or fundamental decency--much less how much if any of it he would ever actually do. The sky is the limit as long as his audiences never stop and pause to ask themselves who is this guy, really? 

As his support in the Republican Party has grown--built as much as anything around the oldest of all political maxims, the enemy of my enemy is my friend--Donald Trump has become a human rorschach test. People who want to support him--whomever they might be--can find support for their views somewhere in his words. He has not, he is not, for anything or against anything. He is the consummate Zen politician, always in the moment. He has been for cutting taxes and for raising taxes. He has been for raising the minimum wage and eliminating the minimum wage. He has been in favor of guns in schools and opposed to guns in schools. He was against political contributions, and now he is in favor of them. He has been on both sides of most any issue, often on the same day, sometimes within the same sentence. A stance. A beat. A moment of reflection. A new stance.

Remarkable. And like conspiracy buffs who can find evidence somewhere on the Interweb that will support whatever their pet theory might be, any group of Republicans can find somewhere in Trump's words just enough data points that will allow them to embrace him as their own. But just as the alien landing at Roswell, New Mexico never actually took place, and just as the World Trade Center was not brought down by a government plot, and just as the moon landing was not a hoax staged by NASA, whatever any of those Republicans might want to attribute to Donald Trump is not real. They cannot know what Donald Trump would do as President for the simple reason that Donald Trump does not know what Donald Trump would do as President. It is all just words in the moment, nothing more.

This week, Donald Trump dipped into the well of conspiracy theories past and conjured up the suicide of Clinton aid Vincent Foster. When Fox personality Bill O'Reilly suggested that this might be a bit over the top, even for Trump, and undermine the oft-stated commitment of the presumptive Republican nominee to pivot to a more presidential bearing, Trump retorted "I have no choice. When she hits me on things, I have no choice." 

Trump's response was the perfect corollary the comments of So Se Pyong. Trump's campaign staff has tried and failed to tamp down on their candidate's use of Twitter, because Twitter is who Donald Trump is. He is the 144 character candidate. There is no deeper meaning to what he says. There is nothing of substance his words. He has no commitments. There is no sincerity to his stance on any issue. When it is time to say something, he says it. When he is hit, he hits back. All with little thought to what might transpire tomorrow, or even what he might say in the next sentence.

Republicans who have searched for, and think they have found, their own reasons to support him should have no illusions. There was no alien landing at Roswell, notwithstanding whatever they might read on the Interweb. And Donald Trump is not who they might want to think he is, regardless of what he might have said at one point or another, or some assurances he might have offered them. He is, instead, what Ted Cruz said he is: a pathological liar who doesn't know the difference between truth and lies. He is a narcissist at a level the country has never seen. And in the words of Jeb Bush, he has neither the temperament nor the strength of character to serve as president.

So struggle with your hatred of Hillary as you must, but Donald Trump cannot be your answer.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The party of Donald Trump.

It's like that horror film sequel. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) slowly awakens from a deep slumber. Something is wrong. Then, with a rising sense of terror she looks down at her abdomen, something is moving inside. The fear grows. She knows what it is. Something terrible from her past; an alien life form has taken up residence inside her. This time, the alien life form she has struggled against has won. It has invaded and destroyed the host from the inside. The climactic moment comes as the alien bursts forth, its terrifying face telling her that her worst fears have been realized, just as she wakes up to realize that it was all a dream.

But this is not a dream. Donald Trump actually is going to be the Republican Party nominee. After all the hateful rhetoric, the childish taunts, the abject self-aggrandizement, the New York billionaire won the nomination far earlier than anyone expected, and the Republican establishment was powerless to stop him.

It has been a long week for the Party of Lincoln. It was just last Tuesday that Trump trounced Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary and accepted the mantle of presumptive GOP nominee for the presidency. And it was just a week ago that Ted Cruz ended his campaign with a parting shot that summed up what many have come to believe about Trump.

"This man is a pathological liar. He doesn't know the difference between truth and lies... The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don't think this country has ever seen... Everything in Donald's world is about Donald. And he combines being a pathological liar, and I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory and he'd pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he's telling, at that minute he believes it."

This is the Donald Trump that leaders across the GOP leaders have come to know. In the first few days, the pushback against the reality that Trump would stand at the top of their ticket was fierce. Who will follow Trump off the cliff? asked George Will. (A major loser, responded Trump). I Will Not Vote For Donald Trump. Ever. Wrote Erick Erickson, the influential managing editor of the conservative Redstate blog, going so far as to demand that Republicans owe an apology for impeaching Bill Clinton.

“Republicans owe Bill Clinton an apology for impeaching him over lies and affairs while now embracing a pathological liar and womanizer. That apology will not be forthcoming. In fact, for years Republicans have accused the Democrats of gutter politics and shamelessness. Now the Republicans themselves have lost their sense of shame.”

The first family of the Republican Party were unanimous in their shunning of Donald Trump, as George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush each announced that they would neither support Trump nor attend the Republican National Convention in July. For his part, Jeb Bush excoriated the man whom he had pledged to support during the primary debates as lacking the temperament or strength of character to serve as president.

The days that followed were a negotiation of sorts, as one conservative after another raised questions about whether Trump was one of them, and whether they could support a man whose conduct has been so far beneath what they purported to expect of their nominee. House Speaker Paul Ryan led the charge not of those who rejected him outright, but those who believed that they could bring him to heel. Ryan pointed out the range of policy matters on which they disagreed, suggesting that he needed to see Trump meet him part way on issues like Medicare and Social Security, which Trump has pledged to protect, and other conservative issues.

Whether Ryan and others recognized it or not, they were in a negotiation. Trump knows that he won, and has proven to be loath to capitulate on the issues that Ryan cares about, particularly entitlements, and the more odious matters like the Muslim immigration ban and the Mexican wall. He knows that the base of the party that brought him this far would turn on him if he backed down in the face of the GOP elders. He alternately threatened that he neither needed nor wanted Paul Ryan's support and then suggested that he wanted to work with the Speaker and the GOP leadership. He gave them a ray of hope, and then he hunkered down.

Then came the trump card, so to speak. Early this week, a new Quinnipiac University poll suggested that the presidential races between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the three most crucial states, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are too close to call. The same day that the Q-poll was released, an analysis of tracking poll data released by Gallup suggested that Republicans and voters leaning Republican support Donald Trump by a 64-31 margin.

In the wake of the release of this new data, you could feel the wind going out of the anti-Trump forces in the GOP. The House GOP caucus pushed back against their leader, undermining whatever leverage the Speaker thought he might have in future negotiations with the man who will be his party's candidate.

The great Republican crackup predicted by the influential evangelical and former George W. speechwriter Michael Gerson is looking less and less likely. What changed is the sudden realization across the Republican Party that all is not lost. Two weeks ago, the prospect of Donald Trump winning the nomination was cause for glee among Democrats. One week ago, the chasm that Trump appeared to face in the fall seemed unbridgeable, and Republican leaders turned their sight on efforts to salvage the Senate, if they could, and protect their stronghold in the House of Representatives.

Then this week, the skies parted and new polling data emerged suggesting that Donald Trump has a chance to win in the fall. Indeed, the Gallop data paints a very similar picture between the two parties. Trump's 2-to-1 favorable-to-unfavorable ratio among their target Republican and Republican leaning voters is comparable to Hillary Clinton's 70% favorable to 26% unfavorable support among Democrats and Democrat leaners. Gallup tracking data painted a similar picture in other areas, with polling results indicating that 71% Republicans say that they are likely to vote for Trump, compared with 21% who say they will not, while 73% of Democrats say that they are likely to vote for Hillary, as compared with 21% who say they will not.

Last week's revolt of older party leaders--the Bushes, Mitt Romney, Lindsay Graham--who said they would never endorse Trump was all about demeanor and temperament. He is a pathological liar and narcissist, as Ted Cruz put it. Then there were those for whom it was the lack of fealty to conservative principles. Together, they looked at the alien creature that had taken over their private club with revulsion. They thought that, perhaps, if they shunned him, he might just go away. They thought it was their party, that somehow he might be shamed into line.

But it was not to be. Just like he crushed sixteen contestant getting to Indiana last week, Donald Trump has won his showdown with the GOP establishment this week, and the party has capitulated. It is Donald Trump's party now, and he can do with it what he will, on his terms. The electorate, it seems, is way ahead of the leadership. They have moved beyond temperament and principles. And probably for good reason. Our political culture has thrown temperament to the wind for several decades now. It is a nasty business, and to suggest that calling people names is grounds for disqualification to serve seems to have been rendered quaint in light of the unrelenting nastiness that we have come to expect.

As for principles, well, the most important principle that the Republican electorate has focused on for years now is defeating Democrats, defeating Barack Obama in whatever he stands for, and now, above all, in defeating Hillary Clinton. That is the core principle on which the GOP stands today, and all else is beside the point.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Democracy bites.

In last week's Sunday New York Times, a top story above the fold, In New Age of Privilege, Not all Are in Same Boattrumpeted the new Gilded Age. "That segment of the population," says the former CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines of their über elite passengers, "wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics." He was referring to The Haven, the exclusive section of the company's newest ship Norwegian Escape, where NCL's wealthiest passengers travel in a world of their own and have little, if any, contact with the rest of the ship. Further on, the article tells us, Delta Airlines picks up its highest end customers in a Porsche to ferry them to their connecting flights in Atlanta and New York.

In the Silicon Valley, Tech visionary and billionaire Peter Thiel is part of a libertarian crowd that harbors similar escapist fantasies. Thiel imagines building floating cities in the ocean, just for the elite of the tech world. It sounds eerily like The Haven, a place where he and his friends--and their billions and billions of dollars--could escape from the oppression and drudgery of life in America. "An opt-in society,Thiel has suggested, "ultimately outside the US, run by technology." 

Juxtaposed against those images of the new era of American wealth is the rise of Donald Trump. Trump's success in trampling sixteen challengers to the Republican nomination on a platform of economic nationalism has turned the GOP on its head. Four years ago, with his makers vs. takers rhetoric and his disdain for the less affluent, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney ran unabashedly as the candidate of the billionaire class. This time around, determined to control the election outcome in the wake of Romney's loss four years earlier, a cohort of billionaire major donors committed over a billion dollars to make sure that they put a President into the White House that would support their interests.

But from the moment Donald Trump descended down the escalator at Trump Tower to face the media and announce his candidacy, it was apparent that this year was not going to go according to plan. It was one thing to see young voters in the Democratic Party flock to the siren call of a democratic socialist--after all, that is what young voters have done for generations--but it was something else again to see middle-aged, white Republicans, suburban and rural alike, flocking to the banner of Trumpian economic resentments.

From the perspective of an increasing number of Americans of both political parties, the economic system is rigged. Globalization has pitted American workers in a wage competition death match with lower paid workers across the world, suppressing domestic wages while boosting corporate profits to historically high levels. New technologies that offered the prospect of increasing labor productivity and wages have instead proven to exacerbate the problem as traditional industries have been disrupted and jobs lost. Instead of increasing wages, in a globally competitive labor environment where capital is mobile and abundant, the application of new technologies has facilitated the out-migration of jobs and enhanced the return on capital, further exacerbating the concentration of income and wealth.

The titans of the Silicon Valley are ecstatic about their vision of the tech-enabled world that lies just beyond the horizon. Advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printers and biotechnology offer a future that will accelerate the disruption of service and manufacturing industries alike. It is a future, in their minds, that reduces the need for mundane work and increases the opportunities for unconstrained creativity. Yet looming behind this utopian vision lies the inevitability of the continued elimination of existing jobs and pressure on real wages for the average American worker, accelerating the stratification of incomes and wealth. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, 47% of Americans could not come up with $400, in cash or from credit cards, in an emergency. For that half of America, no glowing vision of the future could make up for the prospect of losing the source of livelihood they now have.

Pressed to respond to the neo-Luddite fears of a future that will only worsen the economic pressures that have been steadily encroaching on American middle class incomes, tech guru Marc Andreessen argues the oppositeTechnology will solve any environmental crisis created by economic growth, and the steady economic growth in countries from Asia to South America, and increasingly to Africa, attests to the absolute good created by the combination of exploding technological innovation and economic globalization. He offers neither sympathy nor a solution for the adverse economic impacts of the combination of technology and globalization on those employed in sectors of the economy that have been or inevitably will be disrupted and destroyed, but rather sees the benefits that those forces have provided to society as a whole.

Arguments against fears about the continued adverse impacts of technology and globalization tend to focus on positive aggregate data and trends, as Andreessen suggests, while the people who show up at Trump rallies are individuals whose own lives and families have been adversely affected by economic pressures and job losses. Trends don't vote while individuals do, and there lies the rub for those who envision a future of greater freedom and creativity--but fewer jobs. For the nerds in the Silicon Valley, the future glows like a shining city on a hill. “We have this theory of nerd nation," Andreessen commented, "of forty or fifty million people all over the world who believe that other nerds have more in common with them than the people in their own country."

The problem for the billionaires of the Silicon Valley--as for their brethren on Wall Street--is that they are dependent on a legal infrastructure that extends protections to intellectual property, supports the aggregation of consumer data for little or no compensation by private companies and provides a supportive regulatory regime--to say nothing of the backbone of the Internet itself, a publicly build, publicly funded asset that upon which private fortunes have been built. Then there is the reality that many, if not most, Silicon Valley fortunes represent the present value of future advertising revenues selling stuff to the rest of us. That is to say that, like the rise of China, the prospects of dot-com, data mining and other tech enterprises depend upon a continued robust American consumer market.

In other words, while the leaders of the tech world--like those vacationing in the rarified quarters aboard The Haven--might long for some far away place free of politics and other intrusions into their world, their fortunes have been built with the support of and they remain dependent upon the government and people they disdain, and the rise of Trump is a further indication that the democratic society that has offered them unbounded opportunities and in which they have prospered is filled with people who right now believe that they and their families are not part of that bright future and will never live in that shining city on the hill.

This year's election looms to be different from prior years. There are no easy solutions to the problem that we now face that a large share of the American electorate believes the economy is rigged against them, and certainly Donald Trump has not offered any. But by securing the Republican nomination, Trump has assured that the economic resentments that used to be largely confined to parts of the Democratic Party are going to be central to the message of the Republican candidate as well. The argument that American support for free trade and globalization, augmented by the technology revolution, has produced the greatest good for the greatest number--and only incidentally for the wealthiest Americans--is increasingly falling on deaf ears. The resentments expressed by voters who support Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders, may be misplaced--as Marc Andreessen suggests--but the practical reality is that in a democracy a disaffected majority has every right to upend the status quo, even if they don't actually have a better solution in mind. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rigged game.

Conservative talk radio icon Mark Levin screamed it out last week, to all who would listen: Donald Trump is taking conservatives for a ride. And this week, GOP voter screamed back: We don't care! The New York billionaire, whose political philosophy can best be summed up as narcissistic pragmatism, cleaned up in the five states that voted this week, winning 54 to 63% of the vote in the three-way contests. Ted Cruz, the movement conservative that more closely shares Levin's worldview, barely broke out of the teens.

Lest one write off the results to the liberal northeast, Trump initially turned heads in this year's contest when he swept South Carolina and unexpectedly bested Cruz across the fertile conservative heartland of the deep south. Levin was not saying anything that we have not heard before, but at some point conservatives are going to have to look in the mirror and consider that their electorate might not be who they thought they were. Trump is on the verge of seizing the GOP presidential nomination, and it is about time that people stop suggesting that he is little more than a blowhard and consider that he might have some serious political chops.

Trump is, after all, about to win the Republican nomination, and only in the past few weeks has the man assembled anything resembling a professional political staff. He has taken on and systematically disposed of fourteen rivals, from a group that included nine state governors and four U.S. Senators and was decreed early on in the process to constitute the most formidable slate of Republican contenders for the presidency ever assembled. It goes without question that almost every one of those who he defeated had a greater claim on the nomination--in terms of substance and credentials--than he did. Seriously. Rick Santorum turned out to be an afterthought in this year's Republican field and never moved from the JV debate table to the main stage, but he was a Senator from a major industrial state who won eleven states in the GOP primaries just four years ago. For his part, Jim Gilmore was a successful Attorney General and Governor of a major state, and he was never even invited to the JV debates. Yet while Santorum and Gilmore were each serious public figures with solid political bona fides, neither were more than an afterthought in this race.

People mock candidate Trump at their peril. Jeb Bush tried to dismiss Trump's methods as the taunts of a child in a sandbox, but Trump's attacks, however childish they might have seem in the moment, resonate because they strike a nerve. Jeb did lack a sense of energy and passion for the job. Marco Rubio was too young and inexperienced. Similarly, Trump's "lyin' Ted" barbs at Cruz for mixing his religion in with political rhetoric touches on many people's distrust of candidates who intermingle the two.

Trump's most recent narrative, however, has been inspired. The game is rigged. As of this week, Donald Trump has won 52% of the delegates that have been awarded through primaries and caucuses while winning only 42% of the votes cast, yet he has successfully attacked the Republican National Committee for rigging the rules of the game. Against him. Perhaps even more to the point, he painted Ted Cruz--whose share of the delegate count was roughly equal to his popular vote share--as the establishment insider on whose behalf the game has been rigged.

Few may recall--the dynamics of the campaign have evolved so quickly--but Trump launched the rigged game narrative at the moment of his greatest weakness. He had just lost the Wisconsin primary and been shut out by Cruz in caucuses and state conventions in North Dakota, Wyoming and Utah. Trump, the man who touted himself as a can-do CEO, was caught flatfooted, standing helplessly in the klieg lights as Ted Cruz wrested delegate majorities away from him in Louisiana and Colorado. Nothing was rigged, Trump was simply being pummeled by a Cruz political organization that understood the rules of the game and had built an organization--including over 280,000 volunteers across the country--designed to fight and win the battle for delegates on a state by state basis, exactly it has been done from time immemorial. Trump, as best one could tell, had no organization, he had no volunteers on the ground of any note. He had his family, and not a whole lot else.

Yet out of lemons, Trump made lemonade. It is all a rigged game, he pronounced. And this time it was the Cruz team that looked on helplessly, as the media bought Trump's rigged game narrative, hook, line and sinker. Like Trump's attacks on Jeb Bush and others, the rigged game narrative worked because it resonates with the underlying anti-establishment anger that has been the subtext of this year's presidential cycle. Trump's slogan may be Make America Great Again, but from the day he joined the race last June, Trump has fed off of the anger and resentments of a large share of the Republican electorate who believe that our economy and political system are rigged against them and their families. Forget the fact that Trump has actually benefitted from the primary rules, and has won a greater share of delegates than his share of the votes that had been cast, Trump's supporters easily embraced his cri de guerre that the nomination process was rigged against him--and against them.

Three graphs help explain the anger of the Republican base voters that have cast aside traditional conservative shibboleths in favor of Trump's economic populist rhetoric. First, there is the oft-mentioned statistic that American worker wages are the same today in real terms as they were four decades ago. As presented here, while US gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and world GDP per capita have both grown steadily in real terms (adjusted for inflation) since 1973, American worker earnings have not. Stated more simply, the era of globalization, free trade and technological change have benefitted billions around the world, just not the American family.

A second graph, below, illustrates how even the flat worker earnings illustrated above masks differences across the population over time. Illustrated here are the changes in real family incomes over time, aggregated by the level of education of the head of the family household. As shown here, over the past quarter century--a period during which American workers have found themselves increasingly in competition with lower cost workers across the globe, in the wake of the globalization of corporate supply chains and free trade agreements that give foreign made industrial and consumer goods relatively unfettered access to US markets--educational attainment has become essential for families wanting to sustain their incomes in real terms, and to prosper. As this shows, particularly since the financial collapse in 2008, families with heads of households with less than a college degree have seen substantial declines in family incomes.

Finally, while both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into voter resentments toward a Washington establishment that is seen as doing the bidding of donors and lobbyists, often at the expense of working Americans, Bernie Sanders has added a sharp anti-corporate rhetoric. This third chart illustrates the 17% decline in wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP since the 1970s, as compared with near doubling of after-tax corporate profits over the same period, to current historically high levels.

Those who continue to be puzzled by Donald Trump's appeal should take heed. As suggested by the data summarized in these three graphs, the system has been rigged. Rigged may be a harsh term, as United States globalization and free trade policies have engendered the steady growth in global GDP per capita that has lifted economies around the world and reduced the share of the world population living in extreme poverty by over 50%. But from the standpoint of domestic politics, our economic and trade policies have been pro-trade, have been pro-capital, and have punished labor. Stated another way, they have been pro-donor, anti-voter. Forty years ago, Howard Beale screamed out, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.' Perhaps we should only be surprised that it took this long.

The Cruz strategists were caught off guard by Trump's pivot and the power of his rigged game gambit. After all, it was Trump who had benefitted disproportionately by the rules--who had received more delegates than votes--yet he was the one whining. It was Cruz who was following the rules, yet it was the Cruz campaign that was being pilloried for stealing delegates, for undemocratic practices, and--in the greatest irony of all--for being the point person of an establishment plot to steal the nomination. Ted Cruz, after all, is the movement conservative who has little or no following among the establishment cabal of DC donors and lobbyists. But for the emergence of Donald Trump, this might have been Ted Cruz's year. Cruz was supposed to be the outsider in the race in an outsider's year. Trump, as Mark Levin tried to convince primary voters in advance of Tuesday's vote, is a fraud.

Donald Trump might be a fraud, and he certainly is no movement conservative. But he has proven to be a dexterous politician who continues to grow and adapt. In the wake of his loss in Wisconsin, Trump hit bottom. Paul Ryan emerged as the insider white knight that might save the party from implosion, while Ted Cruz became the favorite in the eyes of many to win a contested convention. Trump's response was swift. He sacked his political team, replaced them with long-time Republican insiders, and launched his rigged game attack on the Republican National Committee. Three weeks ago, many across the GOP pronounced Trump's demise in the face of Cruz's Wisconsin victory and deft political moves at state delegate conventions. Now, less than three weeks later, the campaign conventional wisdom has been upended again. Where just weeks ago Ted Cruz was on the cusp of being anointed as the front-runner for a nomination that Trump was seen as sure to lose on the first ballot, today Trump has reestablished his dominant position as the presumptive Republican nominee.

Hillary Clinton is the next person up against Donald Trump, and she had best bring her "A" game. For months now, she has found herself playing defense against Bernie Sanders, whose attacks mirror Trump's rigged game narrative, and as of yet she has not figured out an effective response. This week, with an eye to the fall campaign, Hillary tested out a mocking attack on Donald Trump. Donald Trump does not know the American people, she suggested. He needs to stop flying around in that big jet, going from his palatial home in Florida and his penthouse in New York, and get to know the American people.

Sixteen Republicans who took their best shot against Trump can tell Hillary that mocking him as an out-of-touch plutocrat is a non-starter. If he has done nothing else over the past nine months, Donald Trump has proven that he has his finger on the pulse of a large swath of the electorate. He may be rich, but voters don't care about that. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were rich. And so, incidentally, are Bill and Hillary Clinton.

When Donald Trump says it is a rigged game, it resonates with voters because that is what they experience in their daily life. And they are not just making it up, it is all there in the data. For decades now, American policies have helped the rest of the world grow and prosper--to lift all boats as it were--while little of it trickled down to the average American family. As sixteen candidates before Hillary have already learned, when you make fun of Trump, it only alienates you from voters who have come to believe that he is the one who--as Bill Clinton would say--feels their pain. He will be a tougher foe that polls suggest, and Hillary and her advisors should learn from those who went up against him and failed. He is no fool, and did not get as far as he has by accident.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.