“Two madmen walk into a bar …”

One can never tell when Donald Trump is joking or not, or even if it is unintentional humor. As one example, after his recent State of the Union address, he said that Democrats who didn’t clap for him were “treasonous”. As has happened many times before, his spokesman responded to the resultant furor by saying that the President was of course just joking. Do we really know? I certainly couldn’t tell from his facial expression on TV at the time.

Well, on Saturday evening, the President attended the annual Gridiron Dinner, which is an old tradition where journalists and the President trade tongue-in-cheek jabs before a constellation of Washington’s elite. One would certainly expect humor and a good time to be had by all.

But this President has often chosen off-beat stages and unusual methods for making substantial policy statements, so I am sure the press attending the dinner had their pencils sharpened and ready. And right on cue, in the midst of his joke-filled monologue, the President suggested that he was open to a meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Said without talk of preconditions, this is a big policy change. Or was it a joke? Hmm …

The President – and many others to be sure – have called Kim a madman. So the natural question was whether Trump was worried about meeting with a madman, and he responded, “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.” Is this clever repartee or some revealing and unintentional self-deprecation? Honestly, I don’t know. He has me as confused as the next person.

Advertisements

Founded by geniuses … run by idiots!

Last month President Trump sent up a nominee for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court who had never tried a case at law in his entire life. At his confirmation hearing, one Senator – a conservative Republican – completely demolished his candidacy. This Senator’s questions were delivered gently and in a friendly manner but they probed like a surgeon’s scalpel. And the blood flowed freely. Shortly thereafter the candidate withdrew his name from nomination. Out of consideration for his family, I won’t mention his name.

I recall thinking at the time, “Now if we only had more Senators like this ...”

Of course, the true culprit is Donald Trump, as it has been innumerable times before. By now anyone not blinded by party allegiance knows that Trump is totally unsuited for his job – by knowledge of its functions, by temperament and by inclination. His list of failed or flawed appointments is disturbingly long. That doesn’t mean that none of his appointments are well-qualified nor that he can’t accomplish valuable results in general. It simply means that he is often more a hindrance than a help in his floundering endeavors. If, unaccountably, you doubt this, watch what he tweets the next time an important issue arises. His mind is an open book for those who choose to read it, and these tweets are an unexpurgated excerpt.

Ah, but then we have the Congress. Let’s ignore for the moment the current fuss over whether to keep its doors open or not. Do you know what the most important responsibility of that august body is? It is to define necessary federal governmental activities and then to appropriate the funds required to accomplish them. In theory, this is kicked off by a budget request from the President, but the common practice has evolved to ignore that request and for Congress to create its own budget, expressing its own priorities. The crucial aspect is a set of twelve bills that make up the entire federal budget. This is supposed to be completed by October 1 of each year. Would you like to guess when was the last time this task was successfully completed?

Well, the last time a full set of appropriation bills were passed on time was 1994. The practice that has evolved is for all of these laws to be cobbled together into a massive omnibus spending package, and to do this either very late in the process or long after it is supposed to be in effect. Often many of these crucial decisions are defined without public hearings and without significant Congressional debate. I can assert with confidence that not a single one of the 535 members of Congress reads even a significant part of this prolix compendium.

All of this leads me back to the Senator I mentioned in the beginning. He is Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La). Last Friday he told reporters, “Our country was founded by geniuses, but it’s being run by idiots.”

Amen to that!

A Footnote to History

In 1949, an up-and-coming young Representative from California, Richard Nixon – not yet Tricky Dick – was running for the Senate. His candidacy and personal philosophy was an odd amalgam of instinctual progressivism and ritual anti-Communism. He was fresh from his personal triumph in unmasking Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, using the famous “pumpkin papers” from Whittaker Chambers.

One of his key campaign platforms was – wait for it – essentially ObamaCare for Californians! He thus augured Mitt Romney’s program as Governor of Massachusetts many years in the future. Nixon won but never followed through on this, and probably it was never possible in the political climate of the time, but isn’t that a wondrous thing?

Why Nonsense Rules the Day

In this blog I post my thoughts about political activities and important current events. I make a sincere attempt to avoid bias, though no one can be entirely successful in achieving this goal. My guess is that most people believe that they also do this, though it has been my observation that many fail ingloriously. But bias is hardly the only or even the largest fault that misleads people in their life choices and their political beliefs. An astonishing number of our fellow Americans sincerely believe utter nonsense, and that certainly can’t help. This includes conspiracy theories, some religious beliefs, fake medical nostrums, astrology, junk science and a great many political beliefs. Examples abound and I am sure your list is as good as mine.

Our choices for political leaders and then the decisions they make that affect all of us are significantly conditioned by these absurd beliefs. This is one reason why our government is failing to accomplish much of value while thrashing fruitlessly in the effort. This problem isn’t confined to dullards and the uneducated. I have always been puzzled why so many well-educated and apparently intelligent people believe such total balderdash. Quite a few of these deluded people actually have assembled extensive supporting data for these beliefs. Thus it isn’t simply that they are ill-informed nor that they are incapable of understanding the available data. Indeed many are equipped with a well-developed skepticism, though they do tend to target that skill selectively only against criticism of their beliefs.

Thus it is with great interest that I recently came across a peer-reviewed study of this very topic. The basic conclusion of the study is that in order to insulate yourself from erroneous belief requires two things. You must have the ability to think analytically and – most crucially – the inclination to do so. Thus many people whom you wouldn’t expect to believe nonsense do so simply because they want to. These beliefs provide psychic support. They make the chaotic and sometimes threatening world around us understandable and predictable. This also explains why these people appear to be insulated from counter-evidence or failures in what they predict will occur. They simply find ways to ignore such data, and their analytical skills serve them well in this regard. Or if they are intellectually crippled, they just call it fake news.

Any impartial observer would agree that this condition characterizes quite a few members of Congress and the current administration. But this situation is neither new nor remarkable. It only seems so because we all have to suffer the consequences of their ill-informed decisions.

All of us, myself included, are subject to this intellectual flaw to some degree. It is seductive and we must constantly fight to ward it off. One person’s conspiracy theory is another’s clever insight. One simple test you might perform to examine your own beliefs is to see if they tend to make you feel more secure or to give you a comforting feeling that you understand what is going on around you. This isn’t a sign of validity, rather it is a warning signal that your critical skills may have been blunted by emotion. Of course it also doesn’t mean that your beliefs are invalid, it simply means that they need skeptical re-examination.

In the political realm, we have sincere and well-meaning beliefs on one side that seem either sadly misinformed or even deliberately malevolent by the other side. An example for Republicans is their belief in trickle down economics. And for Democrats, there is the conviction that big government offers the best solutions for society’s problems. Neither side listens to evidence of flaws in these beliefs simply because they don’t want to.

Bloviation Rules!

I often watch the three CSPAN channels, so I am accustomed to how witnesses testify before Congress, which is to say with an irritating inability to speak concisely and to the point.

But I just watched an extreme case that should be a lesson to future witnesses. A NASA executive was testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and her opening remarks took at least 15 minutes. Normally witnesses are asked to abbreviate their remarks to 5 minutes, but for some reason the Committee Chairman didn’t intervene.

After she finally finished, I leaned back and thought, “Wait a minute, here! She just bloviated endlessly but in fact she had only two points to make: NASA needs more money to accomplish its mission, and it needs more authority in order to spend that money efficiently.” That’s it. It should take only a few seconds to say. It seems to me that bluntly saying this is more likely to be effective than causing Committee members’ attention to wander, as actually occurred. I suspect that the shock alone would induce interest and attention.

Our Constitution: A Historic Perspective

Most historians view our Constitution as one of the greatest developments in human society. Clearly it was far from perfect in its origins, though it is continually changed – mostly for the better – through amendments and evolving interpretations. But one important aspect is rarely mentioned.

Two acknowledged stains on the original concept were its accommodations to slavery and the lack of a Bill of Rights. Both have been remedied, though the first of these is frequently viewed by black commentators as imperfectly redeemed. Yet there actually was a far worse defect that was so deeply embedded in our psyche that it was never even discussed by the founders. Not once during the Constitutional Conventions or in such basis documents as the Federalist Papers was the idea of equal rights for women even mentioned.

Do you recognize this quote? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …” To be more accurate, it should have begun, “We the White Men of the United States …” And so we have this painting of our founders.

Historians agree that there are two aspects of our current political situation that would totally amaze the founders. One of these is the participation of women in having the vote and in holding office. Even the thought of a female President would have had them rolling in the aisles of Independence Hall in 1776. And one can’t help noting that black men achieved the vote, at least nominally, long before we grudgingly granted women’s suffrage. During America’s early history as a nation, women were denied many of the key rights enjoyed by male citizens. For example, married women couldn’t own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn, and no female had the right to vote in national elections. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood, not politics. Don’t you see at least a faint echo of slavery in these views, quite unremarkable at the time?

The second aspect of our political life that would amaze our founders is the power of the Presidency. Nowadays, when we speak of the U.S. government what we usually mean is the executive branch. So, when we are represented to foreign powers, they look to the President as our leader and spokesman. That would astonish and horrify the founders. While we have a balance of powers between the branches of government, it is absolutely clear that the founders gave preeminence to Congress as the true representative of our nation. The President was viewed as a tightly circumscribed manager. And in fact, there was strong consideration given to having him selected by the legislature rather than chosen by popular election. The bastard offspring of this debate is our Electoral College. All things considered, I am not entirely sure that a popularly chosen President has turned out to be the best compromise, given the regal powers now bestowed on this office.

A Presidential Death Spiral

Republicans began this term with a two-seat majority in the Senate. That means that they can’t pass anything at all controversial unless they can hold on to at least 50 members of the Senate. I think that may no longer be possible. By his own antics, Trump has broken the party.

Two of their caucus, John McCain and Bob Corker, are basically now permanently opposed to almost anything that Trump wants. Neither has to worry about being re-elected and their open disdain of Trump is evident. Both are traditional conservatives who have little in common with this President, who basically hijacked their Party. In addition, Rand Paul may agree with some of Trump’s agenda but certainly not with his incoherent methods, and he probably thinks that Secretary Tillerson was right when he called Trump a moron. The female Republican senators don’t approve of some of Trump’s agenda, and they have every reason to despise him personally. Other senators have good cause to bear a grudge against Trump because his juvenile antics and insults annoyed the hell out of them during the campaign and afterward. They may be currently reluctant to take him on because of his cadre of stubborn supporters, but that will wane as the administration fails again and again to produce anything worthwhile.

The bottom line of all of this is that the only way Trump will achieve important legislative goals is by toadying up to the Democrats. He could do that, and in fact has already done so once, but as a general legislative plan this would probably be the final straw for Congressional Republicans.

I don’t think we need to wait for the fat lady to sing anymore. The Trump Presidency is toast.