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.

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The Border Wall Mystery

With respect to the proposed wall on our southern border, I think I have it right that Democrats oppose it — vehemently — and Republicans, by and large, favor it. I understand the Republican position. They seem convinced that it will help solve our illegal immigration problem. But barring building a Berlin-type barrier with electrified fences, mines and machine guns, I frankly doubt this. A complete wall built according to current proposals will likely have some effect, but people will find a way across our border if the economic incentive is sufficient.

However I am a bit puzzled by the Democratic opposition. I searched the internet and none of their spokesmen make a clear and unambiguous statement about this. I would have thought that wasting all that money that could be put to better use would be an obvious reason, but they never seem willing to put it quite that baldly. Still, I assume that this is basically their position — and mine, too.

But here’s the problem. Both of the top Democratic leaders, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi, have stated in clear terms that, if funding the wall is included in a bill to raise the debt ceiling, Democrats will vote to block it. This situation will likely arise in December. They are fully aware that Democratic votes plus those of the extreme right in the Republican caucus will prevail. In other words, they are willing to sabotage the nation’s credit, drop a bomb on our economy, and risk significantly increased interest rates rather than wasting some money on the wall. On its face that doesn’t make economic sense. In fact, it defies logic unless there is something more at stake than wasting a few billions. So, what exactly is the real issue? And is it really worth that much?

Knowing Democrats, my theory is that this isn’t a money issue at all, or at least not in its essence. There is something about building a barrier on our border that strikes at the very core of progressive ideology. To many Democrats, it’s a bit like tearing down the Statue of Liberty, perhaps combined with making English our national language. The wall has become a symbol of exclusionary philosophy that is anathema to old-style Democrats. So perhaps they would indeed risk an economic catastrophe rather than conceding this point.

Of course, this is just a theory. But if it is true, then Democrats are about as nutty as Republicans, which is a standard that is rather hard to meet.

An Insightful Analogy

On Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN last Sunday, a guest introduced a clever analogy to describe what is going on in Washington since Trump took over. He likened the situation to a group of pirates who have captured a massive treasure ship operated by one of the great maritime powers. There are far too few of them to operative such a large vessel, and they are somewhat unfamiliar with its sails and rigging. As a result they dragoon the ship’s crew to assist. Not unexpectedly, these captives are not exactly enthusiastic, and as a result the ship stays close to its original course and speed even though the pirate captain wants to divert to his home base. So he rages at his cohort in a vain attempt to achieve better control. His crew is understandably upset as they expected easy going and great rewards from this marvelous prize. So they squabble among themselves about the best way to “right the ship”. Being pirates, used to enforcing their will by force of arms, the internecine strife quickly turns bloody.

The consequences of such a situation are very unpredictable. The original crew might take advantage of the internal disagreements of their captors and seize control again. Or perhaps the ship, under uncertain and disputed management, might run aground and result in disaster for all concerned. It’s even possible that the pirates might get their act together, perhaps by making a deal with the original crew, and finally achieve their objectives. And lurking in the background is the possibility that privateers commissioned by enemies of the flag under which the treasure ship sailed might meddle with the outcome.

You probably can see the parallels with the political situation facing the fledgling Trump administration. At this point I wouldn’t choose any of the listed outcomes as most probable, though my hope is that the first prevails.

Is competence really optional?

Suppose you need some small home repairs or to have your nice new home entertainment system installed. You could try to do it yourself, but often it is best to find an expert. He or she would have relevant experience and would know how to best do the job. This is almost always faster and it often avoids expensive mistakes. Doesn’t that make sense? The same principle applies if you have a medical problem, some important financial transaction, or a legal issue. It is true that consulting an expert costs money but generally it is well spent, assuming you do your homework in choosing the right person. And when picking someone to treat your kid’s broken leg, I hope and assume that you restrict your search to credentialed medical professionals and don’t consider having your gardener take his best shot.

This may seem obvious, but evidently it isn’t for Donald Trump. Although I can’t believe that he hires auto mechanics to design his golf courses or shoe salesmen to run his hotels, when it comes to the business of government the only relevant criterion seems to be personal loyalty.

He just selected a hedge fund manager to be the White House Communications Director. His choice to head the HUD office for the region that covers New York and New Jersey is a party planner. The best person he could find to be the Chief Scientist of the Agriculture Department has degrees in political science and public administration. While obviously not exactly a dummy, he is a decidedly square peg in a round hole. And then there are all those close Trump relatives managing White House affairs. They seem to be talented and successful individuals, and they are probably kind to children and small animals. But running our government isn’t an amateur exercise, or it wasn’t until last January 20th. I am fairly confident that we will outlast this experiment in incompetence, but it is likely to be rocky ride.

Limitations of Presidential Power

Yesterday, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz appeared in a panel on CNN arguing a point that caused other participants to turn red with anger. I think I saw smoke coming out of their ears. His argument was that no President can be legally accused of obstructing justice as long as he is exercising his constitutional authority. And remember, the breadth of that authority is immense. But pay attention to the modifier “legally”. There is a big difference between what is legal and defensible in a court of law and what is morally right and defensible in the court of public opinion.

 

According to Prof. Dershowitz, Trump can summarily fire anyone in the executive branch, except the Vice President and employees protected by civil service regulations. He can do this for any reason or indeed for no particular reason. He can order the Justice Department or the FBI to terminate any investigation, criminal or not, regardless of who is the subject. The so-called independence of the Justice Department is custom, not law. He can pardon anyone, before or after their conviction. He can even pardon himself, though not where an impeachment is involved. No one can gainsay any of these decisions. They are not reviewable by any court or by Congress. Moreover, the President is totally immune from civil liability for any of his official acts, though impeachment can remove this protection.

This pokes a gaping hole in most of the overheated rhetoric by his Democratic opponents. There is nothing currently in the public domain that would indicate legal jeopardy for President Trump. But these are early days and the establishment of a special counsel is ominous. And of course there are limits to Presidential immunity. The President cannot commit criminal acts, destroy evidence in a case under investigation, lie under oath or suborn perjury. He must submit materials demanded under subpoena by a legal authority. But he can quite legally halt any federal case in its tracks and raise his middle finger to his opponents.

This may appear to transform the President into a virtual dictator, but there are two resources available to restrain him. Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution provides for involuntary removal by impeachment. The legal basis for impeachment is whatever Congress says it is. So it can consist of ordinary criminal activity or such indefinable offenses as “failure to execute authority” or “unbecoming conduct.” Essentially Congress can simply use this authority to say, “Begone, scoundrel! We have no further use for you.” This isn’t easy, requiring a two-thirds super-majority of the Senate. There have been four serious attempts to remove a President in this manner and all failed, though Nixon did leave voluntarily when the outcome was inevitable.

The second resource arises from the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The President can exercise rights under this amendment to relinquish his office voluntarily whenever he feels unable to fulfill his responsibilities. This is a temporary measure until such time as he issues a revocation. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush employed this mechanism when they required temporary hospitalization. No President under assault by political opponents would be likely to use it. But there is another part of this amendment that permits either a majority of his cabinet or even some ad hoc group established by Congress to force a President to give up his powers, presumably though not necessarily due to disability. This might be called the Fruitcake Provision, and it seems germane to at least some of Trump’s more imaginative opponents. It has never been tried and it is unclear whether any such attempt would survive judicial review.

This is our system, as explained by one of the country’s foremost constitutional scholars. So, TV commentators, self-appointed legal experts and the like can fuss and fume but that changes reality not one whit. I don’t much like this aspect myself but I can’t conceive an alternative that wouldn’t be subject to its own serious drawbacks.

Trump and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Donald Trump is driving almost everyone crazy, even some of his supporters. The media are rife with pop psychology purporting to explain his odd behavior, outrageous tweets, and conflicting statements. It varies from deep conspiracy theories to pure psychobabble, even by observers who one might expect to know better.

But now I believe that some academics have hit on the real answer. Trump’s actions and thoughts are clearly a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This describes a syndrome in which people who are the least competent at a task rate their skills as exceptionally high because they are too ignorant to know what it means to have the skill.

Not only do sufferers of this disability fail, they don’t even learn from their mistakes. Their misplaced confidence causes them to attribute all failures to others. It is always either incompetent associates or a vast array of enemies who are responsible. Think about it. Listen to Trump the next time he stumbles or misjudges the problems every President faces.

Conservative columnist George Will expressed it succinctly and devastatingly. He wrote that Trump suffers a dangerous disorder not only because he is ignorant and is unaware of his ignorance, but also because “he doesn’t even know what it means to know something.

Trump has very little understanding of the real job of President of the United States, and he is blissfully unaware of this deficiency. He thinks that this is a management position where someone leads the country toward greater prosperity and happiness. This isn’t wrong but it is startlingly superficial. In truth, this is a highly complex job requiring specialized knowledge and skills, in many respects like the job of a physician.

Like a doctor, a President must accurately diagnose problems and prescribe cures. He must recognize when an issue exceeds his expertise and training, seeking appropriate experts to bring about a resolution. He must establish rapport to guide those he serves toward accepting and implementing his remedies. Often he must work effectively as a team member. Most importantly, he must study intensively to acquire constantly evolving knowledge.

Does any of this make you think of Donald Trump and his approach to the crucial office he holds? Face it, Trump is not a real President. As the saying goes, “He just plays one on TV.

“I thought it would be easier!”

Last Thursday, Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview, “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.

Easier? Is it really surprising that being President of the preeminent world power, with the lives of millions or billions at stake, is a bit harder than being the host of “The Apprentice”? True, he is evidently a successful businessman by the usual standard of amassing wealth, but what exactly has this to do with making hard political decisions? So far the connection seems tenuous. In terms of results, the first hundred days of his Presidency are hardly promising. And listening to him bloviate, cast aspersions hither and yon, and invent facts that align with his untutored understanding is beginning to get old.

His supporters seem to be holding fast to their man, but I can’t help thinking that this is due in part to the fact the confessing their mistake would be just too embarrassing. No one likes to be seen as a dupe. One fallback for some is that it was better than the alternative. And I confess a little sympathy for this excuse. I didn’t vote for this fool, but I also couldn’t stomach “crooked Hillary”. And having voted for neither – a first in my entire life – I grant that I have weak grounds to complain one way or the other.

President Trump – can this actually be true? – is a shallow man. By his own statement, he rarely reads books, and it is evident that the few he manages don’t include American history. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but this only confirms what my fellow students at a real Ivy League school on the Charles River suspected about Ben Franklin’s academic offspring.

We will survive all this. Hard as it may be to believe, we have had Presidents before who were even worse, though none as ill-prepared by my calculation. One glimmer of hope is that he sometimes seems to learn from mistakes, and a few in his political entourage are adults.

This is really all I have to say at this point. I am just venting.