Taking Stock: Storm Clouds Looming

Less than two weeks before doomsday. How did we get here? What does it mean? Where do we go from here?

How We Got Here

Donald Trump will sworn in at high noon on January 20, 2017. Few people including most of the Trump team dreamed that this would happen. Many of us Democrats and progressives are still in a recovery mode. Some, like Embry, are still not able to talk about it. The closest feeling she says as to how she now feels is how she felt after President Kennedy was assassinated. It is more than just about Hillary’s loosing. It is about the loss of something very dear and special about the America we have known and loved, perhaps a kind of loss of innocence.

In my view three things came together in a perfect storm to put us where we are now:

  • The reemergence of global, nativist populism. When the Brexit vote happened last spring, I saw it then it as an ominous sign. People were sending a message to the establishment: They were fed up and ready for a change, even a change that was fundamentally against their best interests. This happened in the UK and is happening–or is on the cusp of happening–in many liberal democracies. Poland now has a right wing strongman running the country. Austria came close. France is in play, and Merkel is facing a tough fight from the right. Many liberal democracies are affected to one degree or another. The pushback is due largely to the disruptions caused by the global economy and the fact that new winners and losers have emerged. The losers are angry.

In addition, Europe and the United States are experiencing massive migrations, often from poor, war-torn countries, further creating disruption and fear of the future. Cultures and ways of life are changing in ways that many find uncomfortable. How do these new people with different religions, languages, customs and skin colors fit in? The answer for some is simply to keep them out or throw them out if they have already settled in. Trump picked up on this trend, exploited it, and rode it to the finish line. For figuring this out when no one else did, I suppose he deserves some credit.

  • Forgetting about the white working class. Keep this in mind: Trump did not win the popular vote. He lost by almost three million votes, the largest gap between the Electoral College vote and the popular vote in U.S. history. But he did win the Electoral College vote, and therefore by the rules he won. This happened because three states–Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin–that have traditionally voted for Democrats switched to Trump. While these were “battleground states,” all appeared to be in the Clinton camp. The white, working class vote in those states made the difference. The Hillary campaign must be asking what more could have been done in those three states and perhaps in others like Florida and North Carolina.

I believe they missed what Trump picked up on, the alienation of the white working class. This alienation is not due to Hillary so much as to the Democratic Party (excepting the Bernie movement), which many working people, mainly white men, believe has tended to favor other identity groups like women, African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and LBTGQs. In other words, we Democrats took the white working class for granted. After all they have been the base of the party for generations. Not also focusing on them and understanding that for some time they have not been happy campers cost the Democrats big time and probably the election. They sent the same message the Brexit voters sent in the UK: Enough, time for a change.

There are also many who point to Hillary’s difficulty in connecting with some voters and her being a symbol of the Democratic liberal establishment, which many working class people believe disrespects them. There is probably a bit of truth to this, but I do not see how anyone could have asked her to do more. She gave it a Herculean effort, all that she had. She could not pretend she was someone she wasn’t.

  • Russian meddling. We probably will never know to what extent Russian hacking and mischief cost Hillary the election. Without question it made a difference. Remember Hillary won the popular vote by a substantial margin and the votes in the battleground states were very close. It would only have taken a relatively few people, tired of hearing about the emails, who showed their disgust by voting for Trump. For many the Comey incident at the end was the nail in the coffin. The relatively small number of fed up voters put off by the email controversy and the fake news could have tipped the balance in the battleground states. My guess is that they did.

In other words the historic election of 2016 was in fact a perfect storm. It was not a mandate for radical change to the right. It was not an embracing of Trump. It was not a rejection of Obama’s accomplishments or the Democratic Party. It was a fluke. Had any one of the three factors just described been different, so would have the results. But it happened. We have to deal with it.

What It Means

This is the big question. Will Trump’s election mean the end of the democratic republic as we have known it—moving toward a strong man, nativist, rightwing country similar in some ways to what Germany and Italy experienced in the 1930s or will it be something completely different with some good things and some bad things? After all Trump is hardly a doctrinaire idealist like Ted Cruise. He is a deal guy and a marketer. Style is his calling card, not substance. It is not even apparent that he has any particular values other than what is good for Trump is good for the country. The populism façade was simply a sham to exploit the anti establishment mood that he picked up on and his opponents missed. Trump is not even a traditional conservative. He is for big spending on infrastructure, and for keeping some safety net programs in place. He is dubious of free trade and does not seem to care about deficits or social hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage. Some progressives are saying his presidency won’t be anywhere near as bad as we might think.

It is too early to tell for certain, but here are the indicators, which we should be monitoring carefully and what they mean so far:

  • Trump’s Cabinet and close advisors.

This is the first early indicator. Someone who is interested in pulling together a divided country would reach out to moderates, even some in the other party. I have already graded several of the early appointees resulting in an average grade of D. What we are looking at in Trump’s cabinet and inner circle of advisors is an extreme, inexperienced and openly hostile-to-government group. It is an in-your-face statement that Trump plans to stick by his scorched earth, take-no-prisoners threats made during the campaign. Though there is some overlap, his choices seem to fall into four categories: political hacks and insiders who appear to be relatively harmless though without experience in the positions they are nominated for; billionaires and Wall Street tycoons; generals; and foxes in the hen house. A few words on principle nominations in each category:

The hacks and insiders. This includes Reince Priebus (chief of staff), Nikki Haley (UN), Elaine Chao (Transportation) and Ben Carson (HUD) though one could make a case that Carson actually belongs in the fox category since he is against “handouts for the poor.” Rick Perry could also fall into the hack category except that he is clearly a fox. In any event these appointments are sort of what you would expect from a typical president-elect and appear at first blush to be relatively harmless. So we may be safe with regard to three or four out of 28 top level appointments.

The billionaires and tycoons. These appointments would appear to be a nod to Wall Street and the traditional Republican establishment. They include Rex Tillerson (head of Exxon to State), Linda McMahon (professional wrestling magnate to Small Business), Betsy DeVois (Amway heiress to Education), Wilbur Ross (leverage buyout tycoon to Commerce), and Steve Mnuchin (Goldman Sachs to Treasury). There are a bunch of others like Carson, Chao, Andy Pudzer (Labor), Tom Price (HHS), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) and Stephen Bannon (Chief Strategist) who are also billionaires or multi millionaires though I put them in another category because except for the possible exception of Carson, they are foxes. CBS reported that the net worth of the Trump cabinet and high-level nominees exceeds $14 billion. There has never been a cabinet with so much wealth. So much for throwing a bone to the white working class that got him elected.

Though conflicts of interests may be an issue for people with this kind of wealth, the fact that they are billionaires and multi millionaires would not necessarily disqualify them. Several, however, also have an ax to grind or come with an agenda. Devois in Education is opposed to traditional public school and a champion of vouchers and charter schools. Ross in Commerce is anti China and a proponent of high tariffs to level the playing field. Tillerson in the State Department has very close ties to Putin.

The generals. There will be three of them, the highest in U.S.history. Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor, is the wild card. He got fired for being a loose cannon in the military and has expressed strong anti Muslim views. I gave him an F in a previous blog post. The other two do not appear to be too bad. John Kelly will head up Homeland Security and James Mattis will be the Secretary of Defense. Bad things may come out in the hearings, but for now I will give them both passing grades. It is instructive that probably Trump’s strongest candidate for a Cabinet position, James Mattis, has the nick name “Mad Dog.”

The foxes in the hen house. Here is where it starts to get scary. These are the nominees who are hostile to the departments where they will be in charge. In short judging from their past actions and statements, they want to burn the places down. Starting off with the scariest and moving down the list: Stephen Bannon, candidate for Chief Strategist, is a alt right apologist, fake news propagator, and neo Nazi sympathizer. Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, has a long history of opposing civil rights and was turned down for a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee several years ago for his racist comments and actions. The HHS Secretary nominee, Tom Price, is a tea party radical who has been obsessed with killing Obamacare. Rick Perry, who will head up Energy, is on the record for wanting to eliminate the agency and favors Big Oil over sustainable energy. Ryan Zinke, who will head up Interior, is a climate change denier, supports the oil and gas industry, has voted against most environmental legislation, and referred to Hillary Clinton as the “Anti-Christ.” Scott Pruitt, who will head up the EPA, is another climate change denier and big supporter of the fossil fuel industry. Andrew Pudzer, another multi millionaire and fast food mogul, will head up Labor. He is against increasing the minimum wage, is anti union, and has a record of treating his Hardee’s and Carl’s Junior employees unfairly. CIA nominee is Mike Pompano, another leader of the tea party, who has been obsessed with the Benghazi attack and is a right wing fanatic.

Heard enough? When you have people in charge who are anti-government and who want to destroy the agencies they lead, it is not what you would call a promising sign.

  • Trump’s Temperament.

After winning the Electoral College vote, Trump immediately tweeted that he had also won the popular vote by a landslide due to all the illegal votes cast by minorities and illegal immigrants and has not backed off this even though there is no evidence to support it. While he made a couple of promising statements saying that he wanted to bring the country together and that he would not jail Hillary, these have been few and far between. He continues to tweet into the wee hours, his latest targets being Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meryl Streep. He took a victory lap in the key states he won and did not modify his fire-and-brimstone ranting. He has not produced tax returns or financial information and shows no interest in ever doing so, has appointed his son-in-law as senior advisor, and continues to stick by his support for Putin, denying that the email hacking had any impact on the election. It is not yet clear how he will deal with all the conflicts of interest with his myriad businesses. In other words he has shown no change from the outrageous and bombastic personality that he revealed on the campaign trail. It is not clear that he could change even if he wanted to. In short if you are looking for Trump to mellow out or move to the center, do not hold your breath.

  • Trump’s Actions.

Beware of the first 100 Days and expect the worst. Trump is a showman, knows he has to perform by throwing red meat to his base, and has a limited period to make his presidential debut. Here are the initiatives and where they now stand. Unless Democrats in Congress can figure out some way to stop or slow down the process, it appears almost certain that three initiatives will happen very early in Trump’s presidency:

The Wall will be started and the “budget conscious” Republicans will go along with him. Cost estimates range from $20-$40 billion; and though he still maintains that Mexico will end up paying for it, few believe him or even seem to care. This is a very expensive symbolic and unnecessary act since more Mexicans are leaving the United States than entering it illegally, and many will find other ways of getting into the U.S. and remaining here like overstaying visas.

Tax breaks for the super rich. This initiative is coming more from the House than from Trump though there is nothing to indicate that Trump won’t go along with it. This is trickle down economics in spades with a devastating impact on future deficits unless drastic cuts to social and domestic programs accompany it. All working class white voters who put him in office take notice.

The repeal of Obama Care. The only question is whether the repeal will happen with or without a replacement. While the majority of Americans still say they do not like Obama Care, by strong majorities they like virtually all parts of it except the individual mandate. Of course, you can’t do all the other stuff like prohibit exclusion for pre-existing conditions, not permit maximum lifetime limits and allow young adults to remain on their parents’ policies without an individual mandate. People will wait until they are sick to sign up. The Republicans have not come up with a replacement after seven years and more than 50 votes to kill the law because there is no alternative other than something very close to Obama Care or a single payer system that will achieve the goal of universal coverage. If Obama Care is reversed without a viable replacement plan, as many as 30 million could find themselves without health insurance. Working class white voters– the majority of those who have benefitted from Obama Care—will suffer the most.

There is a whole lot of other stuff that we do not know about yet. Chief among these is the deportation initiative. How many illegal immigrants will deported? When will this happen? Will Trump go after the American Dreamers? Will storm troopers be used, forcing entries to homes in the middle of the night and taking people to makeshift prisons before shipping them off? Some nightmare scenarios sound awfully close to what happened in Germany in the 1930s though, granted, no death camps are envisioned.

There are many other actions like getting out of the Paris Environmental accord and gutting environmental regulations, comprehensive tax reform, business deregulation, gutting safety net social programs, tariffs and trade restrictions against China and Mexico, supreme court appointments and the future of Roe v. Wade, limiting LBGTQ rights, voter restrictions, Muslim registrations, assaults on Labor Unions and public education, and challenges to freedom of speech and the free press. The list goes on. What is especially troubling is that the direction that is likely to be taken by Trump and the Republican Party is exactly the opposite of what we progressives would like to see happen. It is terrifying. And I haven’t mentioned international issues, which could be the scariest of all.

What Are We To Do?

The first line of defense are our elected Democrats in the House and Senate. They need to use the same kind of obstructionist tactics that the Republicans used against them and to fight them at every move.

But it is not only our elected representatives. It is also us. Do not forget that Trump did not win the popular vote. We are in the majority.

I know that I may sound like an alarmist. I suppose that is the primary reason that I have written this blog post. I am alarmed. I truly believe that possible scenarios that await us could threaten the republic like nothing else we have experienced in our lifetimes. I hope that I am wrong, that the inevitable Trump overreach will bring the American public to our senses, and that public opinion will force the administration to back off and follow a more centrist approach. But there is no guarantee, and surely it will not happen if progressives and others do not organize and resist Trump’s hostile actions through massive demonstrations, civil disobedience, voter registrations, get out the vote campaigns, and relentless ongoing protests and speaking out. We also need to reach out to the working class voters who supported Trump and bring them back into the fold. Surely at some point they will realize they have been sold a bill of goods. We also need to work and get involved locally—in both local and state elections. We are entering a new period where the rules are changing and the stakes have never been higher. This is no time to remain on the sidelines.

At this moment we are in a period of speculation. In just over a week it will become real. The warning signals are clearly out there. What are we going to do about it?





11 thoughts on “Taking Stock: Storm Clouds Looming

  1. The Republicans have managed to convince the general population that they are the party of Christians , family values, and the working class — all the while managing to
    Be the party of the 1%. Unless we can come up with a public relations campaign that will set the record straight things look grim.

  2. A cogent analysis as always. I have called my senators (Cardin and Van Hollen) and asked them to use all procedural means at their disposal to block the nomination of Sessions and the Gang of Four climate deniers (Pruitt, Perry, Tillerson, Zinke) who will have jurisdiction over the environment. Unfortunately, none of them are on the Judiciary Committee, and the questioning of Sessions yesterday from Democrats was pretty tame, while the Post and other mainstream media sought to marginalize the “strident” protesters who tried to sound the alarm that Congress doesn’t seem to be hearing. I have hopes for Cory Booker’s testimony against Sessions in the hearing today. We can’t wait and hope that the politicians will do their jobs, however. As you say, as citizens (the most important job in a democracy, as President Obama put it last night) we have no choice but to organize, protest, and resist. That is what it will take to same this democracy. See you at the March on the 21st!

  3. Joe’s blog makes the very same points that I made to a class yesterday – though mine was shorter because it was in French – and in the UK!.

    My main point being to compare the move to the right both in the US, but also in Europe – Joe mentioned Poland, but France and Germany (among others) have elections this year and I think his comparison with the 1930s (especially the 1930s in Europe) is not fanciful nor alarmist. And the warnings and signs in the 1930s were ignored.

    I also made the point that our politicians have got well ahead of the electorate, and this, too, is dangerous. I write as a liberal; I like much of what has been achieved by the liberals, but I suspect we (and especially the professionals) have become a tad arrogant and simply not listened sufficiently to the electorate.

    1. Thank you, Chaplain. It appears we are all fighting the same demons. Just saw a great documentary on Rhingold Neibhur and am going to reread “Moral Man And Immoral Society.” Where is someone like him today?

  4. Joe,
    Since the turn of the year I have tuned things out. PBS is my main source of news and information, but I’ve started turning it off if the subject is Trump or race. So I don’t listen to it much anymore As you know I donned a HAZ MAT suit and voted for HRC. So now I’m in a wait and see mode. If Trump delivers, fine. If not, one term, unless the Dems are crazy enough to re run HRC, perhaps the only candidate Trump could beat.

    1. Thank you, professor. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and starting on January 20, we are going to get our first mouthful.

  5. Also keep your eye out for Mike Mulvany, R-SC, as Budget Director — no experience and it’s such a key position just for keeping the doors open. Also, I think/fear he’s dumb; in way over his head.

  6. “I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created”. This phrase from Trump shows that he follows the tips of his advisers, and shows his moderate side… Because he allows God to create someone who got even more jobs… in the future.

    Watching the Trump press conference, does not it remind you of the movie “Duck Soup” by the Marx Brothers?

    Thanks Joe for the good reviews of the “Trump Policy”. They help me to understand something, sometimes difficult to understand.

    Best regards from Juan and Vicen.

    1. We saw Duck Soup for the first time the day that you posted your comment. Quite a coincidence and a bit close to home. A very funny movie but a bit scary when you think about where we are headed.

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