Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Re-Election of Donald Trump

In recent weeks, Donald Trump's prospects for re-election have improved noticeably in betting markets.  For most of the early part of this year, his odds hovered around 30%.  Three weeks ago they jumped up to 35%. They currently stand at 39% on  This surge does not correspond with an upsurge in Trump's approval ratings. The Real Clear Politics average of his approval ratings have stated between 42% and 44% over the last several weeks.  This upswing in the betting markets reflects two more fundamental realities than one politician's polling numbers.  Donald Trump's prospects are improving for two reasons:

1. As time goes by, Trump is being normalized. The American people are accepting behavior from Donald Trump no other president would ever dream of doing, because the American people are becoming numb to his vulgarity and weirdness. 

2. Donald Trump has utter and complete control of the Republican party.  Every single Republican politician is afraid of him, because he is immensely popular with the bloc of people who vote in Republican primaries.

If I had to bet today, I would bet against Donald Trump being re-elected in 2020. But his chances are better than a lot of thinking people want to admit. He is now embarked on a journey to Singapore for a meeting with the North Korean dictator. I think the results of that summit will have a big impact on the 2020 race and I want to sketch some thoughts about 2020 before the meeting happens.

I.  Donald Trump's 2020 Message.

Donald Trump's 2020 campaign will be predicated on simple assertion: that he has made America great again, just as he promised in 2016.  There are three policy claims that he must make, and he will make them with a straight face no matter what the facts on the ground say.  

1. I made the economy better.  He will point to whatever statistics help this cause. Right now he can accurately say that the job market has got stronger during his presidency. He will credit his tax cuts and deregulation if that's still true in 2020.  If not's still true in 2020 he will find some reason why voters should only think about how strong the job market was during the first half of his presidency. 

2. I made the country safer.  Donald Trump will point to the destruction of ISIS as his greatest accomplishment. ISIS has lost almost all of its territory, a trend that began while Obama was still president, but which did accelerate in 2017.  And it does not seem likely that ISIS will make much of a comeback as a de facto sovereign entity. It will be quite easy for the Republican party to craft compelling 30 second commercials featuring people who were tortured by ISIS and who now have a measure of freedom or been able to return to their home. It's a good starting point for claiming success on the world's stage.

The North Korea gambit is all about wanting a diplomatic victory to show that he is a great deal maker.  Trump's incentive is to get a deal that he can call "denuclearization." Kim Jong Un might have a corresponding incentive to get something done too. 

Kim was educated at a boarding school in Switzerland. He knows what the west has to offer and he has to know, on some level, that his father and grandfather's model is no way to run a state. But he also wants to retain political power and the lifestyle of a dictator.  He probably needs some western capital to make that happen.  If he's ever going to make a deal to get that capital, he might as well make it with the current president, because Trump will not make ANY demands related to human rights or political reform. Trump only cares about being able to claim that he got North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.  So Kim could agree to a very loose, wishy-washy statement about ending their nuclear weapons program.  Such a deal will have no teeth and will not make any demands of verification before 2021, other than some symbolic photo ops of Kim's people dismantling some equipment. They will make some rhetorical concessions and empty gestures, like they did when they staged a demolition of their nuclear testing site. In exchange, they will get the prestige of having been treated as a peer by the president of the United States and they will get some sanctions relief. I think Kim will tempt Trump with the possibility of making money for his family and for his other rich asshole friends. 

Donald Trump would love to tell you that he took nuclear weapons out of a mad man's hands. He would also love to tell you that he made an incredible deal that will somehow make gas cheaper or decrease our trade deficit or create some jobs.  He's not big on details and he's way over his head on this trip.  But I think he will get a deal of some kind done, because his inner circle is committed to making that happen and they don't really care about the consequences of a bad deal. Whatever deal he makes, Donald Trump will brag about it-long, loud and wrong.

3. The Democrats are pussies. The Democrats need to nominate someone, and that nominee will have to emerge from a protracted primary battle where everyone fights to prove that they are th most anti-Trump option available to voters. 

Donald Trump's most outrageous policy changes have been in the sphere of immigration. He is breaking families of asylum seekers up. He is still intent on building that stupid wall and he is willing to shut the government down to do it.  To the extent that the wall is shorthand for his insane 2016 campaign, he has to go all out for it. It is an extension of his political persona, and therefore must be defended at all costs. For the same reason, the Democrats have to resist the wall at all costs. In the short term, the wall is hurting his poll numbers. But by 2020, he's going to be beating the xenophobia drum as often as possible, because either way, he can win on it.

If the wall gets built, he will say "Look, I did this amazing thing and now we are safe."  It it does not get built he will say "Look, I tried to save you but the Democrats blocked me and now we have gangs running around and cops getting shot" and making hay out of whatever unfortunate headlines he can point to.  

The Democratic party is vulnerable on this issue, again.  The Democratic base is rightly incensed by Trump's immigration policies. The 2020 Democratic primary race may just turn on who can get to the furthest left on issues of immigration enforcement.  But they could pay a price for that in the general election. Trump will demonize brown people in whatever way works to make voters question the ability of the Democratic nominee to lead the government-to fight for average Americans. He will definitely run 30 second commercials about some crime committed by an undocumented worker here in the states or maybe about some crime wave or other in European countries that are driven by immigrants from Muslim majority countries. 

There will be a 4th dimension to Trump's 2020 campaign.  Something personally insulting about the Democratic nominee. Lyin' Ted Cruz, Lil' Marco Rubio and, of course Crooked Hillary Clinton will know what I am talking about. Trump has the mind of a bully and he has reason to believe that people like watching him be cruel to other politicians.  No matter how the Democrats nominate, he will find a weakness and he will beat it like a drum.  Commie Bernie Sanders, Crazy Joe Biden, & Pocahantas all have easily identified monikers. But over the course of the Democratic primary, he will figure out what to call whoever the nominee is, and there will even be a chant to replace "Lock Her Up!" It will not be subtle.

II.  The Consequences Phase of the Trump Years.

On Friday, Maggie Haberman tweeted out a very interesting observation.  The White House staffers that only met Trump during the transition period all say that Trump has gotten much worse in recent months. But the people who have known Trump for a long time tend to say that his behavior is the same as ever.  The fact is that Trump was intimidated by the presidency for the first year or so. He knew he was in over his head and he reigned in some of his worst instincts. But as 2018 stretches on, he is reverting to his old self. He is becoming the world class asshole that he always has been.

The reason for this confidence is that he is surrounded by sycophants and spends eight hours a day watching a television network dedicated to talking about how successful he is. I suspect that many people reading this blog will have a hard time believing this sentence, but it's a very important one: Donald Trump genuinely believes that he is a great president. 

Like any other narcissist, Trump is able to create excuses for any failures. But his real passion is taking credit for success.  He think the continued drop in unemployment is only happening because of his brilliant tax cuts. He also believes, with equal fervor, that the federal debt has exploded because of past sins by Democrats. No amount of evidence can convince him otherwise. He thinks the stock market boom of 2017 was due to his presidency. The fact that the market is lower in June than it was in January is the fault of fake news and lying Democrats.  This dexterity of mind is great for one's confidence, but reality can't be shut out for ever.

It's not clear when Trump's ignorance will begin to manifest itself  in negative economic news. The tax cuts have not yet caused any increase in economic growth. Last quarter we grew at just 2.2%, but the forecast is slightly better for the rest of the year. And we haven't yet seen signs of a weakening job market, although wage growth has been less than expected.  So Trump might cruise through 2018 and 2019 without a recession. But he's also beginning to play with fire when it comes to trade.

As his confidence in the Oval Office has grown, Donald Trump has begun focusing on the issues that he always cared about. International trade and trade deficits have been a point of interest with him for decades. He seems to think that a trade deficit means that one country is stealing from the other. This is balderdash, but we live in the age of alternative facts.  The president thinks this is true and he remains dedicated to the proposition that the United States should only be a thief, never a victim of  such "theft".  

Trump is beginning to act brazenly here. He is threatening to impose all kinds of tariffs, on both rival nations and our traditional allies.  Most glaringly, he is promising to impose tariffs on Canada.  He is claiming that this must be done for national security, a notion that is utterly preposterous, but that happens to be the only reason he can impose these tariffs without congressional approval. So facts be damned, we're going to punish Canada.  Canada, of course, intends to respond in kind.  That's how trade wars work.  Yesterday Justin Trudeau said that Canada will not be pushed around.  Our president threw a hissy fit in response and refused to have the United States sign off on the joint comminique of the G7 nations. That's all a little inside baseball now. But if he follows through with these tariffs, there will be tremendous consequences for American consumers and workers.  

It is possible that the economy will continue to putter along with reasonable growth rates and job creation numbers. That will strengthen Trump's chances of winning an election. But it's also possible that his trade wars and continued attempt to undermine Obamacare will have the kinds of consequences that voters remember on election  day.  Trump's prospects have improved because he has good fortune on the economic front. I don't think that can hold for another 29 months of this level of stupidity, but the margin of the election will be determined by how severe those consequences are.

III. Mueller.

Robert Mueller has compiled a year's worth of information about the ties between Donald Trump and the government of Russia. Not a single stitch of information has leaked from his shop. That's an impressive accomplishment that makes it difficult to handicap the outcome of his investigation.

This is what I suspect will happen. Sometime in 2018 or early 2019, Bob Mueller will call a press conference. At that conference he will announce a new round of indictments. Those indictments will include people in Trump's inner circle. It might include his son and/or son-in-law. He will also lay out the case that Donald Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey in order to impede the investigation of Russia's election interference.  He will explain that he does not intend to indict Donald Trump because he subscribes to the consensus view that sitting presidents can not be prosecuted for crimes.

This announcement will infuriate a lot more people than it pleases. Many Democrats will be frustrated by the decision not to indict Trump. And Republicans will be faced with yet another moral dilemma: accept the findings of a respected law enforcement professional or side with the raving tantrums of an incompetent, compromised and dishonest president. If the past 17 months have taught us anything, this will not be a hard choice for most of them. 

There has been a lot of talk about a looming constitutional crisis. We could get lucky and avoid something really awful, but I am not optimistic. The constitutional crisis began last week when the president publicly declared that he was above the law and not a single prominent Republican office holder bothered to repudiate him.  If we go forward with the battle lines that Trump has drawn, then the ending will be very ugly.

But Mueller is likely to persuade a lot of independent voters that the sitting president is corrupt. That will probably prevent his re-election. But even under those extraordinary circumstances, the outcome will not be certain.  Donald Trump has captured a major political party. It is now his toy. For the moment, the economy is lumbering on with modest growth and a stable job market. The world has not presented Trump with a military or humanitarian crisis of a big enough to be made truly horrible by his ignorance and ineptitude. 

Donald Trump's presidency may coast to a soft landing, which will set up a very close election. In 2016, there were ten states decided by less than 4 percentage points. Donald Trump won six and Hillary Clinton won four. But more importantly Trump won the biggest states in this group, capturing 102 electoral votes to 21 for Hillary. Both parties will have multiple paths to 270 electoral votes.
The motivation of the Democratic base will be extremely high and that should be enough for them to win. But the Republican party will rally to their leader and they will run on the same spiteful promises and ugly nationalism that won the last election. It could be enough to win again. That is the political reality of the United States of America as we enter the next, even uglier phase of the Trump presidency.

Monday, April 9, 2018

What Comes Next Is Worse

Donald Trump has been president for 63 weeks.  He has been every bit as volatile and boorish as any reasonable person would have expected.  He is an embarrassment every time he appears on the world stage.  His cabinet has been beset with high turnover and a constant hum of scandal.  His policies are very unpopular and he has not demonstrated one ounce of growth into the job.

He also tamed almost all opposition to his policies within the Republican party. The Never Trump crowd gets a lot of cable news air time but they have had no effect on his agenda and they have not dented his polling among Republicans.  Establishment Republicans got their tax reform and a whole host of pesky regulations repealed.  The economic news has been somewhere between mediocre and promising, with unemployment falling slightly and the stock market doing well, at least until more recently. The Islamic State has lost most of its remaining territory and the United States has not been the victim of a major foreign terrorist attack.  

Donald Trump has assembled enough talking points to convince himself that he has the hang of being president.  He has begun to isolate any members of his inner circle who don't completely fall in line with agenda, (Rex Tillerson, David Shulkin and General McMaster.  He now has a cabinet made primarily of a fever-dream mix of sychophants and opportunists. 

Political epochs are divided by election results or massive world events, like the start of a war or the breakout of a plague. Donald Trump's presidency is about to enter its second phase.  The division may end up looking like it was caused by external events, but I suspect the real cause is this: Donald Trump thinks he's doing a good job as president and almost no one that he listens to will tell him otherwise.  I don't know exactly what this second phase will mean with any specificity, but we are about to find out just how bad of an idea it is to have an incompetent president with full-blown narcissism. 

I. Mueller.
I started writing this post yesterday.  I did not expect the Mueller investigation to get top billing. But today the home and office of Donald Trump's lawyer were raided under a search warrant looking into allegations of, among other things, bank fraud and violations of campaign finance laws. Donald Trump responded by holding a press gaggle in which he described the search as a "break-in" and the investigation as a "disgrace."  He is almost certainly contemplating firing Bob Mueller and I'm not sure who will be there to talk him out of it.

In light of today's events, I can't really handicap where the Mueller probe will go.  Yesterday I was going to write that it seems unlikely to me that Mueller will indict the president.  I still think the more likely outcome is a scathing report that points to obstruction of justice but that leaves it up to congress and the possibility of impeachment. But this search is a big deal and it may mean that Mueller has reason to believe the president and his lawyer committed crimes together.  If that's so, the rest of 2018 will be messy indeed.

II. Enter Bolton.
Six days ago, Donald Trump said “As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS.  We’ve completed that task and we’ll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we will do.” Then yesterday we got pretty firm evidence that Syria committed another chemical weapons attack against rebels.  And Today John Bolton reported for duty as National Security Adviser.

Bolton's hiring is the most significant personnel change of the Trump administration.  The one redeeming quality of candidate Donald Trump was that he pretended to have opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and as president he has repeatedly cited it as the cause of many of our problems in the region. (He's not wrong about that, although he's dishonest about having opposed the idea at the time.) Bolton was the most hawkish member of the circle that lead us into that blunder.  Bolton was considered for several important jobs during the transition but was passed over for all of them.  

But Bolton is a cheeky fucker.  For the past 15 months, he has stayed in contact with President Trump and he never misses an opportunity to stroke his ego. When Trump finally tired of McMaster's security briefings being too detailed, Bolton was in line for the job.  And now he has it.  So I don't think this pullout from Syria is going to happen.  The chemical attack raises the possibility of an immediate military response by the United States. Whatever options are being weighed, Bolton will be there arguing for the worst option.  You can bank on it.

III. The Road to 2020.
The one thing about politics that  Trump enjoys and excels at is running for president. He loves the adulation of the crowds and he's good at   He will run if there is breath in his lungs. These will be the main arguments of his campaign:

1. I made the country safer.
2. I made the country richer.
3. The Democrats will make you less safe.

Each point needs to be upheld by a handful of talking points.  On national security Trump will cite the decimation of ISIS. But he needs another national security win to make this happen.  I think his best chance of a political win here is to strike some kind of phony denuclearization deal with North Korea. Such a deal would involve North Korea pretending to dismantle their nuclear weapons program in exchange for the United States scaling back our military support of South Korea.  

That sounds radical but Trump has good reasons to make such a deal.  It's not like he gives a shit about the people of South Korea.  And he can "negotiate" a loose time frame for the reduction of North Korea's nuclear infrastructure.  As long as they're not actively testing missiles, Trump can claim a win.  (Bolton and other hard liners will not like this plan. If they out maneuver him, then Trump will have to do something bold with Iran.  I'm sure that will go well.

The economic argument will be based on whatever metrics he finds favorable.  He's a macro economics illiterate, so it really won't matter if those statistics are relevant.  He will be able to string together an argument that his tax cuts averted a disaster or something.  Latelly Trump has begun to get more serious about his stupid trade policies, which could do real damage to the American economy.  That will make things harder for him, but he is too stupid to realize this is true.

As for scaring the public aboIut the Democrats, that will come down to some combination of saying that they are weak on terrorism or soft on the borders.  And there is some political risk for Democrats on that last point.  It is very likely that the race for the Democratic nomination will feature one or more candidates who call for abolishing ICE and who will say unreasonable things about the border patrol in order to win that nomination. They will come back to haunt the candidate in the general election.

I will close with three semi long-term predictions.
1. Donald Trump will be a significant underdog to win the 2020 election.
2. Donald Trump will put up a good fight in that election and there will be one or more points during the election that a win by the incumbet will seem like a real possibility.
3. At some point in the next 30 months, we will have answer to the experiment in hiring a feckless, reckless imbecile as president.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

President Trump (Volume 3-of 3)

Donald Trump has been president for 18 days shy of one year. He has not changed a single smidgeon in that time. He is the same ill-tempered ignorant jackass that 46 percent of our electorate pushed into the White House after our last election.  He is human garbage.

I.  New Buisness: The first 348 days of President Trump.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed very possible that Donald Trump would get through his first year without a single legislative accomplishment.  But the Republican partby rallied to cram a large tax cut through during the last legislative day of 2017.  Somehow, the biggest win of Donald Trump's insurgent presidency was to codify another decade of Paul Ryanomics.  It is a dreadful bill and the consequences of it will be severe.  But like any good confidence game, it will take a while for the marks to realize how bad the deal was. In a week or two people will start seeing more in their paychecks, and that will fortify Trump's political position. 

The Republican party is the party of Donald Trump. Everyone of them has humiliated themselves to get in line behind this towering buffoon in order to appease the donor class with tax cuts and some deregulation. The political consequences of this will be tremendous, but they too will take time to be felt.  For the moment, I have to focus on what the President is doing to the United States.

Earlier this evening he sent a Tweet bragging that his nuclear arsenal is greater than North Korea's. Fifteen minutes later he announced his plans to offer awards for "Fake News" to the media outlets that have covered him critically. Earlier today he Tweeted that the "deep state Department of Justice" was unwilling to prosecute one of his political enemies.  And he tried to take credit for the fact that there were no fatal commercial plane crashes during 2017.  Yes, really.

The time for analysis and hand-wringing is over.  The President is a nutter and all citizens of good conscience will say so, publicly.  I do not know how the Mueller investigation will turn out, but I think the world at large has to hope that it ends with Donald Trump leaving the White House. But the more probably outcome is that we are stuck with him for another 3 years and 18 days. If during that time, you have the opportunity to resist this regime, do so.  You will never regret it.

II. Old Business: The State of My Predictions About Trump.

This is the last time I'm rehashing these predictions.  I'll let my record speak for itself.

1. "The Iran Deal will be torn up."
He deserves SOME credit for not rushing to do this. But he badmouths the deal at every turn and will probably blow it up when things get bad enough for him. For now, I'm happy to be wrong about this.

2.  "Antonin Scalia will be replaced by a conservative rather than Merrick Garland." I'm one for two.

3. "ISIS has a new propaganda talking point."  Yes, that's literally true but we have to give credit where credit is due: the Islamic State has lost a lot of territory in the past year. They don't have a functioning capital anymore and it's not clear how viable they are going forward.  I hope this progress continues but it's premature to say that ISIS won't be soon replaced by something even worse.

4.  "It is now the official policy of the United States government that Climate Change is a hoax perpetrated by China to disrupt American manufacturing. "

Two for four. The nice thing about this one is that the rest of the world is not putting up with our shit.  I hope the rest of the world picks up that slack, but we have to recognize that we won't be able to just saunter back on the world stage and expect to be the world's leading voice on this subject in 2021. 

5. "At some point next year the Congress will repeal Obamacare."  Six up and half a dozen down here.  Full repeal did not happen but the repeal of the individual mandate got slipped into the tax bill.  This will have two terrible consequences- a lot of people will lose coverage and Donald Trump will spin it all as a win.

6. "At some point next year the Congress will pass massive tax cuts and the overwhelming majority of these cuts will benefit very wealthy people."   I'm not really digging the ones I was right on.

7. "Immigration policy is about to become a lot less thoughtful."  This is incredibly true. Of course the Wall remains to be built, but Trump is chipping away at almost every type of immigration and publicly saying he intends to change even popular, formerly non controversial policies like allowing immigrants to sponsor relatives to come here later.  

8. "There will be a bunch of dumb protectionist policies put in place. "
He still doesn't know what a fucking trade deficit is.

9. "The implements of the federal government will be used to settle the president's political scores. " Of course.

10.   "The new school of political science thought will be personality based."  It seems likely that Trump ism will discredit such campaigns for awhile but we're a long way from the end of Trump style politics. If nothing else, it's a way to get ratings. 

III. New Business: What's Next for this Blog.

I only wrote three blog posts during all of 2017.  Two were about Donald Trump and one was about Better Call Saul. The first year of Trump was just too exhausting and hectic to find the time for pieces longer than a Tweet.  

But it's a new year and it's not too soon to start thinking about the end of this foul presidency. The midterm elections will be the big story but as soon as those are over, the 2020 election cycle will begin in earnest.   That election will be the focus of my writing in 2018. In my next post, I will lay out the unscientific probabilities of various outcomes in some detail.  For now, I will just say that I think Trump will run and will be the GOP nominee.  He could win another general election, but for the moment, I think he is more likely to lose. 

So I'll close with an endorsement. What I want in the next president is someone mature, intelligent and serious.  In fact, a boring president sounds awfully good now.  And yes, I want the next president to be a woman.  It is well past time and the best way to get over the fact that we decided to elect an admitted serial sexual offender.  So here is my thinly researched, semi-sentimental endorsement of my preferred 2020 candidate:  I want to vote for Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) because I think she is the person least likely to make we worry about a nuclear war starting from a Twitter beef.  On this night, that sound plenty good.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

President Trump (Volume 2)

I wrote Volume 1 of this series less than six weeks into the Trump administration. I was planning to write them roughly every three months. The main purpose of these posts was to be tracking predictions I made the night Donald Trump was elected. I have neglected writing them in part because while Donald Trump has a rare gift for making controversy, none of the events of the past ten months seemed to clearly delineate the end of the beginning of this presidential term.  Then yesterday happened.  Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted and we learned that George Papadopoulos had plead guilty to lying to the FBI about meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

It is no longer possible for Trump world to say with a straight face that there is no evidence of collusion.  There was collusion. It remains to be seen how significant that collusion in breadth and scope, but it happened. And now Trump must govern under the credible shadow of Bob Mueller for the foreseeable future.

I. New Business: The first 284 days of President Trump.

The bad news is that Donald Trump is bad at being president.  The good news is that Donald Trump is bad at being president.  The bad part is that almost a year into the job, he continues to embarrass his country and cheapen his office every time he speaks.  He fucked up a condolence call to a war widow. He danced with a sword in Saudi Arabia.  He welshed on a promise to pay $25,000 to a gold star dad, until the media shamed him int doing it. He referred to the governor of the Virgin Island as their president. He started a needless fight with NFL players and an ESPN broadcaster.  He is, in short, a feckless idiot.

And this stupidity manifests itself, more substantively in an inability to get much done in congress.  He has failed to repeal Obamacare. His tax reform ideas are laughably shallow and languishing before a tepid congress.  He hasn't passed anything difficult or meaningful, despite having control of both houses.

Which is not to say that he has not done damage.  His cabinet appointments have almost without exception proven to be inept. His secretary of state called him a fucking moron, while also compiling a reputation for his own incompetence as the head of our most important department of government. His ambassador to the United Nations seems hell bent on scuttling the Iran deal, which would mean that we would go back to having nuclear crises with 2/3 of the Axis of Evil.  Ben Carson can not be bothered to learn what his job is and we all have to wonder how Rick Perry's doing at learning what nuclear energy is.

And then there's his own White House staff.  Bannon and Priebus were both fired so the reigns could be turned over to John Kelly, whom the president insists on referring to as General Kelly.  Just 30 days ago it was still fashionable to think that Kelly was going to save us form this mess.  Since that time he has been trotted out to defend Trump for offending the widow of Sgt. Johnson during the condolence call. While doing so he smeared a member of congress. The falsity of his statements about her were established by video tape within hours.  A week later, he still refuses to apologize for his inaccurate statement.  Oh and he chalked up the Civil War to a "failure to compromise". It was unclear at press time how Mr. Kelly proposed the slaves should have compromised their way out of bondage.

The strongest impression that I get of Donald Trump is that he is a very lonely man.  He is obsessed with television and reportedly watches Fox News for hours at a time. He often tweets what Fox & Friends covers in the morning. At night he sometimes complains about television reporters and editorial boards. Now he has indictments to worry about.  I still think it's unlikely that the Russia scandal ends with him in handcuffs or even being removed from office.  But I see dark days ahead, because this lonely old man worries about things like that.  And worst of all, he knows exactly what he is guilty of.  That can't be comforting.

II.  Old Business: The State of My Predictions About Trump.

1. "The Iran Deal will be torn up."
Well, probably. He has taken the first steps towards this but his inner circle seem unwilling to blatantly lie about the fact that Iran is complying with their end of the deal.  As it stands, I believe he will back out of the deal.  Which means that our sanctions will go back in place but the European Union and Russia and China will not sanction Tehran at all.  So Iran will be free to pursue nuclear weapons, and do business with the rest of the world.  America would gain the theoretical ability to conduct military operations against Iran, which would result in a calamity roughly three times as big as what Iraq has been for the past 14 years.  Let's hope that Mattis and Tillerson continue to delay their boss from being completely reckless on this front.

2.  "Antonin Scalia will be replaced by a conservative rather than Merrick Garland."
Check.  And there are some real signs that Neil Gorsuch will be worse than Scalia on substance and form.  He is perhaps second only to Kelly in giving up the ghost about being a moderating influence on our politics.

3.  "ISIS has a new propaganda talking point."
Well, yeah, that's true.  But to be fair to the president, ISIS has lost a lot of territory this year.  In normal times that would be a big story.  But no one is paying attention to that because Trump keeps making side shows here at home. And because no one really thinks that the destruction of Islamic State will be the end of what westerners really care about: large acts of terror committed in Europe and North America.

4.  "It is now the official policy of the United States government that Climate Change is a hoax perpetrated by China to disrupt American manufacturing. "

Still true.

5. "At some point next year the Congress will repeal Obamacare."

I'm very glad to be wrong so far about this one. The next trick will be to convince Trump that it's good for his reputation to save Obamacare by fully funding the exchanges and the advertising for Obamacare plans.  The hardcore Trumpers like Bannon and Miller will hate that, but it might be something he could be Rumplestilkin'd into doing.

6. "At some point next year the Congress will pass massive tax cuts and the overwhelming majority of these cuts will benefit very wealthy people.:

This is a coin toss now.  Paul Ryan seems to be a dead-ender on this one and I think that a tax bill will get out of the house.  But I'm not sure the Senate will be able to pass anything along the lines of what is being proposed.  Trump needs this bill but he's spending his very limited political capital on Twitter feuds. Frankly if the Republicans don't bass tax cuts, I don't know what their game is even about.

7. "Immigration policy is about to become a lot less thoughtful."
This was the safest prediction I made, but even I didn't think they would be detaining 10 year old girls with cerebreal palsy.

8. "There will be a bunch of dumb protectionist policies put in place. "

Well he did withdraw from TPP, and he's always prattling on about trade deficits.  But it seems this issue was more symbolic than anything.  The biggest thing to watch for on this front next year is NAFTA.  Trump would be wise to get some marginal changes to the deal and claim that it's a huge, tremendous win for American factories.  But if things go bad for him elsewhere, he might decide to blow the whole thing up. And that will hurt the whole world.

9. "The implements of the federal government will be used to settle the president's political scores. "

Every damn day.

10. "The new school of political science thought will be personality based."
Meh. Sure.

III. New Business: What to Look For.

It is easy to fulminate on the spectacle that is Donald J. Trump living in the White House and flying on Air Force One and being saluted by colonels and green berets.  The ludicrous nature of these visuals is captivating.  The damage this spectacular narcissist will do is going to be hard to measure.  But there are at least some signs that institutions are holding the line, as best they can.  Yesterday's news was the best sign of that yet.  I do think the next nine months will be worse than the previous nine.  But maybe, just maybe, the senate and the courts and the man's own incompetence will make things less terrible than I feared they would be 51 weeks ago when this horrible man triple bank shot his way into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  

But if there is one thing to look for between now and the next time I get around to chronicling this b-list gangster movie of a government, it is this: the way that right-wing news outlets kowtow to their leader.  The Wall Street Journal editorial board yesterday proposed this modest solution: Trump should pardon everyone in his inner circle, including himself, of any and all crimes related to Russia, and then resume governing.  Maybe this is just the Wall Street Journal's fever dream about tax reform not passing.  But someone in that room should have said "Guys, you've just disavowed the rule of law. Do that and we can never be taken seriously again."

But no one said that and no one will say it on Fox or Breitbart, etc. But those people need in the #MAGAsphere on Twitter and every asshole uncle around the Thanksgiving dinner table in a few weeks needs to hear the truth: we are nothing without the rule of law. And it's the job of citizens to tell them. Every chance you get.

Monday, May 15, 2017

We're Not In Kansas Yet, Toto (Musings on Better Call Saul, Season 3)

The inherent problem of prequels is that the stakes are low.  We know the next chapter and how the story turns out for at least most of the main characters. The creators of Breaking Bad seemingly had an even greater challenge than say, George Lucas, in that Breaking Bad starts in the most ordinary of circumstances: a working stiff gets a bad medical diagnosis.  By the end of its brilliant run most of the best and most memorable characters are dead.

Saul Goodman does not die a physical death over the course of Breaking Bad, but we know that he disappears into mundane circumstances with a pronounced need to keep a low profile. The obvious idea was to give Saul an origin story of his own, by starting the story before Saul was Saul.

But no one wants to watch the story of how a man became the manager of a Cinnabon.  So Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould did something truly inspired: he built a universe for our hero that is equally balanced between the doomed cast of Breaking Band and characters who are not even mentioned in Breaking Bad.

The new characters are a brother, Chuck, played by Michael McKean and a love interest, Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seahorn.  I've been a fan of McKean since childhood, and he is as good in this part as he is Spinal Tap or the Christopher Guest movies.  Ms. Seahorn was unfamiliar to me before this series. But from the first episode, the audience is drawn to her. She's a striver in ways that nicely echo Jimmy's slightly shadier vocation as a hustler.  She is beautiful and she is smart. There is always a hint of some damage that she underplays. We don't know a lot about her biography except what gets dragged out of her on a job interview.  And that's where it gets interesting for this show's future.

I should mention at this point that a lot of my enjoyment of this series is heightened by the fact that I am a working lawyer.  The dialogue on this show captures the real way lawyers write and speak better than any police procedural or blockbuster based on a John Grisham novel.  They nail the details, even when the temptation is there to be splashy.  (See in particular the pedestrian cadence of the opening statements at Jimmy's disciplinary hearing in Episode 4.)

But the writing is marked by a much broader point of distinction.  This show is so good because it shows us in painful detail just how hard the characters work to create these problems for themselves. Mike doesn't just run afoul of Gus Fring.  He stays up half the night chewing on macadamia nuts waiting for Gus' underworld to show up in his driveway. And Chuck can not simply be happy for his brother or grateful for his compassion.  He goes to absurd lengths to get even, not because he hates Jimmy but because he put so much value on a petty point.

A wonderful plot device has framed each of three seasons so far. Each begins with a flash-forward in black and white to a taste of Jimmy/Saul/Gene's future at the mall in Nebraska. Filmed in flat black and white, we see our hero reduced to the status of a working schlub. He brings his lunch to work. His only pleasure to surreptitiously watch his old basic cable commercials on a beat up VCR with a homemade cocktail.  He lives in fear of the police and is cut off from his one true passion: defending people that just need someone to give a crap about their future.

Which gets us back to Kim.  On that job interview last season she is asked where she is from.  She replies that she is from a small town in Kansas, near the Nebraska state line.  In another episode she wears a Kansas City Royals t-shirt to bed with Jimmy.

It's about 90 miles from Omaha to the Kansas state line.  Vince and Peter could have made Kim be from anywhere in the world, but she's just a short drive away from Gene's shopping mall.  This is not an accident.

Before the start of season 2 and season 3 I tweeted out that I wanted the flash-forward to end with a knock on Gene's door and for Kim Wexler to be the one who knocks.  It may or may not happen exactly that way, but I do believe Gene is destined to meet Kim in the black and white plains of his drab future.  I like to think that this will be more than just a flash-forward.  I think, at some point, the story will shift to the present.  And like the Wizard of Oz in reverse, the screen will fade to color when Jimmy and Kim meet there.

As for Chuck, I don't expect him to make it out of Better Call Saul alive.  I think that last week Jimmy and Kim did a masterful job of raising doubt about Jimmy's real motivations when "confessing" to his brother.  I expect that Chuck, under the influence of Howard, will realize that Jimmy can do more damage to HHM then they can do to him.  I think they will work out a compromise where Jimmy keeps his law license but has to stop using the McGill name when practicing law.

Hence, the need to become Saul Goodman. And at some point he too will become ensnared in the world of Fring and the cartel.  We know how that ends for Saul.  But the real story to watch, the one to root for involves Gene and Kim and the promise of some kind of future.  Much depends on just how much damage Saul does to her reputation.  I expect it will be enough for her to have to leave town. But not enough for her to turn him away when he reappears in her life, older, balder and bedecked in the uniform of an Omaha Cinnabon.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

President Trump (Volume 1)

The most widely read entry in the modest history of this blog was written a few hours after Donald Trump was elected president.  In that post I made 10 predictions for what Trump's election would mean to America.  My intention is to update the status of my predictions from time to time and to write about the general status of the Trump presidency.  Thirty eight days in, this is where we stand.

I.  New Business; The first 38 Days of President Trump.

1.  The man's brain is addled.  I never thought he was especially smart,but the feeble nature of his mental process and communication style is staggering. I first noticed this while listening to the inaugural address in my car.  He obviously used professional speechwriters for the address but just couldn't help adding personal flourishes like this one:

     "an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful 
      students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that 
      have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized 

Well that is pretty dark. But can you spot the Trump flourishes?  I'm pretty sure he added "beautiful" to the description of students.  And the phrase "deprived of all knowledge" is really asinine. I just looked at the official transcript ant the word "all" is not there, which means he ad libbed that perfectly pointless adjective.

Every public utterance by him is made in the goofy syntax of a middle school child or a recovering stroke patient.  Whenever he is asked a substantive question, he wings it and betrays a lack of knowledge on whatever the issue is at hand.  He has demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge with regard to Frederick Douglass, The Two State Solution, and the practicality of repealing and replacing Obamacare.  I can't say that his brain has been deprived of all knowledge, but his capacity to think and speak seems to have diminished much more than in a typical man his age.

2.  His management style is chaos. Every administration struggles to get their arms around the enormity of the American presidency. Team Trump is further handicapped by an unwillingness to let holdovers stay in important positions and an understandable refusal of many competent Repbulicans to be affiliated with the coming train wreck that this presidency is likely to become.  There are hundreds of important jobs now vacant that he has not even nominated a successor. And the horrible execution of his immigration executive order is only the most public display of the disorganized shambles that this administration is.

3. His self-obsession and self-dealing are even greater than imagined.  We're about to start the sixth week of his presidency and he still brags about winning a very narrow election as if it was the greatest accomplishment in human history. Even more troubling, he has no regard for the appearance of personal impropriety. He will never disgorge his financial conflicts and he obviously believes that there is no need to be subtle about this practice. He doubled the fees to join his country club, and now spends almost every weekend promoting the place in person. His hotels are profiting from foreign governments and he even landed a very valuable trademark for himself in China. This scam is the essential fact of Trump's presidency: his aim is to finally become the multi-billionaire that he always lied about being.

4.  Congressional Republicans still think they can squeeze a conventional Republican agenda out of this shit show.  The stock market is performing very well.  Wall Street is still optimistic that the GOP will get major tax cuts and substantial reduction of economic regulations. It's very possible that they will, if Trump does not interfere with the process too much. He won't care about blowing a hole in the deficit, because he will declare any such predictions to be fake news.  So the GOP can load up on tax cuts for the rich as long as the middle class also see some relief.  This sugar rush will probably provide some additional growth this year and the job market might remain strong for the next 18 months or so. If that happens, the midterms will be less disastrous for Republicans than they probably fear now.

5.  He is ruthless.  His comments about the press and his obfuscations related to the Russian interference with his election are chilling.  He obviously intends to obstruct any investigations of his election and to punish anyone who leaks unfavorable information to the media.  He seems to believe that the media make an effective enemy for him and his plan to be re-elected is predicated on discrediting the very people tasked with exposing his corruption.

II.  Old Business: The State of My Predictions About Trump

1.  "The Iran Deal will be torn up."
He has been a bit reticent on this front.  He still bad mouths the deal but he has not acted to unilaterally end the agreement.  Some of this is due to his administration being bogged down in other fights but I think the greater measure of it can be attributed to the fact that the deal is good for America. The alternative is an Iran that is free to pursue nuclear weapons technology without any real threat of UN sanctions being imposed  I will be very happy to be wrong about this prediction, but I will say that he is keeping the option open. If he needs a big, scary enemy for target practice, Iran may be his best option.  Put this in the maybe column for now.

2.  "Antonin Scalia will be replaced by a conservative rather than by the extremely centrist Merrick Garland."

That nominee is in place and will get his hearing soon. The Democrats will face a lot of pressure to oppose him but they probably can't stop him from being sworn in. By the time I write Volume 2 of this series, he will be on the bench.

3.  ISIS has a new propaganda talking point.

Well, this I undersold.  Our national reputation has been severely damaged and we are beginning to pay an economic price for that. Travel to the United States has declined and the decline in searches for airfares to the United States have declined even further.  Most heartbreaking, we recently had a hate crime murder in Olathe, Kansas. Two Indian nationals were killed by an nationalist terrorist, one fatally.  There has also been an uptick in desecration of mosques and synagogues. I really hope that these are isolated incidents, but it does feel like the crazies have been emboldened by having a virulent nationalist in the Oval Office. This will have consequences. We are an embarrassment and the world is keeping its distance.

4. It is now the official policy of the United States government that Climate Change is a hoax perpetrated by China to disrupt American manufacturing. 

Still true. And I wrote that before Trump picked the CEO of Exxon to be the Secretary of State. 

5. At some point next year the Congress will repeal Obamacare.

This one has been the most interesting development.  For six year, vowing to repeal Obamacare was page one of the Republican catechism and Republicans delighted in voting to do so dozens of times. But now that they could actually pass a bill that their president would sign, those same members of congress have lost the appetite.  They clearly fear a backlash for getting rid of Obamacare benefits like the expansion of medicaid and mandatory coverage of people with pre-existing conditions.  But Obamacare is paid for with taxes on some very rich people and Paul Ryan believes that repealing those taxes is the most important thing he can do as speaker. 

I think the Republicans willl move more slowly on this front than I first anticipated. They will probably spend a good chunk of this year gutting the program but they are definitely gun shy about facing voters in a midterm who just lost their benefits.  I expect the final litigation package won't be voted on until 2018 and there will be some substantial delays in the expiration of the most popular benefits. If the Republican dodge catasrophe in the midterms, they will come back to gut more of the law in 2019.

6. At some point next year the Congress will pass massive tax cuts and the overwhelming majority of these cuts will benefit very wealthy people.

This will get done.

7. Immigration policy is about to become a lot less thoughtful. 


8. There will be a bunch of dumb protectionist policies put in place. 

Trump is even worse on free trade than I expected him to be. He seems to believe that the United States should only make bilateral trade agreements rather than regional or global deals. TPP is dead and China will soon fill that vacuum. Instead of trade among nations on the Pacific being regulated by the values of neoliberalism, they will be governed by the whims of waterdowned one-party state pseudo-capitalism. That's terrible news.

One insane little nugget beginning to make the rounds is that Trump wants any trade deals to contain a provision that the United States can automatically back out of the deal if we run a trade deficit with the other country. That's the economic equivalent of a prenuptial agreement that triggers an automatic divorce should one spouse have more orgasms than the other.

9. The implements of the federal government will be used to settle the president's political scores.

We're seeing this mostly in the arena of press access, but believe me this will spread to lots of other places.

10. The new school of political science thought will be personality based

A little too early to tell on that one. I do think that someone will run on the Trump model in the democratic primaries. Mark Cuban is the most likely choice.  But if I am encouraged by anything it is the breadth of negative reaction to Trump's style.  Even some Fox news types are turned off by Trump's habit of making everything about himself.  I think the next president is likely to be a profound reaction to Trump's personality. So I would look for someone sober and unassuming, even modest, to be his toughest challenger.

III.  New Business: What to Look For.

Before too long, the government will begin passing substantial legislation on things like taxes and healthcare.  There might be a period of relative normalcy as the shock of having a deranged president wears off. But Trump can not help himself in certain arenas.  He will fight the press and he will insult his critics at every turn.  The leaks will probably continue because people in positions of authority know that their president is not trustworthy. I think the financial conflicts of interest are the area most likely to birth a full blown and sustained political scandal.

I also think Trump's penchant for secrecy is going to do him real damage. He can't keep doing these press conferences where he sounds like a crazy person by denying things that are absolutely true.

IV.  The End.

Liberals have been energized by this administration. Yesterday, this mobilization of political goodwill paid its first dividends in Delaware, where a special election was held for a senate seat that determined which party controlled that chamber.  The Democrat won by 17 points. buoyed in part by volunteers from neighboring states.

This enthusiasm should not be mistaken for a sign that Trump's presidency is doomed. A lot of liberals on Twitter seem to think that impeachment is imminent. It is not. Both house of congress are Republican and vast majorities of the people who voted for him think he's doing a fine job. So far he hasn't done anything that will hurt those supporters too much. But he also hasn't done anything to win over a single person that voted for Hillary or a third party candidate.

Trump probably needs to win the same states he won last time to be re-elected. He probably needs dramatic economic improvements to hold on to states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Maybe his tax cuts will stimulate enough activity to make that happen, but I still think Trump will be an underdog to win re-election.

V.  2020 Foresight.

Well, I guess these periodic updates on Trumpland will need a hook.  So I will conclude with a forecast for how I think this term of the presidency is likely to end.

Resignation:                                                                  1%*
Death or Incapacity                                                       2% (Not to be morbid, but it happens.)
Impeachment                                                                 3%
Completes Term, Gets Re-elected                               21%
Completes Term, loses to Democrat                           58%
Completes Term, loses nomination                            10%
Completes Term but does not run for 2nd term            5%

*Asterisk for the possibility of resigning in order to avoid imminent impeachment. that could happen, but he would never voluntarily give up this kind of power.)
Trump im

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

President-Elect Trump

Well, I was wrong and I was wrong loud. I'm the Dick Morris of 2016.

The best analysis requires the best data, and it will be weeks before we have that. Right now it looks like not enough Clinton voters turned out to match a groundswell of support for Trump in the corridor across the Great Lakes.  I expected her to lose Ohio but Trump winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are going to prove to be enough to win the presidency. When all the votes have been counted, Trump will have lost the popular vote by about one million ballots.  Right now, Trump appears to have won Wisconsin with right about the same number of votes that Romney got four years ago. But Hillary Clinton is about 250,000 votes behind what Obama got then. Donald Trump seems to have also won Michigan and Pennsylvania with right about the same vote totals that Romney got. It's early, but it looks like Clinton failed to get her voters out in those three states and that's why we will have a Trump presidency.

We will have time to figure out who didn't turn up and why. But the most important thing to start thinking about are the consequences of this election. They are real and some of them are immediate. I'm sure I will think of more as the days go by,

Ten Things That a Trump Presidency Means for America and the World.

1. The Iran Deal will be torn up. Iran will be allowed to resume its nuclear program and the west will have no access to inspect those facilities. At some point Trump may use this as an excuse to make war, but not right away.

2. Antonin Scalia will be replaced by a conservative rather than by the extremely centrist Merrick Garland. I don't think Trump cares much about the Supreme Court and I'm sure he will be told that fear of a moderate court is what inspired a lot of people who did not like him to vote for him. I think he will give those people a candidate they agree with. He or she will just have to kiss a lot of ass in the screening interview.

3. ISIS has a new propaganda talking point. The Crusaders just elected a man who doesn't even want to allow Muslims in to his country. We will find out if having a president say the magic words "Radical Islamic Terrorism" causes ISIS and like minded groups to wilt.  Call me skeptical for now.

4. It is now the official policy of the United States government that Climate Change is a hoax perpetrated by China to disrupt American manufacturing.  The Paris Accords will be moot and we're going to see a whole bunch of environmental regulations ripped up.

5. At some point next year the Congress will repeal Obamacare. The Democrats will fight to save some of the most important protections, and they will probably succeed in saving a few things. The GOP will agree to some watered down continuation of the requirement to cover people with preexisting conditions. But the subsidies and the individual mandate will be gone. The fight will be over whether states can keep the Medicaid expansion. I think the Republicans will be afraid to take this away, but I'm sure they will dilute it.

6. At some point next year the Congress will pass massive tax cuts and the overwhelming majority of these cuts will benefit very wealthy people. Those coal miners won't have to worry about pesky safety regulations restricting their work condition but at least the Estate Tax will be abolished for them.

7. Immigration policy is about to become a lot less thoughtful. Trump has to come through on some version of building a wall and deporting lots of people. Spoiler alert: Mexico will not pay for the wall but there will be very real pain felt by young Americans who were brought here by undocumented parents. The GOP establishment will try to blunt this, but Trump does not owe them much.  This is going to be ugly.   And we're going to stop taking refugees from Syria. We will contribute to the horrible humanitarian crisis there rather than helping it.

8. There will be a bunch of dumb protectionist policies put in place. Trump will pass some symbolic law that punishes companies for moving jobs overseas and he'll create a new tax shelter that allows those companies to move money back to the United States without paying taxes on it.  This won't affect many people in the real world, but he has to have something to point to when people ask him what he did about all the countries he claims are "stealing" from us because we run trade deficits with them.

9. The implements of the federal government will be used to settle the president's political scores. He will try to pass some slapdash attempt to make our libel laws more like those of Britain. He will grant access only to favorable media outlets and he will use the bully pulpit to get into insult contests with figures great and small.

10. The new school of political science thought will be personality based. They will say that W., Obama and Trump were all charismatic figures who defeated candidates that were less likable and more bland in the alternative. Someone or other will run for the Democratic nomination in the style of Donald Trump. Mark Cuban comes to mind. Maybe Michael Moore will run too. We will never expect candidates to disclose their tax returns or delineate complex policy proposals again.

Unless, of course, this presidency is a disaster. It's entirely possible, and I would say likely that the idea of electing a man bereft of experience and lacking a single idea more serious than "Make America Great Again" will be discredited in short order.  We'll know by the midterm elections if not sooner. I suspect Trump will get the typical honeymoon and score some early successes on easy stuff next year. Americans won't really form a lasting opinion of him until he responds to a significant crisis. That will come sometime during 2017.

The American people were asked to choose between a career politician with some sketchy advisors and a propensity for secrecy and an ignorant, semi-literate rage monster with the temperament of a four  year old and the knowledge base of a high school sophomore of middling intelligence. The choice our electoral system made between them disheartens me as an American citizen, but I know the hurt is so much worse for people who are Muslim, Latino, recent immigrants or have been the victim of a sexual assault. It looks for the moment that there are more people afraid of what a changing world meant to their own future than were concerned about the well-being of such marginalized groups. We overlooked so many warning signs and  condoned some genuinely horrific behavior yesterday. This is not a pretty day in our history. And we have voted for worse yet things to come.