The Silver Lining in Charlottesville

Good news: as of this writing, Trump’s concern for the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson being removed or vandalized from parks in the U.S. has been averted; that is, as long as we ignore the droppings of resident pigeons.  More good news: the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits “abridging the freedom of speech,” is doing its job.  Yes, it’s ugly and even scary to observe what some of our fellow Americans believe they should say or do in expressing themselves, but that is part and parcel—the risk and cost—of an essential element of freedom in America. Unfortunately, some folks missed the lesson that having a right does not make whatever one wants to say or do also right.  The wannabe Nazis, KKK, and other cretin white supremacists in Charlottesville provided a disgusting and jarring spectacle that offends the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Americans, none more than a generation of Americans who risked their lives to defeat Hitler, or carried the heavy burden of bringing civil rights to a country that to this day struggles with the simple notion of fairness and equality.  When the images of Charlottesville spread, which seemed like a colorized newsreel from the early 1960s, it felt like more than a half-century of progress in America suddenly dissolved.

In the aftermath, however, what is clear is that these events revealed more than they actually dissolved.  As Michelle Obama said at the Democratic Convention in 2012, “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”  And, the First Amendment has enabled our president to reveal, once again, that we made a terrible mistake in allowing his ascent to an office once held by Washington and Jefferson.  Any remaining questions regarding Trump’s fitness to hold the office—at least among reasonable and moral Americans—were settled this week.  He must go.  Those who marched in Charlottesville waving Nazi flags and chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” must be similarly shamed, shunned, and hopefully rehabilitated.  Being scared or fearful of them is unacceptable.  They are the ones who are afraid; behind the veneer of hate lurks weakness and cowardice.  The true patriots are those who marched against them; those who understand that fear has no place in the heart of a patriot.

This chapter in American history will, I hope, be over soon.  Those rights of freedom we hold so dear will have, once again, allowed the country to move forward to assure that we all, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or origin, are deserving of admiration and respect.

By |2017-09-05T22:13:59+00:00August 18th, 2017|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Democrats, It’s Time to Wise Up

As we move into the second half of Donald Trump’s first year as president, the lists of unprecedented things—from Trump’s seemingly limitless lies, to the tally of bizarre actions by his cabinet members, to the volume of leaks from the White House that appear to require the tensile strength of a fire hose—the greater and more curious development may be the Democratic Party’s abject failure to seize the moment and bring anti-Trump energy to bear on consolidating power.  Not since anti-Viet Nam War movement and Watergate in the late 1960s and early 1970s have so many Americans been apoplectic about our national leadership.  And yet, the Democrats, Progressives, Liberals, Berniecrats, or whatever name is claimed, seem bereft of a compelling plan to exploit the craziness that has metastasized throughout the lymphatic system of the Republican Party.

Earlier this month the Democrats, led by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, attempted to brand a new plan with the slogan “A Better Deal.”  The announcement was so lame—so painfully weak and inauthentic—it reminded me of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ fateful 1988 ride on top of a tank wearing a helmet meant for a much larger man.  Further, it mirrors Trump’s transactional disposition in an attempt to suggest the Democrats can out-Trump Trump.  The ultimate irony may be that the Democrats need look no further than the Republicans to learn how to win; yet they are so addled by their inability to look beyond narrow self-interest in favor of a big inclusive narrative, so reluctant to work within the political system to harness its power, and so intoxicated by years of throwing back shots of nihilism that they may squander this generational opportunity Trump has so assiduously delivered.

The lack of a tight, compelling, and over-arching narrative that provides a large tent to attract enough people to truly affect change is the first and probably the most egregious failure of the Democratic Party today.  Democrats are adept at listing all the things they want, but weirdly deficient in their capacity to articulate those needs within a belief system—a narrative based in why (as opposed to what, how, where, and who).[1]  Their many attempts to bring like-minded people together often quickly devolve into a resource competition between particular interest groups concerned with economic inequality, healthcare, environment, immigration, women’s rights, etc. The Republicans on the other hand have, for decades now, wrapped themselves in ideas and beliefs rather than dialing too far down into the detail of policy until, of course, they assemble enough power to implement change.  This strategic disposition has served the Republicans very well: they control the majority of state houses throughout the country, and all three branches of our Federal government.  Their narrative has the American flag as its central symbol—they own patriotism even while many of them barely qualify as more than lapel-pin patriots.  They speak of beliefs, not wants or desires; of a limited role for government, of fundamental values that emanate from the Constitution (and the Bible), of a country that sets the example for the world as opposed to the Democrats who compile lists of grievances in search of “a better deal.”

This Democratic penchant for issues rather than ideas is deeply ingrained in the DNA of the Party and on display recently by one of their standard bearers, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, at the meeting of Netroots Nation progressives in Atlanta on August 12th.  She ticked off her list of popular progressive issues then struggled (and failed) to place them within an inclusive over-arching narrative, or vision, astonishingly borrowing Trump’s tired trope that “the system is rigged!” as her preferred punch line.  She railed against a common target of Democrats—the evil of corporate power—even while a more abhorrent evil, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, were marching and killing in Charlottesville, Virginia.  She managed to touch every special interest in the room while fundamentally failing to provide them with a reason to come together under a transcendent value system that might unite them in something more than hating Trump, power, and wealth.  She may have improved her own political prospects for 2020, but she did nothing to move the Party onto stronger footing.  She and Senator Schumer are squandering the opportunity provided by Trump.

The second strategic failure of the Democrats has also reached legacy status: the propensity to fight a system from the outside rather than penetrating it and accessing its power to achieve transformative objectives.  Michael Tomasky, columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of Democracy: a Journal of Ideas summarized this condition best recently in The New York Times where he argued,

One key difference between the right and the left in this country has been that the right has worked an inside game while the left has mostly remained outside the system.  That’s how it has been since the late 1950s, when the modern conservative movement was first organizing itself and its leaders made the conscious decision to work within the Republican Party.  The Republicans of that time were full of centrists and liberals.  It wasn’t a club die-hard conservatives wanted to join, but they did.  They decided rather than fight the power, they wanted to become the power.  And, of course, they have.

Meanwhile, Democrats are not only unsure of what to call themselves today, they easily succumb to the simplicity of factions—of self-identifying with what they want in the moment rather than a larger ideal—unable and often unwilling to find common ground within their own party, by and between their many myopic, and frankly selfish, leaders.  This is exacerbated by another anti-system sentiment that perpetually keeps power beyond their grasp: low voter turnout among 18-44 year-olds.  This modality is highly unlikely to provide a path to power within a system that will endure well beyond the life of their current concerns and desires.

The third strategic impediment to the success of the Democratic Party is its penchant for nihilism.  While the Republicans proudly espouse an exemplar strain of exceptionalism—that America is the chosen land for people who themselves have been chosen to lead the world to a better place—the Democrats tend to wallow in a nihilistic broth of self-pity.  Jimmy Carter became (in)famous for his “national malaise” jeremiads, and was subsequently easily defeated by the sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” that offered Americans absolution from the sins that concerned Carter.  Occupy Wall Street may have been the movement that established the residency of this condition in the modern Democratic Party.  Begun as a leaderless movement with no particular objective other than raising awareness of economic inequality and revealing that Wall Street is governed by (surprise!) greed, their followers accomplished nothing in terms of change but painted the Party as a home for downtrodden Millennials who believe they have no chance of success in a game that is—wait for it, of course—rigged!  Perhaps this is a revelation for some, but people are not generally attracted to negativity and cynicism.  Rather, people want to be associated with winning teams; they want to be for something—proponents—rather than against everything—opponents.  It’s much more fun to have the ball and play offense than it is to look at others playing with the ball and hoping someday to join in the fun.  Republicans understand this, while Democrats, to their great peril, find bewildering comfort in whipping themselves with the repudiation that accompanies failure.

The nearly six thousand Indivisible groups around the country, representing the new progressive core of the Democratic Party, took their initial organizing framework from the playbook of the Tea Party.  That proved to be a wise adaptation from a group that has become a stronghold within the Republican Party.  Democrats, Progressives, Liberals, and Berniecrats would do well to revisit other strategic aspects of Republican success to capitalize on what Trump hath wrought for the GOP.  Tactics follow strategy, not the other way around.  Ignoring these lessons may produce the unthinkable: Trump’s second inauguration.

[1] For more on this type of narrative building, see my essays in the “American Identity” collection at https://ameritecture.com/category/american-identity/.
By |2017-08-18T15:13:56+00:00August 15th, 2017|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

A Stoic’s Guide to Surviving Trump

Regardless of your political affiliation, it is difficult to observe the chaos in the White House without grave concern for the presidency and the country. Our smartphones flash and vibrate with each new ejaculated Trump tweet that emanates from the alternate reality he has created, which defies both logic and basis in objective fact.  Like all presidencies, the modus operandi of the administration reflects the president’s persona, which in Trump’s case is utterly valueless and prefers deceit and diversion to maximize distraction as a veil for incompetence and avarice.  A mayhem maniac who could explode at any moment has succeeded no-drama Obama; Trump’s wick seems always lit.  However, like the presidents who preceded him, Trump too shall pass. America and the world will survive as long as those of us with a conscience and reasoned intellectual vigor stand and resist this deviant.  And, to survive Trump, ancient philosophers—particularly the Stoics—offer valuable practices founded in the following eight disciplines.

1.     See things as they are and question the givens, starting with the realization that—fundamentally—the United States and the world are in the best shape ever.  All presidents occasionally lie and all, at one time or another, promote fear to consolidate their power.  Trump has, however, excelled among his predecessors in combining deceit with fear, making it the dominant modality of his presidency.  The truth, however, is that the world and the country have never been wealthier, healthier, or more safe.  As historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, for the first time in the history of humankind famine, plague, and war are no longer meta-threats in the global system.

More people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.  In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola, or an al-Qaeda attack.[1]

Furthermore, to debunk one of Trump’s favorite claims, non-immigrant American citizens are incarcerated at twice the rate of documented immigrants, and three times the rate of undocumented immigrants.  In science and engineering, immigrants far excel non-immigrants in educational achievement.  If piety is your metric, immigrants claim religion at a rate 18% higher than non-immigrants and start businesses at twice the rate on non-immigrants.[2]  Hardly the drug-dealers, rapists, and terrorists Trump continues to warn us about.  Do we have problems?,  absolutely, but upon close examination we find that we do not have capacity or capability problems today, as we have throughout history, we have distribution problems that can be affected through mustering political will to deploy policies of sustainable redistribution.  A stoic always pauses to check and crosscheck claims (especially of politicians) to assure truth is the basis of every interpretation and every decision.

2.     Be fatalistic about the past and optimistic about the future.  A stoic maintains a vigilant focus on the future, while accepting the past as it is.  Stewing about the past, as Trump continues to do over losing the popular vote, the pitiful turnout at his inauguration, and his continuing penchant for blaming all things on Obama, debilitates him and his capacity to succeed in the future. Trump is also addicted to fame and fortune, which stoics view with contempt as they threaten the attainment of tranquility.  Stoics do not fall into these traps.  Furthermore, stoics maintain that if one pursues a virtuous life, consistent with the constraints of nature, tranquility is assured.  I will add to this stoic discipline the aim of transcendence—particularly in politics—that compels one to rise above partisanship and serve the masters of truth and nature above the pettiness of partisan rancor.  Transcendence requires a sense of selflessness and the dismissal of popular anxieties promoted by pundits and politicians who are more interested in self-aggrandizement than in improving the welfare of their fellow citizens.

3.     Visualize the worst outcomes to allow healthy management of expectations and to understand the circumstances and pathways that enable unwanted outcomes in order to prevent or minimize their realization.  Stoics refer to this discipline as negative visualization. Ask the question, what is the worst that can happen?  Experience, albeit prospectively, all the consequences—physical, financial, emotional, etc.—of a loss.  This discipline allows one to reconsider and recalibrate expectations in a manner that may be more aligned with reality since, as humans, we tend to over-expect our successes and under-estimate weaknesses and threats, not to mention the impact of unknown variables.  Proper negative visualization also paints a picture of those pathways that lead to failure or loss, which allows the stoic to identify early warning indicators and disrupt any advance toward undesirable outcomes.

4.     Attack your own thinking with an opposable mind to understand your vulnerabilities and to anticipate your opponents’ responses.  I am fairly certain this is a discipline that is impossible for Trump to grasp; there is no evidence that he considers his vulnerabilities or looks beyond his first glandular reflex.  Further, his bullying nature virtually assures he has no one near him with the confidence to assist him with an opposable mind, let alone question his thinking.  This is his (unwitting) recipe for disaster as president.  The stoic, on the other hand, can argue all points of view to not only assure her own clear and comprehensive thinking, but to understand the arguments, strategies and tactics that might be waged against her.  This is what I also refer to as whole-minded thinking: employing all parts of the brain in all directions and from all perspectives.

5.     Expend energy and resources on the few things (less than 20%) that matter—the key result areas—that assure success and contribute to a state of invincibility.  Identifying the 20% is accomplished by first identifying those things which qualify as key result areas.  Key result areas are those objectives that, once accomplished, also mitigate other concerns or achieve other objectives; the proverbial “two birds with one stone” actions.  Once you know the key result areas, you must also ask if those involved (a person, organization, company, etc.) respond to intelligence; that is to say, will it or they behave in a responsible manner?  If it/they don’t, you are wasting your time; don’t beat your head against a wall—pursue your objectives through other avenues or organizations.  Although empathy is essential to our humanity, one must also have the courage to discard and isolate those with nefarious or misguided aims.  In my life, I often credit this stoic discipline as a key element in my own success and well-being.  In the Trump era, this means targeting those objectives that are more local and provide measureable impacts on your community (however you define that realm).

6.     Practice solitude and meditate to create a sense of tranquility and solemn determination.  Quiet time is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.  As the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote, “We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.”[3]  Solitude allows, among other things, the capacity to process the world in the whole minded fashion (suggested in discipline #4, above), providing the conscience and sub-conscience to reconcile the world (and one’s place in it).  The stoic, Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD), viewed meditation and solitude as a daily exercise where one sits quietly and alone to, in effect, de-brief one’s self about one’s day.  What was accomplished? What was lost?  And, most importantly, what was learned?  Whether you meditate in a ritualistic fashion consistent with Eastern religions, or simply take a long walk while thinking deeply about yourself in your world, you must dedicate yourself to some alone-time in order to not only make the best decisions, but to know yourself completely and honestly.

7.     Commit to a duty of service based in humility.  The ultimate aim of stoics—virtue and tranquility—can only be achieved by those who are engaged in their community with the aim of leaving things better than the way they found them. Mahatma Gandhi is credited (after substantial paraphrasing) with the prescription “Be the change you want to see in the world,” which is a clear call to this form of exemplary service.  America’s historical proclamations of self-reliance and self-directed lives provide a fanciful myth, but the reality today is an America (and world) that is much more interdependent than the American frontier romanticized by Frederic Jackson Turner in his The Significance of the Frontier in American History.  This binding of one’s self to one’s community is what Marcus Aurelius described as contributing to “the service and harmony of all.”  Trump’s “America First” treatise completely ignores this stoic discipline and his behaviors are hardly aligned with any sense of humility.  It is, therefore, now more than ever, essential that we each accept our role in service to others, looking for no greater reward than the welfare of our neighbors and the betterment of our communities.

8.     Avoid anger at all costs to drain the power of your adversaries.  Stoic philosophy’s most closely held commitment is to rationality, which further requires that we remain mindful of “what is and what is not in our power.”[4]  What is always in our power—regardless of the causes or effects of any events—is how we react to any particular occurrence or outcome.  Angry reactions almost always have the same effect: to empower the offender at the expense of the offended.  Trump is experiencing this lesson in the hardest way possible.  (I suggest “experiencing” because there is no evidence thus far of learning.)  Lashing out, whether via tweet or verbal bullying is draining his credibility and legitimacy as president.  Watch as bureaucrats, members of Congress, the media, and foreign leaders increasingly dismiss his angry outbursts.  More so than at the beginning of his presidency, he now is ignored and dismissed by his targets both near and far.  His anger has made him increasingly irrelevant.  In effect, he has transferred his power to the targets of his anger much in the same way we do if we react angrily to those who attempt to degrade us.  Dismissing offensive behavior with indifference retains power in the hands of the offended; it takes the weapon out of the offender’s hands reducing them to be strangled by their own insolence.  And, it maintains our processing of such events within the realm of the rational and away from disabling discountenance.

Notwithstanding Trump’s very temporary role as an American president, and his behaviors and decisions that defy his duty to serve our great country, the United States and the world are doing very well if one simply observes the facts.  Employing stoic disciplines can defeat Trump’s behaviors and practices.  We must be diligent, patient, cool-headed, and most of all engaged in our communities, country, and world to assure our triumph over this roguish fool.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), p.2.
[2] See Bret Stephens, “Only Mass Deportation Can Save America,” The New York Times, June 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/opinion/only-mass-deportation-can-save-america.html?_r=0.
[3] Montaigne in Anthony Storr, Solitude: a Return to the Self (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p.16.
[4]Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p.174.
By |2017-07-22T13:01:48+00:00June 30th, 2017|Donald Trump, Leadership|0 Comments

The Great Regression

The Trump presidency has cast a disorienting pall over America and the world. His daily dishing of stupefactions—each seemingly more stunning than the last—manage to exceed the most brazen expectations of presidential misbehavior while his Republican cohorts in Washington, who have yet to realize he is sinking their ship with the ham-fisted skills of the captain of the Titanic, stand grinning like toddlers who have just filled their diapers. Meanwhile, foreign leaders look on with growing dismay, as the world’s lone superpower appears hell-bent on self-destruction like a heroin-addict with a full spoon and a loaded .45.  As Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone political writer tasked with explaining this clown show to rocker Millennials and graying Boomers wrote:

Welcome to the Trump era, the flushing-toilet-bowl stage of America’s history, where every move any of us makes is part of a great swirling synergy sucking us with ever-greater alacrity down the hole of failure and destruction.  Good news, bad news, it all heads in the same direction soon enough, after a spin or two around the bowl.[1]

Taibbi’s fecal flushing metaphor aside, America is nowhere near the collapse so many citizens and allies fear, or that fertilizes the flowerbeds of President Putin’s fantasies.  Collapse is no more certain than Trump growing a conscience, or a pair of manly stones suddenly appearing nestled in the Worsted groins of Congressman Ryan and Senator McConnell.

To be clear, there does exist an epic arm-wrestle over the future identity of America and, as president, Trump does occupy the best seat to affect the outcome, but with each forthcoming blunder—each boisterously larger than the last—Americans are awakening to the reality first suggested in 1811 by French philosopher, Joseph de Maistre, that we “get the government we deserve.”  Trump’s “America First” theme that aims to codify his “taking America back” to highly romanticized bygone days of greatness—when bobby-socks, Brylcreem, and Budweiser were markers of a much whiter and more Christian portrait of power—will (hopefully) be characterized by historians someday as the last gasp of a Waspy and clumsy America that fell victim to the intoxicating arrogance that plagues all aging empires.  This crisis, which follows in a timely eighty-year cadence after the first three crises: the American Revolution, Civil War & Reconstruction, Great Depression & World War II, will be labeled, in Trump’s (dis)honor: the Great Regression.

The accomplishments the Trump administration claims in its first one-hundred days will likely be re-classified  by historians under the more appropriate header of “damage report.”[2]   There is virtually no corner of American progress that Trump has left unscathed, to the glee of those who feel 1968 was a better year than 2018 could ever be. The cornerstones of his regressive movement attempt to kickstart dirty industries, dumb-down American education, embolden white-male supremacy, and hoodwink Americans into thinking the world is flat and profoundly dangerous, all while his family shoves millions of dollars in their pockets.  He will definitely leave his mark, which will either fix the beginning of the end of the American empire, or demarcate the call to action that propelled America forward to rid itself of Trump’s dystopic dimwittedness and re-claim its destiny as a steward of global progress.

This alternative American identity—the narrative of global stewardship—contemplates an America whose power is gained not coercively, but referentially by empowering people throughout both America and the world.  This is not a fearful America, nor is it bounded by bigger walls and bigger guns.  It is an America that believes in itself and its traditions of inclusion and  empathy, and of its passion for education, innovation, and leadership.  It views dynamism and creative destruction as prerequisites to continued greatness, rather than a “great” that can only be found in a Rockwellian past.

Purging and healing this boil on the back of American history will not be easy, nor will it be painless.  Everyone who wants a better tommorrow for their children and grandchildren must join up, stand up, speak up, and act up. It means those who sit on the sidelines hoping that their fellow Americans will defeat Trump’s regressive fantasies—who don’t do their part—are contributing to the risk that Trump will succeed in relegating the United States of America to the ash heap of failed world powers.  As painfully amusing as Trump can be, he and his sycophant congressional n’er-do-wells must be thrown out before their damage report metastasizes from sea to shining sea.  The threat is clear.  Do not sit this one out; Trump and his cadre of truthbenders, slurping from their cups of magical thinking, will fight hard to prevail. The question is: is it their America, or ours?

[1] Matt Taibbi, “The War in the White House,” Rolling Stone, May 18, 2017, Issue #1287, p. 24.
[2] Credit for this characterization is due David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.
By |2017-06-30T18:44:40+00:00May 13th, 2017|Donald Trump|0 Comments

Trump: Dangerous or Just Plain Pathetic?

I seldom look for solace in someone’s incompetence, but in the case of President Trump his many deficiencies—that span from prehistoric executive skills to fundamental character flaws to psychological and emotional instabilities—may prevent him from achieving his fascist aims.  He is no Putin and the United States is no Russia.  Further, his detachment from facts and truth has severely compromised his credibility both at home and—especially—abroad. He appears to have the focus and navigational skills of a gnat in a windstorm, but I acknowledge this may be unfair to gnats (that always seem to survive such storms).

The chaos that is the White House today coupled with the cowardly political rapacity that plagues Congress, a Supreme Court stuck in a 4-to-4 standoff, and a Federal bureaucracy frozen between the twin pulls of passive aggression and career security, virtually assures that little will be accomplished, at least for now.  In the end, this may be the story historians tell of the Trump presidency: much smoke and little fire.  Noise without leadership is still just noise.  What is emerging now is less danger than a leadership vacuum; both are bad, but they also open opportunities for others to lead.  So, who will lead?  It won’t be the Supreme Court or the Federal bureaucrats; the first is not supposed to lead and the second is incapable (by design).  Congress may try, but my bet is it will devolve into a battle between dumb and dumber.  Leadership then, will come from beyond the Beltway in Washington, at the state, county and municipal levels.

We may end up owing Mr. Trump a debt of gratitude, if we use the peril he proffers as a call to organize and engage in a democracy we haven’t, as citizens, paid much attention to for the last forty-five years.  Since Nixon was shown the door and our draft cards became coasters, it has been easy to ignore Washington D.C.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the dawn of the digital age contributed mightily to our collective withdrawal from national politics.  Apathy and complacency became natural and comfortable.  After all, who wants to spend time engaged with those who aspire to be politicians when we can turn the lens toward ourselves on the end of a selfie-stick?  Yes, Trump happened because of us, not in spite of us.

We have a choice: continue to wring our hands over the horrors of Trumpisms, or take advantage of the leadership vacuum and forge our own future.  We can wait and see, which gives Trump and Congress a chance to fill the void, or we can seize the moment.  The best and brightest are not found in our nation’s capitol, they are in our universities, small businesses, non-profits, and coffee shops.  They are old, young, born here and not.  They are the quiet ones who do not seek the spotlight.  Yet, they, you, are our future.  Are we Americans, or are we Trump?

By |2017-06-05T22:16:28+00:00February 21st, 2017|Donald Trump|0 Comments

Global Stewards or America First?

Although the word “unprecedented” was used constantly in 2016, and though there were many behaviors and statements made that were indeed unprecedented, what was going on—fundamentally—was not.  We do this to ourselves about every eighty years.  We renegotiate and redefine our answer to the question: What does it mean to be an American?

Toward the end of each American crisis (and we are nearing the end of the fourth American crisis) we define a new identity.  After the American Revolution that gave birth to our country, we identified as Land of the Free.  After the Civil War and Reconstruction, we became the Land of Opportunity.  After the Great Depression and World War II, we became Superpower.  Today, as we conclude this crisis—the War on Terror and Great Recession—we have a choice of new identities: Global Stewards or America First.

Global Stewards is the direction President Obama was taking us, and likely would have continued under Hillary Clinton had she been elected.  President Trump has proposed a nearly opposite identity in his inaugural address, America First.  Trump’s advocated new American identity has visceral appeal to many Americans.  It makes folks who feel left behind, or feeling suddenly dispossessed of their position in American social, economic, and political order, empowered, or at least comforted in the moment.  It taps resentment of government as its clarion call.  It is, however, a diabolical ruse intended to concentrate power in the presidency of Trump without regard to established American values or the rule of law.  It is profoundly dangerous.

America First is a fearful, zero-sum, win/lose, and isolationist future for America.  It puts America’s position in world order in peril by allowing other powers like China and Russia to move aggressively—both politically and economically—into Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.  It relies on deceit and divisiveness to exercise power over Americans for the benefit of the very few, represented most obviously in Trump’s selections for his cabinet.

Trump won the presidency not, however, by fear and anger, or even by Mr. Comey or Mr. Putin.  He won because too many Americans were complacent or apathetic.  Voter turnout and civic engagement operate at pathetic levels in America, but in a democracy you get the government you deserve.  Moving forward, many more Americans must take responsibility for themselves, their community, and their country if we are to transcend and defeat the mockery of American values President Trump represents.  We must unite and engage with a calm sense of profound resilience if we wish to protect the future of this great nation.

 

By |2017-06-05T22:11:05+00:00January 23rd, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump|0 Comments

Power of the People

Ask any former living president, or read the dead one’s memoirs or presidential documents in the national archives, and you will find at least one thing they have in common: they came to understand their power was largely a function of the will of the people.  Yes, presidents do have specific constitutional powers, but without significant approval ratings they lose institutional support from federal bureaucracies and members of congress.  I expect our new president will become an historical touchstone for this reality. He enters office with the lowest approval ratings of any newly inaugurated president and those may prove to be the highest of his presidency. (See http://time.com/4636142/donald-trump-inauguration-polls-approval-ratings/.)  In the vernacular of Wall Street, he is a slam-dunk “short.”

That is not to say presidents don’t learn this and recover.  President Reagan, known to many as “the great communicator,” was keenly aware of keeping what he called “the common man” by his side throughout his presidency.[1]  He had polling, although it was fairly rudimentary by today’s standards, and he would even note in his diary how many people gathered on the sidewalks as his motorcade passed.  When the number of people who waved enthusiastically declined, he would take to television and give a national address, which were covered by the three big networks.  It worked.  Not only would the gears of government work for him, Speaker Tip O’Neill, his partisan nemesis in the House, had to make deals.

President Trump has neither the skills nor the temperament to manage this phenomenon.  140-character insults via Twitter will not endear him to the will of the people, nor has he surrounded himself (as other presidents have, including Reagan) with top-flight advisors and cabinet members.  Most, if not all of his cabinet picks are, at best, benchwarmers in the game of governing.  As attractive as ‘outsider’ status is during a campaign, it is crippling when the task of governing begins.  Just ask President Carter.

As I have written before, your future and the future of this country are in your hands.  And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power.  (See https://www.indivisibleguide.com/web.)

Rejecting Trump at every turn will quickly degrade his power.  He will lose what I call referential power, critical to the support of those who actually make things happen.  I expect once Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan get what they want from Trump, Mike Pence will be sworn in.  Pence may not be what many of you want, but probably no worse (and perhaps even better) than Trump.  And, 2020 will arrive before you know it.

[1] William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Ch. 6.
By |2017-06-05T21:49:07+00:00January 18th, 2017|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Trump’s Value-free Presidency

Good news (sort of)!  There will be something for everyone to like in the Trump presidency, decisions that comport with your own particular political disposition or interests.  Bad news: there will also be many things to dislike, and many more things—perhaps greatest in number—that will be just plain mystifying.  President Trump promises to be a one man wrecking ball who will dramatically expand the effects contemplated in Edward Lorenz’ chaos theory. (Butterflies beware!)  How can this be?  Why?  The answer resides in Trump’s cognetic profile[1] that is, by my assessment, completely devoid of a value system that assures coherent decision-making.

From weird, to weirder, to weirdest, off we go!  As columnist Gerald Seib suggested in his recent Wall Street Journal column,

It’s nearly impossible to identify a clear ideological bent in the incoming president’s early moves … the definitions of left and right, liberal and conservative, are being scrambled right before our eyes.[2]

Similarly, Christopher Buckley was asked to explain whether or not his father, the late William F. Buckley, would have considered Trump a conservative.  The son demurred, observing that

it’s difficult to discern any identifiable ideology, philosophy, or politics behind his curtain; instead, only an insistent, clamant narcissism that one hopes will come to an inflection point and re-purpose itself in the service of those who have installed him at the center of our democracy.[3]

Yes, “one hopes,” but my expectations follow a different maxim: take him at his word and plan accordingly.

So what are values and why are they important?  Values are the principles we embrace that are essentially our interpretations of concepts, norms, and ideas that allow us to simplify the world and make decisions.  In my development of cognetics, they act like a box of filters and impellers that sort out the myriad of variables we must consider to make decisions; some information is blocked while other information is sent forward for further consideration.  I further argue that without this set of values that allow us to reconcile dissonance in our world—too simplify it and make decisions—we would go insane.  It is unlikely Trump is insane (at least not in the clinical sense), but his many inconsistent incoherent statements and behaviors are precursors of insanity.  He is definitely on the spectrum, somewhere right of delusion and left of insanity.  The inherent pressure of the presidency—the volume and velocity of decision-making—will most certainly exacerbate this condition, pushing him further toward insanity and potentially even physical, emotional, and psychological collapse.

To be fair, many, including Trump himself, have suggested that he has clear values.  Suggestions include values like winning, money, his children, and especially himself.  However, these are not values.  Winning is an outcome, money is a means, and the others are, well, people.  They are not values; they are not durable interpretations that provide fundamental beliefs and convictions that predict future behaviors and decisions, which is why Trump can be confounding and appear reckless.  None of which is particularly concerning in his role as real estate developer and reality TV star, but when combined with the power of the presidency disaster is a near certainty.

Presently, Trump is best described as a conundrum.  Many have already recognized his recent decisions are a product of whom he spoke with last.  This presents problems in domestic affairs, but the most dangerous effects are in foreign affairs since other world leaders must (nearly always) consider what the United States, the world’s lone superpower, will do on an array of issues.  Trump’s value-free presidency increases risk in foreign affairs exponentially.  He has already declared his foreign policy will be “unpredictable starting now.”[4]  Misinterpreting what one state or another may do in an anarchic international system is profoundly dangerous, as we saw in the outbreak of violence that escalated into World War I.

Recently, Trump decided it was best to blow up our forty year-old “One China” policy by engaging directly with Taiwan.  Although as an isolated issue this may not appear to be dangerous (his supporters view it as enlightened and powerful), policies like One China comprise the foundation of stability in a unipolar, one-superpower, world.  Trump may never launch a weapon first, and his bluster may be confined by other realities, but other world leaders may act first, and violently, in anticipation of what he promises to be “unpredictable” behavior.

Sugar-free and gluten-free may be good for you, but buckle up, value-free is going to be one hell of a ride.

[1] See my explanation of cognetics in William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy:  Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.3.
[2] Gerald F. Seib, “Trump Shuffles the Ideological Deck” in “Capital Journal” section, wallstreetjournal.com, 5 December 2016.
[3] Christopher Buckley, “What Would William F. Buckley Have Made of Donald Trump?,” Vanity Fair, 5 December 2016.
[4] See, Nick Wadhams, “Trump’s ‘Unpredictable Starting Now’ Foreign Policy,” Bloomberg, 5 December 2016.

 

By |2017-06-05T21:51:01+00:00December 6th, 2016|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

From Hope and Change to Fear and Change: a Letter to My Children

There are certainly more questions than answers this morning after Trump’s stunning ascension to the presidency of the United States. I cannot recall a more troubling political outcome during my lifetime. As you know, I view Trump as an utter incompetent and vainglorious ogre. Trump has destroyed the Republican Party and has defeated the Democratic Party creating unprecedented political uncertainty in America and the world. The fundamentals of his support are, however, not surprising. The same yearning for change that swept Obama into the White House in 2008 gave us Trump today. The difference is Obama’s appeal was denominated in hope, while Trump’s is based in fear. When the voting data is analyzed I expect to see many Americans—especially white suburbanites and exurbanites—to have voted for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016. It seems weird, but it underscores just how fed up we all are with our political leaders and institutions.

In the short run, expect the uncertainty that swirls around a Trump presidency to produce a significant amount of economic, political and social stress. Trade, foreign policy, healthcare, the Supreme Court; there are many places to expect him to exercise his power in nefarious ways. But remember this, a president is deeply constrained by the institutions and markets that surround him and, in the case of Trump, by members of both parties who abhor him. And, America remains the most powerful and resilient nation in the world. We’ve had bad presidents before, but the creativity and perseverance of Americans has always survived.

In the long run, this may just accelerate the pathway I described earlier this year in my lecture, Is it Always this Weird? Trump’s missteps, which promise to be numerous, may actually cause Millennials (you) to get active and get organized, turning Trump’s “take our country back” slogan around to expel him in 2020. I still believe the cyclical trends I outlined in my lecture will hold; that we will evolve as a country from a “superpower” identity to one best described as “global stewards.” President Trump is a messy way to get there, but historical rhythms have a stubborn way of prevailing.

So, what to do? First, focus on your own physical, psychological, economic, and intellectual strength. Protect and strengthen those four cornerposts. Second, focus on the well being of your family and friends. Their welfare is your direct responsibility. Finally, get politically active and organized. Your generation has more voters today than mine. The reality, however, is that we vote and too many of your peers ignore this solemn duty. Do not allow my generation to continue to damage America. You have the power. Do not squander it through apathy or neglect. In the end, we all—individually and collectively—are responsible for Trump and what happens next.

By |2017-05-22T20:37:34+00:00November 9th, 2016|Donald Trump|0 Comments

The Reagan Echo: Donald Trump

In my forthcoming study of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, tentatively titled “The Disciple and The Alchemist,” I wrote about Reagan that,

He was a transcendent optimist—a spokesman-as-leader—who employed alchemy and soaring rhetoric to obviate contradictions.  He stood, as appropriate at any given time, near either Democratic or Republican mirrors to reflect and project his appeal through a libertarian prism, matching the prevailing mood of the electorate.  From the threat of communism, to fatigue of government intervention, to the embrace of an evil enemy, he knew how to change the angle of the camera and strike an appealing pose for his audience.

As I observe the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump for president today, I cannot help but hear echoes of Reagan’s appeal and alchemic modality.  And, the electorate seems to be just as depressed (or angry) today as it was in the latter stages of the Carter presidency.

The comparisons are eerie.  While Reagan espoused the “Gospel of Prosperity,” Trump promotes what David Brooks of The New York Times has labeled a “Gospel of Success.”  Meanwhile, Obama speaks of self-restraint and sacrifice the same way Carter spewed jeremiads of sacrifice-based redemption.  Like Reagan, Trump also believes in American exceptionalism based on overt power, projected for the benefit of Americans first.  Notwithstanding missteps, like Vietnam before Reagan, and Iraq/Afghanistan before Trump, for Trump Americans remain the chosen people in a chosen land, the new Israel.  Meanwhile, Obama, like Carter, tries to re-identify America as a force for moral good, waging humanitarian wars (Libya) and preferring cooperation to competition.  I can’t remember ever hearing Trump (or Reagan) utter the word ‘cooperation’.  Reagan’s Hollywood-styled past and Trump’s New York/Atlantic City slick-shtick (and multiple marriages) also place them in stark contrast to the Obama/Carter image of up-from-nothing populist purity.  Furthermore, I can easily see Trump reeling in the Religious Right the same way Reagan did with his “I know you can’t endorse me … but I can endorse you”; especially with either Palin or Huckabee at the bottom half of the ticket.

Trump has also taken a page out of Reagan’s early campaign playbook in his attempt to de-legitimize the President.  Reagan questioned Carter’s strength, patriotism, and decisiveness, while Trump has pounded the birther issue with the conviction of a Klansman.  Trump will easily get the angry white vote, and if he can co-opt the Religious Right (now Christian nationalists) with whitebread exceptionalism, he’s halfway there.  Trump’s next target will be to add the other half—fiscal conservatives—to his electoral coalition.  He’ll question Obama’s fiscal toughness in the face of huge deficits and the recent S&P outlook downgrade on US securities.  Trumps own fiscal follies will no doubt be recast as the scars of experience in a Hobbesian world.  He will ask the Reagan question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” and will couple it with “Who would you rather have at the negotiating table, a nice guy, or a winner?”  He might even say to Obama: “You’re fired!”

Reagan’s appeal resided in its simplicity; he pulled on American’s sense of patriotism and desire to “stand tall” again.  He re-imagined America’s special destiny as a “shining city on a hill.”  In a complex world full of nuance and strange alliances—one that calls for an Obamaesque mind and demeanor—Americans may decide they’d just like to feel good again.  They may prefer illusion to reality.  If they do, Trump’s orangish hair (like Reagan’s) won’t matter.  Some say Trump’s anger will do him in; this may prove to be wishful thinking by Obama supporters.  After all, aren’t we all angry?  Trump should summon his inner Reagan, and Obama better not make the same mistake Carter’s advisors did when they hoped they would face Reagan on election day.

By |2017-05-23T20:12:33+00:00April 19th, 2011|Donald Trump|0 Comments