As we descend down the rabbit hole into the Trump Administration, let’s hark back to a time when America was great. Two months ago.
Let’s start with the latest February job numbers: 235,000 new jobs, 4.7% unemployment. These are figures that Donald Trump once called phony, but now thinks are fabulous.
Or how about a report from the Pew Center that shows 130,000 more Mexicans went back across the border in the last five years than came in. And he wants to build a wall?
Or a federal budget where health, education, the environment, science, compassion, and lifting the hopes of the poor mattered. Now it’s all about military spending and infrastructure: the land below the shaky ground we are standing on now.
When America was Great
When Donald Trump took office, the American economy was humming along quite nicely.
From the depths of an economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression, The New York Stock Exchange index had rise from 8,100 points to 19,940. Job growth was up for the 77th month in a row, and 16 million more Americans were working than when President Obama took office.
On the world front, U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq had fallen from 200,000 in 2009 to 14,800 last year. This includes the 3,000 Special Forces assisting Iraqi forces fighting to regain control of Mosul and 900 more working with rebels in Syria.
A third of Iraqi territory held by ISIS had been reclaimed, at a cost of fewer than a dozen American lives. And finally, we had a government in Iraq we could work with.
An internet-inspired Arab Spring in 2011 underscored the limits of American power in the Middle East. The overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya unleashed tribal feuds among its warlords that still keep the country in chaos, and President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal response in Syria has led to 321,000 deaths and 4.9 million refugees. (Of which, the United States took in 18,000 while Europe absorbed almost a million.)
President Obama’s reluctance to get more involved in the Middle East’s sectarian warfare was counter-balanced by his pivot to the Pacific, where China’s emerging economic prowess threatened America’s role as a global economic power.
After seven years of negotiations, the Obama administration forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other nations that lowered trade barriers for one third of the world economy. The wide-ranging agreement cut out 18,000 tariffs, recognized copyright, trademark and patent rights, cracked down on human trafficking, established workplace standard, set climate goals, and put America in the driver’s seat for the next iteration of the global economy.
Then Donald Trump came along, and he nixed it with an executive order on his 3rd day in office.
Adjusting to Trump
I find it interesting how fast the media has adjusted to Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Obama left him “a mess.” Suddenly, we are measuring our new president against his campaign promises, and paying no heed to the legacy of goodwill his predecessor left him.
Never mind that his sloganeering — build a wall with Mexico, ban Muslims, take Iraq’s oil, bomb the hell out of ISIS, make our allies pay more for their defense, and create more jobs, jobs, jobs — is jingoism at best, and unhinged from reality at worst. Trump is the new sheriff in town. He’s crazy as a loon. And all the pundits on cable news can say is we are in “unprecedented” times.
As Kellyanne Conway astutely observed (and is quick to remind us), Trump found in America pockets of hard working, white, mostly rural voters who believed him. They were not a majority of Americans. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million people. But there were enough of them in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to put Trump into the White House.
And many are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Thirty-nine percent think the stock market has gone down; 66% believe African-Americans are less deserving than “average Americans;” and 51% have no more than a high school degree, or none at all.
The transition to a Trump presidency brought out all the flaws of our newly elected leader. He had no plan for a cabinet. He liked Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State because he looked the part. He wanted Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development because he was black and grew up in Detroit. And who wouldn’t want a Defense Secretary called “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis? (Although Mattis himself abhors the nickname.)
As to the rest of them? Well, that was up to Pence, his all-purpose stand-in for somebody who gives a damn. Last May, Trump named New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to head up his transition team in the unlikely event he was elected. It was the least he could do for a man whose stone-faced mug has become an internet meme for shame. Christie’s charge was to vet the potential appointees Trump might name to fill the 4,000 government jobs that require Senate confirmation.
Three days after he won, Trump replaced him with Vice-President elect Mike Pence because the process was moving too slow. In the end, Trump would have the final word. Between his photo ops with Sean Penn and Kanye West, glad-handing politicians and obsequious CEOs, he took the high profile ones to lunch at 21, or Trump National, or Mar-a-Lago. Just to get a feel for them.
If somebody didn’t work out, Pence was there to take the fall. So it’s no wonder Pence somehow missed the letter from Rep. Cummings warning him five days after his election that Trump’s choice for national security advisor Gen. Michael Flynn was being paid to lobby for foreign governments.
Trump had chosen Flynn himself. Then he was shocked (Trump speak: SHOCKED!) to learn Flynn lied to Pence about his frequent phone calls to the Russians. The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigation whether Trump knew about them all along. If he didn’t, why did he wait two weeks after the Justice Department ratted Flynn out to tell Pence?
Alice in Wonderland
There is a Lewis Carroll quality to Washington these days. More questions than answers. On the chessboard of politics, Trump is the Queen of Hearts. He rattles around the White House with a small coterie of advisors, barking out orders and constantly tweeting his opinion of everything.
In one early morning spurt, he accused the former president of the United States of wiretapping his campaign (four times) and still had enough venom to chide Arnold Schwarzenegger for bungling his opportunity to host Celebrity Apprentice. In another, he bemoaned Obama’s release of 122 prisoners from Guantanamo (113 of whom were released by Obama’s predecessor George Bush). In yet another, he decried a brutal terrorist attack in Sweden that never occurred.
I could go on, but why? There will be another tomorrow that is more outrageous than the last. Because Trump is convinced he can make public policy in 140-character bursts.
Like the Red Queen, he is all over the place. He makes pronouncements on the spur of the moment. His legion of 26 million Tweetees follow in lockstep, and he sends out his Jabberwockies to the cable news shows to defend, deflect, or explain what he really meant. He believes what he believes is the best they can come up with.
Above it all, quietly nestled in the overhanging trees directing the narrative is his Cheshire cat, Steve Bannon.
Bannon came late to the Trump campaign. A former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, movie producer, and head of Breitbart News, he was recommended to Trump by his financial mavens, Robert and Rebekah Mercer. They financed Bannon’s last documentary “Clinton Cash” and were principal backers of Breitbart.
The unkempt political strategist and wide-tied candidate were not on the same page in the primaries. Bannon and Mercer were in the Ted Cruz camp. But when the Mercers switched their allegiance to Trump, Bannon came with them. Trump and Bannon quickly found common ground in their mutual delight poking fun at the mainstream media – and a shared disdain for the Washington establishment.
Bannon is not phased by Trump’s tweets, as long as he remains in control of the narrative. For him, that narrative goes back to the 1400s when Western Civilization was under attack by Islamic hordes. Two hundred years later, some Pilgrims left Europe to found the United States, where freedom and prosperity flourished. Don’t ask me how these two events are connected. But in the many documentaries Bannon has produced, the central themes are a) Islam is a threat to Western Civilization and b) Big Government is the enemy of Free Enterprise.
Bannon’s sway on public policy was first seen in Trump’s executive orders – notably his ban on Muslim immigration – but it has re-emerged in Trump’s preliminary budget. As he proudly boasts, his ultimate goal is to “deconstruct” the federal government. Draconian cuts in every cabinet department, a slimmed-down foreign service corps, and eviscerating the EPA are just a warning sign. We’re serious. You want to compromise, here’s our starting point.
But you will never see Bannon defending these cuts in public. Like the Cheshire cat, he whispers his opinions in private conversations then disappears into the woodwork, and the last thing you see are his menacing eyes.
The Red Queen’s court is populated by sycophants and courtesans, otherwise known as Republicans in Congress. They are mum about Trump’s erratic behavior because they need him to effect their agenda.
For years, House Speaker Paul Ryan has wanted to “repeal and replace” Obamacare and put more right leaning judges on the Supreme Court. This week, as his healthcare bill comes to the floor of the House and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch goes before the Senate Judiciary committee, Republicans should be gleeful. Instead, they are standing in front of the TV cameras twisting logic to explain why the President’s tweets should be considered inconsequential.
With majorities in the House and Senate, and a Republican in the White House, overturning Obamacare should have been a walk in the park. There isn’t a Republican in Congress who didn’t campaign against it, and even Democrats acknowledge there are ways to make it better.
What the Republicans didn’t anticipate was the presidential candidate they put their money on didn’t have the slightest idea what was involved. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he said. But he kept spewing out pablum about how “everyone will be covered” and health care will be “better and cheaper” — a promise that Ryan knew Republicans couldn’t fulfill.
When it scored Ryan’s plan, the Congressional Budget Office produced an analysis worse than anyone thought: 24 million more Americans will not be covered; insurance premiums will rise 15 to 20 percent; and many health services Americans have come to rely on will be axed.
Doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurance companies and senior citizens are lined up against the Republican plan. The chief beneficiaries appear to be America’s wealthiest citizens, individuals earning over $200,000, or couples making $250,000, who will receive a $158 billion tax break from repeal of a 3.9 percent tax on investment income and $117 billion more from elimination of a .o9 percent Medicare surcharge. Along with repeal of other Obamacare taxes on health providers, drug companies and medical device manufacturers, a total of $594 billion will not be collected. These taxes are, in effect, the underpinnings of Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to 10 million mostly poor people.
No Time to be Right
Back when America was great, Obama’s Affordable Care Act took over a year to get through Congress. One of every six dollars in America goes into the healthcare industry, and Obamacare was a complicate attempt to balance out the costs and benefits. Lobbyists battled over every nuance in the bill. Compromises were made but 20 million more Americans would up with health insurance and skyrocketing health costs were curbed.
Now, House Republicans are now trying to undo it all in six weeks. The critical vote in the House of Representatives is Thursday. From Ryan’s perspective, it’s now or never.
Why the rush?
Because in Donald Trump’s America, there’s no time to get it right. Only time to get it done. Trump is 50 days into his first term, and he has miles of promises to fulfill before he gets through the first 100 days.
And who knows where his mind will be tomorrow?