Part 1: There Goes the Ballgame

When Antonin Scalia died in 2016, I wrote that I was glad he’d died. One local churchgoer was so upset by my comment that he refused to shake my hand during the liturgical “sign of peace,” in front of a church filled with people. I hadn’t wished for the Justice to die, but could I help being happy he was gone? In the capacity I knew him, as a man who used his knowledge of the unknowable thoughts of both our Founding Fathers and God Himself to negatively influence the lives of many people I care about, and who did so with clearly malicious (and well-written) relish, he was an asshole.

By all accounts, Neil Gorsuch is not an asshole, although like Scalia he’s an “originalist,” mysteriously able to divine what the Constitution’s authors intended when they wrote it. Gorsuch is also a fan of “religious liberty,” which, as it’s practiced today, would probably appall the Founders. (I say “probably,” because I only know them via written biographies, not seance. I am not an originalist.) If Justice Scalia had died last week, and President Trump advanced Gorsuch’s name as replacement, it would be difficult to argue against confirmation.

President Obama’s nominee, in March 2016, was Merrick Garland, another well-qualified candidate. It should have been difficult to argue against Garland’s confirmation, but Republicans in Congress wouldn’t even consider his merits. Furthermore, they indicated before the election that if Hillary Clinton had won, they’d have continued refusing to consider any Supreme Court nominees during her tenure. (No word on what the Founders would have thought about that shit, either. Originalism seems to be most useful for declaring corporations people and opposing same-sex marriage.)

So here’s the thing. Gorsuch is going to be confirmed. Well played, McConnell, Ryan, et al. (It’s worth considering what damage is done to society when its leaders show contempt not only for the law but toward those they’re supposed to be serving.) Republicans correctly recognize that naming Supreme Court justices is one of the most powerful and lasting influences a president has. I knew several people who said, essentially, “I don’t love Trump but I want his Justices.” Trump made the same argument during the campaign, although I doubt he figured it out on his own. (For one thing, it takes the spotlight away from him.)

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I had a feeling Trump would win the Presidency. What puzzled me was the backing of so many conservative doctrinaires. For one thing, Trump’s not especially conservative – his ideology has been all over the map, sometimes changing from day to day. For another, Trump is demonstrably unethical. (Obviously not a problem for Republicans who voted to neuter their own ethics office, but until recently one had to at least give the appearance of caring about ethics.) He’s not even a good businessman, despite many who insist otherwise; representatives of the banks that oversaw his many bankruptcy proceedings say his knowledge of finance and accounting was less than rudimentary.

It was The Apprentice reality TV program that cemented the illusion of Trump’s business savvy, and I suspect if the ballot had consisted of just TV characters most of us would have picked Martin Sheen instead. Trump evidently doesn’t feel shame. His greatest, perhaps only, fear is that people will discover he’s not a billionaire – which is likely the big secret lurking behind his unreleased tax returns (he doesn’t care if we know that he pays minimal taxes and doesn’t give to charity.) Donald Trump, very simply, places his own interest ahead of every other concern, every time.

In the first days after the inauguration, I wondered how Paul Ryan could passively watch the chaos, placid half-smile never wavering. Then it hit me. President Trump isn’t the end game; his Presidency is, in a way, a trojan horse. He’s the perfect fool. Think about it – he’s inexperienced, almost comically unfit for the job, but he had enough bluster and self-regard to win (with help from Steve Bannon, Big Data, and Kellyanne Conway.) Combine Trump’s inexperience with a short attention span and fragile ego, and he’s easy to manipulate. The bull-in-the-china-shop campaign rhetoric, the ridiculous Tweets, the short-fuse braggadocio? Bonus – those provide distraction while the actual players move behind the scenes.

Once you see Trump as a noisy puppet, a lot of things start to make sense. It’s why the most powerful conservatives seem indifferent to his blundering – once they’ve gotten as much as they can out of him, they won’t bat an eye if impeachment becomes necessary (it’s even money whether that happens – incompetence seems the most likely charge, although I can’t rule out treason.) Mike Pence is on deck, which suits Paul Ryan.

I think Steve Bannon has different priorities though, and he’s the guy we need to keep an eye on. Bannon said in an interview with Sarah Posner last summer that Jeff Sessions was the forerunner and champion of the nationalist movement that’s gotten very noisy in the United States over the past few years. Bannon drove the selection of Sessions for Attorney General; if Pence is who the religious right likes, Sessions is the alt-right’s guy. There’s a lot of overlap between those groups, but they shouldn’t be considered one in the same. Both are dangerous, both can and will commit damage; Bannon is the one who really scares me.

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I first remember hearing the slogan “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” during the Bill Clinton campaign. I hated the message, with the implication that 1) Your self-interest is the only thing that matters, and 2) The president has the power to make or break your life. The presidency, especially the modern presidency, is an all-but-impossible job. Many have said that those who can do what’s required to win the position aren’t morally qualified to hold it – that seems right. (Of course, it’s our fault, as fickle voters, and it started with JFK, when campaigns became TV spectacles.)

Here’s what I want in a President: a professional politician who wants to serve, and who makes an effort to balance the interests of all people; someone who is intellectually curious; someone with enough humility to seek help and listen to counsel; someone who represents our country to the world with gravitas. I don’t want a president I can have a beer with, or someone who’s “relatable;” he or she had better be a LOT smarter than I am.

Donald Trump is none of those things.

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People got excited when George W. Bush was declared President, because he was our “First M.B.A. President.” There’s a misconception that running the country is just like running a business – it’s not.

Businesses have a mandate from their shareholders to increase value – by maximizing return and/or growth. Some would argue that businesses are responsible to stakeholders (as opposed to shareholders), which includes workers, the larger community, the environment, etc., but that’s a business school trope – in reality, execs pay “stakeholders” enough lip service so the stock price doesn’t drop, but not so much that it costs anything.

Consider the Carrier plant in Indiana that was sending 1,500 jobs to Mexico but agreed to keep some of those in the U.S. for $7 million in tax incentives. The company was already profitable, which meant the wider set of stakeholders was being served; it wanted to be more profitable, because shareholders are all that really matters. So, after Trump’s “save,” the company will still reduce its payroll, but now taxpayers are going to chip in $7 million to further subsidize the bottom line.

Today, President Bannon issued new decrees that continue to dismantle the country’s financial regulations, which always excites conservatives because, well, “My portfolio is going to go up.” (Are you better off…) I still haven’t forgiven Ronald Reagan for the past three decades of financial crashes, most of which have happened because of the deregulation frenzy he initiated. (Off the top of my head: Savings and Loan, Black Monday, Sub-Prime Mortgage Bubble; there are more.) Why does everybody forget the crashes, and what caused them? What about the A.I.G. execs who took government bailout money and immediately paid themselves millions in bonuses?

“Regulation” is not a bad word, but conservatives want us to think it is. How about “protection?” Protection is what the rules do, and that’s good for everyone. Businesses have no incentive to ensure any number of safeguards unless a controlling authority makes everyone do it. Obama’s great bailout was necessary because regulations were eliminated, which allowed banks to invent financial products that weren’t backed with actual value. The bailout incentivized huge, “too big to fail” companies to keep doing the same thing – why avoid risk when taxpayers have your back?

So let’s review: 1) Drop regulations; 2) Devise some risky way to make money; 3) Profit from the scheme until it fails; 4) Let taxpayers pick up the pieces; 5) Pay yourself a bonus.

And I didn’t even mention the environment.

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Wrapping up this brain-dump for today.

Gorsuch will be confirmed. Trump is a puppet. Bannon (alt-right) and the religious right are both pulling strings, happy for all of Trump’s blunders and Tweets because they keep us distracted, looking in the wrong direction. Financial regulations are being dismantled.

Still to come: global warming and other environmental catastrophes (let’s hope you cashed in from deregulation, or got bailed out – those with money will last longer than those without.)

I give a lot of credit to Bannon, Ryan, and McConnell. They played a smart game and won. I think they’re evil, because this shouldn’t be a game – people are being hurt even now, and it’s going to get a lot worse. Kellyanne Conway has done an amazing job, too – I’m not sure she isn’t crazy, but she got her candidate into the White House, just months after calling him “unfit.” She’s a real pro. Still, and again, it shouldn’t be a game – it shouldn’t be “do whatever it takes to win.”

Yeah, I’m being naïve.

Here’s something else I think: Trump isn’t evil. He’s an idiot, for sure. The story of his (well-deserved) downfall will make for engrossing books, plays, movies, maybe even epic black-comedy poems in fifty years or so, if the U.S. doesn’t resemble the set of Blade Runner or Mad Max by then.

Again, even money.