Trump v. Republican Congress (1)

We’re in the mutual accommodation phase of the relationship between Donald Trump and the Republican majorities in the two houses of Congress.  The House Republicans have just finished a retreat at which Trump appeared, and the party’s Congressional leaders are declaring themselves all on the same page.  Said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “We have laid out a game plan through the August recess that we want to try to accomplish. We want to try to stick to that plan.”

There certainly are issues where the election campaigns showed Trump to have one agenda and the Republican Congressional leadership a quite different agenda.  Take Russia, for example: friend or foe?  Take trade: more trade barriers or more openness?  Changes in social security? An infrastructure bill?  Etc.

In this mutual accommodation phase, Republican Congressional leaders are mostly deferring to Trump as their leader.  At the same time, Trump is allowing Congressional action on issues where they have strong inclinations but he doesn’t much care.  There doesn’t seem to be any other way to read the swift action approving draconian bans on public funding for abortion or family planning anywhere in the world.  Trump is prepared to go along, but the initiative comes from Mike Pence (a longtime Congressional activist on the issue) and the Republican leaders.

How long can this mutual accommodation last?  So far they haven’t had to wrestle with an issue where their two agendas come into conflict.  Stay tuned.


Update, next morning.  Just after I posted this, conflict arose between Trump and Republican members of Congress over the payment plan for the wall on the U.S. Mexico Border.  Perhaps the period of mutual accommodation won’t be very long at all.

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Erosion of Democracy Warning Signs

As I read this morning that Donald Trump has announced he plans an investigation of massive voter fraud — when the real threat is widespread and systematic denial of voting rights — I am drawn to thinking about our need to be alert to how our constitutional democracy might be weakened in this era.

Jeff Colgan, Professor of Political Science at Brown University, has a useful Risk of Democratic Erosion – Reading List.  It includes this list of warning signs:

In General: Some warning signs of democratic breakdown (not in chronological order) are:

  1. Media intimidation and restrictions
  2. Identification of crises or political paralysis to justify emergency measures
  3. Attacks on minorities; scapegoating foreigners
  4. Closing of space for civil society (especially funding restrictions, legal cases, raids and arrests, etc.)
  5. Rhetorical rejection of current political system; discourse shift
  6. Expanding the size of courts or other bodies to stack it with partisan judges/officials
  7. Modifying rules to impose or eliminate term limits on officials, esp. election officials
  8. Weakening of the legislature / intimidation of legislators
  9. Silencing of political opposition
  10. Significant increase in the internal security forces

Many items on this list already have warning lights flashing.  Colgan also provides links and references to a number of studies of democracy erosion in other countries. Nevertheless, he reminds us:

But the key point to keep in mind: if there were good, reliable signs of democratic breakdown, the breakdown itself would be unlikely to happen. Breakdown mostly happens when it is unanticipated and supporters of democracy fail to mobilize.

A similar list of warning signs with a more extended discussion of the particular risks of the Trump presidency has been provided by Stephen Walt of Harvard writing in Foreign Affairs about 10 Ways to Tell If Your President Is a Dictator.

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Worries and Dissents 17.1.23

From time to time I want to link to intelligent worries I come across, and also to interesting dissents from the way I see things.


In The Atlantic, Julia Ioffe worries about the limits of protests.  “Talking to the protesters in Washington today, it was hard not to hear the echoes of the weakness of the Moscow protests five years ago: a vague, unstructured cause; too much diversity of purpose; no real political path forward; and the real potential for the meaning of the day to melt into self-congratulatory complacency.”

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat worries about how the press will react to Trump’s abrasive style and his insolent attitude towards the press.  “Mainstream journalism in this strange era may be freer than the fearful anticipate, but not actually better as the optimists expect. Instead, the press may be tempted toward — and richly rewarded for — a kind of hysterical oppositionalism, a mirroring of Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.”

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On the Mall in Brunswick

With Ellen and Robbie and friends, I joined the throng gathered on the town mall in Brunswick today to signal our opposition to the Trump presidency and the agenda of the Republican majority in Congress.  There were plenty of positive messages, too: for equality, for respect and rights, for action towards climate sanity, for diversity and for peace.  brunswick-rally-2

A few observations.  We felt like a gathering of older folk.  There were young and middle age adults and also some children, but we were predominantly retirees.  (I didn’t see any Bowdoin students. Are they back from Christmas break?)  Women predominated, and women’s messages rang clear and true.  We rehearsed some protest songs of decades past: we will overcome, and this land is your land.  We remembered the words, but it didn’t sound like we had sung together in many years.  We marched some, but lacked organization and direction.  So mostly we milled around.  Pussycat hats in shades of pink and near pink were common.  This was a positive, even joyful gathering: yes we can.

There were  some clever signs.  One had a picture of the Statue of Liberty with the caption “I’m with her.”

I appreciated the conversations I had, none of them very long, but all of them fresh.  Some were with people I know well though often in non-political settings.  A few were with strangers.  All were energizing and affirming.  Simply keeping company with such a large throng was also energizing.

I wondered, often with others, about who, in the days and weeks ahead,  we would look to for leadership, organization and strategy.  We named various organizations we trust on this issue or that:  the ACLU, environmental organizations, Planned Parenthood.  But what organization could connect across the various issue realms?  No one seemed too excited about the Democratic Party itself. I was struck at how much the connecting threads of this gathering seemed to flow through church congregations: the UUs, the UCCs, the Quakers and so forth.  Perhaps the liberal churches will provide our warp threads.

What comes next?  As positive as today’s gathering was, I didn’t find an answer.  But there was certainly promise of more to come.  This was a gathering of people wanting to be engaged.

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Debate; Avoid Distraction

Earlier this week on Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok reports on a fascinating piece of research into how the Chinese government pays people to post to social media sites to build support for the government.  The paper is by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts.

A key insight: the effort is not to debate issues, but to distract people.  Says the paper:

Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument. Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up…

Adds Tabarrok:

Debate is about appealing to an individual’s reason; debate is thus implicitly individualistic, respectful of rights and epistemically egalitarian. (As I argued earlier, respect for the truth is tied to individualism because any person may have truth and reason on their side.) Authoritarians don’t care about these things and so they lie and distract with impunity and without shame. In this case, the distraction is done subtly.

In these times, we need to be sure to debate issues.  And we need to be sure to avoid being distracted.

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Red Lines

From the New York Times today, reporting on Barack Obama’s final press conference:

“There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room.

Mr. Obama continued: “I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise. I’d put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country.”

 All of his red lines seemed to refer to positions taken in the past by Mr. Trump.

  • Systematic discrimination.
  • Explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise.
  • Institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press.
  • Efforts to round up kids … who are for all practical purposes American kids.

That’s a pretty great list of fundamental issues: issues that are outside the bounds of legitimate politics.  I’m glad President Obama has named these as ones on which he would engage the next President.

I note that health care is not on the list.  I presume that’s because President Obama considers it an important issue, but not a “core values” one.  Nor is climate change.  And you can think of many other issues that he has made central to his policy agenda.  He’s saying that the red line issues are more fundamental

They form a great list of “red line issues” for all of us.  Take note.

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Collins’ Vote More Crucial Than Ever

Guest Column in the Brunswick Times Record, January 13, 2017

Because Republicans have only a two-vote plurality in the U.S. Senate, I am going to be paying close attention to Maine’s own Sen. Susan Collins.

One reason is that she is one of my Senators from the state of Maine. She represents me: she speaks and acts for me and for all other Mainers. But there’s another reason. At any moment over the next two years, just she and any one other Republican Senator are what give Mitch McConnell his power as the Senate Majority leader. Whatever the Republican Party is about to do with its control of the House of Representatives, and the Presidency as well as the Senate, just Senator Collins and one other Republican Senator are likely to be able to put a stop to it by saying no.

President-Elect Trump has named his nominees for many of his cabinet posts: a nominee for Secretary of Education (Betsy DeVos) who is an opponent of public education; a nominee for Attorney General (Jeff Sessions) who has appalling record on civil rights; a nominee for Secretary of the Treasury (Steven Mnuchin) straight from Wall Street; a nominee for Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) who has been a business crony of Vladimir Putin; a nominee for Energy Secretary (Rick Perry) who wanted to eliminate the Department but couldn’t remember its name; a nominee for Secretary of Labor (Andrew Puzder) who opposes the minimum wage; a Director of the EPA (Scott Pruitt) who is a close ally of big oil and coal: Senator Collins and just one other Republican Senator could deny confirmation to any or all of these threats to the common welfare.

And then there is likely the legislative agenda I’ll be watching.

Consider the Affordable Care Act: the health care policy that ensures all Americans can have health care? I was disappointed that Sen. Collins didn’t vote for the ACA when it passed Congress in 2010. The Obama administration took a Republican approach first tried in Massachusetts as its template for guaranteeing health care for all Americans in a hope that its bill would find bipartisan support. Sen. Collins was the last hope for a Republican supporter, but she stuck with Mitch McConnell on that one.

Now the Republican leaders vow to scuttle the Affordable Care Act without having any meaningful alternative except to return care for the nation’s health to large insurance companies. I’m hoping Sen. Collins will stand against repeal of the Affordable Care Act to insure that my family and yours can have a right to affordable health insurance.

Donald Trump will likely soon name a nominee for the vacant position on the Supreme Court. I’ll be watching to see whether Sen. Collins insists that the nominee has a record showing respect and advocacy for the civil rights for all Americans, whatever their race or ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Or take climate change. The Republican Party and now President elect Trump oppose any meaningful action to slow the human-caused warming of the planet. We’re likely now to see proposals to weaken environmental protections and to allow much more exploitation of coal and oil. Will Sen. Collins stand up to protect future generations from a super-heated earth? I’ll be watching. She’ll be a critical vote on this issue, too.

I know I need to do much more than watch. It isn’t only Sen. Collins who bears responsibility for what happens next at this critical juncture in our nation’s life. So, too do Sen. King and Representatives Pingree and Poliquin.

But then so, too, do you and me. We all bear responsibility for what happens next in the great story of this grand old republic. We all need to pay attention, be informed, write our Senators and Representatives, voice our hopes, and recommit ourselves to truth telling and caring for one another. We all need to show up and stand up. “With liberty and justice for all” — that is what we promise one another when we rise to Pledge Allegiance. We all need to be stepping up to that challenge. Liberty and justice for all will be our future only if we all stand behind these commitments with all our hearts and minds.

Sen. Collins simply has a special responsibility because her vote and just one other could be the margin between what can make America true to its promises or what can lead us down a very wrong path.

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