Trump's First Year

Now is the time when I am supposed to admit that I was wrong in the prediction I made this past spring that nothing much would happen in Washington until Mueller made his report. Well, there have been preliminary indictments, but no final report, the expected end of the investigation ever more remote, and the networks and cable channels all now saying, contrary to what they said two weeks ago, which was before the passage of the new tax law, that Trump’s first year has, in fact, been one of accomplishment rather than inaction in that he got through a tax bill which also cut back on the mandate that people pay a penalty if they do not buy health insurance, and that he has made numerous judicial appointments, including one to the Supreme Court, and that he has gotten his way with the agencies and is getting drilling for oil started in parts of Alaska where it had been barred. That is quite an achievement-- except that it is not so, especially in view of the fact that this President is such a nihilistic character that he wanted to bring down government in general, and in that light, or in even a more moderate light, he hasn’t accomplished all that much at all.

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The Al Franken Resignation

As I say, nothing much will happen in Washington until Mueller winds up his investigation, probably with a report to Congress saying that Trump is beholden to the Russians because of all the money he owes to them or has laundered for them, but until then the cable networks and other news outlets are in a frenzy about sexual harassment, the most significant victim of that frenzy so far being Al Franken, who was forced to resign from the Senate, which did not grant him the expedited ethics hearing that I presume he wanted, but came to judgment on the basis of accusations by six women, at least three of whom remain anonymous. Put aside the hypocrisy of the women Senators who said they were shocked to find themselves forced to insist on his resignation in spite of the fact that he was a friend of theirs. That is not the way a friend behaves, sticking in the knife along with everyone else, rather than trying to find a plausible explanation for bad behavior. They were never his friends, just political colleagues never overmuch concerned with personal loyalty. Let us turn instead to the nature of this frenzy, which is a form of McCarthyism, this time from the left rather than from the right.

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The Right to Secession

The Founding Fathers put into the United States Constitution at least two remedies should it happen that the splendid mechanism they had devised should show imperfections either in systems or in practice. First off, they provided for a process of amendment whereby, with great difficulty, Congress or the states could alter the Constitution, the process not being hasty lest it be engaged in for mischievous reasons. Second of all, they provided for impeachment, whereby even the President could be removed from office, his powers so great that he might be suspected of wanting to overstep them, and there had to be a way of doing that without resorting to his execution, an expedient which the British had used in their own past and whose lesson was not lost on the Founding Fathers: find a way to peacefully get rid of the one who presides over the nation. The Founding Fathers did not expect this power to be used lightly, for then it would have turned the new nation into something of a parliamentary democracy, the President subject to the political inclinations of his legislature. To the contrary, the spirit of the Founding Fathers was to make as many things as possible about their system objective rather than political, and so the term of service of the President was set as a fixed number of years, just as the allocation of seats in the Congress to the various states was on the basis of a census of the people of the United States so as to prevent the existence of “rotten boroughs”, which are districts without many persons living there, which happened in the British system because it was by act of Parliament that an area had a seat in Parliament or had one withdrawn.

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The Two Party System

Political sages declare on cable television these days that what we need now is a spirit of compromise to resolve the gridlock in which our political system finds itself. That means one or another bargain in which the Liberals and Conservatives get together by trading off some of what each side wants so that some progressive legislation gets passed. They are proposing on a smaller scale the Grand Bargain which Obama for a number of years tried to construct with the Republican opposition. Although the talking heads don’t usually spell out what that means today, I suppose an example of such a compromise would be Liberals willing to accept lower tax rates for corporations and for the rich in return for, let us say, the forgiveness of student loans or a higher minimum wage. On the face of it, such a compromise won’t fly. It would offend both sides, Liberals and Conservatives each devoted as they are to their own agendas, these two essentially in conflict. Liberals don’t want to give more money to rich people and Republicans don’t want to give money to people who are middle class or even poorer than that. More important, however, is the fact that the compromise of interests is not the way American politics works. Rather, historically, it has been the case that sometimes one party and sometimes the other, for long periods of time, has a progressive agenda while the other party is made up of time-servers and blowhards who are obstructionists. It isn’t that there are two agendas that are contending with one another and so one can adopt something good from each side. Rather, one side makes sense and the other side is indefensible except to those who do not want to see any change at all. Let’s dwell on that and see where we stand now in that light.

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Grant's Presidency

The character of Presidents is often judged by the adversities they have overcome-- or, conversely, not have had to overcome. Lincoln overcame depression, TR overcame the loss of his first wife, FDR overcame polio (though he didn’t, even if he managed to live with it until his early death from a heart condition caused in part by how much stress he put on his heart because his legs were useless). JFK overcame Addison’s Disease and Lyndon Johnson never overcame his awe and dependence on the leftover JFK Harvard crowd that filled his Cabinet. Ron Chernow’s new biography, “Grant”, gives us a chance to reevaluate the way we judge Presidents. He thinks about the career trajectory of U. S. Grant as more important than the drinking which did indeed lead to his early departure from a military career but which otherwise did not interfere with his talents.  Let us use this alternative approach for a comparison of some American Presidents.

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Impeachment, the Law & Language

There are sociological and linguistic insights into the nature of law. Sociologists tend to find the meaning of the law in its functions. Max Weber offers a sociological understanding of law when he says that laws cannot vary too much from the customs of a society. If they do, the people will rebel against it while revolutionary regimes, on the other hand, impose legal codes that are out to do away with extant customs and replace them with a reign of reason. For his part, Georg Simmel says that law is a technique for conflict resolution. It gives a third party power to make a decision between contending parties and these decisions and the legal code behind them are designed to do away or mitigate the antagonism between the parties. That is why there are fines and ways for negligent companies to correct their behavior. On the other hand, for the most part, lawyers look to the linguistic characteristics of law. That means they look to the ways in which the nature of language makes the fact of law possible and justifies what lawyers do when they interpret the law. Consider some of these linguistic characteristics of law and how they apply to the question of impeachment.

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General Kelly's Cast of Mind

My prediction in the Spring that nothing much would happen in this country politically until Robert Mueller makes his report seems to be holding up. Trump’s bluster about North Korea seems to have become toned down, perhaps because some private accommodation between the two sides has been arranged, or perhaps because a President with a limited attention span shifted his fulminations to other topics. Trump has kicked the Iran Deal over to Congress, which is unlikely to reimpose sanctions, which is just what Trump has also done with Obamacare, where some version of the Murray-Alexander deal is likely to emerge to keep Obamacare in place through the end of Trump’s term. And the prospects for tax reform, properly understood as tax relief for the rich, are not very good, the Congressional year about to come to an end. And, anyway, tax changes in one direction can be reversed in the next Administration in the other direction. That is what always happens, and that goes as well for the way federal agencies cut back or expand their power over everything from emission controls to abortion. So, instead, we are treated to a whole set of side issues that allow both Trump supporters and the Liberal media to exercise outrage at how broken is our political system because the other side is engaged in divisive political rhetoric. That seems fine to me because it means Trump is preoccupied with nonsense, seems incapable of responding to anything but nonsense, and that keeps him out of doing real mischief.

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Ken Burns' Vietnam II: Student Unrest

Ken Burns, in the episode of his series on the Vietnam War that is about the Tet Offensive, briefly refers to the student demonstrations at Columbia University and around the world. I was there at Columbia at the time, as a graduate student and a young instructor, and so I can fill in some of what happened so long ago.

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Ken Burns' Vietnam

I have reluctantly sat through, so far, more than half of the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War. “Reluctantly”, I say, because that war is not something I very much wanted to relive, having been aware of that war from start to finish as a student and graduate student and then a young professor of sociology who had participated in demonstrations, signed petitions, and gave lectures saying how purposeless was the war and all the suffering it imposed, trying as best I could to give aid and comfort to those who left the United States to go to Canada so as to avoid the draft. When some years later, during the Reagan Era, I mentioned to a class that I had been opposed to the war and demonstrated against it, something I thought of as very conventional behavior, many of my students were flabbergasted that this amiable and still young professor could have turned against his country. For them, the war was over, just unsatisfactory in the way it was settled. But It seemed to us anti-war people who had stood on the sidelines, having ourselves somehow legally avoided the draft, I through a series of student deferments and then because of age, that, while it was going on, the war was never going to end, and so there was a great sense of despair about the war, nothing like what I took to be the satisfaction felt by those who had made it through World War II, and this is the sense of despair that Ken Burns captures very well, that on top of the fact that he got the facts right, at least as I remember them. So let’s probe the wound.

 

 

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Hillary's Character

After reading her book, “What Happened”, I like Hillary less well than I did before I read the book. I know she is letting her hair down, and someone may not be at their most attractive when they do that, but the character she reveals is not all that admirable, for all that she claims that her’s is. Maybe it is just that she is not a gifted writer and so not used to trying to craft insights into a situation rather than relate platitudes so as to sum up a feeling that is more complex than that or else provide an analysis somewhat more worthy than is a two page policy memo at the White House. She is not good at supplying a rumination on the meaning of it all, and that is true of most politicians when they turn to writing, barring such exceptional people as Churchill, who deserved his Nobel Prize for Literature, and Obama, who may not have deserved his Nobel Prize for Peace. Of course, I still would have voted for Clinton to be President. I think she would have been a steady hand at the wheel, right on most issues, though wrong on some, such as feminism and education, and her opponent was likely to become the worst President in American history (he hasn’t started a war yet, but he has been demeaning and besmirching the United States for nine months now), but I do not hold her solely or even largely accountable for her defeat, as some of her detractors do, they continuing to underestimate the ability of the very unqualified Donald Trump to lather up a crowd and get voters to act on the basis of their anger rather than their interests. I blame instead those people who voted for Trump, they fully knowing what he was like because he did not hide what he was. You got what you voted for. So I will take stock of Hillary, and I know she has heard far worse.

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Political Rudeness

Political rudeness occurs when people in the political arena (and that includes the press) do something that is embarrassing because it violates the customs of politics insofar as those customs are essential to carrying on democratic politics, and so is different from the rudeness that occurs in everyday life whereby people who are rude violate customs of etiquette, such as by making a pass at a friend’s wife, or not tipping the waiter, which allow ordinary social life to be stable and mutually satisfying. An example of political rudeness is Eisenhower showing up late at the White House to pick up Truman to go to the Eisenhower Inauguration. Truman properly interpreted that as an insult to the Presidency while Eisenhower simply saw it as an expression of his distaste for a person he thought to be a political hack, while seeing himself as a noble figure, forgetting that he had been ever so political when he refused to defend General of the Armies George Marshall, the man who made him, on the campaign trail just months before, when Joe McCarthy had called Marshall “a disgrace to his uniform”. Who was the person up to his eyebrows in politics?

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Trump's Tirades

So many people tell me that the country is in terrible shape. They point to Trump’s tirades, which are indeed pretty terrible, but which are also largely inconsequential. The economy is doing fine, though we have not figured out a way to deal with the declining wages of larger and larger parts of the work force, a situation which has spread all the way up to the salaried professionals, and we do not know how to do away with the educational gap between people of color and whites and Asians, the latest New York test scores showing that about sixty percent of Asians and whites score at grade level in reading and math while about twenty percent of African Americans and Hispanics score at grade level. But these are deep problems of social structure that must await a truly progressive administration to be addressed, while the problems that immediately confront this administration are going just fine. North Korea has quieted down and Rachel Maddow may be correct in thinking that the whole brouhaha was cooked up by trump to shift attention away from his own troubles, which is the Russia investigation and also the fact that Congress will not give him what he wants, which is his wall and an end to the Russia investigation. We have ceded Syria to the Russians while taking out ISIS by ourselves and with Kurd and Iraqi and Iranian help; Putin has got what he wanted of Ukraine and is unlikely to push farther, knowing that our tainted President is not in any position to do him favors. Even climate issues are going the Progressive way, whatever Trump’s view of the Paris accords, because California and various corporations are going ahead with forging their own policies on carbon emissions. Greening America is too good a business for it to stop happening. Yes, Trump claims he will bring back coal, but he won’t, just as he claims he will build a wall, which he won’t because even a Texas Republican congressman can see that a technical fence is more effective and much cheaper than a concrete one. The wall is just a slogan that appeals to Trump’s very limited imagination, and so let us turn to the issues that have occupied the media in the past few weeks to get them through the summer doldrums of Congress being out of session.

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Democratic Institutions

Three institutional problems of representative democracies.

Max Weber in his classic essay of 1919, “Politics as a Vocation”, identified one of the problems that crop up in the cluster of institutions that make up representative democracy. He was concerned about the outlook of politicians who hold office in a democratic legislature, Germany having had a representative legislature ever since the establishment of the Second Reich in 1870, even if controlled only domestic policy and not foreign policy. Weber said that there were professional and amateur politicians. What he meant by that were that professional politicians wanted to remain in office and so were used to the give and take of legislative negotiations while amateur politicians were interested in their causes and so stood by their principles for however long they were in office. Weber clearly preferred the professionals and would see no reason to change his mind if he could see American politics today: the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus stalwarts more interested in their principles than what is actually accomplished, confident that their base will re-elect them for their principles alone. Senator McCain was invoking the Weber distinction yesterday when he said that there was a conflict between passion and reason, meaning by that that the passionate advocates of repeal and maybe not replace Obamacare were responding to their principles, their sentiments, rather than to doing something reasonable and workable. There are other difficulties in representative democracy that have become clear since Weber and that can also be illustrated with current political events.

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Political Update

My prediction of a few months ago that nothing much was going to happen in Washington until Mueller released his report is holding up however much cable news and national newspapers continue to press the stories of Congressional attempts at legislation and the Russia scandal. You can demonstrate the fact that nothing is happening by consulting the local tabloids. They have pushed those stories off the front page. The Daily News today had on its front page O. J. Simpson’s bail hearing, which is soon to come up. Now that is a blast from the past. But there is still the need to clear out the underbrush created by cable news and national newspapers.My prediction of a few months ago that nothing much was going to happen in Washington until Mueller released his report is holding up however much cable news and national newspapers continue to press the stories of Congressional attempts at legislation and the Russia scandal. You can the true fact that nothing is happening because the local tabloids have pushed those stories off the front page. The Daily News today had on its front page O. J. Simpson’s bail hearing, which is soon to come up. Now that is a blast from the past. But there is still the need to clear out the underbrush created by cable news and national newspapers.

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Trump Rebuffed?

This might seem a good time to catch up on politics given my prediction of a few months ago that not much was going to happen, that politics were frozen, until Mueller came up with his report and that then all hell might break loose because it seems unlikely that there will be no finding that none of the principal figures were involved in collusion with the Russians even if the President is not guilty of an impeachable offense. This is a good time because the withdrawal by Mitch McConnell of the Obamacare repeal and replace bill might seem to mark where finally Trump’s bluster has met a reality check. But that is not the case, even if people have been looking for just that sort of comeuppance.

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A Paranoid Reverie

Does everyone important need to be surveilled?

Consider the following mental experiment. Suppose that one of the intelligence agencies comes across new plans for Russian espionage in the United States. Do they present the evidence to the President at his daily intelligence briefing? Probably not because by all accounts these are short and supplied through graphics. But let us say suspicious Russian behavior is persistent. The President, after all, is the great decider about national defense policy and it is or always has been the obligation of his intelligence agencies to supply him with the best of their products so he can decide what course of action is in the national interest. But what happens when the President is himself distrusted, on the basis of prior experience, not to be discrete with national security information, that in itself an unprecedented event, and even more so, is suspected of and being investigated for collusion with the Russians? What are the intelligence agencies to do? Giving him the information might be dangerous because he might pass it on to the Russians and not giving it to him borders on treason in that the intelligence agencies would then be subverting their duty to serve all presidents.

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Washington Hugger Mugger

The press is so anxious to nail down the basis for a Trump impeachment that they run around trying to make matters that are inconclusive or even irrelevant seem definitive of treason. So one top national security official says that Jared Kushner did nothing wrong while another, who served in the Obama Administration, said a warning light went on for him when Kushner was said to be seeking to establish a back channel to the Kremlin that used Russian communications links. Maybe yes; maybe no. Maybe establishing a back channel is OK because other administrations in waiting have done so and maybe not if it is the case that Kushner kept that plan out of the reach of American intelligence officials, which we don’t know happened. On another matter, was Russian Ambassador Kislyak telling this story of Kushner’s offer to his people back home so as to disinform the Americans who he knew were listening in? All of this is out of “Homeland” But most of us, including me, don’t well enough know the customs that guide high level diplomacy and intelligence operations to pass judgment on these matters and neither do most of the press that feels called upon to opine on these matters.

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The Trump Scandal

The appointment of a special prosecutor may prove not to impede or divert the investigation into Trump’s Russian connection, which is what I feared, because it seems largely designed to protect the ongoing FBI probe. And the case for such a connection is mounting, having already reached Trump’s inner circle, the latest news being that Jared Kushner was trying to set up a secret communications link with Moscow. There are just too many dots out there for them not to connect. Does anyone think that this is still all coincidence?

But whether Trump is removed from office by impeachment or by the Twenty Fifth Amendment, or simply serves out his term, hobbled by his tendency to kick himself in the head and with no idea of how to organize and accomplish a legislative agenda, the effects of the Trump Presidency are historical in the sense that they will be with us for a very long time. That is because Trump was elected as a fluke rather than because he was the symbol or activator of a social movement, and so his Presidency is something of a scandal, and scandals, in the course of history, usually have unfortunate rather than liberating sequela, while social movements, at least among the English speaking peoples, result in real social progress. That is because real change and progress occur slowly, over generations, albeit with the assistance of social movements to promote change by taking advantage of changing social circumstances. Scandals, however, do not refresh the social system, freeing it to engage in progress, but rather result in retrograde developments that just routinize what had previously been seen as just a scandal.

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A Special Prosecutor is a Bad Idea

The idea of appointing a special prosecutor to look into the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia is a bad idea because special prosecutors are either ineffective or led astray, as the history of them attests. It was not Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox that brought Nixon down. It was the Senate Select Committee that had Alexander Butterfield admit before it that Nixon had taped his Oval Office conversations and it was Judge Sirica who got the Watergate burglars to break their silence about what had been going on if they were not to face what might be considered overly harsh sentences were it not for Sirica’s motive to get to the bottom of Watergate. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Special Prosecutor Jaworski’s subpoena of the tapes, but the House Judiciary Committee was about to rule favorably on impeachment anyway, even without the tapes, which were just the final straw, adding some more Republican votes to the decision.

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Economists & Sociologists

There are other closely related disciplines that really go into very different matters. These include such pairs as history and sociology; comparative literature and English literature; American studies and American history. But let us consider only the profound difference between an economic and sociological approach to social problems.

There was a time when the major advisors to political leaders on various social problems were social workers and sociologists. The tradition reaches back to when Jane Addams advised the Governor of Illinois at the turn into the Twentieth Century about how to deal with problems of urban poverty. FDR was served by Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins, although Hopkins eventually was given much broader responsibilities. That tradition perhaps reached its apex during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty where the major influence was Frances Piven, and the team of Richard Cloward and LLoyd Ohlin, as well asa other students of the sociologist Robert Merton, many of whom were social workers, and who offered up one program after another that was designed to make a difference to people in poverty by offering them one service piled up upon another. These programs were largely unsuccessful because they were to be measured by their outcomes but the input, like school lunch programs, while laudable in themselves, were never enough to make a difference in the overall condition of poverty, while the civil rights legislation Johnson also passed did make a difference because they changed the status of black citizens, making them into an ethnic group rather than a caste.

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