Monday, April 16, 2018




To hear James Comey, he seems like a dispassionate observer, reporting what he was privy to during his short time with Donald J. Trump.  There is little reason to doubt what he says, which makes his comments all the more damning, even if he feels the President should not be impeached.  However, there is something lurking beneath his calm demeanor that makes you wonder what ax he has to grind here.  After all, this is the same guy who almost single-handedly undermined Hillary Clinton's campaign by re-opening his investigation into her e-mails in October, 2016, diverting all the media attention away from Trump's infamous Access Hollywood and Miss Universe scandals.

It's pretty hard to buy Comey's argument that he was so confident Hillary would win the November election that re-opening the investigation would have little impact.  The e-mails had been dogging her throughout the campaign, and most people thought this issue had been laid to rest in July when he announced that he found no wrongdoing, albeit chastising her for her carelessness.  So why reopen the case to just as quickly close it again 10 days out from the election?

Trump supporters are seizing on this in their attempt to portray Comey as a politically-motivated hack who is now determined to bring their President down the same way he did Hillary.  Oh the irony in the situation.  The man who was a hero in their eyes back in 2016 is now a "slimeball."   Conversely, the man Hillary supporters vilified back in November is now a hero for speaking out against Trump.

Maybe it is as Comey says, he was just doing his job.  He felt there was enough evidence in the Weiner tapes to justify reopening his investigation into Hillary's e-mails, since presumably his texts with his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, overlapped.   Ms. Abedin worked for Hillary in the State Department and some of her e-mails were on the same server Hillary used.  Still, couldn't it have waited until after the election?

His book is due out tomorrow and already 200,000 copies have been sold.  The guy couldn't have set himself up any better for a runaway bestseller that is sure to top the NY Times and Amazon charts.  It does question his credibility, as there appears to be a very strong ulterior motive here -- money.  No telling how much he got for an advance, but royalties should be sky high.

I suppose it is a book that had to be written given all the controversy he generated, but it is coming at a time which threatens the Republican chances in November, as he not only calls Donald Trump's character into question, but the political party he represents.  Some would call this a hit job.

Anyone who thinks the FBI is beyond reproach hasn't a very good grasp of history, which makes the title of his book, "A Higher Loyalty," almost laughable.  We are not that far removed from the days of J. Edgar Hoover, who entrenched himself in the bureau for decades thanks to all the files he kept on politicians.  This is what leads many to suspect a "deep state" still exists in the FBI and that Comey and McCabe were a part of it.

However, Comey is portraying himself as a boy scout, much in the same way McCabe is doing, in an effort to salvage their tarnished legacies.  I don't think either one of them can really be trusted, which in the end may let Trump off the hook.  I doubt Robert Mueller is very happy about this book, being the methodical man that he is.

Patience in Mueller's ongoing investigation has worn thin, which is why this book is being so well received.  The public is clamoring for juicy details and Comey obliges.  He gives us a peek into Trump's sordid world, not much unlike Michael Wolff did with Fire and Fury.   This book won't be so quickly forgotten, as Comey packs a bigger punch, and Trump obviously feels the sting as he tries to punch his way off the ropes.

Who's to say what will come of all this, but it seems what will ultimately bring Trump down is Stormy Daniels, as Mueller pours over the Cohen tapes.  Apparently, they are very damaging, if Trump is so anxious to review them before Mueller does.   Comey is more of a sideshow, which will probably help more than hurt Trump at this point.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Trump Slump




You might recall Trump loved to gloat about the rapidly rising stock market, even before he took office. The Dow rose roughly 2,000 points just during his transition period from Nov. 8, 2016 through Jan. 20, 2017, and continued to rise precipitously throughout his first year in office, peaking at 26,616 on Jan. 16, 2018.  Since then, the Dow has slumped more than 2000 points and sits at 24,360.   Some might call this a "correction," but it seems that Trump's policies are beginning to take their toll on the economy and he can no longer ride the wave that was a carry over from his predecessor's term of office.

The stock market has always been a fickle thing.  Obama experienced similar down cycles, like one between Nov. 6, 2015 and  Feb. 12, 2016, where the Dow fell roughly 1900 points before beginning its upward growth once more.  It regained all that it had lost by June, and was rising at a steady clip prior to the 2016 general election, not that it did Hillary Clinton any good.

By November, pundits were calling the rising stock market the "Trump Bump," and the Donald was loving every minute of it.  When the stock market breached 20,000 euphoria set in, with the same pundits who had been berating Obama's economic record, now calling it a Boom!  Hats were made to commemorate the event in a variety of colors but red was the favorite, befitting Trump's signature red MAGA cap.  The Donald took full credit for the rising economy.

Of course, there were those who chose to rain on his parade, pointing out that all the elements were in place long before he took office for this boom to occur.  Hillary could have just as easily been enjoying this rapidly growing economy as much as Trump, but alas she had to watch it from the sidelines.  For his part, Obama took some well deserved R&R, jaunting around with Richard Branson in the Caribbean.  Everyone seemed content to let Trump enjoy the fruits of a strong economy that was none of his doing.

Economists knew that what goes up will come back down eventually, and here we are in April watching an economy start to shrink, as early expectations of a stratospheric 5.4% growth rate for the first quarter of 2018 slipped to 1.8% by March, and now it seems we will be lucky to break even.  No official figures have yet been released.  Remember this is a guy who promised a 4% rise in GDP per annum, which has yet to be reached for even one quarter.  His best quarter was between July and September of 2017, when the GDP rose 3.2 per cent.

The tax cuts and deregulation of the economy designed to see the Dow soar in 2018 failed to materialize.  It seems a lot of investors grew squeamish, fearing another 2008 in the making and decided to hedge against these wild expectations.  As a result, Trump has become uncharacteristically quiet about the economy.  You don't hear him crowing about the Dow these days.

It's not just the unfavorable trends in the economy but his on-going battle with Jeff Bezos, his ill-advised decision to impose tariffs, and numerous other tweets that point to a White House that has little idea what is going on in the economy right now.  Republicans in Congress similarly appear to be at a loss for words to explain what is happening, with no less than the House Speaker himself announcing his retirement rather than face the ugly prospect of a tough re-election bid in November.  Republican legislators are leaving it to Trump to bear the brunt of this sagging economy on his own.

Needless to say, His Trumpness is none too happy about all these rats abandoning ship.  The Donald is not the kind of guy to accept responsibility for anything less than a great success.  He may have signed onto the GOP tax cut bill, which was jammed through Congress.  They all knew full well it would only bloat the national deficit with few benefits for the Middle Class, but he will blame Congressional leaders for its shortcomings.  That's the price you pay to satisfy your big money donors like the Mercers and the Kochs.

As Henry Ford said a long time ago, if you want a strong economy you have to have a strong Middle Class that can afford to buy your products.   Everything the Republicans have done these past 15 months has gone against the grain of this cardinal rule, and most recently passed a bogus balanced budget amendment in the House that would strip Social Security of its $2.9 trillion surplus to help offset soaring federal budget deficits projected over the next three years.  This heinous bill is not likely to pass the Senate so easily.

Republicans have long considered themselves savvy businessmen, lamenting how much more effective government would be if it were only run like a business rather than some kind of charity work.  This attitude is what opened the door to Trump, who claimed to be the greatest businessman in the world, despite his many dubious real estate deals and numerous bankruptcies.  Just the same, a large cross section of America bought this notion, and now like those Trump University students are filing a class action lawsuit in the form of recalling their Republican state legislators and US representatives.

Not only have the Republicans managed to bankrupt government once again, but they seem to have no idea how to get the economy moving again.  You hardly heard a peep from the GOP when Trump announced his tariffs, content to let him have his way, even though the tariffs were decried by many leading conservative economists.  Reason no longer prevails in the GOP.  They seem to be working on some primitive survival instinct, hoping to get as much as they can from government before retiring as Paul Ryan is doing.  This from a 48 year-old legislator who wanted to raise the retirement age to 70 and also slash social security and medicare benefits.

They are not just rats, but double rats, as Holly Golightly would say.  Yet, there are many in this country who still would not vote for a Democrat under any circumstances, determined to keep these rats in power for no other reason than ideological.  This helps explain why Trump still enjoys a daily presidential tracking poll of around 50% from Rasmussen despite what appears to be a White House in total chaos, and why Republicans continue to do well in generic polls.  It's enough to just make you want to fly off to Brazil.

The good thing is that these generic polls look a lot different when actual faces emerge.  I don't think it was quality time with the kids that led Ryan to this decision.  Wisconsin is very much turning blue again and there is nothing he or Scott Walker can do to stop it.  Young Paul Ryan saw the writing on the wall as many Republicans have done.  They will most likely lose control of Congress in November, and the way the special investigation has turned on Trump, it looks like his days are numbered as well.  Mike Pence may finally get his dream but will be forced to preside over a Democratic Congress in 2019, that's assuming he doesn't get dragged into the ever widening net of Mueller's investigation, as was the case with Spiro Agnew back in 1973.

As the Dow goes, so do Trump's fortunes.   I guess you call this the "Trump Slump."  He can only hope it rebounds to restore some confidence in his self-professed economic abilities.  But, as long he keeps pushing these tariffs and other punitive measures it isn't very likely.  His worst nightmare is that the Dow may very well hit 20,000 again, but this time from the wrong direction.




Saturday, April 14, 2018

Rockets Red Glare




It seems there is nothing His Trumpness likes more than a surprise fireworks show at someone else's expense.  He lit up the Syrian sky once again in a feeble attempt to "show force" after a chemical attack in the Eastern Ghouta town of Duoma, which Russia says was staged to cast a bad light on the Assad regime.  This follows closely on the heels of the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England, which Russia also says was staged.

All could be.  There are dark forces at work that could very well want a monumental clash between the US and Russia, using England and Syria as staging grounds.  It took less than this to launch WWI but so far both parties have remained relatively restrained.  Secretary of Defense Mattis called it a one-time shot, not planning to follow up with anymore actions against Syria or its comrades in arms Russia and Iran.  For all we know this missile strike was staged to lend the appearance of a punitive strike for the alleged dirty deeds of Russia and Syria.  It remains to be seen how Russia will react, having vowed to do so.

None of it makes any sense, as this "civil war" has been going on for five years with massive destruction and casualties.  Why should a presumed chemical attack up the ante?  From all reports Syria with the help of Russia and Iran has brought the rebel forces under control.  These rebel forces are part universally loathed ISIS and "freedom fighters" backed by the US and Turkey.  For its part, Turkey worked out a deal with Russia after their little brouhaha back in 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane that supposedly had strayed into Turkish air space.

The US also seems relatively content with the situation in Syria, with Trump even vowing to withdraw troops now that ISIS has been defeated.  Of course, we heard this before and Congresspersons were quick to remind His Trumpness of the dangers of "coitus interruptus," It was only days after his surprise pronouncement that this chemical weapon attack occurred, leading Rusophobe "Mackie" McCain to chastise Trump for emboldening Assad.

I'm almost inclined to believe Assad in this case.  What did he have to gain from this chemical attack?  What he wants most is for the US to pull its troops out of his country, not bring more forces down upon him.

So, either we are seeing a number of staged events in a renewed Cold War between Russia and the West, or a sinister third party provoking both countries with the hope of creating a very hot war.  Given that Russia would approach such a war asymmetrically, this makes them all the more dangerous.  They could open up this war on numerous fronts, as they already appear to have done, forcing the US and its Western allies to try to put out a wide array of "fires" rather than just one or two.

The US has proven very vulnerable in open conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  Here they are now in Syria on the edge of Israel, which has already launched strikes of its own on its embattled neighbor, supposedly over the same chemical weapon attack.  Whereas the US is ostensibly looking to warn Russia, Israel appeared to be warning Iran.

Is Syria simply a proxy for foreign leaders looking to boost their own esteem back home?  This would help explain Erdogan's ongoing presence in Syria.  The five foreign leaders involved take pot shots at each other to boost their flagging popularity in their home countries, with Syrians forced to bear the brunt of this military posturing.  It seems Assad is OK with it as long as he remains in power.

Trump gets his little rocket show, carefully calibrated by Defense Sec. Mattis with all parties notified in advance, probably even the target agreed upon.   Not much harm done.  Russia may or may not launch a counter strike.  The Kremlin was vague as to what type of retaliation it would take, but we can expect more terrorist attacks in Europe in the coming months, possibly even the US.  For now, Iran, Israel and Turkey lurk in the background.



Saturday, April 7, 2018

No-Limit Washington Hold'Em




It's not just Russia but China appears to understand the demographics of American elections very well.  In response to Trump's tariffs, President Xi hit back with tariffs aimed directly at the heartland of the US that will hurt Trump voters the worst.  Pretty ballsy move and one that certainly got the Chief Trumpkin's attention as the Big D wants to add another $100 billion in tariffs, as if he is playing some kind of high stakes poker game with China.

This had the impact on Wall St. everyone expected with the Dow tumbling nearly 600 points on Friday, as there was little Larry Kudlow could do to stop the bleeding, after first hearing of Trump's new tariffs the night  before.  Kudlow is now El Presidente's top economic advisor, but it doesn't seem he gets much attention in the White House, and therefore none on Wall St.

We now appear to be officially in the middle of a trade war with China.  Xi has a better poker face than Donald, so I have to think most economists are putting their money on the Chinese president to win what we will call  No-Limit Washington Hold'Em.  Trump might be advised to heed Kenny Rogers's famous anthem to The Gambler, before it is too late, otherwise he will find himself in the same spot as the jilted husband in Lucille.

No one wants to see a crying Trump, but that's pretty much what we have now -- hopelessly out of his realm, making decisions on twitter that immediately hurt him, and leaving his staff to try to pick up the pieces the same day.  The worst part about it is that he still thinks he is in charge when the only thing buoying him up is a relatively strong economy and his billionaire supporters who seem to be doing their damnedest to hold off a huge sell off on Wall St.

The only thing surprising about Friday's plunge was that it was so little.  In fact, at one point it looked like the Dow was heading back toward even, only to take a big blow at the end of the day.  This tells me there are interested parties, like the Mercers, determined to keep the stock market from tanking because of the money they have invested in Trump.  Given the horrible decisions Trump made on tariffs, the Dow should be back below 20,000, not still hovering around 24,000.  Note that the Chinese are well aware of this.

I'm no expert in such matters but we appear to be on the edge of another major crisis much like we were in 2008.  Rather than making moves to stabilize the economy, the Trump administration appears to be doing everything it can do to undermine the economy, much like Bush did in an effort to stave off a recession in the early 2000's.  Instead of a small dip in the economy, we will now have another deep crater that will take years to climb back out of.

Kudlow is the last person Trump should have brought on board to advise him on such matters, yet even he predicted a major calamity if Trump went through with his tariffs, whose only purpose appeared to be to prop of Saccone's flailing campaign in Pennsylvania.  Saccone lost and now many other Americans will lose in reprisals meant to hit America where it hurts most -- Trumpland.

No one wanted this, but Trump felt he had to do something to address the trade imbalance between the two countries, if for no other reason than to assure his base he was still the big bully they voted for.  But, Trump didn't think this through.  No surprise from a guy who brags about his penchant to shoot from the hip.

It is impossible to keep this guy on script, and he veered wildly off course Thursday aboard Air Force One, as his hair took on a life of its own.  He must have been fuming as his staff combed his mop back into place, venting to the press the short moment he gave them aboard the plane.

He hadn't had to face any retaliation yet from other countries for his ridiculous policies because to this point his foreign policy didn't really mean much.  It was obvious China would respond to his tariffs but the human hair piece didn't expect Xi to target Chinese tariffs specifically at his base, where he is most vulnerable right now.  So much for soy bean futures.

Trump is getting an ear full from the likes of Ann Coulter and other right-wing pundits, who are using their open mic to rail against him as Ann did at Columbia University.  Of course, he still has the unwavering support of Sean Hannity to offset whatever loss comes from Coulter, but you have to wonder how much more conservatives can take of this erratic president, who threatens to drag the entire Republican Party down with him.

Playing high stakes poker in a trade war with China isn't going to endear him with the conservative business orthodoxy either.  The Chamber of Commerce, which considers itself the voice of small business in America, came out sharply against the tariffs.  In the end, we pay for all this false bluster in higher prices, as the companies pass the extra costs onto the consumers, which Wilbur Ross should examine the next time he decides to talk to a Campbell's soup can.

It's the US economy you are gambling with, Stupid!


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Baltics in the Age of Trump




Maybe the Baltic countries should join together to form a joint confederation.  I don't know what you would call it Litvonia or Esluvia or Latuvia, but they certainly don't get much attention on their own.  It's been nearly 30 years since Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union, the first of the Baltic nations to do so.  It got a lot of attention at the time, much moreso than Estonia or Latvia which seceded in turn, but since then Lithuania has found itself lagging behind in name recognition.  The few movie and television references than do pop up are usually its northern neighbors, like the time George wanted to convert to "Latvian Orthodox" on Seinfeld or Dinesh fell for a cute Estonian programmer on Silicon Valley.

Yet, some of the most famous sports and entertainment celebrities have been Lithuanian.  Johnny Unitas politely turned down an award by the Baltimore Greek community for sportsman of the year following his Super Bowl victory, noting that he was Lithuanian.   Robert Zemeckis, who gave us Forrest Gump and Back to the Future, is similarly proud of his Lithuanian roots.  Then there are all those Litvaks with Jewish ties to Lithuania, namely Bob Dylan, Michael Bloomberg and Jon Stewart.  Vilnius was once known as the "Jerusalem of the North."  Of course, Latvia and Estonia have their famous celebrities as well, but it is pretty hard to top Charles Bronson, another famous Litvak.

These countries want to be seen as independent nations, not the "Baltic states," which is what Trump repeatedly referred to them during his meeting and press conference with the three presidents yesterday.  The only times these countries came together under the same flag was when they were annexed by Russia in the late 18th century and again by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.  Not the kind of "shared" history one wants to recount.  I don't think Trump once referred to the countries or their leaders by name.

The latter is understandable as even former President Obama had a very hard time getting Lithuanian President Grybauskaite right, although he gave it a game effort.  However, Trump did press the Lithuanian President to praise him for his strong role in NATO, but Ms. Grybauskaite politely avoided his name, keeping the discussion on a national, not personal, level.

Trump of course sees everything through his personal view.  It is hard enough for him to stay on topic, as seen in the clip above, let alone address the needs of other nations, particularly small nations which he probably never heard about before this meeting.  It does appear someone on his staff made an effort to coach him a little, and gave him a well-prepared speech for his press conference.  He managed to stay on track until a reporter asked him about Mexican border security.  The derailment was what you would expect at the 27-minute mark.  A Lithuanian reporter tried to bring the subject back to the Baltics at the 31:30 mark, but Trump wasn't quite so animated, falling back on statements he made earlier.

Fact of the matter is that neither Trump nor anyone in his administration has any real interest in the Baltic nations, save maybe Defense Secretary Mattis.  He is probably the only one who sees these countries as being on the front line of defense against Russia, should the Kremlin make another incursion into Europe, something that weighs heavily on the minds of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians.  What the Baltic nations wanted from this administration was the assurance that the United States would have their backs if such a moment came.  However, praise for the "industrious nations" didn't translate into a strong commitment, but rather a murky reference to the Baltic nations continuing to meet the NATO target of 2 per cent of their GDP on defense, which all three nations now do.

It seems that Trump may have gotten a little coaching from Putin in their last phone call on this subject, as Russia has long considered NATO a direct threat to its national security and wants the US to roll back its joint military exercises with the Baltic nations which occur annually.  He no doubt avoided any discssion of Russia's "Zapad," which it conducts every year along the same borders, many times bigger than the US and NATO-led military exercises.

Estonia and Latvia feel more of a threat, both internal and external, than does Lithuania, largely because they have a much larger Russian-speaking community within their borders.  The fear ever since Crimea is that Russia will try to mobilize pro-Russian sentiment within the Baltics for these communities to break off and seek annexation with their "homeland."  It hasn't been successful since most Baltic Russians consider themselves citizens of the countries they live in, and do not feel discriminated against as apparently Russians did in the Ukraine.  Efforts in Narva, Daugavpils and Klaipeda failed miserably.  These Baltic cities all have large Russian-speaking communities.  Nevertheless, it is a constant threat, which all three Baltic presidents noted, particularly the Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who mentioned the Russian cyber attacks on her country in 2007, resulting in deep resentment toward Moscow ever since.

But, Trump seems more concerned with Germany meeting its two percent target on military spending than he does the very real threat Russia poses to NATO member countries.  For him, it is a "transactional" or "pay-to-play" relationship.  It's not like Germany has a small military or that it fails to meet its NATO obligations.  Being one of the world's largest economies, even if it only invested half of the two percent target number on defense spending that would still be significantly more than most other countries in the world.  As it is, Germany is the second largest contributor to NATO behind the United States.

The Baltics know they are not in the same bargaining position as Germany, the UK or even Poland.  They have to meet the target number despite the strain it places on their economies so as not to give the US an out should the time come when it truly does need its help to defend its borders.  Lithuania is in a particularly onerous location, as Russia's nuclear submarine fleet is stationed in Kaliningrad, which Lithuania shares a long border with.

None of this escaped previous presidents.  President George W. Bush even made a trip to Vilnius in 2002 to confirm the United States commitment to Lithuania, vowing no more Yaltas.  A bronze plaque of his famous quote is anchored to the wall of the old city hall, where he gave his speech on a cold November day.  Bush was largely responsible for speeding up the process of having the Baltic nations become part of NATO in 2004.  President Obama reaffirmed that commitment in a speech in Tallinn, Estonia, in September, 2014, marking the tenth anniversary.

It was nice of Trump to welcome the three presidents to the White House this week, but what the Baltic nations would like to see is a similar commitment like that of his predecessors.  I'm sure Latvia would be open to a visit by the US President, completing the trifecta, so to speak.  However, it is doubtful that will ever happen.

In the meantime, the Baltic nations content themselves with Trump surrogates like Gen. Jim Mattis, who was in Lithuania last year, overseeing the joint military exercises.  Actions speak louder than words, President Grybauskaite said on that occasion, and so far the US continues to honor its agreements with NATO and the Baltic nations, despite the continual griping by Trump on twitter.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Blowback

Or how President Trump Learned to  Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb




Maybe we can take Trump's decision to abandon DACA as an April Fool's joke, or any one of his recent irrational decisions.  This is a guy who in the past month has gutted his cabinet and top advisers, proposing John Bolton of all people as his new National Security adviser, who seemed just as shocked to hear the news as we all were.

With Tillerson and McMaster now gone, the only voice of reason left in the Trump administration is General Jim Mattis, and you have to wonder how much longer he has in Trump's cabinet, given the President appears to have revived his Celebrity Apprentice in the White House, offering as a rag tag bunch of advisers who have no more idea what their cabinet post entails than does Trump.  We can call it Secretary Apprentice.

Ben Carson was literally called on the carpet by Elizabeth Warren for his abysmal job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs.  It wasn't just his questionable purchase of a $31,000 dining room set, which he blamed on his wife, but the plain and simple fact he has no idea what he is doing, and has made HUD into a disaster over the last 14 months.   In his defense, he gave the same sleepy-eyed responses we would expect from someone totally out of his realm.  This so shortly after the debacle with Betsy DeVos.

These are not isolated cases.  Questions of incompetence, malfeasance and just plain ignorance dog Trump's cabinet members and inner circle of White House advisers.  Sec. of Interior Zinke has been questioned in regard to similar dubious purchases as Carson.  Wilbur Ross tried to explain away newly proposed steel tariffs as having minimal impact on our economy, using a can of Budweiser and Campbell's soup as analogies.  Rick Perry made the outlandish statement last month that moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy is "immoral," stating that it will place an undue burden on poor nations.

As bad as all these secretaries are, none can match the shear mean-spirited nature of John Bolton, a man most assumed would never see public office again, which is why he turned up on Fox.  The guy never had a prominent role in government.  His most high-profile position was as US Ambassador to the UN from 2005-06, during which he belched a number of bellicose statements in the General Assembly and was subsequently relieved of his duties by George W. Bush when he pressed the reset button on foreign policy.  But, here is Bolton being proposed to lead the NSC!

Unlike cabinet secretaries, Bolton doesn't need Senate confirmation, making it all the more scary.  He is probably the only person more "temperamentally unfit" to be in government than Donald Trump, yet has received kudos from Lindsey Graham, Orin Hatch, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, among other Republican senators.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Tillerson has been replaced with Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director who has no diplomatic experience whatever.  One could argue the same for Tillerson, but at least he brought a measure of temperance to an administration that seemed much too anxious to go to war with North Korea.  Pompeo appears to have no such restraint.

The idea of Pompeo and Bolton leading the State and National Security at such a pivotal point in our foreign affairs should send shudders down every Congressional spine, assuming our Senators have ones.  Nevertheless, Pompeo will most likely be approved, having been a former Congressman himself and praised for his leadership of the CIA.  It is as one Democratic Senator noted, Trump is lining up his "war cabinet."

So much for those efforts by South Korea, the International Olympic Committee, China and other interested parties to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, as it seems the Trump administration has little interest in forging a nuclear weapons deal like the one Obama did with Iran.  It is highly doubtful this May meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will take place, even as both the Chinese and South Korean presidents meet with Kim.  Whatever "deal" emerges will most likely not include the US, which will reserve the right for military action despite the dire consequences in the region.

This is what happens when you turn the White House into a reality show.  Our Republican-led Congress has either been oblivious to the movements taking place, or worse are part of what could be a total usurpation of the democratic process by allowing Trump the war powers to essentially create an autocratic state.

Given the Republican prospects of holding onto Congress in the midterms look very bleak, is war the only way to retain control of government?  This is the question we should be asking ourselves right now, as Republicans appear to be bracing for a major electoral defeat in November.  Their tax cuts made no impact.  Their attempt to make Nancy Pelosi into the Hillary Clinton of the midterms has failed.  Their attempt to at first ignore and now demonize the Parkland students has blown up in their face.  All the issues that so successfully came together in 2016 in what could be described as a "perfect political storm," in which they gained absolute control of Washington, have now come back to haunt them in 2018.  With this in mind, turning over the reins of power to the White House through a broad war powers act doesn't seem so far-fetched, otherwise Republicans stand to lose everything they gained in 2016.

So, is it buffoonery, or have we ignored this possibility because we consider it unthinkable in our society.  The idea of President Donald J. Trump was once considered unthinkable, even among Republicans.  Our Reality Show President has been a great diversion.  CNN literally counts the days, and no news segment is complete without some reference to the chaos in the Oval Office.  It has become a 24/7 obsession.  Yet, there seems something far more insidious at work here.

Democratic leaders need to reach out to their Republican colleagues that still are willing to listen to reason and stop this before it is too late.  Trump is not so much being controlled by Russia, as he is being effectively manipulated by rich conservative interests determined to impose their control on our society at both a national and international level.  They assume Trump is pliable, and given his recent actions it appears that he is.  But, there are rivals among these interests and they will battle for control over his administration.  Congress will become just some quaint idea at that point, reduced to a shadow of itself if the President is able to have full war powers.

After all this is how we ended up with a National Security Council in the aftermath of World War II, and subsequently strengthened during the Vietnam War and Iraq War, with even broader authority into "homeland security."  We have become a country too easily manipulated by existential threats, whether that be Stalin, Mao or Kim Jong Un.  Of course, North Korea may itself be a diversion, as the US military would probably feel much more comfortable going to war with Iran, knowing it has far less weapons of mass destruction than does Kim, and can therefore keep the blowback localized.

For Bolton and Pompeo and the conservative hawks in Congress, it doesn't matter.  Iran is as convenient a foil as North Korea.  Of course, they run the risk of alienating Russia and China either way, but as long as they are able to convince our global rivals this "war" is for domestic purposes, Putin and Xi might be convinced to look the other way.


Friday, March 23, 2018

You're Fired!

Or How Long Will We Allow this Asshole to Remain President?


Trump at 2003 Playboy party with Melania and Victoria Silvstedt

With the "removal" of former Gen. McMaster, Congressional Republicans may want to rethink their position on Mueller.  No one is safe in the Trump universe, least of all American interests.  This guy operates on the one simple premise: anything to protect himself.

A "blunt warning" simply doesn't cut it.  This man has no respect for anyone in Congress or throughout the country for that matter.  We saw that in how he chose to dismiss Tillerson, a billionaire oil executive, and now McMaster, a 3-star general.  Both were well respected, the latter exceedingly so.  But, they are both gone because their recognition of Russia as the most serious threat to our national security and global interests didn't resonate with their Commander-in-Chief, who continues to dodge any serious sanctions, much less strong words against Russia.

Instead, he initiates a trade war with China, which has everyone saying, "what the fuck?"  This is a trade war the US simply can't win, because our economy is too dependent on Chinese cheap imports.  Even Donald's line of merchandise is largely made in China and Bangladesh, not to mention much of Ivanka's already high-priced line of clothing.  Are Americans willing to fork out the extra dollars for a MAGA cap?

At what point, do we say enough is enough?  We've allowed this madman to run the country for 14 months.  The only thing keeping his head above water is a bouyant economy left by his predecessor.  I won't mention names here.  However, Trump's reckless trade policies and his recent decision to roll back financial regulations threatens to sink our economy at a time most Americans are finally benefiting from it.   Basically, he's cutting off his nose to spite his face, and all of ours in turn.

Why are Congressional Republicans at such great pains to act?  They have to know Trump will do everything in his power to thwart Mueller's investigation and if that means firing him, so be it!  Why should he care about hollow threats coming out of disgruntled Republicans like Jeff Flake.

Trump loves controversy.  He's thrived on it all his life because he has always had a big cushion to fall back on.  Even when his businesses went bankrupt, Trump enjoyed the Life of Reily.  He was even able to parlay all these failures into a long-running reality show, The Apprentice, giving us his eponymous "you're fired!"

What we are finding out through Mueller's investigation is that Trump has long relied on Russian financial backing to cushion his falls, especially after Papa Trump died.  His properties became part of an elaborate money laundering scheme for Russian oligarchs, when no one else would touch them.  This is what Putin has on Trump, along with numerous other things, including the infamous pee tape, which may indeed be real.  This guy has no moral scruples, given the recent allegations from Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, that a "pee tape" is certainly not out of the question.

Do we really want to be dragged into Trump's depraved life anymore than we already are?   He has made the United States into an international embarrassment, far greater than anything we had to suffer under George W. Bush.  No one respects Trump.  He has become the laughing stock of German parades and public toilets in Ireland.  No previous president suffered these kinds of indignities.

Yet, our president appears to crave this attention, as he makes ever more stupid decisions that led Jean-Claude Juncker to scratch his head and ponder what the appropriate response is to Trump's recent steel and aluminum tariffs, saying "we can also do stupid."

The rest of the world can only sit by while Trump runs America into the gutter, but Congress can act.  It has the power to tell Trump, "You're Fired!"

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Divide and Conquer




Watching this season's Homeland, it struck me just how easy it is to manipulate our country right now.  Not just the President, but every facet of our society.  We have become so entrenched in our petty beliefs that all it takes is a snapshot taken out of context to be distributed through social media to set off an armed conflict.  This is what Homeland showed in episode 4.  The identity of the mysterious photographer was revealed in episode 6.  Spoiler notice: the agitator turns out to be Russian.

One might call this fantasy but Russian on-line trolls tried to do just that in 2016, creating phony protests throughout the country by advertising them on social media.  In one incident, these trolls managed to stage a rally in Houston, Texas, bringing out both state secessionists and an Islamic group to the same site through phony facebook groups.  Mercifully, no major confrontation took place.  The two sides yelled at each other from across the street.  It shows how easily people can be manipulated through social media.

Recently, it was found out that the guy behind the Cambridge Analytica algorithm, which allowed the research company to harvest 50 million facebook profiles, is Russian.  Alexander Kogan presented his findings to Lukoil, a huge Russian energy firm with direct ties to the Kremlin, supposedly to help its marketing effort. Kogan is a Cambridge academic, previously from St. Petersburg.  This information was allegedly used to sway opinions on Brexit, and ultimately used to influence the American elections in 2016.  Not only that but much of the information that was harvested was used by Trump, Ted Cruz and other prominent Republicans during the campaign, through the notorious Stephen Bannon.

Of course, many companies can simply buy information from on-line retailers and social media groups, using it to target customers.  However, it seems our wily politicians with the help of Russian techies have figured out how to target potential voters in a big way.  Yes, the algorithm probably could have been developed by a "400-pound guy sitting in bed" with too much time on his hands.  However, one has to be able to quickly spread this information through the social media and it is doubtful that such a person would have these connections.

This is what Homeland is exploring this season as it charts how quickly a meme can spread through the web through a series of automated sites around the country, rapidly picked up by those on social media that feed into the views expressed.  It is a form of cyberwar that is very effective in a country as polarized as ours today.

It's not just that information is now much easier to harvest and that one can tailor make consumer and political advertisements for a specific audience, its that we have become an easily agitated mass prone to hysteria whenever a story hits a strong emotional chord.  I've seen my friends distribute these memes on facebook without thinking for one moment where these memes came from.  They simply responded to them because the images appealed to their emotional view of a subject.  All a troll has to do is find that soft spot and exploit it.

I would like to think we are wising up a little after the 2016 debacle.  Certainly, these early special elections reflect a new consciousness that has Republicans deeply worried with the mid terms right around the corner.  However, one can expect operatives to continue to use hot button emotional issues to sway close elections right down to the wire.  All it takes is a few hundred votes to tip a close election as we recently saw in Pennsylvania.

One can imagine Vlad sitting back watching all this with a big Cheshire grin on his face.


Monday, March 19, 2018

The shit hits the fan




You really have to wonder why John Kelly felt the need to tell us that Tillerson was sitting on the can when he broke the news to him on Friday that Trump was letting him go.  Rex gave everything he had to the role.  Granted, it wasn't much, but still he deserved a better send off than that.  I think McMasters is dreading going to the toilet now that it is rumored he is next on the chopping block, and that Trump plans to bring John Bolton in as the next National Security Advisor.

As ugly as that sounds, it was even more ugly the way Trump dumped Andrew McCabe the following Friday.  The deputy FBI director was two days away from retirement.  Trump took absolute glee in this decision, proclaiming it a "great day for Democracy" on Twitter.  He even wanted to strip McCabe of his pension.  As it is, Andrew will take a huge cut unless Rep. Mark Pocan is true to his word and gives McCabe a short term job to complete his retirement package.

As for Tillerson, he was none too pleased with the forewarning, which I think is why he voiced his agreement with British officials in pointing the blame on Russia for last week's attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter.  Strikes me that Rex has had enough of this charade and took a jab at Donald, leading the POTUS to make his announcement on Twitter before formally telling Rex he was sacked on Tuesday.

I also think this is the reason McMasters is on notice.  The former general pushed to have the White House finally impose sanctions on Putin's cronies after Trump dragged his feet for the better part of a year.  McMasters specifically referenced the ongoing conflict in Syria, believing Russia is complicit in the huge death toll.  Trump really had no choice in the matter, but has to find a way to placate Vlad, who is none too happy about these sanctions, especially on the eve of the World Cup in Russia.

Putin is still smarting from the Olympic Athletes from Russia's poor showing in South Korea -- a far cry from their dominant display in Sochi four years ago.  Now, here is Europe and America making Russia look bad just before the World Cup.  You can sense his anger in a recent interview with Megyn Kelly on NBC.

Many have speculated why Trump holds Putin in such high esteem -- his love of autocrats, Putin's massive chest, but the consensus is that Putin has compromised our President, and Trump doesn't want an embarrassing revelation that would sink his administration.

Trump has taken most of his anger out on the FBI, but it has spilled over to members of his staff who want to see harsher sanctions placed on Russia for a broad number of reasons, not least of all the election hacking, which has been corroborated by numerous national security agencies, not just the FBI.  The closer Mueller gets to the heart of his Russian connections the more Trump lashes out.  He has been warned repeatedly not to touch Mueller, so he went after McCabe, who is the subject of a renewed investigation into the Clinton e-mails, which Trump had ordered.

As we know, our president watches Fox and Friends and numerous other conservative programs, which have been spreading this theory of a "deep state" determined to bring him down.  Comey and McCabe are the favorite targets of this conspiracy theory.  In conservatives' addled minds, this was all "confirmed" by the recent GOP memo penned by House "Intelligence" chairman Devin Nunes, Trump's hatchet man in Congress.

This leads one to wonder if Trump is truly oblivious to the Russian business and political ties that have surfaced, insulated all these years by his sons and advisors; or if he is just using the "deep state" as a convenient smoke screen in his attempt to discredit the FBI, and Mueller's investigation in turn.  I suppose you could make a case for the former, depending on how deep you believe Trump's dementia to have set in, but more likely the latter as the FBI has long been a favorite target of conspiracy theories, even before The X-Files.  Trump is trying to get as much mileage out of this public antipathy toward the FBI as he can.

Republican Congresspersons are hamstrung by the overwhelming support Trump still gets from the base of the party.  To come out harshly against Trump is to commit political suicide in the upcoming midterm elections.  A few senators believe they can withstand the wrath of Trump, but Corker took a second look at his Tennessee voting base and decided to creep back to the White House after his spat last year with Trump, as he apparently wants to run for re-election after all.  Most just choose to remain deferential, harboring what ever troubling thoughts they have about Trump until Mueller's investigation is completed.

But, if you are a cabinet member or in the employ of the federal government, you really don't have much choice in the matter.  So, Trump made a public example of Tillerson and McCabe sure to earn the approval of his comrade Vladimir Putin.  This is how you deal with insubordinate subordinates!  A show of strength that is also sure to endear him to his base.  It's just too bad Trump hasn't kept himself fit, then maybe he could join Vlad on one of those hunting or fishing trips.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Meet Conor Lamb




If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, and that seems to be what the Republicans are doing in the wake of their electoral defeat in District 18 of Western Pennsylvania.  No sooner did Kayleigh McEnany make the absurd claim that Conor Lamb "ran as a Republican" than did Paul Ryan and no less than Dotardly Don himself.

Of course, many Republicans would love to run on Lamb's moderate values, but they would never make it out of the primaries.  Lamb won because he was able to siphon off just enough Republican voters to tip the final count in a deeply conservative district in his favor.   This is something the base of the Republican Party would never allow from one of their own.  Just ask Rick Saccone, who had to veer staunchly to the right on issues like abortion and "right to work" to placate this base.

This was the same reason Ed Gillespie lost Virginia and why the Republicans lost Alabama.  Ed was as moderate as they come, but his campaign advisers convinced him to be like Trump.  In the end he lost to Ralph Northam, who many Democrats felt was too conservative for their tastes, but had no problem remaining to the left of Gillespie.  Even if Luther Strange had made it out of the Republican primaries in Alabama, there was no guarantee he would have won against Doug Jones, as GOP operatives would have told him to fully embrace Trump and run the same ugly attack ads against Jones, which Roy Moore did.

Trumpism, or more appropriately Bannonism, appears to be dead.  The tactics that carried the GOP through 2016 no longer work in 2018.  This notion of appealing to the worst instincts in America was successful when Republicans were able to make Hillary Clinton their principal target and remind everyone she would appoint a liberal judge to the Supreme Court, crushing conservatism to its core.  Republicans tried desperately to replace Clinton with Nancy Pelosi in Pennsylvania.  It didn't work.  In part because Lamb said from the get go he didn't support Pelosi, but mostly because he ran his race on local issues.

The latter is why Lamb won in Pennsylvania and Ossoff lost in Georgia.  Both were about the same age, giving the Democrats badly needed fresh faces.  However, Lamb was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania.  He knew the people of Allegheny, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.  Ossoff was a ringer.  Someone brought in from Atlanta to run a Congressional race outside his district of residence.  He represented the party ideology and was unable to reach beyond Democrats in a conservative district.

The other key factor is that Lamb raised most of his money within the district.  He avoided having his campaign nationalized, which was the case with Ossoff, who saw money pouring into his campaign from all over the country, and got a huge shot in the arm from the DNC.  Lamb kept his campaign local, and the folks of District 18 appreciated it.

It was the Republicans who tried to nationalize the campaign by bringing in Trump twice, Donnie Jr. several times, Mike Pence, Kid Rock, the NRA.  You name it.  The RNC poured $10 million into Saccone's campaign because he had been so inept at raising funds of his own.  The last week saw a bombardment of attack ads run against Lamb, but he didn't flinch.  That's what you expect from a Marine.

Still, he was only able to eek out the election by 700 votes.  This shows you how tough the battle is.  There are die-hard Republicans who would sooner vote for an old goat before they would vote for a Democrat.  You can only hope to work with Republicans on the fringe of the party.  At the party's core is a deeply embedded conservatism reinforced by a sophisticated media apparatus that has bought up most of the local newspapers and television stations.

Lamb's win throws virtually every district into play across the country if the DNC can find more candidates like him.  This is the Republicans' worst fear.  They have drifted so far to the right that young Democrats can run like Reagan Republicans and garner support from the more moderate fringe of the GOP, while still not losing support within their own party.

Lamb offered a near perfect balance of conservative social values combined with moderate views on health care and labor that turned Western Pennsylvanians in his favor.  Doug Jones offered essentially the same pragmatic view in Alabama.  They are often referred to as Blue Dog Democrats, and there are many of them, but in the rush to elect Hillary Clinton as our first woman president, the DNC alienated the Blue Dogs, and as a result suffered badly in 2016.

It seems Tom Perez might not be such a bad DNC leader after all.  He has a much better understanding of the balance of electoral power in this country than did his predecessor, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  You have to be able to tailor your message to a representative district.  There is no one-size-fits-all message.  It may make it tougher to control the House with all these different views within your ranks, but with effective leadership you can strike a balance.

This also may be a tipping point for Republicans, realizing they can no longer run solely on conservative social issues.  They have to address labor and health care in a meaningful way, not just keep tossing out more tax cuts, which made little impact on the voters in Alabama and Pennsylvania.

Bannonism is dead.  All that bluster that he was going to lead a revolution in 2018, calling out the Republicans on the hill, makes him look like the shoddy conservative hack, Brett O'Keefe, on Homeland, forced to spread his message from the basement of a rural Tennessee home in Season 7.   Its hybrid, Trumpism is also dead.  The petty name calling, false innuendos, and inflammatory rhetoric no longer plays well among the factory workers and miners Trump claims to represent.  His rambling campaign rally speech last Saturday only garnered nervous laughs.  Few people can take him seriously at this point, other than to wonder how deep the dementia has set in.

What Conor Lamb showed us is that you don't have to respond to Trump's rhetoric or allow your opponent to label you.  Let your constituents know who you are, and that means going to door to door, which you can do in a manageable district like that in Western Pennsylvania.   There is no reason the Democrats can't take back the House if they just put their feet on the ground.

So, fuck you Donald J. Trump!  He didn't say very nice things about you.  He ignored you.  He didn't allow you or your surrogates to bully or in any way influence him.  He kept his focus on the issues that were most important to his constituents in Western Pennsylvania.   Let that be a lesson to anyone running for office.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dumber than a Bag of Hammers




Nice to know that our education system is in such good hands.  We can thank Rep. Jared Huffman for that colorful tweet, as he reflected the opinion of many after Betsy DeVos' painful interview on 60 Minutes.  Maybe the White House lawyers should have blocked this interview from airing on national television instead of being so worried about Stormy Daniels.

Of course, Betsy didn't fair much better at her Senate hearing last year, but Republican Congressmen OK'ed her just the same, with the help of their sixth man, Mike Pence.  Murkowski and Collins voted against her.  She's made a fool of herself time and again, from misspelling W.E.B. DuBois to a tweet riddled with grammatical errors, which she later passed off on her staff.  Worst of all, she made no attempt to reach out to the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when she had the chance to ease their anxieties over the mass shooting last month.  But, this interview may have been the last straw as there is nothing Trump hates more than to be made look stupid, and that is exactly what Betsy DuVos (sic) did.

Of course, one could argue that his entire cabinet is dumber than a sack of hammers, having members like Betsy, Ben and Rick.  In their rare statements, they actually make Donald Trump look smart by comparison.  This may explain why he let go of Rex Tillerson this weekend, as he might have had a hard time beating the former Secretary of State in an IQ test.  Trump never likes to be challenged.

This has resulted in a cabinet that is far and away from the "best and brightest" that Trump promised on the campaign trail.  Most had little or no experience in regard to the titles they assumed.  Rick Perry had vowed to get rid of the Dept. of Energy all together if he was elected President, and here he is now its Secretary.  A man Trump openly ridiculed on the campaign trail for being dumb.

Betsy was supposed to be a little brighter and had been involved in setting up a charter school in Chicago, so it was assumed she had some experience in education.  But, she has time and again revealed her ignorance on the subject.  You could see her literally shrinking when former Sen. Al Franken challenged her knowledge in the Senate, like a student not ready for a pop quiz.

The White House will greatly limit her public engagements after this fiasco, but you have to wonder why they ever allowed such an interview to take place.  She has fared horribly under scrutiny, even the mildest form as Leslie Stahl did not ask her very tough questions.  It seems her only role is to keep the seat warm, while his budget director, Mick "the Knife" Mulvaney seeks to pare down the department to the bare minimum.  Republicans would love nothing more than to get rid of the Department of Education all together, leaving education entirely in state and local hands.

We are all appalled by Betsy's dull performance, but when you have a blunt-headed President, who treats his cabinet like Celebrity Apprentice, what can you expect?  The only thing you can somewhat admire is the honesty of Ben Carson for at least admitting he knew nothing about Housing and Urban Development, but then he turned this into a callous view of public awareness that seems to be the only "experience" you need to be a member of Trump's cabinet.

Betsy DeVos is equally callous, judging by the way she dismissed the students of Parkland, Florida.  For her, public schools are like an infectious disease and the only answer is more charter schools, which haven't turned out to be the panacea described in such documentaries as Waiting for Superman.  If Trump really wanted someone who would have promoted this vision, he should have picked Michelle Rhee, who is a far more articulate advocate than Betsy DeVos.


Monday, March 12, 2018

On the Road Again




It was not so much a political rally as it was a vaudeville act.  Trump stumped for the sad-eyed Rick Saccone, who finds himself trailing his young challenger, Conor Lamb, in Western Pennsylvania.  You heard very little about Saccone throughout Trump's rambling speech in Pittsburgh.  It was mostly about himself and how badly he is treated in the media.  He called Chuck Todd a son of a bitch, and Maxine Waters a "very low IQ individual."  Every once in a while he came back to the theme of the special election, bragging that his recent tariffs would return steel to Pittsburgh and that he needed guys like Rick Saccone in Congress to push his message.

The only problem is that Saccone, who appeared to kiss Trump square on the lips when the President first came to Pittsburgh in January, probably regrets a second visit, as it isn't lifting him in the polls.  Like so many of these special elections around the country, it is a referendum on Trump, and if history is precedent, sad-eyed Rick is in for a miserable Tuesday evening when the returns roll in.

Trump staged a similar rally for Roy Moore in Pensacola in the days leading up that Alabama Senate special election, only to see the Ten Commandments judge go down in ignominious defeat.  Apparently, the President had been warned not to go to Alabama in support of the skirt chaser, so the Northwest Florida city near the Alabama border was the next best place.  Just the same he couldn't carry Moore across the finish line.  If he can't do that in the Heart of Dixie, where can he do it?

At least Saccone doesn't have a history of chasing after 14-year-olds, otherwise this election would have long been over.  He seems to be holding his own mostly thanks to blue collar workers who still  think the GOP represents their interests, even if steel isn't coming back to Pittsburgh.  The city transitioned long ago and is now one of the leading high tech centers in the Midwest, just don't tell Trump that.  He seems to think his presence alone is enough to resuscitate the steel industry.

Trump has become the Democrats best weapon, but this doesn't stop Trump from hitting the campaign trail.   This Fall, he plans to be on the road most of the week in support of his charges, largely because he enjoys these rallies.  He lets fly with anything in his head, usually forgetting who he is campaigning for, putting on a great show if nothing else.  People turn out just to see if he might explode on stage in a fantastic moment of spontaneous self-combustion.  The media loves it, parsing out each and every word of his rambling speeches for all to see.

Luther Strange, Roy Moore, Rick Saccone become incidental characters in these mostly one-man vaudeville performances, and when it is over are quickly forgotten.  Trump seeks out a new foil to regal his audience.  Probably the most honest thing he said in his recent Pittsburgh speech is "Remember how easy it is to be presidential?  But you'd all be out of here right now.  You'd be so bored."  So, he plays his audience for laughs and they love it.

For Trump, the world is a reality show.  He joked about North Korea.  He joked about Maxine Waters.  He joked about drug dealers.  He joked about Chuck Todd.  Conor Lamb's boyish good looks and charm didn't go unnoticed, as he declared himself better looking before dubbing the young candidate "Lamb the Sham."

None of it made any sense whatsoever, but the audience was eating it up like they would a Rodney Dangerfield performance from the 1980s.  Only Trump isn't self-deprecating, he's self-destructive.  It's pretty hard to overcome a president like this when you are desperately trying to reach out to moderate voters in these midterm elections.

Trump takes comfort in Rasmussen polls, which has his approval rating ten points higher than other polls, and Putin's latest compliments, as the wily Russian president butters him up for the kill.  Even more amazing he accepts an offer from the North Korean tyrant to come to Pyongyang, seeming to forget that the person of strength is the one who declares the venue, not the one who is in a position of weakness.  Why on earth would he want to go to Pyongyang anyway?

All the GOP can do is roll its eyes.  They try to back up Rick Saccone in other ways, but he has shown himself to be a very weak candidate.  The best you can say for him is that he isn't Roy Moore.  The RNC had to send in troops just to get his campaign off the ground, as he was unable to mobilize the conservative base in Western Pennsylvania, falling woefully behind Conor Lamb in fundraising.

It all looks like too little too late for the woebegone conservative candidate from Pennsylvania District 18, soon to be written off the map.  It really doesn't matter who wins or loses this race as in 6 month there will be new districts forged in Pennsylvania, better representing the political demographics.  Republicans had hung onto this district for so long by gerrymandering it to favor their conservative voters in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

Sad-eyed Rick appears to be the last in line of a generation of conservatives who can no longer pretend that steel is the backbone of Western Pennsylvania.  High tech jobs are, and who to better represent this than the young Conor Lamb, who is much better looking than Donald Trump.  No contest.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Wilbur, the talking Campbell's soup can




Things have apparently gotten so bad in Allegheny County that the Trump White House thought steel tariffs might rally voters to Saccone in the final days of his election campaign.  The Trump surrogate had fallen behind Conor Lamb in the conservative 18th Pennsylvania district and the GOP is making a last ditch effort to salvage his campaign.  It is doubtful it will do any good since Western Pennsylvania is no longer steel country.  That honor falls to Indiana these days.  But, what do you expect from a White House that seems stuck in the 1970s.

Trump's latest round of tariffs landed with a dull thud.  No one seems particularly happy about them, certainly not Republicans who have long opposed such measures, knowing full well it will only lead to inflated steel prices.  Still, the White House tried to sell the idea by sending Wilbur Ross on the talk show circuit, illustrating how a 25% bump in steel prices would have a negligible affect on canned goods.  Poor ol' Wilbur doesn't seem to understand that cars and trucks and planes and ships are all made of steel, and if you raise the price of the alloy metal 25% it is going to drive the costs of these goods up far more than a Campbell's soup can.

Our President doesn't seem to mind.  He thinks trade wars are good and easy to win, showing once again how hopelessly out of touch he is with the current global market.  The Dow and other stock exchanges reacted as you would expect from such announcement, dropping precipitously.  So, in an effort to shore up the markets, Trump's team announced it would lift the ban on leveraged buyouts, which is expected to fuel another highly speculative environment like we saw between 2006-2008.

It seems Trump wants to be a player and is taking whatever advice comes his way, bad or good, as long as it feeds the news cycle.  What better way to divert attention away from another inglorious special election loss for Republicans and the ever tightening investigation by Robert Mueller that appears to have taken down at least two more members of his inner circle this past week -- Hope Hicks and Gary Cohn.  As Chris Matthews said, the White House is looking like sinking ship.

The only thing that could make it worse is if the Kremlin decides to leak the infamous pee tape to the press.  As it is, Trump is having to deal with the backlash from his campaign's attempt to hush Stormy Daniels.  We are being treated to a virtual "golden shower" of news that makes it difficult to know which way to turn.

The problem is that Republicans keep on losing.  They are already looking for ways to spin another bad loss in Western Pennsylvania, a seat that won't even exist this November as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has redrawn the gerrymandered districts to make them much more competitive this Fall.

Nothing seems secure anymore for the Republicans, not even Texas, which saw Democrats turn out in full force in the primaries, sending shivers down the GOP spine as districts they once thought safe are now up for grabs.  Republicans knew they were going to take a hit this November, but I don't think anyone expected it could be potentially this bad.  Even Ted Cruz has started to sweat, given how unpopular he has become.

What makes this so odd is that Republicans seemed like they had their finger on the pulse of the nation in 2016, but here they are now hoping to at least hang onto the Senate, before getting more bad news that Thad Cochran is retiring, leaving  his seat open this Fall.  He wasn't scheduled to defend his seat until 2020.  If Alabama turned blue last December, could Mississippi change color this Fall as well?

A major part of the problem is a president and inner circle that seems utterly clueless.  Even Gary Cohn thought the tariffs were a terrible idea, but Trump went along with Wilbur or whoever gave him this bad advice anyway.  It's like the President is working from an election playbook written in the 1970s when the US was still a dominant power in the steel industry.  The US still plays a strong role, but most American industries have come to rely on cheap imports, which is why they all balked at the talk of tariffs.

Nevertheless, Trump's minions thought this would play well among the conservative faithful in the "Rust Belt," oblivious to the fact that most of these former steel centers have rebuilt themselves, notably Pittsburgh, which is now a thriving tech center in this post-industrial society.

The Republicans never looked more anachronistic than they do now, which is why it is fitting that a young Democratic maverick like Conor Lamb is very likely to defeat Rick Saccone next Tuesday.  Joe Biden was on hand to spur his candidate across the finish line.

Trump has never looked more isolated, but then this is what he pitched on the campaign trail in 2016, so sure he would resuscitate all these old industries across America.  Most of the country has been making the switch to high tech, even the folks in Kentucky.  This is what happens when you surround yourself with old codgers like Wilbur Smith, who don't know which end of a Campbell's soup can is up.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Bend of Time


Einstein and Godel on a walk

Reading James Gleick's Time Travel, one of the theories gaining traction in Physics is that we don't so much make choices but select alternative paths.  We may take one path, but the other path still exists in a space-time dimension, and if only we could find a "wormhole" we could cross through the metaphorical woods and see what it would be like on the other path, presumably retaking that path if we grow tired of the path we are on.  Fortunately, we come to other crossroads, and can branch again, creating yet another path not taken.

This kind of multi-dimensional universe is not so hard to grasp, especially in an ever expanding universe.  To a large degree, Lewis Carroll imagined it in Alice in Wonderland, using rabbit holes as his means of moving from one dimension to another.  Historians prefer "what-if" scenarios, imagining what it would have been like if the fledgling united states had lost the Revolution or Hitler defeated the Soviet Union or Hillary won the electoral college.  In a multi-dimensional world all those possibilities exist, so we try to construct them as counter-arguments to the world we live in.

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick presented one such counter-argument in "The Untold History of the United States," imagining what it would have been like if FDR had stuck with Henry Wallace as his VP in 1944 rather than allow the convention to select that Haberdasher from Missouri, Harry Truman, who ended up succeeding Roosevelt as President upon his death.  Stone projected we would have reached a better accord with the Soviet Union, would have created a more socialist United States, and avoided the perils of the Cold War.

All well and good, but most physicists and philosophers still believe the past is what it is and we have to come to terms with the present for better or worse -- kind of like an arranged marriage.  Many physicists and theologians take it a step further and say we can't alter the future either.  We are stuck on this time line and that it is best not to let our imaginations run away from us, otherwise we become hopelessly lost.

Of course, physicists and theologians arrive at this conclusion from opposite ends, yet they both see the space-time continuum as unalterable.  For physicists it makes it much easier to work out their equations, assuming t to be constant, for theologians it makes it much easier to accept an omnipotent God in a fatalistic universe.  This means we are stuck with Trump for an unforeseen length of time, hopefully no more than four years, but who knows how much time he has on the inscrutable line that stretches into infinity.

Kurt Godel in his walks with Einstein pondered if that line bent and circled back on itself.  Einstein was open to the suggestion, according to Gleick, that time might indeed repeat itself.    Godel imagined it had to be a very long cycle, since we perceive time as a straight line, much like we do the horizon.  How many "years" is anyone's guess, since our concept of a year is limited to our relationship with the sun.

We often see history repeating itself.  We go through progressive periods, only to revert back to more conservative times when things start to move too fast.  This was certainly the case during the 2016 campaign when Americans were confronted with too many things going on at once and decided to slam on the brakes.  Transgender rights, a renewed push for gender equality, the Black Lives Matter movement, athletes taking the knee during the national anthem.  Individually, each of these events seemed like the right thing but taken together it was too much too soon.

America's slow road to progress is one of fits and jerks, not some great watershed moment.  If it had been, Trump would have been banished in 2011 when President Obama put him in his place at the now infamous White House Correspondents Dinner.  Instead, we ultimately saw Trump get his revenge, as he systematically tries to eliminate any semblance of Obama ever having been President.

We can take some comfort in that no one can erase history no matter how hard he tries.  We all know Obama was an effective president, able to navigate the United States through a very difficult time after the 2008 economic collapse.  All Trump can do is try to revoke his predecessor's executive orders, and even here he is finding it difficult as the Supreme Court recently upheld DACA.  That "stupid dumbass Obamacare" manages to linger on as well.

We can alter, even bend time to some degree, but it seems we can't completely change its trajectory.  Obama once said we still are living in the trajectory of Reagan in what was probably one of his most trenchant moments on the 2008 campaign trail.  He took a lot of guff for that one-minute clip, but here again we are confronted with a similar dynamic as in 1980.  Has Obama altered the trajectory enough that Trump and the Republicans find themselves in a similar quandary as was Clinton in 1992?

The excesses today are largely seen as coming from the conservative side, and the public appears to be reacting to these excesses by voting out Republicans in special elections, which the RNC is notably concerned about.  Unfortunately, they are stuck with Trump, who personifies all these excesses in a nepotistic White House that sees him elevate Jared and Ivanka at the expense of more seasoned advisers, cabinet members and diplomats, and now we see Trump pondering what it would be like if he was "President for Life."

History can be brutal, and no more brutal than when someone tries to overreach the limits of his powers.  This is what brought England down repeatedly, brought Hitler down in 1944, and ultimately brought the Soviet Union down in 1991.  The Republicans now find themselves in the same uncomfortable spot.  What they thought was a watershed moment in reclaiming the White House, reasserting their influence over the Supreme Court, and holding majority control of Congress is turning out to be their worst nightmare, because they simply can't hold onto it, anymore than Obama was able to hold onto his moment in time.

All you can do is try to affect as many positive changes as you can and hope that enough of them will survive the push back of recalcitrant forces.  This seems to have been Obama's strategy during his time in office, which maybe why he is so sanguine in this "Age of Trump."  Or, maybe he found one of those "wormholes" and saw the fate of Trump before we did.