Thursday, August 23, 2018

Normless and Gormless

Teddy Gormless.

It's an odd moment, the week a criminal defendant making his guilty plea claims, under oath, that he was directed to commit a couple of his crimes (exceeding the federal campaign contribution limit by something like 1000% in unreported donations that he carefully, though not very effectively, tried to conceal) by the beneficiary of the contributions, presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, who thus enters the court record as an alleged co-conspirator (and let's just stipulate that we know it's true because we've all heard the fucking tape in which, rather than saying, "Christ, man, you're getting Pecker to pay McDougal $150,000 to kill the story? Is that legal?" he only says, "Pay with cash") for the first but clearly not the last time—

An odd moment, I was going to say, for Charles R. Kesler of the Claremont Institute to issue an op-ed piece in The New York Times on how

Most of President Trump’s alleged transgressions offend against the etiquette of modern liberal governance, not the Constitution.
and that's a good thing:

He tweets. He runs down the F.B.I., the intelligence community, his own attorney general. He makes fun of other politicians. He hires and fires cabinet secretaries, lawyers and communications people with abandon. He revokes a former C.I.A. director’s security clearance. He fails to disclose his tax returns. He picks his Supreme Court nominees from a list prepared by outside groups. He alternately threatens and sweet talks foreign despots.
Guilty as charged — but so what? All norms are not created equal. Hence breaking norms is neither good nor bad except as the norms themselves are good or bad. We elect presidents partly to separate the wheat from the chaff: to energize government by shedding or retiring norms that no longer serve the public good, and by adopting fresh ones that do.
As if sending a tweet on instructions from Tucker Carlson and Fox designed to foment race war in South Africa (in line with a current rightwing fear campaign in the US over the ANC government plan to redistribute unused private land to black farmers without paying compensation to the white title holders, and why is that US business when human rights campaigners being beheaded by the Saudi government isn't?) was kind of like Jacqueline Kennedy presenting the TV White House tour or Jimmy Carter turning down the thermostat and putting on a cardigan.

This piece is up there with mid-90s Newt Gingrich in its use of forward-looking progress rhetoric to cover extremely regressive thinking. For instance in bringing up Trump's refusal to release his tax returns (Kesler doesn't, in fact, provide an explanation for that one) as "breaking norms". As we all know, the idea of pressuring presidents and presidential candidates to make their tax filings public, 40 years ago, was itself the breaking of a norm that had existed forever, in the wake of an urgent crisis. It had always been understood that the president was some kind of gentleman, entitled to privacy in his private dealing, and the Watergate affair showed that that wasn't the case. Dumping the convention, as Trump has done, after repeated promises throughout the campaign that he wouldn't dump it, doesn't serve the public good in any way. It merely encourages candidates whose tax returns can't bear scrutiny to run anyhow.

Most of Kesler's argument is simply obvious bad faith and deliberate misinterpretations of the objections of the left:
choosing from a list of potential Supreme Court nominees prepared by outside experts at his request, before deliberating with his advisers and interviewing several finalists, hardly amounts to a dereliction of presidential duty.
That's not a norm breaking at all—every president gets lists of nominees for everything, Supreme Court nominees not excepted—and nobody's objecting to it as such. We're objecting to the people on the list, as selected by the particular "experts" in question, because we know who they are. It's been compiled by people for whom the Court shouldn't be defending abortion rights, affirmative action, federal support of health care, environmental protection, or voting rights. The fact of nominees being on that list is a kind of proof that they're unacceptable to me. I don't care that Kavanaugh is on a list, I care that the Federalist Society thinks he's perfect.
Must he, in addition, acquiesce in the permanent security clearances of the previous administration’s spymasters, when they seek to wield these as licenses to kill his foreign policy and his whole presidency? Hard to imagine Jackson or F.D.R. sitting still for that.
Please provide some due process to demonstrate the John O. Brennan was using his security clearance for that purpose.

Mr. Trump’s manner of treating members of his own administration is often regrettable, but then for his entire term so far he has been entangled in a pitched battle with elements of the executive branch nominally under his own authority — a frustration no previous president has had to face.


A Frustration No Previous President Has Had to Face
by Donald J. Trump

Even my enemies say that Jeff Sessions
should have told you that he was going to recuse himself
and then you wouldn't have put him in.
He took my job, and then he said, "I'm going to recuse
myself." I said, "What kind of man is this?"
And by the way, he was on the campaign. You know,
the only reason I gave him the job is because
I felt loyalty. He was an original supporter.
From today's Fox interview. I wonder which enemies are telling him that. Maybe Lindsey-Woolsey Graham.

It's striking me today that this obsession of Trump's—his hatred of Sessions over this single thing, which has seemed so crazy to me, even as Sessions works so hard and systematically to please Trump by destroying the lives of immigrants, making it harder to vote, and encouraging conservative evangelicals to regard themselves as members of a state religion—isn't as irrational as it seems.

Because I always think, how could Trump have expected Sessions to know he'd be asked to recuse from the Trump-Russia investigation? But of course he could, and did, know something about it himself; he'd been warned about the Russian interference as early as August, and knew he was involved with Russia himself, and of course Sessions was as well, as a key figure in the negotiations with Sergey Kislyak in July 2016 that cumulated in the platform change at the Cleveland convention. Knowing Trump, you can imagine the interview, first week after the election, when he offered Sessions the job, speaking, no doubt, in Trumpian code ("So I can count on you? You going to have my back?"), but he surely clarified for Sessions, knowing he too was implicated, that his job was to stop the investigation from getting anywhere. And when Sessions did recuse himself from that investigation, once his lies about meetings with Kislyak were exposed (thanks again, Senator Franken!), Trump saw him as going back on an explicit promise and refusing to do the job he'd been given.

He doesn't care as much about immigrants or voter fraud or evangelical issues as he does about his skin, either. Duh. So, mobster as he is, he does feel betrayed. And hasn't dared do anything perhaps because Sessions knows too much; instead, he just stews in the juices of passive aggression and issues his plaintive tweets.

His obsession with the Sessions recusal is a kind of evidence that your worst interpretation is probably true.

Far from breaking the tired old norms, as Kesler would have it, Trump has been working to effect a reversion from constitutional government to a very ancient model, where all the rulers are basically mobsters, but pre-Corleone: before they figured out that "It's nothing personal, it's just business." In Trumpistan, between his personal regression and his primitive understanding of social relationships, it's all personal, whether he's wrestling with fellow potentates or preening for adorers.

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