This is Not Normal

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All six of these things happened.

That’s why so many Americans can’t treat him as a normal President.  That’s why the response to him has been so widespread and deep.   There is a sense that he’s impulsive, insecure and dangerous.

Let’s go one by one:

1) Is the US as bad as Putin’s Russia?  Certainly some on the far left think so.  And the US has killed innocents in pursuit of its aims.  But at least so far domestic political opponets haven’t been jailed, poisoned and denied a voice.   Perhaps Trump is tolerant of Putin because he deep down would like to just stifle opposition and control things himself?   Republicans have been adamant that Trump’s moral relativism on this issue is wrong – they may be waking up to how dangerous this President can be.

2) A threat to “defund” California is bizarre.   As the graphic notes, California pays more in federal taxes than it gets back (the biggest receivers of federal money are the so-called red states, ironically).  Trump claims California is “out of control.”  Well – outside his control, as it considers making itself a ‘sanctuary state.’  But defunding California would be utterly unconstitutional and insane – the fact Trump makes that kind of threat shows he doesn’t understand the Constitution.  In fact, Trump could learn from how  Governor Jerry Brown took a state that was in financial crisis and turned things around.

3)  This is nefarious and dark.   Judges rule based on the law, and this conservative jurist, appointed by President Bush, ruled the executive order on immigration was likely unconstitutional, and thus put it on hold until it could be examined.  This means that the normal reality of the past decade continues – only well vetted immigrants can enter.  Yet Trump wants people to blame this individual judge if any kind of terrorism happens.  That’s an incitement to violence against the judicial branch.  To me, that statement is so dangerous and disgusting that it rises to an impeachable offense.

4)  Something like elevating someone to the National Security Council is a big deal.  If a President is going to do it, he should know he’s doing it.  If he does not, that suggests that he is lazy, letting others do the work, and simply being bombastic when his emotions get the better of him.   As Trump might put it:  Not good.

5)  The last economic collapse was caused by Wall Street.  It was a free market crisis, as unregulated mortgage backed bonds (as well as CDO’s and other ominous financial instruments) created an environment where loans were given to anyone, without regard to their ability to pay, and people fed into a massive speculative bubble.  If government regulations like those CFTC head Brooksley Born advocated in the 90s had been in place, this might not have happened.   The response since then has been meager; the banks still have the capacity to manipulate the system, and those who created the crisis have not been punished.  Trump’s actions take away even those meager protections and set up another bubble and financial collapse — but only after hundreds of billions of dollars are made on Wall Street by the financial class.

6)  Perhaps most disturbing is that the truth is irrelevant to Trump.  Anything negative about him is fake news.  He’ll claim his inauguration crowd was the largest in history, even though it’s laughable.   His world of “alternate facts” suggest it’s all marketing, a big con.

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Telling was the response of Trump to McCarthy’s portrayal of Spicer. He was angered because he felt it made Spicer look weak to have a woman portray him. That speaks volumes.

The secret of the con is to keep up confidence (con man comes from confidence man).  That means never admitting one is wrong.  Simply lie, but do so persuasively, after creating conditions where the marks (victims) want to believe.   Trump has made a living doing this, the truth is irrelevant to him.  Now as President he’s taken this to a new level, but finds that the press investigates every claim and calls him on the carpet for falsehoods.  When he demands his spokespeople repeat the lies, they are mocked very effectively by satire, such as Melissa McCarthy’s devastating portrayal of Trump press secretary Sean Spicer.   Threatening the press has only made the press more intent on outing any administration misdeeds.

For those who say, “give him a chance,” or “pray for the President to do his best,” I reject that as abdicating our duty as individuals to be on watch for threats to the Republic.   Maybe President Trump will learn that this isn’t a reality show, and recognize that his current path is leading him to spectacular failure.  Maybe he will learn to make better choices.  But that won’t happen unless the opposition call him on his lies, explore and lay bare the consequences of his policies, and not be intimidated.

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Trump, the Media and Republicans

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As a political scientist I’ve always believed in the importance of accepting election results as legitimate, and treating whoever is elected with respect.   Democracy rests on a belief that opposition and disagreement are good, and that it is a good idea to have power switch between parties – one party in power for too long leads to corruption.

The election of Donald Trump is forcing me to question my long standing belief that American democracy has a political culture and institutions capable of protecting democratic principles regardless of who is President.

It’s not just that I don’t agree with Donald Trump.  I disagreed with George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, but never thought he lacked respect for America’s core ideals. I disagreed with his method and some of his beliefs about how the world works, but knew that at base we shared a respect for democracy and individual rights.

I’m not convinced Donald Trump shares that.  After his election I wrote “don’t panic.”  Well, panic is never good so yes, don’t panic.  But I believed that the Republican party would need to help Trump cope with his new role, and thus experts and advisors would lead him to a series of policies that respected democracy.

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Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) was one of the first of her party to stand up to McCarthy when he veered into fascist tactics

Oh, there might be big fights.  There always are.   But if you lose fights now, that just means working harder to win the next election so you can win the next battle.  Those loses might be really painful; the choice of war in 2003 has lead to tragic consequences globally, including many of the problems in the Mideast today.  Politics involves fights about consequential things.

But this seems different.  Alternate facts.  Fights about crowd size.  An immigration executive order that shows no empathy for the well vetted people who in good faith have waited for a visa to immigrate, or who are fleeing a war zone.   Calling a Judge who temporarily rescinds that order a “so-called Judge.”   Twitter rants aimed at the media and normal citizens, a President who thinks it’s OK to insult and ridicule others.

Or the role of Steve Bannon, who is on record predicting a war with China within five years, a PR maven movie maker, now given a seat on the National Security Council.  The President having angry phone calls with other world leaders, and who by all accounts lives to seek revenge against those he considers “enemies.”   Utter disdain for the press, talk of toughening up libel laws (really – does he think the President can sue someone for libel?)

Republicans say he’s still learning the job.   Others say he is psychologically unstable.  But for the first time, I wonder if consumerism and nationalism may finally be overcoming our core American values.

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Edward R. Murrow, who made a name for himself reporting from London during WWII, took on McCarthy. Reporters need to be fair but aggressive with President Trump.

This has happened before.   Joe McCarthy launched a proto-fascist witch hunt that went on for years before he was stopped.  Then it was a mix of courageous reporters like Edward R. Murrow and people in his own party, like Margaret Chase Smith, who brought down McCarthy.

If President Trump keeps up this behavior, we’ll need to rely on the media to report everything and not be intimidated by the White House.  We’ll have to rely on Republicans, many of whom are silently fuming at Trump’s antics, some of whom have already spoken out.   I believe that the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has a moral conscience and a strong belief in American democracy.  So do most of his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate.

President Trump can only do so much without Congressional support.  Most Republicans want to work with the President to promote conservative ideas.  But they need to stand up to him if he maintains his current reckless approach.   They need to recognize that democracy trumps party loyalty.   Democrats and liberals will protest and resist, and that’s important.  But when it comes to governmental power, Republican legislators have a responsibility to step up should Trump’s behavior continue to defy the norms and values that define American democracy.

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An American Coup

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Farmington, Maine, March 6, 2041

Now that the world has settled into a new equilibrium of sorts, it’s time to reflect on how things fell apart so completely.   While we may never again see a world of mass consumption, convenience and material excess like that which existed when the century began, nobody expected it to unravel so quickly.

It started on January 16, 2018.   1-16.  The day that, up until a few years ago, was considered the greatest terror attack in US history.   President Donald Trump was set to give his second state of the union address.   After a rocky first year, he was hoping to convince Americans that he could be trusted.  This speech would be a big one.  In the Capital they gathered – all the Senators, Congresspeople, Supreme Court Justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Vice President.   Only 71 year old Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was absent, watching the speech in the White House with Steve Bannon.

As President Trump began his speech there were some noises.   People looked around, Trump seemed irritated.  Then with the whole nation watching on television, there was a bolt of fire and then nothing – the feed stopped.  In the capital a series of bombs exploded, utterly destroying the building and its occupants.  The President, Vice President, Supreme Court and Congress, all branches of the US government were destroyed.  ISIS took responsibility.

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Bannon plotted the coup as if it were one of his movies, done so well that it was nearly two decades before the full truth was known.

Steve Bannon had invited Sonny Perdue to the White House to watch the speech.   He offered Perdue a drink, and the two joked.  Within minutes Perdue had the symptoms of a heart attack, and was dead before Trump had even started.   With no one left in the Presidential line of succession, and the Supreme Court gone, the US entered a constitutional crisis.   Bannon was ready.

In Trump’s first year Bannon had identified military officers who would create potential problems for him on this night.  He convinced the President they were disloyal and Trump fired them.  Bannon maneuvered people he could manipulate to high ranking positions.   Senator McCain had accused Trump of “promoting dimwits and dilettantes.”   But McCain was now gone.

Steve Bannon called an emergency press conference.  As the one remaining member of the National Security Council Principles group, he said that until a new set of elections could be arranged, he would be acting President.   He was ready for the next part.   He used all his skill as a movie maker and PR maven to orchestrate a move towards authoritarianism, with him in charge.

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The destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge was one of a series of spectacular ‘terror attacks’ that swept Americans into a frenzy.

Bannon had plotted the attacks well, using foreign intelligence officers to do the dirty work, minimizing a chance someone would leak.   Cities across the country suffered apparent attacks, FOX News became Bannon’s propaganda channel, and media controls were put in place “to assure public safety during this chaotic period.”   With no Supreme Court, Bannon became a dictator.   Everything was following his script.

He announced that to “rebuild the economy” he was defaulting on all debt, so America could start clean and ‘rebuild at home.’  Alas, the global economy doesn’t follow a script.  The global financial system buckled, credit became impossible to get, and soon US unemployment hit 30%, and even China found itself in depression.   Needing a distraction Bannon blamed ISIS and the US launched a war to “claim our oil in the Mideast.”

By the end of 2018 Americans started to realize that Bannon was out of control, with no checks or balances.  Opposition coalesced around former President Obama, who called on Americans to reclaim their government.   But with war and depression sowing fear, and media controls tight, Bannon’s propaganda machine kept many loyal to him.   Obama was declared guilty of treason and had to lead the movement in hiding, uploading speeches and directives, staying one step ahead of the secret police.

With the economy in collapse and global governments deserting the US – China, Russia and the EU put together a non-aggression treaty and worked to undermine the US war in the Mideast — by 2020 it was clear Bannon was failing.   Desperate, he turned to the use of nuclear weapons in the Mideast.   That was the last straw.  Resistance at home grew bolder, and on October 2, 2021 an internal coup removed Bannon.   Later President Obama convened a “constitutional Congress” to plan a return to democracy.

The 20 years since then have been tough.  The global economy has never recovered, and the war caused a long term energy crisis as the nuclear weapons rendered the oil fields unusable.  Some say we’ve entered a new dark age, and for awhile it felt that way. But we’ve rediscovered the importance of community and nature, and lately the emergence of sustainable energy sources suggests we’re now on the right track.

Professor Thomas Percy argues that Bannon may have inadvertently saved humanity.  The economic collapse and drastic decline in fossil fuel usage has led to CO2 levels in the atmosphere to stabilize, and are likely to soon decline.  “On the path we were going, by now we’d be feeling a different kind of global crisis, and one that could have destroyed civilization.  Now we have a chance.”   That’s a plot twist that even Bannon couldn’t have scripted.

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Steve Bannon – Puppetmaster?

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If you thought the January 21st global march was just a flash in the pan, frustrated liberals having trouble accepting the fact they lost, think again.   As the first week of the Trump Presidency unfolded people previously apathetic to politics started to notice – and act.

The latest episode involves a bizarre decision to indefinitely suspend accepting Syrian refugees, to suspend accepting other refugees for 120 days, and to bar any immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen entrance for 90 days.  Steve Bannon, recently named to the National Security Council (NSC)  by President Trump, personally intervened to assure that even green card holders from those countries could not enter.

The claim is that the US needs to protect itself from terrorism.  Yet the ban did not include Saudi Arabia or Egypt.  Most of the 9-11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.  The ban on green card holders from entering the countries created turmoil in airports across America as residents from the affected countries were held up.  Only an injunction by a federal judge overruled that part of the Trump order.

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This 1940 cartoon by Dr. Suess to protest the policy of not accepting Jews from Germany is poignant today.

It’s clear this order was drafted without thinking through all the consequences.  No guidance was given to states or airport security.   US military in Iraq were furious; not only does this affect interpreters and Iraqis that have been working with the US, but it increases anger at America and risks their safety.  There are only 5000 soldiers there in advisory roles, but the military was not consulted about the impact of this move.

This points back to Steve Bannon.  The man who pushed Trump to a bombastic, radical campaign style was the head of sensationalist (and not always trustworthy) Breitbart news, a right wing internet source.   He was known for wild claims and headlines, and people were shocked last year when Trump gave him a major role in his campaign.

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At Breitbart Bannon allowed white supremacist articles and ads be shown, advancing the term ‘alt right’ to describe his politics.

Now, though, he’s in the White House alongside Trump.  His elevation to the NSC came alongside a move to make the role of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff optional rather than required.  Senator John McCain harshly criticized both moves as putting a political operative ahead of the top military man in the White House.   He is a PR man, not an expert on foreign policy.   He has no business on the NSC, especially a larger role than the Chair of the Joint Chiefs!

It’s clear that Trump has put himself in Bannon’s hands.  It was Bannon, not Trump, behind the new executive order.  I suspect Bannon’s been the force advocating the silencing of government workers and agencies, and some of the questionable cabinet picks.  In fact, I think Bannon is the one calling the shots.   He knows how to play on Trump’s insecurities, and Trump likely credits him with his November victory.

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The alt right

This should worry everyone.   Trump isn’t a Hitler, he’s an insecure con man in way over his head.  Bannon, on the other hand, looks to start a global alt right movement, potentially connecting with far right parties in Europe in an effort to undermine the traditional conservatism of past decades.

The Republican party must not let Bannon and Trump hijack their party – he’s rejecting the core beliefs that have guided the GOP for decades.  But more important the protests must continue and turn into on going action.   The people can make sure Bannon/Trump don’t succeed.   This administration is not normal.  It is not conservative.  It does not reflect the values that made America great.

 

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Should Assad Stay?

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On January 26, 2011, around the same time the protests against Mubarak in Egypt began, the Arab Spring spread to Syria, with protests against Bashar Assad.  Assad’s regime is brutal.  It spies on its people, uses torture, and in 1982 Bashar’s father Hafez responded to protests by essentially destroying part of a city, the so-called Hama massacre.  At least 10,000 people were killed, but the Syrian government effectively kept any image or reporting of the incident silent.   You could do that in 1982.

By the end of 2011 the protests spread and Syria became enmeshed in a civil war.  The government had lashed out at the protests with what one analyst has called a “whack a mole” strategy, hoping to prevent the spread of dissent.   It didn’t work.  Instead, organized units of rebel forces emerged, and soon were confronting the Syrian government.   Believing that Assad would suffer the same fate as Qaddafi and Mubarak, the US lead an international call for Assad to step down.  It was only a matter of time, they believed.

Now it is 2017.   Assad is still in power, and his forces resurgent in the long civil war, thanks to Russian help.    Syria has become the scene of a human rights tragedy.  Should President Trump forget Assad’s brutality and past US support for the rebels, and work with Putin to at least bring stability?

If Assad stays, the Iranian-Syrian alliance will be strengthened, Iranian influence in the region will grow, and Iraq will be pushed into an even tighter alliance with Iran.   Russia will also have proven itself a regional power, while US influence will wane.   The Kurds will find their effort to expand Kurdistan from its base in Iraq stymied (for all practical purposes the Kurdish areas of Iraq have been self-ruled since 1994), and the Saudis will work with other gulf states to balance Iranian influence.

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Accepting Assad’s rule would mean accepting a regime that has killed more Syrians than ISIS, tortures, and engages in atrocities that are universally condemned.

At the same time, ISIS will certainly be weakened, if not defeated, as Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq oppose ISIS.  Perhaps there could be a modicum of regional stability if Assad could reach some deal with the non-ISIS rebels that allows the bloodshed to end without reprisals.

That certainly looks better than what we see now on the ground.  A tenuous cease fire, along with aid being bottled up.   Assad surviving, Russia and Iran resurgent, and the US losing clout would be yet the latest consequence of decisions made 15 years ago to go to war in Iraq and reshape the region in order to promote US interests and leadership.   That policy remains a complete and utter failure.  Ultimately, though, regimes like Assad’s are anachronisms, they are out of place in the 21st Century and cannot last.  The transformation of the Arab world will take decades, not years.

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Trumping Truth

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Donald Trump claimed 1.5 million people were at his inauguration.   Estimates are almost all in the 200,000 range.   He sent his press secretary out to dispute claims the crowd was smaller than Obama’s.  Sean Spicer claimed that the “grass protecting plastic” made it appear like fewer people were there.

The picture on the left is from January 20, 2017.   On the right is January 20, 2009.   There is no way to deny that Obama’s crowd was massive compared to Trump’s.   When his spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway was asked why the press secretary was sent out to lie, she dodged, weaved, and finally said he was giving “alternate facts.”

If the President is so shameless with his lies over something this easy to verify, this obvious, then how can we trust what he has about threats to the country and other issues where we lack first hand information?

People say all politicians lie.  In reality, all people lie.  But not all the time, and often with a particular reason.  President Trump seems to be in a different class – the truth is irrelevant, whatever “fact” would serve Trump, that fact is posited as truth.

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To be fair to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, he said he learned his techniques from Madison Avenue – the advertising business.  Truth is most easily subverted if people are being led by emotion.   The desire to believe will overcome the capacity to critically assess.  Those who try to promote truth will be derided as “dividers, traitors, subversives,” or to quote Rush Limbaugh, “Libtards.”

Even those who supported Trump, who believe he’ll do a good job, should be troubled by his lack of scruples.  He doesn’t care if it’s obvious he’s lying, he’ll do so anyway because he knows his supporters want to believe him.   He’s created an emotional connection to his “brand” and that trumps reason.  (Pun intended)

I don’t believe it will work.  The ridicule being heaped on Conway and Trump over these claims shows that the media and the public are ready to fight back.  The Women’s March (which I will write more about) demonstrates the beginning of a global movement.  But it’s essential that all Americans, even those who support Trump be united in demanding truth from our leaders.

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Most of us use a different term for “alternate facts.” We call them “lies.”

When I describe fascism in class, I note that fascism is an anti-intellectual, anti-rational, emotion driven way of thinking.  It is relativistic – truth does not exist, all that exists is different perspectives, and those who power can determine truth.  It might be a claim about crowd size, it might be a claim that Jews are a parasitic people.   The fact that the new President is so shameless in lying about things that are so easy to check is in my opinion they most disturbing thing about the new administration.

 

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Trumpism

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It seems a tad surreal.  Working class poor, Christian fundamentalists, all being drawn to Donald Trump as if he were a hero.  Trump, who has lived a life of luxury without much regard to the workers, and whose values are anything but Christian, does not seem a likely choice to play this role.   Yet somehow he inspires devotion from his fans, a devotion that seems to defy logic.

This isn’t normal.  While many people voted for Trump simply because they couldn’t stand Hillary, or decided an outsider might be good, there is a cadre of Trump devotees that see themselves as  part of a movement.  They have faith in the leader, revel in his tweets, attack his opponents, and see themselves as part of a wave that will take back America.

In an airport last month I overheard a conversation.  “Finally, this election brought some common sense back to America.  Things are going to change, they’ll be better.  It’s a great thing.”  She was white, about sixty years old, and appeared well off.  “Maybe,” said a young man in a military uniform, clearly not as enthused, “But if not, we’ll still get the job done.”   She would have none of that, “Oh, it will get better, finally the country has regained it’s senses!”

Right there was the essence of Trumpism.  A passionate belief that Trump has the power to make things different – better, alongside a belief that America is a mess, and the politicians have been unable to change things.

But while such a description could fit Sanders supporters as well, Trump draws a particular group – people who feel alienated by the cultural shifts of the last 20 years, and yearn for things to be “right” again.

This has an economic dimension.  Once worker could earn enough to provide for a household, send the kids to college, and have one spouse (OK, the wife!) stay home, keep house and take care of the kids.  Now often two incomes are required to keep afloat, and the good jobs aren’t there anymore, as factories have closed and the service industry resists unionizing or even hiring people full time with benefits.  The demon is “globalization,” and the response is nationalist.

There is a social dimension.   Gay marriage.   Transgenders coming out in the open.  Marijuana being legalized in state after state, while traditional Christians feel that they are being prejudiced against by politicians who ‘pander to Muslims’ and embrace ever more secular values.  All the change – including having a black President named Barack Hussein Obama – makes America seem like a cesspool to them.  What once was perverse is now normal, the old values of 60s sitcoms seem far away.

To each, Trump seems a savior.  He’s defiance of politically correct communication shows that he is rejecting the social change.  After all, people mock the handicapped all the time, there’s lots of Islamophobia out there, and homophobia is still rampant in much of the country.   While the elites stutter in disbelief when Trump, say, mocks a disabled reporter, his followers love it.   This guy doesn’t follow the rules of the liberal elite, he doesn’t believe in the America they somehow constructed.  He’ll bring back “real America.”

The response to Trump, however, has often been just as myopic.  Liberal elites, who delighted in the cosmopolitan sophistication of the hyper-rational Barack Obama, could not believe that someone like Trump could possibly be elected.  He’s not only not PC, he’s offensive!  He gets support from White Supremacists.  He insults people constantly – anyone who dares criticize him becomes the victim of the next day’s 3:00 AM Twitter rant.  Most recently it was Meryl Streep.  He seems insecure, a con man, who will say whatever  is in his interest, with no regard for the truth.  How can people support him?

The thing is – that’s not the Trump that Trump supporters see.   They see a strong man speaking boldly and defying the expectations of the liberal elite.  They would chant that Mexico would pay for the wall, even though polls show most of his supporters don’t really believe Mexico will.  It doesn’t matter – that’s part of the fun, being thoroughly disdainful of the elite, and shameless in defending even the most absurd claims.  It drives those secular liberals bonkers, after all!

So what then is Trumpism?  On the surface it does look a lot like fascism.  Leader worship, a desire to restore the “true values” of a country, a hatred of intellectualism, and a sense that truth doesn’t really matter.  It has the nationalism, emotion, and relativism associated with fascism.  But while someone like Hitler had a political program (re-fight the first World War without making the mistakes that lost it) diligently followed, Trump seems to have no real political agenda.  He is in it for the spectacle, the show, the attention.

In that, Trumpism is quintessentially American.  It is Jerry Springer, the World Wrestling Federation, and Nascar.  It appeals to emotion, but deep down it is more show than substance.  Trump is no Hitler, he’s a Don King.

What does that mean for Trumpism?  Trumpism will likely die.   In campaign mode it works, but it is spectacle not substance.  It is circuses, not bread.  In the real world of policy, Trump will be forced to deal with reality, and his supporters will be disappointed that he can’t change the culture or fix economic woes with the magic of his personality.

Will he fail as a President?  I think so.  But perhaps he’ll rely on advisors, make real compromises, and actually be able to confront some fundamental problems that are entrenched in the political establishment.  His believers think he’ll do that – I’m skeptical, but I have no choice but to hope that he rises to the task.  One test is Obamacare.  If he refuses to go along with just repeal, and demands something replace or reform it, that will be a good sign.

In foreign policy, sure – make nice with Russia.   If that’s part of a less aggressive US stance, perhaps that can work.   But at this point, it’s a crapshoot.  We don’t know what Trump truly believes, or how he’ll govern.  His insecure attacks on Meryl Streep cause alarm, but perhaps he won’t let his own demons guide his choices.

In any event, Trump reflects American culture at this point of time.  People want spectacle, they are willing to deny reality if it is unpleasant, and a lot of people don’t like the demographic and cultural changes of the last decades.

But in a ying and yang sense, Barack Obama also reflects American culture.  It is the embrace of cultural change and a desire to confront reality.  The US is divided, and the transfer of power from Obama to Trump represents that.  The future depends on the choices we make.

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