Thursday, February 16, 2017

Return to the Schilderwald -- A Jew Comes Home After Sixty-Eight Years

("Country Bumpkin" was a contributor to Kiko's House over the years.  That was the nom de plummage of a dear cousin, John Schnellenberg.  John died on February 14 in New Zealand, his adopted and deeply beloved homeland.  He was 81 and left his wife Sonia and a loving family.  John was a fabulous writer and observer of the passing scene.  Like so many greater writers, he had a spare and beautifully understated way with words, conveying a lot with a little.  This moving November 2007 guest post was my favorite of all his contributions.) 

Germans call their country the Schilderwald ("sign forest"), because there are so many road signs — the Allgemeine Deutsche Automobil Club estimates there are 20 million —there is hardly any time left to drive; there is simply too much to read.  There is growing acceptance
across the country that this absurd proliferation of signs is a traffic hazard, and one or two towns have been getting rid of them; to good effect, so it is said. 
We stopped one late summer morning in Bad Breisig, a small town on the Rhine not far from Remagen, where invading American troops had first crossed the river in March 1945 after finding the Ludendorff Bridge there undamaged (there is no bridge there now).  Bad Breisig was holding a zwiebelmarkt — an onion market — that day, and parking was hard to find because a couple of million citizens or so had turned out to be huckstered by men selling travelling wallets, and to eat zwiebelkuchen.  At last, we saw a space in the carpark used by clients of the Bad which gives the town its name.  On the gate there were no fewer than nine advisory signs for drivers—I counted them! 
Our reasons for being in Germany have a provenance which will help make sense of what follows. 
For many years, at least forty, a number of German cities have invited back people who had to leave because of Nazi persecution; and of course such people are almost all Jews, now living in a huge variety of countries because they had the good fortune to get out while it was still possible.  The object, naturally, is to demonstrate that things in Germany have changed for the better. 
I was born in Berlin and left for New Zealand with my parents in 1939 thanks to the intervention of Sir George Ogilvie Forbes, Counsellor at the British Embassy in Berlin, and his colleague the British Passport Control Officer, Captain Frank Foley, who obtained for us New Zealand visas.  These men, frequently bending visa rules, were instrumental in saving many lives including mine and those of my father and mother.  That is not to say the British government behaved badly over the German Jewish refugee problem, because they were in fact generous in taking people into Britain by the standards of the time.  But after Kristallnacht in November 1938 the demand for visas vastly exceeded the supply, and most countries were parsimonious, to say the least, in granting them.  (And New Zealand was one of these.) 
Yet more than half of Germany’s Jews were able to emigrate after 1933, with the enthusiastic support of the Nazis who wanted rid of them.  Britain and the USA admitted more than half of them. 
That part of our family history belongs in another place; suffice it for now to say that it qualified me, along with my wife, to be invited to join a party visiting Berlin in August 2007. 
As the British Airways Airbus A319 from Heathrow reduces power to descend into Berlin-Tegel, the views of the German countryside slowly grow bigger and you can begin to see some of the detail of the landscape. After an absence of 68 years, it makes for compelling viewing. 
Two things strike you straight away. First the sheer density of villages and towns which are built to roughly the same pattern, subject to the shape of the land, of course.  The inner town is usually more or less circular with a church spire or two dominating a platz, and then red-tiled houses in widening rings around.  Later expansion adds outer rings of newer houses and more often than not an industrial area helping to drive the local economy.  The city of Worms in the Palatinate, for instance, has a big Procter and Gamble plant on its outskirts. 
The second thing that strikes you is the huge number of electricity-generating windmills scattered across the land.  This impression is powerfully reinforced once you are on the ground and driving through the countryside.  They are everywhere, often but by no means always, grouped in wind farms — there are many single generators on hilltops, too. There are some 18,000 of them, more than any other country in Europe. 
There is much good environmental practice in Germany.  Hotel corridors have sensors which turn on the lights only when you pass through.  The same hotels invite you to use your towels for more than just one day, and throw them on the floor to show the maid when you want them changed.  Street bins are divided into receptacles for glass, paper, plastic and “other” rubbish.  A big proportion of cars — even BMW and Mercedes-Benz — are diesel powered. More rarely, one hotel conserved by switching off its lift power when it wasn’t being used to carry our luggage up and down. 
We talked to many people — young, old, middle aged; all kinds of people.  In hotels, on the street, in Laundromats, in restaurants; everywhere.  The pattern of those conversations was always the same, and went like this: 
"Are you from England?" 
"No, we're from New Zealand." 
"New Zealand! Das ist aber sehr weit wegg!!! ("That's a long way away!") 
"How is it that a New Zealander speaks such good German?” 
"I was born in Berlin." 
"Ahhh! Berlin!  When did you leave to go to New Zealand?" 
"In 1939." 
Whereupon a switch in the person's head would flick to "on," and the conversation moved on to the big questions engrossing Germans in 2007.  First, the Nazi past; second, where Muslim immigration and the burden of integrating the former DDR into a reunited Germany would lead. 
Neither of these are trivial issues, either for Germany or for the rest of Europe and the world. 
It is beyond dispute that Germany and its people have faced their past and are prepared to remember it as a warning to future generations. "We must never forget our history," was a sentence we heard over and over again.  This is more than one can say for the Japanese, and recognition of the Turkish genocide of Armenians from 1915 onwards is to this day the topic of furious diplomacy. 
Memorials to the Holocaust appear everywhere. 
Museums, stolpersteine ("stumbling stones") embedded in city sidewalks, plaques on old synagogue walls -- no town or city we visited was without them.  Police guard the growing tally of new and rebuilt synagogues 24 hours a day.
My mother was born in 1904 in a little village called Steinheim, which lies off the main route about three quarters of an hour east of Paderborn.  The address on her birth certificate reads Hausnummer 345 ("House number 345") — no street names in those days; that's how small it was.  We drove into what is now a reasonably substantial town on a dull afternoon in September, and arriving in the Zentrum, the town centre, found no-one about.  No cars, no customers in the shops, and the only people in the square two Muslim women in hijab wheeling a child in a pushchair. 
There was symbolism in this, because Muslim immigration and its consequences make up Part 1 of the worries Germans expressed to us about the future. In every town we visited, there was a Muslim presence.   
Approximately 3.3 million Muslims live in Germany, 70 percent of them of Turkish origin of whom many have lived in Germany for 30 years or more.  Many Muslims lead secular lifestyles but some make strong, even extreme, efforts to preserve conservative values. 
Part 2 is the problem of absorbing the former East Germany into the modern West German economy and political system. Almost 20 years after the fall of the Wall dividing Communist Germany from the west, east Germany is a mess. Covered in graffiti, dirty, infrastructure still not restored to modern standards. 
Worst of all, from the West German point of view, is that east German workers (along with those from eastern bloc countries who have recently been admitted to the EU and therefore have the right to move freely around Europe) are flooding westwards, prepared to take jobs at lower rates of pay than westerners will accept.  Meanwhile westerners are levied taxes which pay for the modernisation of the former DDR, and support their unemployed. They hate it! 
More than one person said to us, "They can put the Wall back up tomorrow, as far as I’m concerned!" 
There's no future in forecasting, but my own feeling is that there is trouble ahead. Worse, the people we talked to seemed also to think that trouble is looming. 
That's where Germany's history comes in to the equation.
In Steinheim, where my mother was born, there is to this day a Jewish cemetery.  There are, of course, no more Jews to be buried there, though the most recent interment took place in 1979. 
My wife and I are the first members of our family to return to Steinheim, as far as we know, which added mightily to the poignancy of this visit.  These are matters of great weight, and this day and the ones which followed were perhaps the most wrenching in our German visit. 
We asked at the Rathaus for directions to the cemetery and were told to knock on Frau Henning's door — she looks after the key.  On the opposite street corner is the gate, and a plaque informing passers by that the cemetery was first used in 1607.  The oldest visible grave stone is dated in the mid-18th century and this is because the early community ran out of space and heaped a mound of earth over the oldest graves so that people were buried one above another, and not until later in a single layer as the cemetery was expanded. 
There in front of us were the gravestones carrying the names I heard from my mother when I was a child. 
They have lain undisturbed for centuries, and unlike so many others in Germany were neither desecrated by the Nazis nor damaged by war. We failed to find my mother's father, a cattle dealer of Steinheim, who died before she was born and might be presumed to be in that graveyard. 
As we walked back to the car, a flight of fighter jets roared overhead. 
Having based ourselves in a delightful town called Bad Lippspringe near Paderborn, which lies roughly halfway between my parents' hometowns, we drove west next day to Neheim. Neheim lies below the Möhne Dam which was busted by the Dambusters in May 1943.  The ensuing flood killed around 900 people in the town, of whom most were Ukrainian POWs working as slave labourers.  Much of the Jewish cemetery was washed away, though the headstone of my uncle remains. 
Our reception in Neheim was overwhelming. Werner Saure had arranged a meeting with the mayor, where we signed the town's Golden Book in a caucus room dedicated to the memory of my great-uncle; were photographed for the local newspaper stories; and presented with books as a souvenir of our visit. 
In many ways, this was the climax of our visit to Germany.  Most of what followed was more relaxing and less emotionally fraught and the slowing of our adrenalin had its inevitable consequence in growing fatigue. 
But this account cannot be complete without recording our visits to the sites of my grandfather’s persecution. 
Some 35km north of Berlin lies a pretty little town called Oranienburg, about three-quarters of an hour from the city on the S-bahn. About twenty minutes walk from the town centre are the remains of the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp, scene of many terrible acts both under Nazi rule, but also after liberation by the Soviets who continued its ghastly use with different political ends in mind. 
Today it is another Holocaust memorial, still being improved and refined, and there my grandfather was interned for two weeks after Kristallnacht.  He was accommodated in Block 17, marked now by a concrete block along with the locations of the other prisoner blocks of which a single one remains intact, and is a sample of what internees experienced. 
On our drive from Prague to Dresden, the road passes the old barracks town of Theresienstadt, of notorious memory. "Star of David" featured harrowing scenes shot there, and in the intervening 20 years or so things have changed.  Life is returning to this formerly deserted and ugly place, and museums have sprung up which admit to the persecution of Jews there which had remained unacknowledged during the period of communist rule. 
Today the town even has a beggar.  My grandfather and grandmother were sent there in 1942, and died within a few months of each other in 1943.  Mercifully, they were not transported to Auschwitz as so many others were. 
We stopped for about an hour in one of the museums, and took no photographs. 
Our tour of Europe of did not entirely consist of tragedy recalled, the emotions engendered by family memories, suspicion of old men, nor even youngish men with Hitler hairdos.  Oh, no . . . 
Both of us celebrate our birthdays in September. 
Mine, on the 14th, was spent in an 800-year old fortress turned hotel. It overlooks the town of Attendorn, and hour or so east of Cologne and staying there was my wife’s gift to me. 
On her birthday, on the 23rd, we drove from our hotel in Wiesbaden across the glorious Taunus mountain range to Wetzlar.  Wetzlar is the home town of our daughter-in-law and she, our son and our two young grandsons were there on the way to Israel to visit their eldest son.  So, there was a family reunion for us all, and it was lovely. 
Then there was the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.  We spent a couple of nights in Cologne.  We took some of our spare time in Berlin to visit 27 Thomasiusstrasse, where my parents and I lived before we emigrated.  We took a cruise on the Rhine one afternoon.  From our hotel room window we watched the barge traffic up and down the river, in endless procession all through the daylight hours.  To this day, barges are major freight movers in the region, and they carry flags from France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy, and more. Italy? 
Don't ask; I have no idea. 
Prague was memorable for its beauty, and the best pizza I have ever eaten. But it was freezing cold and wet, and the pension in which we stayed a relic from the communist past.  The Czech Republic is an uncomfortable place, and we were warned against pickpockets and petty crime.  The infrastructure deficit there and in Slovakia, to which we took a quick return trip from Vienna, is still being made up almost 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Empire and it shows. 
Can we let this report pass without mentioning Mozart?  Surely not.  In Salzburg, and the following day in Vienna, we visited the Mozart museums ho 
What could be more uplifting than that? 
A long flight home, with no stopovers.  Four changes of aircraft, arrival in Wellington in mid-afternoon on the 27th, and with our baggage all present and correct. 
Once home I discovered that my computer printer had died. And a sewer drain was blocked. 
A new Hewlett-Packard printer later, and a man with a long scraper thing to scour out the drains, and we were pretty much ready to have a little sleep.  Upon which we both kept waking, ready to roll, at 3 in the morning.  Then we fell into bed at 7 in the evening. 
They say that for every hour of time shift it takes a day to recover from jetlag. How the airline crews manage it I do not know.   
But finally our body clocks returned to normal, and so did we.  Masterton and New Zealand are pretty much the same as they were when we left.   
We, on the other hand, are not. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Fast Escalating Russia Scandal Is A Window Into A Traitor's Deep Corruption

When Michael Flynn sat down for dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2015, it triggered a series of events that may bring down the Donald Trump presidency.  The fast escalating Russia scandal has become a window into how traitorous and deeply corrupt Trump is, how he is incapable of defending America and soils everything he touches, as well as revealing that while he demands absolute loyalty, he does not reciprocate, and has hung his vice president out to dry.   
The Flynn-Putin dinner meeting was no secret.  Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, has acknowledged that he was paid by the Russian government to give a speech focused on radical Islam, something he had knowledge of because of his national security background, including two years as President Obama's director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before being dismissed, as well as a well documented case of Islamaphobia.  
Flynn's gab-and-grub visit to Moscow on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Russia Today, a Kremlin-run television propaganda network on which he has frequently appeared, probably violated a constitutional emoluments clause prohibiting former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without the consent of Congress.  But that is so much small beer.  What is of substantially greater consequence is what happened next: A series of events involving Moscow, Trump surrogates and the presidential election that call into question what Trump knew when and -- most importantly -- to what extent he may have stage managed those events.  
Trump, if nothing else, has proved himself incapable of deep thinking in his three-plus weeks in office, so it is somewhat difficult to imagine that he had a direct hand in Russia-backed hacking of Democratic interests and orchestration of a false news campaign that, with an able assist from maladroit FBI Director James Comey, threw the election to Trump, although he publicly praised them.   
Still, his (unusually small) fingerprints are all over phone conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergi Kislyak on December 29 in the waning days of Obama's presidency, as well as other contacts that onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other campaign staffers and Trump business associates had with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.   
The contacts, made as Trump was repeatedly praising Putin, were unearthed by U.S. intelligence agencies seeking to learn whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians on hacking and other efforts to influence an election in which Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.  
The timing of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations are of paramount importance in understanding the gravity of the scandal that led to Flynn's resignation on Monday night as Trump's national security chief after a mere 24 days and why concerted White House efforts to paint Flynn's departure as a result of him "lying" to Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations are so much smoke to obscure the real reason. 
Early on December 29, acting on the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow had actively sought to influence the election, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed down two stateside Russian retreats used for that country's diplomats and spies.  The Kremlin quickly made it clear that Putin would retaliate in kind.   
No such thing happened. 
Instead, early on December 30 the Kremlin posted a statement on its Web site stating that "although we have the right to retaliate . . . we will plan our further steps to restore Russia-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration."   
Flynn's conversations with the ambassador -- and there were several of them on December 29 while Flynn was vacationing at a resort in the Dominican Republic with his wife -- took place after Obama's announcement and before Moscow's surprisingly tepid response, and it is probable that Trump instructed Flynn to signal Kislyak that the new president would ease the sanctions.  It turns out that the conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador were wiretapped as part of routine electronic surveillance of the communications of foreign officials, and the Januay 29 conversations were only the latest of a series between the men before and after the November 8 election. 
Obama administration officials, aware of and concerned about Flynn's earlier contacts with the ambassador and other Russian officials, did not give him advance notice of the new sanctions, as would have been customary.  The wiretaps probably would have received little attention had it not for Putin's baffling refusal to counter Obama's sanctions with his own.   
A transcript of the wiretaps was forwarded to Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who briefed James R. Clapper Jr., Obama's director of national intelligence, and then CIA Director John Brennan, both of whom urged her to contact White House counsel Don McGahn.  FBI Director Comey initially opposed Yates notifying McGahn, citing concerns that it could complicate the bureau's ongoing investigation of Trump ties to Russia.  He relented on January 23 after Trump press secretary Sean Spicer tried to minimize the importance of Flynn's outreach to Kislyak and claimed there only had been a single call. 
Yates, accompanied by an unidentified senior intelligence official, informed McGahn on January 26 of the wiretap's explosive contents and warned him Flynn was potentially vulnerable to blackmail because he had misled Pence and other senior Trump administration officials about the nature of his communications.   The FBI also questioned Flynn about this time regarding the communications because of concerns he had violated the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens -- which he was when he spoke to Kislyak -- from negotiating with foreign governments in disputes with the U.S.  
McGahn briefed Trump immediately following Yates's warning, putting the lie to the White House's incredible claim that Flynn was forced out only after after Trump learned of his repeated misrepresentations when he should have been summarily fired nearly three weeks earlier.  Pence was intentionally kept out of the loop until February 9 when his own repeated inquiries finally unearthed what had happened.  So much for Trump's much vaunted loyalty to his vice president.  
The plot thickens. 
Trump, of course, fired Yates on January 30 because of her refusal to enforce his Muslim ban.  He also refused to act on the information after she provided him and went so far as to yet again praise Putin, as he had repeatedly during the campaign, in a pre-Super Bowl Sunday interview with Bill O'Reilly of when reminded by the Fox News commentator that the Russian president was "a killer."  Flynn, who repeatedly denied discussing sanctions with Kislyak and was still sitting in on security briefings as of late Monday, was only shown the door after a leak about Yates's warning, which further cements the view that Flynn was acting with Trump's consent and the president was willing to protect Flynn at the expense and to the eventual embarrassment of Pence.   
Putin, meanwhile, was shaking up the FSB, the main state security agency, in an effort to identify moles who may have cooperated with an ongoing investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian election meddling and possible ties to Trump.  One former top FSB official -- Oleg Erovinkin -- died on December 26 under suspicious circumstances in his car on a Moscow street. 
The plot thickens some more.   
Erovinkin was indeed a likely mole, and was so identified by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who compiled and shared with the FBI an explosive dossier on Trump-Kremlin ties and compromising material that Russian operatives allegedly had collected on the future president as possible blackmail material.  Steele cut off contact with the FBI in October because he was said to be frustrated by the bureau's slow progress in investigating the ties, and then disappeared.   
The U.S. intelligence probe, insulated by what remains of the firewall between the CIA, FBI and NSA and the White House, continues.   
The agencies are said to have corroborated the less salacious (read Trump consorting with Kremlin-chaperoned prostitutes at a Moscow hotel) aspects of the Steele dossier, including the involvement of Carter Page, a member of Trump's foreign policy team during his campaign.  Page is said to have met with Erovinkin's former boss in July 2016 to discuss lifting earlier Obama administration sanctions in the event of a Trump victory in exchange for a stake in a shell company associated with Rosneft, a huge government-owned oil company.   
Page resigned from the Trump campaign, as had campaign chairman Manafort, who was accused of accepting millions of dollars in cash for representing Russian interests in the Ukraine and U.S.   
The Republican Party had removed anti-Russian language from its convention platform regarding the conflict in Ukraine while Manafort was still running the campaign, while Trump memorably claimed during a presidential debate that Russia had not necessarily hacked Hillary Clinton-related emails, saying "It could also be lots of other people.  It could be someone sitting on a bed that weighs 400 pounds."   
The White House has yet to comment on the latest developments in the scandal except for press secretary Spicer, who has turned contradicting himself into an art and continues to stand by Trump's earlier and now discredited claims that nobody from his campaign had contact with Russian officials before the election.  The administration is also trying to float the notion that Flynn "had gone rogue" through manufactured leaks, but no one in the media with a modicum of sense is buying that, while Trump on Wednesday fell back on the shopworn "it's fake news" canard in a series of tweets.   
Meanwhile in Moscow, Russian legislators were hyperventilating over Flynn's departure as if Trump's national security adviser had been one of their own.   
The Russia scandal is but one of several crises for Trump.   
The Office of Government Ethics recommended on Tuesday that top aide Kellyanne Conway be disciplined for encouraging the public to buy clothes from the Ivanka Trump line, while there is concern over the lack of security protocols at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, where club members photographed the president and senior staff reading security documents on their phones on the club's dining terrace on Saturday night.   
(FBI Director Comey also is appropriately back in the crosshairs.  Howcum he was all over Hillary Clinton's ass during the campaign but never said boo about the far more troubling ties between Trump and his campaign and business associates and Russian interests?)
Top Republican senators, clearly fatigued by Trump's shockingly inept start and the deep dysfunction of his administration, say that Congress should look into the Flynn affair, including calling him to testify.  That is not adequate, and if it is confirmed that Flynn indeed lied, he should face a felony charge and criminal trial.  Then there is the reality that loyalty to the president matters more than loyalty to country. 
"Who's in charge?" asked Senator John McCain.  No one, least of all the president, is in charge. 
Still, don't expect a top-to-bottom investigation of the president's longstanding ties to Moscow, let alone all of the contacts his campaign and business associates had with senior intelligence officials,  even though it is becoming harder by the day to defend his conduct and what has quickly become a very public humbling.  That just isn't going to happen so long as the president is useful to the GOP, as in validating their agenda and signing it into law.   
Yet there is a ticking time bomb here. 
The damage caused by Russian meddling already is done, but Trump's capacity to do further harm is immense.  If it turns out that there is clear evidence that Trump is indeed beholden to America's one-time Cold War rival, which for 70 years the Republican Party viewed as the global Satan, all bets are off and he finally would be viewed as the traitor he is. 


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trump Pal Tweets: 'This is Rick. He Carries The Nuclear Football. Rick Is The Man.'

It was only the 24th day of the Donald Trump presidency, but it most assuredly was not another day of Making America Great Again. 
* Michael Flynn, top Trump security aide who lied about pre-election contacts with Ruskies, quit. 
* Flynn was vulnerable to bigly Ruskie blackmail, just like in the movies. 
* Repeated efforts made, beginning with Obama's acting AG, to apprise Trump of dangerous Flynn situation, but were ignored until leaked to press. 
* Flynn deputy K.T. McFarland likely to blow town, as well. 
* Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, in way over his head, next admin big likely to get ax. 
* Admin foreign policy team scrambles to fit policy with prez's latest tweets. 
* Mar-a-Lago dinner table becomes open-air Situation Room. 
* Army officer who carries "nuclear football" poses for photo with Trump pal. 
* Deportation raids continue.
* Yet another federal judge issues Muslim Ban injunction, noting only evidence in admin pleading is actually declaration by experts that ban "undermines national security . . . rather than making us safer." 
* White House collecting "negative info dossiers" on reporters. 
* Secret Service steps in as communications staffer Omarosa Manigault attacks reporter. 
* Trump furious over SNL sketch casting chief strategist Steve Bannon as Grim Reaper manipulating prez. 
* Leading shrinks warn Trump's speech and actions "demonstrate inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions." 
* Distracted by political brushfires of own making, prez fails to fill key posts, including scores of ambassadorships.
Billionaire who forgot $100 million in pants pocket confirmed as Treasury secretary. 
* Wife abusing Labor nominee up for vote next. 
* Plans afoot to give predatory companies free rein by gutting Consumer Financial Protection Agency 
* More false voting fraud claims. 
* Republicans clueless about how to repeal and replace Obamacare, may give up on screwing with Medicare. 
* Trump poodle Jason Chafetz launches investigation of Sid the Science Kid. 
* Aides so fearful of pissing off prez that they're telling him everything is going great. 
* Are we safe yet? 
No one in charge, no grown-ups, anyway.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Is There A Trumpian Constitutional Crisis Looming? Be Careful What You Wish For.

There is a lot of wishful thinking going around that the infant (both meanings) Donald Trump administration is lurching toward a constitutional crisis.  Never mind that most of us wouldn't know a constitutional crisis if we were to be hit on the head by one.  The upside of a constitutional crisis is that it might hasten Trump's exit, while the downside is too awful to comprehend. Perhaps a terror attack on the homeland provoked by his bullying that would unleash government-sponsored atrocities for political gain making the post-9/11 fallout -- curtailment of civil liberties, widespread eavesdropping on Americans, black site prisons and the torture of innocents -- seem minor by comparison. 
Am I being hysterical?  Not when the decision of a department store to drop Ivanka Trump's clothing line is framed by the White House as a "direct attack" on the policies of a president showing every sign of being over his head and out of his mind. 
According to a couple of political scientists opining at FiveThirtyEight, constitutional crises come in four flavors.   Here they are in what I believe is the ascending order of relevance as to where we find ourselves:
SCENARIO ONE: The Constitution doesn't say what to do.  The beauty of this 18th century document is its brevity, but this means it doesn't offer much in the way of a 21st century instruction manual. This scenario may be most relevant as it pertains to its vagueness concerning presidential emergency powers, something that Trump has beaten his gums about a great deal when it comes to dealing with terrorism and ginning up fears real and imagined. 
SCENARIO TWO: The Constitution's meaning is in question.  In this respect, the Civil War was one big constitutional crisis, as were FDR's sweeping Great Depression relief measures and LBJ's unilateral escalations of the Vietnam War. The greatest relevance here is to impeachment, and what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors."  Bill Clinton was impeached on what at the time and certainly in retrospect were the flimsiest of grounds.  That won't happen here. 
SCENARIO THREE: The Constitution tells us what to do, but it's not politically feasible.  We recently have been reacquainted with the fact Congress and the Cabinet can remove Trump without impeaching him because of the 25th Amendment, but given the GOP 's hyper-dominance, that may be problematic unless Trump goes completely off his rocker by declaring martial law because of unruly town hall meetings or something equally pernicious. 
And the most likely -- or least less likely -- scenario:
SCENARIO FOUR: Constitutionally mandated institutions fail.  The greatest relevance here is that Trump has shown disdain for the system of checks and balances, including disturbing reports of Customs and Border agents, who are members of the Executive Branch, refusing to follow orders from the Judicial Branch during the days following the federal court injunctions against the Muslim Ban.  Oh yeah, and Trump could refuse to leave office if impeached.
Since the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land in 1789, there have been very few constitutional crises.   
Big deal, you say.  Well, maybe not when you consider that politicians and officialdom have had an overarching respect, if not downright awe, for a document that has been amended a mere 27 times (in 33 tries) and the last amendment not of a technical nature (like changing the voting age or tinkering with presidential succession) was adopted in 1920 with women's suffrage. 
All that changed with the election of Trump, who in a mere 24 days in office is straining democratic norms as the Founding Fathers spin ever faster in their graves.  (Beware of flying wigs.)  There will be a pushback, and at this point it is more likely to come from the grassroots than the feckless Democratic minority, but whether that provokes a constitutional crisis is another matter.   
Or as David Frum so somberly puts it in The Atlantic as he visualizes what a two-term Trump presidency might mean: 
"Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit.  And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them.  We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.  What happens next is up to you and me.  Don’t be afraid.  This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American."
My own scenario of the moment is somewhat more upbeat, at least on the front end, and goes something like this: 
While the worst outcome, in a way, would be the Donald Trump presidency becoming "Carterized," as one pundit put it; that is, unpopular, ineffectual, fractious and not going anywhere, the best outcome would be Trump becoming not a two-term president,  but a two-year president, as that mighty pendulum of American political history swings back hard and fast to the left with the Democrats riding the wave of a huge backlash to retake the Senate and House in the 2018 midterm election.  And promptly begin impeachment proceedings.   
We can then contemplate cuing Scenario Four. 

Thursday, February 09, 2017

A Man Walks Into A Bar: Why We'll Take Small Victories Over Cheeto Where We Can

Yes, it sounds like a bad joke, but could the tide have turned in the false news wars by a guy walking into a bar?  The answer is maybe, but in any event we'll take small victories where we can in the long slog to take down Cheeto Jesus.  
A mere three weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump has historically low popularity ratings, but still has the unwavering support of the pitchfork posse while rumors of a congressional Republican revolt obviously are baseless.  Just ask a lamebrain like Betsy DeVos.  Still, we do now know more than ever that Trump is psychologically damaged and pathologically incapable of change.  This is why small victories and their incremental effect on his raving narcissism really matter.  Because they will help accelerate his eventual failure. 
Those small victories include: 
* The Women's March, having creating so much negative publicity the day after Trump's inauguration with the largest protest in American history, lives on in smaller protests wherever Trump goes to work or play.   
* These protests have spread to the town hall meetings that congressfolk hold during recesses and have been so successful that many have been cancelled with pro-Trump pols resorting to hiding in their offices.  
* Trump has used social media with diabolical effectiveness, but an alt-majority of a sort has turned that on him by repeatedly nudging him from the spotlight, notably the flash protests at airports against his notorious Muslim Ban. 
* The continuing tsunami of leaks from insiders don't merely show a White House run by amateurs that is in constant turmoil, but betray widespread disloyalty to a president who demands absolute subservience.  
* Melissa McCarthy's unhinged takedown of White House press secretary Sean Spicer on SNL is merely the most devastating of many parodies which have upset the thin-skinned Trump and further unsettled his administration. 
* Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch's criticism of Trump's aggressive attacks on the judiciary, which in ruling on the Muslim Ban has had the temerity to display its constitutionally-mandated independence.
Now about that guy who walked into a bar.  He's Joe Sonka, a staff writer for Inside Louisville.  The bar is the Backdoor, a watering hole in that Kentucky city.   
Sonka was sipping on a cold one the other day when someone texted him that Kellyane Conway, Trump's high-ranking aide, notorious spokesmouth and purveyor of lies and false news, had done it again.  This time it was her claim that there had been a horrible massacre at the hands of Islamic terrorists in nearby Bowling Green in 2011 that was ignored by that dishonest news media and could have been prevented had the Muslim Ban had been in place.  
Sonka quickly deduced that Conway's latest "alternative fact," as she has unashamedly characterized her serial lying, was shakily based on the arrest of two Iraqi refugees at their new homes in Bowling Green for plotting to send money and weapons to Al Qaeda in Iraq.  They received extensive media coverage and harsh prison sentences (one for life and one for 40 years), and the incident led to further toughening of refugee vetting procedures by the Obama administration. 
Sonka fired back, writing on Twitter: 
Sonka's tweet got 2.4 million hits, putting it into Trumpian territory, was quickly picked up by major media outlets and, perhaps inevitably, used in an SNL sketch.   
Flat out caught (or is it caught flat out?), Conway equivocated and then acknowledged her lie on Twitter.  (Where else?)  Social media had prevailed, although the victory was quickly overshadowed by the administration's next mega-whopper: The news media was so inured to terror attacks that a whopping 78 attacks had gone underreported or unreported.  (All 78 had, in fact, been widely reported, and USA Today dutifully published a list of its own coverage of 54 of them.) 
The bastard brother of "alternative facts" is, of course, "fake news," which the Trump administration has repeatedly accused the news media of pedaling, yet its silence was deafening earlier this week when the lead New York Times story was:  
This is not because it would have been preposterous to claim the deeply sourced, leak-based story was "fake news."  It would have been, but no one from the administration questioned the story.   
The administration and perhaps even the president know that The Times and other outlets are not fabricating news.  But the "fake news" meme -- whether about unrelentingly negative polls, their boss's ongoing bromance with Vladimir Putin or balloon-pricking stories that Trump's claim the U.S. murder rate is at an historic high is flat-out wrong -- is pretty much the only weapon they have to distract people from all the bad news and assuage their sense of grievance over Trump's entirely self-inflicted lousy start.
Incidentally, after being banned from CNN for two whole news cycles (Oh, the humanity!) over concerns about her credibility following the Bowling Green Massacre fib, Conway was back at it, ignoring what that terror attack list contained and then lying about it when repeatedly pressed by CNN's Jake Tapper in the hope the media would move on. 
The media, thankfully, smells blood and is less likely to move on.  But we have to remain involved, too.   
The Muslim Ban is the most notable case in point.  In a brief appearance the day after the the ban was dropping on an unsuspecting public -- and most of the president's own aides, including key homeland security officials who weren't consulted, were as shocked as we were -- Trump declared that the ban was "working out very nicely -- you see it in airports." But what the nation and world was seeing, sometimes in jolting split-screen Instagram images, were refugee families, including Iraqis who had risked their lives to aid the American military, denied entry as immigration lawyers rushed to help them and chanting, sign-waving protesters clogged airport terminals from New York to Los Angeles. 
Things were not working out very nicely, and what we were seeing was the birth of  a social network-fueled movement to defeat Trump's policies, if not eventually the president himself.   
As my friend and fellow blogger Will Bunch wrote so eloquently today:
" . . . the silencing of Elizabeth Warren is  just one more example -- arguably, one of the most powerful ones yet -- that the basic norms that have loosely governed the way we do things in America are slowly and painfully getting crushed, one brittle bone at a time, right before our stunned eyes. I'm talking about the ways that we value and uphold democracy, our freedom to debate and express opposing views, and the fast-fading notion that we even pretend anymore to cherish diversity -- not just of human beings but diversity of thought." 
Trump has turned the Washington swamp into a cesspool while trashing America's image abroad and gifting terrorists the kind of bogeyman of which they could only dream.  He has brought out the worst in Americans.  And he has brought out the best, as seen by that social-network fueled movement, protests that even at this early date are eclipsing the civil rights and antiwar protests of yore. 
The success of this network is far from guaranteed, but a notable and noble start has been made.