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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Accountability is Trump's Kryptonite, and he knows it

Stephen H. Provost

The president is entitled to his opinion, but we’re a nation of laws.
— U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., responding to Donald Trump’s assertion that the appointment of a special counsel in the Russia investigation was the result of a “witch hunt”

Ah, Mother Russia. As in the mother of all scandals.

I’m inclined to think Donald Trump’s guilty of something here, but it may not be because he likes the Russians or wants to do them any favors.

It's probably not treason. And, while it may be obstruction of justice, Trump probably doesn’t view it that way.

What Trump is most likely guilty of doing is following through on exactly what he said he was going to do:  Running the government like a business. Or, more precisely, how he would run a business.

That means a lot of back-room bargaining that will, he’s probably sure, result in a "great deal." This is, after all, the guy who wrote a book called The Art of the Deal. He expects to get the best of any rival in the course of negotiations and, if somehow he doesn’t, he counts on being able to cut and run, as he did when various businesses enterprises failed. (Bankruptcy, anyone?)

Getting things done

Many of Trump’s supporters voted for him because they were sick of government gridlock. They wanted a president who could “cut through the red tape” and “get things done” in a government that too often seemed mired in the quicksand of obstructionism.

Who can blame them? Do-nothing Congresses have become the rule, rather than the exception, and each of the two major parties seems more interested in discrediting the other than in accomplishing anything of substance.

California voters put Arnold Schwarzenegger in office for the same reason, but Schwarzenegger, for all his Governator posturing, ultimately worked within the system.

And was, too many, a disappointment.

Trump isn’t doing that. He’s trying to work around the system, the same way he did as a businessman – by finding loopholes, making deals and avoiding responsibility if and when things go wrong.

A lot of people worried, before he took office, that Trump would fail because "you can’t run a republic like a business." You have to cut deals with Congress, make compromises and play the political game. But that was never the issue. Cutting deals is supposed to be Trump’s forte. But here’s the rub: Even if you could run the country like a business, you can’t run it like a bad business … which is what Trump seems to be doing.

Bad business, bad governance

A good business is accountable to its shareholders; a good government is accountable to the people. There’s at least a superficial parallel there, but Trump’s throwing it all to hell by ditching the issue of accountability entirely.

Shunning the media is bad government the same way ducking a financial audit is bad business. The media’s job is to reassure the public that everything’s running smoothly, in much the same way an independent auditor’s task is to reassure shareholders there’s no funny business going on with the company’s books.

Inviting the Russian media to an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials is like inviting your biggest corporate rival’s bookkeeper to examine your finances while telling your own shareholders to take a hike.  

Seriously? This is how you run a business? Not any business that I’ve ever heard of – at least not a successful one.

The problem may be that Trump is simply so cocky about his ability as a dealmaker that he thinks it’s fine to be careless; that it will all come out in the wash. But government doesn’t work that way. We are a nation of laws, and circumventing those laws won’t overcome gridlock, any more than a business can “get things done” by cheating on its taxes.

Accountability is the answer

In an era where “working across the aisle” and “finding common ground” has become next to impossible because of partisan obstruction, it’s tempting to do whatever it takes to restore some level of responsiveness to government. There are elements of the system that clearly cry out for reform. Gerrymandered congressional districts that discourage flexibility and compromise come to mind.

Here’s the problem: Most of the dysfunction in Washington stems from a lack of accountability. Safe congressional seats. Entrenched “red” and “blue” lawmakers answerable only to think-alike constituents. An increasingly politicized Supreme Court. These problems can be resolved only by increasing accountability, not by undermining it – which is exactly what Trump’s back-room shenanigans succeed in doing.

And here’s what’s worse: Overconfidence is perhaps the biggest breeding ground for failure there is. Trump may have experience in real estate, but he’s got none in foreign relations. Ergo, inviting veteran Russian officials to make some sort of under-the-table deal (if that’s what he was doing) is akin to a college debate champion representing himself in court against Perry Mason. And thinking, because he's always won before, that he'll win there, too. 

If this were a real estate deal, Trump might be able to declare bankruptcy and start over. Starting over after you’ve handed over intelligence to a foreign power is a lot harder to do.

If that’s what he did. As I said at the outset, I'm inclined to think Trump's guilty of something. This, and probably other things, as well. But we don’t know that yet, and as Senator Rubio says, this is a nation of laws. Even if Trump doesn’t appear to be respecting those laws, he’s still innocent until proven guilty.

I'll give him that. But it's also precisely why the current investigation must be allowed to take its course. An investigation he doesn't want.

It's worth asking why.

When a demagogue is president: Why the media are baffled by Trump

Stephen H. Provost

“Did he really say that? But didn’t he just say the opposite?”

Media pundits are scratching their heads over the mixed messages coming from Donald Trump and the people who supposedly work for him. He’s shooting himself in the foot, they exclaim, because he can’t settle on a consistent message. One minute, the White House issues something like a standard political statement (read: carefully crafted rhetoric that says very little of substance); the next, he’s gone off on another tweetstorm of bluster and accusation.

Trump’s defenders often say, “Why are you picking on our guy? All politicians do this sort of thing.” They also say they like him because he’s not a traditional politician, which kind of contradicts any defense that relies on him being one, but that shouldn’t be surprising, either. People online howl about hypocrisy and a lack of consistency, but it’s really not that unusual in American politics.

What is unusual is the extent to which Trump is going to send these mixed messages, and the fact that he happens to be president of the United States.

We’ve seen demagogues before, and we’ve had 44 other presidents. But we’ve never seen someone who happens to be both.

Divide and conquer

How often have you seen a politician make nice at a summit with some foreign leader, then go home and tell his constituents the same leader is the devil incarnate? (On Trump’s own just-concluded foreign trip, he spoke of finding common ground with Muslim nations in stark contrast to his anti-Islam rhetoric during last year’s campaign.)

Then there’s the well-known strategy of playing to your base during the primary and moving toward the center for the general election. Same politicians, different messages.

It’s all about realizing that the person who goes to see “The Fast and the Furious” is often not the same as the one you’ll find watching “Brokeback Mountain.” You can deliver one message to the first audience and another to the second, because very few people will be in both places to notice the difference. Members of the mainstream media are exceptions, outliers: They follow a politician/president through all phases of a campaign, monitor his domestic policy and follow him on trips abroad.

Unless, of course, he tries to discredit them and shut them out – which is exactly what Trump has done with his dismissive “fake news” accusations and decision to bar members of the U.S. media from his Oval Office meeting with Russian officials (while letting members of the Russian media in!).

Such tactics would never have worked in the era of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. But the power of the mainstream media isn’t what it used to be. With today’s media marketplace so diluted by blogs and news outlets that target niche audiences, it’s easy to avoid or shout down the mainstream media – the voices of those who have seen both movies.

Preaching to the choir

Consciously or not, that’s what Trump is doing. What makes him different, other than his near-obsessive use of Twitter, is his emphasis. Most politicians pitch both messages with something close to equal fervor, trying to “sell” themselves to both audiences. But there’s a broad enthusiasm gap with Trump. He loves adulation, so he plays to his base like a symphony conductor at the Hollywood Bowl, while mailing in half-hearted press releases to appease everyone else.

The result is predictable: Trump has abysmally low approval ratings … except among his base. The vast majority of the roughly 40 percent who approve of Trump’s performance are Republicans, with a few independents thrown into the mix. This number has remained stable, remarkably so, considering the series of difficulties he’s faced.

The reason is that Trump has been just as effective at retaining his base support as he has been at alienating everyone else.

He talks about being a champion of “the people” while tailoring his message to a specific segment (his base) and demonizing everyone else. They’re foreigners: Muslims, Mexican immigrants and even the “Kenyan” president Barack Obama. They’re purveyors of “fake news.” They’re conducting a witch hunt. Et cetera.

If members of the media are mystified about this, they shouldn’t be. It’s classic demagoguery – the same kind of methods employed by the likes of Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and others who achieved various degrees of political success. One might also cite Jim Jones, David Koresh, Rush Limbaugh, Louis Farrakhan, Charles Coughlin, William Jennings Bryan and a host of others.

But none of these people became president. It’s the stage that Trump’s operating on, not his methods, that are new. To his followers, he does represent “the people,” writ large, because they are the people. No one else is to be trusted. Whoever is not for us is against us not (to borrow a phrase from the original Star Trek episode The Return of the Archons) “of the body.”

Waiting in vain

Time and again, people have speculated that Trump would tone down his rhetoric and work to broaden his appeal once he a) became an official candidate, b) won the nomination or c) became president. That assumption has been proved wrong time and again, and not surprisingly. If it’s not broken, why fix it? Besides, Trump relies so heavily on public adulation – the fuel that fires many demagogues – that it’s doubtful that he could fix it if he wanted to.

Trump himself has said he’s motivated by the thrill of the chase: “The real excitement is playing the game.” Now that the chase has concluded and he’s won the presidency, the only way to sustain his interest is by staging more campaign-like events where he can be the center of attention or creating a new “chase” by injecting drama into the job of governing. He does this by writing outrageous tweets and (consciously or otherwise) becoming embroiled in a controversy of the week by insisting on doing things his way.

His followers, meanwhile, never blink because they identify with Trump as a sort of savior figure – yet another classic feature of a demagogue. He’s created a cult of personality that transcends issues and sold an image of himself as someone who can do no wrong. Demagogues have succeeded throughout history by cultivating precisely this sort of image. They’ve just seldom succeeded on this level before, which is why the media are confused.

But it’s not confusing at all. There’s a method to the madness, and it’s just plain scary.


Mother's Day orphans: When your mom's no longer here

Stephen H. Provost

Mother's Day is not my favorite holiday. Father's Day isn't, either. I remember being young and asking, "Why don't they have a Kids Day?"

"Because every day is 'Kids Day,'" I was told.

Yes, kids sometimes have it easy. I know I did. I have no complaints about how I was raised, and I couldn't be more grateful to my mom and dad for their patience, generosity and the hard work they did to raise a sometimes difficult boy. Especially when that boy was enduring the crucible that was (and, from what I hear, still is) middle school. It's not hyperbole to wonder whether I would have survived those years without Mom and Dad.

Which brings me to why, at least in part, Mother's Day and Father's Day aren't my favorite times of year - now, far more than when I was a kid.

First, I'll invite you to look at where the apostrophe is in those names. It's before the "s," which makes it singular, and that's how I always took it. Mother's Day was a day for me to appreciate my mother, and for you to appreciate yours. Here's the rub: I haven't had a mother for 22  years now (and, as of last August, I don't have a father anymore, either).

It's fine to say that all mothers deserve to be appreciated, and I couldn't agree more. They should be appreciated every day of every year they're on this planet.

My mom isn't on this planet anymore. Yes, I still appreciate her. But no, I can't give her a schmaltzy Hallmark greeting card to tell her oh-so-imperfectly how much - and at the moment, I wouldn't want to. I'd just want to give her a hug (even though she was chronically off-balance from the polio that left her half paralyzed as a child), and tell her I loved her so she could hear me.

Please don't tell me she can hear me from heaven or "the other side of the veil," because even believing that wouldn't make it the same. It doesn't for me, and I doubt it does for anyone else, either.

It will never be the same again.

It's not just the winter holidays

I've heard people talk about having a blue Christmas, sometimes invoking the all-too-clinical-sounding term "seasonal affective disorder." They don't enjoy the winter holidays because they bring back memories of times spent with loved ones who are no longer there. Mother's Day does the same thing to me, and if anything, it's worse, because there was only one of her, and this day is supposed to be about that one person.

For years, I've tried to shrug it off and not get too wrapped up in sorrow over it, because my mom's death remains the single most traumatic event of my life. When my father passed away last year, he'd been unconscious in a hospital bed for 10 days, and as hard as it when he died, I'd had time to prepare myself.

When my mother died, it was sudden. I was working one evening when I got a call in the back paste-up shop at the newspaper where I was working (back when they still had such things). I heard my dad sobbing on the other end. He never cried. But when he told me Mom had gone to lie down for a nap and hadn't woken up again, it just didn't compute with me. She had been ill, but not that ill. I hadn't seen her since Christmas, which had been more than two weeks earlier, and now, I never would again.

So, Mother's Day isn't a cause for celebration to me. As much as I appreciate everything mothers all over the world go through for their kids, none of them is my mom. I know the same thing will happen at Father's Day this year, and it will might even hit me harder because this will be my first year without Dad, and the day often fell right on his birthday.

None of this is to say you need to tiptoe around me Sunday. I won't take offense at others who, unlike me, have a Mom who's still here to celebrate. Just excuse me if I feel a little left out. I might not even show it on the outside, but it's there, and I wanted you to know because I doubt I'm the only person who has this kind of reaction. And as important as it is to celebrate your mom (please do!), it's important that you know there are other feelings associated with days like these. 

I still miss my mom. Even if there were 365 days to honor mothers, she'd still be the only one I'll ever have.