Sunday in the Sun + 29 October 2017


Music Matters

First up this week, a walk down memory lane with a ghost on the canvas.

“People don’t know – when they’re looking at souls.”


So, it’s time for some Sunday in the Sun, The Robert Mueller Edition, when it rains – even when the sun’s out.

Late Friday evening word broke that the first grand jury indictment in the Robert Mueller Russia Collusion probe has been handed down, and will be served Monday. Meaning someone is going to be arrested Monday morning. Unless…

But…who? Paul Manafort? Don Jr.?And where does that take us next? How many rabbit holes are there left?

Yet, as important as this event may be, other, surely not coincidental events were taking place in and around the swamp on Friday, too. First, this item, from FOX NEWS, shows how the Republican disinformation campaign may try to handle the unwinding scandal:

“Special Counsel Robert Mueller is facing a fresh round of calls from conservative critics for his resignation from the Russia collusion probe, amid revelations that have called into question the FBI’s own actions and potentially Mueller’s independence.

“This week’s bombshell that a controversial anti-Trump dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign has Republicans asking to what extent the FBI – which received some of the findings and briefly agreed to pay the same researcher to gather intelligence on Trump and Russia – used the politically connected material.

“Hill investigators also are looking into a Russian firm’s uranium deal that was approved by the Obama administration in 2010 despite reports that the FBI – then led by Mueller – had evidence of bribery involving a subsidiary of that firm.

“Critics question whether Mueller’s own ties to the bureau as well as fired FBI director James Comey now render him compromised as he investigates allegations of Russian meddling and collusion with Trump officials in the 2016 race.

“The federal code could not be clearer – Mueller is compromised by his apparent conflict of interest in being close with James Comey,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who first called for Mueller to step down over the summer, said in a statement to Fox News on Friday. “The appearance of a conflict is enough to put Mueller in violation of the code. … All of the revelations in recent weeks make the case stronger.”

“Outgoing New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and Trump ally, also suggested Friday that Mueller consider stepping aside.

“If the facts that you just laid out are true, then somebody with Bob Mueller’s integrity will step aside and should — if in fact those facts, as you laid them out, are true,” Christie said on “Fox & Friends,” in response to various conflict-of-interest allegations.”


So, if the messenger delivers something you don’t like, discredit the message – or, if history is any guide at all, simply get rid of the messenger. Anyone recalling the Saturday Night Massacre – during the Watergate era – will surely understand what this indictment portends. And let’s not forget to mention all the other niggling distractions this week (the JFK data release for one) that add to the noise.

Yet, there are a couple of other (troublesome) “trends” – developing concurrently. The next piece of the puzzle? Consolidation of power, to wit, what’s happening at the Department of State?

A leaked State Department document is alarming diplomats and others who say it shows the accumulation of power among a small and unaccountable group of senior aides to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The chart, obtained by POLITICO, illustrates the growing influence of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, which traditionally has served as an in-house think tank but which Tillerson heavily relies upon for day-to-day decision making. Critics already complain that the office — led by Brian Hook, a powerful Tillerson aide not subject to Senate confirmation — accepts too little input from career diplomats, and the chart, which lays out a method to craft foreign policy, shows no explicit role for them.

The chart appears to show a top-down approach in which ideas emanate from the secretary’s inner circle rather than bubbling up from diverse sources, such as foreign service officers in the field. More than half a dozen current and former U.S. officials who have seen the document said it reveals an unusual level of control and oversight by the Policy Planning Staff, which is known in diplomatic circles as S/P.

Several current and former U.S. officials warned that the new approach, called the Policy Planning Process, or “P3,” increases the risk of poor, uninformed policy choices on everything from terrorism in Africa to human rights issues at a perilous time in international relations. It could also further demoralize career State Department staffers who already feel marginalized by Tillerson and President Donald Trump.

“This says to me that they are developing a new foreign policy structure that is designed to largely ignore those who know these regions and who know these issues,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official who served under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The chart suggests “a power grab by a small cabal of Tillerson aides,” added a senior Democratic congressional aide. “Making policy with a token effort to engage policy experts is a recipe for disaster and further evidence that the political forces in this administration will do anything they can to dismantle the State Department.”

The State Department’s press section did not respond to a POLITICO request for more material and context, but a senior department official said in a statement: “Policy development starts with the administration priorities set by the president. The policy planning process develops foreign policy with broad input at all stages from within State and the inter-agency. This process has supported new policies in a range of areas, including Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.”

In recent weeks, Hook has been meeting with various divisions at the State Department to explain the eight-step process. A source familiar with the issue said Hook is not seeking feedback but merely informing employees of a process Tillerson has already approved. The chart shows that policymaking begins with a “whiteboard session” between Hook and Tillerson.

Other State Department sources said Hook is simply explaining an approach that, at least in its first few steps, has slowly taken hold since Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO used to corporate management structure, took over as secretary in February.

The State Department officials said Hook’s policy planning chart nonetheless formalizes an unwelcome change in their status from the Obama administration.

“We are implementers of policy decided by Tillerson and his team,” one veteran State Department official concluded.

Several sources were unsettled to see the chart omit any mention of other parts of the State Department, especially its many bureaus focused on specific regions and issues, such as the Middle East and economics.

Some noted that Hook and Tillerson could include career diplomats in policy discussions throughout the process, even if the chart does not describe a specific role for them. Certain longtime department employees, including acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton, are known to have Tillerson’s ear. It’s also possible that what the chart vaguely describes as an “internally” triggered policy demand could come from a junior diplomat with a big idea.

Regardless of those caveats, the sources consulted said the chart strongly implies that Hook and Tillerson are the authoritative drivers of foreign policy to an unusual degree.

Several sources — while cautioning that the chart could offer an incomplete picture — also noted with concern that it also implies that the secretary of state, the Cabinet and Trump himself might endorse a policy prior to any significant evaluation by the National Security Council. They argued it should be the other way around to prevent poorly informed policy options from being placed before Cabinet secretaries and the president.

One serving U.S. official said the chart seemed “delusional” in its measure of the State Department and Tillerson’s influence in policy making. The Defense Department and the White House itself are major players in crafting U.S. foreign policy; and in the case of Tillerson, he’s clashed with Trump on so many levels — even reportedly calling the president a “moron” — that his very future at State is in question.

“This would be a challenging process to manage effectively for even the most powerful and skilled secretary of state, and we don’t have that right now,” said Derek Chollet, who was a deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I don’t understand how this comports with any reality that we’re aware of.”

The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff was created in 1947 by legendary diplomat George Kennan at the request of then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall. It’s supposed to be an independent source of analysis and often acts as a second opinion on policy for the secretary. According to the department’s own explanation, Policy Planning tends to “take a longer term, strategic view of global trends.”

Various secretaries of state have employed the office in different ways. It was considered unusually active under James Baker, when George H.W. Bush was president. It was also considered relatively active when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

But former and current U.S. officials said that, even in those days, the Policy Planning Staff worked hand in hand with other divisions at State instead of supplanting them. A case in point was the “pivot to Asia” strategy publicly articulated by Clinton — but widely considered the brainchild of then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.

Hook’s role at State is drawing increasing scrutiny from lawmakers, many of whom are troubled by Tillerson’s slowness in filling the many vacant assistant secretary and other leadership positions at State. The jobs remain unfilled as Tillerson is working on a plan to restructure and streamline the entire department.

Hook and his crew on the Policy Planning Staff — which numbers around two dozen, according to the State Department’s website — wield unusual power in part because so many key jobs are empty or held by diplomats on an acting basis. And unlike assistant secretaries or other top officials, Hook’s position doesn’t require Senate confirmation, which troubles some on Capitol Hill.

Observers say Hook, viewed as a relatively mainstream Republican, is running ragged trying to meet the demands placed on him.

“Hook is like a one-man band frantically, albeit valiantly, trying to play all the instruments, as competent and experienced musicians are made to stand on the sidelines,” one U.S. official said.

There have been reports that Tillerson, as part of a broader effort to restructure the State Department, wants to greatly expand the size of the Policy Planning Staff. The department did not immediately respond to questions about those reports. Still, even the possibility is meeting resistance among some lawmakers.

Last month, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire tacked an amendment onto a State Department appropriations bill that seeks to limit the size of the Policy Planning Staff, subject to certain conditions. The broader bill, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, also largely rejected Trump’s effort to slash the State Department’s funding by a third. (from politico)


The next piece of the puzzle? Try this from NBC News, a Trump certified purveyor of Fake Stuff.

A federal watchdog agency will investigate President Donald Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, it was announced Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office plans to probe the voter fraud panel’s funding, internal operations and how it is protecting and sorting the tens of millions of sensitive voter files the commission has collected.

The announcement comes after three Democratic senators — Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Cory Booker of New Jersey — sent a letter last week urging the agency to investigate the commission, saying it had ignored several requests from Congress aimed at understanding its work. The senators said the panel’s creation and operations were “cause for serious concern.”


Okay, are you seeing the overall picture yet? No? Well, then, try this…also from Politico:

One of the Trump campaign’s top data firms sought to connect with Julian Assange before the 2016 election, the Wikileaks founder said on Twitter on Wednesday.

“I can confirm an approach by Cambridge Analytica [prior to November last year] and can confirm that it was rejected by WikiLeaks,” Assange wrote.

The interaction was first reported by The Daily Beast, which said the firm approached WikiLeaks about finding emails sent during Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state that were not made public by the State Department. Assange, however, did not specify in his tweet who from Cambridge Analytica approached him or what they sought.

“We have confirmed the approach and rejection only. Not the subject,” Assange later added on Twitter.

WikiLeaks has come under scrutiny since the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the organization was given Democrats’ hacked emails as part of a Russian government effort to interfere in the election to help Donald Trump. WikiLeaks has denied any connection to the Russian effort.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is leading an investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign, including whether any Trump associates colluded with Moscow.

Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with deep ties to the billionaire Mercer family, was paid $5.9 million by Trump’s campaign during the 2016 campaign cycle. Neither WikiLeaks nor Cambridge Analytica responded to POLITICO’s request for comment.

Trump’s campaign released a statement later Wednesday that appeared to try to distance itself from Cambridge Analytica. (click the link, above, for the rest of the story)

Then, the last piece of the puzzle…FaceBook, and it’s continued “inadvertent” attack on mainstream journalism.

Facebook has been criticised for the worrying impact on democracy of its “downright Orwellian” decision to run an experiment seeing professional media removed from the main news feed in six countries.

The experiment, which began 19 October and is still ongoing, involves limiting the core element of Facebook’s social network to only personal posts and paid adverts.

So-called public posts, such as those from media organisation Facebook pages, are being moved to a separate “explore” feed timeline. As a result, media organisations in the six countries containing 1% of the world’s population – Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia – have had one of their most important publishing platforms removed overnight.

“The Facebook explore tab killed 66% of our traffic. Just destroyed it … years of really hard work were just swept away,” says Dina Fernandez, a journalist and member of the editorial board at Guatemalan news site Soy502. “It has been catastrophic, and I am very, very worried.”

In Slovakia, data from Facebook-owned analytics site CrowdTangle shows that “interactions” – engagement such as likes, shares and comments – fell by 60% overnight for the Facebook pages of a broad selection of the country’s media Facebook pages. Filip Struhárik, a Slovakian journalist with news site Denník N, says the situation has since worsened, falling by a further 5%.

“Lower reach can be a problem for smaller publishers, citizens’ initiatives, small NGOs,” Struhárik said. “They can’t afford to pay for distribution on Facebook by boosting posts – and they don’t have infrastructure to reach people other ways.”

Struhárik thinks his employer will survive the change. Denník N has subscription revenue, which means it doesn’t rely on the vast traffic that Facebook can drive for advertising income, and ensures that its most dedicated readers go straight to its homepage for their news. But Fernandez, in Guatemala, is much more concerned.

Even if Facebook reversed the change today, she says, “I really don’t know how long it will take to recover. If they reverse it fast enough it will be less difficult. If they take a long time, we might not be around.” Soy502 is a new site in an unstable democracy where journalists and civil society groups already face an uphill battle to be heard.

“We currently have a smear campaign that is targeting journalists, which is really vicious, fuelled by interest groups who are against the anti-corruption drive in our country,” she says. “We are regarded in the region as a success story on new media for the digital age. This can destroy us.”

Moving media content to the explore feed, a secondary section of the site that is rolling out worldwide, means users who really want to see posts from sites they follow have to click over to look for them – if they can find them.

“I don’t know what the criteria used to show news is. I see a lot of junk in the feed,” says Fernandez. “At least with past algorithms you had an idea of what would show up. With these, it’s completely strange.”

Fernandez shared examples of the sort of posts filling the explore feed: clips of wrestling and reality TV shows from pages like “Filosóraptor” and “Cabronazi” (illustrated with a picture of Adolf Hitler in a pink uniform), but few pieces of content from the pages she and her colleagues had chosen to follow. “My timeline is showing me very little local news.”

In Slovakia memes and gifs are the better end of the spectrum. “My explore feed looks quite normal, but a few people told me that they see distinct content here – old jokes, alt-right pages, posts by non-standard politicians,” said Struhárik. “We have regional elections in two weeks, and a lot of members of the fascist party are candidates, so it’s not a good time to hide posts of serious news and show people a strange cocktail of random popular posts.”

Where there are losers, there are winners. Jim Anderson, the chief executive of Facebook mega-publisher SocialFlow, says “millions of publishers of all shapes and sizes have pages on Facebook, so there may well be someone out there who benefits.

“In general, publishers’ concern is that the news feed is the primary Facebook experience for most users. Getting two billion people into the habit of consuming content in a new place is a tall order.”

Facebook has long tested sweeping changes to its product on subsections of its user base. When it wanted to roll out a new stories feature, for instance, it did so in Ireland first; when it wanted to trial a new camera app, it did so in Brazil; when it wanted to test adverts in Messenger, Australia was the subject.

But in this case, the standard practice of focusing on smaller, less developed countries that matter less to the company’s bottom line means that the nations which have been hit are those with the most riding on a stable media ecosystem.

“Independent media in my country is vital to building a new democracy and fighting corruption,” says Otto Angel, a broadcast journalist in Guatemala. “Right now, we use Facebook Live to broadcast judicial hearings in corruption cases. With this ‘catastrophe’, we lose around 57% of clicks a day.

“If I could speak with some officer of Facebook, I will ask if they can take back this project,” Angel said.

Fernandez accused Facebook of simply not caring what happened to its test subjects. “It’s like it took sites in emerging markets where we don’t really matter. We at Soy502 worked really hard to become a viable, respectable news site four years ago, and it all can be destroyed right away.”

In a statement released Monday, Facebook’s head of news feed, Adam Mosseri, said that the company “currently” had no plans to roll the test out further. But he added the purpose of the test was to see whether Facebook users prefer the site if “personal” and “public” posts are separated. If the results are positive, and Facebook does find that the metrics it seeks to optimise are improved by the experiment, then its plans could well change.

For those who rely on Facebook to campaign politically, share breaking news, or keep up to date with the world, that might be a concerning thought. “I’m worried about the impact of Facebook on democracy,” said Fernandez. “One company in particular has a gigantic control on the flow of information worldwide. This alone should be worrisome. It’s downright Orwellian.”


So, just where are we now? Well first, a little irony from Bill Yeats, by way of a timely, and perhaps patiently pedantic reminder:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats | The Second Coming

Yeats gets trotted out for a turn around the track every so often, ever since he wrote the piece as the First World War was winding down – and the Irish “troubles” were winding up yet again – and the poem has been with almost nauseating frequency since the Brexit vote in the UK two years ago, not to mention Trump’s coronation last November. It’s a telling indictment that we find comfort wrapping up our current troubles in such dark spiritualism, yet there’s truth in Yeats’ verse, too.

We see the “best of us” these days lacking a certain political conviction (don’t we?) while we see no end of passionate intensity – everywhere we look. From San Francisco to Beijing to the streets of Barcelona, everywhere we turn there’s lots of intensity on display, just waiting to come pouring down on all of us. Everyone’s upset and there’s a growing, almost pervasive sense of hopelessness about events in our collective body politic that Yeats speaks to…and that means something, like a canary in a coal mine means something.

…Almost like our elected representatives no longer represent…us. They have become our nightmare, and we are left, the indignant desert birds, to wonder what rough beast is coming to claim it’s rightful place on the (our?) throne.

We are confronting dissolution on almost every front, dissolution from within, dissolution all around us. Dissolution on the home front, where norms of discourse are falling apart before our eyes, where Neo-Nazi white nationalists are claiming their place at the table and beginning to define one way forward. And rather than stand up to this rabble, the Republican Party is capitulating, handing over the keys to the kingdom while the moderates are drifting to the sidelines, resigning rather than fighting for principle.

Flake, Corker, McCain…who will remember these names a few years hence? Who will remember their stand when Bannon and his acolytes begin to write their own history of the Republican Party – as we weather the winter of our own discontent. Who will remember that people like Flake and Corker ran rather than stayed to fight for their principles? To fight the good, honest fight?

Anyone? You?

So, what happens next, when Republican-sponsored corporate neo-fascism reigns supreme? Will you wake-up and smell the stench when they call off elections in 2018, or maybe 2020 – because of pervasive election fraud? After Gerrymandering is legitimized by the Supreme Court? Will you care enough to make a stand then?

And abroad, where the American exodus continues, where Trump, Tillerson & Co continue to dismantle the structural precepts that created the post-war global world order? Has anyone really given any thought at all about what happens when America is almost fully disengaged from the world? About the economic chaos such a sudden vacuum will create, and the full-blown economic tsunami that will engulf the so-called Third World when trade with America simply – stops? Can China exist in a world without America? Can Japan, or Germany? How far off will the last gasp be then?

If you take Trump and Bannon seriously, and you should, I’d start to care about these things more than you have to date. These people are talking more and more like they want to put a wall around this country, stop immigration completely, take basic rights away from those they consider inferior (read: Blacks and Browns, or anyone who disagrees with what the generals have to say) and, perhaps one day soon, we’ll start hearing about plans to resume repatriating people to the continents of their origins. Hey, it’s happened before, and don’t think it isn’t being talked about around campfires in Trumpland. In Germany, in the thirties, they called it the Madagascar Plan, but hey, look at Liberia and ask yourself why the capital is called Monrovia. We’ve been there, done that, and there’s no reason why we can’t go there again – once we forget who we are, and once we forget about the one common thread that holds us all together…

It’s called the constitution, by the way, that meaningless piece of paper some Republicans take great pride in trampling all over these days. It’s called the Rule of Law, that forgotten lady now rented out on occasion, to the highest bidder.


I’ll conclude with a piece from this evening’s Atlantic.

“Unprecedented” has become one of the most popular terms to use when discussing President Trump. On any given day since January 20 2017, the odds are good that a person can turn on their televisions or browse through a news story to encounter some pundit discussing how President Trump’s actions are unlike anything we have ever seen before.

As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers of the chyron perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.

For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out nowhere. If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.

If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump. The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history. In contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcast strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.

Another truly unprecedented part of the Trump presidency that doesn’t get much attention anymore has to do with the massive conflict of interest that exists in this Oval Office. When the president made a decision in January to avoid erecting a strict firewall between his family business and the presidency, he set the democracy on a dangerous path that we have not yet experienced. Never have we had a businessperson with such vast economic holdings as president. To have our leader be the titular head of a sprawling global company with property interests all over the globe, even with his two sons “running the business,” creates obvious problematic situations where the line between making money and making policy is permanently blurred.

The Washington Post recently reported how the private prison company GEO Group decided to hold its annual conference this year at Trump’s Miami resort rather than near its headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida. The company and its top executives have donated a considerable amount to the president. The decision by the company, which has ramped up its lobbying operation in Washington and whose business is booming this year, was in part a result of signing a contract to build an immigration-detention center, and will now be bringing good business to one of the Trump properties—which have already enjoyed endless free advertising every time the president spends his golfing weekends at one of these resorts.

There are other times, however, where using the term “unprecedented” masks the ways in which Trump is simply exploiting the way that we have allowed our government institutions to evolve.

Take his rampant use of presidential power to dismantle climate-change regulations put into place by former President Barack Obama and his efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act through a slow, administrative death. The risks of expanding presidential power over the course of the 20th century have been well documented. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had been a supporter and part of several Democratic administrations that strengthened the executive branch, warned of the “Imperial Presidency” when Richard Nixon was in office. Democrats were furious about how many of Ronald Reagan’s appointees in the 1980s, like James Watt at Interior or Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, refused to enforce the programs for which they were responsible.

Democrats were likewise outraged when President George W. Bush used signing statements and executive orders to aggressively conduct the war on terrorism regardless of legislative restraints, while Republicans were outraged by the way that President Clinton used the same power to protect the environment or President Obama to expand protection to the children of illegal immigrants. President Trump has been following in their footsteps, often in more dramatic fashion than we have seen, paying very little attention to legislating and using the executive power that he inherited to achieve his domestic aims.

Excessive use of “unprecedented” can mask the ways in which Trump’s presidency is an outgrowth of deep trends that have been taking hold in recent decades. He is the symptom of our divided, polarized times, rather than the root cause. For instance, the fact that President Trump spends so much of his time “playing to the base” and ignoring bipartisan opportunities should not be a surprise. We have lived through decades where the forces of partisan polarization have hardened. The parties move further and further apart, with the center vanishing.

While recent presidents, unlike Trump, have still attempted to look for points of compromise, the truth is that they have usually failed. Much of what presidents do these days is focus on their party, and in doing so appeal to the activists and organizations who are loudest and most influential within their coalition. Working for Karl Rove in 2004, adviser Matthew Dowd popularized a strategy that appealed to the base. The assumption of Bush’s reelection campaign was that much of the country, those counties in blue, would never be turned, so best to increase the turnout of core supporters.


In congressional politics, appealing to the base has become a standard tactic in an era of ever-present primary challenges. The rhetoric of partisan polarization vilifies opponents, and imagines a political universe where it is impossible to agree with what the other party has spread through the elaborate partisan media that shapes much of our conversations about Washington. In many respects, the way that President Trump thinks about politics is utterly conventional and, in fact, makes sense given how our system works. We have been witnessing partisan polarization for so long that we should have expected a president who would drop the pretense and embrace this reality without hesitation.

Sometimes using the term “unprecedented” is just a mistake and limits our historical vision. When Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake attacked President Trump, warning of dangerous instability in the Oval Office, many pundits were quick to describe a moment unlike anything we had seen before. The truth is that there have been numerous intra-party feuds that unfolded before the public. One of the most legendary of these fights took place between Franklin Roosevelt and the conservative Southern Democrats who ruled Congress in 1938. FDR actively campaigned against legislators like Georgia Senator Walter George in the primaries, hoping to “purge” them from the party. He failed, and there was hell to pay on his domestic agenda in the years to come. The personal and political tension between Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter became severe. When asked by a congressman about a challenge from Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries, Carter replied: “I’ll whip his ass.”

When President George H. W. Bush accepted tax increases as part of a 1990 deficit-reduction package, House Republican Minority Whip Newt Gingrich was outraged. He bolted out of the budget negotiations in fury and publicly castigated the president, never forgiving him for this sin. The president was so upset with his fellow Republican that he refused to shake hands at a White House ceremony. The language of the conflict in these cases was not nearly as personal. But bitter intra-party tensions between presidents and legislators have happened before, and often the damage to the party has been severe.

The temptation to blurt out “unprecedented” will continue to remain strong. President Trump will continue to test our ability to even pause before uttering this word. But it is crucial to show restraint in our commentary, to offer a clear understanding of when President Trump has truly done something that we have never seen before or, rather, when he is exploiting parts of our political institutions and traditions in a manner that exposes the troubling ways in which our democracy has evolved.


So, Halloween is coming up, lots of candy and trick-or-treaters out, so be careful driving out there…always lots of little goblins lurking in the shadows.


Ghost On A Canvas

I know a place between life and death for you and me
Let’s take hold on the threshold of eternity
And see the ghost on the canvas
People don’t see us ghost on the canvas
People don’t know when they’re looking at souls

In between here and there there’s a place that we can grow
Spirits make love in a wheat field with crows
Like a ghost on a canvas people don’t see them
Ghost on a canvas no oh oh oh
They never see souls

Ring around the rosary pocketful of prosary
Ashes to ashes we all fall in love
With ghost on the canvas

We dream in colour others they colour their dreams
Takes one to know one a Spirit always knows when it’s seen
Like a ghost on a canvas never can happen
Ghost on a canvas
It’s the soul that makes them go
People don’t know ohh ohhh ohhh
When they’re looking in souls
Better take hold
I’m the ghost on the canvas

Glen Campbell, 2011 (April 22, 1936 – August 8, 2017)

Thanks for the memories, Amigo.

2 thoughts on “Sunday in the Sun + 29 October 2017

  1. With what appears to be a coordinated restructuring of the cabinet level agencies, the amount of time not spent doing Presidential work, who is driving the bus?
    I can’t imagine that DJT had been planning the steps to dismantle Energy, Education, State, Justice, et al To simultaneously start dismantling and restructuring can’t be done on the golf course.


  2. Senators coming out of a meeting with him mid-week commented they thought he either has dementia or Alzheimer’s, but those comments quickly disappeared. “Who’s been driving the bus?” becomes a more than an appropriate question, I think. Pence and his old money donors, or the alt-right money hiding behind Bannon? Whichever, this is now an alt-right fantasyland, and suddenly they’ve got the keys to the kingdom…but now, what? – does 1933 loom on our horizon…?


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