I’ve been trying to find the right context for President Trump’s repugnant response to the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville. To say that he failed the moral test of being president doesn’t quite get at it, because he’s failed every moral test ever put in front of him. But this was by far his most important test, so it’s much worse than his previous failures, even if his actual words were no different from what he’s said and hasn’t said before.
His performance Saturday was deliberate and perverse. The most plausible explanation is that he was consciously, specifically trying not to alienate the ignorant racists and white supremacists who comprise a large part of his base. I’m glad that other Republicans, including Ted Cruz, gave evil its proper name. But will they take action against Trump? Not likely.
Few members of the Trump administration have carried themselves with more unctuous sycophancy than Mike Pence. “Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” the former Indiana governor said at that North Korean-style cabinet meeting back in June. At joint public appearances, Pence gazes at President Trump with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sheer astonishment at finding himself just a heartbeat away from the presidency.
But now Trump and Pence may be on the outs. The proximate cause is a New York Times story over the weekend reporting the not especially earthshattering news that Pence is keeping his powder dry in case Trump does not run for re-election in 2020. Much of the article, by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, concerns the 2020 ambitions of Republicans such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. But we also learn that Pence has been unusually active in boosting his political prospects, although he “has made no overt efforts to separate himself from the beleaguered president. He has kept up his relentless public praise and even in private is careful to bow to the president.”
This is all pretty unremarkable stuff. Pence himself, though, erupted as though he had been accused of mocking the size of Trump’s hands, calling the Times article“disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team” as well as “categorically false.” As Chuck Todd of NBC News tweeted, “Sorta stunned that an obvious point from the NYT piece about a sitting VP’s own ambitions appears to be causing Team Pence such heartburn.”
What makes the Times article so sensitive, needless to say, is the nontrivial chance that Pence will be running for president in 2020 as the incumbent. Although it seems unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office, the inexorable progress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation may well yield the sort of information that could persuade Trump to disappear. It’s a prospect that no doubt gladdens the hearts of congressional Republicans even more than Democrats, since they would be rid of their rage-tweeting ruler and his record low approval ratings. A Pence presidency would give them a chance to start over.
Yet Bill Kristol, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, seems unimpressed with the vice president. Kristol stirred the pot after the Times story was published by tweeting, “It’s bold of Team Pence to plant the front-page NYT story on plans for 2020, then object vociferously. Multi-dimensional chess!” And when Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted that Pence’s over-the-top response would “make one think Pence had committed theft stead of fluffing own brand,” Kristol retorted, “Pence committed the crimes of 1) theft of spotlight from @POTUS and 2) suspicion of less than total subservience to @POTUS even in private.”
Even before the Times story revealed the extent of Pence’s politicking, the vice president’s standing with Trump may have been more fragile than we outsiders imagine. There is, of course, Trump’s one-way definition of loyalty: he demands total fealty and gives back nothing in return. But Pence has also shown that he is not immune to the scent of blood in the water. As the columnist Richard North Patterson observed in The Boston Globe, Pence — whom Patterson described as “an incompetent ideologue, an obsequious toady, and a self-serving schemer” — made it clear to everyone last fall that he was available for the drafting when it looked like the “Access Hollywood” tape might sink Trump’s campaign.
Thus for all the deference Pence has shown, Trump may regard him as someone who is no better than former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who, as head of the Republican Party, reportedly urged Trump to drop out after the tape was exposed by The Washington Post. As an elected official in his own right, Pence, unlike Priebus, can’t be fired by Trump. But that doesn’t mean Pence’s position is entirely safe.
For anyone of moderate or liberal views, a Pence presidency might be even worse than what we’ve got now. Pence is well regarded on Capitol Hill, especially by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He knows how to handle himself in public. And he is an extreme right-wing ideologue who, you can be sure, would stand a far better chance than Trump of rolling back years of progress on issues such as LGBTQ rights and reproductive choice. The Affordable Care Act would once again be in danger. (On the other hand, Trump would no longer have access to the nuclear codes — no small thing given his unstable behavior.)
If there was any doubt, the Times article reminds us that Pence is ambitious. It remains to be seen whether he is ambitious in the way vice presidents normally are or if he is aggressively trying to take advantage of Trump’s weak position. In either case, he’s not going away. Even if Trump wants him to.
I think the key to understanding President Trump’s ban on transgender troops is contained within a much-discussed Politico story. According to the article, by Rachel Bade and Josh Dawsey, Trump was trying to appease right-wing House members who wanted Trump to rescind funding of transgender-related medical treatment for military personnel. In return, those House members would support funding for the wall that Mexico is not going to pay for.
Now, refusing to pay for medical care is bad enough. But Trump went much further than anyone expected by banning transgender people from the military altogether. Here is the key excerpt from Bade and Dawsey’s story:
“This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire,” a senior House Republican aide said in an email. The source said that although GOP leaders asked the White House for help on the taxpayer matter specifically, they weren’t expecting — and got no heads up on — Trump’s far-reaching directive.
So what happened? My guess is that Trump, raging at the world and lacking any understanding of the issues, didn’t realize that right-wingers for the most part were not asking him to ban trans troops. As you can see from this Washington Post analysis by James Hohmann, the most conservative Republicans from the most conservative parts of the country are speaking out against the ban. Trump literally didn’t know what he was doing.
And it wouldn’t be the first time. During the campaign, you may recall, Trump said that women who undergo abortion should face “some form of punishment,” as CNN reported. Leaders of the anti-abortion-rights movement freaked out, waving their arms frantically and insisting that they don’t say things like that anymore. Trump backed down. To use a word that is quickly becoming overused, Trump is strictly transactional. He made his comments not out of any deeply felt sense that abortion is always wrong but to cement his ties to the religious right. And he tweaked his position once he realized he was off-key.
So it is, I suspect, with the transgender ban. This was not deeply thought-out; by all accounts, it wasn’t thought-out at all. It was Trump on Twitter, doing what he does. He blundered into going much further than anyone other than Tony Perkins (New York Times article) was asking him to go, and now he — and all of us — have to live with it.
Let me close on a less what-does-it-mean-politically note. Wednesday turned out to be one of the worst days of the Trump presidency — perhaps the worst since he announced the first version of his ban on Muslims trying to enter the country. We should all feel sick and appalled at Trump’s casual cruelty and his willingness to indulge hatred if he thinks it will give him some momentary advantage.
Note: On Thursday, July 27, the BSA’s chief scout executive, Mike Surbaugh, issued a strong statement about Trump’s speech that said in part, “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.” Read the whole thing here.
Donald Trump contaminates everything he touches. So no one should have been surprised when his speech at the Boy Scouts’ national jamboree took a nasty turn into partisan politics. After all, it’s always about him.
But there is a larger issue at stake here: the fate of the Boy Scouts of America, which has been slowly evolving out of its discriminatory past. As an Eagle scout, a former scoutmaster, and the father of an Eagle scout, I really care about the future of the organization. And I’m concerned that President Trump’s toxic rhetoric will stain a movement already seen by many as anachronistic.
Make no mistake — Trump’s speech on Monday went well beyond the bounds of anodyne patriotism that has characterized remarks delivered to the scouts by past presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. As he has repeatedly, Trump dwelled on his Electoral College victory map, which was “so red it was unbelievable.” He derided the “fake media,” claiming they would play down the size of the crowd — as though (as The Washington Post put it) the 30,000 scouts had turned out for him rather than the jamboree. He boasted that he’d bring “Merry Christmas” back into the lexicon, ignorant of scouting’s embrace of all religious faiths. He put in a plug for “killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare.”
And yes, the scouts booed Trump’s reference to Hillary Clinton and chanted “USA! USA! USA!” a few times. But scouting is a pretty conservative movement, and I have no doubt that many of those in attendance were Trump supporters. Those of us in Blue New England are outliers within the BSA, and the president’s actions were not helpful to the idea that scouting is for everyone, not just for kids in red states. Indeed, based on some of the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter, many people already believe the worst about the Boy Scouts, and they saw Trump’s remarks as confirmation of their stereotyped views rather than as a transgressive outburst.
Let me also put to rest the notion that Trump shouldn’t have been invited. Scouting has always had a close relationship with the federal government. It has held a congressional charter since 1916. The president of the United States is also the honorary president of the BSA. My Eagle card is signed by Richard Nixon; my son’s by George W. Bush. The problem isn’t that Trump was invited. It was solely in what he said. Now he has put the national organization in an impossible position. If the leadership fails to go beyond the boilerplate statement it has already issued, then it will take flak from Trump critics. But if it makes it clear that Trump’s remarks were inappropriate, then it will alienate its largely conservative membership. This is what Trump does — he divides.
The sad thing is that the BSA has come a long way in recent years. Seen as a force for progressive values during the civil-rights era, scouting later fell under the sway of cultural and religious conservatives. For years, the movement was known mostly for discriminating against gay boys and adult leaders. The ban was upheld by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. As I wrote in The Boston Phoenix in 2001, that decision was misguided because it failed to take into account the reality that a small number of unelected leaders were setting policies opposed by many within the organization.
Gradually, the BSA dropped its ban, first allowing openly gay scouts, then gay leaders. It is the height of irony that Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was perhaps the key scouting official responsible for pushing the national organization to end its discriminatory ways. That led the Mormon Church, a major force within scouting, to pull out of two programs for older boys. Unfortunately, scouting continues to discriminate against atheists, as its admirable embrace of boys of all faiths does not extend to those of no faith.
Will scouting endure? Long before Trump’s speech, that was a question with no certain answer. Membership has been declining for years. Uniforms, camping, and hiking have long since given way to youth sports and other activities. The great thing about scouts is that it accommodated all kinds of kids, including those who didn’t fit in elsewhere. To their credit, scouting’s national leaders have slowly been moving into the 21st century. Trump’s speech, though, was a huge setback, and it’s going to take a long time for the movement to recover.
… And you can listen to the results on SoundCloud. Thank you to Jeff Semon and Ed Lyons for inviting me onto “The Lincoln Review.” We talked for more than an hour about media and politics. But it was OK, because we were all drinking. You can subscribe to their podcast on iTunes. I understand that video will be up in a few days as well. God help us.
Wednesday’s sad news that Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with brain cancer called to mind this story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000 during the crucial Republican primary showdown between McCain and George W. Bush. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. As we know, Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency.
I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. McCain wasn’t quite as accessible to the media (at least not to all the media) as advertised; but as you’ll see, I managed to wedge myself between him and his bus and ask him a question he didn’t want to answer. I have rarely agreed with McCain politically, but his service and courage transcend political differences. He is a great American hero, and my thoughts go out to him at this difficult time.
Earlier today I did some tweeting on the bad choices that then-president Barack Obama faced over Russian meddling in the election — the major theme of The Washington Post’s astonishing exclusive. I’ve pulled my tweets into what Twitter calls a Moment. Please have a look.
The first results were coming in from Georgia’s special congressional election. And Tucker Carlson of the Fox News Channel had a theory to explain why Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, wasn’t heading toward a huge victory over his Republican opponent, Karen Handel: Ossoff was (gasp) a liberal elitist.
“Ossoff ought to be running away with it, but he’s not,” Carlson said. He sneered at Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising, saying that “all that money has come from angry liberals who live out of state.” As for whether Ossoff was capable of relating to voters in Georgia’s Sixth District, Carlson smirked, “He’s super-fit and way smarter than you are.”
Last week Zack Beauchamp of Vox explained on the public radio program “On the Media” why liberals want to believe in outlandish conspiracies about President Trump. “One expert I spoke to on political misinformation said that conspiracy theories were a weapon of the weak,” he said. “They were a way to understand and make sense out of the world when it doesn’t seem to make sense to you or seems hostile to you.”
Beauchamp was referring specifically to the ridiculous drivel promoted by Louise Mensch, a former British parliamentarian whose disinformation campaign has taken in a few Trump critics who should have known better. (A sample: Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul Ryan were all about to be arrested because of their ties to Russia).
But I think Beauchamp’s insight is also useful in thinking about a couple of other theories making the rounds among liberals who are trying to explain why a boorish lout like Trump won: his campaign’s use of big data, funded by the shadowy Mercer family, and the proliferation of dubious pro-Trump websites and bot-controlled Twitter accounts.
If you are a stereotypical Massachusetts liberal (I plead guilty, your honor), the story of President Trump’s first few months in office is one of incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, all playing out beneath the penumbra of the burgeoning Russia scandal.
But that’s not how it looks to Breitbart News, the right-wing nationalist website that has served as Trump’s most outspoken — and outrageous — media cheerleader. In a new e-book titled “The First 100 Days of Trump,” Breitbart’s Joel Pollak describes the president in glowing terms.