Self-Driving Conspiracy

American political history has had its share of the baroque and the surreal, but the present moment is setting records for the peculiar. Like three presidents before him, Donald Trump owes his position not to a popular triumph at the ballot box but to the anachronistic institution of the electoral college.

To many Americans this makes him seem less than a fully legitimate leader, and he has done nothing to win them over. Add to that the fact that he was elected as a Republican but ran on a populist platform, so he is at odds in many ways with his putative party.

Of course, even those Republicans who find him alien and repugnant are loath to look a gift horse in he mouth. Thanks to Trump’s “win,” they control the executive, both branches of Congress and are beginning to Republicanize the judiciary.

Yet all is not running smoothly. The leaders of Congress are trying to pass a wish list that long predates Trump. But it (or they) are so far to the right that no compromise with the Democrats has been possible. Yet their agenda is also at odds with many of the stated goals of Trump’s campaign. Hard to get a majority under these conditions.

The result has been messy. Fissures in the Republican ranks keep emerging. Grassroots Tea Party types demand less debt, but the tax cutters are okay with debt if it benefits corporate and Wall Street fat cats. The alt-right Bannonites favor isolationist trade, immigration and foreign policies, but much of America’s business wealth is generated abroad. To them, globalization is money in the bank.

While this internecine warfare goes on, Democrats are largely relegated to the roles of spectator, spoiler or sniper. Their most zealous wing demands resistance and impeachment, but minority parties are all but powerless, other than voting nay on everything.

And powerlessness can make minorities a little cuckoo. Hamilton noted as much in Federalist 78 when he said such poor souls can fall victim to “the rage for objection which disorders their imaginations and judgement.”

On a different front, judicial resisters like the ACLU are pursuing a strategy of gumming up the works of the administration by hauling it into court every time they detect overreach, as in the case of the travel ban and various regulatory moves of questionable legality.

If we were a minor European duchy or a banana republic of an earlier era, this governmental dysfunction would be embarrassing or even comic. In an economic and military superpower, it is alarming. First, because the rest of the world can get up to no good while we are too divided to maintain order. Second, because we risk lost opportunities. Our economic and geopolitical rivals aren’t going to wait for us to come to our senses. While we stand still or whirl in circles, they will endeavor to eat our lunch.

Looming behind all this dysfunction is the huge issue of Russian cyber-meddling in Trump’s election, Robert Mueller’s investigation of it, and the possibility of Trump’s collusion. He refuses to acknowledge it even took place, and the Republicans have no interest in seeking the truth if it risks killing the goose that let’s them steal the golden eggs.

At the center of this multi-ring circus is the character of the president himself. We have seen enough of his behavior to know he is uninterested in or incapable of study, planning, devising complex legislation, building coalitions, or any of the nuts and bolts of governing. He likes to be applauded by crowds, fawned over by loyalists, to pick fights, to send snarky tweets and to binge watch news outlets that stroke his ego.

The combination of Trump’s fecklessness with the party’s internal divisions and its unwillingness to compromise with Democrats means the administration has little to show for its first year in office. Its reputation for dysfunction is now so familiar that the Trump camp is
Invoking it to explain why the Mueller investigation will find no wrong-doing. Because the notoriously slipshod and chaotic campaign couldn’t possibly have managed it.

I’m not making this up. And on the surface one might almost be tempted to agree that so scattered a chief executive with such incompetent appointees would have trouble pulling off a a complex conspiracy. But a career prosecutor was quick to point out that even crack addicts can commit crimes and be found guilty of them. And in this case the heavy lifting was done by well-organized Russia hackers and Julian Assange, not the Trump crowd.

Furthermore, even lazy and non compis mentis executives can preside over destruction. The process is familiar from history. Henry II in a fit of pique said, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Which his Barons took as orders from headquarters, saddled up, and killed Thomas a Becket.

In reviewing a new biography of Stalin in “The New Yorker,” Keith Gessen describes a similar process when drawing a contrast between the workaholic Stalin, who personally compiled his voluminous execution orders, and a charismatic ideologue, Hitler.

“The Fuhrer’s hands-off tyranny has led to a historians’ debate about his actual participation in the crimes of his regime, and to Ian Kershaw’s famous concept of ‘working towards the Fuhrer,’ that is, anticipating his wishes in the absence of direct orders.”

Under such a scenario, Trump may not have managed the conspiracy with Russia and Wikileaks, but Flynn, Manafort, Papadopolous, Don, Jr., Roger Stone, Carter Page and all the other courtiers and go-betweens knew what would please the boss, and got it done.

In just this way, as Michael Lewis is detailing in a must-read series of “Vanity Fair” exposes, Trump’s unqualified, but malicious appointees to the executive departments of government are vandalizing it in ways Trump knows too little grasp, but would appreciate if had the patience to sit still for a briefing.

Zombie Flats And the Dispossessed

No, that’s neither a spin-off from “The Walking Dead” nor an Alt-Country band. Zombie Flats is the name in London for 20,000 or more rarely occupied, hyper-expensive apartments or condos in the posh precincts of the capital. The phenomenon is a sign of our times with its growing income inequality, and it is far from restricted to London.

An article some time ago in “The Washington Post” identified a number of world cities characterized by absentee plutocratic residents — Singapore, Sydney, Dubai, Hong Kong, Vancouver, Miami, and San Fransisco among them.

Typical of this odd situation is a 40-block rectangle of the most desirable real estate in the world in Manhattan — from 49th St. to 70th between 5th Avenue and Park Avenue. Of the tens of thousands of residences in this elegant high rise stretch, a third or more are vacant 10 months of the year.

What gives? Some of these properties are investments whose owners are waiting for them to appreciate. Some are simply one of several residences for globe-trotting moguls or idle scions of the ruling class, not to mention Saudi sheiks, Russian oligarchs, Latino drug kingpins, African tyrants or Asian billionaires.

As that list suggests, many such properties owned by foreign buyers are a hedge against a sudden change in political fortunes at home. If Xi Jinping, Recip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin or Prince Mohammed bin Salman should suddenly decide you have outlived your usefulness, it’s nice to have a little penthouse or townhouse bolthole to fall back on.

The trouble is, the Zombies are driving up prices and taking up space in cities that are starving for affordable housing. As wealth increasingly concentrates, the people who actually maintain the lifestyles of the rich and infamous are driven out.

Police can’t afford to live where the ruling class congregates. Neither can firefighters, limo, taxi and bus drivers, school teachers, yoga instructors, baristas, waiters, chefs, repairmen, delivery men, cleaning people and retail employees. The list grows longer and longer.

Cities used to be celebrated for their diversity, a yeasty mixture that fostered innovation. Now they are turning into homogenized enclaves as the lower orders are driven further and further away by unaffordable prices.

Is this sustainable? Perhaps not. Is it good for a democratic republic? Almost certainly not. But the ironies inherent in the situation may also limit the trend. Some Silicon Valley potentates have begun to worry about their safety in the event of civil unrest, earthquake, tsunami or economic crash.

One has been described as confident in his ability to escape any social, economic or environmental unpleasantness. He has acquired a fortified estate in New Zealand. When trouble threatens he could be aboard his private jet in under fifteen minutes and fly away to safety.

Good plan. But what if his chauffeur, private pilot and bodyguards, or the men who fuel the jet or control air traffic decide their surviving the apocalypse is more important than his doing so?

Perhaps there’s a design flaw in engineering a world in which whole cities become gated communities where the economically fittest are served by a plebeian class, a sans culottes or serfdom made up of their supposed inferiors.

Perhaps a design for living that aims at the survival of all is safer in the long run than a Hobbesian war of all against all, a zero sum game of winner take all.

Victory First, Parades Later

After being sunk for a year in the slough of despond, Democrats were positively giddy when their candidates took the governorship in New Jersey and retained it in Virginia where they may even recapture the House of Delegates. But pride goeth before next fall.

Yes, the elections of this week might be seen as repudiation of Trumpism. He endorsed divisive losers, as is his wont, while the winners included a transgender candidate who beat the self-proclaimed king of homophobes, a proud immigrant beat an enemy of immigrants, and a woman beat a man known for his belittling of women.

Sweet. But Democrats will overplay their hand if they begin to think Red States are suddenly going to become Sweden.

After all, this was also the week that Donna Brazile published “Hacks,” her expose of the 2016 Democratic campaign. The title refers not just to the Russian meddling with the election, but to the fact that the Hillary Clinton operation was run by hacks, including the candidate.

The candidate was not just distant, arrogant, unlikable, entitled, tainted, and ultimately incompetent, but her campaign and many Democrats were out of touch with the mood of the voters and their desire for reform. They didn’t seem to notice people weren’t buying what they were selling, nor the fact that the easy answers of two septuagenarians, a socialist and a vulgar TV huckster and demagogue, were more popular than Clinton’s position papers.

My 34-year-old son is probably a bit more economically liberal than I am. Also, more likely to believe in the possibility of rapid rather than incremental change than those of us who have lived through decades of disappointment. But he and I are as one when it comes to the smug, self-righteous, culture warfare favored by many on the left. It sets our teeth on edge, and is obviously counter-productive if the goal is to get to 51% in races across the country.

The party of freedom of thought and enlightenment liberalism has begun to sound as intolerant as Steve Bannon, Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter. For these extremists, being a values voter doesn’t mean you value people, but that you despise those who don’t agree with you. They are more concerned about micro-agressions against their self-love than in full scale assaults on international order, economic comity, and constitutional democracy.

Democrats have lost the lunch pail blue collar vote in part by becoming the party of effete snobs who need trigger warnings if scary topics are going to be discussed. The party of science now includes those who also fall for vaccine conspiracy theories. And surely not everyone who believes our borders need to be policed is therefore an intolerant Trump who thinks anyone aspiring to become an American is an alien rapist, murderer or terrorist.

Going to the other extreme every time the lunatic right passes a bathroom bill or objects to laws banning gluten is playing their polarizing game. Surely a cure for what ails us is more likely to be found in the mushy middle than in proposing, as some Californians do, seceding from the Union. As old political hands keep repeating, the game is about addition not subtraction, the big messy tent, not the pure but shrinking tribe.

If Democrats want to recapture state legislatures and governor’s mansions across the country, win back House and Senate majorities and become competitive in the electoral college, they need to quit practicing identity politics and their own band of extremism. Instead of aspiring to be the party of Vermont socialism, holier-than-thou academe, extreme greens or of militant racial and religious minorities, they need to begin speaking to all Americans about issues that concern all Americans. Tellingly, the transgender victor in Virginia didn’t run on her identity, but on her constituents’ needs. She talked about roads, schools, jobs.

Instead of a family feud between center left, left and crazy left, Democrats had better concentrate on policies that can attract all the members of their family, as well as Independents and center right voters who are repulsed by the turn the Republicans have taken to divisive dysfunction. They need to run for, not just against.

In favor of a justice system that delivers for everyone the product advertised on the Supreme Court building — Equal Justice Under Law. A tax system that strives to fund agreed upon government tasks by equitable treatment of taxpayers, not favoritism for those with the best paid lobbyists. Healthcare that is as accessible, affordable and efficient as in most other developed countries.

Our citizens ought to be able to feel safe from foreign and domestic threats without our becoming a police state or a colonial power. They should be protected from economic insecurity without the government running the hospitals and the nursing homes and means of production. They ought to be able to count on a safety net, a social contract that includes all Americans, rather than a survival of the fittest economic regime, sensible regulation rather than either repression or the Wild West.

The government also needs to lead the way in adapting to rapidly changing times in order to minimize instability or decline, but instead to promote adaptation and competitive success. And since a well-educated populous will be essential to the task, the party of education rather than superstition should draw the contrast.

We face big challenges, and on many of them Democrats have workable proposals, while Republicans little to offer other than the rich getting richer and everyone else being left behind. Yet Democrats have too often failed to win the argument, because their opponents have changed the subject to hot button non-issues and imaginary enemies. They have set one group of citizens against another, and have promised pie in the sky, like spending that magically saves money, tax cuts that cause no pain, the free lunch, the simple solution of the flimflam artist.

Time to take back the middle from the extremists, the debate from the irrational, free speech from the thought police, decency from the unscrupulous.