Venus is Retrograde and Other Chaos Theories…

It’s often easier to see the flaws in others than to see our own, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find I had given myself a pass on one of my own. I realize, despite the lip service I had paid it, that I had never really given gender equality the consideration it deserved. I didn’t have to. As an older white male, I had a regular seat at the table.

So, last week when President Trump was shown in the rose garden of the White House with a group of grinning, back-slapping, white men and a case of Bud Light to celebrate passage of the House of Representative’s newest Obamacare replacement it was a gut check and stunning throwback to an earlier time. That picture was worth a thousand words.

I was startled to see it, and it cast in stark relief the abrupt transition from the thoughtful, bright, compassionate multi-racial presidency of Barack Obama to the misogynistic, greedy, self-congratulating white one of Donald Trump. I’m not interested in re-litigating the election. It’s over…  at least the election part is and until the fumble bums in Congress and the FBI get their acts together to peel back the feckless, treasonous behavior of the Trump team that part is history.

No doubt about it, Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate but her absence has left a noticeable void. Something is missing, something we need for balance – strong women, smart women who can influence policy, capable women in positions of power, decisive women with perspective, and just maybe one in the White House.*

*(Footnote: Ivanka doesn’t count and neither do Melania’s conjugal visits.)

America should be embarrassed to have chosen an ignorant, inexperienced man over a smart, experienced woman. Venus must be retrograde.

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On Monday, Condoleezza Rice appeared as a guest on Morning Joe, the MSNBC political show to promote her new book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom.

The timing and subject matter were uncanny. Against the backdrop of a fumbling new administration, it was obvious that “the long road to freedom” had just gotten longer, but here was an experienced political operative who also happened to be a black woman, a former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, and a committed Republican. When asked by host, Joe Scarborough, “What do you think the most important quality a person can bring to the presidency,” this woman, who served two presidents, said without hesitation, “honesty.” They should have ended the interview right there. Oh, to know what she really thinks about Trump’s reckless disregard for the truth?

During the interview I couldn’t help but look back to earlier administrations where bright, patriotic women like Ms. Rice played important roles at the highest levels of government. Hillary Clinton did not succeed in breaking the glass ceiling to become our first woman president but she, Madelaine Albright, and Condoleezza all served America with distinction at the highest levels. It took almost 200 years for them to get there, but all three acted honorably and with dignity as our representatives on the global stage.

I don’t have a candidate in mind but I think it’s time we gave the nuclear codes to a woman. There’s too much testosterone in American government. Tomahawk missiles into Syria. Talk of war with a nuclear North Korea. More American troops to Afghanistan. As the old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It’s very male.

How is it that among developed countries America is one of the few that has never had a woman leader? From Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, and Indira Gandhi to Angela Merkel women have provided strong political leadership where they have been given the opportunity. What’s holding us back? I didn’t want Hillary but why is it we don’t have a deep bench of strong women leaders?

I wasn’t a fan of Dr. Rice’s when she was in government because of her association with the George Bush presidency. I questioned her attachment to such a flawed president but never doubted her intelligence and understanding of geopolitics. I wouldn’t hesitate to give her the job today. There is much to admire. In addition to her tenures as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, she’s a teacher, a writer, a Russian expert, and a fluent French and Russian speaker. On top of that, she’s an accomplished figure skater and classical pianist who loves football and once described being NFL Commissioner as her dream job. It’s hard to find a flaw. So…

Let’s say no to the old boys’ network. I grew up looking at America through rose colored glasses, proud and patriotic, insensitive to my own privilege but believing that elected officials did what was right for the majority of their constituents. I was naive, but I believed with John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians that “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” I still believe that part and I don’t want to stop believing it. Let’s find some leaders who also believe it, and let’s make sure that we seek the wisdom of women when we do.

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The Flabby Truth…

  • Stop mourning – it’s a done deal, he’s our President
  • Stop being confused and bewildered – get over it and get to work
  • Stop looking for meaning, strategy, coherence – they’re missing
  • Stop reading his Tweets – it’s part of his shiny object gambit
  • Stop thinking he will change – he never has
  • Stop believing he will become presidential – he doesn’t know how
  • Stop thinking he’ll divest himself of conflicts – he’s too greedy
  • Stop thinking Congress will stop him – they’re gutless

NOW IT’S UP TO US!

Yes, I’ve been beating the drum against Trump’s ignorance, arrogance, bigotry, misogyny, and bluster since before the election. His faults were so obvious and well documented; he was an easy target. But, now he’s the Commander-in-Chief with the nuclear codes at his stubby little fingertips. We need to focus. It’s time to end this charade and call him out for trying to hijack our democracy. He and his feckless, reckless, clueless posse have put American democracy in peril. We now have an uninformed, unread, impulsive, petulant, narcissist as the 45th President of the United States. And, it’s not just America that’s concerned; his ignorance of world affairs is scaring other world leaders too.

It’s hard to know where to begin; there are so many entry points, but here are some of the things we know and he doesn’t:

We know the institutions and documents of American democracy were designed to insure the orderly administration of government business. They, and the rules that govern them, lay out a rat’s nest of bureaucratic twists and turns – intentional twists and turns designed to protect us from tyranny by the majority. President Trump doesn’t understand this or appreciate that these safeguards were what helped put him in office.

The Electoral College is just one example; Hillary Clinton, with 3 million more votes, would be President of the United States if a simple majority dictated the result. Instead, the founders devised a formula that would protect the citizens of smaller states from being overwhelmed by the larger ones. In this case, that formula made the decisive difference in who would be our President. He’ll never understand that.

We know, on the legislative side, that Mr. Trump dislikes the “archaic” rules of the US Senate, although it’s an archaic rule that gave him his seat in the Oval Office. If archaic rules work for him he likes them, if not they need to go. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear today (5/3/2017) that he has no intention of abandoning the Senate’s “archaic” rules to facilitate Trump’s desire for simple majority rule. I hope he means it.

We also know that the President of the United States continues to enrich himself and his family at the expense of fellow Americans. One particularly egregious example is his continuing capacity as leaseholder of the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC. Not only is it conflict of interest, it is also a violation of GAO (Government Accounting Office) rules. Nevertheless, it continues and every day the hotel profits go directly to the Trump organization.

It is the same with Mar-a-Lago, the Florida club he refers to as his “winter White House.” This is a Trump-owned private club with a $200,000 annual membership fee where members have access to the President and his staff and whose profits flow that directly to the President’s bottom line. Between January 20 and April 16,2017 he flew to Mar-a-Lago seven times on Air Force One at an average cost of $3,000,000 per trip. American taxpayers paid every cent of the cost.

It is both illegal and immoral for President Trump to perpetuate the sham that he has disengaged from his business interests. His two sons are flying maniacally around the globe closing new deals for the Trump organization, while he packs the White House staff with family members who continue to promote their own brands and financial interests closely tied to his.

The American people have a right to know the extent of those business interests, and the only way we will ever know is if he releases his tax returns. Before Congress begins crafting anything like tax reform or tax cuts, Americans need to know how these reforms will affect the President’s own businesses. Will he benefit from the changes and to what extent? Where are his assets located? How were they financed? How much debt does he have and to whom? What are the sources of that debt? Can they be traced? Was any of the money laundered? Who are the individual creditors?

And finally, we know of Trump’s affection for despots and autocrats. It began with Putin, but with his Russian connections under scrutiny, he’s recently courted Korea’s Kim Jong Un, congratulated Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, met with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and invited the self-proclaimed murderer Rodrigo Duderte of the Philippines to the White House. Political commentators are bewildered by these actions and unsure of their meaning. At the least, they point to a fascination with authoritarian government. Donald’s newest best friends have demonstrated that it’s easier to get things done if a free press is silenced and opponents are either murdered or in jail. It’s the way Putin, Kim Jong Un, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duderte have governed. It’s not the American way, but Trump’s frustration makes their way seem even better.

When is Congress going to wake up and stop pretending the Emperor’s new clothes are legitimate? They’re not. This is the flabby truth. The statues are crude, but so is he. He’s a fraud and pretender whose actions are endangering the architecture of our democracy, the democracy our founders worked so diligently to give us. Let’s stop fooling ourselves. He’s not going away in the short term. We need to acknowledge the reality but find a way to block his self-dealing and his moves toward autocratic rule.

We know these things.

IT’S UP TO US NOW!

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Trump and Turkey…

There’s a lot to like about Turkey. It’s exotic, mysterious, and diverse – beautiful blue water sailing on the southwestern coast where the Aegean and Mediterranean meet, ancient rock dwellings at Cappadocia, the broad expanse of the Anatolian plateau, and a blending of cultures where Europe and Asia meet at the Bosporus. (above).

Long before the Orient Express, Istanbul felt mysterious and unpredictable, as if a camel driver might be blocking the path of a Mercedes consular car around the next corner. I spent time there on my own and on layovers as a Pan Am pilot. I had a favorite smoke-filled café near the Golden Horn that served doner kebab for a couple of bucks and a tiny shop nearby where I bought pistachios and squishy dried figs carefully wrapped in brown paper by the owner. I loved Istanbul, the crowds and excitement, even the diesel fumes, a Eurasian jumble of mosques, churches, narrow winding streets, designer shops, shared taxis, noisy ferries, and hard bargaining rug merchants in the Grand Bazaar.

Maybe it’s that I’m getting older or maybe it’s my political paranoia, but in recent years Turkey has taken on an unstable air, and as much as I love off beat travel, I wonder how safe I would feel there today? I’m not sure, but I’m troubled by recent events.

Millions of refugees have overwhelmed services as they flee the carnage in neighboring Syria. Terror attacks at the Istanbul airport, Ankara, and a nightclub known to attract foreigners has cast a chill on tourism. Separatist Kurds have joined coalition forces in the fight against ISIS but have to defend themselves against attacks by their own government. And, last month President Erdogan consolidated power with a divisive referendum victory greatly expanding the powers and duration of his presidency.

Immediately following the April vote, President Trump phoned Erdogan to “congratulate” him on his victory, a victory not unlike his own – narrow and questionable. He was alone among western politicians making a call. Most of the world’s leaders saw the referendum as a victory for authoritarian rule and a defeat for popular democratic governance.

But, Donald Trump envies Erdogan. Maybe it’s his large hands… or maybe it’s simply envy for what he’s accomplished – silencing the press, crushing his opposition, jailing dissidents, shutting down TV channels, and enacting a series of laws to enhance his power.

Only this morning (May 1, 2017), Trump told a John Dickerson of CBS News that it was the “archaic” rules of the US Senate that were standing in the way of his administration’s legislative agenda. Those pesky rules, carefully crafted and designed by the founders to slow things down and keep autocratic-pretenders from ruling by executive decree. America is a government of “We the People” not “I the One.” Three branches of government. Checks and balances. A democratic republic.

_____

It’s easy to be critical at a distance. The United States has been particularly good at it – even hypocritical – blowing smoke about regional things they don’t understand. I’m upset about the track Turkey has opted to take, but up close and personal, sitting in the crosshairs of political, cultural, and military turmoil things look different. Since the days of Constantine, the Ottoman Empire, and during the secular democracy of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has walked a tightrope between East and West, Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, war and peace.

Turkey is where Europe meets Asia. Bordering Syria on the south, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Georgia on the east, Greece and Bulgaria on the west, a stone’s throw from Lebanon and just across the Black Sea from Mother Russia, it is a strategic crossroads.

As Americans, we like to cling to our ideals of representative government, free and fair elections, and freedom of speech, but we don’t have a war on our southern border, religious and ethnic conflict internally, and a millions of refugees flooding into the country looking for a place to call home.

Erdogan is in a tough place but I’m troubled by the choices he’s made. Sitting on the far eastern edge of Europe, he courted membership in the European Union for years, and while it’s still on the table it’s generally regarded as a dead letter. As a member of NATO, his case for EU membership was strong, and in the beginning America championed Turkey’s inclusion, but for years Turkey flirted with military and authoritarian rule and it finally reached a tipping point under Erdogan. From 2003 – 2014 he served as Prime Minister, but it wasn’t until after he became President in 2014 and put down a coup d’état in the summer of 2016 that he began taking draconian measures against his rivals.

Since then, 140,000 Turks have been dismissed from their jobs in government and the public sector, 5000 dissidents have been jailed, and 1500 civil organizations were shut down. On Saturday (4/30/2017), 3,974 civil servants were fired from ministries, judicial bodies and medical clinics, 1000 other workers were detained, and 9000 were suspended because of alleged ties to an Islamic group founded by US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen.* (NY Times, 5/1/2017). Access to Wikipedia was also blocked.**

These moves follow closely on the questionable passage of his power grabbing referendum that will allow him to continue in office until 2029. It’s the end of any semblance of democratic rule, a turn from representative government toward authoritarian rule – a troubling shift that coincides with movement in that direction across the globe. Russia, Syria, Hungary, Philippines, Georgia and the former Soviet republics, and growing segments of the population in France, Netherlands, and Germany are increasingly attracted by authoritarian politicians.

This 1965 picture shows me having dinner with a Turkish journalist friend who spent 3 months in jail for publishing a story criticizing the government. It’s clear that stifling dissent is not new in Turkey, but it has never been imposed on today’s scale.

** On lighter note, Erdogan’s purge also included blocking TV channels that carried “dating” shows. It sounds a lot like Trump’s unhappiness with Arnold Schwarzenegger on The Apprentice. If The Donald had his way he’d simply say, “Arnold you’ll never work in this town again.”

But that’s not how it works in America.

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Let’s Update Civics 101…

As a college student I thought of political science as an adjunct of philosophy. I didn’t appreciate its practical value. Later, in law school, I recognized its value in creating the infrastructure for our American institutions but only insofar as its organizing principles provided for the efficient operation of government. Today, with more experience in the world and having lived on three continents, I have a full appreciation for the complexity and genius of American democratic institutions, but lately I’ve wondered if America hasn’t become too complacent with a system that’s been durable and adaptable for more than 200 years?

No one would mistake me for an “originalist” in the mold of Antonin Scalia, but world events have reinforced my interest in the American blueprint and bolstered my faith in the value of its “timeless” traditions. In view of the current political chaos it’s probably a good time to review how the founders arrived at the republican form and how it differs from a disturbing trend toward authoritarian rule in the world today.

In the fall of 2016, not long before our national election, M and I spent three weeks in Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland visiting our nation’s capital and the homes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. It was intentional. After nearly two years of presidential electioneering, our country seemed to be veering off course and we wanted to check in with the founders and their guiding principles.

America’s political odyssey began even before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In 1786 James Madison, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, spent months pouring over crates of books Jefferson had sent him from France describing various forms of government.

Using the Virginia Constitution as his model and convinced that a strong central government would unify the country, he carefully studied Hume, Locke, and other enlightenment scholars for organizing principles.  In 1998, historian Douglas Adair called Madison’s work “probably the most fruitful piece of scholarly research ever carried out by an American.”

The final document, ratified in 1787, was a collaborative effort debated vigorously by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay in The Federalist Papers – each winning some important points. The US Constitution is both unique and aspirational. In school we learn that American democracy is built on a system of checks and balances, citizen protections, interconnected branches of government, and procedural rules governing its operation.

Last week the US Senate abandoned a tradition that had endured for decades, and in doing so took a nick out of that founding document. Tipping points are hard to nail down, but last week’s move abolishing the filibuster of Supreme Court nominees showed that we’ve reached a point where cautious reverence for tradition has given way to the need for instant gratification. When the Republican Senate invoked the “nuclear option” to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, it inserted a wedge in our procedural democracy, and its importance is as a precursor to abolishing the filibuster entirely and reducing all Senate votes to a simple majority. The filibuster is what sets the Senate apart from the House of Representatives. It’s an important difference and one that should not be abandoned.

I’m not blaming the Republicans; I think Justice Gorsuch is eminently well qualified, as was Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee. Exercise of the “option” was pre-ordained when the Democrats used it for lower court federal judges in 2013. What is upsetting is the mean-spirited infighting attending the nomination of Judge Garland and the Democrats’ vengeance-tinted threats accompanying Justice Gorsuch’s confirmation.

As a concerned observer, I’m disappointed that an enduring tradition was cast aside in a flurry of partisan infighting. As we move forward, our elected officials from the President on down need to pay more attention to the future and less to personal or partisan victories.

Traditions, however, are reviewable. They should be, but the Brexit vote in the UK, recent events in Russia, North Korea, Turkey, and Hungary, as well as the upcoming elections in France and Germany remind us of the importance, vulnerability, and fragility of government institutions. It’s a good time to refresh our knowledge of government and renew our commitment to the welfare and protection of all Americans.

Current world events stand in sharp contrast to the structures and procedural protections of our own democracy and electoral processes. Madison and the other founders created a tripartite system that divided power and distributed function between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. This is its genius; in distributing the responsibility, no one person or branch has the power to dictate policy or outcome. It may be slower and more cumbersome than other forms but this is the difference between American democracy and the worldwide trend toward authoritarian autocratic rule.

Unfortunately, President Trump is not a student of history. Nor does he understand the functionality of our institutions. Since the inauguration he has ignored protocols and attempted to rule by Executive Order* – as an autocrat – but, unlike his predecessor, denigrating judicial challenges to his authority and hoping a divided and dithering Congress will implement his undefined political philosophy. Surprisingly, even yet we don’t know if he’s a Republican, a populist, an autocrat, or just a loose cannon? It doesn’t really matter. The votes have been cast; he is our 45th President. What does matter is that he learns to work within the system that put him in office and has endured for 228 years. Someone needs to tutor him with an updated world-wise Civics 101 course.

 

*It should be noted that a frustrated President Obama used the EO at the end of his lame duck term, but never criticized the judiciary or questioned the authority of Congress.

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Presidential Advisor is a Dangerous Fraud…

Take a good look at this face. Remember it. Tell me if you think his history and bio would withstand the extreme vetting called for by the Trump White House and Department of Justice. Today, April 24, 2017, two Democratic lawmakers from New York sent a letter to President Trump asking that he be fired from his position as Deputy Advisor to the President for his anti-Semitic associations and views. I’ve written about him before but think his position as a presidential advisor and new information about his past activities warrants his immediate dismissal.

His name is Sebastian Gorka. Born in London of Hungarian refugee parents, he was educated in London and Budapest. In Budapest he began cultivating a reputation as a counter-terrorism expert though his only military service was a three-year stint in a British Territorial Army reserve unit.

Mr. Gorka moved to Hungary in 1992 and remained there until 2007. While there he aligned himself with Viktor Orbán, the current president, who has been widely criticized for his autocratic removal of democratic checks and balances in the supervision of elections, the judiciary, and the media. While in Hungary, Mr. Gorka married Katherine Cornell, an American steel heiress known for her conservative views. During this 16 year-long tenure in Hungary he was a member of or associated with several anti-Semitic organizations (including Vitez Rend, named for the WWII Nazi-allied leader). In 2007 he was awarded a PhD. from Corvinus University in Budapest (known primarily for its agricultural curriculum and ranked 701 by topuniversities.com.)

One year later, Mr. and Mrs. Gorka moved to the US on the strength of his wife’s citizenship. He was awarded a Green Card and four years later (2012) became a naturalized American. On arrival in the US, the Gorkas associated themselves with ultra-conservative institutions while he padded his resume with a questionable online professorship at Marine Corps University. In 2014 he became National Security Editor at Breitbart News as well as a regular contributor to Fox News.

Sebastian Gorka is an Alt-Right ideologue with no experience in counter-terrorism. His bogus credentials raise serious questions related to the vetting and staffing of the national security apparatus of the White House.

But, to really understand Gorka and his role it is important to understand the rise in autocratic rule in Hungary. This is where Mr. Gorka learned his craft and honed his ideology. It is also the model for what could happen in America under Donald Trump. David Frum’s article How to Build an Autocracy in the March 2017 Atlantic details the methods and outcomes in Hungary and what Steve Bannon envisions when he talks about “deconstructing the administrative state.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-autocracy/513872

Here’s what else you need to know about Sebastian Gorka: His official title is Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States. He is in a position to influence the most uninformed president in American history. His elevation is unprecedented especially when the Trump administration is calling for the “extreme vetting” of immigrants, visa applicants, and refugees.f

In addition to his ultra-conservative activities in the nationalist politics of Hungary, Mr. Gorka has comported himself in a questionable manner since arriving in the US. In December of 2016, notably after the Trump victory, Mr. Gorka was detained at Ronald Reagan International Airport as he tried to carry a 9mm handgun on a commercial flight. One month later was arrested on a charge of reckless driving. He was found guilty when he failed to appear in court on the charge and it was revealed that he had a prior arrest for reckless driving in 2014. So, what was the outcome? Incredulously, in February all charges related to the handgun incident were dismissed. The judge cited Gorka’s six months of good behavior for his decision to dismiss the gun charge.

Two uncontested reckless driving arrests and one attempt to carry a handgun aboard a US airliner in the past 3 years. Charges dismissed? Would another immigrant pass the “extreme vetting” procedures with this record? What about a Syrian doctor who survived the pounding of Aleppo, escaped with his family, walked through Turkey, bought passage to Lesbos on a smuggler’s unseaworthy boat, and now seeks political asylum in the US? We’re told that under the Obama protocol it would take the doctor three years to be approved for a visa. Under Trump’s flawed travel bans, he would be denied the opportunity to even apply.

The story is vintage Trump. The Breitbart connection linked Gorka to Bannon. Bannon was looking for an alt-right voice to include in the administration. Gorka had bogus but high sounding credentials and a rich conservative wife. Bingo! Charges dismissed and the gift of a promotion to Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States. Yes, that’s right, Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States.

Today, two Democratic lawmakers from New York, Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey both Jewish, sent a letter to President Trump asking him to fire Gorka based on his history and affiliations with anti-Semitic associations. I doubt that the president will be moved. My guess is that this is the message Gorka, Bannon, and Trump will send back to the lawmakers and the American people.

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