The Weekender: I Have Concerns, And So Should You

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As Seth Meyer observed, the past few years of the Trump administration have only been a month… In covering U.S. politics for the show, we’ve come to understand that a days can seem like weeks as the day begins with one story you think is going to be the top headline only to see it overruled after lunch time by a new top story of equal or greater importance. One might mistake this intensity of output for productivity in achieving the Trump agenda, but despite the sternest of denials from the President’s supporters, it’s usually the sign of another scandal or conflict breaking, and because of that we should all be concerned.

This article comes out of a conversation I had with someone about the sheer kilotonnage of things I tweet out about U.S. President Donald Trump. Negative things. As a political reporter, I aim for impartiality in all things, but it is so hard to be impartial in the case of Trump as he tears through all political norms like a bull in a china shop. The incredible support he still elicits in a plurality of Americans, despite the apparent bigotry, despite the unprofessionalism, despite the braggadocios, despite the assertion of things that have no basis in fact, and despite the ever increasing suspicious connections to Russia, astounds me. It’s not a matter of him being conservative and me not, it’s a matter of I live  in reality, and he doesn’t.

Reality doesn’t have a political bias, you see. Take Trump’s promise to bring back manufacturing jobs by tearing up trade agreements like NAFTA (or renegotiating them in the case of Canada). Trump’s thesis, if you can call it that, is that America has been taken advantage of by the shrewd trade negotiators of other countries that basically held America up by its ankles and shook it loose of all its pennies. It’s interesting then that a study from the Centre for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University discovered that 85 per cent of manufacturing job losses are because of automation, and not outsourcing. Since 1980, manufacturing employment has gone down nearly 50 per cent, but productivity is up 250 per cent. America’s actually making a lot, but Trump might want to start a robot war, rather than a trade war.

Coal miners are another group that Trump has promised a new jobs boom because in Trump’s mind the only thing getting between coal miners and money was Barack Obama and an Environmental Protection Agency on litigious steroids. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis disagrees though. Coal, in the U.S., has been seeing a decline since the 80s, but more recently the causes have been related to a flood of cheap natural gas from fracking, stagnating energy demand, and the conversion of bigger states like New York and California to green energy. And yes, you have groups like the Sierra Club preventing new coal plant development, and the Obama administration put in place a number of stricter rules to stop pollution and contamination, but like in manufacturing, much of the literal heavy lifting is being done with machines now. Unless Trump is going to go back in time and push Alan Turing down a staircase, there’s not much he can do to turn around mechanization.

And this is the most vexing thing about Trump. One of the reasons for his victory was his supposed experience as a successful businessman, but why doesn’t he ever talk or think like one. A few weeks ago, he repeated a line about how America’s GDP was “below zero,” which basically means that America produces less than zero of anything, even food. By comparison, the world’s smallest economy according to the U.N. and the World Back is Tuvalu with a Gross Domestic Product of $38 million, which makes sense considering that Tuvalu is a small chain of 9 islands in the South Pacific. By comparison, America’s GDP for the second quarter of 2015, when Trump officially entered the presidential race, was almost $18 trillion, or 17 per cent of the Gross World Product (GWP).

Now it’s possible that Trump misspoke and meant that the rate of growth was less than zero. First of all, that puts a lot of pressure on us, the news consumer, to not just listen to what the President is saying, but to decide if his comments should fit in one of three categories: literal, mistaken, or misspoken. That would be fine if the mistake is made once, but what about multiple times? Like at the press conference last week when he said he had the greatest electoral college win since Reagan, which is easily debunked, but has been repeatedly stated by Trump since his November 8 win. It’s still hard to argue that it’s purposeful though because when a reporter pointed out that George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had all won by higher margins, the Leader of the Free World said, “I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.”

But let’s get back to Trump the businessman, who recently woke up his former-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn at 3 ‘o’ clock in the morning to ask if a low dollar is good for the United States or if it’s bad. Flynn, who was probably enjoying a restful sleep when the President called, had presence of mind enough to tell Trump to call an economist and not an expert in counterintelligence, but anyone that’s ever read the business pages knows the effect of a high dollar versus a low one. Of course as many people tried to warn us during the campaign, the economics of running a country are far different than running a private business, which Trump also seems ill-equipped to do.

Let’s put aside the usual suspects like Trump Vodka, Trump Magazine, Trump Steaks, and yes, Trump University, and focus on something Trump had no hand in creating, but certainly had a hand in destroying, the U.S. Football League. Designed not to be a competitor with the NFL, but another way to feed America’s football fever, the USFL season began after the NFL’s and enjoyed a relatively successful first year. Then Trump bought the New Jersey Generals and convinced the other owners to move the USFL season to fall, which put it in direct competition with the NFL. How do you think that went? Have you seen a USFL game lately? Trump sued the NFL for running a monopoly, which, so far as court cases go, went about as well as President Trump’s recent travel ban. Trump spent $22 million on the lawsuit and got back $3.76. A great deal! For the lawyers.

Of course, in Trumpland it’s always someone else’s fault. He was again this week blaming the Democrats for holding up appointees to his administration, which, considering that the Democrats have no real power right now is a real feat, but the truth is that the fault, as always, lies with Trump himself. Of the 549 key positions the administration needs Senate confirmation to fill, only 14 are now at work. Another 20 or so are awaiting confirmation, but 515 have not yet received a nominee. At this time in Obama Administration, he had twice as many people confirmed with 28, so Trump is slow, but it terms of relative appointments to the number of positions not that slow. Still, reports say that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who like Trump has no governmental, diplomatic or military experience, is trying to find a deputy that meets the dual conditions of being experienced and not having criticized the President. Candidates are coming up short.

The problem is that Trump is thinking like a CEO, and not like the CEO of a public traded company either. The Trump Organization is a limited liability company (LLC), which has the benefits of flexibility, legal protections, and tax advantages, but it means that Trump’s never been accountable to anyone but Trump in his life. When your company is publicly traded you have to answer to a board of directors, and shareholders, people that have some say over what you’re doing and why, especially when you’re doing things that are affecting the company bottom line, or causing grief and/or bad publicity. But that would affect Trump’s image of the big strong man that can fire you on a whim.

That’s another problematic thing about Trump. How does a man whose reputation is built on classic New York toughness, the kind of self-made man myth that American business legend is built on, be such a whiner? Leaving aside the fact that Trump was built up by his father and not himself, why is the swash-buckling deal-maker constantly complaining about his treatment by the media? Every speech is an airing of grievances about who’s bullying him, who’s trying to stop him from doing or getting what he wants, and who’s saying mean things about him regardless of the fact that they’re true. He’s like the school bully who finally gets punched in the nose and turns around to squeal to the teacher on the kid that did it.

But the nature of the situation is that there is such a thing as the truth, and it matters, which is why this entire endeavour is so damn frustrating. Even something as simple as the fact that in his first month in office, Trump has spent almost as much money on vacation travel as Obama did in one year. Vox talked to some Trump supporters at CPAC on the subject and they repeated lies about how Obama was playing golf every week, and how Trump is covering the cost himself. One woman said it “defies logic” that Trump would spend in a month what Obama spent in a year on vacations, while another man said that Trump isn’t taking a salary, so why would he be letting the government cover the cost of his weekend getaways?

But the vacation kerfuffle is a trifle as compared to the looming concern of the connections between the Trump Administration and Russia, and the fact that anyone in a position of authority to do anything about it doesn’t seem to care. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, just last week asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to open another line of prosecution persecution into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Forget the fact that nothing’s come of it so far, and forget the fact that Hillary Clinton is absolutely not the President, but until Hillary Clinton’s in jail it seems like Chaffetz just ain’t going to stop trying.

The more important matter needing investigation though concerns Russia, and just how deeply the tendrils of  Vladimir Putin dig into the Trump Administration beyond the previously fired Flynn. The New York Times has been reporting that members of the Trump campaign had been in contact, either with or without their knowledge, with members of the Russian security service, the FSB. Adding fuel to the concern fire this week was news that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tried to get the deputy director of the FBI to play down the Times story, which would violate the strict lines of communication between the executive and the Bureau. And on top of that, the Washington Post says that Trump’s people have also been leaning on key members of the intelligence community and Congress to take the Russian heat off.

All this crescendoed yesterday when embattled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer bared the media outlets hotly investigating the Russia/Trump connection from a gaggle, an informal off-camera briefing. The spitefulness is appalling, especially since Trump could resolve a lot of this himself right now if he wanted. Suppose he released his tax returns, suppose he invited independent inquiry, suppose he ordered Flynn to co-operate while he was National Security Advisor, suppose he held himself to the same standard of scrutiny he held Hillary Clinton to. Last summer, Trump loved leaks, but they were about his political rival then.

As a result, Trump is wilting under the pressure of not having someone else to pass the buck to. As predicted, he can’t handle the responsibility or the pressure of the office, which is why he’s always retiring to his old haunt in Florida, and why he’s gone back to these campaign style rallies, and why he and his allies are trying to phrase the media as “the enemy of the American people.” I know that those who work in the media don’t feel like they’re at war with their audience, although this editorial from the Dallas Morning News says it in a much more elegant way. And while every president probably feels like the media is their adversary, they don’t usually feel it quite this early, and they’ve never tried to institutionalize it before.

So here we are, more than one month later, and no matter what happens, I can’t look at anything going on with Trump or his administration without thinking the worst. I hate that. I hate that it seems like there’s someone in the White House that can’t be reasoned with. I hate that it seems like there’s so many people supporting him that can’t be reasoned with either, and because of that, the people meant to hold him to account are purposefully making themselves impotent so they don’t lose their golden goose. My recent writing on Guelph Today has been a call to tone down partisanship and focus on consensus building and rational, evidence-based decision making. All I’m saying is I’m willing if Trump’s willing, and I think a lot of people would feel the same. But can a 70-year-old businessman change his spots?

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