The man he’s always been

The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume for as long as they continue in office.

Henry Kissinger

Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.

Michelle Obama

I’m opening this post with these quotes because I’m spending a beautiful early fall afternoon depressing myself by reading over the last nearly five years of pieces I’ve written in this space about Donald Trump. I link to a bunch of them individually below, but if you want to suffer along with me, here’s a link where you can find all, or nearly all of them.

One thing is really clear to me. We have known all along who and what Donald Trump is, and we elected him anyway.

Take this example, from Dec. 7, 2015, my very first entry on him, right after Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States …”

And so Trump takes the fear and xenophobia already rampant in Republican ranks, already being stoked by his slightly less hysterical rivals, and ramps it to new, nauseating heights.

When he declared, most everyone, myself included, played the Trump candidacy as a diversion, an amusing little gag. Well the joke’s not funny any more. It’s really not.

As I wrote four years later, Trump’s pitch was not a bug but a feature:

Way back in 2015, Donald Trump began his run for the White House with a naked appeal to fear rooted in racism. And for the last four years, as he first campaigned and then as he has governed, his tune has remained the same.

In hindsight, the joke never was funny, no matter how many people fell for it then, and still fall for it now. Trump, ever the showman with the uncanny ability to manipulate the media while lying with the ease of one for whom it comes naturally, knew how to give the people what they wanted, and what they wanted was someone who appeals to their base instincts, angers, and resentments. And he knew then, and knows now, who his best friends are, European fascists and American racists and anti-semites.

Which squares perfectly with his fondness for and admiration of authoritarian strongmen, his lust for the adulation they can command, and his craving for the power they enjoy but our system (so far) has managed to deny him. His refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in November is no surprise given his refusal to commit to honoring the outcome in 2016 if Clinton won. That he has armed militia followers who might back that play in 2020 should not surprise either given the pro-Trump stance militias took four years ago.

So what are we to do now, with less that 40 days until the general election? My answer today is the same as what it was in March 2019, when Democrats were still entertaining the fantasy that Robert Mueller, or impeachment, or the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or the 25th Amendment, or some other deus ex machina might rid the country of Trump.

We’ll have to beat him at the polls. By voting early and in person where allowed, by mailing in our absentee ballots as soon as possible to ensure our votes are counted, or by walking into our local polling place on Nov. 3 and filling out our ballots, which is what I am going to do.

Joe Biden wasn’t your first choice? Hey, mine either. But given the stakes, #ADWD.

Trump is Putin’s “free chicken”

(Credit: New York Times)

In an article posted this morning at The Atlantic’s website, former Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, rejected the idea that the Russians are blackmailing or otherwise using leverage to get President Trump to toe the Russian line. Why? Because they don’t have to.

“In the Army we call this ‘free chicken,’ something you don’t have to work for—it just comes to you. This is what the Russians have in Trump: free chicken.”

Trump, Vindman says, needs no incentive to praise Vladimir Putin or to shape US policy in pro-Kremlin ways. It comes naturally to him.

He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.

Vindman, who left the Army in July in the wake of professional bullying, intimidation, and retaliation, was asked why he’s speaking out publicly now. Here’s his answer:

I was drawn into this by the president, who politicized me. I think it’s important for the American people to know that this could happen to any honorable service member, any government official. I think it’s important for me to tell people that I think the president has made this country weaker. We’re mocked by our adversaries and by our allies, and we’re heading for more disaster.

The whole interview, with Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, is well worth your time.

‘You have to dominate …’

National Guard on the streets of Minneapolis (Credit: Start Tribune)

President Trump, in a 45-minute conference call with the nation’s governors today, told them how to handle the waves of protests, some violent, that have swept more than 50 cities across the country over the last several days and nights:

Get a lot of men. We have all the men and women that you need, but people aren’t calling them up. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate and you have to arrest people and you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.

Six minutes into the call, after recounting scenes he apparently saw on television, and then passing along to the governors rumors his friends have told him, Trump, who spent part of Friday night cowering in the White House bunker while protesters rallied outside, returned to his main theme:

There’s no retribution. So I say that, and the word is dominated. If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re going to walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington and DC. And we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before, but you’re going to have total domination.

Before turning it over for questions, Trump again berated the governors for he called their “weakness,” and their failure to call up even more than the 17,000 National Guard troops already deployed in 29 states to confront these disturbances.

I don’t know what it is, politically, when you don’t want to call up people. They’re ready, willing, and able. They want to fight for the country. I don’t know what it is. Someday you’ll have to explain it to me, but it takes so long to call them up. We’re waiting for you. We’re shocked at certain areas. L.A., we’re shocked that you’re not using the greatest resource you can use, and they’re trained for this stuff, and they’re incredible, but you’re not calling them up. I don’t know, but you’re making a mistake because you’re making yourself look like fools.

And some have done a great job. A lot of you. It’s not good. It’s very bad for our country. Other countries watch this. They’re watching us and they say, “Boy, they’re really a pushover.” And we can’t be a pushover. And you have all the resources. It’s not like you don’t have the resources. So I don’t know what you’re doing.

For Trump, strength means putting soldiers on the streets of American cities, to dominate fellow Americans into silence and acquiescence.

But this is far from the first time we have heard Trump speak this way, disparaging those who fail to meet popular dissent with maximum force and praising those who crush protest with cold ruthlessness. In fact, I wrote about it right after election day in 2016:

In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump was asked about his impressions of the Soviet Union after an unsuccessful trip to Moscow to try to make a hotel deal:

I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; The signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

The interviewer pressed him: “You mean firm hand as in China?”

When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.

Read that again. “Put it down with strength.” That’s what the Chinese did in 1989, and thousands died. And that’s what Trump is telling America’s governors to do in 2020. Dominate.

President Trump wants occupying armies on American streets, and he doesn’t understand why America’s governors balk at the idea. This exchange, between Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Trump, lays it bare:

Tim Walz: (24:21)
If I’m still on, the one thing I would say, I spent 24 years in the guard. So one thing I would say is you could do is, a lot of people don’t understand what the National Guard is. And you need to get out there from a PR perspective and make sure that it’s not seen as an occupying force, but it’s their neighbors, school teachers, business owners, those types of things. That’s a really effective message.

Donald Trump: (24:39)
Okay, good. I think that’s a good idea. I must say, it got so bad a few nights ago, that the people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force. I wish we had an occupying force in that. But for some reason, I don’t know what it is, governors don’t like calling up the guard. 

For some reason …

Philadelphia ‘reopened’ in 1918, and thousands died

Philadelphians dig a mass grave for victims of the Spanish flu. (Credit: Philly Voice)
Philadelphians dig a mass grave for victims of the Spanish flu. (Credit: Philly Voice)

President Trump wants to “reopen” America is just less than three weeks. Here’s what he told a Fox News town hall on Tuesday:

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump said Tuesday during a Fox News town hall at the White House, later describing his April 12 target date as a “beautiful timeline.”

So what happens when you “reopen” for business as usual in the midst of a deadly pandemic? Residents of Philadelphia found out the hard way in the summer of 1918 when the politically appointed city director of public health overruled medical experts and gave the green light to a massive “Liberty Loans” parade intended to help boost morale and raise funds for the American war effort on the Western Front. An article at The Smithsonian sets the scene:

When the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive parade stepped off on September 28, some 200,000 people jammed Broad Street, cheering wildly as the line of marchers stretched for two miles. Floats showcased the latest addition to America’s arsenal – floating biplanes built in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. Brassy tunes filled the air along a route where spectators were crushed together like sardines in a can. Each time the music stopped, bond salesmen singled out war widows in the crowd, a move designed to evoke sympathy and ensure that Philadelphia met its Liberty Loan quota.

Then it describes what happened next:

Lurking among the multitudes was an invisible peril known as influenza—and it loves crowds. Philadelphians were exposed en masse to a lethal contagion widely called “Spanish Flu,” a misnomer created earlier in 1918 when the first published reports of a mysterious epidemic emerged from a wire service in Madrid.

For Philadelphia, the fallout was swift and deadly. …

Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. 

The death toll would eventually top 12,000 Philadelphians. The city would need help to literally clear bodies from the streets. Wilmer Krusen, the city’s appointed director of public health, had, despite knowledge to the contrary, denied that influenza was a serious threat to the city. But as The Smithsonian’s article points out, Krusen’s decision to let the parade go ahead was driven by fear. Just not fear of the virus.

Krusen’s decision to let the parade go on was based on two fears. He believed that a quarantine might cause a general panic. In fact, when city officials did close down public gatherings, the skeptical Philadelphia Inquirer chided the decision“Talk of cheerful things instead of disease,” urged the Inquirer on October 5. “The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?”

And, like many local officials, Krusen was under extreme pressure to meet bond quotas, which were considered a gauge of patriotism. Caught between the demands of federal officials and the public welfare, he picked wrong.

A century later, President Trump, and a growing chorus of his toadies, want to repeat the disaster of Philadelphia in 1918, but on a potentially nationwide scale. That could result in as many as 126 million infections and more than 1.3 million deaths.

Our best hope under those circumstances is for clear-headed governors and mayors to hold the line and defy any call from the White House to reopen the country.