Donald Trump and the 'embarrassment gap' in American politics
Welcome to another edition of What Fresh Hell?, Raw Story’s roundup of news items that might have become controversies under another regime, but got buried – or were at least under-appreciated – due to the daily firehose of political pratfalls, unhinged tweet storms and other sundry embarrassments coming out of the current White House.
We often talk about various cleavages in the American polity. In partisan politics, there’s a significant gender-gap and an educational gap that has become far more pronounced since the emergence of Trumpism. We talk about racial politics, the urban-rural divide and the chasm between working people and the wealthy.
But in an era when crackpot authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, it may be the embarrassment gap that most sharply divides those who love and loathe Donald Trump. Whether you find Trump’s buffoonery utterly disgraceful or a sign of authenticity may mark our central political divide today.
This was thrown into relief last month, when the White House released a rambling letter Trump had written to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi protesting his impeachment. Jonathan Chait described it like this:
If you worked in print media, you became accustomed to receiving long, unhinged letters from agitated members of the general public. Often these letters tied together facts, pseudo-facts, paranoid insinuations, dramatic though false legal interpretations, unconventional punctuation, and occasionally, threats. It is at this point unsurprising, though still quite unsettling, to read one of these letters from the hand of the president of the United States.
The document wasn’t just remarkable for its incoherence. What made it truly striking was that it wasn’t one of Trump’s dumb tweets--it was an official document that had presumably been lawyered and proofread and discussed among Trump’s senior advisors. And they then released it to the public with no sense of shame.
As is often the case these days, the Fox News set welcomed the letter as a sign of Trump getting tough with Democrats and pushing back against the Derp Deep State, while much of “blue” America recoiled at the idea that the kind of simpleton who’d write and then choose to make such a missive public holds the nuclear codes.
That was the embarrassment gap in a nutshell. One camp of Americans finds it utterly humiliating that a goofy former reality TV star leads the country—a laughingstock to the rest of the world who requires briefings heavy with pictures and light on text and can’t string together a coherent sentence, much less a cogent argument. We cringe at his silly tweets and random capitalization and are appalled that someone so obviously lacking basic knowledge of the world outside his little bubble has gotten this far. We find his penchant for referring to himself in the third person and his compulsive lying about even the most insignificant things to be a source of shame for the country.
The other sees in those same traits a genuineness that is more important to than a president* knowing what he or she is doing. They see an everyman—a guy who reminds them of their uncle or old football coach. We see Trump’s appalling misogyny as a sign of his narcissism and unearned sense of privilege, while they perceive it as the mark of a real, red-meat-eating manly-man. They see in Trump a living, breathing rebuke of all the smarty-pants eggheads who look down on them.
The embarrassment gap is obviously a proxy for other cleavages in our society. Being appalled at his disdain for reading and inability to write clear, grammatical English is at least tangentially related to the education gap that's been a feature of his public image. It's also a reflection of media polarization—if you consume mostly conservative media, you have a very different picture of Trump’s political skills than you would if your news diet were more balanced. And it's tangentially related to the right’s habitual anti-governmentalism. If you believe that public service is easy and trivial and that most people who work for the government are incompetents, then your standards for public service are naturally going to be low.
On some level, Trump’s most dedicated fans must have at least a sense of how embarrassing he is to those outside their movement. The rise of QAnon—the moronic conspiracy-cult that sees Trump as some combination of Machiavelli and James Bond deftly pulling unseen strings of government behind the scenes—is at least in part a response to those of us who call out his clownishness. After all, could a moron who won the sperm lottery and then parlayed his inheritance into power through relentless self-promotion be the architect of a top-secret scheme to save America from nbaby-eating pedophiles?
With that, let’s move on to the first roundup of the new year.
Trump is claiming that E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of raping her, can't sue him for defaming her in a New York court because the allegedly defamatory statements were made in DC.
Carroll’s lawyer Roberta Kaplan said Trump is misstating the law around personal jurisdiction to avoid having to turn over documents in the case, which a judge ordered him to start doing.
“When E. Jean’s case was filed, Donald Trump maintained a home in New York, was registered to vote in New York, paid taxes in New York, and had been sued in New York on numerous occasions -- including since 2016 -- without any objection,” Kaplan said in an email. “Tellingly, as his papers make clear, what this motion is really about is a transparent effort to avoid discovery at all costs in a case involving a sexual assault.”
The Trump foreign policy doctrine--"do as much stupid shit as possible"--is paying off in North Korea just as it is with Iran.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said his country no longer felt bound by its self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, its official media reported on Wednesday, the strongest indication yet that the country could soon resume such tests...
North Korea has not conducted a long-range missile test or a nuclear test in more than two years. Mr. Kim had announced his moratorium at a time when he hoped negotiations with the United States — and his budding personal relationship with President Trump — would prompt the United States to begin lifting crippling sanctions.
Mr. Trump, who has met Mr. Kim three times, has often cited the North’s restraint as a major diplomatic achievement.
We knew that Trump's 2017 tax scam was a massive give-away to big businesses and his donors and family, but according to The New York Times, it was much worse than we knew at the time. That's because such laws are "carried out by federal agencies that first must formalize them via rules and regulations," and "the process of writing the rules, conducted largely out of public view, can determine who wins and who loses."
Starting in early 2018, senior officials in President Trump’s Treasury Department were swarmed by lobbyists seeking to insulate companies from the few parts of the tax law that would have required them to pay more. The crush of meetings was so intense that some top Treasury officials had little time to do their jobs...
Thanks in part to the chaotic manner in which the bill was rushed through Congress — a situation that gave the Treasury Department extra latitude to interpret a law that was, by all accounts, sloppily written — the corporate lobbying campaign was a resounding success.
As a result, "the federal government may collect hundreds of billions of dollars less over the coming decade than previously projected."
Let's not become inured to Trump's authoritarianism.
Trump has made two major attempts (so far) to use his power to intimidate and control independent media. The second attempt was his intervention to deny Amazon a $10 billion Pentagon contract as retribution against the WashingtonPost. The first was ordering the Justice Department to block an AT&T merger, in order to punish CNN. And while the courts ultimately stymied the latter move, Trump is attempting to keep up public pressure on AT&T and its ownership of CNN.
Or the grifting.
WaPo reported that, "of the 1,075 days on which he has been president, he has visited Mar-a-Lago or a Trump Something-or-other on 331 of them, 31 percent of the time." On each of those occasions, Trump pockets a bundle of tax-payer cash to house staff and security.
"Erik Prince, a major Republican donor and founder of controversial security firm Blackwater, has been referred to the U.S. Treasury Department for possible sanctions violations tied to his recent trip to Venezuela for a meeting with a top aide of President Nicolas Maduro," according to the AP.
WaPo also reported that Rudy Giuliani was involved in a back-channel negotiation with Maduro that would "reopen resource-rich Venezuela to business." The effort, according to the report, "provides another example of how Giuliani used his private role to insert himself into foreign diplomacy, alarming administration officials confused about whose interests he was representing."
Speaking of idiocracy, The Daily Beast reported this week that when some junior staffer at the U.S. mission to the European Union liked a tweet by Chelsea Clinton that was critical of Trump, it set off an international manhunt by regime officials determined to ferret out the identity of the perpetrator. According to the report, talk of the offending "like" reached the West Wing and "the micromanaging [that resulted] is still causing headaches for staffers and officials at top American outposts who are trying to navigate the task of pleasing both the State Department and the White House simultaneously—a mission that at times requires two completely different strategies, those sources said."
We want to note a few stories about the abuses of power for which Trump is being impeached lest they get lost in the turmoil in Iraq.
The Trump administration disclosed on Friday that there were 20 emails between a top aide to President Trump’s acting chief of staff and a colleague at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget discussing the freeze of a congressionally mandated military aid package for Ukraine.
But in response to a court order that it swiftly process those pages in response to a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, lawsuit filed by The New York Times, the Office of Management and Budget delivered a terse letter saying it would not turn over any of the 40 pages of emails — not even with redactions.
“All 20 documents are being withheld in full,” wrote Dionne Hardy, the office’s Freedom of Information Act officer.
Just Security’s Kate Brannen was able to view unredacted emails in which the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department discussed the withholding of military aid. The big new takeaway is that there was significant concern within the Pentagon about the legality and sustainability of the hold. Despite that, according to one email from top OMB official Michael Duffey on Aug. 30, there was “clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.”
The even bigger takeaway, though, may be how much this fact was obscured. The emails were previously released in redacted form, but many of the redaction choices are puzzling and even suspicious. The redactions include repeated references to legal problems with withholding the aid, basic questions about that subject, and warnings that waiting until too late in the fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30) might mean that some of the funds would never get to Ukraine.
And then there's this tibit, from The Daily Beast...
Paul Manafort said he used Fox News host Sean Hannity to receive backchannel messages from President Donald Trump while prosecutors investigated him for financial crimes... Manafort described Hannity as a close friend and “certainly a backchannel” to Trump, saying that he understood Hannity was in communication with the president.
The wildfires that have set large swaths of Australia ablaze have killed an estimated half-billion animals and "could change the country forever." Norway recorded a 66-degree day this week that marked the highest temperature in January on record. And this disaster has barely registered in the American press:
Horrific #ClimateChange emergency now unfolding in #Jakarta, where officials say ‘this is not ordinary rain’. 21… https://t.co/TpJtluUCxR— Brendan May (@Brendan May) 1577940084
Meanwhile, The NYT reports that "federal agencies would no longer have to take climate change into account when they assess the environmental impacts of highways, pipelines and other major infrastructure projects, according to a Trump administration plan that would weaken the nation’s benchmark environmental law."
And according to the WaPo, the EPA "is pushing ahead with [that and other] sweeping changes to roll back environmental regulations despite sharp criticism from a panel of scientific advisers, most of whom were appointed by President Trump."
Three of the four draft reports, posted online Tuesday, suggest that the administration’s proposals conflict with established science. They were prepared by members of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, a panel of experts created by Congress in 1978 to review the agency’s scientific methods.
The planet requires Trump's defeat this November.