What The Road Forward Looks Like

Capitol Hill sunset, September 14, 2014. Source: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Congressional Republicans are not going to impeach Donald Trump.

Let’s be straight up about that. Polling continually shows the GOP base still believes everything from the Mueller investigation is either a lie or irrelevant. So among Republican senators and representatives, there’s almost no appetite for an impeachment trial.

Democrats may take control of both the House and the Senate this fall, but only under the craziest circumstances will Democrats take more than a narrow majority in the Senate. A successful impeachment requires a majority vote in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Just like with Bill Clinton in 1998, a Trump impeachment would likely fall along party lines and fail in the Senate.

The Democrats will not have enough votes to impeach Donald Trump.

But oh! Mueller will report out a devastating list of crimes committed by Trump and GOP members will get a backbone!

Yes he will, and no they won’t. Because here’s what we should expect:

The Mueller investigation will grind on, maybe even send Don Trump, Jr. and others to jail.

Democrats will take the House by a significant margin this November, and maybe a slim majority in the Senate. Immediately upon taking legislative control, Democrats will be consumed by a left vs. center party battle, where the former wants to impeach and the the latter wants to pass meaningful policy. Congress lurches from stalemate to forward motion on both policy and impeachment.

Trump, under intense legal pressure, continues to be awful. Tears apart international relationships, hurls needless insults at Democrats, holes up in the White House, basically talking to nobody that isn’t a far right toady.

Republican legislators interested in political survival (which will be most) will be forced to choose one of two positions: Rally under Trump, hurling more insults at Democrats or try to become invisible, hoping to can position themselves as moderate in the 2020 elections.

And then the 2020 elections, which will become an even more massive referendum on Donald Trump. The Republican Party will eat itself alive, while a broad field of Democratic presidential primary candidates, maybe the most racially and gender diverse in history, will compete to be the most non-Trump offering.

Finally, in the general election, Donald Trump will be, incredibly, the nominee, because the GOP base will still stick with him to the end, becoming more raucous and bile-filled than ever before. Trump rallies become outright dangerous for press to attend, and all the white nationalist crazies will come out of every crack, maybe even mounting physical attacks.

Americans of every stripe will be pulled into participating in the 2020 election, recognizing it as a fight for survival. There will be right wing violence, left wing too. American elections will begin to look like something from 1980’s Italy where polling places are raided by barely-legal or extra-legal “election monitors”. Voter suppression will be at an all time high. Latinos and black people in rural areas will be targeted and maybe killed.

And then? I don’t know.

I hope a majority of America comes to its senses and votes out Trump. But maybe not.

But even if Trump is voted out, the transition will be ugly. Trump will cast doubt on the electoral process we’ve held sacred all these years, and America will be forever scarred.

It’s only going to get worse.

Just Keep Going At It

A precocious child who devoured three newspapers a day, when I was seventeen I decided that I should get involved with politics. Although I read the papers, I didn’t have strong opinions on who should be my local alderman in Chicago’s 43rd Ward. Edwin Eisendrath was up for reelection in 1991, and I didn’t know much about him. But his challenger’s campaign office was a couple blocks from my house, so I trudged through the January snow to the Mary Baim office, and declared that I wanted to volunteer.

Too young to vote or register new voters, and a nobody nobody sent, the campaign staff sent me off to knock doors in random snow clogged precincts, with a message to encourage votes for Baim. Hoping to gain access to what I imagined “the real politics” of the campaign’s smoke filled back room, I set out in freezing Chicago winter weather, knocking on doors and meeting hundreds of people who miraculously had patience for a kid that wanted to talk ward politics.

Yes, hundreds. From the start I knocked doors like a fiend, plowing through precincts with a zeal that impressed the grizzled campaign staff. Once, earning, “Wow, kid, you just keep going at it, don’t you?” was the most exciting thing I’d heard, ever.

Even though I did the typical volunteer thing – I faded out when life got in the way – that campaign was the beginning of a life-long obsession with politics. It really didn’t matter that I had no idea what Mary Baim’s policies were, nor did I know much about Edwin Eisendrath’s. I was hooked by knocking doors, turning out votes and excitement of a democratic process empowering a clueless teenager.

Even though it was freezing cold, I’ll never forget the people I met at those first doors I knocked. The woman charmed by a teenager asking for a vote, and then quizzing me for ten minutes at the door about the candidates. The guy with a hothouse jungle just inside that invited me in from the cold to warm up a bit. Did I turn their votes? I’m not sure. But I sure liked meeting them: my world got bigger and richer knowing they existed.

Of course, Mary Baim lost 58% to 42%. Eisendrath served one more term, and recently came back to Chicago politics by leading a group to purchase the Chicago Sun Times. David Axelrod was then-Alderman Eisendrath’s political consultant, and we know how things turned out for him. Funny how the world turns, isn’t it?

When I think back to that January 1991 Chicago election, things seemed so tame in comparison to the political heat of today. The Cold War was ending, Mayor Richard M. Daley was promising a peaceful and efficient city government, the drums of the first Gulf War were yet to rumble.

Bringing us to the present, it seems as if the stakes for this November’s national election get higher every day. Ignoring the Omarosa sideshow and the tension of whether or not Robert Muller will indict President Donald Trump for collusion, there’s plenty of policies to sicken your stomach: From ICE stopping and detaining a man while he drives his wife to a hospital deliver their baby, to the failing economic tariffs against China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, to a new plan to give America’s wealthiest a tax cut by presidential order.

Planning to vote is not enough. America needs you to put some skin in the game for your local election for Congress, Senate, governor, or state legislature. If you‘ve never knocked a door or made calls for a candidate before, like that teenager in 1991, I guarantee you’ll discover a kind of magic available to Americans every election cycle.

For each jerk at the door or on the phone, you’ll meet five sweethearts, genuinely interested people and charming oddballs that make up your community. You’ll marvel that you spent so much time in their proximity, but never met them before. You’ll discover a legion of like-minded citizens who want to make a positive change for a better America.

If you’ve volunteered before, you know about the magic, but also the confusion of campaigns and how silly and rudderless they can seem. But you also know the power you, as a volunteer have to change your world.

Get down to your local candidate’s campaign. America needs you to to just keep going at it.

In Praise of Federal Bureaucrats

When I was twenty-eight I owned four dark suits and one light. I kept an extra pair of white shirts in my office because Washington summers were muggy, and you wanted to look crisp if you were called to an important meeting. In the morning, after I was woken up by the thud of cannon fire at nearby Fort Meyers, I’d walk a few blocks to the always crowded Metro, and ride seven stops to my job in a big federal building with brutalist architecture.

An enterprising Cambodian woman with a coffee cart outside the main entrance to the Department of Energy, rapidly poured steaming lattes and all-blacks to the hundreds streaming to their jobs. Once in the lobby, we’d wave our badges at the phalanx of federal police guarding the entrance.

We jammed into the elevators, then the crowd thinned out riding to the top floor. Exhilaration of a new day would thrill, as our leather shoes clicked down the long, white linoleum hallways to our desks.

By the time I got to work at eight in the morning, the building was buzzing with colonels and commanders, usually there since four. The military side was always busy, and seemed frustrated that civilians worked four hours later than them.

Click-clacking down the linoleum, I’d pass ones and twos of jacket-less men, clad in short-sleeved, white button-down shirts with pocket protectors carrying three-ring binders filled with tabs. Just as many women moved through the halls, carrying binders of their own and color-coded manila folders, with long skirts and far-from-couture blouses in muted colors.

The action began as soon as I turned on my computer. Hours of email from always the awake military side, and strings of conversation from the West Coast civilians. Debates about rules, policies and science. A young man appointed to my job by politicians, I was outclassed by the permanent workers surrounding me. Dozens of best-in their field engineers, Ph.D. economists and a smattering of scientists who’d only a few months ago been smashing protons together.

Every day was a struggle to read more, learn more and keep up with the dialogue. Women and men would rattle off esoteric and obscenely detailed knowledge of science, economic models written in Excel and the health impacts on projected tens of thousands of people. Careful! Because just a change in one phrase of a rule could impact a hundred thousand Americans. It was often repeated: You had to get things right, because in federal policy-making, you didn’t get a second chance any time soon.

Riding down the elevator, stopping in program offices, you’d encounter phalanxes of balding men and widening women, who signed up for their jobs decades ago, planning to become experts in their fields. Now, they were The Person who knew all the things. It might be about radioactive waste glassification, solar panels, carbon valuation, diesel particulates, climate change negotiation strategies or Saudi oil wells.

Working to solve a problem in government, or markets, you’d go looking for The Person, and when you found them, they’d be ensconced in a beige cubicle, walls covered by printed charts, kid art and maybe a certificate of Excellent Federal Service.

The Person would swivel in their chair, you’d ask your question, and then a geyser of knowledge would come out. Moments later, they’d produce three-ring binders of studies with charts, graphs and detailed narrative. It was too much. Your question was answered, but you had to find a way to cap the geyser, so much was the desire to pour out understanding. This was the Federal Government, and they had to make sure the policy was Done Right The First Time.

Everyone knew, after fifteen years or so, you could jump to the private sector and double your salary. But they stayed. Many until mandatory retirement, even a few who petitioned for and got exceptions to stay longer because they were The Person Who Knew Things, and didn’t want to leave until someone was trained up to replace them.

It stiffened my spine, being amongst so many earnest men and women. They talked about Serving The President with stone faces, and the word America was invoked often and never in jest. They were civil servants, many serving what they thought of as a call to work for our nation, even if most citizens would never understand what they do every day.

These are the people I think of when I hear about federal bureaucrats. We don’t laud them like soldiers or sailors, and they don’t face bullets or shells, yet today, their dedication and commitment to rules, policies and science maintains the line between rule of law and authoritarianism in our country.

I am grateful for their service.

Who Are We, Any Way?

If there’s anything Donald Trump’s presidency has provided America, it is an intense, national examination of the nature of class and voters’ political motivations. Trump’s election, and the transformation of the Republican Party into a nationalist, authoritarian totem has scrambled conventional thinking about political and social divides of every kind.

Every week we receive a new treatise telling us who Trump voters really are. This week The Atlantic told us that evangelicals are the ones who really elected Trump. But we’ve also heard tales of blue collar whites (now rescinded), disaffected middle class whites and also minority voters who felt let down by Barack Obama’s presidential tenure.

The Democratic and Republican parties are tearing themselves apart in response to Trump, each in their own way. A growing coalition of socialist Democrats are trying to take control from the “New Democrats” who first rose to power under Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, while some conservatives rail against voting for the Republican Party at all in this year’s Congressional mid-term elections.

At the moment, America seems like a crazy, topsy-turvy country, with no clear center and a million competing visions for the future. No matter what the political issue, gun control, abortion, energy, environment or transit, the fractures created by geography, class, race and religion loom larger than ever. We are bedeviled to find a common language as we are blessed with internet-speed communication.

From our very beginning, America was forged from different peoples with dissimilar, often incongruent ideas about the nature of liberty and nationhood. At our best, the fact these differences exist is the bedrock of American diversity. But occasionally these opposing ideas of liberty divide us to the core, and once that divide is exposed, it often takes either great leadership or a cataclysm to bring us back together.

Our two earliest colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia, founded by Puritans and Cavaliers in the 1500’s, had very different ideas of a successful society. Puritans were a close-knit community with rigid rules for all participants, but also with a high priority on the population’s general welfare. The Cavaliers, in Virginia, created an exploitive, every-man-for-himself society with that held the individual’s abilities and freedom at the highest level.

Throughout American history, these two ideas of liberty – rule-bound but with community assistance that frees a person from want, versus freedom from government that makes success or failure entirely your own – have been the core of almost every internal conflict. Soon after independence, this split drove America’s first crises over taxation and a national bank. The split revisited us eighty years later, leading to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Today, our struggles over the role of the welfare state and who is really entitled to be an American can be traced back to that split.

What do we stand for, any way? The Trump Administration continues to pull down icons of the old, liberal order, leading everyone to question what it means to have “American values”. Just this month Trumpists won Supreme Court judgements that stymie public employee unions and reduce voting rights while ordering federal bureaucrats to new levels of cruelty by separating toddlers and children from immigrant parents at the border.

Strong unions, voting rights and open borders, major policies enacted in the 1960’s and once considered bedrock, are now all up for debate.

Does the Trump Administration embody American values? A respected poll released Thursday reports 47% of Americans approve of President Trump’s job performance. While in office, Trump has never gotten below the high 30’s, suggesting that some large portion of America really likes what he’s up to, and always will.

Meanwhile, a survey sponsored by former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Joe Biden found that 55% of Americans believe American democracy is getting weaker. A plurality of non-white Americans believe racism and discrimination is weakening democracy, while 77% of all Americans believe “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want”.

Clearly, Americans are conflicted. We have a lot of opinions about Donald Trump, but it doesn’t seem we’ve made up our mind about him and what he’s up to.

One thing I’ve learned about democracy is that it’s easy to find people with an opinion. Ubiquitous polling has proven that. But it’s a whole other thing to find people that will vote. The voting part is what decides which values become policy.

A Time For Moderates, But Not Moderation

Where does this all end? At some point Donald J. Trump will no longer be president. Either the electorate, his health or some array of political forces will end the Trump presidency and America will have to reckon with the policies he enacted and the global relationships he forged and frayed.

To an extent unlike any other modern presidency, Trump and his media supporters have gone all-in. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson told viewers last week, “If you’re looking to understand what’s actually happening in this country, always assume the opposite of whatever they’re telling you on the big news stations. And that’s certainly the case here. They are lying…”. Meanwhile the Trump White House makes official statements with blatant falsehoods. Team Trump has obliterated any set of common facts, and has told viewers at home that anyone who disagrees with him is unworthy of respect.

And it’s working: A recent poll shows North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has higher approval among Republicans than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. How does that make sense?

Past elected leaders have always kept in mind: At some point, I won’t be in power, so if I want my accomplishments to continue past my tenure, I need to get a super-majority of electoral support. Not with Team Trump. They burn it all down, ram it through, and proclaim conspiracy theories to denigrate their opponents.

What will happen when a new president and a different Congress want to change Trump’s policies? Will we have to endure more of the same? Will it draw blatant lies, political tar and feathering to ensure Trumpism remains in place?

Instinctually, Americans on both the left and right dread what’s to come. To protect ourselves, we are entrenching. We get our news from sources we already agree with. Those with means, are moving to communities with like-minded neighbors. The Republican Party, thrown to the right by Trumpism, may foreshadow a leftist surge among Democratic voters this election season.

Meanwhile, researchers are beginning to suspect our political conflicts have become pathological. Self-righteousness, a by-product of our Facebook arguments and comment battles, may be a form of addiction, which would be no surprise to those of us who struggle to get through family Thanksgiving gatherings in peace.

The conflicts of the Trump era force everything into sheer black-and-white contradictions. Even policies that tack against a steadfast majority of Americans are wrapped in Trump’s American flag. You don’t like family separations at the border? You must be pro-MS-13! You’d like to see Obamacare’s patient rights protected? You’re just looking to tax the little guy!

Steadily, the Trump-right is undoing the accomplishments of Barack Obama’s previous, slightly-left tenure. In response, a growing chorus of Bernie Sanders supporters vow to reinstate Obama policies, and do even more.

Inevitably, whether because morality tugs at our senses or because many Trump policies are so broken they defy the laws of physics, a majority of voters will demand a change. And then things can either get better, or much worse.

Just as in physics, every action in politics sets off an opposite and equal reaction. Our partisan-ified media lures us into thinking we can “demolish” and “destroy” the ideological opposition, but nothing could be further from the truth, as ideology only changes slowly over time, not as a result of assault by fact. Instead, global political history has shown that radical lurches to one political group only emboldens opponents to go even farther, introducing an endless cycle of left-right combat and increasingly worse governance.

If there was ever a time for moderates to rise up, this is it.

But a centrist revolt seems unlikely, as former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank once pointed out, “Moderate Republicans are the people who are there when you don’t need them.” His riposte is thin gruel however, since leftist Frank cheered the collapse of the Blue Dog Democrats, his party’s moderate wing in the 90’s.

Being a moderate is hard under any circumstances. Moderates are often mistaken as weak or lesser beings, but at crucial times they can be the flywheel of political society, slowing down the machinery before it tears itself apart. And because of who they are, moderates tend to lack the romance and dash of their right and left-wing compatriots. After all, their basic message is, “Let’s not do anything too hasty, okay?”

Whoever leads us out of this morass will be challenged with tremendous inequality among economic class, race and gender. Making it all worse, we suffer from a broad sense of distrust of the media, politicians and institutions.

Looking at how big these problems are, the idea of “moderation” seems a cop out when radical responses will be necessary to counterbalance Trumpism.

Yet, at this very moment, moderate leadership would seem relatively inviting, wouldn’t it? Bring us back to the center and calm the debate. Reintroduce a common set of facts and bring back a steady level of progress with which we can all be comfortable.

As we march in rallies, donate to campaigns and ultimately, cast our ballots to repair our government, let’s take care to remember that for lasting change, we need to bring more than just a temporary majority with us. We need to demonstrate why a new, better America will be good for all Americans, with moderation.