After a tiring week of Donald Trump's presidency, his approach seems a lot less like a strategy than a syndrome. If Trump critics, and this especially includes the media, can avoid playing the now standard little kid's soccer game -- somebody kicks the ball and everyone runs toward it, the ball is kicked again, everyone runs toward it, etc, etc, ad infinitum -- their aims are much much more likely to be achieved.
After a remarkably dark and strikingly raucous yet vacuous inauguration day (Day One action? What Day One action?), Trump indulged in a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic week of arguably dramatic activity, topped off by the weekend just past, which featured both the amazingly misconceived travel ban and the bizarre replacement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the inner sanctum of the National Security Council by the former head of Breitbart News. Whether all that remarkably dizzy activity constitutes quite so much in the way of action is another matter.
That's just a matter of fact, not "alternative fact." (Thank you, Kellyanne Conway, for a far better phrase for the endless blither than any writer could ever come up with!!)
Trump may be right about some things, but he is turning out to be mostly far right about most things. Which is not the change people thought they were getting. To the extent they wanted Trumpist change, that is, considering that 54 percent of voters opted against the new president, who not surprisingly has the lowest approval rating in polling history. (Except in the Rasmussen poll, which is back to its old "alternative facts" tricks some of us are all too familiar with.)
What's more alarming than the ideology is the insularity. It breeds incipient chaos.
Here new President Donald Trump says that torture -- which is disastrous as policy and, at best, erratic as practice -- really does work well as a means of gathering intelligence. But in the next breath he says he will defer to new Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The retired Marine four-star insists that torture is a bad way to gain intelligence. In reality, Mattis was not consulted by the White House before it issued its backfiring travel ban on people from seven nations, none of which have produced terrorist attacks on the US. The countries which have produced terrorist attacks are not covered.
Take Trump's erratic pendulum swings around Mexico.
Early last week, the Mexicans were, in Trumpist hyperbole, "awesome." Then Trump again claimed that not only would he/we build the notorious "Wall" between the two nations but that Mexico will pay for the looming political white elephant. Which of course Mexican leaders fervently denied (again).
Trump huffed and puffed and Mexico pulled out of the summit.
I am pretty damn sure that ain't how 'The Art of the Deal' is supposed to go. This is not clever behavior, this is manic behavior.
Then Trump's sad sack flack Sean Spicer said that the wall will be paid for by Mexico after all, in the form of a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico. Only to have his colleagues, realizing that it's actually Americans who would pay, walk that obvious trade war scenario back to the "concept" stage.
Houston, we have a problem. The spaced craft Trump does not appear flight-worthy.
That Trump, despite his obvious shrewdness and standing as a perfect creature of our ADD media culture, is driven more by syndome than strategy is made glaringly obvious by his weird behavior around his own popularity. Or lack of same.
His strange obsession with crowd size, TV ratings, vote totals. All of which have to be the best. And when they are clearly not, it's all the result of a conspiracy, a massive fraud, anything but potential deficiency in his own appeal.
Trump goes to such enormous lengths to deny obvious realities -- his inaugural did not draw as well as the opposition protests, much less his predecessor Barack Obama's festivities (or as well as I expected).
His loss of the popular vote, by nearly three million votes to the troubled Hillary Clinton candidacy, is due to Trump's own unpopularity, his erratic behaviors as a candidate, the extremist elements of his platform, not his preposterous claim of massive illegal immigrant voting against him.
In all this, Trump's huge, and hugely touchy, ego, a monstrously fragile vanity fair nearly matched in its dimensionality by his vast ignorance -- there simply are not enough illegal immigrants in California to account for his popular vote defeat, as this amusing San Jose Mercury-News takedown makes plain -- very much gets the better of him.
It is so bizarre.
Trump is the President of the United States. He won, as I said all along that he could, under the accepted constitutional rules of engagement by imploding the supposed "Blue Wall" of purportedly impregnable Democratic strength in the Electoral College so often touted by the Clinton machine and its multitude of allies in the media as the very reason why Trump could not possibly win.
So, beyond a certain point, why should Trump care about carping from a media which was essentially dead wrong about presidential politics for the entire campaign? Why not have fun with that instead?
If he were healthy and wise, he would rise above his critics and make them look petty and vindictive. Instead they all look bad, and he increasingly looks worse. The difference is that there is no popular expectation of executive leadership from journos.
Frankly, if I were Trump, I would not be angry, I would be absolutely thrilled. He won the presidency, which virtually all the "experts" said could never happen, despite being outspent two to one by the Clinton machine and having most of the media actively campaigning against him. After abetting his rise, of course, by using his notoriety to build audience and by imagining that he was just an entertainment sideshow. And he didn't even have to spend much of his own money to do it. Winning the presidency turned out to be a bargain deal. Fantastic! What a hoot!
Instead of being thrilled, as he should be, reveling in his triumph and engaging in a crash course of learning about the world off which he's now such a central part, Trump looks increasingly like an arrogantly ignorant borderline nut, though I will still give him the benefit of the doubt and refer to him as "erratic." We are, however, way beyond "quirky." And "iconoclastic" is far back in the rear view mirror.
Frankly, it was this way during the campaign. As I noted repeatedly, Trump would have been in command of the race against Hillary Clinton much earlier had he not repeatedly shot himself in the, er, foot ... a week wasted battling an ex-beauty queen, two weeks fighting a Gold Star family, and on and on. Deeply goofy stuff, folks. And yet he ended up getting away with it, as I feared he could all along against the fatefully flawed Clintons.
Governor Jerry Brown, in his 2017 State of the State address entitled "California Is Not Turning Back, Not Now, Not Ever," vows that America's mega-state on the Pacific will provide as much resistance to the Trump administration as needed.
Since I have a history of liking unconventional people, I have been told that if I knew Trump, as, say, I knew Arnold Schwarzenegger while he contemplated and then assumed the California governorship, that I would get a kick out of the guy and have a more positive view of all this. But I think I get it already. Different guys, despite some very pronounced similarities and not dissimilar circumstances, with different drives. At heart, while he is a tough guy, Schwarzenegger, though imperfect, is a pretty kindly fellow, thoughtful and always eager to learn. But there seems to be an ultimately enveloping darkness about Donald Trump.
In the midst of the Trump/Media spectacle, we've seen the emergence of a larger and powerful if amorphous popular resistance. And we have the emergence of what I think of as the California Delta. By which I mean not the vast Sacramento River Delta which controversially provides so much of the state's water and in which I boated in training runs for the Navy but a powerful new difference factor in American politics.
A state within a state, the Golden State, the world's fifth or sixth largest economy in its own right, the most diverse commonwealth on the planet, home to the global dynamos of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, headed by a brilliant political figure who would have made mincemeat of Trump in the election just past were he half a decade younger (and had a little less to do as governor).
In the most unconventional State of the State address in California's unconventional history, Governor Jerry Brown laid down a gauntlet of massive institutional opposition to the Trump Administration if it crosses lines it sounds like it wants to cross. Full text available here.
It is not an accident that the sailing ship that brought my great-grandfather to America was named "Perseverance." That is exactly what it took to endure the dangerous and uncertain months at sea, sailing from Germany to America.
While we now face different challenges, make no mistake: the future is uncertain and dangers abound. Whether it's the threat to our budget, or to undocumented Californians, or to our efforts to combat climate change - or even more global threats such as a financial meltdown or a nuclear incident or terrorist attack - this is a time which calls out for courage and for perseverance. I promise you both.
But let's remember as well that after the perilous voyage, those who made it to America found boundless opportunity. And so will we.
Let me end in the immortal words of Woody Guthrie:
"This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me...
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me."
California is not turning back. Not now, not ever.
Here Los Lobos, joined by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir before a big Grateful Dead 4th of July weekend show at Foxboro Stadium outside Boston in 1989, performs an impromptu parking lot version of Woody Guthrie's eternal 'This Land Is Your Land' for CBS News.
Brown draws on a variety of sources for information and ideas in addition to his own explorations, but he is very much his own author. Having known and studied him and his family since my own student days, I can say that this is vintage Jerry Brown.
While he was fiery in asserting and defending the California difference, the Great Exception as he termed it, on immigration, health care, and climate change/renewable energy issues which are at least rhetorically under threat from Trumpism, he did it in a still measured fashion. If Trump decides to be reasonable as he finally rolls out policies affecting the California Delta, there is room for cooperation. Brown even specifically noted infrastructure, and Trump's expansive yet vague notions in that regard, as something on which to work together.
This is not Brown's first rodeo, or his 250th. He can wait to see the whites of their eyes before opening fire on multiple fronts.
Brown made it very clear that he and his newly appointed state attorney general, veteran Congressman Xavier Becerra, the former House Democratic Caucus chair (not to mention the Legislature's new counsel, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder) will aggressively defend immigrants who are, to be clear, productive members of the California community.
"We don't have," noted Brown, "a Statue of Liberty with its inscription: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." But we do have the Golden Gate and a spirit of adventure and openness that has welcomed - since the Gold Rush of 1848 - one wave of immigration after another.
"For myself, I feel privileged to stand before you as your governor, as did my father almost sixty years ago. His mother, Ida, the youngest of eight children, was born in very modest circumstances, not very far from where we are gathered today. Her father arrived in California in 1852, having left from the Port of Hamburg, aboard a ship named "Perseverance."
"It is that spirit of perseverance and courage which built our state from the beginning. And it is that spirit which will get us through the great uncertainty and the difficulties ahead ... We will defend everybody - every man, woman and child - who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state."
And he was equally clear on the intertwined issue of climate change and renewable energy, on which California has the most advanced policies on the planet, policies which are, if anything, furthering one of the biggest economies on the planet.
"Our state is known the world over for the actions we have taken to encourage renewable energy and combat climate change," Brown observed. Then he moved in on the "alternative facts" rhetorical space so wonderfully created by Trump spin doctor Kellyanne Conway.
"Whatever they do in Washington, they can't change the facts. And these are the facts: the climate is changing, the temperatures are rising and so are the oceans. Natural habitats everywhere are under increasing stress. The world knows this.
"One hundred and ninety-four countries signed the Paris Agreement to control greenhouse gases. Our own voluntary agreement to accomplish the same goal - the "Under Two M.O.U." - has 165 signatories, representing a billion people. We cannot fall back and give in to the climate deniers. The science is clear. The danger is real."
Does Donald Trump, who clearly has an unsteady grasp on the levers of a government he barely understands, and will need all the help he can get to avoid further embarrassing himself on the world stage, really want to get into a protracted political war with one of the most powerful and sophisticated political entities on the planet? Which happens to be a lynchpin part of the country he is so fretfully trying to govern?
That really would be most unwise. Especially since California, quite unlike the great bulk of the red states which formed the core of Trump's narrowly decisive minority electoral strength, is not a tax consuming state but a tax producing state.
Brown has overseen a major comeback for California since its long days of chronic budget crisis, utilizing a combination of early budget cuts and tax increases that most would support. He mentions that and various other accomplishments in the address. What was once a California exodus is now anything but.
What's next for Brown, whose record fourth term ends in January 2019 when term limits finally catch up with him? Well, as I've written a few times over the past few years, I hope he is able to move into the U.S. Senate. The latest term for Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was elected over 24 years ago, ends at the same time as Brown's final term as governor. She's five years older than Brown and, while still very clear and vigorous, seems more fragile than the robust governor, who can still beat me in pull-ups. (Okay, the chronic rotator cuff problem from pole vaulting back in the day is a factor, but his fitness is most impressive. And I think he can out-run me for three miles.)
In 2008, I was with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a host of others on an easy hike beside Lake Tahoe in advance of the annual Tahoe summit when Feinstein tripped on a root and broke her ankle. That kept her away from the Democratic national convention which nominated Barack Obama.
Earlier this month, the senator had a pacemaker installed. Her husband, investor Richard Blum, has his own issues of ill health. First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown's health? Well, she's in her fifties and can probably out-run not just me but most everyone who is reading this. And her intellectual and organizational prowess have only made the naturally formidable Brown even more formidable.
Nevertheless, Feinstein is showing well in battling the confirmation of Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions.
It's hard to say if Feinstein will run for re-election. Her old friend, legendary former California Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, predicted in his Christmas Eve San Francisco Chronicle column that Feinstein will step away in favor of the governor.
More recently, as in after the pacemaker procedure, some counter-spin was produced. Of course, nobody wants to be a lame duck.
Yet it is impossible for me to conclude that Feinstein would be a better advocate in this environment than Jerry Brown. As good a governor as Brown has been, as someone who began as a Senate intern I've always seen him as a natural senator. In fact, had he been a U.S. senator, I believe he would have been at least the Democratic nominee for president. Brown thrives in chaotic situations, which Feinstein, a friend of Hillary Clinton who shares her establishmentarian style (as we saw with Feinstein's controversial tenure as Senate Intelligence chair), simply does not.
If it's a question of someone to go head to head with Trump and other personalities in his pirate crew, you have to go with the guy who only lost 1976 and 1992 Democratic presidential nominations to Jimmy Carter (Brown ran out of running room after a very late-breaking campaign) and Bill Clinton (Brown made a critical error which lost his big lead in the turning point New York primary).
Time will tell. In the meantime, Trump had better rethink his drink before taking on California. He will not prevail in a multi-front political war.
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