Uneasy Chaos

Normally, I’m of the “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the Legislature is in session” school of thought.  Because I think the politicos typically just mess things up for the rest of us — whatever their stated or unstated intentions — I normally don’t mind if Congress is thrashing around and not really doing much of anything.

But when the White House seems to be the scene of constant chaos, it’s a different story.  In our modern government, so much power and decision-making has devolved upon the Presidency, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, that the perception of competency, stability, reasoned judgment, and careful analysis in the Oval Office and the West Wing is essential.  In short, we want our allies and our enemies alike to believe that the President and his Administration know what they are doing and have developed and are pursuing a coherent policy, and that those allies and enemies should toe the line with that policy or there will be consequences.

161203153317-john-kelly-donald-trump-super-teaseThat’s why the apparently unending disorder in the Trump White House is disturbing.  We’re not even a year into President Trump’s first year in office, and we’ve already seen the departure of his chief of staff and press secretary and now the firing of a communications director who hadn’t even been on the job for two weeks.  I’m not arguing that Anthony Scaramucci shouldn’t have been fired — in reality, he seemed to be so completely ill-suited to serve in that position that you wonder how he was hired in the first place.  But with the constant uproar, the unnecessary and off-message tweets from the President himself, the many personnel changes, the flood of disabling leaks, and the evident turmoil between and among the President’s most senior advisers, you really wonder whether the important things are getting done — and, more fundamentally, what kind of message is being sent about the United States to the world at large.  Does it embolden North Korea and other rogue nation-states to engage in even more adventurous behavior if they think the White House is the scene of bedlam?

So President Trump has turned to a new chief of staff, retired general and former homeland security chief John Kelly, to try to restore some order in the White House, and Kelly’s first act apparently was to show Scaramucci the door.  Now he’ll try to establish some order, stop the constant barrage of leaks, ensure consistent messaging, and maybe, just maybe, rein in some of the counterproductive tweeting activity by POTUS, too.

It’s a big job, but you don’t get to be a general in the U.S. Marine Corps without having some significant leadership and managerial skills, so maybe Kelly will be up to the task — if he can stay in the position long enough to actually have an impact.  I’m no fan of Trump or his Administration, but for the good of the country let’s hope Kelly can make a difference.  The current state of apparent chaos needs to end.

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The (Invisible) Empire Strikes Back

You hear a lot about federal employees who comprise the so-called “Deep State” these days.  They apparently don’t like the new President or his policies, and they’re concerned about what he’s going to do to their jobs.

top-secretSo, at least some of those federal employees apparently are doing what any honest, “merit-hired,” politically neutral “civil servants” would do — they’re figuring out ways to undercut the new Administration’s agenda, “slow walk” proposals, and otherwise thwart policy changes.  Politico calls it “the revenge of the bureaucrats,” and notes that the principal weapons of the “Deep State” are carefully aimed leaks, efforts to have the inspector generals of agencies investigate political appointees, and using “the tools of bureaucracy to slow or sandbag policy proposals.”  Is it any coincidence that, since the new Administration took office, leaks seem to have come fast and furious?

This is an interesting issue, because there’s a fine line between the right of federal bureaucrats to exercise their First Amendment rights and the need to have workers who will blow the whistle on misconduct, on the one hand, and the actions of politicized employees who simply don’t agree with the direction the new Administration is taking and want to try to use their special positions to stop it, on the other.  It may be a fine line, but it should be a clear line, with the former being acceptable but the latter not.  Federal employees aren’t elected, and their views of what is the best course aren’t entitled to more weight than, say, the people who voted and elected the new Administration in the first place.  Career bureaucrats shouldn’t be permitted to use passive-aggressive methods to block policy changes just because they disagree with them.

The “Deep State” employees might think they’re clever in playing a backroom game of leaks and bureaucratic maneuvers, but it’s a dangerous game for them, too — if people get the sense that the federal workforce is hopelessly politicized, it’s going to continue the long decline in public trust in government, and ultimately people who might otherwise protect the federal employees from cuts won’t do so.  The whole notion of civil service is that the federal workforce shouldn’t be political, and instead should be comprised of knowledgeable, experienced career employees ready to implement the policies of whichever Administration may take office.  If the workers themselves demonstrate that they are politicized, what’s the point of the civil service in the first place?

Immigration Chaos

This weekend, we saw again what happens when the federal government acts on the basis of executive orders rather than statutes that proceed through Congress, are subject to hearings and debates before being approved by our elected representatives, and get signed into law by the President, as the Constitution contemplates.

ap-immigration-trump-cf-170126_12x5_1600Late Friday afternoon, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration.  Like many executive orders, this one features dense references to statutes and programs that makes it beyond the comprehension of normal Americans.  The order has multiple components, but the ones that had an immediate effect over the weekend indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow refugee vetting procedures to be reviewed, and blocked citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.  (The last component has people talking about the Trump Administration imposing a “Muslim ban”; the Trump Administration denies that, noting that the seven countries listed were actually identified for special treatment by the Obama Administration and that many other Muslim-majority countries are not included on the list.)

The order was issued, and then . . . chaos reigned.  Were people with “green cards” — that is, permits that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States — subject, or not subject, to the bans?  First they apparently were, then the Trump Administration said they weren’t.  In the meantime, international airports and security officials struggled to figure out how they were supposed to implement the ban, unsuspecting travelers were left in limbo in airport concourses, lawyers filed lawsuits, different federal district courts issued different orders about different parts of the executive order, and now it’s not entirely clear who can or should be doing what, and for how long.  It’s to the point that, because a federal court ruling in Boston is different and perhaps broader than a federal court ruling in New York, immigration lawyers are encouraging international travelers to re-route through Boston’s Logan Airport, just in case.

All of this is aside from the merits of the executive order, which has been widely viewed, in the Unites States and abroad, as a sign that the country that features the welcoming Statue of Liberty on its eastern shore is now in the hands of paranoid xenophobes.  And the confusion about the terms and implementation of the executive order just make the black eye America has absorbed a little larger and a little darker.

It was clear that the Trump Administration was going to do something about immigration; it was one of Trump’s principal campaign themes, and so far he has acted on things pretty much like he said he would.  But it’s also another example of why government by far-reaching executive order is just bad policy, period — whether the executive orders are issued by the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration, or any other Administration.  We need to stop government by executive edict and administrative thunderbolt.  It’s time that Congress started to do its job.

A Respectful Reminder Of Rights

Tomorrow Donald Trump will be sworn in as our 45th President, and what seemed unimaginable and impossible only a year ago will become a reality.  It’s been an extremely weird journey, and many of us are still grappling with what it all means.

il_fullxfull-43546133But whether we figure it out or not, tomorrow everything changes.  We’ll have a brash new President who will routinely use Twitter to communicate his views to the American people.  We’ll probably have a former President who will be much more engaged in national affairs than ex-Presidents typically have been.  From what we’ve seen and heard in the lead-up to tomorrow’s inauguration, we’ll undoubtedly have immediate reversals of Obama Administration policies, a news media that is feeling its way forward in a new paradigm, and bitterly opposing sides on every issue that the country confronts, each ready to paint everyone on the other side as liars, or uncaring, or unpatriotic, or unprincipled, or whatever negative word they can think of and put into an aggressive, over-the-top Facebook meme.

Speaking as someone who’s got friends at many points on the political spectrum inside the far outer fringes, and who would really like to keep as many of those friends as I can, I’d just like to respectfully remind everyone, regardless of where your views lie, of what I hope we can all agree on:

There’s a right to boycott, and a right to attend.

There’s a right to oppose, and a right to support.

There’s a right to protest, and a right to counter-protest.

There’s a right to be outraged, and a right to let things slide.

There’s a right to be active, and a right to be passive.

There’s a right to speak, and a right to decide whether to listen.

There’s a right to care with every fiber of your being, and a right to think that other things are more important to you and your life.

These are just some of the rights we enjoy in this wonderful country, and that we will continue to enjoy in the Trump Administration, whether we’re ardent supporters of the new President, diehard opponents, or one of the mass of people between those poles who just hope we can get through this next chapter without experiencing the fate of the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.

I’m going to respect all of those rights.  I think if we all just keep those rights in mind, we’ll be okay.

End Of The Circus, Start Of The Circus

The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced that it will make its last performance in 2017.  Home to acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns, high wire acts, men fired from cannons, ringmasters, jugglers, elephants, bareback daredevils, and lion tamers, the self-described “Greatest Show on Earth” has been thrilling Americans for 146 years.

11036258_903260603028849_2049055517179799220_nIt’s another American institution clanking to an end.  Once, people in America were excited when the circus train rolled into town, with a circus parade down Main Street to let everyone know that it was time to come out to some nearby lot, sit under the Big Top, smell the sawdust, eat some peanuts, and watch the spectacle.  But tastes change, and the organizers of the circus have cited those changing tastes, reflected in declining attendance, as one of the reasons for the end of the circus.  Other reasons include high operating costs and the impact of a long dispute with animal rights advocates about using animals in the circus — a fight that ended with the decision in 2015 to cease using elephants in the show, which itself caused a significant drop in attendance.

I remember going to the circus when I was young.  I wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed about running away to the circus and romanticized the itinerant life of circus performers, but I did enjoy the show, and so did UJ and my grandparents.  I remember the bustle of the place, and the constant activity in the three rings, and the awesome sight of the people way up on the flying trapeze so far overhead.  I also remember the distinctive smell — a wild, heady combination of animals, dust, and human sweat, all charged with a kind of electricity running through the crowd when one of the more hazardous acts was being performed.  Now, though, kids apparently don’t have the same attention span; they won’t sit still for the hours needed to watch the full run of the circus show and end up fiddling with their cell phones and texting their friends.

It’s ironic, too, that the real circus is announcing its end just as the Trump Administration is getting ready to take office.  Based on what we’ve seen in the run-up to Inauguration Day, from both the new President and his Administration, its protesters, and its diehard opponents, American politics is going to be a wild, death-defying ride, full of surprises and unexpected actions at every turn.  Who knows?  Maybe these days we can only deal with one circus at a time.