Thankfulness

Alan Zendell, November 23, 2017

Trite as it may sound, I really do think about what I’m thankful for on Thanksgiving. In this era of Trump, many of my friends and family have been struggling to identify the good things that have occurred this year, so overwhelmingly depressing has been the Year of the Blowhard.

The main thing for me is that we’re all thankful for being together, a wonderful extended family of people who have been doing this together for many years despite having migrated all over the country.  We need it more than ever this year, as we are reminded daily of how our country’s values are being destroyed one tweet at a time.

In case we’d forgotten (since yesterday) our president reminded us all of what a narcissistic jerk he truly is today. On the face of it, a world-spanning broadcast thanking our armed forces for everything they do seems like the perfect touch for Thanksgiving Day. But Trump, as usual, had to make himself the centerpiece. Rather than humbly thanking them for their service, he thanked himself for his brilliant leadership which enabled the military to perform better. What’s more, there’s no evidence that anything our president has done has improved the military’s performance – by all appearances, they accomplished that entirely on their own.

It’s a nauseating reminder of what we’ve been enduring since Trump took office, but we’re not going to let it tarnish our own Thanksgiving. Instead, we will spread love and make sure everyone around us knows that we’re grateful to have them for another year.

For today, we’ll ignore the fact that our president cares more about retaining a vote in the Senate to support the tax bill that will enrich his family by billions, than preserving whatever integrity that body still has in this time of divisive politics. Coming out in favor of Roy Moore may have been the last straw, at least until the next outrageous thing he does. As we’ve often noted, Mr. President, our children watch and hear everything you do.

You’ve told our kids that it’s okay to deprive over 20 million Americans of health care. You’ve told them that behaving like a schoolyard bully is the best way to deal with conflict situations. You’ve told them that science doesn’t matter, and that you don’t give a damn about the state of the planet they will inherit from us. You’ve told them that spiteful, hateful behavior is acceptable, and there’s no need to observe any rules they don’t like. You’ve told them that bigots and Nazis are perfectly fine people as long as they vote for you.

And now you’ve enhanced your image as Liar-in-Chief of the nation by equating denial with innocence and contrition with guilt. No matter what they’re accused of or how credible the accusers and the preponderance of evidence supporting the allegations, in Trump’s world all our children have to do is call everyone else liars and loudly proclaim that all the evidence against them is fake. You’ve made every parent’s job more difficult by contradicting everything we’ve taught them. You’re a disgrace!

But there’s hope. An impressive number of sitting Representatives and Senators have had the courage to speak out. Lights are being shined on actions of sexual abuse that have remained in the dark far too long. And on Election Day, 2017, the voters made it clear that enough is enough. We still have a lot of work to do to reverse the damage that’s been done. And if our president won’t keep his promise to drain the swamp, we can do it ourselves by casting our votes and holding our elected officials accountable.

It’s up to all of us to call hypocrisy what it is. It’s up to us to figure out what’s true and what’s fake. We need to protect our values and institutions, our journalistic traditions, and our legal system. We need to be skeptical about everything we hear – Facebook posts and tweets are not news. The best way to demonstrate that we’re thankful for what we have is to defend it.

But enough of that. The rest of today is about being grateful to be with people we love and who love us.

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Bad Behavior

Alan Zendell, November 18, 2017

I’ve always liked Al Franken. As a comedian he was smart and funny. As a Senator he’s been a refreshingly level-headed voice supporting decency and progressive values. That said, it’s hard to have sympathy for him in light of the accusations by Leanne Tweeden, just as it was hard to feel sympathy over Bill Clinton’s indiscretions. The viral photo of him aping for the camera with his hands appearing to be about to grope her while she was asleep tells a disturbing tale.

But exactly which tale does it tell? Clearly, in the photo, Franken is acting manically on a flight home from a long tour in Afghanistan entertaining the troops. Clearly, he’s acting like a jerk and behaving inappropriately. If it winds up costing him his Senate seat it’s his own fault, but as it was with Clinton’s impeachment trial, the big losers will be the people of the United States.

There’s more to this story, much more. Our president chose to attack Franken on Twitter while ignoring the charges against both Roy Moore and himself. Trump’s outburst was another in a long series of tweetstorms that confound most Americans. Why would he focus on Franken’s misstep which Franken himself called disgusting, but was not remotely as serious as the allegations against Moore and what we’ve seen Trump admit to doing on tape? Why would he want to stir up those cans of worms when Franken has already acquiesced to a Senate Ethics hearing, admitted his wrongdoing, and made a very public apology which even Tweeden said was heartfelt?

When White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about that she said Franken had admitted his guilt while the president had not. So in this administration’s official view admitting guilt deserves derision and insult, but denying responsibility and offering no defense in the face of numerous credible accusations is a virtue. What kind of message does that send?

Trump must have thought it would be a political plus for his base, but mostly it was his narcissistic need to insert himself into every issue, to assure that his name dominates every news cycle. It’s a measure of how seriously unstable and vulnerable his psychological disorder leaves him that he will probably have done more damage to Moore and himself than to Franken. Whatever else he accomplishes or is given credit for, his extremely dark compulsions continue to make him unfit to lead this country.

Even if his base loves his antics, the rest of the world apparently doesn’t. The National Brands Index, a measure of how the world perceives each major nation developed by British international policy consultant Simon Anholt, found that in the first year of the Trump Administration, the United States fell from first to sixth place in global reputation. While the respected index has no official significance, it is based on the response of over 30,000 people in twenty-five countries. America still ranks very high in most areas, but it was the Governance category that caused the drop in our global reputation, which Anholt calls the Trump Effect.

Consider the president’s recent Asia trip. His remarks about Putin had to be walked back the next day with an explanation so flimsy, it was almost comical. At the economic summit in Danang, Veitnamese President Tran Dai Quang pointedly said “…it is our policy to settle disputes…through peaceful negotiations and with respectful, diplomatic and legal process…” whereupon Trump sarcastically commented on the likelihood of becoming friends with Kim Jong Un and upon returning home couldn’t resist insulting him on Twitter.

It may very well turn out that Chinese President Xi Jinping will follow through with aggressive new sanctions aimed at crippling North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and when that occurs we can be assured that President Trump will take full credit for it. Xi will not contradict him publicly because it’s not the Chinese president’s style to engage in such things, and he has no need to engage in grandstanding to enhance his own image. But it must be clear to the rest of the world that China will do exactly what is in the interests of China and the region. If anything, Trump’s barrage of belligerent tweets aimed at Kim may have heightened tensions so much that Xi felt compelled to act. If that’s what Trump means by deserving credit, we should be very concerned about the future.

The best thing we can say about Trump in Asia was that he showed restraint. He didn’t insult anyone in public, and he didn’t make waves on Twitter, though that only lasted until his plane touched down at Joint Base Andrews. If you met with your son’s principal to discuss his progress at school, and the best thing you heard was that he didn’t beat anyone up on the playground today, would you consider that positive?

Neither would I.

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Good Old Joe

Alan Zendell, November 14, 2017

Jake Novak of CNBC thinks Joe Biden “is the exact opposite of the kind of candidate voters in both parties proved they want in the 2016 election.” He cites a lot of facts, like the populist appeal of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and the clear anti-establishment sentiment that characterized that election. He also talks about the democratic base shifting leftward toward Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. And then there are Biden’s inglorious attempts to run for president in 1988 and 2008.

Novak may have his facts straight, but I think he might be completely missing the point. Yes, voters at both ends of the political spectrum went for populism in 2016. And the success of the Trump and Sanders campaigns came from convincing people that the establishment of both parties had failed them, much the way Barrack Obama did in winning the nomination in 2008. But there’s an intangible side to politics that no amount of fact gathering can capture.

While one-third of the country loves President Trump, most of it is somewhere between disappointed and horrified at the way candidate Trump’s populism is playing out now that he’s president. His brand of political incorrectness turned out not to be cute and refreshing, but rather a vehicle for hate mongering and divisiveness. And there is little evidence that his promise to be the president for all Americans had any substance. Nastiness and amoral behavior have a cumulative effect over time that leaves voters feeling disillusioned and betrayed, and we see that occurring daily.

It’s possible that Trump is a fad that is quickly running its course. What appeared flashy and bright two years ago has taken on a dingy, unappetizing patina and a sickly odor. And like most fads this one has left many people wondering what they saw in it in the first place.

A lot of people go through life seeking their soulmate, wasting years, decades even, looking for all the wrong things in all the wrong places, ignoring the staid and true because it isn’t sexy enough. If they’re lucky, the people who’ve always been there and cared about them, those friends who could never be anything more than platonic, are still around when they finally see the light. When the fireworks that burned so brightly and made so much noise have been reduced to a smoky haze, we realize how good fresh air smells, has always smelled if we’d only bothered to notice.

That’s Joe Biden, a decent, eloquent, highly competent man who knows more about foreign relations than Trump and his cabinet combined, who sometimes lacks the luster of what seems to be trending (remember the Edsel?) but who looks so damn good when it falls apart. Many of the voters who were swept up in last year’s tide of populism are now beginning to realize what happened. And wise old Joe, with his gentle tones and old-fashioned values looks like that old friend we’d ignored for so long.

I think Novak is wrong. The sharp swing to the left that some Democrats are taking is a knee-jerk reaction to the nastiness of our elitist president. It’s another wave that will dissipate on the rocky shores of disillusionment, and when it does, honest Joe will still be there, hating no one and reaching out to help. He’ll be seventy-seven in 2020 but so will I, so I can’t hold that against him.

When the agents of change and revolution have all fizzled out, as Trump seems to be doing, someone like Joe Biden will be a different kind of populist. The Encarta dictionary says populism is a political ideology based on the perceived interests of ordinary people, as opposed to those of a privileged elite. Does that sound like Donald Trump or Steve Bannon?

It sounds to me like a definition written for Joe Biden. Pulling the country back from the brink and returning it to normality can also be a profound change.  If anyone understands the hardship many Americans experience – he has lost a wife and two children during his life – it’s Joe, and in my opinion, his voice is exactly what our country needs to heal. Despite his losses there’s no bitterness in him. He’s the same gentle soul who’d rather love than hate that he always was.

But he’s always loved a good fight, too. I hope he still has the energy and desire in 2020. We need him.

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R. E. S. P. E. C. T.

Alan Zendell, November 11, 2017

Aretha Franklin belted it out loud and clear.

The president’s Asia trip has more than anything been a test of how much powerful foreign leaders respect him. The media has been filled with reports and opinions, almost since the day Trump was inaugurated, that they were shocked by him and personally viewed him as an unqualified buffoon. That doesn’t mean they could disregard him. One year into the current administration we’re still the most powerful nation in the world militarily, and he is the Commander-in-Chief.

There’s an interesting parallel with North Korea here. Most leaders consider Kim Jong Un something between crazy and irresponsible, but they don’t deny that he’s capable of doing a lot of damage if he chooses to. Kim may well be playing an exaggerated version of the game Trump loves so much. Act crazy, say anything that comes to mind, and hold your cards close to your vest. No one really knows what goes on in the mind of Kim Jong Un, and the same may be true of Donald Trump’s.

Last month the president claimed to have a wonderful relationship with Congress, though he is routinely criticized in the media by some members, and in private by many more. Now he claims he has wonderful relationships with the leaders of other countries, in particular with Xi Jinping. People I respect believe that may be true, though as I  have said before, my sense is that they’re playing him, and the sport they’re competing in is one in which Trump is seriously overmatched.

If in the face of the press releases about deals with China I still had any doubt of this, Trump resolved them with his statements about Vladimir Putin today. Despite everyone in the American intelligence community, including Trump’s appointed CIA Director Mike Pompeo asserting strongly that Russia meddled in our election last year, Trump says that Putin claims he didn’t do it and “when he tells me that he means it, and I believe him.” That statement was so outrageous it was hard know whether it was just another item in the administration’s tangled web of fake news or if Trump actually believed it.

It raised so much consternation in Washington the president accepted a question about it at today’s press conference in Hanoi. When asked if he really believed Putin, Trump said he thought Putin believed Russia hadn’t meddled in our election, but he (Trump) believed the intelligence experts who were sure Russia had done it. His staff had clearly informed him that he had to walk back his original statement, but what he said in Hanoi only made it worse. It implies Trump believed Russia could have done it without Putin’s knowledge and approval. If that’s true he’s even more overmatched than I thought.

Many people like to label our president as a habitual liar, but he can’t hold a candle to Putin in that regard. Putin has been using lies as propaganda and diplomatic tools all his life. He’s the consummate grand master. What are we to think when our president tells us that when Putin whispers something in his ear he’s telling the truth? It’s hard to imagine what he expects to gain by it. A large majority of Congress believes Russia is guilty, and they control the sanctions Putin wants lifted.

There was no doubt that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe worked very hard to play up to Trump for the media. But realistically, if North Korea does go completely rogue, Japan is directly in its crosshairs, and American anti-missile defenses are the best chance it has of defending itself against Kim’s missiles. I can’t help but take Abe’s over-the-top welcome of Trump with a grain of salt.

Am I being unduly negative? Does it seem that I refuse to give the president credit for anything? It may sound that way, but I believe that Trump is basically a con artist. He has repeatedly lied and contradicted himself, and I find it difficult to take anything he says or does at face value. With someone like Trump I need some kind of proof of his sincerity before I can place any trust in him.

His behavior from day to day still makes him appear unfit for the job. The question I continually wrestle with is whether even an accomplishment like turning Kim Jong Un, should he pull it off, would be enough to offset that. I’m afraid I don’t think it would be. His morally repugnant value system is like his Mexican wall. I don’t think I can get over it no matter what he does.

If I turn out to be wrong about him I will happily acknowledge it, but for now, I’ve seen nothing that changes my view of him.

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The Only One Who Matters

Alan Zendell, November 6, 2017

The United States State Department has more than 30,000 employees. Most of them are dedicated professionals with no political affiliation. Many have narrow specialties which they’ve been honing for twenty years or more. Many speak multiple languages, have served in the foreign service, and have advanced degrees from major universities.

Why do we need so many of them? Because knowing and understanding the subtleties of foreign cultures is essential to a successful foreign policy. In some cases being able to speak their language can make all the difference in resolving disagreements. Not because they don’t speak English or because they might be offended if we don’t bother to learn their language, but because a language often tells us a lot about how people think.

I learned that when I used all my elective points as an undergraduate to study Russian, back in the Cold War days when it seemed that knowing how to speak Russian might be essential one day. Russian is quite different from the romance languages most Americans study, which makes it difficult for us to master. One reason is the way tenses are defined in Russian. Actually, Russian uses “aspects” rather than tenses, which are just similar enough to what we’re used to in English that basic conceptual differences in meaning can get us into trouble. And that’s without considering cultural influences and the effect that a country’s history may have had on its leaders. Many people think that failing to grasp these subtle differences in meaning may have led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So when our president, who has demonstrated that he barely understands how our own government functions says vacancies at the State Department don’t have to be filled, he’s making a potentially serious error. And when he has the audacity to say he doesn’t really need them because “I’m the only one that matters,” he’s making an error that could be fatal.

Arrogance and ignorance in our president are a combination that could get a lot of people killed, aside from the fact that so much of what he says makes two-thirds of the nation cringe. The thought of Donald Trump ignoring State Department experts when he negotiates with Russia, China, the Koreas, and Japan is staggering. This isn’t a poker game among old friends. It’s nuclear roulette.

I’m still not sure what National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster meant when he said the president would not temper his language during his trip to Asia. Was he encouraging Mr. Trump to keep shooting from the hip without filtering his words or was he acknowledging that it was impossible for his advisers to control him?

Some people think Trump’s brash, boastful style combined with his unpredictability have earned him the respect of our adversaries. Yet, I have the sense that seasoned old warriors like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and even South Korea’s Moon Jae-in feel like they’re playing chess with a rube. I think they lick their chops when they see him coming, knowing his need to be adored and praised leaves him vulnerable to deceit and manipulation.

When our pipes leak we hire a plumber. When our lights go out we hire an electrician. And when we’re sick we see our doctors. We don’t argue with those people who have spent their lives learning their professions, and it’s no different with diplomacy. In many ways it’s more important, because it’s not only one person or one home that’s at stake. What happens on this Asia trip can affect our country and the world for decades to come. It can alter the world our grandchildren live in. So when our President says he’s the only one who matters, I can only shudder and hope that his advisers can rein him in and keep him from making grievous errors.

The president views himself as a savvy businessman who is now the CEO of the United States. His management style may work in a family-owned business, but even in the business world he surely knows that a CEO of a major corporation who continually ignores his board of directors and stockholders will eventually go down in flames.

This is the world stage, Mr. Trump, and you are not the only person who matters.

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The Beginning of the End?

Alan Zendell, November 2, 2017

Immediately after Robert Mueller announced the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos and the indictments of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, I received an email asking (rhetorically) if this was the beginning of the end. The end of what, I wondered. The end of the Trump Presidency? Possibly, but I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it.

More likely, it could mark the beginning of a protracted period in which the president’s ability to get anything done is greatly reduced. That same morning, a quick Gallup poll reported that the president’s approval rating went from an all-time low of 38% to a shocking 33%, which suggests that no one outside his hard core base still supports him, and that base might even be shrinking.

Combined with recent leaks and reports that most of his support in Congress is based on a temporary alignment to pass tax reform, rather than real support or approval of the president himself, that bodes ill for the future success of the administration. A president with such a low approval rating does not inspire confidence either at home or internationally.

What incentive does a sitting member of Congress, especially one who is not up for re-election next year, have to go along with the president when he or she disagrees with him? The president may act as if the country is behind him in spite of the polls, but the reality is that they leave him with little leverage to twist arms. Unfortunately, we’ve become used to a Congress that can’t get out of its own way, so people may not be overly alarmed if Trump’s problems cause that to continue. But the situation may be far more serious with respect to diplomacy.

When other countries, be they allies or adversaries, perceive that an American president is politically wounded, his influence is greatly diminished. Europe, especially Germany has indicated that they understand the need to look out for their own interests. Even if Trump were dealing from strength, his repeated statements that America always comes first assures that.

But what happens when we try to enlist their support for a united effort to rebuild the parts of Syria and Iraq that were destroyed by ISIS? What happens when we need their support for a unified front against North Korea or Iran? The reality is that even if foreign leaders take Trump at his word, their confidence in his ability to convince Congress to go along with him has been undermined.

So if the question is: “Is this the beginning of the end,” it’s reasonable to suggest that it may be the beginning of the end of America as a dominant voice on the world stage. We may still have the most powerful armed forces in the world, but as our most prominent military leaders have repeatedly stated, diplomacy must come first. And a strong military does not by itself assure successful diplomacy when long-term efforts to avoid war are at stake.

To those who would like to see the president impeached, I say be careful what you wish for. If you think the president is weakened now, the chaos that would accompany an impeachment, whether or not it was successful, would emasculate our ability to function either at home or internationally, for at least a year. I agree with those who say that when the president fails the country fails along with him.

And don’t forget that impeachment is a political process, and the House of Representatives will be controlled by the Republicans at least through the end of 2018.  It’s conceivable that a majority of Republicans, especially those who are seriously committed to the party’s legislative agenda might think they would be more successful with Mike Pence in the Oval Office. Surely, there would be less divisiveness and turmoil, and Pence has far more respect among Congress than the president does. But if the performance of Congress in 2017 is any indication, it’s hard to imagine a movement to exchange Trump for Pence taking root, much less building momentum and succeeding.

Unless the Russia investigation finds evidence of treason that it can trace to the president himself, we’d do best to forget the idea of impeachment. If this is the beginning of the end of anything, it’s probably the era in which America is revered and respected by the rest of the world. And that is tragic.

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Things We Take For Granted

Alan Zendell, October 29, 2017

Growing up in the years after the second world war, it was easy to believe that America was the land of the good guys. We were nobler and fairer than the rest of the world, and no one would ever defeat us at anything. We often lost in the Olympics until our crowning achievement in 1960 when our amateur hockey team won the gold medal over the Russians. See? We could even beat their state-sponsored professionals. What couldn’t we do?

Even when the Russians beat us into space, we continued to believe, and a decade later we were on the moon. Even when we abandoned space exploration and got stuck in the morass of Vietnam while our president tried to rig an election, we believed. Even when the stock market crashed in 1987 and the dot.com boom fizzled a few years later, we still took our divine right of superiority for granted.

Then one day we woke up and realized how vulnerable we were to enemies we’d never even suspected, our school systems were failing, our children were graduating from college into an empty job market, until nine-eleven changed everything. We’d never be complacent again – or would we?

We still believed we lived in the best country in the world with leaders that would always do what was best for us. We implicitly understood that we had put our racist past behind us and our grandchildren’s generation would live in color-blind, multi-cultural harmony. Our schools were coming back, and we didn’t mind that our best students were the children of all those brown and yellow people who’d recently emigrated here because, after all, it proved that we were still the land of opportunity.

We even elected a black president. All we had to do was keep the terrorists at bay and everything would be fine – except that just when we sure things could only get better, our corrupt banking system collapsed and nearly brought down our entire economy. We had to open our eyes to reality once again and what we saw wasn’t pretty.

Our government had regressed into partisan bickering that prevented anything meaningful from getting done, just when we needed it to perform at its best. And the attempt to assure that all of our citizens could finally count on affordable, available health care revealed divisions that many of us had forgotten were there. Greed. Class warfare. An undercurrent of latent racism that had never died and was now seething toward a boiling point. Xenophobia. Isolationism.

And then the final blow. Through it all most of us still believed we would wake up every morning knowing we wouldn’t be embarrassed by our president. Somehow we would still project a moral leadership that the rest of the world could respect, because he would never let those forces of division and dissolution take over. Instead, we are shamed every day by what our country is becoming, by what comes out of our morally bankrupt president’s mouth and tweets. Oh, the things we’ve taken for granted and the price we’ve paid.

We can’t do anything about that now, but we can at least stop taking ourselves and our families for granted. We can stop turning blind eyes when someone close to us drinks too much, or becomes dependent on drugs, whether or not they’re legal. And we’d better be honest with ourselves about our own health and fitness. It’s all we really have control over. No more being in denial about that extra ten pounds or that pain you feel when you turn the wrong way or that cough that you can’t shake all winter.

Or, and this isn’t for the squeamish or the faint of heart, even the basic body functions you never think about. I recently emerged from a three month nightmare that has taught me never to be complacent about anything again. Elective surgery to fix an arthritic shoulder seemed simple enough, and it was. But waking up in the hospital with my body’s entire waste disposal system not functioning was one of the things I’d never even considered. Doesn’t everyone just take that for granted?

No one ever expects his or her body to betray him. Just like no one expects his government or his teachers or his president to. But it happens. We can’t afford to take anything for granted ever again. Sometimes things work out in the end. We take a deep breath and realize we dodged another bullet, but we won’t always be lucky. It’s up to us.

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