Another sad thing: My sojourn in a Trump-free world is over

James Smith and Mandy Powers Norrell told me they wanted to bring me onto their campaign in a meeting on June 26 in Mandy’s legislative office in the Blatt building.

I don’t know what brought it up, but at some point I said something like, “One thing I feel sure of, you don’t win this election by talking about Donald Trump.”

“THANK you!” said Mandy. Apparently, she’d heard too many people give her advice that differed from that. Being from a county that went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 — but one that loved her enough that she faced no opposition from either party for her House seat this year — she saw us as having nothing to gain talking about you-know-who.

The pattern was set there and then. Henry McMaster would be about Donald Trump, and Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton, and abortion, and other names and ideas that divide us on the national level. We would talk about South Carolina issues that we face in common — SC schools, SC healthcare, energy for SC, our roads and other infrastructure. This would not be a simple matter of political expedience in a red state — the truth was that those issues were the reasons James and Mandy were running. They wanted to provide leadership on issues that matter to South Carolina, not play the stupid 24/7 national partisan talking-points game. Everything about their public lives up to that point underlined that fact. This was who they were.

There would be times in which it was impossible to completely avoid that person’s name, or the policies he propagates — such as when his tariffs threatened some of the best jobs in South Carolina — but our emphasis would be on Henry’s refusal to distance himself from those policies.

Within the campaign, if someone embarked upon a sentence that could not end logically without acknowledging the existence of the person who is currently POTUS, we — and especially the candidates — would usually handle it by calling him “45.”

So, I spent a blessed 14 weeks, plus a day or two, without having to think about him. It was wonderful. It wasn’t hard, because I didn’t have time to think about him. I didn’t have time to think about the things I needed to think about, much less the occupant of the White House. I spent most of my breakfast reading time on The State and the Post and Courier, and neglected my usual Washington Post and New York Times. I’d skim those national outlets, but I wouldn’t dig in.

The only thing that marred my bliss from being in a Trumpless universe was the reporters who wanted to drag him, or other national shouting-match issues, into this far better world. “What does James think about Brett Kavanaugh?” “What effect is Trump having on your race?” Or the ultimate “have you stopped beating your wife” question, “Are you for or against abolishing ICE?” (Usually, these came from national outlets — the last one from the right-wing Daily Caller, which seemed to do little but ask such questions — and I felt OK ignoring those. Nothing against national journalists, but unless they were asking about something that bore on the job of governor of South Carolina, they were a waste of my scarce time. But occasionally, to my great dismay, such questions came from South Carolina outlets. Sometimes I ignored those, too; mostly I answered with our campaign’s raison d’être: “We are completely focused on South Carolina issues…”)

But now, those happy days are over. There’s little in the SC papers to interest me — certainly nothing to absorb me with the intensity of the campaign — and I’m drifting back to those opinion pieces in the Post, the Times and elsewhere.

And you know who keeps coming up there, in pieces by writers from across the political spectrum. With a certain resignation, I allow myself to think about what they’re saying. And occasionally, someone says something worth saying.

As you know, I rather enjoy Ross Douthat’s High Tory-but-unpredictable approach to things, and I thought he made a good point here the other day:

Generally, Donald Trump’s Twitter beefs are an expense of spirit and a waste of breath. But a minority of them are genuinely edifying, and illustrations of his likely world-historical role — which is not to personally bring down our constitutional republic, but to reveal truths about our political situation, through his crudeness and goading of others, that might be harbingers of the Republic’s eventual end…

Indeed. The problem with Trump isn’t Trump himself. When he was a national joke on both the left and the right, someone everyone could safely ignore, everything was fine. The problem is that enough voted for him to make him president. The problem is out there, in the electorate.  That is the thing that could be the sign of the Republic’s end. He is just a sort of canary in the coal mine, except that the warning isn’t that he’s keeling over, but that he thrives, at least with a dangerously large segment of the population.

The rest of Douthat’s piece is worth reading as well, particularly his evocation of the danger posed by “the steady atrophy of legislative power and flight from legislative responsibility” on Capitol Hill.

I was a bit disappointed today by neocon Jennifer Rubin. Her headline, “Trump’s incoherence is too much — and it’s getting worse” — drew me in because it made me think the piece would concentrate on his constant abuse of the English language, a topic always near to my heart. She started promisingly enough:

Jennifer RubinPresident Trump has never been a model of consistency or coherence. However, as pressure builds both from looming investigations and the impending transfer of power in the House from the Republican majority to the Democrats, his ability to maintain even the pretense of normalcy and rationality begins to crumble. That’s true on both foreign and domestic policy, giving the impression of a president teetering on the brink of a complete meltdown….

But on the whole coherence wasn’t the issue so much as erratic behavior and policy inconsistency. So, you know, the usual stuff…

Then, from the center-left, we have E.J. Dionne’s piece today, “This is the only Trump syndrome we need to worry about.” The syndrome he means is “denial — a blind refusal to face up to how much damage Trump is willing to inflict on our system of self-rule, and on our values,” with particular concern expressed for “the cost to the United States of abandoning any claim that it prefers democracy to dictatorship and human rights to barbarism.”

I think the part I liked best, though, was when E.J. specifically pointed to the very same problem Douthat lamented, the abdication of responsibility on the part of the legislative branch:

E.J. DionneTrump’s crude statement backing the Saudis was too much even for many in the GOP. “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) wrote on Twitter.

But Republicans have said all sorts of things about Trump and then backed off when it mattered. (See: Cruz, above.) They have long tolerated the praise he regularly lavishes on dictators. They have been eager to moonlight themselves as Trump PR firms as long as he delivered tax cuts and judges….

Anyway… I’ve been dragged back into the world where people talk and write about Trump. I suppose I should take solace from the fact that at least some smart people are doing so thoughtfully — although whether their thoughtfulness is enough to light our way out of this mess remains to be seen…

36 thoughts on “Another sad thing: My sojourn in a Trump-free world is over

  1. bud

    I noted some time back that our electoral process is marred by what I call the 4 horsemen of the political apocalypse. These are 1. The electoral college 2. Gerrymandering 3. Voter suppression and 4. Conservative media. In particular Fox News. It’s time to add a 5th – the US Senate election process. It’s becoming a reality that one party now has perpetual control of one body of the legislature. This further insured the courts will be controlled by that one party. The founding fathers enshrined a system that grants a tiny number of farmers and miners numbering barely a half million people can elect the same number of senators as a huge, diverse state of 40 million. The federalist system that created this terrible arraingement is an obsolete vestige of an 18th century nation that is an anachronism in a mobile 21st century nation. Perhaps it’s time to change the way we elect senators.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, at least we agree on gerrymandering. That would be my number 1, 2, 3 and 4.

      As for the way the Senate is elected, I say we should repeal the 17th Amendment. The United States was formed as a union of STATES, not merely as an amorphous collection of people living across 13 colonies.

      So, we disagree… 🙂

      1. Clark Surratt

        Election results suggest that gerrymandering might not have lived up to its reputation as a partisan villain. Rounding off numbers, Democrats won 54 percent of the House seats with 53 percent of the overall popular vote.

        1. bud

          Gerrymandering is an imperfect way to maintain power. For that reason I would rate it the 5th most important horseman.

      2. bud

        Union of STATES. You see that as a virtue. I see it as an impediment to a functioning federal government. We ‘re a mobile nation that is vastly different from the agrarian collection of states that really did share common values within the borders as they existed. It’s laughable to pretend that is the case now. What we’ve become is a blue nation red nation dichotomy whereby urban areas, regardless of the particular state in which they reside have much more in common with each other than they do with rural areas within their own state. The suburbs hold the balance of power. This grants an outsized advantage to those “states” that are randomly based only on historical cartographers. Is there any rule that says states must be contiguous land areas? Seem like Michigan suggests no. Perhaps states can be reformed along urban/rural commonality vs this current hodgepodge. I suggest the new state of New Angeles. Then merge Wyoming, Idaho and Montana – Wyidatanta.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “Union of STATES. You see that as a virtue.”

          Actually, I see it as a FACT.

          To you, the logical division is into red and blue. That makes no sense to me, because if you divided the nation that way, where would I live? To me, those choices make no sense. I would always be an outsider. As I am now to a great extent, since too many people want to explain the world that way…

          Nowadays, people even want to divide our courts into “liberal” and “conservative” judges. Well, I stand with John Roberts on that:

          We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.

          If he is wrong about that, the nation is doomed….

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I found the experience of working with James’ campaign very warm and welcoming, in many ways just what I had sought — a “West Wing” experience of working hard with a group of people dedicated to a good cause.

            That was the people I worked with every day.

            But I was made aware from the start that there were people out there who saw me as something of an interloper, and thought James was nuts for hiring me, when in their minds he should have given the chance to a Democrat. So there was always that uneasy tension, although it was usually off in the background somewhere.

            Early in the campaign, I had reason to visit party HQ for a meeting with Chairman Trav Robertson. At one point — I don’t remember why — I mentioned the fact that my car, parked right outside, had bumper stickers on it for both James and my Republican representative, Micah Caskey.

            Trav said, “Yeah, I’ve heard about that.” And I thought, “Yeah, I’ll BET you have.” I got along great with Trav during the campaign. But I wasn’t a bit surprised that there would be someone out there mentioning to him my blatant unorthodoxy.

            And I debated with myself about that. Was I being too in-your-face with it? Was it rude and obnoxious of me to rub people’s faces in my outsiderness? Like “Look at what a rebel I am! Deal with it!” Should I put one of the new “Smith/Norrell” stickers that came in shortly after I joined the campaign over the Caskey one? After all, Micah didn’t even have opposition in the general, so what was the point beyond me being egotistical and bragging about what an independent-minded person I was?

            But I didn’t. I kept both stickers on both vehicles I drive. Because ultimately, the audience for the message sent by those stickers wasn’t the people in the campaign or the party. It was for the very people we needed to reach, independents and persuadable Republicans who might say, “Hey, if THIS guy who backs a Republican for the House is for Smith, maybe I should take a closer look…”

            It was something I could do for the campaign, even if it made some people uncomfortable…

              1. Bart

                You did the right thing by not complying with the strict party line. I have to confess I was very conflicted because of some of the “do or die” issues in the Democratic Party platform. Not going to get into them now but suffice it to say, like most reasonable people, there is always a red line they won’t cross.

                It is my belief that the US is undergoing a seminal change and from my perspective, it is not a good change. If anything, it will lead us to a place we don’t want to go. But, at my age, when it comes, I won’t be around to witness it.

    2. JesseS

      For 5 would you feel that way if Puerto Rico, Guam, N. Mariana Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and DC were suddenly given two Senators?

        1. Bart

          Cut to the chase and direct to the point. You want to deny the minority a voice in government. Yes, the metropolitan/urban areas have the majority while the outlying rural areas are in the minority. If you get your way, the outlying rural areas will not have a voice because the metropolitan/urban areas will have the only voice. Then by merging the states as you suggest, any national election for Congress or POTUS will be dictated by metropolitan/urban areas. Then it is either move to the “city” or sit down, shut up and abandon your equal rights as a voter if you live in a rural area.

          It is that simple, not complicated at all.

          1. bud

            What I want is for INDIVIDUAL voters to have an equal voice in the election process. States are decidedly not individuals. The current system is extremely discriminatory to some individuals simply to adhere to some quant notion of states rights. That is hardly a useful application of a Republican form of government. Brad clings to a hopelessly obsolete arraingement. The result is Donald Trump and a bigoted executive branch that is barely functional. I say trust the people not some elitist ideal from a bygone era.

        2. JesseS

          Cool. I often hear “Get rid of the Senate. It’s a vestigial limb created by that fascist Madison, to give racist farmers in the hinterlands more votes that California. It’s undemocratic and inhuman!” from the same voices who say, “Give DC, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico statehood, so we can take Senate!” So I’m glad to hear you are consistent.

  2. bud

    Let’s have a constitutional convention to fix these problems:

    1. Abolish the electoral college
    2. Require congressional districts be drawn by independent boards that do away with political gerrymandering.
    3. Codify the old voting rights act as a constitutional mandate.
    4. Base the senate on a one person one vote basis.
    5. Eliminate lifetime judicial appointments.
    6. Require all candidates for POTUS to release their tax returns and relinquish property to blind trust control.
    7. REQUIRE SCOTUS appointments be confirmed by the Senate within 90 days.
    8. Abolish the death penalty.
    9. Add language to clarify and strengthen congress’s role in military operations.

    1. Doug Ross

      10. Provide everyone with a free unicorn

      Why do people focus on things that cannot happen? There is zero point zero percent chance of the electoral college being eliminated. None. The steps required to do so are too difficult and would require Republican states to get on board with something they obviously have no interest in doing.

      You know how you change things? You win elections. The electoral college wasn’t an issue for Obama or Bill Clinton, was it? It only became a problem when Hillary assumed she would win and didn’t campaign hard enough in the Rust Belt. She was prepping for the coronation and got beat by a guy who out worked her and came up with a plan to win in the states required to win the electoral vote.

      But if we are having a constitutional convention, my wish list would start with:

      1. Term limits. Three terms for Senators, ten for Representatives. 18 and 20 years is plenty.
      2. Balanced budget amendment. End deficit spending.
      3. Mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices. I’d set it at 75 but 80 would be okay.
      4. I can get on board with anti-gerrymandering but it should be left to computer algorithms based solely
      on population by zip code of contiguous areas, not boards. Remove the human element.

      1. Doug Ross

        Here’s what it takes to pass a constitutional amendment:

        The Constitution provides that an amendment may be proposed either by the Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the State legislatures.

        The Governors formally submit the amendment to their State legislatures or the state calls for a convention, depending on what Congress has specified.

        A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution as soon as it is ratified by three-fourths of the States (38 of 50 States).

        So as long as there are 13 states against an amendment, it can’t happen. I would expect that all of the smaller populated states would be against any abolition of the electoral college plus any red states that would fear losing power to Democrats.

        Here’s the 12 smallest states – which do you think would support abolishing the electoral college?

        New Hampshire
        Rhode Island
        South Dakota
        North Dakota

        1. bud

          Actually a constitutional amendment isn’t necessary. The national popular vote compacts works. With half the needed votes already on board this is hardly a search for unicorns. Besides, I like unicorns. Who says they don’t exis?

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Doug, you’ve managed to find an area where I’m a libertarian. I think there should be no free unicorns. Unicorn prices should be based upon market forces.

        Seriously, though, while I don’t want to do away with the Electoral College (I lean more toward restoring it to what Hamilton et al. intended), and I also don’t think it’s likely to happen anytime soon, do you REALLY think the chances of it happening are “zero point zero percent”?

        There are loads of highly unlikely things we can consider. For instance, I think the chances of the United States going to war with Canada are very, very low. But I wouldn’t set them at 0.0. (After all, we fought them in 1812-14.) And I think, while low, the chances of doing away with the Electoral College are slightly higher than the chance of going to war (again) with Canada…

        1. Doug Ross

          You have to find 38 states that would support it. What’s in it for the smallest states to get on board? And do you think there is any chance South Carolina would go for it – ever?

          The whole notion of abolishing the electoral college is based on giving more power to concentrated urban areas of the country. That’s exactly the reason the electoral college exists in the first place.

          Zero point zero. It’s a diversionary tactic by Democrats to help them cope with losing in 2016. Rather than focus on why Hillary lost the electoral college vote, they want to change the rules to make it easier for a Democrat to win.

          1. Doug Ross

            And to even get the amendment to the states, you would need 67 Senators to be on board first. How likely is THAT to happen? You’d have to get 20 Republicans to flip. So that’s not happening during our lifetimes.

            1. bud

              The national popular vote interstate compact already has states with 165 of the 270 necessary electoral votes on board. Many others, including large red states are considering the measure. Rather than 38 states perhaps 20 will suffice to kill the odious electoral college.

              1. Doug Ross

                When the political pendulum swings back to the right some day, as it has throughout the history of the U.S., it will be fun to watch Democrats in California and New York freak out if their electoral votes go to a Republican.

                Hypocrisy is one of the core values of our political system.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Doug, 2016 could just as easily have turned out the other way — Trump winning the popular but losing the electoral. And can you imagine how his supporters — who don’t tend to be people who appreciate the fine points of the system — would have howled had that happened? (There were some things written before the election fretting about that very possibility,as I recall.) The first time that happens to a Republican going forward, you’ll realize it’s not just a Democratic thing.

            Scratch that — it IS a small-d “democratic” thing to oppose the Electoral College. But I’m more of a small-r “republican,” which is why I think we not only need to save it, but also restore it to what it was…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              But anyway, we’re quibbling over a probability number. I don’t think the College is about to go away, but I’d definitely put the probability greater than zero.

              Not because of this election or that election — because our history has shown a steady movement toward greater democratization. There’s the 17th amendment I mentioned earlier. There’s the way the parties have completely lost control of the presidential nomination process, in favor of who happens to win primaries. There’s the fact that the Electoral College is already a ghost of what it was.

              I think the Framers had it right — each branch (and each chamber of the legislative branch) should be elected or appointed in different ways. It strengthens checks and balances to have the various elements answering to differently composed constituencies. It was brilliant. The president was elected by the College, the Senate by the state governments, and judges nominated by the executive and confirmed by the Senate. Only the House should be directly elected by the full electorate. But direct democracy, as ill-advised as it is, is by definition very popular. And we tend more and more toward the popular…

              1. bud

                Brad you are the starry eyed dreamer. First the electors don’t elect the president. What we actually have is a clumsy approximation of the popular vote. No high minded “separation of powers” with that. The courts are increasingly determined by the party in control of the senate. And since the senate is decidedly the least democratic body of all that process is bastardized by quirks of history. So we end up with a system controlled by a party that only represents a fraction of white voters since they increasingly rely on voter suppression.

                But the dreamers will offer up fantasies of how perfect the founding fathers were. And no doubt they did a fine job – for 1790. But the dynamics of a modern, mobile electorate renders those high minded, yet incorrect, ideas of the virtues of small republican government. And we suffer because of it.

              2. Doug Ross

                When I say 0.0 I mean in my lifetime. That’s somewhere less than 40 years. No chance it will happen before then.

                1. Doug Ross

                  Ok, Bud.. which states do you think will support abolishing the electoral college. Let’s see you get to the required number.

                2. Brad Warthen Post author

                  “In your lifetime” sounds better. But I still think you’re being overly optimistic (that is, if you agree with me that ditching the college is a bad idea).

                  Seriously, the first time a Republican wins the popular vote and loses in the electoral college, the tidal wave of opposition to the College is going to wash right over us… Sure, some of the Democrats might stop clamoring for the change, but you won’t lose all the Democrats, because bottom line, I think most of them actually BELIEVE in that popular-vote stuff…

  3. bud

    I consider myself above everything else a pragmatist. We’re debating concepts and theory here. But sometimes you have to go by results. Because of the electoral college we have stuck with the 2 worst presidents of my life. And no this is unlikely to work in favor of the Democrats. Nate Silver has pretty much put that possibility to rest. The distribution of the population (along with voter suppression) makes that unlikely. Voters are getting it right. That’s good enough for me.

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