Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain.
If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.
Life in Spain:-
- Spain's Guardia Civil will now allow you to complete certain processes via the internet, as reported here. Of course, you've long been able to pay your incessant driving fines via your computer. Helpful folk.
- Spain is not a de jure federal state but, as I've occasionally said, it sometimes seem to be a de facto one. My latest discovery is that social security payments differ from region to region. The national average is 23.1% of income but Navarra and Galicia top the list with 24.3 and 23.1%, respectively. And, to add insult to injury, I suspect that benefits are lower in Galicia than elsewhere.
- Another discovery this weekend . . . You can't buy contact lenses in Spanish pharmacies, parapharmacies or supermarkets - as you can do in other parts of the world. Your only port of call is the optica shops which have always seemed rather numerous to me. Now I know why so many of them can operate profitably. Unless they're just money-laundering fronts, of course.
Vast Scandinavian forests are being felled to provide paper for the numerous commentaries on the terrifying farce of the Trump administration. I've collected a few articles together and added them at the end of this post. Some are from right-of-centre UK papers and some from left-of-centre papers. The common ground is large and all of the commentaries seem apt to me. Especially this final para from the final article:- The common factor in all these situations is Trump’s self-induced powerlessness and ignorance, his chronic lack of credibility and presidential authority and consequent perceptions of US and western weakness. And in the case of all three actual or potential adversaries – North Korea, Iran and Russia – these perceptions are highly dangerous. Precisely because US responses, actions and reactions can no longer be relied upon or predicted, by friends and enemies alike, the potential for calamitous miscalculation is growing. This uncertainty, like the chaos in the White House and the extraordinary disarray of the American body politic, stems from Trump’s glaring unfitness for the highest office. As is now becoming ever plainer, this threatens us all.
Tomorrow, I'll post a 5-part guide to the Trump White House. Meanwhile, from the same author, here's a (dis)organisation chart, showing the various factions which are waging their internecine war. Of course, it's changed in the last few days, with the sacking of Reince Priebus and the appointment of Gen. John Kelly as Chief of Staff:-
Meanwhile, back in the real world . . . .
Another day, another Galician fiesta gastronómica. This time in nearby Moraña, where 3,000 people were expected to attend the annual lamb-roasting event. Most of whom appeared to have parked their cars on the outskirts of the town:-
We were not down to eat at the main event - which centres on large groups who've won their places by lottery - but easily found a bar which was roasting meat on its terrace:-
And eventually got our 2 raciones of lamb and 1 of octopus. Without snouts, ears, tails or arses:-
Leaving Moraña around 3pm, we immediately met something which I doubt would have been there 15 years ago - a police alcohol checkpoint. Where this slightly surrealistic conversation took place:-
Cop: Have you had any alcohol?
Cop: OK, on your way.
I can't help wondering if the negative answer would have been accepted if the driver hadn't been female and in a car with Dutch licence plates.
Anyway, shortly after this, I climbed up a roadside grass bank to have a look at these (rather phallic) stones, wondering if they were ancient menhirs:-
But the board next to them suggested they were the work of a local wall-building company. I then carefully clambered back down the grassy slope but twisted my ankle on the not-so-flat tarmac of the road . . .
Finally . . . A conversation between my guest and her teenage son:-
Are you awake, son?
Yes, mum. Could you make me a coffee?
Can you bring it up to me?
No, you lazy Dutch bastard. Come down and get it.
OK, I fabricated a bit of the last line. But nothing strange about this exchange, you might think. Except that it took place via text messages . . .
By the way . . . I sleep between 6 and 7 hours a night; my guest sleeps around 8; but her son, aged 15, has managed 12 every night so far. And even then has to be woken up. In the case of the above conversation, by a phone call . . . . Naturally.
Somewhat less amusing:-
THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATIION
1. Under this president, loyalty and populism trump the rule of law Janet Daley
The White House is run by crazy people. That’s official. President Trump’s new director of communications has stated in the most memorably unambiguous terms,that the man who was until a day ago, the administration’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, is a “paranoid schizophrenic”. Or, to quote him more precisely, a “f------ paranoid schizophrenic”. The rest of what Mr Scaramucci said in that same interview about another influential White House adviser, Steve Bannon, is too scatological to put in print. If this were not terrifying, it would be funny.
The headline stories may vary from day to evermore startling day: Scaramucci’s obscenities and threats, Trump’s own highly personal attempts to bully Jeff Sessions, his Attorney General, into resigning, and the failure to pass any piece of legislation that would fulfil the electoral promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare. But there is a common factor underlying them all that is testing the limits of America’s political system – which was, you may recall, a product of the Age of Reason.
What the bizarre behaviour of Trump and his acolytes suggests is that those now governing the country lack a basic understanding of the Constitution or the rule of law. This exceeds anything we have seen before even in the desperate lawbreaking of a Richard Nixon or the famously crude abusiveness of a Lyndon Johnson. This is in another league: not just thuggish populism or crass bravado but a flouting of the fundamental principles that have made the United States the most stable democratic republic in the world.
To take the most outrageous example: the President is now relentlessly demeaning Jeff Sessions – a senator who was fiercely loyal to Trump from the earliest days of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. But once Mr Sessions was appointed attorney general – that is, the chief law officer of the nation – his personal loyalty to Mr Trump had to be relegated to his duty to the country.
This is something that Trump and his coterie seem not to grasp. In fact, not only do they fail to understand it, they regard it as an infernal impertinence. The President apparently believed that putting good old reliable Sessions in place was like hiring a mafia consiglieri whose chief function would be to protect his back.
That Sessions has, in fact, been very effectively supporting Trump’s contentious policy on illegal immigration is being ruthlessly discounted. The unforgivable transgression is that the attorney general recused himself from that endlessly troublesome Russia investigation and therefore failed to deliver the quick fix – the sacking of Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the inquiry – which might have put the whole grumbling matter to bed. The hapless Sessions is determined to carry on through the flood of Trump invective partly because he is receiving considerable support from conservative Republican figures among whom he is immensely respected. Even ferociously faithful
Trump allies like Newt Gingrich have pitched in for Sessions. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who admittedly has never been much of a Trump fan, went about as far as it is possible to go: some of the things the President was saying about Sessions, he stated in an on-camera interview, “go way beyond what is acceptable in a rule-of-law nation.”
The discrediting of Sessions creates a bigger threat to the Trump presidency than any of the wilder embarrassments that the White House has survived by maintaining its war cry against the mainstream media. Because Sessions has impeccable credentials as a committed conservative stalwart, the President’s vendetta raises the suspicion among his electoral “base” that Trump is not sincerely on their side. He isn’t just making a fool of himself in ways that working class America might accept as deliberate anti-establishment buffoonery: he is attacking one of their own. This is serious. Keeping a strong hold on his base has been the Trump insurance plan – the absolute protection against removal from office or defeat at the next election either of which would make him, in his own inimitable terminology, a “loser”.
So long as he can hang on to the voters who put him in power, he believes he has nothing to fear from his favourite enemies: the #failingfakenews merchants. But his approval ratings are now at 36 per cent, a historic low for a president in what should be the honeymoon first year in office. So that base on which he has staked everything is shrinking and however undiminished its fervour might be, the numbers tell an alarming truth. Which is why he suddenly sprang into action last week with that startling, unexpected decision to bar transgender people from the military. Here was a gesture of solidarity to that conservative working class constituency that might have been wondering whether Trump – who was until very recently a New York social liberal – was actually one of them. To appreciate the impact of this unilateral decision (which caught the joint chiefs of staff quite unprepared and on which they have no intention of taking immediate action) it is necessary to understand its symbolic significance. Gender equality issues in the US are the civil rights arena de nos jours. So this was a move that took considerable nerve – and politically incorrect defiance – for which Mr Trump clearly expects to be rewarded by that indispensable base.
The question that enlivens Washington conversation now is – who will get thrown under the bus next? Sean Spicer is gone. Reince Priebus whom Mr Scaramucci described only days ago as being like “a brother” (in the “Cain and Abel” sense, he later clarified), is out too. Trump’s Rasputin figure, Steve Bannon, we know to be also on the Scaramucci hit list. For Trump, loyalty yesterday counts for nothing: usefulness today is all that matters. As I said, the US Constitution embodies the principles of the Age of Reason. Confronted by an insoluble problem, it responds with temporary paralysis then recovers. It has survived some outrageous shocks but its most dangerous enemy is wilful ignorance. I hope it hasn’t met its match.
2. 'The president is a pyromaniac': The week Trump set fire to the White House
What went wrong? Take your pick: healthcare, transgender troops, the fallout from his savaging of Jeff Sessions, the Boy Scouts speech – it was the worst week in Trump’s short presidency: David Smith
Donald Trump began the week by turning a national scout jamboree into something resembling a youth rally. He ended it in front of more massed ranks in uniform, telling police officers “please don’t be too nice” to suspects they arrest in what sounded to many like an endorsement of police brutality.
And then, amid a blizzard of stories about White House infighting, chief of staff Reince Priebus resigned, becoming the shortest-serving occupant of the post in history. Though he seemed blithely unaware of it, it was a fitting finale to the worst week of Trump’s short political career.
In five torrid days, the US president alienated conservatives by savaging his own attorney general; earned a rebuke from the Pentagon over a rushed ban on transgender troops; watched impotently as the Senate dealt a crushing blow to his legislative agenda with the fall of healthcare reform; ousted Priebus; and threw a human grenade – the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci – into his already dysfunctional White House.
“This is certainly the week in which the Trump administration went off the rails,” said Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton. “And it’s going to require some heavy lifting equipment to get it back on the rails and off down the track.”
Where to start? The most tangible defeat was over healthcare. Trump had repeatedly promised during his campaign to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s signature law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But when it came to the tough part, arm-twisting members of Congress or making landmark speeches, the self-proclaimed deal-maker was notably absent.
In the early hours of Friday, after months of wrangling, senators voted on a bill to undo major parts of the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare. In a moment of reality TV suspense that Trump might otherwise have appreciated, John McCain of Arizona, who had returned to the floor after brain surgery, was decisive in sinking the bill.
McCain is an old adversary. The 80-year-old is a decorated navy veteran who was tortured during more than five years of captivity in the Vietnam war. Just over two years ago, Trump, who received five draft deferments, mocked him as “not a war hero”. McCain has become something of a conscience for his party, and nation, as Trump tramples and trashes every norm.
His vote – along with those of Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – left a seven-year Republican promise in ruins and Trump with zero legislative achievements after more than six months in office. The president had tried to intensify the pressure on Murkowski during the week, tweeting that she “really let the Republicans, and our country, down”.
His interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, phoned Murkowski and her fellow Alaska senator, Dan Sullivan, with a threat to withhold federal support for major economic development projects in the state. The dirty trick failed and Zinke may have cause to regret his actions: Murkowski is chair of the Senate energy and natural resources committee, with power over the interior department’s budget.
Meanwhile, poison was seeping in at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Scaramucci, a mouthy Wall Street financier, publicly declared war on Priebus and Trump adviser Steve Bannon in an expletive-laden interview with Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker magazine. He described Priebus as a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac”, and predicted his imminent demise as chief of staff. Yet far from being punished, “the Mooch” was vindicated on Friday when Priebus confirmed his exit. He will be replaced by Gen John Kelly, who moves over from leading the homeland security department.
The arrival of Scaramucci was, observers said, the moment the White House went full reality TV. Galston said: “It’s off the charts. Both the president and the communications director have really defiled the temple of our democracy.”
Dangerously for Trump, the critics of Scaramucci’s invective included loyalists such as the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Fox News and Breitbart, which described the interview as a “rambling rant that was so outrageous and discordant that reporters wondered whether Scaramucci drunk-dialed Lizza, was drunk with power, or, reveal[ed] he was unqualified for his communications director job”.
The Trump base had another reason to be upset. The president spent several days publicly humiliating Sessions, his attorney general, over his decision to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia during last year’s election. Sessions refused to quit, perhaps consoled by conservative voices of dissent.
Kenneth Starr, a former US solicitor general who served as independent counsel in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations during the Clinton administration, wrote in the Washington Post: “Mr President, please cut it out. Tweet to your heart’s content, but stop the wildly inappropriate attacks on the attorney general.
“An honorable man whom I have known since his days as a US attorney in Alabama, Jeff Sessions has recently become your piñata in one of the most outrageous – and profoundly misguided – courses of presidential conduct I have witnessed in five decades in and around the nation’s capital.”
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, told CNN: “If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.” If Trump tries to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, Graham added, he will be crossing a “red line”. “Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong.”
Sessions, a hardliner on criminal justice and immigration, is seen as the most Trumpist member of the administration. Taking on the former Alabama senator could prove a huge political miscalculation.
Galston said: “He has managed to alarm and alienate a substantial element of his conservative base. Sessions is the conservative standard bearer in the administration.”
Trump faced blowback on yet another front. On Wednesday morning he tweeted, out of the blue, that he plans to reinstate a ban on transgender people from serving “in any capacity” in the US armed forces. He claimed he had consulted his “generals” but the Pentagon was blindsided and a day later it pushed back, insisting the policy would not be overturned until it received formal direction.
In a sign of how much America has changed, a decision seemingly calculated to rally the base played badly in media outlets in socially conservative states. The TV station WCIV in Charleston, South Carolina, reported: “Lowcountry transgender veteran ‘stunned’ by President Trump’s transgender military ban.” The Rapid City Journal in South Dakota said: “Retired Ellsworth sergeant says transgender ban hurtful.”
There was also rare defiance from Republicans in Congress. Senator Orrin Hatch, up for re-election soon in Utah, hardly a liberal bastion, said: “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.”
After months of bending over backward to accommodate Trump, Republicans gave other indications that they had run out of loyalty or fear. The Senate voted 98-2 to pass a bill increasing sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, blocking Trump’s ability to cut a deal with Vladimir Putin. The White House bowed to political reality and announced that Trump intended to sign the bill.
Ever more isolated, with even Republicans turning against him, Trump went to feed off the dark energy of crowds. But his rambling speech at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia was widely condemned as inappropriate for its overt political content (along with a reference to a party with “the hottest people in New York”), prompting an apology from the head of the Boy Scouts of America.
And as all these dramas unfolded simultaneously, handing Trump a week of unmitigated disaster, North Korea conducted a new intercontinental ballistic missile test that landed in the sea off Japan. Experts have warned that North Korea will have the ability to strike the US mainland with a nuclear weapon as soon as next year. It was a sobering reminder of the high stakes facing a White House in disarray.
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and strategist, said: “It’s fair to say Trump has lost control of the narrative. What I don’t know is how and when he can regain it.”
It might have been so different. Figures showed that US economic growth rebounded to 2.6% annual rate in the second quarter. Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer, announced plans to invest at least $7bn in the US and create between 30,000 and 50,000 jobs with a massive factory in Wisconsin. Trump buried his own good news.
Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and broadcaster, said: “It could have been one of his best weeks with the Foxconn announcement. But this has been his worst week ever and everything that has happened has been self-inflicted.
“You have a White House in meltdown because the president is a pyromaniac. The thing that’s got to rattle Republicans is the damage he’s doing to the administration, to the party and to the country.”
Scaramucci is “Trump’s id”, Sykes said. “A friend said to me today, in a rational world, Scaramucci would have been fired for that interview. But in a rational world, Scaramucci would never have been hired. And in a rational world, Donald Trumpwould not be the president of the United States. We’re well past the rational world.”
It is far from certain whether Trump has actually hit rock-bottom. With Priebus’s departure, he appears to be severing his links to the Republican establishment, even though he will have to work with Congress on tax reform in the hope of a better result than was achieved on healthcare. The potential for conflict between Kelly, a career marine, and Scaramucci seems high. And Trump has not yet been tested by a major international crisis.
Rick Tyler, a political analyst, warned: “It could get a lot worse. North Korea just fired off a ballistic missile today that landed 230 miles from Japan. “There could be a lot of worse things and we’ll be lucky if we survive them.”
3. Why Trump diehards are blind to reality David Aaronovitch
From communists to right-wing populists, it is human nature to ignore all the evidence that your beliefs were wrong
At what point do you, I, anyone or any group committed to a certain view admit that we were wrong?
On Tuesday, at a rally in Ohio, up to 7,000 people were told by Donald Trump that “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln . . . I can be more presidential than any president who has ever held this office!” And they gave him a great cheer.
President Trump’s point was that he has little time for “being presidential” (ie dignified, measured and unifying) because he is too busy actually doing things. But he could be if he wanted to be, believe him. More than Reagan, more than the Roosevelts, more than Washington. It was possibly the least presidential thing any American ever heard uttered by a president. And his audience still cheered.
So what would stop them applauding him? Obviously not his Twitter vendettas, nor the absence of any concrete achievement (apart, of course, from the ban on transgender people serving in the military). Not his bizarre disavowal of his own attorney-general Jeff Sessions, nor even the attempts at collusion between his campaign team and agents of the Russian government. Polling of Trump supporters suggests that they see all these problems either as part of an attempt to persecute their hero, or as utterly unimportant. Worse, the criticism entrenches their view.
So I invite Trumpites to try out this scenario. Suppose that, last year, Iranian intelligence had procured information about Trump’s business deals. Imagine that Chelsea Clinton, her husband and five or six other Clinton advisers had met an intermediary linked to the Iranian government to explore what that person could offer by way of dirt on the Trumps. Would his supporters have (a) dismissed this as flimflam or (b) demanded immediate punishment?
OK. It’s a rhetorical question and the example I’ve chosen suits my prejudices. Some other examples don’t. For a start, I come from a family that got some very big things spectacularly wrong. My parents were motivated by a desire for the meek to inherit the earth before and not after they died. Mum and Dad became communists and communists understood that the Great October Revolution in Russia, 100 years old this autumn, had brought a new world into existence.
They fought for workers’ rights and better conditions and an end to racism and exploitation and so on. They sacrificed a lot: money, careers, time. And they embraced some of the biggest lies of the 20th century. They believed that the show trials of the Thirties and late-Forties were proper processes and that the purges were a regrettable necessity. People who said different had been duped by the “bourgeois press” (these days known as the “mainstream media”). Then in 1956 the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, told the world that almost everything the bourgeois press had said about Uncle Joe Stalin was true and all the stuff the loyal British communists had been saying was utterly false. And even then some communists wouldn’t believe it. I had a little red soft spot for Fidel Castro until the turn of the millennium.
In her 2010 book Being Wrong the American writer Kathryn Schulz examined the problem of admitting error. There were the usual problems of “confirmation bias”: actively looking for things that help your argument and dismissing things that don’t. Take the tendency of partisans to complain that polls are wrong or even rigged when they go against you, and to cite them approvingly when they’re favourable.
But Schulz looked beyond this to the strategies that people devise to avoid an admission of outright error. Her great example was the fate of the Millerites, a sect of Christians who convinced themselves that the world would end on October 22, 1844. So they stopped planting and harvesting, gave their houses away and prepared to be received into the bosom of the returning Redeemer. They called what happened next, ie nothing, the Great Disappointment. But what they did not do was declare themselves to have been wrong.
Instead they adopted, says Schulz, five defences. And I invite readers to ask if any of them seem familiar. The first was the “time-frame” defence: the Second Coming is still coming so I was just out by a little in my calculations. Let’s see how it turns out, time will tell, and so on. I’ve used that myself over the war in Iraq, I’m afraid.
The second was the “near-miss” defence. It almost happened as I said it would, or as Schulz puts it, “if I hadn’t been wrong I would have been right”. This is a close relative to the third, the “out-of-left-field” defence. It was going just as I said it would and then something utterly unexpected happened. But, as Schulz says, “just about any event can be defined as unforeseeable if you yourself failed to foresee it”.
Fourth is the “I was wrong but it’s your fault” defence. I was badly advised, trusted the wrong people, failed to act on my own best instincts. And fifth is the “better safe than sorry” defence. Thinking what I did and seeing what I did, it would have been wrong for me to act otherwise. You might summarise this as “I did what I thought was right”. Remind you of anyone?
I’d add one of my own: the “it would have been just fine if it weren’t for you” defence. If Brexit fails it will have been the fault of the naysayers who talked down the country. The saboteurs, uncrushed, will try to turn my rightness into wrongness.
If pointing out to someone that they’re wrong merely confirms their sense of rightness, what are you to do? Tell them they’re right and make them think that because it’s you saying it they must be wrong? Nudge them through an affirming niceness into an unnoticed change of mind?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so pessimistic. Often people who are less committed than my parents were deal with wrongness by deciding that they weren’t as bothered over the big question as others assumed. So they ease themselves into a mental accommodation. The historian James T Patterson likes to point out that John Kennedy received 49.7 per cent of the vote in the 1960 presidential election. Shortly before his assassination in 1963, nearly 60 per cent of Americans recalled voting for him. After his death that climbed to 65 per cent. We can be obstinate but we can also be agile. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover in a year or two that most of the people at that rally in Ohio on Tuesday had gone to see Trump out of mere curiosity.
The Trump administration, having passed the six-month milestone in office, kicked off the next phase of his presidency with an explosion of crazy, spread over the past seven days.
Like sweeps week on The Apprentice, every day saw some headline-grabbing event to garner ratings. It started with leaks against his former bosom buddy, attorney general, Jeff Sessions. President Trump, “sources” said, was planning to fire him. It moved on to a speech to the Boy Scouts of America jamboree, where Trump told the story of a property developer who lost a fortune and was lurking at a New York party with the “hottest people”. Later, there was a tweet announcement banning transgender people from the military.
This explosion of crazy concluded with his new White House chief of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, calling the New Yorker’s political correspondent Ryan Lizza to trash virtually everyone in the White House. He compared himself positively to the president’s dark lord and special adviser, Stephen Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the president.”
Doesn’t Scaramucci, or “the Mooch”, as he was known on Wall Street, have a mother? Won’t she be ashamed to see him talking like that in public? The week ended with a big name fired: White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
And up on Capitol Hill things weren’t a lot less calm. There was the closed-door interrogation of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, on Russian connections to the Trump campaign. Then came the Republican Senate majority’s inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, featuring John McCain voting yes, to debate the bill, then no, to kill it stone dead – until The Apprentice goes into reruns.
All of these events, and a dozen more I don’t have space to mention, create a picture of utter chaos across the American government. Trump has ridden roughshod over not just the customs and norms of presidential behaviour but also basic standards of human decency.
In doing so, he has forced journalists and the institutions they write for to change their basic standards of acceptable language. We use the words crazy and stupid now in our reports because some of the behaviour and actions of Trump and his team are crazy and stupid. We debate whether to refer to the Trump administration or the Trump regime, with all the pejorative connotations that word carries. The New York Times is still the Grey Lady, but it has to print “sucking his own cock”, because that’s what the president’s top communications official said.
People on the outside wonder where the famous checks and balances are that have made American democracy function for more than 230 years? They are still there and, up to a point, still working. For example, presidential power was checked when Trump’s ban on travellers from seven Muslim nations was halted by the courts. The ban is now mired in a legal process.
However, what the madness, abnormality or whatever you want to call it emanating from the White House does draw attention to is the real problem in American politics – the Republicans are no longer a political party but a political faction, a much more dangerous thing.
The danger of factions was recognised at the foundation of the United States. In The Federalist Number 10, a highly influential essay on political theory published in 1787, James Madison defined faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”.
Madison understood the most dangerous thing that can happen in a society is for a group and its political representatives to act as if their view alone represents the nation. This leads them to think that they alone are the nation and the views of those who disagree with them not worthy of consideration.
Republican factionalism has led their elected representatives in Congress to upend existing constitutional customs as thoroughly as Trump has destroyed the existing norms of presidential conduct. They have defamed the design of Madison and Thomas Jefferson by refusing to co-operate with the Democrats in any meaningful way. In fact, the idea of a pluralist society is anathema to them and they have been trying to crush it for decades.
The design of the Founders balanced the inevitable competing points of view that would grow in a society where people were free to follow different religions and debate ideas openly. It was for a society that encompassed the competing world views of urban dwellers and farmers. Without respect for these rules the system cannot work.
The result is that the US has, over the past quarter of a century, become ungovernable at the national level. Sadly, Madison, having identified the threat in the 18th century “that either a minority or a majority” might become a faction, was unable to think of a solution to the problem that might work in the 21st. The minority in the country – the Republican faction – is now the majority in both houses of Congress and in the state governments. It holds the White House, although neither of the last two Republican presidents gained office while winning a majority of the popular vote.
Trump’s overall approval ratings may be historically low but his support in the Republican faction remains remarkably high. And for a reason – Trump has delivered for them. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, a hard-right judge, to the seat on the supreme court the Republican faction wouldn’t allow President Obama to fill. Immigration from Mexico has slowed dramatically. And in a wave of executive orders, he overturned many Obama-era environmental rules and reinstated the Dakota pipeline project. What’s more, Trump daily drives liberals absolutely crazy with his politically incorrect tweets. The base of the Republican faction, roughly 36% of the population, will stay loyal to him.
Ultimately, the supreme constitutional checks on presidential behaviour remain article 1, section 3: impeachment, or the 25th Amendment (which deals with succession). If the Republicans were a political party as they were at the time of Watergate, that would have to be a consideration for Trump and his team. It might moderate the administration’s behaviour if there were a genuine threat of being constitutionally removed from office. But there isn’t. The Republicans are a faction and the president is one of them.
So Trump carries on in office, unchecked and unbalanced. A majority of Americans, and most of the planet, watch and say, this can’t go on. But it can. For a while, at least.
5. 'The Observer' view on Donald Trump’s unfitness for office
The sense of things falling apart in Washington is palpable – and a matter of growing, serious international concern. Donald Trump’s latest asinine act of gesture politics, the forced resignation of his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has shone a spotlight on the extraordinary chaos inside the White House. Even normally sober, experienced Washington observers now refer to the West Wing as a viper’s nest of seething rivalry, bitter feuds, gross incompetence and an unparalleled leadership vacuum.
Like some kind of Shakespearean villain-clown, Trump plays not to the gallery but to the pit. He is a Falstaff without the humour or the self-awareness, a cowardly, bullying Richard III without a clue. Late-night US satirists find in this an unending source of high comedy. If they did not laugh, they would cry. The world is witnessing the dramatic unfolding of a tragedy whose main victims are a seemingly helpless American audience, America’s system of balanced governance and its global reputation as a leading democratic light.
As his partisan, demeaning and self-admiring speech to the Boy Scouts of America illustrated, Trump endlessly reruns last year’s presidential election campaign, rails against the “fake news” media and appeals to the lowest common denominator in public debate. Not a word about duty, service, shared purpose or high ideals was to be found in his gutter-level discourse before a youthful gathering of 30,000 in West Virginia. Instead, he served up a sad cocktail of paranoia and narcissism. It was all about him and what he has supposedly achieved against the odds.
Which, for the record, is almost precisely nothing. After more than six months in office, and despite full Republican control of Congress, Trump cannot point to a single substantial legislative achievement. The bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which finally went down in flames in the Senate last week, was the most spectacular and telling of Trump’s failures. His executive orders, such as the racist ban on Muslim travellers and last week’s bigoted attack on transgender people in the military, have mostly run foul of the courts or been pre-emptively ignored by those charged with implementing them.
Trump has instead squandered the political goodwill that traditionally accompanies a presidential honeymoon, shocked and outraged many middle-of-the-road voters who initially gave him the benefit of the doubt, thoroughly alienated Republican party traditionalists, who had tried in vain to swallow their doubts, and undermined the authority of the office of the president. Trump, a supposedly ace chief executive, has now lost a chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff, a national security adviser, a communications director and a press secretary in short order. To lose one or even two of his most senior people might be excused as unfortunate. To lose all five suggests the fault is his.
Perhaps John Kelly, the retired general hired to replace Priebus, can restore some semblance of order to the White House. It looks like a tall order. Kelly has no political experience beyond his brief tenure at the department of homeland security. Perhaps he will find an ally in HR McMaster, another army veteran, who is Trump’s national security adviser. But there is no good reason to believe the internal feuding, and Trump’s inability or disinclination to halt it, will end.
Anthony Scaramucci, the recently appointed, foul-mouthed communications director, has unfinished business with Steve Bannon, Trump’s top strategist. Trump seems determined to undermine his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Then there is the self-interested leverage exerted by Trump family lightweights Ivanka Trump, Donald Jr and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. On top of all that, Kelly must work out how to handle the ever-expanding investigations of special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. A good start would be to halt scurrilous White House efforts to dig up dirt on Mueller and his team.
Yet even if Kelly succeeds in cracking the whip, curbing the in-fighting and containing the Russia scandal, he still has to deal with Trump himself. He has proved far more interested in settling scores, berating adversaries and showing off than in advancing a coherent domestic policy agenda. The next prospective car crash, following the Obamacare pile-up, is a September deadline for a federal budget and linked tax reforms and increased military spending promised by Trump. A budget deal proved impossible last spring and may do so again. If there is no agreement, a government shut-down looms, an outcome in line with current Washington trends. Lazy, feckless Trump has no interest in the onerous business of lobbying Congress or working the phones. He wants quick, easy wins or else he walks away.
This latter is one of several disturbing truths about Trump absorbed, to varying degrees, by Washington’s friends and allies in the past six months. Naive, misguided Theresa May and Liam Fox, the Brexit trade secretary, still seem to think Trump’s word can be trusted and that he will deliver a favourable trade deal. It is one of many delusions explaining why Britain’s government is so disrespected. In sharp contrast, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, heads the realist, pragmatic group of leaders who are learning to deal with a post-Obama world where the word of the American president cannot be trusted. In this new world, longstanding US commitments and treaties may not be honoured and future collaboration on key policies, such as climate change, Russia and Chinese military expansionism, is held hostage to presidential whim and the blinkered perspectives of the Ohio bar-room.
Merkel suggested earlier this year that the US (and Britain) could no longer be wholly relied upon. While not entirely true, for instance in the case of Anglo-American security guarantees for Germany and its sheltered exporters, it was plain what she meant. And this lesson has been understood by America’s enemies, too. In provocatively firing off another long-range, possibly nuclear-capable missile last week, North Korea seems to be testing how far it can go, geographically and politically. It is counting on Trump proving to be the blowhard that, until now, he has appeared to be.
Recent months have produced a litany of Trump threats and boasts over North Korea. There was no way, he said, that Pyongyang would deploy an ICBM capable of hitting the mainland US. “It’s not going to happen,” he tweeted. Wrong again, Donald. It did. By conducting its own satellite launch last week, ignoring western concerns, Iran has similarly thumbed its nose at Washington. Iran’s leaders should understand there would be “very serious” consequences if they pursued their ballistic missile programme, Trump had warned. Additional hints from Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, and Jim Mattis, Pentagon chief, about regime change in Iran further darkened the strategic horizon. But guess what? Tehran took no notice at all. It went ahead anyway.
Or take Russia. Having played Trump to its advantage, Moscow’s open hand is turning into a clenched fist as it threatens reprisals over a new Congressional sanctions package. It was not hard to see this tactical switch coming, once it was clear Trump could not deliver the sort of concessions on Ukraine Putin craves. Except, in his fecklessness and blind vanity and courting Putin to the end, Trump didn’t see it coming at all. You can almost see Putin’s lip curl.
The common factor in all these situations is Trump’s self-induced powerlessness and ignorance, his chronic lack of credibility and presidential authority and consequent perceptions of US and western weakness. And in the case of all three actual or potential adversaries – North Korea, Iran and Russia – these perceptions are highly dangerous. Precisely because US responses, actions and reactions can no longer be relied upon or predicted, by friends and enemies alike, the potential for calamitous miscalculation is growing. This uncertainty, like the chaos in the White House and the extraordinary disarray of the American body politic, stems from Trump’s glaring unfitness for the highest office. As is now becoming ever plainer, this threatens us all.