I used to worry that Donald Trump was Lonesome Rhodes in a better suit. I’m starting to wonder if he’s Chance the Gardener in a worse one.
Just in case you don’t get the references, Rhodes was the lead character, played by Andy Griffith, in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd,” the best movie ever made about the dangers of populism and mass media. Chance the Gardener was the lead character, played by Peter Sellers, in Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” a brilliant 1979 film based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel about a simple-minded gardener who had never been outside his employer’s home until the man died. Because Chance speaks in fortune cookie aphorisms about gardening (and has one impeccable custom-tailored suit), he’s mistaken for a man of deep wisdom and is lifted to heights of power in Washington.
President Trump isn’t nearly as kind-hearted as Chance, nor as dimwitted, but there are two relevant similarities. First, both have an unhealthy addiction to television, preferring it to reading. Second, neither really understands what’s going on around them but benefits from being surrounded by people who see what they want to see.
Last week, the president took the opening offer on a debt-limit deal from Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, respectively. A person close to the GOP leadership told Axios, “He accepted a shakedown when he was holding all the cards. ... This is quite literally a guy who watches ‘ER’ trying to perform a surgery.”
Aghast conservatives are probably exaggerating the significance of the move in terms of policy and tactics. Fights over the debt limit rarely yield the rewards conservatives hope for. But the move could have lasting consequences.
Why? Here’s a clue: According to reports, the president was ecstatic over the favorable coverage he received for his “bipartisanship.”
“I got a call early this morning,” Schumer told the New York Times. “He said, ‘This was so great!’ Here’s what he said: ‘Do you watch Fox News?’ I said, ‘Not really.’ ‘They’re praising you!’ Meaning me. But he said, ‘And your stations’ — I guess meaning MSNBC and CNN — ‘are praising me! This is great!’”
Despite his “fake news” refrain, Trump doesn’t hate the mainstream media the way his most ardent supporters do. They sincerely believe it’s a hostile opponent in the culture war, while Trump’s anger is more that of a jilted lover. His whole life has been marked by an obsession with publicity.
His supporters, though, are oddly blind to that fact. Normally, when conservatives or Republicans deviate from the party line, the knee-jerk assumption among activists is that they are doing so out of a desire to win praise from the liberal media and invitations to Georgetown cocktail parties. If that’s often unfair, it may actually be the case for Trump, and yet his base insists that if he “wins,” it must also be a win for conservatives. So deep is the desire to see the Trump they thought they were getting, they bend the facts to fit their heroic narrative.
The widespread animosity toward the GOP leadership among many Trump supporters only fuels the delusion that Trump can do no wrong. “Punishing” House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now its own reward because they are part of the “globalist swamp” Trump was elected to drain.
In his “60 Minutes” interview, former White House strategist Steve Bannon insisted that the establishment is “trying to nullify the 2016 election.” Never mind that the House has passed most of Trump’s agenda (Obamacare repeal and replace, funding the wall, etc). Bannon is working on the assumption that Trump has a mandate for Bannon’s potted theories of “economic nationalism.”
The truth is that Trump’s real mandate was to be “not Hillary Clinton” — and he fulfilled it on Day 1. With the exception of appointing conservative judges, all of Trump’s other scattershot policies earned only partial support from GOP voters, which is why Ryan and most other Republicans over-performed Trump in the election.
The other truth is that Trump craves praise more than he cares about implementing his defenestrated strategist’s political fantasies. And his supporters want Trump “wins” more than conservative ones, which is why we can expect more of what we saw last week.
Given Congress’ politically paralyzed lack of performance over the last decade, many members might view a 22 percent postage rate increase as a means to hold down the flow of angry letters.
They should, however, recognize that boosting the cost of a stamp from 49 cents to 60 cents negatively would affect the economy and the government itself in many ways. Despite decreased mail volume, many Americans still heavily use conventional mail. And governments still use it as the primary means of official correspondence. Three states use it exclusively to conduct elections.
All of that should prompt legislators to attack the U.S. Postal Service’s deep financial problems from the other side of the ledger.
A 60-cent stamp is possible because the USPS has asked the Postal Regulatory Commission for permission to set its own rates for the first time, and to set rates higher than the rate of inflation — the current regulatory cap.
The postal service business, of course, has been deeply wounded by communications technology eroding its first-class mail monopoly. Bill-paying, banking and personal correspondence all have migrated heavily to the digital realm, drying up vast amounts of revenue. Mail volume has declined 36 percent since 2007 and, last year, the service lost $5.6 billion.
In response, the system has shrunk and the service has attempted to reshape its business. But it also has faced an intractable problem that only Congress can address.
Under a 2006 law, Congress required the USPS to fund employee retiree health care benefits 75 years in advance. According to the service, converting to the same pay-as-you-go system used by every other federal agency would free $5.5 billion a year for the bottom line.
The law expired in 2016 and is under review for renewal. Congress should eliminate the pre-funding mandate as a major step toward the service’s short-term viability and long-term health.
— The Citizens’ Voice, Sept. 13
Donald Trump famously declared, “I love the poorly educated!” and we know why. An electorate that’s ignorant about the basics of democracy is ideal grist for an authoritarian.
I was reminded of that this week when I read the latest civics survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The stats speak for themselves. Only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), and 33 percent can’t name any branch of government. Only 14 percent know that freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment, while 37 percent can’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
This lamentable obliviousness has been tracked for years. In a 2010 survey, roughly 33 percent couldn’t even name the correct century of the American Revolution, and more people could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of “Billie Jean” than could identify the Bill of Rights as a list of constitutional amendments. In a 2015 survey, roughly half of college students at 55 top-ranked institutions didn’t know how long a senator serves (six years) or a congressman (two).
There’s no empirical proof that Trump’s narrow path to victory was plowed by the poorly educated. After all, Barack Obama won twice with the same electorate. But someone with authoritarian instincts, once entrenched in power, is perfectly positioned to exploit civic ignorance. It’s easy to trample on democratic norms when so few Americans recognize and value the democratic norms.
It’s easy for Trump to attack the integrity of judges when millions can’t even identify the judiciary as an independent branch of government. It’s easy for Trump to attack journalists as “enemies of the people” when millions are clueless about First Amendment press freedom. It’s easy for Trump to trample our history — he says that Andrew Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War” (Jackson died 16 years before the Civil War) — when millions of Americans, according to the 2010 survey, couldn’t even say whether Revolution preceded or followed the Civil War.
And it’s easy for Trump to attack immigrants when, according to the Annenberg Survey, 53 percent of Americans don’t know that even illegal immigrants have some constitutional rights. Due process, under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, has been guaranteed since the Supreme Court said so 131 years ago.
Where does this ignorance originate? Two prominent educators, Richard Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, recently nailed the biggest reason: “Public schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose — preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”
Basically, the public schools don’t teach civics anymore. Back in my day, at the risk of sounding ancient, we had “social studies,” which compelled us to know the three government branches, the basics of voting, and the democratic values embedded in the Constitution (plus, the correct century of the Revolution). We were even tasked with learning and naming all nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
But as Kahlanberg and Janey point out:
“The explicit civics curriculum has been downplayed in recent years. With the rise of economic globalization, educators have emphasized the importance of serving the needs of the private marketplace rather than of preparing citizens for American democracy. On one level, this approach made some sense. As the country celebrated two centuries of continuous democratic rule, the paramount threat seemed to be economic competition from abroad, not threats to democracy at home.
“So the bipartisan education manta has been that education should prepare students to be ‘college-and-career ready,’ with no mention of becoming thoughtful democratic citizens. In a telling sign, in 2013, the governing board of the National Assessment for Educational Progress dropped fourth — and 12th-grade civics and American history as a tested subject in order to save money.”
They argue that “rigorous courses in history, literature, and civics would cultivate knowledge of democratic practices and a belief in democratic values.” True enough. But even if school curricula were miraculously overhauled, we’re still left with the grim reality that several generations have already been lost. And we’re left with an electorate (or a huge slice thereof) that’s potential putty in the hands of a demagogue who knows as little as they do about constitutional norms.
As James Madison, the father of the Constitution, wrote in 1822, “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.”