What’s With These Guys?

Finally, a conspiracy theory of my own.

How do we explain the behavior of William Barr and Rod Rosenstein? Here are two career Justice Department officials who have spent a lifetime building respectable reputations by playing fair and assiduously upholding the rule of law. Both have been public servants for most of their careers, and both have advanced to the highest levels. Barr began with the CIA and then moved on, after a stint in private practice, to serve in the White House and twice as U.S. Attorney General. Rosenstein was a Justice Department official his whole career, rising to Deputy A.G.

Then something happened. Both men, reputed straight-shooters respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, seemed to throw it all away. After a lifetime of building solid reputations brick by brick, they demolished them with a single swing of the headache ball.

In the Marx Brothers’ classic comedy “A Night at the Opera,” Harpo replaces a page of the overture’s score while the musicians aren’t looking, causing them to break into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the middle of everything. It feels a little like that, except less funny.

But why have they crumbled? What causes a man of success and esteem to break his stride at the end, to veer off track and wander into the seamy world of power-grabbing distortion, misrepresentation, and outright lie? I don’t believe, as some do, that Trump has some magical power of persuasion that ensnares people into his thrall. And it certainly can’t be a matter of calculation that some career benefit will accrue to Barr and Rosenstein if they bend to Trump’s will. On the contrary, working for the Trump White House has been a career killer for almost everyone who has set foot inside (exceptions: William McMaster, “Mad Dog” Mattis, and Anthony Scaramucci).

It’s a mystery that has vexed every pundit. “What happened to them?” they say. “What were they thinking?” they cry. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I’m beginning to wonder. What explanations are left? And much as I hate to think it, there are two: greed and fear. We have to entertain the possibility that these guys are either being paid off or being threatened.

Having worked in the federal government for a time, I can tell you that every civil servant believes he or she could have made a lot more money in the private sector. I worked with a lot of engineers and lawyers and statisticians in the defense-acquisition game, and this mantra was an act of faith among professionals in the public sector; almost a slogan like “Drill, Baby, Drill!” or “Dilly Dilly!” It’s not too great a stretch to think that a guy like Barr, who had a glimpse of the big money during his tenure with a New York firm, might be swayed by what he missed. And while it’s likely that Barr already has “plenty” of money already and thus would be hard to sway with a payout, keep in mind that the Attorney General’s salary is $400,000. That would over the years make one pretty well off, to be sure—but just ask Paul Manafort what the difference is between a couple of million and tens of millions.

As for Rosenstein, he gives the impression in his behavior and his very appearance that he’s under an awful lot of strain. At one point he was ready to “wear a wire” to expose the administration’s criminality, at another he was teary-eyed promising to “land the plane” of the Mueller investigation without damage to Trump. In the end he stood stone-faced while Barr explained to the nation that absolutely nothing was wrong, like a street cop at a murder scene telling the crowd “Okay, show’s over, go back to yer homes.” Rosenstein wears the stress on his face: Is he tortured by guilt? Or by fear?

Of course it would be difficult for Trump to hide any payoffs to either man, but not impossible. It’s pretty clear that his financial house of cards has so many levels and secret passages that money could be routed over, around, and through an Escher-like maze of transactions that no forensic accountant could sort out.

As for fear, we can assume that anyone at that level of influence—and especially any man—probably has something he’d give anything to hide, whether financial, moral, or legal. And the cleaner one’s reputation, the more there is to lose.

As I say, I don’t like these sorts of theories, but I’m getting out the tin foil to make a hat.

Impeachment Conundrum

Like a lot of people, I’ve been whipsawed by impeachment arguments these days, generally persuaded by the most recent argument I’ve heard. It’s a little like being Donald Trump, except with a heart and a brain.

One camp argues that impeachment is a futile exercise because the Senate won’t convict, which will only strengthen Trump’s position for the 2020 election. Media wags and others in the know call this the politically pragmatic case, the one Nancy Pelosi has invoked in “taking impeachment off the table.”

The opposing view is that we must impeach the president as a matter of principle. Even if Trump isn’t removed in a Senate trial, and even if it costs us the election, the attempt must be made lest we be cursed by history as the generation that stood by and let it happen. And besides, the impeachment process itself might actually weaken Trump politically—it’s true that Clinton was helped by impeachment, but that’s because the trial revealed how thin the case against him was.

The whole thing appears to be a choice between Nancy Pelosi’s pragmatism and Elizabeth Warren’s idealism. But I think both arguments are being misrepresented. Pelosi is accused of avoiding impeachment for “political reasons.” Warren and the other impeach-now advocates are viewed as dreamers, the sort of fundamentalist crusaders that tend to drag the party into electioral losses.

I think this is a false dichotomy. Both arguments are firmly grounded in principle. The question is, what is the principle?

The oath of office taken by the president, members of Congress, and in fact every federal employee demands the same thing: “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I know because I swore that oath when I hired on as a cost analyst for the Army in 1981. It would seem, then, that the decision whether to impeach or not must be grounded in that simple phrase. What course of action will best protect and defend the Constitution?

The impeach-now argument is squarely aimed at constitutional defense, as it uses the one provision the Constitution offers for removing a tyrant or incompetent from office. In doing so it aims to accomplish two things: getting rid of Donald Trump, who fits both of the above criteria, and upholding the power of the Constitution itself. Even if it fails, the attempt must be made.

The Pelosi-pragmatic argument seems weaker: removing Trump by electoral victory instead of impeachment tends to normalize the whole process, rendering Trump’s removal as a simple shift in voter preferences. No constitutional crisis, just the usual winds of change. Oh, and there’s no guarantee that Trump will lose, or lose big enough to be convincing.

But there’s an even bigger flaw in the impeach-now case: If the House impeaches Trump and the Senate fails to convict, Trump’s continuation in office will only be part of the problem. The bigger defeat will be to the Constitution itself as it will be forever weakened, having been violated without punishment to the offender. The Trump affair will become case law for future tests of presidential power, making it all the more difficult to impeach anyone.

Congress will be weakened too, since all the votes will have been conducted along party lines. Exercising any sort of executive oversight will be difficult. Trump will have been granted license to do all the things he has been doing and more, and he will probably have a second term in which to do them. He and his minions will proclaim his vindication, once and for all. And would they be wrong?

The whole episode will be remembered as the Democrats’ failed attempt to unseat the president. How does that protect and defend the Constitution?

Pelosi’s approach is the right one. She has not taken impeachment “off the table,” as many have claimed. Rather, she is calling for a careful and systematic gathering of evidence to determine if impeachment is warranted. The hope is that the public recitation of the Mueller Report’s evidence, as well as the revelation of the sundry crimes that were not part of Mueller’s investigation—tax fraud, bank fraud, emoluments, the machinations of his “university” and his “foundation”—will begin to worry Republican Senators enough to peel away the requisite votes for removal. And if that fails, it may have had the effect of casting enough doubt in Trump voters to stay home in 2020.

In the end, the only thing that counts is raw political power, and that means public opinion and votes. If the public can’t be convinced that a dishonest, cruel, and cognitively impaired despot shouldn’t be president, there is no other remedy.

Poor Man’s Tweets

A couple of items too short for posts, too long for Twitter.

I’m tired of celebrity news. The news these days seems overloaded with stories of celebrity misdeeds: R. Kelly’s loving relationship or sexual imprisonment (choose one) of two girls; Jussie Smollett’s victimization or fraud or kid-glove treatment involving a beating by two hoods; the Felicity Huffman-Lori Loughlin (“Aunt Becky! Pay my tuition!”) college admissions scandal, new Michael Jackson revelations. And if you want to add yourself to the list of those who have advised me to watch the PBS News Hour instead of NBC, save your breath: they’ve covered the same stories, only more boringly.

Some of these stories are legitimate national news; the college-admissions thing is a case in point. And in some cases the celebrity status of the perpetrators has given an otherwise overlooked social ill the headline it needs to generate social change. The #MeToo movement got its legs because celebrities were both offenders and victims.

But many would be local stories, if covered at all, were they not focused on celebs. They have been treated as national news, leading the coverage of TV, newspapers, magazines, and of course social media, because celebrities can be used to represent whole classes or demographic groups or ideals. Viewers and readers can “identify with” them based on the characters they play, or the sort of idealized lives they are imagined to live, or by their class or race or gender. They can sympathize with or rage against them, applying the easy stereotypes that cloak the famous: rapacious mogul, pampered starlet, rapper thug. And so these stories generate dispute and division, which in turn generate ratings, circulation, and clicks.

More word-choice issues. I watched coverage of the Mueller report’s unveiling all day on Thursday. This may have set a dubious personal best for continuous screen-staring, surpassing any number of Masters tournaments and even an opioid-assisted marathon while recovering from knee-replacement surgery. But watching the coverage evolve over the course of the day was interesting, as it began with breathless reading of snippets of the just-opened document (“Hey, here’s something—Trump said he was, um, ‘effed’ when Mueller was hired!”) and gradually jelled into a coherent narrative by the end of the day. On MSNBC (yes, my bubble) that narrative was that while the president may have avoided prosecutable criminality—mostly by sheer luck—he certainly exhibited behavior totally “inappropriate”—that’s the term used by many commentators—for a President of the United States.

Inappropriate? Trump’s behavior at every turn has been subversive of the Constitution and a threat to American democracy. Attacks on the press, on the Justice Department, on religious communities, on minorities, on political enemies, including private citizens—those are not merely inappropriate. Sex with the intern is “inappropriate.” Trump’s presidency will be a stain on American history for centuries, assuming, of course, that future historians are free to write it.

When Institutions Fail

One thing we’ve learned from the Trump era (can an era be just two years long?) is that democracy is not defined simply by its constitution and written laws; it also depends on maintaining healthy and vigorous institutions. These are often viewed as organizations, but are really sets of beliefs, values, habits, customs, and expectations that are the taken-for-granted connective tissue of any society: the family, the economy, the press, the law, and so on. As long as the populace has faith in these institutions—that is, as long as there is a general consensus on their nature and on their legitimacy—life goes on as normal. When we lose faith in them, things begin to unravel.

The sense of unraveling these days is pretty dire, as the president and his party attack anything that represents constancy and solidity in American society. We can easily identify plenty of these institutions, intentionally discredited for political gain: the press (“fake news”), the media (elitist and leftist), the civil service (“deep state”), science (self-serving cabal of evolutionists and global-warming cranks), higher education (activist professors). But in fact, many of these have been losing ground for decades.

The press, admired in the seventies as a public advocate, is now attacked by the left as well as the right for failing to characterize the news in the desired way. The rise of Fox News has only made things worse, as has the explosion of social media, which undermines the very possibility of shared reality. As for the government itself, its administrative apparatus has for a long time been “the bureaucracy” to most people, a pejorative term describing an ostensibly bloated empire of underworked, overpaid, and unhelpful drones. Its political office-holders are perennially at risk to challenge by “outsiders” who are free of the taint of experience or skill at governing. And the courts, once the paragon of even-handed wisdom, have become another victim of partisanship as every appointee is subjected to a series of conservative or progressive litmus tests. A few days ago, the Times reported that the court’s conservative majority declined to even discuss a stay of execution with their colleagues, voting in the middle of the night to allow it to proceed. Why bother with discussion, when you know how it’ll turn out?

Some institutions have done it to themselves. The intelligence community allowed itself to be used by the Bush administration in its justification for the disastrous war in Iraq. The medical-scientific establishment was injured by the CDC’s botch of the Ebola crisis; it’s little wonder that the anti-vaccine rumors have become a significant sociopolitical movement. Even the Secret Service smudged itself a few years ago, when stories of parties and prostitutes emerged from teams traveling with the president. The Secret Service!

In addition to these specific examples, the general decline in respect for many of our institutions—of their legitimate claim to authority—is part of the decades-long rise of populist thinking in American life. The press, the courts, the scientists—they’re all elites, once esteemed and heeded but now suspected of self-serving agendas or control by shady cabals.

And the mother of this populism is the commercialization of activities and services that were formerly above the fray. The professions—medicine, science, the professoriate, and the like—were until a few decades ago independent masters of their work, well-rewarded, self-governing, and unquestioned in their authority over their jurisdictions. The professional model of organization shielded them, and to a lesser extent a variety of semi-professionals, from the ravages of competitive markets. Today, the professional model has all but disappeared in favor of a corporate model in which many of these practitioners work, not for themselves but for organizations run by non-peers. And these organizations are driven primarily by revenues, despite the non-profit status of many of them. Hospitals aren’t run by doctors and colleges aren’t run by scholars anymore; most are headed by financial managers of one sort or another who have convinced the professionals that their organizations should be “run like a business,” by which is meant “for money.”

Aggressive advertising by hospitals, law firms, and universities—all unheard-of a few decades ago—is an outward symptom of this commercialization. Even churches festoon billboards and print ads with market-friendly names like “Celebration” or “Lighthouse” and draw audiences with uplifting messages. I’m old enough to remember when these ads first began to appear, thinking then how grasping and desperate they seemed.

When a hospital or college or church or other service institution becomes commercialized, it surrenders its position as a community asset. When it feels the need to advertise, it concedes that it is in the game for itself—to grow, to amass more influence or wealth, to vanquish other competitors. When it assembles a committee to write a “mission statement,” it has lost its way. And when the government bureaucracy—that apparatus of government that actually provides services and runs things—becomes a political instrument of whichever party is in power, it forfeits its legitimacy.

When the legitimacy of institutions like these erodes, a pall of alienation and anomie follows. Every institution is an adversary, every relationship is transactional, life is one big zero-sum game. In the political sphere, division reigns; consensus becomes impossible. All policy is part of the next political campaign. All truth is one or another group’s truth. Then it seems that the only cure to this state of affairs is a powerful leader who can make things happen without the need for consensus or compromise.

This is where we’re headed.

What Republicans Believe

The Trump Party is built on an old foundation.

The recent “total vindication” of the president—that is, the revelation that his philandering with the Russians doesn’t rise to the level of criminal treason—has fueled a vicious backlash against those trying to save the republic from sliding into autocracy. These latter include members of the press, protected by the first amendment as guardians of an open public discourse, as well as members of Congress, whose constitutional mandate is to contain presidential power. Oh, also the majority of Americans.

The Trump party now sees a golden opportunity to dismantle the balance of powers by discrediting all stabilizing institutions: the Department of Justice, designed to serve as an even-handed enforcer of laws, the intelligence agencies, providers of honest information about what’s happening in the world, the non-partisan federal civil service, the press, and the Democratic Party. All are now viewed as either tools of the party or enemies of the state. They will all be investigated, harassed, or reconfigured with new leaders chosen from a pool of partisan hacks. The military can’t be very far behind; since the draft ended it has already changed from the politically representative force it was half a century ago to an overwhelmingly conservative body. If Trump knew any history or any French, he could steal one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s best lines: “L’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”).*

They know this takeover—presaged in the nineties by Newt Gingrich’s attempt to create a “permanent Republican majority”—has to be completed as quickly as possible, because the party will soon be unable to thrive in a fair democratic political environment. Demography is against them, owing to the imminent end of white dominance. But more importantly, the actual needs of the country and wishes of the populace have been against them for at least a decade: people want healthcare, education, infrastructure, and fairness. And they want the planet to support human habitation. These are all things the party has worked assiduously against, and Republicans have determined that this is the last chance they’ll have to scuttle them.

But why? Is it just that they place the exercise of power above the national interest? Or that they’ve just lost sight of the ideological goals they entered politics to pursue? There’s some of that, to be sure, but I think there are deeper principles at work. And by “principles,” I don’t mean to imply any altruism or goodness. Satan has principles, too, just evil ones.

By my reckoning, the Republican Party’s principles are grounded in a set of core beliefs and values, to wit:

  • America was built by white people and founded on European ideals. Immigrants from Europe provided much of the labor and were rewarded, after a generation or two of probation, with assimilation. African Americans refuse to try. Native Americans were an obsolete culture and refused to make best use of the vast lands they occupied. Sadly, they had to be replaced.
  • Most people are looking for a free handout, but it will only make them worse. The well-off are the exceptions, which explains why they have done so well. [Note: this is the essence of the Protestant Ethic, elucidated by the Sociologist Max Weber in the 19th century. It’s rooted in a Calvinist idea that success in life is a sign of God’s blessing].
  • Life is a zero-sum proposition. For one to get ahead, another must fall behind. This is a simple law of nature.
  • The family is the only natural social grouping, and the only one that should involve selfless sharing of resources. Larger social groupings like the state, union, party, workplace, or association are transactional and based on self-interest.
  • Christianity is the true faith. All others are false, though their exercise may be tolerated in most cases.
  • The nation, though artificial, deserves an abstract, unquestioning and unconditional love. But the state—the government, constitution, functionaries, and other apparatus—is inherently corrupt.

Once these beliefs and values are understood, the Republican agenda makes sense. And it follows that any political party embracing an opposite ideology is illegitimate. Thus, elections that bring Democrats to power are errors of democracy, and must be corrected by any means available.

I’ve often wondered why it’s so easy to get people to hate Democrats. What’s the worst thing they believe in, their worst policy goals? Why the visceral hatred of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and all the rest? Why do crazy and vicious accusations stick so easily to them? I’m beginning to get it now.

*I’m told this quotation comes from Louis XIV, not Napoleon. D’Oh!

It’s the Unfairness, Stupid

Keep it simple, and win.

I’m growing very tired of the hand-wringing of progressives over the right strategy for the 2020 elections. Ever since the 2018 contests, pundits of every stripe have spent countless hours of radio, TV, and podcast time and barrels of ink on the question. A recent New York Times led its front page with the generation-gap rift in the Democratic Party, pried open this time by differences over Israel policy and undercurrents of antisemitism. And a story about Stacy Abrams on the inside pages summed up the drumbeat of discord and confusion, asking “whether identity politics are energizing or polarizing, and if it is better to double down on politically engaged women, people of color and left-leaning voters or tack to the center.” An op-ed posed the question as one of ideology on the one hand (“left versus center, the revolutionaries and the incrementalists”) and the candidates’ personalities on the other.

Superimposed over this seeming quandary is the gaggle of hopefuls, numerous enough now to field two very bad (but highly representative) softball teams. You’ve got your men and your women, whites and people of color, oldies and upstarts, no-drama technocrats and howling insurgents, alliance-builders and alley-fighters.

This is welcomed by optimists as the usual scrum within the always-chaotic Democratic Party. But sooner or later someone has to become the candidate, and more importantly, the party has to coalesce around a coherent message. What will it be? How can all the various winning strategies of 2018 be combined into a theme that will gain the White House in 2020?

When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, his advisor James Carville kept him on message with a simple mantra: “Its the economy, stupid.” This was designed to keep the often verbose candidate on a simple message in the face of an incumbent opponent who had just successfully overseen a popular war. Granted, Clinton also had the benefit of southern roots and (in those days) a winning personality, but still, the message made the difference: Bush’s principal weakness—the economy— dominated the discourse throughout the campaign, and Clinton served two terms.

Today’s Democratic party is more fractious than it was in 1992, maybe even more than it was during the Vietnam era, when the riotous 1968 convention led to the election of Richard Nixon. But I believe the party can still unite under a simple and unassailable message: the American way of life has become less fair than most of us remember it, and it’s the Republicans’ fault.

This is true in every sector:

  • The gaps in income and wealth have grown to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, when robber barons made fortunes free of income tax and market regulation. And the wages of blue-collar workers have declined in constant dollars due to anti-union and other labor-hostile policies. As Paul Krugman shows, these policies have insured that gains in worker productivity have not been reflected in wages.
  • Social mobility has declined, owing partly but only partly, to structural factors. It’s true that in a post-industrial society, the educated get ahead while others have less opportunity in industry and trades. The problem is, education has become outlandishly expensive compared to a generation or two ago, and this favors the well-off. As for the role of federal grants and loans, there is much evidence that financial aid has itself been one of the causes of growing tuition rates. And this is not to mention the advantages in college admissions garnered by the well-off, even those who don’t explicitly defraud the system: admissions consultants, essay editors, SAT courses and personal coaches, and access to educationally enriching experiences throughout childhood.
  • We have taken for granted the inequities of the criminal justice system, tacitly accepting that white-collar crime is less aggressively investigated and punished than street crime. The fate of Paul Manafort is making this reality a little more difficult to swallow, as public defenders around the country have been comparing his sentence of four years for a series of felonies to the routinely harsher ones given for lesser crimes committed by people of lesser means.
  • Meanwhile, white America has always assumed that excessive force by police was a rarity and more-or-less evenly meted out to whites and Blacks alike. The video age, in which everyone has a broadcast platform in their pocket, is making that complacency more discomfiting.
  • The anti-government, pro-corporate mantra of the Right has led to all sorts of attacks on the government functions that benefit citizens. The Environmental Protection Agency. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act. The Department of Education, especially in its encouragement of predatory for-profit educational institutions.
  • Finally, the Right has done everything it can to insulate these systems of unfairness against reform by gerrymandering elections, restricting voting access, and especially, resisting campaign finance reform, thus granting corporate America excessive influence over elections at every level.

The Democratic candidate, whoever he or she is, should stick to these issues. Don’t run on personality or demographic identity. Don’t get distracted into the culture wars. Don’t argue about who should use which bathroom or who should get the Oscar, or any of that—those are winning wedge issues for Republicans. Stick to the deep inequality that undergirds them all.

It’s the unfairness, stupid.

What if Trump Gets Smart?

Not actually “smart,” but maybe kinda normal-seeming.

Donald Trump’s abortive summit with Kim Jung-Un is being criticized by most of the press as the predictable outcome of a narcissist’s impulse, launched against the advice of advisors and lacking in planning or groundwork. Trump believed his own myth, thinking he could offer the same deal to North Korea that predecessors had offered and get a different result. Rookie mistake, Nancy Pelosi might have called it.

But though the summit was a dissonant and ill-tuned composition, it seemed to finish on a chord, albeit a minor one: when his “grand bargain” was rebuffed, Trump walked away. All signs suggested that he was desperate for a deal, any deal, having lost the political initiative since the November elections. Since then he’s had nothing but trouble: a government shutdown disaster, new hearings and investigations, and verbal spankings by the aforementioned Speaker of the House. The Trumpian thing would have been to give Kim anything he wanted in return for any tweetable gesture, then declare victory and kick off his campaign for the Nobel Prize.

But he didn’t. He accepted a tactical loss, which is what a normal president would do. Never mind that the whole affair was ill-conceived—that was pure Trump—but the outcome was surprisingly sane. And it makes one wonder: what if Trump starts doing somewhat sane things  more frequently? What if he really gets worried about 2020 and starts listening to his advisors, cuts down the crazy tweets, and stumbles into propriety more often? It wouldn’t be that hard. Think of all the really egregious and plainly stupid things he’s done before to create his thuggish persona. It would have been easy to soften them just a little, without alienating any of his base.

He might have made just a minimal effort in discussing race. Instead of extolling the “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, he could have said “You know, I’ve railed against ‘political correctness’ a lot, and I think the Confederate monuments thing is a tough issue. But this neo-Nazi and Klan stuff is something else entirely. You can’t just pit one kind of Americans against other kinds in open warfare like this; it has to stop.”

He might have avoided the government shutdown by telling Mitch McConnell to allow the vote on the budget. If it passed, he could wail loudly about the intransigent Democrats and the cowardly Congress and moan that he had fought the good fight but lost. If it failed, he could declare victory.

He might have been more careful with his language in consoling Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow. He could have said “Even knowing what he was signing up for, he went ahead and committed himself to defending his country.” (My own view is that he probably meant to say something like that anyway but his utter ineptitude with the English language foiled him).

He might have backed away from the separation of migrant kids from their parents. He could have claimed that ICE had gone too far in their righteous mission, and that he would rein them in.

He might have brought up the John McCain insult in an interview and said he misspoke: “McCain was a great American, and I blurted out a comment that came out wrong. I really meant to say that I don’t want any of our warriors to be taken prisoner.”

And he could have given a state of the union speech without the Mussolini-like posing and wild claims of having prevented war with North Korea.

He wouldn’t have to actually mean any of the things he says, or actually do any of the things he promises. He could simply dissemble and double-talk as he always does. And of course these are all literally the absolute least he could do. But he could do most of them without harm to his base of deplorables; they would cost him nothing.

And it’s not too late to start. He could begin today pretending to be of sound mind, and even now he’d reap significant benefits. While the approval ratings of the Trump base have been immune to change either up or down, there remains a sizeable segment of alienated Republicans and independents who are desperately looking for any reason to come back to the fold. Those who have regretted voting for him in 2016 are laboring under a large burden of cognitive dissonance. What an enormous relief it would be to find a reason to vote for him again.

In fact, the most recent polls show an uptick in Trump’s approval to 46 percent, presumably due to his non-infantile behavior in Hanoi. We can expect that every tiny clue that the president’s psychosis is abating will bring similar results, reinforced by loud huzzahs from the right that the president is “growing into the office.” Even the recent state of the union speech was called  a “good speech” by some mainstream network pundits, presumably because he managed not to wander off-script into Mad Hatter territory: all the crazy stuff he said was written down.

Here’s the cold reality: If Trump can manage to clean up his act even the slightest bit, he will very likely win the 2020 election. So now we’re faced with another manifestation of what has become the fundamental Trump dilemma: do we hope for better behavior from the president, knowing that it may well lead to his re-election, or do we hope for continued lunacy?

A classic Jack Benny bit has a robber poking a gun in his face and yelling “Yer money or yer life!” Benny takes a while to answer: “I’m thinking.” I feel pretty much like that.