How will the next president keep the American people entertained?

Windsor Mann, a contributing writer for The Week, takes a light-hearted look at how we’ll miss Trump because he so entertaining. “The day after he leaves office,” he writes, “I will be bored.”

But this is a serious concern. How do we get the public to focus on the serious work of governing with even a fraction of the attention they give the you-laugh-you-cry crisis-a-minute look-at-me always-a-cliffhanger reality TV show that is the Trump presidency?

Or will people just tune out, until another huckster comes around?

That would be particularly disastrous because the American public – not just the elites — needs to embark, soon, on a major democratic restoration project. The first step includes a lot of questions. How does the political ecosystem recover? Can we, as part of a needed restoration, fix things that were broken even before Trump came along?  Do pre-Trump norms simply spring back into operation? What new laws do we need? Should we demand specific pledges by candidates? Does recovery require bipartisanship? Does it require a public reckoning?

Hillary Clinton brought up a lot of related issues in her essay in the Atlantic on Monday. But most of the press coverage was about her “slamming Trump.” The main argument – that our democratic institutions and traditions are under siege – was, I guess, too boring.

“The post-Trump era will be less frightening but more dull,” Mann writes. “It will be an unpleasant time for Americans. Not only do we demand entertainment, but we demand it from everyone, all the time…”

Brian Stelter, the host of “Reliable Sources” on CNN, addressed the issue on Sunday. “We’ve never seen a president like Donald Trump,” he said.

But in my humble opinion, we will never see a future president unlike him — at least when it comes to his use of TV. I have a sneaking feeling that every U.S. president from here on out will be a television star of some sort, maybe a lawmaker who knows how to create a TV moment, or a governor who knows how to throw a really great rally, or a businesswoman who knows how to connect through the camera.

It that inevitable? Or is there a way to engage the public in the work of democracy that doesn’t involve razzle-dazzle?

Trump welcomes another authoritarian to the White House

Polish president Andrzej Duda.
Polish president Andrzej Duda.

Struggling to cement a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, Donald Trump on Tuesday welcomes to the White House the president of Poland, whose far-right party has effectively put its formerly independent judiciary under strict political control.

Trump is evidently a fan.

He made his first European stop as president in Warsaw in 2017, where he effusively praised Poland for ardently defending Western values and democratic ideals – something Poland had been doing, more or less, since communism collapsed more than 25 years ago and until 2015, when the virulently nationalist Law and Justice Party swept the elections and began establishing one-party rule.

The party used the same authoritarian playbook that has been so successful for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As Stanford international studies professor Anna Grzymala-Busse described it for me last year: “First, target the highest courts and the judiciary, then restrict the independence of the media and civil society, and finally transform the constitutional framework and electoral laws in ways that enshrine their hold on power.”

Tuesday’s meeting is not precisely between two strongmen, however. The visiting  president, Andrzej Duda, is more of a figurehead; Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice party’s chair, is the man who calls the shots.

Duda will be asking Trump to put a permanent U.S. military base in his country. Poland is offering $2 billion to build it, as protection against Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin hosts Hungary’s Orbán in Moscow on Tuesday.

In addition to Putin and Orban – who was the first leader of an EU or NATO country to endorse Trump’s campaign — Trump’s closest friends among world leaders include China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, and Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines leader overseeing a bloody, extrajudicial slaughter in the name of a war on drugs.

Update: The New York Times has published a marvelous article on Trump and Poland: Poland’s Leader Finds an Ally in Trump, Even as He Brings Courts to Heel.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t blame Trump (or Russia) as much as she blames the Koch Brothers

Flag in distress
Source: torbakhopper/Flickr

One of the big questions I’ll be addressing on White House Watch is whether Donald Trump is the symptom or the disease.

If he’s the disease, then when he goes away, everything will be fine again. Our constitutional democracy will right itself, and we’ll be on our way.

But if he’s the symptom, then even when he’s gone, the disease is still with us.

Hillary Clinton weighs in today with an important essay in the Atlantic, an excerpt from the new afterword to her book “What Happened”.

And while much of the media coverage is boiling it down to “Hillary Clinton Slams Trump,” Clinton takes the darker view: that Trump, “despicable” as his actions are, is the result of something even worse.

“[O]ur democratic institutions and traditions are under siege,” she writes. “[T]he assault on our democracy didn’t start with his election. He is as much a symptom as a cause of what ails us.”

Yes, she leads off with a very useful summary of Trump’s most recent examples of “unspeakable cruelty” and “monstrous neglect.” Then she lists Trump’s five main assaults on our democracy: on the rule of law, on the legitimacy of elections; on truth and reason; on ethics; and on “the national unity that makes democracy possible.”

But the heart of her essay blames democracy’s biggest challenges not on Trump but on the Koch Brothers and their ilk:

Over many years, our defenses were worn down by a small group of right-wing billionaires—people like the Mercer family and Charles and David Koch—who spent a lot of time and money building an alternative reality where science is denied, lies masquerade as truth, and paranoia flourishes.

And the GOP in general:

The increasing radicalism and irresponsibility of the Republican Party, including decades of demeaning government, demonizing Democrats, and debasing norms, is what gave us Donald Trump.

Clinton, like an increasing number of political scientists, argues that getting rid of Trump is only the beginning. And although her top priority is, not surprisingly, “massive turnout in the 2018 midterms,” she outlines a broad reform agenda.

When the dust settles, we have to do some serious housecleaning. After Watergate, Congress passed a whole slew of reforms in response to Richard Nixon’s abuses of power. After Trump, we’re going to need a similar process.

That includes ethics requirements for the president, voting reforms – including campaign finance reform and the abolition of the Electoral College – and “restitch[ing] our fraying social fabric and rekindle our civic spirit.”

Clinton’s proposed solutions are remarkably vague and they feel, at least for the moment, beyond our grasp. But along with Protect Democracy’s legislative blueprint called “Roadmap for Renewal,” they provide a solid jumping-off point for some serious and urgent national conversations about the anti-authoritarian, democracy-bolstering agenda the country needs after a presidency that has shown us, as Clinton writes, “[h]ow fragile our experiment in self-government is.”

Former New York Times Washington bureau chief decries false equivalence

David Leonhardt, the former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, writes in his New York Times opinion column today about the blatant mischaracterization of the political parties by reporters who think false equivalence makes them look smart.

Leonhardt’s thesis is this:

The Democrats have not actually become radical leftists, or anything close to it.

And he explains:

You keep hearing this story partly because Republicans have an obvious interest in promoting it and partly because large parts of the news media find it irresistible. It’s a “both side do it” angle that allows us journalists to appear tough, knowing and above the partisan scrum. We love that image. But the facts don’t support the story in this case.

Normally I would celebrate such an acknowledgment. One of my journalistic deities is James Fallows of the Atlantic, who is also one of the most consistent chroniclers and decriers of false equivalence, which he describes  as the “strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying ‘sides’ of a story, even if one of the sides is objectively true and the other is just made up.”

And in the Trump era, any attempt to find balance between the two sides inevitably normalizes what is a profoundly abnormal presidency.

But this is the New York Times we’re talking about here. It lifts you up, sure, but it also breaks your heart.

And the thing is: Leonhardt’s example kind of sucks.

While he decries false balance, which is indeed one of the D.C. elite media’s greatest sins, he simultaneously indulges in another one: Pooh-poohing progressives as marginal, unelectable, and radical.

He argues that Republicans have gone off the rails over the last several years, adopting an objectively radical agenda. True. True well before Trump, in fact. Now they’re also completely unhinged.

But Leonhardt then credits the Democratic Party for its centrism, for not endorsing such things as single-payer health insurance, or a dramatic increase in taxes on the rich.

He writes off recent progressive victories by chortling that “the list of progressive insurgents who got thumped is much longer. In New York, Cynthia Nixon didn’t crack 35 percent.”

But there is movement in the Democratic Party, and I suspect that movement is more Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. More Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Joe Crowley.

And the more progressive agenda isn’t nearly as radically left as the modern Republican Party is radically right. It actually reflects majority positions in many cases. See, for instance, this Reuters chart:

Chart from Reuters.
Chart from Reuters.

So Leonhardt urges his former staffers to stop saying both parties are radical when only one is. But then he keeps false equivalence in his back pocket just in case the Democrats stray from what the Washington media defines as the center.