Year Zero

I’m posting this now, typos and all, because I need to get it down the flume. There are many passages that need endnotes, and I will provide them in time, but I really needed to click the “Publish” button tonight.

Earlier I was thinking about the explosive reactions the new president has to any perceived slight and how it reminded me of living with (and behaving as) an alcoholic. You don’t know what’s going to set them off, so you shut down, but then the acquiescence is a trigger for them. They can’t feel that they’ve won if they’ve dominated one already submissive. Anyone who isn’t cowed must be destroyed, at least in rhetoric, and there will be a chorus from below: “You sure showed him who’s boss, boss.”

“Mr. Trump.” Everyone in his circle calls him that. The only time I’ve been addressed as “Mr. Hellmann” was in court, or on the phone with a scammer.

Some good news:
Federal judge stands firm on Pasadena voting rights order

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston stood firm on her ruling that Pasadena should hold its upcoming May election using a 2011 system with eight single-member districts, instead of a 2014 scheme of six single-member and two at-large seats that the judge ruled had diluted the voting strength of the city’s robust Hispanic population.

I have an interest in what goes down in Pasadena because I have family there, but this story has larger implications. The value of having a chamber composed of members representing districts rather than at-large isn’t always obvious, so permit me to Bensplain.

A motivated segment of the electorate (with the ability or no need to take off work to vote) can have a disproportionate impact in “off-year” state and federal elections; they can have a similar impact in at-large local elections in that they can bigfoot the process by skewing results to the candidates who most speak to the sensibilities of their — and only their — neighborhoods. Those precincts with a lower turnout for any number of reasons can find their voices drowned out, their concerns unheard, their needs unmet.

By contrast, district representation distributes the makeup of, say, a city council to better reflect the city as a whole. Austin itself switched to this system a few years back and the upshot is that, whether the turnout on the East Side is forty thousand or four, someone is going to be at the table who is accountable to that community. So, if you like the idea of people who work and live in your town feeling that they will have a chance to have their concerns aired and therefore a reason to participate, districts beat the at-large option.

Along the lines of “someone is going to be at the table,” I had a conversation with a friend recently in which we touched on the absurdity of the horrid choices we were given in November and how opting out was even more absurd: it’s not like if you don’t vote there’s not going to be a president. And that reminded me of the horror I felt watching the first few debates for the GOP nomination: I knew that one of these yahoos was going to have an even shot at winning the presidency. In light of the competition, Donald Trump was about as good as any of them (before you make the case for Kasich, please to be looking at what he’s just done in Ohio).

However, when there is no candidate for a cabinet role in the federal government, that desk does remain empty. Much has been made of the fact that, as of Wednesday, nearly 700 executive department positions subject to Senate advice and consent remained to have anyone named to fill them. The Keepers of the Scrolls of Conventional Wisdom used this as another teachable moment to cluck at the rabble who exercised the right to vote wrongly, but I didn’t quite sense any alarm at the implications: There is no announced Secretary of the Navy, for instance. In the coming trade war with China, we’ll need someone to be at the helm, so to speak.

In one way, this can be considered another example of how Trump was unprepared for the role, not because he’s manifestly not up to the job, but because he wasn’t prepared to win. Once the nomination is locked up you need to get ready for the possibility that in a one-on-one race, the other entrant might get a leg cramp, or be knee-capped by an FBI director with a fluid sense of appropriate disclosure (This might be a clue to a fine strategy of countering Trump: let him win without a fight and watch him fall from the momentum of his swing).

There is no shortage of capable people (by which I mean “people who know how the federal government works”) who could be called on to staff this administration. Thinktanks like the Center for American Progress and the Heritage Foundation function as a shadow cabinet in the times when their side is out of power, with policy positions and wonks at the ready when a transition happens. The way this cabinet has been assembled it seems clear that this bunch looks on subject knowledge as a quality less desirable than loyalty to Trump, measured in past performance, recent donations or current humiliating shows of fealty (ass, cash or castration, nobody rides for free). Consider Betsy DeVos demonstrating in her hearing ignorance of a central debate in the education sector, or Rick Perry apparently not understanding that the Department of Energy (the missing 3rd in his “oops” moment) has less power over carbon fuels than the Department of the Interior. One wonders if this latter appointment was Trump flicking Perry in the balls for his speech in 2016.

In another way, this reminded me of events in the Bush and Obama years, and seemed far less funny. One of the causes for the Senate under Harry Reid doing away with the filibuster for many nominees (but not holds) was the backlog built up from an intransigent minority party trying to gum up the works of an Obama administration. A lot was written about how the need for federal judges was unmet, less about what that would mean — grassley even tried to reduce the number of appellate justices on some circuits to maintain a conservative edge — and far less about how the refusal to seat agency heads called into question the authority of interim directors to do anything — how this hamstringed the government by not allowing it to function with any authority.

An acting director of the ATF or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can perform administrative functions, but any regulations they Institute can be challenged in a court case or outright considered non-binding because they’re not really the head of their bureau: they haven’t been confirmed. Blocking confirmation of such directors was a GOP strategy to nullify the legitimate mandate of these agencies.

The Tuesday after the levees breached in New Orleans in 2005, I was in Providence, far away from the misery, on my way to the grocery store with my girlfriend. We listened to a news report of the ineffectual response from FEMA — this was before Michael Brown’s lack of bona fides were known — and afterwards I said “This is what happens when people who think government can’t do anything are in charge of the government.” Of course, it later came out how unqualified Michael Brown was to head FEMA, but that was to be expected given how we knew that the qualifications for being part of the provisional government in Iraq after the purge of the Baath party came down to being a loyal Republican.

So, consider again that Trump’s team hasn’t put forth for consideration people to fill nearly 700 posts; consider the history of the modern Republican party that elevated Mike Pence and its antipathy to those functions of the federal government that seek to protect us from the rapacity of business; consider how an agency can be declawed if you never give it a confirmed leader. And consider what government run by people who don’t think it should exist has produced before, will produce in the future and what blessings this day we shall receive.