Monday, January 9, 2017

Normalizing Donald Trump

On January 20th Donald Trump will ascend and assume control of the United States of America. As commander-in-chief he will have the most powerful armed forces under his command and will oversee the largest economy of the world. He will become, as most people in America like to refer with pride, "the leader of the free world".

As he begins to assume office, the process of normalizing Donald Trump has begun. It began when he summoned media personalities, politicians, businessmen, Silicon Valley CEOs and celebrities to his tower in Manhattan and everyone fell in line in obedience. As he courted some and scolded others, inadvertently the normalization of Donald Trump began. Even though his behavior has shown little change from his brash and obscene campaigning days, there is a broad consensus that the weight of the office will force him to change his ways, in ways even he cannot foresee.

I frankly doubt it. I see a grave danger in normalizing Donald Trump. And if citizens lose sight of what motivates Donald Trump and become complacent they stand to lose more than they can ever imagine.

After the election, I  met several people who voted for Donald Trump, here in New York City and in New Jersey. What was appalling was that they were coy about admitting it. Maybe because they live in states where they are a minority. When asked what motivated them to vote for Trump, they had weak arguments clearly brainwashed inside a bubble. One person I met, said "well I did not think he would get elected!". Couple of millionaire surgeons I overheard in Scarsdale, an affluent suburb of New York City, were looking forward to a tax break. Everyone felt that the media was unfair and biased and the real Donald Trump would emerge once it was all over and he would be gold. They felt an outsider businessman is what we need in this hour to "drain the swamp" and  "make America great again". But few could articulate what really made America great.

What we have come to realize, is that there is only one Donald Trump and he is determined to change not only the direction of this nation, but all rules of engagement and ethics that have been established over decades. He clearly does not believe that America can only have one president at a time and in "elect" mode, he compromised the current president's standing and the nation's security by making outrageous statements on his favorite bulletin board, Twitter. His behavior over the last few weeks has been so egregious that I wonder if half the good people of this nation can see what they have gotten us into, focused on their selfish immediate needs.

His cabinet appointments consist of billionaires and generals with checkered pasts. Jeff Sessions his nominee for Attorney General, is a rabid supporter of the death penalty in addition to voicing controversial views on voting, civil and women's rights. As Attorney General of Alabama his pursuit of executions in spite of racial bias, defendants’ mental disabilities and other injustices raises concerns about how he will oversee federal capital prosecutions. It shows a total lack of commitment to due process and equality. Rex Tillerson, his nominee for the highest office in the cabinet, Secretary of State, is an oil baron with close ties to Vladimir Putin. He was awarded the highest civilian honor by the state for having extensive business dealings in Russia as the head of ExxonMobil, the largest oil company of the world. As he prepares to relinquish his position as head of the company he stands to gain a $180 million payout. Betsy Devos, a billionaire businesswoman is the nominee for Education Secretary. DeVos is a major Republican donor who has focused the bulk of her energy and political contributions on pushing to expand charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools. She has not worked in public education nor served in public office. To top it all Donald Trump has nominated more generals to his cabinet than any president since World War II.

Donald Trump became president of America without releasing his tax returns. The true nature of his  finances are largely a mystery. Even though his voters think he is a businessman with an impressive record no one knows the extent of debt Donald Trump and his businesses carry. By resisting to divest his financial holdings, Donald Trump is poised to run the White House like his family business to benefit himself and his associates. The law does not require Donald Trump to shed his business interests, and he is leading by example. The Office of Government Ethics requires all cabinet nominees to file an extensive form, the 278, that lists stock holdings, business interests, board seats and other arrangements benefiting them, spouses, minor children, business partners or potential employers. This form is to be filled out before senate confirmation hearings. The Office of Government Ethics reviews the form; flags potential problems; and negotiates an ethics agreement letter in which the nominee agrees to divest, resign or otherwise eliminate potential conflicts. The letter helps protect nominees if they are ever accused of gaining financial benefits from their public service. Many of Trump's nominees have filed incomplete forms or have not yet signed their ethic agreement letters. His transition team is trying its level best to railroad senate hearings circumventing this very important procedure that is in the interest of the public.

The people Donald Trump surrounds himself with, defines the way he is going to govern for the next four years. His closest advisor Steve Bannon is probably the most controversial of them all. An extreme right wing hawk, his influence on the president can set a social agenda that can be extremely corrosive and can gut the progress made on civil rights and equality. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, his son-in-law and daughter his closest allies, bring nepotism to the presidency in the most profound sense. Advisor Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor who has railed against government regulation in financial markets, will have the ear of the president at all times making sure the oligarchs have a say in the government. His other advisors include personalities from Fox News and Kellyanne Conway who has been his ardent mouthpiece through thick and thin and her lawyer husband.

The foundations of the Trump administration are rooted in corruption and nepotism. The recent revelations of Russia's meddling in American politics to anoint Donald Trump have been deeply troubling. But it has not dissuaded Donald Trump from supporting Vladimir Putin and shrugging aside intelligence reports as being devoid of hard evidence. His and his supporter's nonchalant response in this matter is unnerving at best. It seems like Donald Trump is leaning towards establishing a Putin style government right in the heart of one of world's largest democracy; a new world order presided over by generals and oligarchs.

Many might think this assessment is far fetched as the American system of government has robust checks and balances in place to prevent any president from amassing too much power. What Donald Trump has proven time and again is that he does not intend to follow the rules. So far he has successfully avoided adhering to any ethics rules and clearly does not see any conflict of interest between public service and personal financial gain. Surrounded by an army of lawyers, there is no telling what other challenges he will pose to an established system that has never been attempted before. Watching the Congress and Senate fall in line, the future of America and the world does seem to hang in the balance.

The only way I am able to make sense of Donald Trump's electoral victory is by framing it is as an "anomaly"; a freak occurrence that has baffled not only his opponents but also his supporters. I am sure it even baffled him. There is no question a vast number of people in this country voted for him for reasons they are still trying to articulate and defend. I have read all the explanations, analyses and  surveys out there, that have tried to rationalize his ascent. For many voting for Donald Trump I presume felt like the most anarchic thing they could do to rage against the machine. To me it felt like the most "unpatriotic" thing to do. But what is to come, only time will tell. People think he will be good for business. But if business means "profit over people" and everything else that we hold sacred, then that is what we deserve.

January 20th happens to be my birthday. Having been observing the Trump presidency take shape, out of trepidation, I for one will not be celebrating.

It is what it is.