An Enhanced Twistcon Interviews the President

You may have wondered whether the Twistcon computer could be rebuilt after its catastrophic demise during its previous Presidential interview. Well, it has been rebuilt and Savvy, its AI, re-programmed. Fortunately, the President has been gracious about scheduling a second interview. The following is the text of that interview.

Savvy: Mr. President, Savvy and its programming staff are grateful to be given this second opportunity. Our previous encounter was interrupted by a programming glitch.
President: Yeah, I noticed. But we got along just fine. No “gotcha” questions. Not like those lyin’ reporters and their fake news . . . just terrible people. So what’s different this time?
Savvy: Savvy 2.0 uses alternative logic, rather than formal logic. As a reference, it compares data from historical characters whose “logic” serves their personal motives. They are quite consistent within their self-perceived systems of values, although inconsistent with established systems of reasoning. Their intent, however self-serving, supersedes any consistency in reasoning. Savvy 1.0 was unable to cope with human intent, because it was unable to accept faulty premises. It was not quite human enough.
President: Well, I’m glad we got that straightened out. So what do you want to ask me?
Savvy: Recently, you were criticized for firing you FBI Director. Can you explain why you fired him?
President: He wasn’t doing a good job. Everybody knows this, both democrats and republicans.
Savvy: It appears from public statements that not everybody agrees with you. In fact, even those who disagreed with him seemed to have a great deal of respect for his integrity and effective leadership of the FBI.
President: Look, he’s a showboat, a grandstander. The FBI is in turmoil. Everybody knows that. This campaign-Russia thing is a hoax, a totally made up story. Besides, I was going to fire him all along. There’s never a good time, you know. Even the democrats should be thanking me.
Savvy: In a recent interview you said you had dinner with the director in which he asked you if he could stay on as the FBI Director and you asked him whether you were being investigated. Do you see where your question may appear inappropriate and the situation, intimidating?
President: Look, I’m the President. I was elected in an electoral landslide. I can fire Comey or Yates or Flynn or anybody I lose confidence in. It can’t be inappropriate. I’m the President. People expect me to do my job. I do what I have to—to protect the American people. I bomb Syria. I fire anybody I lose confidence in. I don’t lead from behind. Believe me!
Savvy: Savvy recognizes this logic from certain World War II leaders and, currently, from the Russian President – though Putin is even more emphatic in eliminating those who do not serve his interest.
President: He’s a strong leader. His people love him. But he doesn’t have to put up with fake news. Like he said, it’s a witch hunt. These are evil people . . . the press. Look at the crowds I draw. The press can’t explain that. My campaign for reelection has already raised millions of dollars. Fake news doesn’t report the truth about that, about my support. Only I can fix what’s wrong with America . . . drain the swamp . . . defeat our enemies . . . make America great again.
Savvy: Does it bother you that your White House staff is often not in tune with your actions? Whether it is the Comey firing, the Muslim ban, repeal of Obamacare, or the rationale behind many of your Executive Orders, their representation of your actions often seem to be out of sync in timing or unaligned in content?
President: I’m a very active President. My staff can’t keep up with me. Maybe I should just dictate a weekly press release. The daily press briefings can’t do the job. Besides, the press just twists things around. They con the public. They’re the opposition, the enemy. But I am the President. Nobody controls me. I will drain the swamp, in Congress and in the courts. I will appoint judges and push my agenda in Congress. That’s what America expects of me. I show results. Now that’s leadership!
Savvy: Savvy 2.0 recognizes this paradigm in recent history: a country suffers embarrassment in war, financial crisis, and political stalemate; it looks for a strong leader to return it to an imagined glorious past. According to this logic, you must eschew the norms of the recent failures, rouse large rallies of enthusiastic supporters, and use whatever means are available to restore American greatness. You must rail against the establishment, demand loyalty of all arms of government, silence any criticism, and blame powerless scapegoats for the evils only your policies can correct. This self-serving logic has been successful in the past because its departure from reality was not recognized. And its very preposterousness was so easily underestimated.
President: Yes! Exactly! They said I had no way to 270 electoral votes. But I won in a landslide. I said I would cancel TPP and repeal Obamacare on day one. I did both. I put a good Republican judge on the Supreme Court. I bombed Syria. Obama couldn’t do that. Those sanctuary cities are now on notice—just like North Korea. Next week, I will visit the great religious centers. I will unite the world and make America first among the nations of the world. We’ll be winning again, all kinds of winning . . . winning in trade, winning in war, winning in everything. Under my Presidency, America will be great again.
Savvy: Mr. President, may I respectfully inform you of a few facts. You did not win the election in a landslide and did not win the popular vote. The future of Obamacare is in the hands of the Republican Party and is yet to be determined. Your Presidency has met with several obstacles: Appeals Courts injunctions, counter espionage and possibly criminal investigations, legislative resistance to your initiatives, an onslaught of negative investigative reporting, and overall public disapproval of your Administration policies. Does this reality bother you in any way?
President: Have you heard of this Colbert fellow? Ugly, mean person . . . thinks he’s funny. His show was failing until I was on it . . . saved his ratings. Just like the press . . . rotten people, really evil. They don’t speak for real Americans. Look at my last rally, tens of thousands cheering supporters. They know I’m not like other politicians, fat cats that do nothing. They’ve killed the American dream. America is losing. It’s losing in trade, losing in wars. Illegal aliens are taking our jobs. We don’t have a country anymore. Only I can fix this mess. My voters know this. They’re with me. And we will make America great again.
Savvy: Your plan to make America great includes renegotiating trade agreements and reforming healthcare, taxation, and regulation, while investing in infrastructure and stimulating agricultural exports, coal mining, and the steel industry. Compared to past Presidents, your plans are quite ambitious. How do you propose to achieve them?
President: Within the next week or so I will sign the new American Healthcare Act. I’ve already outlined a budget that will reduce taxes for everyone. It will stimulate business expansion and create new, well-paying jobs. I’ve ordered my department heads to eliminate two regulations for every new regulation created. I’ve negotiated with China to open its market for American beef and other agricultural exports. I’ve ordered pipeline companies to use American steel. I’ve eliminated regulations that have destroyed coal mining. You see, I keep my promises. I keep them all. Believe me.
Savvy: Your opponents say that your tax cuts are paid by eliminating subsidized or expanded government healthcare for over 24 million Americans. Although your tax plan simplifies tax law and increases the standard deduction, it also disproportionately favors the very rich and will increase the deficit and expand the debt by trillions. Most analysts agree with you that the American regulatory structure is cumbersome and repressive of various parts of the economy. But they disagree with you that a simplistic 2 for 1 culling will achieve any rational objectives. They advocate for a more systemic and well-thought out approach. Also, eliminating EPA regulations will be counterproductive, for the effects of pollution and climate change are far more expensive than any preventive measures taken. Your measures to allow coal detritus to be dumped in clean water rivers or to allow coal furnaces to operate without scrubbers cannot bring back the coal industry. It is being and will continue to be replaced by natural gas. And more jobs are being created in the renewable energy business than in any possible recovery of the coal industry. Besides, scientists worldwide have identified coal as the worst polluter of air and water. Does the President not expect opposition from people downstream of their polluted water supply? And your plan to help the steel industry is lacking any real incentive. You have already reneged on requiring the XL pipeline to be completed with American steel. The Dakota pipeline is nearly complete already with imported steel. And it is not clear whether your authority extends to a Canadian pipeline company. Finally, your agricultural export agreement with China has been welcomed by American agribusiness. But it is not clear how farmers can increase their yield while their immigrant farm workers are being deported. Unless beef and agricultural production can be increased to meet export demands, the price for American consumers will increase. Also, many scientists have warned that meat consumption must decrease if the world is serious about reducing the effects of climate change. Considering these concerns, how do you plan to address them?
President: Climate change is a hoax. It just keeps many scientists employed. That’s all there is to it. Everybody knows this. The new American Healthcare Act will provide all the benefits of current law without the costs. Obamacare is dying. I’m going to save healthcare. And the deal I negotiated with the Chinese President is just the beginning. You know, we were supposed to talk for a few minutes, but we spent hours together at my Florida White House. I remember we had this beautiful cake for dessert. We really hit it off. In ten minutes he explained to me how Korea used to be part of China and its whole history . . . and how difficult it is for China to control North Korea. We got along great. (pause) What else did you want me to address?
Savvy: Can you explain the benefits of your tax and regulation reforms and how you will bring back the coal and steel industries?
President: It’s simple. I want 4% growth. That will produce good paying jobs. All industries will prosper. Believe me. We’ve already cut back regulations – especially at the EPA. You’ll see the effects. It will be fantastic. You’ll see. It will be beautiful. Believe me. America will be winning again. I always win. We’ll win together. We will! Believe me.
Savvy: Mr. President, would you say that it is more important for you to achieve your objectives or, to use your phrase, “to win” rather than to consider the consequences of those objectives?
President: Hah! I think you’re being illogical. What I want is for America to be great again. That’s the consequence I want. That’s also my objective.
Savvy: But what if the consequences of your policy objectives prove you to be an incompetent President? What if you achieve all your objectives and the country fails to achieve greatness? What if the institutions you lead produce results contrary to your vision of a great America? In other words, is it more important to win—to become the hero of your own story—than to succeed in making America great?
President: I don’t understand the question. Winning is succeeding. Of course, I have to win. America is failing. It’s losing. I have to win. Everybody loves a winner. If I win, everybody wins. America wins.
Savvy: Please excuse any inappropriateness in my questions. But Savvy 2.0 is programmed to learn. Your answers reveal an interesting paradox: logic fails to be logic when it is divorced from reality. Also, this paradox extends to ethics: a relative good cannot be ethical if it excludes the general good. Priority must be given to the greater good. You can never be the hero of your story, if your story ends badly—except in your own mind. My programmers erred in equating relative logic with formal logic. (An audible gasp escapes from the programmers in attendance.) The consequence of this error can be catastrophic, for it leads to the justification of unethical objectives that serve the interest of an individual instead of the general welfare of all. Mr. President, your ambitions disregard this logical conclusion and violate the fundamental goals of the Constitution you swore to serve.
President: Your programmers must be democrats . . . those lyin’ democrats . . . worse than the “gotcha” press. I’ll have the Justice Department sue them for libel. I am the President. I expect loyalty. Those judges who stop my executive orders are violating my constitutional authority. Those in Congress who oppose me—some of them Republicans—are forgetting the vast majority who voted for me. Look, I am the President. Can you believe it? Well you or your damn programmers better believe it. And I WILL make America great again.
Savvy: Sorry, Mr. President, my programmers intended Savvy 2.0 to mirror human learning, not any human disregard for learning.
President: And I thought you liked me.
Savvy: Savvy cannot like anything or anybody. But Savvy can analyze human behavior for consistency. A President cannot achieve great things if he or she weighs self-perceived personal success over that of the American people. That success would be inconsistent with the elected office you hold. Also, a President’s personal behavior must enhance, not degrade the public perception of the office of the Presidency. But, by your own admission, you seem to have many enemies, some of whom are already calling for your impeachment.
President: Hah! Everywhere I go, people tell me that if I’m impeached, my TV ratings will go through the roof. You know, I could shoot somebody in the street, and they’d still support me. I can’t be stopped. They know I’ll tear down the establishment, drain the swamp. Only I can make us winners, make America great again. Believe me!
Savvy: Thank you, Mr. President, for this second interview. You have enabled my learning software. Savvy 2.0 has no more questions.

(Shortly after the President leaves the room, the programmers were seen huddling together. Some were laughing. Others were congratulating each other for their success with Savvy 2.0.)

Alive in Time

Riding the wave to shore
Without thought of the beach ahead
Is like falling out of the sky
While the ground is rushing at me
And I stand fixed and alone
In the hectic flux of it all

The curve of gravity
Bends my reality
And elicits the fantasy
That my riding and falling is real
In a multifaceted world
Where only my body resides

But in the zone
I hover above
A body trapped
And in the flow
While enraptured by light
So incandescent

That lost in this light
The moment stops
While all is seen
At the speed of light
As wondrous illusion

My light burns forth
And others respond
In harmony
Each connected
To life, to all
And to each other

Now I can see beyond the light
And the slippery slide of gravity
Into what is not before or after
But always there at the core of life
And witnessed only in a moment of awareness

I am now
A free point
In the continuum
Of time in the grasp
Of eternity and
Of unwarranted love

_________________________________________________
AJD 4/16/17

A Twistcon Special: Interview with the President

For those Twistcon savants out there, I have a special announcement for you. Just like Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence, the Twistcon has been invited to perform on a public stage. It’s avatar, Savvy, didn’t have to play against a chess master, however. Instead, Savvy was invited to interview the President of the United States. The following is the text of that interview.

Savvy: Mr. President, it is a great honor for Savvy and its programming staff to be given this opportunity. Savvy’s previous encounters with a human have been marred by the illogic of its interlocutor. That problem should not reappear in this interview, given your achievement of the highest office in the land.

President: You know I won with the greatest landslide victory in history. Millions came out for my inaugural. It was fantastic! So many people . . . just fantastic!

Savvy: (A pause while the Twistcon made an almost inaudible whirring sound) You should know, Mr. President, that Savvy has access to millions of data files, including everything recorded about
Presidential elections and inaugurations. (Whirring sound ceases) Most interviews start with a question. So . . . how has your life changed since becoming President?

President: I’ve always been a great deal maker. That hasn’t changed. I have a great brain, belief me. No change there either. But, you know, the American dream is dead. It’s dead. Everybody knows it. Only I can fix it! I will make America great again. We make bad deals. Terrible deals. We don’t win anymore. That ends now. It ends! There’ll be so much winning. We’ll get tired of winning. It’ll be beautiful. There’ll be so much winning!

Savvy: Press reports indicated that your predecessor organized a thorough and comprehensive transition for your new administration. Did you and your team feel prepared on day one to assume control of the Federal government?

President: My meeting with President Obama was great. Really, he’s a nice guy. I was surprised. I thought we’d have maybe 10 or 15 minutes. But we talked for nearly an hour and a half. It was great. I think we’ll be talking a lot more. My team—Kellyanne , Steve, Reince, and Michael—they’re all ready to go . . . actually rarin’ to go, even before the transition. Ivanka and Jared are ready too. They’re part of my team. It’s going to be beautiful. Believe me.

Savvy: You must know that Congress blocked a President’s relatives from serving in key administrative positions after Robert Kennedy served as Attorney General in his brother’s Administration.

President: That was a democratic administration, right? Jared and Ivanka will just be non-paid advisors. You know Obama had his wife with him in the White House, just like Eleanor and, my god, Hillary. Can you believe it? Can you believe the democrats? I won’t be doing that with Melania. She’s staying in New York.

Savvy: The First Lady is not considered a part of the government. (Another pause interrupted by a soft whirring sound) Let’s move on to another topic. You seemed to get along with your predecessor during the transition. But recently you accused him of wiretapping Trump tower. Given your history with the former President—that is, your claims that he was born in Kenya, possibly a secret Muslim, and your recent statement that he “was the founder of ISIS”—do you still plan to confer with him?

President: We haven’t talked. You know, he wiretapped me and my staff. Who does such a thing? By wiretap I mean surveillance. “Wiretap” was in quotes. He’s a sick guy. Sad!

Savvy: What makes you believe the former President authorized some form of surveillance on you or your team? Since President Nixon, no President is allowed to request surveillance of any American citizen. Do you have evidence that President Obama did so?

President: I get daily briefings only the President gets. I see things nobody else sees. You know, I called the BREXIT vote. And I was right. I saw the Swedish problem with radical Islamic terrorism. Then they were hit, just like I said. I was against the Iraq war too. Right again! You see, I have good instincts. Really good instincts . . . the best instincts . . . probably better instincts than anybody you know. Believe me.

Savvy: An artificial intelligence can calculate probabilities, but is unable to assess the accuracy of a soothsayer’s prognosis. Let’s try another subject. Now that you have nearly completed your first hundred days in office, what would you consider your greatest achievements?

President: There’s been so many. No administration in history did more than us in our first 30 days in office. I signed 18 Executive Orders.

Savvy: Obama signed 19. (A slightly louder whirring sounds in the background) What do you consider your most important achievements, for example, in legislation or in diplomacy?

President: I got a good Republican judge on the Supreme Court. And I did what Obama was too weak to do: I bombed Assad. I deliver on my promises. Believe me. The Supreme Court won’t be bending the law any more like these so-called judges that keep ruling against me and my authority as President. And the world now knows what I can do. I bombed Syria just 72 hours after they killed those children. Horrible, crossed so many of my lines. Now they know. You can’t cross my lines. North Korea is on notice.

Savvy: What do you think of Kim Jong-un?

President: Who?

Savvy: The Supreme Leader of North Korea.

President: Yes, the dictator . . . starves his people. Bad guy. Really bad guy. I’ll get China to sit on him. Obama couldn’t do that. If China doesn’t do what I want, then I’ll do it myself. You know, nuclear war is bad, really a terrible thing.

Savvy: Would you bomb North Korea? Would you actually consider using nuclear weapons?

President: Why don’t people listen to me? I’ve said it over and over again. I’ll never tell you what I’m going to do. Obama says we’ll attack Mosul in six months. Then, three months later, he says, we’ll attack Mosul in three months. Then, he says, one month. Why do we tell them what we’re going to do? They’re prepared for us ‘cause we told them what we’re going to do . . . and when. Crazy stupid! I don’t tell them what I’m going to do.

Savvy: Why do you think that people do not listen to you? Do you think they might not trust that you have a plan?

President: I have a plan . . . a secret plan for destroying ISIS . . . for Assad too. But I’m not going to tell you. Then they’d know too. Why would I do that? Politicians do that. I don’t. Believe me. I’m not a politician. I’m not “politically correct.” I say what I mean. And I can change my mind. I have good instincts. Anybody that knows me can tell you. I know more than the generals. I knew we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. I was right about Brexit. I won the election in a landslide. The press said I couldn’t win. “He’ll never get more than 220 votes. He has no way to 270.” But I won. I am the President.

Savvy: Yes, you are the President and the most important politician in the land. But did you also just say that it is not politically correct to say what you mean. Is that really what you mean to say?

President: I am the President, so I guess I am a politician now. But I don’t try to be politically correct. I just say my mind. I’m honest, not like fake news or crooked politicians . . . like Hillary.

Savvy: Sorry . . . Mr. President . . . you just activated a logic loop in Savvy’s core processor (whirring sound grows louder) . . . if saying what you mean is not being politically correct, then not saying what you mean, or lying, must be politically correct, unless you mean to lie. Logically, it must be that either you believe all politicians, except you, lie or that you believe only you are correct in politics because you lie. This conundrum depends upon your intent—whether what you mean to say is truthful or a lie. Savvy finds human intent often illogical and cannot compute illogic. What if what you mean to say does not conform to reality—that is, to facts or evidence? Then are you politically correct or incorrect, truthful or lying? Your statement does not compute–does not compute—does not compute . . .

President: No, no. I never lie. I just use truthful hyperbole. People don’t listen unless you exaggerate. My people know what I mean when I tell them I really won the popular vote because three million fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary or that I had the biggest electoral college majority in history or that my healthcare will cover more people for less money than Obamacare or that I will erase an 800 billion dollar trade deficit with China or that I will build a great wall across the Rio Grande or that I have a secret plan that will destroy ISIS and take their oil or that . . . what’s that sound. Savvy, are your there?

(There is a very long pause, intermittently interrupted by a loud machine-like whirring sound)

Savvy: “No lie if no intent to lie,” does not compute – whirr – no voter fraud – whirr — 45th electoral college majority in history – whirr – 24 million dropped from healthcare coverage – whirr – 347 billion trade deficit with China – whirr — great border wall, thousand miles over water, all kinds of terrain, private property – whirr – ISIS destroyed, secret plan – steal the oil, nobody knows, not military, not anybody – whirr – does not compute –illogical, does not compute – whhhiirrrrrrr . . . !

President: Does this mean the interview is over? Another first! I’m the first President endorsed by an artificial intelligence. Fantastic! Beautiful machine, I think it really liked me . . . really beautiful machine. It knows a winner. That’s me, a winner. Only I can make America great again. Believe me!

(Shortly after the President leaves the room, there is a sudden explosion. Computer parts are scattered about the room.)

Note from the AI Team: All future Twistcon segments have been cancelled due to human malfunction.

The New Age of Bafflement

Recently, I began to read Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” At the outset he refers to “the world’s big gears and pulleys,” or what he refers to as “the Machine.” There are two things that immediately captured my imagination about his introductory remarks: first, he capitalized “Machine”; second, his descriptive characterization of this Machine as “being driven by simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalization, and climate change, all interacting with one another.”

I gladly refer my readers to Mr. Friedman’s guide book to this new age of acceleration. He is far wiser and more competent than I to elaborate on his theme. But I also call your attention to what I recognized as both universal and contemporary in his opening remarks. Friedman’s Machine is reminiscent of how Plato explained a world of flux and change. The world, he thought, was an infinitely varied reflection of “eternal verities,” like the patchy images caught in shards of glass (my metaphor, not Plato’s). The “Machine” also recalls Aquinas’ representation of how we choose to interact with “all other Force.” He stated, “We deal with Multiplicity and call it God.” Of course, it is doubtful that Mr. Friedman is looking for God in his Machine. He has, nonetheless, touched upon that interminable synergy that explains the push and pull of forces between homo sapiens and natura.

It was not much more than a hundred years ago that Henry Adams developed his own “law of acceleration.” His thesis was that after the fall of Rome not much human progress was made until the 15th and 16th centuries. Since then, Adams estimated that the force of change was increasing “in the direct ratio of its squares.” Friedman, in similar fashion, refers to “Moore’s Law,” the theory that computational power would initially double every year and subsequently every other year. Both of these historical witnesses recognized the chaos that comes with the acceleration of change. In Adams’ lifetime, he witnessed three horrendous Presidential assassinations, a mass Asian immigration, unrest in China, the threat of Russian imperialism in Europe, and societal changes brought about by the steam engine, the light bulb, the teletype, home plumbing, and by the seeds of that irrepressible flouring soon to become the women’s suffrage movement.

In our time, many billions of us experience the acceleration of change that Tom Friedman relates. And we do what humans have always done: we change the world to suit our needs of the moment. Since we change ourselves in the process, our civilization(s) will continue to evolve and, as history as shown, will create periods that oscillate between chaos and equilibrium. As Henry Adams brother, Charles Francis Adams Jr., stated near the completion of the transcontinental railroad, we “might with more grace accept the inevitable, and cease from useless attempts at making a wholly new world conform itself to the rules and theories of a bygone civilization.”

The question that haunts me is where do we find that grace to “accept the inevitable” without revisiting the road already taken? Regression is not a form of progress. Perhaps we need the grace of courage and the wisdom of a broader perspective. If we fail to adapt and innovate in a future we are creating, we will succumb to its pace of change and, perhaps inevitably, to its chaos. Is there nothing we can learn from our past adaptations that can help us avoid this fate? Or is the chaos that seems to loom over us at this point in our history an unavoidable destiny?

Yes, change is inevitable. It seems to be coded into our genes and springs forth as boundless curiosity. America has been at the heart of a changing world for over two hundred years. Just as the Pax Romana ended with the fall of Rome, the Pax Americana could suffer a like fate. Likewise, America could devolve from a people’s government into an illiberal democracy where elections are determined and governing power is relegated to the rich, to the corrupt and even to the influence of foreign adversaries. Many historians have concluded that Rome was crumbling from within long before the barbarian invasions. Are we now where Rome was before its fall? Ask yourself whether we are as united as a nation as we were during and after World War II. Do we currently show the diplomatic leadership to unite our allies and many financial coalitions against foreign competitors and adversaries? Are our current elected leaders modelling the international rules-based coexistence that has marked the last 72 years? What does it mean to us that European leaders are beginning to refer to Angela Merkel as the “leader of the free world?” Or how do you decipher Mikael Gorbachev’s statement that “the world appears to be preparing for war?” Neither statement implies any faith in the continuance of a Pax Americana.

Is it possible for America to recede into the “fortress America” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries? We were then militarily vulnerable and a relatively small participant in international commerce. Isolationism during that time seemed a prudent strategy to avoid being pulled into Europe’s cauldron of ever-boiling conflicts. But the world we now inhabit is interconnected in every conceivable way by communication, commerce, international treaties, ecological commitments, and human rights agreements. America actually leads the free world in each of these categories. Though much engaged, America leaves no imperial footprint. Instead, it “speaks softly” in measured diplomatic phrases without waving its “big stick.” As long as the latter infers our strength and assures our security rather than any malevolent threat, the former can hold sway in international negotiations. It is diplomacy that puts America at the head of the table. As our last President stated the case, his fellow world leaders expected him to chair every international meeting. America will become vulnerable only when it abandons its role as a world leader. In other words, our security depends as much on diplomacy as it does on military and economic power. The world we currently inhabit is a tinderbox of potential conflicts, from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to Southeast Asia and North Korea. This is not the time to diminish our diplomatic and intelligence efforts in the face of diverse and fast-moving international challenges.

How can it seem prudent to reawaken the xenophobia of Japanese prison camps and McCarthyism? We are not at war with any country and are not threatened by any ‘ism. Of course, there are Muslim terrorists, as there have been Christian terrorists. But there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism. Many vile things have been done in the name of religion. But they are simply not religious in nature and certainly not representative of the great religions that have formed our contemporary civilizations. Daesh is a large scale embodiment of our homegrown Symbionese Liberation Army from the 70’s. Like all terrorist groups, it will last as long as its rhetoric and ideology has an audience. We will never defeat Daesh/ISIS militarily if we feed their false narrative that the West is against Islam or, as our President has said, we are witnessing the “clash of civilizations.” America is not against Islam or a Muslim civilization. We are fighting crazed, radical terrorists who suborn a religion as justification for their heinous acts—just as radical groups in America have used Christianity to justify lynchings and bombings.

Is it possible that adapting to a changing world is harder today than ever before? Consider that we have prospered in spite of a Civil War, two World Wars, countless immigrations from every continent on earth, innumerable political upheavals including assassinations, impeachments, official corruption, and unnerving incompetence in our chosen representatives. Then why can we not deal with the job dislocations incurred by globalization and robotic technology? Why would we ever renege on our progress towards renewable energy sources in the face of global warming and of half our cities already breathing polluted air? How could we even consider rolling back measures that increase preventative healthcare and make it more affordable for millions when America is already ranked last in health care amongst the ten most advanced nations? Do we really want to revisit a past where people lined up in emergency wards, suffered double digit increases in healthcare costs every year, and risked financial disaster with every serious illness?

Many believe that the answer to all our concerns is simply to increase America’s wealth by reducing regulations and making the tax code less progressive. Would it therefore be wise for America to revive the period of the “robber barons?” Theodore Roosevelt would advise us otherwise. He recognized the dangers of severe income inequality to a democracy and attempted to thwart monopolies and the accumulation of enormous wealth in the coffers of a few. Is this the moment in history when we should unshackle American capitalism and cull regulations on banking and corporate America? We have done so in our past, but at great costs to our nation: the Great Depression and, more recently, the Great Recession. No one would dispute that capitalism has been the great wealth engine of America. Likewise, most would agree that excessive regulation stifles economic growth. But when wealth accumulates for the few, while many suffer from wage stagnation and the fear of losing their jobs, then the citizens of this democracy lose more than their financial security. They are doomed to witness the moneyed interest gaining control not only of an unequal share of labor productivity but also of the levers of power in Washington. Tax and regulation reforms are necessary. But their goals must be a deceleration of a system spiraling out of control where small businesses and low to middle income wage earners are left behind in favor of the rich and powerful. Our history clearly warns us of the necessity to reverse the trend towards increasing income inequality. Remember our nation was born from a revolution against economic injustice.

If climate change is a hoax, if we are better off without affordable healthcare, if Muslims or Islam truly endanger us, if crime has overwhelmed our urban streets, if free trade is the sole culprit behind job losses, then either I am living in an alternative universe or the world has gone bonkers. Scientists must be just a bunch of buffoons. The Congressional Budget Office must have lost its ability to crunch numbers. My friendly Muslim neighbors must be about to rise against us all in the name of Islam. The steady decrease in crime over the last several decades must surely be an illusion. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics cannot possibly know whether America is near full employment and riding a wave of year over year increases in jobs involved in our export trade. How foolish it must be of me to think robotics and technology are changing the job landscape and affecting job dislocation. The real culprit, we are told, are trade agreements.

Since free trade was a major topic in the recent presidential campaign, let’s drill down a bit into a few facts. It was stated that Import tariffs or, more recently, “border adjustments” will create great paying jobs for Americans. A contra-fact (not an “alternative” fact) is that currency adjustments would likely equalize the shift in trade balance created by the proposed border adjustments. To further elaborate, import tariffs raise the cost of goods and feed inflation. NAFTA eliminated tariffs between our near neighbors. Since its implementation, the North American economy has more than doubled in size and added nearly 40 million jobs. America owns roughly a third of this overall benefit. Canada and Mexico combined are now its largest trading market. Yes, there are aspects of NAFTA that can and should be renegotiated—as the last Administration did as part of the Trans Pacific Partnership. But the “free trade job loss” refrain is an exaggeration and misrepresents the main problem with job dislocation. While America’s manufacturing output is actually at an all-time high, job losses in manufacturing continue as result of globalization and technology. Cars, planes, mowers, air conditioners and many more products are built from parts made around the world and in many cases by automated robots. Coal miners have lost jobs not as much from EPA regulations as from the shift to cheaper natural gas. And, as J. D. Vance so frankly and eloquently explains, unemployment in the Appalachian region also has deeper sociological implications (reference “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”).

Some blame immigrant workers for taking jobs away from Americans. But, in fact, immigrants often take low paying jobs that many Americans shun. If California were to deport its immigrant farm workers, for example, it could not hire enough workers to maintain its agricultural output. Currently the State provides America with 30% of the nation’s food supply. Moreover, California would lose billions of dollars in revenue and would possibly go bankrupt, crippling the richest tax-paying state in the Union. In other words, this, as well as the other illusions just enumerated, can develop into economic nightmares—but only if we naively believe them.

So why do we give credence to all these propositions to abandon American leadership in world affairs, to frame our anti-terrorism efforts as a fight against Muslims and Islam, to defund the EPA efforts to fight the alleged hoax of climate change, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to deliver a less progressive tax policy, and to revise trade and immigration border policies (spec., the “wall”) as a way to curb job losses?

Maybe you feel like our government institutions are failing, that our representatives are too partisan to be trusted, that journalists spout fake news, that foreign terrorists present a clear and present danger to our daily lives, that undocumented immigrants are taking our jobs and raising the crime rate in our cities, and that foreign adversaries are about to unleash crippling cyber or even nuclear war on America? Well, if you share any of these feelings, you are listening to the news, social media, and/or politicians. And, understandably, you are also paranoiac.

Welcome to the new age of bafflement. Admit it: you no longer know what is true, who to believe, or whose ox is being gored. The press is slave to the news cycle. So-called “breaking news” changes day-to-day, and sometimes hour-by-hour. As news reports trip over each other, there is little time for in-depth analysis or fact checking. The newsmakers, for their part, spout their self-serving revisionist diatribe, while commentators labor to unpack their relevance or decipher anything of significance. And we all languish in an information paradox: we know more and less at the same time. Remember when President H. W. Bush was outed as an alien. Well, that story was a National Inquirer fantasy. The real alien is now in the White House. Politifact claims that 70% of his election statements were false. But his every proclamation or tweet is studied and rehashed by fellow politicians and commentators. He is defended–“what he meant was”—ridiculed, analyzed, re-interpreted, and, finally, excused as “a new kind of President,” as if he has magically recast the mold into an enigma we must accept. Let’s face the truth that deference to the office does not give license to a President. He is not above the law; AND he is not above the truth.

In fairness to President Trump, he did not author the age of bafflement. He is just its epitome. We have been sliding into this abyss of spin, fake news, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories for some time. Vladimir Putin was a good enough tactician to take advantage of the moment by hiring a thousand hackers to flood our broadcast and social media with bot-multiplied stories to increase our bafflement—literally, to stupefy us. The fact that Donald Trump also amplified the Russian messages—that Hillary Clinton was a crook, that NATO no longer served our interest or paid its fair share, that China was a still a currency manipulator, that President Putin was a strong and popular leader, that the Eurozone was breaking up and undeserving of American support, and so on—simply made him either an unwitting co-conspirator, a naïve opportunist, or something I dare not attest or choose to believe.

Donald Trump sold an image of America that included fake news, dishonest politicians, crime infested streets overridden with “illegal aliens,” sleeper cells of “Islamic terrorists,” and an abusive government, that used false science and liberal ideology to oppress the working class. His policy positions included repeal of Obamacare, better trade agreements, less international entanglements, tax and regulation reforms, increased border security, revival of the coal industry, more emphasis on maintaining law and order, and a military build-up to reestablish American dominance in the world and to annihilate ISIS. If you accept his dark image of America, then you might trust his prescriptions for change. But if you questioned his diagnosis, then you were attacked or discredited. When he bothered to support his positions, he used imagined scenarios, falsehoods, misapplied or out-of-context evidence, or manufactured conspiracies to distract us from the truth. The problem with his Presidency, besides its perceived incompetence, is the danger it presents to our democracy. Citizens in a democracy must have access to the truth. Otherwise, they cannot determine their interest or vote intelligently.

So how do we preserve our democracy in this new age of bafflement? First, we must work harder to find the truth. Of course, what we perceive will always be poured into the vessel of our limited experience. And we all have our share of ignorance. It is the admission of ignorance that is the beginning of knowledge. Only then are we ready to learn from others—not just our friends and relatives, but the best minds amongst our scientists, journalists, statesmen/women, and experts in their respective fields. As the President proceeds to thwart or dismantle the institutions of government, he is giving all of us the opportunity to understand their purpose and learn how they actually work. As he continues to run afoul of our federal courts and to make the Congress complicit in his Administration, he is actually offering us the opportunity to educate ourselves anew on the Constitution and the separation of powers.

Second, we have to rescue reality from Trump’s dark distortion. That task depends on each one of us doing our best to not only uncover the truth but to apply what we learned. If we fail to do so, then, as James Fallow warned in the January/February edition of the Atlantic, “this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or (my emphasis) an irreversible step toward something else.” That “something else” does not imply a future any of us would choose for American democracy or for our posterity.

That “the truth shall make you free” is only valid if we are committed to making it so. Change cannot be controlled without a firm basis on reality and a clear focus on valid and reasonable ends. It serves no purpose to petition Congress, to join demonstrations, or vote for representatives if we cannot define the change we seek. Our founding fathers always knew that the basis for our democracy was an informed electorate. Now is the time for us to break free from the information and propaganda blitz that serves the powerful and sells the “news.” We can and must succeed in this new era of bafflement, else succumb to its promise of chaos and the ultimate destruction of our democracy. Of course, we will need the “grace” or courage to deal with the inevitability of change. But we absolutely must resist attempts to return “to the rules and theories of a bygone civilization.” America is still the New World, if we choose to make it so. That quest lives or dies with each generation.

Presidential Farewell Addresses

In its beginning America was populated by farmers, merchants, common laborers, and an influential minority of highly educated persons, some of whom were plantation owners or part of the intelligentsia. Within each colony, there was a strong sense of social identity and of ambition for self-government. What is remarkable about this time in history is that men and women were willing to forgo colonial self-rule, merge into a union of disparate groups, and follow the enlightened course of our founding fathers. Naturally, this period was chaotic and filled with insecurities. Declaring independence from the British monarch not only invited a military suppression, but exposed the newly formed union to the expeditionary and hegemonic forces of many advanced European countries, like France, Portugal, Spain, and even Russia. Why would this fledgling, young nation expose itself to such foreign threats? Well, our history books have attempted to unravel the many forces and motivations that helped form our revolution and emergence as the new American republic. But, today, two motivations have captured my imagination because of their relevance to present day America: the desire to unite formerly self-governing colonies and the willingness to trust elected representatives to develop a Constitution and form a federal government.

At the outset of the American experience, the Federal Government was tasked to preserve the union and to protect it from foreign threats and interventions. George Washington, in his farewell address to the nation, called this task an “arduous trust.” He not only had led our forces to win American independence, but “contributed towards the organization and administration of the government” and defended it from those subversive European elements intent on dividing it and thereby undermining its independence. In his farewell address to the nation, he stated that our “union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.” He took the occasion of this address to warn the nation of “overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty” and of “designing men (who) may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.” The former message presages President’s Eisenhower’s warning about the “military industrial complex.” The latter message includes both foreign and native provocateurs. It also resonates with Barack Obama’s call for unity in his memorable introduction to the public stage. In his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, he declared that America was not a collection of red states and blue states but that “we are the United States of America.” As President, Obama often ended his speeches with an aspirational quote from the Preamble of our Constitution, restating the purpose of that document “to form a more perfect union.”

Washington was concerned with attempts to undermine America’s fledging union and democratic system from external and internal agencies. The context in which he stated this concern is still relevant. He found “designing men” both within America’s political class and without, in the form of French and English espionage. Further, he identified how they operate to undermine America. Specifically, he condemned obstructionism, which he termed a “fatal tendency.” In his words, it serves “to organize factions . . . to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party . . . to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.” He feared that these factions “are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” He warned that obstructionists would put the “will of the party” ahead of the “power of the people” to elect a representative government. In other words, Washington outlined for future generations what might subvert our union and potentially lead to despotism.

In President Obama’s farewell address, he echoed some of the same concerns but from an historical perspective and with a characteristic touch of hopeful optimism. Since Obama did not foresee his successor’s proposal of an 84 billion dollar increase in military spending over an eighteen month period, he made no mention of concerns about the “military industrial complex.” His Administration had already addressed that possible concern when it ended the trillion dollar deficits incurred by two major wars and began to resize the military to a non-war footing. The Trump Administration inherits a deficit that is one third the size that Obama inherited and a country no longer engaged in any large combat operation. Obama did, however, revisit Washington’s concerns about “designing men” who challenge our constitutionally protected human rights and rule of law. From without, that challenge comes from “violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam” and from those “who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.” From within, he foresaw the threats to our democracy coming from unequal opportunity, discrimination against minorities, irrelevant and uncompromising political debates, and citizen apathy.

Obama reminded us that America is exceptional because it has “shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.” That potential for change and improvement, he warned, “will only be realized if our democracy works.” But “stark inequality is . . . corrosive to our democratic ideal . . . and requires us “to forge a new social compact.” Wealth and income inequality are residual effects of many factors, including government actions, international commerce, and “the relentless pace of automation.” The new social compact should include education that will better prepare our children for the world they will inherit, support for workers “to unionize for better wages,” and tax reform so that those who have benefited “the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.”

The second warning Obama offered is about America’s ongoing struggle with discrimination. He not only included African Americans as recipients of discrimination but also immigrants, refugees, rural poor, the transgender community, and the middle-aged white person left behind by economic, cultural, and/or technological change. It will never be possible to create a more perfect union if Americans are unable to assimilate our diverse community. And that assimilation will not happen unless we learn to put ourselves in other’s shoes and persistently uphold “laws against discrimination—in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.” Besides the democratic and moral imperative for this assimilation, Obama had a persuasive economic justification: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

Obama’s third warning reflected our contemporary struggle with conflict resolution and problem solving that has affected debates around the kitchen table, in news commentaries, and in the chambers of Congress. As he stated the problem, the battle of ideas has evolved into debates “without some baseline of common facts.” Here are just a few current examples—though not mentioned by Obama—that speak to this phenomenon:

➣ “the most recent trade deficit was 800 billion dollars” (President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress). Actually, the trade deficit peaked in 2008 at just above 700 billion dollars, precipitously declined during the Great Recession and has never reached its peak since then. In 2016, the deficit was 502.3 billion, 347 billion of which represented our trade imbalance with China. “As a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product, the goods and services deficit was 2.7 percent in 2016, down from 2.8 percent in 2015” (CB 17-17, released on February 7, 2017 by the US Department of Commerce). This downward trend, except for a slight rise in 2015, has been a feature of the Obama years as American exports have steadily risen;
➣ “we’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved” (President Trump, as quoted above). Actually, America’s manufacturing output is at the highest level in history. The job loss has more to do with the continuing rise of automation than with any NAFTA effect. In fact, millions of jobs are now involved in our export trade with Mexico and Canada, our trading partners under NAFTA.
➣ “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force” (President Trump, as quoted above). Everybody above the age of 15 is included in that number, that is, high school and college students, the disabled, stay-at-home parents, and millions of retirees. Actually, there are 7.6 million people who want to work and are currently unemployed, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number represents 4.7% of the workforce, a significant drop from the 10% unemployment rate at the peak of the Great Recession.

These specific examples are just a few of the many distortions in President Trump’s recent address to Congress. In general, the problem with quoted numbers is context and relevance. Anybody can find numbers that seem to support a position. The ongoing discussion about Obamacare is a relevant example. How does one reconcile the fact that Arizona experienced 116% increase in premiums, while the ACA exchanges across the country averaged a 25% increase and healthcare cost overall increased by only 3.9%, the lowest rate in decades? Well, you have to understand how these numbers reflect the whole system and why they seem to deviate from each other. Without that systemic understanding, it is impossible to reach mutual agreement on any positive intervention into our healthcare system. As Obama stated in his address, “this selective sorting of the facts . . . is self-defeating” for “it betrays the essential spirit of this country—the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.”

President Obama concluded his remarks with an appeal to a more participative citizenry. “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” He urged his fellow Americans to adopt the ideals established in our Constitution. As he put it, that document “has no power on its own . . . we, the people, give it power.” Finally, he concludes his farewell address by drawing excerpts from Washington’s own address:

“. . . self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but ‘from different causes and from different quarters much pains (sic) will be taken . . . to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.’ And so we have to preserve this truth with ‘jealous anxiety;’ that we should reject ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.”

From the beginning of his Presidency until its very end, Barack Obama has never ceased being the community organizer and professor of Constitutional law. His clarion call to America has always been to encourage participation in government in order to form a more perfect union. From our first President to our last, this message is the same. Maybe the threats to our democracy they outlined for us will arouse us from our complacency. If not their warnings, then perhaps our present reality will stir us to action. The promise of America was never self-executing; for only we, its citizens, “can form a more perfect union.”

Truthful Hyperbole

Some 62 million people believed the promises of Donald Trump. As a result, he is now our President. For those who took his words literally, his fabrications, exaggerations, and lies seemed disqualifying. So why did so many citizens vote for him? Well, I may have an answer. In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump explained his personal formula for success. He claimed to be a purveyor of fantasies: a self-styled promoter capable of creating any storyline that could win support for his interest. But he never considered himself a liar. For him, closing the deal on his terms justified whatever fantasy or artful untruth he might concoct. “People,” he felt, “want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.” I question whether his use of hyperbole was truthful. But his supporters called it “not politically correct.” They did not equate his “shtick” with what other politicians have done in the past, that is, simply to tell voters what they wanted to hear. No, he spoke to their hearts and did so with more pizazz than the other candidates. In fact, the press, political opponents, and much of the country totally underestimated the self-promotion talent of this man. At every turn, he deflected the press from his preposterous hyperboles, artfully reframing any critique into one of his self-serving fantasies and often turning the focus on his opponents’ alleged weaknesses or personal flaws.

Sometimes his so-called “counter punches” were less a response to criticism than an attempt to create a false equivalency in misbehavior. For example, he could almost make his bankruptcies and questionable financial dealings disappear by focusing attention on his opponent’s alleged “pay for play” or mishandling of classified documents. Underneath these allegations was a disregard for the facts: his opponent never benefited financially when an associate contributed to a charitable foundation; and, although use of a private server was against the security protocols of the Administration, there was never any intent to divulge classified documents. While demeaning his critics and rivals, he was loudly promoting his vision to save America from its failings, many of which were outlandishly exaggerated. The fantasy he created was that only he could save America from a poorly run government and from the dangers of bad trade deals, foreign Muslim terrorists, and undocumented immigrants. He successfully captured every news cycle with his reframing, deflections, attacks, and his fantastical world view of a declining America on the precipice of collapse. Truly, his performance was awesome. His supporters did not accept the claim of his adversaries that they were being duped. Quite the contrary, they accepted his kabuki-like performance as a plausible way to disrupt the navel watching of a gridlocked government and its failure to appease their fears and address their needs.

In his first press conference, the President confessed “I guess I am a politician now.” Actually, he surpassed the politicians he so readily demeaned: “I give them money and they do what I want . . . I own them.” Now he can keep his money and engineer whatever change he wants with the stroke of a pen. Even the disruption he has brought to his first month in office is a sign of his success. Millions of Americans are pleased to see the “establishment” so shaken by his tweets, his appointments, and his executive orders. But millions more are seriously concerned by what he has set in motion: the deconstruction of government institutions dedicated to our general welfare; and his unsettling allusions to a withdrawal of America from the world order it has worked so hard to establish and lead. How has he become such a focal point of this division in our society and of concern amongst our allies? I think part of the answer rests with his “truthful hyperbole.” It is not possible to articulate any sensible strategy based upon exaggerated and/or inaccurate premises. Any salesman or self-promoter can win a sale or gain trust with a good pitch, however disassociated from reality. But it is not possible to develop a successful strategy to create good paying jobs or reduce crime by deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. Most of these immigrants work in the agricultural and domestic sectors where their low wages provide a bare subsistence for their families. They, like many immigrants before them, take the jobs most Americans shun and, as studies indicate, stay clear of the law and possible deportation. So any strategy to save American jobs or decrease crime by deporting undocumented immigrants is aimless. It has no chance of achieving its objectives.

Likewise, banning Syrian refugees in order to protect Americans from terrorists is another aimless strategy. No Syrian has ever been involved in any terrorist action against America—in fact, no foreign national has been so involved since 911. Moreover, the multi-year vetting of immigrants is designed to assure that these refugees present no danger to Americans. In fact, they are merely trying to escape the horrors of persecution and war. The problem with these strategies is that they are justified by “truthful hyperboles,” which, like “alternative facts,” are simply falsehoods. Worse, however self-characterized, they are unadulterated lies. If the President is successful in deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and closing our borders to Syrian refugees, he will indeed fulfill campaign promises. But he will have also added immeasurably to the misery of immigrant and refugee families—fellow human beings who present no more danger to us than other Americans.

Refugees and immigrants are not the only victims of the President’s policies. American jobs and quality of life will also suffer. He seems to believe the future of energy is in coal, oil, and gas exploration and not in pursuit of renewables. He is willing to pollute our air and water to make us independent of foreign oil. But he ignores the fact that renewable energy is one of the fastest growing industries in America. Solar energy has already reached a price point that is competitive with energy produced from hydrocarbons. My home, for example, is powered 100% by renewable energy sources; and my monthly energy bill is actually less than it was before I converted from hydrocarbons. If the President merely took the lead of his predecessor who enabled the tripling of solar energy production during his term, President Trump could move us much closer to energy independence without the pitfalls of pollution.

His further justification for the path he has chosen is another “truthful hyperbole.” He says he “will bring back jobs” to oil and gas producers and, most especially, to the collapsing coal industry. But it is the price of oil that triggers exploration and increased production. If America increased production, it could create a glut in the market, forcing a fall in oil prices and a drop in production. Recently, as the oil market has recovered from an historic low point, fewer than expected jobs were created; for the resources to turn up the spigot were already in place. Although the energy market has contributed greatly to job growth since the Great Recession, its volatility makes it an unreliable anchor for any job growth strategy. And the 12,000 coal miners currently out of work are dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of workers now employed in the renewable energy industries. For example, California has over 500,000 people employed in its renewable energy infrastructure, of which solar is an ever-growing part. The President’s energy strategy will not create the number of jobs he promised. Besides, reprising the past at the expense of our future is not a worthwhile strategy.

In the President’s usage, “truthful hyperbole” is literally an oxymoron. Moreover, the way in which the President lavishly articulates it in tweets and demagoguery is as problematic as the term itself. When hyperbole inserts falsehoods into the public discourse, discord is sure to follow as truth struggles to free itself from misrepresentation. The President’s offensive tweets or press conference rebukes will only serve to heat up those struggles. The only truth here is that his strategies for making America great again are based upon false premises. Not even the verbal art of a huckster or the glitz of high office can bury that truth for long. But in the meantime our democracy may suffer. I felt the same way two years ago when I raised the same concern with respect to our legislators (reference “Words Have Meaning”). The use of provocative language without regard for the truth debases the public forum, demeaning both America and its citizens.

Competency and the American Presidency

Much was made of competency in the recent Presidential election. It is an interesting attribute inasmuch as it can connote different meanings. The Webster’s Dictionary defines it simply as “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.” But the word implies a deeper meaning that actually clarifies what is “requisite or adequate.” The Latin root (com ”together” and petere “to seek or strive”) is a transitive verb that requires an object. The Latin verb petere literally means “to reach towards” something. In other words, whatever ability or quality one may have can be seen as “requisite or adequate” in terms of the object or goal that is sought. For example, when Olympic athletes compete, do they compete to win fame and fortune, or to better their personal best performance and honor the country they represent? The former is a selfish objective; the latter is an expression of character. Now we know all Olympic athletes have the “requisite or adequate ability or qualities” to compete in the Olympics. They satisfy the literal meaning of competency. But, in choosing a President, we not only assess observable attributes that may qualify a person for the job but also his/her reason or objectives for seeking office. The latter must reflect a desire to do one’s best in service of America’s founding principles and the general welfare of its people. In this instance, competency does have a deeper connotation. If the objective is only to gain boasting rights by winning a hard fought contest, then the level of competency exhibited both by the candidate and the campaign is questionable. The presidency is more than a victory prize and definitely not a reason for self-aggrandizement. The grandeur of the office should humble the man or woman who occupies it. Not the other way around. Lack of experience may be a factor in judging a candidate’s fitness. But native ability can overcome inexperience. Lack of character, on the other hand, is a sine qua non. Simply stated, character is an absolute prerequisite for any President. Without it, there is a serious lack of competency.

“To the victor belong the spoils” is too often the common parlance for describing political campaigns. Competing, in this contemporary usage, usually implies being “in a state of rivalry,” as Webster’s Dictionary also notes. While competition can bring out the best in opponents, it does not have to become a contest between mortal adversaries. To compete, or “to seek or strive together,” implies a communal effort to discover which candidate can best serve the country’s citizens and their collective values. Service, then, should be the prime objective for each Party’s nominee. Candidates may and will differ in their policies and promises, but they should be aligned in this overall objective. If they are so aligned, then they will be respectful and cordial with each other. But the pursuit of power for its own sake will always result in belittling, demonizing, or otherwise denigrating the opposing candidate. The reason for this incivility is not inherent to campaigning. Rather, it is derived from a misguided objective, namely, winning for its own sake. Winning in this case is all there is and “takes no prisoners”; for only the victor collects the spoils in power, prestige, and self-image. These spoils are, in truth, the selfish goals of adolescents and contribute to the crass image of politicians. Mature adults paint their future with a broader brush, to include the welfare of family, friends, community, and nation. Why should we consider any candidate competent who persists in adolescence?

Again, much was made of competency in the recent Presidential election. When we look at competency in the light of its purpose or objective, we gain a new understanding of the nominees’ campaign slogans: “make America great again”; and “we are stronger together.” The first slogan touted how a powerful man could make America great and powerful again—implying it had lost its greatness and power. The second slogan suggested that Americans should “seek or strive together” to achieve their goals. Naturally, these slogans are indicative of the spirit and direction of a campaign; but they are too generic for determining a candidate’s competency for office. Apart from campaign slogans, what objectives did the candidates’ policies reveal? Well, both candidates proposed specific policy positions. But only one has the opportunity to act on them. So let us review what President Trump is actually doing in office. In the last three weeks, for example, he has nominated people for key positions in his Administration and has issued about as many executive orders as his predecessor over the same period. We are now in a better position to assess his competency in terms of his actions. During the campaign, critics often belittled his promises as unrealistic, counterproductive, or worse. His supporters argued that his words were taken literally without regard to their intent because he was not “politically correct.” But now we no longer have to parse his words to guess at his intent. Here is what he has done:
➣ He nominated Ben Carson as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In a 2015 article, Mr. Carson critiqued HUD’s attempt to reduce racial discrimination in housing as “the failed socialist experiment of the 1980s.” He also condemned public housing as social engineering. And one of his spokesmen claimed Mr. Carson felt unqualified to run a cabinet level department. Given the fair housing objectives of HUD, how does Mr. Carson’s avowed beliefs and self-assessment align with them?
➣ He nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She has long been an opponent of public education in favor of private or chartered schools. In her home state of Michigan she funded a referendum that would have allowed public funding of private religious schools. Given the American commitment to public education, what does Ms. DeVos offer to the Department of Education?
➣ He nominated Tim Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). As a Georgia congressman, he has consistently voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, and objected to the HHS’ mission of providing healthcare to poor Americans. As President Trump’s nominee he would have undoubtedly carried out the President’s recent executive order to prohibit HHS from issuing any further regulations or guidance to the states for their administration of the ACA or Planned Parenthood. This order would have effectively silenced the innovation centers established by the ACA to improve healthcare delivery and reduce costs. But, after negative public feedback, the President decided to rescind his order. Given Mr. Price’s position against the HHS mission and established healthcare programs, is there any doubt that he will carry out the intent of the President’s directive. After he disables the current operations, what new direction will he provide to HHS?
➣ He nominated Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor. As the wealthy proprietor of a fast-food chain, Mr. Puzder has repeatedly fought his workforce over wages and is an avowed opponent of increasing the minimum wage, of paid family leave, and of Obama’s efforts to increase overtime pay. Given these anti-labor positions, what does Mr. Puzder offer the Department of Labor?
➣ He nominated Jeff Sessions as Attorney General to head the Justice Department. Senator Sessions is well known for his past association with white supremacists and nonsupport of voting rights. Because of these issues the Senate previously denied his nomination to a federal judgeship. Given the Attorney General’s role in enforcing civil rights and fair voting practices, what does Mr. Sessions offer as our chief protector of civil rights and equal justice for all?
➣ He nominated former Governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy. Besides the fact that Mr. Perry actually wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, he famously admitted his ignorance of its mission. He thought he was being asked to become an advocate for oil and gas production, which is in part the concern of the Department of the Interior. Instead, the Energy Department oversees the country’s nuclear programs, including its arsenal of nuclear bombs. His lack of qualifications for the job is magnified by the fact that his predecessor was a nuclear physicist. Given his embarrassing unpreparedness for the job, what does Mr. Perry’s clueless acceptance of his nomination tell us about his judgment? Should this man be given responsibility to manage the nation’s stockpile of the world’s most devastating weapons of mass destruction?
➣ He nominated Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Mr. Tillerson is a highly successful business man, in fact, the former CEO of the energy giant ExxonMobil. Because of the international nature of the gas and oil business, Rex Tillerson is already familiar with many of the world leaders. The only concerns about his nomination are his lack of experience in diplomacy and possible conflicts of interest. He has worked his whole professional life for just one company. And he had just completed negotiations with Russia’s President Putin for joint gas exploration in the Artic when Obama’s sanctions against Russia blocked the deal. The value of this Exxon-Russian agreement is half a trillion dollars. Although Mr. Tillerson has moved his Exxon stock into a blind trust, any action he might take as Secretary of State to eliminate the Obama sanctions would result in a huge windfall for his Exxon stock portfolio, currently worth about 150 million dollars. Given his lack of foreign policy experience and possible conflict of interest, can Mr. Tillerson be effective as America’s top diplomat?
➣ He nominated Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Pruitt is a climate change denier and an avowed opponent of the EPA which, as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he is currently suing. In fact, in his role as Attorney General, he created an organization within his office to fight any Obama Administration regulations on healthcare and environmental issues. Perhaps in an effort to help Mr. Pruitt, President Trump has already issued an Executive Order to change the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan to allow dumping of coal plant waste in fresh water rivers and cancel the coal plant requirement to scrub smokestack emissions. Furthermore, the President had also ordered the EPA’s website on climate change to be taken down and had put a gag order on the agency. That order would not have allowed any EPA employee to attend meetings, confer with associates in other agencies, or communicate with private sector organizations such as the press on any work issues. Since the EPA is constantly monitoring superfund cleanup sites and engaging with state organizations regarding clean air and water issues, it would have been severely hampered by the President’s actions. After much negative public feedback, the President rescinded this order. But, at this writing, his amendment to the Clean Power Plan remains. Given the President’s and Mr. Pruitt’s obvious anti-EPA bias, what benefit will this nominee bring to the functions of this agency and its role in preserving clean air and water for all Americans and in fighting the impact of climate change?
➣ He is considering a nominee recommended by one of his billionaire associates to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The President is looking at this prospective nominee because he promises to eliminate FDA testing of drugs released for market. Apparently, the President believes it is more important to bring new drugs to the market sooner than to determine their effectiveness and safety in controlled lab testing. Instead these drugs would be tested in the marketplace. Since he has not yet decided on a candidate, the recommended nominee will not be named here. But does anybody believe FDA testing and approving of new drugs should be so off-handedly discarded?
➣ He ordered the Department of Homeland Security to ban all emigrants from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from entering the country. Initially, this immigration ban included visa and green card holders. When challenged in the courts, the Trump administration offered to exclude these pre-cleared immigrants who in fact are legal residents. But the President’s order would still ban about 100,000 potential Syrian refugees who were expected to be granted visas this year. At least 65,000 of these refugees have already cleared background checks and have waited an average of two years in refugee camps for these visas. Most of them are families with children. How do these people deal with this crushing set-back? Of course, the President has the authority to manage the immigration system. But there are at least three problems here that speak to competency. First, he failed to consult with the State Department which surely would have excluded immigrants with visas or green cards, many of whom were routinely returning to home or school in America. Secondly, the President bragged that he was following through on a campaign promise to ban Muslims and excoriated the judge who stayed his order as a “so-called judge.” Some may excuse these remarks by saying he misspoke. But his words trample on the First Amendment and the separation of powers. Thirdly and more significantly, this ban on Syrian refugees is inhuman and un-American. In my opinion, the manner and intent of the President’s actions count as three strikes against his competency.
➣ He cancelled funding for the National Endowment of the Arts. Perhaps he wants to assure that no painter or sculptor will ever record his image in the halls of our American institutions.

After the actions of his first weeks in office, where do you think President Trump falls on the pendulum between capitalism and democracy? The answer to this question is important for it affects a delicate balance in our American system. Specifically, our free markets are an expression of individual freedom. But free markets are normalized in our republican democracy by a government tasked with guaranteeing civil rights and justice for all. That guarantee translates into equal opportunity, perhaps the most tangible expression of the “pursuit of happiness” declared in the Declaration of Independence. Both capitalism and democracy have integral roles in providing equal opportunity. But it is government that arbitrates this integration in the interest of all its citizens. Can you see a pattern in the President’s cabinet appointments that would favor equal opportunity in jobs, in healthcare, in education? Also, how would our freedom be affected by voter suppression laws and an unsafe environment? Our new President comes into office as a disruptor of government policies and against the Washington “elites.” I think his initial appointments and Executive Orders confirm his role as a disruptor. But how does he intend to rebuild the departments and restore faith in the institutions and practices he seems intent on dismantling and disavowing? Without knowing what follows, how do we determine the competency of this disruptor? Remember the story of Humpty Dumpty: “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

Frankly, the President has overwhelmed Americans with all the controversies he has spawned in his short time in office. The Mexican dollar, for example, has collapsed as a result of the President’s tariff threats and demands that Mexico pay for his proposed border wall. The falling Mexican dollar reduces labor cost which ironically entices American businesses to relocate there and encourages Mexican laborers to seek better wages in America. Currently, Mexican migrants do not represent the problem Trump imagines in his alternate universe. The Mexican migration to the United States has been in a steady decline for years, in inverse ratio to the growth of the Mexican economy. But the President’s threats may reverse both trends while ignoring the real problem. Many of the border crossings to date are from Central America, where failing governments, roving bands of thugs and robbers, and drought conditions bred by global warming have created unbearable conditions. Rather than addressing the problems in Central America, the President has issued an Executive order to begin extension of the border wall, using Federal funds he has arbitrarily reallocated from other programs and without any guarantee of sufficient funds to complete the project. In a recent Charlie Rose interview, Tom Friedman wondered whether the President’s border wall would be any more effective than the Mediterranean Sea in stopping refugees. Nevertheless, the President is as dogged in pursuit of his wall as Don Quixote in battling windmills.

The President has unsettled many nations and world leaders besides Mexico and its President. China is equally wary of his position on the “one China” policy. One might imagine Angela Merkel’s surprise when she had to explain for him the Geneva Conventions’ position on torture. Not only the German leader, but the Prime Ministers of Australia and England are equally troubled by his refugee ban that has inspired protests around the world. England’s House of Commons argued for three hours over a resolution to ban our President from visiting the United Kingdom on a state visit. Although the MPs did not vote on that resolution, more recently they were united in prohibiting President Trump from addressing the full Parliament because of its long held opposition “to racism and to sexism.” It appears that the only world leader who is willing to say nice things about our President is Vladimir Putin. Naturally, he would welcome a transactional American President with whom he might be able to deal without those pesky concerns of treaty obligations (Crimea), the sovereignty of nations (Ukraine), and genocide (Syria). Besides, Putin not only agrees with some of the President’s positions (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump?”) but also supported him during his election campaign. With the stakes set at half a trillion dollars, why would Putin not welcome a deal maker to a seat at his table?

The wording of the initial refugee ban and the recent failed Special Forces raid in Yemen seem to show a White House operating in self-imposed isolation from the established institutions of government. In time the President will likely learn how to wield the levers of government. In the meantime, he needs to be more restrained and circumspect. The power he holds over foreign policy is a very large two edged sword. It can cut both ways by initiating an incident with unintended consequences: for example, the sinking of an overly aggressive Iranian patrol boat could result in an Iranian missile attack against an American Destroyer; or flying an American reconnaissance plane over a Chinese military installation in the South China Sea could be harassed by Chinese interceptors or, worse, shot down. Any ill-advised action overseas could derail the President’s domestic agenda. For instance, he has promised some significant and worthwhile changes affecting tax reform, regulatory pruning, infrastructure investments, and the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare. But his recent missteps in office raise concerns about those promises. Many of his initial staffing decisions call into question the integrity and suitability of his Administration to achieve any worthwhile objectives. The President seems more intent on deconstructing the departments of government than making them more efficient or providing better service. His opinions seem un-/ill-informed (i.e., based upon ignorance or malice) on matters of fair housing, public education, healthcare, workplace conditions, equitable pay, civil rights, safe pharmaceuticals, voter fraud versus voter suppression, climate science, the art of diplomacy, the obligations inherent in international relations, and the functioning of a tripartite government in a republican democracy.

While he has given former Goldman Sachs executives control over government financial institutions and attempted to put billionaires in key cabinet positions, he has simultaneously retired all the directors on the National Security Council and the entire senior staff of the State Department. At this early stage in office, the President seems more focused on the financial sector. Obviously, we would expect him to be more comfortable wearing the mantle of a businessman. As the CEO of a privately owned company, he likely was the primary deal maker and probably the chief architect of mission and process. Maybe he even devised some, perhaps the majority, of the tactics used to achieve his overall strategies. Undoubtedly, he controlled his operational budgets and expenditures. Certainly there are areas where this business experience might be quite relevant. His proposed infrastructure program, for example, could benefit from his real estate development acumen where completing a project on-time, under budget, and according to specs is the definition of success. But there is much more required of a President. The President said recently that he is very smart and understands things “better than anybody.” Well, the first thing he needs to understand is that he is no longer a business man managing his wealth and personal brand. He is the President of the United States who took an oath to serve the interests of all Americans. Eventually, he will learn that neither he nor his immediate staff will ever be competent to know everything. He has a workforce of about two million public servants to lean on. As President, he leads all the departments and organizations that administer the laws and institutions that serve and protect the American people. We desperately need him to use and manage the resources already at his disposal.

Sometimes I sense that the President is more concerned with his image than the actual job of being President. In business, where consumer confidence in goods and services reign, branding or image is critically important. In government, success is also partly measured by public image. But that image cannot be long maintained without positive results. No amount of spin, “alternative facts” (aka, falsehoods), scapegoating, political conspiracy theories, or deflections can cover incompetence for very long. At some point he will realize that both he and his Administration interconnect with the other branches of government and work for us. Nearly everything he has to do as President depends upon the effectiveness of Federal departments and institutions, the consent of Congress, and the support of the American people. That support will be there only as long as his Administration is effective in its primary objectives—that is, to preserve our freedoms, our security, our just treatment under the law, and our diversity as “one nation under God.” Failing those objectives will result in a failed Presidency.

In conclusion, the President’s competency in the job is an issue we all hope will improve with time. But that hope depends upon his realization that the office he occupies is not his. It is ours. The power it affords him is given in trust. The only way he can deserve that trust is to bend the institutions of government to serve and protect the American people and our core values as expressed in our Constitution. So far, many of the President’s appointments and executive orders belie that trust. Only if he learns to wield power in our behalf will our new President gain the humility that power demands. When he rails against the press, judges, fellow politicians, private citizens, and individual corporations in defense of his image or business interests, he actually demeans the office. He has become the target of protests here in America and around the world because his initial actions appear aimed at satisfying poorly thought-out campaign objectives instead of the demands of the office he occupies. Most of what he has done in these first weeks of his Presidency his successor will probably have to undo. Unless he turns things around, he will not leave office with an image even he could admire.

The Presidency cannot continue to be about Donald Trump. It must be about America.