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Trump: The Tchotchke Presidency

by / Feb. 14, 2017 8am EST

Whither the EOs? 

During his first week in office, President Donald Trump’s executive orders produced unprecedented chaos. Trump’s ban on travel to the United States imposed upon Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Druze, and Baha’i passport holders of certain countries has received the most attention, including its deliberately cruel exclusion of permanent resident aliens — immigrant holders of “Green Cards” who live and work in the U.S. Receiving a smaller amount of attention has been Trump’s re-configuration of the principals committee of the National Security Council, effectively replacing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence with his senior advisor, former Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon.

While the inclusion of Green Card holders in the sudden, immediate ban on U.S. entry for passport holders from Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Iran seemed at first to have been accidental or inadvertent, it was anything but. It was a deliberate act to trigger outrage on that one point and to distract your attention. It’s why citizens with Muslim names are being detained without explanation upon entry to the US

The travel ban has been stayed, and a government appeal of that stay is now before a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

But Trump’s rookie blizzard of clumsy and thinly vetted diktats suddenly stopped. For instance, the promised executive order to investigate “voter fraud” never materialized. This appears to be the governmental equivalent of taking away Trump’s smartphone to keep him from Tweeting. The chaos, however, wasn’t a flaw but a feature. One need only read this piece, which quotes Bannon promising exactly that

He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.

Shocked, I asked him what he meant.

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

The difference, however, is that Lenin sought to destroy a decrepit, corrupt, and brutal monarchy that had brought war and famine at the expense of the peasants. The United States has its problems, but is a pluralist democratic representative republic with individual freedoms that were codified and protected by an independent judiciary. We have a system of three co-equal branches of government that act to prevent harmful and illegal excesses by any one of them. 

But Leninism wasn’t just about destroying one state and creating something new, because Lenin ultimately replaced one corrupt autocracy with something arguably worse. Russia wasn’t industrialized in 1917, so it had no real proletariat to speak of, yet Lenin’s governing principle was vanguard-party takeover. With the party at the helm, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be created whereby absolute and complete control over every aspect of public and private life — government and individuals - became subordinate to the party.

This isn’t to say Bannon or Trump are revolutionary communists — far from it. They are, instead, nascent oligarchs. By smashing existing institutions of party, media, and government, they can bring about a new one-party hegemony that will obliterate our American freedoms as we’ve recognized them since at least the middle of the last century. This isn’t just about economic insecurity in a changing world economy, or “anti-globalism” and protectionist capitalism; this isn’t just about the changing face of America, or rolling back the New Deal, or the decline of the boomer generation and the ascent of its successors. It’s all of these things. 

Anti-democratic leaders and movements are generally fueled by grievance; real, imagined, or magnified. In order to wield power in a post-democratic country drunk on nationalism, you need to identify the victims and the culprits. The Trump Administration is running a huge surplus on enemies — liberals, intellectuals, the media, Gold Star parents, refugees, immigrants, and Muslims, just to name a few. But think back to the 2016 election — Trump’s win was secured through vicious clashes with competitors and enemies, whereby it wasn’t enough to just win, he had to dominate. It’s why things like Obama’s larger inaugural crowd are such triggers for Trump’s intemperate early-morning Tweets on an unsecured Android phone: only when he is dominating his enemies is he winning. 

Trump and his coterie of malignant sycophants will continue this “us or them” game throughout the pendency of this administration. The world as black and white is much easier to deal with than shades of grey, after all. 

Supporters of Trump’s executive orders on immigration will lecture you on social media, claiming that they are no different from things President Obama did, yet liberals remained mum. This is a lie. Trump himself said,

“My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months. The seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror.”

While it’s hilariously ironic for Trump to seek cover behind President Obama, his action is dissimilar from Obama’s. The 2011 Obama action applied only to one certain type of immigrant visa applicant from one country — Iraq — and only for a 6-month period. It was implemented in direct response to two arrests of Iraqi refugees 

Generally, passport holders from every country on Earth need a visa to enter to the United States for any reason — pleasure, business, or immigration. There is a visa waiver program in effect for the citizens of certain — mostly wealthy - countries who are not required to obtain a visa for business or vacation travel. In February 2016, the Department of Homeland Security suspended the visa waiver program for passport holders from waiver countries who had traveled to Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran — the same countries covered in Trump’s executive order. However, the 2016 action was not a complete or indefinite ban

Individuals impacted will still be able to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process at our embassies or consulates. For those who need a U.S. visa for urgent business, medical, or humanitarian travel to the United States, U.S. embassies and consulates stand ready to provide visa interview appointments on an expedited basis. The new law does not ban travel to the United States, or admission into the United States, and the great majority of Visa Waiver Program travelers will not be affected.

Trump has wide latitude and discretion to exclude classes of people from entry to the US based on national security concerns. President Obama, for instance, banned entry for people accused of crimes against humanity, and people who were subject to a UN Security Council travel ban.  President Bush barred entry to people who would thwart the implementation of the 1995 Dayton Accords, ending the pre-Kosovo wars in the former Yugoslavia. 

The Trump action against immigrants and refugees has nothing to do with the law or security. Like everything Trump is doing, it’s about feelings — making people FEEL safe, making people FEEL like something is being done, making people FEEL like their own insecurities and fears are being recognized and addressed. Fighting populist authoritarian leaders can’t just be done with marches, mockery, or litigation. A few pointers from a Venezuelan:

1. Trump says the media are the enemy. Then the muslim immigrants/refugees from some failed states, soon it will be the liberals or intellectuals. Your very Americanness will be attacked.

2. Do not show contempt for Trump or his supporters or try to shame them — it feeds their narrative of “us vs. them”.

3. Don’t lose your cool and constantly demand his removal because what he does is abhorrent, but not impeachable. This will alienate independents, whom you’ll need in the coming elections.

I think a newly elected President has the right to announce a fresh look at our immigration and refugee vetting processes, and to make changes that experts believe are appropriate. Pausing new applications for a period of time would be acceptable — thwarting the travel of people already approved for visas and whose travel plans are set is cruel. Keeping students away from returning to their classes is cruel. Keeping permanent resident alien green card holders out is cruel. Unless there is some imminent threat of harm from this class of people, it shouldn’t have happened. This is all part of a wider anti-immigrant furore that the new President is leading, and it doesn’t stop at so-called, “illegals”. 

The sudden and unexplained halt of the executive orders following the chaotic roll-out of the Muslim ban is probably a net good thing for the country. 

The Tchotchke President

Last week, President Trump Tweeted this: 

What stood out for me first was the admission that Ivanka has to “push” him to “do the right thing”, thus revealing that his impulse and instinct must be to do the opposite. But look at the Nordstrom thing — Ivanka Trump licenses her name to a bunch of cheap Chinese-made schmattes and tchotchkes, and they weren’t selling well at the high-end Nordstrom chain of stores. So, Nordstrom made a business decision and dropped the brand. (Incidentally, TJ Maxx and Marshalls also made news with Ivanka’s clothing line). But Trump’s reaction here is astonishing: Nordstrom insulted Ivanka and treated her “unfairly” — a complaint echoed by toddlers to their parents daily. As if private businesses now owe some bizarre, feudal loyalty oath to the new lord of the manor. Sean Spicer doubled down on this later in the day, prompting a response from Nordstrom directly. 

The following day, his spokeswoman said, from the White House, “buy Ivanka’s stuff!” 

This is unspeakably corrupt and illegal. Specifically, all this puffery of Ivanka’s merch is a likely violation of the ban on federal employees using their public office to endorseme products. 5 CFR 2635.702.

Imagine if Sasha or Malia Obama had profited off their surname and President Obama had publicly complained about a private business deal in this way. Heads on the right would have exploded. Here, they’re angry not at the Trump family’s blatant profiteering off of the government, but at Nordstrom for its lack of fealty. Not to be outdone, when filing a defamation lawsuit against someone who accused her of having once been a prostitute, First Lady Melania Trump’s complaint averred that, 

The economic damage to the plaintiff’s brand, and licensing, marketing and endorsement opportunities caused by the publication of Mail Online’s defamatory article, is multiple millions of dollars

[The] plaintiff had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a former professional model, brand spokesperson and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multimillion-dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.

Republicans howled at “Moochelle” (whom they notably referred to as a man, if not an ape), for daring to try and get kids to eat fruits and vegetables. They have nothing whatsoever to say when Melania Trump blatantly admits her desire to profit from her position as First Lady. Incidentally, Mrs. Trump does not live with her husband in the White House, but has stayed behind in Trump Tower. This arrangement costs the taxpayers of this country hundreds of thousands of dollars per day in extra Secret Service protection. The Trumps can live however they want — I don’t care. I also don’t mind that Trump’s family receive the protection to which they’re entitled. Imagine, however, if “Moochelle” had done something similar. She caught flak when taking her daughters on vacation. 

What all of this reminds me of is Central Asia — specifically, Uzbekistan, which was a constituent republic of the USSR until its independence in 1991. From independence, Uzbekistan was ruled by a dictator named Islam Karimov, whose term ended when he died last year. The US tolerated Karimov’s domestic oppression because he was an ally in the “war on terror”. He outlawed dissent, tortured opponents, forbade freedom of speech and assembly, and and rigged elections so he would be re-elected by incredible, Soviet-style hyper-majorities.

Take a look at Trump’s systematic attempts to de-legitimize the judiciary, the media — indeed anything and anyone — which contradict his lies. Trump claims to be not only the sole arbiter of truth, but the only person who can “solve” our problems. This is downright Soviet. 

Karimov did what corrupt, third-world dictators usually do: enriched himself and his family. Notably, his daughter Gulnara Karimova was appointed to various diplomatic and government posts, and took the stage name, “Googoosha” to try her hand at becoming a pop star. Alas, Karimova had a falling-out with her father and found herself accused of becoming a billionaire thanks to rampant corruption: 

One U.S. businessmen claimed that after his company turned down Karimova’s offer to buy in to his telecommunications firm, “the company’s frequency [was] jammed by an Uzbek government agency.” A Swedish television investigation this month found she forced a Swedish telecom to pay bribes in order to enter the Uzbek market. In July, the Russian mobile-phone operator MTS claimed that Karimova orchestrated the hostile takeover of the company’s Uzbek branch, Uzdunrobita, according to Foreign Policy.

“She plays a role in most business deals in Tashkent, and if she gets angry, she has the power to impose really severe consequences,” Foust said.

Karimova is accused of taking over $1 billion in bribes during her time at the top of her late father’s autocratic kleptocracy. Her father imposed an indefinite house arrest on her in 2014. The Karimov family treated their political position as a way to enrich themselves. Karimov assumed complete power and enabled his friends and family to profit due to whom they knew, not what they did. 

When Donald Trump and his aides promote Ivanka Trump’s clothing line and demean a retailer that dropped it, they are engaged in the very same type of kleptocracy, albeit on a smaller scale. For now. 

When Jimmy Carter became President, he put his family business in a blind trust

While he serves as president, Jimmy Carter placed the family farm supply business into the protection of a blind trust before he left for Washington, D.C. in 1977. This trust allowed for a law firm in Atlanta to take full administration of the farm supply business during his years in the White House. The Carters felt that relinquishing the business to someone else’s care would separate them from these affairs and avoid the possibility of their financial holdings resembling any conflict of interest while President Carter was in office. Their personal counsel, Charles Kirbo of the Atlanta law firm, was their financial trustee. Following the election loss in 1981, the Carters were informed by Charles Kirbo that because of three years of drought and several changes in warehouse management, they were over $1 million in debt.

Donald Trump couldn’t be bothered to do the same thing and follow President Carter’s selfless example. Trump and his daughter have both claimed that they no longer handle the day-to-day affairs of their private enterprises. If so, why is the President tweeting insults at Nordstrom? Why are Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway exhorting Americans to buy Trump-emblazoned tchotchkes? 

The corruption is swift and breathtaking. It is Uzbeki in its brazenness.