Dec. 9th, 2016

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Alexandra Erin is an independent author and commentator. If you gain anything from her writing, you can help support it on Patreon (http://www.patreon.com/alexandraerin) or PayPal (http://www.paypal.me/alexandraerin). 

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Donald Trump has changed his story about how he will handle his conflicts of interest as president so many times that it would be a mistake to try to figure out what his intended message is. Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume that any of his answers on the subject were intended to communicate a particular message at all.

They were not attempts to answer questions so much as they were attempts to answer the questioner, to say something that would end the line of questioning and allow him to change the subject.

Nevertheless, Donald Trump has told us—and shown us—exactly how he intends to handle his conflicts of interest, again and again, to the point that there can be no real surprise at the revelation that he’s staying on as a paid executive producer at The Celebrity Apprentice.

Let’s back up.

There was a moment during the presidential campaign when, while he was being criticized for his fat-shaming comments about Miss Universe Alicia Machado, Donald Trump attempted to set the record straight and clarify that actually, she really had gained weight.

That moment came back to me when I read the presumptive president-elect’s comment that business-wise, the law is on his side, because “the president can’t have conflicts of interest.”

They were both moments where it was spectacularly apparent that Trump does not get it, that he quite literally does not see what the problem is.

He thought that people objected to him calling a woman “Miss Piggy” because they disputed the accuracy of the characterization, and so he defended himself by asserting that his insults were factually correct and grounded in reality.

Similarly, he believes all this talk about “conflicts of interest” is just so much quibbling over rules, that the trouble that so many knowledgeable and experienced people have been warning about consists of nothing but legal penalties he may himself face for running afoul of laws.

He does not—perhaps cannot—understand that those rules and laws have a deeper purpose or that anyone might be concerned with upholding that purpose more so than upholding particular rules.

In editorial after editorial and analysis after analysis, writers parsing Trump’s words have hastened to point out that on a technical level, Trump is correct in saying that the president “can’t have conflicts of interest.”

I have to disagree with this. The letter of the law is on his side, but the idea that the president “can’t have conflicts of interest” is true only in the imperative sense.

I mean, I know what they’re saying and why they are saying it, when they say that he’s right. Despite the Nixonian shades of “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” Trump’s view is actually rooted in the rule of law: the conflict-of-interest laws that constrict most of the executive branch don’t apply to the president.

This, like many other forms of immunity the president enjoys, is there to prevent another branch of government from interfering in the office of the president. Because the president’s decisions can affect every aspect of life in the United States and ripple around the world, anything a president might need to do could conceivably be spun to be a conflict of interest.

But this does not mean the concept of a conflict of interest does not apply to the president. It means that no one but presidents themselves may be trusted to judge their own conflicts of interests, and that we more or less trust them to police themselves accordingly.

And therein lies the problem, the very special problem presented by Donald Trump, because in the plainest and simplest terms: he just does not get it.

I think we’ve pretty much all had that one coworker or classmate who has the same problem, while not wielding the powers of the office of the President of the United States. This is the person who doesn’t quite grok the honor system, doesn’t understand things like leeway, discretion, or informal rules, and who invariably ruins things for everyone else.

If your boss tells you that there’s a ten-minute grace period for arriving and leaving around your shift’s scheduled start and end time, this is the person who hears “You can clock in ten minutes late and clock out ten minutes early, every day,” and proceeds to do so, until the policy is changed for everyone in order to stop the one person from doing so.

If the person in charge tells such a person that there’s no rule covering a situation but they are expected to be honest and use their best judgment, they stop listening at “no rule” because the rest is just noise, isn’t it?

This is the kind of person who, once they realize that a sign that says “Take One” over a candy dish has no legal force, will empty the entire thing into their bag and continue blithely on their day.

As I said, I think most of us have known someone like this, in a context where it mattered that they behaved this way.

Throughout his campaign—and likely for long before most of us were paying this level of attention—there was a theme, when Donald Trump was confronted with evidence of wrongdoing for his own enrichment: “that’s just good business,” he’d say, or “that makes me smart.” His surrogates would then make the cable and print news rounds repeating and elaborating on these lines.

In doing so, he’s laid the groundwork for never having any chickens come to roost from any pay-to-play, self-dealing, or those pesky emoluments people keep talking about that might arise during his term of office.

To the extent that enough of us have shrugged, accepted his reasoning, and moved on to deliver him an apparent electoral victory, we’ve sent the message that this is an acceptable way of looking at and dealing with the world, that there is no difference between doing the right thing and getting away with the wrong thing.

When Donald Trump ignores a signed contract specifying a payment he agreed to for work that was already delivered and forces the other party to agree to a much lower price in order to get anything at all, in a purely legal sense he does get away with it.

There is a difference between “conduct that is legal” and “conduct that you can get away with under the law, if you have enough leverage and are nasty enough to bring it all to bear on someone in no position to fight back,” but Donald Trump does not recognize that difference. He doesn’t recognize it to the point that he has failed to realize anyone else sees such a difference, hence his clueless defense that the law is on his side.

By his repeated appeals to this idea, he has taught his followers not to see it, either, and the rest of us are learning that lesson at varying speeds every time we let him change the subject or accept for the sake of argument that it’s just “good business” not to pay what is owed and to take for himself as much as he can get away with taking.

Once he actually occupies the Oval Office, there will be a whole other layer to this. As the heads of the three branches of government are exempted from many ordinary legal checks, the biggest single check on their conduct is the willingness of the American people to hold them accountable. We are the instruments of consequence for our leaders. If we accept that we can’t judge one of those leaders for any actions he got away with, he can get away with anything.

Worse, there are implications for this mindset that go beyond Trump’s financial well-being and the havoc he might wreak “being smart” about his businesses while he’s in office.

He has been very open in interviews and the various books written for him about his philosophy of vengeance, his desire to hit back ten times as hard in response to any perceived slight or insult. We have watched this in action throughout the campaign and his transition. We can expect it to continue, as it only makes sense to him to stop if someone is in a position to stop him.

Similarly, we have no reason to expect him to stop appealing to and empowering hatred and enshrining autocracy. When asked if he would denounce figures such as Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin or KKK leader David Duke, his answers were largely to ask rhetorically why he would denounce someone who flatters and supports him.

He did eventually offer a weak denunciation of Duke, when it appeared that not doing so would cost him more support than Duke could give him.

It was a simple cost/benefit analysis, in other words, the sort that he says “makes him smart”.

His continued alignment with the modern face of white nationalism, the various overlapping movements of the so-called “alt-right”, further reflects this. After what happened on November 8th, it is unlikely anyone will ever be able to convince him it will be worth it on a purely practical level to cut those ties, and that’s the only level he will acknowledge.

He might metaphorically wag his finger and say “stop it” and his proxies might say that of course he deplores racism, because this costs him nothing and (he hopes) allows him to change the subject. But to actually denounce these groups and their actions with the same level of vitriol and specificity that he reserves for Saturday Night Live and Hamilton? It won’t happen.

It’s not “good business”.

For the health of the republic and the well-being of everyone within it, it is important that the president does not have any serious conflicts of interest, to the extent that this is humanly possible.

This requires as a bare minimum a president who recognizes it is possible to have a conflict of interest without a law that spells out what it is, and a president who cares about more than whether or not one can get away with something.

To put it simply: the presidency operates on the honor system. For it to operate it at all, the occupant of the office must have some notion of honor. As a nation, we can differ about how honorable various president have been, what it means to be honorable, or even if the term has any intrinsic value.

But the idea of being a person of honor, of being seen as honorable, has at least held some appeal to each occupant of the Oval Office, and this ideal has been at least a partial brake on the exercise of executive power for petty and personal reasons.

That brake, like so many others, has come flying off in the person of Donald Trump, a man who sees no value in even the concept of honor, a man who could not understand why people would honor the sacrifice of a captured soldier (or even a fallen one), a man for whom there is only winning and losing, and that ignoring the rules to win doesn’t taint your victory, it only makes you smart.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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Alexandra Erin is an independent author and commentator. If you gain anything from her writing, you can help support it on Patreon (http://www.patreon.com/alexandraerin) or PayPal (http://www.paypal.me/alexandraerin). 

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In an editorial about “identity liberalism” published in The New York Times, Mark Lilla joined the throng of pundits to lay out his case for eschewing identity politics in favor of focusing on universal issues that affect most Americans. He wasn’t the first to take this tack, even just post-election, and he certainly has not been the last, but he’s still a pretty good representative example.

To back up his premise, he wrote that “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.” In doing so, he illustrated both his own ignorance of the issue of bathroom laws and the flaw in the premise that we can find a way forward by ignoring differences in favor of assumed commonalities.

He said “liberals,” but the group whose bathroom usage has been made into fodder for public discourse is the transgender community, most particularly trans women such as myself. I suppose it would not do for Mr. Lilla to mention us by name, as suggesting that a conversation affects any group of people more specific than “liberal” runs counter to his message.

Well, let that go.

Liberals should focus on the problems faced by a majority of Americans? He’s not alone in thinking that. America is sick of hearing about our bathrooms, he says? He’s not alone in thinking that, either. His statement was a paraphrase of something said by Bernie Sanders, who, I have been told, was “just saying what everybody is thinking.”

Well, Americans who are transgender are part of America, and we’re certainly part of everybody. I would ask the critics of identity politics if they imagine we in the transgender communities are as sick of hearing about bathroom issues as they are, but the surprising answer is: we are.

Frankly, we’re not just sick of hearing about it. We’re sick of talking about it. We wish the whole topic could just be dropped safely and we could get on with our lives. It’s neither us in particular nor “liberals” more generally who made this an issue, but conservative culture warriors who decided to spark a panic about something that has been going on for as long as gendered public restrooms have existed, and who then used that panic to pass laws that do far more than merely inconvenience us.

It should go without saying, but the need to urinate is the end result of a natural biological process that happens even to the very best of us, often at the very worst of times. “Bathroom Bills” that serve to prevent trans people from having anywhere to urinate safely while in public impedes our ability to exist in public, which in turn constrains our ability to exist.

If you are sick of hearing about our bathrooms, I would invite you to imagine how hard it would be to conduct your daily business if the only safe bathroom available to you were in your own home. Outside of that, you would have to constantly choose between two dangers: the danger of being assaulted with potentially murderous force, or the danger of being arrested and brutalized by police and other inmates (and assaulted with potentially murderous force.)

The danger would be clear, but the choice wouldn’t always be so, as it would be up to the eye of the beholder of any self-appointed bathroom vigilante to decide which category you fit into, whether you were in the right room or the wrong one, and the answer would be more subjective than you imagine it to be.

For my own safety and survival, I avoid public restrooms whenever I can, just so I don’t have to make the choice. A few years back, earlier in my transition, I had to make that call while I was in an airport in a Midwestern state, one of those “real American” places that coastal elites are supposed to show empathy for.

What I thought of as my security theater costume back then was basically androgynous. I didn’t want to stand out, and didn’t want my appearance to contradict my official paperwork. When bad timing meant I had to use the gendered restrooms in the airport rather than a single-occupancy on an airplane, I had to make up my mind. Being less than one hundred percent sure I would be perceived as the woman I am if I used the correct bathroom, I decided to take what I figured to be the lesser risk at that moment of using the men’s room.

I didn’t make it in the doorway before a hand hit my shoulder. It was a woman whose husband had just walked into the bathroom ahead of me. She thought I was going into the wrong bathroom, and she was really determined to stop me. Vocally. Physically. Her tone was not friendly or helpful. I’m not sure why she was so vehement about it, but this just shows how emotionally charged the whole thing is for cis people.

It also shows that trans women can’t really win in a world where cis people want our bathroom use to be a national debate.

If you’re not trans, try to imagine a life where it’s more comfortable and convenient to use an airplane bathroom than an airport one, where if you can’t find a unisex single-occupancy restroom, you’re just out of luck.

How do you hold a job outside the home under those circumstances? How do you plan shopping trips? How do you go see a movie or take your kids to the park?

To put it very bluntly and very simply: the right to pee is the right to be. 

The effect of laws such as North Carolina’s infamous HB 2—their very purpose—is to legislate trans people away, to make our existence unmanageable. It doesn’t just keep us out of bathrooms, it keeps us out of life, and eventually, out of living.

We don’t talk about bathrooms because we enjoy it or because we want the rest of the nation to talk about them with us. We talk about them because if we let those who oppose our very existence have the only say, we’re done for.

Now, this problem, however pressing it may be, does not fit the proposed rubric of one that is “faced by a majority of Americans.”

Most life-and-death problems don’t.

The petty complaints of life might be universal or nearly so. No one who stubs a toe enjoys it very much. No one likes being stuck in line at the grocery store behind someone who won’t get off the phone long enough to pay and move on.

But we don’t all have to worry about some politician deciding to start a national conversation about whether we should be allowed to do our biologically necessary business in a relatively private place and then get on with our lives, the way other Americans do without a second thought.

Similarly, we don’t all have to worry about being targeted disproportionately for “random” searches, “routine” stops, or lethal and arbitrary violence by uniformed authorities. We don’t all have to worry about what changes in immigration policy will mean for our friends and families.

The majority of problems, real problems, faced by the majority of Americans are not universal. A political party or movement that insists on focusing only on “universals” inevitably ignores the real issues that face most Americans.

This not only leaves serious problems to fester unchecked, but it prioritizes the problems of those who have few or no unique problems: the people who don’t face a national debate over being allowed to perform necessary biological functions, the people who don’t face systemic violence or institutional discrimination, the people whose fundamental rights aren’t treated as a matter for debate.

The case being made to American liberals since the election is being made a lot of different ways. Some people phrase it in terms of “not pandering to special interest groups.” Some people talk about “real Americans.” Mr. Lilla uses the term “universal.” Whatever the speaker means to say,it all comes down to the same thing in effect.

The Republican Party achieved great success in the last election in part by choosing to focus on the concerns that are coded in our consciousness as “universal” (the problems of straight, white, Christian Americans) over and above the problems unique to those who are coded as “special interest groups.” Many commentators on the left, right, and middle have suggested that we should be doing the same.

As great as their electoral success was, though, the right-wing still lost the popular vote and had to rely on coordinated campaigns of voter suppression and a last-minute boost from the FBI to put them over the top, because the demographic whose concerns are dubbed “universal” is shrinking in proportion to the general population.

The way forward for the left is not to focus on trying to win by competing for the same shrinking pool of votes which the Republicans have decided should count for the most, but to try to understand and address the specific—not universal—problems of most Americans.

If the anti-“Identitarians” are not persuaded, perhaps they should consider: restrictive voter ID laws tailored against Democrat-leaning demographics, polling place closures that restrict access to the polls in Black communities, and voter intimidation campaigns tailored at Latino communities do not fit the definition of “problems faced by a majority of Americans,” but they are nevertheless problems the nation’s liberals must confront and overcome in order to forestall a permanent conservative victory.

Appeals to a surprisingly narrow “universal” prevent us from naming the worst of the problems that afflict most Americans. What we cannot name, we cannot fight. Refusing to name a problem and refusing to fight it might spare the rest of America the pain of hearing about it, but it won’t fix anything and it won’t win elections.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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So, yesterday’s day of rest turned out pretty well and mostly accomplished its purpose. My sleep schedule’s going to take a few nights of regular sleep to get ironed out, but I think I’ll be in a good position at the start of next week.

I’m working today, but it’s mostly a “clear out the backlog/catch up necessary stuff that’s been piling up”. I’m going to try to do my first actual not-direct-political-satire thing since before the election today, at 4:30 (which is when my “write fiction” alarm goes off). Not sure yet what it will be.

The Tales of MU website is back up as of yesterday PM. It will get one update next week to tie off the current story, and then I’m going to take a look at where I am for the next one.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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