Letter from Washington: Signs of Spring

signs of spring

There are signs of spring in Washington, DC, little splashes of color appearing around the Tidal Basin and elsewhere in the city, despite temperatures that remain in the 40s. I spotted bits of of yellow, pink and white while running between memorials, the bright tones popping out against the muddy grays and browns of late winter.

Winter, even a mild Mid-Atlantic one, is a season to be survived. The days get shorter, the green drains from the trees and a low clouds descend upon the city for weeks at a time.

Snow is the only consolation, the bright white blanket that stills traffic and turns Washington into a pedestrian paradise. With its marble monuments and red-brick townhouses, DC becomes a magic snow globe, fat flakes falling forever, piling up on history and politics, Mother Nature making a mockery of man’s schemes.

But we didn’t even get snow this year. Instead, nothing but chaos under cloudy skies, stretching from the Presidential Inauguration until today, marches and demonstrations filling the streets, the weather be damned.

“I want one one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me,” the judge says in the Trump Peoples Court skit on SNL.

But there will be no relief. Instead, we get some light treason from the Trump campaign, revealed to be in contact with the Russian government before the election. All the dark theories about Putin’s control of our President are revealed to be true, in a blockbuster New York Times article fueled by leaks from the intelligence community.

Trump rages, in a barely coherent tweet slamming not the Russians, for subverting our democracy, but, instead, the American government.

The right calls it the Deep State, civil servants striking back against legitimately elected leaders. But, when you have a leader that’s mentally unstable, do you blame them? This rebellion of the bureaucrats prevented Mike Flynn, friend of Putin, from becoming National Security Advisor.

It’s a victory. Not quite the checks and balances envisioned by our Founders but a stop to erratic, dangerous and possibly treasonous executive action, joining the hold issued by the 9th Circuit against the Muslim Ban in the pantheon of victories.

Our enemies are weaker than they appear, held together only by the bluster of the flim-flam man. Take apart the lies, and they’re revealed to be scared and desperate, lest the mark uncover the illusion.

Winter seems to go on forever. Then, one day, you notice a couple of green shoots. Within a period of weeks, the world turns green again, spring reasserting itself with the power of all that’s good and true. That’s what Washington feels like today.

Letter from Washington: Don’t Blame The Swamp

The Swamp Welcomes Steve Bannon

During the campaign, Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp in Washington.” According to his formulation, this city was filled with nefarious characters who skirt the rules for their own benefit.

But what do you call a President who hawks his daughter’s clothing line on national TV? And sends his surrogates out to do the same? It’s literally a violation of Government 101 – you can’t endorse products as a government official. More than just unethical, it’s illegal, and one of the first things you learn upon entering federal service.

Don’t blame The Swamp for this endemic corruption. From stiffing contractors to swindling students, Trump exhibited a pattern of unethical behavior long before he set foot in this city.

I know, it’s easier to blame the nation’s problems on a secret cabal in Washington that controls everything. But, as the past few weeks have taught us, it’s shocking how little lawmakers actually control in this country. Trump can issue orders but they go unheeded and unenforced, for they are poorly written and unconstitutional. As I’ve written before, you need the cooperation of the bureaucracy to get things done in government.

Dystopias are supposed to be more efficient. Big Brother in 1984 was quite good at quashing dissent, even to the point of erasing the past. But the authors of this dystopia can’t even write a tweet without an embarrassing error.

Don’t blame Washington – we’re really not that good at governing the lives of others. Even the Obama administration, staffed with Ivy League graduates, was responsible for a bloodbath in Syria and somehow made healthcare in this country even more complicated and unaffordable.

The Swamp is a town of do-gooders, which is not entirely a compliment. The prospect of helping others leads people into government agencies and nonprofit organizations. But it also propels some of the worst excesses of the past couple decades, such as the invasion of Iraq. The architects of that disaster believed that they were liberating people from tyranny. They were doing good.

Fortunately, the longer you are here, the less confidence you have in the efficacy of government. Instead, you work to make your community better on a local scale.

You could see this in a pair of events on a Saturday afternoon in DC. Cupid’s Undie Run was a charity event, designed to raise money to fight cancer. Participants donated money and ran a mile in their skivvies in a good-natured, PG-13 happening.

The run happened less than a block from where anarchists torched a limousine on Inauguration Day – the Swamp is compact and walkable.

Cupid's Undie Run

Running for Cree

After Cupid’s Undie Run, another event took place, one of a more serious nature, a demonstration against Trump’s immigration policy. Though his sweeping Muslim Ban order had been stopped, the threat of extreme vetting and deportation remained for the nation’s Latino community, who gathered in an emergency basis in front of the White House.

Demonstrators

Silence is consent

This was just one of several demonstrations that day. Earlier, was Primal Scream Against Trump (which I was sorry to miss) and later was a rally for free speech.

How do these demonstrations come together? The Internet. Groups post their rallies and marches online and people show up. The denizens of The Swamp. They look like quite normal people, don’t they?

The Swamp is a poor metaphor for the corruption and incompetence that plague American politics. That government no longer works is not due to a place. It’s due to people, most of whom are from out of town. If you live in The Swamp, you want government to work, for it’s the industry that defines your city. It’s why you’re here.

The chronic dysfunction comes from the creatures that slither into The Swamp every four years. Like Trump, they want to make money, cause some trouble and then get out. Without these interlopers, we’d have a healthy ecosystem that delivers results to the American people.

Iraq, Obamacare, Muslim Ban. Don’t blame The Swamp for these calamaties. Blame yourselves and the elected officials you send to rule here.

Letter from Washington: Fear and Loathing After the Inauguration

White House construction zone

Washington, DC, has a raw, unfinished quality to it. The Presidential reviewing stand is still up on Pennsylvania Avenue, as the National Park Service disassembles it with their usual lethargy. The site is surrounded by chain link fences, adding to the type and variety of barriers that encircle the White House – yellow caution tape, red wooden snow fences, concrete bollards, decorative planters, metal car barriers that pop up and, of course, the historic wrought iron fence that has proven to be so easy to climb.

Behind these walls, a couple of orange-hatted construction workers toil at disassembling the reviewing stand by hand, while observed by a platoon of heavily armed Secret Service agents. Work isn’t expected to be completed until March.

On the other side of the White House is the empty spire of the Washington Monument. It’s closed until Spring 2019, due to an elevator problem. We’ve fought and won wars in less time. It’s a symbol of America but is not a priority to Congress, who is more interested in taking things apart than fixing them.

Looking out on this tableau of dysfunction is Donald Trump. Brooding, tweeting, as he wanders the White House in a bathrobe. He doesn’t think to right the broken things around him. Instead, he conspires to break more things, appointing a parade of loathsome incompetents to high office – Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Betsy DeVos.

I wrote a novel called Don’t Mess Up My Block, the thesis of which is that you have to fake it until you make it. In this satire of a self-help book, a loser reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no qualifications or experience. With the blind confidence of a conman, he goes from Dinkytown obscurity to DC success.

Even with my fevered literary imagination, I never thought a conman could take over the federal government.

What this city needs is a good snowstorm. Today, it’s 65 degrees. I’m in a coffee shop by the White House. The air-conditioning is on. Outside, tourists walk by in shorts and t-shirts.

We need a blizzard, something to remind lawmakers of the power of Mother Nature to silence them all. A storm that shuts the city down for a week (like the one that occurred last year) might instill some humility in these cruel powerbrokers.

But that’s not going to happen. Winter is nearly over.

Rescue is not coming. “At some point, the adults will step in,” I assured myself during the election. Party elders. The media. The wisdom of the American people. Someone would save us.

We’re going to have to save ourselves. Humor is a good start. The parody of Sean Spicer by Melissa McCarthy did more to shape the public view of the administration than hours of talking heads on CNN, revealing the Trump regime’s bullying and incompetence.

Humor is subversive, an effective tool targeting tyranny and freeing people from fear. There’s a reason why anti-Trump demonstrations in DC feature so many hilarious signs – the people sense it’s working, these little pinpricks getting under the skin of delicate Donald and his supporters.

A President Full of Bologna

How does this all end? Mass demonstrations began the moment Trump was inaugurated. And they’ve continued despite seasonably cold weather in DC. Six major marches are coming this spring, from everyone from outraged scientists to outrageous juggalos.

If I was the city government, I would prepare for a million people to descend upon Washington, mass demonstrations of a size and scope not seen since the Vietnam War.

Protesters besiege the Old Post Office

And if I were demonstrators, I would lay siege to the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. The General Services Administration foolishly leased this grand building to Donald J. Trump, who garishly affixed his name to it in gold.

But this landmark belongs to the public, who saved it from demolition in the 1970s. Trump does not belong there; the Old Post Office belongs to us.

And, unlike the White House, the so-called Trump International Hotel is not ringed by fences. The Old Post Office is open to the public and right on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is vulnerable and should be the focus of demonstrations.

Surround the Trump Hotel. Discourage stays there. This would hurt Trump in his pocketbook. And, more importantly, his pride. Destroy the Trump brand. Make it mud. That’s how you drive this particular tyrant from office.

Letter from Washington: Another Day, Another Protest

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No Muslim Ban protesters in front of Charlie Palmer’s, where Paul Ryan was having lunch.

Anti-Trump demonstrations are a constant now in Washington, DC. They happen multiple times a day, the residents of this city and beyond having a limitless appetite to protest Trump’s Muslim Ban and other outrages.

You run into them in random, unexpected places – like Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill. The word had gotten out that Speaker Paul Ryan was having lunch there. A very well-organized protest appeared, marching past the windows of this high-end joint. Lobbyists chowing down on $60 Wagyu Strip Steak watched a parade of women bundled-up against the cold demonstrate against the Muslim Ban.

Who are you going to stand with? Lawmakers who send Syrian refugees back to war zones while they enjoy expense-account lunches? Or ordinary folks like those who came to protest?

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I am jaded, cynical, having seen scores of protests in DC. But the Trump protests have a different quality to them, attracting not just the young and disaffected but plenty of middle-aged, middled-classed people.

That was evident on a freezing Friday when another protest took shape across Constitution Avenue from the White House – one of at least three that occurred that day. The wind chill was in the 20s but that didn’t stop demonstrators signing a wall rejecting Trump’s bigotry.

That you can draw a crowd on a cold and dark Friday afternoon speaks to the strength of the anti-Trump forces. It’s supply and demand. Everyone wants to come out and protest so demonstrations occur on every day of the week. I talked to people who came out to this protest because they couldn’t make last weekend’s march. They felt compelled to show up for foreign friends and coworkers that were terrified by Trump.

We Reject Trump's Bigotry
An open letter to Trump, rejecting his bigotry.

It was cold. I biked home, going by a protest on the other side of the White House, demonstrators pressed against the fences, chanting into the dark night, though Trump was hundreds of miles away, brooding and tweeting from his Palm Beach mansion.

A few blocks away, a third protest was gearing up, a dance party that would take over Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands would dance in the streets while thousands more would watch online. The revolution will be live streamed.

Resist banner and Washington Monument
Cyclist carries #Resist banner in the freezing cold.

Letter from Washington: Resist

Resist banner over the White House
Greenpeace hung this Resist banner on a crane overlooking the White House.

Strange days indeed, where I’m retweeting Van Jones. My politics don’t fit into an easy category. I’m socially liberal, believing that people should be free to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t harm others.

I also believe that government is too big and does too much, interfering in aspects of life (such as mandating health insurance) that it should stay out of. Nearly a decade of experience as a government contractor has just reinforced that notion. As I wrote in Victory Party, my award-winning short story (shameless plug!) about election night in DC, government is:

nothing but a big blind beast, stumbling across the American landscape, more likely to crush you than help you.

The economy is the most important issue to me; the biggest moral issue of our age is the lack of real economic growth, for it leaves millions unemployed and underemployed in the vast heartland of our country, a tragedy of abandoned towns and people, like a modern Grapes of Wrath.

In a fit of 2008 optimism, I voted for Obama but then switched to Romney in 2012, wanting a President that would focus on jobs. He doesn’t look so bad now, does he? Trump vs Clinton was a nightmare choice for me, literally Kang and Kodos. In a fit of pique, I wrote in independent Evan McMullin (I might have a thing for Mormons), knowing that blue DC was going overwhelmingly for Hillary.

Trump merchandise for sale outside Treasury Building
Few takers for Trump merchandise for sale outside the Treasury Building.

Like everyone else, I expected Her to win. When she didn’t, I was ambivalent, fictionalizing my response in Victory Party, my tale of DC on election night.

I am ambivalent no more.

What does it take to get someone as jaded and as cynical as me off the sidelines? A week of chaos from the Trump administration, from the graceless “American carnage” inaugural address to the dissing of the Women’s March and on to the Monday night massacre firing of the acting Attorney General.

Trump is a bully, now with the overly vast power of the federal government behind him. There’s never been a better argument for limiting the size and scope of the executive branch than Donald J. Trump.

I expected the evil – it’s the incompetence that surprises me. They have no idea how government works. And despite their purported social media savvy, it didn’t occur to them that public servants, such as the National Park Service, could push back anonymously using these same tools.

Rather than uniting the country around the need for economic growth, Trump has issued a series of bizarre and poorly thought out decrees. It’s government by tweet, straining this country’s democratic institutions beyond the breaking point.

Protesters besiege the Old Post Office
Muslim ban protesters besiege the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

me at the Muslim Ban march
Me at the Muslim Ban March. I used Capital Bikeshare to get around and take photos.

The streets of DC have been filled with demonstrations the size and scope of which I have never seen before. And I’ve been out, biking around the city with a camera, capturing the moment. And participating as well, something I never thought I would do.

As Van Jones points out, it’s no longer a question of Democrat vs Republican. It’s whether you believe in democracy or not. If you do, then you must resist.

Solidarity at the White House