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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 1/18/21

Good morning, Happy Martin Luther King Day! MY MEETING WITH DONALD TRUMP It was some time in 1998 when I and a colleague met with Donald Trump at Trump Tower. The “end of the story” is that, upon descending to Fifth Avenue, I couldn’t wait to call Andrea to tell her of this most bizarre of meetings. I said to her something to the effect of “I just had the strangest meeting with the most disturbing person…” I really didn’t know what to make of it. We had never met; he had little idea who we were and as the meeting wore on, I’m not sure he ever did. We certainly were not his confidantes. But in that short hour, Mr. Trump bounced from topic to topic in increasingly crazy fashion. Here were the takeaways:

  • Yes, the wall by his desk was festooned with framed magazine covers bearing his image (I didn’t realize at that point that some of these might have been self-published).

  • He pulled out a magazine (I believe it was Paris Vogue) with his daughter, Ivanka, then 14 or 15 years of age on the cover. “Is she hot or what?” was his exclamation. At this point, as the father of a two-year-old daughter at the time, racing through my head were myriad thoughts, like “if I ever utter words like that about my daughter, I should be struck by lightning” and “I sure hope I’m able to raise a strong, independent woman who is not subject to such objectivication.”

  • He bragged about how he sold a plane to an Arab businessman with an option to repurchase, “on terms that will just kill him.”

  • He provided very helpful advice that when either of us was ready to purchase a plane, the one to buy, for performance, fuel efficiency and remodeling, should definitely be the Boeing 727 (very helpful advice…).

  • At the time he was subject to a bankruptcy court order restricting his spending to “only” a few hundred thousand dollars a month. He bragged that he was far exceeding that limit but was confident they would never find out.

  • When it finally got to the subject matter of the meeting, refinancing a couple of his properties, he indicated they generated two or three million dollars in cash flow. When asked whether it was two or three, he didn’t seem to know, didn’t seem to care, and didn’t seem to understand why it would make a difference.

I recalled this meeting the other day while watching the impeachment proceedings. The guy I met in 1998 was unintelligent, uncurious, unable to focus and, importantly, seemingly unconstrained by the rules that govern business negotiations, personal relationships, or decorum. These negative attributes are ones that must have been acquired at a very young age and were nurtured over time. What they bespeak to me is either the lack of, or inattention to, any sorts of guardrails governing his behavior. The perception that there are no guardrails informs every behavior we have seen from this man to date.


WHY IMPEACHMENT MAKES SENSE


I generally am against the notion of impeaching a president (impeaching Bill Clinton was a gross waste of energy; the first Trump impeachment was an exercise in disorganization—why, if they were going to pursue it, they didn’t present a dozen articles of impeachment for all his behaviors is beyond me). But this one seemed particularly futile. The guy is set to leave office in a week, so why do it?


But friends with greater perspective than I pointed out that there were several good reasons to impeach him. First, inciting violence cannot go without response. While censure would be “part way,” impeachment draws a line in the sand regarding the outrageousness of the behavior. Second, it requires people to stake a position upon which they later can be judged (particularly when more information about this criminal enterprise parading as an administration becomes known). Third, because historians 50 or 100 years from now will judge us on our response to these outrages. But the fourth reason is the best of all: because it sends a message to future presidents, particularly those with populist and/or authoritarian tendencies, that there indeed are guard rails on a president’s behavior and this is one of them.


The message I derived from my meeting with Mr. Trump over 20 years ago was that this was a man with little appreciation for the rules. The message I derive from Mr. Trump today is that this hasn’t changed. But importantly, the House has stated in clear, unambiguous terms, that there are rules—even if those rules are ignored with impunity—and there is a price to be paid.


WE NEED GUARD RAILS ON BEHAVIOR


I think guard rails are valuable to the peaceful order of society, but also of personal relaionships and business relationships. We need rules because they increase predictability and fairness and they encourage people to behave civilly when they might otherwise allow their self-interest to cause them to run amok.


Once we learned to “tame” rivers, we were able to keep them on course and avoid the seasonal floodings and related death and destruction related to the lack of a clear course. In human behaviors, we similarly have guard rails that govern our behaviors and allow the “stream” of life’s interactions to flow within agreed upon limits and boundaries. The Anglo-Saxon legal system gave rise to the idea that business relationships can be reduced to contract. We also have a system that requires us all to exercise varying standards of care in various situations. And we can’t just go out and beat up or kill a neighbor with whom there is a dispute.


But some of the guard rails are not as easy to define but are just as important. We have securities laws, health and safety laws, employment laws, and rules that limit out conduct (and protect us from the excesses that otherwise might be visited upon us by less scrupulous people) that are at work every day.


PLACES WHERE WE NEED GUARD RAILS


Beyond the aforementioned guard rails the House has set out to restrain presidential behavior (and let’s hope recreate a better balance among the “co-equal branches” of government), there are a few places where we are desperately in need of better (or clearer) rules. I’ll discuss these further in future weeks, but here are places where clearer rules and constraints can enhance trust in the systems that they seek to constrain:

  • Who’s financing lobbying, initiatives, and PR campaigns. We all are familiar with the phrase uttered at the end of so many political commercials, “I’m Joe Smith and I approve this message.” We need similar transparency in all public media to make clear to the public who is paying for the legislation that often creates an uneven playing field or allows special favors to big companies or industries. How about “We’re Dow Chemical and we paid for this ad” or “We’re ExxonMobil, and we paid for this ad.” We have thus far failed at our efforts at campaign finance reform and there is little reason to believe the current Court will change this. But we can at least require transparency in more areas where money is being deployed to tip the playing field in favor of some at the expense of others.

  • The invisible hand of the market needs a little help. I’m a capitalist. I believe that it is no coincidence that free markets and free societies typically go hand-in-hand. I also believe that we are over-regulated in some areas. But that does not mean we are under-regulated in others. It is altogether reasonable to eliminate some of the many corporate tax breaks and it is reasonable to require companies to act more responsibly. Companies need to act in the best interests of their stockholders (including through constraints on executive compensation) and in the best interest of their consumers and employees (including minimum health insurance levels and carbon taxes that allocate the cost of pollution to those who generate it).

  • A model elections code that can be propounded to be offered to the states for adoption. I’ve said this before but it is impossible to fight a battle to encourage broad participation in elections with rules that vary across 51 separate jurisdictions of varying levels of commitment to free and fair elections. The federal government (or perhaps the ABA) should draft a “Model Elections Code” that can be the standard for adoption by the states. By doing so, we can have a healthy discussion in broad daylight and offer the resulting model code to the states. This shifts the blame for NOT adopting to the states that seek to disenfranchise voters.

  • The internet is the most important place where guard rails need to be imposed. It is a freewheeling mess out there. There is no differentiation of fact from fiction. There is the echo chamber of opinion that intensifies over time. There is the validation of untruths and the manipulation of the algorithms. It’s not as simple as identifying something as “disputed.” There is much more work required here. The Social Dilemma (available on Netflix) offers a frightening and insightful analysis of the problem, including interviews with some of the creators of the system (who would never let their children use these media). For a picture of how Facebook takes individuals who share opinions and nurtures, validates and reinforces their opinions until they are radicalized, you really must read this devastating article on how Facebook “incubates” radicalization, from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/14/opinion/facebook-far-right.html?searchResultPosition=1


I believe the establishment of rules and norms is one of the only avenues we have to make society more civil, rational, fact-based and safe. Have a great day, Glenn

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