by Daryl Slusher
Well, a lot of people beat me to commenting on the Trump Flotilla on Lake Travis this weekend. That’s the one where supporters of Donald Trump gathered on Lake Travis to show support for Trump’s reelection campaign. This was one of several around the country, but the one in Travis County got the most national, even international, media coverage. That’s because the boats, especially the bigger boats, created huge wakes that overturned or poured water onto smaller craft — sinking five of them. The New York Times quoted a flotilla organizer saying boats ranged in size from eight feet to sixty foot yachts.
A lot of folks on social media and elsewhere have commented on the metaphorical and symbolic elements of this incident, often using the hashtag #dumbkirk. So I will add just a few of my own here. For starters, this disaster was totally self inflicted, which is true of so many of our nation’s maladies. Let’s see, there’s: the response to the coronavirus which is worse than virtually every other country in the world, except perhaps Brazil; tax and economic policies that favor the rich and major corporations; the refusal of states like Texas to accept Medicaid expansion; and (I could list a lot more) the fact that Trump got elected President.
Related to the self inflicted theme is the fact that it was largely the big, rich people’s boats which created wakes that swarmed smaller boats. This tracks directly with the reality of Trump policies under which the rich have received huge tax breaks and corporations have benefited from one bit of deregulation after another, even some that affected corporations didn’t even seek, like gutting rules on automobile emissions. Some of the latest evidence that Trump policies are favoring the rich and leaving his less well off supporters behind was reported by E.J. Dionne in his Washington Post column.
Writing about former industrial powerhouse swing states that went for Trump — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio — Dionne reports, “Even before the economic downturn induced by the pandemic, the areas that were crucial to Trump’s electoral college victory lagged behind the rest of the country.” These of course are areas where Trump promised to restore manufacturing jobs. Dionne quotes from a Wall Street Journal study of ‘“77 ‘“blue-collar and manufacturing-reliant counties across the Midwest and Northeast”’ that voted heavily for Trump. In those counties, writes Dionne, continuing to quote from the Wall Street Journal, employment, ‘“grew by 0.5% in 2017 and 0.6% in 2018, lower than the 1% job growth in the prior two years, before Mr. Trump took office.”’ Dionne adds, “The counties also trailed the national growth rate of 1.5 percent in 2017 and 1.3 percent in 2018.”
Dionne also cites a New York Times study from December which, “found that Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan were among the 10 lowest-ranking states in the nation for job growth during Trump’s tenure. Pennsylvania, along with closely contested Minnesota, ranked in the bottom half of states for employment expansion.”
This failure to deliver on job creation though has not necessarily hurt Trump politically. For instance the headline of the Wall Street Journal article cited by Dionne is, “Slow Growth Hasn’t Hurt Trump in Key Midwest Counties.” The article reported that although “employment growth and other measures of economic robustness in these politically important counties have lagged behind the national trend. . . Mr. Trump’s job-approval rating in the blue-collar counties has risen since he took office, polling shows.”
I wonder if Trump thinks blue collar folks in these states who voted for him, and still support him, are “suckers.”
Another angle on the Trump Flotilla is that the Trump supporters in distress had to call a Democrat to be rescue them, or a Democratic run office anyway. By that I mean they called the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. I don’t know the political affiliation of individual deputies who responded, but Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez is definitely a Democrat. Additionally, area firefighers and EMS personnel pulled numerous people from the water According to multiple media outlets no injuries were reported.
The nautical disaster even made international news, for instance in England’s Daily Mail online.
So a lot of people, including me, had fun laughing at the Trump Flotilla, but we should also keep in mind that the mere fact that there were enough Trump supporters to generate this sort of nautical mayhem means there are still a lot of Trump supporters out there, and right here in Central Texas.
Abbott Expresses Confidence in Tump Victory and Threatens to Put APD Under State Control
Texas Governor Greg Abbott is confident that Trump will win, or at least says so on Twitter. On August 28, Abbott retweeted a video of protestors harassing attendees heading to Trump’s convention speech at the White House as they crossed a street near the White House. Protesters yelled at the Republicans and flipped the bird in their faces. Abbott tweeted, “This is why Trump will win. Most Americans despise this depraved, intolerant conduct. Americans are seeing too much of this in streets across the country.”
OK, Abbott is willing to ignore the countless instances of “depraved, intolerant” conduct by Trump, including separating asylum seeking children from their parents, praising white supremacists, not to mention the more than 20,000 “false or misleading” statements — according to the Washington Post — that Trump has uttered publicly while in office, and using the White House as a backdrop for his convention speech — in defiance of the Hatch Act and in defiance of a couple of centuries worth of agreed upon norms. (Abbott’s retweet and accompanying comment was before the Atlantic reported that Trump had called Americans who served in Vietnam “suckers” and American soldiers who died in World War II “losers.” Abbott has been silent on that.)
The primary reason I bring up Abbott’s retweet here though is that it reinforces a point I made in an August 25 article that Abbott sees serious political opportunity in publicizing the Austin City Council’s recent cuts to the Austin Police Department (APD) budget — something for beleaguered Republican legislative and Congressional candidates to go on the offensive about instead of trying to defend their deadly lack of response to the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Abbott trotted out proposed legislation that would put the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) in charge of APD, saying on Twitter that it is “one strategy I am looking at.” Abbott earlier vowed that the Texas Legislature would intervene when they convene in January. The DPS takeover proposal came from former Republican State Representative and former Travis County Sheriff Terry Keel and from former State Representative Ron Wilson. By the way Council, congratulations on making a Ron Wilson comeback possible. For those who may not know or remember — which almost certainly includes several members of the Council — Wilson was infamous for carrying Austin bashing legislation, often aimed at Austin environmental regulations.
It is hard to know if this bill is serious or just a threat, but one thing seems clear. Legislators who represent Austin will be tasked with fending off a number of legislative attacks on Austin’s sovereignty resulting from the Austin Council’s cuts to the police budget. As far as DPS running APD, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that having a police department run by the City of Austin is lots better than having one run by the state. My guess is that a lot of people in Austin will agree with that statement.
One of the really sad aspects of this saga is that the Council could have handled it differently and perhaps not only lessened the political leverage they gave Abbott, but also potentially been more effective in instituting needed reforms. That, however, would have required pushing back just a little bit on the hundreds of speakers who demanded large cuts to the police budget immediately.
The Council or a Mayor showing strong leadership could have said something like, “We respect you. We admire you for fighting for justice and for taking the time to testify to us. We strongly agree that APD needs reform. We’re going to move in the direction you want, but we are not going to do it all at once and we are going to do it deliberately with a wide range of public input in order to do our best to make sure the reforms actually work.”
Abbott might still have tried to make political points with the Council’s actions, but his job would have been more difficult. It would be even harder if the Council had actually worked with the Police Department and police union to get them behind some of the changes to a more social service approach on some types of police calls — something the head of the police union has said he supports.
Instead Council Member Greg Casar tweeted even before the budget officially passed, under a picture of himself against the Austin skyline. “We won: We did it!! Austin City Council just reduced [emphasis added] APD’s budget by over $100 million and reinvested resources into our community’s safety and well-being.”
Abbott rapidly tweeted out his displeasure along with a vow that the issue would be taken up in the legislative session in January. Meanwhile, Mayor Steve Adler, Casar’s faithful ally, was left to explain to media outlets that the Council actually cut only $21 million immediately with the rest to be considered during the coming months. The remaining $129 was put in a “transition” fund. Asked specifically by KVUE News about the Governor’s comments, Adler replied, “I think that the governor just doesn’t know what we did. He’s just reacting to the headline about taking $150 million out of police, which didn’t happen.”
Of course Casar’s tweet, and an email to supporters, helped generate that headline. Both Adler and Casar are technically correct to a degree, but in a tricky sort of way. The balance after the $21 million that was actually removed from the APD budget and reallocated ($129 million) was put into a transition fund. That means the functions funded by that money are still, for now, within the police chain of command, but Council plans to move them out later in the fiscal year after more deliberation. So Casar could semi-accurately tell advocates of large police department budget cuts that Council “reduced” the police budget by “over $100 million,” but he left out that not all the cuts are final — which is what Adler belatedly explained to KVUE. Another important factor is that the services in question, like forensics, Victims Services, and the Police Monitor would continue, but would be organizationally located elsewhere within City government — along with their budgets.
Local Service Providers to Domestic Violence Victims Express Concern About Police Budget Actions
Meanwhile, Governor Abbott is not the only one concerned with the Council’s actions. For example the day after Abbott, Keel and Wilson unveiled the idea for DPS to take over management of APD, the Austin Monitor reported that some advocates and organizations that provide care for victims of domestic violence oppose moving the Victims Services unit from APD. That move is part of the transfers Council will consider later in the fiscal year.
The Monitor summarized the advocates’ concern as at least threefold, “maintaining the level of access to 911 calls, criminal background searches and Versadex, APD’s electronic records-management system.”
For example Courtney Santana, a former victim of domestic abuse who later created a nonprofit called Survive 2 Thrive which helps victims of domestic violence find shelter told the Monitor, “Their (Victims Services staff) effectiveness and their juice comes from their ability to be inside of APD and be a representative of what APD can do. You take them out, then they become like us, and they’ll be a little bit less effective than they are right now.”
Additionally, the Austin-Travis County Family Violence Task Force wrote a letter to Council saying, “The pandemic has exacerbated the need for urgency in managing this issue.” The task force concluded, “We believe that the best way to do this is by keeping Victim Services housed at APD.”
In response to those concerns Casar told the Monitor that if the records issue can’t be solve, and make other things work, then the Council just won’t do the transfer. That sounds sort of rational, but why not say that in advance rather than tweet about having already “reduced” the budget by more than $100 million?
Casar and Abbott, More In Common Than They Think?
It’s interesting that Casar and Abbot continue to get into public spats because the two do have something in common. They both have difficulty standing up to the most vocal members of their base. And they both have a related penchant for playing to the crowd. I guess we should include Trump in that category too, but we’ll limit our analysis here to Abbott and Casar.
In Abbott’s case, as we have noted before, early in the coronavirus pandemic he rather successfully walked a political line. He took the virus seriously and showed a command presence that was reassuring when compared to the example set by Trump. Even Abbott’s initial reopening moves were modest; reopening state parks under special rules and allowing curbside pickup. At the same time some national reports listed Texas in the same list with other states that were reopening more aggressively. This likely helped Abbott hold off the furthest right elements of Texas Republicans, meaning that he was rather skillfully navigating the politics of the issue while also taking the virus seriously.
Then came demonstrations around the country against stay at home orders and against mask wearing. Plus, the demagogue beautician in Dallas, Shelley Luther, reopened her salon in violation of Abbott’s emergency coronavirus order. A judge ordered her to jail for a week. Then Abbott retroactively changed his order and sprung Luther.
From there Abbott shifted course and rushed Texas into a broader reopening, outside the recommended guidelines of federal health authorities, although consistent with the urgings of President Trump. It is fair to say that a large number of Texans died that would not have if Abbott had stood up to the loudest, most extreme elements of his base, and said, no, this is a public health issue.
Once it became tragically apparent that Abbott had gone too far too soon, he did recalibrate somewhat. Now he advocates wearing masks even if it makes some Texas Republicans angry at him. And, he just extended his emergency order.
Although Abbott, in my view, still has some serious shortcomings and still bears responsibility for the harm he caused, it should be acknowledged that he did realize that he reopened too quickly and too broadly and adjusted.
Perhaps Greg Casar could learn from Abbott. It is too early to tell how damaging his pandering to his base will be, but perhaps in the future he could focus less on garnering headlines and more on trying to protect the overall interests of the City that he represents.
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