Point Austin: Inside the Whirlwind
From D.C. to Austin, a relentless political storm
For anyone writing about politics at the moment, the growing Trumpian spectacle in D.C. has created a black hole that pretty much swallows everything around it. Yet in terms of sheer threat to humanity, the farcical antics of Princeling Donald Trump Jr. (and the rest of his would-be royal family) are dwarfed by other alarming items this week: 1) "An Iceberg the Size of Delaware Just Broke Off a Major Antarctic Ice Shelf," headlines Wednesday's New York Times; 2) a paper published this week via the National Academy of Sciences reports that the ongoing "sixth mass extinction" of animal species now approaches "biological annihilation."
If those fleeting items still don't grab your full attention, I understand. It's difficult not to stare slack-jawed at the ongoing Trump debacle, whose latest chapter features the shrugging concession by the White House that yes, the Trump campaign (personified by Junior, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort) eagerly welcomed an offer from explicitly "Russian government" sources of damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Their "defense" amounts to, "The well was dry" (as if they didn't drill it), raising the question of why we should believe them, not to mention, "What's next?"
Hold that thought, while you consider that the GOP leadership remains intent on passing a massive tax cut masquerading as a (devastating) health care bill, and that the administration continues to gut or undermine essential agencies – Education, Environmental Protection, the Interior, etc. – while devoting relentless rhetoric and resources to terrorizing immigrants and more mass incarceration. I don't agree, as some claim, that the Donald Jr. headlines are some calculated, strategic "distraction" – these entitled nincompoops are simply not that smart – but it's undeniably difficult to keep all this barrage of outrage in the mind at once. While the D.C. press corps is turned into a leak-catching bucket brigade, the rest of us can only stare at the wreckage from afar.
The Bathroom Agenda
Not that we don't have our own Capitol shit-show about to resume. The "special session" of the Legislature is about to commence, with an agenda manufactured by Lite Guv Daniel Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott to bolster their prospective defenses against even further-right GOP primary challenges (and not coincidentally, to mutually arm themselves against each other). Once they move through the cosmetic subjects – routine sunset legislation that Patrick blocked, for these purposes, during the regular session – they'll move on to the red meat: handcuffing city governments, unfunded mandates for schools, more restrictions on women's reproductive rights, and of course, the frenzy to make life even more difficult for transgender people.
How much they'll actually accomplish remains unclear. The entire project may founder over the range war between Patrick's Senate and Speaker Joe Straus' House. The GOP's Tea Party wing is in a white heat to oust the Speaker, a fever reinforced because Straus recently made it explicit that he considers the manufactured obsession on "bathroom privacy" both un-Texan and inhumane ("America's Future Is Texas," The New Yorker, July 10).
The amount of blood – political and literal – Patrick and Abbott are willing to wring from the issue appears limitless, and whether Straus and cooler heads in the House can prevail remains in doubt. While the nation remains riveted by Russian emails and border walls … Texas politics will be consumed by bathroom access.
As Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca's Rick) said in a somewhat different context, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Substitute "Austin politics" for "three little people," and there's little wonder many of us are having trouble remembering that all this political chaos descends upon us locally, drip by flood, from federal and state irresponsibility. This week Mayor Steve Adler proposed yet another task force to address "displacement" – and he wasn't even talking about our undocumented neighbors sent into the shadows by threats from D.C., nor the families rendered literally "displaced" by recent immigration raids.
No, this is the more mundane, grinding project of what else to do about housing affordability, and how the housing market continues to disrupt Austin's working-class neighborhoods and send more folks fleeing to cheaper, suburban areas. Unlike polarized state and national politics, Austin's political controversies tend to be resolved by often awkward, grudging consensus – yet thus far, no consensus or compromise has been devised to resolve spiking unaffordability accompanied by growing inequality (while both state and feds exacerbate rather than alleviate the problems).
What's striking about the current CodeNEXT debate is its unusual local polarization – between those who believe the code can be remade to solve all Austin's problems, and those who believe it can only make them worse – with as yet no clear path to a public consensus for some middle ground. In light of everything else happening right now, it remains hard to focus on our own little hill of beans.