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The long view / January 26, 2017
It’s been awhile since anyone lit this place up. Somebody hand me a match:

» Halifax County has a problem again with an even number of election districts. Will the School Board go down the same dreary road as the Board of Supervisors two years ago? The trustees gather on Monday to try for a second time this month to elect a board chair and vice chair, after failing to do so at a Jan. 12 meeting that saw various contenders for the leadership fall short on a series of 4-4 votes. “Eight Is Enough” wasn’t the worst TV show ever made. It’s a pretty bad idea for an election district configuration.

Personally, I’ll be somewhat surprised if the vitriol that marred relations between members of the Board of Supervisors throughout 2015 is reprised by members of the School Board in 2017. The disagreements are real enough: This fight is fueled by disenchantment among some trustees with Superintendent of Schools Merle Herndon, although it remains to be seen if the dissident faction (Joe Gasperini, Walter Potts, Freddie Edmunds and Orey Hill) has in mind an effort to force Herndon’s ouster. They say not — or, at least, not yet, as the goal for now is to simply to change the way the school division operates. Interpret that one as you choose.

Herndon has ardent defenders on the School Board, and it’s difficult to see how any effort to drive her out of the Central Office would succeed even if her critics made changing superintendents an open priority. With such a clash likely to go nowhere, I can’t imagine it’ll actually materialize. (Predictions .... because I’m so good at ‘em dontcha know.) If you’re wondering how all this is any different than what the Board of Supervisors went through two years ago, I guess I’d answer the question this way: Then, a palpable sense of anger and unease existed among supervisors about the roiling state of the county administration office. Supervisors got sucked into an ugly, counterproductive battle by a level of staff turmoil the likes of which the county hadn’t seen before, and hopefully won’t see again. No matter how much individual trustees may find fault with Herndon’s leadership, there’s no real comparison between the internal disputes that divide trustees now and the epic dysfunction that drove supervisors apart earlier.

Besides, the way this political struggle is likely to play out is plain to see: Of Herndon’s presumed defenders on the School Board — Kim Farson, Dick Stoneman, Karen Hopkins and Fay Sattterfield — all but Stoneman are up for re-election in the fall. If the long knives really are out for our Superintendent of Schools, all that’s needed to loosen them from their sheaths is a fifth vote on the School Board. The four members who have signaled their disaffection with Herndon are safely ensconsed in office until the end of 2019. Of all people, they can afford to be patient — and let the deciding vote default to the electorate.

» Meantime, it’s Week 1 of the Trump Administration and hoo boy, is it ever going to be a long four years. The past week has seen underpowered crowds at Donald Trump’s inauguration and millions of people across America and around the world taking to the streets to protest the Great Orange Menace. Just to be clear, the crowd size for Trump’s swearing-in ceremony is of no great significance; the District of Columbia delivered 4 percent of the vote to the Republican ticket in November, so it’s not like denizens of the capital were ever going to pour out onto the streets to hail the new president. Yet the only person who apparently cares is Trump himself, who as usual shows the impulse control of a 4-year-old in lashing out at his critics.

On the second day of the new administration, Trump gave a talk at CIA headquarters and White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivered a presser in which both men flat-out lied about the size of the inauguration crowd. (Said Trump: “I looked out, the field was ... it looked like a million, a million-and-a-half people,” adding that “it went all the way back to the Washington Monument.” The latter statement is plainly false, as a little invention known as photography revealed. Meantime, the consensus estimate for the crowd size at the inaugural has been around 250,000 people.) Spicer’s press conference on the same topic was so absurd that Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway coined a new phrase the next day on NBC’s “Meet The Press” to describe the spokesman’s modus operandi — “alternative facts.” Roll over, George Orwell, have you heard the news ….

Attempting to interpret this display of political performance art, a few opinion pieces I’ve read have suggested a calculated effort by Trump to normalize lying as a way to lay the groundwork for various gruesome actions to come. The guidepost for this style of politics is the famous quote by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who observed “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Maybe. But the United States of America is not Nazi Germany, and millions of people didn’t demonstrate in the streets of Berlin and Dusseldorf on the second day of Adolph Hitler’s rule. More than a deliberative strategy by the Trump White House, the blizzard of falsehoods about the inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington the following day sound more like Trump just being Trump.

While he takes office as the popular vote loser with historically bad approval ratings, Trump does continue to benefit from the fact no one seems to know quite what to do with him. I’ve always preferred the critique of Trump as con man and fraud, but other interpretations have their merits. One moment, our new president is authoritarian and dangerous, the next he’s just ridiculous and small. Of course, all these conditions can be true at once, and the resulting fog does work to Trump’s political benefit in certain ways. But they also describe a disaster in the making for the country if Trump’s tendencies signify a descent into the rule of a boy emperor.

At any rate, the Women’s March was a powerful statement that a huge swath of the country — likely the clear majority — isn’t buying into the Trump White House faux reality show. Trump can inflate his crowd numbers and tell fairy tales about “American carnage” visited upon working class communities (while stocking his administration with Goldman Sachs types), but the weekend demonstrations should remind everyone that the new president, rather than being a political colossus, is a weak figure. Which doesn’t mean he can’t do tremendous damage, thanks to Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. If the Women’s March produces 50 good candidates for the mid-term congressional elections two years from now, it will have been a rousing success. Until then, getting under Trump’s skin will have to do.

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