Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Goodbye Mitt

Donald Trump today confirmed his pick of Rex Tillerson to be his nominee for Secretary of State. I can hardly rejoice about that choice but I can find one small consolation in it. Namely: I think we're done with Mitt Romney.

Romney was governor of my adopted state of Massachusetts 2003-2007. One of the votes he got was mine. I rarely vote for a Republican for any office (although I'm not sure whether a Massachusetts Republican even counts as a "real" Republican) but in my view at the time he was the most qualified candidate running. This was coming off the 2002 Winter Olympics, which I felt he had managed pretty competently, whereas his Democratic opponent just seemed to focus on criticism of Romney as a person, with comparatively little to say about her own policy proposals.

My problem with Romney began about midway through his term as governor, when he seemingly lost interest in being governor and wanted to be president instead. Apart from spending more time out of the state campaigning than in the state governing, he also started to transform himself—outwardly, at least—into a "real" Republican, apparently having concluded that being a Massachusetts Republican was more of a liability than anything else. Mitt's peculiar transformation would continue as he traveled the road to being nominated as the 2012 Republican presidential candidate. The most irritating, yet somehow unsurprising, aspect of that for me was how he portrayed the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) as "an unconscionable abuse of power" and called for it to be repealed, because while the latter may not be identical with Romney's own signature achievement as governor, 
the Massachusetts state health care reform, it's pretty hard to treat them as being somehow fundamentally different with respect to their core principles; unless, of course, you don't mind being a disingenuous hypocrite.

Clearly Romney doesn't mind. It was surprising—or not?—when Romney came out and so vehemently attacked Trump during the presidential campaign, summing up thusly:
"Here's what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.
"His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill."
Let's recall that back in 2012, after Trump endorsed Romney, Romney praised Trump for his "extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works and to create jobs". And of course now that Trump has won and was dangling the Secretary of State job before Mitt's eyes, Mitt now wanted us to know that "[W]hat I've seen through these discussions I've had with President-elect Trump, as well as what we've seen in his speech the night of his victory, as well as the people he's selected as part of his transition, all of those things combined give me increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future".

So who's the sucker now?

I wondered as I watched this whole thing play out whether it was just a clever trap set by Trump and his team, baited with Romney's own opportunism and vanity. Whether it was really part of some Machiavellian plan or just lucky (for Trump) happenstance, Romney is now in a pretty poor position to criticize anything Trump or his team say or do in the next four years, and looking at how his whole transition process has been, there will be no shortage of things to criticize (to put it mildly). It's hard for me to see why anyone would take anything the man has to say seriously at this point, and although stranger things have happened in American politics, I suspect that Romney's political career is over. Goodbye, Mitt. I won't miss you.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Coming to Terms with the Aftermath

It's been nearly two weeks since the Nov. 8 election as I write this. The liberal bubble that is my Facebook newsfeed was a landscape of despair for the first several days after the election, but that has since given way to seething anger and outrage. Needless to say (for the two or three of you who read my occasional scribblings here), the election didn't end the way I wanted or expected it to. I genuinely believed (and still do) that Clinton was the most qualified of the entire field of candidates, Democrat or Republican, but I was also conscious of the baggage she brought along for the trip, some of it real, much of it fictional. One might have thought that a substantial plurality of the electorate would have considered those failures, real and imagined, to pale in comparison to Trump's manifest lack of fitness for the presidency (in case you've forgotten, a quick look at James Fallows's Trump Time Capsule series should refresh your memory); one would have been wrong.

So here we are. We had an election and Trump won. As I write this, the latest counts show that Clinton won nearly two million more popular votes, but the Electoral College result—sadly—is what counts. Like it or not, that's the system we have and we all knew the rules going in. I don't think you can excoriate Trump before the election for saying he'll only accept the results if he wins and then say after the election that the Electoral College result is not legitimate because you don't like how the Electoral College is going to vote. I personally think that institution is an obsolete anachronism and would like to see it eliminated. That would take a constitutional amendment, which is a complicated process, but I'm holding out some hope that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will render an amendment unnecessary in time for the 2020 election. 

Now candidate Trump is president-elect Trump; I wince every time I hear that term. In the first few days after the election he made kind of a sobered impression. To some he was looking presidential and statesman-like; to me he just looked like the dog who finally caught the car he was chasing and now has no clue what happens next. Since then he's gone to the White House for a little "Presidency 101" from Obama, for whom it must have been a profoundly bitter experience, the professor preparing to hand over the keys to the carnival barker.

I have mixed feelings about the protests that have followed the election. I won't hesitate to condemn the violence that occurred around protests in Portland, OR; it's morally unacceptable, but also just tactically stupid. As for the peaceful protests elsewhere, those people are exercising their first amendment rights, and I understand the anger, but the fact that they are essentially protesting against the result of a free election makes me uncomfortable at some level. I tend to apply the "if the shoe were on the other foot" standard—if those were Trump supporters protesting a Clinton victory, wouldn't we be sounding warnings about "Trump's brownshirts" and worse to come? At the same time I recognize that we are facing something unprecedented here, a genuine moral crisis, which makes it harder for me to say people shouldn't be out in the streets making their feelings known, as long as they can do it in a peaceful manner. I see the value in reminding Trump and his pals that while they won the election, they did not win a popular mandate for their plans.

Ambivalence about protests at this early stage not withstanding, I accept the election results as the legitimate outcome of the system we have, stupid though it may be, but not the "now all Americans must come together behind our new president" crap I've heard from some quarters. In his acceptance speech Trump said "I will be president for all Americans". Technically that's of course true, but Trump spent the entire presidential campaign demonstrating that in practice he intends to be anything but. If he wants my support he can earn it; the last eight years of Republican obstructionism have taught me that I'm under no obligations here. The role he awarded to Steve Bannon, as one of his very first official appointments, speaks for itself as far as any claim of being "president for all Americans" goes. His appointments of Jeff Sessions and Mike Flynn are equally indicative of where this is going.

At least part of his constituency thinks it knows where it's going: back to a time when the white man ruled and everyone else knew his place. The rise in incidents of open racism following Trump's victory, many of which cite his name in one form or another, is well documented, as here or here. Trump has issued a sort of weak, half-hearted directive to his followers to "stop it", but only after he was prompted on national television, and he hasn't publicly said a word since then on the topic, even though racist incidents citing his name continue unabated. In Bannon, he's very publicly elevated to his inner circle a man who is intimately associated with the so-called "alt-right", so how can anyone take his "stop it" as anything other than an obvious ploy to establish plausible deniability? So many Trump voters deny racist inclinations and claim to be insulted to be associated with the bigotry of a few, but they've heard their candidate speak and they knew exactly who and what they were choosing when they cast their votes. If you voted for this man, you are a knowing accomplice in whatever comes next. Oh yes, I know, you were just following orders.

The Shape of Things to Come

The Monday-morning (or Wednesday morning, I guess) quarterbacks have been dissecting the election results ever since the election, amidst general finger-pointing on the Democratic side. Hardcore Sanders supporters have assured me that he would have beaten Trump if he had gotten the nomination, but let's not kid ourselves. If Sanders had been the candidate of the Democrats, all we would have heard after the convention is how he's a self-proclaimed socialist, "just like Stalin or Mao or Castro", and how he's going to take away our property and nationalize private enterprises and force us all onto collective farms and set up gulags and reeducation camps and other such nonsense. Trump would have dubbed Sanders "commie Bernie" and the same people who lapped up his "crooked Hillary" line still would have voted Trump into office.

The consensus diagnosis that has now developed goes something like this: The Democratic Party used to be the party of the working man. Then it decided to focus more on college-educated professionals as its core constituency and embraced globalization as an organizing principle for society. In the meantime, white working-class men have seen their economic and social status consistently eroded, and Democrats have done nothing to help them, preferring instead to belittle them as a bunch of stupid hicks. After eight years of Obama, things haven't gotten any better for them, they're angry as hell about it and so, looking for a radical change and also just to make a point, they've voted en masse for Trump and elevated him to the presidency.

I have no doubt that this analysis explains a lot, but it's hardly the whole story, as exit poll results (reported here, among other places) show. Yes, Trump did better among whites of all ages. But he also did better than Clinton in the upper income groups, among white college-educated voters, and in the suburbs. Downwardly mobile working-class whites may be a core Trump constituency, but they clearly have no shortage of allies among what are considered to be the better-off white elites. Demagogues always have friends in high places who are looking for a way to harness and exploit the anger of the masses for their own ends.

I took out my ancient pocket calculator and tried to dig into some of the exit poll numbers a little further. A few things I noted (apologies for all the calculations that follow, I just think I should show my work before I state my conclusions):
  • The most up-to-date numbers I could find on the vote (here, as of 11/17/16—may have changed by the time you read this) indicate these results in the popular vote. These are the numbers I used for the following extrapolations: 
    • Trump: 61,864,015
    • Clinton: 63,541,056
    • Other: 7,034,595
    • Total: 132,439,666.
  • Of the 24,537 respondents polled, 33% said that only Trump is qualified to be president, 46% said only Clinton is, 14% said neither is. Of the last two groups, 2% and 69%, respectively, were Trump voters. Extrapolating to the total vote count of 132.4 million voters noted above, that means that (.02 x .46) + (.69 x .14) = 10.6%, or around 14 million people, voted for Trump even though they do not consider him qualified to be president.
  • Asked whether Trump has the temperament to be president, 63% said no, and 20% of those respondents were Trump voters. So .20 x .63 = 12.6% of voters, or around 16.7 million, voted for Trump but don't think he has the temperament to be president.
  • 39% of all respondents said that the candidate quality that mattered most was "can bring change"; this was mostly driven by Trump voters (83% of the 39%). 21% said the most important quality was "right experience", 20% said "good judgment"; these choices were mainly driven by Clinton voters (90% and 66%, respectively).

So after all that fiddling with numbers, my brilliant conclusion is that statistically speaking, Trump voters mainly just want a change, but a substantial contingent of them don't give a damn about the qualifications or temperament of the guy they've selected to bring it. That pretty much aligns with the anecdotal evidence from multiple TV, radio or print interviews of prospective Trump voters I saw/heard/read in the weeks leading up to the election, in which this or that person expressed reservations about Trump's readiness for the presidency while at the same time pledging to vote for him nonetheless. Now there's a recipe for success (not).

Trump's voters are going to get changes, but I have no doubt that those changes are not going to make many of those Trump voters happy, especially that core constituency of working-class white men. Let's ignore for a moment (but only for a moment) things like Trump's pick of Jeff Sessions to be AG, and the impact that's going to have on civil rights actions by the DOJ, since the people who will be affected were very probably not Trump voters.

Let's focus instead on things like his tax "reform" plan, which economists think will add trillions to the national debt while benefiting almost exclusively taxpayers with very high incomes. Let's consider Trump's plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which is likely to leave millions of formerly uninsured people once again uninsured. Let's think about how much the cost of living will rise for low-income people who depend on all those Chinese imports at Walmart and elsewhere if Trump really slaps a tariff on them. Let's look at the loss of millions of export-related jobs that could occur from a Trump-incited trade war (and are not going to be replaced by an equal or larger number of new jobs mining coal and making steel). Let's ask how those who voted the whole Republican crew into office are possibly going to come out ahead if Trump signs off on Paul Ryan's plans to "reform" Medicare and Social Security.

We should also consider the less direct impact on Trump's core supporters (and all the rest of us too). There's the environmental impact to be expected from Trump's plan to withdraw from global climate deals and destroy the EPA from within—soon we can all be living in Flint. There is the infrastructure program that I think is actually a good idea but which I also think, based on statements from Trump's guy Bannon, will be so uncoordinated and poorly thought out that it—assuming the Republican Congress will even vote for it—will probably waste a massive amount of money without delivering any real long-term benefit (and, I bet, will probably see a lot of that money siphoned off into dubious channels).

Even more generally, there are the already-apparent massive conflicts of interest that I think will make this the most scandal-plagued administration since Harding was president. And then there's the infighting within Trump's transition team that I believe is just a preview of what we will see once the Trump administration is sworn in and which will keep it more preoccupied with itself than with the good of the country.

In short, I hardly think we have grounds for optimism with a Trump administration, and I think the people who are going to get screwed over the most are the people he convinced to vote for him for the sake of "change". They have not merely cut off their metaphorical nose, they have ripped their whole head off—and mine, and my family's, and all of my friends'—to spite their face. Let none of these people complain to me a year from now that they've been negatively affected by this or that Trump administration action, because that will be a very short conversation, possibly involving a lot of yelling.

My heart tells me I should now be pushing my own solidly Democratic Massachusetts congressional delegation and all of the rest of the Democrats to fight every stupid policy the Trump White House and it's allies in the Republican-controlled Congress may cook up in any and every way possible. I should be donating to the ACLU and other such organizations. I should be out on the street demonstrating against every anti-progressive policy this administration will try to implement.

But there's also a little voice in my head that says that maybe what needs to happen here is for Trump & co. to get everything they want; let Democrats put up token, symbolic resistance but otherwise step aside and let the country have this foolish populist experiment and see it end in the disaster that I expect. It has been popular leading up to the election to draw parallels with pre-Hitler Germany. Maybe it's time to look ahead to some parallels with post-Hitler Germany, whose citizens drew certain conclusions from the self-inflicted smoking ruins of their own country and of the countries all around them, owned up to (and 70 years later continue to seek atonement for) their country's heinous crimes, and established a prosperous and relatively egalitarian society that undeniably has its problems and shortcomings, but in which even an arch-conservative leader like Merkel is perceived by many in our own country to be one of the world's remaining champions of human rights and democratic institutions.

I hate to end on a dark and cynical note, but maybe it's going to take letting the likes of Trump and Ryan and their pals fuck up the country so badly that the "government is the problem" rhetoric that has been the Republican mantra since Reagan, the stupid idea that the best way to help average people is to award the wealthiest among us an ever-larger slice of the pie, and the ridiculous notion that the best way to make the country work right is to choose an inexperienced outsider to lead it, can be thoroughly and definitively discredited. Maybe, just maybe, we can all learn something and then pick up the pieces and agree to do something a little more constructive. I don't know that that's what I truly want, because of all of the people who will be made to suffer through no fault of their own. But with a vain, ignorant and amoral man like Trump elected to the highest office in the land with the approval of nearly half of all voters, I have to wonder if the only way we're going to get out of our national addiction to stupid and short-sighted policy prescriptions is to finally hit rock bottom hard enough that we're ready to swear off the drug for good.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Home to Roost

You know, I warned those Republicans. Back in December of 2015, after Donald Trump had insisted that we must ban Muslims from entering the country, I urged the the Republican National Committee to disqualify him from running for the nomination of their party because he had promulgated views that were entirely incompatible with American values. I have no idea why they didn't listen to me. I could have saved them a lot of trouble.

Following Romney's defeat by Obama in 2012, the Republicans performed a so-called "autopsy" (officially known as the "Growth and Opportunity Project") of the election results. Among the key recommendations was that the GOP should work to make itself more attractive to ethnic minorities and women. Hah!

What's happened instead? The party has embraced a presidential candidate who has gone out of his way to insult and marginalize Muslims and Hispanics. He has made statements about the African-American community that came across to that very same audience as condescending and clueless. And now, with the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, we can conclude that Trump's idea of outreach to women is pretty much limited to reaching out to them to grab them by their, um, lady parts.

See? I'm reaching out to women.

It didn't have to be this way. The Republican leadership could have stood up at the beginning of this sordid affair and said no way will this guy represent our party. Let him open up a third-party challenge, let him siphon off Republican votes, we don't care, there is no f-ing way that we will let this guy be the face of our party, and if he runs as an independent and takes away enough votes to cost us the election, at least afterward we are going to stand before the voters of this country with our dignity and integrity intact.

But they didn't do that. With a few notable exceptions such as Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney, who opposed him from the start, eventually all of the GOP's heavyweights fell in line and endorsed him. Reince Priebus, who even hinted that any Republican not endorsing Trump was in for trouble with the partyJohn McCain. Mitch McConnell. Paul Ryan. Marco Rubio. Even Ted Cruz, fer crissakes. And many, many others. No matter what offensive statements Trump may have made about whole groups of people, no matter what insults and abuse Trump may have hurled at them personally, no matter what they themselves may have said about Trump's manifest unfitness for the presidency, in the end they all got in line to kiss his orange butt. Most if not all are experiencing some serious buyer's remorse now, but it changes nothing about how ready all of them were to hitch their wagons to an odious, demagogic huckster against their own better judgment.

Hey guys, why the long faces?

Last week I listened to an episode of On Point, an NPR program produced here locally and syndicated nationally. The topic was the Weimar Republic, Hitler's rise to power, and parallels (or the lack thereof) between that historical period and the one through which we are living now, occasioned by the recent release of the book Hitler: Ascent by Volker Ullrich. One of the guests, the historian Eric Weitz, was asked by host Tom Ashbrook about what commonalities there may be between the rise of Trump and the rise of Hitler. Weitz answered that there is really only one: the courting of both by conservative elites who thought they would somehow harness Hitler or Trump, respectively, for their own ends, in the process lending each an aura of legitimacy and respectability that neither previously had.

Well, better late than never, I guess. Now that Trump's campaign is turning into a kind of slow-motion train wreck, these opportunistic fools, these disgusting Mitläufer, are tripping over each other to reach the exits as the whole affair blows up in their smirking faces. It is with a fair amount of satisfaction that I observe the corner into which many of them have painted themselves, fearing punishment from mainstream constituents on election day if they continue to support Trump, but facing the wrath of Trump's supporters at the ballot box for withdrawing that support. These guys aren't a bunch of uneducated hicks who fell for Trump's populist snake oil; they knew exactly what they were doing and why. They created this monster and now that it's turned on them, all I can say is: Good.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Time to Make the Right Choice

Much has been written in this campaign season about how this year's major party presidential candidates are the most disliked candidates ever. Articles such as this one, or this one, or this one (just a tiny sample) have dissected this phenomenon in great detail.

I hear from friends and acquaintances on the left how they would never even conceive of voting for Trump, but they just can't bring themselves to vote for Clinton. They talk of voting for the Libertarian candidate Johnson, or the Green Party candidate Stein, or just not voting at all. The anguish among no small number of lifelong Republicans who can't stomach Trump, but can't bring themselves to vote for Clinton either, is also "a thing", as we say nowadays.

I can understand why a lot of people, even die-hard liberals, have their problems with Clinton. Bill and Hillary Clinton are perceived as the secretive power couple who play by their own rules and feel accountable to no one. While (in my opinion, anyway) much of that reputation has been manufactured by their political enemies, some of it is a product of their own actions. The matter of Hillary's private email server, however much she may seek to downplay it, is incredibly problematic, and symptomatic. The FBI investigation found no evidence of offences warranting prosecution, but in his statement to the press FBI Director Comey also made it clear that there was serious negligence involved. In talking about the matter, Clinton continually emphasizes the former while ignoring the latter, perpetuating the existing narrative that the Clintons are pathologically secretive and, when accused of wrongdoing, will defend themselves with legalistic arguments while appearing tone-deaf to the political and moral issues raised. To some extent I can empathize with the Clintons' intensive pursuit of privacy, given the long list of discredited conspiracy theories that have dogged them now for decades, but they just don't seem to get how their perceived lack of transparency fuels these very conspiracy theories.

But let's get serious here. Donald Trump is, as I previously wrote—good lord, was it really almost a year ago?—at best Berlusconi and at worst Mussolini, and my assessment leans more and more to the latter. He is a man with demonstrable fascist tendencies. He is, to quote the Washington Post, "a unique threat to American democracy". This man must under no circumstances become President of the United States. I am not the sort of person who is given to hyperbole, but I believe that the election of this man to the highest office in the nation could set in motion events that would make the disastrous end of the George W. Bush administration look trivial by comparison.

And after the inauguration, it's bunga bunga time!

While the rest of us are distracted by this current circus of a presidential campaign, the Trump team is making its transition plans. In a recent New Yorker article, Evan Osnos writes about those plans, not as a matter of speculation but as a product of good old-fashioned journalism. If you like what was achieved during eight years of Obama, too bad, because you can expect to see all that undone as quickly as possible if Trump wins. And you are not going to like where it goes from there. Read that article.

Consider also that regardless of who wins the presidency, the chances are good that we will still have a Republican majority in both houses of Congress post-election. Trump will need congressional support to put many parts of his program in place and congressional leaders will want something in return. So you can expect plenty of collateral damage not initiated by Trump himself, such as when he signs off on that infamous hypocrite Paul Ryan's pet project of destroying Social Security as it currently exists.

Come on, Paul, just kiss his ass one more time. It's for the good of the party.

Then, at a more visceral level, consider the man's performance in the first presidential debate against Clinton, which took place a couple of days ago as I write this. He was obnoxious and rude. He was petulant and childish. He showed no evidence of preparation beyond his few pet talking points. He demonstrated no knowledge of history and no grasp of how government actually works. He lied and he blustered. He complemented his third-grade vocabulary (and inability to form complete sentences) with the arrogant, bullying antics of an actual—extremely spoiled—third-grader. He was Trump at his trumpiest. The next day he blamed his erratic performance on his microphone, like that same third grader making lame excuses for not doing his homework. We have heard so much in this campaign about how he's going to negotiate or renegotiate all kinds of deals with NATO or Mexico or Russia or China or Iran or whomever. God help us if that's how he plans to do it.

Who's laughing now?

And so it is time to make a choice, and let's be clear about what that choice is. The choice is between Clinton and Trump, period. Forget Gary Johnson. Forget Jill Stein. Forget about writing someone in on your ballot. And don't even think about not voting.

Coming back to those people who don't want Trump, but don't want to vote for Clinton: disaffected, disappointed Republicans generally say they'll vote for Johnson instead; erstwhile Democratic voters tend toward Stein (or say maybe they'll write in Sanders). They think they are registering some kind of symbolic protest. I have empathy for their frustration with the candidates on offer, but as far as I'm concerned they are just registering their political immaturity.

Gary Johnson seems like a nice enough guy, but I've listened to a number of interviews with him over the last few months and he always sounds kind of incoherent to me, talking out of both sides of his mouth about how we should drastically roll back government regulation, but we should have a legal, regulated market for marijuana and we should strengthen the EPA, which, the last time I looked, was a regulatory agency that perpetually angers anti-regulation ideologues. I could cut him some slack for his "what's 'Aleppo'?" moment if he had then come back and said sorry, I'm tired and had a little memory lapse there, and then made a coherent policy statement, but instead we got some vague nonsense of an answer once he understood what the question was. I saw him and his running mate, Bill Weld, on Chris Matthews' show tonight and that topic came up; he owned up to his little brain freeze on Aleppo but then dismissed it by saying words to the effect that knowing every detail is not so important anyway. Then he and Weld went on to assert that we will only find a solution in Syria by cooperating with Russia, which may well be true, but then they talked about how completely untrustworthy Russia is. So where does that leave us? We look to a president to make the hard decisions, not just to tell us that the decision is hard.

I've also listened to some interviews with Jill Stein, and to me she comes across as well-meaning, idealistic, but just a little bit nutty. That impression notwithstanding, I will say that I actually find a huge amount of stuff in her party's platform that I personally could sign up to under other circumstances.

But here's the thing: Jill Stein is not going to win this election. Neither is Gary Johnson. Neither is Bernie Sanders, or Mickey Mouse, nor anyone else you might think of writing in. Sorry. Like it or not, it's just a fact that the solid core of committed Trump and Clinton voters is too large for any other candidate to have even a remote chance of winning. Your vote for any of the above is a vote that is not going to the only candidate who actually does have a legitimate chance to defeat Trump, and that is playing with fire for the sake of making some kind of statement that is going to change exactly nothing if it gives Trump the presidency. Presidential races are won in the states, not at the national level, and sometimes state races are won by very small margins. Remember Florida in 2000.

A variant on the "I'll protest by voting for Johnson/voting for Stein/writing someone in/not voting" approach I heard someone mention in an NPR interview today was "I'll register a protest vote if Clinton is clearly ahead, but I'll vote for Clinton if the polls say the race is tight." That's the wrong approach on two counts. First, all polls have a margin of error, many that the media like to report on are poorly designed and therefore not very accurate, and they tend to focus on the national mood overall rather than on the individual state races. Second, and more importantly, Trump needs to not just lose, he needs to lose big. The electoral vote in the individual states and the popular vote overall need to send a very clear message that the Trump program of "make America hate again" is rejected and repudiated by the vast majority of American voters. He needs to lose by such clear margins in every state that his almost certain charge that the voting was "rigged" will look ludicrous.

I myself will vote for Clinton, and I will do so gladly and not reluctantly. I am painfully aware of her flaws, but I am equally aware of her very genuine qualifications for the office. If you have to hold your nose to do the same, I understand, but do it. With a Trump presidency averted, by all means focus your attention on remaking the Democratic Party into something more to your liking, or on building up the Green Party, or on whatever other cause is near to your heart. There is a time for symbolism, and there is a time for pragmatism. Every one of us needs to be clear on which time we're currently in.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Your Own Facts

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

I have read or heard those words (originally attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan), or variants of them, in any number of articles, blog postings and commentaries. Invariably it's coming from a left-leaning author or speaker excoriating some conservative politician or pundit for inaccurate, misleading or just plain fabricated claims about science, history, politics, social matters and so on.

It is a long-held belief of mine that there is a vastly lower level of inhibition on the right than on the left to support political arguments with assertions that lack a firm basis in fact. I wrote about this a long time ago in the context of the steady stream of crazy right-wing propaganda I used to get sent to me by a close relative who meanwhile seems to have moved on to other leisure pursuits. Democrats just seem to be, well, more ashamed of peddling nonsense in the guise of facts.

Maybe it's the media I consume, or the company that I keep, that leads me to that belief. This study would tend to support me, although I'm not sure it really stands up to statistical scrutiny. This more recent New York Times op-ed piece by a Politifact fact-checker that compares the accuracy of statements made by some leading Republicans and Democrats does seem to show more persuasively (for me, at least) that there are a lot more whoppers being told on the right than on the left.

I was startled and dismayed, therefore, to come across this graphic shared a few months ago on a Facebook page by one of my more staunchly liberal friends, along with some comment signaling general agreement with the statement in the graphic:

Now, one may look at this and say, "yeah, it does seem kind of funny". Maybe it conforms to a general sense that the country, or the world, is controlled by a small circle of individuals who use their enormous wealth to perpetuate a rigged system that enables them to keep and grow that wealth at the expense of everyone else. Maybe it makes one want to reflexively click that "share" button on Facebook to pass the message on. Maybe I even agree with the sort of underlying sentiment about the outrageous influence of the few over the many. But when I see you share this specific thing with me, or something like it, I am pretty shocked.

I'm shocked—and, as a Hebrew-American, personally insulted—because you are sharing with me one of many incarnations of the "international Jewish conspiracy" trope. Do a Google search on "Rothschild central bank meme" and look at the images that come up, and draw your own conclusions about the company in which you find yourself. Then maybe read up a little on the history of this topic; here's one summary.

I'm also shocked because you apparently don't know what a central bank is and how it is governed. Well, maybe not extremely shocked, because central banking, for mere mortals such as you and me, is admittedly a pretty dry and arcane topic. But you have probably heard of the Federal Reserve Bank (the US central bank, aka "the Fed"), and know that its activities are fairly extensively reported on in the press. The Fed's Chair (currently Janet L. Yellen) submits a semiannual report to Congress on current Fed policy (here's the latest one) and then gets grilled in an open hearing before Congress (here's that as well).  So the idea that the Fed is just a cog in the wheel of some carefully concealed international conspiracy is fairly laughable. You might also want to investigate how central banks actually work and then consider how it is that all but a handful of central banks could be "owned" by one diabolical family. Of course, I say all this assuming that you are a reasonable and intelligent person.

Finally, I'm shocked because you are apparently browsing through Facebook posts or liberal political web sites or whatever with your BS detector completely switched off. My dear leftist/Democrat/progressive friends, I expect better of you. I expect you to look at this and ask yourself, "what exactly is a 'Rothschild bank'?", and maybe Google the term to see what comes up. Then I expect you to read a few of those paranoid articles and say, "you know, I see a lot of outlandish assertions here, but not one shred of credible supporting evidence."

Then I expect you to look at that list again and realize that we're not actually "at war with" any of those countries, even though we have our beefs with some of them. The closest we come to that currently is our somewhat tense truce with North Korea. And we did fight North Korea and China in the Korean War, but China is now a key trading partner and a major holder of US Treasury debt. We fought Hungary in WWII, when they were allied with Nazi Germany, but Russia (well, the Soviet Union) was our ally in the same war, and Hungary is a member of NATO now. And Iceland? Really?

As you can probably tell, I got pretty worked up over the whole thing. But eventually I let it pass. I have known the person who shared that graphic for a very long time, and know that person to be a kind and generous soul who would never do anything to hurt anyone and who has never hesitated for a second to lend a helping hand to someone in need, regardless of the associated time commitment and personal expense. And that person is certainly no antisemite or bearer of prejudices of any kind, something I have seen tangibly demonstrated many times. I have to assume that sharing that graphic was a mistake made in haste and not some carefully considered act.

So yeah, I got over it. And then more recently I saw this video shared by a completely different Facebook friend who is a frequent sharer of left-leaning posts:

And I got upset all over again.

According to this video, the list of countries without a "Rothschild-owned central bank" is now just North Korea, Iran and Cuba. The list goes on to say that in 2000, the list also included Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Libya. But wait, what about that other list? It didn't include any of those countries. Can't these conspiracy theorists get their so-called "facts" straight? At any rate, the video goes on to provide an "explanation" of the dark conspiracy that brought those four countries under Rothschild control and how those remaining three will ultimately do so as well. All I can say is, do your homework; If you believe the content of this video after that, then please stop referring to yourself as a "progressive", because you are anything but; you are just an atavistic mouthpiece for the latest edition of a slander that goes back to medieval times.

It comes down to this: think before you post, or share, or "like", or whatever else one does these days on social media. You can't decry Republican denials of global warming (I will still continue to use that term rather than the more neutral one, "climate change"), or bogus claims of rampant voter fraud that necessitates new voter ID laws, or assertions that the President is secretly a Kenyan Muslim plotting to replace the constitution with Sharia law, and then pass on some farcical nonsense you saw on Facebook because it sort of fits your left-wing world view. If it sounds far-fetched and crazy, it almost certainly is. Just do your homework. You owe it to yourself.

My mother told me when I was small, "don't believe everything you see on television". This was long before anyone had even thought of something along the lines of the World Wide Web (a term you don't really hear much anymore, come to think of it). Today I guess she would be telling me not to believe everything I read on the Internet. It makes me think of the lyrics of a classic Frank Zappa song (one of several that support my insistence in discussions with The Young Master that Zappa invented rap); I just substitute the word "Internet" for "TV set".

Friday, March 4, 2016

The "F" Word

I don't feel comfortable using the label "fascist" or "Nazi" to refer to someone with a right-wing ideology that I find distasteful. However strongly I disagree with the policies of a Reagan or a Bush, however obnoxious I find Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, however insulting and hypocritical I find the whole Fox News crew, I don't use the aforementioned terms to describe their personalities or their politics.

Nor do care for the casual use of those words to mean something like "bully" or "mean person". The Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" episode was pretty funny, but I will always cringe at the term "Soup Nazi" itself. Words that evoke ideologies and events that culminated in the deaths of tens of millions of people and the physical and cultural devastation of an entire continent are not epithets to be thrown around casually.

As I watch the Trump political juggernaut rolling from one primary victory to the next, my inhibitions as far as using the "F" word are rapidly diminishing. I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime, certainly not in America, but there it is.

It's hard to find a single concise definition of fascism, though anyone reading this probably has a general sense of what that word means. I will offer my definition of fascism as a political system characterized by authoritarian rule, violent repression of any and all opposition, chauvinistic nationalism, militarism and expansionism, and featuring a cult of personality around its leader, in whom all political authority ultimately rests. It distinguishes itself from other totalitarian political systems by seeking to incorporate all parts of society into the political system (as opposed to, say, various flavors of communism, which emphasize class conflict), and claims no divine mandate as the basis for the right to govern. I would describe Nazism as a variant of fascism that more sharply focuses the nationalistic/militaristic component into an ideology of racial purity and predestination to rule over all other races.

I usually think of fascism and Nazism as political movements that were peculiar to a specific historical period and were able to flourish due to the prevailing political, social and economic circumstances of that period.To be sure, there are still plenty of authoritarian regimes around, but none that would fully match the definition I've set out above. But now there's Trump. Is it fair to call him a fascist? Let's see.

Last week I found myself in New York City on business. After spending several hours in the train from Boston, and then spending the better part of the day sitting in meetings in a windowless conference room in an office high rise, I had to get out and just walk around a bit, despite the cold, rainy weather that evening. I took the subway from the financial district up to 59th street to check out a couple of stores that interested me, and then began walking back in the direction of lower Manhattan, intending to just walk until I didn't feel like walking any more, then take the subway the rest of the way back to my hotel.

Shortly after stepping out of the subway, I found myself facing a large residential high-rise with the name "Trump Park Avenue" in giant letters over the entrance. I continued my walk, heading down Fifth Avenue, soon coming upon the massive and imposing Trump Tower. I didn't go in, but looking through the glass front into the interior I could see the signs directing patrons to the Trump Grill, the Trump Bar, the Trump Cafe and various other things named Trump. It made me think of the many other things Donald has put his name on (here's a short list, in case you're curious). What is it with this guy's need to put his name on everything? Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other billionaires own tons of stuff, but none of them seems to share this urge.

Trump's cult of personality seems fairly laughable, but he clearly takes it pretty seriously. His web site offers a random grab-bag of policy statements, but his whole political program is still basically… himself: elect him and he will "make America great again", whatever that means, and never mind how he'll do it. Maybe since he has changed his positions so many times over the years, he's just keeping his options open. Or maybe it's because proposing a concrete policy or program just invites a lot of unhelpful scrutiny, as with his foolproof plan to defeat ISIS or his supposedly revenue-neutral tax reform plan. The bottom line is: he is Trump, he will fix whatever ails you by virtue of being Trump. I vaguely recall the federal government also having a Congress and a Supreme Court, but presumably he expects those to just fall in line behind President Trump.

Among the few concrete policies he has articulated is his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border, which he has justified with a series of racist remarks about Mexicans. He has passed on bogus statistics about killing of whites by blacks. He insists that we must keep Muslims from entering the US, and has repeated his baseless claim that during the 9/11 attacks, "There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down". In other words, people who don't look like Trump have no business coming into the country—racism as the basis for government policy. And Trump's racist tendencies are not a recent, campaign-induced phenomenon, but rather a consistent pattern going back many years.

As distasteful as I find Trump's narcissistic personality cult and racist bent, to me the really concerning thing is the pattern of authoritarianism and the embrace of violence as a legitimate political tool that runs through so much of what he says and which seems to find such a consistently positive echo among his supporters.

The Trump/Putin mutual admiration society is well documented. Trump seems unconcerned when confronted by assertions that Putin is behind the series of murders of Russian journalists—it's only Putin's endorsement that matters to him. And while referring to him as a "madman", Trump simultaneously expressed admiration for Kim Jong-Un's violent purge of generals and party leaders: "And all of a sudden — and you know it's pretty amazing when you think of it — how does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it's a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss… It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one." So Kim having his political enemies dragged before some kangaroo court and then summarily executed is, to Trump, not a repulsive act; it's actually kind of cool.

Trump strongly supports the use of torture as an interrogation tool, insisting, "Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works… Half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works." I'm not sure who "half these guys" are; maybe the Senate Intelligence Committee, who after six years of study released a report saying that little to no useful intelligence was acquired  through the CIA's post-9/11 "harsh interrogation" techniques? Not that that matters anyway, since Trump also says, "If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing." So much for due process.

Trump also makes it clear that he will tolerate no dissent at any of his campaign rallies. I imagine that any of the candidates, Republican or Democrat, would have disruptive protesters and hecklers removed from their rallies, but Trump is not satisfied with that: he wants dissent punished. In a rally in January in New Hampshire, following an interruption by a protester, Trump instructed the security guards to "Get him out of here!… “Don’t give him his coat. Don’t give him his coat! Keep his coat. Confiscate his coat. You know, it’s about 10 degrees below zero outside. You can keep his coat. Tell him we’ll send it to him in a couple of weeks." When another protester interrupted him, Trump again insisted, "OK, throw him out into the cold! Don’t give them their coat. No coats! No coats! Confiscate their coats!" This to the cheers and applause of his supporters.

At a more recent rally, Trump said of a protester that he would "like to punch him in the face". As the man was taken away by security, Trump pined for the "old days", when "You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher." Now, I'm not the oldest guy in the room, but (regrettably) I'm not the youngest either, and I don't know what "old days" he's referring to. Maybe the early 1960s in Birmingham, Alabama? Or maybe he just means that same Birmingham last November, when a Black Lives Matter protester was punched and kicked at one of his rallies, later eliciting from Trump the comment, "Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing." (The thing he was doing was protesting Trump.)

Or possibly he's thinking all the way back to the 1930s, when Nazi meetings and rallies were guarded by the SA (Sturmabteilung, aka storm troopers or "brownshirts"), the party's paramilitary force of thugs recruited from the ranks of the angry and unemployed, who did indeed deal with any opposition in that violent, Trump-approved manner. I can't imagine that Trump could actually create his own private army in 2016 America, but he has no inhibitions about appealing to the kind of people who would be his pool for recruiting. Former KKK head David Duke said in recent days that, "voting against Donald Trump at this point, is really treason to your heritage", so clearly somebody is hearing the Trump dog whistle, which is about as subtle as a foghorn. Trump, clearly wanting to avoid alienating an important part of his base, first claimed not to know who David Duke was (even though it's well documented that Trump knows exactly who he is), then finally came out with a lukewarm disavowal of Duke's support that for me at least had the implied subtext, "I'm just doing this to make the press leave me alone."

I could go on, but let's total up the score. Authoritarian: yes. Violent repression of dissent: check. Nationalism/racism: yup. Militarism/expansionism: not so sure on that one, since Trump hasn't really articulated a policy beyond, "We’re going to make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it… We’re going to have a president who is respected by Putin, respected by Iran." Oh, and, regarding ISIS, "I would bomb the shit out of them". Cult of personality: absolutely.

Chi non è con noi è contro di noi.

Does that make Trump a fascist? Well, he doesn't overtly espouse a fascist political program, but I have no doubt about his fascist mindset. The only reason I can think of not to put that label on him is that fascism is an ideology, and an ideology is something you genuinely believe in, and for the life of me, I can't tell whether Trump actually believes in anything beyond feeding his own ego.

Would a Trump administration institute some sort of totalitarian, single-party rule? I sort of doubt that would work, but who knows? I know that it was a different place and a different time, but it still sticks in the back of my mind that Hitler didn't come to power through some violent coup, he was elected and then successfully manipulated the system to quickly achieve absolute power. Just recently we heard Trump blustering on about how he's not so crazy about freedom of speech; not a good sign for someone who aspires to office in a democracy. We also heard from former CIA head Michael Hayden that he thinks the US military could refuse to carry out some of Trump's policies—what kind of political crisis would such a confrontation between the Commander in Chief and his top generals produce?

I tend to think that at some point reason will prevail and even if he gets as far as the Republican nomination, he will still never see the inside of the White House. But I also never imagined that he would get even this far. I guess I can take comfort in the thought that if he really became president, and things actually got really, really bad, My Favorite Wife and I could could always return to the progressive democratic country from which we moved to the US sixteen years ago, namely—irony of ironies—Germany.