Our national emergency non-emergency

The Thinker by Rodin

It turns out we’re having an emergency. It’s a strange one though, because it’s due to the misuse of The National Emergencies Act. We never imaged that a president would invoke the law for something other than an actual emergency. Obviously, Donald Trump has ignored that part and in typical Trump fashion, he went big: really big. That’s the emergency.

Trump’s true “emergency” is that he has a huge ego and it’s under threat. He wants to win reelection and senses he needs to start now. Given that he ran on building a wall on our southern border, he figures if he can’t show progress on this with his base along, he won’t win reelection. Congress keeps rejecting his requests to build more walls. So now he’ll bypass the Congress by declaring that wall is now an emergency. And he’ll take the money from other pots of money that were appropriated by Congress to do it.

You would think this would be malfeasance: an impeachable offense by itself, and Congress might move forward on removing this lawless president. But thanks to the crazy way this law was last amended in the 1970s and 1980s, it now means an evil president may be able to unilaterally reappropriate certain funds unless both houses of Congress can override him with a two-thirds vote. This is the exact inverse of the way the U.S. Constitution was written: money is ultimately appropriated only if both houses of Congress can override a president’s veto.

On Tuesday, the House will take the first step in declaring his emergency not to be one. The chances are iffy in the Senate, but it is probably likely to happen there too. Trump promises to veto the bill, which will mean that Congress will have to come up with a two-thirds majority in both chambers to undo this non-emergency. That’s not likely to happen, thus our emergency non-emergency.

It won’t happen because our Congress is now so partisan that Republicans in it can’t summon the nerve to override Trump’s veto, fearful of primary challenges in 2020 from MAGA heads. They will do this even when they know there is no emergency. It’s sad proof that for most of the Republicans, partisanship now takes precedence over their obligations to country. Like the president, they swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution when they assume office. The benefits of being in Congress must be great, and those pensions must be super-fat to put self-interest in front of the country’s interest. It’s also quite sad. Those of us who remember the Watergate days recall a less partisan time when the interests of the country and maintaining our democracy demanded it, Republicans could rise to the occasion.

This was my assumption too after Trump was inaugurated. I assumed if there was firm evidence for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, or to remove him via the 25th amendment, Republicans would rise to the occasion. It seemed logical at the time given the Watergate days experience. Forty-five years later though, it’s clear times have changed for the worse. It is now indelibly Party over country, at least for Republicans, unless they calculate that there is no political price they will have to pay.

Granted that many presidents used the National Emergencies Act for things that even at the time didn’t seem like emergencies. And granted also that Congress has mostly looked the other way when these emergencies were declared. It’s still an emergency to block the property of certain U.S. citizens supporting the government of Zimbabwe or Belarus, for example. But these “emergencies” were mostly minor matters and hardly worth Congress’s time to declare them non-emergencies. Nor were these “emergencies” of such broad scope or so egregiously designed to circumvent the will of Congress.

So the act needs to be amended to make some common sense reforms, like Congress has sixty days to vote that it’s an emergency and if it doesn’t then the emergency is not authorized. For me the real troubling part now is that this law has been thoroughly misused. It clearly violates Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The article unambiguously states that only Congress has the power to determine how appropriated funds will be used and their amounts.

Now apparently any “emergencies” that fall under the scope of the act mean the president can redirect funds and use them contrary to Congress’s intent unless two-thirds of Congress says otherwise. Given that the Supreme Court said the Line Item Veto legislation Congress passed during the Clinton years was an unconstitutional usurpation of congressional authority, the precedent to declare the National Emergencies Act unconstitutional too is clearly there.

As I noted in an earlier post, this will ultimately be decided in the courts. If this were an actual emergency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be busy constructing walls on the border right now and no one would be upset. Curiously, all previous presidents didn’t see it as an emergency. We simply have to hope that the U.S. Supreme Court sees this law as unconstitutional and strikes it down, or at least Trump’s interpretation of it. Yet the court has upheld it in various ways in the past, so this is not a given. However, it is very likely that the issue will linger until past the 2020 election, in which case if Trump loses it will hopefully become moot.

This should be a no-brainer for the courts. For the many so-called strict constructionist jurists on our Supreme Court, it should be obvious this use is unconstitutional, as it is being applied against the express wishes of Congress. Article I is crystal clear. But as I noted, we no longer have a government that puts the Constitution above party loyalty, so it’s no longer a given.

Should Democrats regain Congress and the White House, this should be one in a very high stack of legislative fixes to ensure “emergencies” like this never happen again.

Trump folds

The Thinker by Rodin

Yea! We get to have an open federal government again! Donald Trump threw in the towel this afternoon and agreed to reopen government, at least for three weeks and without getting his stupid border wall. Just a couple of days ago I lamented that I couldn’t see how this would end. I was not alone. But very suddenly, it all changed.

We’ll probably not know for a long time what changed Trump’s mind. If I had to guess, it was the wheels spinning off the federal government. Air traffic controllers were calling in sick in enough numbers that it caused the FAA to suspend air traffic in and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. When stuff like this happens, the pain extends beyond federal employees, their families and federal contractors. It hits the general public. And that makes them mad.

So it may be the unpaid but essential federal employees who brought the shutdown to an end by refusing to take the crap they were dished out anymore and calling in sick. It’s one thing for Trump to piss off his base; he’s basically been holding the government hostage to show Ann Coulter that he’s a real man. It’s quite another thing to be held responsible, not for the shutdown (all the polls show he’s being held to blame) but for something truly serious like an E. Coli outbreak or two airliners crashing into each other because there were insufficient controllers on duty.

This whole shutdown has been counterproductive to Trump’s and the Republican Party’s ends. It was stupid to do. It was an impulsive and rash decision by Trump in the first place. He is consistent in not thinking through the consequences of his actions. But it has had some surprising results. For the first time in my memory, the general public sympathizes with federal employees. They are no longer an evil, overpaid, lazy bunch of bureaucrats. They are real people who are seen as necessary and underpaid to boot.

The Republican Party has promulgated a lot of myths about federal employees over the years. As a four-year federal retiree, these always chafed on me. These myths have now been laid bare. Federal employees have endured decades of little or no cost of living raises. In the name of deficit reduction, it’s always in fashion to make federal employees pay.

In fact, the benefits of being a federal employee have been dramatically reduced over the decades. Federal employees still have pensions, but they are being asked to contribute more toward them. Inadequate cost of living raises have eroded their ability to buy things. Most federal employees live or work in the cities, which are high cost areas. They have been financially stretched for years.

So was no surprise to me to read stories of furloughed federal employees going to food pantries and losing their leases. So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck because their pockets have been picked for decades. To add insult to injury, now they get regularly furloughed. While federal unions are allowed, they are effectively toothless. They can’t bargain on wages. The sorts of benefits they bargain for amount to the discount at their department’s in-house health club. In August, Trump canceled a federal employee cost of living raise, for no reason anyone can figure out other than spite. The proposed raise was meager anyhow and would not have even kept up with the cost of living.

But it turns out that we need federal employees after all. And to fulfill a Republican’s worst nightmare, the general public now sees the value of federal employees. They make things work. They also see them as human beings, not faceless bureaucrats. It will take many years before they can be effectively stereotyped again.

From our trashed national parks, to our Coast Guard operating without pay, to the TSA agents who keep us safe traveling to the customs agents I encountered a week ago flying home from Ecuador, federal employees do important stuff. Some of the most important work you don’t see but take for granted, like ensuring that your food and medicine you use are safe. But it’s also stuff that is harder to see. During the shutdown, weather instrumentation that could not be maintained. This reduced the reliability of local forecasts.

Strangely, some federal employees do vote for Republicans. Not so much anymore. Even the most hardcore Republican in the federal bureaucracy won’t vote for Trump again, and probably not their Republican legislator or senator either, at least if they had a hand in keeping this shutdown going.

So who were the winners and losers?

  • Loser: Donald Trump. He literally could not have done a worse job with this shutdown. He proved once again that governing is way out of his league. He has no idea how to govern, how to garner support or even the basics of our constitutional government. He literally pleased no one, including his base. He only squealed because he was frightened things could get irreparably worse and that he would indelibly bear the blame. As for winning in 2020, he’s toast with 57% of Americans saying they will never vote for him in 2020.
  • Winner: Nancy Pelosi. It’s clear that she can kick ass and Trump is actually afraid of her. It may be because she is smart and pretty, and he finds that intimidating.
  • Winner (of sorts): Mitch McConnell. By refusing to do anything that Trump wouldn’t approve of, he likely did not reduce his 2020 reelection chances by much because he did not piss off his base too much. That’s all he cared about anyhow. He judged that no one would hold him accountable in the end. He’s probably right on that. As for his reputation as a spineless person unwilling to do his constitutional duty, that’s intact and impossible to erase.
  • Losers: Republicans in general. The Senate will probably flip to Democrats in 2020, and this shutdown will be a major factor. It is now seared as a painful national memory. Expect Republicans to lose more House seats too.
  • Winners (of sorts): Federal employees. They have found new sympathy and respect from the public. Actually, they have garnered empathy. A lot of them will throw in the towel anyhow, at least those who can afford to cut their losses and get out. I wouldn’t blame them. They’ve been treated abominably.
  • Losers: The American public in general. If nothing else, the 20% of the government that was shutdown for a month bought you nothing of value and made things worse. This was money wasted. This shutdown is likely to result in a negative GDP quarter and quite possibly trigger a recession.

We’ll see if Trump has learned his lesson in three weeks. He’s obviously not playing with a full set of marbles, so he might shut down the government yet again. Here’s hoping he’s retained enough of them not to make the same mistake twice.

Trump is likely to sink the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

This NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has some really bad news for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The poll focuses on the latest government shutdown and Trump’s further sagging approval ratings. The real story though is a bit below the fold: 57% of voters surveyed said they will definitely not vote for Donald Trump should he run for reelection in 2020.

Assuming the poll is accurate and those polled will carry through on their threat, should Trump run for reelection in 2020, he can’t win. Democrats could presumably pick just about anyone for their nominee and he or she would win instead. Assuming that Trump does not resign or is not impeached and removed from office before his term expires, he’s destined for defeat.

I will grant you that elections are often decided in their final weeks and that what seems like a sure thing now it no guarantee in November 2020. However, the Trump brand is fully established now. It’s also quite obvious that Trump will not change. It looks like his idea of running the government models how he runs his businesses: they go bankrupt due to his insatiable ego and complete incompetence. It’s hard to see how any campaign by Russia can undo America’s opinion of Donald Trump now.

All this is good news if you don’t like Donald Trump. Savvy Republican operatives though (if there are any of them left) should not have too much trouble figuring out the implications of this: Trump is likely to kill the Republican Party. If so, it would be karmic justice, and perhaps some compensation for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and likely millions of federal contractors not being paid during the longest government shutdown in our history.

That’s not to say this shutdown might not injure the Democratic Party too. The longer it goes on, the likelier that both parties will share in the blame. Most voters though understand the real issue: Trump simply won’t compromise. He’s now gone out on a limb. To pull back now makes him lose face with the only group he cares about: his base. But his base keeps shrinking. By one measure it’s down 7%, based on his poll numbers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) thinks he is being savvy by not having the Senate take up any of the appropriations bills passed by the House to end the shutdown unless he knows that Trump will approve them. By his way of thinking, this keeps him in good stead with Trump, who doesn’t like him (the feeling is mutual). It’s quite likely though that if any of these bills were actually voted on, they would pass easily. There might even be veto-proof majorities in both houses. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 too in a deep red state that sided heavily with Trump. So he thinks his strategy is smart: it innoculates him from criticism that he undermined Trump.

But it’s not. Republicans currently must defend 22 seats in 2020, including McConnell’s. Democrats have to defend 12. With the Senate 53R-47D, Democrats have to pick up just four seats to flip the chamber. Picking up 4 of 22 Republican seats while defending their own seas are excellent odds. This is easily doable but gets much harder for Republican senators who closely align with Trump. And the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pain it inflicts on their reelection prospects as more of their constituents are affected by the shutdown. Every day sears the memory more.

Basically, Trump is a huge and present threat to the viability of the Republican Party. After 2020, it might be effectively killed. The smart thing for Congressional Republicans to do is also the most risky in the short term: dump Trump. Trump’s negatives will probably inspire other Republicans to also run for the 2020 Republican nomination. These efforts are likely doomed because the Republican Party as we have known it ceased to exist with Trump’s election. So in some sense, the Republican Party is already dead. What is it without Trump? What is its center? What is its animus? Who does it represent? Whoever it represents, it will require a coalition to govern and Trump’s base is not nearly large enough. Trump is Humpty Dumpty. It’s hard to see how to bring the Republican Party together again.

Trump is leading McConnell and the spineless people that populate the Republican Party right off the cliff.

Republicans reestablish the patriarchy

The Thinker by Rodin

For Republicans, Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as the justice to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court is like winning the Triple Crown. It’s the greatest news possible for them. This is because with Kennedy’s departure and Kavanaugh’s likely lifetime appointment, Republicans will finally formally control all three branches of government.

The Supreme Court though has always been the one that has mattered the most. It’s just that for decades it has teetered between liberal and conservative justices, with Justice Kennedy usually the one making the final say on controversial issues like gay marriage. Arguably Kennedy was our only truly impartial jurist. That should disappear if Kavanaugh dons those black robes, which means it will be rare at best to get rulings without a Republican take on the law.

Notice I did not say a conservative take on the law, because the so-called conservatives on the court have been anything but that lately, frequently breaking precedence with previous courts. Traditionally, conservatives have respected jurisprudence. Kavanaugh’s record as a judge shows little respect for precedence. He has argued that the president has no checks on his power other than impeachment and removal. This would be news to previous courts such as the one that required President Nixon to turn over tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor. A real conservative should deride any judge that thinks anyone is beyond the law, but that’s what Kavanaugh has argued about the president.

I hesitate to tell our Democratic senators to give up on opposing his nomination. He has at best a 1:10 chance of being rejected. I’d like Democrats to fight dirty because that’s how Republicans won this trifecta. They fought dirty for decades to push their power far beyond the consent of those they govern. This nomination though is vindication for them in a strategy that clearly worked. They out-hustled Democrats by using tactics that were minimally suspect and maximally appalling.

Political gerrymandering is not illegal since the Constitution delegates voting rules to the states, at least those laws not dictated by federal law. The Voting Rights Act was one tool that for decades made it harder but clearly not impossible to disenfranchise voters. All that changed in Shelby v. Holder (2013), which overturned the rule that certain states needed preclearance by the Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. Five grumpy “conservative” justices (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) thus cemented voter disenfranchisement as an acceptable political tactic. Within 24 hours of the decision, Alabama announced that it would require photo identification at the polls, a direct result of this decision. Alabama simply could not wait to disenfranchise minority voters.

So not only are we likely to have a true “conservative” court soon, but the patriarchy is fully in charge, which is what really makes them giddy. The five “conservative” justices are all men. These five men will likely rule within the next few years that women no longer have control over their own bodies, when they allow states to outlaw abortions. Twenty-two states have laws in place that will immediately outlaw abortions when it is legal to do so. This strangely includes Massachusetts where I live, which never got around to overturning its law.

You would hope that conservative justices would be pro-freedom, but if you look at their actual rulings, it’s pro-freedom mostly for people a lot like them: white, rich and male. It’s not for women; at least not after Roe v. Wade gets overturned. It’s clearly not for blacks and Hispanics, who must jump through increasingly onerous hoops to vote if they can vote at all. It may not be for gays and transgender Americans, whose recent expanded rights to marry and use bathrooms of their gender are at jeopardy again. Their gay marriage ruling may get overturned since Kennedy is no longer the swing vote.

It’s all pretty bleak unless you are one of these “conservatives” that adhere to two levels of justice: one for people like them and a harsher one for everyone else. For them, this is good and with five “conservatives” on the Supreme Court they lock down the power that matter most to them – the power to make people do what they want – for decades to come.

There are some things that Democrats can try. They can hope to stay united and peel off Republican senators Murkowski and Collins. This probably won’t work, which is why I gave it 1:10 odds. They could refuse to vote on the nomination although it’s unclear if this would change the outcome. They could try to shut down all Senate business until after the midterms when Democrats might control the chamber again. Or they could insist that President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, first get the vote he was denied in simple fairness.

Of course, it’s fighting dirty that Republicans do best. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to bring Garland’s nomination up for a vote was very dirty and unprecedented. It would be fitting if Democrats refused to move this nomination until this error is corrected. Republicans though have no conscience. This tactic never bothered them at all. With them, it’s always party before country.

Still, demographics do matter. Our country is coloring up and becoming more liberal and secular every year, in spite of Republican actions to stem this tide. Democrats and independents must crash the gate somehow and regain control despite the wholesale gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement unleashed by Republicans.

The far right Infowars talk show wacko Alex Jones famously predicted that Democrats would start a new civil war this July 4. Republicans would be wise to remember that the people have a right to revolution to overthrow unjust governments; it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. Through dirty and undemocratic tactics, Republicans have created a fundamentally unjust government that have disenfranchised large blocks of citizens. These forces cannot be forever bottled up against the consent of the governed.

Republicans opt to follow Trump … right off the cliff

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump is really not that hard to figure out. If Obama was for it, he’s against it. This is because in 2011 President Obama publicly lampooned him at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. Not used to being publicly humiliated and having an extreme case of narcissism, Trump of course dialed it up to 11. He used every opportunity since then to undercut Obama. His way of getting back at enemies is to get even. Thus his presidency and while in office using every opportunity to destroy Obama’s legacy. Thus we have an EPA chief Scott Pruitt trying to turn it into the Environmental Destruction Agency and an acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mick Mulvaney working hard to make it do absolutely nothing related to helping consumers.

Obama was for an agreement with Iran to restrain its development of nuclear weapons, so naturally Trump was against it. That this means that Iran is free to develop these same weapons of course doesn’t occur to him. Obama was against open dialog with North Korea absent significant verifiable concessions, so it’s not surprising in the least that Trump just concluded a very short “summit” with its despotic leader Kim Jung Un wherein North Korea agreed to nothing concrete but Trump unilaterally ended joint US-South Korean military exercises. The hypocrisy of engaging in the sort of behavior Obama engaged in with Iran with North Korea doesn’t occur to him.

Fortunately for Trump, his fellow so-called “Republicans” don’t see it either. They are praising Trump for the exact sort of behavior that had Obama done it likely would have resulted in his impeachment. And that’s because it’s okay if you are a Republican. Only the Republican Party as it has morphed over the years is now effectively gone. It’s become the Party of Trump. Those few willing to timidly stand up to Donald Trump are either leaving Congress anyhow or, like former South Carolina governor and now U.S. House representative Mark Sanford, you lose your primary to a challenger who will blindly follow Donald Trump.

Trump obviously trust his instincts, so much so that not only will he not brook any dissent, he has removed pretty much anyone in his administration that might want to offer a contrary opinion. His Chief of Staff John Kelly is reportedly miserable and looking for an out. Trump seems likely to let the position go vacant when Kelly leaves. He’ll kind of winging the whole presidency thing himself, when he isn’t obsessively watching Fox News during his frequent “executive time”.

Pretty much everything the Republican Party traditionally stood for, Trump has chosen the opposite and Republicans laud him for his leadership. North Korea was to be wiped off the planet, until King Trump decided otherwise, and now he is a brilliant leader who deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Free trade is out and tariffs are in, despite the history that tariffs were the exact cause of the Great Depression. Canada is our new enemy; Russia is our new friend. Trump at least had the smarts enough to discern that what the Republican Party stood for was not at all what its base stood for. The base didn’t care about that stuff. All they really care about is hating those not like them and white nationalism. And they really, really want to rally behind a standard bearer who fights to implement that message.

Party of life? Only if it means forcing a woman to give birth to a child. Otherwise it’s quite correct to call them the party of death. This administration rips families apart at the border and traumatizes their children for life. It’s basically building tent city prisons for undocumented kids. Customs and Border Enforcement is becoming a Goon Squad, feeling free to act unchecked and at will against pretty much anyone. Also, it’s peddle-to-the-metal time accelerating global climate change and pollution by actively trying to make our environment much worse and much more quickly. It’s also all about making people with less wealth even more miserable and being poor even more degrading. Trump is more than capable at keeping his base whipped up, endlessly pushing their buttons that allow them to hate even more.

The irony is that all of this is because Republicans know their time is coming to an end. They sense it; they fear it. The demographic shift underway in America makes it inevitable. The only way to prevent it is to change the system completely, replacing democracy with authoritarianism led of course by Trump. Trump instinctively knows how to do this. Fortunately for the rest of us, he’s particularly inept in doing so because he listens only to himself and Fox News. Trump specializes in creating chaos, but chaos is not a plan, it’s simply chaos. Trump’s hope though is that if he creates enough chaos he makes it easier to make America an authoritarian state. His chaos creates the conditions that help authoritarianism thrive. And that’s what the “Republican Party” is now banking on: the end of our democracy as we have known it, with only themselves in charge. Because they know they can’t win honestly, so they must win dirty, pulling the rug from under all of us before we can marshal an effective response.

This must change on November 6 somehow or those of us living will probably live to see the end of a 250-year-old experiment in democracy.

Looking past the midterms, part two

The Thinker by Rodin

(A continuation of sorts of this March post.)

Currently 43 Republican members of the House have announced that they will not be seeking reelection this November. This includes most famously the current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan who says he is leaving to spend more time with his family. Three Republican senators are also not seeking reelection too. The Atlantic is keeping a tally with all the details. In the House, Republicans currently hold a 237/193 majority with five seats vacant.

A party needs 218 seats to control the House. If you do the math it’s not hard to see why Ryan is throwing in the towel. If Republicans lose 20 seats in November they are in the minority. In the last wave election for Democrats in 2006, Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House and 5 in the Senate, giving them control of Congress. If anything, 2018 promises to be even more of a wave election for Democrats than 2006 was. Thus many so-called principled Republicans are deciding to hither thee elsewhere rather than face the wrath of voters and the sting of likely defeat.

The math is so brutal that Republican insiders are now assuming they will lose the House. Their focus is now on retaining the Senate. Currently there are 51 Republicans and 47 Democrats in the Senate, but the 2 Independents caucus with the Democrats, effectively meaning if the Republicans lose two seats they have lost that chamber too. If they lose just one seat we have a tied Senate where power will effectively be shared, with Vice President Pence breaking ties. Four Republican senators (Corker TN, Flake AZ, Hatch UT and Cochran MS) are retiring. The only Democrat retiring already did: Al Franken (WI) due to sexual harassment complaints.

31 Senate seats are up this time, 23 Democratic and 8 Republican. 11 are battleground states. In wave election years though it’s unlikely a Republican will pick off an incumbent Democratic seat. The most vulnerable Democratic seats are in Montana (Tester), North Dakota (Heitkamp), Missouri (McCaskill) and West Virginia (Manchin). The most vulnerable Republican seats are Nevada (Heller) and surprisingly Arizona (Flake, retiring). In fact, Nevada is likely to pick a Democrat. Tennessee might surprise by picking a Democrat, even though it is considered a safe Republican state.

Most likely Republicans won’t be able to flip more than two of these contested states. In a wave election year though most likely they won’t pick up any. If Democrats flip Nevada and Arizona, that should do it. Flake is retiring in part because he is not sufficiently supportive of Trump, which means that the Arizona Republican nominee will pander to Trump’s base, disenfranchising the nominee from Arizona independents. Nevada has been trending blue for a long time as is Arizona. But there may be surprises. Democrats may flip Ted Cruz’s seat in Texas.

When the dust clears Democrats have better than even odds of having recaptured Congress. Democrats recapturing the House is now a given. Most likely Democrats will control the Senate with 51 to 53 votes.

Of course much can change between now and November 6, but most likely any changes will help Democrats. Ryan’s retirement is symptomatic of a deeply depressed Republican bench that seems to understand they are going to get their asses whipped. Trump’s increasingly bizarre behavior will continue to accelerate. There will likely be reports from Bob Mueller long before the election that will further put Republicans on the defensive.

So much for my latest election analysis, still some six months out. Imagine though that Democrats do regain control of Congress. What will that mean with this dynamic? Clearly Democrats will be able to hold impeachment hearings. Since only a simple majority is needed for impeachment, impeaching Trump will only be a matter of time. The real action would then move to the Senate, which would have to convict Trump to remove him. 67 votes would be needed to remove Trump from office, so Democrats would need probably no more than 16 Republicans to vote to convict. Would a third of Republican senators vote against a president of their own party? It seems unlikely, since the U.S. Senate did not convict Bill Clinton in 1999.

Conviction though would be a political act. Republican senators will have to look at the Mueller report, the wreckage of the election and their party and determine whether they are better off without Trump. Given Trump’s lying, his histrionic nature and his open grifting, any party that hopes to rebrand itself in a more positive fashion should realize that Trump is their deadweight and they are better off without him than with him. Without him, Mike Pence is president. Pence is deeply conservative but at least he is sane. He is unlikely to have a stream of hidden affairs to be unearthed. He’s unlikely to launch a nuclear war. And his positions align with those of most Republican senators, at least those who will be left.

Trump expects loyalty from everyone but never gives any in return. He is burning a lot of bridges, as evidenced by how little of his agenda has made it through Congress. So most likely it won’t be too hard to find enough Republican votes in the Senate to throw Trump out of office. There will still be the Cult of Trump that will form an important part of the party’s base, but as Trump continues to devolve it’s likely his supporters will grow less passionate. They may also realize that Trump has proved a failure at governing and that Pence is a much more stable alternative.

Remembering my own reaction after Trump won the presidential election it’s not hard to imagine Republicans will receive their own wake up call on November 6. The most likely message from voters is that they want politicians who will govern again and this includes reaching out to a vanishing center and compromising. They will want politicians that will fix problems, not make them worse. The Tea Party brand is dying and 2018 should pretty much kill that part of the party.

Let’s hope we survive to vote on November 6.

On Civil War monuments, American Nazis, white supremacists and (maybe) necessary limits on free speech

The Thinker by Rodin

Is there a difference between a Neo-Nazi and a white supremacist? My take: not really. A Neo-Nazi may be quicker to raise a Nazi salute and yell “Heil Trump!” (as happened in Charlottesville) while surrounding monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. Both seemed happy to chant, “Jews will not replace us” readily enough. Both groups assert that whites are a superior race and should be in charge.

If you truly believe this then there is no room for the democratic process, which may explain why so many Americans like totalitarianism. That’s pretty much what the real Nazis figured out once they decided they were right. Jews and other minorities in Germany weren’t going to “self-deport” themselves. So the final solution of murdering them all seemed an obvious but grisly solution to their so-called problem. There is no reason to think American Neo-Nazis would think otherwise, particularly when they show their seriousness by arming themselves to the teeth during their “protests” and spend the night before hanging outside a Jewish synagogue.

Forgotten among all this Neo-Nazi news is exactly what the Nazis actually believed. If you were a Nazi, you agreed with Germany’s National Socialist German Workers Party. I doubt any of these Neo-Nazis would consider themselves socialists. Socialism means government controlling the means of production, which is far more Alt-Left (if such a community existed) than Alt-Right. Nazi’s believed that you had to have German “blood” to be a citizen. Presumably Neo-Nazis would demand that you have “white” blood to be a citizen, but most Neo-Nazis probably would not qualify there too. Somewhere in their recent genetic past are likely one or more non-Caucasians. Would they self deport themselves from America if true? I think not.

Nazis also wanted to abolish unearned income, like living off your interest and dividends. No Neo-Nazi would go along with that. Many of them live off inheritances already. Also, Nazis wanted the nationalization of German industries. Imagine the government owning GM or Ford! No Neo-Nazi today would ever conceive of doing this. Nazi’s wanted “old age welfare”, government appropriation of private lands, and to kill all “usurers” (moneylenders). So what makes American Neo-Nazis even more appalling than real Nazis is that they are more conservative than actual Nazis were. They want all the Nazi bad stuff without its modicum of good stuff!

Perhaps that’s why a scene from the day after Election Day, November 9, 2016, keeps going through my head. I arose in Nashville and was flying home, transiting through Atlanta. Obviously, Trump’s election was huge news and CNN was everywhere in the airport while I was there. I was riding the subway between concourses and was drawn to watching a black flight attendant. There was no mistaking the anguish on her face that she valiantly but fruitlessly tried to hide. She knew that Jim Crow had won the day. She now knew she had an explicit (rather than implicit) target on her back. She woke up like many of us into an America she no longer recognized. Me? Well, I was white. I would survive. Probably.

In any event, the real Nazis turned out to be a huge problem for the rest of us. It’s largely forgotten but the United States entry into the Second World War was hardly due to a national consensus. Then as now there were Steve Bannons around who wanted to keep us out of the war. We might not have entered the war without the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Before the attack, President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program though showed our sympathies.) By then it was clear what we were dealing with: people so driven by ideology that only war could end them. We entered these wars not just because we were attacked, but also because we could not allow an evil this large stand. It was a completely reasonable to think that if the Nazis and the Japanese succeeded, our freedoms and liberties were in jeopardy.

The irony is that today America is perhaps the most Nazi-sympathetic country on the planet, as Donald Trump’s election attests. A postwar Germany went out of its way to avoid falling into the Nazi trap again. Displaying the Nazi flag in Germany today is a crime, as is doing a Nazi salute, wearing a Nazi uniform, shouting Nazi slogans and giving Nazi greetings. Many European countries have similar laws. Europeans learned the lesson: that National Socialism stuff is dangerous stuff!

Here in the United States though these things are allowed. We saw what a ruckus it can stir up over in the protests in Charlottesville. We allow most forms of civil protest even when these views if implemented would lead to the destruction of our liberal democracy. Curiously, in writing Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler admired the way Americans were separating its races through segregation and by making it hard for non-whites to hold power. Much of it was due to Jim Crow laws, but there was plenty of racism north of the Mason-Dixon line too. The Democratic Party of the 19th and early 20th centuries was largely a white nationalist and principally working class party. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century the roles got reversed. The Party of Lincoln is now the party of white nationalists.

This raises the question: should certain forms of free speech like advocating for Nazism simply not be allowed? Nazism literally ripped Germany apart, not to mention much of the world. It killed tens of millions so why on earth would any country permit it? Why play with such a dangerous fire? Our own Civil War supposedly settled the question of whether all of us were really equal before the law. But Charlottesville proves that there are plenty of people who didn’t like the answer. The Civil War monuments erected during Jim Crow and afterward prove that in some ways our bloody civil war was but a major skirmish and we have not quite settled the question.

It’s unlikely that removing these statues of the leaders of Confederacy will extinguish these racists feelings too. It might enflame these feelings instead. It’s worth a try and I hope state and local governments persist in these efforts. There are plenty of admirable Southern people deserving of statues in their place whose actions rests on a higher moral plain.

The Republican unraveling

The Thinker by Rodin

The Senate’s rejection of a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act last night was a bit of a surprise, but certainly symptomatic of a Republican Party in free fall. It was really a roll of the dice and could have easily gone either way but either way would have been bad for Republicans.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) certainly found a great time to go “mavericky”. Perhaps his brain cancer diagnosis gave him an opportunity to vote his conscience for a change and cement something of a legacy. McCain got most of the attention but Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also bucked considerable party pressure in voting against this bill. In any event it was clear that many Republican senators weren’t actually in favor of the “skinny repeal” bill. Many voted for it only on the condition that the House moves it to a conference committee and create something else. The bill’s failure appears to be a harbinger that the leadership’s ability to ram legislation through by bypassing its committees is nearing an end.

The White House hasn’t gotten the lesson. As usual seems to be doubling down on the stupid. This has the effect of making the White House even more chaotic and paralyzed. It’s like Trump wants to do everything wrong and in the worst possible way. In my last post I advised Americans to buckle their seat belts because the turbulence would only get worse. It has, and dramatically so. I often feel like we are living in a parallel universe because our politics is so chaotic and disordered that it is hard to believe it’s real. The only question is what parts of the aircraft fail first and whether the nation can make something of a safe landing. Consider:

  • On Wednesday Trump tweeted that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military. He said this decision was made after consulting with his generals, which appears to be a lie. He certainly didn’t consult with his Defense secretary, who was blindsided. It’s unclear if this tweet will become policy. But it has caused a hell of a ruckus, with prominent Republicans coming out against it. It’s not hard to figure out why Trump did this. He’s creating distractions and trying to excite his base, which is only excited when he does hateful things to groups they dislike. Trump says this decision will save money and improve our military. But if carried out it would remove tens of thousands of transgender people from the military who are serving honorably and who the nation has already invested considerable time and money. So aside from the blatant discrimination it makes our military less ready and less ready.
  • New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is busy trying to act nastier than Donald Trump, if that’s possible. In his amazing, profanity-laden interview with The New Yorker, Scaramucci called the man who is supposedly his boss, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and suggested Priebus was a leaker. He said of White House adviser Steve Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” He says he plans to fire everyone on the White House communications staff. Oh, and he wants to kill all White House leakers.
  • Trump continues trying to figure out a relatively benign way to fire his earliest and biggest supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he hopes can be done indirectly through his voluntary resignation. So far he hasn’t found the courage to fire him outright. Trump is very upset that Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation, figuring it was Sessions’ duty to make it go away because of loyalty. He either doesn’t know that the Attorney General is supposed to be independent so the law can be enforced impartially or simply doesn’t care. In any event his true target is Sessions’ deputy, the only person who can fire Special Counsel Mueller. Trump needs a new sycophant Attorney General who will fire Sessions’ deputy, which Sessions can’t do because he’s recused himself. If he can then he has to hope to have the acting deputy fire Mueller. All this is greatly alarming Republicans in Congress because Sessions is seen by them as an excellent conservative hitting all the issues they care about. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has already said that he won’t hold any hearings for a replacement if Sessions is fired. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) also announced that if Sessions is fired he would pursue legislation to prohibit Trump from firing Mueller.
  • John McCain’s call for the return of regular order in the Senate received applause from senators on both sides, who have had enough of their leadership disempowering them. A revolt against their leadership is likely brewing.

Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have squandered their political capital. Trump feels the need to shake things up and bring in an ever purer, nastier and more loyal staff. He can’t compromise because he sees that as losing face. He’s certain that the way he has always done things will work in a republican system of government that requires compromise.

Feeling the pressure to get things done, both House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are using insular and high-risk strategies to push through legislation that apparently is only supported by the slimmest of partisan majorities. Their system is breaking down, particularly in the Senate. Senators are immune from gerrymandering because the citizens of each state directly elect them. So the Senate is going to be more moderate than the House, and it’s this way be design, at least since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. In short, the institutional pressures and the simple desire for legislators to retain their seats are slowly overriding blind partisanship. We saw it yesterday in the votes of senators McCain, Collins and Murkowski.

Moreover, the executive branch is dissembling. The good news is that we have a competent Secretary of Defense, but it’s unclear if he can trump over a maniacal Donald Trump in a national security crisis. We also have a pissed off Secretary of State reputedly thinking of resigning and whose department is so understaffed that it is pretty much ineffective. We have branches of the executive at war with each other. And we have a president without the political skills to bring order to the mess he created and actually govern. In fact, we have a president that thinks not governing is governing. Thus it’s no surprise that there is massive dysfunction.

Look behind the scenes and it’s clear that institutional forces are marshaling, more significantly on the Republican side. Republicans are beginning to realize that they are better off without Trump. Fortunately, Trump gives them plenty of ammunition. Trump’s narcissism and cognitive dissonance will require him to become crazier and more erratic, which will feed the process. Ultimately, Republicans are going to war with each other, which should eventually render clear boundaries between traditional Republicans and Trump supporters. (Hint: the patriotic ones will eventually be seen as the traditional Republicans.) It’s all unnecessary if Trump would more toward political accommodation and begin governing rationally. It’s clear that he is incapable of doing so.

The Republican Party is moving toward fascism

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been clear to me for a while that Republicans are authoritarians. Of course, all political parties want their ideas implemented into law. In this country it’s supposed to be done through persuasion and an open and democratic process. But when I look at today’s Republican Party, I’m having a hard time convincing myself Republicans are not generally fascists.

Yes, yes, I know. They are the freedom party. Two days ago House Republicans passed version 2 of the oxymoronically named American Health Care Act, a version that was significantly crueler than the previous version that lost by a small margin. This one didn’t do much better, but did pass with four votes to spare. They want to give Americans the freedom to go without healthcare coverage again. They have that freedom now, but it requires paying a penalty to Uncle Sam. Freedom they tell us is not free, but in this case it had to be truly free to be freedom. This strikes me as a strange version of freedom. In general the sorts of freedoms they are pushing look dubious at best. They want school children to have the freedom to eat unhealthy lunches again. They want parents to have the freedom to keep their children from getting vaccinated. They want the citizens of Flint, Michigan to have the freedom to drink dirty water full of lead whether they want to or not. They also want parents to have the freedom to send their children to charter schools using our tax dollars without charter schools being held to the same standards as public schools. And they want all of us to have the freedom to breathe air contaminated by unchecked industrial pollutions again.

They sure don’t want pregnant women to have freedom over their own bodies. They don’t want to grant to poor people the freedom to accept food stamps, at least not without first peeing into a cup. In general they don’t want blacks, minorities and liberal areas to have the freedom to easily vote or at all. Republican secretaries of states find ever more creative ways to scrub their voter rolls. They clearly don’t want to give Democrats political power proportionate to their share of the population and will create crazily gerrymandered districts to disproportionately overstate their political power. And it’s not just Democrats. They don’t want to extend that freedom to moderates either, the bulk of the country. Democrats at least have minority status. Moderates are pretty much unrepresented.

So it’s pretty clear what their intent is: to dramatically overstate their political power so they can force the majority to do what they say. Supposedly they are following a democratic process, but not really. There is nothing democratic about gerrymandering, regardless of which political party is doing it. It’s legal because the constitution delegates most criteria for voting to the states, but it’s not democratic. Our Electoral College that for the fourth time put into the presidency someone who did not win the popular vote is not democratic either; although it was the price we paid to bring the southern states into our union more than two centuries ago. All this gives Republicans power, but not legitimacy, which is why there are so many protests going on. Deliberately and systematically Republicans are doing everything possible to make us tow their line. Using the vast capital of the wealthy class, they largely control the popular media. As Marshall McLuhan long ago noted, the medium is the message.

But fascism? Would it be too much to say that Republicans want to do away with democracy and institute a fascist state instead? Thanks to Republicans, their persistence and their money we effectively have an oligarchy. Former president Jimmy Carter said just as much. So I went to Wikipedia and studied fascism to find out.

Modern fascism was defined in the last century, principally in Germany and Italy on and before the Second World War. Wikipedia defines it as a form of radical authoritarian nationalism. So overstated nationalism is (or was) certainly a key to the being a fascist. With Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency we arguably have an ardent nationalist as chief. Only he is fighting for a largely mythical version of America some sixty years earlier.

Fascists also think liberal democracies are obsolete. I’ve outlined plenty of evidence of this already. Totalitarianism is a key feature of fascism. To get there you have to take away power from those who don’t agree with you. They have been very successful there through gerrymandering, voter suppression and many other tactics, some quite illegal.

Lately we’ve been seeing the troubling rise of brownshirts: formal and informal right-wing paramilitary organizations that will take action when they feel it is necessary. We saw brownshirts and anti-fascists (brownshirts on the left, but many fewer) come to fisticuffs recently at Berkeley on April 15. I believe the possession of so many guns in this country is generally a “be prepared” statement from these brownshirts so they can take action when society crosses some sort of nebulous boundary they won’t tolerate. The existence of these groups is evidence, if not proof, that lots of totalitarian wannabees live among us. Judging from their numbers at Trump rallies it’s a sizeable bunch.

I don’t see yet a desire by Republicans to nationalize industry, although Trump has said he want to in-source everything possible. It may be that nationalization simply doesn’t work in the 21st century with so much international trade. Fascists though sure like strong leaders, and Christians in particular like to play follow the leader. They already follow a largely false version of Jesus. They sure don’t like any ambiguity. It gives them the hives. Trump played them masterfully in the campaign and they voted for him in droves. While his poll numbers decline, he hasn’t lost the authoritarian base of his support, and probably won’t as long as he keeps up his bragado.

Trump himself is clearly authoritarian. He praises dictators and discount moderates. He has no patience for the messiness of republican government. It’s wholly reflexive because this is the way he has run his businesses. So is true of much of the moneyed class. They are used to being in charge and having respect they assert is due their wealth and station.

So while we are clearly not there yet, we clearly have in charge a party and a president with fascist tendencies. And it’s not like we haven’t traveled part way down this road. An oligarchy is a big step toward getting there. It’s unclear whether our three branches of government can check the rise of the fascists, particularly when one party controls all three branches.

As for me, I intend to keep doing all I can to not let fascism happen here. I think it’s a lot closer than we think.

Democrats score a big budget win

The Thinker by Rodin

The budget agreement which funds the federal government through the end of the fiscal year (September 30) proves that although Democrats don’t control any part of government, they still wield enormous clout. For the most part the Omnibus funding bill demonstrates the power of Democrats and vested interests. Trump and Republicans may say they are going to change government, but the agreement proves it’s mostly bluster and that Trump is a largely powerless president with his influence receding more every day.

Indeed, it’s hard to find any good news for Republicans in this spending bill except for a modest increase in defense spending. Money talks and all others walk. This bill proves who’s really exercising power. Consider:

  • There are no cuts to “Obamacare” or the subsidies to the Affordable Care Act. Insurers now have enough certainty to set realistic rates and most will prefer to stay in the exchanges. The tens of millions at risk of losing health insurance can breathe easier, at least for now.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is funded at 99% of last year’s level. So much for the deep cuts Trump promised and really the existential threat to its existence. Proposed changes to degrade environmental protections will probably fizzle too, as environmental law is unchanged and the same staff is largely in place.
  • Not a dime goes to fund Trump’s wall along the Mexican border. ICE gets a small budget increase and funds may be used to repair and replace the existing border fence only. There are funds to hire only 100 more ICE border agents.
  • Our socialist national train system, Amtrak, got a $105M increase.
  • The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities did not get eliminated or even cut. Each agency gets a $2M increase instead. Ditto for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I guess Big Bird is going to stay for another year.
  • My ex-agency, the U.S. Geological Survey gets $23M in additional funding, much of it earmarked for improving earthquake prediction but also for better groundwater level monitoring.
  • The IRS maintained its last year’s budget and additional money was allocated for improving customer service.
  • The Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal services to the poor, maintains a steady budget.
  • The Justice Department is barred from using its funds to undercut local government’s marijuana initiatives.
  • The National Parks Service was funded at last year’s level.
  • There are none of the large cuts Trump wanted to the National Institute for Health that Trump wanted. In fact NIH gets $2B more.
  • Planned Parenthood is not blocked from receiving federal money. Federal funds still can’t be used for abortion services, but this has been the policy for about forty years.

One might call this the April 30 miracle: a bright ray of sun after a few very dark and uncertain months. Perhaps though it is not so miraculous. For Republican control of government is largely a mirage. Trump waffles and vacillates, making basic planning pretty much impossible. This leaves Republicans in congress to govern, but it’s a muscle so atrophied that it has proved nearly impotent. For it’s unclear what it means to be a Republican. Republicans have been great at opposition, but poor at legislating. The party is comprised of factions with vastly different agendas and with no history of compromise, and with no one feeling the duty to compromise even among themselves.

Still, in a way this Omnibus bill is good news for Republicans. By dodging the issues they supposedly care most about, they increase their reelection chances in 2018 and 2020. And that’s what this is really about. The curious thing though is that at best it gives them the illusion of power, because it’s only real power if you can execute it. Perhaps the hope is that in retaining a power that is largely not exercised they will one day have a majority where their caucuses are united enough to actually accomplish some of those massive changes they ran on. More than likely, they are hoping their base won’t hold their feet to the fire and they are good enough (not being Democrats) and their districts are so tightly gerrymandered where it won’t matter.

Citizen opposition though is a huge but unstated factor. Republicans understand the tide is turning rapidly against them so they are pulling up drawbridges and filling the moats. They don’t want to show up at town halls. Marches, protests, petitions to Congress and (at times) massive numbers of phone calls to Congress are having an impact. It’s making Republicans scared and sowing confusion and hesitancy.

For a supposedly principled and aggressive party, Republicans are looking more like Keystone Kops. For those of us in the opposition, this is good. Let’s hope activists and Democrats can sustain this through the 2018 elections. As long as Trump is president, it’s quite likely, which is why Trump’s time in office may be shorter than anyone thinks.