Posts Tagged ‘Trump’

The Thinker

Looking past the midterms

Sometimes I think Trump wants to lose. Granted, Trump has made a career of losing. To the extent he has made money it is mostly from branding. Branding has some real advantages: mainly, you rake in fees (usually recurring fees) and someone else inherits the risk. This is true of many of Trump’s properties.

The shine is off the Trump brand as his presidency implodes. The owners of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Panama City want to kick out the Trump organization and take his name off their tower. It’s proving an uphill struggle but they have plenty of reason to persevere. With only about a third of the building occupied, the owners are losing money, bigly. Few love Trump anymore and pretty much everyone realizes now that his brand is more bronze than gold.

Trump finds new ways to turn off voters every day, and there are still eight months until the midterms. There used to be a daily scandal. These days you get a half -dozen new scandals a day. Trump is in meltdown according to his own staff, most of which have left him. It’s now literally impossible for me to focus on any one particular scandal. However bad it is now, it’s likely just to worsen day by day, leading toward a cacophonous crescendo on November 6 when voters finally get to weigh in on the Trump presidency. It’s not going to be pretty for Trump and Republicans.

How bad is it? It’s so bad that finally Republicans are starting to pull away from Trump. Just in the last couple of days he decided he didn’t believe in due process (most likely because he had no idea what it is), he pissed off the NRA and he is starting a trade war he is destined to lose. If he doesn’t back off on a trade war it will continue to sink stock markets, raise prices (possibly reintroducing inflation) and dramatically increase the risk of recession. If there is anything dearer to Republicans than staying in power, it is probably the value of their stock portfolios. They are realizing that Trump is becoming a toxic asset in their portfolio.

It’s unclear when Republicans will finally decide that they are better off without him. If they don’t get the message before the election due to all the scandals, I do expect them to get it after the midterms. There’s a Democratic tsunami approaching.

To begin with, Democrats will retake the House, which likely means a replay of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One of the first orders of business will be for Democrats to open real inquiries into the tsunami of Trump scandals, which can only lead to Trump’s impeachment in the House. I put the odds of Democrats retaking the Senate at now better than 50/50, probably 60/40 and likely to grow. It would take 67 senators to throw Trump out of office.

Regardless there will be a huge amount of Republican hand wringing after the midterms. Republicans will have to ask themselves how they can survive as a party. As for going back to the racist Tea Party rhetoric: that trick was played in 2010. It’s not enough anymore to win elections. Millennial voters are going to come out in huge numbers to prove they can’t play this trick again. They will be Democrats for the foreseeable future and they are unlikely to lose their political engagement. As for Republicans, demographics alone means they will be a dying party unless they somehow rebrand toward the middle.

It’s unclear whom Republicans can attract to their smaller government message since they’ve made such a mess with it. Which means that the party will either go down (possibly splitting into two or more parties) or like a sailing ship after a hurricane, what remains of the party will realize it’s time to throw the fallen masts into the sea and stand up a jury rig. Republican senators will have a hard time not voting to convict Trump in his Senate trial when it’s in their own interest. What’s in their interest? Not only maintaining what will be left of their federal power, but also in retaining what power they can in statehouses. The parties that control statehouses draw district-voting boundaries after the 2020 census. What’s the probability of that if Trump somehow hangs on and tries to win reelection in 2020?

There are plenty of tealeaves for easy reading. Just this week alone Democrats picked up two state seats in special elections, one in Connecticut and one in New Hampshire. Since the 2016 election, Democrats have flipped 39 seats in both state and U.S. house special elections, not to mention the Alabama senate seat. The main reason they are winning is because Democrats are coming out to vote in droves. Their enthusiasm will only continue to grow between now and November. Come November 6, the pressure will be explosive. Trump has succeeded in keeping the focus on himself, which feeds the outrage of those who hate him. So they will be out in multitudes. Most likely Republicans will be demoralized and sit it out. Trump is likely to give them plenty of reasons to stay demoralized too.

As bad as things are for Trump now, when he has effective opposition in Congress he’s going to truly feel the heat for the first time. He will probably be looking for exit strategies. It may even come before the midterms. For example, if Special Counsel Mueller has sufficient incriminating evidence against Trump, Trump’s lawyer might make a plea deal with Mueller: Trump would agree to resign if Mueller does not recommend any criminal prosecution of Trump in his report. Trump may already be getting the message. He may be looking for scapegoats for his impending resignation. He just needs the thinnest façade to sell his supporters. It will likely be some variation of “deep state”, “fake news”, “witch hunt” and “they are all out to get me.”

Curiously, the best case for Republicans in the midterms would be if Trump resigned sooner rather than later. This might move the issues in the midterm from Trump and onto other issues. Most likely though Trump’s bloated ego won’t allow it, so this denouement is much more likely after the midterms than before it. But if it happens, well, perhaps you read it first here on Occam’s Razor.

The Thinker

Figuring out that Trump is guilty is not too hard

And so our national nightmare continues. At least last week we learned for a fact that not only did the Russian government interfere in the 2016 elections, but also that doing so is a crime. Special counsel Robert Mueller released a slew of indictments, mostly against Russian citizens who will likely never be held accountable for breaking our laws. In doing so though he demonstrated that crimes did in fact occur, something Trump can no longer deny. Instead, Trump says “no collusion!” However, if someone colludes with an illegal intent, collusion becomes conspiracy, which is illegal.

Most likely this is just the tip of the iceberg that Mueller (if he hangs around long enough) will expose. Trump is being premature in his ludicrous claim that this exonerates him. If anyone in his campaign knowingly helped the Russians in these efforts, they are guilty of conspiracy. Remember that during the campaign Trump said that he hoped the Russians were breaking into Hillary Clinton’s email server. By hoping they would do so, he was cheering the Russian government on, tacitly endorsing acts that are illegal. It’s not conspiracy, but the non-lawyer in me suspects this could be construed as providing moral support to the enemy. If it’s not a crime, perhaps it should be.

The title of my blog suggests its principle topic is the application of Occam’s Razor. I rarely talk about the razor, but I do today to state what by now should be obvious. The most likely reason that Trump is giving the Russians the pass is that he is being blackmailed. No other reason makes even the remotest sense. Moreover, Trump is taking extraordinary steps to give the Russians a pass. For example, he is required by law to impose additional sanctions on the Russians, in part due to their election meddling. Over 95% of the Congress voted for these sanctions. The Trump administration though has refused to impose any sanctions. His rationale seems to be that what we are doing is working so well. So well in fact that Russians haven’t been deterred in the least. As I write they are working hard to influence our 2018-midterm elections.

Mueller’s indictments reveal the scope of Russia’s information warfare against the United States. It’s pretty breathtaking and sophisticated. In today’s Washington Post, we learn that in a building in St. Petersburg, Russia hundreds of Russians are working around the clock to spread disinformation and inflame our partisan tensions just on our social networks. From the indictment we’ve learned this included sending Russians to America to stake us out (in violation of their visas). Their budget for this exceeds $1M a month. It was used to pay for things like a cage to place in a pickup truck to hold a fake Hillary Clinton in prison garb, to emphasize the need to “lock her up”.

The Russians have extensively analyzed the vulnerabilities of our social networks. Working with psychologists they have figured out ways to hit our psychological triggers. It’s all quite sophisticated. I doubt our government is doing anything similar. Its scope is pretty breathtaking, not that the Russians have had a chance to catch their breath. Their effort continues apace, nonstop. But Trump could care less. He has taken no actions in response. He of course won’t impose any new sanctions on the Russians. It’s not hard to imagine Republicans in Congress looking the other way too. Implicitly anything that lets them retain control of Congress, or limit their losses, is good in their eyes.

What Russians are doing though is not the least bit subtle. They are trying to further divide us with the ultimate goal of breaking us as a nation. Governments rarely fall from invading armies. Rather they rot from within. So anything the Russians can do to further the rot and accelerate it from their perspective is good. It is so much better to take over a country where the infrastructure is at least still in place. So much better the spoils of war. It’s so much cheaper too.

And our IT companies are at least unwittingly abetting them. One of the downsides of a capitalist system is that its weaknesses are easily exploited. Facebook and Twitter are powerful social networks, but they are principally in the business of making money. Making sure content is legitimate and from verified posters is expensive and time consuming. It’s so much easier to take the money and run, which they did. I am on Facebook and I have probably seen some of their targeted efforts, as have you. Facebook’s witting or unwitting willingness to foster this behavior has led my brother to leave Facebook altogether. He cannot support a company that supports our enemy. Arguably any true patriot should ditch Facebook, Twitter or any other company that helped accomplish the Russians’ ends. I may have to join them.

Also arguably these companies didn’t know that sophisticated schemes were underway to leverage our social networks in illegal manners. You can bet though that they were quick to take the money of whoever offered it to them. In the Russians’ case, it came principally through fraudulent PayPal accounts. Thus Elon Musk (whose Falcon Heavy rocket made the news last week) is also tied up in all this.

As for Trump, he is trapped. The Russians obviously bated him long ago by catering to his usual vices: beautiful women and money, skills the Russians have long excelled at. I expect that the Mueller team will report in time that much of the money that propped Trump up these last ten years or more came through Russian sources via Deutsche Bank. I expect in time we will see that a lot of money laundering from Russian sources paid for a lot of Trump’s lifestyle too. When you sell lots of $500K condos for $1M, 5M, $10M and $20M, when similar condos in the market don’t command that price, it’s a sign of money laundering. When these condos that are often left unoccupied and where buyer is some shell corporation you are probably laundering money.

Trump knows that Mueller cannot indict him. At least in the short term, all Mueller can do is report his findings to Congress, which can choose to impeach and/or remove him from office. Once he is removed however it is possible that he could be held to account for any crimes uncovered.

A more rational lawbreaker would be working on a plea deal. In Trump’s case maybe it would be agreeing to resign if Mueller agreed to not indict him on any criminal charges. Trump though is not thinking this through rationally. When you have a case of toxic narcissism like he has, you close your mind to such thoughts. Instead you do everything in your power (and he has plenty of power now) to keep the dogs at bay.

We don’t have to speculate about whether he’d use this as his strategy. Based on having people like his lawyer buy the silence of those women he’s had affairs with (like Stormy Daniels), it’s clear which methods he prefers. Only sometimes it comes to bite you. Putin likely has the goods on him. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the alleged pee tape does exist and Putin is holding its release over Trump like the Sword of Damocles. Putin likely has a lot more than that.

So what you see is an ever more frantic and unhinged Trump. While he rages and tweets though, Russia continues its sophisticated cyber attacks on our country making many of us its ultimate victims.

The Thinker

Much worse than Watergate

Our Chinese curse of living in interesting times continues. These days are truly extraordinary, although it may be hard for many Americans to see it. Our republic hangs in the balance on what happens over the next days, weeks and months.

It’s easy even for me to get caught up in the political drama of the moment, most recently the #ReleasetheMemo controversy. What’s harder to see is the big picture and how our republic is becoming increasingly tenuous. We are moving quickly toward an authoritarian state.

The #ReleasetheMemo controversy, with the said memo now officially released, allowed Republicans and Trump to release highly classified information to make the most tenuous possible case that the FBI and Justice Department is out to get Donald Trump. (A curious case to make since it is a department full of Republicans and has always had Republican FBI directors.) Releasing this memo also exposes sensitive intelligence sources and methods, which the Justice Department has said may result in people getting killed. You would think that this would give those approving this memo some pause, but not at all. Trump broadcast his approval of the memo even before even reading it. It’s not clear he actually has read it, as he has zero attention span.

How crazy is this conspiracy theory? Let Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press explain it:

Why Trump would do this is obvious: he’s trying to escape justice. It is now abundantly clear that minimally he and many on his team have obstructed justice. It’s also abundantly clear that Russia has the goods on him. Trump admitted as much after he fired former FBI director James Comey: he said it took the Russian heat off him. He wants to make this whole “Russian thing” go away.

The memo gives him the pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s report will never see the light of day if Rosenstein is gone and Trump’s own lackey is in charge. So I expect Rosenstein will soon be fired. Mueller doesn’t have to be fired, but Trump will probably require his replacement to fire him anyhow. Trump will not allow himself to be held accountable for his actions. He never has and never will. Escaping justice is all he cares about.

A side effect though would be to make the Justice Department partisan and for it to lose its independence. Think about what this means. The Justice Department and the FBI in particular are our primary means of enforcing the law of the land. If they didn’t do this, you don’t have justice. At best you get very selective justice.

And Congress, at least almost all Republicans in Congress, are all for this. That was the whole point of #ReleasetheMemo. Congress is supposed to execute oversight of the Executive Branch. What we got now is just the opposite: Congress is aiding and abetting the White House and abdicating its role in oversight, in particular its oversight in making sure the Justice Department operates impartially.

So for the first time ever both Congress and the Administration don’t want the Justice Department to actually impartially administer justice. I was about fifteen when Watergate broke, and this didn’t happen during Watergate. It’s true that Democrats controlled Congress, but once Republicans realized the scope of Watergate they worked with Democrats to hold Nixon accountable. Now it is just the opposite.

This should not be surprising. Republicans are just following through on a long-executed playbook. Their goal is to end democracy and our republican government. In 2016 we not only elected Trump, but we also disenfranchised millions of voters. If these voters could have voted most likely would have kept Trump out of office. Republicans worked overtime to reduce the share of minorities and poor people who were allowed to vote. They aggressively purged voter roles.

Of course it’s not just limiting voting that Republicans worked at, but also at populating the judiciary with conservative judges, “strict constructionists”. So we pretty much have one party control now: Republicans control Congress, the White House and effectively the Judiciary, at least the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down much of the Voting Rights Act, we watched conservative justices aid and abet the process of disenfranchising voters. One of Trump and Congress’s major tasks has been to put more conservatives in the judiciary by filling openings denied to Barack Obama during his presidency.

When you have a Justice Department that won’t administer justice; when you have a White House actively trying to keep the Justice Department from administering justice and setting it up so that it can’t do so in the future; when you have a Congress aiding and abetting by blocking the administration of justice; and when you have a court system that increasingly won’t uphold justice uniformly, you have a complete perversion of our form of government.

You have in effect removed the checks and balances from our system of government. We end up with a republican form of government in name only. Moreover, we set the conditions for authoritarian government instead.

That’s what we are up against at the moment. In the past I had faith in the American people to rectify the problem, which hopefully they will do in this year’s midterms. But our voting system is badly frayed due to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Depending how the Supreme Court rules in two gerrymandering cases it is considering this year, it could make our voting system even more disenfranchising. And we are also deeply polarized voting for our tribe rather than in the best interest of the country.

It’s abundantly clear that Republicans only want the “right” person to vote, which largely means only “white” people. We have a president who is openly racist. We have a Republican Congress that is pretty much the same way. The #ReleasetheMemo controversy shows just how far extreme Republicans will go on this issue. They will put party before country, not just a little bit but by taking a mile instead of an inch. There is no bridge too far for them as long as they can hold on to power. Democracy and republican government don’t mean anything to them. They are not patriots.

All this is going on right under our noses but it is hard for many of us to see the full scale of the wreckage they are unleashing. True patriots will of course protest and work hard to change this. Republicans though have gotten so skilled at manipulating the system to favor only them that it’s unclear if anything short of a new revolution can actually restore democracy. Arguably, we don’t have it anymore.

The Thinker

Stormy weather and Trump’s further absence of leadership

It is kind of stunning how tone deaf the Trump Administration has become. By this time it shouldn’t be, but it is anyhow. After all, Puerto Rico was not hit by just one hurricane, but by two hurricanes. Hurricane Irma first made a swipe at the island before moving onto Florida. Florida was quite fortunate in that ultimately Irma picked a pretty benign path to wreak its destruction, with the Florida Keys taking the worst of it. Still, it was quite bad, and it knocked out much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. I have a sister in Fort Lauderdale. Like most of south Florida, she, her husband and her dog evacuated for a week. They dealt with massive traffic jams and lack of fuel, problems that could have been mitigated. She lost a few tiles off her roof from tree damage and suffered a water main break. It could have been a lot worse.

At least she didn’t live in Puerto Rico. It’s not easy to escape Puerto Rico and few Puerto Ricans have the means to get off the island even if they wanted to. So they had to hunker down during Irma and then do the best they could to survive. FEMA for the most part had its attention elsewhere, so these American citizens were largely left to their own resources. The more powerful Hurricane Maria wiped out pretty much everything that was left including lots of its bridges and most of its power grid. This left large parts of the island effectively landlocked: no power, no communications and with residents left to fend for themselves.

With sewage systems collapsing and their water supplies damaged many residents fought off thirst by drinking contaminated water, some coming down with wholly preventable diseases like cholera in the process. Drinking the water was problematic but there was not much you could do when the food ran out. Puerto Rico seems to be evolving into the equivalent of a third world country with disease, starvation and with what’s left of their homes providing an al fresco living experience for months or years to come.

Meanwhile, what bothered our “president” was that some NFL football players were bending on one knee during the national anthem. He saw it as being unpatriotic whereas the right to protest is actually one of the amazing features of our country. Clearly the administration is tone deaf to the harassment and killing of principally black citizens by our police. I don’t believe that Trump was all that upset by these protests. Rather, he was looking for something new and shiny to distract the public and enrage his supporters. He would have found something else if necessary because otherwise the press might spend more time looking at his administration’s poor handling of these hurricanes, particularly in Puerto Rico.

It’s not like we don’t know what to do to help people when these events happen. Food and clean water can be staged in the likely path of the storm. Generators can be brought in to support hospitals along with diesel needed to keep them going. It doesn’t cost that much to provide tents and temporary awnings, and I imagine there are chamber pot suppliers still in this business. Plans could have been in place to clear landing strips. The Corp of Engineers could have been on standby to build temporary bridges.

But none of this was new or shiny. It’s not clear that Trump even knew that Puerto Rico was part of the United States. He seems to have been surprised to learn that it was in the Atlantic Ocean, although it’s more accurately in the Caribbean Sea. In any event with no path to statehood and no representatives in Congress, there was no political reason to look at or care about Puerto Rico. It’s not surprising then that Congress gave it little attention and found it convenient to cut its support to the island. When the inevitable problems emerged of too many needs chasing too few resources, it was the fault of Puerto Ricans. So more austerity was needed, to force them to lift themselves by their own bootstraps somehow. In reality though it just forced more Puerto Ricans to leave the island, principally to Florida and New York.

Puerto Ricans have known for quite a while that our country doesn’t care about them, and they’ve been voting with their feet, since they are disenfranchised at the ballot box. Irma and Maria though now prove beyond a doubt that our country, at least our federal government, doesn’t care about them. At best they are second-class citizens, even though Puerto Rican citizens disproportionately fight in our wars and serve in our military.

The implicit reason is that most Americans don’t see them as citizens. They are too brown to be real citizens, and worse speak mostly Spanish. In an openly racist administration, they are even less seen. When they are seen at all, it is with barely disguised disgust. Mostly they are simply ignored.

Some of us though don’t feel this way, including my wife and I who have been contributing heartily to Puerto Rico’s relief. Some of us think that being an American citizen should mean something. As a first world country no citizen should have to worry about drinking rainwater or coming down with cholera. They should know that someone has your back. It’s not the state of Puerto Rico since it is not a state. It can’t be entirely its territorial government whose resources can’t begin to adequately cover the needs of its people. So it has to be the federal government, except right now our government clearly doesn’t give a crap about them. Puerto Ricans have been other-ized. If anything, whatever support we supply is a demonstration of power and a clear signal: you are not first-class citizens.

If only there had been even this much thought from the Trump administration. Basically Puerto Rico was not even on their radar. They just didn’t see a problem and you certainly can’t care about what you refuse to see. Doubtless our weather service and emergency managers dutifully raised the issue of Puerto Rico’s vulnerabilities and the impact of these storms. But Trump’s complete tone deafness and his lack of empathy for anyone not like him (white) simply made it a nonissue.

All the resources we needed to mitigate this disaster could have been there; they simply weren’t utilized for the most part. So the Trump administration is playing catch up. Trump is claiming everything is going perfectly when obviously it’s the complete opposite. Not that his supporters will know or care; they too excel at being tone deaf. In Trump’s mind, that’s all that really matters. His supporters need to be kept happy, but since he is incapable of doing much to actually make them happy he has to pander to their prejudices and cause distractions instead. That’s apparently all that really matters.

The Thinker

Trump’s nuclear no-no

Oy! It was another week of bellicose theatrics from our president. Trump, ever eager for more attention, went places that no recent president would have ever dreamed of going. As usual Trump picked the worst location to threaten nuclear war: the United Nations, an organization we helped create to promote peace and understanding and reduce the likelihood of war through the promotion of civil dialog.

Trump’s target this time was North Korea, which keeps lobbing missiles over Japan and recently concluded a likely hydrogen bomb test. Trump’s implicit threat to utterly destroy North Korea is today only possible using our nuclear arsenal. This means, if it’s true, that Trump is considering proactively using our nuclear weapons. He’s also assuming it can be done in a way that won’t send a nuclear warhead at us or our allies, a dubious assumption at best.

Trump isn’t the first president to threaten North Korea with nukes. President Eisenhower did too, mostly out of frustration because the interminable peace talks at the time were going nowhere. We were basically the only nuclear power at the time, with the USSR just getting into the game, so it was a viable threat. The threat didn’t bring peace in 1953, but it did lead to a cessation of hostilities, making the 38th parallel a neutral zone and an exchange of prisoners.

All these years later we are still grappling with a way to bring true peace to the Korean peninsula. Trump’s strategy seems to be to try Eisenhower’s strategy again, as if you can still scare the North Korean government into submission. All it has done so far is ratchet up the tensions and lead to ever more bizarre and bellicose statements from the “leaders” of both sides. With each exchange of insults, these “leaders” look more puerile. If only the United Nations could take them out of the sandbox and give them long timeouts instead.

As for utterly destroying North Korea, that’s exactly what our air force did during the Korean War with conventional weapons. It wasn’t enough. We had total dominion over the Korean skies. Toward the end of the war North Korea looked pretty much like Dresden after World War Two. The Chinese helped of course by supplying soldiers and material. As the Vietcong also learned, there are ways to move militaries without being seen. North Korean and Chinese soldiers were very fast with their feet and traveled mostly at night. So total destruction did not mean winning the war. Nuking North Korea would not end this war either. It would also not necessarily destroy North Korea’s nuclear program or its arms caches, which are likely well underground. It would likely kill tens of millions, including millions of South Koreans, and at best provide the illusion of peace. It would leave a generational memory that would resurface again and again.

Not content with chastising just North Korea, Trump excoriated Iran during his U.N. speech too. He called our nuclear deal with Iran the worst deal ever. Yet even his administration agrees that Iran has fully complied with the terms of the agreement. If the United States were to cancel the deal, the effect would likely be disastrous. Iran would be free to continue to develop its nuclear stockpile and work on nuclear weapons. It’s understandable that Republicans would be upset by what the deal doesn’t do. It doesn’t keep Iran from developing long-range missiles, but it wasn’t designed to be comprehensive. It was designed to keep a new nuclear power from forming in the worst possible part of the world. So far it’s succeeding in those goals. The Trump administration could open talks on these other issues, probably multilateral talks like the Obama Administration used. Or we can start a war with Iran instead. Which is likelier achieve our aims?

Like it or not, the United States can no longer use military power to achieve its aims, at least not with countries beyond a certain size. Most use of military power like this is counterproductive both in the short and the long term. The conflicts we are dealing with are much more complex than they used to be. Today they are less nationalistic than ideologically driven, and that includes here in the United States where a great conflict of ideology is underway. With Republicans in charge, the bias is toward using the military to achieve its goals, which means there is a bias not just toward war, but also toward creating wars.

Because Republicans respect force, they think it is the solution to all these problems. While certainly Democratic administrations have had similar proclivities (Kennedy and Johnson in particular, although they inherited the Vietnam War), it’s been mainly Republicans that have proctored our involvement in new wars. Eisenhower proctored proxy wars in Iran and Guatemala that were covertly run by the CIA. Our meddling in Iran eventually saw the eviction of the Shah and the creation of a deeply anti-American Islamic Republic there. In essence our involvement caused the animus Iran now has toward us. Reagan’s meddling in El Salvador led to civil war and right wing death squads that continue to this day. It certainly did not lead to stability in Central American. Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and Laos exposed a larger war but also proved ineffectual. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has proven to be disastrous and also based on lies. It led to among other things the creation of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria.

Trump seems almost eager to continue this Republican losing streak, perhaps reigniting the Korean War as well as setting off a potential war with Iraq. It’s really about showing American potency and relevance. It’s effectively being the muscular guy on the beach and taunting guys coming by so you can kick sand in their faces.

Solving these problems is going to be very hard and requires new thinking. It will require a bias toward multilateral solutions and diplomacy rather than force, in short using bodies like the United Nations more rather than less. It will mean dialog and engagement, particularly with those we find most difficult to engage with. It will take time and trust and verification. It will mean we will have to make concessions to affect a greater deal.

It’s painfully clear none of this will happen until not just Trump is gone, but Republicans no longer control the White House.

The Thinker

The DACA reaction: push comes to shove

Hawkeye: How do you feel?
Private Peterson: All ready to go out and kill me some more “gooks”, sir.
Hawkeye: Wendell, another word for “gooks” is “people.”

M*A*S*H, Season 1, Episode 15

Conservatives are having a call to conscience. For more than a decade Congress has kicked the immigration can down the road, unable to figure out what to do about the millions of undocumented immigrants in our country with a set of immigration laws that clearly weren’t working.

Less obvious, at least to conservatives, is just how much these immigrants contributed to their standard of living. They kept much of our economy alive by doing backbreaking and mundane things like picking our crops, mowing our lawns and cleaning our houses. These “illegal immigrants” have been a boon to our economy, keeping our cost of living low and allowing the same people who are complaining about their presence to live way beyond their means through low inflation and cheap goods and labor. In addition they contributed payroll, Social Security and Medicare taxes, helping to keep these systems solvent although it’s unlikely they will ever collect from them. In short much of their true wealth was siphoned off to the very people most upset by their presence. Many of these people though were happy to look the other way if it meant their crops would get picked or their lawns mowed at bargain rates.

This unofficial system was actually a good deal for America, but not such a good deal for those who crossed the border illegally. In most cases it was a scary deal but a better deal than not crossing the border. Included among those crossing with Mom and Dad were their children, who were too young to give consent to their relocation. Born in another country they have become trapped in something of a no man’s land. Knowing little or nothing of the country where they were born they became in effect Americans. Now they face the very real risk of deportation.

Trying to act where Congress chose not to, the Obama administration created DACA: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It was a pragmatic way to deal with the problem on an interim basis, given that Congress never gives enough money to fully enforce its laws and wasn’t interested in tackling immigration reform legislatively. While each of the 800,000 DACA recipients have no path to citizenship under DACA they at least have had some certainty of not being deported for some period of time. In addition they could get jobs legally and attend college.

Now of course Trump wants to end DACA, or did. That at least is his threat if Congress does not figure out what to do with these “dreamers” in six months time. Trump being Trump, he’s been all over the map on the issue, sometimes expressing sympathy for DACA recipients and sometimes lumping them into the “rapists and thieves” category he used to win election. A couple of days ago he met House and Senate minority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer for dinner. Nancy and Chuck were of the impression that they had struck a deal on DACA that Trump would support.

That lasted until the next morning when Trump discovered the blowback from conservatives. Suddenly it became no deal, or rather maybe a deal if there could be massive funding for his border wall. In any event, any DACA fix was completely anathema to his conservative base. Sensing that he could not further shrink his dwindling base of support, Trump quickly back-peddled.

Just fifteen percent of Americans support deporting these “dreamers.” In fact most Americans would welcome immigration reform, but it seems to be politically impossible. There is some hope that Congress might at least legislate a DACA fix. It’s unlikely though that such a fix would lead to permanent residency or citizenship for DACA recipients. Most likely it would simply allow the current policy to continue, allowing legal work status but with little possibility of full enfranchisement.

To these conservatives though none of inhumane aspects of ending DACA matters. They don’t care how distraught these DACA recipients are. Laws were broken and they cannot be excused even when those who pay the price are innocent by not having given consent. Trapped in their ideological prison, these conservatives appear beyond conscience. They would have 800,000 innocent people deported to countries they do not know (and where in many cases they cannot even speak the language) for crimes of their parents. In the process they reveal the soulless and inhumane people they actually are. Like Private Wendell Peterson (played by Ron Howard) they see only “illegals”, not humans. For them when the law is broken the prison of ideology requires them to put compassion aside, even if these DACA recipients had no say in their situation.

It’s crazy, it’s inhumane and it speaks to the worst of Americans. It’s like that scene from the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup. Who are you going to believe, conservatives: your ideology or your own eyes? For conservatives, their answer is horrendously cruel and sadly obvious.

The Thinker

Trump must go

If there was every any doubt (and it’s hard to imagine how there could have been), at his news conference yesterday Donald Trump essentially admitted he was a racist. This means we have the first openly racist president since Woodrow Wilson. Trump definitely has the ability to keep astounding us, just not in a good way. His statement on Monday explicitly criticizing neo-Nazis and white supremacists involved in the violence last Friday and Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia sounded insincere. In fact it took a teleprompter for him to give the statement at all. Yesterday we were back to the real Donald Trump who pretty much disavowed everything he had said on Monday. He also invented a new term: the Alt-Left.

The Alt-Right supposedly consists of people on the right who are quite radical but not necessarily racists or Nazis but don’t see themselves as traditional conservatives or Republicans. In fact you would have to beat the Alt-Right bushes pretty thoroughly to find someone that honestly isn’t a racist. Its founder Steve Bannon is clearly a racist and is one of Trump’s principal advisers. Much of Trump’s staff is part of the same ilk. Now we know that Trump is too, although he has something of a blind spot when it comes to his anti-Semitism. It doesn’t seem to include his Jewish son-in-law Jared who he has probably folded over in his mind as a WASP.

Trump engaged in a lot of false equivalences in his news conference yesterday. Of course details escape him. Yes, the protestors did have a permit to protest, but it was for Saturday. It did not include Friday. On Friday this basket of deplorables marched outside a church and shouted Nazi slogans to those who gathered to oppose them.

Because of their actions, it inflamed both sides bringing them to protest and counter-protest on Saturday. They were hardly civil about it and it was obvious they were there to push people’s buttons. Yes, open carry may be legal in the state of Virginia but hundreds of racists don’t come loaded to the gills with semiautomatic rifles and other weapons, not to mention shields and helmets in many cases, as a demonstration of benign intent. Their intent was clearly to dominate, inflame and intimidate others.

Their foul language and openly Nazi-like chants and Nazi salutes (“Heil Trump”) made their intentions quite clear. Sorry to say one of them was unhinged enough to use his car as a weapon of terror, murdering counter protester Heather Heyer and wounding nineteen others. In this disturbing HBO documentary you get to watch the event and later the protest’s leader Christopher Cantwell say alleged killer James Fields’s actions were “more than justified.”

If you are a “new” Nazi, presumably you share most of the views of Germany’s Nazi Party. Unless you were asleep in history class, Nazis did far more than advocate for their views. When they had power they put them into practice. They killed millions of people they judged not like them, and it was far more than the Jews, but non-Aryans of all stripes plus plenty of people who they just didn’t like, such as homosexuals. Nazis spawned a world war that claimed the lives of tens of millions. So by definition if you are a neo-Nazi you advocate violence and are willing to kill and maim others to get your way, as James Fields’s actions attest.

Is there really a tangible difference between a neo-Nazi and a white supremacist? Both believe that “whites” are superior to other races and must govern the rest of us. You would think that because white supremacists enslaved people and started a world war would mean just the opposite. I made the case recently that based on the evidence white males should be ethnically profiled as they perpetrate the majority of these crimes. Police everywhere should ethnically profile all those protesters in Charlottesville.

The HBO documentary though does prove that these people, though likely small in number, are very dangerous. They don’t share the values of a civilized society. The democratic process requires compromise but they will not allow it. It’s clear that they don’t believe in nonviolence and are looking for opportunities to cause violence and civil strife. They are hoping for a new civil war resulting in a new nation where whites are clearly in charge and any non-whites who live among us have a second-class status. Violently causing confrontations around symbols like statues of Robert E. Lee they see as key to starting a chain of reactions to begin this new revolution. They are essentially rebels and insurrectionists. Any of their actions that cause or inflame violence are treasonous. They are a direct assault on the rule of law and our democracy.

Yesterday Trump essentially admitted he championed their cause. He has shown that he will put their priorities above those of the rest of us. This essentially disqualifies him from office. The president swears to uphold the constitution of the United States but he will do so only when it benefits white people.

I am hoping that his remarks will at least put backbone among Republicans. Trump must go. Whether through impeachment and conviction or the 25th amendment he is not qualified to be our president. It’s in their self-interest. Whether they can summon the nerve to do so remains to be seen, but the political case for his removal is now very clear. Let’s hope they will do it.

The Thinker

Lots of Americans prefer totalitarianism

It’s been noted that democracy is on the decline around the world. Venezuela is the most recent example. Unhappy about 2015 election results that gave socialist president Nicolás Maduro an opposition legislature, Maduro refused to let the national assembly meet. Most recently he is pushing for a rewriting the constitution by a new Constituent Assembly, elected by socialists in a widely boycotted election. The so-called assembly is busy rewriting the constitution to ensure no further democracy is possible. Meanwhile, Venezuela continues a long downward slide with the possibility of civil war looming.

Here in the United States there are plenty of people that don’t like democracy. Many would like ours gone altogether. This seems to include our president, who is deeply annoyed that he cannot run the government by fiat. He is trying to keep undesirable voters from voting by empowering a commission to look into the nonexistent issue of voter fraud. Deeply red states are way ahead of Trump, having essentially thrown the 2016 elections with voter suppression. Yet they still continue to look for ways to ensure only those they deem worthy of voting have that privilege. They are hardly covert. The powerful American Legislative Council (ALEC), essentially a wealthy group funded by large corporations and multimillionaires to advance conservative causes, wants to repeal the 17th amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators by voters of states. States are already highly gerrymandered, much more so in deeply red states.

Feeding the frustration is the feeling that nothing is getting done in Washington. Trump’s election was a statement that a strongman was needed. Fortunately for those interested in democracy, Trump has proven staggeringly inept in following through, but he certainly has put antidemocratic sycophants into key positions of power. As a result we get weird policies like a State Department that wants to stop promoting democracy. Sure, why not? The Trump Administration sure doesn’t believe in it.

In truth, Americans have always been uncomfortable with democracy even though it’s why we are still here 250 years later. Originally in most states only white male landowners could vote. Votes for non-whites, non-property owners and women were given grudgingly, and to black men only as a result of civil war. We might not be a country at all if the founding fathers hadn’t agreed to give southern states disproportionate voting power by allowing a slave to be counted as three fifths of a person for voting purposes. This plus the Electoral College which gives more votes to rural states are still at work subverting democracy. It elected Trump and along with tested voter suppression strategies flipped key states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016.

But why would so many Americans be against democracy in the first place? This was on my brain last night and extended into a weird dream, perhaps inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale recently broadcast on Hulu. (It so depressed me that I only made it through the first episode.) In the dream, I was a new entrant into a country that looked a lot like America, but had been taken over by something like the American Taliban. Everyone (not just women) lived in a police state. Not only that but we all dressed in something resembling burkas, covered head to toe not in a white sheet, but in formless white latex, under which we lived our lives, such as they were. Overhead was the constant presence of police drones. Everyone made surreal happy talk. To survive in this country, you had to blend in and our latex coverings pretty much ensured that. The true elite though didn’t have to cover themselves in white latex, but the rest of us hid all individuality behind two small eye holes. The elite ran things and the rest of us were supposed to not be seen or acknowledged: depersonalized and barely human.

Waking up I realized it was not as surreal as I thought, and potentially a plausible outcome in a decade or two if we don’t reclaim our democracy. Jimmy Carter has already stated that we are living in an oligarchy. Look around at your gerrymandered government. Your politicians overwhelmingly vote in the interests of the rich that funded their campaigns. The only question is whether we can wrest our democracy back or whether we fall further toward totalitarianism.

Plenty of American support totalitarianism provided “their” people are in charge. This is exactly what gerrymandering and voter suppression is all about. They want to make America in their image and squeeze out all dissenting voices. Democracy is supposed to be a messy process that forces imperfect compromises but which in general act in the interest of the majority of the population.

But why are so many, perhaps a majority of us, so uncomfortable with true democracy that we prefer totalitarianism instead? Puzzling this out occupied the majority of my brain between 3 AM and 6 AM this morning. I think it all comes down to fear of change, which is weird. Democracy is supposed to be a way to civilly handle change that is inevitable with time. For many of us though the potentially unknown consequences of change are scarier than an open and democratic process that forces competing ideas to be vetted, argued and reconciled openly. I believe that fear of change is the ultimate motivator for the many totalitarian wannabees among us.

We fear not just the unknown but we fear even more confronting and reconciling our prejudices. To avoid this process we “other” those we perceive not to be enough like us. I grew up in a community easily 98% white. Eventually I moved to the Washington D.C. area where everything was multicultural. I don’t think I was ever overtly racist, but I know I was initially uncomfortable being in a multicultural community because it was new and constantly in my face.

With time I discovered that my fears were silly and misplaced. These weren’t “others”, they were “us”. Over time it became my new normal. Confronting my fears put these fears to rest and made me ashamed I ever felt differently. Over a few decades it became inate: we really are all the same. For the most part our differences are walls we put up between us to keep us from acknowledging this plain truth. Whatever inchoate fears I had of minorities, the poor, the rich, the Muslim, the Sikh, the Arab, the Hindi, the gay, the transgender, even the Republican voter are gone. We magnify our differences and miss that we mostly we are the same.

This happens naturally as communities become more multicultural. There is nothing to fear from integration and much to gain, as I discovered returning to Washington D.C. last month where I ate Cuban food for the first time. (Yum! Fried plantains!) Fear of democracy is such a nothingburger, to use a term that Trump likes to use about the Russian investigation underway. True democracy promotes cohesion and lowers barriers between us. It makes fears ebb and helps us look forward to a promising tomorrow, because we know we are all in it together and we are more alike than dissimilar.

When our founding fathers declared independence, Ben Franklin was famously asked what form of government had been decided upon. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he said. Nearly 250 years later, we have never been so close to losing it. We must fight now for the right to peacefully solve our differences through a democratic process. Otherwise the civil unrest you see now in Venezuela and many other places may take root here, and those latex burkas in my dream may be in our futures.

The Thinker

The Republican Party is moving toward fascism

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.

The Thinker

Democrats score a big budget win

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.


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