Posts Tagged ‘Trump’

The Thinker

So what’s wrong with democratic socialism?

We are told socialism is bad and un-American, but is capitalism really all that great? Consider how poor a job the free market is doing in providing affordable health care. Before the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies did their best to keep their insured pools as pristine as possible. They had no problems canceling people’s insurance when they judged they were too risky and often when they needed it the most.

In spite of the ACA, which Republicans and Trump are working hard to kill, premiums still are going up. Since this latest tinkering by Trump, they are going up a lot while kicking millions off health insurance. Premiums for 2019 will be announced shortly before the midterm elections and they are expected to rise twenty percent or more. This will likely result in lots of disgruntled voters. Right now, the cost and availability of health care is their number one concern. So I really don’t see why Democrats running on a “Medicare for All” platform should fear the wrath of voters. It’s much more likely they will be cheered on instead.

Ask any senior citizen if they want to give up their Medicare. Even the senior citizen gun nuts will give up their guns if the choice was between giving up guns or Medicare. Medicare is wildly popular, despite its issues. The rest of us simply wonder why if it’s good enough for old folks, we younger and healthier people can’t buy into it.

After all, Medicare takes all comers, at least if you meet the age and eligibility requirements. There are certainly aspects of the program that are annoying and baffling. I have been studying them as my Medicare eligibility looms in a few years. I’m not sure why parts B, C and D can’t come as a general benefit for one premium. I don’t understand why there has to be a donut hole if you use their drug program. In any event, universal health care is not that hard. Every major industrialized country except for ours has done it. Surprisingly, people in these countries are quite happy with their systems overall. So while we are creating Medicare for All, let’s improve the system too.

Of course with our Congress awash in health care money, their real mission seems to be to keep these companies flush with profits. Which is why I and the majority of Americans could really use Medicare for All, which is basically democratic socialism at work. It’s socialist in the sense that the government creates and manages the system. It’s democratic in that we the people get to elect people who will enact such a system.

The private sector has proven not up to the task. That’s why Medicare was created in the first place. The private sector didn’t want anything to do with insuring old people. There was no profit in it so it was either put grandma in the poor house or create a government program to fix the issue. Now health care costs are getting so high for the rest of us that we simply can’t afford it even if we can find insurance.

Republicans don’t get that the government’s purpose is to do things the private sector can’t or won’t but which the public needs. If there were no needs like this, we wouldn’t need government. Private health insurance is a failure. Rather than lowering prices, it raises them for all while kicking millions off health care altogether. Competition between insurers with an even playing field was the basis of the ACA. It helped but it has not proven to be the solution. We need something a whole lot more socialistic.

So sign me up as a Democratic Socialist. There’s no Democratic Socialist party to join, but maybe there will be if the Democratic Party can’t get its act together on these pressing issues. Government exists to help all its citizens and to provide solutions where the free market can’t or won’t affordably or at all. I see this out here in western Massachusetts where I live. Cities out here have high speed Internet, but many in the hill towns don’t. Comcast and the like can’t be bothered. It’s not profitable. No wonder local governments are engaging in some democratic socialism by creating community networks, an effort I am helping lead in my city, and we already have Comcast. (We’ve figured that without Comcast, we could get 1 gigabit per second fiber to the home for a third less than Comcast charges. No wonder Comcast can afford to buy all those arenas.)

Ironically, many of the tenets of Democratic Socialism put Trump in the White House. During the campaign he promised much better health care than we have now for much less. He’s done nothing to implement this promise; in fact he has gone in a completely different direction. Many Obama voters voted for Trump because they thought he could break this gridlock by being different. Obviously they were crassly used, but the idea of having great health care while paying a lot less for it is sound, and is now the number one concern of voters.

Let’s bring in a whole new crew of Democratic Socialists to Congress in the midterms. Hopefully we can replace every Tea Partier elected in 2010 with a Democratic Socialist instead. Let’s let government govern again. Lyndon Johnson was the right leader in the 1960s to bring Medicare to fruition. Medicare for All can be done providing we elect leaders committing to doing the people’s business first.

 
The Thinker

In the midst of chaos, plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the midterms

In my last post, I intimated that Trump Disorientation Disorder was striking close to home, affecting my wife’s mental health. I’d like to say she’s doing better but at least she’s getting treatment. I doubt she is alone. Every week in this presidency feels like being on a roller coaster in free fall, but some weeks are freakier than others.

This week certainly was one of them. Trump’s cruel policy of separating children from families at the border grew slightly less evil when he decided to rescind this policy, a policy he said could not be rescinded because somehow it was all the Democrats fault. To kind of cap off a freaky week with a bit of humor was this nugget from a Washington Post story. Apparently our “stable genius” president doesn’t know that only Congress can change immigration law. He thought he could do it by decree.

A cascade of awful news is not great politics. Trump apparently thinks that being awful pays political dividends. The dividend he is looking for is to turn out his base in the midterms. He may or may not succeed in doing so. But he can’t win by just turning out his base. He won the presidency by turning out coalitions, including a lot of Obama voters who didn’t like Hillary. Also, a presidential election is much different than a midterm election. In a presidential election, you can win while losing the popular vote, which was his case. In a midterm the playing field is more even. Senators are elected or reelected based on the popular vote. Gerrymandered districts make it harder for incumbents to lose reelection. A recent Supreme Court ruling suggests at least for the moment the court sees no reason to declare these crazily drawn districts illegal. In any event, happy people rarely have motivation to go to the polls, while unhappy people have plenty of incentive.

So the more Trump piles on the unhappiness, the more motivated its victims have to go to the polls. Moreover, Republicans are doubling down on deeply their unpopular policies. Just this week the House narrowly passed a bill that would cut food stamp benefits. It’s unclear if this bill will become law, but we do know that Trump has initiated a wholly unnecessary trade war that’s already affecting blue-collar Trump voters and is likely to affect many more of them as the midterm approaches. Indeed, countries experiencing American sanctions have created targeted sanctions narrowly focused to rile Trump’s prime constituencies.

Republicans in Congress sure have noticed. This is a party of free traders but their complaints to Trump on these tariffs are falling on deaf ears. It’s one thing to target policies affecting people that Republicans don’t like, such as immigrants. It’s another thing entirely for them to affect their own voters.

But it won’t be just them of course. It will be lots of us. Tariffs raise prices while reducing competition. To some extent it’s affected my purchasing decisions too. We are considering adding some solar panels to our system, but panels are now subject to steep tariffs. With no chronic need to buy them, it’s easier to wait until tariffs disappear. The price of panels should drop anyhow but there’s no reason for us to pay a premium now. It’s not good for solar companies however, which are already suffering and shedding jobs. Most of these jobs are steady blue-collar jobs too, likely worked by a lot of people who voted largely for Trump.

If Trump truly wanted to help his base, he would not have put up this tariff in the first place. Solar jobs have been climbing steadily and are almost the ideal blue-collar jobs of the future. As prices decrease, demand for solar will only increase, plus will be replacing a dying coal industry with clean solar power. It’s a no-lose proposition.

This of course is only one of many ways Trump is pissing off his own voters. He and the Republican congress still seem intent on destroying the Affordable Care Act, despite its popularity. He said he was going to replace it with something better that costs less, but hasn’t. So premiums will be on the rise right before the election instead. People are already losing health insurance and rising premiums will price many out of the market too. The lack of a penalty to have health insurance also pushes up premiums. Health care availability and affordability is the top issue right now on voters’ minds. In short, their policy is deeply counterproductive to staying in office.

Trump of course ran on a platform that in many ways sounded quite progressive. He complained about big business and the elites. Once in office though he populated his administration with these very people. Trump’s core voters won’t give up on him, but he will peel away plenty of marginal voters. From special elections over the last two years, it’s clear that voters are voting their pocketbooks, which explains why Democrats have been winning so many of them.

If nothing else, tariffs will have an inflationary effect. We’re likely to see the unemployment rate tick up between now and the election too, most likely due to Trump’s tariffs. Those who are victims may find themselves with less of a safety net to fall back on: less in the way of food stamp benefits and unless their state has expanded Medicaid no health insurance too. These factors will lead to economic uncertainty. It’s hard to say if it will cause a financial crisis before the election, but it certainly might. In any event, despite the tight labor market, most employed Americans have actually lost income during this administration. And since fewer than half of employed Americans have a 401K or own any stocks, they are not profiting from upturns in the stock market.

To me this suggests 2018 will be a wave election that will swing the country decidedly in a blue direction. There are few signs that Republicans can point to that are to their advantage. It’s sure not their immigration policy, which is deeply loathed by all sides. But of course it will be pocketbook issues that will be motivating voters the most, and voters will have plenty of motivation to vote in their best interests.

 
The Thinker

Trump and the likely disastrous consequences of being vain

We learned Monday that back in February 2017, Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller and “another large man”, along with the chief legal officer of the Trump Organization “raided” the office of Trump’s then physician, Harold Bornstein. Thirty minutes later they left with all of Trump’s medical records, a likely illegal act. They also took a picture of Trump and Bornstein hanging on his office wall.

Physicians are required to maintain their patient records and may only release copies of the records to their patients, and only with a signed HIPAA form. It’s not clear though that Bornstein will make a legal case out of it. In some ways he has already extracted his revenge. When CNN inquired he admitted that his glowing assessment of Trump’s health during the 2016 campaign was not an honest assessment and that Trump basically dictated it. This is what many of us suspected at the time. Even if Trump were actually only 239 pounds at the time and actually 6’3” (he is at best 6’2”) and thus not technically obese, it was clear that he lives a largely sedentary lifestyle. If he is the healthiest 71-year-old man on the planet, God help the rest of them and they might as well regularly enjoy McDonalds and KFC like Trump does.

The “raid” occurred two days after Bornstein remarked that Trump took Propecia, a drug used to treat both enlarged prostates and to stimulate hair growth in men. Our ultra-vain president did not like this coming out. Bornstein should not have revealed this at all, as it is a breach of medical privacy. That may be another reason Bornstein is not pursuing legal remedies for this “raid”.

In any event the “raid” is extraordinary for its boldness. It’s also in these seemingly smaller matters that we gain insight into our president’s character. Trump of course has a storied history of acting first and hoping to evade the consequences by throwing lawyers at his legal troubles. For example, just today we learned that Trump did in fact reimburse his then lawyer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 Cohen gave to porn actress Stormy Daniels. Trump of course continues to deny the affair. With this admission, it’s pretty clear that Cohen’s payment was in fact an “in-kind” contribution to the campaign, one that was not reported. It may expose Trump to criminal charges along with Cohen.

This “raid” may be bold but it was also very stupid. Trump of course has a history of doing stupid things. If the government ever needs to prove a case against him, his Twitter feed contains voluminous supporting evidence. It clearly demonstrates that above all Trump is concerned about how he is perceived. The revelation that he takes a drug to help with his hair loss would be no big deal to most men but if you are an ultra vain man then it’s a huge deal.

It’s likely that no one other than maybe Trump really believes he has the body of a man in his prime half his age. Trump though feels he must project this image and crush any facts that could prove otherwise. Bornstein had the goods on Trump including facts like how much he really weighs. It’s clear it’s much more than 239 pounds. This has spawned a girther movement and a #Girther hashtag to show how ridiculous the claim is.

Clearly, Trump is running scared. It’s likely he cannot admit this to himself, but actions like this “raid” prove his subconscious feelings. Trump is a narcissist. Narcissists simply cannot acknowledge their own faults because doing so undercuts the pillar around which they have built their lives. As a consequence narcissists like Trump are driven toward extreme behavior so their false image can be protected. It’s not protected from the rest of us, not even from Trump’s supporters who see through this façade and simply don’t care. However, it is vital to Trump to maintain his own mental health. So when he feels that false image is under threat Trump does stupid stuff like this.

The volume of stupid stuff that Trump is doing just continues to increase. This is because the pressure on him is increasing, mostly as a result of Mueller’s investigation. It is exposing the real Trump. It causes Trump to do stupid stuff like his disastrous recent interview on Fox & Friends. Trump has built for himself an elaborate house of cards. He will go to great lengths to conceal information that would conflict with his image of himself while regularly undercutting his own case in his Twitter feed and in various interviews. He doesn’t seem to be self aware enough to know that doing this is stupid. This doesn’t surprise me because if you are a narcissist then by definition you are incapable of critically reviewing your own missteps.

Dissatisfied with advice from his lawyers he has fired them all and brought in a new team more attuned to his style. He claims that he wants to testify to Robert Mueller while setting up a framework to block him from doing exactly that. More recently he has threatened to end the investigation against him, using Nixonian logic that the president is somehow above the law, something that President Nixon learned not to be true.

It’s pretty clear to me that Trump’s psychic teakettle is close to boiling over at this point. The only surprising thing is that it hasn’t quite boiled over yet. There may be a small and sane part of Trump that keeps him from doing ultimately stupid self-immolation stuff. It’s not clear if that he can maintain control over that part of himself much longer.

 
The Thinker

Looking past the midterms, part two

(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.

 
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.

 

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